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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New Hill

The title conjures up images of massive upheaval of the very ground we stand on, momentous events changing the landscape. Well, that should have attracted the geologists scouring social media.

Today we set off for a new hill to us. It’s been there for countless thousands of years and in fact both Rufus and I have seen it many times as we climb Fan Nedd or Fan Llia. Fan Bwlch Chwyth (it translates as ‘Peak of the Windy Gap’) is across the Fechan valley and in the past I have never thought it accessible. However, a check of the appropriate OS map shows that all of the land there is open access. The reason fro our visit today was for me to try and find the wreckage of an Avro Vulcan bomber that crashed there in February 1966.

This bomber, XH536, took off from RAF Cottesmore on a training run on the 11th February 1966. My previous blog explains why Cottesmore holds an interest. I read about this crash while researching the Vulcan for that last post. The plane flew up the Fechan valley in poor weather and the crew thought they were in the Llia valley – a mile to the east. They turned east to enter the Senni valley but hit the high ground to the north of the Fechan before they could complete the maneouver. All five crew were killed by the impact.

We set off from the car on a beautiful morning with a cool breeze keeping the heat manageable. It was the first proper hill for both of us for a while and I took it easy. Rufus, however, doesn’t understand the concept of ‘taking it easy’ and soon left me behind. So I pushed a bit to keep up with him. Eventually, I found a pace that suited both of us. We eased around the northern end of the hill before reaching a dry stone wall, collapsed in places. A narrow path between the thick tufts of grass made the going a bit easier and soon we had pulled up onto the hill and after a few more minutes, the expected trig point came into view.

After a short break, we headed off southwards, facing Fan Gyhirych and, to the left, Fan Nedd. There was a clear route tot he top of Fan Gyhirych and I filed that away for use in the Autumn. One of the problems in tackling Fan Gyhirych from Fan Nedd is a field full of cows between the two tops. Another is a stule that is particularly for Rufus. The new route would bypass both.

Today was for getting the muscles used to hills again, so after a couple of miles, we turned back and started to look for the crash site. The description I’d read told how the plane left a long trail of debris, as it had hit the hill at around 450mph. The heaviest parts of the aircraft – it’s 4 engines and two undercarriage legs – travelled the furthest. The landing gear cleared the stone wall, about half a mile from the initial impact point. Today, the impact area is fenced off as part of an enclosed parcel of land. This meant I wasn’t able to get close enough to identify the area. Only a few pieces of aluminium remain to mark the debris field and it wasn’t possible to see these from the fence.

We headed back down, only mildly disappointed that we hadn’t been able to get to the crash site. I was more occupied with the fate of the crew and the otherwise beautiful location we had just visited. Rufus, with a different set of priorities, was more interested in bounding over tufts of grass, charging off to investigate every little scent and avoiding my camera every time I pointed it at him to try and snap his carefree runs down the slope.

Back at the car, it was warming up as it approached noon and we were both glad to head back home in air conditioned comfort.

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Air Show 2015

Today was the first day of the Wales National Air Show in Swansea. I try to go every time it’s on but this year was special as there was a chance to see the last flying Vulcan bomber. And, as I found out, it was the last year the plane would be flying.

The Vulcan and I go back a long way. One of my earliest memories is at the age of about 4, being woken up by the deep, earth shaking roar of a squadron of Vulcans taking off from RAF Cottesmore. This would happen quite regularly, at any time of the day or night. As a child, it was exciting and slightly scary. What I didn’t realise then was that this was the training and preparation for the third world war. Each time the aircraft were scrambled, my dad (a flight sergeant in the RAF) would have to get ready in case it was for real. If it had been for real, those bombers would have been our deterrent to nuclear attack and the fact they were taking off would signify an attack was imminent. Thankfully, the four year old me didn’t know this. I don’t know how my dad felt every time he had to rush off to his post on the base and I don’t know what my mum thought when he went. I just remember the big planes.

I was taken to see a Vulcan in it’s hanger by my dad. His mate in the maintenance unit managed to arrange for a private tour. The plane was up on the equivalent of car jacks as it’s undercarriage was being serviced. While I was there, they retracted and deployed the undercarriage, and then opened the bomb bay doors. I can’t describe how cool that was to me. I talked about it for years afterwards and anyone who knows me now must be fed up of hearing the story once I knew the Vulcan was flying at today’s airshow. I apologise!

Seeing the Vulcan approaching over Mumbles Head this afternoon gave me goose bumps and sent a shiver down my back. That iconic and unmistakeable shape banked over Oystermouth, sun glinting off the delta wings, and made a low level run along the bay. As soon as I heard the deep roar of the engines, I was back to my early childhood. The noise was so familiar that I could picture the base and the house we lived in. As it climbed at the end of the run, that extra kick of power and the chest pounding noise took me straight back to the exercises and alerts of 1968. I was four again! I took photos but made sure I also watched the plane with my own eyes. As I did so, I found memories of my parents coming back. As the Vulcan disappeared into the distance, it left me with that feeling of excitement, a little scared and with a great big lump in my throat.

EDIT: In the photo of the Typhoon, notice it’s in the Battle of Britain 75th Anniversary colours – these are the original 1940 camouflage colours that appeared on Hurricanes and Spitfires. It’s 75 years this month since the battle started. Let’s remember the few. 

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Rufuis and Dave’s Fortnight of Fun part 5: History

1: National History

The United Kingdom remains united. Personally, I think that’s a good thing. The arrangement may not be perfect, but it’s better than the alternatives. And if nothing else, the referendum has made people think and brought about concessions, The test is now about how the people of Scotland make use of them. I love Scotland and have been many times. Don’t break it.

2: Personal History

My mother’s side of family is from Gower. When we first moved back to Swansea, more than 40 years ago, we used to go out to Gower to visit relatives and I got to hear a number of stories about old Gower, before cars were the norm. There were ghost stories; my favourite is the one about the farmer who was driving his horse and cart down the lane one day when the horse inexplicable veered the cart into the side of the lane, tight up against the hedge. It wouldn’t budge, despite the urgings of the farmer. But after about 10 minutes the horse carried on as if nothing had happened. The farmer told his story and everyone made light of it. But within a couple of weeks, the farmer was dead and at the same time of day, his funeral procession passed through the same lane in the opposite direction.

My great aunt ran the sweet shop in Burry Green and I remember her well. Typical of country folk, she was independent but kind and friendly. There would always be a spread on the table when we called in, and I particularly remember that she used to slice her bread up incredibly thinly. But the highlight was a visit to the shop, where I would always be given something. As a child of about 9, the back of the shop felt slightly scary and there was the dilemma of going there (bad) and getting a bar of chocolate (good). Years later, when my aunt decided to move into a nearby nursing home – typical of her she made her own mind up and did it and there was no persuading involved – I remember helping to clear out the house. The shop had long gone but there were some fantastic old advertising posters.

One trip to Gower I remember was with my mum and dad and we went to a place called Bullin’s Well. At least, that’s what my mum knew it as. It’s Ryer’s Down on the maps. We took the dog we had then, a black poodle named Pickles (after the dog that found the FA Cup after it had been stolen in the 30’s – my dad’s idea) for a run and he thoroughly enjoyed. as I remember, he was fascinated by the horses on the common. I also remember a very low flying Canberra bomber passing overhead; I now know it must have been from the nearby Pembrey bombing range. But the thing that stuck in my mind the most was walking across the common to a clump of trees where my mum claimed there were the ruins of an old farmhouse.

Sure enough, when we got there, the ruins were where she said they were. They were only a few stones high – no shell of a farm house to mark the spot. Mum said relatives of the family, closer to my great aunt than my mum, lived and farmed there. The reason I remember it so well is that my dad took a cutting of a sycamore tree from there and planted it at the top of our garden. Now I live in the house I grew up in, and the tree is still there although considerably taller.

I’d thought about going back to Bullin’s Well several times, and we often drive past it on our way to Whiteford (which has featured many times in this blog). So today, when I was looking for a short walk after our two long days, I decided to go there to try and find the ruins again. Rufus didn’t object, so off we set. We walked up to the top of Ryer’s Down where I found a trig point – they pop up all over the place on Gower. Then we made our way down, following the hedge line back tot eh road. In fact, it was more of a tree line and I had to duck and squirm through some of the thicker parts as Rufus just ducked under the low branches. But everywhere I looked, there was no ruined farmhouse. By the time we reached the road again, I had decided that my memory must have been playing up as there was nothing. But when I got home and looked at the route we took on Google Earth, I spotted a few parts of the tree line we had missed and one part, inparticular, that looked as if it might have had a building on it.

So another trip is on the cards.

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