Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Down at Fraggle Rock

It has been beautiful recently in Anglesey and as today was typical I decided to drive over to RAF Valley to see the Hawks flying. I arrived at the airfield just as two Hawks took off together from the main runway. Very soon I parked my car at the end of the runway near an outcrop of rock where all the enthusiasts gather. The pilots of RAF Valley refer to this position as Fragle Rock and we are obviously the fraggle!

As soon as I arrived all activity ceased and I wondered if I had picked a bad day. I decided I woul give it five more minutes before leaving. It turned out to be a good decision as very soon the action started. One or two Hawks started engines and taxied away from the training area to the head of the runway. Gradually the take offs began and the tower was kept very busy.

There were double an treble take offs in formation with aircraft peeling off to land a few minutes later. Suddenly there were many Hawks landing and taking off. Then one aircraft took off and climbed only a short way before executing a full roll. Next the Hawk was racing back to us and performing all sorts of aerobatics. At one point it turned over the sea and returned across the runway alignment about fifty feet high upside down! I felt privileged to be there, watching the incredible display.

A minute after the aircraft landed another took off and began to do exactly the same routine as the first aircraft. I had gone there expecting to see a few take offs and landings and ende up being treated to a display for which I should normally have to pay.

By the way, the photo at the head of this blog was taken by the RAF Valley Station Chaplain (Padre) when I visited the base in October last year. The guy standing by the Hawk is no pilot - it is me!

But it is still true to say that regular watchers at Fraggle Rock will see a variety of aircraft onb most days. There are always different aircraft visiting the base and sometimes you can get lucky and see the Red Arrows there. As RAF Valley has the only Hawk simulator the Red Arrows are regular visitors for experience in the simulator. When I was on the base last year there were 3 Red Arrows aircraft on the tarmac. As the Padre told me last year, it is the busiest RAF Station This is why the RAF has another airfield at Mona, a few miles away, that it uses for practice landings and take offs (circuits and bumps in RAF lingo!) In a few weeks there will be civilian flights to and from Cardiff as the new Anglesey Airport opens.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Away from Anglesey

My wife's birthday was on 19th March and she had reached the 60 milestone. Before Christmas last year we were discussing what we could do to mark and celebrate this important day. Last year had seen our Ruby Wedding Anniversary and we celebrated that on a month's holiday in Greece. This time, as it was Pauline's birthday she wanted to do something special that she would remember.

For some years now Pauline has followed winter sports with a keen interest. I took a look at the Eurosport website to see what might be happening around the 19th of March. I noticed that it was the last large hill in Ski Jumping at Holmenkollen near Oslo in Norway. Pauline confirmed that the location was just on the outskirts of Oslo so it should be easy to access. Thus it was that we decided to go to Oslo for the weekend, using our Air Miles. The flight and hotel were booked through Air Miles and the trip was on.

In January we visited some of the outdoor pursuit shops in Snowdonia to buy some warm clothing. From now on we had to simply wait for the weekend to come round. Just before we left we bought a supply of Norwegian Kroners to make sure everything was covered. Some weeks previously I had gone on the Ticketmaster website for Norway and purchased two tickets in the best area at the stadium. All was now ready.

Early on Saturday we drove to Manchester Airport, parked the car and checked in for our flights. It was necessary to take the Heathrow shuttle and transfer to another aircraft for Oslo. The aircraft to Heathrow was a Boeing 757 and it was full. In next to no time at all we landed at Heathrow and transferred from Terminal 1 to Terminal 4. I had heard so much about Heathrow in its present form and looke forward to seeing it. I was not impressed. It looked like a haphazard design of ugly buildings with miles and miles of taxiways leading to the runways. The amount of walking we did was impressive with a short coach transfer at one point.

Eventually our flight was called and we boarded an Airbus 319. This aircraft was superior to the 757 because it was a newer design and we liked it even more because it was smaller that the 757. Thye flight was quite normal and we arrived less than two hours later at Oslo. This is a newer and more bijou affair. Whilst there was a long walk involved as we passed from the gate to the baggage hall it was pleasant and airy. Having passed through the baggage reclaim area we made our way to the railway station to catch the Flytoget (pronounced Flee two get!) into Oslo Central Station. The journey was smooth as smooth could be in a streamlined silver train that took only 22 minutes to arive at Oslo.

We took a taxi to our hotel and checked in. It was a Best Western Hotel and was very comfortable for us. By the time we had showered etc we sat down and located a likely restaurant for our evening meal as the hotel offered only bed and breakfast. The man at reception told us which tram to catch and where to alight. The restaurant was just round the corner but they had no table free. Popping across the square we tried another establishment that had a table free. It was here that we tasted a fantastic meal. Pauline started with mussels and I chose a dish called Taste of Norway. Both were lovely. The main course Pauline chose was a trout dish and she was thrilled with it. I chose turbot and thoroughly enjoyed it. We both chose passion fruit creme brulee followed by coffee. Together with wine we paid about £140.00. But we already knew Norway's reputation as an expensive place to stay so we were not too surprised.

The next day was Sunday when the ski jumping was held. Norwegian TV told us the previous day that our hero, Polish ski jumper, Adam Malyscz, was jumping well and would be last to go on the day. We walked to the Central Station and then descended to the underground railway which took us out to the village of Holmenkollen up in the hills above the city. As the train climbed the hill there was more and more snow to be seen. Outside the station we slowly climbed further up the hill to the stadium with the huge ski jump tower above it. We had gone early to catch the Nordic Combined event that was on before the main contest. But the conditions did not allow it to continue without interruption. They kept working on the in run which kept deteriorating. Eventually they postponed this event till 4.00pm.

Off we went to the refreshment tent where we watched a couple of Biathlon events and made friends with some young Greeks. Coming out of the tent we heard the brass band strike up and saw that the musicians were lined up at the top of the out run. One after another came the skiers carrying the flags of the participating countries. The last flag was that of Norway.

Now the competition was ready to start. There were 59 jumpers and Pauline knew each name! I knew quite a few but she was familiar with them all. We started to make our way to where our seats were. When I say seats, we shared a concrete shelf! How Pauline made it up to level 72 I shall never know. She has an arthritic hip! However we arrived at our places and sat down to enjoy that sport. The terracing was built in such a way that we saw the competitors come from behind us and then land in front and below us. Above us there was a small special stand where we could see King Harald of Norway and his family.

The jumpers got better and better as time went on and each time a Polish jumper set off down the in run the Polish supporters cheered like mad. But they, like us, had come to see one man - Adam Malyscz. Finally the top three jumpers were Simon Amann of Switzerland, Martin Koch of Austria and Matti Hautamakki of Finland. Therev was just Adam still to jump and we were ready for a great spectacle as we expected him to leap further than anyone else as he was in such good form. A great shout went up from the Polish contingent as he raced down the slope. Then the wind wind whipped him all over and he landed short in 54th place. We were speechless. Seeing what had happened, the jury called off the rest of the competition and Simon Amann was declared the winner.

Anyone other than Adam Malyscz could have been seriously injured in such rogue conditions but thankfully he was OK. There is now one more competition in Slovenia where he might just jump better than Anders Jacobson of Norway to get the World Cup title. We shall see! It was a wonderful day and we took quite some time to filter out of the stadium and down the road to the station where train after train toook hundreds of passengers home.

We ended up in a basic pub restaurant that night and ate more cheaply but still enjoyed our food. We experienced the best pizza we had ever known that night. The next morning saw us rising at 4.15am to catch an early flight back to the UK. That night was when we celebrated with our family in our son's house in Rochdale. It was a lovely evening and we slept like logs till morning when we drove back here to Anglesey.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Parys Mountain Today

Looking at the photograph, one might think that the hill beyond the small lake was full of heather. One would be quite wrong. I took this photo on Saturday 3rd March when it was sunny and bright. I had taken a short walk from the car park going towards what is called the Great Opencast. I was surprised at the varied colours you can see in the picture.
All the various colours belong to the different ores that form the many spoil heaps surrounding the huge Great Opencast where men once worked in the most inhospitable and dangerous conditions. It is difficult to imagine a more dangerous job other than that of the slate workers across the Menai Strait in the real mountains around Blaenau Ffestiniog. Many lives were lost working in such a dangerous place.
And yet, I was told by Allan Kelly the warden, they had to bid to get a job there! But of course, this was a time not unlike the gold rush in America where there was a surfeit of precious ore that could be sold all over the world and make people very rich. Alan told me about the first ships that entered what was then just a narrow creek at Amlwch. When they tied up they tied their ropes round gorse bushes as there was no quay at first. Later, the local landowner fixed iron rings in the creek side and charged the ships' masters for mooring there.
Over many years, as the other photo shows a great depression steadily grew on Parys Mountain. In and around it grew the many spoil heaps showing the various ores that had been extracted in the hunt for copper. There were many different ores in addition to copper and it is believed that, today, there remain many valuable ones which now may cause the area to be mined again. One mineral which is present there in small quantities is gold.
The copper that was shipped out from Amlwch in the late 18th and early 19th centuries led to an amazing discovery. At that time the mine in Parys Mountain was the largest source of copper in the world. Amlwch grew from a few scattered houses to a small but thriving town, certainly the biggest in Anglesey in its hey day. It is always a good plan to ensure that a ship never sails empty but carries a cargo in each direction. Wherever possible the ships arrived in Amlwch loaded with tobacco which was processed in the town and sold on to a great many outlets. However, when no cargo could be sourced the captains would acquire rocks to carry as ballast to keep their vessels stable at sea. One day some of the rock they carried was examined as it lay in a pile at the port. The knowledgeable individual who looked at it suddenly realised that there appeared to be copper ore among it. This was tested and found to be true. Suddenly Amlwch's fate was sealed. Prospectors travelled to South America whence it had come and discovered enough copper to eventually wipe out the two mines on Parys Mountain.
Today the copper still comes from that same source in South America. It is only the very high price of copper today that has made the latest drillings necessary. It is just possible that Amlwch copper could be mined once more. Wouldn't it be wonderful to see a new copper industry rise once more and putting us back on the industrial map?
The other picture is, of course, the Great Opencast, a legacy from the 18th and 19th centuries. All round the huge site of the mountain there are ruined buildings and processing beds that played their part in the extraction of copper. Today, I think the sight of the huge pit with all its colours in the light of an afternoon sun is breathtaking. If you could enlarge the picture you would just see the little village of Penysarn where I live. The people of Penysarn made a living from the manufacture of boots and workwear for the workers on the mountain.
The discovery of precious ores and metals can change an area forever. It grows in size and then fades away as the industry dies. Today the area has a need for more jobs and in a few years we shall lose a major employer with the closure of Wylfa Nuclear Power Station. The rise and fall of a local economy brings good and bad times alike. Over in Detroit there is great poverty and deprivation among people who used to work in the car industry. Cheap Japanese imports started the rot and eventually it was viable to construct cars in America and they no longer counted as imports. The American style of huge automobiles that consumed high quantities of petrol eventually lost out to the smaller and more economic Japanese cars and their industry just died on its feet. That's life.