Category Archives: Childhood

Elves, Elvis and Huldufólk of Iceland

Huldufólk Iceland

“This is a land where the wind can knock you off your feet, where the smell of sulphur from your taps tells you there is invisible fire not far below your feet….Everyone is aware that the land is alive, and one can say that the stories of hidden people and the need to work carefully with them reflects an understanding that the land demands respect”.

Terry Gunnell,  Folklore Professor at the University of Iceland

Elf Houses 1

Sightings of Elves are like sightings of Elvis – frequently reported but never confirmed!

elvis-elf

In a land of fire and ice, a wild and magical place, where the fog-shrouded lava fields offer a spooky landscape it is possible that anything out of the ordinary is possible and stories abound about the “hidden folk”.

Hidden people are special In Iceland and it is said often appear in the dreams of Icelanders but if you ask me that could just be the result of too much home-brew.

They are usually described as wearing nineteenth century Icelandic clothing, and are often portrayed as traditionally wearing green.  One of Iceland’s most famous people, the singer Björk was asked one time in an interview on US TV if people in her country believed in Elves; she explained. “We do….It’s sort of a relationship with nature, like with the rocks. (The elves) all live in the rocks, so you have to. It’s all about respect, you know.”

yule-ladsiceland-elves-warning

We stopped now and then to photograph the real people houses and I reminded everyone to be careful where they walked in case they stepped on one of these tiny alternative inhabitants because Icelanders prefer big people to be careful and even frown upon the throwing of stones in case you inadvertently hit one of these small invisible folk.

These are the thousands of elves who make their homes in Iceland’s wilderness and coexist alongside the 320,000 or so Icelandic humans.  Iceland is not alone in this and Scandinavian folklore in general is full of elves, trolls and other mythological characters. Most people in Norway, Denmark and Sweden haven’t taken them seriously for several years now but elves are no joke to many in Iceland and in a survey conducted by the University of Iceland in 2007 it found that sixty-two percent of the respondents thought it was at least possible that they exist.

icelanders believe in elves

Even previous President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson seemed taken in by this and explained the existence of Huldufólk tales by saying: “Icelanders are few in number, so in the old times we doubled our population with tales of elves and fairies.”

Huldufólk are believed to live close to humans and are often blamed when things go missing rather like the plot of the 1952 book ‘The Borrowers’ by the English author Mary Norton.

“…Borrower’s don’t steal.”
“Except from human beings,” said the boy.
Arrietty burst out laughing; she laughed so much that she had to hide her face …. “Oh dear,” she gasped with tears in her eyes, “you are funny!” She stared upward at his puzzled face. “Human beans are for Borrowers – like bread’s for butter!” 

To illustrate how seriously Icelanders take the issue of elves in 1982 a delegation of Icelanders went to the NATO base in Keflavík to look for “elves who might be endangered by American Phantom jets” and in 2004, Alcoa (the World’s third largest producer of aluminium) had to have a government expert certify that their chosen building site was free of archaeological sites, including ones related to Huldufólk folklore, before they could build an aluminium smelter in Iceland.

Huldufólk House Iceland

More recently Elf protectors have joined forces with environmentalists to urge the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission and local authorities to abandon a highway project because it might disturb them and their homes. The proposed highway would offer a direct route from the Alftanes peninsula where we had been earlier this morning to the capital Reykjavik but the project has been halted until the Supreme Court of Iceland rules on the case.  The activists cite a cultural and environmental impact – including the plight of the elves – as a reason for regularly gathering hundreds of people to block workers from bulldozing the area.

elf-house

And it’s not the first time issues about the Huldufolk have affected planning decisions. They occur so often that the road and coastal administration has come up with a stock media response for elf inquiries, which states that “issues have been settled by delaying the construction project at a certain point while the elves living there have supposedly moved on.”  

Huldufólk Iceland

Apparently there have been quite a few noticeable instances of construction projects being postponed for fear of building on land occupied by hidden people and a medium is often called in to negotiate with the elves to ask their permission to build.

As we drove the final few kilometres I kept a careful eye out for any signs of the elves but of course this was pointless because you can’t see them unless they feel like showing themselves to you so all I could imagine was – where they watching us as we approached the spiritual heartland of Iceland at Þingvellir?

Iceland Reykjavik Huldufolk

Elf Houses

Entrance Tickets, The Red Tower at Mellieha, Malta

red-tower-mellieha-malta

The Red Tower, or to give it its proper name St Agatha’s Tower, is a large imposing watchtower in Mellieħa,  the sixth and most important of a coastal defence system of fortifications and small castles built by the Knights of St John during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

St. Agatha’s Tower turns out to be the last large bastioned tower to be built in Malta to provide early warning of attack and to alert the defence of the city of Valletta.

Knights of St John

The city of Valletta was built by the Knights of St John who were granted the island in 1530, seven years after being expelled from Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks.  Trouble with Turks however continued to follow the Knights and in 1565 the Ottomans laid siege to their new home on Malta with the intention of establishing a base from where they could conveniently advance into Europe.

But as in Rhodes and at Bodrum the Knights proved a tough nut to crack and the Great Siege of Malta which lasted from May until September ended with the defeat and retreat of the Turkish army.

The rest of Europe was so grateful for this stoic resistance that it began to provide funding for the Grand Master of the Order, Jean Parisot de Valette, to plan and construct a new fortified city that was to be called Valletta in his honour.  Although it was designed principally as a fortress city with great battlements and armed bastions the architects also found time and paid attention to good design and within the walls they built a Baroque style city with churches, palaces and fine mansions, laid down gardens and designed grand plazas at the intersections of the grid pattern of the streets.  It was certainly worth protecting.

Mellieha Malta Red Tower

Saint Agatha’s Tower was built between November 1647 and April 1649 and consists of a square castle with four corner towers.  Cannon ports in the turrets gave interlocking fields of fire commanding the base of the walls and the gateway, with other large artillery ports in the faces of the main tower.

The tower is situated in a commanding position on the crest of Marfa Ridge at the north west end of Malta, overlooking the natural harbour and potential enemy landing site of Mellieħa Bay, with clear views over to Comino and Gozo, and also eastward to the line of watchtowers along the north shore of Malta that linked it with the Knights headquarters in Valletta. It was the primary stronghold in the west of Malta, and was manned by a garrison of thirty men, with ammunition and supplies to withstand a siege of forty days.

It continued to have a military purpose throughout the British period, and was manned during both World Wars. From the British period it continued its military function being used as a radar station by the Armed Forces of Malta.

The Red Tower Mellieha Malta

Although the children would have preferred to stay at the hotel and spend all day in the swimming pool I thought it was important for them to get out a little and learn something about Malta.  The girls weren’t too keen and Patsy (the clever one) feigned a stomach ache to get out of it, Molly (not so clever) didn’t think fast enough to find an excuse but William is rather fond of forts and castles so luckily he was enthusiastic about the visit.  Molly was dragged along complaining.

It was just a short walk but it was all uphill so, in the heat, it did become rather a drag by the time we reached the steep flight of steps which took us to the entrance.

There are some good displays inside and some imaginative reconstructions but the best bit is the climb to the roof and the reward of sweeping views in all directions as far as Victoria on Gozo to the north and Valletta to the south and it was easy to understand why they chose this spot for the tower – no one was going to slip in unnoticed that’s for sure.

It didn’t take long to see all that there was to see and with the promise of an ice cream down at the beach after the stroll back there were a lot less complaints on the return walk.

The children celebrate the end of the walk and return to the swimming pool…

Celebrating Mellieha Malta

TV Westerns

Dale Robertson Wells Fargo

On page two of Dad’s Scrap Book is a newspaper cut out picture of TV Western actor Dale Roberston who was the star of the show Wells Fargo.

Dad like TV westerns, so naturally I did too.  One of my favourites was Bonanza. Bonanza was a wholesome, good always triumphs over bad, TV western but for me had some unanswered questions as well.

For a start this was a men only show where three grown up brothers lived on a Ranch with their Pa and never changed their clothes!

It’s absolutely true – they always wore the same outfits: Ben Cartwright: Sandy shirt, tawny leather vest, grey pants, cream-coloured hat, Adam Cartwright: Black Shirt, black trousers, black hat. Hoss Cartwright: White shirt, brown suede vest, brown trousers, large beige flat-brimmed, ten-gallon hat. Little Joe Cartwright: Beige, light grey shirt, green corduroy jacket, tan trousers, beige hat.

Ben Cartwright was the wise and intelligent father, the eldest son Adam was the smart one who had designed and built the Ponderosa Ranch, Hoss by contrast was hopelessly dim but as strong as an ox and the youngest son, Little Joe was a romantic with a fiery temper.  Because they didn’t have a woman about the ranch to do the chores the Chinese cook, Hop Sing, completed the household personnel and there must have been a cleaner somewhere because for a house shared by five men the ranch was always spotlessly clean.

Now, in 1950’s and 1960’s westerns the characters had manly names like Cheyenne Body, Rowdy Yates, Bronco Lane, Flint McCullough, some had only one name like Paladin in Have Gun Will Travel and some were so tough they didn’t have a name at all, like the Virginian. Inexplicably Hoss’ real name was Eric!  Who’s ever heard of a cowboy called Eric for goodness sake?

It was hardly surprising that Ben wasn’t married anymore because each of the sons had a different mother and they had all come to a premature end.   Adam’s mother was Elizabeth, who died in childbirth.  Hoss’ mother Inger was killed by Indians, and Little Joe’s mother, Marie, died after falling off her horse.

Poor old Little Joe inherited this misfortune from his father because there was always one thing that you could be sure of in Bonanza and that was that if he met a woman and fell in love the unfortunate actress had only got a one episode contract and was sure to die!

Another of my favourite westerns was the Lone Ranger and there are a couple of things have always intrigued me about Kemo Sabe as well:

Firstly, why was he called the Lone Ranger when he was never alone?  He was accompanied everywhere by his loyal Indian friend Tonto (real name Jay Silverheels).  Perhaps native Americans didn’t count in the 1950’s?

Secondly, the most baffling thing about the Lone Ranger was that he wasn’t the sort of guy you would miss easily in a crowd.  He wore a powder blue skintight costume  and a broad brimmed white Stetson, wore a black mask to conceal his face, had a deep baritone voice and rode in a black buckled saddle on a magnificent white stallion called Silver. Tonto’s horse was called Scout by-the-way.

It was surprising therefore that no one could ever recognise him!  Now I’d have thought that word would have got out about someone as characteristic as that.  Interestingly the only thing that gave him away usually came at the end of the show and when asked who he was by a cerebrally challenged lawman he would pass the inquirer a silver bullet and then the penny would finally drop.  “That was the Lone Ranger,” they would announce as the masked stranger and Tonto galloped off at an impossibly high-speed to the sound of Rossini’s William Tell overture.

Other favourite TV westerns of mine ( mostly from the Scrap Book, but not all) were:

Alias Smith & Jones

Bronco Lane

Cheyenne

  

Gunslinger

Gunsmoke

Have Gun will Travel

High Chaparral

Laramie

Lawman

Maverick

Overland Trail

Range Rider

Rawhide

  

Sugarfoot

The Dakotas

  

The Virginian

Wagon Train

  Robert Fuller Wagon Train  John McIntire

Wells Fargo

Has anyone got a favourite TV Western?

Entrance Tickets, Malta and the Mellieha WW2 Shelters

mellieha-shelters-malta

In Spring 2015 we spent a few days on the island of Malta.  This was a bit of an experiment on my part because I wanted to see if Kim liked it there as much as I do.  It is sometimes said that you either love Malta or you hate it, it is like Marmite, there are no half measures, there is no sitting on the fence.  As it turned out Kim loved it and eighteen months later we returned to the same place this time with grandchildren.

This was to be a family holiday, sightseeing would not be a priority but there were one or two things that we wanted to do all the same.  One of them was to go to the village of Mellieha and visit the Second-World-War air-raid shelters which were closed the last time that we had visited.

Mellieha Shelters Malta

As it was a hot day and the children preferred to stay at the hotel swimming pool so we spared them the ordeal of the walk.  It was a steep climb to the village with a long sweeping road and baking tarmac that looped around in teasing bends and we were glad when we reached the top and the huge Parish Church because although this was October it was still very hot.

Everyone was keen to tell us that Malta was suffering a drought and there had been no real rain for eighteen months or so.  We sympathised with them of course but secretly hoped that the drought and the hot weather would last just a few more days!

Every village in Malta and Gozo has a church the size of a medieval cathedral and all have a story of how it was paid for and built by the residents of the village and Mellieha is no exception.  It is indeed a grand structure standing in the most prominent place in the village with glorious views in all directions.

This time we were pleased to find that the shelter was open for business so purchased our good value tickets at only €2.40 and went through the entrance and immediately underground.

These shelters were cut into the rock all over Mellieha and the rest of Malta during the war because the island has the unenviable record for being the most bombed place in all of Europe.  To be specific and before someone picks me up on this point,  I am talking about the longest sustained bombing campaign and not the most destructive.

Valletta Malta Bombed

This was because of its strategic importance to both the Allies and the Axis powers.  The capital of Valletta and its important harbour was of high strategic value, for the British to protect their Mediterranean fleet and a much valued prize for Germany as an important place to support the supply chain to the overstretched army in North Africa.

In two years from June 1940 the Luftwaffe flew three-thousand bombing raids over Malta, nine thousand buildings were destroyed and seventeen-thousand more severely damaged.  In March and April 1942, more explosives were dropped on the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta – smaller than the Isle of Wight – than on the whole of Britain during the first year of the Blitz.

People needed somewhere safe to shelter and two-thousand miners and stonemasons were recruited to build public shelters and began to tunnel into the limestone rock of the island.

The shelter at Mellieha was one of them and it took us into a labyrinth of passages nearly half a mile long with a decent amount of displays and reconstructions to tell the story of the shelters and the daily life of the people who like Hobbits, had no option but to use them.  Most people sheltered in the crowded communal tunnels but some were fortunate to have their own private rooms and there was a confessional shelter and a two room maternity wing.

By June 1941 the digging workforce had increased to over five-thousand and nearly five-hundred public rock shelters had been finished and another four-hundred were in progress.  In all they could house over two-hundred thousand Maltese civilians which was just about enough but also thoroughly uncomfortable.

Mellieha air raid shelter

By February 1942, with raids often continuous throughout the night, shelters became congested with chairs and bedding brought in for comfort and rest.  The four square feet per head originally allowed was reduced to two and was hopelessly insufficient.  Anticipating a night of raids, people began to rush to shelters straight after dinner every evening.  Spaces were often over-subscribed and crowded. Conditions were said to be dirty, cramped and noisy but at least provided safety from the raids above.

It reminded me of when I was a boy of about ten and I had a friend called Dave (Daddy) Elson who had dug an underground camp in his back garden – we used to go to his camp and sit in it by candle-light and wonder why?

On the way out we spotted a sign which said…”Life during the enemy blitz is not an experience we wish to relive, hence the Mellieha World War II shelters stand as a testimony to those who endured the adversity of war until victory was won.”  – I think that just about says it all!

To be honest, apart from a visit to the war time air raid shelter there isn’t a great deal more to see in Mellieha.  Even though it has been included in the EU list of ‘European Destinations of Excellence’ it isn’t really a tourist attraction and it is all the better for that, so after a while exploring the streets and the tiny working harbour we made our way back down to the holiday bay and selected a bar for a beer and a snack of a Maltese platter and a reflection on life under ground and what life might have been like during the siege.

Mellieha Malta Sunset

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Other Cave Stories:

Drogarati Cave and Blue Lagoon, Kephalonia

Blue Lagoon, Capri

Cueva El Guerro, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Altamira Caves Santillana del Mar

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Postcard Maps of 2016

Morocco Postcard Map

January…

I really need to be careful about making bold statements because upon returning from Morocco in December 2011 I said that I would never go again.  This is what I said…

“I enjoyed the experience of Fez, the Riad was excellent, the food was good, the sightseeing was unexpected and we were treated with courtesy and respect by everyone associated with the Riad but I have seen Morocco now and I think it may be some time before I return to North Africa as we resume our travels through Europe.”

Well, now I have to eat my words because our first overseas trip in 2016 was to Essouria on the Atlantic coast of Morocco.  Why did I go back on my statement – return flights for less than £40 each are just too good to resist and nothing beats getting on a plane with temperatures hovering around zero and then getting off again three hours later into 20°, blue sky, sunshine and swaying palm trees.

April…

We like to visit Spain at least once a year but somehow managed to miss a trip in 2015 so after a two-year wait we were happy to be going back, this time to Andalucía in the far south, the second largest and most populous of all of the Regions.

After picking up the rental car we headed immediately to the Autopista del Sol,an ugly, charmless toll road which conveniently by-passes the congested coast road and moves traffic from east to west with brutal efficiency.  It reminded me of what Laurie Lee had to say about it: “The road to Malaga followed a beautiful but exhausted shore, seemingly forgotten by the world.  I remember the names, San Pedro, Estepona, Marbella and Fuengirola.  They were salt-fish villages, thin ribbed, sea hating, cursing their place in the sun.  At that time one could have bought the whole coast for a shilling.  Not Emperors could buy it now.”

June…

We travelled to Ireland in 2014 and went to the west coast and a year later we went to Northern Ireland and stayed in Belfast.  Despite Ireland’s reputation for Atlantic storms, dreary weather and lots of rain we enjoyed blue skies  on both occasions.  So good was the weather that Kim thinks it is permanently sunny in the Emerald Isle so we arranged to go again this year and this time chose the city of Cork, the county of West Cork and the south coast of the country as our destination.

north wales

Also in June…

I last stayed in a caravan in about 1970 and I said that I would never ever to do it again.  I have consistently maintained that I just do not understand caravanning at all or why people subject themselves to the misery of a holiday in a tin box with no running water, chemical toilets and fold away beds, there is no fun in it whatsoever.

I am pleased to be able to report that modern caravans are much improved and imagine my shock then when I tell you that I was so impressed with our holiday caravan accommodation in Borth because it had all of the facilities of a modern home with running water, a bathroom, electricity and a fully equipped kitchen and after preparing and enjoying a full English breakfast I walked out with a spring in my step on a voyage of rediscovery.

August…

At school holiday time there is always the threat of an extended visit from the grandchildren which can be a stressful experience as they spend a week dismantling the house and trashing the garden.

This year I decided to rent a holiday cottage elsewhere and let them destroy someone else’s place instead.  I chose a cottage in the village of Thornton Stewart in North Yorkshire and drove there one busy Friday afternoon along the A1 – The Great North Road, which many people claim is the only good thing that comes out of London.

cyclades-postcard

September…

We had not visited the Cyclades Islands in Greece since 2011 and so we were interested to see what changes there might be in five years.

We no longer choose to fly to Athens because there is always the risk of industrial action on the buses or the metro or the ferries, or getting caught up in a demonstration in the city centre as we did in 2011, so this year we flew instead to Mykonos, a popular tourist destination in the centre of the island group.

south-wales-map

October…

South Wales isn’t new to me of course, I studied history at Cardiff University between 1972 to 1975, worked a summer season at Butlin’s Holiday Camp at Barry Island and I have visited several times since but on this occasion I was travelling with my good friend who hails from the Rhondda Valley and he had promised to show me some things that I might not otherwise have expected to see.  A privileged insider’s view as it were!

Malta Map Postcard

Also in October…

I have heard it said that you either love Malta or you hate it, there are no half measures, there is no sitting on the fence.  I love it I went several times in the 1990s on family holidays and I returned for the first time since then in 2015.  I hoped that Kim would love it too and as it happened she liked the place so much that we returned for a second time in October 2016.

November…

My sister, Lindsay, more or less lives permanently in Spain now on the Costa Blanca so this provided a perfect opportunity to go and visit her and spend some time in a part of Spain that I haven’t visited for several years.  I have never considered it one of favourite parts of the country so I was interested to see what impression it would make this time!

South Wales, The Rhondda Valleys and More Graveyards

vaynor-church

Eventually we reached the elevated village of Llanwonno and my fears were realised – it was indeed another church yard that we were about to visit.

Who was buried here I wondered, who was so famous that it was worth making this driving detour up the side of a mountain?  As we walked from the car park to the church my friend told me the story of Guto Nyth Brân who, legend has it, was the fastest running man ever in the World.

Local folklore said he could run quickly enough to catch hares and foxes and birds in flight.  If his mother ran out of milk for a cup of tea he could  run to the local shop there and back, five miles away, before the kettle boiled.  I assume of course that he must have had the right change on him at the till with no fiddling about in his pockets or his purse for that elusive penny!

As stories of his running speed spread through the Valleys he was regularly challenged to competitive races on which substantial bets were placed.

His first race, organised by his girlfriend and business partner, Sian the Shop (not to be mistaken with Sean the Sheep saw him take on a previously unbeaten English runner. He won the race easily as well as £400 prize money.  A huge amount of money in those days, equivalent to roughly £50,000 today !  He continued to race and accumulate a fortune until he was thirty.

He was so famous that had there been television in the eighteenth century then he would surely have won BBC Sports Personality of the Year and the USA Sports Illustrated  Sportsperson of the Year Award.

guto-nyth-bran

After a while he retired (he could afford it) but when he was thirty-seven Sian the Shop persuaded him as a matter of pride and principle to come out of retirement and take on a new runner called the Prince of Bedwas who was boasting that he was unbeatable. This was for a prize of one thousand guineas (a hundred and fifty thousand pounds) and on account of the huge prize money on offer it was to be an appropriately gruelling twelve-mile race between Newport and Bedwas near to the town of Caerphilly and for most of the way a steady climb from sea level to seventy metres or so with an especially challenging final hill.

Guto won easily of course, completing the course in fifty-three minutes.

To put that into some sort of perspective the current official IAAF world record for a half marathon (roughly the same distance)  is fifty-eight minutes and twenty-three seconds set by Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea in March 2010 at the Lisbon half marathon in Portugal.  I realise that the timing of races might now be considerably more precise than it was three hundred years ago but today athletes have Nike running shoes and fitness management support staff and five minutes is a lot to explain away even by time-keeping inaccuracies of such great margins.

Sadly the story ended in tragedy after Sian slapped him on the back so hard in celebration Guto suffered a heart attack and collapsed and died.  Some girlfriend hey!

Every year there is now a road race in nearby Mountain Ash to commemorate the life and achievement of Guto Nyth Brân.

There was disappointment for us too this afternoon because the Church was having its roof replaced and to protect the gravestone from potential damage from falling masonry it was fully encased in a plywood box to protect it and on it was pinned a short note apologising for the inconvenience.  You would have thought that they could at the very least have put up some sort of replica or included a picture!

grave-of-guto-nyth-bran

I couldn’t help but laugh and my travelling companion saw the funny side of it as well.  He likes gravestones and monuments and plaques and struggles to understand why I don’t share his enthusiasm for them.  I explained that as a history student I like stories and facts but I don’t really get any sort of adrenalin rush from seeing where famous people were born or are buried.

The following day we drove to the town of Caerphilly where he had learned about a memorial plaque that had been erected in another churchyard to commemorate Guto Nyth Brân and the finishing point of his famous last race so we set out to find it.

It was there right enough but what a shame it wasn’t covered up in embarrassment with a sheet of securely nailed, solid plywood, maybe two, just in case the first one falls off  (a real double-bagger this one) because in respect of both content and design I nominate this memorial plaque to be, without fear of contradiction, the worst that I have ever, ever seen…

Guto Nyth Brân Memorial Stone Caerphilly

South Wales, The Rhondda Valleys and Graveyard Visits

Rhondda Valley 2

“The town of Merthyr Tidfil was filled with such unguided, hard-worked, fierce, and miserable-looking sons of Adam I never saw before. Ah me! It is like a vision of Hell, and will never leave me, that of these poor creatures broiling, all in sweat and dirt, amid their furnaces, pits, and rolling mills” – Thomas Carlyle

The Rhondda Valleys are punctuated at regular intervals with old mining villages and towns, the pits all gone now of course, for better or for worse, depending upon your point of view and as we drove north we climbed through Treorchy and Treherbert.

If Port Talbot is known for actors then Treorchy is sort of famous for footballers being the birthplace of three Welsh internationals, Noel Kinsey, Wayne Jones and Geraint Williams as well as the World Cup referee Clive Thomas.  I can’t find evidence of anyone famous who came from Treherbert  except my Landlady Vi Elliott from my University years in Cardiff and she was a very fine host.

Travelling North, Treherbert is the last of the villages in Rhondda Fawr and shortly out of the town the road eased its way around the top of the valley and provided us with a succession of stopping places where we could pull-up and simply admire the jaw-dropping views.  At one stop there was a curious collection of memorial stones and crosses and we finally deduced that it was a sort of do-it-yourself graveyard where people have their ashes buried or spread in a place with an eternal memorable view over the Brecon Beacons.

Rather odd I thought.  There must be tens of thousands of places in South Wales with equally grand views where people could have their ashes spread, why not find somewhere unique and solitary? I wouldn’t want to spend eternity with a bunch of strangers  but for some reason a hundred or so had come together in exactly the same spot next to a high pressure gas pipe line with a functional concrete sign in bright orange that I suppose is there to warn family not to dig too deep or else they may be all prematurely scattered together!

Odd Wales cemetery

From this elevated position it reminded me that only six months previously I had enjoyed equally spectacular views from the top of the gorge at Ronda in Spain.  Two Rhonddas  in the same year!

Leaving the valley we reached the A465 which is a road not just with a number but also a name – The Heads of the Valleys Road, so-called because like a curtain pole it joins together the northern ends (or ‘heads‘) of the South Wales Valleys and now we drove west towards Merthyr Tidfil and to the south of us the valleys were the folds in the drapes.  I like roads with names – The Great North Road, The Fosse Way, TheWatling Street, The Cat and Fiddle and the Brian Clough Way, so much more romantic than just a number.

During the Industrial Revolution Merthyr Tidfil was the principal town in South Wales, based on the industrial muscle of iron works and coal mining it was far more important than Cardiff, Swansea or Newport and my pal had brought me to tell me a story relating to its industrial heritage.

Not quite Merthyr Tidfil as it happens but a nearby village of Vaynor on the edge of the Brecon Beacons and we drove north towards a small village and a country churchyard where there is a grave of a famous industrialist – Robert Thompson Crawshay who was the last owner and manager of the Cyfarthfa Iron works and sometimes called the  ‘Iron King of Wales’.

During the 1870s there was considerable industrial unrest at Cyfarthfa as steel began to replace iron in value and importance and the business was badly affected by falling demand and prices.  Even as standards of living (such as they were, I imagine)  collapsed all around Crawshay refused to give way to the demands of the unions and one by one authorised the extinguishing of the furnaces.

A fact about foundries is that once an iron smelting furnace has been allowed to go cold there is no way of starting it up again, it is cracked, flawed and useless and as many as five thousand workers lost their jobs and fell into hopeless poverty as a consequence.

Anyway, the story goes that just a short time later he died a broken man and on his death-bed, racked with terminal guilt, he uttered his final words “God Forgive Me”.  This may or may not be true but what is fact that under a giant slab of granite said to weigh an estimated ten tonnes*, brought all the way from Cornwall in the South West of England lies the body of Robert Thompson Crawshay and inscribed in the stone is a simple inscription which records the name, the years of birth and death and his alleged final words “God Forgive Me”. 

about-1962-with-stan-gardiner

A churchyard somewhere in Norfolk.  Sandals with socks.  Not my dad but my Godfather Stan Gardiner and my sister Lindsay.  I assume that Dad took the picture.

To be honest I am not so keen on visiting graveyards as my friend.  I think this is because when I was a boy I remember family holidays where my dad always wanted to visit churches.  I believe that this had something to do with the fact that they were free to enter.  Dad would be disappointed to discover that today you can’t just wander freely  into churches anymore because generally they are kept locked as a result of vandalism and theft and if you really want to visit then you have to find the key holder and fill out a five-page application form.  It is harder to get into a country church now as a tourist than it is to get NHS treatment!

We left Vaynor and headed south now and my companion told me there was one more important place to visit today on our way back to the caravan park.  “Is it a churchyard..?”, I demanded to know “…because you know that I don’t like church yards!”. 

He was suspiciously reticent about answering so I knew instinctively of course that it would be a churchyard!

Vaynor Church Yard South Wales

* so unpopular was Crayshaw with the local people who had lost their jobs that it is said to be deliberately so heavy so that his body could not be exhumed and desecrated!