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 The sofas had been replaced by a new set, and there was wifi!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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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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