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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Second snow

On the odd occasion that I looked out of the office window last week, all I could see was the white capped hills finally visible after weeks of rain, low cloud and darkness. Last week Rufus and I headed up to one of those hills and although we got snowed on, we had a great walk. I found some waterfalls I wanted to photograph and so we planned a return visit. With the weather forecast showing fine weather today, we set off before dawn to get to Foel Fawr before the crowds – it’s very popular with people sledging when there’s snow about.

I watched the temperature drop as we climbed along the hill road until it read -2 centigrade. Fortunately the road was clear of ice, although sheep and ponies had decided to stand on it rather than the snow either side. Eventually, we got to the quarry and a few yards later, the car park. The car park was frozen but as it had been churned up the previous day, there was plenty of grip for the tyres. We set off, carefully at first, but then more confident as the going underfoot became less slippery. Off the car park surface, the snow was thick and we left deep foot prints as we went. With no paths visible, we struck off towards the rocks of the quarry and hoped for the best. Rufus four paw drive meant he sailed over the snow but I found myself boot deep in unfrozen mud and at one point I nearly lost my balance as the marshy ground tried to stop me.

I was finding the going quite tough with the snow and I kept an eye on Rufus to see how he was coping. Better than me! He was bounding and sprinting all over the place, then stopping to sniff at some unmissable aroma. We were following a fox’s track at one point and he stopped so often that I left him behind. It was great to watch him run, bounce, and hop to catch up, with no sign of problems with his knee.

At the waterfall, there was a short but steep climb down and I kept a hand on Rufus’ collar to make sure he didn’t go too fast to stop at the edge. I stopped for 10 minutes at the waterfall but it was a little disappointing, and the treacherous conditions meant I didn’t fancy scrambling down any further to change the view point. Instead, after a few snapshots, we set off back up the hill, much steeper now and harder with the deep and slippery snow. The path we took last week was covered in snow and hidden but I set off in the general direction to climb up to one of the levels of the quarry. The route I took led along the slope and I had to dig the sides of my boots into the snow to stop me slipping down again. Rufus, making the most of his 4 paw drive, saw no problem as he kept level with me but several yards lower on the slope. Then he tried to get up to me.

The snow was so deep between us that every time he took a step, Rufus sank to his tummy in it. He was struggling to make any headway, so I dropped down and gave him a hand. Together we managed to get out of the deepest snow and Rufus was able to follow my footsteps until we got on firm ground again. Then he was off as if nothing had happened. It didn’t take us long to get back the car.

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Looking Forward.

Thank you for putting up with my retrospective over the last couple of weeks or so. It’s time to move on. So while my mind gently returns from the African Plains and dreams of climbing Mt Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro again, the rest of me has been getting on with life, and my local hills.

Last week we took a longer than planned stroll around the hills north of the Upper Lliw reservoir. It’s an open area of low, rolling hills that surrounds the reservoir on three sides. To the east is Brynllefrith plantation, and you have travelled there with us before. To the north is Mynydd y Gwair and the wind turbines recently installed there (you’ve been there with us too).

It was the western hills that we hadn’t visited before, and after walking along the edge of the plantation, we ducked under a fence, crossed a little stream feeding the reservoir and squelched our way up along a muddy quad bike track until we were on the western side looking down on the forest. With the weather threatening to get wet very quickly, we headed back to the car and managed to reach it’s shelter as the rain came in.

Today was an opportunity to seek the snow once again. The weather forecast was favourable and we set off for The Black Mountain north of Brynamman. As soon as we got onto the mountain road, it was clear it had been snowing here recently. The dark road surface turned white in minutes as we climbed higher. It’s a twisting road and although the drop isn’t far or steep, leaving the road would guaranteed being stuck. So I took it easy on the slush and ice and only briefly thought how much more appropriate the Freelander would have been here.

That said, we had no trouble reaching the car park near the Foel Fawr quarry. I did have a slight problem getting out of the car, as the string wind tried to shut the door on me. But I managed to extract myself and Rufus and while he went to check on the snow, I kitted up for the bitter cold. Since he had his haircut, I’ve been careful to keep an eye on Rufus to check he doesn’t get too cold. Today was no exception.

We set off up the white hillside. There were no clues as to where the path was but I’ve been up here a few times so it didn’t worry me too much. The snow had a frozen crust and at first it made the going much easier. But as we climbed, the snow got deeper and the crust gave way with a disconcerting suddeness so that my boots sank up to the laces. For the most part, Rufus managed to walk across the top of the snow without sinking, but every now and then he’d drop a couple of inches as the crust gave way.

I noticed that although I was wading through the snow, my boots weren’t wet and the snow wasn’t sticking to Rufus’ fur. It was frozen and later I found I couldn’t make proper snowballs either. Rufus seemed to be having fun, charging off in all directions but I found the going hard. I had loaded my back pack up with some extra weight for the exercise, and I was beginning to feel it’s effect.

We climbed slowly over rough, rocky ground made more treacherous as the gaps between the rocks were hidden by snow. But we made it and eventually we dealt with the steepest bit and the slope rapidly slackened until we were walking on the rocky, barren top leading to the summit cairns and trig point of Garreg Lwyd. Being flat, it was also windswept but unusually, it was also clear and sunny. Most times I’ve been here, there has been a thick mist and I can’t remember the last time I saw the cairns from further than a few metres away.

Walking to the cairns felt like walking in the barren north. Snow had built up in the lee of the rocks and boulders, and had drifted into little gullies. Being a limestone environment, there were many sink holes and dips and while some were visible, others I only discovered when my feet sank into them. Rufus seemed to have a sense of where they were and I should have followed him to avoid them.

At the cairns, we stopped for a few minutes for a snack and a brief respite from the cutting wind. I love being on the top of hills and mountains and today was almost perfect, with blue sky, sun and plenty of snow and ice. The only negative was the wind. I noticed that when we stopped, Rufus back leg was shivering a bit. It happens sometimes when he stands awkwardly and also when he’s excited. But I decided not to take any chances and so we set off back towards the car.

Now we were walking into the wind and it made the going quite a bit harder. Rufus spent sometime walking behind me, sheltered from the worst of the gale. We stopped at a small cairn for a selfie before heading down over more broken rock until we left the worst of the wind behind. Then we slackened the pace and enjoyed the last few hundred metres through the remains of the limestone quarry.

The shelter of the car was most welcome and Rufus settled in the back as I got the heater going and we slipped and slid our way back down the mountain road.

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Walking off the turkey

Boxing day and I had eaten too much Christmas dinner, too many Green & Blacks chocolates and too much Turkish delight. There was only option left to me. Walk it off.

After Tuesday’s experience, I was a little apprehensive of going back onto the hills. But I knew I had to so that it didn’t become a permanent worry, and I knew I needed the training time. So after checking the mountain weather forecasts (low risk of thunder storms), I headed off to the Storey Arms and the start of the path to Corn Du. The weather was looking good – sun and blue sky at the start and low cloud on the hills themselves. No sign of high winds or hail, and the western sky was clear of storm clouds.

I set off on the snowy and slippery path. Immediately, I passed another walker who had stopped to put crampons on. My ice grips were at home – they’re in the back pack now – but I didn’t really feel I needed them. Although the path was icy, there were plenty of protruding rocks to give me grip and I knew that if the ice got worse I could walk on the snowy grass at the side and be okay. In no time, I was on the top of the first hill, looking down at the swollen stream and the climb up to Corn Du. I was passed by four walkers here, and two a little further on. I was setting my own pace (I’m aiming for around 3kph) and so being passed never worries me. There was no sign of the crampon man (and I didn’t see him the whole time I was on the hills).

The visibility dropped as I climbed into the clouds and with the thick snow that now covered the path, it was hard to see where I was going or how far I’d come. For a while I could see the two guys ahead of me but they disappeared into the cloud as they pulled ahead and then I was on my own. It doesn’t worry me – I like the solitude, but I felt a couple of twinges of unease as I thought back to Tuesday. But the cloud above me was too bright to be thick and I knew from previous experience that this was just a mist. The unease eased off.

Soon I came to the junction of paths that lead from the Storey Arms and from Pen Milan. At this point the climb up to Corn Du steepens so I usually take a moment to catch my breath and enjoy the northerly views. There were no views this morning, but I took a break anyway. I checked the path up and there were faint traces of the sides of the route.The main part, stones laid down by volunteers from the National Trust, was covered in a layer of snow around 8″ deep that had drifted into the channel. I chose to walk on the side, where the going would be much less tiring. In no time, the bulk of Corn Du loomed out of the mist and I waded through knee deep snow to reach the summit.

It was much easier to get to this time as there was little wind blowing. The top was white but the snow wasn’t deep here; it had been blown elsewhere by what wind there was. I spent a few minutes here before heading across to the drop and path to Pen y Fan. Just before I left the summit, I was joined by two more walkers. It was getting a little busy compared to when I’m here normally.

The wind dropped completely between the two mountains, and I could clearly hear someone talking on their phone. I couldn’t see them, though, until I walked on quite a bit when a red jacket suddenly appeared to my right and lower down.

Pen y Fan was similarly windswept and I reached the cairn in near whiteout conditions. Two people stood taking photos of each other. I turned around to go back and dropped down behind Corn Du. The snow was knee high again here and it took me about 10 minutes to make may way around until I got tot the path that heads down to Pont Ar Daf. In that time, I must have passed about 15 people. It was a popular place.

The path down was smooth with snow but not as slippery as it looked. I’m getting to the point, with 20 days to go to the trek, that I am paranoid about getting an injury. At this stage, anything serious enough to stop me training might well stop me from going. So I was careful where I stepped and took it easy. In the 30 minutes or so it took me to get down, I must have passed around 50 people. There were solo walkers, families with kids, pairs, trios, and one largish group. It was interesting to note that on the way up, everyone I passed responded to my ‘good morning’. On the way down, apart from one or two at the very top, few gave me more than a second glance as I greeted them. I’ve seen this before. It seems that genuine walkers are friendlier that the weekend strollers.

I was also amused to see a couple gingerly making their way down what was a fairly easy path at the bottom. She was holding on to him despite having a pair of walking poles. As I got closer, I spotted that while he was wearing the right kit, she was wearing trainers with worn soles. I have no sympathy for that lack of preparation and I hope she slipped and fell. (As I was driving back, the rescue helicopter flew over the car heading towards the hills. I expect it was some other unprepared fool being overconfident and risking the lives of others when it all went wrong).

Back at the car, the sun was shining once again and I drove down to a favourite location to take some photos of a tree by the river. I’ve been there several times and when the light is right, it’s a lovely place to stop and snap away.

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It looks like snow, it feels like snow…

And it most certainly was snow.

Rufus and I made our way to the Cerrig Duon valley and the start of the route up to Llyn y Fan Fawr and Fan Brechieniog. I could see the snow on the tops of the mountains around while we were driving up but the roads and fields were clear. No sooner had we turned off onto the narrow lane that winds along the valley, that the snow appeared on the road, trees, bushes and everywhere snow can get. It wasn’t a problem as the temperature was still above zero and the car carried on. Then, in the distance  I spotted another car stopped in the middle of the road. I could see it was stuck on a small hill section, and I stopped behind it, allowing enough room for it to back up if necessary. I spoke to the two guys in it, who were on their way to meet up with others for a walk in the hills. They didn’t know the area and I advised them not to go on if they were getting stuck on such a  small hill. I suggested they back up to the layby where I was, which they did, and their colleagues appeared in cars behind me so I felt okay to leave them and carry on.

We parked up off road and headed down to the river. Everywhere was white. Powdery snow lay up to 6″ in depth but it wasn’t particularly cold so I wasn’t too worried about Rufus, with his short haircut. He was happy, bounding along in the snow and finding new smells all the time. We were the first to have made our way along the route so all the smells were fresh. I could see small tracks in the fresh snow which looked as if they were made by little rodents. Rufus was almost overwhelmed by the choice of aromas.

As we climbed towards the lake, so the visibility dropped as we entered a layer of mist. The temperature dropped too, and the depth of snow increased. Once again, I had that sense of being lost while still knowing where I was (in my mind). I was wary of the last time I thought I knew where I was but I had GPS tracking on and after checking to make sure it was working, we carried on.

The lake loomed as a slightly darker strip above the snow and to the right, a huge shape faded into view. Some one had made a large snowman, more akin to the giant statues on Easter Island. It was roughly human shaped and the snow that made it was criss crossed with grass. By now, Rufus was sinking up to his belly at times and although my original plan was to quickly get to the top of Fan Brecheiniog, it was looking less sensible to try and do so. The path leading up was completely hidden by snow and even though I knew where it should have been, the mist and snow were disorientating. Added to that, there was a cold wind blowing and Rufus was pretty much swimming on the snow it parts. My right knee has been playing up a little and coming down would be no fun with that and all the other hazards. So the decision to turn around was easy.

I’ve never been afraid to turn back, despite being goal driven on the mountains. I would rather get to the top of something, or reach a certain distance, as it gives me incentive and makes me feel good. But I am aware of when to turn back and the goal doesn’t get in the way of that. It’s a very useful bit of safety kit that is worth more than an extra fleece.

Rufus was happy to turn back and he bounced off back down the hill. We followed our own footprints until we left the mist. I threw snowballs for him to chase, which was well appreciated if the barking was anything to go by.  Then we headed onto the slopes of Moel Feity to get a little more exercise out of the day. I’d added 2kg to the back pack today, so I was walking with the same weight as on the Everest Base Camp trek, 7kg (about 15lbs). It felt good. Over the next few weeks I’ll add more – my aim is to be carrying about 10kg regularly, and 15kg on flat long distances.

We were both tired from the hard going through the deep snow, which seemed to hide dips and tufts of grass, so getting back to the car was welcome. Back home, Rufus fell asleep on my lap and there was much snoring and dreaming for the next 90 minutes or so.

Today we did 3.6 miles in 2 hours.

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