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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Why we walk the hills

By Dave and Rufus.

There is no sound other than the birds high up in the sky and the gentle breeze making its way through the grass. The early morning sun is shining with a yellow glow, the air is crisp and clear and the remains of last night’s frost crunches under foot. In puddles, ice has formed random and surreal patterns that few will see. It’s warm despite the early hour. The noise of traffic is not invited here.

From the top of Moel Feity, our venue for today, there is a panoramic view of mountains and countryside. in the distance to the north a line of clouds have formed, as if waiting to enter into our arena. But they’re not allowed to spoil the morning. To the west, Fan Brecheiniog looks grey with it’s thin coating of frost yet to be touched by the sun. A small cloud pops over the top and spills down towards Llyn y Fan Fawr like a slow motion waterfall. The twin table tops of Corn Du and Pen y Fan are silhouetted off to the east. Even at this early hour they are probably busy with those keen to be the highest people south of Snowdonia.

We have this hill to ourselves. We can go where ever we want. There are little paths and tracks that the sheep have worn over the years but the sheep are all gathered together further down the valley this morning. We choose to follow the paths or not as the whim takes us.

He’s going to start going on about how time has no meaning next. I know, and I apologise on behalf of my human. Allow him his indulgence.

There is no sign of the passage of time other than the distant clouds and the mist on Fan Brecheiniog. Even the sun is lazy this morning.

There. See. 

We come across the little memorial to the crew of Liberator 38753 and a little later, a small pile of aluminium, some melted, which has been gathered from the crash site. I stop to tidy them both up as I always do when we come here, and we spend a moment or two having a think before moving on.

We walk the hills because of all these things and the things we will see next time. Sometimes its for the challenge, sometimes it’s to get away from the crap and sometimes its to get to the top.

Before he gets too carried away with the artistic dribble, lets talk about the real reason we walk the hills. Dave has this need to prove himself and I have to tag along just to make sure he doesn’t overdo things. I don’t mind; he’s good to me so I return the favour. When I wasn’t well, he stayed with me so he’s a bit out of shape right now. In the past he’s done it to get fit to climb hills in other countries – without me! But I don’t care really because I enjoy walking the hills with Dave.

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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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PB4Y 38753

Last year, Rufus and I visited the site of a crashed Lancaster on Garn Las. Today, Remembrance Sunday, we decided to visit another site we had discovered on our travels. On 24 August 1944, a US Navy Liberator bomber was on night exercise when it hit the top of Moel Feity. All the crew were killed. The crew were Lts Byrnes and Hobson Jr, Ens Manelski, ARM Shipe and AMMs Holt Jr and Keister. If any of their relatives are reading this, you should know that there are a number of poppies laid here during the year; people continue to remember. The weather may sometimes scatter them but the sacrifice these men made is not forgotten.

The site is remote. It’s not visible from the road or from any of the sheep tracks that skirt the top of the hill. The first time I went looking for the site was in heavy rain, and both Rufus and I got drenched without coming anywhere near it. The first time we found it, it was almost by accident. This time I had an idea where to look but I started to doubt my own direction sense. However, just as I was about to turn back to try and find it on the next hillock, the white stone appeared on the horizon.

It’s a beautiful setting on a fine morning, as it was this morning. It’s a poignant place, too because you can see how close the plane was to missing the top of the hill. I replaced the wreath on the little cairn, placed my own poppy, on a wooden cross, and stood for a few minutes. Rufus, as usual, was well behaved and didn’t complain as he usually does when I stop walking for any length of time.

Then it was on to the lake. The weather was wonderful this morning and although there was a cold wind now and again, the sun was strong and warm. Underfoot was a different matter, however, as all the recent rain had clearly collected on the route I was taking. Many times my boots disappeared completely under water and only the recent waterproofing I applied kept my feet dry. I tried to push the pace up the hillside towards the lake to try out my knee. Before long, Rufus, who had run ahead as usual, appeared on the crest of the hill to see where I was. He alternated between looking off into the distance and looking at me. That usually means he’s seen something he wants to go to but he knows I’ll probably tell him no. As I crested the hill, I saw that he was staring longingly at the lake. He’s learnt some hand signals while we’ve been walking, and when I waved him on, he shot off to the water’s edge.

We sat in the  heat of the sun at the lake shore and snacked. Rufus cooled his paws, I took photos and marveled at the weather. We set off around the edge of the lake and on towards the path up to Fan Brecheiniog. At 11am, I stood for a few minutes as part of the 2 minute silence. Rufus, unsure what was going on, reminded me that it was time to go and at 11.02, we went. It took us 21 minutes to climb from the lake to the ridge of Fan Brecheiniog. It always looks harder than it is and I’ve learnt to ignore my first impressions and just estimate the time it will take. It helps tackle the steep parts.

On top, we bumped into several walkers and dogs taking advantage of the lovely weather.  We made our way along the ridge with magnificent views in all directions. This is one of my favourite places in the Brecon Beacons. In the distance, the trophy summits of Pen y Fan and Corn Du stuck out on the horizon and I still get a buzz getting to the top of Pen y Fan. But for me, the empty, isolated ridge of Fan Brecheiniog is so much better .

We walked out to the burial cairn on Fan Foel before reluctantly turning around and heading back. I’m still getting used to the walking pole and so coming down was slower than I would have liked. But it was definitely easier on the knees. At the bottom, Rufus was waiting for me at the lake shore and there were a few stones thrown and caught before we splashed and slurped our way across the boggy marsh and down to the river.

We skirted the side of Moel Feity, avoided horses and foals, splashed through fast flowing streams, got muddy and finally reached the car a little less that four hours after we’d left.

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It’s official

Just been to see the doctor and he has prescribed a month of rest for my poor knee. If you’re reading this, gather at my house for I think I may need waiter/waitress service!

So after seeing him, I went for a chilled stroll through the botanical garden at Singleton Park. I never really knew what exactly was in there but it was beautiful. Lots of colourful flowers and plants and a squirrel, sort of hiding in a bush. But he just couldn’t contain his curiosity and kept poking his head out to see what iw as doing. Of course, I was poking my camera in to take his portrait.

Then, walking back tot he car, I was confronted by a road accident that had only just happened. A Ford Ka was across the road with it’s bumper ripped off and front tyres deflated. Being an ex-first aider, I started to get twitchy but there were no casualties – in fact it seems as if the two youths in the car had run away. I felt sorry for the woman who had just walked back to her parked car to find it part of the mayhem – the Ka had hit it before bouncing into the middle of the road. My car was only two vehicles away from the one they hit. I overheard a witness telling the woman that the youths had been speeding and had swerved to avoid a dog. Nothing for me to do, so I managed to do a three point turn and drive away from the chaos.

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Nant Tarw

Time to get out. I’ve felt cooped up recently, despite getting out now and again with Rufus. I’d decided that yesterday I would head off for a more substantial walk and see how far I went.

I’ve been interested in stone circles for years. I’ve been to lots of small, obscure and remote circles to photograph them. I’m not a stone hugger; my interest is an extension of my fascination with all thigs and places historical. Forget for a moment the famous circles at Stonehenge and Avebury. These are impressive but they lack atmosphere when crowded by tourists. Some of my favourite stone circles are tiny, and in the middle of nowhere. But it’s easy to get a feel for the atmosphere when visiting them.

I had a short discussion with Rufus and we decided to visit the stone circles at Nant Tarw, south of the Usk Reservoir. (Actually, I promised Rufus rivers and pools as he doesn’t share my interest in enigmatic ancient monuments).

I let Rufus out of the car while I got my backpack ready. But I wasn’t quick enough and I became aware of Rufus, watching me intently and uttering short whines and yaps to try and get me to speed up. We finally set off from the car in blustery conditions and followed a path through a forest to a stile. Stiles feature a lot in our walks and once Rufus grew big enough that he was hard to pick up, I’ve encouraged him to deal with them himself. Now, with scarcely a hesitation, he will clamber up, balance precariously on the top rung for a moment before launching himself from the top onto whatever lies below. Then he waits to see if I fall off before carrying on.

I’d found a map of the ancient monuments in the Nant Tarw valley and I was surprised to find that there were many more than I was aware of from previous visits. I’d planned the route to take in as many of these as practical. Areas like this are known as ritual landscapes. It’s highly unlikely that these monuments were randomly placed or coincidental, so they were probably all linked in some way, and there was some significance to their plan.

We passed a fallen standing stone, which Rufus had to conquer by climbing on top. There are a lot of boulders around the area, the results of pasture clearance or glacial action, but this one was sited on an old path, and there were smaller rocks at its base, suggesting they were used as packing stones to wedge it in place when it was upright. Its shape, long and narrow, was also unusual and ideal for an upright marker.

From here we headed south along a track before climbing up alongside an old sheepfold made using drystone walling. In the distance wa a modern version using breeze blocks; how things have changed. Above this, we came across the first burial cairn and I wondered how many other cairns had been destroyed to provide building materials for the sheepfold.

This cairn overlooks the sloping land to the north and is positioned on a direct line with the lower slopes of Fan Foel, visible capped by clouds to the south. Many Bronze Age cairns are said to overlook farmland and this one was no exception. In its day, large and covered in the light grey local stones, it would have stood out for miles, especially in sunshine. The ancestors keep watch over the crops and the livestock.

Heading further south up the hill, we soon came across the second cairn. Bigger than the first (because it hadn’t been robbed to build walls?) it too overlooked the rolling hills of Sennybridge to the north. There were clear signs of the kerbing that would once have defined the cairn. The stones were now scattered around and previous visitors had placed some of them into a central pile of stones that s the tradition on hill routes.We took a break and had a snack here while contemplating the remoteness and mystery of the place. Well, I did. Rufus just contemplated my snack (after he’d devoured his own!)

We continued on south towards the mountains. We were now heading towards a more modern monument and one I find particularly sad. On 5 September 1943, a Lancaster bomber on a training mission encountered a storm and crashed into the ground just north of Fan Foel. All 8 crew members were killed. I’d visited the place before and wanted to go back again. Please take a moment to read the names on the monument in the photo below. It’s how we remember.

We set off to the west, making for the stone circles and another cairn. By now, the sun was coming out and despite the fierce wind on the top of the hill, it was warm. I’d enticed Rufus out with the promise of rivers and pools, and we’d come across a couple, but not enough for him. As soon as he spotted the stream that gave it’s name to the valley, the Tarw, he was off, racing downhill to dive into the water. By the time I’d got to him, he was up to his tummy in fresh looking water waiting for me to throw stones for him to find. I love the way he concentrates on finding the stones I throw, or similar ones, and carefully taking them out of the water. By the time we were ready to leave, he’d lined up several stones on the bank.

We followed the stream west for a while before we came across a medium sized standing stone that marked the place where we should climb up to find the last cairn and the two circles. It’s likely this was deliberately placed to guide people to the circles as they were not visible from the stream itself. Up we climbed, past two more stones which may have been part of a row or just coincidental, and came out on a flat piece of land next to a burial cairn. This one showed signs of extended ‘horns’ which would have flanked the original entrance. But as with the other two cairns, the stones were scattered and the once proud monument was almost flat against the ground.

Beyond it to the south, two small stone circles were sited. I’d been here several times before and always enjoyed the feeling of isolation. The Nant Tarw is hidden from road and civilisation and is rarely visited because the direct route of boggy and indistinct. The stones of the circle are tiny. Most of them barely rise from the grass tufts of the moorland. Reeds grow from their bases further obscuring them. The two circles line up to follow the line of the valley and to their west is a fallen standing stone, much large than the circle stones, which has a short row of three more small stones associated with it.

From the circles, the very tops of Fan Foel and Picws Du are visible above the local horizon, which is a hill. To the east, the peaks of Corn Du and Pen y Fan are just visible poking over the top of the hills there. The valley is windswept and damp. It’s likely that the climate was different in the Bronze Age (about 4,000 – 2,000 years ago) and further on there is evidence, in the form of parallel drainage ditches, that the land was farmed. This was clearly an important place for Bronze Age man; the effort needed to plan the circle, find and move the stones (especially the large ones weighing more than a ton) would have impacted the farming that was taking place at the time.  Nevertheless, they did it. The purpose remains a mystery. And that is why I am fascinated.

We headed back to the car, over the drainage ditches and the bog they failed to drain. While I got rid of the backpack, Rufus stared longingly at the river just beyond the fence of the car park.

We ended up at the river and Rufus was delighted to dredge the riverbed for stones and sticks.

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