I have to begin this week on a very sad note, not just for me but for this valley, this community, indeed the whole of Wales. A great and noble man has left us. A man whose life’s path has left no mark on the planet, no damage to the environment in which he lived – even though he was a farmer ! – and no scar on those he met. The course of his life ran as quiet and pure as the stream which every day he crossed. He told me he thought he may have once visited Cardiff but wasn’t at all sure, he did recall visiting Aberystwyth, several times ! As for London or any other English city, never. He remembered well the very first time he saw an aeroplane, a small bi-plane which noisily rattled overhead as he and his father worked at the barley mow. He ran home to tell his mother and found her hiding in the under-stair closet, having been terrified by the noisy flypast. For ninety years his soul dwelt in the valley of the Cnyffiad, absorbing the seasons and the changes that crept upon the community of which he was part. A wiser man I could not imagine; well read so as to be knowledgeable beyond reproach. He lived a life unencumbered by TV, rarely listened to a radio, had an enormously low electricity bill and none at all until 1964 ! He saw the coming of all the modern services we now take for granted; he bade farewell to the horse and welcomed in the tractor and, eventually, the car.
I first met ‘Bryn Lofft y Bardd’ on a Sunday afternoon in Rhayader in 2001. He came to look at my exhibits at the Rhayader Vintage show and enlightened me as to the use some of the more obscure ones had. We realised we were neighbours and in fact he knew well my small farmstead as it had, at one time, belonged to an uncle of his. Extended family runs commonly in the steep closed valleys. We met often at local shows, he always wore a bright green John Deere baseball cap and, latterly, a red Massey Ferguson one. I spent many hours of the intervening years talking with, listening to, enjoying the company of this true Welshman. Those of you that read this blog often will have read of him previously, only last year I acquired his trusty long serving tractor, a Fergie Fach.
He weathered the extreme winters of recent years huddled beside a single bar old electric fire. To reach his hillside home requires a long uphill walk incorporating a stream crossing. His little red car being garaged adjacent to the single-track road that leads into the hill and onwards to Abergwesyn. The homestead is unaltered from the state it was in the middle of the last century and probably the century before. Old farm implements and well used tools stand idle or hang on hooks in the cow house and barn. The rooms of the old house stand probably as they did in the days of his mother; I don’t imagine home decorating featured high on his list of priorities. Indeed I was discussing ‘our’ loss with a mutual friend who felt strongly that the house should be archived or preserved intact. Remarkably the ‘pot-crane’, that swinging frame in the fireplace on which cooking pots are suspended over the fire, in the ‘old loft of the Bard’ is made of oak. Oak chosen and cut – probably over 200 years ago – on a particular date in March so as to render it untouchable by the hot peat below.
The summer seems to have been hard in these hills; at first hot and blissful then sad and depressive as the early rains and high winds shake the boughs. They say bad things happen in threes, first was the loss of my farming neighbour Victor; then came the shock loss of the wife of my dear old pal ‘Dai-it-is’, Nelda was a larger than life character, an ex-publican well known and much loved and respected in the Pendine/Green Bridge part of Carmarthenshire. Her cookery skills were legendary and her hospitality boundless. And now the passing-on of dear old Bryn. It brings forth feelings of loss but also of privilege in having known such wonderful characters. I’ll miss the three of them but especially the last Welsh speaker in the valley, the last connection with old farmsteads which now lie in ruins in the surrounding hills, the last link with a way of farming that is today called ‘traditional’.
Nevertheless work has had to be done and walls have had to be rebuilt. The journey to the continent was preceded by the beginning of the restoration of a sheep pen in the Elan Valley. That was quickly completed on our return heralding a long overdue return to the large enclosure at Pool House on Gilwern hill.
The sheep-fold was not a true sheep-fold in the historic sense of a management structure used by several farmers on an open hill. This one began life as an enclosure adjoining an old hill farm whose name has disappeared although local folk refer to it as Ty Nant fold. The renovation involved stripping out most of the existing walls and rebuilding them as well as moving a wall no longer used and re-erecting it in a more useful position.
The work was made somewhat complicated by the nature of the stone which disintegrated into small slivers the minute it was taken out of the wall. Throwing a stone onto the hard ground guaranteed it would shatter into tiny shards and hence was no further us in the rebuild. Given the amount we broke I don’t really know how we managed to complete the renovation/rebuild without having to import stone from elsewhere – that would have been an immense problem as we failed to locate any !
Soft sedimentary rock is fine as long as it sits peacefully in a wall, the weight of the stone above it compresses the layers in the way it was squashed into stone in the ocean. Once it is released it shatters and can be a very challenging stone to build with. It occurs in a number of areas in mid Wales from the Elan valley up through the upper Wye and over into the Machynlleth area. It forms the boundary wall of the church at St. Harmon and outcrops not far from my homestead where an old slate mine once employed hundreds of men. It can, when first encountered, seem quite challenging but I actually like it as a wall stone. It sits nicely and the morphology is attractive but the care which has to be taken in disassembling and rebuilding adds a lot of time to the job, time which can rarely be charged out and hence such work can often be a labour of love.
Fortunately this job was for a super family in a super location and carried out in super weather… and I must say the pay was pretty super to ! Thank you BL and thank you Glastir ! Although it is unlikely the farmer has had his money reimbursed just yet if my experiences elsewhere are a guide – those able bodied civil servants of the Welsh Assembly Government seem to be still dormant, or pregnant or just plain idle.
The sheep-pen sat adjacent to the Pen y Garreg reservoir in the Elan Valley complex of man-made lakes which provides the midlands with its water. It was such a picturesque venue and the glorious weather was such that we actually camped out rather than drive the 30 miles home. We were provided with a grand almost new John Deere tractor to use to move the stone from the old wall to the site of the new and my able assistant – who can turn her neck in an owl-like rotation which immensely aids reversing – took little persuasion to be the on-site tractor driver !
The valley is just such a superb place to work and it was an absolute privilege to be able to contribute to the continuity of the walls and the environment. The family were immensely knowledgeable about both the area and the natural world within it. I learned much, especially about bats and the hill life. The ancient hay meadows which are preserved and managed by the farmer through prescriptions laid down by the Elan Valley Trust stood resplendent a few yards from us and the wandering sheep and quiet waters of the reservoir created a most idyllic ‘office’ for the few weeks we were present. It will stand as one of the highlight jobs when I eventually sit down and write my memoirs !
After several weeks away the return to Pool House was to be welcomed. The year has slipped imperceptibly towards the next equinox and there is still much to do. The rebuilding of the wall around the old cottage was a hard undertaking. Partly it was large heavy stone but mostly it was small awkwardly shaped nuggets which meant progress was slow and laborious. The steep slope on the in-field side meant a tiring day of bending, picking and carrying the stone back up the hill. The height that had to be achieved on the ‘down’ side was absurd but necessary in order that the wall should be stock proof to the hill. After all, the whole purpose of the restoration is to enable the field to be secured from the open hill and the flocks that roam there on. I can’t wait to see what sort of a hay meadow it will make a year from now.
The problem with building a wall using such small stones is that it can be structurally unsound; there needs to be a certain amount of cross-stitching, ‘zippering’ as Miss Carolina likes to call it, so that the two faces have an inter-connection. Therefore we have had to be moving stone around the site in order to be sure we have the necessary ‘through’ stones to tie the wall together. In addition, as the wall had been down for a very long time much of the stone supply was deeply embedded into the soil and had to be ‘picked’ out which of course adds to the time and also the tiredness. That particular section has been very ‘expensive’ in terms of time taken and energy expended, indeed such was the length of time taken to build what is a relatively short length of wall I dare not calculate the rate of pay per metre; I suspect we have been paying for the privilege of doing it !
The remains of the Pool House cottage and barn have been incorporated as best as was possible and the various corners (of walls and fireplace) have been rebuilt to adhere to the original floor plan of the house, in so far as I could ascertain it. Once we have cleared all the remaining stone and spoil heap there will be a sense of the old homestead where before there was just a pile of stone and soil.
The progress once we had broken clear of the ruins area has been good although again rather slow. A 14 metre long section needed to be completley stripped out as it was in a poor condition and not at all aligned with the adjacent lengths. It looked very much as if the section had been rebuilt in an early renovation as it was quite different to the style of wall build that prevails. I have also been constructing a new ‘cheek-end’ to allow a gate to be inserted into the perimeter wall, never an easy task when no wall-end existed previously as there is never quite enough good corner stones with which to construct it. Sows ears and silk purses etc !
The wildlife of Wales is, of course, all around me as I work and sometimes I wish it weren’t ! At present the silence of the hill is perpetually pierced by the shrill, and somewhat annoying, shriek of a young buzzard whose parents have finally decided it is time to abandon him to fend for himself. He does not like it one little bit and spends all day circling and crying for his mum. The summer visitors have already started to depart; Wheatears suddenly vanished, they were there on Tuesday but gone on Wednesday, so too the four pairs of Redstarts that inhabit my lane have headed south to warmer climes.
One of the common encounters in the life of Welshwaller is with amphibians. Frogs are fairly common, they just love a cold damp hollow under a stone. Toads are frequently encountered, sometimes quite high up in an old wall, unlike frogs which really are hoppers and swimmers the creature with the jewel in his head can climb very nimbly. Newts are the other commonly found creature, usually the Smooth newt, often the Palmate (despite being supposedly rare or absent from Radnorshire !) and now and then a real thrill. The Great Crested Newt is a Goliath of the British amphibious world, it is rare and endangered – apparently – it is also more protected than the Queen and I am in real danger of being sent to the Tower just for handling the creature. The animal is almost the Holy Grail of the conservation world and both it and its habitat has the highest level of protection under the Wildlife & Countryside Act. However, whilst it is an offence to disturb it, let alone capture and move it, what does one do when, in the course of moving stones one is encountered !? Actually the one pictured was crawling toward the wall having been disturbed from its resting place in the debris and was in danger of being picked off by that damned young Buzzard or one of his parents. It is a difficult encounter and not all that uncommon, I probably see Great Crested Newts at least three of four times a year. I generally keep quiet about the discovery and try to do the least disturbance as is possible. I am generally of the view that animals are far more capable of dealing with disturbance than is often accepted in the world of protectionist conservation. As long as the environment which they live in is stable and unaffected I am sure the amphibians I encounter soon find a new crevice in which to hide.
The gloom of sadness is lifted by such encounters with the natural world, work too is an excellent antidote as is a trip out. My week ended with a visit to the impressive Onslow Park Steam Fair near Shrewsbury where I got to spend several hours lost in old things. One ‘old thing’ was from my dim distant past, an old mate with whom I spent many a happy time during our days at college in Bristol over forty years ago. We had met up once or twice in that time but not for over 25 years but through the wonders of the internet and this here blog we re-connected. I had arranged to meet up with him at the fair but was fairly dumstruck to find myself walking behind him not ten minutes after arriving ! Connections can be spooky …
I’ll be showing you more ‘show’ photos next time, the time is approaching for the small village shows and the great Beulah Show Tractor Run – stay tuned !