Of Wellingtons and Hot Water Bottles

Just spent  a week and a half in Wales, the first three days in a caravan on a farm at the top of a hill. The view was as magnificent as the weather was cold. You could take photos from the doorstep – with a hot water bottle stuffed up your jumper.

I must have been about seven when I stayed with my parents at the Tyn y Coed Hotel, at the foot of Moel Siabod. From the hotel, its profile appears Matterhorn-like. The sun catches impressive-looking craggy outcrops around its pointed summit. It is impossible not to want to climb it. I pester my parents until they take me on an expedition to conquer it. To their relief, I think, a quarter of a mile from the hotel I step into a stream that is too deep for my wellington boots. The water flows over the rims. Cold water rises inexorably up my legs. We have to empty my boots and turn back.The second, successful attempt on the summit has to wait over forty years. From the caravan where we are staying, the mountain’s profile is less imposing but it still exerts a magical attraction on me, nonetheless.

moel siabod

From the doorway you can see not only Siabod, but all the tops of the Carneddau mountains. If you stand in the right place, you can see the Snowdon group and the Glyders, too. In the photo, Moel Siabod is just to the right of the farmhouse.

ffridd ucha panoramaBandW

In a bookshop in Porthmadog I come across At The Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. I glance at it and get the feeling that if I buy it, I’ll not be able to put it down. I buy it and, no, I can’t put it down. In the first chapter she says how in the past two or three decades, the world has changed:

Some of those fashionable movements that knocked existentialism out of the way have aged badly themselves…

Quite*. Given the problems of the 21st century, she says,

there is a certain refreshment of perspective to be had from revisiting the existentialists, with their boldness and energy. They did not sit around playing with their signifiers. They asked big questions about what it means to live an authentic, fully-human life… They tackled questions about nuclear war, about… the environment, about violence, and about the difficulty of managing international relations in dangerous times….

Above all, they asked about freedom, which several of them considered the topic underlying all others…

The book is a compelling mixture of anecdote, history and philosophy. She has the knack of explaining potentially difficult ideas in a way which is easy to read. She riffs on the newsreel that survives of Jean-Paul Sartre’s funeral. Watch out for Simone de Beauvoir and for the bearer who takes off his hat – only to hurriedly replace it when he realises that the other bearers have left theirs on, in deference to a man who defied convention.


As I think I’ve said in previous posts, all through the eye problems I’ve been having this year I’ve been listening to a lot of music. This increasingly meant the music of Les Six, and of those six French composers, the music of Germaine Tailleferre and Darius Milhaud. Milhaud was prolific, writing over 400 pieces. There’s a case for saying he’s one of the best kept secrets of twentieth century music. In Cob Records, a record shop in Porthmadog, I find a NAXOS CD of Milhaud’s piano music. It includes his Saudades Do Brasil:


It also includes Milhaud’s own selection and piano arrangement of  his film music for the 1934 film of Mme Bovary. This is quite special, as it includes the actress Madeleine Milhaud, the composer’s widow, reading extracts from the book between the  short movements. Listening to it, I can’t help but wonder why his music’s not played more often. There is  sometimes a deceptive lightness to it which perhaps leads people to take it less seriously than they should. With another prolific composer, Haydn, he shares a humane sense of humour. Also, being prolific is not always good for popularity: if you write hundreds of pieces (the same probably goes for  creating books and paintings) people can find it hard to seek out your best work and “get a handle” on what you do. Added to that, Milhaud wrote a kind of music that fewer and fewer people seem to think they have a use for. Perhaps, like the existentialists, “there is a certain refreshment of perspective to be had from revisiting” his music. I certainly think so.


*Noam Chomsky has written about this.

The Mystery of the Octagon

The other day I posted photographs of a run I’d been on. One of the shots included the ruin of a wartime observation post. From what locals had told me, I assumed it had been used in WWII to spot approaching bombers.

Blogger The Benevolent Vegan was intrigued, and asked if I could take more photographs of the structure. I’m pleased she did, because when I went to take a closer look the other day I discovered a lot more about it.

It’s a pretty decrepit, two-storey structure, built of brick and concrete. Presumably there was once a ladder on the outside leading to the upper floor.


Oddly, there’s an octagonal hole in the concrete roof:


After a little online research, I discovered references to “type 14” radar installations being fitted into such octagonal holes. “Type 14” radar was invented in 1944, so if this was some sort of observation post built in WWII it would have been built quite near the end of the war.

A few yards from the ruin, a raised mound attracted my attention. I think I’d noticed this before, but assumed it was something to do with water or sewage. This time I paid it closer attention and discovered a concrete hatch…


OK, so the words “curiosity”, “cat” and “killed” occur to me now, in no particular order, but I couldn’t resist…


A doorway at the foot of the ladder opened into an oblong room. There’s about a foot of water in it these days. Fortunately, I was wearing my wellingtons. It was pitch dark and I had no torch with me but the camera has a flash…


By this time, I was beginning to question the WWII theory. I’m no expert but the fact that this structure was built in this way in this location made me think it was probably intended to withstand a nuclear rather than a conventional explosion. It seems far more likely that, in its present form,  it’s all that’s left of a Cold War radar station, probably designed to provide early warning of any nuclear attack on an air base that lies about 12 miles away. Improvements in radar in the 50s meant it probably fell into disuse soon after it was built. What’s left stands as a reminder that, whatever Bert the Turtle might say, in a nuclear war it pays to be fifteen feet underground in a concrete box – even if you live in the depths of the countryside.