Rhymney and Bargod Taf Valleys, April 24th 2014. 15 miles

I drive to Caerphilly for the Rhymney train. The earliest train leaves at 7.51 which is later than I would choose. I’m on a clock today and must be home in good time. The man in the ticket office is amused, spotting my brushes, that I might be going to Rhymney to paint. The trains to Cardiff are packed, but mine, heading north, has maybe five people on it. The tides of work wash southwards. The train winds through the valley I grew up in, and I’m aware that I’m postponing that particular walk. It’s a route fraught with issues, some dead, some very much alive. After today it’s next on the list.
I arrive in Rhymney and squander minutes finding my way. There are no signs for the uninitiated, and I have not, unusually, read the map before arrival. As I walk into Pontlottyn there is thick low cloud on the hills. I go to buy water but the shopkeeper is a full five minutes pottering in his kitchen, so I head across the road to a competitor. I head towards the mountain and the edges of gelligaer common. Again I’m momentarily confused, unable to map read and sweating over time. I remember, as an 18 year old, trying to take this mountain road by car and being turned around by the densest fog I’ve ever seen, accompanied by an unusual sense of fear and foreboding. The fog is cleared now, but wonder if maybe the mountain doesn’t want me there.

I find my feet and make my way towards Fochriw. A green Asda bus passes me, making sure that these remote shoppers can find their way. I walked into Fochriw at least ten years ago, and in memory it was poorer then. It is remote, nestled between two hills. I like it here and am met with a series of friendly greetings. In imagination, Fochriw is the place at the edge of the map, where the Viking ships fall off, although there is no water. There are few shops, fewer pubs and a chip shop. I cross the mountain on road and footpath. It is magical and drawing is free, robust. Passing sheep with lambs and the common’s wild horses, I find along the way, a football boot, rubber dinghy, and car tyre; three abandoned relics of transport, following the Viking ships. I pass into Bedlinog, and on the road, am convinced that I am passed by the same car twice, going in the same direction, in two minutes, although this is not a circular rd. It gives me an odd sense of time, and I imagine coming down off the mountain to find that a hundred years have passed. Bedlinog makes me feel uncomfortable. Strange town on a steep hill, that twists and turns separating itself with its own road. I feel scrutinised here although I meet few people. This is my imagining. As the road flattens out my mood lightens and its a long straight road between the railway track and the Bargod Taf. I am pushing the pace aware of the need to make good time. There are beautiful stretches of river. I pass the climbing centre and notice as I reach the end of the valley, that the riverbanks has been landscaped for the community. There has been investment here making this accessible to the community and is clearly enjoyed. Again, I notice little evidence of places to work. Small businesses, cafes and hairdressers. I wonder if communities built on large scale industry continue to view work as something that is given rather than created. Is dependency a learnt or taught position? There is scope in these communities for provision that is now reached by car. The day is warming up as I move towards Nelson. I have waterproof trousers for forecast rain, but no hat for unexpected sun. I cross the bridge into Nelson that once was graffiti’d with “We voted Labour, got Thatcher”. I pass the Lord Nelson pub, scene of youthful new years revelry and drunken kisses. The handball court. I take the road to Senghenydd mountain or mynydd eglwysilan. Cars hurtle by me alarmingly as I climb. Again, the mountain is beautiful. I look back to see where I have come from. I see the beacons in the distance and familiar horizon of youthful walking. I walked here ten and twenty years ago, and then the mountain was littered with burned out cars. None of these today, although abandoned tv sets are grazing in pairs. I am feeling the distance, the pace that I have tried to maintain. I start the descent into senghennydd. There are remnants of industry, machine and buildings. A hundred years ago Senghennydd saw the worst of Britain’s mining disasters, with four hundred men and boys dying together. I try to imagine the impact on a village where even the loss of one man in known and felt. I count a street of thirty houses to try to find context and its beyond my imagining, how this may have been held, over decades within the valley. The memorial is tended by a group of elderly visitors, keeping it tidy and I wonder at their connections. Moving through abertridwr, I feel increasingly strange. Fatigue, the sun on my head, move me into an altered state, my senses functioning differently, more present, more remote. Walking and drawing this way help me explore the edges of myself. Drawing is raw, frantic, but oddly focussed in a way my body is not. I head towards Caerphilly passing a hall where I attended a fancy dress party as a child. Wurzel gummidge, and a prize of dairy milk chocolate, small wrapped pieces. Into Caerphilly and I drop a carbon crayon over a fence and am too exhausted to retrieve it though it sits in the grass in front of me. A speeding BMW scares me awake half way across the road. At Caerphilly I make a last stop at the castle, ignoring the timer that usually selects my drawings for me. I can’t ignore it. Great heap of rock, built to repress and control the locals. Giant thing, which after a while, due to proximity, I had forgotten to see. As a baby I clearly remember feeding ducks here. The sound of pushchair on gravel path. Mother and grandmother. Spring sunshine. 40 years or so. The car is close by.

WWI veteran and Fochriw boy who went most of his 96 years with a bullet in his heart.


March 6th 1918 and we were occupying a point in the Palestine Campaign knows as Dodd’s Hill.  We had relieved a London Regiment here a few days previously.

On this particular night we were ordered to attack the Turks who were holding a position facing us, known as Lemon Hill.  Towards midnight we had crept within bayonet charging distance when the Turks discovered us.  They opened fire and then fled.  Our losses, one stretcher bearer killed.  At daybreak on March 7th we moved forward to the next hill.  Another company had passed through and we were lying in close support.  The day was fairly quiet, machine gun and rifle fire was coming in from the flanks, yet I was not very happy.  We had come a long way from Gaza, Beirsheba, Bethlehem and Jerusalem and with the Turks at breaking point and the 7th March being my twentieth birthday I wonder!!!!

The light began to fade and then it came, just as I was beginning to feel safe - the bullet entered my shoulder and I sank to my knees.  There was a cry for a stretcher bearer, I felt faint but held on, then I was whisked away quickly to safety under a rock.  My breathing by this time was particularly bad and I was coughing up blood.  There was no exit to the bullet.  I drank all the water my pals had issued to them, and who visited me during the hours of darkness.  I now had to wait to be picked up by the R.A.M.C. from the advanced field dressing station.

Towards midnight I saw approaching my shelter and to this day I cannot understand why these three R.A.M.C. men carried a lamp.  They put me on a stretcher, but I had to sit up in order to breathe and spit up blood.  How the Turks did not see the reflection from the lamp I still question myself.  The Whiz Bangs kept following us.  The bearers would put me down and dive for shelter.  It was a nightmare journey which took hours, winding in and out of the hills.  At day break we arrived at the dressing station.  I was given an anti-tetanus injection and continued my journey by mule cart to Jerusalem.

The hospital turned out to be an Italian School and was manned by R.A.M.C. Staff.  ’Do it yourself’ was the rule there and I had to crawl around as best I could.  My wound was dressed and healing in a week or so.  A doctor who arrived there made enquiries as to how I felt and said he had no equipment to hand and I was to let him know when I felt I could make the journey to Lud or Lydda as it is now called.  In the meantime I was dosed with Morphia tablets.

Towards the end of the month I decided to try the journey to Lud.  The roads were very rough and I found it very painful, but in a few days we landed at the 15th General Hospital in Alexandria and there I was given an x-ray to locate the bullet.  This was found by a Captain Wright who drew a diagram of my left shoulder.  People seemed very interested in me, wanting to know how I felt and so on.  Later Matron visited me with similar enquiries and asked for the address of my mother as she intended writing to her.  Soon afterwards I learned that the bullet had lodged in my heart.  The diagram drawn by the Captain  was sheer bluff.

Anxious days and nights followed with everyone being most kind and a night nurse whose home town was Bristol being particularly attentive.  News came that the 15th General Staff were leaving for  Salonica and that I was being transferred to England, so I was sent first to the 21st General Hospital where a buxom Australian Sister told me that she was going to build me up so that I could face the journey in the first Hospital Ship available.  This ship was the Dunluce Castle.  I felt the benefit of her building up until a Chaplain visited me and asked if I was prepared to meet my God.  When I told him I was not, he replied that I was a very sick person and I should be.  This made me feel that the Chaplain had information that I had not been given.  I was in a very shocked state.

My companion on the Hospital Ship the Dunluce Castle was a Londoner named Jolly who had lost both eyes.  How he could be jolly in name and nature was beyond me.  He sang most of the day through the voyage home.

A few days after leaving Alexandria I made an effort to lower myself on to the floor and climb the four or five stops to the deck.  This without the doctor knowing.  Each day brought new life and strength, walking on the deck in the sea air.  The doctor who visited me during my absence was amazed when he discovered me on the deck.  I managed to walk to the x-ray department where the staff enjoyed looking at the bullet ticking away with my heart beat.  One of the doctors advised me strongly not to allow anyone to operate on me.  ”Someone might be mad enough to try” he said.  He also advised me to take up my civilian job once I had been discharged from the army and to forget - FORGET - the bullet.  ”Of course” he said “you know where it is”.

On arriving at Avonmouth, very excited to be back home again, we were given the choice of Hospital trains.  No. 1 and 2 bound for London and Netley.  I chose no. 3 bound for Bristol, this being nearer my home and was taken to the 2nd Southern General Hospital, South Mead.  I tried to telephone home but this liberty was allowed to officers only.  I had to be satisfield with sending a post card to inform them people at home of my arrival.  Pa and Ma and Grandad Ballard arrived the following day a little apprehensive as to what the surgeon would tell them.

Throughout that summer of 1918 I was continually x-rayed, but though I expected to be questioned about an operation, no one suggested it.  One morning Captain Short, the Surgeon, visited me at the hospital and told me that it had been interesting having me at the hospital but there was nothing else he could do for me so I could take my discharge anytime.  I left the army on the 18th August 1918.