Climbing up Moel y Croesau, Hill of the Crosses, near Trawsfynydd, the climber can see many landmarks: the Llyene Peninsula stretching languorously into the Irish Sea, the hills of Porthmadog, and Afon Dwyryd and its tributaries. It’s a map come to life pinned down in the wild wind by pylons that seem to send crackles down their wires. The wind on this crazily sunny and hot spring day was whooshing past our ears, and whistling through the wild grasses that were swirled into nest-like shapes or whipped into ocean wave formations by the restless breeze. There were three of us on this hike: my husband, our friend and generous guide Brian Axworthy, and me.
Shin deep, the feral grasses discouraged unmindful walking by tangling around our toes and ankles at every step. In places there was soft, soggy moss checkerboarded among the grasses making the terrain soft and squishy, reminding me of the way the surface of Perelandra was described in the science fiction trilogy. Not that this entire landscape is soft.
On November 19, 1943, under a waning crescent moon, four airmen died and two survived when their Wellington bomber crashed upon this desolate landscape. It was routine flight, but radio failure, a cloudy night, and, due to their blind wandering, a diminishing fuel supply doomed the mission. In the dark hours after midnight they had no choice but to descend in order to try to establish their position, but their plane’s wing clipped an outcropping of rock on Moel y Croesau, which stands at 1,608 feet.
We had come up this hill to pay tribute. To stand under the radiant mid-day sun in its endless blue sky, while thinking of the dark pain of war and loss is an unforgettable experience any day; but ours was made all the more so by the sudden appearance of a pair of fighters, perhaps Hawks or Typhoons, appearing in opposite corners of the sky suddenly out of nowhere, charging at one another: tipped so each had a wing pointed to the ground, and the other skyward, as in a modern jousting position. They seemed no more than 100 feet up and crossed each other not 100 vertical feet apart over our heads and vanished. It was a beautiful salute. Not one of us had been camera-ready. We had been walking, watching our feet; the jets thundered in and out in the blink of an eye.
As I said, it was madly sunny and hot. The grasses were the color of desert. Someone hearing this story, or you perhaps reading it, might think we enjoyed a mass mirage. Except for the optical illusion of water on a sunny highway, I don’t think I’ve experienced visions. And I’m not sure mirages come with sound.
So, we took the visit of the fighters as a sign that we must have found the exact spot where the Wellington had come to rest. The engines and the larger parts of the wreckage had been hauled away long ago. The remainder had been absorbed by the soft land in the seven decades since. Down the hill near some stones, not visible from here, there is a small memorial.
No more jets appeared.
So we started down the hill, something that is harder to do than walking up it. The hillside is step and it feels as if gravity is playing tricks.
Moel y Croesau not only bears the poignant history of the fallen Wellington, but is packed with gold. The gold mines here, the same ones, are known as the Prince Edward or Moel y Croesau, or Bwlch y Llu. Sometimes in the latter two names the “y” is omitted. Keeping my nose down to see where my feet were going, I even found a tiny gold nugget. It was just sitting there, glinting in the sun. Turned out it was fool’s gold, once I tried the home test on it (gently rub the nugget on a piece of unglazed pottery. If it leaves a mark, it’s pyrite).
The mines here, perhaps not surprising, since this is the middle of nowhere, seemed pretty accessible. The shafts are guarded only by sleepy gates and pools of cold water. The ground is stained rusty red, and spooky foliage surrounds the mouths of the shafts.
Farther down the hill, the land leveling out now, the spectacular loneliness of the crash site and the gaping mine shafts left behind, we were warmly greeted by ponies. No doubt they have seen visitors pass this way before, and no doubt they know many of them bear apples and other snacks. They were right and the friendly ones got their apple slices, while some shy ones clustered underneath a tree, looking on.
The shade and coolness as we descended from the hill top depth of heaven was a welcome relief.
# # #