31 August 2021

Late summer evening walk

Now that she lives in Penmachno, Kate's commute takes her straight past my house. And that creates possibilities! She suggested she pop by one evening, and I thought that would be a lovely idea. And an interesting thing was that she asked me if she should bring swimming gear or walking clothes. Most people who just pop by after work don't ask that! But she does. And that was a great idea. I assumed the swimming gear was meant for the river. And the walk needed to be thought about. So before she appeared, I cooked some food and thought of some possible routes.

She appeared in a working outfit. I was also in a working outfit, but mine was a working-at-home outfit. There was a clear difference in smartness! And we first had a drink and then dinner. And over dinner we decided what we would do next. I had thought of a little lake in one of the cwms on the side of Nant Ffrancon I had never visited: Llyn Clyd. And she thought it was a good idea! The distance involved was very small; what would keep as busy was a 350 m ascent. But that was perfectly doable before daylight would fade! So after dinner we both changed into walking gear and set off.

It was beautiful! I know the beginning of the path well, but as soon as it went up the ridge that leads to this particular cwm, I wasn't familiar with it. I knew I had come down once, but that was in the snow (can't find the post about it!), and in August things look rather different. And I suspected that the path had been entirely redone since then. It was really well-maintained!

We didn't see many other people. But when we got to the top and looked for somewhere to sit down and have a drink, we saw that there were people pitching a tent by the little lake. We gave them wide berth! They were undoubtedly also coming for their peace. And just when we headed back down, a bloke appeared with a big bag, who also intended to spend the night there. And on the way down, we saw four more aspiring campers, and a clump of people who had decided that halfway up was high enough! That is what you get on a sunny bank holiday weekend.

We were back at my place at 20:45. It was still light! And it had been nice to squeeze beautiful walk in, even to new terrain for the both of us, after work. And we had walked down in beautiful orange evening light!

When we got down to the valley floor and walked back to the car, we did get completely crowded out by dense clouds of mosquitoes. Maybe it was good that we hadn't decided to camp! I hope these people higher up were not so affected.

Soon the evenings will be too short for this. But I hope we will squeeze another one in before that happens!

The view back down early on

30 August 2021

Like puzzles? Match freshers to peer guides

Welcome Week will soon be upon us! And Welcome Week is nothing without peer guides welcoming our new cohort. And again it falls onto me to pair them up. And that sounds more trivial than it is! The freshers are expected to submit information such as their age, their nationality, their address, and whether they want communication in Welsh. And the peer guides indicate whether they are willing to be a peer guide to students in particular categories, such as under 18's (in which case they need a DBS check), mature students (rule of thumb is that mature starts at 21), local students, EU students, other international students, and Welsh speaking students. In addition to this, we nowadays have a foundation year; this is not taught on our campus, but the students do participate in the general welcome week. They do get put into groups of only foundation year students, as these will be the people they will hang out with during the academic year.

If you want to allocate the freshers to their peer guides, you have to make sure you keep and an eye on all the categories. You might have a 28-year-old foundation year student from Mexico. That means that you need to allocate an entire group of foundation year students to a peer guide who accepts both mature students and international students. Or you might have an 17-year-old from the EU. That requires a peer guide who has ticked two boxes and has a DBS check. And so on!

The complicating factor is that you can not download the data for GDPR reasons, and only sort the data in a few ways. You can sort them by age, and by nationality, and by degree, but for instance, you then get the nationalities in alphabetical order, and not grouped by UK, EU, and other. And if you sort them by degree you get them alphabetical as well, with the foundation year mixed up with the other degrees.

You can also filter the data. So if you want to only see the foundation year students, you can, but unfortunately that is more complicated than a mouse click. There are tens of degree programs on the list! And you have to manually search for the foundation year ones. You can filter on non-EU, but not on EU.

Altogether it is big puzzle! At least I can now do all of it at home, and I won't have to rely on Wi-Fi in a chalet park, as I used to have to do when we still had the residential fieldtrip the week before Welcome Week. Last year that wasn't an issue, of course; 2020 wasn't a year for residential fieldtrips. But last year was trying as it had much stricter Covid restrictions than we expect to have this year. The poor students couldn't be welcomed the way it normally happens! And I know that some students felt bit lost due to the lack of personal contact. I hope and expect that this year will be a lot better. 

And I get a relatively easy task; we only have some 200 students, but the School of Natural Sciences has about 500. The lady who has to sort that out is already looking tired! But it's well worth the effort. Welcome Week is a pivotal time. I still have friends from then! And I'm sure I am not the only one. So even though the process is tiresome, at least you know that when you are doing it, you are making a difference…

29 August 2021

Taking my bike into the hills

I like my exercise. I still go every day. But once every few months, I get a bit restless and want to explore new territory. I had been really broadening my oeuvre in running routes, but in the end, the possible number of feasible routes from my front door is limited. In the wet season, it is more limited than ever. So for reasons of variation, and not making my poor long-suffering feet all do the work, I had already done several bike rides. I had started on the black bike, and followed up with that quite many times all in all, and even taken the road bike out for a ride once. But I was getting restless again, and I had spent months listening to the lovely routes Martin was routinely doing on his rather sophisticated mountain bike, so I decided to give my red bike a bit of a spin. This is my bike with the most off-road credibility. It actually is a mountain bike, but it is a bit old and rattly, and I don't think the suspension does much. But at least it is the only bike that has any semblance of suspension, and the frame is a lot smaller than that of my black bike. I wouldn't want to do rough terrain on that! That is accidents with the frame waiting to happen. I had been longing for it when I tried a new route to the big supermarket and the terrain became way too uneven for my poor gravel bike. It had been put to use as a bike for getting between Menai Bridge and Bangor, but out in the hills it would come into its own a lot more

The first thing I had to decide was how much protection I thought I needed. I didn't intend to go hell for leather, so I wanted to keep the risk of falling off low, but it's never zero, so protection was a good idea. After some pondering I decided on the somewhat unusual ensemble of my digging kneepads and a pair of gardening gloves as additions to my usual helmet and biking glasses. That would have to do.

Then I needed to do decide on a route. I figured my weekend off-road loop would do, with a few adjustments. It is a just under 6 miles loop around the nearest three hills. The quality of the paths is generally good so this might be a good place to start. It has some footpaths that are really not suitable for bikes (not in my world, anyway) at the beginning, so I needed to think of a different approach. So I devised a detour via Rachub.

Then it was going to happen. I first got to the start of my route without issues. Then the first bit I already had to walk, as it was too steep, but soon I was on a wide path with a good gradient. That was quite comfortable to bike on! So far so good. But after a while it becomes narrow, has a lot of rocks sticking out of it, and crosses lots of streams of various sizes. I had to get off quite a lot! I suppose that when you do this sort of thing bit more often, you stay on the bike a lot more often. But this was a first, so I was not embarrassed about walking bits. And the crossing of the biggest stream was not something I would ever want to do on a bike.

After a while, the path got wide again. It also got steep! And if you make one steering error it's hard to correct for it, and you might end up walking again. And then the path to the pass was fairly steep, very rocky, and festooned with a big rut in many places. I didn't do an awful lot of biking there! But then I got to the top, and things improved. Soon I came off the wide path and ended up on a narrow, grassy path. That was quite comfortable for a while! And that too has very rocky bits, but altogether it was quite nice. I quickly recognised the mental strain Martin had been talking about. You really have to concentrate going downhill! And I was doing a complete sissy route, but I wasn't used to it, so I could feel my brain strain. And my fingers, working the brakes.

When I got to the kissing gate that would lead me back into the village I had to lift my bike over the gate. But from there it was easy! First a farm track, and then the actual road. And then I was home!
What is the verdict? I think I will do this bit more often. I think a bit of practice will pay off. As it was now, I think it took me longer than it would have done if I would have just gone running. And if you go running, the uphill bits are still strenuous, and the downhill bits might be harder work on the body, but they are easier on the mind. I might try this in the other direction first. Just to see how that feels! And if I manage to become a bit more efficient at this, I can go a bit further than when running. And it certainly is very different! So even though I think I showed a remarkable lack of talent in actual mountain biking, I did show some serious acumen in giving myself bit of variety in my exercise regime. More to come!

my improvised set-up 

Crossing the biggest stream

The pass between Moel Wnion and y Gyrn 

One of the easy stretches of the way down

28 August 2021

Summer entertaining turns autumnal

 As term hadn't started yet, I wanted to organise another social event. I imagined a barbecue in the garden. But the weather imagined other things! The rainy weather we had got just as I had come off the Slate Trail had never really left. So what I ended up inviting some friends over for was soup by a wood fire. But that was great! Of course, as soon as they all appeared the weather cleared up, so the wood fire was not as snug as it could have been, but it still wasn't barbecue weather.

I had invited as many friends and colleagues as I figured I could reasonably fit inside my living room. And I had but the emphasis on people within cycling distance. Martin had already been actively creating a bit of a local network, and I had recently visited Laura and she liked that idea as well. But with these two the living room wouldn't be full so I had invited Katrien, who lives a lot further East, but fits socially, as well. It was nice to get them all together! And Katrien and Laura hadn't been to my house since the start of lockdown. And they hadn't met the cat yet.

I had done some cleaning and tidying (!), and made sweet potato soup with cheese and onion bread. I had asked Katrien to bring dessert. And she went beyond the call of duty! She brought both a cheese platter and chocolate fondue. I hadn't seen that coming! The others had brought drinks. And everything ended up fitting together rather nicely! I suppose it was the first autumn social of the year. And I managed to not set off the fire alarm, as I had done the previous time I had had the wood fire on…

The evening took an unusual twist, as well; Katrien had unexpectedly brought balloons for making balloon animals. And she did a little demonstration! I blew up a balloon as well but wasn't so sure how to turn it into an animal. The next day I quickly googled the technique (I clearly hadn't paid enough attention when Katrien did it; I blame the much larger than normal amounts of alcohol I had consumed) and made myself a giraffe to accompany her demonstration monkey. So now I have two mementos of a rather nice evening!

27 August 2021

Fieldwork against the odds

Our annual fieldwork, which used to be in South Wales but is moving north due to Covid considerations, has always been quite a behemoth to organise. I once had to do it as the original organiser was paternal leave. But now I have to do it again, as the current organiser is on compassionate leave.

By May it was clear he was going to be off work for a while, but it was more than a month later when it was decided that it was going to be me having to do the job. That meant a valuable month was lost! And as soon as you hit June, you end up with the people you need to communicate with being away on holiday. It was already going to be awkward as this would be the first year without Suzie, but now having to do with without Martin as well (he will be there at the actual fieldwork, but he's not organising it) is an extra challenge. And, of course, we are all busier than normal as we have to do Martin's job in addition to our own.

We also suffered some technical issues in the run-up. We have been having problems with our coring kit for years, and this year looked like no exception. We also intended to use a very snazzy 3D laser scanner for the first time, there were issues with software, and with the fact that it was technically owned by a research project that had come to an end. But I managed to sort it out.

Altogether it is a challenging module to sort. But I trust we will manage to pull it off again. I think the students will notice that something isn't quite the way things normally go; for instance, they probably noticed that initial communication was by Martin, and then later it changed to me. And it is quite thinkable they will notice that some information is reaching them bit late. Even though that is probably tempered by the fact that the whole University is a bit slow; every module has a module website, and none of these websites have, as I write this, the students registered on them. This is done centrally. And of course, as far as the students are concerned, these websites don't exist until the moment they can actually see them. And it is as good as September, and we don't have the timetable yet either. So altogether I think that we will almost manage to run this fieldtrip as ever. We might have arranged a few things quite close to the deadline, but mostly, the students will never know! And some of this will be obscured by the opacity of the University. And as long as all the bits that we have control over seem fine to the student cohort, it's okay. I think we'll pull it off!

26 August 2021

Rescue training on Great Orme

 Our trainings are coming thick and fast now! Our Training Officer is clearly feeling executive. So on one Tuesday evening I was expected at Great Orme copper mine. We would do some additional stretcher training. We had new stretchers, and when we tried them out the previous time, we realised we hadn't quite nailed getting someone in there in such a way that they would still be perfectly comfortable if they would be hauled up vertically. And it is important that we perfect that skill! And why not in Great Orme. But I had never been there! My only steps on the whole peninsula were taken during the Conwy half marathon. I had never been to the platform at the top! And it would still be light when I would get there. I looked forward to it.

I drove up. It was a trip of many worlds. Your first drive through prosperous residential areas, and then through lively streets with bars everywhere. I really felt a bit out of place there! I have been to the pub since lockdown ended, but this proper urban layout with people and pubs everywhere was really alienating in a way. But also nice to see. There is still merriment going on in city centres! But after the city centre you get some less posh residential areas, and then the emptiness of the top of the great Orme. It looked pretty good! I should really come back one day when I have time to enjoy the area.

I had decided that as this was a show mine, I didn't need my usual caving kit. How crawly and dirty will a show mine be? They want tidy and respectable tourists to feel at home there. So I was just in my quick-dry trousers and my approach shoes. I had brought SRT kit, but I didn't really expect needing much of it. I was getting a bit worried when I saw a mass of caving suits, but our training officer, who knew exactly what we were going to do, did not put one on. Good!

We brought to stretchers to the entrance area, and first had the bit of a play outside. Not everyone had seen these stretchers before! So we split into two groups, and each packaged volunteer into the stretcher. We were making sure we were paying attention to detail. Which straps needed to be extra tight, which should most certainly not be tight, was there anything we needed to feed back to the manufacturer, how would we use the head blocks best to stabilise the casualty's head? When we had turned our volunteer into a stretcher tortilla, we lifted him vertically to see how that worked for him. It wasn't bad, but there was still room for improvement! So we did it all again. The second time I was put into the stretcher. On request I made it bit harder for them, by laying down in an awkward position. They had to lift me onto the spinal board. And they did it well! 

Heading for the entrance

Then they got to the part where they had to strap me in. And that reminded me of that it is important to be sensitive to the female perspective. Two of the straps go through the crotch area, and one goes over the chest. And as a casualty, you are quite powerless. I trusted the men who were actually fastening these straps, but I was still a bit uncomfortable. I think being a woman conditions you to be very wary of being powerless in the presence of a load of men (there were no other women at this training session) who get their hands dangerously close to your private areas! And I fully know that these men were just doing society a favour by sacrificing their spare time to hone their rescue skills, and that they were just being professional, but it was still a bit unnerving. I know that men with good intentions can find it rather unpleasant if women in their presence become uncomfortable in spite of their good intentions, but that is exactly the reason why there should be people there who can try to show them that perspective. I am absolutely sure it is not just me! And I think we can have faith that with the demographic buildup of the team, the male perspective is sufficiently represented. It's the female side that is at risk of not being considered.

When I was fully strapped in, they lifted me vertically as well. That went fine! I was a little bit uncomfortable as I was not in a casualty bag, so there wasn't much padding, and then some of your bones press a bit hard against the stretcher when you are put upright, but nothing I couldn't deal with. Success!

The other group had also put two casualties in the stretcher and taken them out again, and now it was time to do all of it again but then in a confined space. Due to time constraints we just walked in with empty stretchers, and put the casualty in close to the point where we would haul them up. For me it was the first time setting foot inside this mine! It looks quite spectacular. If things had gone differently, this could have been my stomping ground. The caving club associated with this particular mine had been a bit aloof when I contacted them when I moved to North Wales, so I had left them to their own devices. People had told me they were surprised at that; they seem to not generally be so condescending. Maybe I found them on a bad day! I'm sure things would be different now if they had been welcoming. But anyway; back to the training. Getting the casualty to the hauling point was a bit awkward due to the narrow passages, but that is exactly the sort of circumstances we should be prepared for. We also got them up the stairs. And then we hoisted them to a slightly higher level. It went quite well! I think we are getting the hang of these new pieces of kit. We took the casualty down again and released them. Training over! We did a little debrief and then it was time to go home. I think I will be back!

And out again

25 August 2021

Tomatoes getting into gear

 In my previous update, I spoke of the four tomatoes I was expecting from my big tomato plant. And all these four have now been eaten! But now, many weeks after the appearance of these first few tomatoes, suddenly they are appearing everywhere! These few tomatoes must have been the bellwethers. And the few tomatoes on the other plant are also turning into quite a lot. If I don't screw up now I will have quite a respectable crop of tomatoes in a few days to weeks! I'm pleased.

24 August 2021

Sleeping with the cat (or not)

The first night the cat stayed in my house I kept the bedroom door open. She was in a new and strange house! Maybe she would find my sleeping presence reassuring. And I didn't know yet whether she would be disruptive. And I soon found out: yes she seemed to find my sleeping presence reassuring (she did curl up against me), but yes she was also being disruptive. So the next night, that door stayed closed. And I have spent months locking myself into my bedroom when I went to sleep.

One night I was ready to go to bed, and the cat was lying on one of the chairs of my breakfast bar. She looked rather calm! And it seemed churlish to boot her out of the bedroom, so I just left her there. I kept the bedroom door open so she could go downstairs for food, water and/or the litter tray if needed. And when I woke up in the morning she was still lying there! And I had no recollection of any disruption, so I assume there was none. I know I have a bit of a habit to sleep through all sorts, so maybe she had been on the prowl, but that is not a problem if I sleep through it. So it was a success!

The next night I kept the door open again. This time she joined me! It is nice to have a little purring body next to you then you are falling asleep, but this time I did find the cat meowing loudly in the middle of the bedroom at an unknown hour. That was exactly what I had been trying to avoid by keeping the door closed! That morning I was a bit bleary-eyed when I got up. That night the door was closed again.

As I still felt a bit weak in the knees at the memory of the little purring body, the night after I tried it again with the door open. This time I was in the upstairs bedroom. And the little purring body appeared again. But later she went away to do other things. And then, again at an unknown hour, I heard her walk into the bedroom again. And then I heard her rummage around under the bed. And then I heard a loud squeak. She had brought a live mouse into my bedroom! I wasn't overly keen on that. I didn't think that sleeping would go together well with Tom and Jerry-like scenes. So when I heard her trot out of the bedroom again, presumably with the mouse in her fangs, I closed the door behind her and resumed my sleeping.

I think I will just play it by ear from now on! When the weather is consistently bad outside, she seems to be more hyper in the evenings, as she hasn't got rid of her excess energy outside. So maybe when I am not very tired, and she seems not to be too hyper, I will just try again. And if I really need my sleep I will keep the door closed. I suppose in the long run, there will be more scope for bedtime sharing, as I expect her to become a little less energetic over the years. But for now, she is young and enthusiastic. And sometimes a little furry purring thing!

23 August 2021

Cat administratively mine

 I've had my cat for approximately six months now. I would say we both have settled into the new situation! But until recently, her chip still identified her as living with her previous folks. But they got in touch, and her address is now officially changed. My name is not on the chip yet, as that seems to require a different procedure. She now officially lives here! Even though the only thing that happened is that an online form was filled out, I did have a bit of a sense of occasion. She is now really my cat. It felt a bit like a civil partnership ceremony! We now legally belong with each other. And she's only two years old, so the idea is that that's going to stay that way for the coming, say, 16 years…

 the website where it all happensed

 silly picture of a cat at home

22 August 2021

Lichen workshop

The more you know about something, the more interesting it is. In general, at least! And I am a bit hopeless with plants and plant-like creatures, but I got a taste for them during the walk in the Carneddau with the hyper-enthusiastic ecologist. It inspired me to also engage in the Bioblitz, although my attempts there to learn to recognise grasses only bore little bit of fruit. My enthusiasm wasn't tempered! So when a bit later I saw a lichen workshop advertised, I registered for it. I really like lichen, but they know absolutely nothing about them. Well, except for that they are some symbiotic combination of fungi and either algae or bacteria. But that was it! Time to nerd out and learn some more.

This workshop was in the botanical gardens of the University. I packed my reading glasses and hand lens, and got onto my bike. I was a bit early. I bumped into the lady who runs the place: Natalie, who was really excited they could do workshops like this again. And she made me a cup of tea. Then more participants appeared. None of us had a particular professional reason to do this workshop; we were all just curious. Although I am aware that any knowledge I pick up might come in handy during days in the field. There's nothing wrong with going interdisciplinary!

After a while the two people who led the workshop: Tracey, who was the lichen specialist, and Sean, who was providing backup, appeared. Tracy showed a presentation in which she explains to us the basics about lichen and the various types there are. She also sometimes sent a specimen around. We all had a microscope; I had great fun looking at everything in detail.

After the presentation, and another cup of tea, we went outside. The botanical gardens have an established lichen trail these days! And I think you are the first group to try it out. The trail limits itself to lichen on trees, and it sends you over the terrain, encouraging you to spot a particular species (if you can call them that, given that by definition you need at least two species to make one lichen) per tree. But of course, if we saw anything else interesting, we could look at that too. This was our chance to tap into the knowledge of our lichen specialist!

We were all unashamedly enthusiastic about what we saw: fruticose, foliose and crustose lichen, with both their organs for sexual and asexual reproduction, and their various idiosyncrasies like the Shrek-ear-like suction cups they can have, or the "jam tart" apothecia. Tracy also showed us that shining on them with a UV torch can reveal new information, as can dripping reagents on them as that can make them change colour.

We had also brought a rather extensive guide with us; I had the task of reading out loud anything interesting the book said about the species we were looking at. Generally, there wasn't much; maybe a few words of how vulnerable to air pollution they were. But the first one we encountered (I think it was salted shield lichen) was known to also grow on bones, and had been used in the past for medicinal purposes when it did so. The book mentioned the best lichen were those who had grown on the skull of a man who had been hanged! I didn't see that coming…

I know I still know pretty much nothing about lichen, but there is a start! I think one of these days I should have a quick look in my garden to see what the diversity (or lack thereof) is that I have in there…

 some of the teaching materials

nerding over lichen on a tree

21 August 2021

Dragon voice recognition software sometimes being downright weird

I am still very happy that I have access to Dragon voice recognition software. I don't know where I'd be without it! But it most certainly has quirks. One thing I can't figure out is why sometimes it mishears you, and you want to correct the text, it gives you the weirdest options, while omitting the most obvious ones. For instance, it is not unusual that when I say "we", it thinks I say "you". And that is understandable; when you think about it, these words sound rather similar. And they, of course, can serve the exact same purpose in a sentence. But if this happens, then "we" is never in the list of alternative options. What is in it? Rather unlikely options such as "iu". How can it suggest that, while it doesn't mean anything in any of the languages I speak, and not suggest "we"? I might never know. And in the greater scheme of things, it is not important, but I thought it was so weird I dedicate a blog post to it. Hereby!

20 August 2021

Surprise visit from someone who knew my house well

 I was just working on this very blog when, through the window, I saw an unknown man approach my house with a folder in his hand. Then I heard knocking. What was this? I was going to find out.

When I opened the door the man introduced himself as Chris, the partner of Rose, the previous owner of the house, who had died earlier this year. I was surprised to hear who he was, and glad to meet him. And I offered my commiserations. He briefly explained that he had been rummaging through her paperwork, and came across some documents associated with legal wrangling between Rose and Neuadd Ogwen. He figured I might have some use for them! I thought it was very kind of him, and asked him if he wanted to come in. He said he was with friends; I suggest they come in too. And they did!

the paperwork

Chris explained that he had spent a lot of time in this house. I could imagine! And even his two friends knew it well; they had come to stay over many times back in the days. And then we drank tea while talking about the house then end now, about Bethesda and then now, about how it feels to be back in a house that has so many memories, and all that kind of stuff. It was really nice! I really hadn't seen that coming. They didn't stay long, though; they were actually underway to see someone else entirely. 

Later that day I popped by the neighbour's; he had looked after the cat when I was on the Slate Trail, and I wanted to give him a token of my thanks. And who was in his living room? The same entourage! So we continued the gossiping about the village. I found out that both my apple tree and my plum tree had been planted by Chris and Rose. They are still greatly appreciated!

It was nice to meet them all. I hope they drop by next time they are in town. As Rose had lived in this house for almost 20 years, they must have made some good friends along the way. And I'll look after the house as well as I can in the meantime! And of the garden. I'm sure they must all have good memories of it, and maybe next time they can sit in it and reminisce...

19 August 2021

Travelling window closing

For most of the past one and a half years, I could only travel to the Netherlands if I was willing to go into self-isolation for 10 days afterwards. That recently changed! After a visit to the Netherlands, I could now just go straight home and resume my normal life. Does that mean I have one foot over the border already? Unfortunately not. As things stand now, I can only visit the Netherlands if I am willing to go into self-isolation for 10 days upon arrival. The Dutch are not so keen on people travelling in from the UK with its rampant Delta variant! And I can understand that. But it is already late August now, and for me, the academic year already starts in early September. So that means it is very unlikely I will travel this summer.
One might ask why I don't just go and self-isolate at my mother's place, but I think being cooped up in her house won't do anything for our relationship. I am also not quite sure if I could just go back before the 10 days are up. Could I just go to use public transport within the 10 days to get back, either to the airport or to the Eurostar terminal? But as I can think of nicer things to do with my time than house arrest, that is mainly an academic question.
Last year I managed to sneak to the Netherlands in the brief window in which there were no self-isolation obligations in either direction. I did not foresee that the situation the summer after would be even worse! I still think it will get better, but when? Will we get a winter wave? Time will tell…

18 August 2021

Ankles not recovered from Slate Trail

Some four years ago I bought a pair of new hiking boots. I wanted plastic boots, as they should be rather waterproof, and probably dry a lot quicker when they get wet. And they had really done their job well! I have had many instances where I figured I would have had wet socks in any other boot. And when we got soaked because of dripping bracken on the first day of the Slate Trail, my boots dried out entirely in one evening. Kate's leather boots didn't! So so far so good. The problem with these boots, though, is that they do have a penchant for uncomfortably pressing on my ankles. I remember them doing it during my hike with my Dutch friend Jitske a few years before. It really hurt! Although I don't mention it on the blog, for some reason. And during the Slate Trail, they did it again. I did manage to mitigate the problem by taping lots of foam to my ankles. I had also used that solution on a long skiing trip, evidently with entirely different boots. So I knew I could do with it, but it would be nice if I didn't have to bother with all that faff. And as long as you don't let it descend into full tendinitis, the problems solves itself when you take off the boots, and continue in anything below the ankle. So when I came back from the Slate Trail with two sore ankles, I happily placed my boots in the corner and spent nine days in low shoes.

When I was about to set off on my archaeological walk, I figured it wasn't going to be very long. There was only four hours scheduled for it, and I expected lots of stops where the archaeologist would tell us things. That would consume a lot of time we couldn't spend walking. But I knew the terrain would be bumpy in places, so I did want to wear high boots. So I did! Not to same ones, but high boots anyway. These few miles wouldn't cause any trouble, would they?

These few miles actually did cause trouble! I could feel it rather early on. Oh dear. I had to partially untie the boots in order to give some relief to my ankles. Then when I got home, I immediately took them off. I need to still be careful! For the foreseeable future, no high boots unless accompanied by loads of foam. And then many days of picking the glue from the tape off your ankles. Not ideal, but better than seriously painful ankles!

17 August 2021

Archaeological walk in Cilgwyn area

 After an evening of exploring regional archaeology with regional archaeologist Rhys Mwyn, it was time for a day of exploring regional archaeology with regional archaeologist Rhys Mwyn. I packed my bag with waterproofs, flasks, and a lunchbox, and drove west. When I drove into the street where the meeting place was, I already saw a little cluster of fairly colourfully-dressed people, and knew I was at the right location. I parked up and joined them.

This walk would start in Carmel, walk south around Mynydd Cilgwyn, over a path that provides a view over the Nantlle quarries, then to y Fron, and from there around Alexandra quarry (also known as Cors y Bryniau; see links in previous post), around Moel Tryfan, down the old incline, along the local cemetery and then back to where we had started.

Rhys started talking some social history about the row of houses we were standing by. These were 30s council houses, replacing the original quarryman's cottages that had been there before. But he said human occupation here went a lot further back then that; he told us to look into the field on the other side of the road. If you know what you are looking for, you would recognise a ridge and furrow pattern, indicating medieval farming.

When we walked around the hill he pointed out houses where several of his ancestors had lived, and he told the tale of one of them who had killed himself when he got old and felt he was a burden on his loved ones. Not much has changed since. He also showed us the ruin of the house where his father had been born. It seemed it was already a ruin when Rhys was a small child. That was a pity! These houses were tiny, but very scenic, and we all were dreaming of doing them up and living in them. Maybe it would need several of them combined for a modern family, but that could be arranged. The last house in the row, where another of his ancestors had lived, had a slate storm porch still mostly surviving. It seemed to be the best one in North Wales!

The storm porch

The pigsty of the house with the storm porch. Notice spoil heaps in the background.

The next stop was a wall that went straight up the slope of the hill. It seemed to have been built by Penrhyn estate, at the time when Lord Penrhyn was alleged to have been engaged in a big and shameless land grab. He stood accused of having done the same in Mynydd Llandygai. Rhys said the story was that the estate built the wall during the day, and that when the quarryman walked past on the way home at the end of the day, they pushed it all down again. It's a nice story but that wall was still in excellent nick in 2021, so it looked like big capital won there. He didn't say anything about the quarries we could see below.

Rhys talking about the wall with Nantlle Valley in the background

Later he drew our attention to the old tramway that snakes around, trying to not get too steep, and to the little lake that provided power to the quarries below. And then we walked past another disused quarry to Alexandra quarry, which is still in use. There are days when he can take his groups through the quarry, but there was activity in there, and there was a new sign on the gate, and that all meant that we had to walk around. That was fine! And it was approaching lunchtime. So when we got to the top, we just descended into a cluster of ruined buildings to sit down for lunch.

Lone archaeologist descending towards our lunch location


there is rain approaching

After lunch we walked on. Around the hill we got a view over Rhosgadfan, which was the birthplace of the famous Welsh author Kate Roberts, of whom I had read the most famous book. The road after which her autobiography was named, y Lon Wen, was in view as well. I really should visit her old house once it opens again! But we walked on. We walked down the old incline, and headed back to Carmel. When we were passing a cemetery, Rhys stopped again and told us that in a nearby field, there were some strange round stone structures of which he had no idea what they were. I think I identified one on aerial imagery at 53° 04' 39.13'' N, 04° 15' 31.76" W. Hard to know without any further information if they are Stone Age structures, or maybe just the product of the weird sense of humour of some 70s farmer with too much time on their hands, if there was such a thing.

spoil heaps and flowers

By then it had been 2 p.m. and we were almost back where we had started. And a little table was set up in the garden, with tea and cups and biscuits and books Rhys had written and was selling, and a little bucket for our financial contributions. We had a right old natter in the drizzly garden! And all of the books that dealt with North Wales were duly sold. For some reason, there was less interest in the South Wales version…

So what was my verdict? It had been a beautiful walk, but the amount of archaeological knowledge conveyed was not huge. It was nice to do this walk with a lot of other people, mainly Welsh speakers, but I can't say I came away with a much deeper understanding of the deep history of the landscape there. So will I do this again? Very well might! But I think I will treat it more as an opportunity to practice Welsh than as a quest for buckets of archaeological knowledge. I bought the North Wales book; I could imagine that that is going to take over as my source for a lot of archaeological information from the region. I'm sure I'll get more walk ideas out of that!

16 August 2021

Caernarfon walk with an archaeologist

Some time ago, a friend alerted me to an archaeological walk in one of the areas I had appreciated so much on the Slate Trail. I had been in that area before for runs (like here and here). This walk would also be in Welsh. I figured I should go! So I expressed my interest. And then I suddenly realised on a Thursday that that same archaeologist, Rhys Mwyn, was doing an evening walk that next day, in Caernarfon. It would focus on the Roman heritage of the place. I had barely visited Caernarfon! Many years ago I had visited the castle, and I had gone to the pub with some old Dutch friends not too long ago, and I had celebrated Jaco's 50th birthday there, I had been to the city archives, and I had run a race there, but that was about it. I have never actually bothered to stick my nose in what was left of its Roman past. And what better way of doing that them under the guidance of the Welsh speaking archaeologist! So I registered.

The original walk I had seen was just the private initiative of the archaeologist. This walk in Caernarfon was within the framework of Menter Iaith, an organisation that promotes the Welsh language. And my friend who had alerted me to the first walk, Dani, works for that organisation, so she was going to be there too. And she offered me a lift! That was bonus.

We were one of the first to show up. Dani greeted the archaeologist. I had googled him before I had registered on either walk. It is nice to know what to expect. But to my surprise, googling him didn't yield much detail on what sort of an archaeologist he was. There was a lot more about the fact that he had been one of the bellwethers of the Welsh punk scene back in the days! And that he had suffered some strange form of amnesia a few years ago. Oh well, I was going to find out about his archaeological preferences on the hoof.

Dani introduced us, and we had a nice chat. Soon I was talking about the historical/archaeological walks I had already done, with the Carneddau landscape partnership (the Bronze Age one and the WWII one). He knew the archaeologists involved, of course. In the meantime, more and more people gathered. I ended up talking to a few more of the participants. And I recognised a few faces from Welsh class! There was one former classmates there, and one former tutor. Always nice to bump into people like that again. And then we started!

Rhys first spoke a bit about context. He said that what made Caernarfon what it was, was some elevated land between two rivers flowing into the Menai Strait: the Seiont and the Cadnant. (The Cadnant is quite emphatically the junior of the two, by the way, and vanishes underground in town.) The Seiont is both a nice hiding place from the dominating Western winds, and it is very muddy and therefore difficult to cross. The former is nice for logistic reasons, and the latter for reasons of defence. And that was probably the reason why the Romans chose the place. They seemed to have had about 500 men there, and archaeological evidence suggested that quite soon, the locals were trading with them. I suppose the locals recognised an army they couldn't beat when they saw it, and then decided that if you can't beat them, trade with them. 

Another interesting thing he said was that there wasn't much Welsh about Caernarfon. It was obviously founded by the Romans. At the time, the main population centres of the natives were a bunch of hillforts in the area: Dinas Dinlle being the primary one. I am sure that the rest of the country was dotted with little farms. Hundreds of years after the Romans had skedaddled again, the Normans came in and built a castle not far from where the Roman fort had been. Not long after that, Edward I came in, and built an enormous castle on the ruins of the Roman Castle. So pretty much, everyone who settles in Caernarfon is an invader. At least, that was the way for hundreds of years in a row!

While we were walking in the direction of the actual Roman camp, Rhys told us that the area we were walking through pretty much yielded more archaeological remains associated with the Roman camp than the Roman camp itself. And the bits of the camp that he showed us were first the baths, and then a fortified entrance. He pointed out that the initial camp seem to have been built with timber, but that later they had replaced that with rock, and mainly New Red Sandstone from the Chester area. No idea why they preferred that! Maybe they had just established a quarry there and had started as they had intended to go on. But there was a lot of other stone in there too. They weren't picky.

Rhys Mwyn holding forth

 remains of the Roman baths

The entrance seemed to have been used as a shell midden in the Middle Ages. It took Rhys seconds to find a few shells still!

We then walked back via a different route, which brought us to a much higher segment of Roman wall, with its characteristic herringbone structure. He didn't know what the advantage of that was, but the Romans seem to build like that all the time. He also didn't do why there was so much more left of this wall than there was of the walls of the fortress we had seen before. People who need rock for their own structures have been inclined to nick them from abandoned structures through time! So it is a miracle how this wall survived so long.

We also walked past a cute old school, with a bit of a terrace next to it, where some community initiative to grow the kind of herbs the Romans would have grown seemed to have perished when the school was bought. And then we walked back via a beautiful path to where we had started. Rhys pointed out one more interesting plaque on the town square, while being extensively heckled by the famously uninhibited locals, and then the walk was over. While Dani talked to a few people I popped to the ATM as I knew I needed to have cash on me the next day. And then we went home! I had learned lots, and it had been very nice. It was a success, and I was already looking forward to the sequel the next day!

walking back to the castle

15 August 2021

Cave rescue administrative duties

When there suddenly was a flurry of activity around the cave rescue team I didn't end up underground, assisting anyone, but that didn't mean I didn't have anything to do. This kind of thing nowadays means some admin, since I took on a fairly administrative role in the team. Someone needs to log this! And that person now is me. Even though I later found out that if no callout is actually issued, it doesn't need to be extensively logged. I suppose that it is not really in the public interest to have a precise record of how many emails about sheep in mines that don't lead to anything circulate here in North Wales. I was glad. But of course, when a proper callout came, that also meant proper admin. And when emails and text messages start flying around, people might notice that their information is not up-to-date. I have only been in function a short while, but I have already needed to add and remove quite a number of email addresses. Luckily, that is a minute job! Bigger tasks are still waiting…

One of the things I need to do is get more familiar with all the functionality that Google offers. We have a Google site, and online membership lists. We use Google meets for online meetings. In the University, we tend to use Microsoft tools to share documents and to have online meetings and all that sort of stuff. Now I needed to teach myself the same stuff in Google. And find out how to log incidents on all the various sites were that needs to happen. And make sure I send out reminders of all the activities that are coming up. And minute all the meetings. And whatnot! I'm not complaining; I volunteered for this. But I will have to be quite efficient to slot this all in with my already quite busy day job…

14 August 2021

Lots of communication about cave rescue, but not much action

 When I came home from the second leg of the Slate Trail, I really wanted to sit on my bum for a few days. I had really been on my feet long enough in the past six days! But then something happened that challenged that plan. It was only Friday 10 AM when I got an email saying that there was a report of a sheep stuck down a mine. It wasn't yet a callout, but it could clearly turn into one. And it was clear there was no hurry; that sheep seemed to have been there for days already, and one hour more or less wouldn't make a particularly big difference. I reluctantly indicated I was around to help if needed. It's not as if I had planned an awful lot that day! And with cases like this, it is not unusual that one or two people who happen to live nearby just sort it and no further help is needed. I hoped it was a case like that. And it was! No callout followed; just an email saying that the sheep had indeed been brought out by someone who happened to be around. Excellent! I could continue my sitting on my bum session. And I even got several friends dropping by to join my inactivity. 

When my phone pinged again on Sunday I couldn't believe it when it was cave rescue again. This time there was mention of actual people in underground trouble. That requires a bit more haste and urgency than a sheep underground. Two actual calls to start travelling towards the venue came; one for people who could make it by a certain time to Porthmadog, from which a helicopter would bring team members to the venue, and another one for people who could make it by their own transport to the actual venue by a later time. I thought I had no chance making it on time to Porthmadog. A pity! If it is urgent enough for a helicopter, then there is someone in need and it is nice if you know you can do something about it. I did think I could make it to the actual venue, though; however, before I got anywhere near, the message already came we were stood down. Good news; that meant that the casualty or casualties were at the surface, and there was nothing more for us to do. I returned home and had some dinner…

I later saw that the BBC website made mention of this incident. It looks like it was mainly mountain rescue who got them out, although the cave rescue knowledge was very useful. That's great! And I wish the casualty who was transported to hospital all the best.

It's a bit weird to get 1 1/2 callout within the space of three days! Unfortunately, this does not mean that now we will get a long period of no action. Statistics doesn't work like that. But I do hope that for the foreseeable future, we will only have to get together for trainings…

13 August 2021

How the vegetables survived my absence (or not)

When I came back from my Slate Trail trip I was curious to see how my vegetables were doing. They had been placed outside. That way they wouldn't roast in the conservatory, and get some water from precipitation. But, of course, outside they were sitting ducks for slugs. So how had it gone?

My one tomato plant hadn't had any tomatoes when I left, so my expectations were low. Would neglect really improve the situation? The answer was yes! When I came back I noticed some small green tomatoes. That was a nice surprise! The other tomato plant, who had been growing three entire tomatoes, was now growing four! Entirely unbothered by slugs! Success. It is still not a very good crop, but I'll take the tomatoes I get.

The previously tomato-less tomato plant

Almost time for harvest on the other plant!

My courgette plant was still alive, but rather unsurprisingly, the courgettes it had been growing had been heavily munched on by slugs and snails. These were not suitable for consumption by humans anymore! But as the plant was still alive, and was taken indoors again, I hope it will still grow a few additional ones.

My gift to slugs

My butternut squash plant seemed quite happy. It was making very small butternut squashes! But I have little hope for them; the previous year I had a plant that started growing them, but they were eaten by slugs. And I am not going to take this monstrous plant indoors again. It would by now almost be able to span the entire outside of the house! It's nice to have my conservatory back.

Tiny, and ill-omened, butternut squashes

The pumpkin plant seems quite happy outside. It was even growing some additional pumpkins. But the best news was: the two sizeable pumpkins it already had (and by sizeable I mean large satsumas) were still intact! So I don't know how much bigger they will grow, but I think the creature eating them in the end will be me. And that is how I had intended this all!

The pumpkin plant being quite content outside

New pumpkins in the making

12 August 2021

Big shoe gluing session

 I have several pairs of shoes of which the soles have the tendency to fall off. I have done many rounds of gluing already! And I will keep doing it as long as I get away with it. I like using objects as long as I can. And so far I have been buying tubes of glue that came recommended online, but this time I thought I'd try the industrial glue I had initially bought for making the stairs to my garden less slippery, but for which I was finding an increasing number of other purposes as I had done the stairs with epoxy resin in the end. The glue also comes with a good nozzle so you can easily get deep into the space between sole and shoe. I couldn't know it would really work of course, but in the end any glue will fail, so if it does then I just go back to the previous glue. Watch this space!

11 August 2021

Slate trail: the verdict

I have described our adventures on the Slate Trail in detail in the previous few posts. But I thought I'd give a bit of an overview as well! Maybe a good one to remember, and maybe people who intend to walk it might have use for this knowledge. So what do I think of the Slate Trail altogether? I think it is rather marvellous! It takes you through all the important North Welsh slate provinces, and it really tries to take you through them in a beautiful way. And it makes sure to send you through the villages, so you might support the local economy, and enjoy whatever that economy has to offer. So I'd recommend it to anyone who is interested in slate quarrying, and everyone who is just interested in walking through the amazing North Welsh landscape.

I do think the trail misses one trick, though. The book that describes the route says very little about slate! If you send someone through every slate area of importance, then you are in a perfect position to tell them something about it. And additional booklet that has information about the various quarries would be a really valuable addition! There is so much of interest to say about them all.

Cwmorthin incline and spoil heap

Regarding the route; which bits did I think were the best? In chronological order, these were the bits that stood out for me:

1 between the road to Manod and Llyn Morwynion

The road to Manod quarry goes through beautiful valley, but it is a asphalt road, so I don't count it as one of the best bits itself. But this soon as you leave it to climb up the slope on the side you get that valley from a more beautiful vantage point. And it is a bit of a remote area. Maybe I just liked it because it was pretty much the only part of this kind of empty landscape with traces of quarrying in it that I have never seen before. If you like this kind of landscape you will love the Croesor valley! But that one I had seen many times before. And this part of the road even has a hillfort on it…

The empty valley between Cwm Teigl and Llyn Morwynion

2 Rhosydd-Croesor

I knew this bit before, of course, but it is so beautiful I can't not mention it here. Rhosydd is an amazing area in its own right, but you get there over a very wide path that used to be a railroad. From Rhosydd onwards you are on cute winding paths through wild terrain. And you are pretty much as high as you will ever get on the entire trail. The landscape is stunning! And when you descend to Croesor you get that amazing valley to look at as well. Croesor also provided us with the most beautiful camping spot we had along the way.

Kate approaching Croesor; the picture doesn't even do the landscape justice

3 Nantlle-Waunfawr

From Nantlle you walk through the quarries to the top of the plateau. These quarries are lovely! And from there you have a largely empty landscape all the way to Waunfawr. Some of it is only wide gravel roads, but most of it is on cute little paths. You could tell these paths would probably be very sloppy and squishy in the wet season, but they were firm underfoot for us. Again; maybe I just liked it because I was relatively unfamiliar with it. But it really is beautiful!

Lots of nothingness all the way to Waunfawr

Given that I think some stretches are better than others and must some that were not my favourite, and these were generally the ones where you walk either on is full roads or on wide gravel roads, especially if they go through woodland. The hard surface hurts your feet, the wide roads doesn't give you that sense of isolation, and if you are in woodlands your view is rather limited. And the bits with the most mileage of this kind are: Beddgelert-Rhydd Du, Betws y Coed-Fairy Glen, Conwy Falls- Cwm Penmachno, Drws y coed - Llyn Nantlle. I am aware you can't always avoid this kind of road but maybe some expectation management is a good idea.

the only wide gravel road I actually took a picture of; this one is just south of Blaenau Ffestiniog

Have I learned other things along the way? I think I have! I have a more positive view on freeze-dried meals than I had before. The best one in both my view and Kate's was freeze-dried vegetable chipotle. It beat anything I could rustle up! And I have tried, and approved of, a new hiking snack: honey roasted cashew nuts. Sweet enough to satisfy a hiking-induced sugar craving, but not so sweet it gives you a sugar high or a woozy stomach. I'll be bringing them again next time!

enjoying chipotle

Something else I want to try in the future is have a better phone, and have OS maps on it. I would still bring a paper map as you get a lot better overview on one of those, but having your route on a small screen is actually quite useful! I am due a new one in autumn; maybe then I'll become a more tech savvy hiker…