We all have those special places, a place that swallows your heart and doesn’t spit it back out, a place that you return to over and over again because it has left a torch burning within you that is so strong you have to return in order to get your fix. These places hold memories so dear, they are the special locations that you feel, only you have a connection with. You go to them not just because of their beauty but because they have meaning, and depth. They reflect all the good things that happened in your life and they are the places that drain you of your sorrows and uplift you back to contentment. They are the places for thinking and reflecting, taking it all in and adding to the memory bank of goodness within your very soul.
When asked to choose a location to photograph for my live on location assignment, Rhayader wasn’t my first choice as a subject. I had greater plans none of which focused purely on the location but used it as a backdrop. However life had different ideas and family commitments put out that fire, and the ideas to plan, budget and create this wonderful photo shoot were just that, ideas. But in life the saying goes you work with what you have and as it turns out for me, it opened that old door in my head to the memories I hold dear. Which when you’re feeling stale, demotivated and all out crappy about life, is just what you need to put yourself back on track.
I was 14 years old when I was first introduced to Rhayader, a small market town in the heart of Wales. My very first visit to Rhayader, my very first experience at full on camping and my very first experience smoking marijuana. Pitching the tent next to the river and sitting in a group reading ghost stories, (from a book I had purchased before my trip) until the early hours of the morning is something that I have never forgotten. I know longer smoke marijuana and I no longer have the book nor do I remember the stories within it, it is the place and the events that I remember most. The noise of the river gushing towards its destiny and the sound of something outside of the tent tearing at the grass only to find nothing there when we opened the zipper to peer outside in anticipation.The highlights of that holiday were so many but in particular was the very first day trip to Elan Valley, listening to the Cocteau Twins helped set the scene and opened up all of the senses.
With a choice of two roads, it was the mountain road or scenic route which was the deciding factor. The rain so heavy it bounced off the windscreen leaving its remnants to be dealt with by the wiper-blades, which assassinated the rain at every drop. Leaving just enough fractions of a second to focus your eyes on the narrow, winding roads that lay ahead, before rain had covered the windscreen again. Clouds so thick and heavy they couldn’t hold their own weight in the sky and sank around the mountain tops like the stack and discover rings that I remember as a child. Our bodies, dipping and rising in sinc with every hill and mountain and we drove with gritted teeth towards one of the very few cars that we would see that day, on this one car wide road. Vision was bleak, the clouds, low, arm in arm and collectively known as fog, blanketed all but a few meters of landscape but that landscape was like a diamond in dog shit, rich with colour and depth. What the clouds had done was not remove the light and turn everything grey, what they’d done was diffuse the light made it softer, swallowed the shadows and created a warm tint to the valleys ever changing appearance. The clouds had also added the haunting aesthetic nature that was engulfing our rational behaviour leaving only heightened imagination of two young girls.
The other girl I’m talking about is my sister, 13 years my senior but to a 14 year old someone very cool and artistically creative. She has influenced me a lot over the years with her hippie looks and free spirit and this holiday was no different. She gave me a nickname during this holiday which was melon man, I listened to a lot of Indie music at the time, The Smiths, Stone Roses, Charlatans and of course the Happy Mondays who released Step On with the lyrics “you’re twisting my melon man”. I wore bright coloured clothes and trousers that flared from the waist down, so much fabric did these trousers have that I could have camped in them instead of a tent. My sister had been coming to this magical place long before me and introduced me to all of the black and white photographs she had taken of Elan Valley over the years. I was hooked, not only to Elan Valley but to black and white photography.
The rain began to subside leaving a mist in its wake and with it came the smell of freshness dancing through the air. The dust and dirt had been washed away following the downward channels of the mountain stream, which went under the roads where they had already carved out their paths to meet and greet the river that flowed through the valley below. The clouds that once sat heavy and low finally dispersed to reveal the space above, a sheet of blue and brightly lit by the big glowing ball of fire, we know as the sun and with that went the cold which was replaced with a warmth that over time gradually became hot. As the heat from the sun evaporated the excess moisture from our car, the grass and surrounding rocks we decided to park up and find a secluded spot amongst all of these sheep. Not people, sheep, the place is littered with free roaming sheep who couldn’t give a monkeys about cars, road safety or people, and when one goes more will follow, that part is like people.
We parked up and exited the car, grabbed our drinks, sandwiches and cigarettes and walked down to the river and followed it up current, towards the first dam. I’d seen dams before in books on TV, built by beavers and at my local park where it stood less than a meter high but I’d never come face to face with a dam and damn was it impressive. Most dams that I have seen on TV have been huge but they are just grey concrete structures built to serve a purpose rather than blend in with the surroundings. This on the other hand was the opposite, Caban Coch dam the most modest of all the dams but easily one of the most impressive when it is in full flow. The first and only time I have ever seen it in full flow and I can only describe it as a waterfall wedged in between the sides of the valley and as the water cascades over the edge of the large, shiny stone bricks it glistens like the silk thread of a cobweb on a early dew filled summer morning.
Built of stone this 120 foot tall dam controls the water supply for Birmingham and the water levels for the surrounding river. Its strange to think that the water travels 110 miles from Wales to Birmingham but Elan Valley with its surplus amounts of water was chosen to accommodate the ever growing industry of Birmingham with their ever growing need for water. So in the late 1800’s work began on building these dams with the completion of all but one of the dams in 1904. Today the water travels the same path as it did back then, via filters and aqueducts when in three days it reaches its destination of Frankley Reservoir in Northfield, Birmingham.
As I stared up and this monstrous construction it was in awe and fear, the beauty of this immense man made structure fusing with nature rather than looking out of place was the gratifying feeling I felt. The irrational fear was to the answer of my question, what if this structure fails? Which was also a fear for parliament during the 1st and 2nd World Wars, so much so special constables were sent from Birmingham to guard the dams from attack, thankfully this didn’t happen although the testing of weapons and secret tests were carried out over the 72 mile estate. In fact it was the area where the bouncing bomb was perfected by Barnes Wallace.
And so I end this story so far as I travel from one dam to another breathing in the air and recording the smells, sites and mysteries of Elan Valley I leave you with a visual memory of images taken over four years but it won’t end here because my memories of this my sanctuary are expanding and with every image comes its own story of the place that stole my heart.