Actually I have two distinct sounds that follow me around; the first is the inescapable growl from a gearbox that is threatening industrial action, the second is the dreaded mobile phone tinkle. The first has been with me for well over a year, each time I drive my little Ford fiesta van it gruffly sings along, louder and louder it grows as if to warn me of the fact that some terminal illness has befallen it and death awaits. Diagnosis has been impossible to make, apparently, even by my two most well patronised motor repair establishments. The end is nigh and I fear my good and faithful servant must soon be discarded. Despite knowing full-well that my silly sentimentality towards the lump of polluting metal and plastic is embarrassing, I still feel a sense of guilt over what I must soon do. Is it just me or do others allow their vehicles to become as if alive, like some dear pet dog or goldfish, to be cherished and loved and mourned when the time to separate arrives ? It is just an absurd sentimentality towards an inanimate object, I know it is, but … I have always been thus, my vehicle is something I depend upon, it is my means of living where I live, of getting to my work, of all the pleasurable experiences of holidays and visiting. It takes me to catch a plane and, most importantly, it takes me to meet a plane when an honoured guests flies in. It is far more than a lump of pollutant, it is indeed my good and faithful servant. For six and a half long years, driving well over a hundred thousand miles from the top of Scotland to the bottom of France, from the west of Wales to the Rhine, that little ten year old box of Ford tricks has served me well. Each day of work means it has to go off-roading in some degree or other, my track alone is a good half mile of bumps and bruises. Mud gathers under the wheel arches until the tyres rub on it. How many buckets full I have scraped out from under those arches you would not believe. I could grow a good field of potatoes in it for sure !
I have looked after the little van and in turn it has served me well. I remember the astonishment of my American visitors when they discovered it returned well over 60 mpg and is quite capable of over 80, as on the summer excursion to France, Belgium and Germany. Even roaming in the gloaming of the Scottish Highlands I never got less than 72 mpg, astonishing. Alas the time has come to say goodbye and soon a new steed will bump and trundle up the long track and gather mud from farms all over Wales. I am both sad and excited, it will be nice to not have to listen to that growling gearbox, to have a heater that does what it says on the controls, a radio that picks up something other than Radio Turkistan and a seat that is off the floor, it will be nice but, at the same time, it will be the end of an era. We’ve been together a long time, I bought her as a three year old with 23 thousand miles on the clock, back in 2008. Two weeks later my left achilles tendon ruptured and for over eight months I didn’t get to drive the little car. My sister, who acted also as my carer for that period of incarceration, used the little motor and loved it. I know, just a silly sentimentalist ..
As for the other pestilence, well … I know modern means of communication is an asset, to most at least. I know too that I have to have one of the darn things as both my customers and my family expect to be able to contact me. Given the incessant unsolicited calls to my land-line which has resulted in an almost permanent state of un-pluggedness, a mobile phone is really the only chance folk have of getting me. I don’t always answer, it is true, often there is no signal, well I am in rural Wales after all ! I like that I can see who is calling, I like too that if it is a ‘private number’ I can just choose to ignore it. My problem comes with the unreadable screen – partly my eyesight, partly the scratches -on which I can make out there is a number showing – names I can usually make out – and so, if I can, I will answer. That is becoming an increasingly annoying occurrence. Apparently the dreadful accident I recently suffered was so serious it has left me devoid of any memory of it. I must have had an accident because the caller tells me their records show that I did. I am told to press 5 if I want to discuss how much compensation I might be entitled to, so I do. Almost everyday I do, sometimes twice a day,I do. Then, sometimes immediately, sometimes in a few day’s time, a live person, often in a far away land like Leeds or India, asks me how they can help. I can’t really print what I say to them, Whitney overheard me one day and suggested I could well be arrested for such threats and abuse, but say it I do. You know what ? It makes me feel a little sense of victory over the low life fraudsters who run the businesses, if they can be called that. I often say to the young person who calls – it is almost always a youngster – “Does your mother know what you do ?” “You know and I know that you are trying to con me, how would you like it if someone did that to your mother or father?”. Do you know it is astonishing, they almost always apologise and hang up. Sometimes, especially if a call comes in on my secret number that nobody has – and hence it is bound to be a fraudster – I answer in my broken Arabic (it is a few words certainly not found in the Koran) and that too usually results in a quick termination.
Why do we have to suffer these intrusions ? Why has our society become plagued by these verminous creatures, is there nothing we can do ?! It is not just in this country either, when I was visiting in South Carolina the same thing was going on and there too the house phone was never answered because invariably it would be a nuisance call. I hate the damn people who plague me, day in day out. But some recompense can be had and it gives me just a small sense of satisfaction to be obnoxious to them, even though I know they are only trying to earn a living. Sorry mum, I know I shouldn’t but …
And so back to the day job …
Can you believe it, it’s DONE !!! Yes, that great enclosure on the summit of the Rhogo, beside the Howey to Hundred House road, in deepest rural Radnorshire, has finally been restored. Restored, I hope, to something nearing it’s former glory, to somewhere close to the wall that those original builders leaned back on in pride and relief, over two hundred years ago. The last stone to be placed was a marker on top of a re-modelled wall-end where the west and north walls converge. A marker which stands tall in the landscape and signposts the historic feature for the next two hundred years and more – certainly until long after my ‘life-time’ guarantee has expired !
The archaeologists probably won’t like it; but given they never came near after the early protestations that nothing was to be disturbed, given that even though they are charged with recording historic features in the uplands and received detailed description and photographs from me, no interest was ever shown – “we don’t have the funds” was the reply I got (as well as being told I mustn’t remove any stones out of the ground, off the wall, nor any new stones to be brought in and so on and so on…)
No, there will be no congratulatory telegrams from that quarter, nor I suspect from the grant giving body. Am I bovvered ?! Not at all, nothing could better the kind remarks and compliments of the locals. Almost everyday these last few weeks – near the road you see ! – people have stopped their cars “just to say” and comment on how pleased they are to see the wall restored. Some take the trouble to park and walk over to me, some to photograph. Neighbouring farmers have gone out of their way to pass-by and congratulate me. Of course most of the folk also ask where my American girl has gone ! Whitney Brown has been the greater source of interest, well I suppose it is to be expected. After all, an old boy rebuilding a derelict dry stone wall in the uplands of Wales is an everyday sight; a stunner in caharrt dungarees with Cajun music blaring out of her cleavage is not quite so common, well not near a road anyway !
That’s the thing really, this work has been visible. The road runs right next to the enclosure so the same folk who drive it daily, weekly or even once in a while, have been subjected to the slow inexorable progress of the rebuild. In addition it is the favoured spot of many local dog owners and walkers who regularly come by and sometimes say hello or just walk-on by but they can’t help but have noticed. To my astonished embarrassment there have been many who, for weeks, have made it a regular chore to come and see how it is progressing and stop and chat. So too visitors from far away who just happened upon the area and me – like the famous “Is that a real wall?” lady and one a few weeks back who screeched to a halt and ran over with her son and daughter, shouting loudly “Oh my God, I never ever thought I would see someone actually doing this!”, and went on to tell me how she loves walls and has done for all her life and how she goes all over Britain just to see them … yep, know the feeling.
You see, to me it’s just another job, albeit one I have been honoured and proud to have been asked to do and accomplish for the farmer who had the courage of his convictions to ‘go for it’ and the flattering confidence in me that I could deliver – Diolch yn Fawr G. There are thousands more metres of my rebuilt or newly built walls all over Breconshire, Carmarthenshire and, though much fewer, Radnorshire (For the twenty plus years of full-time work there stands over a kilometre a year…. now there’s a sobering thought ! Especially at an average of a tonne and a half a metre … no wonder I’m so thin … cough cough) but for the most part only the land-owners and the animals see them. True, there are some that are on popular walking routes, especially in the western area of the Brecon Beacons National Park but walkers don’t and, for the most part, didn’t see me building them. There are dozens of garden walls which the owners and their visitors get to enjoy but few actually saw me building.
No, that’s why this wall has been different, it has been in the public eye and if I ever doubted it, dry stone walls have a place in the heart of most country folk and many from the city. They somehow epitomise man’s (oh alright, Woman’s too !!) shaping of the landscape and his togetherness with the natural world. In reality of course walls are the clearest representation of human degradation of the natural world, not least because the thousands of tons of stone in each wall had to be ripped from some natural feature ! I recognise that my work, which, as most folk tell me, represents a ‘dying craft’ (hopefully it’s just me not the craft !!), is something that most people view as a form of alchemy. Amongst the hundreds of compliments I’ve received whilst rebuilding the Pool House enclosure a large proportion referred to the ‘hard work’ element. That it is hard work is true, it is a physical, manual job requiring the sort of investment of mind and body that very few jobs these days require. Health and Safety has pretty much done away with body damaging work. No employee would be allowed, nor would they expect, to have to undertake the rigours of heaving stone all day long, in all weathers – can you imagine the fuss there would be if workers were sent out into the hot sun of June or the wet freezing rain of November !!??
(As my ‘little helper’ Daniel likes to say, “Why do you bother?”. In truth without his help at the start and these last few days, without the skill and fortitude of Miss Carolina, even a young local lady called Emma who volunteered a few days with me which helped enormously, or dear old ‘digger man’ Les Smith of Llandrindod, who unstintingly saved me much hard graft, to say nothing of the assistance in hauling new and old stone around that the farmer undertook, had I not had such ‘grafters’ around me this would not yet be a happy ending’. Thanks y’all !!)
Apart from the physical element there is the psychological side of it, if indeed that is what it is. To set out to restore over 400 metres of wall is something most folk (who stopped to talk to me) cannot comprehend. The hardest question to answer, and believe me, it was asked on numerous occasions, is always “Why are you doing that?”. It is something that crosses my mind on more than one occasion, especially when the wind is howling and the rain is blinding me. But then, on a bright sunny Autumn day or a blazing July afternoon, the answer comes clear and true – it is a privileged life. And that’s why folk admire me, it’s not just the fact I can put a stone on a stone in some ordered fashion, it’s that I have chosen a path so outrageously stupid (in this modern day) and captured the essence of a past way of life that many secretly envy and long for.
It is a difficult aspect of the work always, but these last few weeks it has been a humbling experience: thanking folk for being so kind as to be bothered to go out of their way to commend and compliment me and the work. Thank you everyone.
Now please, don’t go knocking it down or pinching the stones !!!
So that’s it, a restoration I had dreamed of doing for over 15 years has finally come to fruition. Now it’s time to rest the weary bones and aching joints, break out the mince pies, run the bath, pour a scotch and RELAX !
Christmas is coming don’t you know !!