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Wild Things Diary: 11 Feb. 2013
On the trail of the lonesome … juniper
Never, ever take the train.
That’s the unspoken mantra for those that like to think themselves ‘real’ mountaineers and hill walkers living in north Wales. I’ve lived here for 25 years and have been to the summit of Snowdon more times than I can remember. Apart from one exception during a childhood visit with my parents, I’ve always done it on foot. Don’t get me wrong – I love the fact the train is there. It’s a brilliant way for people to experience Snowdon and it’s certainly good for the local economy. But, as a fit local hill walker, you never, ever take the train...
I'm on the train to the summit. I have a strange desire to hide my face and hope that nobody notices, or to talk loudly about how well I know the various paths up the mountain, or chastise my fellow travellers over their choice to travel this way. I can only take comfort from three things; firstly the huge, very heavy tripod pressing down on my lap; secondly, the cameraman’s bags of expensive camera equipment (not just the high definition camera itself but the multitude of lenses, each one of which costs a small fortune); and thirdly, the mixing deck that’s hanging around the soundman’s neck. Maybe it’s OK to take the train after all.
As we approach copa Wyddfa (Snowdon summit), the walkers who’ve made their way up the mountain on foot look at us with scorn and I avert my gaze. On arrival, the cloud is thick and swirling round the rocks, obscuring the view. We get a paned (a cuppa) in the packed summit café and wait for conditions to improve. Suddenly, as is the way with this wonderful windy mountain, the clouds are rent apart and a breathtaking view dramatically revealed for a moment. Before long, the cloud-base has lifted and we’re in broken sunshine, ready to film our hunt for juniper.
“Is Julia Bradbury presenting it?” asks one chap. He looks crestfallen when I tell him I am...
It’s a strange feeling to be filmed in a busy public place. The camera attracts attention and we get questions over what we’re filming, for which channel, and when will it be on? “Is Julia Bradbury presenting it?” asks one chap. He looks crestfallen when I tell him I am. We start off down the opposite side of the mountain on a steep, narrow path and we suddenly realise this is going to be a very long day. The bottom of the path is a really long way away.
After negotiating some nasty scree slopes with all the kit (expensive cameras are better on solid ground, and cameramen are happy there too), we traverse a ridge and reach the areas where juniper is found. I head directly for the most dramatic spot, the point where the Watkin path reaches the knife-edge ridge of Y Lliwedd. Perched on the very edge of the steepest cliff and with the most incredible backdrop of mountains and lakes behind, a beautiful juniper bush hunkers down, hugging the rocks. It’s perfect. There’s even a tiny ledge for me to stand on. With my back to the view and a sheer 300 ft drop behind me, I get let my enthusiasm for Juniper flow and do my piece to the camera.
Hours later we’re descending off the mountain and are down in Cwm Llan, a broad grassy valley where years of heavy grazing by sheep have taken their toll on the junipers. I have a GPS reading for a bush described as “nearly dead” in 2004 and try to find it. The light is fading fast though and in the gloom I can’t see it. Is it on this rock or that one over there? A tired camera crew are waiting. Is it even here anymore? As the panic rises in my belly, I spot the pale, dead branches of the tiny bush. Ironically, they’re surrounded by sheep. Over grazing has been the main cause of juniper decline in Snowdonia and so, all fired up by the sight of the dead plant, we film the skeletal branches. After another hour’s trek in the near dark back to the road, a long but wonderfully rewarding day is over.
Rhododendron – hard as nails
The next morning, Chris, Sally and I are in the same valley to film the “Rhododendron bash”. Huge effort is going into clearing this highly invasive and destructive introduction from Snowdonia National Park, especially here in Nant Gwynnant near Beddgelert. Underneath the evergreen thickets of Rhododendron, nothing survives. They’re hacked and sawn down before the stumps are treated with herbicide, leaving a devastated landscape behind. A huge swath of hillside has been already been cleared and volunteers arrive for the day’s work.
Now, it’s a sad fact of filming that a little make-up is usually needed, especially with the high definition cameras used today. While Sally has already applied hers and is looking perfect, Chris and I look, well, slightly less than perfect. We each have our own jolly little make-up bags for the job, so Chris and I jump into the front of his Landrover and start to apply layers and layers of stuff we’ve been told to cover up with. At the very point that we’re both poised with make-up mirrors and powder, a minibus full of lads pulls up right in front of us. They’re tough lads. Proper hard lads with “zero” hair cuts. They look like they’re on community service, and they’re ready to wield chainsaws, axes and mattocks for the day. They stare in abject horror as the two guys in the Landrover beside them powder their noses and apply foundation. There’s nothing we can do to preserve our sense of dignity. “Just carry on as if it’s all perfectly normal” says Chris in his broad Yorkshire accent. So we do. But we get very strange looks from the lads all day and they don’t look impressed by our efforts at Rhododendron bashing.
A few days later we’re attempting the impossible. The dramatic experiment we do to show leaves freezing has only ever been done under laboratory conditions in North America. We’re attempting to do it in the back of an articulated lorry in an industrial estate on Anglesey. With layers of thermal underwear and insulated ski jackets, we try to get the experiment to work. It turns out to be possibly the most challenging day of filming in the whole series. The lorry has to be at a precise temperate of minus 6 degrees for the experiment to work (but it fluctuates wildly), we have to wait for the leaves to get down to this temperature (which takes ages), we have to film them with the thermal imaging camera (which starts malfunctioning in the low temperature) and when we’re ready to go we have to “seed” the rapid freezing process with a special powder. A co-ordinated performance in the freezing cold. Again and again we try, but it’s just not working. Frustration builds, along with worry that it won’t. Then, suddenly, success. The reactions on camera from Chris and me as we see ice crystals ripping through the leaves are genuine – it’s incredible to watch. As always, more shots are needed from different angles and with different lenses. But try as we might, we can’t get it to work again. That tantalising vision of ice forming deep within the leaf proves to be as fleeting as the ice itself.