Recalling a Canadian writer’s memory of distressed Wales

rhondda-mawr

If one travels for any length of time, one is bound to experience an unhappy adventure or two. What turns a miserable traveling experience into one that can be looked back on with, if not fondness, than at least a smile is the ability to take something away from the experience, be it a lesson, a memory or the ability to count one’s blessings.

George Woodcock (1912-1995) was a noted Canadian writer of political biography and history, an anarchist thinker and a literary critic. He also published several volumes of travel writing. As such, he experienced his share of “bad trips.” Among those that stood out was one he took in the early 1930s, during the Great Depression, while in his early 20s.

Woodcock was born in Canada but grew up in England. While he would later move back to Canada after World War II, he had an aunt who lived in the Glamorgan region in South Wales, which gave him the chance for free holidays. Apparently, he got what he paid for:

One day, when I was visiting her, I decided to take a bus and visit the Rhondda area, the heart of the South Wales mining district. Rhondda has a special place in the thoughts of those with Welsh connections, for one of the finest of all Welsh songs – stunning when the daios from the valley sing it at a rugby match – is called ‘Cwm Rhondda’  the hill of Rhondda. There are actually two valleys – Rhondda Mawr, Great Rhondda, or the main valley, and Rhondda Fach, the lesser valley of little Rhondda that branches off from it. I intended to go up Rhondda Mawr, cross over the intervening hills, and come down in Rhondda Fach, which I would descend and then make my way back to Bridgend, where I was staying.

It was the worst of times in Rhondda, though it probably looked just a little better than the best of times, since most of the mines were not working, and the smoke that would normally have given a dark, satanic aspect to the landscape was less evident that in more prosperous days. Still, it was dismal enough: a long ribbon of a main road with no real gap in the houses, so that it seemed like a single serpentine town, thickening out at each village centre like knots on a string. The houses were mostly built of gray stone long turned black from soot. In the middle distance reared up the gaunt towers and immense wheels of the pitheads and the truncated pyramids of the slag heaps. There were a few sickly trees among the houses, but the hills on each side were bare and greenish brown; spring had hardly begun.

It had the feeling of occupied territory. Many of the shops had gone out of business, the mines had slowed down years ago, and the General Strike of 1926 – disastrous for the workers – had delivered the coup de grace to the local economy. The people were shabby and resentful. Groups of ragged men squatted on their haunches, as miners do, and played pitch-and-toss with buttons; they had no halfpennies to venture. A man came strolling down the street, dejectedly whistling ‘The Red Flag’ in slow time as if it were a dirge.

Later, after being caught on the hills in a drenching downpour, Woodcock soddenly came across a slag heap where approximately 50 men and women were industriously picking over the ground.

I caught up with a man walking along the overgrown road from the mine into the village, whose damp slate roofs I could see glistening about half a mile away. He was pushing a rusty old bicycle that had no saddle and no tires, but it served to transport the dirty gunnysack he had tied onto the handle bars. He had been picking coat from the lagheap. ‘No bigger nor walnuts, man,’ he explained. The big coal had been taken years ago, so long ago it was since work had been seen in the village. I asked him how long he had been unemployed. ‘Ach y fi, man, it’s nine years I’ve been wasting and wasted.’ Yet he was friendly, perhaps because I looked such a wretched object that he saw me as an equal in misery.

(Top: View of Rhondda Valley today.)

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As crisis worsens, Venezuela becoming more isolated

simon bolivar airport

Venezuela’s implosion continues.

Amid hyperinflation, massive unemployment, social unrest, political oppression and shortages of food and medicine, the South American nation is on the verge of general anarchy, a legacy of Hugo Chávez’s years of mismanagement, along with that of successor Nicolás Maduro.

So it’s hardly surprising that airlines such as Lufthansa and LATAM Airlines are crossing the country off their schedules.

The pair joins Air Canada, American Airlines and Alitalia which in recent years have scaled back or suspended Venezuelan operations, according to The Economist.

But it isn’t just unrest or political chaos that’s driving airlines to divert flights elsewhere.

Venezuela, seeking to avoid yet another devaluation of its currency or outright repudiation of debt, which would cut off credit to the ailing oil industry, has tightened currency controls introduced by Chávez in 2003.

The restrictions make it almost impossible for companies such as international airlines to convert the Venezuelan currency, bolívares, into dollars.

This has made it difficult for international airlines, who typically charge customers in local currencies, to repatriate their profits.

That isn’t surprising given that Chávez initially implemented currency controls after capital flight led to a devaluation of the currency.

“Lufthansa has written off the more than $100 million it says it is owed; LATAM says it is due $3 million,” according to The Economist. “The International Air Transport Association, the airlines’ trade body, estimates that Venezuela’s government is withholding $3.8 billion of airline revenues.”

A Lufthansa spokesman told Agence France-Presse that the country’s difficult economic situation and “the fact that is it is not possible to transfer foreign currency out of the country,” is behind the company’s decision.

Lufthansa is scheduled to quit service to the country this week; LATAM, Latin America’s largest airline group, has said it will stop flights to Venezuela by Aug. 1.

Contrast the current situation with that of 40 years ago, when Venezuela’s oil wealth attracted business travelers – and airlines – from all over the world.

At present, just a handful of foreign airlines continue to serve the troubled nation, including Air France and United Airlines.

But both are public companies and it seems unlikely either can or will stand for having their revenues tied up by a banana republic.

(Top: Air France plane show in foreground at Simon Bolivar Airport, near Caracas, Venezuela.)

Vermont railroad roundhouse more than just a curiosity

Vermont Albany 9 9 2015 019

Railroad roundhouses are as much a thing of the past as steam locomotives and operational cabooses.

They used to dot transportation hubs across the US and Canada, but over the past few decades a high percentage have been torn down to make way for infrastructure upgrades or eliminated through that nefarious enemy of architectural history, urban renewal.

Today, just a small percentage of roundhouses remain, and of these, even fewer possess operating turntables, used to rotate locomotives and rail cars into different bays to enable workers to make repairs.

One such operational roundhouse and turntable can be found in northwestern Vermont, in the small, picturesque town of St. Albans.

St. Albans has been a railroad town since before the Civil War. The Vermont Central Railroad dates back to 1848, with a route running through St. Albans by the early 1850s. The line underwent different owners as the decades progressed, had its named changed to Central Vermont Railway at the end of the 19th century, but continued to dominate life in St. Albans until recent years.

Old-time view of St. Albans, Vt., train yard. Roundhouse can be seen in the upper left.

Old-time view of St. Albans, Vt., train yard. Circular roundhouse can be seen in the upper left.

At one point, more than 200 trains a day passed through the town. By 1923, when the current roundhouse was constructed, Central Vermont facilities, including a spectacular headquarters office, a machine shop and freight stations, spread across 51 acres of St. Albans’ downtown.

By the 1920s, the Canadian National Railway owned the Central Vermont and remained in control until 1995, when it sold to short line railroad company Genesee & Wyoming. The new entity was renamed the New England Central Railroad.

Today, the 366-mile line runs from Alburgh, Vt., to New London, Conn.

The St. Albans roundhouse has nearly two dozen stalls, though not all are in operating order. A peek inside last fall showed a pair of Connecticut Southern Railroad locomotives undergoing maintenance. In the yard, several New England Central locomotives were stationed about. The turntable was vacant, but at least one locomotive was positioned to move onto it, likely in preparation for regular upkeep.

Being able to poke around an active railroad roundhouse is akin to taking a trip back in time. The St. Albans facility has been in operation for more than 90 years. There have been train structures on the site for at least 150 years.

To give you an idea how unusual operational railroad roundhouses are, according to a survey done by the Railroad Station Historical Society, there isn’t a single roundhouse in the entirety of my state of South Carolina, either operational or non-operational.

It would appear the closest roundhouses are in Spencer, NC, and Savannah, Ga. Both are now part of museums.

It’s one thing to get a glimpse of the past; it’s another to see it still in action.

(Top: New England Central roundhouse in St. Albans, Vt., today, with Connecticut Southern Railroad just inside bay. Below: Photo from 1920s shows Central Vermont Railway locomotive at same facility.)

old steam engine at St. Albans roundhouse

Aging monument recalls calamitous era of sea travel

Pulaski

Amid the picturesque graveyard surrounding Presbyterian Church on Edisto Island in the South Carolina Lowcountry is a marble obelisk blackened with age. It’s a memorial not only to a handful of parishioners who died in one of the 19th centuries worst sea disasters but a reminder of just how dangerous travel by ship was at one time.

Eight names appear on the 15-foot marker, including that of Rev. James Joseph Murray, 43; his wife Mary, 38; daughter Elizabeth, 15; and son William, 11, victims of the sinking of the steamship Pulaski on June 14, 1838.

In addition to Murray and his family, Margaret Seabrook Mikell, 31; Joseph Edings Seabrook, 15; Sara Ann Edings, 27; and Sarah Josephine Edings, 5, are also listed. They were among approximately 130 individuals who died when the ship, which started from Savannah, Ga., June 13 en route to Baltimore, Md., was rent by a boiler explosion and foundered 30 miles off the North Carolina coast.

The death toll was said to have been the greatest suffered to that point by a steam-powered vessel.

Murray, Mikell, Edings and Seabrook are common names throughout both the graveyard and the region, and it’s likely the loss of the Pulaski touched most, if not all of the church’s parishioners in one way or another.

To give an idea of how common major maritime disasters were a century or more ago, the loss of the Pulaski doesn’t even rank among the top 80 deadliest ship disasters of the 19th century. In fact, if one looks at Wikipedia’s list of 19th century maritime disasters ranked by lives lost, the Pulaski isn’t mentioned at all, which leaves one wondering just how many other significant tragedies of that era have been forgotten.

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A typical summer day in United Kingdom air space

This mesmerizing video shows air traffic during a 24-hour period in the United Kingdom during a typical summer day.

Created by NATS, the UK’s leading provider of air traffic control services, the data visualization shows air traffic coming into, going out of and flying across the UK on a typical summer day.

It was created using real data from 7,000 flights from a day this past June as recorded by radar and air traffic-management systems.

Activity is shown at 800 times faster than real time, according to NATS.

The time runs from midnight to midnight and shows the arrival of early morning traffic coming across the Atlantic in the early hours, the build up through the day and then tapers off into the night before the pattern repeats.

The noticeable difference in flight speeds is likely due to varying speeds of commercial and military aircraft.

(Viewing this in full-screen mode is particularly cool.)

(HT: Carpe Diem)

Falcons’ marketing department takes a short siesta

falcons graphic

It’s long been a running joke that football players are better known for brawn than brains. Apparently, the marketing department of at least one professional football team didn’t pay all that much attention in college, either.

The Atlanta Falcons will be in London this weekend to play the Detroit Lions, part of the National Football League’s effort to broaden its fan base.

To give Falcons fans an inside look at the team’s journey across the Atlantic, the club posted the above infographic detailing the travel schedule.

Someone’s lack of geography knowledge could have proven costly, as the graphic showed the team traveling first to Baltimore and then to somewhere in Spain, rather than London, which would have left them more than 900 miles south of Wembley Stadium.

Fortunately, the Falcons were alerted to the mistake and corrected the error, greatly diminishing chances that a group of extremely large, muscular and no doubt irate men would be left wandering the confines of Barcelona Airport.

(HT: Deadspin)

Officials say shipwreck off Haiti is not Columbus’ Santa Maria

Santa Maria stamp

It appears that the shipwreck discovered earlier this year off the coast of northern Haiti is not that of Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria, according to the UN cultural agency.

UNESCO released a report earlier this month that concluded that a shipwreck in the Caribbean was likely from a 17th or 18th century vessel.

US explorer Barry Clifford had announced in May that he believed he had found the Santa Maria near the city of Cap-Haitien.

The ship, Columbus’ flagship from his first voyage to the Western Hemisphere, struck a reef and was abandoned in December 1492. Columbus returned to Spain with his two remaining ships, the Niña and the Pinta, beginning in January 1493.

“UNESCO said a team of experts who explored the site at the request of the Haitian government determined the wreckage was from a more recent vessel for reasons that included the discovery of copper nails and pins, used to fasten ship components, at the site,” according to an Associated Press report. “The Santa Maria would have used components of iron or wood, the agency said.”

The experts also believe that contemporary accounts, including Columbus’ own journal, indicate that the wreck is too far from the shore to be that of the Santa Maria, according to CNN.

The report added that it is possible the actual wreckage of the Santa Maria may be buried under what is now land because of heavy sedimentation from nearby rivers. It also recommended further archaeological investigation of the area.

The Santa Maria wasn’t a very big ship by modern standards, being about 60 feet long and weighing about 100 tons.

Clifford still stands by claim, calling the UNESCO report flawed because the agency’s experts did not consult him or the photos and charts he and his associates made of the wreckage site, according to the wire service.

He also said the copper components could have been used on the Santa Maria or the material came from another shipwreck that cross-contaminated the site in an area where a number of ships are known to have sunk.

“The explorer had reached his conclusion based on the location of the wreckage, the presence of the type of stones used for ballast in that era as well as a type of cannon that was there when he first took photos of the site in 2003 but had apparently been looted when he returned this year,” according to the Associated Press.

In its report, UNESCO faulted Clifford for announcing his findings in the media before officially informing the Haitian government of his intention to continue his research in the bay of Cap-Haitien.

(Top: 1892 US postage stamp featuring the Santa Maria.)