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Woodland drama (or how I broke my leg)

While the rest of the world is on coronavirus lock-down I am confined to my bedroom with my leg in a very heavy plaster. Moving from the bed to a chair involves a lot of hopping and a zimmer/walker frame. It all takes a lot of effort to achieve simple things that I never gave much thought to before.

I broke my left leg. I have broken both lower bones and dislocated my ankle. Six days ago I had an operation to pin the bones in my ankle. My brother asked if breaking a bone is more painful than a toothache. The answer is definitely yes. I have endured 50 shades of different pain since I went for a walk with our dogs 2 weeks ago in my favourite woods, near Ilston, Gower. It was just about the worst time to break my leg, to be honest.

By Ilston River
Ilston River (SOLD)

I had walked about half a mile along the side of the stream. I had bought a new camera with me and my attention was caught by the sunlight on a mossy tree. I decided I would move closer to take a photo.  Instead, I stumbled over a muddy stick and as I put my left foot out to steady myself I felt it twist and a sickening snap. I rolled on the wet ground, hoping against hope that I hadn’t done something dreadful but the horrible pain told me that I had. My foot was bent out of shape. Just to think about it makes me feel ill, even now.

As I lay on the ground, I wondered what to do. I tried shouting “Help” a few times but felt silly/useless. What could I do? My husband was in Ireland. Fortunately, I had my mobile phone in my handbag and it was charged with credit so I rang for an ambulance and waited, and waited. The call handler told me not to move. It was cold on the wet mud. I took a photo of my bent leg. I have not looked at it since. I don’t think I can bear to.

DSC_0942-001
Ilston Cwm – Close to where I broke my leg

I assumed that the ambulance would not be too long (I was very wrong on this score) and I started to worry about my two dogs, what would happen to them?  I rang my neighbours Rob and Liz and told them what had happened and where I was. Rob said he would come for the dogs. So I waited. I lay and looked up at the sky. Blue patches and white clouds drifted by. It started to rain. Then the sun came out again. I was still lying on the ground. I don’t remember what my dogs were doing but they were nearby. I think Biddy, the collie-cross, tried to present me with a few sticks to throw for her. I clutched my injured leg, it really hurt. I rang my husband. It went to voicemail. “I am lying in Ilston Woods, I think I have broken my leg. I have rung for an ambulance. I have spoken to Liz and Rob. Rob’s coming for the dogs….” I felt bad about leaving him a message when there was nothing he could do.

Painting of Gower Woods
View From the Bridge 100 x73 cm

After a long time, a family appeared on the track, a couple with their two girls. “Help, I think I have broken my leg”. I think they were surprised by this as they walked towards me very slowly. I told them that I had called for an ambulance and my neighbour was coming. They took my phone number and said they would go down to the road and look out for Rob and/or the ambulance.  So they left me and I waited and waited. Company had distracted me from the pain in my leg and being on my own meant being with the pain. I rang my husband again and then Biddy started barking. It was Rob. Thank God. 

“How long have you been lying there?”

“45 minutes. The Call handler said to stay where I was”

“That’s stupid advice. She can’t see your situation. You will get hypothermia. We need to get you up”  So with great difficulty, Rob helped me up off the wet mud and I hopped in slow agony to a mossy tree, where I first leaned against a trunk and later sat on a low branch. He had brought a heavy hi-vis coat which he put around my shoulders. It was blissfully warm.

I wish I could say that was the end of it. That the ambulance came soon after but they didn’t. We waited and waited and rang the ambulance again. It was difficult explaining where I was to call handlers who were not local. They wanted to know the name of the church at Ilston. Ilston is the tiniest of Gower villages. There are about 10 houses. There is only one church. What did it matter what saint it was dedicated to? 

So after another long wait, I asked Rob to walk down to the house opposite the church at Ilston to ask them to ring the ambulance, perhaps they would be able to give better directions. We had often passed the people who live here, they waved in a friendly manner and I was hopeful that they would help. Rob left with my two dogs, Biddy and Mitzy, in tow.  I sat and waited. The pain was worse when I did not have any company to distract me. I looked at the mud by my feet. I was dimly aware of a robin on a branch a few feet away from me. And then like a miracle, little Mitzy appeared by my side. She was collarless. I was so glad to see her. She was not leaving me. Good loyal rescue dog to the rescue. I took her photo as a distraction from the pain.  

Mitzy
Mitzy the faithful rescue dog, to the rescue.

Rob returned with David (and Biddy on her lead). David is 73 and lives in the house opposite the church. He made several trips along the track, and brought me many very welcome items like a big blanket, gloves, hat and a hot water bottle. I was really thirsty and he also bought a bottle of water but David’s wife had said I could not drink anything, her advice turned out to be right, so I just washed my mouth out with it. He made several trips. The last one in the dark with a torch. He took quite a risk, helping us in the dark. We got excited because the beam of his light reflected in the stream and it looked like two people were coming along the track, but it was just him. It got very dark, The moon came out and a barn owl hooted. We told him to go home, we were worried about him in the cold night air. He reluctantly set off.

I started to think that no one was ever going to come. I was so cold. It would be difficult enough to get me out of here in daylight but in the dark? I kept thinking up with ideas for getting how to get me back to the road; What about a horse? A wheelbarrow? One by one my desperate ideas were politely considered and sensibly dismissed. Rob was a reassuring presence. They will come he said.  Then eventually, Rob said, says, “I think I can see lights along the track, more than one!”

At long last, the ambulance service had come. After 5 hours of waiting.  Two figures dressed in green, a woman and a man, carrying torches were coming along the path, with David and his brother-in-law leading the way. I was so relieved. Once they were there, I knew they could sort everything out. And they did. Lyndsey the paramedic was lovely and reassuring. She worked under very difficult circumstances. It was dark and very cold. She checked my blood pressure, temperature and although I felt so cold my body temperature was normal (hurray for thermal vests, I say). I was given a small dose of morphine which had me seeing stars and then liquid paracetamol. They called Sketty Fire Brigade to put me on a stretcher to carry me half a mile down the track (and over the church fence) to the waiting ambulance. It was a long journey looking up at the cold frosty stars through the tree branches from that stretcher. It was a full moon. They carried me wordlessly. There was a short snort of laughter when I said “Well Done” after they had hoisted me over the churchyard railing. 

Yew Tree in Gower
Ilston Church Yard

It was a very long night. The journey to Morriston Hospital Hospital seemed slow. Where are we now? I would ask. It was the pain that made it feel that way. We waited outside A&E in the ambulance for quite a while. Lyndsey told me her mother was the first baby born in the NHS and called was Aneira, after the Welsh founder of the NHS Aneurin Bevan. Eventually, I was taken in for my first X-ray. I was visited by a number of doctors who introduced themselves to me by their first names;  Jeremy, Mohammed, Chris there were others but I have forgotten them. After a wait, the doctors in A&E manipulated my leg (I was under light anesthetic) and put it in plaster so that the agonizing swelling could start to go down. The leg was X-rayed again. Everything was aligned nicely. Every now and then the average waiting time in A&E was announced on the loudspeaker. It started at 8 hours, later it was 13 hours and then by lunchtime the next day it was down to 2 hours. I lost track of time. I didn’t get much sleep in A&E. It was a fascinating place, very hectic. No wonder there are so many drama series set in Emergency Rooms & Casualty Departments. 

Anyway, to cut a very story short I waited a day for a bed in the trauma ward. I then spent another 7 days waiting for the swelling to go down so the ankle could be pinned. I was “nil by mouth” for 4 days in a row but never made it to the operating theatre. Thankfully, on Monday I did, finally. It was probably just as well as the ankle specialist was working that day. The coronavirus emergency meant that the ward was rapidly cleared, as they needed the beds and staff elsewhere. I was sent home on Tuesday via Red Cross Ambulance. 

All through this experience, I have been impressed by the kindness and amazing patience of medical staff as well as just how much pressure the NHS is under. The pressure has just intensified ever since. I would like to thank Rob and David in particular, who waited so long in the cold with me, and Liz and David’s wife, and anyone who I came in contact within A&E, Ward A (which then had to move upstairs to become Ward G), the operating theatre and the Red Cross. Thank you xxx

Postscript:- Biddy and Mitzy went home with Rob and slept all the next day. Seamas flew back from Ireland on a plane full of racegoers heading for the Cheltenham Races.

 

 

 

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Wonderful Welsh Woods

Woodland paintings

It’s that time of year again. When the slanting sun makes you believe that spring is just around the corner. Snowdrops and crocuses are flowering in parks and in the woods. We spent the last two days revisiting my favourite stretch of Gower woodland. It follows the stream that meanders from Ilston along the Ilston Cwm to Parkmill (the stream then it crosses the A4118 and winds its way into the sea as Pennard Pill). You can see it on an interactive map of Gower here .

Map of Gower
Ilston to Pennard

Yesterday, we revisited the Parkmill end of the woods (you can read about the Ilston end of the woods here). These trees are technically part of Kilvrough Manor woods, although Kilvough Manor itself, is quite a distance off on the other side of the A4118.  The woods have been here for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The trees are “ancient semi-natural and broadleaved, made up of a canopy of Ash, Oak, Beech, and Elm, with a Beech plantation”.  They have given me years of inspiration for painting.

Photo of woodland near Gower Inn
Woodland near Gower Inn

Very early spring is my favourite time of year because the sun cuts through the bare branches and illuminates the ground. The shadows create an exciting combination of colours; the beech leaves on the ground are an interesting orange and mauve, and the rich brown earth is almost a dark purple, that reminds me of a dairy milk wrapper.

Cadbury's Dairy Milk
Diary Milk purple

In the past, I have usually visited this part of the woods in the morning. I feel almost stupid when I see how different it all looks in the early afternoon.

Painting of Gower Woodlands

Of course, nature is a giant sundial. The trees cast shadows in different directions, depending on the time of the day and the time of the year. If you come too early the trees nearest the car park lies in darkness, as the sun has not risen above Pennard.

Painting of woodland
Pennard Pill

If you come too late the same trees are in the shadow of the hill that rises up beside the stream to the west. When the trees are illuminated it’s very exciting. It’s like an incredible show that is switched on and off, depending on the light.

Painting of woodlands
One impulse from a Vernal Wood.

As the river meanders along the valley the path crosses it by a number of sturdy bridges. I have painted many of these over the years. There’s the 1950s concrete and metal railings one, nearest the Gower Inn.

painting of woodland bridge
Bridge Over Ilston River

From both sides, if the light allowed it.

Painting of Bridge in woods
A Bridge in Ilston Cwm

There is a beautiful wooden bridge, further along, that resonates with walkers’ footsteps as the stride across it.

Painting of woodland bridge by Emma Cownie
The Bridge to Parkmill
Oil Painting of woodland bridge
The Bridge

In the summer, when the stream is low, I have waded through the water under this bridge and listened (troll-like) to the sounds of people walking above.

Yesterday was a day of epiphanies. I stood listening to the wonderful cacophony of birdsong and soaked in the sight of the light catching the leaves I realised that what made this place so special was its sheer age.  People have walked along these paths (and crossed older, long gone bridges) to reach the places of worship for many many years. Over 300 hundred years ago a Baptist chapel was built by this bridge by John Miles and people travelled from miles around to reach it. At Ilston, much further along the stream, there has been a religious cell, or church since the 6th century. These woods have been a place of contemplation for centuries, and it feels like it. Modern people may or may not contemplate religious matter, but it is difficult not to get drawn into contemplating the rhythms of the natural world.

Gower Woodland
Light Catching the leaves

For me is the moss that marks this woodland apart from others.  The moss catches the slanting light and the trees almost look like they are wearing halos.

Trees of Parkmill Valley
Light Catching the Trees

In some parts of the wood, the moss is so thick they cover the tree like padding.


Gower Moss
Thick Moss

Moss is odd stuff. It is a plant, with stems and leaves, but no true roots and no flowers. It needs damp conditions to reproduce. The moss grows so thickly here because it’s very damp in South Wales, it rains a lot. The stream also creates a lot of dampness. The moss absorbs huge quantities of water. It actually helps to soak up rainfall and create a locally humid environment. There’s also lots of lichen on the trees. This is a good sign as it only grows where there is clean, unpolluted air. Lichen, apparently is not a plant, although plant-like. Its sort of fungi.  Lichens amazingly are some of the longest living things on the planet. They grow very slowly and live very long lives, a bit like the ancient yew tree in Ilston churchyard.

Lichen in Gower
Lichen
Yew Tree in Gower
Ilston Yew Tree

To give you a feel for the beauty of the place I have uploaded a couple of short videos. The splashing you can hear in the first clip is my dog, Biddy walking in the water, hoping that I will throw a stick for her.

Here she is!

Biddy
Biddy (Look I have found a stick for you to throw!)

Look out for new woodland paintings, coming soon.

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If you can’t wait you can buy limited edition mounted prints

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The Power of Pine

My grandfather, Fred Cownie, used to work for the forestry commission, buying up Welsh farmland and planting swaths of conifer forests. Sadly, I never knew my grandfather as he died before I was born, long before my parents were married, in fact. Apparently, he was a sociable man who was popular with the farmers and forestry workers alike and I like to think he enjoyed his work talking and with people and tramping across the Welsh landscape. Sounds like a great job working with trees and people, not stuck in an office.

I love trees. My favourite trees are the elegant beech trees, with their copper autumn leaves. I also love the scotch pines that pepper the Gower peninsula. There’s a woodland at Whiteford point and also near Parkmill, which I have returned to time and again to paint.

Painting of the Wood at Whitford Sands by Emma Cownie
Wood at Whiteford Sands

Scotch pines are the only truly native pines to the UK. They spread across the British Isles after the last ice age but in Wales, the trees became extinct about 300–400 years ago, due to over-exploitation and grazing. I don’t know when they were re-introduced on Gower but this section of woodlands was almost certainly planted by a local landowner, possibly the owners of nearby Kilvrough Manor.  Amazingly,  mature trees grow to 35m and can live for up to 700 years!

Pine Wood, Gower
Pine Wood, Gower

We walked the dogs here last week and took photos. I like this section of woodland as the pine needles on the ground deaden footsteps and although birdsong can be heard, it seems quieter than the surrounding beech wood. Much of the wood falls into the shadow of a the valley side and direct light does not hit the trees until late morning in the winter.

Colourful Gower woodland painting by Emma Cownie
Slender Light (SOLD)

When the light hits the trees it illuminates their scaly orange-brown bark. This bark develops plates and fissures with age. The twigs are green-brown and pretty much hairless until you reach the highest parts of the tree, 20 to 30 metres high. I love to stand looking up at the tops of the trees, swaying with the wind. On the ground the tree trunks appear stock still. I like to think its a good analogy for life, you have to bend with the wind.

Oil painting of Gower woodlands by artist Emma Cownie
Enchanted Wood 

The great thing about Scotch Pines is that they are so quiet and light, unlike conifers forests which can be pretty dark.

The sun went in so whilst I was waiting for it to reappear I filmed this 360 degree shot, I tried to pan very slowly but I don’t think I was slowly enough! There is a stream nearby that has dried up from lack of rain over the summer. It sounds daft but when I am out walking I often ponder their stoic nature. They can’t move, they have to accept where they are in the wood. Some people believe that they communicate with each other through their roots. I’m not sure what my grandfather, Fred, would have made of that!

 

You can but limited edition mounted prints of Gower woodland here

Woods Near Ilston and Parkmill, Gower
Woods Near Ilston and Parkmill, Gower