All posts by Pete

The Letter of Leading Seaman Harry Robert Linfield

There are possibly only two examples of my Great Grandfather’s handwriting. One is a signed letter written in 1914 and addressed to Beaty, his eldest child, and bears the letterhead of the Seaman’s Institute in Sydney, Australia. Harry was a regular letter writer and although I doubt that this was the last letter that he wrote, I’m certain that it is the only one that has survived. 

In November 2018, I stayed at the Holiday Inn Hotel in the area of Sydney known as ‘The Rocks’. Across the road, opposite the hotel’s main entrance, is a building bearing the name the Rawson Institute for Sailors. In 1914, Sydney would have looked very different, no Harbour Bridge, no Opera House, but there would have been parts of today’s Rocks that would still be recognisable. In 1914 the Rawson Institute was the Seaman’s Mission, and this, judging by the letter heading, is where my Great Grandfather wrote the letter that his daughter cherished so much that she kept it for the remainder of her life. 

Former site of the Rawson Institute for Seaman in 2018. Now the home of restaurants and a wedding venue.

The Rawson Institute backs onto Circular, quay where today the world’s largest cruise liners dock. In 1914, SS Cevic, a livestock carrier capable of transporting up to 1,000 cattle, could have moored here.  Although not comparable in size with modern ships the Cevic was one of the largest merchant ships of its day. My great grandfather, Seaman Harry Robert Linfield was on that ship and during his brief stay in Sydney he stayed at The Seaman’s Mission.

The SS Civic belonged to the White Star line and during its time prior to 1914 there were a couple of notable records concerning it. Cevic had a deep draught, which would justify it docking at Circular Quay. In 1910 it had attempted to get through the Suez Canal where it had grounded, become damaged, and was taking in water which meant that it had to return to Port Said for repairs. Its second notable record is that on 20th April 1912. It had been on the North Atlantic route and reported the siting of two icebergs. This was six days after the sinking of the Titanic.  Harry was not on the Cevic on either of these occasions.

The SS Cevic would soon return to Tilbury in the Thames Estuary. Back at Harry’s home at 47 Mandeville Street, Liverpool his call up papers were waiting for him, instructing him to re-enlist in the Royal Navy. He was 46 years old.

This is the letter that he wrote whilst at the Sydney Seaman’s Mission, It is addressed to his eldest daughter Beatrice, who was a nurse working in London.

I have retained Harry’s grammar; he would have left school at an early age with only a basic education. In March 1884, at the age of 17, he enlisted in the Royal Navy. His handwriting is neat and stylish and reading his letter I feel that it is written in a similar way to how he would have spoken.

Dear Beat,

Just a line from your loving father hoping that you are quite well and happy, was more then glad to hear that you are getting on all right and that you had got your uniform now. I hope and trust that you will be a good girl to your mother for I know that if you do all that she as taught you, you will not be far out, for she is an angel on earth and no soul on this earth can say that she as ever done wrong or can point the finger at her and if you only follow in her footsteps you will be all right.

I had a letter from your dear mother and she told me a lot and I am very proud of you so you must cheer up and don’t be down hearted for this is a very funny world and we never know what dangers awaits us but we must trust in the dear Lord that rules and foresees every thing and ask his protection and we know when I shall be home this dreadful war has upset everything. We were going to carry troops and horses but it is all cancelled now and I don’t know what we are going to do but as soon as I do I will write and let your dear mother know. I have written three letters and I have received one, but that is no fault of your mothers. She told me that you were going to write to me but I am afraid that your letter has been captured by the Germans but if so I can overlook it as that would be contraband of war. You must know that if I come to London I shall come and see you as our ship lays in Tilbury Docks and I can easily come and see you if it is Nov.

I will drop you a line and then I shall know that you will be on your holiday I must now conclude dearest daughter with fondest love to you and when you write to mother tell her I send a kiss through you so goodbye and God bless you and keep you from harm. God be with us till we meet again Beaty dear.

From Your Ever Loving.

XXXXXX Father,

XXXXXX H R Linfield

There is some subtext in the letter which I do not understand the background to.  Beaty never married and seldom spoke about this part of her life. She passed away in 1994 at the age of 99.

One of the things that I find profound about Harry’s letter is his faith. At the back of the Seaman’s Mission is a chapel and although the Rawson Institute is today a beautiful restaurant the chapel is still there and has been kept in immaculate condition. Amongst the Windows of the Chapel is a window dedicated to the Rev Charles Henry Moss for his 28 years of work on the staff of the Sydney Mission to Seaman, he died in 1915 at the age of 52. It is most probable that these two men met and maybe shared their faith with each other. There is also a Window in the chapel dedicated to British Sailors who served in the 1914-1918 war.

Today, the chapel is used for weddings. I’d like to thank François, the current owner of the building who showed my wife and I the Chapel and the rest of the building.   

Window at the Seaman’s Chapel, Rawson Institute, Sydney , Australia

I wonder what my grandfather’s fears were, a long sea voyage, storms in the southern ocean, the threat of war?

It is possible that the Cevic may have transported horses from Australia because around this time the Australian Light Horse Regiments were posted to the Middle East to fight against the Ottoman Empire. They would have seen action in Palestine, Syria and modern day Turkey.

On Robert’s approach to and departure from Sydney in 1914 he would have sailed along Australia’s southern coast. SS Civic would have followed this route regardless of whether it sailed via Cape Hope or the Suez Canal. Eight days and a thousand nautical miles from Sydney he would have passed the Cape Otway Lighthouse, an important landmark for all sailors following this route. This was to be his last trip as a Merchant Seaman, on his return to Britain he re-enlisted in the Royal Navy.   

Returning to Tilbury, Harry made the twenty mile journey into London to meet Beaty. Some time prior to their meeting he had a photograph taken at the Henry Bown Studios, 400 Evelyn Street, Deptford, south east London. He passed the photograph to her the last time she saw him.

Harry Robert Linfield 1914

In 1915 the Scottish trawler Loch Navar was in Dover, it had been seconded by the Royal Navy and was being used for minesweeping duties in the English Channel. Under cover of darkness, German submarines would lay mines in the waters outside British ports. On the night of Friday 16th April the dock was full and ships and boats that were double and triple moored. Sailors returning to their ships would often have had to run along damp planks of timber placed between the ships. It was not uncommon for sailors to miss their footing and fall into the water. That evening, as a blackout covered the port, returning to his ship, Harry slipped. I don’t know whether he could swim; certainly fully clothed and wearing boots with nobody nearby to help, survival would have been a struggle.

In June his body was recovered from Dover’s Granville dock. He had been in the water for six weeks. He was identified by a tattoo on his arm and the remains of a tobacco pouch found in his pocket, both were recognised by the Dunedin born, New Zealander, Captain of the Loch Navar, Edward Butler.

On May 13th 1918, His Majesty’s Trawler Loch Naver was sunk by a mine from the German submarine UC-74 (Wilhelm Marschall), near Mandhilou Point in the Aegean Sea. All 13 hands on board were lost including Captain, Edward Butler.

At the beginning of this post I wrote that I believed that there were two examples of Harry’s handwriting; the other is a handwritten prayer in the front of his Bible. The written date in the Bible is 1890 and his Navy records indicate that Harry would have been 22 years old and serving on HMS Collingwood, an Ironclad Battleship and part of Britain’s Mediterranean Fleet.

https://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?177219

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Cevic_(1893)

Finding Wilfred Owen Twelve thousand miles from Home

Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance

Last year I thought a lot about the Great War. I thought about my two grandfathers and my great grandfather. If my grandfathers had not survived that war, then I would certainly not be here.

Readers of my earlier postings will know that last year I wrote about Wilfred Owen, the war poet, killed in action during the early hours of 4th November 1918.

In one poem, Owen uses the words of the Roman poet Horace, written before the birth of Christ, ‘Dulce et decorum est, Pro patria mori.’ These words can be found in many places. They are on the base of the war memorial in the Garden Village at Port Sunlight. They are in the Chapel at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and in the US, at the Arlington Memorial Amphitheatre. Doubtless, they can be found on many other cenotaphs and war memorials around the world. A loose translation from Horace’s Latin, these words say, ‘How sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country.

In Wilfred Owen’s poem he calls theses words for what they are.

Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime …
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

On Armistice Day 2018, my wife and I arrived in Melbourne, Australia. It was one hundred years, to the day that marked the end of that war and the day that Susan Owen, Wilfred mother, received that fateful telegram. That morning I thought about that knock on the door.

In Melbourne we were met by and stayed with our friends Barry & Pauline Kelly and a couple of days later, when they were showing us around the city, they took us to see the State of Victoria’s, Shrine of Remembrance. This impressive monument was designed by the architects, Phillip Hudson and James Wardrop, both had fought in the 1914-18 war and both had enlisted here in Melbourne. After the war they designed this monument in the classical Greek style. The building was opened in 1934 as a tribute to Australians past and present who sacrificed their lives protecting those freedoms that we hold dear.

As we entered the Sanctuary I saw magnificent carvings lining the walls depicting Australian servicemen. In the centre of the entrance hall a marble stone is sunk into the floor on it is carved words taken from John 15:13 ‘Greater Love hath no man’. The roof of the building had been designed to let in a shaft of light that would focus on the word ‘Love’ on the 11 hour of the 11th day each November.

We climbed the steps to the external gallery surrounding the top of the building. In the bright Australian summer sun we looked out across the remembrance gardens, parkland and approaches that surround the monument. To the north we could see the tall buildings of Melbourne’s business district including the Eureka Tower that we had visited shortly after our arrival.

Coming down from the roof and passing the entrance hall we descended to the crypt which contains a permanent display of wartime and Australian service exhibits, artefacts, medals and memorabilia. But first, we had to pass through the hall of columns. Here, in the subterranean half-light and in stark contrast to the daylight outside hung calico banners bearing images of war, images depicting northern Europe one hundred years earlier, silhouettes of soldiers, tanks and barges. The exhibition was the work of Melbourne Artist Craig Barrett and was called Everyman, named after the Siegfried Sassoon war poem of the same name.

Wilfred Owen’s poetry was here also and I instantly recognise: Hospital Barge at Cerisy, Anthem for Doomed Youth and Dulce et Decorum Est. I have known this poetry for most of my life, yet here, in the the atmosphere of the crypt and accompanied by Craig Barrett’s artwork it had found new life and new meaning. A picture is said to be worth many words and this is true of Craig’s artwork. These are powerful words and Craig’s art adds to the poetry of both Sassoon and Owen. These words in this place seemed even more poignant. It maybe just me, but finding Owen’s words along with this artwork had an emotional effect on me. A cold shiver, a presence, whatever it was; this was the right words alongside the right pictures in the right place. At that moment, Wilfred Owen could have been beside me.

The people who had actual physical contact with those who lost their lives in the Great War have all gone. Craig and I are of a similar age, and our generation will be the last one that will have actual memories of Great War survivors.  Siegfried Sassoon lived until September 1967 so his timeline overlaps our own.  

Craig, originally conceived the banners as a “one off” three month art installation for The Hall of Columns, and that they were originally displayed there in 2005. Since then, he has gifted them to the Shrine and they have displayed them every couple of years in the run up to Remembrance Day and through until the end of January. This year, however, they extended the display to 30th April. 

I’d like to thank Craig Barrett for providing me with information and giving me permission to show the photograph of his work . For a better view of his work, please see the photographs which can be found on Craig’s website.

http://www.craigbarrett.com.au/shrine-of-rememberance/h

Another website, most certainly worth a visit is that of the Shrine of Remembrance. https://www.shrine.org.au/Home

Anglesey – Day Two – NCR5, Telford’s bridge, seaside resorts, caravan parks, a golf course, sand dunes and rumours of a ghost.

Penmon Point Lighthouse with Puffin Island . Anglesey’s most westerly point.

I’d packed up and was out of the campsite by 7:15 am. Another long, hot day was promised but before heading homeward, I visited the Penmon Point lighthouse; this is at the most westerly tip of Anglesey. I had hoped that it would be quite at that time of day but half a dozen camper vans had parked there overnight and several of them had managed to park as close to the shoreline as possible detracting and spoiling the natural beauty of the place.

A few people were around and the sounds that I heard were those of the waves lapping against the rocks and the tolling of the bell buoy ringing its sad lament out in the channel between the Puffin Island and the shore. Nearby, I also heard the calls of terns as they tried, in vain, to deter a dog walker from trespassing on their beach.

On the road back towards Beaumaris I had a scare as I hit a really nasty pothole whilst freewheeling downhill. This happened in a matter of seconds and I was just about able to regain control of my fully laden bike and prevent myself from hitting the tarmac. Had I hit the deck, it’s likely that the cost of an ambulance and my medical bill would have far exceeded the cost of the pothole repair.

View of the Robert Stephenson’s Britannia Bridge from Thomas Telford’s Suspension Bridge.

I pass through Beaumaris once more with its splendid castle and soon cover the five miles to Menai Bridge. I cross the straits on Telford’s suspension bridge and entered the city of Bangor where unfortunately I got myself lost. Again, I find that I’m unable to understand the road signs due to my lack of understanding the Welsh language. I compensated for this by having a full English breakfast at the local Morrison’s supermarket with two pots of tea. It’s the best meal I’ve had on my journey and a third of the cost of the one that I hadn’t enjoy the previous evening.

From Bangor, national cycle route 5 (NCR5) contributes most of my route home and in fact passes within 100 yards of my door. At first NCR5 diced with the North Wales expressway and at one point it took me into the coastal hills giving me clear views back over the straits, to Penmon point, the lighthouse and Beaumaris castle. After a tea break at the Aber Falls tea room I passed through Penmaenmawr. NCR5 still kept the company of the expressway and here the road goes through a couple of tunnels, but the cycle path raises up and passes over the rocky outcrop for the first tunnel and then goes around the outside for the second tunnel.

This has to be one of the  most perfect coastal cycle paths. In my humble opinion. Near Penmaenmawr heading towards Llandudno with Great Orme on the horizon.

Beyond Llandudno junction I cut across the base of peninsular and head for Rhos on Sea. The next stage was perhaps one of the most enjoyable and easiest sections of all. For 16 miles I remained on the coastal path as it took me through Colwyn Bay, Rhyl and Prestatyn.  I was also fortunate to have the wind at my back. The cycling becomes easier despite the load that I carry I was clocking 12 to 14 miles per hour and only touching the brakes to slow down for pedestrians, other cyclist and dog walkers. I was still a long way from home but it’s almost a reward for the hard work, investment of energy, and sacrifice to the heat. This is a time that I will remember, and I’m happy and filled with the joy of cycling.

At Prestatyn, I pass through the local golf course, beyond that, I coast around the curves of the Presthaven Sands Beach Resort and after that; I follow a beautiful tarmacked path through the dunes at Talacre.  Along this section I am surrounded by the sound of grasshopper warblers among the scrub and bushes. This is a bird that I often hear during the spring and early summer months but have never seen. (A grasshopper warbler sounds like a fishing reel being drawn out.)

As I continue through the dunes I see the Point Of Ayr lighthouse. Both Lighthouse and Beach along with an Old English Sheep dog once featured in a 2011 TV advert by a famous paint manufacturer. The failure of the paints resilience now stands as a testimony to the winter storms. The lighthouse looks forlorn, lonely and unloved and it has a slight list towards the setting sun. Built in 1776 and decommissioned in 1884, it is reputed to be haunted by a former lighthouse keeper called, Raymond.

Point of Ayr lighthouse. Mainland Wales’s most northerly point.

I have a childhood memory of charging down these dunes. I also remember exploring derelict timber holiday chalets. Deserted for many years, they were slowly being reclaimed by the sand. On a nearby hillside and amongst the trees I also remember the sound of a bell ringing at Talacre Abbey which, at that time, belonged to a closed order of Benedictine nuns.

Point of Ayr was the site of one of the last mines in the North Wales coal field. Today, like many former industrial sites it has become a nature reserve.  As I follow the path through the evening dusk I see the silhouette of a man and a horse. As I get closer I discover that it is a sculpture representing a miner with a pit pony. The last pony retired in 1968 and the mine closed in 1996. Further on, there is a piece of pit winding gear, this has been modified and now stands as another monument to the past. Eventually, the cycle path leads me back to a road and I join the A548.

At 10 o’clock; I switch my cycle lights on. At Llannerch-y-Mor, I pass the silhouette of the Duke of Lancaster. This steam turbine ship has stood here for the last four decades. Its last role was as a Sealink car ferry shuttling across the Irish Sea. The road ahead of me is gloriously wide, flat, and quiet. The moon is up now and it is a full one in a clear night sky. The night was cool but not cold and although I was beginning to ache, I was still 20 miles from home. I felt like I was in a magical place as I headed towards Flint. I treasure and store each of these precious moments like childhood reminiscence. Beyond Flint, I countdown the towns as I press on through, Connah’s Quay, Shotton and Queensferry. At Drome corner, I join Sealand road, unlit, the road is dark but the full moon is all that I need as I cycle the remaining miles home.

I arrived home at one a.m. and it was to be another hour before I fell exhausted into bed. I’d covered 90 miles over 18 hours, a not so spectacular five miles an hour average. I slept well!

Anglesey – South Stack Lighthouse, Four Mile Bridge, Newborough Forest and Beaumaris. – Day One

When I add 35 lbs. to the weight of my bike, the hills become tougher. When I cycle on days with temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius, I know that I have committed myself to difficult conditions.  In late June, I took the early train to Holyhead intending to cycle home over two days. On my homeward journey, I wanted to seek out some notable landmarks and follow National Cycle Route number five (NCR5) that follows much of the North Wales Coast.

It was still cool when I got off the train at Holyhead. My first objective was the South Stack Lighthouse that stands at the base of Holyhead Mountain and alongside the RSPB reserve and sea bird colony.  This was to be the highest, but not necessarily the toughest climb of my journey.

South Stack Lighthouse. Holy Island. Anglesey’s, most Westerly point.

At the RSPB café, I was greeted by a handful of the choughs that live there. I locked my bike and walked down the hill until I reached the edge of the cliffs. The sound coming from the, predominantly guillemot, sea bird colony was like a loud mechanical hum. I scanned the cliffs hoping to see other species of bird. Maybe I was too late in the season because I was unable to spot any of the razorbills or puffins that I know also nest and shelter on these cliffs.

Returning to my bike, I freewheeled down the hill and crossed over Holy Island passing alongside and through picturesque Trearddur Bay before crossing onto the main island at Four Mile Bridge. That’s the name of the village; the actual bridge is only 390 feet long.

I pass RAF Valley and reset my course towards my next intended lighthouse at Llanddwyn Island. The heat of the day continued to rise and I was soon starting to feel its effects. I discover that Anglesey is a difficult place to navigate. There is an absence of road signs at crucial crossroads and tee junctions and I had to consult my Ordnance Survey map at every turn. The road signs I did find were primarily in Welsh with place names that didn’t seem to relate to the names on my map. The coast is always a good navigation guide and as long as I kept it to my right, I knew that I was heading in the correct direction. The roads were narrow and quiet, the landscape was beautiful and pastoral and I occasional caught a glimpse of the sea. This made the journey more enjoyable. I wasn’t making fast progress but with increasing temperature and many hours of daylight still ahead, I needed to  pace myself. Cycling along these lanes I enjoyed the peace and tranquility of roads and places that I have not experienced before. As a believer, this is my expectation of Heaven.

View from Four Mile Bridge’s 390 foot long bridge.

I stopped for lunch seeking shade at a picnic site at the edge of the Newborough Forest. Here I reconsidered my original plan which had been to cycle the forest tracks to the Llanddwyn lighthouse. Considering the time and the tiredness caused by the heat and the many miles that I still needed to cover, I decide that I would have to give this one a miss.  By doing this, I was also giving myself a reason to come back to this beautiful place again. When I return, I’ll have more time to enjoy the place and savour the moment.

I cycled on, shadowing the Menai Straits towards my intended camp site close to Anglesey’s most easterly point. I increasingly had to stop for short breaks and was struggled with heat exhaustion. The mixture of sun lotion and perspiration was running into my eyes, making them feel increasingly tired. Eventually I came to a garden centre and café, Hooton’s Homegrown Coffee Shop, where I stopped for an hour to refreshed myself with a continuous supply of tea; six cups in total. The restorative power of tea must never be underestimated.

The Dawes Super Galaxy, that I use for touring. Thomas Telford’s Suspension Bridge crossing the Menai Straits in the background.

Back on the road, I stop briefly at a lay-by between Llanfair PG and the town of Menai Bridge to take in the iconic view across the straits towards the Suspension bridge. Anglesey is mainly flat, but my coastal journey is a series of gentle climbs, followed gradual downhill periods when I could choose between either freewheeling, or shifting up the gears and getting up some extra speed.

Beyond Menai Bridge town, I continued to shadow the straits as I headed toward Beaumaris. There I followed the road along the front and pass the splendid castle. Then I climbed again as I headed inland towards my pre-booked campsite at Kingsbridge Caravan and Camping Park. The site is immaculately kept and its owners were helpful and friendly. I erected my tent and sorted my stuff out before freewheeling back to Beaumaris for my evening meal letting the cooler evening air pass through my body.

Having cycled all day and not showered, I wanted somewhere where I could eat outside. Unfortunately, I did not follow the advice of the campsite owners and instead chose a nice looking restaurant on the front. My meal was poor and did not live up to my hard-earned appetite and after a twenty minute wait for a second pot of tea, which failed to arrive, I paid my bill and left.  In defence of the three members of front house staff, they were busy and their combined ages probably didn’t add up to mine! Management was conveniently absent.

Returning to camp I tried a different route back and visited St Catherine’s church at Llanfaes whose bell I’d heard earlier whilst I had been pitching my tent.  Back at the campsite, I had an amazing shower. After my day’s cycling, the use of the shower facilities alone was worth the cost of the pitch.

Settling down for the night, I lay in my tent listening to a tawny owl, only yards away. I haven’t seen an owl this year, but it’s always comforting to hear one so close. I came to the conclusion that it was a young one calling to be fed. Its call remained constant, at least until I fell asleep.

My Vango Banshee 200 tent. It’s a two man tent, so plenty of room for me and all my clobber.

Chirk, Llangollen and Beyond

I’ve cycled along many a canal towpath, and they have provided me with traffic free routes both into and out of numerous cities and historic towns. Canals are easier to track on a map and unlike rivers which tend to aimlessly meander until they reach the sea, canals were built for a purpose, and they can take you into and away from places often without you having to endure the hassle of other traffic.

National Cycle Route Number 85

Two British Cycle Quest (BCQ) locations in North East Wales are in the Vale of Llangollen and are also only ten miles apart.  To get to them, I let Britain’s industrial heritage help me. Firstly by letting the ‘train take the strain’ I travelled from Chester to Chirk. Then I cycled along the Llangollen canal towpath that took me into the heart of the Vale of Llangollen.

Britain has 2,200 miles of man-made canals and this stretch of the Llangollen canal stakes a claim at being perhaps the most picturesque of them all. Between the Welsh border town of Chirk, where the River Ceiriog marks the boundary between England and Wales, and Llangollen; the canal includes some terrific feats of 19th century engineering. These include two aqueducts and two notable tunnels.  Together these are so important, that the 11 mile stretch from the Chirk aqueduct to the Horseshoe Falls beyond Llangollen make up one of the UK’s, UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Chirk Aqueduct taken from above the tunnel entrance.

Whilst crossing the Chirk and the Pontcysyllte aqueducts with their spectacular views is a delightful experience, I have to say that the tunnels could be a little daunting for some, unless you have a torch to light your way, which I didn’t. Both tunnels have a decent path and a sturdy rail that runs between you and the canal. The Chirk tunnel is the longer of the two at 420 metres in length. This can be quite dark and whilst walking my bike through that tunnel I could hear unseen water running down some parts of the walls, however none of this fell on me. The second tunnel known as the Whitehouse tunnel is 175 meters long and fortunately, there was no sound of any running water.

Beyond and between the tunnels, a lot of the canal passes through deciduous woodland and the sunlight pours through the fresh green leaves creating dappled sunlit patterns on the path and the canal before me. I can smell also the subtle scent of garlic and there are sizeable swathes of ramsons or wild garlic which were currently in bloom and have colonised much of the woodland floor alongside the canal.

Ramsons, more popularly known as Wild Garlic

It’s a ten mile stretch of towpath from Chirk to Llangollen and I can take it easy. A steady eight miles per hour is sufficient to enjoy the scenery and beauty of this wonderful countryside. There is a lot to enjoy and I stop to watch a mother Mandarin duck with her seven chicks. A mile or so further on a bold grey heron seems prepared to stand its ground as I approach. I fear that the heron would be a danger to the young mandarin ducks which are quite a rare species in the UK.

I follow the canal to Llangollen, and here there is a short length of my journey where the canal, the road, the railway and the River Dee all run alongside each other.  After the Chainbridge hotel I continue along the towpath until I come to the Horseshoe Falls. This is the end of the canal, or perhaps more accurately the beginning of it, because it is here that there is a sluice gate that takes water from the river to feed the canal.

From the Horseshoe Falls I then followed the quiet road north of the Dee heading west to the village of Carrog where I am in search of the name of the local Inn so that I can answer the first of my BCQ questions. Along this road I was able to appreciate the difference between cycling alongside a canal compared with cycling alongside the river. Although some stretches of this road run alongside the River Dee, within a relatively short length of road I am high up and contemplating the valley and the river from a much more elevated position. The downside of cycling for spectacular views is that you have to work for them.

It’s May, and the trees have a beautiful fresh green about them and much of the hillsides are still covered in blue bells. In the woods above the village of Carrog I hear the distinctive yaffle call of a Green Woodpecker, a bird that I regularly hear but for which a clear sighting has eluded me for some years now.

At Carrog, I note the name of the Inn, take my photos and then turn around to retrace my route. This time it seems easier, the uphill parts are less steep and there seems to be more downhill coasting than uphill struggling. At Llangollen I head north for my second BCQ question and search out Eliseg’s pillar which I find just beyond Valle Crucis Abbey on the road heading up towards the Horseshoe Pass.

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct looking west.

From there it’s a nice downhill freewheel until I meet up with the Llangollen canal again that will return me to Chirk. Ten miles on and I leave the towpath just before I enter the longer of the Chirk tunnels to discover that it comes out right by the station.

It was a good days cycling with both the canal towpath and the hills around Carrog providing me with some spectacular views. I also answered two more questions for British Cycle Quest.

Wilfred Owen Story

My Subject is War and the Pity of War  –  Wilfred Owen

Detail from the stained glass window at Birkenhead Central Library. Designed by David Hillhouse.   

One story often leads to another. On my visit to the war memorial at Port Sunlight, please see previous posting, I was very much reminded of the Poet, Wilfred Owen whose words surround the base of that monument.

I first found out about Owen’s poetry when I was doing my English Literature GCE O level. What fascinated me most about his poetry were his references to Christianity. Indeed, one of the very few poems that I’ve ever been able to recite was his ‘At a Calvary near the Ancre’.  Before my GCSE exam, I knew that I would have to be able to remember at least one poem, this one was perhaps a little outside the mainstream; everybody else was choosing either ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ or ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’.

‘At a Calvary near the Ancre’ identifies the hypocrisy within the church at that time alongside Owen’s own struggle to reconcile the Christian faith against the horrors of war. All this is 100 years ago now and thankfully the church has moved on, and, if nothing else, has learnt and continues to learn from its past mistakes.

At a Calvary near the Ancre

One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,
But His disciples hide apart;
And now the Soldiers bear with Him.

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ’s denied.

The scribes on all the people shove
And bawl allegiance to the state,
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.

n.b. The Ancre is a tributary  to the river Somme

The horrors of the war clearly challenged Owen’s Christian beliefs, but whilst he was critical of the stance that the church had taken both over the war and with its role in society, I’d prefer to believe that he himself  didn’t lose his faith. Indeed, in a 1917 letter to his mother, he wrote “Christ is literally in no-man’s-land. There, men often hear His voice”. Owen questions whether Christ’s voice is only heard in English and French. He then goes on to say that “Pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism”.

The 4th November this year, will mark the centenary of Owen’s death. So now is a good time for me to pitch a proposal to a magazine for an article on his early life.  Born in Oswestry, Owen is mostly associated with Shropshire, however, for an important seven year period, his family lived in Birkenhead and the town has much to show for the Poet’s early life. It was whilst he was here at school that his love of poetry was born.

 

Wilfred Owen Exhibition – 34 Argyle Street

Last week I visited the Wilfred Owen Story at 34 Argyll Street, Birkenhead. The exhibition here has numerous displays which include copies of some of his letters and personal artefacts relating to his life and family. For anybody who is interested in Wilfred Owen or who may wish to discover him for the first time, then the exhibits here will give you a fascinating insight into his life.

His father was the Station Master at Woodside Central Station. The young Wilfred attended school at the Birkenhead Institute and the family went to the local parish church of Christ Church. Between 1900 and 1907 the Owen family lived in the Tranmere area of the town, moving house on two occasions. At the exhibition I picked up a leaflet giving a map for the Wilfred Owen trail, this passes each of the three houses where the Owen family lived, along with the church, the site of his school, and also Birkenhead’s central library.

The library is particularly worth a visit because it has an impressive stained glass window on its central staircase dedicated to Owen. On the landing area there are also further displays to commemorate Owen’s life.

 

More information on The Wilfred Owen Story can be found at http://www.wilfredowenstory.com/index.html

It is a sad irony that only in this last week, the UN has been discussing the use of chemical weapons in Douma, Syria,  ten miles north of Damascus. Owen’s famous poem, ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, graphically portrays the use of such a weapon. If he were with us today, I wonder what he would be thinking. One of the lessons that mankind learnt from Owen’s war was that this sort of weapon should never be used again. Despite it being 100 years on, it now seems that not all men learn from history’s lessons.

Roads less Travelled

Port Sunlight Garden Village War Memorial

Cycling UK, runs a challenge based around a comprehensive list of 402 destinations. British Cycle Quest is a nationwide treasure hunt with the objective to visit as many locations as possible. To provide evidence that you have visited each site you need to answer a simple question about each one. The only real stipulation is that you must visit each place by bike. Start it today and you could take part in this for the rest of your life. The destinations listed, provide an endless reason to explore new roads. The garden village at Port Sunlight is one of the closest locations to my home, and its question can only be answered by a visit to the village’s magnificent war memorial.

Port Sunlight is only twelve miles away, but the A41, the road that provides my most direct route is busy and cycling along that stretch of road brings no pleasure at all. In this part of England, the best cycle routes are seldom provided by ‘A’ roads.

When I’m cycling, I prefer to have an objective in mind. Fortunately, the UK is full of destinations and even rides over moderate distances can still yield surprises. Britain has an abundance of roads, so there are often alternative routes to discover. These days I seldom find roads close to home that I’ve not ridden before, so when I do come across one it makes a welcome change.

Heavy cloud was forecast when I set off to find an alternative route to Port Sunlight. I have usually approached it from the west in the past, so approaching it from the side of the river Mersey would provide both a change of scenery and a challenge. Both Chester’s and Wirral’s local authorities provide alternative routes for cyclists and support them with excellent leaflets and maps. Alongside these I have the established routes provided by the Sustrans National and Regional Cycle Network. With these I was able to plan a route beforehand that ran north-east of the M53 and parallel to the Manchester Ship Canal and the Mersey. This included a stretch from the Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port, behind the Vauxhall car plant and through to Eastham Country Park, a four mile stretch of industrial road with no views of either the Mersey or the Manchester Ship Canal.

Water Tower on former Bowater paper mill site.

The North Road out of Ellesmere Port services the industrial areas north of the town. It’s quiet most of the day with the exception of shift change times. It’s a wide unattractive road and as I cycled along it I was reacquainted with the smells of oil and heavy industry that reminded me very much of the days when I worked at Shotton steelworks. This isn’t a road for cyclists or tourists, but on that day, it suited my purpose because it provided the most convenient route from A to B. When the M53 was constructed, in 1975, the North Road was sliced into two sections, but fortunately someone had the foresight to put a subway under the motorway that linked the two pieces of road making the original route still accessible to pedestrians and cyclists.  Despite it only being within 15 miles from my home, I’d never used this road before.

Whitby Lighthouse , Overpool, Ellesmere Port

Significant landmarks on my journey included the Whitby Lighthouse and the water tower that formerly belonged to the Bowater paper mill, this is a notable feature of the local skyline. After passing through the industrial landscape of Port Sunlight, I crossed the busy A41 and entered the garden village. For the east side of the Wirral, this remains a haven of peace and tranquillity, the roads are wider, quieter, and the atmosphere seems a world away from the industrial and overcrowded stressful Britain that many of us have become acquainted with. If only today’s planners and developers tried to emulate this more, I feel that we would be a lot happier as a nation. The interesting thing about Port Sunlight’s Garden Village is that it was built by one of Britain’s great industrialists.

William Hesketh Lever, considered the building and design of his village as more of a business model than a philanthropic gesture. He saw it as a way of sharing his company profits with his employees by providing decent, affordable housing with schools and amenities. His intention was to inspire loyalty and commitment from his work force. This was seen as revolutionary at the time and more than a hundred years on, it still looks good.

I made my note of the inscription on the war memorial and then headed back home.  Returning the same way helped me to appreciate the route from a different perspective. My journey  through north Cheshire and south-east Wirral included pastoral farmland, canal side tranquillity, derelict industrial sites, modern industrial estates and a country park with views across the estuary to Liverpool. And I have all this rural, industrial and social heritage, within 15 miles of home.

December Cycling

 

December dusk from Pretty Bridge

I’ve been cycling through the dusk of a December day, despite there still being some colour in the sky, all trees seem black. A mist had descended over the wet fields and the sides of the roads were full of tree debris left by the autumn winds.

During these short days of winter, if I want to get some cycling miles in, I tend to keep one eye on the weather forecast. At this time of year there remains a beauty in the landscape, the sun is permanently low in the sky and as long as it continues to shine the golden hour, beloved of photographers, extends to most of the day. Shadows are long and the low sun dazzles many a car driver. They have little appreciation for the natural world as they race home for their evening meals listening to drive time radio.

As I cycle through the quiet lanes, I listen out for birds. This is something I do all year and it is one of the joys of cycling alone. A mixed group of tits was foraging amongst the hedgerows alongside the Shropshire Union canal as I crossed Caughall’s, pretty bridge. The birds that attracted my attention first were the noisiest, the long tailed variety, but as I looked closer I also identified coal and great tits amongst the same party. As I passed under a solitary oak I hear the pic, pic, pic, call of a great spotted woodpecker. I stopped to look up but I couldn’t see it, this is not unusual. In a nearby copse I heard the raucous calls of Jays who seemed to be either fighting or arguing over something. At this time of year I also look out for redwings and fieldfares, but so far this winter, they seem to be alluding me.

Small flocks of starlings headed towards their night-time roosting site. Maybe, before they settle down for the night they will have enchanted the casual observer with a murmuration. Back in the 1970s, I worked in the general office at Shotton Steel Works, where the starling roost close to Hawarden Bridge delighted office staff with spectacular displays at dusk.

This month I have a number of reasons to cycle. I need to increase my total mileage before the end of the year. Cycling is my transport of choice and it’s a good way to deliver my Christmas cards, not only do I save on the postage, skinflint that I am, but it gives me an objective that means that I am going somewhere with intent and not cycling around aimlessly. I’m also cycling to overcome a strain injury that I sustained a week earlier when I did a “Norman Wisdom” as I fought to regain my balance whilst slipping on ice. I’m a firm believer in the restorative healing powers of cycling. There are numerous times in my past when the gentle, non-impact exercise of cycling has speeded my recovery from this type of injury.

Last year I did three Christmas card delivery trips, but this year I’ve increased it to five. They add a further 93 miles to my December tally. I now only need nine miles before the end of the month to round up my annual mileage to the next hundred.

Now, what does today’s weather forecast predict?

Plegmund

(The later part of the 9th Century – North Mercia)

‘There is a messenger looking for you Father!’

‘Saxon, Celt or Dane?’ the holy man asked cautiously, these were dangerous times and he knew that whatever the answer, it could have very different consequences.

‘Saxon, from Wessex,’ said the man.

‘English? ’ The Holy man grunted and smiled to himself, he knew he was safe. ‘What does Alfred wants with me?’

Of course, there is no evidence that this conversation actually took place. But a thousand years ago we know that Alfred, King of Wessex came looking for a scholar who lived in the marsh land south of the River Mersey.

St Peter’s Church, Plemstall.

Four miles North East of Chester stands the isolated church of Saint Peters, Plemstall, the holy place of Plegmund. The current church dates back to the 15th century before that, there was an earlier church dating back to the 12th century. But the history, the myths, and the legends that surround this place go back even further. One legend tells of a fisherman, caught in a storm, whose prayers for safety were answered  when he was washed ashore here at a place then known as the Isle of Chester. In return, he built a church and dedicated it to St Peter the fisherman. This may have been as early as the 5th century.

By the 9th century this place was the home of Plegmund, a Christian, a man of God, living in an ungodly world. Back then, Plemstall stood on the northern limits of Mercia. To the North  was Northumbria and in the hills to the West were the Celts.  The Danes held much of the land north of Watling Street. In 869 they had tied King Edmund to a tree and filled him with arrows.

Today, Saint Peter’s Plemstall stands at the end of a narrow lane; its only company is a bungalow and a couple of nearby farms. 300 yards from the Church stands a well, protected by iron railings.  Today, it is known as St Plegmund’s well, but a thousand years ago it was a freshwater spring amongst the tidal marshes of what we know today as the River Mersey. Here, Plegmund baptised local children. But as well as being a Holy man, he was a scholar and one of the cleverer men of his age. One early description of him was as ‘an eremite’; even then people had a tendency to drop their Hs.

St Plegmund’s Well, Plemstall Lane, Mickle Trafford, Chester

At some point Plegmund was called away to serve both his King and the church. In 891 Alfred appointed him as the 19th Archbishop of Canterbury. During his time, Plegmund was to visit Rome on two occasions and after Alfred’s death in 899, he crowned Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder, King of England. Plegmund held the post of Archbishop until 914.

Today, Plemstall’s slightly elevated position isn’t obvious until you enter the graveyard to the east; here you can see that the land falls away towards the River Gowy. Beyond that, the landscape rises again toward Cheshire’s sandstone ridge; this comes to an abrupt end, a few miles away, with the sandstone escarpment of Helsby Hill.  In the 9th century, Helsby would have been a Viking settlement!

This is  a quiet, tranquil place and your imagination doesn’t have to work hard to visualise what it would have been like a thousand years ago when this land was either under threat or under the control of the Danes. In the years that followed, Chester fell to the Danes, only for them to be ousted by, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and Alfred’s daughter.

Today the church and the surrounding area are sensitively managed. Behind the church is a wild flower meadow. In the lane leading to the church new woodland has been planted. A visit in spring rewards the visitor with a variety of birdsong. Finches, tits and warblers predominate, and overhead you might hear the song of a high flying skylark. Across the fields can often be heard the repetitive call of a Yellowhammer. Beyond the church and alongside the river there is an owl box perched on a pole. I don’t know whether it is occupied, but I imagine that the wetlands alongside the river would provide an ideal territory for such a bird.

Whenever I visit Plemstall, I experience a feeling of contentment. There is something about the place that defies today’s world. The past is so evident here that you can almost touch it. Maybe Plegmund left something of himself here.

St Plegmund – South Cloister Window, Chester Cathedral.

A Cheshire View

To get  some perspective, one must first climb to a high place.

There are many routes to the top of Pale Heights. Earlier this year I approached it from Mouldsworth, passing Eddisbury Lodge and Nettleford Wood. At other times I have climbed it from Gresty’s Waste, Yeld Lane, The Delamere Forest Visitor’s Centre and Barns Bridge Gates. I think that the most testing route however is the one that takes the service road leading up from Delamere Station to the communication masts. This route makes little consideration for the hill’s contours and uses the most direct route to the top passing Old Pale Farm on its relentless climb.

Close to Kelsall, this seemingly unremarkable hill can be identified by the three telecommunication masts that stand on its summit. At 577 feet, the hill looks over the Cheshire plain and provides spectacular views to the north, east and west. It’s central position in the county means that the hill rewards both walker and cyclist with probably the finest panoramic views that they will find of Cheshire.

I’m not a big fan of uphill cycling, but Pale Heights is a favourite that I consider worth the effort. I cycle up here at least once each year; it’s a climb that tests my stamina and fitness. Eighteen months ago I bought a new bike and the first thing I did, to put it to the test, was cycle up this hill.

Pale Heights is modest hill, particularly when compared with Moel Famau at 1,820 feet, the highest point in the Clwydian hills, and the most notable feature on the western skyline. To the north-east you can see Manchester Airport and over in a south-easterly direction is Jodrell Bank. In midsummer the sun can be seen setting into Liverpool Bay. This is one of the few places from which you can see both Liverpool and Manchester.

To the east there are views towards the Peak District, including Shining Tor on the Derbyshire border, whose 1,834 foot summit is the highest point in the county and three times higher than Pale Heights. Beyond can be seen Kinder Scout, Derbyshire’s highest point.

Much nearer, beyond the farm and situated on the hill’s south-east shoulder, stands Eddisbury Hill fort, an Iron Age earthwork that gives the local parliamentary constituency its name. That area is also called Old Pale. The term Pale is used to describe an area of enclosure land; possibly in this case it was used to protect deer or livestock from poaching and theft.

Delamere forest, which surrounds Pale Heights today, represents the last remnants of the ancient hunting forest of Mara once belonging to Edward, The Black Prince. Amongst the prince’s titles was, Earl of Chester. Edward was son to Edward III and father to Richard II. He was a Prince however destined never to become a King.

Today, Pale Heights is marked by a modern-day stone circle, each stone originating and representing one of the seven counties that can be seen from this point. The central stone represents Cheshire and is made from the local Sandstone. This stone is encircled by a set of small metal plaques identifying the many landmarks that can be seen from this vantage point.

From Chester, Pale Heights is a great bike ride and can be cycled in a little over an hour each way. It’s a good place to go with other people but it’s also a great setting if you want to be alone. As in biblical times, high places can still be good locations to talk with God. Regardless of your faith however, Pale Heights is always a good place to fill your lungs with fresh air and get some perspective.