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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Blizzard

We pushed on, blinded by the driving snow which threatened to cut us off from the south east ridge route back to safety. A howling wind made every step a test of stamina and strength. Rufus forged a path ahead whilst I, carrying our meagre supplies, brought up the rear. Slowly we descended through the cloud, the air becoming richer in oxygen with every step. There were no thoughts but the one to keep going; to stop now would mean to stop forever.

Or, at least that is what it would have been like if we were on some 8000m peak. However, we were on Moel Feity, not even an 800m peak, and the sun had been shining moments before. I’d seen the dark cloud coming in and knew we were in for some kind of precipitation. The onset of snow was sudden and although the flakes were large, it didn’t last long enough to stick.

We had set out earlier to get a proper hill under our belts in preparation for some more serious hill walking when the weather improved. But it was a lovely morning, with bright blue sky, a low golden sun and only a mildly freezing wind to contend with. Once we’d been walking for a few minutes and had warmed up, it was pleasant walking. Even the route we followed was relatively dry. The wet bits were clearly wet and the water was mostly on the surface, meaning that deep, sucking mud was easy to avoid.

On the top of the hill, the views were clear for miles around in every direction. Thick frost covered the north eastern face of Fan Brecheiniog where the sun had yet to touch. We had the whole area to ourselves, which surprised me with the glorious weather. While Rufus ranged far and wide, I took photos and enjoyed the open space.

As we crossed over tot he northern end of the hill, the wind picked up and it was cold again for a few minutes, but upping the pace warmed us again and we were soon in the lee of the hill.

I spent a few minutes tidying up one of the two memorials to the US Navy Liberator PB4Y 38753 which crashed on the side of Moel Feity in 1944. I try and visit the site every time I’m on this hill, and always take time to make sure the cairns are maintained. Both memorials are within a couple of hundred yards of each other. One has a large stone and a few scraps of wreckage and this one is where I put my memorial poppy every year. The other is mainly of twisted and melted aluminium pieces from the plane itself. I am told that this marks the actual impact site.

On our way back down to the car, the dark cloud that we had been racing finally caught up with us and there was a brief but heavy shower of snow. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long or heavy enough to stick and there were no snowballs for Rufus to chase.

Later, whilst Rufus snored in the hallway at home, I spent an hour watching birds in the garden as part of the RSPB Birdwatch survey. usually my garden has a large number of birds, mainly great tits and blue tits. I used to have a fairly tame robin, and for the last few years I have hosted blackbirds and house sparrows as they raise their families. I regularly feed them and I don’t think it was too much to expect that they would reward my supportive behaviour with an appearance for one hour in good weather this weekend. But no! The blue tits and great tits stayed away. The sparrows hid out of sight. A single blackbird turned up for a few minutes and there was a single starling (although they swarm in large numbers night and morning). On the plus side, there were two robins present. But for most of the hour, a single collared dove and a woodpigeon gorged themselves on seed and two magpies attempted to eat the fat balls.

Of course, once the hour was up, another 5 magpies showed up, along with several wrens and sparrows and some blackbirds.

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Moel Feity

We had a lie in this morning. Rufus didn’t shove his nose in my face until 6.30. I let him out in the garden and he ran around like a possessed hound after some scent from the night before. I was half tempted to go back to bed, but it was such a gorgeous morning that it seemed a shame to waste it.

Breakfast over, we set out for the hills. Moel Feity has featured here many times before. Today, under a cloudless blue sky, we set off up the slope towards the summit. I was hoping to visit the WW2 crash site of the US PB4Y that I’ve been to a few times. I wanted to see that it had survived the winter storms.

There was a cold wind blowing but the effort of climbing the hill warmed me up. Rufus was slow to start with, working the cobwebs out from his limbs. We’ve been a bit sedentary recently and he hasn’t been well. But once he’d warmed up, he was off and there was no stopping him. Every pool, every puddle and even some that hadn’t seen water for a week were investigated and paddled in.

It didn’t take us long to get to the top, but once again I’d missed the crash site. It’s marked by a low white stone and a few scraps of wreckage and it’s hard to see in the undulating terrain. I wasn’t too worried; we’d run across it on the way back. Instead, I kept going north over the flatter top of the hill until I could see the green belt of farmland beyond the hills. Rufus managed to find a large pool and I managed to find the only stone for miles around that was suitable for Rufus to chase into the water. Seconds later, he was investigating the depth and found it was up to his tummy.

We set off back down the hill and very quickly came across the memorial stone. I tidied up a couple of the rocks on the cairn and set the cross I’d left back up again. The first time I came up this hill, I came across a second cairn, made from more bits of wreckage. I came across it again today, about 50 yards down the hill. There is a lot of small pieces of aluminium, including quite a bit that seems to have melted. I picked up a bit that had been moved uphill, and this appeared to have signs of charring on it. I tidied this pile up as well and then we carried on down the hillside towards the river.

Rufus, with his gift of sensing water from great distances, was already way ahead of me and waiting at the river bank. When I stopped to take some photos of the waterfalls, I was reminded of my obligation to throw stones by the traditional bark and whine. Many stones later, we climbed into the car and it turned out to be my turn to drive again. Rufus flopped out ont he back seat and didn’t wake until we pulled up outside the house.

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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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Three summits

It was Saturday and the sky was clear. Rufus even made me go outside with him to show me how clear the stars were. It was his way of saying ‘I think we have to take advantage of this fine morning to stroll amongst the fresh air and open skies and talk of greater things, like treats and stone throwing’. I had to agree with him – the weather forecast was almost perfect and I didn’t know when we’d get another opportunity. So after breakfast, we set off for Fan Brecheiniog.

There was a band of golden sunlight on the ridge of Fan Hir as we drove parallel with it towards the parking area. I’d decided to stop further along the road so that we’d be higher up the side of Moel Feity when we started. It would mean a new route and we could conserve altitude by following the contours around. The plan was to get to Llyn y Fan Fawr, then up to the bwlch and on to Fan Hir for a lovely ridge walk facing the sun. If we had enough energy (ok, if I had enough energy – no question of the other half of the duo being able to manage it) then we’d head up to Fan Brecheiniog and bag a second summit.

It was cold, and the grass was crunchy under foot as we set off towards the mountains. The higher start meant we could look down on the Cerrig Duon valley and see the River Tawe as a silver strip in the sunlight. The path was drier, too, although we had to cross a number of streams as they tumbled down, trying to catch up with the Tawe. Some had cut deep beds in the soft ground and we undulated along for a while until we reached a major tributary of the Tawe. Then it was a steady uphill trudge through rapidly thawing marsh and mud. But fortunately, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been and we made good time to the lake.

The water was right up to the shore and there was no chance of finding stones to throw for Rufus. The few I spotted were firmly frozen into the ground and even kicking them didn’t dislodge them. But Rufus was content with a drink, some snacks and a circumnavigation of the little promontory while I took photos. He can be considerate at times.

We made our way up the steep path on the side of the mountain. It was slippery with clear, glass-like ice. Snow on the shaded sides of the mountain had melted and run onto the stones, freezing again over night. I had to be careful where I stepped. Rufus made light work of it.

On the bwlch (a bwlch is a dip between two summits), the wind was cold and there was plenty of snow around. But the sun was warm and we turned left to climb the short distance up to Fan Hir and the ridge. Ice covered the path so we both walked on the grass, where frozen snow made for better grip. After a few minutes, we were on the flat ridge and the views were spectacular. The air was clear this morning and I could see all the way from Gareg Lwyd in the west to the Black Mountains in the east. Corn Du and Pen y Fan stood out as white coated peaks in the middle distance but as last week, they were topped with their own little clouds. It was comical, as there was no cloud anywhere else. It also reminded me of the first time I went up there and Pen y Fan was so well hidden in it’s own cloud that I didn’t realise it wasn’t there and assumed Corn Du was Pen y Fan! (You had to be there to realise how easy it was to make that mistake). Fan Hir’s peak is hard to spot. For some reason, when you’re on it, everything seems higher around you. It’s a trick of the landscape. Summit 1.

It was a beautiful walk and it was a shame when we reached the end of the ridge, where it begins to drop down to Tafarn y Garreg, and had to turn back. But both of us were fleeing good, so I decided we’d go on to Fan Brecheiniog next. As we neared the bwlch again, it was clear how steep the path up was. It’s the one bit of this walk I don’t look forward to, which is irrational as it’s about 5 minutes of the whole experience. But today, I know it would be bad because of the ice. Sure enough, the stones were covered in thick layers. But there were just edges and points of stone to give some grip. Coming down would be fun, but that was for later.

On the Fan Brecheiniog ridge, the ice was almost constant along the path by the edge, so I walked further in from the drop. I kept an eye on Rufus, who kept an eye on the edge, but he was emboldened by four paw drive and made a better job of it than me. At the cairn, the views north were fantastic and we stopped for a breather and just enjoyed the view. Rufus, I think, enjoyed the multitude of smells carried on the wind; this is a popular stopping point for walkers and inevitably, they eat here too! Summit 2.

We headed back, once again facing the sun, and it’s warmth was welcome. The stones down were treacherous but neither of us slipped this time, although Rufus raced over one flat stone covered in ice and his paws went in four directions. Typical for him, he recovered on the run and it barely stopped him. I would have gone bottom over breast.

At the lake, I found some small stones to throw and Rufus jumped to catch them. Tradition satisfied, we started off down the hill tot he car. But we were both still feeling energetic, so we detoured up the side of Moel Feity beyond the path we used earlier and climbed up the hill to the top. It’s not a steep hill, but there was no obvious path and we were walking over clumps of grass which made the going a little harder. There is the site of a WW2 aircraft crash on the top of Moel Feity but every time I’ve tried to find it in the past, I’ve failed. In the past, the weather has been foul when I’ve been on here, but today was [perfect, so I went in search of the little bits of wreckage still there.

Shortly after we reached the top (marked by a tiny cairn – summit 3) I spotted a white stone on the horizon. Sure enough, there was a small cairn there too and some remembrance poppies and a wreath. The wreath had been blown of the cairn and was only held in place because it had frozen to the ground. So I carefully placed it back on the cairn and secured it with two large stones.

On 24 August 1944, a US Navy Liberator (actually, a PB4Y version of the Liberator, 38753) crashed here while on a training exercise. The crew, Byrnes, Hobson, Manelski, Holt, Shipe and Keister all died in the crash. They so nearly cleared the top of the mountain. I spent a few minutes taking in the atmosphere and thinking about the crew. Fan Brecheiniog rose, snow covered, in the distance to the west. Rufus was great (as he always is when we visit crash sites) and kept away. Then we turned to head back to the car. But only a hundred yards or so further down the hill I spotted more red and on closer inspection I found a second cairn with, along side it, a small collection of wreckage. Again it was covered in remembrance poppies but the cairn had collapsed and the small bits of wreckage had been blown about. I spent some time collecting them back up and making the pile a little more secure. Then I built up the stone cairn so it stood above the grass. Finally, I rescued the little label with the crew details from a small ice covered pool and placed it on the wreckage pile. It was a small gesture but the best I could offer.

Then it was off down the hill and back to the car. We crossed bog and marsh, now fully thawed and waiting for us. Again there was no path and we made our way over grassy tufts, streams and a lot of loose limestone rocks. I had to be careful not to turn an ankle on them. At the car, it was warm and we were tired and we were glad of the opportunity to sit (or in Rufus’ case, lie) down.

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