Tuesday, 22 May 2018

The Big Pit - and a bigger one

Regular readers of this blog will know that tunnels and holes in the ground fascinate me. Perhaps, if I'd lived in a limestone area in my younger days, I might have taken up potholing. Instead there were beach caves to explore, and even a network of old siderite (iron) adits that have since been closed off for 'safety' reasons. Killjoys!

One hole in the ground that I'd long been looking forward to seeing was The Big Pit at Blaenavon. My chance came early in May, as we made our way from Newport Transporter Bridge to the Brecon Beacons.

The highlight of the visit was surely the chance to go 300ft underground for a 50-minute conducted tour of the old tunnels and coal faces.

Unfortunately, this hastily snapped photo of us being kitted out with safety helmets and lamps was the last I was able to take. Methane gas is an ever-present danger in coal mines, so all electrical items – including cameras, watches and smartphones – had to be left on the surface. Consequently, I can't show you the tunnels (some so low that we had to crouch to get through), the stalls where the pit ponies had been kept, or the coal face itself with its huge drilling machine.

In my native Cornwall they mostly mined for copper and tin. This was 'hard rock' mining and methane was not a problem. So when, back in 2003, I had a chance to go down the old South Crofty tin mine in Pool (between Redruth and Camborne) I took my video camera with me. The resultant photos as not as good as with a 'still' camera but they give a flavour of the day.

Blaenavon folk may call their mine The Big Pit but at 300ft deep it's a baby compared to South Crofty, where the workings go down 3700ft. Unfortunately, working ceased in 1997 and the mine flooded below adit level, so now only the first 150ft-or-so are accessible.

Here our guide is showing us a couple of  'stopes' that were opened up as miners followed veins of tin.

Back to The Big Pit... To make up for not being able to take cameras down the pit they have created a brilliant simulated coal face and audio-visual presentation. Here I could snap away to my heart's content.

What a monster this drill is! Miners christened it the Widow Maker, as the dust it created could be lethal. Interestingly, and every bit as poignantly, the much smaller rock drills in Cornwall were also known as Widow Makers – a problem that was eventually solved by feeding water to the tip of the drill to suppress the dust. 

Of course it's the dust, the dirt, the noise and the danger that are missing from these underground tours – and rightly so. But it's not hard to understand how men, working daily in such challenging work, were welded into close, supportive communities, each caring for the others' safety and welfare. Ask any miner in Wales or Cornwall and, with tears in their eyes, they'll tell you that's what they miss the most.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Not all my walks go as planned!

Almost a year ago I completed an 11½ mile Waterfall Walk from the book Walking in the Brecon Beacons and enjoyed every step of it. Click here to see my record of that lovely day.

One photo in that walk book had long intrigued me – the Pwll-y-Rhyd sinkhole. Who wouldn't be drawn there with this description?
    This is an incredible limestone sink hole where the river pours over its lip and disappears about 200m underground.
I've seen rivers disappearing from view in limestone areas and reemerging many miles away, but never one that plunged down a waterfall and into a cave. 

The walk looked easy enough – 8 miles, total ascent negligible – and included a few other interesting features, including one of the most southerly limestone pavements in Britain. The book did sound one cautionary note:
    The route is not well frequented, at least in its early stages, and can be quite difficult, especially in wet weather....
but the sun was shining as S- and I packed a picnic into our rucksacks and, seasoned ramblers that we are, confidently set out from Pont Melin Fach car park for what promised to be a pleasant day's walk.

Soon our path on the bank of the Avon Nedd disappeared and we had to clamber over stones. But dry ground awaited us on the other side and we pressed on joyfully.

This is Pwll Du, where a river emerges from an underground cave. It soon became obvious that most of the water in the Avon Nedd flowed from here.

Upstream the river shrank to a trickle... then disappeared. The path also frequently disappeared and after scrambling along near-vertical banks we gave up and took to the dry river bed.

It was hard, hard walking over those stones and climbing over, or clambering under, fallen trees. Our pace slowed to a crawl. We were averaging less than one mile per hour!

At last we made it to the 'incredible' Pwll-y-Rhyd sinkhole, but 'incredible' it was not!  Here too the river bed was bone dry.

Once more we scrambled along the dry river bed and soon had our first glimpse of the feature that we had come so far to see. Cautiously I approached the lip of the sinkhole.

The photo at the beginning of this post was taken on the opposite side of the sinkhole. Where I sat
to take this photo should have been a raging torrent. O dear!

By now we were both feeling tired and a little despondent. The prospect of climbing to the limestone pavement, then through Ystradfellte and down to the Avon Mellte no longer appealed, so we cut short the walk and headed south on a quiet country road, then picked up a pleasant track over farmland and back to the car park.

One day, when I'm in the Brecons and the rains have been plentiful, and the Avon Nedd is in spate, I would love to return. But when I do I'll park close to Pwll-y-Rhyd. No way will I ever try walking upstream from Pont Melin Fach again!

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Newport Transporter Bridge

At the end of last month Bluebird, my trusty Hyundai I10, was due for her 20,000 mile service so I returned to the garage in Newport from where I'd bought her. Problem – what to do for 2½ hours, while mechanics performed their wizardry.  Solution – walk 2 miles to the Newport Transporter Bridge. It was a Monday and I knew the bridge wouldn't be operating but the expedition seemed preferable to sitting in a garage waiting room or scoffing calorific food at Pizza Express.

On arrival I wandered down a little path on the east side of the river and took this picture, then on my way back made plans to return for a ride on this amazing structure, the like of which I had never seen before.

My plans came to fruition last Sunday morning. There's a visitor centre on the west side of the bridge but I elected to start on the side I'd already visited. I parked Bluebird in Stephenson Street, then climbed the steps to the control room.

The operator was very proud of the machinery under his charge and explained that it was the best job he'd ever had. Enthusiastically, he explained the function of each part, including the Westinghouse rectifiers that convert the incoming electricity to d.c. Then a radio call from the other side told him that it was time start the beasty rolling.

After briefly watching the great drum revolve I retreated to the safety of a platform in front of the control room and watched the gondola approaching, looking comically like a flying fairground, complete with helter-skelter. The tower is actually another control room but it's only used occasionally.

£3 bought me unlimited crossings for a day, with or without Bluebird, so I left her and made the first crossing on foot. What immediately struck me was how smooth and quiet the gondola was. Almost effortlessly we were transported to the west bank. On arrival I eschewed the return ride, plucked up my courage and climbed the 270 steps to the high-level walkway, 164ft above the River Usk.

Half way up. The gondola was looking very small and there was still a long way to go... 
but finally I made it. 

Looking downstream, with Newport Docks on the right

The view upstream, with one of the modern bridges that spelt doom to the
Transporter Bridge as a commercial enterprise.

It was a long way down to the river...

... and a long way to the control room too!
Finally it was Bluebird's turn.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Goodbye to the bread maker

After months of dithering I've made up my mind — the Kenwood bread maker must go! Two years ago I was making at least one large loaf every week, my favourite being a scrumptious Date & Walnut creation. No Saturday evening feast was complete without a couple of thick slices of that one.

Then, with my weight soaring into the obese range, I joined Slimming World and discovered that my two doorstep slices would use up 11 of my daily 15 syns allowance... and that was before I spread on the butter! True, the Slimming World plan did allow one 'free' large slice of wholemeal bread every day, but I much preferred to opt for a nice big helping of breakfast cereal.

Consequently the bread maker languished in a kitchen cupboard, only seeing the light of day when friends visited. But when, I told myself, I achieved my Slimming World target weight, I would make yummy bread once more and (of course) devour it in moderation.

What I hadn't expected was that Slimming World would dramatically change my eating habits. The days of the old doorstep slices have past and gone, and I honestly don't miss them.  I haven't given up bread entirely, and many a hillside ramble has been paused for a picnic that includes a mini-baguette stuffed with lettuce and tomato, or spread with something tasty. But just as often I settle for a couple of Ryvita with low-fat cottage cheese and pineapple.

So this afternoon I emptied my cupboards of the bread maker and the last of the strong flour and yeast. Unsurprisingly, both the flour and yeast had a 'Best Before' date of January 2018 – a telling commentary on how little they were being used.  I'm sure that they're still perfectly edible, so I'll keep them for a while. If I'm feeling particularly synful and my weight is comfortably in range I might make some Sfinci (Sicilian dough balls). However, I wouldn't be in the least surprised if that plan also fell by the wayside. My Antipasto is every bit a tasty and filling, and a tiny fraction of the calories.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Darlington's famous railway

I've just returned from Darlington, where I spent a few days with my aunt Sarah. Sarah used to live in Newcastle; a place that I always enjoyed visiting as there's so much to see and do. But Darlington?

Then I remembered that Darlington has one great claim to fame – the Stockton & Darlington Railway which, as you may know, was the first passenger-carrying steam railway in the world.  It's said that 40,000 people turned out to witness the inaugural run on September 27th 1825.

John Dobbins' painting of the great day records Locomotion hauling its train over Darlington's Skerne Bridge, which is now the oldest operational railway bridge in the world. Seeking it out would, I told myself, make an interesting adventure.

My 2 mile walk from Aunt Sarah's home took me beneath this oddity, known as Skinny Bridge. It certainly tests ones ability to steer a straight line but, in historical terms, is a mere whipper snapper compared to the bridge I had set out to find.

And here it is, looking in fine fettle for its age, and complete with a 21st century successor to Locomotion. Not so long ago the scene was very different, with weeds and overgrowth reaching almost as high as the bridge, but last year the place received a makeover with the opening of a new cycle way.

A few minutes walk from Skerne Bridge is North Road Station, the home of the Head of Steam railway museum. I was going to give it a miss as rows of lifeless railway engines don't thrill me greatly, but with time to spare I changed my mind and paid the £3.75 entrance fee.  And am I glad that I did! For there stood Locomotion herself – the engine that hauled that first passenger train.

Be warned, though, that a cup of tea at this museum costs almost as much as the entrance fee, and I even had to search out the fridge to add my own milk... but I'm not one to complain. Instead, cup in hand, I went in search of a memento of my visit. A commemorative mug, perhaps, for another cup of tea? A colourful guide book? 


Then I found this old platform ticket machine. Eagerly I inserted a 10p coin, pulled the big brass handle, and out popped my prize.


Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Still singing

Many a month has passed since last I mentioned ukuleles. Has Angie exchanged her uke for knitting needles or a paint pallet? Perish the thought!  The 'problem' is simply that the couple with the fine camera have moved on to pastures new, so there haven't been any photos of little me worth publishing. Also, Janice hasn't organised any Open Mic events recently, so a grateful world has been spared my solo performances.

All that changed last Sunday afternoon with an Open Mic & Mass Jam at the Riverside Hotel in Monmouth... and oh what fun we had! And there sat Alastair and Janice with their camera.

I'm getting a reputation for singing songs that are not entirely serious. This time I chose I am my own grandma – my adaptation of a song about a family with a crazy mixed-up genealogy.

Many, many years ago when I was twenty three
I was married to a widower who was handsome as could be.
This widower had a grown-up daughter who had hair of red;
my father fell in love with her and soon they too were wed.

This made my dad my son-in-law and changed my very life;
my daughter was my mother, for she was my father's wife.... 

and from there the chaos developed.

A big 'thank you' to Alan snr and Alan jnr for organising and leading a wonderful event — their first (I think) but hopefully not their last.

Chicken Breasts cooked in Puff Pastry

Many years before the heritage industry 'took off' there existed at Botallack, near St Just in West Cornwall, The Count House – a Folk Club of treasured memory where the likes of John the Fish and Brenda Wootton regularly enthralled the crowds.  Brenda was only 65 when she died, but I'm proud to say whenever I sing Lamorna (one of my favourites) I can still sense her lovely high voice singing along with me.

Some time after the folk club closed The Count House became a restaurant, run by Ian and Ann Long and I began my long association with the place. Ann's cooking was superb and she deservedly went on to become a Master Chef. One of her recipes became great favourites of ours – Chicken Breasts spread with Crabmeat, cooked in Puff Pastry and served with a smooth Curry Sauce.

Now the restaurant too has passed into memory and the building has been 'restored' by the National Trust to something like its appearance in the days of copper and tin mining.  But, as anyone invited to dine with us will know, Ann's recipes live on, thanks to her book Ann Long's Dinner Party. I'm proud to say that I have a signed copy.

My own version of Chicken Breasts cooked in Puff Pastry is simpler than Ann's and slightly less calorific but the credit for it is all hers. So (with quantities for two people) here we go...

Curry sauce:
knob of butter
¼ onion, chopped
½ teaspoon of Easy Garlic
teaspoon of curry powder
tablespoon of mango chutney
1 apple, chopped
1 banana, sliced
¼ pint chicken stock

Stick all the ingredients in a pan and boil until the onions soften, liquidise then return to the cleaned saucepan to keep warm. If it's a bit thick, just add a little water.

Chicken and puff pastry:
You'll need one skinned chicken breast, 60g of puff pastry and ½ tin (60g) of crabmeat per person. I guess many folk would buy puff pastry but we much prefer to make our own 'rough puff'. Recipes are quite easy to find; basically all you need is pastry, knobs of butter, a fridge, a rolling pin and a plastic bag.

Roll the puff pastry as thin as you can, then divide it into individual portions. Chop each chicken breast in half then build a chicken/crabmeat/chicken mountain in the middle of the pastry. Any remaining crabmeat can be popped on top or packed around the sides. You may spot that on this occasion I used tuna – not quite as tasty but still pretty good. Season the lot with a little black pepper.

Fold up the puff pastry and crimp it to make a little pastry parcel. Place the two parcels in a baking dish, then brush them with egg yoke.

Cook at 220°C for about 20 minutes, until golden brown.