Symbolic Forest

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Blog : Posts from May 2021

Books I Haven't Read (part twelve)

A journey of discovering a book didn't need to be read

It’s always nice, when you go away and rent a cottage for a few days, to see if it’s been furnished with any interesting books. Sometimes you’re unlucky, and there’s nothing at all, or something worse than useless that charity shops would turn away. Sometimes, though, there’s something good: a book that makes you think “oh, I’d have read that if I knew it existed,” or something relevant to the local area. When visiting Calderdale a couple of years ago I found a fascinating book about the in-depth history of the parish we were staying in, right down to the surviving evidence for its medieval boundaries. Well, I thought it was fascinating, at any rate. Naturally, as you can’t take the books home with you, there’s a pressure to at least finish enough of a potentially-interesting one to see if you might want a copy yourself, or read the whole thing before you go.

For the past few days we’ve been staying in North West Wales, riding on trains, rambling about a bit, sending photos off to various people among the cast of characters that occasionally pop up in this blog. In the cottage we’re staying in there’s only a handful of books: some vintage ones clearly bought purely as ornament for an awkward corner, and a basket of a few local interest books, mostly fairly dull: technical climbing route guides for example. There was one, though, that looked like it might be an interesting read. If you’ve read the title, you probably guessed that I didn’t finish it. The Hills Of Wales by Jim Perrin.

Perrin has been an outdoor writer for many many years. He pops up fairly regularly in the Guardian‘s “Country Diary” column. I’ve never been able to read any newspaper’s “Country Diary” without thinking of Evelyn Waugh’s famous Scoop!, in which the hapless diarist is accidentally packed off to become a war correspondent, but Perrin is as far from the pale, inexperienced and incompetent journalist in that novel that you could imagine. He’s an elderly man, and has been walking the hills and landscapes of Wales for many, many years. Myself, I’m very interested in the hills and landscapes of Wales, so I thought it would be a natural fit.

The biggest structural problem I have with the book is that it’s collated from various short pieces of work written at scattered times over the last thirty years, rearranged and grouped together geographically, so that a certain block of landscape (Meirionydd, for example) is kept together in one place. This leads, though, to a lot of repetition. The same descriptive lines about each hill reoccur, the same anecdotes. Picking it up to read half a chapter at a time, without a bookmark, I found myself flicking back and forth unsure if a particular line was one I had read previously or not.

More than that though, I started to find the content of the book, on some level, distasteful. It’s something that I find in quite a lot of nature writing, unfairly or not. It is focused very much on a particular way of enjoying the countryside, one that is focused very much on personal remoteness and on a particular rural aesthetic. On the countryside being used in the right kind of way. Traditional farming: good. Authors and artists moving out to the country to get in touch with their underlying roots: good. Archaeology: good. Wind turbines: bad. Industry: bad. I don’t want to call this classist, I think that would be wrong, especially given the history of class involvement in the countryside right-to-access movement over the 20th century. It’s certainly, though, a very elitist view of the countryside, of the right reasons to be there. There’s no space in it for a lot of the people who use it, or a lot of the people who actually live there day-to-day.

So, I’ve given up on The Hills Of Wales before reaching the end. It’s a personal book, sure, but it feels such a one-sided book that I feel I could never be friends with it. I closed it, after another anecdote about a great countryside-loving man the author once knew, with the feeling in the end that all the hills of Wales were one and the same, with the same cast of artists and poets and romantic lone shepherds populating them. That, surely, must be the opposite of the author’s intention.

The past is a foreign country

Or, some news about a legend.

Back in the mists of time…

…oOo…oOo…oOo… wavy dissolve effect …oOo…oOo…oOo…

…I lived in Edinburgh and worked for a little 3-person tech firm, out of this guy’s study in his family house. And one day, he said to me:

Do you know the secret Armenian restaurant?

He described a building I’d walked past many times, tucked into a corner between the road and the railway lines near Abbeyhill Junction. As he described it, I recognised it immediately, because I walked past it on my route to and from the supermarket. It was, it turned out, something that sounded almost too magical to be true. A secret restaurant. It didn’t advertise, didn’t have a sign, didn’t send out flyers or list itself in the phonebook. If, however, you did somehow find its phone number from a friend-of-a-friend, and if the owner answered and felt like opening and thought you might be a good guest, you were given a booking, could come along, and enter a dark candlelit room where you would feel you were at an Armenian family party for the evening. The owner would cook all the food, then come out and meet everyone and talk to you and make sure he liked you. Like something from a fairy tale, strangely magical and otherworldly, and where the hosts might suddenly turn against you if you weren’t careful or said the wrong thing.

My boss had never been. He didn’t actually have the magic phone number himself, he just knew people who did, it was only really word of mouth that the place even existed. The building was solidly real, though, in Victorian red brick and with a boldly-painted Cyrillic sign above its archway. Whenever I walked past the gates were always firmly closed, the paint peeling and the building slowly fading, with buddleia bursting from parts of the brickwork.

I’m sure I could, if I’d dared, got hold of the number. My boss certainly could have done; he had a wide range of contacts from a broad range of social circles and scenes. Even if I had, I’m not sure I would have dared try to get in. I was a different person back then, much less brave than I am now. Besides, the story is so perfect, I would in some ways rather not have known if it was real or not.

Well, it was real. Someone at BBC Scotland has written an article about it.

It’s quite a sad story, the end of it at least. It’s interesting to know, though, that in some ways the secret Armenian restaurant has had a huge influence on Edinburgh, and on the Edinburgh culture scene. Given that the story has always stuck in my mind, too, it’s probably had a big influence on me in one way or another over the post-Edinburgh parts of my life. It’s almost like an urban fantasy. Sometimes, maybe, the land of faery can exist, or at least something approximating it.


Or, the etiquette of language

It’s been quiet on here over the past week. Other things have been keeping me busy: work, trying to sort things out for The Mother, and various other aspects of life. With all of those things to deal with, I didn’t really have time to write any well-written and properly-researched blog posts. Or, indeed, any regular ones.

I started to draft a “Readers Letters” blogpost, but was slightly wary the answers would go out of date before the post was written. When I restarted this blog last year, I went spent a few weeks of evenings going through posts from 2006 and 2007 editing out some of the things that were just a bit too in-joke and just a bit too personal and painful.* I don’t want to have to write something one week and then edit it the following week because things have changed once more.

Something has been on my mind, though, when writing the recent posts about Welsh railway history. What’s the best way to refer to Welsh place-names?

Back when I was a student, I had to write essays about the Outer Hebrides, and standard practice even then was that you would refer to place names with the current official native-language form, even if that caused confusion with the earlier literature. So, in archaeological texts,** the Callanish stone circle is now Calanais; Dun Carloway is Dun Charlabhaigh. In North West Wales, too, things are nice and straightforward. You don’t see people nowadays referring to Portmadoc or Dolgelly when they are talking about Porthmadog and Dolgellau. The main exception, to be frank, is where railway histories take the line of “we’re going to use the HISTORICALLY APPROPRIATE NAME because that’s what the railways did,” as a thin cover for being unhappy about the idea of historical change.

With South Wales, though, it’s a different matter. There are really two issues here. Firstly, in the north-west we’re mostly talking about differences in spelling. In the south, there’s a much bigger number of radical differences in name: Casnewydd/Newport, Abertawe/Swansea, Casgwent/Chepstow to give just a handful of examples. Secondly, although the proportion of Welsh-speakers in the area is slowly increasing, the majority language of the south-east is still definitely English.

Because of this, it feels a little bit, well, pretentious to use phrases like “Casnewydd/Newport” as I have been trying to do in the recent history posts. Moreover it can be difficult to find Welsh names to use for some locations: Rogerstone is known in Welsh as Tŷ Du, but Pye Corner doesn’t seem to have a Welsh name that I’ve been able to discover.*** It’s easily for me to accidentally omit things, too: strictly speaking “Bassaleg” should be “Basaleg” but I tend to forget the latter and it’s hardly used locally other than at the sign as you enter the village. “Risca” should be “Rhisga”.

Switching solely to Welsh would make my posts harder to understand, if you’re not already aware of the Welsh names of places, given that they’re virtually completely in English. However, although combined forms like “Caerffili/Caerphilly” might be clunky to write and clunky to read, they do act as a constant reminder that Wales does have its own language and that English is a relatively modern incomer to most of the country. Would it be best, in the long run, to stick to them? Should I use them only the first time I mention a place? Or how about one in brackets after the other, like “Casnewydd (Newport)” or vice-versa?

In short, I’m not really sure the best way to go on this, editorially. Does anyone have any opinions or suggestions to add? If nothing else, I can include it in my Readers’ Letters.

* Although for some reason I kept some of the most personal and painful ones.

** It’s been so long since I graduated I don’t think I need to specify “modern archaeological texts” any more.

*** I did however find some 19th century journalism calling it “Pie Corner”.

Pye in the sky (part two)

Some more local railway history

Last week, I posted a little bit about the history of the railway junction at Pye Corner, just outside Casnewydd/Newport. There, the original route of the horse-drawn tramway opened around 1805 is now a quiet, grassy back alleyway, with the railway that replaced it a few yards away. That railway line, now just a single-track branch, strides over the road into Bassaleg with a complex series of three parallel railway bridges, imposing and monolithic.

Pye Corner bridges

Looking through the tunnel of bridges, you can just about in this picture make out three different ones. In the middle, a stone arch. Beyond it a steel girder bridge and this side of it an arch in blue engineering brick. Three separate phases.

The stone arch is, I presume, the mid-19th-century bridge built by the Monmouthshire Canal Company when the railway line was rerouted from the back alleyway route it formerly took. On the far side: where the bridge was widened by the Great Western Railway, circa 1910 or so, to broaden the line up to Rhisga from two to four tracks. The blue engineering bricks on the nearside? Ostensibly that’s straightforward too—but not as straightforward as I first thought.

I mentioned in the previous post that Pye Corner was a railway junction as early as 1825, when the Rumney Railway was built from Pye Corner up to Rhymney. Now, I’ve said before that the railways of South Wales are complex and confusing, and the Rumney Railway is a case in point. Back in, say, 1860, there were two railways with very similar names, both linking Rhymney to the coast.

The Rumney Railway was the first, built around 1825, and like the Monmouthshire Canal Company’s railway it was horse-drawn, for its first few years. As you might expect from the name, it served Cwm Rhymni, running down from New Tredegar* along the east bank of Afon Rhymni. Unlike most of the valleys of South Wales, Cwm Rhymni doesn’t take a particularly straight line from mountains to sea, and the Rumney Railway followed the river where it takes a sharp eastwards turn at Bedwas and flows through Machen. From there, the river takes a rambling, meandering route through rolling countryside, past Ruperra Castle and down to the sea just east of Caerdydd/Cardiff. The railway, on the other hand, cut across the narrow neck of land separating Afon Rhymni from Afon Ebwy, to reach the latter at Rhiwderin, and ending by joining the Monmouthshire Canal Company’s railway about a mile further on. How it crossed the Afon Ebwy to get there will be the subject of a later installment.

The confusion arises from the Rhymney Railway, which came along in the 1850s partly because the Rumney Railway (also sometimes known as the “Old Rumney”) was by the time it turned 30 already something of a wheezing, antiquated and outdated little line, upgraded to steam but still using horse-era track. The Rhymney Railway was built to give Cwm Rhymni a proper, modern railway, and it doesn’t really concern us here save to say that it didn’t stick with the river as the Rumney Railway did: it headed into Caerffili town centre, then burrowed southwards through the hills into Caerdydd with a tunnel over a mile long. The Rumney Railway’s owners were worried they were getting left behind but didn’t have the money to upgrade their line; within five years of the Rhymney Railway opening, they had sold the older line to the Brecon & Merthyr Railway, so that the latter railway could use it as a stepping-stone to reach the sea. They did have the money in the bank to rebuild the Rumney Railway in a modern fashion, and did so, building further connections from Machen to Caerffili.

This doesn’t explain where that brick-built bridge comes from, though. Here’s a map of the railway connections around Pye Corner circa 1914. This is from the Railway Clearing House junction diagrams, which were made to give definitive plans of where railways interconnected and what the distances between junctions were, in order to be able to work out per-mile traffic rates.

Junction diagram

Yellow is the Great Western Railway (the former canal company line), blue is the Brecon & Merthyr, and you can see both companies have their Bassaleg stations. What’s the purple line though? That belonged to the company which owned the local docks, the grandly-named Alexandra (Newport & South Wales) Docks & Railway, or AND&R to its friends. They had wanted the collieries of Cwm Rhymni to be able to get their coal to the docks of Casnewydd, without having to pay any additional charges to the Great Western Railway; so they built a line parallel to the Great Western’s tracks between Pye Corner and Mendalgief, enabling coal trains to come straight off the Brecon & Merthyr and onto the dock company’s own line of route without touching the Great Western.

So that’s who built that imposing blue-brick bridge? Well, maybe. There’s certainly a boundary post still in the ground nearby, marking this off as AND&R land.

Boundary post

That answers the question, surely? Well, maybe not. We haven’t really looked at all of the evidence yet. However, as this post is already getting rather long, the conclusion (insofar as there is one) is sadly going to have to wait for another day.

* I’m not entirely sure where its original top terminus is. The Rumney Railway is particularly poorly-documented, so I’m not sure anyone is entirely sure quite where its original top terminus was.

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.


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.


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.