David Harris: Lighting the beacon

David Harris remembers lighting a beacon in Ebbw Vale to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II.

So it's over fifty years since this country gained a fairy-tale queen. I'm sure everyone remembering that day carries in their minds a clear picture of so much beauty and radiance that forever the word royal has for them a special, almost magical meaning.I was fourteen at the time, and my personal recollection is coloured by the part I played in the grand scheme. Though humble, it is probably worth recording....

The idea was that on the evening of Coronation Day, a signal rocket would be set off from the grounds of Buckingham Palace, which when seen would trigger a chain of rockets from surrounding counties until every place in the realm had launched its maroon. On each peak would be a bonfire, lit when the rockets flared. The beacons would spread from hill to hill and the country would rejoice.

Our hill, the Domen above Ebbw Vale, had its bonfire, built by the town council from old railway sleepers and the tallest by far for miles around. Across the valley, the Brynmawr bonfire was impressive too, and quite large enough to be seen for miles. Anticipation grew, but one night there was consternation, because some wags had set alight to the bonfire on the top of the neighbouring Tredegar mountain and it was a week before the due day!

It was too close for comfort! Clearly the Ebbw Vale beacon had to be protected and the town council asked the Boy Scout organisation, Baden-Powell's finest, to mount a 24-hour guard. I was one of the youngsters asked to do the duty and we spent a week under canvas at the top of the mountain.

We started by pitching our tents on the top, near the bonfire, but soon found the wind amazingly strong and cold, even in June. After having to retrieve a tent blown from over our heads into the valley on the first night, discretion took our whole camp a hundred yards or so leeward of the summit.

There was plenty of wood for our campfires, and draught enough to fire a furnace. One snag was that all the wood had been shipped up with the railway sleepers that formed the pyre and obviously came from the same source. It was totally impregnated with creosote - that black, tarry wood preservative now banned. So anyone downwind of the campfire ended up looking like one of George Mitchell's Minstrels - also now banned!

Compounding this was the lack of water so close to the top, anticipated by the provision of one leaky canvas bucket. We took turns to trudge down into the valley, fill up at the stream and try to get back with at least half the water still in the bucket. Our water was so precious! We needed to use some for cooking of course, and what we could save from that went to supplement our own ablutions, with washing up coming a poor third. That was rough living that was.

But I'm ignoring the main task. For that week, we guarded the bonfire day and night, taking shift and shift about. We patrolled round and round, so that everyone on the shift could have a turn in the lee of the pile of sleepers. They had been carefully stacked, a bit like a log cabin around the outside, with the looser stuff filling the middle. That regular structure gave rise to the most weird and mournful sounds as the wind rose and fell. We tried singing campfire songs to keep the spirits up, but just couldn't compete.

I had found a marquee mallet. Just the head of this thing was about six inches in diameter and nearly a foot long. At 13, I couldn't hold it off the ground for long, so I dragged it around behind me like some sort of mighty deterrent, full of menace long before the cold war really took hold.

If I had been able to hit a saboteur with it, I'd surely have driven them into the ground like a tent peg. I must add though, that it was so cold we had all gradually taken to adding clothes rather than changing them.

Before the end I was wearing two vests, two pairs of pants, my clean shirt underneath my dirty shirt, my clean sweater underneath my dirty sweater, two jackets and a mackintosh, with the lot topped off with a hat and a First World War gas cape. I could move, albeit a little slowly. If I'd fallen down I'd never have been able to get up.

We learned from the sheep too. One feature of the Welsh mountains we all got used to quickly as children, was that there were many treacherous fissures, particularly on the tops of the ranges. A lot of them were quite irregular and although seemingly bottomless to us, had ridges and rock platforms just below the surface where sheep found cosy places out of the draft.

We followed suit, and roped ourselves in comfortably to spend a secure hour or so between duties. I never told my parents about that, judging it too scary for them. But then, a scout is resourceful.

Eventually of course, our duty done, the lorries came up the mountain track with all the dignitaries and we lined up and waited. I don't know why, but we all looked in the direction of London - a hundred miles away as the crow flies. The first rocket we actually saw was in nearly the opposite direction. I guess what counted was the number of rockets in between rather than the distance.

With that our maroon went up with a great whoosh and a deafening bang. The blowtorch was lit, up went the bonfire and the world disappeared in pitch black, thick, pungent smoke. The beacon was an impressive sight when it was well alight and we watched Tredegar - hastily rebuilt - and Brynmawr flaring away. Lights dotted the distant hills and standing there with Alan Ricketts, Brian Gillette, Tony Hillier and the other intrepid lads, I'm sure we all felt very proud. If I knew where they were now I'd ask them - I know they wouldn't have forgotten that moment.

When I got home that night, my mother took one look, put newspapers on the floor and marshalled me straight to the bathroom, where it took two lots of water before I looked Welsh again.

My enthusiasm couldn't be dampened though. Filling my mind was what remains even today as the pinnacle of the thing. In the brief mayoral speech, which started the ceremony, we had our tribute - and first heard the news that Edmund Hilary and Tensing Norgay had climbed Everest. Another two of us I guess!

© David Harris, 1st Cwm Scouts 

© evcgs former pupils 2013