Welsh clouds have hard centres.

“Welsh clouds have hard centres” is a quote by an unknown flying instructor to an unknown trainee fighter pilot during World War 2. When you look at the number of aircraft crash sites from WW2 and since, it’s clearly good advice.

I’ve written before about the sites I’ve visited around the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountain. All of them are situated in bleak, lonely places usually on high ground and inevitably on slopes steep or slight.  Some of these crews were new, completing their operational training on the type of aircraft they would fly into battle. Others were re-training, having survived a tour of operations over enemy territory. A few were returning from operations and got lost in bad weather, or succumbed to battle damage.

Yesterday, I decided to visit a new site for me. Vickers Wellington MF509 was on a training flight from RAF Stratford  on 20 November 1944. The crew of 6 Canadians were carrying out a night navigation exercise when a fault developed with one of the engines. The plane began to descend over the Black Mountain and hit the ground on the western slope of Carreg Goch, a couple of miles west of Craig y Nos. Sadly, the crew were all killed on impact. The engines were salvaged but the rest of the wreckage was left in situ.

I had read about this site several years ago and had always planned on visiting. But the site was in the middle of a difficult limestone landscape and not on any route that I regularly took during training for treks. So I never got round to making the trip.

The initial climb from the main road was short and steep but I quickly gained height and left the trees and farmland behind. I passed a limestone quarry and finally reached the first over many limestone pavements overlooking Glyntawe and Craig y Nos. Now the fun started as I tried to find the best route to the crash site. The main path from here would take me north of where I wanted to go so I decided on some cross country walking, taking a more direct but much less obvious route. I took advantage of sheep trails and open rock to climb quickly onto Castell y Geifr.

This area is full of sink holes and is frequently used by pot-holers exploring the vast cave system of which Dan yr Ogof is a part. I passed several deep holes lined with scaffolding poles and blocked for safety reasons. The going underfoot was tough, with broken limestone hidden just beneath the surface of heather and grass threatening to turn and ankle. I took advantage of exposed flat limestone slabs to make better progress but this meant my route twisted and turned and I had to stop frequently to check the map for progress and to keep heading n the right direction.

As I headed west, off to my right was a large area of peat bog known as Waun Fignen Felen. In prehistoric times, this was a shallow lake surrounded by trees which slowly silted up, providing a habitat for wildlife. 8000 years ago, the climate was warmer and upland areas of Wales were more habitable than now. Traces of human habitation from the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze ages have been found on the margins of the bog, in the form of flint tools and flakes and a small drilled stone bead. Ancient people hunted here, and stayed in the area while the hunting was good.

I continued on, following a particularly sinuous sheep track through thick purple heather and onto the top of Carreg Goch. Slightly sloping slabs of limestone made the final few yards much easier and from the description of the crash site, I expected to find the wreckage on the reverse side. But it wasn’t there. I checked the map and decided that I was a little too north of the co-ordinates and turned south. There was no path, just lots of broken and weathered rocks ready to trip me up. I scrambled and wobbled from rock to rock until I reached a little stream bed, now dried up. I followed that for a while and climbed up onto a rock slab to see where I was. There, on the western slope, was a great pile of silver-grey metal and beside it flew a Canadian flag.

The Vickers Wellington bomber was designed by Barnes Wallace, the genius behind the Dambusters bouncing bomb. In the early years of the war, aluminium to make aeroplanes was scarce and Wallace produced a two engined bomber with a metal frame covered in fabric to minimise the use of aluminium. The airframe had a distinctive geodesic form, a series of struts and bars forming triangles. It was very strong and proved capable of taking a lot of damage without losing its structural strength.

At the crash site, a large amount of the wreckage had been gathered into one place. The largest piece was instantly recognisable as a part of the inner wing. A lot of the metal had been burnt in the fire that followed the crash and had melted out of shape but the wing retained it’s distinctive form. I could see the undercarriage legs and a couple of pieces of armour plating, which had rusted to a deep orange. Down the slope, what appeared to be a long section of part of the fuselage lay in the rocks and around about, other parts of the plane were scattered.

There were a few others at the site when I got there. I got talking to one who said he’d first come to the site 35 years ago and he remembered a large wheel, complete with tyre, lying just down the hill. We went a little way down to see if we could find it. All we saw were more scattered fragments and a short section of metal tubing which could have been from the landing gear. I knew the engines had been removed by the RAF shortly after the crash.

After the others had gone, I spent a few minutes taking in the atmosphere. It was a lovely summers day but I know what these hills can be like on cold, wet and misty winters morning. This crash happened at night it terrible conditions for flying. The crew probably never knew what happened.

I love being in the hills. I love the sense of open space, the remoteness and the spectacular beauty all around. But little parts of our countryside hold sad secrets that clash with this beauty.

The crew:

  • Sgt C. Hamel
  • Sgt J.R.R. Villeneuve
  • F/O W.J. Allison
  • Sgt J.P.E. Burke
  • Sgt J.A.E. Groulx
  • Sgt J.L.U. Du Sablon

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Mumbles

For most people in Swansea, Mumbles head, with it’s lighthouse and distinctive twin tidal islands, is iconic. It can be seen from the whole 5 mile sweep of Swansea Bay and, by design, it’s lighthouse is visible much further away. I’ve written about it before, here.

The first lighthouse was built there in the late 18th century. It had two coal fired lights in open braziers. The island just out into the Bristol Channel and catches every last whisper of wind; keeping an exposed coal fire burning in those conditions was well nigh impossible. So it wasn’t long before the coal fires were replaced by enclosed oil lamps with reflectors to improve visibility. There was a house on the outermost island for the keeper to live in during his (or her – there were wives and daughters here sometimes) duty, which must have been a lonely existence.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was causing mayhem in Europe and to protect the country, coastal forts were built at strategic points. By this time, Swansea was an industrial centre producing copper and other metals and exporting coal. Copper was particularly important strategically as copper coated hulls allowed Nelson’s ships to move more quickly and maneuver more easily. Mumbles Head was the ideal place for a defences and in the early part of the 19th century a stone fort was built which still stands today. Over the years various guns were placed here. Initially, 6lb cannon protected the port and these were replaced by bigger calibres until 68lb cannon with a range of 5 miles were sited on the island.

Eventually, modern 4.7″ guns were emplaced on the island and the 68lb cannon were unceremoniously dumped into the sea. One was recovered in the 70s and is situated in Swansea Marina. During WW2, these guns formed the inspection battery part of the defences of the port of Swansea, which was one of the biggest Bristol Channel ports during the war. Their responsibility was to enforce the requirement for all shipping to stop and be identified before proceeding into the docks and they were manned by regulars of the 299th Coastal Defence Battery, with Home Guard units and women of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRENS).

A pair of 6″ guns formed the defence part of the battery and were sited further back on the mainland, above the Bracelet Bay car park. These heavier guns with their longer range and better visibility would have engaged any enemy shipping trying to enter the bay. Search lights and local defences completed the battery. Further back on Mumbles hill was the 623rd Heavy Anti-Aircraft battery comprising 4 x 5.5″ guns sited to engage enemy aircraft flying in to bomb Swansea.

The whole area was defended from attack by Territorial and Home Guard units in trenches, machine gun emplacements and pill boxes. A mobile 75mm gun was also available to be used where required and there were minefields laid for further protection.

Where Bracelet Bay car park is now were the Nissen huts and other temporary accommodation for the garrison troops. Immediately after the war, these were used for homeless refugees while new houses was built to replace those destroyed in the bombing of Swansea earlier in the war.

The islands are accessible at low tide. A concrete walkway built to improve access for the battery garrison was destroyed after the war when it was found to affect the way the tide interacted with the beach. As you walk out, you can see the remains of the walkway along with railway lines and, as you near the outer island, posts for guide railings. On the outer island, the Napoleonic fort forms part of the current lighthouse structure. Around it there are the remains of the buildings that made up the more modern defences. And engine room to provide power for the searchlights; barracks for the garrison; platforms for the defence of the island from landward attack and the two search light houses.

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The wrong turn and the wrong river

Breaking news: The Tour de France took a wrong turn! To find out more, read on.

An early start for Fan Nedd was the order of the day, so that we could take advantage of the cooler temperatures. Neither of us are fans of really hot weather, and for walking on the hills, the cooler the better. So we left the house before 8am heading up the Swansea Valley to turn off at Crai and make our way through the winding, narrow lanes up to the little car park at the foot of the hill. But at the turn off to the valley, a bright yellow sign proclaimed that Sarn Helen was closed, with no explanation. I was annoyed, as there were no signs on the main road and we’d driven for about 15 minutes before reaching the first sign. But I was also amused, as the concept of the main Roman road linking north and south Wales being closed was funny. You can imagine the conversation… “Sorry, Julius, it’s closed.”

So we turned around and drove back and by the time I’d reached the main road again, I’d decided to head for Llyn y Fan Fawr. Rufus relaxed in the back and although he’s comfy in there, I don’t like to drive for longer than I have to with him as it can’t be much fun. So after we’d passed several parking spots, helpfully blocked off by single cars, we found our favourite spot and set off.

It was a lovely morning with sun and blue sky and a few fluffy white clouds. The wind kept the temperature down and I wondered if I should have brought my gloves. But I soon warmed up. Rufus relished the open air and bounded off in all directions. We passed, at a respectful distance, several horses and two tiny foals as we made our way along the flanks of Moel Feity up towards the lake. Fan Brecheiniog was looking tempting and by the time we’d reached the lake, I’d decided to head on up. It was still relatively cool and Rufus was looking up for it.

We made slow but steady progress to the bwlch and then plodded up the final steep part to the ridge and the trig point. The views were spectacular in the clear morning air. I had an idea that we should head down into the bwlch and go in search of an aeroplane crash site I’d visited a few years ago. A deHaviland Vampire hit the side of the hill there, killing the pilot and destroying the plane. We set off across the moorland, much tot he annoyance of the birds who tried to distract us. But keeping one eye on the ground for nests and one eye on Rufus (in case he found a nest) we made it down to the little valley between Fan Brecheiniog and Fan Hir.

I remembered the wreckage as being on the side of a little river and so we walked along the bank; me up on the top so I could see ahead and Rufus in the water. After about 15 minutes, there was no wreckage in sight and I was beginning to doubt myself. We stopped at a little pool and while Rufus paddled and chased stones, I sat and ate a snack. It was a lovely little place, sheltered and dry and I made a mental note of it in case we come wild camping in this area.

It was beginning to warm up now so I decided that rather than go looking for the plane, we’d head back and return another day. We set off towards the foot of Fan Hir to make best use of the dry path there and as we reached it, I looked back to see the glinting metal of the plane further down the valley, on the bank of a different river. We’d followed the wrong river (checking the map later there were two parallel streams invisible from each other). It was too far to go to and beat the heat, so we set off for the lake instead.

 

150,000 stones later, we dropped down from the lake and followed the marshy, muddy ground back to the car, passing the two foals with their older relatives enjoying the sunshine. At the car, we were both glad to get in and cool off with the air conditioning.

When we got down to the main road, it was full of cyclists. Fortunately, they were all heading in the opposite direction to me and so they didn’t hold me up. I felt sorry for the motorists on their side of the road as there were groups of cyclists for the next five miles or so. I was convinced that I’d stumbled upon the Tour de France. Cyclists in multi coloured jerseys and with a multitude of different bikes struggled up the hills and freewheeled down again. I didn’t envy them at all. It turns out that this was the Wiggle Dragon Ride 2015 and many of the riders were competing over a 300 mile course. Rather them than me.

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W4923

Rufus and I set off this morning to visit the site of a WW2 bomber crash. We’ve been there a few times before but never on Remembrance Sunday. I’d been thinking about this for a while and when I saw that 11 November fell on a Sunday, and the weather wouldn’t be too bad, I decided to go. Rufus is always up for a walk so we were on.

After all the rain we’ve had, the ground was spongy and very wet but the sunshine and blue sky made up for it. I had to park the car on the side of the road as the Forestry Commission car park was full. We headed out across the thick mud and immediately came across a stile, which Rufus struggled to negotiate. After some words of encouragement, foolowed by a had of encouragement, he slipped and scrabbled over and was rewarded with a treat.

We made our way over rough common land, following the line of ancient drainage ditches that once made this land suitable for crops and up to Foel Darw. Then there was a steep drop before we reached Garn Las and the crash site.

It’s a bleak place even in the sunshine. Fan Brecheiniog looms in the distance and the land slopes gently upwards to its foothills. It was on the slopes in September 1943 that Lancaster W4923 crashed in bad weather during a training flight. The crew, Pilot Officers Duxbury, Johnson and Folkerson, Flight Sergeant Buckby and Sergeants Curan, Pratt, Holding and Wilson, were all killed on impact.

As I arrived I passed members of the Ammanford Walking Club, who had left a wreath of poppies at the memorial stone. It’s touching to know that people still remember and care enough to make the journey out to this remote spot (it took us about 90 minutes). There are always poppies, little wooden crosses and other messages there, despite the exposed position. I added my little wooden cross and stood for a few minutes trying to imagine what it must have been like to be flight crew during the war. I couldn’t, of course, but standing and looking out over Garn Las towards Trecastle and beyond was a sobering moment and it brought a lump to my throat. Even Rufus, who I’d put on the lead to stop him wandering off, stood still and uncomplaining next to me. I often attribute human characteristics to him to try and give you an impression of how he is but this time it really did seem as if he knew something was different about this place.

After a few more minutes, we headed off back towards the car. It was pleasant walking weather; not too hot or cold and with a nice breeze to cool off the furry participant (no, not me). Even so, Rufus decided some cooling of the paws was required and he made for the nearest stream.

When we climbed back up to the top of Foel Darw, I could see that Rufus had spotted something. Sure enough, there were horses running across the track in front of us, though some distance off so I wasn’t worried Rufus would chase the, But they had been spooked by a bunch of motorcyclists riding across the common. They didn’t seem to be following any tracks and were heading towards us so we made our way off the hill and down to the Forestry Commission plantation.

There was more river action as I threw stones for Rufus to dredge out again. Then, after I’d managed to completely cover my right boot in thick brown mud, two tired souls arrived back at the car.

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