I found another batch of leaflets today during a sort-out, and will post some of them in the coming weeks in case they are of interest. I’ve never seen the submerged forest at Borth, which needs a very low tide to see it properly, but it’s now firmly on my radar. As well as previewing the leaflet in the images below, you can download it as a PDF by clicking here: Submerged forest leaflet
It was supposed to be a hillfort visit, but I was fed up of driving to where I wanted to walk, so two weeks ago I did a route that I could do by leaving the house on foot, taking the Panorama walk to the lake and back again, which takes a route across the ridge. I had planned to take the longer route via Happy Valley, but was tired after an iffy night, so took the shorter route, which also allowed me to get a look at the rear end of Foel Caethle, a hillfort the lies between Tywyn and Aberdovey, from a slightly higher viewpoint than the peak of Caethle itself.
If you haven’t done it before, it’s super-easy to follow the Panorama on the Ordnance Survey map. You pass through a number of gates (five in total, I think, but more if you choose not to balance your way across cattle grids) so you will need to take hand gel and/or gloves. Just walk up Copper Hill Street from Chapel Square, and after about five minutes take the right turn into Mynydd Isaf, which is a development of 1960s bungalows. Follow this all the way to the top and at the crossroads go left. Keep an eye out in the verges too, for wild flowers and small butterflies. The harebells are particularly worth seeing – more prolific in August but with many still left in September. The tormentil is prolific at this time of year, and the last of the little cornflower-blue Sheep’s-bit are still around. There were lots of red admiral butterflies around, although none of them were obliging enough to settle to have their portraits taken.
This takes you uphill, and you are instantly in the countryside, passing a farm on your right, with views over Aberdovey to your left. Just keep walking, not forgetting to turn round and see the gorgeous views over the estuary as you go higher, until you reach a right turn, with the chalet park ahead of you. It’s about an hour and 15 minutes from here to the fork for Llyn Barfog (and the same on the return leg), with gorgeous views over Happy Valley and the hills to the left, and some views over the glistening estuary to the right, which looks completely different depending on whether the tide is in or out.
The tarmac eventually runs out at the farm, at which point you pass through two gates and onto a deeply incised farm track with a drystone wall on your right and views now mainly over the estuary, with a slope of gorse and heather rising to your left.
You may want to pause and puzzle over Arthur’s Stone, marked with a dignified slate rectangle, a bit like a headstone, inscribed with the words Carn March Arthur (the stone of Arthur’s horse, which in some legends is called Llamrai). It has a role in the slaying of the story of the monster, called the afanc, that lived in the lake, which I’ve summarized below, and what you’re looking for is the hoof imprint of the horse of King Arthur. Good luck with that.
Carrying on a short way downhill, with views over the hills ahead, an array of colours as they fade into the distance, you go through an open gate (shown right) and the footpath for Llyn Barfog is just on the left. It is easily missed – there is a wooden stake marking it (shown immediately below), but no signpost. It is, however, quite well worn so if you keep an eye open you should be okay. This takes you round the foot of a small hill rise and leads you directly to the lake, about a 10 minute walk. I sometimes follow the sheep tracks to the top of the rise instead and then make my own way down, because the view down onto the lake is great, but the going isn’t easy – the sheep tracks are very narrow and the surface all around consists of big, dense clumps of heather that are not easy to walk between.
However you arrive at it, the lake always manages to be a bit of a surprise, so high up and so intensely blue. Each time I visit, I half expect it to have vanished. I’ve sadly never managed to catch it when the water lilies and other water flowers are in bloom, but today the lily pads were deeply green against the blue water and gave it a rather exotic feel, and the water glowed and sparkled in the sunlight. I sat on a handy outcrop of quartzite for a while to enjoy the views and the silence.
The name “bearded” is thought to relate to the vegetation around its edges. Unlike Arthur’s horse’s stone, one really could imagine this being a source of myth and legend, and indeed, there are at least two. One concerns the water monster known as the afanc, which is associated with other lakes too, a legend that eventually had an Arthurian spin on it. Here’s the main thrust of it. The afanc was the cause of flooding and other damage to good land. In some versions he lives in a cave and slays three princes a day who come to kill him, but they are resurrected, and the cycle repeats. In the case of Llyn Barfog, the afanc must be lured from the water by a heroic figure who will finish him off, and this hero eventually becomes Arthur. Arthur and his horse pull the monster from the lake, finishing it off, and one of the horse’s hooves leaves its imprint in the Carn March Arthur. See more on the Coflein website, where you can read a Llyn Barfog legend of green-clad fairies, two cows in love and a greedy farmer.
The return trip is just as good. The wind had got up a bit, so it was nowhere near as hot. On the entire walk I saw only six people, three separate couples. That surprised me,because at this time of year it is usually quite popular with walkers.
Nearly every walk I’ve done around Aberdovey has been a riotous success, but on Saturday it all went slightly wrong in spite of the stunning sunshine. I was trying to scope out a route to another hillfort. I had already made the mistake of crossing a footpath through a field that turned out to be very boggy, so ended up with soggy socks and damp jeans, before turning onto a single track road for a couple of kilometers. Its hedges were so high that I couldn’t see much of the scenery and when I turned onto the footpath it was so overgrown with brambles that it was a struggle to get anywhere. There were a few nice flowers, including toadflax, lots of honeysuckle and a few late foxgloves, and a couple of damselflies and dragonflies, but otherwise it was just a fight against the increasingly vigorous thorny tendrils so eventually, when they were knee-high and seriously impeding progress, I gave up. Fortunately I was in jeans rather than my usual shorts, which saved my legs, but it was disappointing. There’s another approach that I’ll try on another day. I decided to return home, stopping first at the beach outside the crush in Aberdovey itself, parking up opposite the cemetery.
As I crossed the dunes and walked across the grey pebbles down onto the beach, the sight was rather bizarre – facing towards Aberdovey it looked as though several lines of humans in the distance, in silhouette, were moving in slow motion towards me. It was slightly eerie, shades of zombie invasion movies. Fortunately, they were just out to enjoy the sunshine, like me. There was a vintage RAF propeller plane overhead. Many thanks to Hugh Tyrrell for responding to my request for information about it. He says that it is a restored Avro Anson from Sleap airfield in Shropshire, painted in D Day colours. It is owned by a aviation enthusiast who takes passengers for local trips. This time he was further away from home and was probably flying back after visiting Llanbedr. It was a really marvellous sight, with a very distinctive engine sound. An elegant visitor and a contrast to the super-fast jets that we often have roaring overhead around here, also rather fascinating in their own particular way.
Whilst sorting out some stuff on one of my bookcases I found a bilingual leaflet/booklet produced by Natural Resources Wales giving details of the Dyfi National Nature Reserve, including walks and seasonal highlights. It was free of charge, and I think I picked it up at the Ynyslas Visitor Centre. The Dyfi National Nature Reserve includes the Ynyslas sand dunes, the saltmarsh, Cors Fochno, the 5000 year old peat bog and a wide range of wildlife. It’s an excellent little publication, which I have scanned so that you can download it here. The following shows the front and back cover, and the fold-out map.
The map shows the village of Furnace on the A487, which has the excellent and well explained remains of the Dyfi royal silver mint and charcoal blast furnace. I’ve posted about it on the blog here, if you are interested in combining a visit to it with a Dyfi National Nature Reserve walk.
After a walk along the Dysynni last week, I did a three point turn by the footbridge and drove back along the line of the railway. Instead of turning left to head back towards Tywyn I decided to turn right over the level crossing and park up to see if I could reproduce the picture from the Cardigan Bay Visitor that I posted last week. Unfortunately for that plan I had reckoned without the addition of a caravan park since the original illustration was drawn, and both the railway track and the village were completely hidden behind it. On the other hand, the beach at low tide was a complete revelation.
This part of Tywyn is apparently called Sandilands, but is something of a misnomer. There is certainly sand on the beach, but mostly it is a mixture of fine and coarse gravel, surprisingly harsh on the feet, with some swathes of pebbles around, all divided by wooden breakers. I had never seen it at low tide, and was amazed to see that the sloping beach ended in huge green-topped rocks and lovely weed-filled rock pools with sand between them, with an enormous stretch of wide open sea on the other side. The sea was splendid, with lovely white-topped waves chasing each other in, crashing on the rocks and pebbles and sounding just what a seaside should sound like.
There were quite a few people around, most large family/friend groups, but not so many that social distancing was a problem, and it was all terribly civilized. I had really enjoyed having the Tonfanau beach all to myself, but it was also splendid to see people of all ages launching themselves into the waves and having a really great time. The caravan park overlooking the beach takes the edge off the beauty of the place, but keep your eyes facing seawards and there is nothing to disappoint.
I was intrigued by what looked like huge boulders made of coral. When I stooped to touch one, it was clear that these rock-like structures were made of sand, and consisted of fine walls dividing thousands of tiny tunnels. The beach is full of them, and they are really very lovely. After a rumble round the web I found that they are Honeycomb worm (Sabellaria alveolata) colonies. The reef structures resemble honeycomb. The colonies form on hard substrates and they need sand and shell fragments for tube-building activities. They manufacture the tubes from mucus to glue the tiny pieces together. When the tide is out the worms retreat deep into the tunnels, but when the tide covers their reefs their heads protrude and they feed on micro-organisms in the water, including plankton.
Because there are rock pools, it is possible to see various seaweeds in their natural habitat floating freely in the clear water, a lovely kaleidoscope of colour. In the pools themselves there were lots of tiny fish, which can be seen in the video. On the actual rocks (rather than the honecomb worm reefs) there were limpets, barnacles and various sea snails, none of which we have in Aberdovey due to the lack of rocks. Of course there are none of the shells that Aberdovey’s beach has in such profusion, because they get broken up on the rocks and pebbles but, together with the pebble beach at Tonfanau, it’s super that there are three such contrasting beaches such a short distance apart.
I had a lovely long paddle, and would have loved to have had a swim, but even if I had gone in with my denim shorts and t-shirt, I had no way of drying myself off. Next time for sure, and I’ll start to keep a towel in the car!
Looking to the north, beyond the caravan park and the breakers, the beach was quite, quite empty. That too is a walk for another day, but it must be a really peaceful way of walking up to the Dysynni.
The video below captures some of the contrasts of the beach – people swimming and enjoying the waves, lovely coloured seaweeds in rock pools, sections of empty sea with waves chasing each other onto the beach, and that fascinating honeycomb reef.
My walk last Tuesday, the only sunny day last week, took me back to Tonfanau. Tonfanau railway station was added to the Cambrian Line to service the Tonfanau Army Camp, which opened in 1938 and was finally closed in 1973 after a 6 month stint as a refugee camp, before being demolished sometime in the 1980s or 90s. The camp extended both sides of the railway line, reaching the beach to the west and spreading part way up a slight slope to the east. I have posted about the camp here. When Tonfanau was at its height as an anti-aircraft training facility, with emplacements of enormous guns along the field at the top of the beach, it would have been anything but a peaceful place to go for a stroll. Today, however, it is probably the most quiet stretch of seaside in the Aberdovey and Tywyn areas.
The reason for the lack of human presence, other than fishermen some way out at sea in waders, is certainly because the beach is uncompromisingly uncomfortable to walk, sit or lie on. Apart from a few isolated islands of sand or gravel, it is a pebble beach running down a shallow slope into a rocky foreshore. Footwear is required. This, together with the complete absence of gift shops, public toilets and ice-cream stalls, makes it undesirable for most families, and there is rarely any more than a handful of people there even at the height of the tourist season. This makes it a very good retreat for sea birds, which line the water’s edge at a very safe distance from anyone who might be walking along the stony beach or investigating the rock pools. Oystercatchers, terns and various types of seagull are all in evidence at this time of year.
The views along the beach are splendid. After the recent heavy rain the Dysynni charges at high speed through a surprisingly narrow mouth into the sea, fascinating to watch, and you can see it and hear its roar on the video at the end of the post. This understated but impressive meeting of the Dysynni with the sea is marked as Aber Dysynni (mouth of the Dysynni) on the Ordnance Survey map. The sea itself makes a lovely sound on the rocky foreshore and gravel, drawing the gravel back as it retreats, and colliding with the rocks as it advances. Above the sound of the sea and wind are the musical voices of sea birds. As you walk along it, the beach curves around a long corner promising more of the same untroubled vistas over an empty beach, rolling white horses and, in the distance, the Llyn peninsula. Behind the beach, looking east, are views of the major summits of Tonfanau and Foel Llanfendigaid, as well as the smooth green slopes of the hills between them.
I started out walking along the top of the small “cliff” that runs along the top of the beach. It is only a couple of feet wide, drops only about eight foot or so above the beach below and stops where the publicly accessible land meets the fence of a farmer’s field after about 10 minutes of walking. It offers a terrific view down onto the beach, there are always some interesting wild flowers, and it is well worth doing if you are sure of your footing.
I then executed a controlled skid down a bit of the “cliff” that had collapsed into a sloping mound of earth, a quick way down onto the beach, and headed for the rocks. The lush green seaweed is glossy and lustrous, a great contrast to the darkness of the rocks in the bright sun. The overall effect was delightful. Water trickles through the multiple channels formed by the rocks, crossing the glistening gravel in a way that is quite unlike the sea flowing through channels in the sand at Aberdovey.
Someone has been having fun making pebble patterns in the sand and fields. Like most abstract compositions, it gives a curious sensation of something clearly created in the present taking on the character of something completely timeless.
Small-spotted catshark eggcase (Scyliorhinus canicula), one of the smallest of all the mermaid’s purses. There were two of them, one right at the top of the beach and the other in the field behind the beach. They are so lightweight when empty that they travel on the wind. For details on the subject of eggcases and the Shark Trust, see my earlier post. The photos of the two eggcases have been uploaded to the Shark Trust Great Eggcase Hunt page.
I walked out onto a spur of sand to watch the oystercatchers, getting as near as I dared. Unlike the video that I posted the other day, when what they were mainly concerned with was preening, today they were actually hunting for food and treating shells to merciless beak treatment. Trying to get a little closer I scared them into flight, and they congregated a little distance off on a few rocks, looking very striking.
I’ve pulled a muscle in my shoulder, so the following video is not quite as steady as it might have been, but don’t miss out on the oystercatchers. They are sublime. The fast-moving water coming out of the Dysynni and churning into the sea is also truly impressive. The Dysynni originates in Tal y Llyn lake, makes an abrupt turn northwest at Abergynolwyn and then resumes a parallel course to the Tal y Llyn valley in the neighbouring valley. It passes the Ynysymaengwyn estate, finding its way through extensive reed beds, and emerges into the Broadwater, making its way around the low sandbanks before being funneled into the narrow channel into the sea.
Some of the few surviving remains of Tonfanau Army Camp today, behind Tonfanau station, complete with grazing sheep, the sea just out of sight in the background
The first time I heard the name Tonfanau was when I was researching the Ynysmaengwyn Estate. In the late 1870s John Corbett, who had purchased the estate, also invested in Tonfanau granite quarry to aid with his construction projects in Tywyn. Recently I have been doing research into the hillforts on the hill behind Tonfanau. In both cases my searches came up with a lot of information about an army camp that I had known existed but knew nothing about, and I became interested in the story.
The camp was established in the 1930s as an anti-aircraft artillery training centre, but it underwent many changes in role over time, before being nearly entirely demolished in the 1980s or 90s One of the most arresting things about this subject, is that there are a remarkable number of accounts and photographs available online by those who were stationed there. The camp is not merely a thing of the past, it is something that lives on in people’s memories, and that gives lie to the few desolate, abandoned ruins that remain.
This is a short summary of what the camp was used for at different times, how far it extended over the surrounding area, what it consisted of, and what remains today.
I have made considerable use of the resources that I have found on the web, all of which are credited below in “Sources” with my sincere thanks. Particular thanks must go to the Tonfanau page on the AAJLR website and its many contributing volunteers for assembling such a magnificent collection of photos, many of which are reproduced here.
If you fancy incorporating the remains of the camp into a walk, the best way is to drive down Sandilands Road, turning right just before the level crossing. Follow the road to the Tonfanau footbridge, and it is about a 15 minute walk from there. In summer it is a particularly nice walk as the verges from the Dysynni footbridge to the station are filled with a profusion of wildflowers. Otherwise it is a matter of driving to Tonfanau station and parking up there. You can cross the railway to go down to the emplacements on the beach, or walk up the road opposite the station to see some of the other remaining structures. Otherwise it’s a matter of wandering around the publicly accessible parts of fields to see more.
Unlike most of my posts, which look at things that are usually aesthetically pleasing, or at least have interest as industrial archaeology, the remains of Tonfanau camp are really very ugly, a thorough blot on the landscape. In some ways, these camps that were dotted around the country (and there is another one, in much better condition, in Tywyn) must have been just as alien as Roman camps, just as uncompromising and just as much as an imposition, but eventually becoming a fact of life. Unlike the Roman armies of occupation, these invaders of the landscape were British, and the camps were there to serve the nation, giving their probably traumatic arrival a positive reason for being.
Anti-Aircraft Training 1938s – 1957
The camp consisted of a series of fairly basic buildings, including brick-built huts, wooden huts, hangars and so-called Nissen huts. Nissen huts, like bailey bridges (of which more below) were assembled from pre-fabricated parts to enable the rapid construction. They used corrugate iron sheets to form half-cylinders that formed lightweight buildings, useful in a variety of situations. They looked like gigantic pig-styes, a half-tube of corrugatged iron blocked at either end, one end containing a door for access.
The camp was built well outside the reach of the nearby villages, on a wide coastal plain beneath Tonfanau hill, spanning both sides of the railway line. The Tonfanau railway station was added to serve the camp on the existing Cambrian Railway line, which itself linked into the national rail network. By train, the camp was a few minutes from Tywyn. By road, it was a matter of negotiating some B-roads and passing through Bryncrug before reaching Tywyn, some 30 minutes later. The decision to put the site at a relatively remote location was probably related to keeping the camp away from most residential sites because of the noise that the camp would produce as an anti-aircraft gun range. Either that, or this was the biggest flat-ish area available in the vicinity for the construction of this sort of camp. Either way, the camp was neither a part of the village, nor completely isolated from it. At some point a bailey bridge was established at the crossing over the Dysynni where the railway also crosses, substantially reducing the time taken to get into Tywyn. When the RAF camp was built at Sandilands in Tywyn in September 1940, partly to build on an existing relationship that the RAF already had with the Tonfanau camp, communication and visits between the two camps probably became quite frequent.
As an artillery training camp, Tonfanau had various sites for training on different types of weapon. The big ant–aircraft (AA) guns were mounted on permanent emplacements just behind the beach, as shown on the above photograph. The foundations of which can still be seen above the line of the beach. These pointed out to sea for target practice. The targets were initially supplied by RAF Tywyn’s, which had a camp in the Sandilands part of town and later became known as Morfa Camp, which is how it is usually known today. Disposable gliders were towed using Hawker Henley planes near to the position of the anti-aircraft emplacements, and all I can say is hats off to the pilots who took on that unenviable task! Eventually these were replaced with an unmanned remote-controlled version of the Tiger Moth known as the Queen Bee, which must have been a lot safer all round.
A first hand account of the Anti-Aircraft training is provided by Stanley Briggs, who found himself at Tonfanau in 1949 after initial training at Oswestry before shipping out to Egypt:
“After our initial training we were taken by train to Tonfanau on the West coast of Wales between Aberystwyth and Barmouth. This is the Cardigan Bay coastline area, the nearest town is Towyn. Only the beach, a railway line and a road separated us from the sea. We had the sea on one side and the Cader Idris mountain, inland, behind us.
That bay is massive and ideal for target practice for our 3.7 guns, but I have to say that I didn’t fancy the RAF pilots jobs of towing a sleeve behind their plane while National Servicemen were firing at them for practice with live rounds.
The Cader Idris was ideal for physical fitness too, which our physical fitness training instructor (PTI) put to good use, we were all eighteen years old and I have to say that personally I really enjoyed every minute of that part of it.
The same discipline training continued at Tonfanau. It was here that we were confronted with the 3.7 gun, the Sergent in charge gave us all a good knowledge of how to maintain, dismantle and fire it. We all had to learn each others position on the gun in case one of the members of the team was killed in action (that was a sobering thought!)
The gun had a large barrel and was transported on a trailer consisting of four legs and wheels, towed by an AEC Matador lorry. Each leg had to be raised for the travelling position and lowered for the firing position. Other positions for the team of gunners were Traverse Operator, Elevation Operator, Tannoy Operator, and Ammunition Operator who had to lift a round up and put it in the breach and finally, the Sergeant who had the responsibility of firing. The first time I lifted a round of ammunition, my knees buckled as they were very heavy for a nine stone weakling, which I was at the time.”
There seems to have been a second level of artillery training at the site during this period, which took place after the heavy anti-aircraft guns had left, as described by Frank Yates who, at the age of 21, served with the Royal Artillery, Light Anti-Aircraft Battery and was attending the Officer Cadet course.
“The camp was large, with brick and concrete hutments and purpose built dining halls, garages and the like, with the Garrison Theatre dominating the landscape. The camp had been Heavy AA before we moved in, but there were now two separate factions, the bulk of the Heavies had returned to their base Artillery depot at Oswestry, leaving a nucleus to run the firing camp. On the firing apron, between the sea and the railway, was an ex Naval 3” Gun, a weapon which fulfilled a dual role in the Navy. It had the reputation of producing the loudest ‘bang’ of any British gun and they once fired it for our benefit. It certainly lived up to its reputation! Before leaving the “Heavies” may I mention that they did not fire at a towed drogue, the tow plane would not have survived. There was talk of them using a radio controlled, unmanned target, a project easily arranged nowadays, but too unreliable in those days. . . .
After various demonstrations, witnessed from a head down position in the trench, the sticky bomb was shown. This was an anti tank weapon, although it would need a very brave or a very lucky man to get near enough to use it! It was a glass ball, like a small goldfish bowl, full of TNT and covered in stockinette which was impregnated with very powerful glue. The thing was provided with a handle, containing the fuse and firing mechanism. The bomb was smashed down onto the tank, deforming into a dome shape, a ‘shaped charge.’ The handle is released, the bomber runs away and the charge explodes in 4 seconds.”
Frank Yates goes on to describe what the camp was like to live in whilst he was there, and what sort of other training took place at the camp. It’s a very engaging read, so do have a look at his entry on the BBC WW2 website.
I am assuming that the bailey bridge that used to cross the Dysynni dates to this period. It was still in situ in 1990 when former camp resident Edwin Lines took this photo. Bailey bridges were portable, pre-fabricated, truss bridges. The concept was developed by Sir Donald Bailey, a civil servant in the War Office, between 1940 and 1941 by the British for military. It was a portable, pre-fabricated, truss bridge that was was made up of prefabricated panels and easily assembled parts. The can be carried by trucks and assembled by men without special equipment, using simple devices such as ropes and pulleys in a matter of hours. Once a bridge has done its job it can be moved and rebuilt elswhere. The bailey bridge proved its worth in the Second World War. The Tonfanau one ran parallel to the railway bridge, where the railway bridge and the 2013 Tonfanau footbridge now cross the Dysynni. As they were designed to be able to carry tanks, I assume that this one could carry light vehicles as well as pedestrians, which would have substantially improved access to the bright lights of Tywyn!
All Arms Junior Leaders’ Regiment 1959 – 1966
The All Arms Junior Leaders’ Regiment (AAJLR) was established at Tonfanau in May 1959 and was disbanded in August 1966. Its purpose was to train boys aged between 15 and 17½ as future senior non-commissioned officers. Boys were sourced from a various points within the British army.
My thanks to Ken Hart’s excellent AAJLR.org website as the source of the information on this page, which talks about the activities that they boys were engaged in on a term by term basis:
“The year was split into 3 terms with a fresh intake of boys each term. The first term of each boys service was completely dedicated to turning these 15 and 16 year olds into disciplined soldiers. From the second term the prime emphasis was on education as all senior NCO’s were required to obtain the Army Certificate of Education [Class 1]. Alternate days were spent on Military Training which included Drill, Weapons Training, Driver Training, Map Reading and casually strolling over the gently rolling Brecon Beacons in wonderful Welsh weather fully equipped in thin denims, a poncho and carrying a webbing back pack. The boys final term included specialist training according to the arm or corps he intended to serve in as a senior soldier. Mixed in with all this there was sport, adventure training, outward bound courses and inter company competitions including the Rhyl cup.
Every boy also took part in the ‘Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme’ and to this end most evenings were spent doing a large number of hobbies. The rest of the time was spent cleaning the barracks or doing your personal kit whilst huddled round a coal burning pot-bellied stove in a futile attempt to keep warm.”
There’s a whole page on the AAJLR website dedicated memories of Lance Corporal Fagg who, in charge of the Guardhouse, was the terror of most of the boys at the site. These short accounts bring daily existence at the camp to vivid life. One contributor to the site, John Sabini, wrote the following, which is a nice introduction to an awe-inspiring individual. Other accounts are often a lot more earthy!
L/Cpl Fagg re-joined 3 RGJ sometime around 1967 in Iserlon Germany. Due to a quirk of fate I was allocated to a room with him (thankfully for only a couple of nights) when I moved from a Rifle Company to the Battalion Signals Platoon.
Did you know his first name was Hermes (a bit like being a boy named Sue) which could explain his bad attitude to his fellow human beings! He was a cookhouse NCO orderly in charge of tea urns and spud bashing. His nickname in the battalion was ‘Dog-End’. He disappeared mid way through our tour in Germany and I am not sure where he went; this was my last sighting of L/Cpl Hermes (Dog-End) Fagg, 3rd Green Jackets, The Rifle Brigade.
As he is probably now in the great guard room in the sky, I am sure he would appreciate that he is immortalised (!) on the AAJLR website and that he made such a lasting impression on all those who had the misfortune to cross his path.
The idea of over-wintering in one of those flimsy huts makes my blood run cold!
PYTHON site 1968
In 1968 the camp was one of the designated sites for the PYTHON project, a plan for continuity of government in Wales in the event of nuclear war. There’s not much information on the web on the subject of PYTHON, and what is here comes from a Wikipedia article, the main source of which was the book The Secret State: Preparing For The Worst 1945 – 2010 by Peter Hennessy (Penguin 2014). The idea was to disperse government officials to various locations instead of centralizing them in one place. Sites were chosen on the basis of existing accommodation, independence from the national power and water grids, nuclear fallout protection and distance from likely targets. Tonfanau Army Camp was temporarily designated as the PYTHON location for Wales. Each PYTHON group would be supported by dispersed sections of the United Kingdom Supply Agency and the National Air Transport Agency. Aberystwyth University replaced Tonfanau as the preferred location soon afterwards, which is probably just as well as I don’t see government ministers surviving a mid-Wales winter in those huts, never mind a nuclear war!
Uganda-Asia refugee camp 1972 – 1973
The camp was re-opened very briefly to house Uganda-Asian refugees. Uganda had been a British colony, and while India was still also a British colony, the British government had encouraged Indian professionals to come to Uganda to seek prosperity by helping with railway construction and the overall improvement of the economy. The offer was taken up with enthusiasm, with thousands of Indian families settling in Uganda and making good livings. Their successes were at first welcomed and then regarded with suspicion by Ugandan communities.
In 1962, Uganda was granted independence and in 1971, military leader Idi Amin staged a coup and came into power. Only a year later, on August 5th 1972, Amin inaugurated a policy of economic reform, an “economic war” in his own words, that included the expropriation of properties owned by Asians and Europeans. He gave Ugandan Asians 90 days noticed to leave the country, calling them “economic bloodsuckers,” claiming that they were draining the wealth of the nation at the expense of native Ugandans. Their departure was hastened at gunpoint, giving them little doubt about their fate should they stay.
Of 80,000 Ugandan Asian exiles, nearly 29,000 with UK passports came to Britain. The official Ugandan Resettlement Board (URB) had the thankless task of providing them with temporary accommodation until permanent resettlement could be arranged, and took the decision to place them in refugee camps. Tonfanau was one of sixteen refugee camps chosen for the task.
Tonfanau camp had been closed for nearly four years when it was suddenly dragged back into service to house over 3000 of these refugees for a period of six months, and must have been in somewhat poor condition. It was, in fact, only chosen as a last resort when other locations had been rejected. Captain Freddy Fuller was put in charge of the camp, probably very well qualified as he had spent 25 years running an Outward Bound school. Volunteers from the surrounding community formed a welcome group to provide the newcomers with essentials, including clothes and toys for the children, and each volunteer was instructed to assign themselves to individual families to assist them. However, there was very little furniture and most of the exiles had to sit on the floor. It must have been a freezing, bleak and worrying winter in those bare huts, and Jordanna Bailkin’s book Unsettled repeats James Hamilton-Paterson’s poignant report on the camp, seeing “miserable people in their gorgeous saris” huddling in Tywyn’s two fish and chip shops for warmth. Bailkin describes how donations of clothes resulted in some peculiar and probably difficult encounters: “Adding to the bizarre atmosphere, most of the clothes donated to Tonfanau through the WRVS [Women’s Royal Voluntary Service] were from the 1960s. Chandrika Joshi, whose family stayed at Tonfanau for fiver or six months when she was 14 years old, found herself garbed in a brown rubber minidress. Such outfits went largely unnoticed in camp, where everyone was similarly attired, but more ‘out of place’ when she went to a school a few weeks later.”
Fortunately, by the spring of 1973, all had been re-homed elsewhere in the UK.
Demolition of the site
I have been unable to find when the site was finally demolished, or why some buildings were left in tact. It was probably done between the late 1980s and early 90s. Apart from the bare handful of surviving buildings, it was a pretty thorough job.
Part of the site is used by Tonfanau Road Racing for motorcycle racing on a 1-mile track during the summer, run by Crewe and South Cheshire Motor Club. A 2010 proposal to use the land for a new prison never came to fruition. Most of the land has been returned to agricultural use and sheep now roam freely over most of it.
Below are a couple more of my photographs of what’s left of the site today. For many more from all periods, see the substantial collection contributed by many volunteers on the All Arms Junior Leaders Regiment website.
Jordanna Bailkin 2018. Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain. Oxford University Press
Becky Taylor 2018. Good Citizens? Ugandan Asians, Volunteers and ‘Race’ Relations in 1970s Britain. History Workshop Journal, Volume 85, Spring 2018, p.120–141
Roy Sloan 1991. Wings of War over Gywnedd. Aviation in Gwynedd during the World War II. Gwasg Carreg Gwalch
28 Days Later Urban Exploration
40th Anniversary for Ugandan Asian Refugees in Wales
Ken Hart’s All Arms Junior Leaders Regiment (AAJLR) website
Tonfanau camp: http://www.aajlr.org/tonfanau/tonfanau_main.html
Memories of Frank Yates, Royal Artillery, Light Anti Aircraft Battery. Chapter 17, BBC World War 2 People’s War. Article ID A7375845
Stanley Briggs: Then and Now
Tonfanau Road Racing
Wikipedia article about PYTHON
Bottom left of this map is the Dysynni rail bridge with the more recent Tonfanau foot bridge immediately alongside. The bridge was built in 2013, just north of Tywyn (see more about the bridge on an earlier post here). On Saturday, having escaped the truly appalling traffic carnage and the suicidal pedestrians in Aberdovey, I parked up just short of the bridge, hauled on some walking shoes and crossed over the bridge, pausing to admire the Dysynni river. The railway bridge that runs alongside, a nice bit of local heritage, is currently encased in white plastic. Heaven knows what is being done, but good to see that it is being cared for. The footpath beneath the railway bridge, by the way, is closed as a result. I had only very limited time, but yesterday I simply wanted to scope out the best way of getting to the top of the Tonfanau hill that dominates the Dysynni at this point, so was looking for the footpaths that would take me up on another day.
The walk along the Wales Coast Path extends towards Tonfanau station from the bridge, but turns back along a hairpin turn along the road until just past the main quarry gates, when it turns left through a farm gate into the quarry yard to proceed along the western edge of the hill, as shown on the above map. I ignored that turning and walked past the quarry until I reached a bridlepath sign on the left at Lechlwyd, also shown on the above map, which takes a route along the eastern edge of the hill. Along the bridlepath, the hill soars steeply above the track. It is beautiful, vibrantly green, and in places covered in dense swathes of glorious gorse and heather. At the point where a gate opened into a big field I turned back, but the footpath eventually leads up to the top of the hill and the Iron Age hillforts. I did that walk on Sunday, and I’ll post about that walk in a couple of days.
The walk offers some fine views over the Dysynni and the hills beyond, but perhaps the most remarkable aspect of it was the amazing density of wild flowers bursting up and out of the verges and reaching through the hedges. If you are looking for a short and very easy walk that requires no preparation or planning, and is easy on the legs, this one, at this time of the year, is a very good option.
Field or common bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis). Visually similar to sea bindweed (Calystegia soldanella), which I have posted about from dune walks, but common bindweed has smaller flowers and different leaves, much longer and thinner. One of my books (Spencer-Jones and Cuttle 2005) says that once they begin to coil anti-clockwise around a support they grow so fast that a stem can complete one coil in less than two hours. As a result they spread fiendishly fast, colonizing whole hedges and shrubs.
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is liberally distribute throughout all the verges near the Dysynni.
It is very common on wastelands, and reaches 150cm, forming clumps. At the moment the bright white flowers on purple-red stems are particularly attractive.
Hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) grows on the wasteland and the edge of cultivated land and footpaths, with a preference for semi shade. The toothed leaves look rather like nettles. They grow up to 1m tall. It was renowned from the 16th Century for its healing properties, and it has proved to be mildly antiseptic. White markings on the lower lip of the two-lip flower guides bees to nectar.
A pink version of yarrow, which is usually white (Achillea millefolium). The name, meaning thousand leaf, refers to the feathery leaves. They thrive in coastal areas. I’ve posted about it before, but I love the story behind the name. spreads by underground stems, and is patch-forming. It is disease resistant, which can benefit neighbouring plants, and its small leaves prevent excessive moisture loss. It was named for Achilles, who used it to heal the wounds of his soldiers, and it retains its reputation as a good cure for cuts and bruises. It has a long history as a remedy for colds and fevers (as a tea) and for toothache (when the leaves are chewed). Its leaves and flowers are used in salads in small quantities, it can be boiled as a vegetable and served with butter, and it can be thrown into soups and stews. It has a slightly bitter taste. Flowers July to October.
Tufted vetch (Vicia cracca). A climber that uses long tendrils to scramble through hedges and shrubs.
Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) – there were loads of these, which I had never seen before, and they were very pretty. When they have finished flowering a fruit forms, the calyx of which has hooked spines that attach themselves easily to animal fur for dispersal. A standard tool in the physician’s herbal remedy kit in the past, and still used as a component in solutions for catarrh and digestive problems.
The blackberries (Rubus fruticocus) are ripening! Not long now :-). Apparently there are nearly 2000 micro-species, so telling one from another is more of a challenge than I feel the need to get to grips with.
Hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum). It produces white hairs to disperse its seeds, giving it a rather fluffy appearance. The name Eupatorium comes from Eupator Mithradates the Great of Pontus (which under Mithradates incorporated Turkey and various territories around the Black Sea). Mithradates allegedly used it for making antidotes to poisons.
The perennial Rosebay willowherb (Chamerion augustfolium) is everywhere hereabouts at this time of year. Because it has rhizomes, it forms in large patches that are actually a single plant. Each spear has a marvellous grouping of bright pink flowers with long white stamen, as below. When the seedpods open, seeds spreads by means of attached plumes, forming pretty fibrous masses, as shown below. The plant used to be known as fireweed due to its prevalence on WW2 bomb sites, and it is frequently found in wasteland and poor soils.
Rosebay willowherb seed pods and plumes
Greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea)
Common/yellow toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) looks so exotic, like an orchid, but is relatively commonplace. It is a perennial that flowers between July and October. Narrow leaves grow spirally up the stems. The flower is two-lipped and only large long-tongued bees can push the two closed lips apart to reach the nectar. Colloquial names include squeeze-jaw and bunny-mouth. It likes open fields and sandy soils.
Update on a very wet Monday (10th August): I couldn’t find out what these are, but in reply to my request for help, Jean suggests that they may be bullace, wild plums. I’ll go back and pick one when it stops raining.
Sheep’s-bit (Jasione montana)
Sometimes called Sheep’s-bit scabious, this is actually a perennial member of the campanula family, even though it has no obvious resemblance to the usual bell-flowered character of campanulaceae and at first glace looks much more like a true scabious. Unlike scabious, it has small, alternate hairy leaves. and tiny narrow petals. According to the Wildlife Trusts website, pollinating insects, which see a different light spectrum to humans, find it highly visible under ultraviolet (UV) light, and use the patterns and colours on the petals to guide them to the nectar and pollen. It usually starts flowering in July, but thanks to the remarkably warm spring, a lot of species are flowering early. It likes a wide variety of environments, including dry grassland, and is often found in coastal areas. It is an excellent pollinator.
Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) on Hemp agrimony.
Bittersweet, or woody nightshade (Solanum dulcamara). All parts of the plant are poisonous but in humans usually cause only upset stomachs. The latin species name “dulcamara” means sweet-bitter, which describes the bitter taste, followed by a sweet after-taste. In Germany physicians used it as a cure for rheumatism and it was hung around the necks of cattle to ward off evil. It flowers from June to September and is happy in hedgerows and woods. After flowering it produces egg-shaped berries that start off green, as above, and slowly become a bright, shiny red.
The drive back into Aberdovey from Tywyn defies description. The road was lined with parked cars, often in places where I’ve never seen cars parked before (and in several places where cars simply shouldn’t be parked). It seems as though a lot of people who would normally be holidaying on the Mediterranean have decided to come to Aberdovey instead. I am sincerely happy for the Aberdovey businesses, but social distancing is non-existant, masks are few and far between, and the whole thing looks like a seething petrie dish for the transmission of nasties. After one experimental foray, I’m staying well out of it.
As occasionally happens, I wrote this and then forgot to hit the Publish button, mainly because I meant to do more work on trying to find what the hawkweed-like plant actually is. These photos were take on on the 20th June, just one week on from a previous visit. If it ever stops raining, which seems doubtful right now, I’ll go and see what’s there now that we’re into early July. Hopefully the sea holly will be in flower soon.
Marram grass (Ammophila arenaria) is a perennial grass, reaching up to 120cm tall, each leaf touch and rolled, sharply pointed. Ammos means sand, philos, loving in Greek; arena is latin for sand. It is one of the most important sand-stabilizing species, forming large clumps with matted rhizome roots that help to prevent sand dune drift. They attract the Shore Wainscot moth (Mythimna litoralis), whose larvae feed exclusively on Marram, and the L-album Wainscot (Mythimna l-album) whose larvae feed mainly on Marram. The leaves were once valuable in local craft activities, woven into mats, used to make barn roofs, and to produce fishing nets.
Dune Brittlestem. Psathyrella ammophila. I often see these toadstools in the sand dunes, and these were two of a dispersed cluster of seven that I spotted, plus some very tiny ones. They have very dark brown gills. They grow at the base of marram grass, but in the absence of any other type of plant life. Over time the cap begins to turn upwards, as shown here. Apparently not poisonous, but has a very unpleasant flavour.
Sea bindweed (Clystegia soldanella) is a member of the convuvulus family. The lovely pink and white striped flowers look like field bindweed, but are much bigger, and the kidney-shaped, slightly fleshy and waxy leaves quite different. They spread from a rhizome that not only helps to fix them in the sand, but helps them to gather water, and helps to fix stabilize sand dune. This was part of a fairly vast network very near the top of a very exposed sand dune, on the sheltered side.
Six-spot Burnet (Zygaena filipendulae). Lovely blue-back wings and bright red spots make this very easy to see when it is moving around in a flower. There are two types of Five-Spot Burnet as well (Zygaena trifoli and lonicerae). The rear wings, hidden hear under the forewings, are red with a black fringe. They particularly like bird’s foot trefoil but can be found between June to August in most grassy areas and sand dunes, although I don’t recall seeing one in the dunes before.
Sea spurge (Euphorbia paralias). An upright perennial that inhabits sand dunes and rocks. The tiny yellow flower is protected by large greenish bracts. It has slightly succulent evergreen leaves that march up the stem and which, like all succulents, minimize water loss. It’s poisonous.
Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum). Well adapted to grassland, scrubland and sand dunes, it spread along the ground, its flowers sometimes slightly upright. The leaves are distinctive, growing in whorls around the slender stems. The flowers form in small branches of clusters. Apparently it gets its name because it was used to stuff mattresses. In Germany it is called Mary’s bedstraw because the Virgin Mary was supposed to have given birth on a mattress of bedstraw. They have a slight aroma of honey, but when dry they small of hay. It was used in cheese making in the past, as it contains an astringent that curdles milk.
Sea rocket (Cakile maritima). An annual member of the Brassicaceae or Cruciferae Mustard) family, which is happy in very barren areas, and can grow in unprotected sand, colonizing large areas if left undisturbed. They combine succulent leaves that retain water with long taproots which search for water deep beneath the surface. Flowers can be lilac, pink or white. It does not object to being buried in sand for extensive periods, and its seeds can float unharmed on the sea. The leaves, stems and flowers are edible and are rich in vitamin C but have a very bitter taste, so if using the leaves in salad, they are best used young.
Biting stonecrop (Sedum acre). An evergreen perennial that forms mats with strong stems and short, thick and waxy succulent leaves that retain water. It is drought tolerant, and is perfectly happy in inhospitable sand dunes and rock cracks. Not poisonous, but not edible.
I always like to walk up Balkan Hill on the way back home, because the verges are an excellent mix of escapee garden plants and true wild flowers.
Gardeners will be very familiar with Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), which has a small, pretty flower and red-tinged leaves, but is ruthlessly invasive. Fortunately it pulls out very easily with the root attached, but it spreads like crazy. The leaves are slightly scented. The name geranium derives from the Greek word Geranos, “crane,” referring to the long, beak-like carpels.
Great willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum). A common garden weed, as it spreads both by seed and rhizomes, giving it a great advantage. It likes the damp, and in this case sits where water runs down the side of the road into a drain. the “hirsutum” in its botanical name refers to the tiny hairs on the stems.
A typical mixture of feral garden flowers growing along the edge of the road on Balkan Hill, with hydrangeas in a hedge growing outwards over a patch of evergreen Brachyglottis/Senecio, an import from New Zealand, attractive to gardeners because of its lovely silvery green- grey leaves.
A footpath runs along Afon Fathew (translating as River Matthew) from Bryncrug and then bears left where the Fathew meets the Dysynni. This footpath used to form part of the Wales Coast Path, bringing walkers away from the coast, where they were blocked by the River Dysynni. The path took them inland, crossing the river where the road crosses at Bryncrug before looping back to reach the coast again. In 2013 the Tonfanau bridge was built across the Dysynni at the point where the railway also crosses the river at the mouth of the river, so this footpath has much fewer visitors than it used to. The Fathew, a tributary of the Dysynni, is itself fed by streams from the hills on either side of the stretch of valley in which Dolgoch sits, including Nant Dolgoch, that flows over the Dolgoch Falls.
It was a warm day with a gentle breeze, but the sky was an incredibly light, almost invisible blue, and it was very hazy. The scenery and surrounding environment are completely different from anything that I have walked recently. The hills behind us looked pale, with pastel shades instead of the usually high-contrast bright colours. It was an extraordinarily peaceful walk along a raised levee. To our left, on the outward leg , were either empty fields filled with mauve grass and buttercups, or green fields full of sheep. On our right was a margin of grasses and wildflowers between us and the the tiny, shallow river. The Afon Fathew itself was idyllic, flowing lightly over a pattern of golden-brown stones, with shoals of tiny fish, the sound delightful. Two herons were in a distant field, and both took off, looking wonderful, but aerodynamically improbable.
In the above photograph, one of the first pleasures was a field of Rough hawkbit in the foreground (Leontodon hispidus) and feathery mauve Yorkshire Fog grass in the background Holcus lanatus). Rough hawkbit spreads just like dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), with its seeds carried on the air in even the lightest breeze on a hairy pappus (Latin, meaning “old man”), some of which can be seen in the above photograph. The “hispidus” in the name, meaning bristly, refers to the protective bract that covers the buds before the flowers open.
Water starwort (Callitriche stagnalis) often form clumps,with their roots embedded into the mud. It is good for rivers, streams and ponds because it is a good oxygenator and provides shelter from the heat for fish, fish eggs, frog spawn, tadpoles, frogs and other aquatic species. Its Latin name is derived from the Greek carlos and trichos, which translate as “beautiful hair,” referring to its hairy stems.
– a short-lived perennial, a good pollinator and an excellent oxygenator. Produces two types of leaves – submerged foliage with very fine feathery leaves and then, in late spring during flowering, floating three-lobed leaves. Like the Water starwort it provides shelter for aquatic species.
The path takes an abrupt left where the Fathew flows into the Dysynni, a much wider river flanked by marshy areas, some full of short spiky Spiny rush reeds and sheep tracks, others filled with the tall, gently rustling Common reed. Little snatches of bird song from the marshes hinted at a healthy population of nesting pairs amongst the reeds, including reed bunting. The floodplain of the Dysynni gives a sense of great openness and space, with excellent views over the sheep towards Bird Rock. The Dysynni is home to salmon and trout, and there have been sitings of otters, but no otters were out to play that day.
Spiny rush (Juncus acutus) is found in freshwater flats and marshes but is also saline tolerant and will grow in brackish and salt marsh environments. It is pollinated on the wind, and spreads quickly.
Male reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus). Reed buntings prefer tall reeds and high grasses where their nests, near to the ground, are hidden, but they are increasingly found in farmland too. Their song is described by one of my books as “cheep-cheep-cheep-chizzup” but and it can be heard rather more usefully here on the excellent British-Birdsongs website. Reed buntings eat insects when breeding, but switch to seeds for the rest of the year.
Almost certainly female reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus). This was a long way from me, and I took a photo on the off-chance that I would be able to identify the bird once I had enlarged it in Photoshop, which sometimes works well enough to enable broad markings to be made out.
I had intended to walk as far as the woods of Ynysymaengwyn, but three enormous splodges of warm water landed on my head as I was approaching, so although I had waterproofs in my rucksack I decided to turn back, and had the benefit of different views on the return journey. Sheep were scattered along the levee. Sometimes they moved off, and sometimes I did. They were far more curious and confident than hillside sheep, perhaps more used to people, perhaps less nervous because they had no lambs. Some were standing in the river. When I came to one gate, there was a young male bull, jet black, looking at me over the top of it, a lovely animal. I opened the gate slowly and carefully and he stood back, but I still had to push gently past him.
(Acer circinatum) leaves and samaras (the latter, its fruits, often known colloquially as helicopters or whirligigs). Vine maple (Acer circinatum) looks very like the standard sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), but it doesn’t grow as big, its leaves are attached to branches by reddish stems and its fruits are red and green. In Wales, sycamore trees were traditionally used in the making of ‘love spoons.’
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), just about to bloom. It has attractive feathery foliage (millefolium means “a thousand leaves”), spreads by underground stems, and is patch-forming. It is disease resistant, which can benefit neighbouring plants, and its small leaves prevent excessive moisture loss. It was named for Achilles, who used it to heal the wounds of his soldiers, and it retains its reputation as a good cure for cuts and bruises. It has a long history as a remedy for colds and fevers (as a tea) and for toothache (when the leaves are chewed). Its leaves and flowers are used in salads in small quantities, it can be boiled as a vegetable and served with butter, and it can be thrown into soups and stews. It has a slightly bitter taste. Flowers July to October.
Elder (Sambucus nigra). They are versatile plants, their flowers providing pollen for insects, the leaves popular with moth caterpillars, and the fruits eaten by a wide variety of mammals. For human consumption they must be cooked, as all parts of the plant are poisonous when raw, but is popular for making tea, wine, cordial and preserves. It has a distinctive scent and was thought to keep the Devil away. It was also hung around dairies to keep flies away. It is sometimes known as the Judas Tree, because Judas Iscariot is said to have hanged himself from an elder.
Red campion (Silene dioica). A favourite of so many people, its bright pink face is instantly cheering, and there was a lot of it along the Afon Fathew section of the footpath. Plants are either male or female, so two plants are needed for reproduction. Flowers May-July/August.
Tutsan / Shrubby St Johns Wort (Hypericum androsaemum). The name Tutsan is derived from the French toute-sain, “all health,” reflecting its use in herbal medicines, primarily the application of bruised leaves to cuts to help healing. Androsaemum means “sap the colour of blood.” After flowering the plant produces oval red to black berries when flowering has finished. It likes shady areas, particularly deciduous woodland where this was found just on the way back to the start of the walk. Flowers June to August.
I arrived back at Aberdovey just as the rain started in earnest, and just in time to take my clothes off the outside dryer!