And the countryside has certainly taken heed of that old saying. All about the fields are being stripped of the thick crop of grass or mixed leys of traditional hay meadows and ancient pastures. It is such a change to the last few years, to be able to gather fodder this early in the summer is such a bonus to the hill farmers. For one thing it means the ground is dry and the machines can move about without damaging or compacting the ground. The making of sillage – the act of ensillage in old speak – has drastically changed the manner of fodder harvesting and storage. The old oblong bales which could be pitched by a man or woman onto carts and small trailers towed behind smoky tractors of even horses has long since given way to huge machinery. In fact so big has the modern harvesting machinery become it causes quite a problem on narrow country roads.
The patchwork of fields is dramatically altered by the rows of cut grass and the bright yellow of the bared after-math. To my mind there’s no better indicator of a fine hot summer than the hay harvest.
Walling has been somewhat erratic of late, I have temporarily moved away from the big enclosure on the Rhogo hill. One of the big problems which besets farming in Wales is the inherent ineptitude of the Welsh Assembly Government’s agricultural department. It is an unbelievable catalogue of idiotic systems and delay. There is almost unanimous anger amongst hill farmers just now at the unfathomable decisions being made by the present incumbent of the Minister’s office. Right from the beginning of the Welsh Assembly there has been some pretty dire administration of Agriculture and Environment. The appointment of a vegetarian to the post of Agricultural Minister in the first government was fairly jaw-dropping but this present man is beyond the pale. Unfortunately the Civil Servants who administer (maladminister more like) the various schemes are a law unto themselves and operate on some pre-Gregorian calendar or ‘manjana‘ system where nothing but nothing is ever on time. The current Glastir scheme is a nightmare of incompetence. Contracts for schemes which were set to begin on January 1st were not even sent out until late April, four months into works programmes which farmers were spending out on. Claims forms for the grants were forever being promised and not arriving. Even the local officers who develop the individual farm scheme with the landowner are frustrated and embarrassed. Here we are in mid July and still no progress has been made in getting the funds flowing. It effects the whole rural economy and it is a disgrace which needs to be sorted but our politicians are next to useless in reining-in the clowns who sit in the great palaces of the Welsh Assembly Government. Let them have there salaries with-held until everyone else’s money is paid out then we might get some action. In the meantime I and my employing farmers are having to either use overdrafts or struggle on and not pay our bills and hence the whole local economy suffers.
I moved off to do some small jobs which had been waiting my attentions. Each winter it is fairly certain that some collapses will occur on old dry stone walls and this past, very wet, winter was worse than usual. One of the walls to which I am annually called is the great Deer Park wall of the Edwinsford estate north of Talley in the Cothi valley. The wall has been often mentioned here in the past, it surrounds what was once a great Dinas. The massive Iron-age encampment has been obliterated by quarrying and the wall, which was built in the mid C18th to pen the ornate deer herd of the grand house of Edwinsford, has suffered from large boulders blasted out of the hillside. I rebuilt most of the wall under the earlier Tir Cymen agri-environment scheme but much of what seemed quite sound back then continues to succumb to the ravages of time and weather. One of the problems is that the length of wall which was visible from the great house was built using lime mortar – it was felt that a dry stone wall was too rustic for the gentry to have to behold – and it is this stretch which gives an annual job. I have a certain sympathy with the farmer, she has had to bear the cost of the ongoing repairs which I think is somewhat unfair given that it is a boundary wall between her land and the quarry owners Larfarge-Tarmac who in turn rent out the land to another farmer whose sheep are actually the main reason the wall needs to be intact as they can jump out if a section collapses. On the other hand her cattle would never be able to jump up the four feet or so of bank and wall. I have tried on several occasions to get the quarry owners to contribute but with no success. For less than they spend on signage the whole section could be rebuilt completely and stand for another three hundred years. It is an historic piece of the Welsh countryside and should be given some investment by those who have plundered it for years, don’t you think ?
Another job involved a visit to the site of my very first farm wall at Dafadfa in Gwynfe. Exactly 20 years ago I began a major rebuild of the derelict walls which curtained the upland farm which looks out over the Carmarthenshire Black Mountain and Carreg Cennen castle.
The walls that surround the farm date from the early years of the nineteenth century and act as a ring fence around each farm with the northern (top) wall acting as a common boundary in an arrangement very akin to a co-axial field system. I totally rebuilt several of the walls and did various percentages of the others but the finest of the walls is undoubtedly the common boundary wall which is so well built that even today it could be easily plastered. The height of the wall is somewhat perplexing and could indicate it was a boundary relating to deer management or goats both of which were commonly kept in the C18th and into the early C19th, long before sheep became a significant livestock animal (in terms of numbers) and yet the name of the two farms, Dafadfa Uchaf and Isaf (upper and lower) basically means ‘the place of sheep’.
I had returned to repair a small collapse on one of the side walls which fortunately was not in a section I repaired way back in 1993 ! Even after all those years I would have a certain guilt about charging to rebuild my own work !
The farmer has been my best customer over the years and in addition to the 7 years of Tir Cymen work there followed another six or so of work under the Tir Gofal programme. Subsequently I have built several walls just because he likes them to be done ! That is, he is willing to spend his own cash on having it done ! Just this last week, along with my more than useful little Carolinian helper, we have built a fairly major retaining wall in the newly extended garden area of a house in which his mother lived. She was a lady for whom I had the greatest affection and I spent many hours sitting with her whilst she regaled me with stories of her childhood, her parents (her father hailed from a mile or so from my current abode and was a champion ploughman – horses of course) and her own life on the farm there in Gwynfe. I knew her husband first when, many years ago, we served together as local Community Councillors, he too was an interesting character full of words of wisdom. He lost a leg in a farm accident back in the 1940s when he fell into the top of a threshing machine. There was no telephone in the house in those days and the servant boy was sent on his bicycle to the nearest phone which was two miles away. As luck would have it, on the way he bumped into (literally, as he got knocked off his bike) an American army doctor who was in a jeep on his way to troops exercising on the nearby hill. It was only the intervention of the doctor that saved old Ieuan’s life. I would often find American bullet cases and machine-gun links while rebuilding the Dafadfa walls and indeed throughout the area; left-overs from the pre-D.Day exercises of the locally based American forces.
I was very sad when Mrs D departed this world but I got to hold her hand just a few days before and promised we’d meet up again on the other side. She liked to walk to the top of the ridge, a fair old hike for a lady in her eighties, and look out over the Tywi valley so, about fifteen years ago, I built her a bench in a wall that I was completing just where she, and now other walkers, reach the top of the old Swansea to Llangadog (green) road as it broaches the ridge-line. It is still there and last week I actually sat on it myself.
The retaining wall was built using large boulder-type stones and blocks of silica and basalt grit which was, at first, quite daunting to my accomplice (and a salutary reminder to me how age has wearied !) but it actually presents a rather appealing morphology once built into a wall. As it was over two metres high I decided to terrace it, step it back a half metre or so which also absorbed the steep backward slope of the cut-away rock face. We side-lined the garden too and the finished product got the verbal nod of approval from mine host – and I can tell you that ain’t often given !
Another small collapse on a wall with even bigger stones was also finally tackled and that was a real shock to the system. Did I REALLY rebuild that wall ?! The limestone and silica blocks are so huge that three courses gains a height of 1.5 metres and the depth of them is about the same. The mountain wall runs along the hillside at Llandyfan just on the boundary of the Brecon Beacons National Park and was another wall done under the Tir Gofal scheme. This time I cannot be absolutely sure it wasn’t a section I had rebuilt … but don’t tell the farmer !
The last workout took me south to visit my new found friends at the Brynmawr Buddhist Temple to inspect their efforts in continuing the rebuild of the graveyard boundary wall. That place is so uplifting, hell if they ate steak I might even consider joining ! Alas, too much of that oh so excellent rice and dahl does my digestive system no good but once in a while … yes please. They had all just returned from a trip to India and spent most of my time with them trying to persuade me to join them on their next sojourn in September … What ! and miss the Great Dorset Steam Fair and the Beulah Tractor Run, no way Hose ! The wet morning prevented photography but I can report a remarkable effort on their parts to get the wall up to a height suitable for the placing of the cover stones and/or cope stones. There were a great number of large blocks of what looked like ‘Farewell Rock’ though I’m not absolutely sure that is what it was, and also some old gravestones which matched perfectly the width of the wall and so we laid them, text upward, so that at least there is some recognition of the hundred or so Baptists who lie buried in the hallowed ground.
From there, on a wettish Saturday, I had to head to Newport and took the road down the valley towards Abertillery and onwards to Crumlin where I intended turning eastwards towards my old haunt of Pontypool. It is a road that has many memories for me, of school days and crazy Friday nights at the home of a friend whose parents seemed to have left him. How well I remember that imposing Doctor’s house at Swyffrwd, we always managed to get to school in time for the Saturday morning bus ride to our next rugby game, in fact, very often the bus would pick us up at Bob Gregg’s house as most of our opponents were the Grammar Schools of the western valleys of Gwent. The abiding memory of those games, apart from the fact that we always won (West Mon Invisible XV 1967), was the fact that as the valleys were so narrow there was little flat ground except in the valley bottoms and there, of course, ran the rivers. As most schools only had one or two balls it was an elongated match as dads fished soggy leather rugby balls out of the Sirhowy or the Ebbw. It was a useful ploy, if we forwards were getting a little breathless, to tell our outside half, the mercurial and immensely talented Hadyn Stockham, to belt the ball into the river which guaranteed a goodly respite.
As I drove down the Ebbw valley I tried to remember the villages but was surprised to suddenly come upon a place seared into my childhood memory. In 1960 an explosion in the deep pit at Six Bells Colliery sent shock waves through the tiny village and the surrounding area. I well remember the sadness of two school friends who waited for news of their grandfathers. It seemed to go on for days, the wait emphasised by the monochrome pathos of news photos, of mothers and wives, their hair wrapped in scarves as they all seemed to be in those times, hankies gripped to their mouths, standing helpless in the rain and gloom of that little valley. After the dust had settled and rescuers returned to the surface there were forty five bodies laid out. Fathers and sons, brothers, even twins, had died suddenly and violently in what was the biggest shock to my young life and remained so until October 21st 1966.
I remembered, as I passed the signs for the village, which is now by-passed of course, that a monument had been erected to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy and so I turned in. If you are a Welsh person, especially if you are of the valleys, you should go to see this huge and hugely evocative memorial. It stands tall in stature, in creativity and in-memorium. It shouts aloud of the tragic loss of life and of the hardship of underground work but it also lauds community, family and dignity. To my mind it is quite a master-piece.
The Guardian (to give the correct title) stands on the site of the old colliery, now a quiet understated park with a small reflecting pond. At 20 metres tall it dominates the skyline and the 20 thousand strips of Cor Ten steel that make-up the figure allows light to shine through giving the whole statue a ghostly appearance – at least on the grey over-cast day I visited.
The whole monument is both tasteful and artistic and Sebastien Boyesen (from west Wales), the artist, will have to pull out all the stops to create a better piece of art sculpture.
The names of those who died are inscribed around the base of the statue thereby honouring their sacrifice; sadly another roll of honour in the long line of sad and violent deaths in the pursuit of the Black Gold that gave the South Wales Valleys their prosperity and forged the character of those that toiled and lived there.
Sudden and unexpected jolts to a time long-past can have a strange impact on the unwary. I travelled the rest of my journey deep in thought and trying hard to recall the names and faces of those two little girls who cried in the playgound for their Bampis, I did remember, I did see their little faces again, I am sure they will have visited the little village and gone to the site that commemorates their loss. I certainly hope they have. It wasn’t until the next day that I realised the date (of my visit), the 28th June … the very day of the disaster.