Even more history on your doorstep

Zulu! One of my favourite films, Michael Caine’s big break and a classic movie of the 60’s.

Zulu tells the story of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu war in the late 19th Century. Over two days – 22 and 23 January 1879 – around 150 British and colonial soldiers successfully defended the mission station from attack by between 3 and 4 thousand Zulu warriors. By any standard it was a heroic battle; 11 Victoria Crosses and 4 Distinguished Conduct Medals were awarded for that one action.

Of the 150 or so defenders, one stands out for me. Not because of his actions but because this afternoon I came across his grave in the local churchyard. I didn’t know it was there and I was in the graveyard for a completely different reason. But the clean and well tended headstone with fresh flowers attracted my attention, situated as it was in an older part of the plot amongst old and collapsing grave markers.

Private ‘David Lewis’ was born James Owens in 1852 near Whitland. In his teens he sought and obtained work in the tin works at Swansea Docks before he became a weaver. He married in 1875 and had two children, one of whom was named David Lewis Owens. He enlisted into the  2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot at Brecon in December 1876 under the name David Lewis. His pay was sent to his sister.

In 1878 he sailed with his regiment to South Africa where he fought in the Cape Frontier war and the Zulu war between 1877-79. He was invalided to England and discharged from service in August 1879 with heart problems. He returned to Swansea where, as James Owens, he resumed his trade as a weaver. Years later, he lost an eye in an accident when he went into work on his day off to collect his wages.

James Owens died on 1 July 1938 in Brynmill, Swansea, aged 87 and was buried with full military honours at Bethel Church, just down the road from where I live.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

Krakow

Djen Dobry.

For those with a smattering of Polish, you may have picked up that I’ve just said hello. Or, if the pronunciation is wrong, I may have just insulted your garden!

We flew out to Krakow on Monday for three nights staying in the Hotel Senacki, on Grodzka and not far from the centre of the old town, the Rynek Glowny. I’ve never been to Eastern Europe and Krakow was described as a wonderful example of architecture. As Martin, our Krakow Shuttle driver, took us the 15km from the airport to the city, we seemed to be driving through the countryside of any country. I had seen lots of individual houses with colourful roofs as we came in to land, and they had reminded me of Scandinavian houses. Now, driving past them, I could see that some were built of wood, whilst others were of whitewashed stone. Many looked relatively new and a lot of what I would call luxurious. Between the houses were large flat parcels of land that didn’t seem to be fenced of or belonging to any of them.

Then we entered the suburbs and it could have been any city. But once through the traffic and across the River Wistula, I could see how Krakow differed from other European cities. As the centre of government for Greater Germany in WW2, it had escaped any significant damage and the remarkable architecture had survived intact. We drove down narrow, cobbled back streets until we caught sight of the hotel.

Hotel Senacki was situated opposite the church of St Peter and St Paul on Grodzka, one of the main streets of the old town. It was a small place and the staff were very helpful throughout our stay. Checking in was quick and after asking for a change of room, we had a great view out onto Grodzka and the church opposite.

Over the next two and a half days, we managed to cram in a lot of sightseeing, walking and eating! The fantastic summer weather made the walking most enjoyable, with lovely cool mornings and evenings and warm days. We walked around the old town and into the Market Square, the Rynek Glowny and it became our destination each morning before setting off on our planned trips. Early morning, before the tourists arrived, meant the square was quiet and empty, with only the cafe staff and delivery vans around.

On Monday night, we called in to the church of St Peter and St Paul, where a sextet of strings played a selection of classics from Vivaldi, Bach and Albinoni. It was a lovely experience, although the acoustics meant that some of the melodies were lost in the reverberation of the church.

On the Tuesday, we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, two places that we had both wanted to see but had also felt apprehensive about going to. That visit is worthy of another blog, which I will write when I feel I can. In a long day, we also visited the Wieliczka salt mine before dining in one of the open air restaurants in the Market Square.

The salt mine has been producing salt for more than 700 years and only recently closed down. Visitors descend 380 wooden steps to reach the 1st level some 64m below ground. From there, 2km of passages lead visitors through tunnels and chambers, some dating back to the 16th Century. The mine is a museum and most of the chambers have displays of figures and machinery and some have fantastic carvings made from the salt that was being mined. Particularly spectacular are the three churches built below ground. The largest, the Chapel of St Kinga, is still used for services once a week and weddings are held here, with the reception being hosted in the nearby restaurant. Working in the salt mine was seen to be a privilege, as the salt commanded good prices and the miners were paid well. Conditions in the mine were good. We ended up in the deepest souvenir shop I’ve ever been in, at 134m below ground. From there, we made our way back to the stairs but this time we were able to take a fast and cramped lift back to the surface.

On Wednesday, we walked around the city and visited some of the churches. 98% of Poles are Catholics and the multitude of churches in Krakow reminded me of some of the cities we visited in Italy, where there seemed to be a church around every corner. We’d popped in to the Dominican Church early on Tuesday and noticed several people praying there before heading off to work. It struck me that this was so different to Britain, where people tend to worship as an act once a week, almost out of habit.

We walked into the Market Square and around, heading out to the north in search of the Church of the Reformed Franciscans, where beneath the church, the crypt has a micro climate that has caused the bodies lying there to naturally mummify. Although visitors can access the crypt by request, it wasn’t open when we were there. Instead, we stood and listened to a service going on.

Moving on, we reached St Florian’s Gate, the last remaining part of the old city wall. Krakow was frequently attacked and this wall gave the town some measure of security. To commemorate the attacks, a bugler sounds a call (the hejnal) on the hour from the taller spire of St Mary’s church in the square. The northern tower is taller because it was used as a watchtower and here, legend has it, the watchman was interrupted during his alarm call by an arrow to the throat. The bugle call that now sounds ends abruptly in memory of that event.

Inside St Mary’s church, the dark Gothic décor was striking, and set off with gold detailing. But the main reason we were here was to see the magnificent High Altar. It was started in 1477 and took 12 years to complete. It consists of 12 panels in the Gothic style depicting key events from the story of Christ. After  swift coffee in the square, we c;limbed the old Town Hall tower to get a panoramic view of the Old Town.

Wawel Hill is the location for the old castle of Krakow, and Krakow Cathedral. Legend says that Krakow was founded when a local hero, Krak, defeated a dragon that lived under Wawel Hill. The cave is still there but the dragon is now a sculpture that breathes fire every so often.  When Krakow was the capital of Poland the kings were crowned in the cathedral and lived in the castle. Today, it is open to the public and forms an imposing site overlooking the Vistula. One of the walls of the open courtyard in the castle is said to be one of the world’s sources of spiritual energy. I encountered one of these sites before, on Pen y Fan, and spent some time talking to a man who was completely convinced of this. With all the walking, our energy levels were dropping and no amount of standing next to the walls helped.

Suddenly and far too quickly, it was time to go and everything seemed to happen in a rush. One minute we were having breakfast, the next we were waiting in the departure area and then we were landing at Bristol.

I enjoyed Krakow, and while I wouldn’t want to go back there as a place to stay (I’ve seen everything I wanted to see in the city) I would use it as a centre to travel further.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Where the dead things are

A day off. The first Rufus knew was when he came in to wake me up at my usual time and instead of watching me make breakfast after he’d been out in the garden, he watched me go back to bed for an hour’s lie in. Then, when I did finally get up, he was surprised that there was no rush to get ready, and that I was wearing walking trousers. We set off for Ilston woods in frosty conditions. I was hoping for some mist for a photo I’ve had in my mind for some time, of trees disappearing into a light grey morning haze.

There was no mist, but there was frost and mud. We wandered for a while but I just wasn’t getting any inspiration for photographs and Rufus was getting muddier and muddier. I didn’t want to take snapshots so rather than waste the early morning light, we headed back to the car and then on to Oxwich Bay. I haven’t been to Oxwich for ages. The bay sweeps around from the headland towards Three Cliffs. During the war, Oxwich was one of the bays used to practice for the D-Day landings. It was much calmer today.

We wandered through the dunes rather than across the sand. The sun was warm and despite the earlier frost, it soon warmed the day up. Dressed for freezing conditions, I had to remove a layer and roll my sleeves up! There were plenty of shady places for Rufus so I wasn’t too worried about him overheating. I’ve never walked though the dunes here before, and although it was similar to walking around Whiteford, the dunes were closer together here, and there was much more greenery.

Before long, we reached the little unnamed brook that marks the unofficial boundary between Oxwich Burrows and Nicholaston Wood. I headed off to the stream where it flowed in to the sea for Rufus to have a paddle and drink. But when I turned around, he was on the high water mark, rolling around in something aromatic. He has a tendency to find the dead things that are washed up on the shore and today was no exception. Although he knows he’l have to have a shower, which never goes down well, I think he also knew that the shower was out of action at the moment, in need of resealing.

Our stroll back was relaxed and the day felt almost summery with the strong and bright sun in my eyes the whole way. Needless to say, there was much snoring from Rufus after we got home. So I left him sleeping and dashed off to the DIY store to get the things I needed to fix the shower.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Ilston Valley

With the day to ourselves, Rufus and I both had a short lie in before getting up, still relatively early. The cool of the morning, and the solitude, both appeal to me and I know Rufus appreciates not having to walk, run, bark and generally show me who’s the fitter in the heat of midday. So after a quick breakfast, we were out of the door and off in the car to Ilston Woods.

We went there recently and both enjoyed the walk from the little village down to Parkmill. There is a river for Rufus to cool off in and the chance, however slim, for me to snap a Kingfisher. I’d conveniently forgotten about the mud. So much mud!

We quickly negotiated the little church yard and made our way through the gate into the woods proper. The canopy gave us some shelter from the sun for although it was only 8am, I could feel the warmth in the village. The smell of wild garlic was even stronger than last time, taking me back to the summers of the early 80’s when I was here a lot, taking photos of the church and wild camping amongst the trees. Very little has changed, or so it seems in my mind. The birds were competing between each other to see which ones could sing the loudest. There was a lot of movement as blackbirds and starlings flitted about. For a long time there were not man made sounds.

The river is quite low at this time of year, despite some recent heavy downpours, and in places it ran completely dry. I seem to remember reading somewhere that there was a swallow hole and of r part of its course, the water runs underground. Closer to Parkmill there was a health flow on the surface and this is where I saw the Kingfisher last time. There was no sign of it today, though. We must have been making too much noise.

At the southern end of the valley is the Gower Inn, where I celebrated my 18th birthday and, a few years later, passing my degree. We lingered a while by the river here before setting off back towards Ilston and the car. I try to vary the route a little and we inevitably take a wrong turning now and again. Today, I managed to follow the muddiest path back – even worse than the one we started off on.

Back at the car, we both paddled a little in the river to clean muddy paws before setting off home. It is Rufus’ mission in life to get the back of may car as dirty as he can and so as much as I try to clean him off before he gets in, he manages to keep some mud hidden from me!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

Ilston

This morning, we set off early for Ilston. Rufus has been there once before when his real owner took him. Ilston woods and the little 13th Century church has been a part of my history for around 30 years. I haven’t been to the valley for several years so when I heard Rufus had been, it set an idea in my head ticking away like a little time bomb. With the weather unexpectedly clear this morning, the bomb went off.

I love the village of Ilston. I can remember years ago thinking I’d love to live there and when I parked the care carefully off the road, I still thought the same thing. It was the first country village I really got to know, and it has always been the measure by which I judge other villages. I love the spread in both appearance and spacing of the houses here.

We crossed the bridge and entered the churchyard. St Illtyd’s church dates from the 13th Century but there are records of a church at Ilston from 1119AD. The ‘new’ version may have been built around a monk’s cell. When I was in school, friends and I were making a horror movie around the village. It started off as a proper horror movie but as we realised our limitations, it became a spoof. We shot a lot of footage on super 8mm film, but never completed the film. We had loads of fun doing it, though. Later, when I was in college, I sued to go to the church to photograph it and I always remember printing a black and white photo taken with my (then) new Pentax K1000 and it’s 50mm lens. The print was pin sharp and showed up the detail in the stone work of the tower. I was really pleased with the [performance of the lens and I wish I had that lens now.

Every summer while I was away in London, my mates and I would meet up during the holidays. Gower was a regular venue and Ilston woods featured heavily. They say smell is one of the strongest triggers of memories and as I walked down there today, the smell of wild garlic took me back to the mid 1980s. There were areas that were familiar and places where nature or my failing memory had changed things.

In the mid 90’s I used to hang around with a different set of friends and we used to go wild camping a lot. We spent one memorable night in Ilston woods, near The Gower Inn, and eventually my route today took me through the area. Although I didn’t recognise exactly where we camped, the little bridge that in the night we thought was miles away from our camp site, but which in the morning proved to be a few tens of yards away, was immediately recognisable.

Nearby were the remains of the Old Trinity Well Chapel, the site of the first Baptist Chapel in Wales, founded by John Myles in 1649. Myles (or Miles, it’s not clear what the correct spelling is) was installed by the Parliamentarians as the Cromwellian Minister of Ilston. The previous incumbent ejected him and so Myles founded the Baptist chapel here. When the Baptist practices were ruled illegal in 1663, Myles and his parish left for America, where they founded the town of Swansea in Massachusetts.

At the car park to the Gower Inn, we stopped and I threw stones for Rufus. A flash of blue and orange passed by low over the water and before I could fumble for the camera, the Kingfisher had disappeared back towards Ilston. I contented myself with snapping a yellow wagtail and a robin.  The weather forecast had predicted heavy rain and the sun that lit our path on the way down had disappeared behind a dark cloud so it was time to turn back. We set off and followed the river back towards Ilston.

Now for the first time I noticed just how muddy the path was. It wasn’t possible to go more than a few yards without having to step on, in or through mud and water. It was slippery and made the going harder as I had to be careful not to over balance. I hadn’t noticed on the way down. Rufus made light work of the mud but even he slipped a few times.

We stopped so that Rufus could swim and catch stones and slowly made our way back. There was no rain, and the sun showed itself again a few times. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the Kingfisher again; not surprising as Rufus was crashing ahead for most of the time. Birds sang in the trees and as we made our way through the church yard, a squirrel chanced it’s luck and crossed the path in front of us., The first I knew was a mighty tug on the lead as Rufus made a bid to try and get it, but it scurried up a nearby tree trunk and left us standing, watching.

Back at the car, I let Rufus paddle his paws clean but when I got home, it was obvious from the muddy patch on the towels on the back seat that a shower was required. As I’m typing this, the leg of my jeans is drying from where Rufus was sleeping on it after his shower (it’s a form of revenge – I shower him, he soaks me) and he is finishing off the drying process on the sofa.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Whitby

On our tour of York and the North East, we spent Friday on the north east coast. Our first destination was Robin Hood’s Bay.

The breakfast was delicious and there was a lot of it. Buffet style, while immensely attractive, is fatal for me. I inevitably pick the best bits of bacon (‘ooh, that one looks better’) and the nicest sausages (‘ooh, that one looks nice too’) and suddenly I need help carrying the plate back to my table. Today was no exception.

Squeezing into the car, we set off to cross the North Yorkshire Moors towards Whitby and the East. The last time I came across here, there was a massive thunder storm over Whitby and the lightning was flashing constantly, putting me off driving, Today, the weather was beautiful and clear; warm but not uncomfortably hot. There was a wonderful moment when the silhouette of Whitby abbey came into view on the cliff top above the town. We skirted around and headed south towards the little fishing village, which was once more important than Whitby according to Dutch sea maps, which showed Robin Hood’s Bay but not Whitby.

Parking at the top of the hill, we walked down the steep lane towards the sea. There were few people here and it was lovely to see the streets and lanes uncluttered by tourists. We explored some of the narrower paths until it began to feel as if we were intruding into people’s gardens. At the foot of the hill, the tide was in and washing over the slipway. It was lovely to watch the waves, and hear them too, without the interruption of man made noise. After some sun and sea air, we trudged back up the much steeper hill to the car and headed off to the Abbey.

The main entrance to the abbey was closed and so we had to walk around the perimeter of the grounds to get to the alternative entrance. Which was also closed, as there was a private group being showed around. It was very disappointing especially as there were no notices in the car park. Fortunately, we were heading down to Whitby too, otherwise it would have been a waste of money in the car park.

199 steps lead down from St Mary’s church to the East harbour, the oldest part of Whitby. They weren’t as bad as I was expecting and very soon we were in Church street, one of the older and original streets in the town. In the lore of Dracula, this is the route he took after coming ashore from the grounded ‘Demeter’, heading up to the church and the grave of a suicide, where he spent some of the 10 days he was in Whitby. I’m guessing he didn’t stop at the souvenir shops to pick up some Whitby Jet.

We crossed over the Drawbridge to the west side and walked alongside the wharfs, now home to tour boats, one or two fishing vessels and the large fish market. A lovely coffee at the Marine Hotel was followed by a stroll out to the pier and back. We then spent some time in the little art galleries in the side streets. Captain Cook was born here and started his seafaring career at the harbour. I love little details like that. It reminded me that I’d been in Stromness, where the Endeavour stopped to water and provision before heading south (so I was told). An odd route but it turns out that as Britain was at war with France at the time, it was safer than using the English Channel.

All too soon it was time to climb back up the 199 steps (now mysteriously steeper and more numerous) to the church. We were passed on the way by schoolkids whose only purpose was to show us the differences age brings. They were waiting at the top of the steps, bouncing with energy. We wandered through the churchyard, with its Gothic gravestones. They all appeared to be made of the same sandstone, and to a very similar design. Unfortunately, the ravages of the sea air and storms had worn the surfaces back considerably. Most stones showed a characteristic pitting and many had worn thin to the point where they seemed they might snap in the slightest breeze. Some had already done so.

From the church we walked back around the abbey ruins to the car. It was time to head back to the hotel and our three course meal. We stopped on the way back in the little village of Goathland on the North York Moors. Goathland played the role of Aidensfield in the ITV series ‘Heartbeat’ and every souvenir shop (almost every building in the tiny village was a souvenir shop) had all the merchandising you could imagine to remind us. There were even two Ford Anglia cars painted up as police cars from the 1960s, when the series was set. The station was also used as ‘Hogsmead’ station in the Harry Potter films (I’ve only included that to justify the Harry Potter keyword tag I’ll add in a cynical attempt to boost my site traffic).

We made a brief stop at the Hole of Horcum (not part of it, the whole of it). The hole is part of the valley formed by the Levisham Beck and ranks 11th in the  Rude Britain top 100 list (which includes North Piddle, Titty Ho and the classic ‘Twatt’, a place I’ve been to on Orkney – these may not be in my tag list because I’m not that desperate for traffic). We got back to our hotel at about 5.30. After a welcome shower and change, we were out in the beer garden enjoying a beer with the guests of a wedding reception.

Food was lovely, more so because it was part of the deal we’d had. Then it was time for bed.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.