How the British became the Welsh

In the autumn the Red Dragon of Wales sleeps in the Wye Valley and every morning it slakes its thirst drinking the cool, clear waters of the Afon Wye. Its hot breath turns the water to steam which turns to smog, or Smaug as we call it around here.


In the Mabinogion story Lludd and Llefelys, the Red Dragon fights with an invading White Dragon. His pained shrieks cause women to miscarry, animals to perish and plants to become barren. Lludd, king of Britain, goes to his wise brother Llefelys in France.


Llefelys tells him to dig a pit in the centre of Britain, fill it with mead, and cover it with cloth. Lludd does this, and the dragons drink the mead and fall asleep. Lludd imprisons them, still wrapped in their cloth, in Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia.


The tale is taken up in the Historia Brittonum. The dragons remain at Dinas Emrys for centuries until King Vortigern tries to build a castle there. Every night the castle walls and foundations are demolished by unseen forces. Vortigern consults his advisers, who tell him to find a boy with no natural father, and sacrifice him. Vortigern finds such a boy (who is later, in some tellings, to become Merlin) who is supposed to be the wisest wizard ever to live.


On hearing that he is to be put to death to end the demolition of the walls, the boy is dismissive of the advice, and tells the king about the two dragons. Vortigern excavates the hill, freeing the dragons. They continue their fight and the Red Dragon finally defeats the White Dragon. The boy tells Vortigern that the White Dragon symbolises the Saxons and that the Red Dragon symbolises the people of Vortigern. If Vortigern is accepted to have lived in the 5th century, then these people are the British whom the Saxons failed to subdue and who became the Welsh.

If you would like to take a journey to Dinas Emrys and visit the Red Dragons lair click here:



A short post from the garden


_DSC2774 Cercis Leaves on Water 2

I spent a few minutes today collecting fallen leaves beneath our Forest Pansy (Cercis Canadensis) to record the astonishing range of colours and colour combinations that the leaves of this elegant tree produce as the chlorophylls gradually dwindles through Autumn. I have been meaning to do this for the last four years but my timing was always out by a few days and the colours had mostly faded before I could get around to making a photograph. This year I managed to get my timing right.

To see the full range of colours click on the preview image and the full size image will load in a new tab.



One of the harbingers of autumn

If I had to choose one animal activity to photograph in preference to any other, it would have to be birds in flight. Big or small, they demonstrate a mastery of a substance that we humans barely notice. They make the complexity of flying appear effortless and I can’t help wondering in what other ways they experience the air. How much more intimate must the experience be to sense the movement of air over your wings, feel the lift under them, subtly adjust the primaries and fall out of the sky with no apparent effort.


I’d gone down to Shapwick NNR late on Saturday afternoon to try and see the wonderfully exotic Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus a recent visitor from Spain which has been on the reserves since early August. Predictably there was no sign, but as a passing birder helpfully informed me “If you’d been here half an hour ago mate, it was just over there and showing really well in the sun”. An hour later with the sun now very low the Ibis returned and started feeding as far away from me as it was possible to be and in the shade of the trees that hung over the bank. I’ve been doing this long enough now to know when I’m beaten so turned my attention to a gregarious flock of Black-tailed Godwits Limosa limosa islandica, that had recently arrived from Iceland. They over-winter on the reserves and are a sure sign that autumn is on the way. They were a welcome distraction from Ibis watching and gave me plenty of opportunities to admire their flying skills whilst trying to anticipate their next move. Of the many shots taken that afternoon I did manage two that were reasonably well framed and in focus.


I hadn’t appreciated that a bloke with a long lens is automatically assumed to be an authority on whatever is floating, flapping or bobbing about in front of him. Ten minutes after I had arrived I had a birdwatcher on either side of me debating whether the infinitesimally small brown blob in the shadowy distance was a Wood Sandpiper or Green Sandpiper and looking to me for a judgement. It all hangs on a small creamy stripe from the bill, over the eye to the back of the neck, apparently, (Wood Sandpiper, not Green Sandpiper) and a slight difference in size. I could only just make out that it was in fact a bird and not a rat, let alone what sub-species it might be, added to which my species knowledge is at best sketchy. I am getting better all the time (one reason for the blog), but I can still have my wife Jill, the naturalist, in fits of giggles by either completely miss-naming something: the chamomile/comfrey incident still makes me blush or by conjoining two names into one, thus inventing a completely new species. With no clear judgement forthcoming from the ignorant bloke with the long lens, the birdwatchers moved off together none the wiser but clearly bonding.