It Is Better To Travel Than To Arrive

 



IT IS BETTER TO TRAVEL THAN TO ARRIVE


Over a pleasant lunch, some Cardiff friends asked what plans for adventure I had this year? They knew I had arranged four pilgrim walks last year and they may have been winding me up on the back of a glass of wine or more. Truthfully, I had no real plan in mind, but I replied that I would see how far I could go in a day on my bus pass.

We all know that people of a certain age are eligible for a bus pass issued by Transport for Wales. The pass is correctly called the Welsh Concessionary Travel Card and is available to people in Wales over 60 years of age for use on business, socialising or leisure travel. While it is primarily used for bus travel on all Welsh buses it can also be used for some train journeys in Wales.

As the weeks went by, I made a plan to travel to Aberystwyth and, as it is so far, I would stay the night and return the next day. When I told my friends how the plan was developing one of them said he had never been to Aberystwyth and that he would like to join me. Well, I soon get bored with my own company, so I readily accepted David’s suggestion.

A great website for planning travel in Wales is Traveline Cymru and I began to look at bus timetables but noticed that some trains also offered free travel with a travel card. In particular, the Heart of Wales line could be used between October and the end of March. So rather than going up and back the same way by bus, we decided to travel north using the Heart of Wales railway and then we would return by bus.

The Heart of Wales line runs between Swansea and Shrewsbury, though purists would say between Llanelli and Craven Arms. The line was originally built for freight but is now mainly used by passengers. The route is scenic and delightful passing through the most rural parts of mid-Wales and most notably through the old nineteenth-century spa towns Llandrindod Wells, Llangammarch Wells, and Llanwrtyd Wells. The train consists of one or two carriages, and it moves at a gentle pace stopping at twenty-nine stations on the route. Some days there is a refreshment trolley service, but the best advice is to take a good picnic as the journey takes just about 4 hours from Swansea to Shrewsbury. The train runs four times a day in both directions. It is a single-track railway with passing loops in four places. I am pleased to report that the single carriage we took did have a lavatory! To continue from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth there is a third train with takes another two hours.

At Shrewsbury we had a wait of 2 hours for our connection, so we had ample time to explore.

Shrewsbury Castle and Military Museum is a short walk from the station, and we soon made our way there. The Castle is built with red sandstone, and it stands on a hill in the neck of the meander of the River Severn on which the town originally developed. Of relevance to Welsh visitors is the fact that the castle was briefly held by Llewellyn the Great, Prince of Wales, in 1215.

Scuttling back to the station to get our connection we were soon aboard and arrived in Aberystwyth at 5.30 pm. We had left Cardiff at 8.06 am so it had taken over 9 hours to travel 74 miles as the crow flies. This is not a journey for the impatient.

Aberystwyth would fit the Dylan Thomas description of a “lovely, ugly town”. It is not an ancient town, but it is the capital of Mid Wales. It has an elegant esplanade that is regularly battered by Atlantic storms. The Cambrian Railways line from Machynlleth reached Aberystwyth in 1864, closely followed by rail links to Carmarthen, which resulted in the construction of the town’s impressive station. The Cambrian line opened on Good Friday 1869, the same day that the new 292 meters Royal Pier opened. Although it was originally 50 meters longer than Penarth pier much of it was washed away by storms over the years and it is now much shorter. In Victorian times the new train line caused a boom in tourists and the town was even called the Biarritz of Wales.

We spent the night in a seafront hotel, of which there are many, and enjoyed a good supper in the nearby Baravin restaurant which is linked to the celebrated Harbourmaster in Aberaeron. In the morning we chose to visit the National Library of Wales where there was an excellent exhibition of contemporary Welsh art. This magnificent building was opened in 1915 but construction continued until 1937. The main purpose of the National Library of Wales is to collect and preserve materials related to Wales and Welsh life and those which can be utilised by the people of Wales for study and research. The building and grounds are both well worth a visit.

There is also a funicular cliff railway at the north end of the promenade. This was opened in 1896 and rises 237 meters from sea level to the top of the cliffs. It is the second-longest in the UK and it is a fun thing to do, but we did not have time to visit it.

After sightseeing, we bought a picnic for the rather long bus journey home. Conveniently the bus station is adjacent to the train station, and we caught the 1305 pm X47 bus which left on time for Llandrindod Wells arriving at 1445 pm, a relatively short journey of an hour and 40 minutes. The scenery on this route, especially from Aberystwyth to Llangurig is spectacular as it winds up and down the Cambrian mountains. To the north, you can see the lower slopes of Plynlimon which are the source of both the rivers Wye and Usk. While on the south side of the road there are massive wind farms as far as the eye can see. It may be worth adding that the buses carried very few passengers so we were not depriving anyone of a seat.

At Llangurig our bus met another service and we got off for a leg stretch, and the smokers quickly lit up! Then on towards Llandrindod and now on the more familiar A470. We arrived at the rather bleak bus station on time but our connection, the T4, was about 20 minutes late. The journey to Cardiff takes a surprisingly long 3 hours so we were happy to arrive at Greyfriars’s road at 6.20 pm after roughly 5 hours on the road.

We had enjoyed two full days away thanks to Transport for Wales. We had enjoyed seeing the wonderful mid-Wales scenery; you miss so much when driving a car. And we had appreciated a fleeting visit to the iconic town of Aberystwyth. We could have gone both ways on the bus at no cost, but by choosing to use the free Heart of Wales line we had to buy single tickets to Swansea and from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth but with Railcards these only came to about £20.

So – to the retired people of Wenvoe and for that matter anyone over 60 – pick up your Concessionary Travel Card and board a bus – the hidden gems of Wales await you.

 



 

A Day On A Mule

A DAY ON A MULE


In 1969 I was lucky enough to be sent to Cyprus that sunny isle in the East Mediterranean, and fabled home of Aphrodite, goddess of love. I was a young army officer in the Royal Regiment of Wales and our battalion was to train there for some weeks, brushing up our military skills in that hot, arid environment. It was hard work but there was fun to be had as well. At weekends we had time to ourselves and I was able to hire a large old motorbike to tour the island. I was about 21 years old and had recently passed my test, so the open roads of Cyprus were a great place to gain more experience. This oily, noisy machine had clearly been involved in an accident at some stage as the wheels were out of alignment, but that did not matter much as it still went like a rocket.

In my school days I had taken up rock climbing and so I suggested that I might take a group of soldiers on a two-week climbing course at the end of our training exercise. I knew that in Northern Cyprus, and just above the town of Kyrenia, there was a mountain called Pentadaktylos, or Kyrenia mountain. The Greek name means five fingers – and there is a legend that the Byzantine hero Digenis Akritas’s hand gripped the mountain to get out of the sea when he came to free Cyprus from its Saracen invaders, and this is his handprint.

He also threw a large rock across Cyprus to destroy the Saracen ships. That rock landed in Paphos at the site of the birthplace of Aphrodite, thus known to this day as Petra Tou Romiou or “Rock of the Greek”. There was one problem with climbing in Cyprus, which was simply that the granite became so warmed by the strong sun that by midday it was too hot to touch. So we would begin climbing soon after dawn and come back down to our shaded campsite around midday.

During the days of our military exercise, we had been visited by a senior officer who had flown out from the UK to see how the Regiment was getting on with its training. He was a genial man and knowing I was staying behind he gave me the name and address of his niece who was on holiday in Kyrenia at the time, with a suggestion that I should look her up and give her his best wishes. I did not need much encouragement to do so and as soon as the main part of the Regiment flew home I went up by Land Rover to check out Kyrenia, visit the area where we were to camp, and of course to look up the English girl, Jenny, who was also in her early twenties.

Jenny and her older sister were staying for the summer in their parent’s apartment in an old narrow street behind the harbour in Kyrenia. It had been tastefully modernised but retained traditional features and the charm of a small Greek house. The girls were very welcoming, and I was soon pouring the drinks and escorting them around the bars and nightclubs. This was before the Turkish invasion of 1974 and Kyrenia was a hedonist’s playground with the nightlife centred on the harbourside Kyrenia Club which was run by a British couple.

By now our climbing camp had been established, tents erected, and kitchen built. I had a handful of experienced climbers as instructors and thirty soldiers were split into small groups to climb. I remember the limestone rock as being firm with good handholds and offering a variety of routes of different grades of difficulty. We were having a great time.

After lunch with the soldiers, washed down with the inevitable cold beer, I would drive the short distance to Kyrenia where the girls would just be getting up. In the afternoon we would take a small boat from the harbour and go to one of the many small coves nearby where the crystal-clear waters were ideal for swimming and snorkelling. Later, as the sun set, we would drink brandy sours or local wine on the side of the ancient harbour below the immense fort which was built in the 16th century by the Venetians to protect the town. Drinks would be followed by supper, usually delicious locally caught fish, and from the supper table, we would move to a nearby disco where we could dance the night away. Then as we tired, and very late, I would somehow drive back up the mountain to get a few hours sleep until dawn when the climbing began. This was a classic example of burning the candle at both ends.

At the weekends we suspended climbing and took the soldiers to the beach for swimming and recreation, which to a soldier means drinking beer. So, I was free too and on one particular weekend, I organised a visit to a Crusader Castle called Buffavento which was about ten miles into the mountains above Kyrenia. I had been introduced to a local Greek who hired mules and, on this occasion, I engaged him to come with us, a party of four as the girls were bringing another male friend.

The deal was that Stavros would not only be our muleteer, but he would also bring a picnic lunch for us. So, on a Saturday morning, we met him in the shade of Bellapais abbey with his mules tethered to some stout bougainvillaea. None of us had really ridden by mule before but this was no time for riding lessons, so we mounted our charges and set off at a steady pace. The mules followed Stavros and we trailed behind. Whether we had stirrups I do not remember but the big leather saddles were comfortable and there was a suitable large knob to hang onto. If any mule was going too slowly Stavros would whittle a short stick to a point and give it to the rider which the rider was meant to dig into the neck of the unfortunate animal. Being young and British this seemed very unsporting and I do not think any of us used their “encourager”.

It took a couple of hours moving through scrub and olive trees to reach a pleasant green plateau below the most impressive castle walls and here we dismounted and shook our scratched and aching limbs.

The origins of Buffavento castle are lost in the mists of time but one theory is that it was built in 965 AD after the expulsion of the Arabs. It was certainly occupied and enlarged during the 11th century and it is known that Richard the Lionheart captured it in 1191. It was one of a string of castles which included St Hilarion to the west and Kantara to the east. It has been suggested that the role of Buffavento was to pass messages between the other two. Buffavento is a word of Italian origin meaning “defier of the winds”.

Leaving Stavros to water the mules and prepare lunch we set off to explore. There are 600 steps to reach the castle which remains in remarkably good condition, given its age. It is difficult to make out what all the rooms were for but there are several cisterns to collect rainwater, without which no castle can defend itself for long. The rooms were generally small in scale as the whole castle is nestled among crags with little space to accommodate larger chambers.

Intrigued as we were exploring the ruins a bellow from Stavros suggested that lunch was ready, so we dropped down to the mules rather more quickly than we had ascended. At once we could smell the smoke of a charcoal barbecue above which were half a dozen kebabs of lamb, the fat nicely singed. Nearby was a large bowl of green salad and some local flatbreads. What we had not noticed was a large round cask of red wine protected from sun, and collisions with rocks, by a stout raffia jacket. The lamb which we stuffed into the bread was warm and scrumptious and the red local wine, possibly the Mavro grape, was simply delicious. After finishing the kebabs, and too much of the wine, we lay down together in the grassy shade to aid our digestion and promptly fell asleep. It was probably the neigh of a mule that brought me back to life and I noticed that our muleteer had cleared away the remnants of our lunch and so we were ready for the long slow descent to Bellapais.

Bellapais Abbey was first built by the Augustinian order and the first occupants known to have settled there were the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, who had fled after its fall to Saladin in 1187. The Canons had been the custodians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre In Jerusalem.

We thanked Stavros for a marvellous adventure, and an unexpectedly good lunch, and paid him for his services before boarding our jeep and driving the few miles back to Kyrenia. Whether we went dancing that night I do not recall, nor whether I had to be up at dawn for more climbing; but I do remember that the combination of rock climbing, culture and good company made for a most memorable few weeks in the salad days of my youth.

Alun Davies

 



 

Waking Up in a Greek Monastery

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WORKING IN THE GARDEN OF THE MOTHER OF GOD


I am fast asleep when a strange noise wakes me, checking my watch it is 3 am and very dark. I am in a Greek monastery overlooking the Aegean Sea, which laps at the walls one hundred feet beneath my room. This is the call to prayer, and it is being sounded on a semantron which is a piece of wood about four feet long which is being carried about by a monk who hits it with a mallet to make the rhythmical noise. I am in the monastery of Saint Gregory, one of twenty monasteries on Mount Athos, known to the Greeks as the Garden of the Mother of God. They believe that the Virgin Mary came ashore from a boat to avoid a storm and she blessed the land. Since then, no other woman or female animal has been allowed there.

The Holy Monastery of Saint Gregory

The monks begin to gather in the main church of the monastery for the main service of their day called Orthos. But I am here with a twenty strong group to work on clearing the footpaths, so we do not get up yet, we are allowed to lie in. At 6 am I rise and go for a shave in the visitors’ quarters. The water is sometimes hot and sometimes cold. It seems to me that washing in cold water must be a kind of penance. After dressing I make my way down to the church, which is of the Orthodox religion, as other pilgrims join me. As I am non-orthodox, I am not allowed into the main body of the church but must take a stall at the back. These individual stalls are comfortable with a seat that one can sit on, or it can be raised when one stands. Cleverly it has a half-up position which allows one to half sit while appearing to stand!

As more monks and pilgrims arrive, they move from icon-to-icon venerating (kissing) the frescos and paintings of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, the apostles, and saints. The service is in Greek and although the liturgy is based on the same eucharist that we find in the Anglican church it is, frankly, difficult to follow. The singing and chanting are however very pleasant and soothing. Soon we hear the clinking sound of the censor being swung and the smell of raspberry flavoured incense meets us before the monk who, in splendid robes, appears swinging the metal censor which is emitting clouds of smoke. Everyone receives a swing of the device, though monks receive a double swing.

After the service a great bell chimes for the opening of the refectory and we all file in after the monks for the first meal of the day. This is where it gets confusing. The monks live on Byzantine time and have been up for five hours and so the meal is their main repast of the day and includes three courses, all vegetarian, with wine produced at the monastery. The meal is eaten in strict silence as a monk reads from the book of the Saints. A bell sounds to mark the end of the meal and we all file out after the monks. In this monastery, there were 99 monks and about 30 pilgrims of many nationalities.

The historic paths which link the monasteries were laid over one thousand years ago. They allowed monks on foot and mules or donkeys to move on paved routes from place to place. But now roads have been bulldozed in and most people travel by vehicle, so the paths are less used and are quickly overgrown. We gather our tools, loppers, shears, sickle and saw and are soon climbing up the steep path to start work on clearing the route. The monks have decided which routes need our attention and we are quickly hard at work. Working in teams of four we hack and saw until the leader calls us to stop for lunch which, every day, is feta cheese, olives, hard brown bread, and fruit. We carry on after a short break by which time the sun is high and the mountain is very hot.

We aim to return to the monastery by 4 pm as we must shower, wash our clothes and be in the evening service, Vespers, by 5 pm. It is a bit of a rush to get there, and it is bad manners to arrive after the censor has passed. As the service ends, we file back into the trapeza or dining hall where another meal awaits us. When we leave the six chef monks are lined up and are all bowing from the waist as we pass, and we in turn show our appreciation of their efforts.

At this point, the monks and pilgrims walk straight back into the katholikon (church) for the night service, compline, but as workers we are not obliged to attend that, so we make for our rooms. It is said that as a pilgrim you are either praying, working, eating, or sleeping. Surprisingly even remote corners of Greece have far better mobile networks than here in the UK, so some people call home before retiring. By 9 pm we are all in bed after a good day’s work.

I am fast asleep when a strange noise wakes me, checking my watch it is 3 am and very dark. I am in a Greek monastery overlooking the Aegean Sea, which laps at the walls one hundred feet beneath my room. This is the call to prayer, and it is being sounded on a semantron which is a piece of wood about four feet long which is being carried about by a monk who hits it with a mallet to make the rhythmical noise. I am in the monastery of Saint Gregory, one of twenty monasteries on Mount Athos, known to the Greeks as the Garden of the Mother of God. They believe that the Virgin Mary came ashore from a boat to avoid a storm and she blessed the land. Since then, no other woman or female animal has been allowed there.

The monks begin to gather in the main church of the monastery for the main service of their day called Orthos. But I am here with a twenty strong group to work on clearing the footpaths, so we do not get up yet, we are allowed to lie in. At 6 am I rise and go for a shave in the visitors’ quarters. The water is sometimes hot and sometimes cold. It seems to me that washing in cold water must be a kind of penance. After dressing I make my way down to the church, which is of the Orthodox religion, as other pilgrims join me. As I am non-orthodox, I am not allowed into the main body of the church but must take a stall at the back. These individual stalls are comfortable with a seat that one can sit on, or it can be raised when one stands. Cleverly it has a half-up position which allows one to half sit while appearing to stand!

As more monks and pilgrims arrive, they move from icon-to-icon venerating (kissing) the frescos and paintings of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, the apostles, and saints. The service is in Greek and although the liturgy is based on the same eucharist that we find in the Anglican church it is, frankly, difficult to follow. The singing and chanting are however very pleasant and soothing. Soon we hear the clinking sound of the censor being swung and the smell of raspberry flavoured incense meets us before the monk who, in splendid robes, appears swinging the metal censor which is emitting clouds of smoke. Everyone receives a swing of the device, though monks receive a double swing.

After the service a great bell chimes for the opening of the refectory and we all file in after the monks for the first meal of the day. This is where it gets confusing. The monks live on Byzantine time and have been up for five hours and so the meal is their main repast of the day and includes three courses, all vegetarian, with wine produced at the monastery. The meal is eaten in strict silence as a monk reads from the book of the Saints. A bell sounds to mark the end of the meal and we all file out after the monks. In this monastery, there were 99 monks and about 30 pilgrims of many nationalities.

The historic paths which link the monasteries were laid over one thousand years ago. They allowed

monks on foot and mules or donkeys to move on paved routes from place to place. But now roads have been bulldozed in and most people travel by vehicle, so the paths are less used and are quickly overgrown. We gather our tools, loppers, shears, sickle and saw and are soon climbing up the steep path to start work on clearing the route. The monks have decided which routes need our attention and we are quickly hard at work. Working in teams of four we hack and saw until the leader calls us to stop for lunch which, every day, is feta cheese, olives, hard brown bread, and fruit. We carry on after a short break by which time the sun is high and the mountain is very hot.

We aim to return to the monastery by 4 pm as we must shower, wash our clothes and be in the evening service, Vespers, by 5 pm. It is a bit of a rush to get there, and it is bad manners to arrive after the censor has passed. As the service ends, we file back into the trapeza or dining hall where another meal awaits us. When we leave the six chef monks are lined up and are all bowing from the waist as we pass, and we in turn show our appreciation of their efforts.

At this point, the monks and pilgrims walk straight back into the katholikon (church) for the night service, compline, but as workers we are not obliged to attend that, so we make for our rooms. It is said that as a pilgrim you are either praying, working, eating, or sleeping. Surprisingly even remote corners of Greece have far better mobile networks than here in the UK, so some people call home before retiring. By 9 pm we are all in bed after a good day’s work.

 



 

Rilgrimages to Raise Funds

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THE MONK’S TROD – AUGUST 2021


The Monk’s Trod is a track that runs between the two Cistercian abbeys of Strata Florida and Abbeycwmhir, two of seventeen such abbeys in Wales. A group of friends decided to walk the route and having been advised to walk it in dry weather they chose to set out from Strata Florida on Monday 9th August. First, we had to assemble our group of six walkers near the start point so we agreed to meet at the Red Lion Inn in Pontrhydfendigaid and spend the night there ready for an early start on Monday.

The Romanesque arch of Strata Florida

The next morning, we were up early so that we could walk the mile or so to Strata Florida. Strata Florida is a Latinisation of the Welsh Ystrad Fflur; ‘Valley of Flowers’. It was established by white-robed Cistercian monks as part of a movement that spread like a tidal wave across the whole of western Europe in the early Middle Ages.

On leaving the abbey we walked east, which would be our direction of travel for the next two days. The land ahead of us immediately looked hilly as we wound our way along a tarmac road for the first mile or so. As the road came to an end, we saw a sign to Teifi Pools and soon we were climbing up towards the six pools or reservoirs that belong to Welsh Water. The well-trodden path led us to Llyn Egnant and the dam at its south end where the silence was shattered by the noise of two men strimming the vegetation around the dam and sluice.

Although we had thought of stopping at the dam for lunch the noise drove us onto the small hill of Bryn Llyn Egnant where we sat on the Eastside and out of the wind to eat our sandwiches. As we walked on we had to descend to the very wet and marshy plain but happily, there was a footbridge over the river and we soon reached the road beneath the farm buildings. We stopped in a small quarry for a snack but with a wall of rain coming from the west and knowing that we had a long way to go we soon pressed on and up the hill of Esgair Cywion.

The track to the Teifi Pools

We were now in the Claerwen Nature Reserve which is an expanse of mountain upland lying halfway between Rhayader in Powys and Pontrhydfendigaid in Ceredigion. The mainly peaty and acidic soil provides an environment home for many species of plants and animals which thrive in these conditions. Grazing has been reduced on the reserve to protect species like bog mosses, bog rosemary, cotton grasses and heather. This bleak upland provides breeding or feeding ground for scarce birds like the dunlin, golden plover and merlin. We were now at the highest point on our first day and the drizzle turned to heavy wind-blown rain. On a positive note it was at least coming from the West and onto our backs.

From the high point of Bryn Eithinog (542m) we continued northeast for 6 long kilometres. This broad ridge was very wet and boggy with tussock grass, peat and mud making the going very tedious and difficult. All six walkers had wet feet by this stage despite wearing overtrousers and gaiters. The ridge descended gradually until we saw some prominent metal signs and uprooted fencing erected to try to keep vehicles off the “ancient road”. Soon after this, we hit a well-made track which led us down towards Pont ar Elan where Max (my son was our support party – having driven up from Cardiff) was waiting with his VW Camper and our overnight stores.

The Bothy of Lleust Cwm Bach

To his great credit, Max had already hiked up to the bothy at Lluest-Cwm-Bach with some of our stores and found that it was deserted. This good news was given to us over the small radios we carried, as there is no mobile phone coverage in the area. It meant that we did not have to carry tents up to the bothy and that we could all sleep in the building. Max had even bought us firewood and in no time at all, we had carried our stores up to the bothy and the fire was lit. We were all soaking wet, but the flames gave a living soul to the bleak bothy and soon we were warming ourselves by the cast iron stove and drying clothes in front of it. We had carried up two gas stoves and they were quickly put to good use with one boiling a kettle for hot drinks while the other was heating our boil-in-the-bag meals for supper.

After changing into dry clothes, we pumped up our air mattresses and unrolled our sleeping bags. Some wrote up their diaries while others brewed more tea. A small bottle of whisky was produced which some drank with water to ensure a good night’s sleep! As the flames and heat of the fire died down we climbed into sleeping bags and settled down to sleep, leaving a small lamp lit for those who might get up in the night.

The next morning was altogether a better day, as forecast. It was not particularly sunny but at least the lashing rain had stopped. We gathered all our gear, swept and cleaned and then set off for the road, which is a kilometre away as the red kite flies. The land between the bothy and the road starts with a big marsh and to our surprise, we managed to cross it without getting wet feet again. Max was waiting for us. We loaded our stores onto his camper van and set off up the road which leads to Rhayader.

Laden with gear leaving the bothy

Our next obstacle was the river Wye which, given the recent rains, was in full spate. Happily, there is a pedestrian bridge tucked in the woods at Pont Marteg which we found and soon we were across the Wye. Hiking up above the bridge we came to Gilfach Farm which is now the base of the Gilfach Nature Reserve. It was good to see the splendid old building being put to good use today. Gilfach is a special place, well known for its pied flycatchers, dippers, redstarts and leaping salmon with the River Marteg running through. The variety of wildlife to be found here is what makes Gilfach different. Over a quarter of the total number of lichens in Wales can be found growing here! As we left the farm a family had arrived for a picnic in the old farmyard. We continued up steeply for one of the longer climbs on the route and on reaching the top there was a splendid view in every direction. Looking West we could see the farms we had passed hours before and to the East, we saw the vast forests that surround our destination of Abbey cwm Hir.

Passing a farm called “Labour in Vain” we embarked on our last steep hill which led us up to point 417. From here we could look down to the valley and Upper Cwm Hir and the stream that soon joins the Clywedog brook, which in turn runs into the river Ithon which flows through Llandrindod Wells. We soon arrived at Abbey cwm Hir. With little energy left we settled into the excellent Laurelbank B&B where we were given a good supper by the owner. After supper, we walked the short distance to the village pub The Happy Union Inn – which has a large sign of a man riding a goat with leeks adorning his hat!

Pilgrim with staff and scallop shell

This was my second of 4 pilgrimages to raise funds for the charity Housing Justice Cymru which works to alleviate homelessness in Wales. I am grateful to those who have given already and would welcome any further donations to

www.justgiving.com/fundraising/alun-davies-walks-wales

 



 

The Penrhys Pilgrimage Way

THE PENRHYS PILGRIMAGE WAY – A PILGRIM’S ACCOUNT


The Penrhys Pilgrimage Way, from Llandaff Cathedral to the Holy Shrine of the Virgin Mary at Penrhys, is an old and important Medieval route which was re-created in 2020 and has enjoyed some good publicity. Having read about the route I decided it would be an ideal start to my year of pilgrimage. I will be walking four pilgrimages during 2021 to raise money for Housing Justice Cymru, a charity alleviating homelessness, and this short, 2-day, pilgrimage near my home would be the first. The route is well explained on the website ( http://www.penrhyspilgrimageway.wales/ ) where one can see both the map version and the written description of the route. I chose to print all the map pages but not the descriptions. I also used ViewRanger and bought a subscription to Outdooractive, an app that shows the route, section by section and puts a blue dot to show your current position in relation to the route. I have no doubt this is the easiest and most effective way to navigate the route.

I was pleased that my wife Isobel was keen to join me for this walk. We have done a good deal of long-distance walking before, so we were both fit, and we knew what to carry. People who wish to walk this route of 21 miles in one or two days need to be reasonably fit, and if they are not regular walkers, it will be best to do some training walks of 5-10 miles in the weeks before setting off. We decided to break the journey in Llantrisant which is not only halfway and convenient, but also as it was the customary resting place for pilgrims over the centuries. The route is in six sections, each of about 3 hours duration, so it can easily be split up over a number of weeks or weekends if necessary.

We always carry our clothing, food, and equipment whether for a 2-day hike or a 10-day excursion and aim to keep the weight to about 15 pounds with some water. We do not carry much more than a small water bottle each on most walks in Wales as water is generally easy to find in a stream or tap. We do carry waterproofs and we always walk with poles, though on pilgrim trails I swap my aluminium poles for a more traditional wooden staff. The walk could possibly be completed in a monk’s sandals, but we wore walking boots and that is the most appropriate footwear given the very mixed going underfoot.

As we worship at Llandaff Cathedral it was very pleasing that Canon Jan van der Lely was kind enough to meet us at the West Door of the Cathedral on the morning we left to send us on our way with a prayer and blessing. Many years ago, we had stood on those steps for photographs after our wedding and it was pleasing to ascend the steps again as we led off towards the River Taff to make our way to Radyr which marks the end of the first of six sections of the route.

The walk through the suburbs of Cardiff was interesting and varied. After passing the weir on the river, and the rowing club, we left the bank and climbed gently towards Radyr through a mix of tarmac and trails. Reaching Radyr Farm we saw that the blue dot on my iPhone app was veering off the red line of the route, so we retraced and saw the waymarker post with the direction arrow lying horizontally and hidden by weeds on the side of the track, we gather this has been reported. Once we were back on the trail, we passed the affluent homes in Radyr and soon found ourselves outside Radyr Golf Club. Like most golf clubs they welcome non-members who bring welcome cash to their tills. So, we sat on the splendid terrace in comfortable chairs and enjoyed the most excellent coffees with a fine view across Cardiff to the distant Bristol Channel.

The second stage was from Radyr to Groesfaen and now we had left the Cardiff conurbation behind and were often on muddy tracks. If only these rural paths were better managed with the insertion of lateral (Tyrolean) channels to stop streams running along the length of the tracks. We must have had our eyes closed as we looked for the essential small bridge across the busy M4 as we nearly missed it. A man we passed told us to look out for masses of flies and mud after the bridge; well, we did not meet the flies but the mud was certainly waiting for us. The route rises to Creigiau, and the day was becoming wetter as we hit the streets again, but our luck was in store because as the rain came down, we passed the Creigiau Inn on the corner and dived in for a welcome drink.

When the rain stopped, we left refreshed and ready for the short walk to the A4119 and the end of the second stage at Groesfaen.

It must be said that using the Outdooractive app it was not easy to select each part of the route. They do not link automatically so when reaching the end of one section it is necessary to search on the app for the next section by name – “Groesfaen to Llantrisant” for example and that will eventually come up. We now left Groesfaen and were glad to be off the main road with all the traffic and heading back to the fields and hills. Though this section is surrounded by business parks, main roads, and a quarry so it lacks charm. The route takes an odd and unappealing dog’s leg to take advantage of a bridge over the busy A473. Leaving the bridge, the signage was unclear, but we headed west along a good tarmac track towards lower Llantrisant before cutting up an easy rising path leading towards the castle. We missed the trail at this point, but it did not matter as we wanted to look at the castle. Next to the ruins was a stone bearing a plaque saying that archers from Llantrisant had fought at the battle of Crecy in 1346. We carried on to the Bullring in the centre of the old town which marked the end of the third section and the end of our day.

We were fortunate to have a friend living nearby who kindly put us up for the night.

The next morning, we set off from Llantrisant for Tonyrefail. The first miles were easy and pleasant walking across Llantrisant common, a Site of Special Scientific Interest established in 2000. Alas, we were disappointed by the amount of litter in the area; bottles and cans in the hedgerows and very different to the areas around Cardiff. After the common, we continued along a tarmac road until we crossed a stream on a new bridge at GR 049855 where the signs had not been moved. After that, we lost the trail around LLWYNAU farm and holiday cottages. After fence and gate climbing, we found the trail again and set off with relief.

Our next obstacle was an official route closure notice just over the bridge at GR 039866 issued by the planning department of RCT council. Happily, at that point, we met a lone runner who assured us that the route was perfectly safe but that it was physically blocked ahead which meant jumping over a fence. As we walked along it became apparent that this stretch of easy walking was on the route of an old railway. (Afternote – this was the old Ely Valley Railway which carried coal from Tonyrefail to Llantrisant) The route goes about 2 kms along the embankment and at the north end, shortly before joining a tarmac road at GR 034875, there is an old bridge over a culvert. A gap has appeared in the middle of the track and a careless walker might put a foot into the hole; it is barely big enough for a person to fall through. The hole has some red danger signs prominently displayed on either side and one can only wonder why the whole section was closed when the hole could have had a fence put around it? We found it easy to bypass the temporary closure and were soon on tarmac again. Our next challenge was the T junction at GR 024878 where there was no sign, but our phone app reassured us to turn north and at Tre-boeth farm we found waymarks to Tonyrefail. We were soon climbing the steps that link the residential streets on the east side of the town and we noticed for the first time the obvious signs of a socially deprived community.

The route barely touches the town; we had hoped to stop for a coffee, but we soon spotted a waymark leading us away over the hills towards Trebanog. This section of the route from Tonyrefail to Dinas is short and easy. Looking across fields to Trebanog we saw what looked like two flying saucers on the hillside, but as we approached, they turned out to be futuristic water reservoirs. The village was built on a mountain top for miners, but with the closure of the pits, there is now a high level of unemployment and social disenfranchisement in the community. As we descended to cross the A4233 we found a shop selling the cheapest sandwiches in Wales, but we were pleased to have them for our lunch.

To reach Dinas we had to make a modest climb up and over Mynydd y Cymmer from where we could look across the Rhondda valley to Dinas and Trealaw cemetery which seemed to be larger than the town itself and is one of the largest cemeteries in the Rhondda. The long descent to the valley floor is not well waymarked but we soon came out onto the busy A4058 and found the trail again near Dinas station where we stopped for lunch. This was a good place to rest as the sixth and last section of the

Penrhys Pilgrimage Way from Dinas to Penrhys starts with a steep and unforgiving climb which continues until the crest is reached near a radio mast on the top. Here there is a shelter, probably provided by the adjacent Rhondda Golf Club for use by the members in inclement weather. After the long steep climb pilgrims are rewarded with an easy flat track belonging to the golf club which leads north passing the clubhouse, where refreshments are available to non-members. Then the final furlong across the grassy ridge leads directly to the Holy Shrine of the Virgin Mary. The present statue, made of Portland stone, was erected on the site in 1953 replacing one that was removed during the reformation in 1538. We stood for a few minutes in the drizzle to think about the very many pilgrims who had arrived at this shrine before us. A short distance below is the Holy Spring of Ffynnon Fair which was reputed to have miraculous healing powers. We briefly paused to thank St Christopher for our safe passage before moving on.

On the afternoon of our visit, as it was raining, we did not linger but walked down the steep hill to Ystrad and the station where we boarded a train back to Llandaff where we had left our car. On the train, I had time to think of the many people who had made our pilgrimage possible. It is a well-designed route, and the supporting website is full of advice and information. We are most grateful to all involved.

 

Alun Davies, 25th June 2021

 

Postscript – If any reader would like to contribute to the charity Housing Justice Cymru – looking after homeless people in South Wales please donate at:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Alun-Davies-walks-Wales

 



 

A Right Royal Ticking Off

A RIGHT ROYAL TICKING OFF


It was a bleak day in Belfast in the spring of 1981 when I opened a smart-looking envelope with a Royal crest. The writer said, in rather formal language, that His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales had asked whether I would be prepared to be an usher at his forthcoming wedding to Lady Diana Spencer? I guess it was one of those offers in life that one could not refuse. In fact, I was thrilled to be asked and delighted to accept and it put a spring in my step for days to come. Years before I had the honour to serve as an equerry to the Prince of Wales which is why I was called back for this special occasion. An equerry is historically an officer of the household of a prince or noble who had charge over the stables. These days an usher is more of an executive assistant, though officially he is an officer of the British royal household who attends or assists members of the royal family.

It was a couple of months later that I was asked to attend a rehearsal in St Paul’s cathedral. There were many of us present as there were going to be 3500 wedding guests attending and there was going to be a good deal of organisation and ushing required on the big day. We were shown which part of the magnificent cathedral we would be responsible for and exactly what our task would be. It was an added pleasure that my wife had been included as a guest at the wedding and she took pleasure in choosing a suitable dress, hat and shoes to wear for the day.

A second invitation, printed on the thickest of white card with a gold rim, had arrived inviting us to attend a grand ball to celebrate the marriage. This was to be held in Buckingham Palace two days before the wedding. The dress for men was “White Tie” and I had never worn that before in my life. So it was off to Moss Bros where I could hire the full suit which is the most formal in traditional evening Western dress codes. For men, it consists of a black dress coat with tails worn over a white shirt, Piqué waistcoat and the eponymous white bow tie worn around a standing wingtip collar. To ensure we were fully prepared for this special occasion we even went to ballroom dancing classes to brush up on skills which in my case were very lacking.

The reception and ball were certainly very grand affairs. I remember that after a fine glass of champagne on arrival we joined a line to be introduced to Prince Charles and Diana, and how radiant she looked. We then walked on and found Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen were playing in one of the staterooms and that music certainly appealed to the younger generation, while a small orchestra was playing waltzes for the more sedate guests in the main ballroom. Dinner was a magnificent buffet laid out in a few of the rooms and, given the numbers, there was no formal seating so one sat at any table and you could be sitting with the leader of a Highland clan or a gamekeeper from a royal estate. The decorations for the party were breath-taking and included some helium balloons with the Prince of Wales Feathers. As we were thinking of leaving, I noticed some people taking down balloons as souvenirs. With the best of wines inside me, I dared to join them and soon I was holding four balloons. At this point, the Queen passed by me and remarked that “four was a bit greedy”! She was quite right of course, but I said they were for the others in our small group. I felt properly admonished by the highest authority in the land!

The wedding itself was a stunning occasion of pomp and pageantry. With three choirs the cathedral was full of wonderful singing and the elegant guests I was responsible for all turned up and sat where they should. My mother watching on TV at home in Cardiff was as proud as punch that I was on duty and was convinced that she saw me in my blue uniform and crimson sash. We drove home later that day and our children were delighted with the fancy balloons we gave them.

 



 

Teacher Adventures: School Trips

Teacher Adventures: School Trips


“Would you like to accompany 30 children to Madagascar on their French language trip?” asked the French teacher at the school I was working at in Kenya.

“Oui, merci,” I replied, rapidly recalling my GCSE francais! The French teacher assigned to the trip was ill, so fortunately for me, I was drafted in as a last minute replacement.

Two weeks later, 30 very excited students gathered at Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi, for the flight to the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo. The trip was an opportunity for the students to practise their French (both Malagasy and French are both official languages of Madagascar) and to experience a different culture and way of life. Madagascan culture is renowned for its colourful fusion of influences drawn from seafaring Borneans and Bantu Africans, Arabic and Tamil traders, and French colonisation (unlike the British colonisation in Kenya).

Madagascar is an island country in the Indian Ocean, approximately 250 miles off the coast of East Africa. Madagascar is the world’s second-largest island country and the nation comprises the island of Madagascar (the fourth-largest island in the world) and numerous smaller peripheral islands. We were to be based in a hotel on the east coast of the island. Days were planned to include French lessons in the morning, followed by a swim and snorkelling in the Indian Ocean or swimming pool; excursions were organised for the afternoons to allow the students to experience some of the historical, cultural and artistic attractions of the island.

The students loved visiting the capital, Antananarivo, known locally (and considerably simpler) as Tana. They had the opportunity to admire the beautiful colonial architecture in the old Haute-Ville area of the city, visit one of the art galleries and museums and to spend their money in the open air market stalls at Analakely. Other trips were planned to see the truly alien landscapes of the limestone karsts in north western Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park and the Avenue of the Baobabs, where 25 baobab trees over 100 feet tall are strung out along the Tsiribihina dirt road.

Undoubtedly the highlight of the trip was the visit to see the lemurs. As a result of the island’s isolation from neighbouring continents, Madagascar is home to various plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. Approximately 90% of all plant and animal species found in Madagascar are endemic. There are many bizarre and wonderful creatures to be seen on the island, but lemurs are the creature most closely associated with Madagascar. The students, and staff, were thrilled to find and see these charismatic primates in the forest and their saucer shaped eyes were peculiar, but strangely endearing. All agreed they were an amazing, very special sight.

 

Near the end of our week’s stay, our idyllic routine was severely interrupted. In Madagascar, the combination of south eastern trade winds and north western monsoons produces a hot rainy season with frequently destructive cyclones. Unfortunately, tropical cyclone Kamisy coincided with our visit. Kamisy was considered the worst tropical cyclone to affect northern Madagascar since 1911 and winds reached up to 105 mph. Throughout Madagascar, a total of 68 casualties were reported, and 7000 buildings were destroyed, including 1020 schools and 450 hospitals. Following the storm, emergency food and medical supplies were supplied to the nation from French rescue missions.

For our Nairobi students, a cyclone was a novel, and frightening experience. Confined to the hotel they could watch from the windows of their rooms as the trunks of trees were blown to 45 degrees, as the sea was whipped up to a frenzy, as the sand billowed uncontrollably along the beach and as the swimming pool water was thrown against the dining room windows. Lights flashed on and off as the electricity supply was interrupted and hotel staff were unable to arrive at or leave the hotel as roads were covered with fallen trees.

We were confined to the hotel for the final 2 days of our trip. We could not travel across the island as roads were blocked. The pool was out of bounds due to damage caused by the cyclone and the landscape in the gardens of the hotel had changed completely: debris from trees was scattered everywhere and some trees swayed perilously after the storm.

A change of programme was necessary. French lessons continued in the morning and in the afternoons it was my responsibility to provide entertainment…..Fortunately I had packed some dance tapes and spent the afternoons teaching an assortment of dance routines to very eager, enthusiastic and excitable students, who soon forgot they should have been enjoying the delights of Madagascar! The high spot was, remember this, FLASHDANCE…the routine was repeated innumerable times, in pairs, in trios, in fours, as a mass dance….all that was missing were the leotards and leg warmers!

After 2 days we were allowed to leave the hotel to travel to the airport. We could see the destruction caused by the cyclone as we travelled through the countryside: buildings destroyed, houses without roofs, vegetation uprooted. It was a gloomy, depressing sight. We had some wonderful memories of Madagascar, but also realised that the people who lived on this beautiful island sometimes had to endure, at times, some very unforgiving, harsh conditions.

 



 

First Abseiling Experience

FIRST ABSEILING EXPERIENCE


I really miss climbing but sadly I am no longer flexible enough or have sufficient strength in my hands and forearms. There are residents in Wenvoe who are far better placed to talk about climbing than me as there are some amazingly skilled young climbers from Wenvoe!

Indoor climbing is all very well, but what I loved was climbing outdoors and was fortunate to go to some incredible places in Wales, the wider UK and even overseas. One of my favourite places was climbing in Pembrokeshire on the sea cliffs – to be stood on a ledge above the waves crashing onto the rocks below, watching sunlight sparkling on the water, gulls, cormorants and even seals below me was absolutely magical. Outdoor climbing is largely weather dependent as it isn’t safe to climb in the wet, so the weather was always as Wales can be – glorious warm sunshine!

Pembrokeshire Sea cliffs

Abseiling is the technique used to perform a controlled descent usually on a rock face. When climbing indoors, your climbing partner ‘belays’ you and is therefore in control of your descent from the top of the wall, when you lean backwards and literally ‘walk’ down the wall. A belay device is used to control the descent. These can either be a ‘manual device’ or an ‘assisted braking device’. I always used a manual device.

When climbing sea cliffs, someone far more experienced than me would set up a belay point at the top using various pieces of protection, or gear, to fix a rope in place. You would then abseil down the cliff to the ledge below from which the lead climber would lead a route up the cliff placing various pieces of protection as they went which would break their fall should that be necessary. The second climber would pay out the rope as they went using their belay device to control the rope (and break their fall in the event that should be necessary). Once the lead climber was at the top, they would make themselves safe and the second climber would then climb the route and remove the protection as they went. All very exhilarating!

But to my first experience of abseiling outdoors.

I was by no means an experienced climber and felt very much out of my depth as all my companions were very experienced and as is often the way in such situations, there was an unspoken assumption that I too knew what I was doing. And I was too shy to expose my complete ignorance! I knew the principles of abseiling having climbed indoors and therefore abseiling down a cliff in theory is similar to an indoor climbing wall where you ‘walk’ down the wall, the only difference is that you are in control of your own descent.

So, picture a perfect Pembrokeshire day, good company and the prospect of a pint of beer at the end of it. We were climbing at Saddlehead along from St Govans. The belay was set up and it was my turn to descend to the ledge below from which we would be climbing. I gingerly lowered myself over the edge of the cliff, my heart pretty much in my mouth as it takes some courage to step backwards over a cliff edge while tightly holding onto the right part of the rope to lower yourself, at the same time desperately hanging onto any piece of rock or clump of grass, while trying to look cool as though you know what you’re doing. Then very slowly as your feet get lower, you bravely let go of solid earth and inch by inch start to walk down the cliff face, heart pounding, all the while paying out the rope hand over hand which only you are in control of. It begins to feel as though you are getting somewhere as the top of the cliff moves further away on the odd occasion that you are brave enough to look anywhere.

Then to my shock and horror, there was suddenly nothing under my feet! Absolutely nothing! What had gone wrong? No-one had thought to tell me that there was an overhang where we were abseiling, in other words, the cliff went in at that point. And so I found myself suspended in space, attached to a rope which fed through my belay device, connected to my climbing harness and I was supposed to continue to control my descent with nothing under my feet to walk down when I had no idea at that point if there was indeed anything solid beneath me at all! Not easy to continue to look cool but then, there was no-one to see me in any case or to hear my frantic talking to myself that all was sure to be well. To this day, I don’t know how I managed not to just let go of the rope in my panic and descend to the rocks below at breakneck speed with inevitable disastrous results!

I did manage to somehow keep my cool though, and did make it to the bottom with very, very shaky legs and proceeded to really enjoy myself, watching the sunshine sparkling on the sea and the gulls and cormorants below me and there was even a seal checking out this new climber who began to look as though she knew what she was doing!

But the dressing down I gave to my climbing partner at the end of that day for having made the assumption that I knew what I was doing made me feel marginally better. A lesson learnt that whatever the situation, never assume that other people are familiar with what is and will be involved and required.

Nicola

 



 

Teacher Adventures: School Trips

Teacher Adventures: School Trips


When adults reminisce about their school days, memories of school trips are often at the forefront of their minds. School trips for children are often their first chance to be away from family and to have extended sleepovers, to have pillow fights, to have midnight feasts, to eat lunch on the bus before it has left the car park, to sing the same songs over and over just to wind staff up!

Teachers who are tasked with organising a trip often focus on the angst and anxiety brought about from paperwork and policy procedures, managing the students at airports or train stations, hotel rooming mix ups and the lack of chips or pizzas to fill up hungry pupils! However most teachers realise that school trips are a unique and special opportunity for encouraging pupils to engage with people and places in a new way and continue to plan them! Some of my school trip experiences did make me question the reasons I kept planning them!

Teaching Geography in Mexico, 5 night field trips were organised to cover the GCSE course requirements. On one trip, 35 excited year 10 pupils and 2 teachers, including me, were waved off as we set out for Zitacuaro, a 4 hour coach ride away. Zitácuaro, officially known as Heroica Zitácuaro, is a city in the Mexican state of Michoacán, which lies at the extreme eastern side of Michoacán and borders on the adjacent state of México.

The pupils worked hard at collecting river data (with no mishaps!), completed an urban survey by collating information on use of buildings (with no mishaps!), carried out a traffic survey on a new by-pass (with no mishaps!) and were amazed at the spectacle of millions of Monarch butterflies (with no mishaps!). Monarch Butterflies migrate annually from points east of the Rocky Mountains, travelling thousands of miles to hibernate in Mexico, in Zitacuaro, in the oyamel fir trees that are found there. On the final morning, we were extremely fortunate to view the astounding spectacle of thousands of butterflies huddled on tree branches. Then it was time to return to Mexico City, with a tired and contented group after a very successful, calamity free trip.

Teachers always make the mistake of believing that after a school trip, exhaustion, from sleepless nights and full days, will take over and pupils will sleep on the return journey. This never happens! As the bus meandered through small villages, it became apparent there was a hold up in front of us, which meant we were proceeding at a snail’s pace. At a small village when we were at a standstill, the pupils asked if they could get off the coach to buy some refreshments from a roadside shop. We were going nowhere fast and it seemed a good opportunity to stretch legs. With everybody suitably energised and enlivened by an intake of chocolate and coca cola, the coach rumbled forward. 90 minutes later, Jose (yes I remember these specific details..) came to the front of the coach and said, “Miss, where’s Marianna?” I told him to go and sit down and stop fooling around. He persisted. I got up and looked down the coach. There was no Marianna. This is the nightmare scenario of any school trip.

There were no mobile phones at this time, AA telephone boxes, local police stations or service stations. I had no option other than to ask the coach driver to turn around and drive us back to the tiny Mexican roadside village we had stopped at. Now there was complete silence in the coach! The pupils were as anxious as I was. It seemed to be a very long 90 minute return journey. As we approached the village, (cliché alert!), my heart was in my mouth……..and there, sat on the roadside was Marianna! There were wild cheers from the pupils in the coach. The coolest, calmest person was Marianna. As a fluent Spanish speaker, she had assured the concerned Mexican villagers, there was nothing to worry about! Marianna said she knew we would come back for her! “I knew you wouldn’t leave me here, Miss,” she said to me with a wry, but winning smile as she climbed aboard the coach! As she took her seat on the coach, I felt a huge sense of relief and counted everyone on the coach three times to make sure everyone was there!!

And for every school trip I organised after this I counted pupils once, twice….and never lost (or left behind) another pupil again!! That didn’t help during the cyclone on our school trip to Madagascar…but that is another story.

Lynn Frugtniet

 



 

A Surprise Supper

A SURPRISE SUPPER


It was a balmy evening in late summer, and I was flying home after taking part in a military exercise in Northern Germany. We had been on manoeuvres for a few weeks and I was looking forward to getting home for a good hot bath and a meal with my family. I was lucky to be given a front seat in a small army helicopter called a Gazelle belonging to the Army Air Corps.

The Gazelle is a fast sleek machine used for aerial reconnaissance but it can be lightly armed with machine guns or rockets for use in conflict. It has two front seats and behind that, there are either 3 passenger seats or a stretcher when used for casualty evacuation. On this day the pilot was sitting on the front right seat and I was on his left. We had one passenger sitting behind us.

When it was time to climb aboard, I put my rifle and rucksack on the back seat and secured them with a seat belt. As I climbed aboard the pilot carefully reminded me to keep my feet away from the dual pedals that were there on the floor in front of me. Once settled in the jet engine was started and as we waited for it to warm up the pilot went through his pre-flight checklist, which only takes a couple of minutes. The three of us had fastened our four-way seat belts and the pilot turned around and gave a thumbs up to the passenger in the rear, and to me, and we returned a thumbs up to him to confirm we were strapped in and ready to go.

It was always a thrill to fly by helicopter and especially the small ones where you really can see in all directions through the bubble of a front screen. On this day the sky was clear with just the odd wisp of cloud as we flew west towards the setting sun and the airfield which was our destination. It was going to take about forty minutes to get there. We were flying at a height of about 2500 feet and at a speed of 150 miles an hour, which is a good economical cruising speed. It was interesting to see the German plains stretching out below us; small hamlets, large farms and forests with lakes dotted about.

I was warm and comfortable and I might have dozed off if it was not for the constant chatter in my headphones from other aircraft and air traffic controllers who were monitoring our progress by radar and warning us of other aircraft in our vicinity. Suddenly there was an almighty bang, the aircraft shook and the large instrument panel in front of us lit up with many coloured lights – most of them red and amber – and the noise of a horn came abruptly over the headphones and did not stop. It was, of course, an alarming, and rather frightening experience and it seemed to me that we were likely to crash, though I had no idea what had happened.

After a few seconds, the horn was turned off and the pilot in a shaky but reassuring voice announced to his two passengers that we had suffered a birdstrike and that the jet engine had stopped as a result. We were now dropping without power and he was going to make a “controlled crash landing”. I later learnt that helicopter pilots practice this and the technical term is “landing with autorotation”. In simple terms that means the pilot leans the aircraft into a forward angle and drops the lever which controls the pitch of the rotor blades. That allows the blades to keep spinning, like the seeds of a sycamore tree, then as the helicopter is close to the ground the pilot applies maximum pitch to the blades which effectively lifts it up just before it hits the ground.

Our pilot was quick, and his immediate action resulted in our fast descent momentarily stopping just as we were feet above the field he had chosen to land in. Our landing was just a big thump, a hard landing is the technical term, but we were all uninjured and climbed out to see if the helicopter had been damaged. It seemed fine to me with an untrained eye, but of course, it was not going to fly away as the engine was badly damaged. The large bird, something like an eagle, had unusually flown, or been sucked straight, into the turbine.

The pilot had put out a quick distress call on his radio as we dropped out of the sky but once we were on the ground the VHF radio was no use and this was before the days of mobile phones so we were unable to tell our destination airfield what had happened. As we climbed out I thumped the pilot on the back in thanks for saving our lives and warmly shook the hand of my fellow passenger.

Over in the distance just a few hundred metres away there was a typical Westphalian country farm. It was very isolated in the middle of arable fields with no village or town within sight. A rough track led from the farm to a tarmac road a mile or two away. I suggested that we wander over to the house to ask if they had a telephone which we could use to inform the airfield that we were safe but in need of collecting. This seemed as good an idea as any so we walked to the house, leaving our weapons locked in the aircraft so as not to frighten anyone.

The farmer must have heard our noisy arrival for he strode out to meet us in the yard and greeted us in German. I responded in his language and explained the situation as best as I could and soon he was beckoning us into his home. Feeling a little uncomfortable in our rather muddy camouflaged uniform we entered the large rustic kitchen where the farmer’s wife was busy with pots on the large wood-fired stove. We were offered coffee and while enjoying that the two teenage daughters of the family came in and joined us. We asked to use the telephone and explained the situation to our headquarters and were told that a vehicle would be sent at once to collect us, but it would take a couple of hours to arrive.

It was clear from the kitchen activity and the plate laying in the adjacent dining room that the evening meal was about to be eaten. The table was laid for four but we noticed that a fifth-place was being prepared. I overheard the wife saying to the daughters that they would eat later as the new guests would eat first. Before we knew it we were being seated in the girls’ places and a marvellous meal was put in front of us. Such generous hospitality was remarkable and looking back it has always remained in my memory as an example of the natural goodness and kindness of humans which can be found all over the world.

It was easy chatting to the family with the girls, who were learning English at school, translating for their parents. In no time at all a Land Rover appeared, and with a soldier who was going to sleep in the helicopter overnight for security. We were soon on our way home rather later than expected, but at least we were all in one piece. The next morning a large Chinook helicopter with two rotors flew in and it lifted the small Gazelle back to base to be repaired

How that would have looked

 



 

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