North Wales, October 2016

When I announce that I’m heading North that often means I’m heading off to the Arctic Circle, or at very least to Shetland.  This time my ‘North Weekend’ wasn’t quite so far away, only to 53N.  My excuse was a John Muir Trust meeting in the Snowdonia National Park, and a chance to spend a couple of days on the North Wales coast.

At one time I used to visit Snowdonia quite regularly - it was an ideal mountain location for weekend trips from Bristol in my student days (the Lakes were good too, but it took a bit longer to get there, and Scotland really only worked for longer trips).  I’ve got clear (nay, vivid) memories of being in North Wales, and in almost every case the memories involve getting wet and being wet.  The one exception was getting burnt to a crisp walking the Snowdon Horseshoe over a Bank Holiday weekend.  My other recollection of weekend walking in Wales (in the early 80s) involved trying to figure out which places were dry on Sunday (and I’m not talking about rain).

So back to North Wales it was.  This time no tent or youth hostel involved, just a little hotel with a seaview in Llandudno.  I suspect that if I went in search of a meteorologist s/he would tell me that it rains on something like one day in three in North Wales. I’ll dispense with the science, and confirm that based on my recent observation it does indeed rain on one day in three in North Wales.  In my experiment, this meant one day of almost continuous rain from just after dawn to just before dusk sandwiched between two days of cloudless blue skies.

The first sunny day lured me up onto the Great Orme just outside Llandudno - visitors are lured to the top by tram, cable car, road and foot.  I opted for the foot option and climbed the 200 metres to the top of the Orme - splendid views, with the Isle of Man just visible on the horizon (there’s an island I’ve not yet visited).  Having climbed up (and down) 200 metres, the next stop was out to sea (and back) by 700 metres along the Llandudno Pier.

Top of Great Orme - looking down towards Llandudno
Llandudno Pier
On the rain day, the sun did put in a very brief appearance as it crept about the top of the Little Orme at the eastern  end of Llandudno Bay. And having popped above the headland it promptly disappeared behind thick cloud and the rain started.  Fortunately I got to spend the entire day (inside) at the Plas y Brenin mountain centre talking about rewilding in Wales, and it was (as our hosts pointed out) a very good day to be inside.

Early Light over Llandudno Bay
Plas y Brenin in the Rain
Having got the rain out of its system, the weather returned to summer.  I took this as a prompt to add a new entry to my list of visited islands, and headed along the coast road and across the Menai Strait onto Anglesey.  Anglesey is connected to mainland Wales by two bridges - an older one built by Telford in the 19th Century and a much newer one rebuilt in the 1970s to carry traffic to the port at Holyhead.  I spent a little bit of time exploring Menai Bridge (the town at the Anglesey end of the old bridge), and around Beaumaris.  

Sunny Sunday Morning in Llandudno, with the Clouds clearing from Snowdon
Menai Bridge
Beaumaris Castle
Having spent long enough there to be able to add Anglesey to my list, I heading back along the A5 across the old bridge and through into the Snowdonia National Park.  

Through the Mountains, Snowdonia National Park
It was a beautiful autumn day to be in the mountains, and an awful lot of people had came to the same conclusion, and I suddenly recalled one of the challenges of being in North Wales.  The scenery is fantastic but it is very accessible to a huge population - and the paths and parking spaces all fill up very early on good days.  So with the occasional roadside stop I wound my way through the mountains surrounded by caravans, motorbikes, cyclists and classic cars. I’m sure the roads would have been quieter if if had been raining, but I guess the views wouldn’t have been as good.

Copenhagen, September 2016

One of the bonuses of a trip to Greenland is that you can just can’t fly straight there from the UK.

The last couple of the visits involved city breaks in Reykjavik and Ottawa (yeh, not the most direct route that one) - this time the lucky winner in the city breaks lottery was Copenhagen.


On the way to Greenland I opted for the hotel closest to the airport (which was about 6 minutes from the terminal by S-train), on the way back I decided that a rather longer stopover in the city centre was in order.  I had the added bonus of my other half joining me there and a collection of local relatives who were able to step up to ensure that we got a proper tour of the city.

Torvehallern Food Market 
Street Food Market, Paper Island

Copenhagen is a fabulous city for a quick city break - everything is walkable, and getting in to the city centre from the airport takes less than 15 minutes.

We spent time in numerous food markets (Paper Island is fantastic) and bars - and found time to watch the changing of the guard (it’s not just at Buckingham Palace), visit New Harbour (not so new these days - started in 1670-something), have a boat trip round the harbour, visit the Little Mermaid and wander the (slightly suspect) streets of Christiania.  And try a few of the 61 beers on offer at Copenhagen’s Taphouse.

Changing Guard
Ropes at Nyhavn
Opera House
Little Mermaid - being distracted by the other tourists
Probably the best floating bar....

And next time we’ll make sure there is time to visit Tivoli rather than just go past the gates.

Tivoli at Night

And on the theme of next time - I think Hans Christian Andersen was right - and we should be doing more city breaks (as well as the longer ones!)

Ilulissat, Greenland, September 2016

My first visit to Ilulissat was as a stop-off point along the Greenland coast on the way into the Northwest Passage.   My recollection was of being somewhat underwhelmed by the Ilulissat weather - which could most charitably be described as dreich.  It’s taken me a few years to sort a visit back to the west coast of Greenland to see what the weather can be like!  This time I spent a week in and around Ilulissat - with near-cloudless blue skies every day, and the one brief shower of rain was snow!

Sunny afternoon on the Ilulissat waterfront

Ilulissat is the tourist centre of Greenland - the business and administrative centre is Nuuk a few hundred miles to the south, but the tourist magnet is Ilulissat and particularly the Icefjord on the southern edge of the town.  The Icefjord was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, and has been key to many tourist activities developed in the town to complement the traditional hunting and fishing industries.

The vast majority of the town’s tourists arrive on cruise ships throughout the summer - almost all are little expedition cruise ships, but occasionally larger ships are now adding Ilulissat to their itineraries. The arrival of even a small ship transforms the town, filling the streets with yellow- or red-clad visitors depending on the boat visiting.  Having been a red-clad visitor in 2013, this time I was in town as an independent ground-based tourist.  

There are a limited number of routes to Greenland.  In 2013 I flew into Kangerlussuaq on a charter flight from Ottawa, this time I flew in from Copenhagen on Air Greenland’s only big red plane.  From there I caught one of their little red planes into the little airport just outside Ilulissat town.

Changing from the big red plane to a little red plane

The recent surge in ground-based tourism does rather seem to have out-paced the development of hotel rooms.  I struggled to find somewhere to stay for week in July or August, so I wound up booking a little apartment in the town centre in September.

September is definitely the end of the Summer season - the temperatures are significantly lower (mostly around freezing), but the real plus is that the falling temperatures see off the mosquitoes and black flies which can make wandering in the Arctic unpleasant in summer

With one or two minor exceptions you can walk pretty much anywhere you want in hills and valleys around Ilulissat, but the local hiking clubs have defined a series of way-marked routes going from the town to various points along the northern edge of the Icefjord.

The Ilulissat Icefjord
Iceberg Tourism

The Icefjord is a deep inlet from Disko Bay reaching right up to the edge of Greenland Icecap about 70 kms inland.  This channel is the most ‘productive’ single route for Greenland ice to get to the sea accounting for 7% all the ice output (this equates to an implausibly large number of tons of ice flowing out to sea each day).  Traditional anecdote suggests that it was an Ilulissat iceberg that met with the Titanic in 1912.  

The settlement at Ilulissat has been around for about 275 years, but people have lived near the Icefjord for thousands of years - the bay at Sermermuit just beside the Icefjord has evidence of houses almost 4000 years old.


The glacier front has been moving inland quite dramatically over the last few years, but the appearance of the icefjord has been pretty much unchanged. For most of its length the fjord is well over 1000m deep, allowing even huge icebergs to calve from the front of the glacier.  Having calved the icebergs are then free to float towards the sea.  Or at least they would be were there not a seabed ridge at the mouth of the fjord. This ridge blocks the big bergs from reaching the sea and in turn leads to fantastically dramatic iceberg traffic jam backing up the entire 70 km length of the fjord.

Iceberg front at Disko Bay

From one of the viewpoints outside the town you can see the front of the queue, which at times is a 10km line of icebergs across the entire width of the fjord.  At a glance (or two) everything looks pretty static but if you return day after day you will notice that new icebergs have broken free and are now making their way out into Disko Bay (no doubt aspiring to make their mark as in 1912).

Occasionally as you sit watching the ice you might just hear a crash of ice somewhere in the distance, and if you get really lucky you might just see one of the bergs at the front of the queue disintegrating as the pressure from behind finally gets too much. 

Crumbling Ice

The crash of ice isn't the only thing you’re likely to hear around Ilulissat.  

If you sit quietly you might also both see and hear one of the many humpback whales around the bay coming up for air. The seabed around the fjord mouth is constantly being churned up by the icebergs crawling their way across the ridge - this make the waters around the fjord incredibly fertile - which means lots of food for marine life right up the food chain, including both whales and the local fishermen.  So if you can’t hear a whale blowing you’re probably going to be able to hear an boat motor somewhere on the water.

Humpback whale - Disko Bay

The other sound that characterises Ilulissat (and most other Greenlandic towns) is of the dogs.  Ilulissat has a resident population of about 5000 people and about 6000 dogs.  During the winter the dogs eat well and work hard pulling sledges - but in summer they don’t get so much to eat (they wouldn’t work it off!) and they are chained up on the edge of town.  This makes the dogs a little bit cranky, and once one starts howling its very likely that the other 5999 are going to follow the lead.  

The one except to the chained-up rule are the young puppies.  The puppies get one summer where they can wander at will around the town causing the mischief that you would expect from a couple of hundred puppies!

Pups on the Loose

The other bonus of visiting places like Ilulissat in the autumn is that it gets dark!  In summer you get 24 hours of daylight, but in September you get both sunrises and sunsets.  And if you get really lucky you’ll get a display of the Northern Lights too.

Disko Bay Sunset

Most people who visit Greenland do so as cruise ship passengers - this undoubtedly makes the visit logistically easy (although not cheap) and means that although you get to see lots of places you only get a glimpse of each.  Visiting Greenland as a ground-based tourist is easy to do and means that you get the chance to spend longer in places - and also to see them without the crowds of other tourists. I’ll certainly be back in Greenland at some point again.

Six Years On, Shetland August 2016

Another Bank Holiday weekend, and another chance to spend time wandering the cliffs and headlands at the south end of Shetland. This, however, wasn't just any old Bank Holiday, it marked the end of our first six years in the Shetland house.

We moved in over the August Bank Holiday (English calendar!) in 2010 - and have got to know the south end pretty well over that time - and on this trip I spent time at some of the regular locations (Scat Ness, Sumburgh Head and Garths Ness), and even made time to visit a bit of coast that I've only been to once or twice before.

Sumburgh Head

Scat Ness got the opportunity to let us know that it was still summer, but that the autumn storms might not be too far away.

Scat Ness - still summer
Scat Ness - almost autumn
Looking from Garths Ness - Siggar Ness and Fitful with cloud caps
Passing the time at Sumburgh Head - looking across Quendale Bay to Scat Ness and Fitful Head
Looking across Grutness Voe to Compass Head
Sea Arch on the east side

And of course I don't spend all my time wandering on Shetland.  Some of the time I just sit and watch from the house as skies and water change across Quendale Bay.  Over six years I've seen big storms and flat seas, clear skies and thick fog - even over a few days there's plenty of variety - five pictures from five days.

Backing Up Is Hard To Do

Actually it isn’t, but it is challenging to figure a reliable way to back up computer files that isn’t so messy that you don’t actually get round to doing it.
I’ve been working with computers for close to 40 years and throughout that time I’ve been through more backup regimes than I care to remember.  The aim of all this backing up was to try and protect my digital stuff against both personal (and colleagues) incompetence and the inevitable hardware failures.  I’ve backed up files onto tapes, cassettes, floppy discs, ZIP drives, CD-Rs, DVD-Rs, USB sticks, memory cards, external hard drives, disk arrays and clouds – and all of these have at some point let me down.  In some cases files have got corrupted, in others (ZIP, I’m looking at you) the entire device has died and I’ve had cloud storage services go bust.  I can also recall a lengthy exercise when I was involved with copying scientific data files from one obsolete disc storage system, to another disc storage system which rapidly became obsolete quite quickly too.
And the incompetence thing, yes I have accidentally deleted an entire directory of stuff. Damn the power of the UNIX command line.
Old DVDs

This moment of reflection has been triggered by my unearthing a huge pile of recordable CDs and DVDs that were for a long time my default storage system for my collection of photographs.  This was an entirely reasonable approach at time when cameras generated 4 or 8 MB files and you could fit an entire trip onto a couple of 4GB DVDs.  But the camera files, especially the RAW ones got bigger and someone invented digital video so it’s quite possible to generate 100s of GB for files on a single project.  I don’t think I’ve had a terabyte project yet, but it’ll happen one day.  This turns into an awful big pile of DVDs. And then there’s DVD rot too.  All in all I think it’s safe to say that the day of DVDs as my storage device of choice has passed.  I have (with some relief, and not inconsiderable guilt) consigned my collection of discs to land-fill.

So what next.  At this point I can only see two credible ways of the storing the multi-terabyte collection of files I’ve got to worry about.  Hard discs or clouds. Trouble is that I don’t really trust either.  Hard discs do die.  If you’re lucky you get a little bit of warning and you can frantically copy the latest versions of files onto something else.  If you’re unlucky it all just stops working!  Clouds (yes, I know it’s really just someone else’s disc storage) can be fickle too.  The cloud providers can go bust or suffer major system failures – and at that point all you can do is hope that things get recovered.  The other challenge with clouds is the level of connectively to the remote systems – my external hard discs are connected by USB 3 (or similar or faster) but the clouds are connected via wifi and internet connections – and even on the best wifi connection a 100GB fileset is going to take a while to move around.
My current solution, is to use a mix of discs and cloud.   I’ve got two work-flows, one for photographic work and another for everything else.
For photographs and videos (where everything gets saved on increasingly small memory cards) I copy these off onto as hard disc as soon as possible (usually at the end of each day).  At the time of a trip or assignment these files get copied onto another hard disc and (if it’s been a particular good trip) onto another hard disc which get stored somewhere else other than the room where I do most of my photo processing.  Having multiple workplaces (or even multiple houses) is a good way to do this – I’ve often kept a spare set of discs in the back of the car.  It’s probably not the safest single storage place, but you’d have to be seriously unlucky to have your car stolen and your house burnt down at the same time.  These backup include pretty much all the files I’ve shot (even the rubbish ones). 
Once I’ve started processing the files and pick out the better images - it's amazing that the 200GB of files from a trip can get reduced to 15 keepers!  At this stage I’ll make use of cloud storage for the images, and the keepers will wind up being stored both on various hard discs, and probably on various cloud services too, mostly in iCloud and Dropbox.

No sign of clouds - but these cables lead there eventually.
For non-photographic files (word docs and powerpoint decks) my usual working practice is to work directly (at least when I’m connected) on files synchronised with Dropbox or iCloud so that I’ve got (synchronisation permitting) a copy both locally in the cloud.  But even with this approach I do still tend to make a periodic extra copies of my working files onto another hard disc somewhere – this is probably as much to do with my (demonstrated) capacity to delete the entire contents of a file (just before saving) as it is with with my mistrust of things in the cloud.   
And if I’m getting really twitchy about a particular file, I’ll probably email it to myself too! 

And sometimes I’ll print a copy too – paper lasts a long time, right? 

On the Beaches, Shetland July 2016

My latest trip was a bit like the one at the start of May  - but travel was rather smoother!

Quendale Beach

I decided not to risk Megabus again - this time deciding that it was marginally safer grappling with British Airways, Loganair and the holidaying masses at Heathrow so that I could make the most of yet another Bank Holiday(Scottish calendar) weekend on the beaches of southern Shetland.

My travel plans were not (significantly) disrupted by the crowds and by lunchtime I was on Shetland - total travel time about six hours, marginally better than the 40 hours that the last journey North required (it did cost a but more, but had the bonus of a British Airways cooked breakfast to sustain me en route).

And although it wasn't part of any master plan, when I look back through the pictures for this weekend and for my May weekend I find that I've done pretty much the same things.

I spent time wandering on Scat Ness (always a good way to get back in touch with Shetland), time wandering along West Voe and up to Sumburgh Head (getting reacquainted with the puffins) and time walking out along Quendale Beach and out onto Garths Ness.

Scat Ness

Looking rather calmer than on other visits.  There are sometimes a few puffins on Scat Ness, but not this weekend - plenty of fat and fluffy fulmar chicks (no sign of them fledging) plus some slightly sinister-looking shags.

Brei Geo, Scat Ness
Horse Island, Scat Ness
Young Fulmar, waiting for another meal
Shags in silhouette

West Voe & Sumburgh Head

In late July, this is a splendid place to see black guillemots (the other guillemots and razorbills have already abandoned the nest sites and headed out to sea for the winter)

Black Guillemots (locally called tysties) on West Voe of Sumburgh

Puffins, Sumbugh Head

Quendale & Garths Ness

The beaches at the south end of Shetland are always changing shape as the winds and tides pick up and redeposit sand.  And the lambs have certainly changed since I saw them wobbling around at the start of May.

Quendale Beach
Siggar Ness from Garths Ness
Bigger - but still curious
Garths Ness, LORAN station

Crossing Cultures?

On visits to Arctic Canada and to Greenland I remember seeing lots of inuksuks - don't remember seeing one on Shetland before.

Shetland inuksuk? West Voe Beach

What did I miss?

The only downside to my weekend at the south end - the orca that had been performing (apparently on request) at the south end just before I arrived had clearly caught up with all the easy-to-catch seals and had headed off up to the north end of Shetland to see if the pickings were better there. May be they'll be back down south later in the month, when I'm back again!