+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

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Yet another crafting project (part eight)

Or, series two, episode five

The latest crafting project was finished last week, after just over seven weeks of work. I was surprised how quickly I finished it, to be honest, considering how much more difficult it was compared to the previous cross-stitch project. I say “finished”: it still needs blocking and framing, which is always going to be the least interesting job in a project like this. Because I’m fairly pleased with how it looks, there’s a larger picture if you click through.

Bumblebee

I’ve already started the next cross-stitch project, which is going to be a much, much easier one; I will actually start a different series of posts for it this time. After only a week or so, it’s already well under way. At some point, too, I’ll pick up all those other projects that have been ongoing since some time last year.

The other posts in this series are part four, part five, part six and part seven.

Be aware. Be very aware

Or, words versus deeds (part one)

Welcome to Mental Health Awareness Week! Seven days put aside specially for you to feel extra Aware about mental health. Apparently, the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 is “Nature“, which is almost ironic given that the theme of National Gardening Week this year was “wellbeing”. It’s almost as if this sort of PR-driven Awareness Week is a continuous cycle devouring its own tail.

Of course, being negative about something like Mental Health Awareness Week is in some ways a bit like kicking a puppy, because Mental Health Awareness is most definitely a good thing. More people should be more aware of mental health, of the risks they face and the effects it has on all of us; and its sheer overwhelming prevalance in our society. Nevertheless, there is so much that needs to be done, so many ways in which mental health care in Britain is lacking and needs to be improved, that Mental Health Awareness is really just papering over the cracks.

Far too many businesses and organisations use Awareness as a means to an end in itself, a means to avoid directly addressing an issue. Raising awareness, in this way, becomes a way to avoid meaningful action. In some cases it even becomes counterproductive; encouraging employees to attend mental health awareness sessions that are only available out of hours or at lunchtimes, for example. It’s all very well saying “nature is beneficial to your mental health,” if you are in a position to get out into nature in a healthy way. It’s all very well saying it, but it’s no excuse for proper, preventative and easy-to-access mental health care, regardless of your situation. We do not have that, I can safely and flatly say, anywhere in the UK right now. Nowhere in this country has the access to mental health care that we all deserve, and very few of us receive sufficient support from our employers either—a phone counselling helpline and the occasional wellness event really just isn’t enough. If you want to be aware of something this Mental Health Awareness Week, be aware just how poorly served our national mental health is.

Casting the runes

And exercising my rights

The line was certainly longer than usual. More spaced out. Not that I knew what “usual” meant, of course. Yesterday was the first time I’d been to this polling station—the first time anybody had, I think, because the city council has reviewed and rebalanced and rejigged where they all are.

Oriau Agor

You could say I was lucky, really, moving house just a few months before a Senedd election. Getting to vote for my national representatives straight away, rather than having to wait a few years. It was all very well organised, to be honest. In general in my experience people in this part of Wales have been doing social distancing and similar much better than people in Bristol; here, for example, people will cross the street or walk into the middle of the road to avoid passing someone on the pavement, whereas I don’t think I’ve never seen that happen in Bristol. The queue was nicely spaced out, with most people wearing facemasks well before they reached the chapel door. A woman on the door was carefully regulating admission, making sure there were never more than three voters inside the station at once, one collecting their ballot papers and two actually voting.

So who to vote for? As I said a few months ago, British politics is in a fairly terrible state right now; a dangerous state, you could say, in which populist reactionary Kulturkampf seems to be winning out over any sort of belief in honesty or integrity. It’s a depressing sight, in a situation where however awfully the Prime Minister behaves, however angry he gets at the thought of being held to account, any attempts to try to hold him even slightly to account seem to fail to make any impact on the voting public.

However, the awful state of British politics is very much the awful state of English politics. In Scotland and Wales the situation is somewhat different. In the former reactionaries are desperately trying to stop the country following its natural path to independence; here in Cymru, the Labour government is in the strange position of dealing with one opposition whose main selling point seems to be pride in their own inability. “We want to be leaders,” they seem to be saying, “who know we’re no good at leading, who want to give all our power away.” It’s embarrassing, every time the Welsh Tory leader speaks, to hear just how much he shows off his own anxieties of inadequacy and incompetence. On the other front, support for independence is understandably growing but it doesn’t seem to translate into support for Plaid Cymru.*

At the time of publishing this post, only a handful of the Senedd results have been declared and it’s far too early to say what the final numbers for this Senedd will be once the regional papers have all been counted and seats allotted. Hopefully, though, we’ll continue to have a sensible and compassionate centre-left government, ruling for the benefit of everyone in the country. If only England was so lucky.

* As an aside, one thing that annoys me slightly is the habit the press have of abbreviating PC’s name to “Plaid”, because that just means “Party”.

Pye in the sky (part one)

Or, some pieces of railway history

For a few months now, I’ve been threatening to start writing a long series of blog posts about the railway history of South Wales, starting in Newport and slowly radiating outwards. The question, of course, is how to actually do that in a format that will be interesting and engaging to read in small chunks; and, indeed, for me to write. The “standard” type of railway history comes in a number of forms, but none of them are particularly attractive to the casual reader. Few go to the point of setting out, to a random passing non-specialist reader, just why a specific place or line is fascinating; just what about its history makes it worth knowing about. Moreover, not only do they tend on the heavy side, they are normally based either on large amounts of archival research, large amounts of vintage photographs, or both. Putting that sort of thing together isn’t really an option for me at present, especially not for a blog post.

So why would I want to write about the railways of the South Wales valleys in any case? In general, if you’re a British railway enthusiast, you probably think of the South Wales valleys as a place where GWR tank engines shuffled back and forth with short trains of passengers or long trains of coal. If you’re a specialist, and like industrial railways, you might remember it as one of the last areas where the National Coal Board still operated steam trains, at places such as Aberpennar/Mountain Ash. There are two things, though, that you probably only realise if you’re a specialist. Firstly, if you include horse-drawn railways and tramways, the South Wales railway system was the earliest and densest complex railway network in the world. Horse-drawn railways are often completely overlooked by enthusiasts, for whom railways started with the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester line in 1830. Partly, I suspect, because unlike later periods there aren’t many good maps or any photographs of most of the horse-drawn railways of this country. Although horse-drawn railways do appear on tithe maps, in most cases they are not very clearly marked and resemble a road more than anything else.

Secondly, the 19th century history of the growth of the South Wales railway network was intensely complex and entangled, and the later domination of the area by the GWR was by no means a foregone conclusion. Through the 1850s and 1860s there were a number of factions at work: on the local level, horse-drawn lines trying to modernise and make their railways part of the national network; newer steam-operated lines each serving a single valley and without any scope for a broader outlook; and nationally, the large London-based companies trying to gain “territory” and a share of the South Wales industrial traffic. In 1852 two directors of the London & North Western Railway, Richard Moon and Edward Tootal, said:

[A]ll the Narrow Gauge Lines [standard gauge] of South Wales are at present detached: & divided into separate & small Interests:- Again they are at present at War with the Broad Gauge.

(memo to LNWR board quoted in The Origins of the LMS in South Wales by Jones & Dunstone)

I’ll come to the reason why Moon and Tootal were investigating the railways of South Wales in a later post; but that, hopefully, sets the scene a little. South Wales didn’t become a GWR monoculture until, paradoxically, after the GWR itself ceased to exist. Through all of the 19th century, South Wales was a maze of twisty little railways, all different, many of them with very long histories.

All of which, if you’ve read this far, brings us on to a fairly ordinary-looking back lane behind some houses, in a fairly ordinary suburb of Casnewydd/Newport.

An ordinary back lane

You’ve probably guessed this is actually some sort of disused railway. It is; but it’s a disused railway that, paradoxically, is actually still in use. This is the trackbed of the Monmouthshire Canal Company’s tramway; its exact date of building is a little unclear but it was started around 1801 and open for traffic in 1805.

I’ve written about the Monmouthshire Canal Company before, as a good chunk of the Crumlin Arm of its canal has been semi-restored, albeit not in a navigable state. The canal was built in the 1790s, following the valley of the Afon Ebwy/River Ebbw down as far as Tŷ Du/Rogerstone where it cut across north of Newport to reach the Wsyg/Usk.

The canal’s enabling Act of Parliament permitted anyone who wanted to use the canal (within a few miles radius) to build their own horse-drawn feeder railway linking them to the canal. This included the Tredegar Ironworks, in the Sirhowy Valley; the only sensible way they could reach the canal, however, was to build their railway all the way down along the Sirhywi until reaching the confluence of the Ebwy and Sirhiwy in Risca. The canal company built a matching line, roughly parallel to their canal for much of its length but running around the south side of Newport. The picture above is part of this line, near the modern day Pye Corner station.

Above I said that paradoxically, this is a disused railway that is still in use. The reason for that is: a line built for horses to draw trains at walking pace is not exactly suitable for use by powered trains at much higher speeds. A secondary reason is that in many cases the new “rail roads” were the best road in the area, became heavily used by pedestrians, and started to have ribbons of houses built along them in the same way that public roads do.

Tithe map

This is the tithe map for the photo shown above, from around 1840. As you can see it’s hard to see the difference, in this map, between the railways and the roads; but a “public road” has already been built around the other side of the buildings that have grown up along the railway, so that people don’t have to walk on the railway to get to them.

When this map was made, the railway had already been using steam engines for around fifteen years or so. Not long after, the company decided its trains needed a better line of route here, so a new line was built, parallel, only a few tens of metres to the west. That line is still in use today as Trafnidiaeth Cymru’s Ebbw Vale Line, although it’s seen many changes over the years.

I was going to segue into the later railway history of the Pye Corner area at this point, because there’s plenty to discuss. Indeed, as far back as the mid-1820s there was already a railway junction there, and on the tithe map above you can see the second line striding off to the left of the map. It’s technically no longer a railway junction. There are still two routes here, but they come together and run parallel rather than actually joining. As this is already turning into something of an essay, though, that will wait for a later day.

The needle

Or, an appointment with the nurse

NO PHOTOGRAPHY” said the sign at the door in big, bold letters. So this post doesn’t have any images in it; no photographs, at any rate.

It’s curious, the banality that major events can sometimes carry with them. The extent to which a world-changing event becomes a matter for paperwork. I walked through the chicane of barriers to the door of the leisure centre; was given hand sanitiser and had my ID and my temperature checked, before joining the end of the first queue.

Many, clearly, had gone before me. Almost three-quarters of the adult population of Wales have now had their first vaccination dose. For everyone who does it, though, it’s a significant step. Each queue, each desk that takes your name and details and gives you a different leaflet to read. I’m not sure quite why there had to be two separate desks to take the same details each time, with a new queue between each one.

My local vaccination centre is in the local leisure centre, its sports hall converted into a production line for vaccinating the masses. After the final check of who you are and where you live, you enter a long, fat holding chicane, fat to make sure each strip of the queue stays well apart. Plenty of time to appreciate the details of the production line arrangements. The hall split half and half between the stations for giving jabs, and the seating for patients to sit and wait afterwards. At the side of the room, desks for the Clinical Controller and the Admin Controller. Each of the numbered trestle tables had two nurses, two seats for patients, two computers and two big yellow sharps disposal bins. Whenever a nurse is free, they hold up their hand, and the nurse at the head of the queue directs the patient where to go, which route to follow to avoid stepping through someone else’s exhaled breath.

After you’ve been injected, after giving your name and details yet another time, you are moved over to the waiting area, to sit to ensure no serious side effects ensue in the first few minutes after the jab. Sitting in a sports hall, at a well-spaced chair, staring at a slowly-moving clock on the wall: naturally, it feels more like some sort of school exam than anything else. Possibly one of those dream-logic exams from years after you have left school, where there is no desk and no exam paper ever comes. Of course, in an exam, you still can’t sit and read your phone. I counted the minutes around the dial of the clock, turned my chair the regulation ninety degrees to flag it for disinfection, and walked out ready for the rest of the day.

Test shots

Or, looking up at the sky

A couple of weeks ago now, I mentioned that I’d been outside and pointed the camera up at the sky to see what happened. It’s about time, I thought yesterday, that I tried to actually see if I could make the photos that resulted useful in some way.

This is all down to a friend of mine, Anonymous Astrophotographer, who I won’t embarrass by naming, but who manages to go out regularly with a camera and a tripod and even without a telescope produce beautiful pictures of the Milky Way and various other astronomical phenomena. I asked them what their secret was. “Nothing really,” they claimed, but gave me a bit of advice on what sort of software to try a bit of image-stacking and so on.

I thought, you see, that given that The Child Who Likes Animals Space’s telescope doesn’t have an equatorial mount, it would be pointless to try to attach a camera to it. You can, after all, visibly see everything moving if you use the highest-magnification eyepiece we’ve got at present. Equally, surely it would be pointless just to point my SLR up into the sky? Apparently, not, Astrophotographer said. The trick is to take lots of shots with relatively short exposure and stack those together in software. The exposure should be short enough that things don’t get smeared out across the sky as the Earth spins—anything over 20 seconds is probably too long there—and the number of shots should in theory even out random noise in the sensor, stray birds, and so on.

As a first attempt, I thought, there’s no point trying to get sight of anything particularly special or impressive, so I pointed the camera to a random fairly dull patch of sky and see what happened. You can click to see a larger version.

Draco

This is an arbitrary area in the constellation of Draco. In the middle you have Aldhibah, or ζ Draconis, with Athebyne (η Draconis) over on the right and the triangle of Alakahan, Aldhiba and Dziban over on the left. The faintest stars you can see in this image are about mag. 7.5, maybe a little fainter, which is a bit fainter than you could see with the naked eye even in perfect conditions. This image has been adjusted slightly to lower the noise; in the original you could just about persuade yourself you could see mag. 8 objects, but they were barely distinguishable from noise. The Cat’s Eye Nebula (NGC 6543) and the Lost In Space Galaxy (NGC 6503) are both theoretically in the picture, in the lower left, but they’re not visible; the former can just about be spotted as a faint pale patch very different in shade to the noise around it on the original images, if you know exactly where to look.

The Plough Handle

Here’s the handle of The Plough, with the stars Mizar and Alcor together in the middle. This one really doesn’t look much at a small size, but if you click through you can see how well the camera captured the different colours and different shades of starlight. Again, the darkest things visible here are about mag. 7.5. The Pinwheel Galaxy is right in the middle of the lower centre, but at mag. 8 or so doesn’t come out of the noise at all.

What do I need to do to make things better? Well, for one thing, the seeing wasn’t actually very good on the night I tried this. As I said in the previous post I had to give up fairly quickly due to cloud. What I hadn’t realised, until I saw the photos, was that faint clouds, lit up by moonlight, were already rolling in well before it became obvious to the naked eye. Trying some photography again on a clearer night would definitely be a start. Secondly, my SLR is pretty old now, dating to the early 2000s. The sensor is, compared to a more modern one, fairly noisy at low light levels. I’m not going to rush out and buy a new camera tomorrow, but I do suspect that if I did, the attempts above would get quite a bit better.

A clean break

Well, not really

Back in the mists of time (well, January), I posted about the mechanism I use to keep track of ideas I’ve had for posts to write about, so I make sure that if I’m in the middle of something else and think “that would be a good blog post topic,” it doesn’t just get forgotten and allowed to wither.

I realised, looking the other day down the list of “tickets” for post topics to write about, that practically all of the things I actively want to write about are ideas I’ve come up with in the past couple of months, since moving house. There are plenty of things I wrote down before moving, but none of them really spark anything inside me at the moment, as something I want to put down and get out there. Some of them I do at least understand; others are a little bit more mystifying. When I put down a few words such as “Post about the fast-flowing water in Stockholm,” what did I really mean and what exactly was I going to say?

Moving house, it seems, has subconsciously been a much bigger upheaval than I realised it would be. A much bigger and cleaner break from the past than I was expecting. I can understand no longer having the energy to write posts about Bristolian local history; but all of those had been cleaned off the backlog already in any case. Somewhere in my head, all of the ideas I came up with before moving are now in a dusty mental box marked “do not need to unpack”.

Nevertheless, although I had a bit of a lull, there are now plenty of ideas to come. At some point, too, I’ll get back on to the old ones, maybe even finish writing that modern version of The Box Of Delights that I started to make a rough stab at. There is a lot more to say, even if as yet I don’t know exactly what all of it will be.

Yet another crafting project (part seven)

Or, the bee takes shape

We’re a couple of weeks on from the previous post, so it’s time for another update on my current cross-stitch project. This weekend just past, I finished off the last of the cross-stitch itself on this project. Now, I just have the back stitch to do.

Bee

The back stitch that makes up the border (and the lettering at the bottom) will be nice and straightforwards; the back stitch that provides the veining on the wings is going to be rather harder, as it’s in a dark brown thread that doesn’t stand out very well at all against the fabric. By the time of the next update, I suspect I’ll be getting somewhat frustrated.

The previous parts in this series were part four, part five and part six. The final part is part eight.

Corvids again

But the question is still there

Today, when I went for my daily walk,* I took my camera with me, intending to take shots for a planned series of posts about railway history that I’m slowly putting together. However, this post is more of a follow-up to the one from the other day on the various types of corvid you can see in this area.

I mentioned in that post that, around here, jackdaws nest in the girders of railway bridges in much the same way that pigeons do elsewhere. I’d only just passed under the railway bridge that I was thinking of when writing that, when I realised that I was walking along a few feet away from a jackdaw, at head height but on the other side of some iron railings. The ground on the other side of the wall was rather higher than by the footpath, so as I walked, the jackdaw was walking too, stopping to look for things in the grass. I tried taking a photo, and it didn’t seem overly bothered. I took a few before eventually it flew away.

A jackdaw

You can see the significant feature of jackdaws that makes them easy to recognise: the silvery-grey head and neck.

Later on, as I was on a slightly more rural part of the walk, I spotted a much larger bird on the far side of a meadow. This is what I was talking about before: sometimes I see larger black birds, that might be ravens, but they are never quite close enough to get a definite identification. Even with the good camera, this is the best I could do.

A raven, maybe

To my eyes, that could well be a raven. It seems to have a raven-like profile to the head, and it seemed to be quite a big bird too. Whether it really was a raven: well, I’m no birdwatcher. If I do manage any better, more definite raven identifications, I’ll let you know.

* Daily in aspiration if not in fact.

Follow-up

In case you were in suspense

Those of you who read yesterday’s post about the Lyrid meteor shower may well be waiting on the edges of your seats for further information as to how the night went.

The short version is that I don’t think I saw any meteors. I went out after it was dark, sat in a chair, relaxed, and watched the sky. The sky was nice and clear; initially, at least. The Moon was rather bright, though, and before long high clouds started to roll in from the north-east. The moon lit the clouds up beautifully, but for anything else it was hopeless. I went in after half an hour, without a single meteor being spotted.

Still, I had also taken my camera out with me, as a bit of an experiment. I set it up on the tripod, plugged in the remote release, chose what seemed to be a good exposure and sat there clicking away. I don’t expect the results will be outstanding, not for a first quick attempt, but we’ll see what comes out of it. It might take a bit of experimentation in post-processing; I’ll keep you updated.