UK: Cornwall: The Mining Coast

The ruins of copper and tin mines can be found all along the west coast of Cornwall from its southern tip at Lands End north towards St Ives.  We set off on a damp and extremely cold morning in June (it was supposed to be summer) to find some of those mine sites.

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This coast and the nearby inland moors are often shrouded by a mist that adds to the mystery of this once very busy mining area. The noise of mine heads and crushing hammers that boomed out across the whole area are now silent.  The smoke and steam from the engine houses rise no more.  Only ruins of the past remain to remind us that here men, women and children worked long hours in often very dangerous conditions to mine ore.  And some of those miners were David’s forbears.  We needed to learn more.

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Parking the car near the old Levant Mine, we were stunned by the beauty of the area and by the number of wild flowers that adorned this long disused mine site.

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Thrift was again in abundance.  It’s probably the most common plant of the coast.

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Being common, it’s often overlooked.  But each flower is a delight.

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Walking here is very picturesque with chimneys and the ruins of mine workings rising from the landscape.

Any one who enjoys walking holidays would do well to consider this coast.

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There were carpets of yellow Vetch and Silene everywhere.

There are no trees here and most plants grow low to the ground,

in an attempt to shelter from the wild winds that often lash these shores.

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These tiny flowers are well worth the effort of getting down low to enjoy them.

The plant name is unknown to us.  Any help?

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But we hadn’t come just to enjoy the wildflowers and the scenery.  We’d come to learn something about the mines.  We began by visiting the National Trust owned Levant Mine where some buildings and a steam pump engine have been restored.  A guide is available to explain the workings and the history of these mines.

A large part of Cornwall is made up of slate and greenstone intruded by granite and over 150 other minerals have been found in this ancient geological area.  Of most importance were the ‘veins’ of tin and copper ores found within fractures in the granite.

For about 2,000 years, copper and tin mining has been part of Cornwall’s history.  Much of the very early mining was ‘stream’ mining for ore found on or near the surface or in streams.  Mining families were somewhat self sufficient as they also farmed the fields whose boundaries had been laid out hundreds of years before.   Gradually, the mines became ‘beam’ or ‘coffin’ openwork mines in which ore close to the surface was dug by hand.  By the mid 16th century miners were working the alluvial deposits in the inland valleys and the ore loads that could be seen in the coastal cliffs.

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As miners began to dig down into the cliffs, it became ever more obvious that here was the real wealth.  But to get to this ore would require underground mines – and that would require money that the poor miners did not have.  All this coincided with a growing market for minerals as the industrial revolution changed manufacturing processes.  For the established land owners and gentry, and for outside investors, there was wealth to be made in Cornwall.   And so, in the the late 1700s and early 1800s, many new mines were opened in Cornwall.  St Just, the only market town in this isolated coastal area, now became more important.

It was soon realised that the richest veins were down very deep and some even extended out under the sea. With much more profitable ore loads on offer, the Levant Mining Company was formed in 1820 by twenty investors, or ‘adventurers’ as they were called in Cornwall.  With a capital of ₤400 divided into 80 shares, these investors shared in the profits of what became a very successful mine.  Many of them were not even Cornish men and had never been into a mine.  They had no real idea of the hard work involved to provide them with their ever increasing wealth.  There was a great divide between the investors and the miners.

Underground mining was very dangerous in extremely difficult conditions.  Miners, and their women and children who also worked for the mines, took home very little pay and lived relatively short lives whilst the ‘adventurers’ became ever richer.

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P1240316 Cartoon by Emma Metcalfe

This is one of the cartoons from a little book that I bought at the mine, “A Family Guide to Mining in Cornwall” written by Lucia Crothall.  It tells the stories of a real miner, John Harris, who began working underground at the age of ten.  John became famous in Cornwall for the poems he later wrote about his experiences.

The words of the cartoon reads: “It is smelly, hot, down here.  No toilets, nothing but blackness to see and its hard to breathe in the dusty atmosphere.”

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P1240304  Cartoon by Emma Metcalfe

While John and other boys like him worked with the miners underground, above them, in their fine houses, the owners wined and dined and lead the good life.  This great divide between the rich and the poor was seen as ‘normal’; part of the mores of the time – each one born to their place in life.  But that would change over the years as miners began to take on the idea of unionism, which of course was resented by the owners.  It was, in fact, against the law to speak of unions and many a miner who spoke his mind was imprisoned or transported to Australia as a convict.  It would take years of outspokenness by many brave men before conditions would change in favour of better conditions for the miners.

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As Levant Mine was developed, it was found that the richest lodes of ore were not only deep under the ground but they extended far out under the sea.  As each lode was mined out, the shaft was dug down further to find the next rich vein of ore to be mined.  Some of the working ‘levels’ that ran off from the shaft extended out over a mile under the sea.

In time, the Levant shaft went down to 350 fathoms (2,100 feet or 640 meters) – Cornish mines were always measured in fathoms, one fathom equalling 6 feet.  So not only did the miners have to climb down a long way, but then they had to ‘walk’ a long way through cramped, rough tunnels before they even began their ten to twelve hours shift.   Above their heads they could hear the rumble of the sea as it churned the sea bed, particularly in stormy weather.  Water posed the constant threat of flooding.  But no matter the conditions, they had to work to feed their families.  Despite the conditions, and maybe because of their ability to overcome hardship, over the years they became very proud of their skills as miners.

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For years, the only way down into the mines was by means of a series of wooden ladders.   From the story of John Harris we learn that when he was twelve, he started to work deep underground with his father.  To begin the descent into the mine, a rope was attached between the father and son.  They then had to climb down over 60 ladders in all, in the dark, to a depth of 200 fathoms (1,200 feet or 366 meters).  As they went, John often grazed his legs and arms against the rocks.  Down at the work level, all was blackness.  Their only light was a candle which had to be bought by his father from the mine shop.   John said, “I hated it in the dark, dangerous underground.”

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John’s father used a spike and hammer to make a hole to take some blasting powder, an activity that often caused injury in mines.  When the rocks were blasted away, John’s task was to put the loose pieces of ore into a wooden barrow (like the one above that was found on another mine site.)  He then wheeled the barrow, in the dark, along the rough ground of the level to the shaft.

There, he loaded the rocks into egg shaped buckets, called kibbles, to be hauled to the surface by a horse powered winch.  One day the chain broke and a bucket filled with ore crashed down right beside John.  Another day the roof above where he was working suddenly collapsed with a deafening noise filling the tunnel with dust.  John was filled with the fear of being trapped.

At the end of working hard for ten to twelve hours in those cold, damp, very dark conditions, John and his father had to climb back up all those wooden ladders to get back ‘to grass’.  Many times it was recorded that an exhausted miner either lost his footing or his grip on the rungs and fell to his death down the mine shaft.  Those climbing up beneath him were often taken down as well.

Death walked beside each miner each day.  But the mateship of miners and their loyalty to each other became legendary.  ‘One for all’ was their motto and there were always men ready to help search for fellow miners trapped underground.  But the death or maiming of a miner mattered little in the eyes of most owners.  Miners were expendable.  If they didn’t like the working conditions, they could go without work.  There were plenty of others who needed work to try to feed their families.

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There was not a lot to a miner’s life except work, smoking his clay pipe, drinking ale to slake his thirst and begetting more children to become workers to help feed the family.  While boys went below ground with the men, women and girls (the bal maidens) and small children worked above ground.  There are also accounts of women, often stripped to the waist in the heat and dust, working below ground pulling the carts of ore back to the shafts.

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On the surface, the work of the bal maidens, small children and men too old, sick or maimed to work underground, was to sort and break up the ore with hammers before taking the broken rock to the noisy stamping crushers.  It was hard, rough work for very little pay; a few pence at the most.

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During the mid 1800s, Cornish engineers and innovators harnessed the power of steam to develop steam engines that helped to make the mines more efficient and improve safety standards.  These engines were housed in buildings like the one that has been restored at Levant. There were, at one time, 2,500 of these engine houses in Cornwall.  Most are now in ruins; reclaimed by nature.

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During our guided tour of Levant Mine, the beam engine was powered up for a short time to demonstrate how it had changed the way mines worked and how much deeper a mine could go if engines were used.  These engines made it possible for ore to be lifted to the ground mechanically instead of by horse drawn winches. They also made it possible to pump out water much more efficiently.

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But steam engines required coal to burn and for that the mine owners turned to the Welsh collieries.  Crushed ore was shipped from Cornwall to the big smelters in Swansea in Wales and the ships returned laden from Wales with coal.  Wales and Cornwall now shared much more than just their Celtic origins, their belief in the preaching of Wesley and their love of singing.  (That’s another story!)

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One of the benefits of the steam engines was that the ever inventive Cornish engineers, like Richard Trevithic, improved the ways that mines worked.  One of these inventions was the ‘man lift’.  Using the movement of the pumping shafts, miners were able to move up and down the shafts in small stages of about ten to twelve feet.  This made descent into, and ascent from the workings, easier and safer.  Because of that, they were able to work longer and harder at the ore face thus improving profits.  It was a win-win situation.

However, there were times when these lifts were not maintained properly and miners crashed to their deaths below when the man lift broke.  It happened at Levant in 1919 with the deaths of 34 miners.

Times became very hard for the miners and their families in the 1840s because food was scarce and costly in Cornwall; there was a potato famine and the Corn Laws sent the prices of wheat well out of the reach of poor miners.  Times were becoming harder for the mine owners too.  Copper and tin were found in places like Malaysia and South America and, in 1850, in Burra, South Australia.  As prices fluctuated for the Cornish minerals, many mines became unviable.  At the same time, both Cornish miners and Cornish engineers were highly sort after by these overseas mines; the Cornish knowledge of mining was well known.  Many miners left Cornwall including David’s Great, Great, Great grandfather, William Ellis, who sailed with his wife and young children to start a new life in South Australia.  When gold was discovered in Victoria, they moved there to mine for gold in Castlemaine.

As word of gold finds in Australia and California became common knowledge in England,  thousands more miners and their families sailed from Cornwall across the world in the hope of making better lives for themselves.  And among those who sailed to Australia, were David’s Great, Great Grandfather, Thomas Bray and his brother James.

Unknown to each other whilst living in Cornwall, these two Cornish mining families were joined together in Australia when William’s grandson married Thomas Bray’s daughter in Victoria in 1889.  These families were never to return to Cornwall.

Apart from the cost and the length of a return journey ‘back home’, there was no reason for a miner to return to Cornwall.  By the end of the 1800s and early 1900s most of the mines were closing and Cornwall was left to reinvent itself.  And that reinvention eventually came in the form tourism.  Over time, as road and rail began to penetrate further into the scenic Cornish countryside, the lives of the Cornish miners, fishermen and smugglers became the stuff of legends and that gave the impetus for the growth of museums.  Many hotels and guest houses were built to house these visitors.  Cornish families opened their homes as B&Bs.  And to sustain their way of life, wealthy families were forced to open their gardens and houses to the public.  Many properties were given to the National Trust.  We, like thousands of visitors every year, enjoyed this new Cornwall even while we were learning more about the lives of David’s ancestors, the Bray and Ellis families.

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After our visit to the mine, we had much to think about as we turned inland once again to explore the narrow flower filled roads of the moors.  Staying away from the main tourist destinations, we were beginning to fall in love with Cornwall, its narrow roads, its small villages and its very friendly people …to say nothing of tasty Cornish pasties and afternoon teas of warm scones, home made strawberry jam and thick clotted cream.  But more of that anon.

Jennie and David

Photography  Copyright  ©  JT and DY of jtdytravels

UK: Cornwall: Sennan Cove

The beaches of Cornwall are very popular with English visitors from the northern counties as well as overseas visitors.  Some, like Port Isaac, have been made too famous by TV shows such as Doc Martin.  Others, like St Ives, are now famous as artist colonies.  And still others are fishing villages, such as Padstow, which TV chef Rick Stein has made famous.  In summer, they are all filled with tourists.

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Today, there are many more tourists in Padstow than when I was there in 1986.  Now, the village shops are all cafes and souveneir shops.  Now, pleasure yachts fill the harbour with many fewer of the working fishing boats.  It has lost its allure for me, although, judging by the number of tourists, it’s still a big drawcard for many.  We were looking for something further off the beaten track.

Perhaps the most famous of all Cornish tourist destinations is Land’s End.  It’s always packed with tourists and, even back in 1986, there was not a lot of the natural beauty left to be enjoyed.  It’s become something of a fairground.  I would not go there again.

We sought a quiet place to enjoy the weekend and found Sennan Cove, only a short distance north from Land’s End.  It’s a place left in peace by the tourist buses which would find it very difficult to make their way down the narrow, twisting, steep road to the cove.   And, anyway, there’s not a lot for a busload of tourists to do… it’s just a peaceful beach.  It was perfect for us!

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When we arrived, the sea was calm and there were just a few people on the beach enjoying that peace.

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Patches of seaside daisies held their faces up to the warm afternoon sun.

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Some daisies even grew into an electrical box by the edge of the road!

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Our home away from home for the weekend was the Old Success Inn, built in the 1600s and, in some ways, it still felt like that. It was a bit of a rabbit warren of rooms with bits added to the original building over the centuries.  This was the Inn where David slept on the floor because the bed was so soft he thought that it would cave in and smother him!   At least the floor was better for his back.  We enjoyed our time there;  the staff were friendly, the pub food was better than most pubs and the location was just right.

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Sennan Cove is a tiny village with just a couple of shops and cafe.  A few small, old style fishing boats were pulled up in the shelter of the long slip way for the rescue boat. This is one of the most treacherous areas on Britain’s coastline (and there are quite a few of those).  The life boat station was established here in 1853 and people have been rescued from the unpredictable sea here ever since.

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It was not always thus… for many centuries, rescue was not always uppermost in the minds of locals.  This area was renowned in times past for the many shipwrecks that, in the view of the locals of the time, provided food and clothing for the poor.  It’s said that donkeys were used to carry lanterns across the cliff tops to fool seamen and create many ship wrecks in and around this rocky cove. Looking out across some of the beach rocks it’s possible to see a couple of the dangers that lurk in these waters not too far from shore.  And there are many other rocks unseen beneath the waters. The list of ship wrecks is a long one.

Smuggling was another well known, and dangerous, part of local life in these parts, in times past.  They got away with much at Sennan Cove because the Revenue men were mostly busy patrolling the villages and coves on the other side of Cornwall, the side closer to France and with usually better sea conditions.  Stories of smugglers and their close calls with the law abound in books about Cornish coastal life.  They have become akin to Australia’s bushranger stories and just as much romanticised, when the facts were, in reality, very brutal for those who took part.  But for the desperately poor villagers of Cornwall, smuggling often made survival possible.

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There are a few houses tucked in between the beach front and the steep cliff.  This one has an iron bar attached just below the roof to make sure that the thatch roof isn’t disturbed by delivery trucks, or the local double decker bus, when they turn on the quay side.  This is a no through road and a tight turn is a must.  As with any coastal area, the sea salt has made the iron turn to rust, thus adding a visual warning presence to the side of the house.

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There are no gardens as such here but there’s an occasional mallow plant.

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The path up the hill to the south of the village is adorned with blackberries.

Weed they may be in Australia, but here they provide delicious berries –

and very attractive small flowers.

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David climbed to the top of the cliff.  Looking north along the coast it’s easy to see that Sennen Cove is well placed for walks along the Cornish coastal path.  Apart from the wonderfully rugged coastal scenery to be enjoyed along the way, there are many ancient sites to see as well as relics from the once thriving tin and copper mining industry.  We would search for those old mine workings next day.

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Wild flowers, like this Thrift, add to the beauty of the area.

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A mix of Silene and Thrift makes a pretty, natural rock garden.

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Lichen on the rocks adds a dash of bright colour.

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I wonder how long this rock has been balancing on the cliff edge…

and how long it will stay there!

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Looking south along the cliffs gave an idea of the terrain that was mined for tin and copper.

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Watching the sun dropping lower in the sky across the Atlantic Ocean was a good way to end this day.

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By next morning, however, the blue sky had vanished along with the calm sea.  It was raining and exceedingly cold.  The miners of old had had to endure many a day like this, so we would continue with our plan to seek out some of the old mine workings along the coast.  Perhaps the unpleasant weather would add to our understanding of the way the miners and their families had lived.

More of that anon

Jennie and David

Photography Copyright ©  JT and DY of jtdytravels

Greenland, Fjord Cruise 15th August 2012

I woke up in the delightful small town of Tasiilaq. Where was I? Greenland. And I was looking forward very much to the planned cruise through the icebergs along a couple of the Fjords.

For some reason, unknown even to me,  I’d had the idea that this cruise would be for just a couple of hours, at the most, in a Zodiac-type boat – shades of the same activity we had done when in the Antarctic.  But no. We were to go out again in the same cruiser that brought us to the hotel – and the cruise would last for eight hours.  One of our group decided she could not manage for so long on a boat, and so there were only the three of us plus the crew of two.

Looking back at the village of Tasiilaq   (P1010120 © DY of jtdytravels)

As we left the dock and looked back I was reminded of the colourful small houses in the north of Norway. These are all ‘flat-pack’ construction kit houses which have to brought in by boat. Similar houses, different colours.

One of the icebergs   (P1010130 © DY of jtdytravels)

On the way up the Fjord,we were entranced by the size and majesty of the icebergs.  This one estimated to be the equivalent of 6 stories high. And that was only a fraction, about a ninth,  of the iceberg that we could see – the rest, and by far the largest section, is under water.

Another iceberg, another shape!   (P1010129 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Up close and personal! (P1010134 © DY of jtdytravels)

And up even closer, they were totally awesome.

Some were really weird and wonderful. (P1010136 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Translucent green beneath pure white (P1010138 © DY of jtdytravels)

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A very stark land/ice scape.   (P1010139 © DY of jtdytravels)

We had much further to go that day so we had to leave those icebergs with the promise of more to come.  Our next destination was totally unpronounceable – the tiny settlement of Qernertivartivit!

Houses in Qernertivartivit   (P1010273 © DY of jtdytravels)

The settlement of Qernertivartivit is a permanent home to only around 100 people. It must be a hard, hard life here – extremely hard!  We spent an hour wandering around the houses and the only small store, owned by the same company which owns the two shops in Tasiilaq.

Part of the settlement   (P1010131 © DY of jtdytravels)

The small houses were strung out a long the rocky shoreline.

Maybe another visitor, exploring the Fjord   (P1010269 © DY of jtdytravels)

We wondered if this sleek yacht belonged to someone in the village but thought maybe not – perhaps another visitor.

One of the locals (P1010274 © DY of jtdytravels)

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A house with a view (P1010278 © DY of jtdytravels)

The sun’s out, the washing’s on the line but there’s still a lot of ice out there in the waters around this small island.

Fish drying (P1010290 © DY of jtdytravels)

Fish hung out to dry – maybe for a winter’s meal or two when the water is frozen over.

A sad sight! (P1010277 © DY of jtdytravels)

They say a picture tells a thousand words – there’s a story to be told about this house. I wonder what happened.

I hoped that people who owned this house hadn’t been burned or injured.  If they did, they would have had to use  the helicopter to be evacuated. There is a helipad marked out on a flat piece of ground at the far end of the village where some supplies are brought in during the winter and for emergency evacuations.

The cemetery at Qernertivartivit (P1010288 © DY of jtdytravels)

And if they had perished in the blaze, or for that matter, when any of the inhabitants dies, they have to be buried in a very rocky cemetery. The ground is so hard and rocky that it is impossible to bury a body under the ground, so rocks and sods of moss are used as a covering. When we visited the cemetery we saw the odd bone exposed.

View from the settlement   (P1010280 © DY of jtdytravels)

From this vantage point we saw across the bogs filled with cotton grass, across the ice filled waters, and look up the fjord to where all the ice was coming from.  There are a couple of glaciers here that empty into the head of the fjord.  The whole area was jam packed with bits of ice, some of the bigger ones we could hear creaking and crashing as they split apart.

An interesting low angle view   (P1010281 © DY of jtdytravels)

This ‘get-down-low’ view across the arctic cotton grass gives a different perspective to the ice flow.

From another view point on the island   (P1010282 © DY of jtdytravels)

No matter where we walked on this small island, the views were spectacular. We would have to make our way through those ice chunks when we returned to the boat to continue the cruise. That, I was looking forward to.

Ice reflections   (P1010284 © Dy of jtdytravels)

Climbing down over the rocks gave me the chance to photograph some of those reflections in the mirror still water.

Thrift  [Armeria maritima] (P1010289 © DY of jtdytravels)

Apart from the great drifts of snowy white cotton grass, there was the odd late summer plant still showing its colours like this pink sea-side Thrift.

All too soon, our hour on the island and in this small settlement was up and we made our way back to the boat for the next part of our fiord cruise – and that will be the subject of the next musings. D

ALL PHOTOGRAPHY COPYRIGHT  © DY of jtdytravels