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.

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Italy III – Crossing the Apenines

We had eaten out last night, rather than had the set hotel meal, as we wanted to enjoy the wonderful atmosphere of Riva del Garda. After food, as the evening turned to night, we sat on the shore of Lake Garda and watched the twinkling street lights that defined the shore stretching into the distance. It was comfortably warm and I could have sat there for hours. But Florence was our city for the following day and we needed to pack as we were transferring to our second hotel in Chianciano Terme.

The coach journey was one of the longer ones but it was made a little more bearable by the countryside we were travelling through. We were climbing to pass through the Apenine mountains – the ‘spine of Italy’ –  through and across a series of tunnels and bridges. We reached the high point, about 750m, and started to descend towards Tuscany.

Tuscany was one of the places we were both looking forward to seeing. The rolling hills, vineyards and farm land were some of the images that has attracted us to the whole holiday. We weren’t disappointed. The rain clouds that had drizzled on us in the mountains cleared and we were treated to sunlit fields of grapes, wheat and orchards passing by on both sides, while in the distance, little villages and towns perched precariously on hills. They were built there for protection and to provide early warning of approaching trouble. It also meant there was more room on the fertile ground for crops.

In Florence, the late morning sun had taken the temperature up to 29C and because the city sits in a valley, there was little wind to cool us. We decided not to take the walking tour but to set off and explore on our own. We have found in the past that getting lost leads to more discovery and adventure. We started off in the Piazza del Duomo – Duomo being the Italian for Cathedral. This one is dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flower) and is the third largest in Italy. It has a detached bell tower with some 400 steps and although it would have provided a fantastic view from the top, 400 steps was too much to contemplate in the heat and humidity.

Instead, we decided to head south to the river Arno and Ponte Vecchio. This bridge survived WW2 when the retreating German forces destroyed all the other bridges across the river. They were persuaded to leave the beautiful and historical bridge intact and instead blocked the southern end by demolishing the buildings there. Ponte Vecchio has little shops on it; they were once butchers but now they are jewellers and craft shops. We crossed the narrow bridge and stopped to pick up some food from a local delicatessen before finding a little park out of the way of the crowds to sit and eat lunch. The hectic schedule and the heat of mid afternoon was beginning to tell on both of us and it was nice to get away and relax in the shade for half an hour.

We strolled along the south bank of the Arno and climbed the ever steepening hill to Piazza Michelangelo. We passed through the inevitable street vendors, selling everything from fake designer sunglasses to fake designer handbags. Beyond them, the panorama before us was amazing and one of the sights that will stay with me for a long time. Set out before us was the city of Florence, red roofed and punctuated by church towers, domes and the bridges across the river. Beyond, the hills were little farm houses, hillside villages and fields of vineyards and crops. It was a beautiful sight and helped to put the city into context, something we hadn’t been able to do when at street level.

We made our way back to the city and I found it easier to take in some of the sites now I’d seen the plan. There were a lot of works of art, statues mainly, which had been donated to the city by a wealthy patron on condition that they were displayed to the public. They lined the street outside the Palazzo della Signoria although I read that some of them have been replaced by replicas to preserve the originals. Michelangelo’s David, with head, hands and feet out of proportion to the body, stands to the left of the entrance (although this is now a replica, which is somewhat disappointing). The oversized head, hands and feet are thought to be because the statue was originally intended to be placed on the roof line of the Cathedral.

In the quest for an ice cream in every city, we were very nearly conned into paying £14 for two cones from a shop. The prices indicated were unclear and before I knew what had happened, I had a large cone of chocolate in my hand as the guy serving didn’t wait for me to ask. We were taken inside to pay, where it appeared that the price list showed the cone and the ice cream were separate. I refused to pay and handed back the cone, as did Em, and we walked out to the protests from the shop owner. We weren’t chased down the street, and it was the only time we felt unfairly treated during the whole trip.

We made our way through the Piazza della Repubblica, where Hannibal Lecter disembowelled one of his victims from a window overlooking the square (in a film, I hasten to add), past the Duomo with its distinctive striped light and dark grey stone work and on to the rendezvous for the coach in Piazza Santa Croche. I am a little ashamed to say that in the heat and being a little tired after the last few days, I may have referred to it as Piazza Santa Crotch. Em may have laughed at that, too. But we got a lovely ice cream each, for the more reasonable sum of £4.20 for the two, and we sat on the steps of the church and ate them while we watched workmen erecting seating for some event to be held in the square later that evening.

We got to the new hotel, the Alexander Palme, around 6ish, and we were immediately impressed by the place. It was listed as a 4 star hotel and certainly looked the part; columns on the outside and outside seating. Inside, it was old fashioned in a good way. I understand it was built in the 40’s. Our 2nd floor room was large and tiled and beyond the trees we could see the hills and villages of the area. The staff couldn’t do enough to make us welcome and during the 6 course dinner that evening, they welcomed us with a little speech and gave us complimentary champagne.

It was a lovely way to first experience Tuscany, but the best Tuscan experience was yet to come.

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