In the land of height barriers

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We went into North Wales in our motorvan one day last week when the sun shone and temps got up to an unseasonable-for-February 16 or 17c.  We were aiming for a walk on a beach, but as we’d never been to the town of Holywell – home of St. Winefride’s well and the pilgrimage shrine to this early martyr – we stopped there first. We were very disappointed.

Signs saying that Holywell is The Lourdes of Wales  had greeted us and  we wanted to see the holy well, but access is nigh on impossible if you’re in a motorvan. There’s a small car park (with maybe 12 max parking slots) opposite the church & well, but it has a height barrier. Height barriers are the bane of the motorhomer’s life – it’s impossible to get in and they are usually erected to keep out travellers.

There was nowhere else to park. We went back into the town, found another very small car park we could get into (no height barrier), decided not to walk along the busy major through road to the church and explored the town instead. Disappointing, dead and depressing. Shut up shops, cheapo pound shops, 2 betting shops, a couple of cafes. It was dreary, crummy, downtrodden. The people didn’t too happy either. How sad. Holywell, according to info boards in the main street, appears to originally have been a thriving market town. Not any more.

Surprised that a town calling itself the Lourdes of Wales hadn’t provided better parking for the visitors it hoped to attract, we went on to find the nearby Greenfield Valley Heritage Park which claims to be worth a visit. It boasts 5 ponds, water birds, wooded walks etc. Guess what? More height barriers.

We drove on, aiming for the Point of Ayr RSPB reserve, passing more car parks with height barriers along the way. Turning off towards Point of Ayr we were soon engulfed in a horrible pong. A farmer was muck spreading in an adjacent field and it wasn’t nice. We carried on a bit and as the pong receded,  another nastier, more evil smell emerged. It was from the chemical works at Point of Ayr. No way were we going to go anywhere near that, it was vile.

Feeling sorry for any birds who were breathing it in we turned round and headed towards Prestatyn. Looking for somewhere to park near the beach, or with a sea view, we were foiled yet again by another series of height barriers on car parks, and decided that this neck of North Wales must have had some pretty bad experiences with travellers taking over their car parks to have gone so heavily down the height barrier route.

We pressed on, still looking for somewhere to stop and have lunch, preferably with a sea view. Rhyl, not the most enticing of seaside towns, loomed close by, but we hit the jackpot without having to go into the town. On the outskirts there was a stretch of seafront prom, with a large grass verge, and unrestricted parking. So we had lunch in our van, in the sun, overlooking the beach and sea and then took our dog for a very long walk on the sands, enjoying distant views of the Snowdonia mountains.

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Rufous Motmot

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What better thing to do on a cold, gloomy and snowy January afternoon than trawl through the archives of photos taken in Costa Rica. We were there getting on for two years ago, and I’ve still not ID’d some of the birds and other wildlife we saw.

I knew this was a Motmot, but had forgotten what sort. The guide must have told us because as soon as I looked it up I remembered the “Rufous” part of its name. I clearly remember, though, that the guide pointed out its tail which was moving from side to side, like a pendulum. “Tick tock” he said.

Rufous Motmots eat invertebrates, small vertebrates and various fruits. They feast on beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, scorpions and small crustaceans.

In the Cloisters

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What were they discussing, these two middle-aged men in the cathedral cloisters in Najera, Spain?

It was hot and sunny, and I remember how cool and pleasant it was inside the cathedral and the cloistered area.

I liked the shadows formed by the fancy stone work of the arches, stopped to take a photo and noticed these two stocky men in shirt sleeves, deep in conversation.

This one from the archives; it’s not especially good quality, but I like the way it captured that moment. Two locals chatting, with a small group of tourists at the far end.

Wildlife on the Wing

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Reviewing 2018, I’ve just looked back at some of the photos I took in September in the Dordogne, and have offset some of the current darkness of midwinter with a spot of captured sunshine.

Insects and wild life dominated, and I was transported back to warm sunny days when I watched wildlife on the wing and completely lost track of time as I did so.

There were plenty of butterflies, and on one particular walk by the River Vezere, I noted down the all species I saw (with a bit of help from a butterfly ID book when needed). The list was impressive.

Adonis blue, Banded Grayling, Comma, Meadow Brown, Wood White, Cleopatra, Brimstone (those two are so alike), Clouded Yellow, Large and Small Whites, Scarce Swallowtail (that was a happy, lucky sighting). My camera was out, but it was impossible to concentrate on taking photos of everything I saw; I was happy to stroll, gaze and snap. Some of those insects seemed to know when the lens was on them too – some stayed still, while others decided to move just at the crucial moment.

In addition to butterflies there was the Carpenter Bee I spotted, along with Hummingbird Hawk Moths and Dragonflies patrolling and quartering their patch.

A pair of  iridescent Kingfishers flashed past, close to the surface of the river, and by night I saw a solitary glow worm low down in a hedge, its rear end a bright luminous green, a fat delightful toad on a path near the river bank, while overhead bats were out finding their supper.

Ever faithful

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When I visited the Basilica of St. Denis, in the Paris suburb of St. Denis (also the banlieu where, a couple of years ago, an armed seige by police took place after a terrorist terrorist attack in central Paris), I came away with plenty of photos of the stunning tombs of the kings and queens of France who are buried there.

It’s an amazing place to visit, especially if you like cathedrals, but this one is full of effigies, each depicting the deceased in repose with symbols relating to their life included in the marble sculptures. It’s like a cross between a cemetery and an art gallery.

The details on the effigies are impressive, giving them a life-like appearance, even in death. Hands, feet, faces and draped fabric all have an aesthetic beauty.

I was particularly drawn to those effigies which had loyal dogs at their feet. This signifies loyalty to the crown and the sovereign, and dogs are usually found beneath the feet of women or children. If the dogs have a bone between their paws, as in the photo above, it means that the body is buried in the tomb.

Some effigies have lions at their feet and these will always be on the tombs of men. Other animals found beneath feet are dragons, a porcupine and there’s a ferret beneath the feet of a count who was reputed to be a great hunter.

The day I visited Saint Denis it was bitterly cold outside and not much warmer inside the cathedral either, but I forgot about the cold, so stunning were the statues.

The last time I saw Paris

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Photo by Barry Hopewell

I’ve not been to Paris for a while, and some of my visits there have been in winter when it can be excruciatingly cold, but if it’s dry, bright and sunny, it’s nigh on perfect. It’s preferable to being there in the heat of summer, when it can be unpleasantly sticky and heaving with tourists.

I came across this shot of Notre Dame taken several years ago. Tinged with wintry sunshine, it is seen through a tangle of bare branches. The bookseller’s stalls – always worth a browse – were open for business, but it wasn’t a day to loiter too long before finding a warm cafe and some chocolat chaud.

Acoma people

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When I visited Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, I was very aware of the boundaries I was expected to stay within while I was there, and to respect the customs and privacy of the residents.

The only way to visit is with a guide, and he gave plenty of interesting information about this remarkable place. He also said not to take photographs of people without first asking their permission. Fair enough, that seems only polite to me in the context of respect for their culture. And when asking it’s also fair to have no expectations – agreement or refusal – both are on the cards.

I’d already paid a modest photography fee and had the permit on display. I’d taken a lot of shots of this stunning, ancient village, and was enjoying views over the desert from the elevated Sky City, where the tour was.

Made for J&A!I bought some beautifully hand decorated pottery from one of the stall holders selling his wares. I’d chosen a turtle motif and he explained that the turtle symbolises good health and long life, asking who the dish was for, wanting to know a little about the people I was buying it for.

I asked  – quite tentatively – if I could take a photo of him with the pottery dish I’d chosen. No problem. He proudly held up the dish and posed.

I’d learned from the guide that the residents of Acoma come from different tribes, but had forgotten to ask which tribe the friendly potter belonged to.

As the visit drew to a close, we came upon some of the residents sitting in the sunshine, probably watching our group of tourists gathering for the descent (there was a bus to take everyone down to ground level, but we opted to walk down a rocky ravine used by the locals – more adventurous and scenic).

I asked – again tentatively – the three family members sitting together in the sunshine if I could take their photo as they looked an interesting family group. They said yes; again no problem, and they wanted to know something about me and where I was from. They were all members of the Roadrunner tribe – mother on the right, daughter in the middle and younger son on the left.

I learned names of some of the other tribes from them – all names, as I remember, relate to nature and the environment. Before leaving Acoma I bought a hand decorated pendant made by someone from the Cornstalks tribe. The turtle dish was for a gift, the pendant was for me, but the encounters, conversations and photographs are what really remain in my mind as the best souvenirs.