Artists Valley is an incredibly beautiful, and extremely tranquil area, located near to Aberystwyth in Mid Wales. This serene and quiet location has been carved out of the Welsh Hills by the Cwm Einion, which flows down the majestic hillside slopes on its way into the River Dyfi.
I’ve become very familiar with the area that surrounds Artists valley; near to Machynlleth in Wales, having made many trips there over the past couple of years. I had spent some considerable time prior to my trip, researching the location, studying both photographs and writings. I believe though, that a photograph can really only tell you part of the story of a place, it misses out what’s behind the photographer, also not seen is what is to either side, above or below, it simply doesn’t show what is outside of the frame of the photo. For me personally, it is often the phonography, or the sound possessed by a location that I consider to be its most engaging attribute. Sadly many people seem to be quite deaf to the world that surrounds them, unaware of the sonic richness and dynamic of the acoustic environment, nescient to how as a society we are encroaching more and more upon the natural landscape, its inherent sounds becoming increasingly masked and obscured by the proliferation of noise that generally accompanies us. Often this is noise that we ourselves have, over time become used to, and have therefore; albeit unconsciously, learned to ignore.
The valley is a deep, three mile long, wooded river gorge, replete with cascading waterfalls, lush vegetation, and a myriad streams and pools. The sometimes steep, and often rocky sides of the valley, are richly forested with a mix of deeply-packed deciduous and coniferous trees, including oak, ash, alder and hazel. The sound of water is an omnipresent yet constantly changing sonic feature, the sounds varying from the subtle onomatopoeic gurgling of a mountain stream, bubbling out from the side of the hillside, to the full-throated roar of the fast moving waters of the river; Cwm Einion, as it makes its way down, along through the valley before flowing out into the Dyfi estuary.
I was staying in a cottage at Blaeneinion, this is a very peaceful, secluded and inspiring seventy-five acre conservation project, that is located at the farthest end of the valley. The owners of the site; having already planted thirty-three thousand native broadleaf trees on their land over the past decade, can also be credited with taking the initial steps toward the reintroduction of the Eurasian beaver into Wales. This is an animal that although once widespread throughout the country’s waterways, composing a key part of the native ecosystem, were unfortunately hunted to extinction by the mid-part of the 16th-century.
They are often referred to as a keystone species; an animal that has a disproportionate effect on its environment, relative to its population size. They clear debris from rivers and steams, and coppice small trees and shrubs, helping to improve the biodiversity of plant species in the areas that surround their habitat. The dams they build across water courses affect the flow; acting to slow the water down, thus reducing damaging erosion to the river beds and banks, therefore diminishing problems that can be caused by siltation. The reduction of silt levels is of benefit to various fish species, particularly trout, that prefer the cleaner, filtered water. The slowing down effect also reduces the risk of flooding in areas further downstream, the dams hold back excessive water, allowing levels to subside in a more manageable way. The pools created by the beaver’s damming activity helps to create and maintain habitats for other wildlife species; including water voles, otters, frogs, various types of invertebrate, and fish. The large number of insects that amass above their pools become a valuable food source for a plethora of bird species, bats and various other insectivorous animals. The pools at Blaeneinion being a perfect example, with a large resident bat population emerging each evening, attracted by the multitudinous insects that gather cloud-like above the surface of the water.
Even the remotest of the places that I’ve previously visited in the area, have unfortunately suffered in varying degrees from the problem of anthropogenic noise, this is a phenomenon that that has increased exponentially across much of the world. The phonography of Artist’s valley however is extremely natural, with very little, if any, in the way of anthropophony, the inherent naturalness of the soundscape, and the feeling of solitude that it instils increases the deeper you move along through the valley. I find the term woodland to be sometimes quite misleading, it can often summon images of a lush, green canopy, thus suggesting a flourishing ecosystem teeming with wildlife, accompanied by all of its associated sounds and vocalisation. Much of the forest in Wales though is plantation, consisting of regimented rows of spruce, which although visually attractive, they are for the most part still and lifeless, and except for the sound of the occasional crow, they tend to be devoid of any natural sound. I remember the feeling of disappointment when I first ventured into the forest above Corris; a small village not too far away from Artist’s valley, expecting to hear a symphony of sound, I was instead met by near total silence. Not so the forests of Artist’s valley, which no doubt due to the high proportion of deciduous trees, possess an extremely dynamic, lively and very diverse biophony.
The act of capturing sounds from the environment can often constitute an end result in itself, with the artist using the sound recordings to either focus the listener’s attention onto a specific sonic event, or to give the listener the experience of the complete soundscape. Unfortunately, with very few places left untainted by human noise, this is often a very onerous task, one usually requiring many hours of post-production work to remove all vestiges of unwanted sound. It was therefore quite refreshing to be able to the record the natural ambient sounds that can be discovered around the valley, including birds, insects, trees and bats, with the only backdrop to the recordings being those of the natural geophony; sounds from the river, streams, waterfalls, and occasionally the elements.