The Penrhys Pilgrimage Way


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 ( ) 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:



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


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.




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


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



Teacher’s Adventures In Mexico

A Teacher’s Adventures In Mexico

Having read some of Mrs Jones’s recollections of her teaching career in a recent What’s On, it has prompted me to share some of my memories and experiences at the chalk face!

In September 1985, I boarded a plane to fly to Mexico City, the capital and largest city of Mexico and the most-populous city in North America. Located in the Valley of Mexico (Valle de México), a large valley in the high plateaus in the centre of Mexico, it lies at an altitude of 2,240 meters (7,350 ft). I was to work at a large 3 -18 years International school in the north of the city. Over 60 nationalities were represented at the school with children coming from all around the world, including England, USA, Spain, Colombia, South Africa, Egypt. The attraction was to work in a multi-cultural school… and have the opportunity to eat real tacos and burritos, learn a new language and visit the pyramids and coastlines of Mexico and neighbouring countries!

In the first week new staff had the opportunity to get to know each other, and the school, and to travel to some of the sights of the city. The most memorable visit was the day trip to the Pyramids of Teotihuacan. This enormous complex is found on the outskirts of modern-day Mexico City and is the site of some of the largest freestanding pyramids in the world.

School started. I was teaching throughout the age range from 3 to 18 years and had classes of energetic, enthusiastic kindergarten children one lesson, and streetwise, lackadaisical, less energetic 18 year olds the next! But it was all a wonderful, fantastic teaching experience… and I knew I would enjoy my time at the school, and in Mexico.

Then, on September 19th, two weeks after arriving …….catastrophe for Mexico. As I sat in my house contemplating the day ahead, I felt the house shake, breakfast dishes on the table were juddering and the light fitments on the ceiling were swinging around. It was only when I arrived in school, I realised what had happened: a powerful earthquake, magnitude 8.1, had struck Mexico City. The quake was centred off the Pacific coast of Michoacán, more than 200 miles west of Mexico City, yet, much of the damage was in Mexico City, which was constructed on an ancient lake bed whose soft sediments amplify seismic waves.

Mexico’s president, Miguel de la Madrid was criticized for his government’s weak response to the disaster. At first, the president rejected offers of international aid and played down the damage caused by the quake. Mexican citizens themselves started to organise their own rescue operations and emergency support. My school contributed to this emergency support, by becoming an Earthquake support centre. Fortunately, the school and its immediate surrounding area had escaped the damage to buildings that the city centre had experienced. Staff could volunteer to collect, collate and distribute food, clothing, medicines, blankets and water for some of the people made homeless by the earthquake. Donations poured into the school. It was the job of school staff to sort the donations and then for some staff to travel in school minibuses to the city centre to distribute the aid.

The city centre was a disaster zone: mangled buildings, roads strewn with rubble, crushed bridges, shocked and confused people. I had taught about the effects of earthquakes in GCSE Geography lessons, and now I was witnessing them firsthand. Some people had lost everything and individuals and families were grateful for any assistance we provided. It was a sobering and sombre experience for all of us; it was always a very subdued group that travelled back to the relative safety of the school.

More than 10,000 people died as a result of the quake, some 30,000 others were injured and an estimated 250,000 people were left homeless. More than 400 buildings collapsed and thousands more were damaged. International and government aid eventually arrived and the school’s contribution became less essential.

For many people around the world, the 1985 Mexican earthquake is remembered for the ‘ninos del sismo’ or ‘the children of the earthquake’. Sixteen ‘miracle babies’ were pulled from the rubble of a maternity hospital that had collapsed in the earthquake; 14 survived. Some of the babies had survived 8 days without nourishment, warmth, human contact and water. Life emerging from the ruins gave hope to Mexicans who had lost everything.

School reopened and teachers and pupils returned to classes. The earthquake had been an unforgettable, remarkable and humbling start to my 4 years in Mexico. It had been a privilege to be a tiny part of the support effort.

Lynne Frugtniet



Overland to Jordan


As a teenager, I remembered my father telling me about Petra “the rose-red city half as old as time”. What a colourful description that was of the ruined city, carved out of rock in deepest Jordan that lay undiscovered until the 19th century. Years later in a long summer holiday, I found some friends from university who I persuaded to join me in a drive across Europe to visit Jordan and Petra.

Ad-Deir (“The Monastery”)

This was in the late 1960 and international travel was not as it is today. So we bought an old Ford Zephyr, a reliable car and large enough to carry four friends and our gear. We were given masses of food by some sponsors we had approached and to an extent, this was more trouble than it was worth. I remember packing the boot with large green tins of Golden Syrup which we never felt like eating.

The drive across Belgium, Germany, Austria and Yugoslavia all went reasonably well. The car flew along and we all took turns driving the long stretches of motorway. To save money we camped each night and one evening after a particularly long day we set up our tents and the duty cook has just about prepared a large stew for us all to share when it fell off the primus stove and was lost. I could have been the moment for anger and recrimination but he just said “oh well – these things happen” and stated all over again. It was a great example of British sangfroid or composure.

We had been warned that driving through Istanbul was a nightmare with mad Turkish truck drivers causing mayhem on the roads to cries of “Inshallah” or if God wills it. However, we crossed the Bosphorous without incident and set off for the long haul of about a thousand miles across Turkey to the Mediterranean port of Iskenderun. The days were now very hot and our ancient car was seriously overheating so we began to drive by night when the air was cool and sleep during the heat of the day. One day we were parked off the side of the road and stretched out in the shade of some trees to sleep. I was woken by some sound or movement and sat up at once to see a figure skulking into the undergrowth. I feared we had been robbed and woke the others to see what had been taken but there – lying between us – was a wooden platter of figs and pomegranates which had been left as a gift. It was a most generous gesture by a local farmer and that act of kindness has stuck in my mind ever since.

Crossing the border from Turkey to Syria was a slow business but there was no queue it was just a problem of language and bureaucracy. We were soon motoring on our way along dusty unmade roads when our engine spluttered and died. We had no idea what to do but it seemed that the radiator had burst as clouds of steam were coming from it. There was no AA or RAC or anyone to help us so two of us walked to a village where we found a man who was willing to help. He walked back with us leading a large unwilling donkey. In no time at all he had hitched the car behind the donkey and the car was pulled to the village and the house of the blacksmith. Here the radiator was removed and a charcoal fire blown into life so the radiator could be patched up by brazing up the hole. This was a great success and having put it all back together we drove to Jordan.

We stopped in Amman the capital as one of the team had a relative working in the British embassy there. We were entertained to a lavish supper and spent a couple of days at the Embassy swimming pool which was marvellous, but my real memory of that was getting very sunburnt.

From Amman, it was a long desert drive to Petra where we exchanged our car for camels and rode through the siq, a cleft in the cliffs, to reach the massive buildings which had been carved out or rock a hundred years after the birth of Christ. We spent a hot day climbing around the temples and other ruins before heading back to our car. We had spent weeks reaching Petra and we were pleased to have reached our objective. Now our sights were on getting home as fast as possible. We retraced our route stopping only to visit the magnificent castle in Syria known as Crac des Chevaliers, which is a Crusader castle in Syria and one of the most important preserved medieval castles in the world.

Crac des Chevaliers

We stopped in Istanbul for the night in a cheap hotel and celebrated our success with a meal in a café. I drank some cool Ayran, a drink of curdled milk with mint, from a street vendor and became very ill. I spent the next days feeling wretched in the back of the car and was thankful to get home where a doctor kindly gave me some antibiotics and I was soon much better.



A Winter Tale



John loved this time of year. The summer was long gone and now Christmas was just two days away. The cold crisp mornings looked beautiful. The sun low in the sky shone through winter snow clouds, lighting up the frost along each branch of bare trees and twinkled like Christmas lights. The cold air made breath linger, looking like fog.

It wasn’t easy getting up so early on these cold mornings to do a paper round, leaving behind a warm cosy bed. But John had to help his parents to make ends meet; these were difficult times. His father had suffered a severe head injury at work six months ago, and this had stopped his working life abruptly. Mum had increased her working hours at the local hospital. John aged thirteen was still at school, but he wanted to contribute to the household budget. Each week he would give all his wages apart from £5 to Mum. There was a reason for this – he was trying to save enough money to buy the beautiful model car that stood in the window of the Model Shop he passed twice each day whilst on his rounds. The Lamborghini was silver with such detail it was breath-taking. The shop owner could set his watch by John’s daily visits.

The time was 5.30pm, his paper round was finished and it was payday. As usual, John would open the small brown envelope to take out his £5 and then put the rest safely in his pocket for his Mum.

It started to snow and the little town lights were throwing a misty glow along the busy town centre. People were filled with the Christmas atmosphere. All the shops were staying open until late. John stood a while longer to take in the scene. There was a stall selling roasted chestnuts and the Salvation Army were playing Christmas carols. As John walked through the narrow streets to the bus station, he worked out his savings and knew with today’s money he had enough to buy his beloved Lamborghini. The rest of the money was at home and he would return the following day, Christmas Eve, to buy the car.

The snow had fallen silently all night and by morning there was quite a covering. Buses crunched the fallen snow into clearways for other vehicles to follow; cars inched their way carefully.

John helped his Mum with the rest of the decorations and despite money being short, the house was filled with Christmas cheer. The mince pies and sausage rolls were in the oven and the cake was ready for icing. This was always Dad’s job. He enjoyed putting a Christmas scene made from icing in the middle of the cake. It was a work of art – little snowmen and children making their way down a snow-covered hill in their toboggans. And finally – a beautiful gold band around the side.

The tree was always dressed on Christmas Eve. Tinsel ornaments and twinkling lights carefully draped the tree from top to bottom. Yet another masterpiece! With everything finished, John left for the short journey back into town. He had already

bought Mum and Dad’s presents. So now was the time he had longed for, over weeks of careful saving.

The bus was full of families with young children longing for this day to be over. At the station it was Christmas chaos. Hundreds of people thronged the pavements. John turned the corner into Liberty Square. The model shop was just down the end on the left. He could see the sign just above the door; he would soon be carrying his dream home. As he passed an alleyway John heard someone crying. A small figure of a girl was sobbing; her hands covered her face. John approached slowly, not wanting to frighten her. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked, kneeling down in front of her. The little girl looked up at him, eyes wet with tears. ‘I can’t get home’ she said ‘I’ve lost my bus fare’.

John was always a kind lad and the scene of a lonely and frightened little girl stole his heart. ‘Come on’ he said ‘ Let’s get you to the station and find the bus you need to get home.’ He stood up and the little girl put her hand in his. Warmly dressed and well spoken, Jasmine said she had lost her purse and become separated from her friends. John found the next bus to the girl’s village, paid for the fare and saw that she was safely inside.

Making his way back to the Model Shop, John realised that he did not have enough money to buy the car now and when he arrived, the shop had closed. His heart sank. He pressed his face against the window. The Lamborghini had gone! What a Christmas this was turning out to be. He decided not to tell his Mum and Dad about it. He did not want to spoil their Christmas too. So, he put on a smile and when he arrived at the door he sang carols and laughed when Mum arrived at the door carrying a tray of goodies.

Christmas was wonderful as usual. John could not remember having a bad one. Good company, good food and presents. What more could he ask for ……

Before long it was Twelfth Night and time for the decorations to be packed away. John always felt sad on this day. The tinsel and ornaments were packed in their boxes and stored in the attic. As John manoeuvred the container holding the tree towards the front door, something fell from behind the tree. He looked across to Mum and Dad but they looked puzzled too. John unwrapped the brown paper parcel tied with string. He opened the box and looked – mouth open, eyes wide. Words failed him.

‘What is it?’ asked Dad. John lifted the item out of the box. ‘How did it get there?’ ‘When did it arrive?’ His parents did not seem to have the answers, but that did not matter. The moment was very special. There in all its glory was his beautiful Lamborghini. He would cherish it always.

To this day, John would wonder about that Christmas years ago, still puzzled over that one question – WHO PUT IT THERE?

By Maureen Richards



A Deadly Game Of Catch

A Deadly Game Of Catch

It was about three o’clock on a chilly morning and I was sitting in some bushes at the corner of a paddy field looking across into China from the Hong Kong side. The border was defined by a tall metal fence with razor wire at the top and apart from identifying the frontier, this impressive barrier was designed to prevent people from China making their way illegally into Hong Kong.

The year was 1980 and I was there with soldiers of The Royal Regiment of Wales to stop a large number of illegal immigrants crossing into the British colony of Hong Kong which had been under British control since 1842. The Chinese who wanted to come across were all poor with no work or very low wages under the communist regime and they saw a better life in capitalist and free Hong Kong. They knew that if they reached “home base” they would be eligible for free housing, medical care, schooling and financial support until they found a job. It was very enticing and huge numbers made an attempt, and although many were caught a good number succeeded. The television channels of Hong Kong could be seen across the border in China and to a poor Chinese farmer the apparently fabulous and flashy lifestyle of the Chinese in Hong Kong who all had cars, air conditioning and freedom was all very seductive.

The border runs for twenty miles across mainly flat land which is a mixture of farms and open countryside. Originally built in 1952 to stop gun smuggling during the time of the Korean War it was reinforced by the erection of a much stronger fence or wall in 1962 as thousands of Chinese were trying to cross into Hong Kong each day. By the time we were sent there the fence was tall and effective and with a single lane tarmac road running beside it which allowed us to drive quickly along from one end of our sector to the other. While President Trump is criticised for building a fence to keep out illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico, the British had built their fence decades before to keep the Chinese out.

We were based in an old, very old, army camp near the town of Lo Wu which was a short drive from the border fence. Each evening at around dusk lorries and Land Rovers would take out soldiers wearing their camouflage clothing and with running shoes rather than heavy boots. They would be dropped off in groups of four at intervals along the fence. With a large flask of coffee, they would wait throughout the hours of darkness to catch any illegal immigrants that they found climbing over the fence. The one thing that gave us a big advantage over the illegals was that the soldiers were issued with night viewing devices, called at that time “starlight scopes”. These basically allowed us to see in the dark and so we could pick out any individuals approaching the fence before they started to climb over. This enabled us to move stealthily into a position where we could catch them once they landed on our side. If it had been a game, it would have been unfair, but this was no cat and mouse game this was deadly serious.

The illegals would usually arrive in ones and twos but sometimes a whole family group with children would arrive and attempt to climb over. They had very few possessions. Some had a magic ointment Tiger Balm, to soothe their aches and pains, others had family photographs and a number were carrying drugs such as hashish to ease their discomfort. When caught they would be handcuffed and taken by vehicle to the nearest police station and handed over to the Hong Kong police. The following day they would be put on a train and sent back to China. While we imagined that they would be interrogated and punished by the communist regime for their escape efforts this was not the case as we sometimes caught the same people coming over the fence a few days later. On an average night, we caught between five and twenty illegals in my sector alone and that was just a 4 four mile stretch of the border. The majority gave up quietly. They were mostly very tired and malnourished, but a few ran for it though we soon caught them. These were Welsh soldiers and rugby tackles were learnt in their youth.

One distressing incident, which has remained with me, was of a family of five who attempted to cross the fence. The father went first with the eldest child, a teenage daughter, while the mother waited on the Chinese side until they were safely over. But the father and daughter were quickly caught and taken away leaving the remainder of the family on the far side. We never knew what happened to them, but it was very sad to see a family split like that.

In 1997 Hong Kong was transferred to China after 156 years of British rule. The border remained a controlled area but as Hong Kong became part of China there was no longer any incentive for people to cross illegally and the border became the responsibility of the civil police.



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