Forward to the past

Apologies for the rather forced title. Indulge me.

Yesterday Rufus and I went wandering over Tor Clawdd, a hill near the Upper Lliw reservoir and Bryn Llefrith plantation. Both have featured heavily in this blog before and they are a favourite destination in reasonably good weather. During our walk we came across an odd concrete structure on a dike that followed the top of Tor Clawdd. The bank and ditch is listed as a defensive work in the archives and is likely to have been some form of control over those proceeding south to the coast. Whatever it was, it was subsequently used as a convenient starting point for a number of adits, or small horizontal pits, used to mine coal. In this case, the Graigola seam. An aerial photos shows the extent of the pits, which line the northern edges of the hill. On the ground they are weathered and worn but clear and make for annoying walking as the sides are steep.

Today we went back because I wanted to investigate in more detail the adits and two concrete structures; one I’d come across yesterday and the other I’d seen on an aerial photograph. We set off to walk along the dike, climbing steeply for a few metres from the road. When the dike was built, this road didn’t exist and the route would have been further to the west. The old track is still visible in photos and faintly in person. We quickly reached the first little brick shelter. It had a concrete roof which had shown up on the photos and was a single room, about 3m by 3m with a smaller outbuilding which looked like it was for storage. There were no markings inside but I noticed the interior had been plastered, and there was a single abandoned bird nest, delicately attached to the ceiling.

Not far beyond was the concrete base I’d seen yesterday. It looked like a mounting point for an engine, possibly used to raise and lower wagons ontop the road below. There were mounting bolts still in place and it was aligned to a track that led down to the modern road. I haven’t been able to find any information about that part of the mining operation. We walked around the northern edge of the hill and then south, following the edge of the hill before it dropped down to Bryn Llefrith and the reservoir. It was a lovely morning and although a cold wind blew from the north, we were soon sheltered from it and the sun was allowed to warm us up.

We walked down as far as the firing butts and I spent a few minutes picking up more bullets and broken glass until Rufus let it be known that he was bored and wanted to walk on. In addition to some fine examples of .30 calibre bullets, which would have been fired from American rifles and machine guns, I found three .45 calibre bullets which are pistol rounds, sometimes used in sub machine guns of the day.

I followed Rufus as he headed back to the hill and the dike. By now the sky was blue and the sun was warm and it was just pleasant walking. We strolled and bounded and dodged hidden mud pools until we reached the undulating line of spoil from the coal mines. Looking down to the reservoir, the water was blue and it felt like summer.

The next thing I wanted to visit was a ring cairn, which I read about when researching the dike and which was supposed to be along side the old track running parallel to the earthwork. The cairn has not been dated and it is not clear if it is contemporary with the dike. It has been suggested that it is the remains of a shelter for those guarding the dike, or perhaps a temporary cattle pound. RCHM records suggest holes for stones, which would make it more of a ring cairn or even a henge.

We spent about 20 minutes wandering about. Rufus enjoyed the chance to explore new ground and I was eventually rewarded when I found the faint outline of the ditch, inside which was the low earth bank. This was no Stonehenge but it was clearly a ring and must have had some significance for those who built it. An undertaking like this was no light matter when most of the time was spent tending to livestock and crops. On this exposed high ground next to a thoroughfare it would have been highly visible and a landmark to those who lived nearby.

To Rufus’ relief, I quickly took the photos I wanted and we set off back towards the car. As we reached the layby, I watched as three model aeroplanes soared from the eastern slopes of Tor Clawdd. But it was time for us to head home for coffee and snacks.

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Bog and bullet

World War 2 wasn’t just about the famous battles. Troops were away from their loved ones for months and years, often in hostile places but always thinking of home. I’ve written before of the aircraft crash sites I’ve visited, all remote and lonely places. These crashes took place during training exercises and it’s important to remember that during war, its not just in the fighting that servicemen risk their lives.

Around the UK there are many places that are associated with military training. But during the build up to D-Day in 1944, allied troops of many nationalities were training and preparing all over the country. Swansea played host to American soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division. My mum remembered them driving Jeeps along the roads of Swansea and making tyre screeching turns at speed. Their transport ships were anchored in Swansea Bay and vehicles were parked along roads and under the cover of trees across the area.

In the months leading up to the invasion, these soldiers were training constantly to prepare themselves for the ‘Day of Days’. On Cefn Bryn, practice trenches can be found on the ridge and there is at least one bunker, now derelict, near Broadpool. For years I’ve suspected but never known for sure that it was a military relic – it’s in the wrong place to be defensive as it can easily be outflanked. But I recently found out that it was a command centre, and probably played a role in assault training.

The wonderful beaches of south and west Gower were used to practice beach assaults. The Loughor Estuary became an artillery range; the firing points are still visible as concrete shells of buildings near Penclawdd and the target area, not far from Whiteford, is marked by an observation post built on stilts near Woebley Castle.

To the north of Morriston is Mynydd y Gwair and a place Rufus and I visit often. Opposite is Tor Clawdd and the site of the home and research facility of Harry Grindell Matthews, known as ‘Death Ray’ Matthews after his work during the early part of the war on a weapon to stop engines and explode bombs at a distance. He built this isolated retreat, complete with a small airstrip, to work on his secret projects (which also included an aerial torpedo, a means of turning light into sound and a means to synchronise sound and film). Unfortunately he died in 1941, before any of these inventions could be perfected.

In 1944, Tor Clawdd was taken over by the officers of the 2nd Infantry Division and the troops were camped on the surrounding hills. One of the training exercises they carried out was to try and simulate real battle conditions. This they did by firing live rounds at an earth bank while the soldiers crawled along a trench in front of the bank or behind the bank. The remains of this exercise is still visible opposite Tor Clawdd and this morning Rufus and I took a look.

Once you know what you’re looking for, the earth bank is very noticeable, although just glancing at it might lead you to think it’s a drainage feature. As we walked towards it, we passed a single conical mound followed closely by six more, lined up parallel with the bank. The mounds were the positions of the machine guns used to fire on the bank. Then came a deep ditch and some 30 yards from this was the bank.  Between the ditch and bank were several shallow depressions in the ground and I had read that these were the result of explosions set off as part of the training. We wandered along the bank, heading north until it came to an end. Great sections of it were weathered and worn by the passage of sheep and cattle but it still stood a metre or so high.

Then I started to notice the bullets. The first one I saw was long and grey and could have been mistaken for a stone half buried in the mud. But I knew what I was looking for and within 10 minutes I’d picked up 19 bullets and fragments just lying on the surface. I also picked up three large pieces of sharp glass, souvenirs of a later period of history.

I have no idea what it must have been like to undergo this kind of training, but I guess if it helped to save their lives later on, then it was worth it. Research I did into this site suggested that some of the soldiers were killed when a section of the bank collapsed on them during an exercise.

The troops of the 2nd Infantry Division landed at Omaha beach in Normandy on June 8, two days after D-Day, and went on to see action in France, Belguim, Holland and Germany. The division is currently stationed in South Korea.

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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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Climbing Kilimanjaro 6: The bits between the bits

Climbing Kilimanjaro is a serious business. There are months of preparation to be made. Training for physical fitness take as along as you like; the more you do the better the experience when you’re trekking. Mental preparation is harder to plan and do but is equally important to get you through the tough days when it’s raining, or when the slope is never ending.

For some, the gathering of kit is enjoyable. Testing each item and making the final decision about what to take and what to leave behind. I admit to secretly enjoying choosing which cameras to take as it’s where my interests lie.

But however serious and hard it is, ultimately I trek because I enjoy it. So amidst all the serious stuff, there have to be moments of humour, laughter and hysterics, otherwise what is the point? For every “…the ascent was long and hard and the rains lashed down…” there has to be a “…how we laughed…”. The problem with trying to write them down is that often they depend on the moment and knowing the people and places. So while I will try and convey the humour, I apologise if these stories occasionally come over as a bit insular and cliquey. And, of course, if none of them work, I won’t publish this.

Travelling is always stressful. My journey from Home to Heathrow by train and coach was marked by annoying people. On the train, it was the nasally-voiced gentleman two seats over from me. For three hours he talked to his travelling companion and at no time did I understand a word he spoke, but neither was I able to miss a single syllable of his piercing tones.  On the coach, it was the serial complainer who annoyed. But I left both of them behind.

At Nairobi airport, we had two litre bottles of water bought in the transfer lounge, but we weren’t allowed to take them on the plane unless they were sealed in a plastic bag. So we went back to the shop from which they’d been bought and asked them to seal them up. we were then allowed through the check in. Security at it’s tightest.

Our encounter with an Australian trekker on day one was the beginning of a running joke, She turned up while we were having lunch and decided we were her group. She’d missed a flight and arrived late. It eventually dawned on her that we weren’t her group  and she walked on. Her loud voice faded slowly as she went. We met her several more times and each time she was louder, more shrill and a little more annoying. At the next camp one of our guides convinced her he was from Brisbane, although he spoke very little English. Every time we  bumped into her over the next few day, we reminded her that our guide was from Brisbane. We even told him some place names that one of our trekkers knew from the Brisbane area.

Our campsites were pretty good on the whole. On a few occasions, we found that there was a distinct slope; after all we were climbing a mountain. Often there was a ‘low end’ to the mess tent table. After walking through the cold and miserable rain one afternoon, we retired to the mess tent and as I sat down, I all but disappeared. I found the whole thing funny and started to laugh, but it was laughter that you can’t help, that comes from a mix of tiredness and despair and it quickly turned hysterical! In no time, everyone in the tent was laughing. It was a welcome release from the misery of the day.

Early in the trek, we shared a campsite with another group of trekkers with a different company. Every night, their guides and porters would sing. We watched and listened, fascinated, and were even asked to join in. But after about an hour, it was getting a little jaded and during the second hour it began to grate on the nerves. Especially as the songs were chart hits, not traditional tunes. Our guide promised not to put our tents anywhere near them again, and he was true to his word.

The following night we camped on a tiny site where there was barely enough room for our four tents. As a result, they were cramped together and in my tent, a large part of Kilimanjaro formed a pillow under my head when I lay down. With a combination of careful positioning of my kit bag and a slight bend of the knee, I was able to lie reasonably comfortably. But at this site, the tents were placed on a sloping bit of ground and right outside the entrances was a small but significant vertical drop. At night, this would test us if we needed to go to the toilet tent, which was several metres away up the slope. We joked that we’d have to rope up to climb to use the toilet!

On summit night, our tent was invaded by a little four striped mouse. It was looking for morsels to eat, which we had loaded up the back packs with prior to the climb. When we went to the mess tent for dinner, it had scurried out from the rocks and gone all the way in to the tent. When I opened the flap, it rushed deeper in to the tent and only came out again when it realised there was no escape. I have a blurry photo of a seed eater bird perched on my back pack at Moir Hut camp.

At the park gate where we started, the gigantic sign warned of all the hazards that lay ahead, and the precautions to take. Most of the advice was sound and wise, but one point made us worry. “Do not push yourself to go if you have extreme.” We kept a close eye out for signs of extreme in all of us and although we all came close and some point, none of us suffered complete extreme.

Our card games, mainly ‘UNO’ were played in the evenings after food and invariably when we were tired. What shoudl have been a fast, snappy game was played at a sedate pace with slow reactions, missed opportunities and a lot of laughing. In the end, though, everyone won at least one game! The less said about the games of Pontoon, using miniscule portions of popcorn as betting chips, the better.

There were few laughs on the climb to Uhuru Peak, but at one point I offered to roll rocks down the slope to try and silence a bunch of very loud trekkers who seemed to think making a noise – any noise – was cool. At the Uhuru Peak signpost, we were constantly thwarted while trying to get the photo by a bunch of Americans. In the end, we dashed in between their high fiving and managed to get three individual photos without anyone else encroaching.

On the descent, there was little time for humour as I desperately tried to keep my balance. But on the second day, there was a slightly more leisurely pace and there was time to look around and enjoy again. We kept passing and being passed by a group of Canadians, with a friendly ‘hello again, fancy meeting you here’. They were friendly and it became a running joke to break up some of the longer and more demanding sections. Stopping at Mweki camp for a toilet break, I peed down a chute only to find some kind of flying insect down there. it wouldn’t leave and as I tried not to hit it, it flew around to avoid the stream. had I sat down, I expect I would have got a lovely bite.

As we passed through the lower slopes by the park gate, we found what could only be described as ‘The Kilimanjaro Experience’. It seemed like a theme park/visitor centre compete with elephant and buffalo noises (but no elephants or buffaloes), empty farm huts and large palms. It was an odd end to the trek.

It’s impossible to do a trek like this without a sense of humour.  I hope I’ve managed to convey a some of it in this blog entry.