Thursday, 26 April 2012

Mule Drivers from Rawalpindi in Llanfrothen and Nantmor

Seventy years ago, in the first week of April 1942, three trains arrived in Porthmadog from Y Fenni (Abergavenny), carrying almost a thousand men and officers and a thousand mules and horses. They were the three companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps mule transport. The muleteers were Muslims from Rawalpindi in India (now Pakistan), with a few English and Indian officers. They had come up through France in WW2 with the British Expeditionary Force and were known as the ‘Rice Corps’ – their motto ‘Heaven’s Light Our Guide’. 

At the start of the war the British Army realised they needed animal transport and India sent four companies by boat to Marseilles at short notice. Company 22 was captured by the Germans, companies 25, 29 and 32 were evacuated at Dunkirk and had to leave their animals behind.  First they were in Cornwall, then in Y Fenni and for three months in 1942 they were in Llanfrothen and Nantmor doing mountain warfare training. Company 32 was camped on the Gwernydd in Llanfrothen and companies 25 and 29 around Dolfriog in Nantmor. New mules were imported from the USA and horses for the officers were collected from here and there. From north Wales they went on to Scotland and in 1944 they were repatriated and went on to fight in Burma.

Edgar Parry Williams from Croesor, aged ten at the time, remembers them well. ‘We had never seen a coloured face before and we were very interested in these strange men in turbans. They didn’t speak much English and neither did we. They seemed very gentle and civilised and rather sad. They would come past, along the Roman Road, with strings of mules three abreast, taking an hour and a half to pass.’

William Morris Roberts and Annie Roberts of Ty Capel
Nantmor in the garden of Castle Cottage Penrhyndeudraeth
Dilys Rees’s (nee Jones) father farmed Dolfriog for Mr Priestley.  She remembers the Indians’ camp and the mules lined up, looking over a wall.  Her mother used to trade eggs for sultanas with the Indians, who also gave sultanas out to the children. Dilys remembers walking through the camp, quite unafraid, with a rice pudding her mother had made for a Mrs Wade who lived in the ‘Stablau’ at Dolfriog. The camp took up so much land that there was no land left to farm and Dilys’s family had to move to another farm. She remembers the 6am ‘call to prayer’ and the big prayer tent. A bugle was blown several times a day when the animals had to be fed and watered. The late Jos Williams of Gardd Llygad y Dydd in Nantmor who was 25 years old in 1942, remembered the beautiful horses the English officers rode. One of the Indians taught him how to ‘cold’ shoe a horse which he did like that for ever after.  Several people remember Malik Mohamed Khan, a highly intelligent man, an Indian officer (maybe a vet) who rode a white horse at the head of the troop.

‘Standings’ were built for the animals by local farmers before K Force (as the company was called) arrived.  The manure was carted away by the farmers whose land they were on and the food swill from the camps went to feed pigs in Tremadog. Every Sunday sheep were killed for the camps at the supply depot at Trawsfynydd. Local people remembered the ‘chapattis’ the Indians cooked. Marian Roberts, whose father was a baker in Penrhyndeudraeth, remembers her parents were friendly with some of the men and would invite them in. One day her parents were at the cinema and Marian, aged ten, and her aunt, aged twenty one, invited two of the men in for tea and gave them an egg each (eggs were scarce!). ‘There was a massive row when my parents got back from the cinema!’ said Marion ‘for inviting them in!’

 Indian vet paints child's throat! 
She also remembers once coming out of the cinema when it was pouring with rain. She and her friend walked home under the capes of two Indians (who always walked in single file) holding on to their waists! She still has the autograph of one of them ‘NOWAB KHAN 180697’, carefully printed and then written in his own Indian script. He was 19 years old. The men had been taught to write their name and number in case they were captured by the Germans. Nowab Khan said to Marian one day ‘You come India – I buy you silks’! Marian said children got on very well with the Indians, neither group could speak much English and that seemed to make a rapport between them.

John Griffith, Penrhyndeudraeth, who lived opposite the present garden centre in Tremadog in 1942, remembers going for walks with his mother and sister when he was about three and the Indians coming along the road with their mules pulling carts. The family had to get over a wall to be safe from the carts which had no brakes. Elspeth Parry, Penrhyndeudraeth, still has a photo of her grandparents William Morris Roberts and wife Annie (with dog) of Castle Cottage, Penrhyndeudraeth with one of the Indians.

Betty Evans, daughter of Hugh and Sarah Griffiths of Penrhyndeudraeth, said she suffered a lot as a child from tonsilitis – she remembers one of the Indian vets painting her throat to treat it! 

For the local children the Indians were of constant interest but not so for the local farmers. The mules and horses would ride through growing crops and hayfields and the mules would batter down walls. When the farmers complained they were told ‘There is a war on’. It is true that they did get compensation later on but had to build up the boundary walls again. Then over a couple of days in the middle of July 1942, after only three and a half months, the Indians were gone.  Edgar Parry Williams says ‘The valley seemed suddenly very quiet’. But the memories remain for many people.

Many thanks to everyone who told me their stories of the Indians. Giovanna Bloor, Cae Glas, Croesor. March 2012.

Paddy Ashdown's father, John, was an Indian Army officer in the 14th Punjab Regiment and the Indian Army Service Corps. During the retreat to Dunkirk in May 1940, John Ashdown ignored an order to abandon the Indian troops under his command, instead leading them to the port and on to one of the last ships to leave, without losing a single man. Although court martialled for disobeying orders, he was exonerated, and by the end of the War had risen to the rank of colonel. I think this story will be part of the new Channel 5 series War Hero in My Family - Paddy Ashdown is in episode 3 (15th May). 

Monday, 23 April 2012

Blaenau – a vegetarian’s oasis

John and Sandra stay in our cottage for four or five weeks each year, they love this part of Wales and make the most of every day, whatever the weather. Long walks combined with a ride on the Ffestiniog Railway and lunch at a local cafe.

A plate of golden veg at the end of the rainbow
We thought they came back just because of our lovely cottage, but one of the many reasons is the great selection of vegetarian meals. Unlike their home town, with a chain pub offering just one or two unexciting options, Blaenau provides choice and great taste.

One of their favourites is De Niros, run by Kevin and Sue. The specials blackboard usually contains six vegetarian dishes with recent favourites being: roasted vegetables in honey with rice, nut roast, brie and spinach crumble.

They also like Bridge Cafe where Gaile serves great food including vegetable lasagne and John’s favourite after a long walk, chips, cheese and baked beans.  Between De Niros and Bridge Cafe, tucked away above the main street, they have also enjoyed CellB – the old police station now converted to cafe and venue for events complete with lock-up cells.

Just a stop down the line is the Lakeside Cafe at Tanygrisiau. Lots of options here but a favourite is the all day vegetarian breakfast complete with vegetarian sausages and lots of mushrooms.

I had never realised Blaenau was such an oasis for vegetarians.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Oils Morris Ifans

A young slate worker in Ffestiniog aspired to be a doctor but, aged ten and one of a dozen children, he was obliged to work in the quarries to contribute to family finances. When there were problems at the quarry, and the men laid off, he used his savings and began his medical career in the 1880s. They say the original recipe came from a ‘vagabond’ who gave it to Morris in return for some act of kindness.

There were two main product lines – household oils for humans and oils for horses. In his day he was a pioneer in advertising through the medium of Welsh, which made him popular with the farmers, but he was also quite international. One of his promotional leaflets, targeting military buyers, tells the tale of a young soldier buying the oil at Cape Town on his way to fight the Boers. ‘The Riding Master of the Battery found it a most valuable preparation in war time for the ailments of horses, whether caused by the climate, the hard work, or the work of the enemy’.

It’s difficult to imagine the small village of Llan Ffestiniog having a ‘manufactory’ for the production of medicines but it was there, conveniently for mail order, next to the railway line between Bala and Blaenau, until not so long ago.  Morris died of tuberculosis in 1923 and the oils continued to be made up until 1980 when his youngest son Frank died. Members of the family say they still have the secret recipes but there are no plans to reintroduce them. This is a great shame as there are lots of people around who swear by it. It worked on anything. ‘Sore throat? Suck a sugar lump with a couple of drops of oil!’ 

Morris Evans’ Oils (Olew Morris Evans) didn’t make it quite as big as Elliman’s Embrocation which was manufactured in Slough from 1847 onwards by the James Elliman family. By 1911 the product was on sale in 42 countries. In the 1960’s Horlicks took over the product and they in turn were taken over by Beechams in 1970, now part of GSK (GlaxoSmithKline).

Bottle and packaging
According to the Slough Museum the three ingredients of Elliman’s Embrocation are eggs, turps and vinegar! Eggs were imported from Ireland by the million to the extent that the staff would spend six weeks just cracking them. As for the addition of turpentine this was especially dangerous and the process overseen by the fire brigade.

Like Morris Evans, James Elliman had two main product lines ‘Universal Embrocation’ for humans and ‘Royal Embrocation’ for animals. Apart from the names they were identical but tax was payable only on human medicines. 

The good news is that there is another product called Muscle Oil or Olew Gewynnau which is locally produced by descendants of the Bonesetters of Anglesey! Full details at

Friday, 6 April 2012

Ras y Moelwyn in the snow?

Two weeks on Saturday and it’s Ras y Moelwyn, the yearly dash over the Moelwyns. This is what the race was like last year. The winner does the 10.2 miles and 2,800 feet of altitude gain in just 80 minutes!

I’m busy training for my fourth entry of madness into this race, all part of an even more reckless plan to do the Coed y Brenin marathon on 23rd June.

It’s slippery enough in good conditions but I’m not sure how I’ll fare if the snow is still around. This is what it was like half way up on 5th April.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Old Houses in the Vale of Ffestiniog

This valley and the surrounding area contain amazing survivors of the many Elizabethan homes of farmers and gentry who lived in this then prosperous area. After the wars and famines of the 1400s, the cattle trade with England prospered and the drovers brought back cash and new ideas. Today’s slate tips hide early cattle rearing farmsteads which dotted the hillsides. However it is still possible to trace the developments of houses as the fashions changed.

Even in these stony Welsh mountains, the earliest surviving homes were timber-framed halls open to the roof, with a hearth on the floor and small windows. Large curved crucks of oak reached from the ground to the ridge, often with ornate carved collars. Other hall houses had straight trusses resting on stone walls. At either end of the hall were smaller rooms, for family quarters and storage, which could be of two storeys. Hall houses were smoky with little privacy.

Around the 1530s a new design (now called the Snowdonian style house) became popular across north Wales, and many can be seen locally. This was a storeyed house with a large inglenook fireplace and a gabled end chimney with a spiral stair in the gable end next to the fireplace. Upstairs there was a corbelled chimney in the other gable. Many hall houses were converted into storeyed buildings by inserting a chimney centrally or in a gable end.

Later on, richer families extended their houses by either building additional wings or by building a second house parallel or at right angles to the first.

Y Dduallt
As farming became less prosperous, these farm houses were not replaced in Georgian or Victorian times. Minor improvements such as bathrooms were added, but it can still be possible to discover the earlier styles of 400 years ago.

The felling dates of original timbers in several local houses have been calculated using dendrochronology as part of the “Dating Old Welsh Houses” project run in partnership with the Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Wales. Local volunteers continue to research the histories of these houses, their families and communities.

If you would like to know more or get involved with the project further details are on the website

The contents of this blog are extracted from a leaflet prepared by Margaret Dunn for the Dating Old Welsh Houses Project and financed by a grant from the Friends of Plas Tan y Bwlch. It is available free from Plas Tan y Bwlch, Tourist Information Centres and other outlets.

Underground at Rhosydd

A local explorer come bee-keeper, historian and general enthusiast kindly took us into the safe bits of Rhosydd quarry. The scale of the workings is immense. We entered the long adit on level 9 treading carefully to avoid the deeper water draining outwards; a reminder that the five levels below are all flooded. This long adit took eight years to carve out with miners working from both ends ... no laser guided gadgetry, just Victorian engineering skills to pinpoint the seamless join. 

Here and there were what looked like bits of tree root on the floor, rusting strands of the cable that pulled slate wagons in and out on the rails. At the end of the adit, rails branched off in different directions close to the connection with the five levels below. Slate from below was dragged upwards to level 9 by a water powered incline.

The leader's torch shines brightest
A large slab of slate on the floor, with chain attached ready for lifting onto a wagon, now painted with eight large yellow letters:
R O C K F A L L.

Until a couple of years ago it was popular and easy to walk the mile through adit 9 then up to level 6 and out of the West Twll (hole) where the slate works had begun. Falling rocks have blocked this route although I’m told you can nip and tuck your way through if you know what you’re doing. No-one can vouch for how safe this might be.

For the extremely intrepid with caving equipment, back up and a guide there is the Croesor to Rhosydd crossover – just a mile in length but a good eight hours long if all goes well. I’m told it begins with a 200 foot abseil. Here’s a clip of the zipwire in use.

Opposite the entrance to adit 9 across the cwm is probably the most impressive engineering feat of all, an exceedingly steep incline for exporting the slates, at its top steeper than 1 in 1. Nothing was impossible to the Victorians.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Vale of Ffestiniog at the heart of Welsh wildlife

Wales has more nature reserves per capita than any other country in the UK or on mainland Europe. This says a lot, not only about the outstanding landscape, scenic beauty and wildlife diversity of Wales, but also about how its people value being close to nature and want to protect their natural heritage.

Across Wales there are over 70 National Nature Reserves (NNRs) and the greatest density seems to be clustered around the Vale of Ffestiniog.  

This spring a comprehensive guide to every NNR in Wales - plus dozens of our finest RSPB, Wildlife Trust and other nature sites - is being launched. is online now, with maps, directions, photographs of difficult junctions or hard-to-spot landmarks on the way to each reserve, plus details of facilities onsite and nearby as well as pictures of landscape features, habitats and species to look out for. It helps people to decide where to go and when, whether they are birders, wildflower lovers, fungi fanciers or fossil fans – or whether the priority is for somewhere safe for the kids, or suitable for Auntie Jenny who now can’t manage stiles and rough ground.

The author, Sue Parker, is a keen naturalist with a lifelong interest in wildflowers, and wild orchids in particular. Sue says, ‘It has been almost a full-time job for the past three years, visiting hundreds of reserves, some several times to record the changing seasons. This online resource would fill a thousand pages in book form, but it’s a labour of love, and I am continually updating and adding new information.’

A Wildlife Trust volunteer herself, Sue has dedicated the website to … ‘the hundreds of volunteers who work for the wildlife of Wales. Every wildlife conservation organisation in Wales is dependent on an army of people who turn out in all winds and weathers to work on our nature reserves for the benefit of plants, fungi, animals, birds and insects - and us. They also staff the offices, man the telephones, support special events for the public, and carry out a multitude of other tasks including the all-important one of fundraising. Thank you!’