The day the planes stopped

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In the early spring of 2010 the volcano, Eyjafjallajökull — “Island Mountain Glacier”, erupted in Iceland. The resulting ash cloud gradually spread south across Europe prompting a moratorium on flying in case the air borne grit caused damage to the jet engines of thousands of passenger planes.

The 10th of May dawned blue and bright, and sparklingly free of the vapour trails that usually scarred our South Wales sky. One of the perks of being your own boss is that you can occasionally swing a day off when the opportunity arises, and with my two younger sons off that day, I quickly checked my emails before deciding to do just that.

The Spring weather was warm enough to have breakfast outside and we lingered afterwards and planned our off the cuff day. My wife, poor thing, had to work, so it was a boys day out. I had told them several times of the day, many years before, that my father had taken me up the mountain from Brynamman to look for the fabled Roman Road.

Son and Father
I can’t remember what day of the week it was (probably a weekend — my father rarely took a day off), or even what time of year it was but we were dressed for summer. My dad in his day off clothes of slacks, open necked shirt and corduroy ‘sgitie dala adar’ (bird catching shoes). Me in shorts, t-shirt and my ever present t-bar sandals. Hardly mountain climbing gear but it was hardly a mountain we were climbing.

Officially the ‘Black Mountains’ but in our vicinity a series of gently sloping hills. Our village sat in the protective embrace of the Brecon Beacons range. Their colour varied with the seasons, pale-green, red-brown, golden-brown, beige, often white with snow, but black, only when it was raining, which was a fair bit of the time I suppose. They sported bracken and heather on the peat-rich lower slopes thinning to tough hardy grasses further up and tiny, vibrant wildflowers dotted the ground. The surface was generously scattered with lichen covered limestone boulders of varying sizes that gave shelter to the many sheep and ponies that grazed on the common land.

A wise mountain walker would follow the tracks that sheep had worn bare with generations of cloven hooves, and this is what my father and I did, as we emerged from the path up through the old quarry to pass the weir at the lower reaches.

My father’s knowledge of the mountain was ingrained from a childhood of having to make his own adventures with his friends. He grew up in the 1930s when they had few material possessions to entertain themselves. He had told me of their discovery of the ‘Roman Road’ a couple of miles above the village and I was keen for him to show me the remnants of that bygone age.

After an hour or so of walking across soggy peat bogs, progressing via tufts of reedy grass (avoiding a full boot that might squelchingly curtail the adventure), we came out onto more solid ground. My father indicated a flatter, boulder free area to the right and we skirted along this until it became apparent that it was a gently kerbed space about ten metres wide, stretching off into the distance - blurred by decades of soil and grass but still recognisably a road. I was tremendously excited to be treading in the the footsteps of legions, gladiators and charioteers I’d read about in Look and Learn.

Father and Sons
Our 21st Century reprise of this escapade began with a stop off at Lidl’s to buy a picnic to eat at the top of the mountain. We bought a variety of crisps, some dips, salami, cheese and a pot of ridiculously cheap and delicious crayfish tails. An exotic concoction that would have been beyond our comprehension in the early seventies. I got water and juice and a few bars of chocolate for dessert. We were also equipped with a metal detector, trowels and a spade in the unlikely hope of finding a hoard of sesterces. I had insisted the boys wore their walking boots, determined they should get some use before the little buggers grew out of them again.

We completed the twenty mile journey and parked a little closer to the foothills than my dad and I had set out from. We were soon laden with rucksack and carrier bag of food and off on our trek. At this time of year the grass was just recovering from the farmers’ burnings to clear the old bracken. Patches of burned ground surrounded us still reeking of the black ash. The new grass sprouting through was tough and wiry, as were the sheep who fertilised it with their copious droppings. Soaring lark song greeted us as we began our ascent, and I was struck by how alone we were, not another person or car in sight.

Bryn, nine years old, set off at a trot. He’d always had a good engine even as a toddler and could run for miles without stopping or seemingly even tiring. When he was six he used to come up to Dunvant Rugby Club with me when his older brother was training and would run around the pitch for the entire hour we were there. His brother Gareth, at thirteen, was already a good athlete and rugby player. A year later he would be U15s Welsh indoor pole vault champion, so I was going to have my work cut out to keep up with these two yompers.

Alongside their advantages of youth and fitness I somehow ended up carrying everything and was soon lagging behind. My slower pace, however, proved the wiser tactic as the boys gradually tired on the slope and I caught up just as we came in sight of the depression in the ground we’d been looking for.

I could sense the boys’ disappointment that the road was not obviously paved or maintained in any way but I tried to kindle their imaginations by explaining the construction methods and longevity of the Romans’ works. They started asking questions and decided where they would begin sweeping with the metal detector — the gutter, they reasoned, might be a spot where a soldier may have dropped a coin or even a dagger and lost it for us to find centuries later.

After an hour searching we had only found a rusty old piece of barbed wire and the boys’ impatience, fuelled by hunger, put paid to our excavations and we decided to carry on to the summit for our picnic.

Many years before, when I was nine myself, I had walked up to the top with a couple of friends and we had left our mark on the mountain by forming our initials on the ground with small boulders. It was to this spot we now headed and I was delighted to be able to make out the undisturbed arrangement almost forty years later.

As we ate our food I reflected on the eternal nature all around us. These mountains had barely changed in centuries, millennia. Bar a catastrophic meteor strike they would likely remain as they were for centuries to come. We were just crawling across them as insignificant as ants, barely scratching the surface. My father and I had walked this way just a few moments ago. Mere seconds had passed since my friends and I moved these stones and now here I was with my sons barely registering the tiniest wrinkle in the grand spread of time.

I looked up. The clear, blue, plane free sky was endless and timeless in its purity.

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All this, and still European too.

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