Archives for August 2010

The great storm of 1908

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:19 UK time, Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The Bristol Channel is used to storms. Winter or summer, they come sweeping in from the west, hammering at the coastline and playing havoc with shipping in the western approaches.

But no storm was more severe or more dangerous than the great storm of September 1908.

Bristol Channel © iStockphoto
The Bristol Channel is a dangerous area of water because of its strong tides

The storm began on the afternoon and evening of Monday 31 August, when the wind strengthened, the barometer fell and torrential rain squalls began to hit the coast.

By morning of 1 September the gale had increased to hurricane proportions, with winds reaching upwards of 80 and even 90 miles an hour.

All day the storm raged; the winds only finally died away on the Wednesday morning. What they left in their wake was a trail of destruction and disaster that stretched right along the coast of south Wales, from Pembrokeshire in the west to Newport and Gwent in the east.

At places like the steelworks in Port Talbot huge cranes had been toppled as if they were made from a child's building blocks, while trees were uprooted and roofs ripped off the tops of buildings all across the country.

Roads were flooded or blocked by fallen debris while the main railway between Cardiff and Swansea closed because of trees across the line.

Huge hailstones battered at the windows of houses along the coast and enormous flashes of lightning lit up the sky. Terrified farm animals ran for shelter and nobody moved outside their homes unless it was an essential journey.

As might be expected, however, it was at sea that the most dangerous problems occurred. With waves of nearly 60 feet many captains wisely decided to remain in port but for those on voyage when the storm broke there was little option but to brave the elements and trust to fortune.

The Helwick lightship, moored out in the entrance to the Channel, was so badly damaged by the waves that her crew was forced to radio for help. The Tenby lifeboat carried out a courageous rescue, the lifeboat men rowing for over six hours to bring the stranded sailors to shore.

The barque Verajean, running up the Channel before the storm, was caught and driven ashore onto the rocks of Rhoose Point.

Luckily the crew all managed to escape and the unlucky sailing ship lay on the sand and shingle for many weeks, dismasted and abandoned, a sudden and unusual tourist attraction for the Vale of Glamorgan.

A more serious disaster took place on the sands near Margam when the Amazon was also driven ashore. Captain Garrick had tried to ride out the gale, anchored off the Mumbles headland, but at 6am on 1 September the Amazon's cables parted and the ship was driven eastwards.

At 8am she was thrown up, bow first, onto Margam Sands. Pounded by the waves, the stricken vessel swung sideways on to the storm.

Several men tried to swim ashore but most of them were immediately lost in the huge seas. When the Port Talbot Lifesaving Company arrived on the scene only two men were left alive on the ship. Twenty-one of the crew were drowned, including Captain Garrick and five young apprentices. There were just eight survivors.

When the storm finally died on the morning of Wednesday 2 September, it was time to count the cost. Luckily there had been no fatalities on land but damage to houses and industrial plants amounted to a sum well in excess of £200,000.

These days that figure would be in the millions. Dozens of small boats had been tossed up onto shore by the waves and many people had been cut and injured by falling slates and trees.

The Great Storm of 1908 was one of the worst natural disasters to hit the south Wales coast. Small wonder people, when witnessing such fury, would thank their stars they were safe on land and whisper to themselves "God help sailors on a night like this."

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Castle country

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 12:57 UK time, Friday, 27 August 2010

If you're looking for things to do this bank holiday weekend, why not visit one of Wales' many castles - there are over 600 of them!

Caerphilly Castle. Photograph by Sam Pritchard.

Caerphilly Castle. Photograph by Sam Pritchard.

From the sprawling, medieval Caerphilly Castle with its famous leaning tower to the impressive 15th century Raglan Castle, the boyhood home of Henry Tudor, later King Henry VII, there are lots of fascinating places to visit.

Our brief guide to castles will help you tell a motte and bailey from a concentric castle, and the sites below give a comprehensive guide to Welsh castles:

Don't forget, if you're near Pembroke this weekend, Phil Carradice has written a great family walk around the town of Pembroke which traces the Norman sites that can still be found in the town.

You can download an audio file and print out a map of the route.

If Phil's walk inspires you to find out more about the Normans, take a look at Hands on History, which is a great site with lots of Norman-based sunny-day and rainy-day activities for all the family.

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Onedin Line tall ship to revisit north Wales

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 11:16 UK time, Thursday, 26 August 2010

A ship that once appeared in the popular 1970s BBC television drama The Onedin Line will once again be sailing along the north Wales coast.

The ship, called Kathleen and May, is Britain's last three-masted topsail schooner. It was built for Captain John Coppack in 1900 in Connah's Quay in Flintshire, for cargo trading around the Irish Sea.

Kathleen and May schooner.jpg

The Kathleen and May was renamed the Charlotte Rhodes for the BBC Show.

Made of oak and pine, it was found derelict back in 1998 by her owners Steve and Marilyn Clarke, who restored it over a period of two years. It was completed at a cost of £2 million.

From next March, the ship will based at Liverpool's Cannign Dock but will be used for overnight trips along the north Wales coast, as well as making journeys to Cumbria, the Isle of Man and Ireland.

Philip Bond as Albert Frazer and Peter Gilmore as Captain James OnedinPeter Gilmore as Captain James Onedin and Anne Stallybrass as Anne  

The Onedin Line was a popular British television series that ran from 1971 through 1980.

Set in the 1860s, the drama followed the fortunes of James Onedin (played by Peter Gilmore), an ambitious, clever and determined shipowner whose private life was as tempestuous than the seas he sailed.

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Cut in half yet she sailed again: the story of the Tafelberg

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:42 UK time, Thursday, 26 August 2010

Imagine it. A merchant ship blown in half by a mine and then simply welded together again so that she could continue to play a role in the effort to keep Britain supplied during the dark days of World War Two. That is exactly what happened to the oil tanker Tafelberg.

Built by Armstrong Whitworth at Newcastle, the Tafelberg was originally a whale factory ship.

Owned by the Kerguellen Sealing and Whaling Company, there was such a shortage of ships that she was converted into an oil tanker soon after war broke out in 1939.

The Tafelberg made several voyages before she struck a mine in the Bristol Channel on 28 January 1941. The ship was relatively close to shore when the mine exploded and was able to signal for assistance.

Several pilot boats and five Cardiff tugs - the Bristolian, Cargarth, Merimac, Standard Rose and Blazer - came to the rescue.

The Tafelberg was taken in tow and, rather than allow her to sink in what was then a very busy waterway, she was beached on the coast at Porthkerry to the west of Barry Island.

Unfortunately, the mine had caused serious structural damage and the Tafelberg broke in half during the operation. For several months the two sections of the stranded ship lay on the shingle, her active life seeming to be over. She was declared a total loss.

For some time her only companions were the wheeling seagulls overhead and the few sightseers who could be bothered to make the journey out to Porthkerry from Barry or Cardiff.

But fate still had a hand to play in the life of the Tafelberg.

Ships were urgently needed in those days and it was decided that the Tafelberg could still be saved. The "wreck" was acquired by the Ministry of War Transport and, after ensuring that they were watertight, the two halves were towed, first, to Whitmore Bay at Barry and then to the docks in Cardiff.

Over the next few months dockworkers and builders laboured to simply join the two halves of the stricken ship back together. It was an amazing job but it was not the first time such an operation had taken place during the war.

The Imperial Transport had been torpedoed in 1940 and, although the front section had sunk, the rear half survived. It was taken into port, a new bow section was built and the ship sailed on, surviving another torpedoing. It was scrapped in 1958.

The Tafelberg was not so lucky, however. Renamed the Empire Heritage, she was torpedoed and sunk on 8 September 1944 by the U 482. The ship was off Malin Head when she was hit and a large number of crew and passengers went down with her.

The extra space on the old whaling ship meant that she was carrying over 50 passengers and most were lost in the disaster. Forty-seven members of her crew and eight gunners also drowned.

The story of the Tafelberg is one of fortitude and imagination. It is sad to think that the ship, welded together with such skill and care, did not survive to see the victory celebrations.

Nevertheless, her story does remain an important part of the nautical history of south Wales.

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Memories of Six Bells: Doug Reynolds

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 15:51 UK time, Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Tonight on BBC Two Wales, Angel of the Valleys follows artist Sebastien Boyesen and his frenzied race against time to create the Six Bells memorial statue in time for the official remembrance ceremony that took place on 28 June 2010.

As well as following the tensions surrounding the building and installation of the sculpture, the documentary tells the moving true stories of the families who lost loved ones in the disaster.

Fifty years after the village of Six Bells in Abertillery was hit by a tragic coal mining disaster which killed 45 local men, the sense of pain and loss remains with those who lives were irrevocably altered on 28 June 1960.

In this short interview, Doug Reynolds talks about losing his twin brothers, Bill and Mansell (both aged 21 at the time), and how he had to go to the pit and identify their bodies.

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Angel of the Valleys: Tuesday 24 August, 7pm, BBC Two Wales

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2010 - 1510 = Robert Recorde

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 12:22 UK time, Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The week marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of Welsh mathematician and inventor of the equals sign Robert Recorde, who was born in Tenby in 1510.

Phil Carradice's earlier blog tells more on the life and sad death of this incredible man.

Recorde was the founder of the English School of Mathematics, writing his works in English as opposed to Latin and making learning much more accessible.

The Whetstone of Witte (1557)

The Whetstone of Witte (1557). Image provided by Tenby Museum and Art Gallery.

His first book was The Grounde of Artes. Published in 1543, this book of simple arithmetic was so popular that it continued to be published for 150 years after his death.

Recorde went on to write three more mathematical books: The Pathway to Knowledge (1551), a book on geometry; The Castle of Knowledge (1556), a second book of geometry; and The Whetstone of Witte (1557), a work on algebra and arithmetic.

It was in The Whetstone of Witte that the equals sign was first used:

And to avoide the tedious repetition of these woordes: is equalle to: I will sette as I doe often in woorke use, a paire of paralleles, or gemowe lines of one length, thus: =, because noe. 2. thynges, can be moare equalle.

Recorde also wrote one non-mathematical work, The Urinal of Physick, published in 1547, which, as a book of practical home nursing, described how to divine and treat illnesses by examining urine.

Tenby Museum and Art Gallery has organised a series of events to celebrate Recorde including an an exhibition called 2010 -1510 = Robert Recorde which displays interpretations by 53 artists of Recorde's life and work. The exhibition runs between August 8 and September 5, 2010 at Tenby Museum and Art Gallery.

The almost equal tree by Elizabeth Haines.jpg

The almost equal tree by Elizabeth Haines Untitled by Olivia Argent
Untitled by Olivia Argent

All images provided by Tenby Museum and Art Gallery

Angel of the Valleys: memories of the Six Bells colliery disaster

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 13:56 UK time, Monday, 23 August 2010

The Six Bells colliery mining explosion in Abertillery was one of worst post-war coal mining disasters in UK history.

On the morning of 28 June 1960 an underground gas and coal dust explosion claimed the lives of 45 local men.

Iris Evans was a senior nursing officer at the time. Now living in Newcastle Emlyn, she describes arriving at the colliery to assist the rescue teams.

"You think of an explosion as an uproar but when I arrived at the colliery it was quiet," she remembers. "Everybody was just waiting."

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The school room behind the chapel was turned into an overflow mortuary. it was here that the men's bodies were carried during the night when there weren't many people around.

Along with Dr Ron Shepherd, who was acting as a coroner for that time, Iris Evans prepared for identification the bodies of the men that had been killed.

Fifty years on from the disaster, at the official commemoration service led by the Most Reverend Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, a memorial to the tragedy was unveiled.

The 20 metre high statue of a miner, known as the Guardian of the Valleys, has been created to serve as a reminder of the terrible price that miners from all over Wales and the world have paid working in the mining industry.

Created by Sebastien Boyesen, the statue is made from thousands of metal strips. Boyesen had only six months to complete the statue, a complex job that would normally take at least a year.

BBC Wales followed the artist as he began creating the memorial.

Alongside the tensions surrounding the building and installation of the sculpture, the programme tells the true stories of the families who lost loved ones in the disaster.

It also includes the experiences of some of those who were actually there at the time of the accident.

Angel of the Valleys can be seen on Tuesday 24 August at 7pm on BBC Two Wales.

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Thomas Collins: the youngest man at Rorke's Drift?

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:24 UK time, Monday, 23 August 2010

The story of the defence of Rorke's Drift has gone down in Welsh folklore.

The defenders were mainly - but not totally - from B Company, 24th Regiment of Foot, later known as the South Wales Borderers, and took place on the night of 22-23 January 1879.

Victoria Cross medal

7 Victoria Cross medals went to the South Wales Borderers, the most ever presented to any single Regiment in one day.

Few people will have studied the battle in any great depth but many will have seen the film Zulu with Stanley Baker, Ivor Emmanuel and Michael Caine defying the might of the Zulu nation.

In many respects the battle is typical of the skirmishes and actions fought during Britain's Empire-grabbing at the end of the 19th century.

Tension had been building for years between the British, the Zulus and the Boer farmers of South Africa, and when King Cetshwayo of the Zulu nation failed to agree to a deliberately harsh ultimatum his land was invaded by three British columns of infantry, artillery and cavalry.

On 11 January 1879 the armed column led by Lord Chelmsford crossed the Buffalo River and established a field hospital in the Mission Station of Rorke's Drift.

Chelmsford moved on to camp below a rocky hill called Isandlawana, leaving behind just a small garrison and several sick and wounded men - as well as a few engineers - at Rorke's Drift.

When a huge Zulu army swept down onto the camp at Isandlawana they caught Chelmsford's men totally by surprise and massacred them - one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the British in any of their colonial campaigns. Then one wing of the Zulu army, about 4000 warriors, moved on to finish off the station at Rorke's Drift. Facing them were just over 150 men.

Soldiers engaged in the defence came not just from Wales but also from across the whole of Britain. Many were from London, others from Ireland, large numbers from the border country around Warwick and Leominster.

The man who is credited with being the youngest defender of the isolated Mission Station was, however, most certainly Welsh. He was Thomas Collins and he came from Pelcomb near Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire.

Collins had enlisted in the army on May 22,1877, aged just 15. He lied about his age, however, claiming to be 22 and, standing at five feet six inches tall - most soldiers on enlistment at this time were under nourished and small - this was readily believed.

Collins sailed for South Africa in February 1878 and was just 17 years old when the Zulus attacked Rorke's Drift.

The defence of the Mission Station is too well known to describe here. Suffice to say that, led by Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead - played by Baker and Caine in the film - the Zulus were kept at bay throughout the long and dangerous night. In the morning they simply lost heart and marched away, leaving the Mission Station battered and burned but the defending soldiers largely intact.

The defence of Rorke's Drift was an example of incredible bravery, just 17 defenders being killed while over 500 Zulus were cut down as they - with equal bravery - stormed the hastily erected defences around Rorke's Drift.

Sixteen gallantry medals were awarded to the defenders, 11 of them being the Victoria Cross, the medal instigated by Queen Victoria in 1856. Seven VCs went to men of the Borderers, the most ever presented to any single Regiment in one day. It could so easily have been many more as the idea of a posthumous award was not realised until the early 20th century.

Thomas Collins was awarded the South African Medal (with the 1877-78 -79 clasp) but his future life was not as idyllic or as pleasant as he might have hoped. He served in the army, in places like India, until his discharge in 1891.

Then he returned to his native Wales and settled in Newport where he worked as a labourer.

However, his health, physical and emotional, deteriorated and in 1901 he was admitted to Newport Asylum. He died in the asylum on 17 April 1908 at just 47 years of age.

The defence of Rorke's Drift was an example of selfless courage and devotion to duty, particularly in the face of the overwhelming defeat at Isandlawana. It would have been so easy for Chard and Bromhead to order a retreat and flee the camp. Instead, they stayed and fought. And men like the young Thomas Collins, still a teenager, stayed with them.

The bombing of the Pembroke Dock oil tanks

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 16:41 UK time, Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Seventy years ago this week, on 19 August 1940, three German Junkers bombers, escorted by two ME109 fighters, flew in over the Pembrokeshire coast and dropped their bombs onto the oil tanks high above the west Wales town of Pembroke Dock.

The tanks contained thousands of gallons of vitally important fuel oil and when one of the bombs hit its target it started a fire, the like of which had never been seen in Wales before.

A sheet of flame leapt into the air and the noise of the explosion echoed around the town.

Then a huge column of smoke began to billow out of the stricken tank and climb like the sword of Damocles into the sky. The smoke hung there, above the town and the desperate Civil Defence workers who fought to quell the blaze for the next 18 days.

The Pembroke Dock oil tank fire was the largest fire that Britain had seen since the Great Fire of London in 1666, and the resources to fight it were pitifully few.

Initially just one tank had been hit but despite the heroic efforts of Pembroke Dock fire chief Arthur Morris and his team of part-time firemen the flames soon began to spread from one tank to the next.

Hurried appeals were sent out to fire brigades all across the country, asking for men and fire fighting appliances.

Help came from all quarters, from Milford Haven and Narberth and from places as far afield as Swansea and Cardiff. But, at this early stage, nobody quite realised what was facing them. As one Cardiff fireman later said: "We'd got as far as St Clears when we noticed the cloud. We didn't realise what was going on until we got a bit further and by then, of course, we were right in the middle of it."

In the end 22 brigades were involved, over 500 men, from places as far away as Birmingham and Cardiff.

The blaze raged for 18 days and, eventually, 11 of the 18 tanks were destroyed, their valuable contents just burning, vanishing into the ether or running in a great black river down the road towards the town.

For a while there was a very real possibility that the fire would spread even further than the tank farm and citizens of Pembroke Dock lived in constant fear that the burning oil would set all of their houses alight.

Dozens of firemen were injured and overcome with exhaustion.

Tragically, five Cardiff firemen were killed when the wall of one burning tank just splintered or ruptured and a sea of burning oil engulfed them.

Their names are still remembered in Pembroke Dock - Frederick George Davies, Clifford Miles, Ivor John Kilby, Trevor Charles Morgan and John Frederick Thomas - and on a memorial at the site of the inferno.

Molten oil ran out of the tanks, coating the firemen who, in those days, had no specialised equipment or clothing. Sometimes it seemed as if it was raining oil. The men who fought the fire never forgot it:

"Oh, the flames, they were 30 or 40 feet up in the air and you wouldn't believe the width of them. And then the smoke. And oil dropping down. You couldn't go too close because it was so hot.

"What we were doing was cooling the unaffected tanks and the ones on fire. But as one tank seemed to empty another would catch fire."

When the fire was eventually extinguished controversy erupted. Arthur Morris, hero of the hour, a man who did not leave the scene of the blaze and had slept only in snatches - at the side of his Merryweather Fire Engine - for 18 days, was passed over in the awards so liberally given out to others - several of whom spent virtually no time at all at the scene of the disaster.

Arthur Morris was never a "yes man," always being regarded as a fireman's fireman. But if he had been critical of the operation then no one ever knew. He remained tight-lipped and took the secret - if secret there was - with him to his grave.

The Pembroke Dock fire was soon to be eclipsed by other fires in London, Coventry and Birmingham as the German bombing offensive gathered momentum.

However, that should never minimise the significance of the disaster and seventy years ago this week it was a real and terrifying ordeal, not just for the firemen involved but for the whole of the small community of Pembroke Dock.

At 11am on Thursday 19 August a service for veterans who fought the 1940 fire will be held at the South Pembrokeshire Golf Club with wreaths being laid at the memorial stone near the clubhouse.

The service is open to all and is being organised on behalf of the town's Sunderland Trust and Museum Trust, in conjunction with the Golf Club.

Read more on the Pembroke Dock Community Web Project.

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Aces on film

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James Roberts James Roberts | 16:18 UK time, Wednesday, 18 August 2010

In a recent blog article, we touched upon the role of Welsh pilots in the Battle of Britain. One of the most notable men that faced the might of the German Luftwaffe in 1940 and beyond was Wrexham-born Air Chief Marshall Sir Frederick Rosier.

This rare BBC News clip from April 1968 catches up with some of the aces that risked life and limb in the skies over Europe nearly 30 years previous.

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The men, including Douglas Bader and Johnnie Johnson, are synonymous with wartime heroics. They reflect misty-eyed at Bentley Priory in Middlesex, the home of RAF Bomber Command as the decision is made to disband the legendary unit.

Sir Frederick Rosier offers his views on the day's events; reflecting on the changing face of the RAF since those dicey days of 1940 when the future of Europe hung in the balance and, whilst offering an insight into the valiant aerial combat he also laments the curtain being drawn on Bomber Command.

Sir Douglas Bader (left) and Jonnie Johnson

Sir Douglas Bader (left) and Jonnie Johnson

This fascinating clip also shows the legendary Bader and Johnson talking candidly and nonchalantly, pipes in hand, about their experience at the sharp end of the Battle of Britain.

Leicester-born Johnson fought alongside Bader, enjoying a similarly heroic and much decorated RAF career; emerging from World War Two as the top-scoring RAF fighter pilot.

Undoubtedly, these men look and sound every inch the archetypal battle-hardened heroes straight from not only the history books, but also the comic books - their speech and mannerisms very much of a bygone age. For example, It is hard to imagine the word 'gay' being used in a similar context today on camera.

Rosier joined the RAF on a short service commission in August 1935. His role in World War Two began in France with No.229 Squadron where he was shot down over Dunkirk in his Hurricane and badly injured.

Sir Frederick Rosier

Sir Frederick Rosier

Following his recovery he rejoined 229 and took command of the squadron for the final few days of the Battle of Britain. As the RAF's claimed a decisive victory in 1940, he was promoted to Wing Commander where he led No. 262 Wing with the RAF's Desert Air Force squadrons.

Post-World War Two, and following his award of an OBE in 1943, Rosier spent time amongst the highest ranks of the RAF. This included a spell with the United Sates Air Force, a period as Group Captain at RAF Fighter Command, and in 1958, Rosier became Director of Joint Plans for the Air Ministry.

Later in his career Rosier was appointed Deputy Commander in Chief for Allied Forces in Central Europe from 1970 to 1973.

Despite his illustrious globetrotting, as World War Two morphed into the Cold War he always remained close to home. Rosier's wife also hailed from Wrexham, and they married in 1939. In his autumnal years the retired ace moved back to the village of Trevor near Llangollen where he passed away in September 1998 aged 83.

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Henry Morton Stanley: statue or no statue?

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 08:18 UK time, Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Most people have heard of Henry Morton Stanley. He was the man who was sent to find David Livingstone and supposedly greeted him with the words: "Dr Livingstone, I presume?"

It is quite possible that Stanley never uttered that immortal phrase but, perhaps more importantly, a row has recently broken out over a decision to erect a statue to the explorer in his hometown of Denbigh.

Stanley was, objectors say, a cruel racist who exploited the African peoples and should, therefore, not be commemorated in this way.

There can be no doubt that he was a hard task master - the explorer Richard Burton commented that "Stanley shoots Africans as if they were monkeys." Even if that horrible and starkly brutal statement was only partly true it sheds a more than unpleasant light on what Stanley and his compatriots were doing in their version of "muscular Christianity."

Born in 1841, the child of a 19-year-old unmarried mother, Stanley's real name was John Rowlands and by the age of five he was living in the workhouse of St Asaph. By determination and drive he educated himself, became a pupil teacher in the local National School and then worked his way on a cargo ship across the Atlantic.

He jumped ship in New Orleans, was befriended by a man called Stanley and duly took his name. After serving on both sides during the American Civil War he became a journalist and was taken up by Gordon Bennett - yes, that Gordon Bennett - then owner of the New York Herald.

It was Bennett who funded Stanley - and a pretty bottomless fund it turned out to be - to go and find Livingstone. The commission set Stanley on a path of writing and exploration that were to make his name. Before too long he was being sought out to organise and run expeditions in several different parts of Africa.

Perhaps his biggest error was failing to get out when he realised that his paymaster in the Congo, King Leopold of Belgium, was not motivated by religious and humanitarian motives but purely by personal greed.

Stanley remained on Leopold's payroll and, as a consequence, spent the last 15 years of his life trying to deflect the accusations of brutality and cruelty that, naturally enough, soon came his way.

Whether or not there should be a statue to the man is another matter. There are statues to people, all over the world, people who later proved to be rather less than perfect examples of humanity. The trouble with statues is that they are permanent, whereas reputations clearly aren't.

I would be the last person to condone some of the things Stanley and his fellow explorers reportedly did in the Congo and other places but they do have to be taken in the context of their times. Yes, he drove his native bearers with a ferocity and a viciousness that, these days, would never be tolerated. We can regret that, abhor it and despise the man's actions, but we cannot pretend it did not happen.

Perhaps a statue to the man would do little more than celebrate a dark moment in our history. But some of Stanley's achievements - marching thousands of miles to map the route of the River Congo to the sea; actually managing to locate Livingstone at Lake Tanganyika and so on - do need to be remembered.

Possibly the suggestion that, instead of a statue, a permanent exhibition should be mounted in Denbigh, giving both sides of the story and, importantly, putting the whole process into context, would be a better way forward.

At the end of the day statues are just bits of metal. They have their place and, obviously, they are still being commissioned and erected.

The dragon memorial by Dave Peterson to the Welsh Division at Mametz Wood on the Somme is a perfect example of an effective and emotive piece of sculpture - I hear of no-one objecting to this, even though it commemorates the deaths of thousands of young men in one of the bloodiest battles of World War One. And, then, even more recently, a statue was put up in Caerphilly to the late, great Tommy Cooper.

The difference with these examples is that they do not commemorate men (or women) who achieved their success on the blood and sweat of other people. And yet, in years to come, we might think differently, other evidence might come to the fore. And then what happens? Do we pull them down?

We have to think carefully about our memorials. I really don't know if Stanley deserves one or not. But what I do know is that his story, like that of the many hundreds who worked and walked with him through some of the hardest terrain in the world, does need to be told.

Read more on the story on the BBC Wales News website.

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Rudolph Hess in Wales

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:56 UK time, Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Most people know the name Rudolph Hess. Many know the story of his dramatic midnight flight to Scotland in 1941, supposedly in an attempt to broker peace between Britain and Nazi Germany.

Yet how many realise that from 1942 until 1945, when he was flown to Nuremberg to stand trial for crimes against humanity, Hess spent virtually all of his time in captivity in Wales?

Abergavenny - Neville Street phot by Gordon Hall.jpg

Hess was driven around Abergavenny and the surrounding countryside by his guards. Photo: Gordon Hall

Rudolph Hess was Adolf Hitler's deputy in the Nazi Party and, despite his clear mental fragility, he was a significant figure in the German state.

The reasons for his flight to Britain have never really been made clear. Was it a genuine attempt to find a peaceful solution to the conflict? Did he seek just to recover ground and influence with Hitler, ground he had lost to people like Himmler and Goring? And then, there are those who say it wasn't Hess at all, just a duplicate or stand-in.

Whatever his reasons, Hess flew to Scotland on the night of May 10, 1941 in an ME 110 fighter bomber, bailed out over Eaglesham and injured his leg in the process.

Arrested by members of the Home Guard - an indignity that irked him greatly, both at the time and in the coming months - he spent several weeks in places like the Tower of London (the last man ever to be imprisoned there) and at Camp Z in Aldershot, obviously undergoing interrogation and debriefing.

Following a supposed Polish plot to assassinate him, on 26 June 1942 Hess was brought to Maindiff Court Military Hospital and POW Reception Centre outside Abergavenny.

Before the war Maindiff Court had been an admission unit for a mental hospital in the town and there were many who thought that Hess - who had already attempted suicide by throwing himself off a balcony in his prison in Aldershot - was well placed.

At Maindiff Court Hess had his own room and there were invariably a pair of guards on duty outside his door at all times. He did, however, have a fair degree of freedom, often being driven about the local countryside, in some style, by his gaolers.

He was allowed to take walks around the grounds, his guards maintaining a close watch from a discreet distance. On several occasions he visited places like White Castle and there are even rumours that he once went to dinner with Lord Tredegar in Newport's Tredegar House.

The British government never tried to hide the fact that Hess was being detained in Abergavenny. Indeed, when he first arrived, the staff of the hospital/centre actually lined up in a formal reception to meet him. And the news did feature in many of the national papers of the time.

There was certainly no attempt to play down, or keep low profile, his presence in the quiet Welsh border town. All of this has added fuel to the belief that this was not the real Rudolph Hess, just a double or lookalike, and the publicity was simply adding fuel to the fire.

Always supposing that the prisoner in Abergavenny was actually Hitler's deputy, this was not the first connection between the Hess family and Wales.

It is possible that Carl Hess, Rudolph's father, actually lived in Cardiff for a short while. Certainly Carl's first wife, not Rudolph's mother, was buried in the parish churchyard at Michaelstone-y-Fedw so there may be a degree of truth in the story.

Hess' sojourn in Wales came to an end in October 1945 when he was taken to Nuremberg where, alongside people such as Goring and von Ribbentrop, he was accused of war crimes.

Unlike many of his co-defendants, Hess did not face the rope but was sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in creating and administering the infamous Nazi regime.

Rudolph Hess lived out the remainder of his long life at Spandau Prison in Berlin, being the sole occupant of the jail once Albert Speer and Von Schirach were released in 1966. Rumours of him being a double persisted right until his death, which came on 17 August 1987.

There are still many people who remember seeing Hess in Abergavenny or at places like White Castle. And despite the rumours most of these are clear - the man kept at Maindiff Court was no double, this really was Rudolph Hess.


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General Picton: a fast and furious life

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 08:21 UK time, Monday, 16 August 2010

Wales has had many heroes over the years but none more controversial than Thomas Picton, the most senior British officer to fall at Waterloo.

He was a brave and wholehearted man but a temperamental one, a general and administrator whose motto seems to have been "make them respect and hate you but most of all make them fear you."

Born at Poyston in Pembrokeshire in 1758 he decided on a military career early in his life and by 1773 had joined the 12th Regiment of Foot at Gibraltar as an ensign.

Money talked in those days and Picton certainly had money - or, at least, his family did.

By 1778 he had bought himself the rank of captain in the 75th Regiment. Already he was acquiring for himself the reputation of a hard and even brutal taskmaster.

His courage was never in doubt and when, five years later, the 75th Regiment was disbanded he quelled an open mutiny by the soldiers, showing great bravery in the process, with little regard to his own safety.

As a reward for that bravery he was promised the rank of major, but for some reason the promotion never came and Picton retired from the army in high dudgeon.

He spent the next 10 years at home in Poyston. During this time his irascible temper quickly came to the fore and he even fought a duel because of some imagined insult. He was seriously wounded in the affair and was lucky to survive.

By 1794, however, he had been appointed aide-de-camp to Sir John Vaughan and was back in harness with the military. He fought with distinction in the various West Indian campaigns and by 1801, now with the rank of brigadier general, he was made governor of Trinidad.

His regime on the island was hard and brutal, whipping, branding and arbitrary execution apparently being regular and common punishments.

Eventually Picton was accused of torturing a young mulatto woman. He returned to Britain and stood trial, claiming that torture was not illegal under Spanish law and Trinidad was still, in the eyes of some, a Spanish possession. It was a flimsy defence and Picton was found guilty.

He appealed against the conviction and was released on bail. The original verdict was later overturned and friends of Picton covered the court costs.

None of this seemed to affect his military career. He was soon appointed major general and at the personal request of the Duke of Wellington commanded a division during the Peninsula War in Spain.

In 1812, he led his men in the storming of the breaches at Ciudad Rodrigo and during the Battle of Badajoz was seriously wounded.

He refused to leave his post and, afterwards, showed the contradictory side to his nature by personally giving each of his surviving soldiers a sovereign out of his own pocket. Sick with his wounds and fever Picton then returned to Britain.

When Napoleon escaped from Elba and the wars began again, Picton soon found himself in Belgium. He fought with Wellington at Quatre Bras in the run up to the Waterloo battle and, never being one to keep out of the action, was again wounded.

He was well enough, however, to take his place at the head of the 5th Infantry Division at the momentous Battle of Waterloo.

Here, leading his men in a counter attack on d'Erlon's Corps in the centre of the British line, Picton was shot through the temple by a musket ball and died.

Interestingly, Sir Thomas Picton was not in his uniform at the time of his death, something that would probably have caused him some distress. News of Napoleon's march into Belgium had come so quickly that he had left his luggage behind and at the time of his death it had still not caught up with him.

Despite his high-handed approach, Picton - although undoubtedly feared by his men - was admired by both Wellington and the government.

In the wake of his death a monument to him was erected in St Paul's and the impressive Picton Monument was built at the western end of Carmarthen town.

That obelisk is still there today, a fitting tribute to the hard and sometimes contradictory man who helped keep Europe safe from the grasp of Napoleon Bonaparte.

General Picton Monument ©Carmarthenshire County Museum

Frieze from the Picton Monument. Image provided by Carmarthenshire Museums Service.

You can read more about the frieze from General Picton's Monument and view other objects from history contributed by the people of Wales on the website for A History of the World.

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Past Master on BBC Radio Wales

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 12:51 UK time, Friday, 13 August 2010

There's another chance to listen to Past Master on BBC Radio Wales over the coming weeks.

Presenter and BBC Wales History blogger, Phil Carradice delves into the famous and not-so-famous happenings and events in the history of Wales.

Listen again online as Phil explores the remarkable life of Welsh based cinematic pioneer William Haggar. A showman, singer, actor and filmmaker, he ran both a travelling cinema (bioscope) and travelling theatre before opening his permanent cinemas.

You can read Phil's earlier blog on the William Haggar as well as some of the great memories of Haggars cinema in Pembroke that people have commented on the blog. Feel free to add your own memories.

Phil Carradice with members of the Haggar family outside the former Haggar's Cinema in Pembroke

Phil Carradice and former employees of Haggar's Cinema in Pembroke

If you'd like to find out more about Welsh film history visit the BBC Wales Arts website.

Past Master is next broadcast on Monday 16 August at 6.30pm on BBC Radio Wales when Phil tells the story of Ralph Hancock, a Cardiff insurance clerk who created fabulous roof gardens in 1930s New York and London. Early birds can also catch the programme on Wednesday 18 August at 5.30am.

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Battle of Britain: Welsh aces

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James Roberts James Roberts | 09:20 UK time, Friday, 13 August 2010

Seventy years ago the tide began to turn against Hitler's plans to invade Britain. By August 1940 the wave of German attacks that had overwhelmed central Europe and France, stalled in the skies over Britain and the English Channel.

RAF fighter planes

13 August is officially designated as Adlertag (Eagle day). On this day five waves of the Luftwaffe bombers and fighters attacked nine airfields from the coast of Kent in the east, to Weymouth in the west.

Since 30 June 1940, the Luftwaffe had threatened to break through Britain's defences as they pummelled airfields and runways. However, the Royal Air Force regrouped, aided by radar and a rapid influx of pilots.

The RAF's high performance fighters, the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfires were piloted by men from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and from central European countries overrun by the Germans, in particular Poland and Czechoslovakia. They combined to thwart the waves and waves of German Heinkels and Junkers.

These men would be deemed the famous "few" by prime minister Winston Churchill. The heroic pilots included a few notable Welshmen. Wrexham-born Fred Rosier is arguably one of the most decorated Welshmen to have been on the Battle of Britain roll call. He was educated at Grove Park School in Wrexham and, in 1935 at the age of 19, joined the RAF.

Rosier was a Flight Commander in France, leading No. 229 Squadron as the country fell suddenly in May 1940. His Submarine Spitfire was shot down on 1 May. He bailed out of his burning plane with considerable injuries and, despite spending the crucial period of the battle in convalescence, he rejoined 229 Squadron just before the Blitz in September.

Post-1940, Rosier joined HMS Furious in the Middle East, piloting his Hurricane in the Mediterranean, and was awarded the OBE in February 1943. He went on to become Chief Air Marshall and retired from the RAF in September 1973.

Similarly illustrious is the story of St Asaph-born Denis Crowley-Milling. The Denbighshire man, educated at Malvern College in Worcestershire, was called up to the RAF on 1 September 1939 and, like Rosier, was eventually posted to France before returning to be based in Coltishall, Norfolk.

During the Battle of Britain Crowley-Milling claimed a succession of kills. On 30 August 1940 he destroyed a Heinkel He 111 and in early September claimed further victims before his badly damaged Hurricane P3715 was downed over the Thames Estuary and he was forced to land at a disused aerodrome.

Crowley-Milling's post-Battle of Britain escapades included crashing in France, receiving help from the French Resistance, and being awarded the CBE in 1963.

Ten years previously Crowley-Milling had the prestigious honour of leading the Odiham Meteor Wing in the 1953 Coronation flypast in the company of the legendary Douglas Bader.

Perhaps one of the better known Welsh stars of the summer and early autumn of 1940 is Frederick William Higginson. Born into a Welsh speaking family in Gorseinon near Swansea, 'Taffy' Higginson joined the RAF as an apprentice, aged just 16, in 1929.

F W Higginson

Higginson was one of the other Welshmen who went to France in May 1940 as German troops overwhelmed the country, where he claimed a hat-trick of German planes including a brace over Dunkirk on 29 May 1940.

This policeman's son thrived amidst the shrapnel and dogfights of August 1940. In the cockpit of his Hawker Hurricane he destroyed a Dornier D017 on the 16 August; the start of a purple patch that lasted between then and 30 September and amounted to no fewer than ten Luftwaffe aircraft being downed or damaged by Higginson's hand.

After the Battle of Britain, this ace's story entered the realms of a 'boy's own' silver screen fantasy. Higginson was shot down over France in June 1941 and attempted to escape to non-belligerent Spain before being arrested at the Franco-Spanish border. During internment in Perpignan he escaped.

Equipped with false papers and posing as a priest, he reached British-controlled Gibraltar. Following the war, he became sales and service director of the Guided Missiles Division in the Bristol Aircraft Company and also played rugby for London Welsh, Richmond and Surrey until he was 40.

Rosier, Crowley-Milling and Higginson faced death every day in the darkness and uncertainty of 1940. They, as well as many other pilots, went on to be decorated and held esteemed roles in the post-war world.

A glance at the remarkable and comprehensive book Men Of The Battle Of Britain by KG Wynn (CCB Aviation Books) reveals accounts of many Welsh pilots.

Edward Graham from Ebbw Vale joined No. 72 Squadron in March 1937 as Europe began its slide towards war. Following his role supporting the Dunkirk evacuation in his Spitfire, his squadron moved from Gravesend to Biggin Hill.

On 31 August 1940, amidst a mass Luftwaffe offensive Graham shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 110. After taking command of 72 Squadron at the tail-end of the Battle of Britain, Graham became an RAF Group Captain, retiring in December 1958. Some Welshman weren't so lucky, and paid the ultimate price along with so many other pilots.

David Francis Roberts from Penylan, Cardiff joined No. 25 Squadron in September 1939, as Germany invaded Poland, becoming a sergeant in June 1940. Roberts survived the Battle of Britain, but was killed the following April, aged 32.

Similarly, Cedric Watcyn Williams, educated at Maesyddywen County School entered the RAF in September 1926, passing out as a fitter in 1929. Williams was offered a cadetship, a common route for would-be pilots, and eventually joined 32 Squadron.

Following service in Iraq and training throughout the 1930s and settling into the Hawker Hurricane, Williams was briefly stationed at Aston Down in Gloucestershire in late June 1940 before commanding No. 17 Squadron at Debden in Essex.

In the heat of battle throughout August 1940, Williams claimed a number of enemy aircraft. However, it was to be his final kill that led to his own demise. On 25 August 1940, Williams was killed following a head-on attack. His Hurricane R 4199 hurtled into the English Channel, the graveyard of so many aircraft in 1940. He was 30 years old.

On 17 September 1940 Hitler cancelled Operation Sealion, the planned invasion of the British Isles. German strategy was now split between bombing cities and the invasion of the Soviet Union. Having heroically fended off the might of the German Luftwaffe, the British nation now had to face the Blitz.

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Welsh Voices of the Great War Online

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 16:20 UK time, Wednesday, 11 August 2010

An embroidered heart, a nurse's autograph book and a customised cigarette lighter are just a few objects that have been added to an innovative online digital heritage project.

World War One lighter image provide by Welsh Voices of the Great War Online

Customised cigarette lighter

Welsh Voices of the Great War Online aims to gather, catalogue and make public an undiscovered treasure trove of World War One artefacts and memorabilia that currently remains in private hands.

Project organisers are calling on people to get involved and bring their World War One heirlooms and artefacts along to a series of workshops to be held in Aberystwyth, Newport and Swansea in August, and have an expert examine their memorabilia and share their memories.

The material will be catalogued and made available to the public on The People's Collection website.

Project manger, Gethin Matthews explains the aim of the project:

"We want to build a picture of how the global war impacted upon Wales: how it permanently changed attitudes and affected all aspects of Welsh culture.

This includes the experiences and objects relating to those on the home front, not just those in the firing line."

Previous roadshows received a wide range of items to add to the online collection. Mr Matthews says: "At our first roadshow [at St Fagans, Cardiff], the public brought in some fascinating items for us to look at.

"We had letters and photographs sent by servicemen: one of the most poignant items was a faded and creased photograph of a soldier's wife and daughter. David Thomas of Abertridwr had taken this with him to the trenches when he volunteered in 1914."

David Thomas of Abertridwr

David Thomas (known as 'Dai Slogger') from Abertridwr, who joined the Royal Field Artillery in 1914.

David Thomas' photograph of his wife and daughter.jpg

The photograph of his wife and daughter that David Thomas (Dai Slogger) carried with him.

"One particularly poignant item brought in was an autograph book that was kept during the war years by Jessie Hughes of Holywell, who served as a nurse at a military hospital in Manchester. It included some sketches drawn for her by the soldiers she was looking after, as well as messages of thanks.

"Perhaps my favourite was a cigarette lighter which had been customised by its owner, a soldier with the Guards Machine Gun Regiment, by soldering two regimental buttons onto it.

"We also saw an embroidered heart, sent back by a soldier of the Somerset Light Infantry to his wife.

"Probably the most sobering item brought in was a scroll commemorating the 114 men from two collieries in Maesteg who had volunteered for active service - that figure shows how deep the impact of the war was on communities throughout Wales."

You can take your World War One artefacts to be assessed, photographed and recorded for posterity to any of the following roadshows:

The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, on Tuesday 17 August, from 10am.

Newport Museum, John Frost Square on Tuesday 24 August.

National Waterfront Museum, Swansea on Wednesday 25 August.

To get more details on the roadshows and to find out more about Welsh Voices of the Great War Online, visit their website.

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Swansea church bells return to Chile

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 11:49 UK time, Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Three church bells are to be returned to Chile after spending more than 150 years in a south Wales church.

The bells had been sold for scrap following a fire at the church of La Compania de Jesus in the Chilean capital of Santiago in 1863.

The blaze, which happened during the Catholic feast of the Immaculate Conception, killed more than 2,500 people and completely destroyed the church. Only the five bells survived the fire, and three were bought by a British merchant, Graham Vivian. They were installed at the All Saints Church in Oystermouth, where the merchant's family had a pew.

The bells were originally placed in the All Saints tower in 1865 but taken down and installed in the church porch in 1964 when the church structure could no longer support their weight.

Last year, the Chilean embassy started negotiations with the Church in Wales and the church council decided to return the bells as a gift to mark Chile's 200th birthday year, following Chile's earthquake in February 2010.

The three bells will form the centrepiece of a new memorial on the site of the old church.

Read more on this story on the Daily Post website.

Take a trip on the train

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 14:41 UK time, Monday, 9 August 2010

Most of us, when travelling by train, rarely look outside the windows of our carriage. We bury our heads in our book or newspaper and only glance up to confirm our station has appeared. But a whole world of history is lurking out there and, if we only knew it, there is more than enough to keep us interested, whichever route we take.

The stretch of line from Llanelli to Carmarthen has to be one of the most beautiful lengths of railway line in the kingdom. It is also one that has so much history just lying alongside the train track, waiting to be discovered by the perceptive and interested train traveller.

Start with Llanelli station itself. Opened in 1852, this is an Isambard Kingdom Brunel-designed station building. The line was, of course, part of Brunel's wonderful railway - that has stone buildings with beautiful sandstone surrounds.

In its heyday the station had connecting lines for London, Pontardulais and for Shrewsbury. Even now this is the place to come if you are planning a trip on the Heart of Wales line, another exquisite and enchanting railway journey.

The town of Llanelli, well visible from the train, was an industrial community - steel and the making of saucepans (hence Sospan Fach, the rugby song) - but these days it has re-branded itself as something of a tourist centre.

Cycling, walking and top quality golf are all available. And the Scarlets rugby team is now in possession of its new stadium at the eastern edge of the town.

Once Llanelli is left behind, the train passes through 12 miles of the Millennium Coastal Path. The line follows the gentle curving arc of Carmarthen Bay, so close to the beach and estuary that it sometimes seems as if the train might easily topple into the sea. When the wind is up expect spray to mottle the windows - when it's calm the views out to Gower are spectacular.

Burry Port Harbour was once a centre for the export of coal; now it houses a marina. There were a couple of canals here, serving mines a little way inland and, in 1852, the Burry Port and Gwendraeth Valley Railway was opened - all long gone now, of course.

Next comes Pembrey Country Park. It houses the National Motorsport Centre of Wales but this area was originally the site of RAF Pembrey, a fighter base in World War Two

.

The aerodrome was the centre of an exciting episode in 1943 when a German Focke-Wulf fighter landed and was captured intact. The pilot apparently believed he was landing in France.

The quay at Kidwelly was once a very busy port. In the 16th and 17th centuries ships of up to 400 tons berthed there on a regular basis but the growth of Burry Port, after the construction of its harbour in 1838, ended Kidwelly's importance.

The town's imposing Norman castle sits adjacent to the river and is still a spectacular sight. Built around 1106, it dominates the town. This was one of the earliest Norman settlements in south Wales, English and Flemish farmers and wool merchants being brought in to transplant the native Welsh.

Ferryside station sits alongside the estuary and the views across to Llansteffan are magnificent. Llansteffan Castle, on the hill above the estuary, is another Norman fortress but one that was later turned into a country house by the Tudors.

And so to Carmarthen town itself. This was reputedly the birthplace of the magician Merlin and there are those who say it was actually the site of Camelot.

The run into the station is lovely, crossing the River Tywi and with the bridge where Dylan Thomas' story "A Visit to Grandpa's" comes to an end, waiting ahead of you.

The line from Llanelli to Carmarthen is a wonderful experience for anyone with the heart and soul to appreciate beauty and history.

There are many other rail routes - the Heart of Wales line, the trip down the west coast past Harlech - in Wales but I think you would be hard pressed to better this atmospheric and enchanting piece of railway architecture.

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AD 410 Romans Go Home: Caerleon

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 11:16 UK time, Monday, 9 August 2010

As part of the UK-wide AD 410 project, archaeologists at Caerleon, Newport are offering the public a chance to help with a dig at the Roman fort site.

Once home to the Second Augustan Legion, Caerleon was one of only three permanent legionary fortresses in Britain.

The dig is part of the AD 410 Romans Go Home celebrations that have been organised by Cardiff University in conjunction with the Association for Roman Archaeology, the British Museum, English Heritage, the Roman Society and the Society of Antiquaries. The dig is  open to the public from August 9 to September 17 and regular activities will include twice-daily site tours led by the archaeologists.

Read more about the activities and events marking the 1,600th anniversary of the end of the Roman occupation of Britain, on the BBC Wales News website.

Read Dr John Davies' guide to Wales and the Romans on the BBC Wales History site.

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'At risk' historic house saved

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 12:30 UK time, Thursday, 5 August 2010

The future of one of Wales' oldest inhabited buildings, Llwyn Celyn within the Brecon Beacons National Park, has been secured.

The building will be bought by the Landmark Trust after securing £335,000 funding from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and Cadw.

Llwyn Celyn 1 crown copyrightLlwyn Celyn 2 crown copyright

Llwyn Celyn (Crown copyright: Royal Commission of the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales)

The main hall and an adjoining block were built between 1480 and 1500 and the Grade-I listed medieval hall is considered to be the most significant inhabited building "at risk" in Wales.

Read the full article on this historic house in the Western Mail.

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Victory by cow!

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:48 UK time, Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Many things can bring about victory in battle or war, not least a liberal helping of luck. But victory thanks to a herd of cows? Now that really does take some beating.

Herd of cows

The English Civil War began in 1642 and was, amongst many other things, the culmination of disputes between the king and parliament.

It was a bloody and violent interlude that, like any civil war, saw brothers fighting against brothers, fathers against sons. It ended with the execution of the king and the setting up of a Commonwealth in Britain - a relatively short-lived Commonwealth, to be sure, but the only time the British state has run without a monarch at its head.

The civil war in Wales was a confused and troubled time, with people changing sides on a regular basis. One of the hotbeds of Parliamentary support and effort was South Pembrokeshire where men such as John Poyer, the Mayor of Pembroke town, and the outstanding Welsh general of the war, Rowland Laugharne, led by example.

In December 1643 and the early part of 1644 Poyer and Laugharne were holed up in the town and castle of Pembroke, not quite under siege by the king's forces but with their movements curtailed and the very real risk of death and destruction hovering in the wind.

Help was at hand, however. During that winter a feeling of resentment began to grow amongst the people of the region regarding the behaviour of many of the Royalist troops and, banking on local support, Laugharne decided it was time to take action.

On 30 January 1644 he took the fortified manor house at Stackpole and four days later moved on to Trefloyne, outside Tenby. After four or five hours of artillery bombardment his forces charged and took the house. Now all that remained were the Royalist bases in the northern part of the county.

On 23 February Laugharne crossed the Cleddau River and lay siege to the Royalist fort of Pill, just outside the modern town of Milford.

Four ships from the Parliamentary fleet aided Laugharne's artillery bombardment. They moored below the fort and added the weight of their broadsides to the battering.

The fort surrendered the following day, 300 officers and men, 18 large guns and 160 smaller weapons falling into Laugharne's hands for the loss of just one man killed.

Rowland Laugharne now decided to march on Haverfordwest. As well as being a vital market town, it was the centre of Royalist support north of the Cleddau and Laugharne knew that it must be taken. The town and its castle were well supplied, well armed, and he expected a fierce fight.

However, when he and his soldiers approached the town they were met, not by a hail of gunfire or by a phalanx of soldiers ready to give battle, but by local dignitaries who were happy to surrender the town and all its supplies.

The garrison in Haverfordwest had, simply, run away. They had heard the sound of the cannonade from the south and knew that they would be next. Then, as they waited, tense and frightened, a lookout saw dust on the horizon. Laugharne and his victorious troops were coming.

Panic seized the garrison and they abandoned their positions and fled.

Only later did they realise the dust was not caused by advancing soldiers but by a herd of bullocks, running in frenzy, frightened by the firing and by the sudden appearance of dozens of armed men. Rowland Laugharne did not care what had caused the garrison to flee. Haverfordwest was his, that was all that mattered.

Over the next few days Laugharne moved on to take the castles of Roch, Picton and Wiston. By the beginning of March not a single Royalist stronghold remained in North Pembrokeshire - and all because of a herd of frightened cows.

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The Black Chair and the death of Hedd Wyn

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 08:00 UK time, Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Every August the National Eisteddfod of Wales takes place, alternating between the northern and southern parts of the country.

This year, 2010, it is being held in Ebbw Vale. In 1917, with World War One still raging, it took place in Birkenhead.

The month of the Eisteddfod has changed, the days for the awarding of certain prizes may be different, but the importance of the Eisteddfod remains exactly the same. And the year 1917, in particular, retains a significance that is unique in Welsh culture.

By midday on Thursday 6 September 1917, the crowds around the Eisteddfod pavilion were standing three or four deep. There was no room to move and it seemed as if the whole of Wales had come to Birkenhead to find out who had won that year's Bardic Chair.

Thursday at the Eisteddfod was known as Lloyd George's Day and, as always, the famous politician - the only Welshman ever to become Prime Minister of Britain - had made his speech. Now it was time for the judgement.

But when the trumpets sounded and T Gwyn Jones stood up to announce the decision nobody moved. In bald, understated prose, the Western Mail later said:

"The name of the successful competitor was called and no response was forthcoming - the Archdruid, after consulting the records, announced that the successful competitor was Ellis Evans, Trawsfynydd, who had sent his composition in July last.

Since then he had been sent with his draft to France and there, like so many others, had laid down his life for his country."

Ellis Evans, writing under his bardic name of Hedd Wyn, had been killed on the opening day of the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele as it is better known.

Ellis had already made a name for himself in Welsh poetry, having come second in the previous year's Eisteddfod and won several local Eisteddfodau at various places across the country.

His death in battle shocked not just those present at the Eisteddfod but the whole of Wales.

A stunned silence fell over the Eisteddfod field as the news finally began to sink in. The Archdruid summed up the feelings of the gathering when he said, simply "Yr wyl yn ei dagrau a'r Bardd yn ei fedd - the festival in tears and the poet in his grave."

There could be no question of any form of investiture and amidst a funereal silence the Bardic Chair, the Chair that now belonged to the dead poet, was solemnly draped in black cloth.

Afterwards the Chair, still covered in its black cloth, was taken in solemn procession to Ellis Evans' home, the farm of Yr Ysgwrn where he had lived with his parents, brothers and sisters and where, until his enlistment in the army, he had worked as a hill shepherd.

The Birkenhead Eisteddfod of 1917 has gone down in Welsh history and folklore as "The Eisteddfod of the Black Chair."

The empty Chair, draped in its symbolic black pall, was then - and is now - seen by many as representing the thousands of other empty chairs in houses across Wales. A grieving nation took the story of Hedd Wyn and his tragic death to its heart.

The death of Ellis Evans, or Hedd Wyn to give him his bardic name, undoubtedly robbed Wales of a significant talent but it is as a symbol - of loss, of untimely death, of the futility and barbarity of war - that his story really hits home.

It is a story that still has the power to move, to cause emotion to well up in any sensitive reader. He was not a "war poet" as such but the war and its consequences were significant factors in the writing he produced just prior to his death.

The final words of this short article should, really, be Hedd Wyn's, albeit in translation. Written in 1916 they remain a poignant reminder of what had been lost and were almost a foreshadowing of his own demise barely a year later:

"The lads' wild anguish fills the breeze.
Their blood is mingled with the rain."

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People's Collection Wales

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 09:30 UK time, Monday, 2 August 2010

Do you have a story about life in Wales that you want to share with the world?

A new bilingual website, People's Collection Wales launches today and promises new ways to explore, share and engage with Welsh history and culture.

This is an exciting online project that is truly groundbreaking, both in terms of the scope of content and in terms of the ambitious new technologies that it uses.

Watch a video clip of Project Manager Rheinallt Ffoster-Jones and historian Dr John Davies talking about the People's Collection Wales.

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Welsh museums currently hold around three million artefacts, many of which never see the light of day. It is very early days for People's Collection Wales but already there over 24,000 objects and images online that can be explored by theme, location, date, places and events.

However this is not just a showcase for museum collections - ordinary people's stories and objects are key to the success of the project.

If you register with the People's Collection Wales you can add your own objects to the online collections, curate your own exhibitions, set up groups and map out and share walks in Wales that are rich with cultural and historical references,

People's Collection Wales is has a whole host of new digital technologies. The Labs section allows people to explore Welsh history in both 2D and 3D.

If genealogy is your passion you can create your own family tree with the People's Collection Family Story tool.

On the Historic Maps section of the site you can peel back time and explore the changing landscapes of Wales.

Funded by the Welsh Assembly Government, and developed over two years, the collection has been created with the close involvement of the National Museum Wales, the Welsh Museums Archives and Libraries association (CyMAL), and the National Library of Wales.

Other organisations such as Visit Wales and the Ramblers Association have also been involved - as well as BBC Cymru Wales.

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People's Collection Wales will be launched today, Monday 2 August, 2010 at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in Ebbw Vale by Heritage Minister Alun Ffred Jones.

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