New Year’s Day 2018. For the past few years, I’ve had a tradition of not drinking on New Year’s Eve. It spawned from spending too many New Year’s Days hungover, and I found that I actually preferred being up and about to create a positive start to the new year. However, this New Year’s Eve I decided to drink. Thankfully, I limited myself, and on New Year’s Day 2018, I wake feeling fine, and eager to go on an adventure.
I’ve already decided where I’m going to go — The Lliw Reservoirs, near the village of Felindre, Swansea. My bag is already packed, I’ve checked the rain radar, and it shows that the morning cloud cover will disperse by late morning, leading to a fine afternoon.
I punch the postcode for the reservoirs that I found on Google into my Tomtom, and hit the M4 eastbound in glorious sunshine. I arrive in Felindre and take a turning leading uphill. The road soon turns into a single track lane. It’s very pretty, but with steep grass embankments on either side, and a serious lack of passing points, I’m hoping that the local farmers are nursing hangovers like many others — I really don’t fancy the prospect of having to reverse downhill along this windy road upon being faced with a tractor coming the other way. Thankfully the road is blissfully empty.
Tomtom tells me to turn right along an even narrower road. A sign by the turning says “NO ACCESS TO RESERVOIRS and confirms my growing suspicion that Google has done one over on me with the postcode. Thankfully, whoever has written the sign has also provided an alternative postcode. I turn around and make my way back down the hill, this time following the correct route to the reservoirs. As I pass through Felindre again, I see a brown tourism sign pointing the turning to the reservoirs. It would have been nice if they’d provided one on the way into Felindre. I can only assume that the lack of signage in both directions is just another example of the age of ‘austerity’ we live in.
Arriving at the lower Lliw reservoir, I see I’m not the only one who’s decided to make the most of this fine New Years Day. At least 20 other cars are already parked, and there is a mixture of middle-age, and old-age couples, dog walkers, and families. I appear to be the only one carrying a rucksack strapped with camera equipment attached that makes me look like I’m planning on doing a photography workshop on Mt Everest.
Today I’m doing a trial run filming video footage as I’m considering setting up a Youtube channel. The basic gist of it is to share my experiences of exploring and photographing Wales. I cross over from the car park to the sunny shore, crouch down with my back to the water, and start filming a spoken introduction. It goes completely awry as I fumble my words, can’t think of what to say, and am distracted thinking about all the technical issues such as the wind distorting the microphone. I’m a quiet person in comparison to most. I enjoy my solitude, so talking to camera when I’m out and about on my walks seems like the most ridiculous idea in the world. My self-doubt hits me in a big way.
I film a few establishing ‘cutaway’ shots of the reservoir from different angles — pastoral stuff like the waves on the water, and flowering gorse blowing in the wind. Filming on my compact camera feels less than ideal. I figure I might have better luck talking on camera if I get going on the walk and have something to talk about. By the time I get going, I realise my weather apps got it wrong as the sky becomes overcast.
A little way up the lakeside path, it splits. The main tarmac path continues, but a smaller muddy footpath drops down into woodland. I quick map check shows that this rejoins the main path at the northern end of the reservoir. Everyone else is walking on the main path, so of course, I decide to traipse through the mud.
This narrower path is very muddy, but the rewards of winding through deciduous woodland on the lake-shore, dipping down into small inlets, and over bridges by small waterfalls are worth it. This time of year, with the trees stripped of leaves, and a distinct lack of foliage, it’s hard to get the full effect, but, there is a certain tranquillity on this trail. I can imagine that on a fresh spring day, this is an exquisite walk.
At the northern end of the reservoir, the trail splits to rejoin the main track and also leads down a stone staircase to a picnic area beside a weir. I rejoin the main trail, determined to get to the upper reservoir. Breaks in the cloud have been throwing some lovely golden light on the distant hills, but as I wander further along the main trail, the atmosphere becomes very dark an ominous. Where before I saw several other walkers, they’ve suddenly all seemed to disappear. As I pass an impressive looking quarried rock face, I feel spots of rain as the wind picks up. I’m starting to consider getting my waterproof out and attaching my rucksack’s rain cover. After seeing plenty of walkers, the path has gone quiet. I wonder if people know something I don’t and suddenly feel very alone.
I meet a guy on the track wearing an Amazon fleece. There’s a distribution centre in nearby Swansea, so it’s clear he’s an employee. I ask him how much further to the upper reservoir, and he says no more than half a mile. Sadly, we don’t talk long enough for me to ask about what it’s like working at Amazon. As much as I am a satisfied customer, I’ve read some damning articles about what it’s like to be a picker/packer for them.
Continuing on, I’m pleased that it seems to be brightening and the threat of rain seems to have passed. After imagining a steep hike to the Upper Lliw reservoir, I’m amazed how much of an easy walk it is. I can see the green slopes of the reservoir and the Victorian pumping station cresting the horizon. I’m nearly there.
As I approach the dam wall, I the waters are choppy. On the far shore, the blades of the wind turbines of Betws wind farm appear above the crest of the hills. I’m finally here, and whilst the view has a certain something, the light isn’t great. What do I do now? I’m alone. It’s cold, and the warmth generated by walking is starting to subside. I can feel the wind chill and pop I my beanie hat on and zip up my layers. I’m pretty sure that everyone else visiting in the next hour is going to snap the same view on their phones. I want to capture something different. I want a more encompassing view. I initially think about photographing from the woodland on the eastern shore, but feel I’d like to include that in my shot, so I head over to the western side of the reservoir. There’s a wire fence that has been bent down by previous explorers. I climb over it and ascend the hills of the western shore. It’s bitterly cold up here, but I’m determined to get what I came for. Perched on a hilltop, I wait. I forgot to pack any sort of plastic bag to sit on, so I sit on my rucksack instead. It’s not ideal, but it keeps my behind dry.
I’m taking it all in, and it doesn’t feel like I’m waiting. I watch the visitors below, walking along the dam wall. I wonder if they can see me up here, and if they knew the view I can see from up here, whether they’d make the climb.
It’s barely perceptible, but I can sense the light changing. Suddenly a pool of light appears on the northern shore. It widens and gradually moves over the coniferous woodland on the eastern shore. This is what I’ve waited for. It’s that light I love — dark grey skies, and golden foreground. I snap several frames. In under 10-seconds, the light returns to a bland overcast. It was a fleeting moment, but it was worth waiting for. I’m pretty sure I’ve got what I wanted from this viewpoint, and head back down the hill towards the dam.
I decide to explore the eastern shore of the bank. There’s a little blue bungalow here, complete with children’s wooden playhouses in the garden. I wonder about the family that lived here once, and the sort of lifestyle they had. The windows are boarded up now, and I find myself fascinated with the plastic faux-topiary hanging-ball that is blowing in the wind on a bracket outside the house. The place can’t have been abandoned too long ago.
The footpath along the eastern shore is very wet and muddy. I ponder wandering in the woodland, but looking at the fading light, I decide to leave it to another time. I venture down to the shore’s edge, avoiding a load of dumped and rusting ironwork in order to capture a shot of the afternoon sun glistening on the water.
I meet a guy who’s also decided to explore the footpath on the eastern shore. He appears to be in his early 40s, and despite living in the area all his life, this is only the second time he’s visited the reservoir. The conversation follows the same sort of subjects I get talking about with most of the people I meet on my walks — the beauty of Wales and the abundance of inspiring locations. However, he does tell me he knew the owner of the blue bungalow, and that they were forced to move because Welsh Water decided they didn’t want anyone living by the reservoir. Ironically, apparently, they didn’t have any running water in the house either. As to the truth of his story, I’ve no idea, but I realise the light is starting to get better, and I tell him in the politest way possible that I need to move back to the dam wall and catch the light.
Back at the dam wall, looking north towards the far end of the reservoir and Betws, I see billowing clouds and shafts of precipitation on the horizon. This makes for a good shot with the golden, afternoon sun hitting the dried grasses on the hills. It’s even better when a rainbow forms, and suddenly the composition is two-tone. I only wish the water was calmer, it would have really set the shot off.
The day is coming to a close, and I’m done here. I head back down the track towards the lower reservoir. Returning to the lake-shore path, I notice the burnished evening sky and decide the little inlet from earlier might be a good place for a sunset shot. A tree on this bank makes for nice foreground interest, and the hillside lined with the skeletal forms of winter trees on the opposite bank makes a nice background. I set the tripod up in shallow waters and wait for the sky to do its thing.
It’s not dim enough to get a silky-smooth long exposure. I don’t have my ND filters handy — they’ve been lost in the move from England to Wales, and are either deep in a box or still in the loft back in England. I’m hoping the colours will do something special after sunset, so I hang around on the shore, listening to my iPod with my eyes to the sky. I’m having ‘a moment’ — I’m on my own, on the shores of a lake at sunset. It’s the sort of moment I want to share with someone, but it’s pefection lies in my solitude. Unfortunatley, my hopes for the sky are not to be. After the initial burst, there’s only grey.
I arrive back at the car feeling this has been a great start to the year. The trick now is making sure I keep it up.