Clouds continually form and fade on the eastern flanks of Mount Snowdonia in North Wales creating the ever-changing light effect associated with this area. The hills are dabbed with fits of orange and yellow, an occasional smudge of stubborn green. Centuries old stone walls enclose lush pastures of moor grass where fluffy sheep graze. The Conwy River snakes through the emerald landscape. Tilting on its banks is a well-worn sign announcing the local anglers club evoking
images of tweed jackets, long-stemmed pipes, and a pole nonchalantly flicking back and forth – a perfection honed over decades. I detect a sweetness in the air, perhaps a hint of burning peat wafting from the chimney tops. One minute the light is muted, the next it shines unfiltered through a cloudless blue sky. Yet before we reach nearby Trefriw, rain seems a distinct possibility. We have traveled here to participate in a two-day photo workshop with renowned American photographer, Rick Sammon. As we look around us, we are itching to get started.
Since the Stone Age, people have lived in the Conwy Valley. Romans occupied this region as part of their furthest north and western reaches during the first through fourth centuries. Antiquities dot the countryside and villages including two of the oldest churches in Wales dating to the 11th century. Much of the valley was destroyed by the warring royals fighting over the British Throne during the War of the Roses. Then, by the 19th century, the first British artist colony was established in the village of Betws-y-Coed. For the last 200 years, artists have flocked to this remote paradise mesmerized by the perfect amalgamation of scenery, ancient stone buildings, and surreal lighting.
My camera remains on automatic – always. My husband, Pat, is attending the free workshop underwritten by the Wales Tourism Board.
A staff of locals provide the logistics while Llanrwst based photographer, Pierino Algieri, reveals his favorite venues: a waterfall where the sun peeks through the trees for a brief 30 minutes each morning; an ancient church with a vibrant and folksy ceiling but only accessible once the key is gathered from the castle steward just down the hill; an old stone National Trust building at the end of a winding, single lane road where the first bible was translated to Welsh. We skirt the eastern edge of Snowdonia National Park, darting down roads which are little more than cow paths – so narrow at times we slow to a crawl and pull in our rear view mirrors. Occasionally we must back up to permit oncoming cars to inch past.
The November rainy season ensures we will capture raging waterfalls, mist shrouded hills, and elusive rainbows. The first stop, Fairy Falls, tumbles down the hill over mossy rocks and past groves of ferns – a fairy’s paradise. It crashes towards the village of Trefriw where it powers the old woolen mill. The photographers burst out of the van like race horses, jockeying to position a perfect first shot. We shout to be heard over the thunderous falls. As they snap their pictures, I chat with our local experts who share tales of the life in Trefriw before World War 2 when boats carted loads of tourists into the town. Today, Trefriw is a charming, yet slower paced, village. When I question how old the mill is, they look at each other for a moment puzzled, then laughingly reply, “Very, very old”.
In the evening, the photographers convene before dinner to post process their images. Rick coaches them on the software techniques which will create maximum impact with the HDR shots they are practicing. While everyone is competitive, ogling one persons photographs while frantically perfecting their own, they also pause to help those less skilled on the maize of tools and options. The goal is to pull out the shadows and strengthen the highlights – maximize the unique lighting of this area. Shared passion proves a powerful ice breaker, as the team quickly bonds – fast friendships develop. Pat and I discuss future chances to meld our passions with a vacation, an option we never realized could be so rewarding.
The last day, the photographers head out for one final morning of shooting. I elect to stay behind and walk to Trefriw. Along the way I pass a handful of foot travelers garbed in woolen sweaters and wellies and each accompanied by two or three dogs – working breeds, a combination of family pet and sheep herder. One of the exuberant hounds leaves a smear of slobber on my pants before bounding down the path. His owner tosses a cheerful “Good morning. I hope you are OK. He created quite a mess on your trousers”. With a jaunty wave he disappears. I smile and pause to listen, to breathe in and imprint this perfect memory as firmly as possible in my brain. Wind rattles the dry leaves, a lone crow squawks a warning and in the distance a dog howls. Absent are sounds from any contraption of the past 100 years – neither car nor tractor nor lorry. North Wales is a magical, yesteryear type of place.
For more of my husband’s photos go to: Pat Callahan Photography
Do it yourself:
North Wales is easily accessible from Manchester or London. We traveled by train from Manchester Piccadilly to Llandudno Junction, Wales in about 2 hours. London Eustace to Llandudno Junction is three hours by train. From Llandudno Junction, a train runs every three hours down the Conwy River. It was a 20 minute ride to Llanrwst. Let the conductor know where you are departing. Most stops are by request only.
We purchased our tickets at the Web site below and collected them at the rail station in Manchester at the self-service kiosks.
The Meadowsweet Hotel in Llanrwst is a small family run inn about a 5 minute walk from the North Llanrwst train station. The bedrooms are well-appointed and the service welcoming – exactly what I expected from a family run Welsh inn.
We had a nice and more traditional dinner at the Meadowsweet Inn and a fantastic Indian meal in Llanwrst at the Asha Balti House.
Barry and Eileen at Active Terrain epitomize the word customer service. They will happily lead walking tours of the area and are a wealth of local information.
A special acknowledgement to Anthony Woodhouse from the North Wales Tourist board – the sponsor. Anthony is a most happy and helpful Welshman and a photographer in his own right. You can enjoy his work here.
Lastly, many thanks to our expert photographer instructors: demanding, supportive, educational.
Categories: Western Europe