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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Tits and secrets

Ok, lets get the tittering out of the way. The tits are, of course birds. Feathered birds. The court order doesn’t allow me to keep any other kinds of tits in the garden any more. This morning after I’d had breakfast, I watched as a number of Blue Tits, Great Tits and House Sparrows flitted back and forth between the bushes and my bird feeder. I managed to get some photographs of them too.

After yesterday’s walk, Rufus was struggling a little with his knee. So today, I decided that he should have a rest from walks. I explained this to him but he didn’t seem that impressed. So I had to tell him a little white lie. I said that I was going shopping. Which I sort of did, but then set off to explore a couple of parts of Gower I haven’t been to before. He still doesn’t know and thinks I’m a particularly hesitant shopper. Don’t say anything. It’s our secret.

A book on local history I have been reading intrigued me about a few places on the Gower Way. The book is ‘Real Gower’ by Nigel Jenkins and is worth a read if you’re interested in little histories of Gower told through anecdotes by a local writer. A friend had mentioned Carmel chapel, a ruin near Cilonnen, as being potentially photogenic and I read some of the history of the place in this book. So that became my first point of interest. I thought I knew where I was going and I headed off the north Gower road , past the place where my car was broken into, and on through the anonymous, tree-lined little lanes towards Cilonnen.

At the T junction, I headed west, wondering if I should have turned right instead. About a mile later, I wished I had as I had to negotiate a partially blocked road where a lorry was unloading scaffolding. Helpfully, they had put corrugated iron and wood in the ditch to allow vehicles to crawl past. Unhelpfully, the corrugated iron was ready to slice into my tyres. Helpfully, one of the guys offloading the scaffolding came over and rearranged the wood and I managed to get past. But it quickly dawned on me that I had gone the wrong way. Rather than turn around and risk my tyres again, I drove on along through new parts of Gower and enjoyed the drive despite ever narrowing lanes and pot-holed roads. Eventually, I emerged into familiar territory near Llanrhidian and turned back towards Fairwood Common again.

I left the north Gower road once again and this time stopped at Gelli Hir woods. Here, the book said, were the remains of an old colliery, also called Gelli Hir, which in its last year of production, 1948, brought 15,000 tons of coal to the surface. Spoil heaps lie on the common around the colliery site but trees ease the view. A brief walk through the woods reminded me of how lucky I am to live so close to such an abundance of unspoilt countryside as I listened to the rustle of leaves, the multitude of song birds and the gentle crunch of gravel beneath my boots. Back at the car, a Robin was checking out my wheels and wary of the previous theft from my car I wondered what it’s intentions were. I soon found out as it flew away into the branches of a tree to watch me leave.

Back on the search for Carmel, I turned east at the T junction and within 100 yards, there was the ruined chapel at the side of the road. This chapel was built in 1885 for the workers of the nearby colliery and was considered a satellite chapel of the main church in Three Crosses. I stopped to take photos as it was, as my friend had suggested, very photogenic.

Then it was off through Three Crosses to Dunvant and a portion of the old Mid Wales line that ran through Clyne Valley and which has no been turned into a cycle path. Here, the book told me, we were wandering through an industrial landscape of collieries and brick works. Several paths left the main cycleway, which is also a bridle way here where horses have the right of way over cyclists. I followed one signposted for the brick works, which climbed eastwards out of the railway cutting. In the distance I could hear horses neighing and all around birds continued to sing. Above me, a squirrel lost its nerve and scurried from a low overhead branch onto a tree to my left, where it stopped to look at me watching it. It darted across another branch, demonstrating it’s agility for me and then stopped to check I was still watching. It continued this stop start show off routine until I moved on.

The clouds were gathering now and I was conscious of the forecast of rain for the afternoon, so I turned back for the old railway line. Walking back tot he car, I noticed the old brickwork support for the cutting. Below it an orange stream flowed, where iron ore from the coal seam stained the stream bed. The wall was bulging and in several places trees and bushes grew from gaps in the brickwork.

Back home, I didn’t mention my adventures to Rufus and he seemed content to chew on a couple of carrot sticks and roll over for me to tickle his belly. Normal service has resumed then.

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Rufus and I tend to visit the same places when we go walking. I try to vary our routes as much as I can and I’m always on the lookout for new places to go. I like to make sure that Rufus is walking (ideally off the lead) for longer than we are in the car. It’s usually easy enough to manage.

Today we tried a new route. We’ve been to the Forestry Commission wood at Penllegare before but today we walked further into the forest alongside the railway line and then turned left to follow an almost invisible path between the trees as it climbed up and away from the rails. Before long we could hear the unmistakeable sound of waterfalls. Both Rufus’ and my ear twitched. Rufus loves the water and I love waterfalls so we were both happy when we suddenly came across a series of steps in the river that made for a picturesque cascade. It looked semi natural, as if someone had enhanced what was already there. I guess this bit of the woods was once part of the Penllegare estate before the artificial barriers of the railway and the motorway chopped the forest in two.

Not having expected to see anything worthy of more than a snapshot, I only had a point and shoot camera with me. It’s a great camera, but for scenes like this I prefer to take my time using a DSLR or similar, and a tripod. So I took some snapshots and made a mental note to return as soon as practical with something that would give me more control. Rufus, with no such considerations, paddled and splashed and waded like a pro, which of course he is.

We climbed up above the river and followed it’s little valley for a bit before leaving it behind and heading back into the trees. Now we were walking through a wild looking forest, following a hint of a path through mud, brambles and over fallen trees. Then we emerged onto a wide forestry track. The sun was out and despite a cool breeze, it was warm as we climbed the gentle slope along the track. We had the woods to ourselves as we ambled along and I let Rufus decide the route when we came to forks in the path. Finally, after another squelch along a narrow path, we came to a gate and although there were no signs forbidding entry, I decided it was time to head back to the car.

The journey back was a bit quicker and we stuck to the track when the turning into the woods came along. By now we were passing other dog walkers, joggers and would be joggers. We dropped back down into the car park and after some reluctance of Rufus’ part to get into the back, we set off for home and a well earned lunch.

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Rufus and Dave’s Fortnight of Fun part 10: Holiday’s End

When I woke up this morning, Rufus had managed to take over about half the bed. Usually, he is waking me up but this morning the alarm beat him to it. Expecting a wet nose in the face, I was surprised to hear just a deep sigh from his half of the mattress. He was reluctant to head out into the garden and very keen to get back to bed again. We had a nice lie in while the sun came up.

It was a much better day today but I decided to let Rufus have a rest, so after breakfast I set off to explore Dinas Rock, near Pontneddfechan. It’s at the other end of the river that we often visit for its waterfalls. I’ve only been here a couple of time. Once to film a promotional video for the Princes Trust, when I went gorge walking with a bunch of volunteers. It was a fun packed couple of hours for me, as a non-swimmer. I spent most of my time bobbing along in a wet suit trying to keep a £2k video camera from sinking into the water. The second time was a brief visit with Rufus after we’d been drenched on Moel Feity.

The area around Dinas Rock is full of history. On the rock itself, there are the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, which gives the area its name (Dinas means fort in Welsh). The car park was once a limestone quarry and nearby were other quarries and adits for the millstone grit that outcrops around here. Further down the valley is the Dinas Gunpowder mill, where carbon from the forest was combined with saltpetre from pigeon droppings and other ingredients to make gunpowder. They tested the quality of the gunpowder by using a sample to fire an 8″ cannon ball. If it didn’t meet the standard, the whole batch was destroyed. Carefully! When the site was decommissioned in 1931, the buildings were burnt out to remove the risk of accidental explosion at a later date from gunpowder residue.

The track I walked along was suspiciously flat and as I suspected, it turned out to be the route of an old railway. In fact, it was a tramway which led out of the valley and down towards Glynneath, following the route of the old road. The remains of the powder works and the watermills that powered it are still visible lining the river, but in a precarious state of decay. Back in the car park, groups of nervous school kids were heading off to do their gorge walking as I drove out.

Rufus had a good rest while I was out and after I got home, but this evening it was time for him to have a little walk. The sunset promised to be quite good so we set off for Broadpool, where we were fortunate in that there were now cows hovering around the pool. I forgot that the car is no longer a 4×4 and we bumped off the road to park; thankfully, I didn’t catch any body work on the ditches. After a short stroll around the shore of the lake, we returned to the part closest to the road where we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset complete with mirror like reflections in the water.

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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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Barn 2: Steam powered Quantocks

It was a gorgeous morning. Sheep were calling in the field next door and there was a low mist in the dip in the field. The sun had just risen, and while the Barn was sheltered by the farmhouse, the fields opposite were golden with the early sunshine.

Rufus and I decided to make our way up to the hills above Crowcombe. The Quantocks run in a line roughly north-south towards the sea. On top, it reminded me a bit of Rhossili Down, with heather and low gorse separated by rough tracks where sheep have wandered over the years.

We reached Hurley Beacon, the site of one of many Bronze Age burial cairns built on the western edge of the hills. From here there was a fantastic view through almost 360 degrees. To the north was Aberthaw power station on the Welsh coast and almost opposite it, nearer me, Hinkley ‘C’ nuclear power station. In between were Flathom and Steepholm islands. To the west was the valley that leads down to Watchet.

Back at the Barn, we paused briefly before heading off to Crowcombe Heathfield railway station, just down the road. There we caught the 10.40am steam train to Minehead. I saw this train several years ago when I was at Blue Anchor chasing pill boxes. Today we steamed along the West Somerset Railway through Stogumber, Williton and all stations to Blue Anchor. There I saw a couple of pill boxes close up and several more well concealed inland of the beach. Blue Anchor beach was considered a threat for invasion during the war and a significant defensive system was built based on the railway line and inland.

Minehead was the final stop and we walked along the platform, past the temporary CAMRA bar and its customers and across the road to the beach. It was closed to dogs, which meant that we couldn’t have our planned picnic as we couldn’t find the parts of the beach we thought might be open. Instead, we walked along the promenade towards the breakwater and sat there for sausage and chips. Oscar and I went off to explore the breakwater and we ended up by three large ships cannons.

Heading back to the station, we were treated to a jazz band playing upbeat songs to entertain the CAMRA customers, supping their real ale. We watched the crew stoking the boiler to get steam up for  the journey back. It seemed quicker on the way home and we were back in the Barn in no time.

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