Exploring Mountains in North Wales

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Journey to North Wales

Upon moving back to Britain for several years, having previously worked and studied in some of the world’s most exotic locations, I have certainly been guilty of grumpily overlooking the breath-taking beauty that can be found right here in the UK. I am sure I’m not the only one to dream of the exotic beaches of the Caribbean, the mountainous Rainforests of Peru or the beautiful volcanic expanses of Iceland and wish that I could be anywhere other than dreary old Britain. With its rain, lack of volcanoes and tropical lifestyles it can often feel like a bit of a bore.

Sometimes we become so immune to how lucky we are that we stop seeing the beauty in our own lives. With that sentimental thought in mind, let me take you to my summer 2016, where my love and appreciation of British nature was reignited by a short trip to North Wales.

The Journey
The Journey

In June 2016 I signed up to take an ecology course in and around Cwm Idwal, a mountainous region in the North of Snowdonia. I had some reservations about going, partly because it was so close to the leaving date for my research in Madagascar, and partly because I was convinced that it would be pouring with rain the whole time. What if I missed the two weeks of sun that makes up the entirety of English summer? I would be devastated.

Much to my surprise and immense happiness, we arrived in Wales via a travel sickness-inducing minibus right at the beginning of a two week heatwave, one which would begin on our third day and end the day that we left. I would like to thank the God of weather for that, praise be to sunshine.

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Cwm Idwal National Nature Reserve

Our first stop was Cwm Idwal itself, the hanging valley where Llyn Idwal can be found pooled in its centre. This particular day was intermittently torrential, the last hacking cough and sneeze from the clouds that would be wiped away by the next day. We trod through the valley, learning about its geological history and marvelling at the quartz that strikes its grooves into bare rock.

Despite wading through the rain, breathing in more water than air, I couldn’t help enjoying myself. The place is phenomenal. It’s strong and massive without being domineering, the grassy patches run up the sides of mountains making way for thin waterfalls. Scrambling along rocky river banks, my soggy sandwiches long-forgotten, I discovered worlds which could’ve been the setting of ancient Welsh folklore. Surrounded in mist, the river hurried along and I slid around the rocks, trying to imagine what this place would have looked like millions of years ago.

In the Ordovician period (485-443 million years ago) the region of Cwm Idwal was covered in a shallow ocean. Sedimentary rock formed through layers of compression on the ocean bed, along with igneous rock formed from the larva of volcanoes. Tectonic plate movement eventually caused these layers to fold together and rise up forming the Idwal Syncline. Glaciation during the ice age eroded and shaped the land to the landscape that can be seen today.

We sampled plenty of freshwater sites around Cwm Idwal, searching for invertebrates as indicators of the water quality in relation to its surroundings. I spent a lot of time in outrageously long wellies. Rivers and lakes are teaming with life far beyond just fish and ducks. Take a closer look next time you find yourself at a water body, really look, and you’ll see hundreds of tiny invertebrates whizzing around the water, skating over the surface or rummaging through the beds. These tiny organisms are vital indicators for pollution levels and are irreplaceable food sources for many other amphibians, fish and wildlife.

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Research in my Wellies.

Cwm Idwal National Nature Reserve Tips

The tracks and paths are well-maintained and clear, though it is easy to wander off them and explore a little more. If you want to take things further, there are plenty of opportunities for rock climbing. Plenty of the climbs are easy but there are certainly more difficult ones to be found. So if you are a climber, Cwm Idwal is definitely somewhere you will want to check out in the North of Wales.

Parys Mountain

From the stunning natural landforms of Cwm Idwal to something completely different: The man-made lakes and hills of the deceptively named Parys Mountain. When I heard we would be hiking around Parys Mountain (in my head, Paris Mountain) surveying lakes in the boiling sun, I had beautiful visions of Mount Snowdon Mark 2. I expected a suave, mountainous area covered in flowers and all the natural beauty that Wales had to offer. This was not the case.

Parys Mountain is an abandoned copper mine. It’s not a mountain, it’s a pit. But a gorgeous one at least, located in north east Anglesey. You can imagine my surprise when we pulled up to completely flat land, and had it announced that this was Parys Mountain. Despite my disappointment I was quickly enthralled by this Mars-like dusty red area, full of warning signs and holes in the land just begging to be explored. 

Parys Mountain
Parys Mountain

The history of Parys Mountain makes it particularly special. The mine dates back to thousands of years ago during the Bronze Age, where the mining of the copper ore first began. This was discovered when mining resumed here in the 18th century, and it was quickly realised that they were following in the footsteps of others.

Various castoffs of the mining process still remain in Parys mountain, polluting the water causing various surreal colouration’s of reservoirs. Once again, we were surveying invertebrates to determine the impact of these different contaminations on local wildlife. Not much other wildlife survives here due to the high levels of pollution and soil contamination. 

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Reservoirs at Parys Mountain

Parys Mountain Tip

I didn’t realise this at the time, but there are actually some sections of the mine you are allowed to enter with the correct guidance and equipment. For more information and to arrange a tour, contact the Parys Underground Group. Definitely my plan for next time!

Mount Snowdon

Of course our trip would never be complete without an arduous climb up Mount Snowdon. Dogs and children bounded ahead of us as we struggled our way up an increasingly cold mountainside. I developed a fear of heights four to five years ago after falling off a cliff in Australia, and had only recently recovered in part due to working at a theatre with a very, very high Upper Circle level. I was concerned that I would panic the whole way up the mountain, but I think that when you are somewhere inspiring, things like fears begin to matter less and ebb away. I walked close to the edge to challenge myself not to feel scared, and by the time I got to the top of the mountain I was happily dangling my feet over the edge, thrilled that Wales had thrown my fear of heights out of my brain and off the mountaintop. I got the most pleasant feeling being up high and seeing birds flying lower than me. I spend so much time feeling jealous of birds, that it feels pretty good to be higher up than them for once.

I'm on the edge.
On the edge.

Mount Snowdon Tip

I was looking forward to getting the old train back down the mountain, but when I got to the top we discovered that the train is about four times more expensive to get back down than it is to go up. Presumably this is to take advantage of exhausted climbers. I wasn’t exhausted I just really like trains, and was pretty sad to have to use my boring feet again. If you want to get the train I’d strongly recommend getting the train up and walking back down, you’ll be able to enjoy the scenery just as much.

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My Impressions of North Wales

After leaving Wales I swore I would be back, and soon. I’d spent a large portion of my trip imagining how I would go about moving to Wales (as I do with everywhere I go), and what kind of house I would live in (A teeny cottage in a valley by a tree, FYI). I felt I’d connected more with the nature on my (almost) home-turf, and couldn’t wait to get back home and start exploring my beautiful forests and hills again.

General Advice for Visiting North Wales

Despite our luck with fairly consistent hot and clear weather, it can change in a matter of minutes. Bring waterproofs, sunscreen and plenty of layers. Make sure that you visit the towns and villages nearby as they themselves provide a quirky insight into how life has flourished in the beautiful North. Go places and do things you’d normally shy away from, there are plenty of incredible places to go and things to see, all you need is time. 

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Melting Mushrooms – The Common Ink Cap

Common Ink Cap

Kingdom – Fungi

Division – Basidiomycota

Class – Agaricomycetes

Order – Agaricales

Family – Psathyrellaceae

Common Ink Cap
Common Ink Cap

Coprinopsis atramentaria, known as the common ink cap mushroom, is a common and widespread European, North American and Asian mushroom.  This mushroom can be both safely edible yet also poisonous, and clumps of them can be found following rainfall during spring and autumn.  Common ink caps grow from buried wood in grassy areas and disturbed habitats, such as urban areas and lawns.

A clump of young common ink cap mushrooms in a disturbed habitat.
A clump of young common ink cap mushrooms in a disturbed habitat.

The cap of C. atramentaria is dry, grey-brown in colour, 3-6cm tall, ovate and quite smooth when young, though can have fine scales and a scruffy centre with faint grooves.

Young common ink cap.
Young common ink cap.

When it is mature, the cap blackens and becomes a conical-convex shape, which is up to 10cm in diameter and has a tattered or curled margin.  Upon opening, the cap splits and flattens out before disintegrating.  The common ink cap can grow 3-7cm in diameter, and the flesh of the mushroom is thin, soft and grey.

Mature common ink cap
Mature common ink cap

The gills of the common ink cap begin life white in colour, but quickly turn black and easily turn to a liquid.

Young common ink cap gills.
Young common ink cap gills.

The dry, bare, grey stem is 7-17cm high and up to 1.5cm in diameter.  It can be smooth or covered in fine hairs, and is fibrous and hollow.  The almond-shaped spores are 8-11 by 5 μm, and dark brown to black in colour.

Features of the common ink cap.
Features of the common ink cap.

C.atramentaria are strong and resilient, they have been known to burst through hard grounds such as asphalt and pavement. This strength arises from the vertically arranged hyphae in their stems.  

Common ink cap.
Common ink cap.

C.atramentaria undergo auto-digestion, which results in the formation of the inky substance from which it gets its common name. The purpose of this process is to enable the spores to be released more efficiently. The gills are very tightly-packed, but unlike other gilled mushrooms (agarics), instead of shooting spores outwards, the gill surface is dissolved.  This allows the spores to land directly below the mushroom, it also allows the water from the deliquescing edges to evaporate so spores can be transported elsewhere by air currents.  This process of liquefying takes a few hours, and occurs due to an enzyme called chitinase, which breaks up chitin.  Chitin is the material found within fungal cell walls which gives them strength and support.  Once the spores hit maturity in the gills, the chitinase is released on the side of the gills closest to the stem, initiating a chain reaction spreading to the rest of the cap.

The common ink cap
The common ink cap

The common ink cap serves as an important habitat for many bacteria and protist species.  The mushroom is very nutritious, and contains vitamin C, iron, copper and a lot of potassium.  They are low calorie, low cholesterol and contain a lot of fibre. Common ink caps can fruit several times a year.

Common ink cap.
Common ink cap.

C.atramentaria can be eaten safely unless it is consumed in conjunction with alcohol, in which case it can cause some damage (hence its other common name; tippler’s bane). Doing so results in a disulfiram syndrome; producing an acute sensitivity to ethanol.  Symptoms arise 5-10 minutes after consuming alcohol and persist until all alcohol has left the system, and include palpitations, limb tingling, face reddening, nausea and vomiting.  These symptoms can subside in 2-3 hours as long as no more alcohol is consumed.  The severity of the symptoms depend upon the amount of alcohol consumed; the more alcohol, the more severe the symptoms.  If a particularly severe interaction occurs, this may result in a cardiac arrhythmia or even a heart attack.  Symptoms can still occur up to three days after ink cap consumption, if alcohol is consumed.  However symptoms are increasingly mild as time passes.  The sufferer can be treated with fluid replacement, reassurance and monitoring for cardiac arrhythmias.

Common ink cap
Common ink cap

The common ink cap contains a class D toxin called coprine, which has an active substance called 1-aminocyclopropanol.  This substance blocks the action of an enzyme (acetaldehyde dehydrogenase) preventing it from breaking down a component of ethanol (acetaldehyde) that is responsible for hangover symptoms.  This results in the negative effects caused by the consumption of alcohol alongside C. atramentaria.

Coprine structural formula
Coprine structural formula

The common ink cap exudes a black liquid which was once used as ink upon boiling with water and cloves, or urine. This liquid results from the gills of the fungus turning black and liquefying.

Common ink cap.
Common ink cap.

C. atramentaria does not have a distinctive taste, and has either a very faint or no odour. The blackened areas have a more bitter taste, so it is advisable to collect younger specimens or remove the black area from old specimens before consumption (remember – no alcohol!).

Common ink cap.
Common ink cap.

 

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