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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A little bit of local.

On Friday, I was reading a book about childhood experiences in Swansea during the war. This morning, I was sliding and slipping in mud in Dunvant. There’s a link.

I’ve been researching Swansea during WW2 as a result of some of the stories my mum told me of the bombing, the anti-aircraft guns and the Americans stationed here just before D-Day. I found a book in the local library and read with some interest the first mention of anti-invasion defences in Swansea Bay that I’d ever see. The bay would have been an ideal landing place for enemy troops if it wasn’t for the long journey they would have to make down the Bristol Channel. But Swansea had a big port, an airfield near by and a sheltered bay and it may well have been worth the risk. In fact, Swansea Bay was used (along with other beaches on Gower) to practice beach landings prior to the Normandy landings.

My interest has been in finding any evidence of other defensive plans. One of the threats to Britain during the early part of the war was invasion from the west. It was thought that the Germans would make a pact with neutral Eire and come across to West Wales. Lines of fortifications, known as Command Stop Lines were built all over Britain and there is one stretching north from Pembrey to New Quay that would have been used to delay or block any advance eastwards. I had explored parts of this line north of Carmarthen, on one occasion finding myself at the end of a shotgun when I accidentally strayed on to private land. Fortunately, after explaining to the landowner why I was there and pointing out that there were no fences or signs, he let me explore the particular pill box and told me of several more relics of the war hidden from the road.

This stop line reaches the south coast at RAF Pembrey, which is now a bombing range and private airport. There are remains of pillboxes and anti-tank defences near the estuary and they merge into the defences of the airfield itself, and the fortifications and minefields that protected Cefn Sidan and the Pembrey munitions factory.

Swansea had it’s own defences. With the port, bay and airfield in close proximity, and reasonably good transport links, it needed it’s own protection. The beach had several pill boxes and minefields along it’s length and on the low tide mark, iron girders set in concrete were ready to rip the hulls of craft trying to land. There is a suggestion that flame weapons (either oil to be poured on the water or fougasse firebombs) were available, too. Inland, there were anti landing trenches on the hills north of Morriston, anti-aircraft sites on Mumbles Hill and around Kilvey Hill and decoy bombing targets north of the docks.

I found several pillboxes on the Swansea to Llanelli railway line, now disused, that used to run through Clyne Valley. One overlooks the main road through Killay to Gower. Two more protect a bridge over the railway line some 200 yards further south. I would have expected more but I could find none. The book I read said that there were two more pillboxes at the entrance to the Clyne Valley where it meets the sea at Blackpill. Anti Tank blocks also shielded access to the railway and some parts of an old wall made of wartime concrete (with more aggregate as it was cheaper and quicker to make) line the sea front near by. Much of the land between Blackpill and Killay is marshy and undulating and would have needed little extra protection.

Further north at the Loughor Estuary, there is a line of concrete anti-tank blocks stretching out into the water. They are covered by a gun emplacement near the Chinese restaurant, and the estuary also had artillery as it was at one end of a firing range. When you look at a map, the railway cutting (it’s mostly below ground level) makes an ideal obstacle for tanks and runs across Gower. To be most effective, extra fortification at weak points would be necessary. Infantry trenches would be hard to spot after so long as the ground is wet and overgrown. I expected there to be more pillboxes but knew of none between the estuary and Killay.

I went online to see if I could find more about the Clyne pillboxes and found a reference to Dunvant Brickworks. Dunvant lies north of Killay along the same railway line and an archaeological survey had been done in 2009, showing the site of several small scale collieries and a brickworks. The survey also described two more pillboxes and a spigot mortar site in the area and mentioned the ‘Gower Stop Line’. Suddenly it was all making a bit more sense.

And so this morning, I was scrabbling about in the mud in completely the wrong place trying to find one of the pillboxes. I slipped, skidded, squelched and was nearly tripped up by brambles. I climbed, descended and all the while got wet in the drizzle. But it was all worth it (for me, anyway) as I finally came across the pillbox I was looking for. It was high up overlooking the railway line. And even better, it was an unusual design that was used mainly for observation. It was hard to visualise the context as in the nearly 80 years since it was built, trees and bushes have grown around it obscuring it’s original field of fire. It was impossible to enter as bars had been placed in the entrance tunnel. I later found out that it has become a home for bats so I’m glad I didn’t try to disturb it.

For the pillbox geeks, it was a type 22, modified with a longer entrance tunnel and no embrasures or a roof. This one had railway sleepers over the top to provide shelter for the bats.

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Back to the past

Like many, I learned the basics of photography before the digital age. Pause while I put on the sunglasses of nostalgia. With the glasses on, I remember the thrill of unpacking the film from its cardboard and plastic containers, fiddling to load the film without exposing too much leader, and hoping to squeeze an extra frame if I was using black and white, which I would later develop myself.

Only 36 shots on a roll, so I had to make every one count. Even so, with slide film I’d bracket either side of the measured exposure which would often result in only 12 unique photos from every roll. The film speed was given but we all had our favourite adjustments to get the results we wanted. Professionals would buy batches of film manufactured at the same time and expose one roll to test the proper settings for that batch. Colour print film had a wide exposure latitude, forgiving any minor errors in exposure (which is why wedding photographers used it). Slide film, and to a lesser extend black and white film, had to be accurately exposed or compensation applied at the processing stage. It had to be a consistent exposure variation for the whole film so we had to decide in advance. Many, including me, had two camera bodies loaded with different films just in case. My preference was for slide and black and white.

When I started, lenses were all manual focus. Film cameras had a great focusing screen with a split prism that made focusing easy in most situations. As my main interest was landscape, there was no need for lightning fast focusing. Part of the appeal for me was the slow, methodical approach and the actual taking of the photograph was almost secondary.

Then, once the snaps had been taken, there was the delay in seeing the results while the films went off for processing. Sometimes, if I was on holiday, I might have to wait up to two weeks to see the final prints or slides. Black and white film was slightly better as I’d process it myself and this could be done overnight. But then, all I’d have was tiny negatives until I printed off the images I wanted. I got good at assessing photographic potential from these tiny reversed images.

And here is where the nostalgia goggles start to leak reality.

I didn’t always develop the black and white films immediately after taking the photographs. Once I left college and the convenience of darkrooms set up and ready to go, I sometimes waited until I had two or three films to do. And then, I sometimes waited until I had more. It was all about the darkroom. At first, it was in my bedroom and had to be set up and put away every time I wanted to use it. And then I set it up in the garden shed and it was cold, damp and uncomfortable. So I started using less and less black and white, which was actually my favourite medium.

Slides came back from the processor in boxes and to view them properly I had to set up the projector. Which meant loading up the magazine in just the right way so that the projected images were the right way up and the right way around. It took time and was fiddly, so I got a smaller viewer for checking the results. And it was more convenient but no one else saw them.

The prints from print film stayed in their wallets and only occasionally got put in albums. I have some of those albums still on my bookshelf. They look impressive but I can’t remember what’s in them. I have sent for recycling more photos that I can remember.

One day, I bought a digital camera. The quality of the results weren’t the best but they were instant and that appealed to me. This meant I could retake the photo straight away rather than wait until I was next in the area. I could see the pictures on my computer and I could edit them without having to go out to the shed dressing in several layers of warm clothing. I didn’t have to breathe in chemicals and wait for the negatives to dry, all the while hoping no dust got on the wet film.

With the nostalgia goggles fully removed, I confess that I sold up all my film gear and went digital and never looked back. I have no regrets in doing this and I think it rekindled my interest in photography. I made the decision when I saw the results from a 6mp Fuji DSLR and for me, the moment when digital quality surpassed analogue quality was when I got my Nikon D300. Not only can I check the results (and for those who would never stoop to such crass activity are missing one of the main advantages of digital technology), but I can change film type and sensitivity without having to worry about rewinding a partially exposed film (and remembering where to wind it back on to afterwards). A modest memory card costs less than a roll of film plus processing and can be reused. Digital is just better.

So today, I picked up a CD with 36 images scanned onto it by the people that processed the film I dropped off to them about an hour earlier. I’d taken the photos on film that was at least four years out of date, on a camera made in the mid 70s using manual focus lenses probably made in the late 60s. And despite all I’ve said above, I enjoyed using the camera. I’d forgotten about the satisfying clunk as the mechanical shutter thumps down on it’s mounting and I’d forgotten about the big, bright viewfinder than made focusing a pleasure. The camera required me to translate the meter reading into aperture and shutter settings by interpreting three little red LEDs. I had to trust it was accurate but I also had to know roughly what to expect. And I found I did.

The images below are from that film. Some of the colours are odd and there’s a lot of grain. I suspect that’s a combination of out dated film and poor scanning from the shop. They were just test shots I took while out and about so they’re not masterpieces. But I have more film, some of which is new, and I’m sure there’ll be more posts about the old fashioned way of doing photography.

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Life changes

If you think back over the last thirty years, you’d have to agree things have changed. In 1986, plans were announced to build the Channel Tunnel, which wouldn’t be completed for another 8 years. There was still a big concrete wall and minefield separating East and West Germany. People were being killed trying to cross from East to West. The Simpsons were created in 1986. Commercially available digital cameras were unknown. Although the initial theoretical work that led to the MP3 audio format was done in the 1890s, a standard wasn’t agreed on until 100 years later.

30 years ago this year, I started my adventures in the world of work. I had left college wanting to be a musician but knowing that I’d need proper work to see me through and pay the bills (at least until we hit the big time). So off I went into the job market to see what was about. I was fortunate, I walked into my first job mainly because (on paper) I was more highly qualified for the role than the hiring manager. I became the technician in the photography department of the local college and held the job for 7 months until they gained their BTEC accreditation (for which they needed a dedicated technician) and no longer needed me.

I spent some time between careers, doing voluntary work and attending a number of job interviews. I learnt a lot about the interview process and, most importantly, that not all the interviewers were capable of carrying out a proper selection. I also learnt not to point that out to them! One occasion ended up with a discussion on the reliability of various cars as the hiring manager had run out of things to ask. I was in no position to refuse any job offer but ironically, the next job I had came about when I gave the band’s bass player a lift to a job interview. As I was there, they interviewed me too. The word interview makes it sound structured – it wasn’t and the reason I got the job and the bassist didn’t was simply because I could drive and he couldn’t, and they needed someone there and then. I spent two years driving security vans for a well known company (not the ones that got the Olympics wrong), rising to the position of crew commander. Unfortunately, that was where it would end as the next level of promotion was into the admin office, and those jobs were reserved for the boss’s favourites (of which I was not one).

Next came the move into what I thought might be a career and once again, I got the job because I accompanied someone. We went to get the application forms for her, and I picked up a set at the same time. I got an interview at which was able to tell the interviewers things about the organisation that they didn’t know. By now I’d learnt to do that tactfully and in a way that was informative rather than challenging. As a result, I not only got a job offer, but a choice of jobs in the same place. I think I chose wisely.

27 years and ten different roles later, there has been no sign of a career but it’s mostly been a good experience. But now I am about to take another big step in the adventure of work. Tomorrow is my first official day of partial retirement. It was a relatively easy decision to make but as the actual date has been getting closer, it’s been hard to really prepare for it as so much remains unknown at the moment. It’s a big step and some of the decisions I’ve had to make will continue to impact me for many years. But none were taken lightly and I have no regrets. My only real concern is that I make the most of the new time I have as a result of reducing my hours.

In the last couple of years I have seen friends and peers suffer life changing illnesses and in some cases, die. I read somewhere that in a study done in America, a number of people interviewed at the end of their lives only ever expressed regret at things they didn’t do. They never regretted mistakes made as a result of trying new things. That’s how I want to be looking back over my life when that time comes.

 

Recovery

Rufus continues his recovery and so do I. My paranoia about his every little cough or weary look is slowly subsiding; it helps that I am reminding myself that for every little cough, there is also a tail wagging run to investigate some irresistible aroma and for every weary look, there is a bark as a result of me being too slow to throw the squeaky bone for him to chase. And so while I don’t think things are quite back to normal yet – he’s still on steroids, for example – we are getting much closer.

Today was about ‘normal’. In the house of Rufus, normal is a subjective word. Normal is waking me up to go out in the garden while it is still dark. Normal is waking me up again because, despite it being the weekend, we still need to get up at 6am for breakfast. So I decided that is things were back to normal, then we’d go with it. Normal, for a sunny Saturday morning, would be a hill. Now, I know Rufus still needs to work up his fitness to tackle a proper hill but I had a small hill in mind that I knew he would be able to cope with and that would offer us fine views and the option to walk on good ground.

Mynydd Carn Llechart is part of the moorland to the north of Swansea and it’s a part of the world we’ve visited and I’ve written about many times. After an initial few metres of climb away from the road, the slope is gentle and there are several tracks to follow. The one we usually use curves around the highest point of the hill until it reaches Carn Llechart, an ancient ringed burial cairn overlooking the valley that leads down to Morriston and Swansea. from here when the weather is clear, you can see DVLA, the Merdian Tower and Mumbles lighthouse. Today was such a day, beautifully crisp and with a hint of the warmth of summer to come.

We took our time on the moorland and Rufus seemed to enjoy being out in the big world again. As we headed back to the car, the views to the north were equally spectacular with the snow covered Bannau Sir Gaer in the very distance. It’s what we’re working up to but for now, 90 minutes on this hill was enough.

Back home, while Rufus snored his walk off, I spent an hour in Gelli Hir woods looking for bluebells. I have some in the garden but they haven’t yet appeared in any great quantity in the woods. Nevertheless, I was able to get a few decent photos by lying on my stomach in the mud and getting up close.

Back home I had things to do. With the work on the kitchen dues to start shortly, I have to start clearing things out and getting rid of the rubbish. I thought about it last week and that’s as far as I got. So after a quick coffee, and more medication for the hound, I started on one of the cupboards – the one that everyone has which is full of plastic containers, many without lids. They breed, of course. I’m sure I only ever bought four. I pulled out more than twenty. After the cupboard, I took down the bookshelf with all the cook books I never use on it. That’s not strictly true, I’ve used several but I don’t use them as much as I should., Maybe with the new kitchen this will change.

The snoring stopped and it was time for a light lunchtime snack. Then, when the snoring resumed, I went and cut the grass. This time, my work was supervised by Rufus, who checked the consistency of the cut and then joined me to sit on the sun for half an hour. I took that to be a sign that my standard of work was adequate.

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Forward to the past

Apologies for the rather forced title. Indulge me.

Yesterday Rufus and I went wandering over Tor Clawdd, a hill near the Upper Lliw reservoir and Bryn Llefrith plantation. Both have featured heavily in this blog before and they are a favourite destination in reasonably good weather. During our walk we came across an odd concrete structure on a dike that followed the top of Tor Clawdd. The bank and ditch is listed as a defensive work in the archives and is likely to have been some form of control over those proceeding south to the coast. Whatever it was, it was subsequently used as a convenient starting point for a number of adits, or small horizontal pits, used to mine coal. In this case, the Graigola seam. An aerial photos shows the extent of the pits, which line the northern edges of the hill. On the ground they are weathered and worn but clear and make for annoying walking as the sides are steep.

Today we went back because I wanted to investigate in more detail the adits and two concrete structures; one I’d come across yesterday and the other I’d seen on an aerial photograph. We set off to walk along the dike, climbing steeply for a few metres from the road. When the dike was built, this road didn’t exist and the route would have been further to the west. The old track is still visible in photos and faintly in person. We quickly reached the first little brick shelter. It had a concrete roof which had shown up on the photos and was a single room, about 3m by 3m with a smaller outbuilding which looked like it was for storage. There were no markings inside but I noticed the interior had been plastered, and there was a single abandoned bird nest, delicately attached to the ceiling.

Not far beyond was the concrete base I’d seen yesterday. It looked like a mounting point for an engine, possibly used to raise and lower wagons ontop the road below. There were mounting bolts still in place and it was aligned to a track that led down to the modern road. I haven’t been able to find any information about that part of the mining operation. We walked around the northern edge of the hill and then south, following the edge of the hill before it dropped down to Bryn Llefrith and the reservoir. It was a lovely morning and although a cold wind blew from the north, we were soon sheltered from it and the sun was allowed to warm us up.

We walked down as far as the firing butts and I spent a few minutes picking up more bullets and broken glass until Rufus let it be known that he was bored and wanted to walk on. In addition to some fine examples of .30 calibre bullets, which would have been fired from American rifles and machine guns, I found three .45 calibre bullets which are pistol rounds, sometimes used in sub machine guns of the day.

I followed Rufus as he headed back to the hill and the dike. By now the sky was blue and the sun was warm and it was just pleasant walking. We strolled and bounded and dodged hidden mud pools until we reached the undulating line of spoil from the coal mines. Looking down to the reservoir, the water was blue and it felt like summer.

The next thing I wanted to visit was a ring cairn, which I read about when researching the dike and which was supposed to be along side the old track running parallel to the earthwork. The cairn has not been dated and it is not clear if it is contemporary with the dike. It has been suggested that it is the remains of a shelter for those guarding the dike, or perhaps a temporary cattle pound. RCHM records suggest holes for stones, which would make it more of a ring cairn or even a henge.

We spent about 20 minutes wandering about. Rufus enjoyed the chance to explore new ground and I was eventually rewarded when I found the faint outline of the ditch, inside which was the low earth bank. This was no Stonehenge but it was clearly a ring and must have had some significance for those who built it. An undertaking like this was no light matter when most of the time was spent tending to livestock and crops. On this exposed high ground next to a thoroughfare it would have been highly visible and a landmark to those who lived nearby.

To Rufus’ relief, I quickly took the photos I wanted and we set off back towards the car. As we reached the layby, I watched as three model aeroplanes soared from the eastern slopes of Tor Clawdd. But it was time for us to head home for coffee and snacks.

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Why not?

Why do I blog?

I was listening to a radio programme this morning while out with Rufus. He was off in the distance and ignoring me so I didn’t feel guilty. The programme was about diarists and three people were talking about why they or others keep diaries. The general opinion was that it was a selfish activity. One point of view was that although people who keep diaries claim it’s for their children to read when they are gone, in fact they would not want their offspring to read the things they actually note n their journals. The conclusion was that it was done for their grandchildren, as there was sufficient distance in the relationship to make the events recorded more acceptable.

It set me thinking, why do I blog? At first glance blogging can appear egocentric, big headed or can suggest delusions of grandeur. I hope I have none of these traits but if not then why do I blog?

I like reading military history and most of the books I’ve read in that genre talk about big campaigns, momentous battles and significant moments in the progress of wars. But the books I like best are the ones in which individuals talk about their experiences. There is a great series from the Imperial War Museum ‘Forgotten Voices’, in which the history of the battle or campaign is told through the recollections and anecdotes of individuals who were involved. These personal accounts add a realism and flavour to the story which cannot be found elsewhere. Each kind of account – the big picture and the individual – have their place and I prefer to start with the overview and then go in for the detail.

Anyway, the reason I blog is to provide the little person’s account of things. I’m not involved in any monumental moment in history but in years to come something I’ve written may provide a new insight into how things were for the ordinary person, or some background information about how the average person lived.

At the very least, I provide bedtime reading guaranteed to send you off to sleep.

Night night.