Everest Anywhere

Last year, I took part in Trail magazine’s ‘Everest Anywhere’ challenge. The idea was to log ascents on every walk and try and get to the height of Mount Everest, 8848 metres. With Rufus driving my efforts, we easily achieved the height in about 14 weeks. We did it again in another 14 weeks. We even got our photos in Trail Magazine after they got in touch. I started it again this year and Rufus did the first hill of the challenge with me. After Rufus passed away, I decided to continue anyway as it would get me out during the difficult weeks after he’d gone.

It’s not long now until I embark on a trek in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco. I’ve been doing a lot of training over the last few weeks and the two weekends I spent in North Wales really made a difference. I trained with a heavy backpack and even got to use crampons on Snowdon – a valuable if brief experience which taught me not to try and walk normally or the front points dig in and you trip up! I also learnt how to properly strap them on. The instruction sheet wasn’t very clear and my first efforts had the crampons slipping off on a steep part of the icy path. As usual, once you know the trick, it’s easy and so much more secure! I’ll be using crampons on Jebel Toubkal as we ascend a glacier to get to the snow covered summit.

In the last two weeks I climbed Pen y Fan twice, both in grim, snowy and misty conditions but as I explained to the National Trust volunteer on the way down, although I don’t like the walk up I love being at the top. I’ve used Pen y Fan as a training mountain, and a measure of fitness, since I started trekking way back in 2007 and I’ve now been to the top 55 times. I can usually tell by the time it takes to get to the top, and the state I’m in when I get there, the level of fitness I’ve reached. I was pleased with both efforts and there was a noticeable improvement over the previous climbs in December.

Yesterday, I went for a walk on Carreg Goch. It’s a lovely hill above Craig y Nos in the Swansea Valley. The initial climb is fairly steep and about half way up there is a side path that leads down to the Afon Haffes. This was a favourite stopping off point for Rufus, who would charge off down the short spur and wait for me in the water. It wasn’t deep enough to properly paddle but stones were required to be thrown and after a brief paw cooling splash, we’d carry on to the top of the path. I made the detour myself this time, and stood for a few minutes to remember Rufus. It was easy to picture him standing in the water waiting for a stone and it made me smile.

Once the steep bit is over, it’s a constant but gentle climb to about 550m. At the top, I had passed my Everest Anywhere goal of 8848m. The landscape is high moorland with broken limestone tops and sink holes. The mountain contains the National Showcaves at Dan yr Ogof and you can often find cavers accessing passages from seemingly impossibly narrow access holes on the top of the mountain. The shallow valley of Waun Fignen Felen was once a lake and the remains of prehistoric man’s efforts to hunt here have been found by archaeologists. This place was once home plenty of wildlife which attracted the hunter gatherers, who probably also had a hand in erecting the many standing stones and stone circles in the area.

The weather was beautiful and I enjoyed the stroll, which was less of a training walk and more of a morning out in the sun. The last time I came this way was in February, when the whole landscape was covered in a thick blanket of snow which anonymised the hills and made route finding difficult. That day I turned around because I didn’t like the look of the approaching clouds. As I got back to the car, they deposited a heavy load of snow. Yesterday couldn’t have been more different. The visibility was superb, crisp and clear. There were barely any clouds in the sky, only a few over the Bristol Channel. I had the mountain to myself on the way up and it was nice just to sit on the limestone outcrop and enjoy the view down across to the hills north of Swansea, and the sea beyond.

On the way back, I met a group of walkers who were out looking for one of the many aircraft crash sites in the area. They asked directions to the site of an RAF Vampire jet crash and I was able to point out the direction as I had been there myself a few years ago. They were in very good humour and we had a laugh before they carried on along the side of the dried up lake bed.

On the way down the steep bit is usually very slippery, either with snow and ice or, as yesterday, with thick, oozing mud. Nevertheless, I managed to get down without slipping over and with only a mild twinge in the knees. Another 7 miles added to my trek preparation.

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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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Mumbles

For most people in Swansea, Mumbles head, with it’s lighthouse and distinctive twin tidal islands, is iconic. It can be seen from the whole 5 mile sweep of Swansea Bay and, by design, it’s lighthouse is visible much further away. I’ve written about it before, here.

The first lighthouse was built there in the late 18th century. It had two coal fired lights in open braziers. The island just out into the Bristol Channel and catches every last whisper of wind; keeping an exposed coal fire burning in those conditions was well nigh impossible. So it wasn’t long before the coal fires were replaced by enclosed oil lamps with reflectors to improve visibility. There was a house on the outermost island for the keeper to live in during his (or her – there were wives and daughters here sometimes) duty, which must have been a lonely existence.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was causing mayhem in Europe and to protect the country, coastal forts were built at strategic points. By this time, Swansea was an industrial centre producing copper and other metals and exporting coal. Copper was particularly important strategically as copper coated hulls allowed Nelson’s ships to move more quickly and maneuver more easily. Mumbles Head was the ideal place for a defences and in the early part of the 19th century a stone fort was built which still stands today. Over the years various guns were placed here. Initially, 6lb cannon protected the port and these were replaced by bigger calibres until 68lb cannon with a range of 5 miles were sited on the island.

Eventually, modern 4.7″ guns were emplaced on the island and the 68lb cannon were unceremoniously dumped into the sea. One was recovered in the 70s and is situated in Swansea Marina. During WW2, these guns formed the inspection battery part of the defences of the port of Swansea, which was one of the biggest Bristol Channel ports during the war. Their responsibility was to enforce the requirement for all shipping to stop and be identified before proceeding into the docks and they were manned by regulars of the 299th Coastal Defence Battery, with Home Guard units and women of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRENS).

A pair of 6″ guns formed the defence part of the battery and were sited further back on the mainland, above the Bracelet Bay car park. These heavier guns with their longer range and better visibility would have engaged any enemy shipping trying to enter the bay. Search lights and local defences completed the battery. Further back on Mumbles hill was the 623rd Heavy Anti-Aircraft battery comprising 4 x 5.5″ guns sited to engage enemy aircraft flying in to bomb Swansea.

The whole area was defended from attack by Territorial and Home Guard units in trenches, machine gun emplacements and pill boxes. A mobile 75mm gun was also available to be used where required and there were minefields laid for further protection.

Where Bracelet Bay car park is now were the Nissen huts and other temporary accommodation for the garrison troops. Immediately after the war, these were used for homeless refugees while new houses was built to replace those destroyed in the bombing of Swansea earlier in the war.

The islands are accessible at low tide. A concrete walkway built to improve access for the battery garrison was destroyed after the war when it was found to affect the way the tide interacted with the beach. As you walk out, you can see the remains of the walkway along with railway lines and, as you near the outer island, posts for guide railings. On the outer island, the Napoleonic fort forms part of the current lighthouse structure. Around it there are the remains of the buildings that made up the more modern defences. And engine room to provide power for the searchlights; barracks for the garrison; platforms for the defence of the island from landward attack and the two search light houses.

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Even more history on your doorstep

Zulu! One of my favourite films, Michael Caine’s big break and a classic movie of the 60’s.

Zulu tells the story of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu war in the late 19th Century. Over two days – 22 and 23 January 1879 – around 150 British and colonial soldiers successfully defended the mission station from attack by between 3 and 4 thousand Zulu warriors. By any standard it was a heroic battle; 11 Victoria Crosses and 4 Distinguished Conduct Medals were awarded for that one action.

Of the 150 or so defenders, one stands out for me. Not because of his actions but because this afternoon I came across his grave in the local churchyard. I didn’t know it was there and I was in the graveyard for a completely different reason. But the clean and well tended headstone with fresh flowers attracted my attention, situated as it was in an older part of the plot amongst old and collapsing grave markers.

Private ‘David Lewis’ was born James Owens in 1852 near Whitland. In his teens he sought and obtained work in the tin works at Swansea Docks before he became a weaver. He married in 1875 and had two children, one of whom was named David Lewis Owens. He enlisted into the¬† 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot at Brecon in December 1876 under the name David Lewis. His pay was sent to his sister.

In 1878 he sailed with his regiment to South Africa where he fought in the Cape Frontier war and the Zulu war between 1877-79. He was invalided to England and discharged from service in August 1879 with heart problems. He returned to Swansea where, as James Owens, he resumed his trade as a weaver. Years later, he lost an eye in an accident when he went into work on his day off to collect his wages.

James Owens died on 1 July 1938 in Brynmill, Swansea, aged 87 and was buried with full military honours at Bethel Church, just down the road from where I live.

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A walk in the park

Yesterday was a washout, both literally (I don’t think it stopped raining all day) and metaphorically (as we had to stay in most of the day). I managed to get lots done on the photobook from our visit to Krakow last year but really both Rufus and I were feeling a little stir crazy.

We woke up this morning to more of the same weather and a forecast that said it would be wet all day. Faced with the prospect of another day stuck in the living room, we took an executive decision to go out regardless of the weather. After a second fortifying coffee, I got ready and got Rufus ready and without knowing what the weather was doing, we left the house.

It was raining, a steady, drab, grey rain accompanied by warm, humid air without a breeze to cool us off. The worst kind of rain in my opinion. We headed off to the local park as I hoped there’d be enough trees to give us some form of shelter for much of the walk. I’d forgotten how difficult the parking was and we circumnavigated the park looking for somewhere to stop. Eventually a space appeared and we dived in.

Usually the park is full of dog walkers and wouldn’t be my first choice of venue but my assumption that the rain would put many off was borne out and we had the park pretty much to ourselves. One or two dedicated walkers passed us with cheery smiles which helped in the grey morning. All the dogs we met were older and slower and like their owners, they were at their retirement age. I liked the idea of having somewhere to go for a gentle walk and it reminded me that Rufus is slowing down a little now, as am I.

The bluebells and snowdrops under the trees were still bright and fresh and some of the purples were strikingly deep and rich. The grass was a bright green too, and like the blades in my garden, were growing fast despite a recent cut. Trees were blossoming and despite my use of the the word grey and drab to describe the day, there was a magnificent range of colours in the park to brighten the day up.

Birds were taking advantage of the lack of activity and singing loudly. Several robins crossed out path, used to human activity and not at all concerned by Rufus’ presence. Crows pecked at the ground to lure worms to the surface and blackbirds darted about the tree branches, taking advantage of the new leaf canopy and the shelter it provided.

I’ve been going to Singleton Park for years. It formed a regular route as part of my daily training for treks and I’d often be seen there with camera and telephoto lens snapping away at the squirrels and other wildlife. I remember watching a man trying to coax a bird of prey out of the trees. When I asked, he explained that he’d made the mistake of feeding it before he’d exercised it and now it was sitting in the branches taking a post luncheon siesta. I’ve played gigs in the park as part of bank holiday events, once drowning out the next door ‘Its a Knockout’ event with our excessive volume. Early band publicity photos were taken at the modern stone circle, erected at the beginning of the 20th Century as part of the Eisteddfod celebrations.

Back home, both of us were soaked through to the skin but only one of us got a reward for allowing the other one to towel dry him. Life is unfair sometimes.

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Broadpool

Rufus and I head off to Broadpool a lot. It’s within 20 minutes of the house (on a good day with little traffic) and it’s a beautiful environment. Occasionally we have to give it a miss if there are cows around and I tend not to stop there if there are horses or sheep as they can easily be spooked and end up on the road. But more often than not we can spend up to an hour wandering around the lake and over the common. The variety of wildlife there is surprising. Apart from the farm animals, we’ve spotted rabbits, ducks and a solitary lapwing. I try and avoid the pool when the heron is there as she gets a lot of visitors and is very nervous. There are swifts and swallows, tree pipits, long tailed tits and geese. I’ve watched a barn owl hunting at the end of the day and recently a kestrel has watched over us as we walk.

Last Sunday it was a beautiful morning and we were at the lake before 8.30. The sun was warm and golden, the sky cloudless and the water mirror smooth. In the distance, cows called as milking time approached. We set off from the car and I let Rufus wander. We were testing Rufuscam which you can read about in this post, and he got some nice photos. All the wildlife photos here are from that morning.

I was happy witch my photos too and you can see them below. But how things change. At around 4pm, I saw a thin sea mist coming in over Mumbles and I thought it would make a great photograph to catch it in the sunset light over Broadpool. So Rufus and I jumped in the car and off we went. By the time we reached the pool, the visibility was down to yards and there was no sign of the sun. We went for a short walk in the gloom, which sucked all the colour from the landscape. Although the photos I took were in black and white anyway, had I used colour the only difference would have been a slight blue cast.

For most of the walk the road was invisible and only the sound of traffic betrayed it’s presence. In the distance, the cows still called, along with sheep and horses. The familiar became unfamiliar. It’s what I like about Broadpool; there’s always something different.

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Bog and bullet

World War 2 wasn’t just about the famous battles. Troops were away from their loved ones for months and years, often in hostile places but always thinking of home. I’ve written before of the aircraft crash sites I’ve visited, all remote and lonely places. These crashes took place during training exercises and it’s important to remember that during war, its not just in the fighting that servicemen risk their lives.

Around the UK there are many places that are associated with military training. But during the build up to D-Day in 1944, allied troops of many nationalities were training and preparing all over the country. Swansea played host to American soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division. My mum remembered them driving Jeeps along the roads of Swansea and making tyre screeching turns at speed. Their transport ships were anchored in Swansea Bay and vehicles were parked along roads and under the cover of trees across the area.

In the months leading up to the invasion, these soldiers were training constantly to prepare themselves for the ‘Day of Days’. On Cefn Bryn, practice trenches can be found on the ridge and there is at least one bunker, now derelict, near Broadpool. For years I’ve suspected but never known for sure that it was a military relic – it’s in the wrong place to be defensive as it can easily be outflanked. But I recently found out that it was a command centre, and probably played a role in assault training.

The wonderful beaches of south and west Gower were used to practice beach assaults. The Loughor Estuary became an artillery range; the firing points are still visible as concrete shells of buildings near Penclawdd and the target area, not far from Whiteford, is marked by an observation post built on stilts near Woebley Castle.

To the north of Morriston is Mynydd y Gwair and a place Rufus and I visit often. Opposite is Tor Clawdd and the site of the home and research facility of Harry Grindell Matthews, known as ‘Death Ray’ Matthews after his work during the early part of the war on a weapon to stop engines and explode bombs at a distance. He built this isolated retreat, complete with a small airstrip, to work on his secret projects (which also included an aerial torpedo, a means of turning light into sound and a means to synchronise sound and film). Unfortunately he died in 1941, before any of these inventions could be perfected.

In 1944, Tor Clawdd was taken over by the officers of the 2nd Infantry Division and the troops were camped on the surrounding hills. One of the training exercises they carried out was to try and simulate real battle conditions. This they did by firing live rounds at an earth bank while the soldiers crawled along a trench in front of the bank or behind the bank. The remains of this exercise is still visible opposite Tor Clawdd and this morning Rufus and I took a look.

Once you know what you’re looking for, the earth bank is very noticeable, although just glancing at it might lead you to think it’s a drainage feature. As we walked towards it, we passed a single conical mound followed closely by six more, lined up parallel with the bank. The mounds were the positions of the machine guns used to fire on the bank. Then came a deep ditch and some 30 yards from this was the bank. ¬†Between the ditch and bank were several shallow depressions in the ground and I had read that these were the result of explosions set off as part of the training. We wandered along the bank, heading north until it came to an end. Great sections of it were weathered and worn by the passage of sheep and cattle but it still stood a metre or so high.

Then I started to notice the bullets. The first one I saw was long and grey and could have been mistaken for a stone half buried in the mud. But I knew what I was looking for and within 10 minutes I’d picked up 19 bullets and fragments just lying on the surface. I also picked up three large pieces of sharp glass, souvenirs of a later period of history.

I have no idea what it must have been like to undergo this kind of training, but I guess if it helped to save their lives later on, then it was worth it. Research I did into this site suggested that some of the soldiers were killed when a section of the bank collapsed on them during an exercise.

The troops of the 2nd Infantry Division landed at Omaha beach in Normandy on June 8, two days after D-Day, and went on to see action in France, Belguim, Holland and Germany. The division is currently stationed in South Korea.

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