A weekend of numbers

It’s been a long weekend of numbers. Four days of fun. In no particular order, then:

Rufus and I had our 1st, 2nd and 3rd time on a mountain since February. We walked Moel Feity on Saturday, Fan Brecheiniog on Monday and Garreg Lwyd this morning. I still get the buzz when I reach to top of a proper mountain like Fan Brecheiniog and I’d forgotten what that felt like, since the last mountain we did – Pen y Fan in Feb – was in white-out conditions. We walked 13.5 miles and climbed a total of 2896 feet in 7.5 hours. It was great to see Rufus back on form after his recent illness, bounding up and down again on all three walks and putting me to shame, although he was rather tired at the end of the day on each one, as was I. The snoring after we got home was not all his.

I was kindly loaned series 4 of ‘The Walking Dead’, an American programme I’ve taken a particular liking to as it seems to be a cut above most of the American output we get here. I’d watched series 1 -3 in a marathon month or so but series 4 disappeared from my catch up menu and I was left without the means to get up to date for series 5, which started a couple of months ago. 16 episodes (about 660 minutes over four days – the perfect wind down after a morning on the mountains).

I’ve also started reading ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’, a might tome of more than 700 pages and which is proving to be a fantastic read so far – I’m around 200 pages in. It’s written using a slightly old fashioned form of English which fits perfectly the story and setting – early 19th Century Britain.

I’ve had a great few days off but packed loads into each one. Back to work for a rest tomorrow!

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Snowdonia

With Rufus curled up in the back of the car, cosy in a nest of pillows and blankets to give him some protection from my driving, we set off northwards in the drizzle towards Snowdonia. We stopped at Pont ar Daf, our usual starting point for Pen y Fan but to Rufus’ surprise (and probably relief) we ignored the path upwards and just spent a few minutes exercising little paws. Then, back in the car, we set off once more for Capel Curig and the little cottage I’d stayed in last year.

Rufus doesn’t sleep in the car but he was dozing as I checked on him during the trip. We stopped several more times before we finally met Eifion at the cottage. It was just as I remembered it from the outside but inside, there were a few new additions. The sofas had been replaced by a new set, and there was wifi! Unfortunately, I hadn’t brought my laptop as last time there was no internet connection at all. While Rufus explored the cottage, I brought all the bags in. There were so many more, just because I’d brought him, or so it seemed. The reality was that I’d also brought a large bag of camera equipment. Nevertheless, there were a lot of blankets and fleeces for covering the furniture, and plenty of food, toys and towels. Did I get a hand bringing them in? No!

We settled in quickly and after food and coffee, we decided to take a stroll along the track at the back of the farm that Eifion had told us about. It wound it’s way up the side of the mountain. We passed plenty of sheep with lambs but none seemed too concerned and I made sure Rufus kept his distance. We were heading into wild country. This was well away from civilisation and I couldn’t help thinking about what it must have been like to be a sheep farmer two or three hundred years ago. Off to the south west, Moel Siabod stuck it’s peak into the clouds.

It was getting dark, not through time of day but because thicker clouds were gathering over the hills. We stopped on a rocky knoll and admired the rugged, barren terrain around. This was not good land for anything other than sheep. We turned back and strolled gently down the track again. We’d had a long day.

The following morning, the sun was shining and it looked like it was going to be a lovely day. After a cooked breakfast, we set off for the Llanberis Pass. As Rufus was recovering from a tummy bug, today was going to be a day of short walks and photography. We wandered down the river, walking in the shadows of Crib Goch and Glyder Fach. Across the road, we scrambled up the scree for a little way and while Rufus chased birds in vain, I took a few snaps of the water tumbling down the mountainside. We disturbed a guy who had camped in the shelter of a large overhanging rock. We squelched through the marsh back to the car.

To take advantage of the gorgeous weather, I decided to head off to the beach. We crossed over to Anglesey and parked up at Porth Trecastell, a small beach near Rhosneigr. With the sound of RAF Hawks taking of from Valley, a few miles up the coast, we walked directly into the strong wind and out to the headland. About 6 years ago, Rufuis and I had posed for photos with Em and Oscar right here. As we reached the Barclodiad Gawres burial chamber, on which we’d set the camera, I had a text message from Em to say that she thought it was Rufus’ 9th birthday. So this holiday became his birthday present. We stood being buffeted by the wind as the camera on self timer took a snap of us in the same place as we had been last time. Then, in addition to the birthday hug I’d been asked to give him by Em, he had an extra biscuit and then I took him down on to the beach for a paddle – still one of his favourite treats.

By now we were both feeling a bit peckish – Rufus always does and I felt like having more than the packet of crisps I’d brought with me. So we headed back tot he cottage. The great think about this place is the central location. It is only a few minutes from the Ogwen valley and a few more minutes from several routes up Snowdon. So After food, we set off again for the mountains.

I love Llyn Ogwen and Cwm Idwal is one of my favourite places in North Wales. So off we went for a walk around Llyn Idwal, nestled in the Cwm and surrounded by the great mountains of Wales – Tryfan, Glyder Fawr, Yr Garn and Pen yr Ole Wen. Sheltered from the wind, the lake was fairly calm and we set of anti clockwise along the lakeside path. It was great; we just walked and stopped whenever we felt like. Rufus led the way (another birthday treat) and as we were in no hurry I let him set the pace. We watched hillwalkers returning from the surrounding peaks, and climbers making their way back to the car park after their assaults of the great rocks and cliffs. Snowdonia was where the early British Everest expeditions trained. We watched a pair of Canada geese swim towards us, curious to see what the black sheep was.

We spent some time on a little stream, where I threw stones for Rufus to catch. He loves this game and when he barked (he always barks as I’m still learning to throw them properly), the sound echoed across the cwm. Next thing we knew, a Heron lifted off from a few yards away and flew lazily across the water.

We ended the day back at the cottage. Tired but content.

Wednesday was another beautiful day. The morning was cold and clear and after a wake-up stroll along the farm track, we set of for today’s goal – the Devil’s Kitchen at the far end of Cwm Idwal. Last year, I used this route to climb to the top of Glyder Fawr but today, with Rufus still recovering from his tummy upset last week, I just wanted to get a bit of height to take some photos. I had in my head some black and white images using the infra red D300. We chose to go clockwise around the lake this time but first we had to pass through a herd of black cows. We dislike cows as they dislike us but this morning, they were content to watch as we walked by.

In the sun it was warming up rapidly, but in the shade the temperature was a little chilly. Unfortunately, the steepest part of the climb was in the sun and it was hot going. Rufus was coping well with the steep parts and I was well aware of my lack of fitness. Around this time last year I climbed Snowdon and Glyder Fawr on consecutive days. Today, I was struggling a bit. The path was made from large flat stones and each step seemed to get higher. Rufus cleared  each one in one bound. I seemed to be stopping a lot to take more photos!

Then the going got even rougher, with the man made path giving way to a more natural, rocky jumble. I was a bit concerned that Rufus might slip and get a paw stuck, or worse. Within a few minutes we came up against a high step of natural rock with barely a toe hold. There was no way Rufus could get up as there were no holds for claws and the stone was smooth. We’d climbed around half the height to the gap between Glyder Fawr and Y Garn and I decided to stop here. The views back down to Llyn Idwal and beyond, to Pen yr Ole Wen and the Carneddau were spectacular. I told Rufus we were stopping (I talk to him all the time when we’re on rough ground like this) and called him back to me. I took a few photos before turning to find Rufus on top of the rock step looking down on me! I have no idea how he got up there but he was clearly more at home than I was.

Not to be outdone, I clambered up after him and we carried on for a few more minutes. But now the jumble of rocks was getting tougher and I called Rufus back. We sat on a rock ledge and enjoyed the view while having a snack and a drink. Sheep bleated above us, more sure footed than we. It was quiet apart from them, and tranquil. I enjoyed these few minutes as they are what hill walking is all about for me. Rufus seemed to be happy too, sniffing about and joining me for the view (although that might have been his attempt at charming me into giving him a bit of Snickers).

We started back down again, and I tried to go ahead of Rufus to guide him down and make sure he didn’t slip. But as usual, I underestimated his ability to cope with the rough conditions and by the time I’d reached the flatter, man made section, he was there waiting for me. The rest of the path was easy and he trotted ahead as I frequently stopped to take more photos of the wonderful views ahead.

As we rejoined the lakeside path, Rufus decided he wanted to paddle again, so he shot off across the heather and marsh towards the water. I let him; it was his birthday week anyway. I hopped and splashed after him and finally caught up with him as he stood with paws in the cooling water. There followed some stone throwing and then we both looked up as we heard a strange barking sound. It was the Canada geese we’d seen yesterday. The pair had been joined by a second pair and they were all paddling towards us. We walked on by the shore of the lake and they swam parallel with us, barking and honking. Then they started squabbling amongst themselves and we were left alone.

We strolled back around the lake, passing through the herd of cows that hadn’t moved and finally got back to the car. It was hot now, and we were both tired so we headed straight back to the cottage. Lunch and a snooze was on the cards, and we both woke up again around the same time. After a reviving coffee, Rufus and I went up and along the farm track again. Walking up, we could hear two cuckoos calling from different trees across the track. But they were soon drowned out by the roaring of jest as planes from Valley carried out mock combat high above us. As we got back to the cottage, swallows were flitting about above our heads. I watched and they entered the barn next to us.  I spent the next 20 minutes of so trying to capture them with the camera, with varying degrees of success.

That night was clear and I’d received a tweet alerting me to the possibility of northern lights being visible in the north. As we were so far away from towns, I thought there might be a chance of seeing them so at around 11.30pm, Rufus and I walked back up the track until we were overlooking the cottage. It was pitch black and the stars were beautiful. While Rufus stood guard (I think he thought I was mad), I took a few long exposure photos but there was no sign of any aurora activity.

The journey home to Swansea was made in the rain. We stopped a few times on the way back to stretch our legs but really all we wanted to do was get home. We managed it in a little over 4 hours.

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Tudor Walls and a Sheep Rescue

In the true tradition of all good stories, I’ll keep you guessing about the title until the end.

Time for a nice long walk today – the weather forecast was looking good and I’d had an idea to drive down to Angle in Pembrokeshire to walk part of the coastal path there. I’ve been there before, but a number of years ago, and I remember it as a beautiful part of the coast. So off we went in the car and just over 90 minutes later, we were parking in the sunny, hot car park of Angle Bay.

It’s been a while since I’ve strapped a back pack on so it felt a little odd. Then I draped the more familiar camera bag and water bottle over me and we were ready to go. Rufus was characteristically unencumbered – something we’ve discussed before and something he’s always successfully argued against. Although there was a strong wind, the sun was out and it was much warmer than I expected. As we left the beach and entered a sheltered field, the wind died down and it became more like a summer’s day. I’m always careful to watch Rufus as he heats up quickly. Today was no exception and I made sure he drank as often as possible.

Rufus is a fussy drinker; when he feels like it, he will drink and drink. But if the slightest scent, aroma, movement or other distraction occurs, it immediately assumes the priority. Today he drank sensibly.

At the top of the field, we were on the cliffs and plenty of signs warned of the crumbling, eroded nature of the rocks. This area was a significant part of the military defences of Milford Haven, a natural deep water harbour and we soon saw the first sign this. Below us on the slope was the remains of a searchlight emplacement. There were gun batteries, observation posts and searchlight houses all along this part of the coast, and on the opposite coast around a mile away. Milford Haven was heavily defended.

The next ruin took us back to Tudor times. In 1539, Henry VIII had a number of block houses built around the coast to protect the strategic ports against attack by the French or Spanish (or both). Here, the remains of a watch tower belonging to his Eastern Block House stands on the edge of the cliff. It won’t last much longer as coastal erosion undercuts it. It was reused during WW1 and WW2 as an observation point, as the brick repaired wall shows. Opposite this post lies Mill Bay, where Henry Tudor landed with a force of French mercenaries in 1485. A couple of weeks later, he had gathered about him an army of men loyal to his cause from Pembrokeshire and beyond, and had met and defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. He became King Henry VII.

We wandered on, passing the WW1&2 gun emplacements for now and walking along the beautiful Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. Swallows swooped and dived above us and gulls hung stationary in updrafts. The sea was a Mediterranean turquoise, breaking against the cliffs with bright white waves. The gorse was in bloom – a carpet of yellow flowers that we walked alongside (neither of us like their needles). We stopped for a drink and a snack at a smaller gun emplacement standing alone, and then dropped down into a gully carved by a small stream and no doubt helped by the endless battering of the sea.

Up on the other side we surprised some sheep, who were content to stare while chewing on their grass as we went by. A little further round the corner, Rufus caught a scent and led me off the path to the cliff edge. As we were so close and the cliffs were dodgy, I had him on the lead. I’m glad I did, because he was staring at the two ears of a small rabbit hiding in a hollow right on the edge of the cliff. Had he been able, Rufus would have run over and I don’t know what state that part of the cliff was in. I raised my camera and zoomed in to the rabbit – which wasn’t a rabbit at all, but a fox cub. I took a few photos and dragged Rufus away so that we didn’t disturb it more than we already had.

A stile stopped us and we turned back. We passed the fox hole but there was no sign of it. Neither were the sheep we’d encountered earlier, but at the top of the gully we saw the last of them trying to get through a wire fence. Unfortunately, it’s curved horn had got caught in the wire and it was struggling to escape. I could see it wouldn’t succeed, and it was beginning to panic with us being there. So I tied Rufus up to a fence post out of sight and went to try and help. The sheep was trying to get away from me and in doing so, tightening the wire. Luckily it wasn’t barbed otherwise there would have been a nasty injury. But I couldn’t leave it there as the horn was curved right around and the wire was well inside the curve.

In order to get enough slack on the wire, the sheep had to move back towards me but it wouldn’t. I accidentally poked it and it rolled towards me. So I poked it again, rather like tickling someone in the ribs, and it squirmed enough that the wire went slack enough and I managed to pull it over the horn. One happy sheep trotted off to it’s sisters and within second had forgotten all about it’s ordeal. I trotted back to Rufus who was working hard to pull the fence post I’d tied him to over.

At the lone gun emplacement, we stopped and had lunch. Rufus was surprised when I produced a bowl of his favourite crunchy food but he didn’t let that stop him devouring the lot. It was nice in the sun and while I sat and enjoyed the view, Rufus walked around the concrete wall of the circular gun pit. He was very happy to have a path all to himself. We took a couple of selfies and headed on to the main coastal gun battery. This was built in the early 20th Century and in it’s history had big guns (9.2″) and small guns (6pdr) and everything in between. By WW1 it was falling out of favour and the big guns were moved elsewhere. Smaller guns were brought in but the site was mainly used for training. Similarly in WW2 the guns were transported to a site near Penarth and the battery was used for training. It was finally decommissioned in 1945, when all the weapons were removed. Strangely, the ammunition wasn’t removed for another three years.

The last leg of the walk was back across two open fields and down to the beach car park. We were buzzed by swallows again and on the opposite side of the beach, a group of students were studying the geology of the bay. Had the tide not been so far out, I would have taken Rufus for a paddle. Instead, he had a long drink and we set off for home.

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A walk on the common

Bank Holiday Monday. Sunny but with rain coming in around lunchtime. No surprise there, but what should we do? I had a meeting with Rufus, my outdoor pursuits consultant, and he suggested a walk on the common while the good weather lasted. There may have been some bias in his coming to that decision, but I trust his judgement.

I decided to write a lighter blog after yesterday’s and it seemed a good idea to base it on a typical walk in Gower – one of the ones we do all the time and take for granted. So here it is. You have been warned.

Where we go on Fairwood Common is dictated by the location of the livestock there. Farmers get free grazing on this land and in that past we have encountered one several times who believes the land is his own personal possession. As I like to let Rufus off the lead as much as possible, I always look for the cows and sheep and avoid them. Today the cows, along with some horses and foals, were at the top of the common so we had free range. I parked the car off the road and we set off along an old and overgrown access road built for the airport when it was an RAF fighter station. Near here were a dead badger and a dead fox – I’d seen them before so I kept Rufus on the lead until we’d passed. Further along the road was the corpse of a dead cow, but that had been moved since we were last here. It was safe to let Rufus off the lead now and he went trotting ahead as we weaved through bushes and tree branches, all the while the birds singing from the cover of the branches.

At the perimeter fence, we usually see rabbits beyond in the airport. There weren’t any today; maybe we were a bit late. But Rufus picked up their scent and spent a few minutes trying to squeeze himself through the chain links. Giving up, he padded along the fence heading north along the line of the main runway. Two planes were flying, taking turns to land and take off before circling around again.

This part of the common is littered with the remains of WW2 buildings. Most of them are little more than concrete foundations; some are raised above the level of the ground and one or two have several courses of red brick poking above the marsh. Today, Rufus passed all of these and made for the end of the runway. I let him choose the route as he has an uncanny knack of finding trails and paths.

Fairwood Airport was built as a fighter station at the beginning of WW2. Thousands of tons of ballast and slag from the local steel and copper works were deposited in the marshy area known as Pennard Burch. Time was found to excavate two burial mounds in the area before they were covered by the runways. The airfield was open in 1941 and played host to a number of squadrons and aircraft types. It now hosts one of the Wales Air Ambulance helicopters, which was taking off as we walked, as well as the Swansea Skydiving Club and a number of private planes.

At the far end of the runway, we watched the planes coming and going, including the large aircraft used to take skydivers into the air. A smaller aeroplane had to dodge out of the way as the big plane taxied to our end of the runway. Beneath out feet, the marsh land was in evidence and I though that it was amazing how they were able to build on this type of ground. According to the records, damp and drainage were constant problems throughout the war at this base. Rufus disappeared in the long marsh grass but I was able to follow his progress by the splash and squelch noises he made as he explored. He wasn’t worried by the low flying aeroplanes.

We turned back and went onto firmer ground slightly above the level of the airfield. From here, it’s clear that the airfield is built in a dip in the ground. Not an ideal location, but it is the flattest part of the common and the only suitable place to site the runway. We were walking through the remains of the buildings now and Rufus climbed on to every foundation raft to make sure it was clear of local critters. We made our way further from the perimeter fence to a point that would have had a clear view of the whole airfield. Trees now block the way, but they are recent additions. Years ago, I found the half buried entrance to what I thought was the Battle HQ for RAF Fairwood Common. A recent check of a site map proved me correct. Nearby are the filled in remains of two infantry trenches, and between them is the holdfast for a small gun, possible an anti aircraft weapon.

It was all downhill from here and the car was visible from this part of the common. It’s at this stage that Rufus normally slows down. Not because he’s tired but because he doesn’t want to go home. Today, he was too caught up in the smells of the countryside and he ranged either side of me until I eventually had to put him on the lead when we got close to the road. There was a lot of traffic as people took advantage of the sun to get out into Gower.

Then we were back at the car and our walk was over. We’d done just over two miles in about 80 minutes. No records were in danger of being broken today, but that’s not the point of our walks. It’s all about enjoying and having fun. And that we did.

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Auschwitz

To be honest, most of my posts here are written ‘off the cuff’ – I have an idea and I write with little planning. This one has taken a lot longer to make it into the blog. I considered writing a purely fact based account of my visit to Auschwitz but that would be no better than reading about it in any of the (much better researched and written) books that are available. So this is an imperfect account of my visit. For want of a better term, I refer to anyone in the camps as prisoners, although most were not guilty of any crimes. Inevitably, it’s not pleasant reading but it must be remembered.

I had wanted to visit Auschwitz for a while. It sounds like a ghoulish statement but I strongly believe that history is best experienced in person. I am interested in military history, particularly WW2. I had read a lot about the Nazi death camps, watched documentary films and programmes and I felt I knew a lot about this part of the war. Most of us have seen the grim images of ‘selection’, the iconic gates with the railway track passing through, the cynical ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign above the gate of Auschwitz. The complex called Auschwitz was actually a series of camps. Auschwitz itself was a concentration camp, bringing political and racial ‘undesirables’ together. Several other camps nearby were work camps where the prisoners were forced to toil building factories and industrial complexes. There was a prisoner of war camp in the area but this didn’t form part of the Auschwitz complex and the prisoners, mostly western troops, were treated much better. Finally, there was Birkenau which was the purpose built extermination camp.

Auschwitz

We pulled up outside Auschwitz and I felt nervous and a little apprehensive. There were quite a few people milling about outside and as I neared the entrance I saw that there were a lot of young people in the crowd. I’m glad of that; this is an event and a place that needs to be remembered.

Inside, our group made our way towards the main entrance to the camp. This is the one that prisoners would have been marched into and out of every day. Above the gate, the jauntily designed ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign cast more of a shadow than was apparent in the sunshine. Beyond the double fence of barbed wire – which was electrified during the camp’s use and which was one way a prisoner could, and did, end their misery in the camp – the red bricked barracks didn’t look like I expected at all. This camp was originally a Polish military camp and the barrack blocks were large and well built. As the camp expanded, more blocks were built on the pattern of the original building.

The tour of Auschwitz took two hours, during which time we visited some of the barracks – now mini museums, each with its own theme. For me, the two hours was an ordeal (one which I gladly undertook and I’m not complaining) as we were given the cold statistics of what went on here. There were up to 20,000 people in the camp at any one time. More than 8,000 Russian prisoners of war died here, and 21,000 Gypsies were murdered in the camp. The profit from the sale of Zyklon B pellets to the camp were 300,000 marks. When the camp was liberated by the Russians, they found 7 tons of human hair packed up ready to send back to Germany; that was only the latest grim harvest. Many more tons had gone before.

In one particularly chilling museum the personal possessions brought here were displayed. We walked past huge cabinets full of shoes, shoe, shaving and hair brushes, tins of boot polish and prosthetic limbs. In a cabinet on its own were a number of Jewish prayer shawls – symbols of the faith that brought many of the prisoners here. Newly arrived prisoners and those destined for the gas chambers were told to make sure their possessions were labelled so that after the ‘shower’ they could find them again. It was done to ensure the minimum of fuss when taking prisoners to their deaths. An example of Nazi efficiency. In one room, a collection of suitcases with their owners names printed neatly on them were piled up as they had been left by their owners. It made all the statistics into real people.

We were asked not to take photographs of the cabinet full of human hair out of respect for the victims. I found this display hard to take in but the next one was worse. In a small cabinet on the way out of the room were a few tattered and worn teddy bears and dolls. A child’s shoe lay next to them. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

We moved on through the camp, free to walk about as we wished before being guided to the punishment block, Block 11. This was also known as the Death Block and most of the prisoners who went in didn’t come out alive. Here, the barracks had been left as it was in 1945. I found seeing what the prisoners would have seen gave this particular building even more atmosphere that the others. We passed the dormitory rooms, where those condemned to trial slept their last nights on the floor with only thin mattresses of straw or, in some cases, just the straw. We passed the room where the ‘trial’ was held and made our way back along the corridor to the guard room. At the end of the corridor away from the entrance was a portable gallows used for some executions.

Block 11 was the only one to have a basement and it was here that the punishment cells were located. This was a grim place and it felt oppressive, depressing and unnerving. What it must have felt like for the prisoners, I dread to think. Some of the cells were used to starve prisoners to death. One was used to suffocate them. There were three cells which were only big enough to stand in, and more than one prisoner was kept in there at the same time. It was an awful part of a terrible place and I was glad to get out of the gloom and back to the stark corridor.

Outside was the courtyard where executions were carried out. usually, the guilty prisoner ( they were all ‘guilty’ of course), were taken out immediately after sentencing, and shot. To minimise the effect of gun shots on other prisoners, small calibre pistols held close to the head were used and the windows of the neighbouring barracks were blocked up. As we looked, a Jewish visitor was praying against the execution wall. I felt like an intruder, and I left.

Opposite the Death Block were the camp hospital wards. These were known as the waiting rooms for the gas chambers as many of the patients were rounded up and sent to their deaths from here. Medical experimentation took place here as well. A complete barracks were set aside for sterilisation experiments, for example. You did all you could not to be ill in Auschwitz.

We walked back toward the gate, past the assembly square, where prisoners were paraded and counted, a process often taking hours in all weathers. In front of the square was the mass gallows, where offenders were hung in front of their fellow prisoners. To one side was a small wooden cubicle, where the officer in charge to the roll call sheltered from the weather. It was beautifully made and resembled a grandfather clock case only on a larger scale.

Instead of leaving, we walked to the other side of the camp, where the crematorium was situated. As we stood opposite, it, the guide pointed out the camp commandant’s house – a villa shielded from the camp by some trees. Rudolph Hoess was the first commandant and the one most associated with Auschwitz. Next to the crematorium was the gallows on which he was executed after a proper trial.

Finally, we were led in to the crematorium and as we went, so we were told that the part we were going in to first was the gas chamber. It was dark and silent (out of respect for those murdered here, we were asked not to speak). There was an atmosphere in there that I still can’t adequately describe – a mix of horror and depression and a grim feeling of hopelessness. The guide pointed out the chutes through which the gas pellets were dropped and then we moved on to the room containing the ovens. In another chilling example of efficiency, there was machinery designed to make the loading of the corpses quicker. I was glad to get out of the building.

Birkenau

We were transferred to Birkenau, only a few minutes away. This is probably the place you would be familiar with from film and stills of the Nazi extermination programme. We entered through the ‘Death Gate’ alongside the railway line (purposely built as a spur off the main line to speed up the transfer of prisoners). We walked along the tracks until we got to an open area and I turned around to look back. I saw the image I’d seen in pictures and realised that we were at the point where the prisoners were unloaded from the cattle wagons and the selection process took place. With the aforementioned efficiency, prisoners selected to be murdered were separated from the others; more often than not families were split up here and sent to the one of the four gas chambers. In less than half an hour, prisoners were being gassed.

We were stood next to a cattle wagon and I was surprised at how small it was. It would house at least 40 people but almost always more were crammed in. Our guide explained that in one transport (the name for the train full of prisoners) that took four long, hot summer days to get to Birkenau, only three people survived out of more than 2000 who started out. Heat, thirst and suffocation accounted for the rest.

Birkenau is huge. It covers 425 acres, with more than 300 buildings, and was being expanded in 1944. Most of the wooden huts, which once housed horses before being converted to house the prisoners, were dismantled immediately after liberation to provide building materials for locals. All that remain are a surreal forest of red brick chimneys for the fireplaces in the huts. In the sunshine on the day of my visit, they shone like square red tree trunks.

We made our way past the end of the railway tracks to the giant memorial to the victims of Birkenau. It had been created from the funeral and burial architecture from all the societies and religions represented by prisoners in the camp. It was an impressive sight but in the context of environment I found it hard to really take it in.

Because either side of the memorial were the remains of Crematoria 2 and 3. The four crematoria, with their attached gas chambers, were blown up by the Nazis in an attempt to hide the evidence of their crimes. But despite this, it was quite clear what I was looking at. The crematorium was at the junction of a right angle formed by the underground undressing room and the gas chamber. Prisoners would enter the changing room, usually believing their were going to have a shower, and be moved through to the gas chamber. They were locked in before most of them realised what was happening. After 15-20 minutes, the corpses were transferred to the crematorium, which could cope with around 5000 bodies a day. In a further example of terrible Nazi efficiency, crematoria 3 and 4 were built with their gas chambers level with them to make it easier to transfer the bodies from one to the other.

We passed a water filled pit, in which the ashes of the burnt corpses were deposited. They were also used to fertilise nearby fields and deposited in the woods that surrounded the camp. As we left this part of the camp, a party of Jewish students were singing a haunting song by the side of the ruined crematorium.

We made our way to the Women’s camp and into one of the huts. This was more like what I was expecting to see at Auschwitz. Instead of bunks, there were what can only be described as shelves and 3-5 prisoners slept in each one. Although there were two fireplaces, the terrible cold of Polish winters killed many occupants, and the lack of ventilation meant that many more died in the heat of summer. Our guide explained that the hut ‘kapo’, usually an ‘ordinary’ criminal selected by the camp guards to manage each hut, would live in a small room near the door and could be bribed for favours. A kapo’s favourite was far more likely to survive the camp ordeal.

By now, I was feeling emotionally drained. A lot of what I’d seen and heard was very hard to take in and fully comprehend. 1.3 million people were murdered in Birkenau. I don’t know what that number of people all together looks like. Around 100,000 people would be in Birkenau at any one time – that works out at more than 300 prisoners per hut. I just about know what 300 people look like together and I can’t imagine what conditions in the hut must have been like. The views along the wire to the guard towers was familiar from so many prisoner of war movies, but here it was for real. Even as a visitor, I felt a little unnerved by their presence. So much of this place was familiar from photographs and yet it was so different from what I was expecting.

And suddenly, we were being led to the exit gate. Something the former prisoners could only dream of. Although I was a willing visitor, I felt some relief at being able to get out of the camp. It had an oppressive, depressing atmosphere despite it being a bright sunny and warm day. I’d always imagined visiting here in grey, dreary conditions. And I’d heard that no birds sing in the area. I didn’t hear any while I was there.

I wondered about the guide, too. She was very good – her English was excellent and she had a very clear delivery. But throughout, it was level and business like. I guess she had to protect herself from the horrors she was describing. I’m not sure I would be able to keep the emotion and judgement out of it if I were leading a group around the camps.

More than 6 million Jews were murdered in Hitler’s death camps, or on the streets of their home towns or in their homes. It is estimated that between 15 and 20 million people were imprisoned in camps or ghettos during the war. It wasn’t just Jews that were sent to these places; Gypsies, political prisoners, homosexuals, disabled people, Jehovah’s witnesses and Catholic clergy were also routinely sent there.

It’s almost impossible to understand the mentality that created and maintained these places but we must understand that it can never be allowed to happen again.

 

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Nepal

I had a different blog lined up for today and I’ll publish it in the future. But last night and this morning I have been hearing about the devastating earthquake in Nepal and the appalling death toll. I’ve only been there twice but the country and the people left such wonderful memories that I feel very sad at the images I’ve been seeing.

My impression of Kathmandu was of a random jumble of buildings thrown together, with the narrow streets of Thamel seemingly unplanned and impossible to follow on foot. With little room to develop, buildings went upwards and what started off as a single story house or shop would have a floor added as the wealth of the owner increased. Adding storeys was a sign of prosperity. This might not have been the wisest method of expanding but it was the only option. I do not criticise.

My lasting memory of the people, both in Kathmandu and on the winding footpath to Everest Base Camp was one of friendliness. To a westerner, experiencing this for the first time, I looked upon it with suspicion – ‘what does he want?’ came to mind. To my shame. The reality was, they wanted to be friendly and they wanted to know more about this western visitor that had spent not far off their annual income for a flight to Nepal. I learnt to bargain with shop keepers with a smile on my face, and although the actual process was played to a few rules which felt serious at the time, it was worth it for the post sale banter. One woman selling little hand sewn purses sold me five for a little under £2 and as I put them away and walked off she gave me three more for free! The poor rickshaw driver who barely reached my shoulder in height and yet who pedalled my friend and I the two miles to Durbar Square for less that £4 (we gave him more in the end, despite having to get out and push when we reached a small hill).

The guides, porters and other local crew on out treks couldn’t be more helpful. The tea house keepers went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable. A great place to visit and I will be going back someday.

But some of the most significant historical places in Kathmandu have been ruined by the earthquake. I saw images of the little temples in Durbar Square that had survived invasion and revolution reduced to little more than piles of bricks. The Monkey temple, Swayambunath, is a complex of little temples and shrines and from shakey footage I’ve seen on Twitter, one of the two large temples has collapsed. It goes without saying that I hope no one was injured there, but since the place was over run by mischievous monkeys, I hope they managed to escape the devastation too.

I’ve heard on the news and in Tweets from a couple of people I’m following at the moment and who were about to climb Everest, that base camp has been partially obliterated by avalanches from nearby Pumori and that up to 17 people have been killed there. I haven’t heard news about the villages through which we trekked. Namche is situated in a natural amphitheatre – in other words, built on terraces on the side of a mountain. Dingboche is similarly situated on the side of a mountain. In the past, bridges and buildings have been swept away by floods caused by collapsing moraine dams releasing melt water from the glaciers further up the valley. I pray these villages have escaped the damage and their inhabitants are safe.

Oxfam and Save the Children have set up appeals to help the victims of this terrible disaster.

My thoughts are with the people affected by this terrible event.

Rubbish

This morning, I joined a group of friends from work to pick litter up on the beach at Blackpill. It’s part of Swansea bay and I remember going there as a kid and paddling in the little kids pool there whenever we visited my grandparents. Later, when my mates and I were back from our various colleges, we’d end up at the swings at Blackpill after an evening in the pub. Rufus and I have been down that way, and it was a stopping point when I used to walk the seafront as part of my trek preparation.

Today, we were able to give something back. The beach at Blackpill is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is a stopping point for birds migrating from Africa to the Russian Steppes and Sanderling, Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers are amongst the 150 species sighted here. As it is also a busy spot for those seeking the sand, it tends to get very messy. But there is no excuse for dropping litter with so many bins around.

We set off around 10am after a briefing from the guy from Keep Wales Tidy. Then, with litter pickers and blue bags we spread out across the beach and started clearing up. I was surprised at how much domestic waste was so close to the lido. In the first 10 minutes or so, I had collected a lot of strips of rubber, cable ties and one inner tube of a bike tyre. I expected more food wrappers and drinks bottles, but I saw very little of that kind of rubbish, which suggests to me that the visitors are more respectful of the place.

It was a lovely morning – not too hot or too windy. I found picking the litter up very therapeutic and relaxing. For much of the time I was in a world of my own and before long, an hour had gone by. We were spread out over the beach and every now and then we’d cross each other’s path. Looking back along the beach, our route was punctuated by a line of filled blue bags.

By the time we’d turned back and reached the rubbish collection point, we’d filled 20 bags with bottles, plastic, fishing line, rope, syringes, cans and other stuff that most certainly does not belong on a beach where children play.

It took us two hours to collect that, but it would take an individual 30 seconds to put their rubbish in a bin.

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