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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Strange days

It’s been an odd month; a strange mix of depressing news, achievement and good news.

All this month, there has been bad news in work. A friend has passed away, another two are off with serious illnesses and relatives of colleagues are seriously ill or have passed away. It’s at times like these that you fully understand the value of supportive colleagues and friends. I remember how important it was for me when my mum was ill, and I try to be as supportive if I can.

Rufus had to go to the vet for an operation to remove two small lumps from his eyelid and head. A routine, minor operation but given the stress in work, I found myself more worried than I should have been. I needn’t have, of course, as he bounced out of the vet’s with only a slight, post op stagger (although his eyes betrayed the effects of the anaesthetic as did the fact that when he tried to circle me – his usual greeting when we’ve been apart – he kept bumping into me as the circle became an ellipse). His head was shaved and he resembles a monk at the moment.

A while back, I was asked a strange question. “Do you want to take photos of a bunch of Vikings fighting on Pen y Fan?” It’s the kind of offer you can’t really refuse.

I know some of the Vikings in question because one of them works with me. Thus a week ago I found myself driving to the car park at Pont ar Daf with two giant Scandinavian warriors, four round shields, two sets of chainmail armour, a Dane Axe, a sword and two scrams. The conversation had I been stopped by the police would have been one to retell for many years. But fortunately, we weren’t pulled over. Nor were we ambushed by Angles, Saxons or Celts. Instead, we managed to get the last parking space in the car park and met up with 5 other Vikings to make the long trek to the top of the mountain.

All of this was for Cancer Research, (the Just Giving site is here), and we had a lot of interest and support from all the people we met on the way up, at the top, and on the way down again. Thank you to everyone who donated on the day.

Today, I took Rufus for his first long walk after the op. He was walking in a straight line again, which is always an advantage, and we went along a quiet stretch of the Pembrey cycle path. In the past we’ve encountered belligerent cows on this route so i was particularly wary but all the cows I could see were in the distance. But as we got to the end of the tarmac part, there on the left on the field were around 50 cows. Almost as one, they looked at us and Rufus and I looked at them. We stayed where we were, with the bravery that only a barbed wire fence can bring out in one.

As we watched each other, four of the braver bovines approached the wire. I am guilty of anthropomorphising animals but this time they really did look like four tough guys walking menacingly towards us as their stares never left us. We stayed long enough to appear not to be concerned and, egos satisfied, we set off back tot he car.

With one eye constantly looking behind for any signs of a herd of cows charging towards us.

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In Clyne d

With the weather forecast predicting more thunder and lightning, I was awake early this morning trying to decide where Rufus and I could go for a walk that would offer some shelter if the heavens opened. As we drove towards Gower, I remembered the Clyne cycle path. As a school kid, I used to play there as several friends lived with gardens that backed on to the woods. I’ve walked and cycled the path, and Rufus has been with me many times.

We parked up at the old Railway Inn car park. After a brief stroll along the cycle path, which follows the old railway line, and dodging a cyclist, we left the tarmac and headed in to the woods. I love walking through woods. At this time of year everything is green but there are so many different shades of green that it never feels monochromatic.

I had no idea what the weather was doing but no rain was getting through and there was no sound of thunder. In fact, the only sounds were the birds calling from the tree tops. It was a completely different sound to the dawn chorus we’d been used to. The path skirts three fields in a wide loop away from the cycle path before crossing under it through a waterlogged tunnel. On the other side there are signs of the industry that used to be in this valley. The concrete platforms for old buildings lie moss covered and slowly sinking into the mud. There is a large water basin – it looks like a short stretch of canal that is largely overgrown – and I’m not sure what that was used for, There was a brick works here and many buildings in Swansea are built with bricks marked with ‘Clyne’. The clay to make them was extracted from the nearby quarry.

Further down towards the sea, coal mining was the main activity and this had been going on from Medieval times. Bell pits – shafts dug into the ground and enlarged like an upside down mushroom – formed the first method of extraction. It was a dangerous method. The pits had a tendency to collapse. Several of the shafts are visible on the hillsides, fenced off as they are still pose a risk to the unwary. Not far from Blackpill you can still see the entrance to a more traditional pit. A horizontal shaft leads into the hillside where the coal was extracted along a seam close to the surface.

Closer to our route, two WW2 pillboxes guard a bridge across the old railway track. They are set out in a classic plan. One covers the approach from the fields, and Fairwood Airport. The other covers the first pillbox. As the line is set in a cutting, this bridge would have been the only way to cross south of the main Gower Road, which was also covered by a pillbox hidden in the bushes. It’s likely that both bridges would have been primed with demolition charges, too and the pillboxes would have covered the engineers as they readying the charges in the event of an invasion.

We wandered through the trees and along muddy paths, Rufus charging through and me skirting the worst of the gloop. Every time he hit a deep patch of mud, the squelching and splurting seemed to surprise him. Eventually, the mud got too much for Rufus and we reluctantly turned back. A damp and curly Rufus is resting and drying on the sofa (I managed to get a blanket on it before he settled).

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Rufus and Dave’s lads week day 7 – The Bovine Dimension (By Rufus)

I popped in to see Dave early this morning. Awww, he was sleeping and looked so relaxed. So I didn’t shove my nose in his face to wake him up. I went back to bed and waited until 5.30. Too long in bed isn’t good for him. To be fair, he got up and we went out to make sure the garden was still there (I understand there is a fox around and I wouldn’t want her to steal Dave’s garden).

We went back to bed for a lie-in. Yesterday’s adventures took their toll on Dave so I let him rest. We got up around 8am and I let him make breakfast as he likes to feel useful when I’m around. We watched tv for a bit and then we had a chat about what we were going to do today. Dave suggested Pembrey and I thought that would be a good place to go – plenty of places toe xplore and things for Dave to photograph. It’s also flat, which means he wouldn’t be pushing himself too much after yesterday.

Dave drove. He likes that kind of thing. I prefer to contemplate the world from the back seat. I know my rightful place. We left the car and made our way along the estuary to the north of Pembrey airfield. Today, as we walked along, there were swans, lots of geese flying low overhead (they nearly bumped into Dave) and several herds of cows. The cows were all in the distance though, so there was no need to dodge them like we did last time. We walked past the pillboxes (for some reason, Dave likes these) and through the outer perimeter of Pembrey airfield. Apparently, according to Mr Interesting, it used to be a WW2 airfield and most of the derelict buildings date from then.

We entered the forest on a track that ultimately leads to the bombing and gunnery range. Last time I was here with Dave they had just finished landing Hercules aircraft on Cefn Sidan and when we got there, we had to dodge out of the way as several large fire engines made their way from the beach. There was nothing going on today so we had the run of the track. There were plenty of puddle for me to paddle in (my paws get hot with all the walking) and Dave seemed happy enough with his camera. Before long, we got to the beach. I haven’t been to the beach for a while so it was great to be able to run off in the soft sand.

Dave threw sticks and I made sure I gathered them up; you can’t be too careful leaving sticks just anywhere on the beach. The tide was going out but I managed to get some more paddling in. We had some snacks and I made sure Dave had a drink; he gets thirsty but sometimes he won’t drink. Then it was time to head back to the car. We took the same route back. By the time we reached the airfield again, one of the herds of cows had moved and some of them were very close to the path. We both decided to take it easy walking past them. I ignored them and carried on past. When I turned around to look, two cows were running straight towards Dave.

I had to stifle a laugh. He does some daft things but turning to face them, waving his arms in the air and talking to them like he talks to me was rather funny. They stopped and he turned to go and they started towards him again. I think they were after me, as they were staring at me. Dave turned to face them again and started shouting at them. I think they got the message because they stopped. They only came after us again after we’d gone through the gate and reached the path by the estuary. I enjoy a little bit of adventure on our walks.

Just before we reached the car, we saw a grey heron that had been in the pool with the swans.

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The Rainbow Holiday

I know, it’s a twee title, but if I’d called it ‘The Haunted Holiday’ or ‘The night of a thousand coughs’ it wouldn’t really sum it up.

We headed off to Dunster on the North Somerset coast for three nights of Halloween flavoured fun. We had booked tickets for the Dunster Castle ‘Ghost Walk’ after seeing it advertised when we were visiting in September. We stayed in a beautiful old house on a hill not far from St Georges church and we made sure we walked through the graveyard every evening to set the atmosphere up for our stay.

Talking to the landlord, it turned out that he had owned Flora’s Barn, one of our favourite holiday cottages, for 25 years and Flora, the horse that originally lived in the barn (before it was converted) was owned by his daughter. Such a coincidence! On out first night we ate in the Luttrell Arms, named after the family who owned Dunster Castle. It’s an old pub with plenty of character. There are several rooms, and we chose one heated by a huge Inglenook and open fire. The food took a while to come and I enjoyed a pint of local cider, Thatchers, which was to be a recurring theme for me. The manager for the night apologised for the delay in bringing us our food and offered us a free round. When it finally came, the meals were gorgeous.

Delicious cooked breakfasts started our mornings off nicely. The weather wasn’t the best and we saw the first of many rainbows from the window of our room. On the 31st and with no real plan in mind, we headed off east to have a look at Crowcombe church. The village is small and typically English and the church nestles beneath the Quantocks, Graham, our landlord, and his wife had explained that it lay at the end of the only road ro cross the Quantocks and had grown up around the potential trade that would generate. But it remained a poor village dominated by the local landowning family until quite recently. They would move tenants around within the village so they didn’t feel as if they owned the homes they rented. Some of the family also insisted on influencing how the villagers voted. It was almost as if we were hearing stories from some period drama.

We drove up onto the Quantocks before heading down to Nether Stowey to visit Coleridge’s cottage. Like every other time we’d been there, it was closed. But there was hope; it would be open later in the week. From there we headed back to Williton and, although neither of us wish to talk about it much, we visited the Bakelite museum there. It’s been a bit of a standing joke with us everytime we’ve stayed in the area. Down a narrow farm track, in a farmhouse outbuilding, there was an amazing collection of old domestic items from the last 100 years or so. Many of them were, indeed, made from Bakelite – the first plastic. But there were other things there and the one that stood out for me was an old dentist’s appliance – a metal stand with several arms coming out of it, each with a mechanically operated tool on the end. It was bizarre and clever and sinister, all at the same time. It reminded me of the torture ‘droid from the original Star Wars film.

Cleeve Abbey, out next stop, was a rather clinical building that would have benefited from some thought to dressing the rooms with period exhibits. Most of the rooms were empty and although they were labelled, it was hard to imagine how, for example, the Abbott’s bedchamber would really have looked. Even an artist’s impression on the wall would have helped. We wandered around the grounds, including the original refectory floor tiles under a giant marquee, before making our way to the nearby pub for a snackette (with chips, of course).

Our final destination of the day was Minehead and by now the weather was closing in. Some abortive attempts to fly a kite on the beach only succeeded in getting us wet. So we retreated to the B&B for a rest and to plan the evening. Neither of us were hungry so we headed off to a pub at the end of the village for a pint and some games of pool. I came second in two games but won the third. Watching over our every shot was Nelson, a large grey parrot who insisted on whistling a lot and occasionally shouting the world ‘w@nkers’ at random. During our last game the pool room had been invaded by a gaggle of local women who seemed to be keen to get us to move on. They were crowding the room and seemed very reluctant to get out of the way if we were playing a shot.

We made our way to Dunster Castle by 9pm and joined the others waiting for the ghost walk. Soon we were off and heading through the medieval gatehouse to the servants hall, where we went through an underground passage (originally for servants to move about without being seen) and had the first of a series of encounters with characters, noises, slamming doors and other eerie sounds and sights. The nightwatchman told us about footsteps with no one around to make them. A cavalier officer explained how he had died in the room we were in. We saw a maid looking for the lady of the house, a child being taken away to be punished and a couple of ghostly figures lit only by candles. Eventually, we survived and made our way past the dungeons, from which unearthly sounds could be heard, and into the stables. It was only then that we found out our guide was, in fact, a ghost herself!

On Thursday, we went west to Lynmouth and the cliff railway. The rivers were in full race and although the sun was shining, it was cold. We made our way slowly back along the coast, stopping in Porlock to have a look around the little church there. We parked up at the B&B and went for a look around Dunster. While Em went shopping, I walked down to Dunster beach to see what there was to see. All the way down the muddy lane, I was following a huge rainbow from a storm shower that was passing to the west. The sky was black, making the colours stand out even more.

Dunster beach was a key risk area for invasion during World War 2 and at one time there were a dozen or so pillboxes and other defensive structures built to command the long beach. Most have gone but in the car park was a pill box still wearing its camouflage of pebbles from the beach. It was originally disguised as a large pile of rocks and pebbles. Further inland were two more pillboxes, one in the middle of a field, the other, one of many along the stretch of the West Somerset Railway.

I headed back to rendezvous with Em and after watching a cheesy horror movie (well, it was a Halloween holiday) we headed out for food and a swift half. We ate at Cobblestones, a lovely restaurant on the main street of Dunster. The food was wonderful and the service excellent.

After breakfast and the inevitable rainbow, which seemed to act a s a backdrop to a large crow sitting on the neighbour’s fence, we climbed up to Conygar Tower, a folly built to overlook Dunster from the west by one of the Luttrells. We walked through the woods, risking life and limb as conkers dropped all around with loud thunks. We drove off towards Nether Stowey, driving along the coast and keeping Flat Holm and Steep Holm islands in sight in the Bristol Channel. Again, rainbows kept us company as we headed for Coleridge’s cottage, which was open. It was very atmospheric, having been set out as it would have been when he arrived in 1797. In contrast to Cleeve Abbey, the rooms had character and while many of the items on display hadn’t belonged to Coleridge, they were genuinely contemporary and helped to set the scene.

Then it was time to find the motorway to take us back to the 21st Century and home.

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