A walk on the common

Bank Holiday Monday. Sunny but with rain coming in around lunchtime. No surprise there, but what should we do? I had a meeting with Rufus, my outdoor pursuits consultant, and he suggested a walk on the common while the good weather lasted. There may have been some bias in his coming to that decision, but I trust his judgement.

I decided to write a lighter blog after yesterday’s and it seemed a good idea to base it on a typical walk in Gower – one of the ones we do all the time and take for granted. So here it is. You have been warned.

Where we go on Fairwood Common is dictated by the location of the livestock there. Farmers get free grazing on this land and in that past we have encountered one several times who believes the land is his own personal possession. As I like to let Rufus off the lead as much as possible, I always look for the cows and sheep and avoid them. Today the cows, along with some horses and foals, were at the top of the common so we had free range. I parked the car off the road and we set off along an old and overgrown access road built for the airport when it was an RAF fighter station. Near here were a dead badger and a dead fox – I’d seen them before so I kept Rufus on the lead until we’d passed. Further along the road was the corpse of a dead cow, but that had been moved since we were last here. It was safe to let Rufus off the lead now and he went trotting ahead as we weaved through bushes and tree branches, all the while the birds singing from the cover of the branches.

At the perimeter fence, we usually see rabbits beyond in the airport. There weren’t any today; maybe we were a bit late. But Rufus picked up their scent and spent a few minutes trying to squeeze himself through the chain links. Giving up, he padded along the fence heading north along the line of the main runway. Two planes were flying, taking turns to land and take off before circling around again.

This part of the common is littered with the remains of WW2 buildings. Most of them are little more than concrete foundations; some are raised above the level of the ground and one or two have several courses of red brick poking above the marsh. Today, Rufus passed all of these and made for the end of the runway. I let him choose the route as he has an uncanny knack of finding trails and paths.

Fairwood Airport was built as a fighter station at the beginning of WW2. Thousands of tons of ballast and slag from the local steel and copper works were deposited in the marshy area known as Pennard Burch. Time was found to excavate two burial mounds in the area before they were covered by the runways. The airfield was open in 1941 and played host to a number of squadrons and aircraft types. It now hosts one of the Wales Air Ambulance helicopters, which was taking off as we walked, as well as the Swansea Skydiving Club and a number of private planes.

At the far end of the runway, we watched the planes coming and going, including the large aircraft used to take skydivers into the air. A smaller aeroplane had to dodge out of the way as the big plane taxied to our end of the runway. Beneath out feet, the marsh land was in evidence and I though that it was amazing how they were able to build on this type of ground. According to the records, damp and drainage were constant problems throughout the war at this base. Rufus disappeared in the long marsh grass but I was able to follow his progress by the splash and squelch noises he made as he explored. He wasn’t worried by the low flying aeroplanes.

We turned back and went onto firmer ground slightly above the level of the airfield. From here, it’s clear that the airfield is built in a dip in the ground. Not an ideal location, but it is the flattest part of the common and the only suitable place to site the runway. We were walking through the remains of the buildings now and Rufus climbed on to every foundation raft to make sure it was clear of local critters. We made our way further from the perimeter fence to a point that would have had a clear view of the whole airfield. Trees now block the way, but they are recent additions. Years ago, I found the half buried entrance to what I thought was the Battle HQ for RAF Fairwood Common. A recent check of a site map proved me correct. Nearby are the filled in remains of two infantry trenches, and between them is the holdfast for a small gun, possible an anti aircraft weapon.

It was all downhill from here and the car was visible from this part of the common. It’s at this stage that Rufus normally slows down. Not because he’s tired but because he doesn’t want to go home. Today, he was too caught up in the smells of the countryside and he ranged either side of me until I eventually had to put him on the lead when we got close to the road. There was a lot of traffic as people took advantage of the sun to get out into Gower.

Then we were back at the car and our walk was over. We’d done just over two miles in about 80 minutes. No records were in danger of being broken today, but that’s not the point of our walks. It’s all about enjoying and having fun. And that we did.

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Right to reply

I understand that elsewhere in this blog, Dave has written that I needed to have a rest after his pathetic attempt to climb Fan Hir? I have exercised my right to reply and here is the truth about it all.

We should never have started off on Thursday. The weather forecast clearly said it would rain around midday. We would have been fine if someone had managed to get up early enough, but no, Dave insisted on a lie-in despite my attempts to remind him we had a deadline to meet (I notice he didn’t mention that in his blog entry). By the time he’d faffed around and managed to get himself together, it was too late and we were running out of dry weather time. When he decided to turn around, I was still heading up towards the ridge and he had to call me several times before I came back. I love getting wet, as I demonstrated when we got to the river. In other words, Dave was the one that needed to turn back because he’s afraid of the rain.

Anyway, it turns out that he went off without me yesterday and found a great place for a walk. I should have been with him but he decided to leave me at home. Hmph! Well, I let him know how I felt by ignoring him and not sleeping on the bed. There!

He got the message because this morning, really early, we were up and off back to the place he found. And I have to admit it was quite a place. Of course, I had to be careful not to look too happy because he still has a lesson to learn about taking me with him, but it was hard not to wag my tail at all the new aromas and interesting sights everywhere. Of course, he waffled on a bit, explaining to me something about gunpowder, ruins, tramways and a mill. Yeah, whatever. When I saw the first squirrel (I knew they were around as I’d sniffed their trails out already) I showed him exactly how tired and aching I was by immediately chasing after it. It had a head start or it would have been mine. I chased or stalked several more before we left the tramway and went into the woods.

Dave likes this part of the world as there are lots of waterfalls for him to take photos of. It keeps him happy It’s fine for me too, as where there are waterfalls, there are rivers and stones to be thrown. Sure enough, we found a nice shallow bit of the river upstream of a weir (I know about these things, you know) and I could tell how guilty Dave felt by the way I didn’t have to bark to remind him to throw me stones. We carried on further up the valley on proper footpaths (I’d like to see a tram get over that kind of terrain) and once again I proved I could hack it. Tired, me? I had to keep looking back to see if Dave could keep up.

When we turned back, guess who made the decision? Yup! Mr Fitness decided we should go back to the car and once again, he had to call be back as I was all for going on. I chased several more squirrels, kept taking the lead, caught more stones and I still had the energy left to sneak into the female changing area near the car park (much to Dave’s embarrassment, although I knew there weren’t any people in there – you should have heard him trying to call me back!) Payback is such good fun.

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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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Whitby

On our tour of York and the North East, we spent Friday on the north east coast. Our first destination was Robin Hood’s Bay.

The breakfast was delicious and there was a lot of it. Buffet style, while immensely attractive, is fatal for me. I inevitably pick the best bits of bacon (‘ooh, that one looks better’) and the nicest sausages (‘ooh, that one looks nice too’) and suddenly I need help carrying the plate back to my table. Today was no exception.

Squeezing into the car, we set off to cross the North Yorkshire Moors towards Whitby and the East. The last time I came across here, there was a massive thunder storm over Whitby and the lightning was flashing constantly, putting me off driving, Today, the weather was beautiful and clear; warm but not uncomfortably hot. There was a wonderful moment when the silhouette of Whitby abbey came into view on the cliff top above the town. We skirted around and headed south towards the little fishing village, which was once more important than Whitby according to Dutch sea maps, which showed Robin Hood’s Bay but not Whitby.

Parking at the top of the hill, we walked down the steep lane towards the sea. There were few people here and it was lovely to see the streets and lanes uncluttered by tourists. We explored some of the narrower paths until it began to feel as if we were intruding into people’s gardens. At the foot of the hill, the tide was in and washing over the slipway. It was lovely to watch the waves, and hear them too, without the interruption of man made noise. After some sun and sea air, we trudged back up the much steeper hill to the car and headed off to the Abbey.

The main entrance to the abbey was closed and so we had to walk around the perimeter of the grounds to get to the alternative entrance. Which was also closed, as there was a private group being showed around. It was very disappointing especially as there were no notices in the car park. Fortunately, we were heading down to Whitby too, otherwise it would have been a waste of money in the car park.

199 steps lead down from St Mary’s church to the East harbour, the oldest part of Whitby. They weren’t as bad as I was expecting and very soon we were in Church street, one of the older and original streets in the town. In the lore of Dracula, this is the route he took after coming ashore from the grounded ‘Demeter’, heading up to the church and the grave of a suicide, where he spent some of the 10 days he was in Whitby. I’m guessing he didn’t stop at the souvenir shops to pick up some Whitby Jet.

We crossed over the Drawbridge to the west side and walked alongside the wharfs, now home to tour boats, one or two fishing vessels and the large fish market. A lovely coffee at the Marine Hotel was followed by a stroll out to the pier and back. We then spent some time in the little art galleries in the side streets. Captain Cook was born here and started his seafaring career at the harbour. I love little details like that. It reminded me that I’d been in Stromness, where the Endeavour stopped to water and provision before heading south (so I was told). An odd route but it turns out that as Britain was at war with France at the time, it was safer than using the English Channel.

All too soon it was time to climb back up the 199 steps (now mysteriously steeper and more numerous) to the church. We were passed on the way by schoolkids whose only purpose was to show us the differences age brings. They were waiting at the top of the steps, bouncing with energy. We wandered through the churchyard, with its Gothic gravestones. They all appeared to be made of the same sandstone, and to a very similar design. Unfortunately, the ravages of the sea air and storms had worn the surfaces back considerably. Most stones showed a characteristic pitting and many had worn thin to the point where they seemed they might snap in the slightest breeze. Some had already done so.

From the church we walked back around the abbey ruins to the car. It was time to head back to the hotel and our three course meal. We stopped on the way back in the little village of Goathland on the North York Moors. Goathland played the role of Aidensfield in the ITV series ‘Heartbeat’ and every souvenir shop (almost every building in the tiny village was a souvenir shop) had all the merchandising you could imagine to remind us. There were even two Ford Anglia cars painted up as police cars from the 1960s, when the series was set. The station was also used as ‘Hogsmead’ station in the Harry Potter films (I’ve only included that to justify the Harry Potter keyword tag I’ll add in a cynical attempt to boost my site traffic).

We made a brief stop at the Hole of Horcum (not part of it, the whole of it). The hole is part of the valley formed by the Levisham Beck and ranks 11th in the  Rude Britain top 100 list (which includes North Piddle, Titty Ho and the classic ‘Twatt’, a place I’ve been to on Orkney – these may not be in my tag list because I’m not that desperate for traffic). We got back to our hotel at about 5.30. After a welcome shower and change, we were out in the beer garden enjoying a beer with the guests of a wedding reception.

Food was lovely, more so because it was part of the deal we’d had. Then it was time for bed.

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History on your doorstep.

I’ve always been interested in local history. While I was still in school, I attended local history lessons and since then I’ve taken an interest in the subject. I never studied history in school and that’s one of my regrets. I’m particularly interested in the military history of the area and that probably stems from the stories my mum used to tell me of the Swansea Blitz in February of 1941.

Swansea Bay Pillbox

Swansea Bay Pillbox

Swansea was used as a staging post for troops involved in the invasion of occupied France on D-Day. The bay was full of transport ships and the farmland around was full of American soldiers. Very little, if anything, of this remains today. Most of the visible signs of the area’s war lie in ruins. There’s a pillbox on Swansea Bay, opposite the University. I haven’t been able to find anything out about when it was built or if there were others, but it sits alone, half buried in sand. It’s seaward face has no embrasure and it was clearly intended to provide enfilading fire, that is to shoot at the enemy from their sides. You see it on the German defences on the beaches of Normandy and elsewhere.

A now ruined radar station sits of Rhossili down. Another is sited near Oxwich Point. A third sits overlooking Port Talbot. All kept watch on the Bristol Channel.

Clyne Pillbox

Pillbox at Clyne

More pillboxes defend a possible invasion route from the west towards Swansea along natural obstacle of Clyne Valley. One is hidden opposite the Railway Inn in Killay.

Mumbles Hill Heavy AA Battery

Mumbles Hill Heavy AA Battery

There are a number of anti-aircraft gun emplacements on and around Kilvey Hill, protecting the oil refinery and industrial areas of Swansea nearby. My mum told me of an anti aircraft battery, including ‘Z’ rockets (unguided surface to air missiles) sited on the playing fields near Singleton Hospital. The rockets were secret at the time. Another battery of heavy guns were sited on Mumbles head, above the Yacht club My uncle recalls that the sound of these 5″ calibre guns firing was totally different to the smaller 3″ guns nearer the city.

 

 

Mumbles Head Searchlight House

Mumbles Head Searchlight House

Lower down on the slopes, on a now flat and empty piece of the hill overlooking the lighthouse, a battery of anti shipping guns were located.

On the tidal island which is home to the lighthouse, there are searchlight houses.

Mumbles Lighthouse Fortress

Mumbles Lighthouse Fortress

Part of the buildings that for the lighthouse were originally a 19th Century fortress and gun battery.

Swansea airport was originally built as a fighter station in 1941 on land that was so boggy it had to be filled in with thousands of tons of industrial waste and rubble (which took a year to complete). Over the war years, it was home to a number of squadrons and became  a base for anti shipping strikes, night fighters and eventually the home of a weapons training facility.  The aircrews would practice shooting, bombing and strafing on nearby Whiteford and Llanmadoc bays. Fragments and unexploded ordnance is still being found there – last year an old gas shell was still potent enough to affect the ammunition technician sent to dispose of it.

Infantry trench

Infantry trench overlooking RAF Fairwood Common

Recently while walking around the area with Rufus, I came across several reminders of it’s past including an area of slightly higher ground which seemed to have been a defensive point. The faint indentations of several trenches could be seen, along with a deeper concrete lined one and the mounting for a small artillery piece of heavy machine gun.

Fighter dispersal pen

Fighter dispersal pen. Each metal feed trough is placed where a twin engined fighter bomber (probably a Beaufighter) would have been parked. The earth bank between them would have protected them from bomb damage.

Until a few years ago, I had an old Anderson shelter in the garden. I remember as a boy seeing several such shelters in back gardens around the area, most still buried as was suggested when they were issued. The wall of the old police station in Swansea is pitted with shrapnel damaged bricks from a bomb that fell in the street. Looking at the records for the bombing of Swansea, at least one house near me was destroyed by a bomb, and many others were damaged. There is a story that a stick of bombs fell close to the nearby further education college and a rumour persists that one landed in the marsh on which the college is now built, and failed to go off.

There are many such structures in the UK and many more that have been lost over the years since they were built. They are a valid part of our history in the same way as castle, churches and bridges are. I hope we don’t lose sight of that just because they are a reminder of an unpleasant chapter of history.