Why we walk the hills

By Dave and Rufus.

There is no sound other than the birds high up in the sky and the gentle breeze making its way through the grass. The early morning sun is shining with a yellow glow, the air is crisp and clear and the remains of last night’s frost crunches under foot. In puddles, ice has formed random and surreal patterns that few will see. It’s warm despite the early hour. The noise of traffic is not invited here.

From the top of Moel Feity, our venue for today, there is a panoramic view of mountains and countryside. in the distance to the north a line of clouds have formed, as if waiting to enter into our arena. But they’re not allowed to spoil the morning. To the west, Fan Brecheiniog looks grey with it’s thin coating of frost yet to be touched by the sun. A small cloud pops over the top and spills down towards Llyn y Fan Fawr like a slow motion waterfall. The twin table tops of Corn Du and Pen y Fan are silhouetted off to the east. Even at this early hour they are probably busy with those keen to be the highest people south of Snowdonia.

We have this hill to ourselves. We can go where ever we want. There are little paths and tracks that the sheep have worn over the years but the sheep are all gathered together further down the valley this morning. We choose to follow the paths or not as the whim takes us.

He’s going to start going on about how time has no meaning next. I know, and I apologise on behalf of my human. Allow him his indulgence.

There is no sign of the passage of time other than the distant clouds and the mist on Fan Brecheiniog. Even the sun is lazy this morning.

There. See. 

We come across the little memorial to the crew of Liberator 38753 and a little later, a small pile of aluminium, some melted, which has been gathered from the crash site. I stop to tidy them both up as I always do when we come here, and we spend a moment or two having a think before moving on.

We walk the hills because of all these things and the things we will see next time. Sometimes its for the challenge, sometimes it’s to get away from the crap and sometimes its to get to the top.

Before he gets too carried away with the artistic dribble, lets talk about the real reason we walk the hills. Dave has this need to prove himself and I have to tag along just to make sure he doesn’t overdo things. I don’t mind; he’s good to me so I return the favour. When I wasn’t well, he stayed with me so he’s a bit out of shape right now. In the past he’s done it to get fit to climb hills in other countries – without me! But I don’t care really because I enjoy walking the hills with Dave.

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Blizzard

We pushed on, blinded by the driving snow which threatened to cut us off from the south east ridge route back to safety. A howling wind made every step a test of stamina and strength. Rufus forged a path ahead whilst I, carrying our meagre supplies, brought up the rear. Slowly we descended through the cloud, the air becoming richer in oxygen with every step. There were no thoughts but the one to keep going; to stop now would mean to stop forever.

Or, at least that is what it would have been like if we were on some 8000m peak. However, we were on Moel Feity, not even an 800m peak, and the sun had been shining moments before. I’d seen the dark cloud coming in and knew we were in for some kind of precipitation. The onset of snow was sudden and although the flakes were large, it didn’t last long enough to stick.

We had set out earlier to get a proper hill under our belts in preparation for some more serious hill walking when the weather improved. But it was a lovely morning, with bright blue sky, a low golden sun and only a mildly freezing wind to contend with. Once we’d been walking for a few minutes and had warmed up, it was pleasant walking. Even the route we followed was relatively dry. The wet bits were clearly wet and the water was mostly on the surface, meaning that deep, sucking mud was easy to avoid.

On the top of the hill, the views were clear for miles around in every direction. Thick frost covered the north eastern face of Fan Brecheiniog where the sun had yet to touch. We had the whole area to ourselves, which surprised me with the glorious weather. While Rufus ranged far and wide, I took photos and enjoyed the open space.

As we crossed over tot he northern end of the hill, the wind picked up and it was cold again for a few minutes, but upping the pace warmed us again and we were soon in the lee of the hill.

I spent a few minutes tidying up one of the two memorials to the US Navy Liberator PB4Y 38753 which crashed on the side of Moel Feity in 1944. I try and visit the site every time I’m on this hill, and always take time to make sure the cairns are maintained. Both memorials are within a couple of hundred yards of each other. One has a large stone and a few scraps of wreckage and this one is where I put my memorial poppy every year. The other is mainly of twisted and melted aluminium pieces from the plane itself. I am told that this marks the actual impact site.

On our way back down to the car, the dark cloud that we had been racing finally caught up with us and there was a brief but heavy shower of snow. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long or heavy enough to stick and there were no snowballs for Rufus to chase.

Later, whilst Rufus snored in the hallway at home, I spent an hour watching birds in the garden as part of the RSPB Birdwatch survey. usually my garden has a large number of birds, mainly great tits and blue tits. I used to have a fairly tame robin, and for the last few years I have hosted blackbirds and house sparrows as they raise their families. I regularly feed them and I don’t think it was too much to expect that they would reward my supportive behaviour with an appearance for one hour in good weather this weekend. But no! The blue tits and great tits stayed away. The sparrows hid out of sight. A single blackbird turned up for a few minutes and there was a single starling (although they swarm in large numbers night and morning). On the plus side, there were two robins present. But for most of the hour, a single collared dove and a woodpigeon gorged themselves on seed and two magpies attempted to eat the fat balls.

Of course, once the hour was up, another 5 magpies showed up, along with several wrens and sparrows and some blackbirds.

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PB4Y 38753

Last year, Rufus and I visited the site of a crashed Lancaster on Garn Las. Today, Remembrance Sunday, we decided to visit another site we had discovered on our travels. On 24 August 1944, a US Navy Liberator bomber was on night exercise when it hit the top of Moel Feity. All the crew were killed. The crew were Lts Byrnes and Hobson Jr, Ens Manelski, ARM Shipe and AMMs Holt Jr and Keister. If any of their relatives are reading this, you should know that there are a number of poppies laid here during the year; people continue to remember. The weather may sometimes scatter them but the sacrifice these men made is not forgotten.

The site is remote. It’s not visible from the road or from any of the sheep tracks that skirt the top of the hill. The first time I went looking for the site was in heavy rain, and both Rufus and I got drenched without coming anywhere near it. The first time we found it, it was almost by accident. This time I had an idea where to look but I started to doubt my own direction sense. However, just as I was about to turn back to try and find it on the next hillock, the white stone appeared on the horizon.

It’s a beautiful setting on a fine morning, as it was this morning. It’s a poignant place, too because you can see how close the plane was to missing the top of the hill. I replaced the wreath on the little cairn, placed my own poppy, on a wooden cross, and stood for a few minutes. Rufus, as usual, was well behaved and didn’t complain as he usually does when I stop walking for any length of time.

Then it was on to the lake. The weather was wonderful this morning and although there was a cold wind now and again, the sun was strong and warm. Underfoot was a different matter, however, as all the recent rain had clearly collected on the route I was taking. Many times my boots disappeared completely under water and only the recent waterproofing I applied kept my feet dry. I tried to push the pace up the hillside towards the lake to try out my knee. Before long, Rufus, who had run ahead as usual, appeared on the crest of the hill to see where I was. He alternated between looking off into the distance and looking at me. That usually means he’s seen something he wants to go to but he knows I’ll probably tell him no. As I crested the hill, I saw that he was staring longingly at the lake. He’s learnt some hand signals while we’ve been walking, and when I waved him on, he shot off to the water’s edge.

We sat in the  heat of the sun at the lake shore and snacked. Rufus cooled his paws, I took photos and marveled at the weather. We set off around the edge of the lake and on towards the path up to Fan Brecheiniog. At 11am, I stood for a few minutes as part of the 2 minute silence. Rufus, unsure what was going on, reminded me that it was time to go and at 11.02, we went. It took us 21 minutes to climb from the lake to the ridge of Fan Brecheiniog. It always looks harder than it is and I’ve learnt to ignore my first impressions and just estimate the time it will take. It helps tackle the steep parts.

On top, we bumped into several walkers and dogs taking advantage of the lovely weather.  We made our way along the ridge with magnificent views in all directions. This is one of my favourite places in the Brecon Beacons. In the distance, the trophy summits of Pen y Fan and Corn Du stuck out on the horizon and I still get a buzz getting to the top of Pen y Fan. But for me, the empty, isolated ridge of Fan Brecheiniog is so much better .

We walked out to the burial cairn on Fan Foel before reluctantly turning around and heading back. I’m still getting used to the walking pole and so coming down was slower than I would have liked. But it was definitely easier on the knees. At the bottom, Rufus was waiting for me at the lake shore and there were a few stones thrown and caught before we splashed and slurped our way across the boggy marsh and down to the river.

We skirted the side of Moel Feity, avoided horses and foals, splashed through fast flowing streams, got muddy and finally reached the car a little less that four hours after we’d left.

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