“There’s a certain sound always follows me around …”

03/12/2014

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 …

A completed wall repair by Welshwaller & Co

All done – a mammoth task that has consumed over 6 months of hard graft. Blue skies on the last day was a fitting end …

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 !

Stone marker on a wall in Radnorshire

The tall stone marks the historic enclosure for all to see.

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 !

Whitney Brown in Wales in Caharrts

‘Cool’ or what? This Carolinian caharrt wearing broad can build a wall – and Lordie didn’t the locals just adore her – or was it head-scratching confusion …

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 !!!

Newly restored walled enclosure on Rhogo

The eastern half of the newly restored wall which lost most stone to ‘robbers’ !

Pool House, on Rhogo hill, Radnorshire

The old fireplace of the farmstead called ‘Pool House’ still stands, as does the hearth with its flag stones, lost now within the mass of stones that form the northern boundary wall. Historic landscape indeed …

Wall with its Welsh builder

Welshwaller is going home to put his feet up … not with that bottle though !

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 !!

“I’ll cross the stream – I have a dream…”

25/11/2014

Finally the corner is reached and I turn for home – or rather I turn for the last stretch of the Pool House enclosure.  The long length of total take down and rebuild is finally completed, including a new water leat, a smout , which helps the drainage flow.  I was very surprised that no such structure had been included in the original build.  On the other hand it is not clear when and by whom that particular section of the enclosure was built, or rebuilt.

Rebuilt dry stone wall

The long section which required total demolition and rebuilding is finally complete – thankfully !

Judging by the ramshackle structure that presented itself to me, a world away from the earlier sections of well built and sound wall, I reckon that some drastic rebuild had taken place.

As I reported in the last blog post, findings of pottery indicated a much later date and now the discovery of clay drainage pipe pieces further adds credence to the notion.  I feel sure the north wall is an imposter !

A dilapidated wall from the nineteenth century ?

No-one who knew anything about building a dry stone wall was present when this section was last erected… no sir !

The stone is the same as occurs over the rest of the enclosure, indeed the distinct separation of ‘good’ stone from the less useful is carried on.  The flat faced rectangular blocks are reserved for the ‘outside’ in order to present a smooth face which is difficult – if well built – for sheep to climb.  The internal wall is far less regular, far less easy to build with and hence, in a way, is far more impressive.  To build that badly is very hard !

I have now moved from relatively dry ground to a much wetter section of the field.  Rush is prevalent and water flows through the moss and grass.  There is a clear distinction within the enclosure, a defined geological interface where impermeable rock forces the ground water to emerge and is in fact responsible for the very pool that gives the whole its name, Pool House.  Heavy clay covers the underlying hard rock and is itself topped with a layer of rich peat.  Water soaks into and through the peat but cannot penetrate the clay and has therefore to find another route to the river and ultimately the sea – the goal of all land water.  Unfortunately for me a slight fall in the field had become a regular wetland and it urgently needed to be relieved.  Fortunately I know just the man for opening ditches …

A water channel through an old wall

Half an hour with Mr Smith’s digger and a century of blocked drainage is dealt with. Water has been running clear and constant for two weeks already !

I stripped out the wall where the ditch appeared to be – it showed clearly in the enclosure and out on the hill but was very clogged and overgrown.  The opening of the ditch in the field and on the down-side of the hill allowed water to finally run freely out of the soaked ground and will, hopefully, aid in the restoration of the pasture.

It meant a few days of struggling in thick claggy mud for my poor aching ankles but at least I discovered my wellington boots were no longer waterproof !  The struggle at the end of a long tiring day to remove an internally wet boot is one of the hardest tests of fortitude – it is an unwelcome and frankly unnecessary torture.  Buy some new ones !  No doubt I will continue, using plastic carrier bags to both keep my feet dry and aid removal, you’d be amazed how easily your foot slides out if it’s encased in plastic  – nowhere nearly as readily available nowadays, indeed at 5p a bag I will probably save money going and buying my new boots tomorrow !!

I had some excellent large lintels amongst the stones that made up the old wall and a new water course was created.  It is the same construction as any other smout except I always put a stone slab in the bottom so that water does not erode the channel and eventually undermine the quoins that support the lintels.  As long as the weight on top of the lintels is sufficiently spread there is no danger of them cracking or giving way and the wall can be confidently built on top.

Water smout through a dry stone wall.

A new water smout to take the water through the newly rebuilt wall – who knows, it may be used by an Otter ! The mud will make spotting the tell-tale footprints quite an easy task.

The final piece of the long straight rebuild took me to the corner, a curved corner which had seemingly slipped sideways.  Upon stripping it out the reason for the dereliction became all to clear; a massive foundation stone, ideally shaped to create the curve, had subsided into the mire with the result the stones on top had slipped off.  There was absolutely no way I was going to be able to re-position that stone nor move it out of the way so a tractor was called for and the offending lump was unceremoniously dragged out.  We were both interested and surprised to find clear marks of quarry drilling on it which clearly showed it had not just been a stone that was there already but had been intentionally dragged from the source – probably the old nearby workings – to be used specifically for the curved corner.

Dilapidate curve ready for rebuilding

Walling around the bend … the final corner is reached !  The big stone can be seen on the top left of the photo.

The winter has arrived with a vengeance, the Friday afternoon when we moved the stone was the worst thus far, driving rain and low, cold mist.  I was so determined – back in April – to be done and dusted up there by the end of the summer …. ‘the best laid plans of mice and men …’

Partly my own fault of course, I keep slipping away to complete other commitments and the days add up.

For the last five weeks, one day a week, I have been returning to the site of my early walling years near the Carmarthenshire village of Gwynfe.  I was asked by the YMCA in Llandovery to provide a Dry Stone Walling course as part of their programme of country skills training which is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Five trainees duly turned up and we ventured out to the hills of the Black Mountain, at the foot of Trichrug, to do some rebuilding of old walls.  The stone is Old Red Sandstone and it presents in various forms, the morphology and lithography is varied over a very short distance.  The farm we visited was an old customer of mine from the days of the Agri-environment scheme Tir Gorfal.  The land straddles the ridge which overlooks the Tywi valley and between us and that fine river is the Iron Age fortress of Garn Goch.

Dry Stone Walling course at Gwynfe

The trainees were slightly shocked at the water and mud … it’s Wales !!

We were lucky to avoid any rainy days which was a pleasant surprise but nevertheless the ground was very wet and water was running through the foundations.  Water through the foundations is not too much of an issue as long as proper channels are left to allow it to run through and out rather than sit and soak into the sub-soil which can ultimately cause the weight of the wall to push the foundation stones downward causing collapses.

The first section was a low wall that was built around 1812 when the open Ffriddoed which was an open grazing area of particular ecological make-up and was used by a number of farms whose lands opened on to it.  All the walls were ‘gang-built’ and hence have the tell-tale signs which is common to all ‘enclosure walls’ of the period viz. poor build quality with a preponderance of ‘trace walling’ (the placing of stones length ways along the face rather than the length of the stone into the wall which is the correct methodology), poor packing of the hearting resulting in it settling to the base of the wall thus leaving the upper courses unsupported which ultimately leads to an inward collapse of the two faces.  Generally walls which were built by these large gangs have not lasted well, in fact it is fairly safe to assume if a wall is in a state of near total collapse or dereliction it will be from this era.

YMCA wallers from Llandovery

My bunch of ‘foreigners’ standing proudly in front of their rebuilt section – best not give up the day jobs just yet boys ..

The group were ‘foreigners’, almost all newly arrived in rural west Wales.  I was slightly bemused that after all the years of in-migration we are still seeing escapees from the urban rat race of English conurbations.  I had several chuckles at their assessment of the rural idylls to which they have gravitated, their pronunciation of the place names that now surround them and the stories of the loss of chickens to the fox ….

As we approach the final month of the year I am eagerly awaiting completion of work for this year.  It seems everything has been stored up for the autumn and early winter. Jobs that could have, should have been done months ago are now having to be squeezed in.  One such was a church yard retaining wall which I had first assessed back in March – a collapse no doubt caused by last winter’s heavy and incessant rainfall.  I had to wait for two large Scots Pine trees to be felled, partly because their dropping may have done further damage to the wall.  Unfortunately the tree surgeon had an accident – yep, he fell out of a tree and broke his leg – and so the felling was postponed.  The trees were eventually felled in mid October and so I made my way up the Wye valley to the ancient hamlet of St Harmons which lies a few miles north of Rhayader.  The site is very ancient although the present day church is a typical early nineteenth century rebuild.  St. Garmon is a rarely encountered saint and the history of the place ranges from Bronze Age through to the famous Vortigern.

The churchyard has the ancient circular form and is raised above the surrounding land through which flows the river Marteg.  It is a strange ‘flat-land’ in the midst of steep sided valleys and rugged hills.  The stone is the typical slate of the area and varies in size from almost un-liftable slabs to fragile – I mean fall apart in your hand fragile – pieces the size of bars of chocolate.  It is exactly the same stone which Ms Carolina and I encountered at the sheep-fold we repaired back in June in the area of Pen y Garreg reservoir in the Elan Valley complex.   It is a lovely stone to build with in my view, the pieces are so rhomboid that fitting them together is quite easy and gives an attractive, rugged morphology.

The collapse in the retaining wall and the slice of Scot's Pine.

The collapse in the retaining wall and the slice of Scots Pine.

When a section of a retaining wall collapses it does so in one of two ways; it slides out from the bottom which results in the upper courses falling backward into the void, or it bulges in the middle and ultimately that bulge causes the lower courses, including the foundation stones in some cases, to tilt forward sending the whole section out and allowing the top to fall down on top of it.  Whichever method the ‘destroyer of walls’ employs it leaves an unholy (no pun intended) mess to be cleared away.  It is by far the hardest task of such a job, it is also a real mental challenge when first viewed…

I reckon on spending the first hour or so, usually until it’s time for my morning coffee, stripping the whole mess away.  In addition to the mass of face stones one has to deal with all the hearting or back-fill and more often than not, a whole horrid pile of soil.  Indeed it is usually the soil which causes the collapse in the first place.  In periods of heavy rainfall, made-up soil, i.e. that which has been moved into place rather than occurring naturally, absorbs large amounts of water and becomes increasingly heavy and soup-like, a phenomena known as liquifaction.  Ultimately the mass becomes both too heavy and too unstable and it pushes the face out and causes the total collapse.  I never want to put any soil back into my repair thus it has to be all shovelled away from the site, another dour and hard half hour or so.

This wall has a large amount of soil piled up behind it, it is something of a mystery where it came from.  It is far too much to have come from grave digging but may have been brought in to raise the level of the grave yard to allow further interments.  Whatever the reason the result has been a perpetual problem of small collapses.  I did my first repair of this church yard wall back in 2005 and have returned fairly regularly each year since.  I have a real problem doing work for old churches, charging a realistic fee is not something I feel I can do given the struggles of the ever diminishing congregations to keep the old places up-together.  So far I have promised three of my regular church customers that once I retire I will do their repairs for free … there’s only so many complimentary burial plots I can manage !

The Scots Pine was actually felled after the wall fell.

The Scots Pine was actually felled after the wall crashed down.

So, a long hard Saturday in early November saw me toiling away to get the repair completed.  I managed to do it just as darkness fell but unfortunately ran out of time to do two other small repairs.  Thus another weekend was going to be required.

The following Friday I received an email from the Warden thanking me for doing the repair but informing me that another collapse had occurred !  This section was twice as large (it is the section showing directly below the large window in the transept above) and was a few metres along from the first repair.  This time I am sure the felling of the trees did have a part to play.

The repair sits between two other earlier repairs which were competed with mortar, a common misconception and an inevitable future problem.

The repair sits between two other earlier repairs which were competed with mortar, a common misconception and an inevitable future problem.

Hence another hard Saturday was endured but once again I managed to get it completed. However, again I still didn’t manage the two other small sections.  Thus a third Saturday of November had to be assigned to Garmon’s little fortress but this time I was finished by lunchtime and as the New Zealand game was not until 5.30, I took the opportunity to have a look at another project which was completed some eighteen months ago.  The car-park at Marteg Bridge, undertaken for and with the volunteers of  the Radnor Wildlife Trust, was just along the road.

The stone and turf bank was constructed back at the beginning of 2013 and has therefore had two summers to grow.

The stone and turf bank was constructed back at the beginning of 2013 and has therefore had two summers to grow.

The car-park project involved a number of low stone-faced banks which had turf between the courses.  The first summer, 2013, the growth was slow and somewhat disappointing but the banks held and following the mild, wet winter of 2013/14 no damage had occurred.  However, the long dry and hot summer was a worry; stones heat up and dry out the roots of the grasses and the soil too dries and shrinks often resulting in stones being displaced.  Given these banks were in a popular parking place where people and dogs would inevitably clamber, damage could well have been incurred.  I was therefore delighted to see the state of banks in November 2014 !  The grasses and wild flowers including heather, had grown well and the root systems have combined to really lock up the whole structure.  The turf and stone bank at the rear of the car-park was really well grown and the whole car-park looks like it has been there for years and apart from one discarded drinks container there was no wilful damage nor litter.  I must confess to having a little smile of satisfaction at seeing the result of my idea and others efforts !

The stone and turf faced bank at the rear f the car-park has done remarkably well given the hot dry summer we have just endured.  I swear it's still growing !

The stone and turf faced bank at the rear of the car-park has done remarkably well given the hot dry summer we have just endured. I swear it’s still growing !

The surprise was how well the grass looked on that rear bank.  The mild autumn and recent rainfall has allowed the grass to maintain its growth and hence its green colour.  It’s hard sometimes to be objective about the weather I endure.  It is only upon reflection that I realise how mild and reasonably dry the autumn was and even now, bemoaning the odd wet afternoon, I have to remind myself it is winter !  Only now, at the end of November, has the first frost appeared.  Even so the long unseasonable weather of autumn has thrown nature into a little confusion.  There are still large amounts of fungus to be seen, only last week some interestingly attired folk were wandering the enclosure gathering some mushrooms to provide winter solace…  Wax caps are in abundance.

Autumnal Frog Spawn

This splodge of frog-spawn appeared one morning last week – the middle of November ! Clearly it is too early, the little black eggs are mostly absent but something spurred the frog to spawn !

I was slightly disorientated to come upon a splodge of frog-spawn at my feet one mild morning last week.  Clearly it was a premature deposit and few eggs are visible but it seems the climate has put the poor frogs out of kilter.  I actually remember a croaking male back in mid -October in that very area, I wonder if he’s the dad !?

I finished by taking advantage of the blue sky and enjoyed a short ‘poodle’ around the Elan Valley reservoirs, which I confidently expected to be overflowing the dam parapets.  Alas no,  apart from the ‘bottom’ dam of Caban Goch.  Nevertheless I was rewarded with some stunning late autumn colours.

Claerwen in the Elan Valley reservoir area.

The course of the Claerwen downstream of the reservoir is always a fine sight, whatever the season.

The browns and greens blend with the blue of the sky and the water of Graig Goch.

The browns and greens blend with the blue of the sky and the water of Graig Goch.

A sheet of water is always photogenic whichever season or light..

A sheet of water is always photogenic whichever season or light.. Caban Goch reservoir.

December is looming large, the Yule Tide commercialism is already assaulting my insensibilities – I cannot find my regular food items amidst the glitz and offers of Christmas gluttony.  My cats are not really into boxes of chocolates, tins of sweets, festive battery packs !!  Nor am I; it’s an embarrassment I find uncomfortable to experience.  It’s hard to walk out of my local superstore weighed down with foodstuff I don’t really need and walk past folk who are waiting for the store to eject the cardboard boxes emptied that day so they can get their night time bedding …

Spare a thought for the poor, dear readers, the season of Goodwill is nigh, let your conscience out of the bag !!

Hopefully my next post will be full of excited joy at the completion of a ten month job !  Time will tell, no time to go shopping just yet !  Black Friday has a different meaning for Welshwaller !!

“The summer’s gone and all the leaves are falling…”

05/11/2014

Here I am, with sincerest apologies for such an absence … remind me to tell you the story about how I decided to clean my laptop’s keyboard which had become quite disgustingly clogged with all sorts of food matter and dust and dead insects swotted off the screen etc, etc, you know the scene !  Well, clever old me decided that probably the easiest and quickest way to get all that crap out of the gaps between the keys was to hoover it all out.  What no-one had ever pointed out to me was that the keys are not actually fixed very securely …..  I got them all out of the dust bag of the vacuum cleaner but it took one hell of a time to fit them all back ! Thus any apparent ‘typos’ or spelling  mistakes may well be that the keys are in the wrong order … lorry ig shap ivvers.

‘Tis true, our glorious lazy-day summer is long gone.  Despite the most amazing September and October weather which saw me still working in short sleeves, the  onset of ‘the Fall’ is very apparent.  Each cut of the grass makes me think that it is the last, each bowl of blackberries is definitely the last and the ground is littered with empty hazel nut cases and pods showing both what an amazing crop there has been and also how many darned grey squirrels are about.  I commented to my American colleague just how much of a nuisance these critters from her homeland are and how they seem to be in abundance this year, fortunately the increase is noticeable in roadkill !  Blow me down if the farmer’s wife where we have been working said exactly the same thing, “doesn’t there seem a lot of dead squirrels this year?”.  We all need to start making squirrel hot-pot, or else there will be no nuts and no birds – they decimate nests; what’s more, they destroy young trees.

Despite all my best endeavours I am still some weeks away from completing the mammoth reconstruction of the Pool House enclosure on the ‘Rhogo’.  Partly this has been my own fault as I have had to slip away for a week now and then to attend to other pressing work but thankfully most of those other jobs are now done and the remaining weeks of the year can be spent on finishing the work.  It has to be completed this year in order to meet the requirements of the Glastir plan of which it is part.

Dilapidated wall on Rhogo

Now we have arrived at the worst length of the old wall – it’s all got to come down…

The progress along the wall was painfully slow for a few months; we were embarked on a fairly massive rebuild of a long section which needed total rebuilding and to a rather abnormal height.  To add to the travails the stone was hugely tiny and the number of courses seemed interminable.

Finally the corner was reached and we turned for home, at least that’s how I saw it in my mind.  I am heading towards the final corner and the roadside wall which marks the finish line.  Unfortunately, long before that goal is reached, there is the matter of  best part of a hundred metres of total take-down and rebuild.

 

Generally speaking I conform to the old adage of ‘if it ain’t broke…’, repairing only that which has  already fallen or is showing every possibility of so doing shortly.  This next length has nothing at all worth salvaging, it needs a total rebuild and that’s some task !  Fortunately for the first two weeks or so I still had the greatly needed assistance of Miss Carolina, who, despite living up to her Welsh nick-name of ‘Pili-pala‘ (butterfly) and flitting off every so often to go sailing, to go Shakespeare or opera stalking, to pop to Italy for a few days house hunting, never-the-less added her immense energy and talent to getting the first section down and back up.  Thank you dear girl !

Stripped-out wall

It can be a little daunting when the stone pile is SO huge, but quietly the wall emerges …

Stripping-out a wall is a tedious and tiring activity but it is the opportunity to study how the builders worked all those years ago.  This particular length has a different build style to the rest of the enclosure.  For one thing it is much more ‘badly’ constructed in so much as it has erroneous stone placement technique and poor packing of the hearting.  Once again, for a short length at least, we encountered the old problem of soil being used to fill the middle of the wall.

I find the whole enclosure perplexing and this wall just adds to the complexity.  As soon as we started stripping it out I felt it showed hallmarks of a later build period.  One of the classic signs of the later C18th, early C19th, wall building is the tendency for it not to have survived in a very good order.  Primarily this is due to it have been built by a ‘gang’ of builders brought it by the land-owner to put it up.  Paid on a piece-rate, they threw up as much as possible in a day, stones badly placed and hearting bucketed loosely into the middle.  Often, as in this case, the line of the wall is unclear and the collapses are generally of the inward type, a sort of belly-flop, when the whole section implodes.  As if to confirm my suspicions we discovered several large pieces of pottery which were in the foundation and hence must have been placed there at the construction stage. I’m no expert on pottery sherds but I know someone who is and I await their assessment of the finds to see if it confirms my view that the pieces are mid to late C18th.

A wall disappears into the distance.

Trying to get a straight line whilst not encroaching or giving away land can be difficult; surely it was straight once upon a time ?!

The problem also comes in the removal of strangely shaped and awkwardly placed foundation stones which, or so it seems to me, were instrumental in some of the collapses.  Some of them were so far into the subsoil, almost ice-berg like, that huge amounts of energy and time were expended digging them out, mainly I have to say, not by me !

The onset of autumn and the shortening days, the changing temperatures and the cooling of both standing water and soil are the triggers for the animals that live in the enclosure, in the pond and the rush and in the base of the wall, to start the process of ‘bedding-down’ for the winter.  It is thus important to get a move on and get all the disturbance done before slumber overtakes the amphibians and the land-lubbers like the common lizard.

Half way up and straight, a moment to take a breather.

Half way up and straight, a moment to take a breather.

Walls in the uplands are THE primary habitat for over-wintering just as they are for summer migratory birds.  It is always a difficult call, whether to rebuild the wall for the benefits that will accrue – whatever they may be ! – or leave as is and not disturb the animals that live there.  In fact there is probably a good argument for both, depending on which hat is being worn.  I am always in favour of the’critters’ and do my utmost to preserve the habitat and protect the creatures that live therein.  Thus much time over the last weeks or so has been spent carefully removing newts and lizards, froglets and toads, to positions back along the wall where the work has already been completed.

 

Never mind, how much of a privilege and how enlightening it is to get to see the elusive animals of this land that few ever catch a glimpse of let alone get to study in some detail.  I have always been a student of the ‘critters’ of Wales.  Ever since I was too young to be near a canal unattended I have been enthralled at the diversity and beauty of amphibians.  Lizards too enthralled me and I remember well the sand lizards on the dunes at Coppet Hall near Saundersfoot on our family holidays and the Slow Worms under stones next to the main railway line where friends and I train spotted.  Birds came much later and other accumulated knowledge such as trees, meadow and hedgerow flowers and upland flora was and still is assimilated over time.  In that time I have learned much about the secretive lives of the animals that occupy my present work station.

What is it ?

What is it ?  Actually it is a dark recess in the wall in which many animals were already ‘bedded down’ – we left it undisturbed and closed it back up.

The life of the Great Crested Newt is not widely understood, at least not when it leaves the water.  Water for most amphibians is just a local pick-up spot, a local dance or night-club if you like.  All of them only go there to meet a mate and do the business.  It’s usually a one-night stand and she never sees him again unless they slip by in the mud.  The summer sees very few amphibians anywhere near a pond and certainly by the September equinox they are on their way to winter dwellings.  Most newts are loners when it comes to spending the long winter months and the Great Crested is the most lonely of the loners. However it is thought that when the ‘later-leavers’ exit the pond and head for winter quarters they do so collectively and end up in an intertwined ball thereby, supposedly, limiting moisture loss.  I recall, as a young lad, finding such writhing masses in compost heaps in a great Aunt’s wilderness garden which adjoined the old cana at Five Locks on Pontnewydd.  I encountered another such ball in the cavern above, quite astonishing to see quite so many in one place.  As a rule, they bury themselves deep into banks and walls, usually way down until they hit the sub-soil, that’s where we wallers find them, under the very last stone, the foundation stone.  Young newts, efts, those that have left the pond in their second summer and face a long crawl to a shelter, lead by some unseen instinct to risk all until shelter is reached, are to be found in groups.  I have found over thirty all wrapped around each other or clustered around ochre coloured roots for which their camouflage is ideally suited.  I’ve never seen that in a text book !  It amazes me how the animals breathe, they are so deep in the soil it seems unlikely that air penetrates to them.  The dark recess in the photo above is an old oven, dark and damp until I accidentally opened it – now resealed – in which dwelt large numbers of amphibians of all denominations !

So too the Common Lizard, it’s life cycle is little understood and often guessed at in books. Being vivipara (eggs retained and hatched within the body thus young are born live) there seems to be a close bond between the mother and her young so much so that come the winter she and they nestle-in together.  I found a family of four just this week, a mother and three young lizards all wrapped around each other and close-by, as is often the case in my experience, an adult male which I assume is the father/mate.  It is normal to find a pair of Common Lizard and although it is not written I suspect they are life-long companions.

I need therefore to get a move-on, winter is knocking and already the first cold blasts are hitting me.  Migratory birds are all but gone, the last of them, a small flock of Ring Ouzels, stopped by for a day or two to feed on the thistle seeds.  Winter visitors were announced with the first unmistakable ‘honkings’ of the Canada Geese – gosh it only seems a few short weeks ago that they were here ! – coming back to the nearby ponds.  Field Fares have begun the assault on the Rowan and Hawthorn berries and soon those trees will hold nought for the smaller locals.  At home, thankfully, the verminous pheasant have started to die in large numbers, blasted out of the air by tweed clad infidels in the name of sport…

Walling in winter has ceased to be the attraction it once may have been, or is it my imagination ?  Did I ever enjoy the wet and cold ?  Well actually there is something primeval and self-satisfying about being out in the elements, battling against all that the wild weather can hurl my way but it is far more pleasurable to have a bright clear frosty day with a blue azure overhead and mist hanging below in the valley.  I’ve had both this last week or so as I near the end of the job.  Another few weeks and maybe, just maybe, I can hang me wellies up to dry !

Pool House wall, Gilwern Hill

The final long rebuild is well underway, stretching into the distance it’s beginning to look something like a dry stone wall, at last !

Wall lit by moonlight

Bright blue frosty day ? Well not quite, the camera lies a little,  this was 5.30pm and the moon was so bright – 2 days away from full – that I was able to work on into almost darkness !

Windows 8 has arrived in Welshwaller’s life …. whether that means you’ll be hearing from me sooner awaits to be seen …. what on earth are ’tiles’ ??

 

 

Beulah Tractor Run 2014

17/09/2014

The second Saturday of any September is the set date for the small village show here in Beulah land, Powys.  The usual cultural competitions and agricultural exhibits – such as children’s paintings, pots of jams, best set of three onions, best set of three carrots, best bale of hay, longest thistle, reddest raddish, a perfect pom-pom dahlia and a huge number of sheep and pony classes which leave me utterly confused – and the ‘Trotting Races’ make up the biggest attractions but there is a secret section which has been quietly growing, unnoticed by most of those who attend.  The surreptitious Tractor Run has gained a formidable reputation amongst the hard-seat  fume loving brigade of the local classic tractor owners.

This year saw another gathering of many old faithful friends – though the Llandovery brigade were absent, sunning themselves in Cyprus apparently (or maybe sussing out the potential for timber extraction amongst the famous Lawson Cyprus Firs…)  – and just a few more new ones, each year one or two trickle in, attracted by the charm of the countryside we assault and the excellent reward of the ‘show-special’ lunch at the Trout Inn of sausage and chips !

Fergie Fach at Beulah show 2014

The first prize went to this rather nice Fergie TED owned by Mal from Llanwrtyd Wells.

Ten tractors set out on the no-too-long cross country ride, leaving just a few back at the showground to mark our presence.  My contribution, as Steward of the Vintage section, is to organise the run and make sure everyone gets signed in and receives their Cracker-Jack pencils or whatever else it is the Secretary has gotten for a reward.  Unfortunately I don’t normally get to drive a tractor around my chosen route as I have to drive an escort vehicle which is equipped for recovery and carries a certain amount of water in case of over-heating…

Beulah Tractors 2014

Fords and Fordsons on the cross country run

There is a great deal of enjoyment and camaraderie amongst those who take part and even though they all know each other well, the day is full of chatter and discourse on the finer points – or lack of ! – of one or other of the tractors on show.

Beulah Tractors on stop

“Are you sure this is the right end?” Deeply mechanical and deadly serious runs the conversation at each stopping point.

This year we took advantage of the long dry spell and drove a cross-country route along the famous Drover road past Cefn Cardis and on up to the little known lake that hides amongst the hills of the Llwyn Madoc estate.  There we halted and enjoyed the views out over Mynydd Eppynt and north towards Drygarn.  It was new to many and full of old memories for others but everyone had a broad smile which is all I can ask.

Fordsons on Beulah Tractor run 2014

Circle the Fordsons on the summit.

Dexta at Beulah Tractor run 2014

Shane from Llanwrtyd never stops smiling when he’s on that damn Dexta !  It came a worthy second.

MF 35 Beulah 2014

There were some other tractors besides Fords !!

Power Major at Beulah

Deryl Jones of Llanwrtyd, a local boy who returns each year with his very fine Fordson, a third place this year but a winner in my eyes – and his no doubt !

The mainstay of the Classic tractor sots in this area are the blue machines of Ford and Fordson, the Majors and Dextas dominate but there are one or two other makes that creep in.  Fergie Fachs in the shape of either the TED or TEF are also common and the one which rode the course was actually chosen by the judge as Best Tractor this year.  Massey Ferguson 35s are another popular small tractor and two were present.  One of course was displayed by Miss Carolina who proudly drove her MF35 3 cylinder around the course with a fixed smile on her beaming face.  It needs to be mentioned that the tractor was only ‘put together’ the day before having been brought home from the restorers shed a mere 48 hours earlier.  The Friday prior to the show was a day of frantic finishing touches such as applying the decals, fitting a new exhaust – which miraculously arrived in the midday post – and discovering all sorts of leaks and squeaks !

Massey 35 with period muck-spreader

She smiled all the way around, though thankfully the period Massey Ferguson muck-spreader remained in the show field… though in truth it attracted more attention than either the tractor or driver !!

On the way around the cross-country course we happened upon the very man responsible for the restoration, one Leslie Smith of Llandrindod Wells, who was sitting in his land rover having a quiet lunch in a remote hillside spot (he was working up there !).  His face lit up when suddenly his world was full of classic tractors …

The two famous Radnorians discuss the finer points of tractor life ... Brinley Jones from Newbridge-on-Wye and Les Smith from Llandrindod - a picture speaks a thousand words ...

The two famous Radnorians discuss the finer points of tractor life … Brinley Jones from Newbridge-on-Wye and Les Smith from Llandrindod – a picture speaks a thousand words …

Les Smith and Whitney Brown with the MF35

‘Hers n His’ – proud restorer and proud owner of the MF35, Les and Whitney re-united high in the hills of Beulah.

It is a matter of some wonder to me that anyone, least of all those whose job it is to drive one at work, wants to spend a Saturday afternoon (or Sunday morning !) driving a high octane pollutant which jars and bumps every bone in the torso below belly-button height, but they do; oh yes, they do !

Beulah Tractors on the skyline

It is not the case that we were out until dusk, it just looks that way as we broach the skyline.

An hour or so of bumping along the ancient Drover road and stopping here and there to chat and look, happy in the company of  like-minded folk from all sorts of backgrounds is as good a way of generating community cohesion as any I know.  Many of us only meet on that second Saturday in September but we greet like old friends and probably mutter something to the effect that “time flies” !

Tractor over the moor at Beulah 2014

Some beautiful remote countryside is best enjoyed behind the blue hue of diesel exhaust, wouldn’t you agree ?

We descended the old stone road that leads down from the hill to cross the Cnyffiad at Tyncwm and re-joined the Beulah to Abergwesyn road to head back to the village and lunch at the Trout before returning to the display line at the show field.

Beulah Show tractor display

Back to the show field for some judging and just a little more chat, oh yes, and a beer or two.

I get a little embarrassed each year by the seeming indifference of the show-goers of Beulah who pay no interest to the tractors or those that bother to bring them, it is left to one or two local ‘old boys’ to make the effort of the exhibitors feel worthwhile.  It is a difficult matter for me but I know those who turn up with their tractors enjoy their day out and come willingly for their own enjoyment.  But on the horizon is a potential problem; firstly the whole future of the show is jeopardised by the increasing cost of hosting it, the marquee hire and all the costs associated with prizes, trotting, publicity and insurance.  It may just be that 2014 is a pivotal year in the 80 odd years of the shows existence.  In addition and partly in response to the financial issues, there are suggestions being mooted that those who bring tractors to display should actually have to pay to do so.  That is a big change as all other shows, vintage or agricultural, rely on the freely given (and not inexpensive for those participating) attendance of such displays to add attractions and thus enhance the overall show appeal which in turn, hopefully, increases the numbers who pay at the gate.  I know from my own point of view that I have had to drastically reduce the number of shows that I attend each year with my display of Agricultural Bygones.  With the cost of fuel to get to the shows plus the time it takes to clean and load items for display and then pack away on return it is not a cheap activity nor is it an easy one.  I thoroughly enjoy the shows I attend but I have to be sure it is enjoyment worth the financial cost of doing so.  It is very doubtful that if I had to add to that cost by paying to enter the show that I would attend any.  There will be some interesting discussions over the next twelve months for sure.

Meanwhile, with another long tiring day over we all headed for home, some of us still smiling at the very joy of sitting on a hard seat breathing yet more carbon monoxide …

MF35 with muck spreader in tow

After nearly 8 hours in the hard saddle this bronco breaking Carolina gal is still as happy as a ‘clam’ (I know, but that’s what they say !)

It’s been a Hard Summer in these Hills…

29/08/2014

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.

Bryn Powell of Aberwesyn

My dear old friend and teacher, Bryn ‘Lloft y Bardd’ standing beside his 1951 Ferie Fach which I am even more proud to own now that he is no longer with us.

 

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’.

Cnyffiad valley

The final resting place of a Welsh gentleman which looks out over his farm in the quiet Cnyffiad valley.

 

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.

Sheep pen at Peny Garreg

The sheep pen began life as a small enclosure in front of an old hill farmstead and is built using the local and delicate slate.

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 !

Slate wall in pieces, Elan Valley

“Will it ever go back up !?” asks my dungaree clad southern ‘gal’.

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.

Curvy slate wall

The new section of wall needed a certain ‘Oo-la-la’ element which gave the otherwise rectalinear structure a certain charm.

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 !

John Deere in reverse

Stone moving made easy. A John Deere, driven ably by a Carolinian gal, what could be more Welsh !

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 !

The sheep pen at Troed -y-rhiw draen, a magical summer 'office' and a delightful job to undertake.

The sheep pen at Troed -y-rhiw draen, a magical summer ‘office’ and a delightful job to undertake.

 

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.

High dry stone wall

Even though I’m shrinking this damn wall is still well over six feet tall !

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 !

Pool House remains, Gilwern Hill

The sections around the old cottage were all corners and height !

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 !

Female Great Crested Newt

A rare and beautiful creature, the Great Crested Newt (female) is quite at home at an altitude of over 1000ft !

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 …

Steam Ploughing Engine

Steam Engines are everywhere at Onslow Park, this beast was down in the ‘working area’ where it was part of the steam ploughing team.

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 !

 

 

 

 

In Flanders Fields. Part 3 Advance and Retreat.

05/08/2014

After the sometimes harrowing but always mesmerising time on the Western Front, time spent reflecting, time spent eating – how we loved the French food ! – and time spent enjoying and admiring the beautiful countryside, we headed south through Belgium.  It was the first time for both of us in that country and we were very impressed.  That was partly because their road signs were clearer and they avoid the French practise of signing a town or village for three, four, five times and then, at the next junction or roundabout it disappears (presumably because they ran out of space).  Luckily I had a co-pilot/navigator who was well used to map reading and don’t imagine that is a commonly available skill these days, especially amongst the ‘i’ phone / sat-nav generation.  On the odd occasion when the disappearing sign sent us on the wrong road she quickly gave me the new heading and we always reached the target. In addition to navigating the quiet country roads she had to research and locate our next camping destination and the site at Ypres was a hard act to follow.  Our next site was at a small village called Tonny, we didn’t actually know that until we got there, we were heading for ‘Camping Tonny’.  The site was a dozen or so miles north of Bastogne and proved to be a super site much loved by families.  We amused the neighbours – who didn’t know we had just completed a long five hour drive without a cuppa ! –  by arriving and immediately getting the kettle on before even unpacking !  So amused were they that one of the little boys came over with some chocolate cakes for us to have with the tea !  They turned out to be a really jolly German family and within the hour the dad brought us some Belgium beer – a great hit with Miss Carolina – and sat and chatted.  I found it a little awkward telling him what we had been doing – is that silly ?  Anyway our evening was jolly and relaxing despite dozens of noisy children playing football around us, in fact I was forced to give a yellow card to one large ‘little’ boy who insisted on barging the smaller youngsters !

The Mardasson Memorial

The Mardasson Memorial, in the shape of the American Five Pointed Star, stands a mile or so outside Bastogne.

Bastogne is a place I have wanted to visit for a long time.  It is more well known these days following the successful series ‘Band of Brothers’ directed by Tom Hanks which follows Easy Company through their European Tour of 1944.  The ‘Battle of the Bulge’ was first brought to a wide audience in 1965 with the ‘wide-screen’ film starring most of the great American actors of the day led by Henry Fonda.  As with most ‘hollywood’ historic representations it was not a strict interpretation of the events of December 1944.  The truth was far more dramatic and the result not nearly so certain.

I don’t intend giving a history of the battle here, it is easily researched and there are plenty of books on the subject.  Suffice to say that my interest in the 2nd World War meant it was a place I wanted to visit.  In particular I wanted to see the great forest of the Ardenne for it featured in both wars.  I was not prepared for the enormous expanse of the forest, it stretches for hundreds of miles in all directions and crosses several national borders.

The town of Bastogne was at the centre of the battle and was heavily destroyed.  The resistance of both the townsfolk and the members of the 101st Airborne Division, of which Easy Company 505th Parachute Infantry were a part, is legendary.  The ‘bulge’ into the American front line led to the total encirclement of Bastogne (prompting the best ‘throw-away’ remark of all time when the officer in command of Easy Company, Captain Winters, on being told he was going to be surrounded calmly said “We are parachutists, we are supposed to be surrounded”) and the situation looked hopeless.  Such was the German’s confidence in the success of their surprise attack that they ultimately offered surrender terms to the besieged paratroops.  The reply of the commander of the defenders, General McAuliffe is legendary also – “Nuts!”.  So famous is that response that it is featured throughout the modern town.

General McAuliffe in Bastogne

Getting the main town square named after you is probably a sign that the locals appreciate what you did for them. General McAuliffe’s bust stands at the corner of the main Bastogne square.

It was a largely unknown battlefield to my American companion.  She knew that the grandfather of her best friend had been there but she didn’t know anything about what had happened.  It is strange taking a young American, so used to feeling unloved in the world, to a place which reveres the memory of what was done for them  70 years ago.  Indeed the 70th anniversary of the siege is this December and many commemorative events  are planned.

The little known Ardennes offensive is viewed as the worst American debacle of the 2nd World War.  The German armour under Pfeiffer broke through the complacent lines – no-one believed the Germans had the resources and everyone believed the Ardennes were impassable.  No-one seemed to remember that was precisely where the Germans broke through in 1940 !  It was something of a shock to my young companion to read the statistics of the battle;  nearly SEVENTY SEVEN THOUSAND American troops were lost, making it the worst casualty list of the whole war.

Today the 101st Airborne Division is still lauded as is Patton’s 3rd Army who broke through to relieve the besieged town on Christmas day 1944.  A stone carved relief of  General George S. Patton stands in a quiet car park some-way from the main square.

Relief of Gen. Patton in Bastogne

George S.Patton stares out on a quiet car-park in a back street – not quite what he would have wanted I suspect !

There is a new museum now attached to the Mardasson Memorial which traces the history of the war as it affected Belgium; it is very well done if a little lengthy – I noticed many older visitors took various opportunities to escape the regulated through-flow of the museum’s time-line displays – and perhaps not specific enough for American visitors who want to see the Ardennes offensive primarily.  On the whole I enjoyed my visit to the area, I would certainly liked to have had more time to visit some of the out-lying battle sites, not least the defensive lines in the thick forest that surrounds the area.  Alas time was precious, we only had a morning to take in the whole of Bastogne and the museums before heading east.

,By some quirk of fate my first, and probably only, visit to the area in which that huge battle took place was interwoven with a journey into the very heart of the land from whence came the attackers.  Germany beckoned, we were heading for the Upper Middle Rhine and the route we were to take was exactly that which the Panzer columns had used to creep through the Ardennes and surprise the Americans; conversely it was the route the Americans took to reach the Rhine many months later.  It was my first visit to Germany as a tourist and it felt a little strange to be doing so after so much war wandering.

Strangely there stands a Sherman Tank right next to McAuliffe's bust - strange given the fact that the 101st never recognised that Patton's tanks relieved them ...

Strangely there stands a Sherman Tank right next to McAuliffe’s bust – strange given the fact that the 101st never recognised that Patton’s tanks relieved them …

It was a four hour drive, firstly through the Ardennes and then, having crossed the border into Germany, we climbed out onto open plains of wheat and picturesque villages. It struck me that I was in a country where my language skill was limited to counting to ten …

The obvious difference – apart from the place-names – was that immediately we were in a place with no war memorials or commemorated battle sites, certainly no American flags fluttered from buildings !  Thus I was at last able to enjoy my holiday like a normal person, and this was a super place to do it.

Bacarach on the Rhine.

This quaint picture-postcard hotel was our ‘pension’ for the two night stay on the Rhine.

I have already mentioned that this was to be my first visit to the Rhine, I should also admit to being slightly embarrassed to confess I had no idea that the area we were in was designated a World Heritage Site.  The Upper Middle Rhine is certainly worthy of that status, I thought it was quite stunning.

The Rhine is enormous, even in the ‘upper middle’ !  I was staggered at the rate of flow of the water even in high summer.  It was so fierce that the huge barges moving upstream could hardly make headway.  I fail to see how it is economically viable to move cargo at that rate for hundreds of miles up the river, especially as every five minutes or so enormous lengthy freight trains ran on lines on both banks.  Going downstream was a different matter, with hardly any power, just sufficient to steer by, the massive boats sped past.

The Rhine at Bacarach.

The Rhine is a major commercial waterway with huge barges plying their trade – upstream movement is slow…

The other trade on the river is of course the large cruise ships that tour the length of the river.  That never was an attractive proposition to me and having seen them I am certain it is not a holiday I intend taking.

The little town of Bacarach (was it named after that 1960s music composer ?) is delightful.  It has amazing architecture and a superb little Italian pizza house !  Clearly it is a tourist hot-spot and the shops are typical of such a resort.  I resisted the temptation to buy a German drinking jug with a lid … I’ve already got one !

The town nestles into a small valley that opens out onto the Rhine and is surrounded by steep slopes on which vines are grown.  How on earth anybody managed to pick the grapes is beyond me.  There were some interesting dry stone walls up there but, alas, there was no time to ascend, ahem.

Bacarach Vineyards.

The vineyards hang on the steep slopes and someone had to build those walls – one leg shorter than the other would be useful.

Of course we hadn’t just happened on to the Rhine valley as a holiday destination – another confession, I would never have even considered it.  I realise now that I have been missing a very impressive area.  The visit was in order to attend the wedding of two friends of my American tourist.  The reason to hold the wedding in Germany – apart from the fact that it is difficult to find a castle high above a river in Colorado – relates to the bride’s heritage.  Like many other American forces personnel her step father met and married a German lady, her mother.   The venue was clearly agreeable to the groom and dozens of other State-side friends who made the long journey.

The day dawned hot and sunny, very hot in fact.  The wedding was not until the afternoon and so we took the opportunity to wander down to the Rhine and rest in readiness for a long night.  Also, I had a sneaking desire to paddle in the river, to stand in the waters of the Rhine.

The town of  St Goar was the venue, or rather a castle high above the town.  We took the train and walked, in the high afternoon heat, up the long steep path that led to the venue.  By the time we got half way I had removed my shirt …

The Castle of Burgh Rheinfels.

The imposing Burg Rheinfels towers above the Rhine at St. Goar

The medieval castle was impressive as a military structure and a superb venue for a very impressive American wedding.  Such was the heat of the day that I consumed over five litres of water during the evening and no booze !!  The buffet was something else, food the like of which I cannot remember having experienced before.  It was an opportunity to meet up once again with the kind folk of South Carolina and the happy couple whom I had met on my visits there.

We caught the last train back to Bacarach, that was an experience in itself, German trains are impressive.  The small town was quiet and finally cool and even the river seemed to have shut down for the night.

The breakfast at the Pension Im-Malerwinkle Hotel was absolutely superb and I can’t speak highly enough of it as a place to stay.  By 10 am we were back on the road, a lengthy drive lay ahead and we had decided to take a quicker route back to France.  We quickly left Germany and entered Luxembourg, by far the cheapest country we visited and I took the opportunity to fill up with fuel at just over £1 a litre.  That took me all the way home, a journey of nearly 700  miles.  We slipped out of Luxembourg and briefly entered Belgium before crossing into France.  It is the first time I have driven across the open borders of the EA, it is a strange but relieving feature, no customs or passport controls, just a new language on a new sign.  By 5 pm we were nearing the city of Amiens once again and a small sign pointing to a farm camp-site was just what we needed.

We spent a restful morning before heading north west toward the French coast where the infamous river Somme enters the sea.  Valery sur Somme is a superb little port with a medieval walled city and a delightful esplanade with restaurants, walkways and lovely views out over the estuary.

Mouth of the Somme

The walk along the estuary of the river Somme was a good way to end a wonderful 10 day jaunt.

Once again I found myself thinking aloud that this was a great place to holiday despite the awful history connected with the river Somme.

We ate our last French meal at a quaint little restaurant attached to a Crazy Golf Course, slightly bizarre but typically French don’t you think ?  At last I got to enjoy a bowl of Moules in a rich cream source with a side plate of those chips that personify French fries !  As usual, my companion went for something far more healthy, full of green and red colours and crunchy in texture …. yes, can you believe she ate salad in a restaurant on the seashore in France  !?

That night we returned to Le Treport to spend yet another few hours of sleep in the car before driving the hour to Dieppe for the 4 a.m. ferry.   Once on board we headed for the lounge and tried to gain another few hours of shut-eye.  It was still dark so why didn’t they turn the bright lights down? – but then they didn’t on the overnight sailing the other way, merde – I managed to doze off for a while and then the bright dawn drew us out on deck to see the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters growing larger as we neared Newhaven.

Seven Sisters cliffs near Newhaven.

Seven Sisters cliffs near Newhaven.

We off-loaded and, for once, had a polite exchange with the Immigration Officer, and slipped onto the road for Lewes.  My American passenger was very worried as we approached the checkpoint.  She is almost always treated very rudely by our Immigration Officers, being made to feel like a threat to National security and unwelcomed.  Why it is necessary to be so outrageously offensive is beyond me; do we not want visitors to come here, do we not need overseas currency !?  Furthermore, if we are so downright rude to arrivals here how can we complain when we, in turn, are made to feel like criminals when we stand before their Immigration people ?  It is not necessary and is certainly not the way the world should be, especially while remembering events of 100 years ago !  What was the fight for … ?

A six hour journey followed, to complete the 250 miles back to Wales, the same time it took us to drive through 4 countries and cover over 500 miles two days previously – Lordie, our roads are SO crowded !!

Newhaven at 8 am on a bright sunny morning in July, a nice way to arrive home.

Newhaven at 8 am on a bright sunny morning in July, a nice way to arrive home.

 

 

 

In Flanders Fields … Part 2 (published on the 100th Anniversary of the start of the First Great World War).

04/08/2014
UXB in Mametz Wood

Wandering in Mametz Wood can be somewhat dangerous – this unexploded artillery shell lying in the leaf litter on the track…

The geography of the Pas de Calais region and the adjacent Belgium area of what is known as the Ypres Salient, is quite stunning – at least to someone from the hill country of central Wales !  The flat open fields of ripening corn and the long straight roads linking towns whose tall church spires dominate the horizon, make the area serene and peaceful.  The ancient roads mainly run on the ridge-lines and the small ‘bois‘ , the copses of mixed broadleaf woodland, are dotted here and there on slightly higher rounded hills.  It is easy to see why the roads and woods were so important in the battles that raged to and fro for the four long years of the war.  It is harder to picture today’s tranquil farm land, picturesque villages and poppy lined lanes, in the state they were back in 1916.

The countryside of Flanders

The rich open country of Flanders where corn, pasture, woods and vales mask the in-grained images of trench warfare.

What did bring that whole tragedy full square into one’s brain was the incessant bombardment that befell both eye and mind, the dozens and dozens of military graveyards.  At each road junction a small green sign with dignified white lettering pointed to another Commonwealth War Grave or a French war grave and, less frequently, a German graveyard.  Sometimes, on a long quiet lane seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we would suddenly be confronted with a small plot of ground with the familiar white headstones.  The numbers in each plot varied considerably, here a hundred or more, there just six, next thirty to fifty then several hundred.  More than anything else it is the small roadside cemeteries that leave the indelible mark on the visitor.

CWGC cemetery, Bucquoy Road

Sometimes large sometimes just a few dozen; everywhere the Graves.

The international nature of the war, indeed why it was a ‘World’ war is also clearly understood.  The cemeteries of Commonwealth countries are plentiful, from Canada and the southern hemisphere countries, from India and from the small island of Newfoundland.  The French colonies are honoured throughout their cemeteries particularly the north African countries. I wondered aloud how long it must have taken for the land and the landscape to recover its ancient dignity.  The familiar pictures of a devastated countryside with the odd bare skeletal tree standing amongst mounds of mud and the endless barbed-wire, of Chaplin-like moving pictures in which dishevelled men, up to their knees in clag, scurry like the rats that lived with them.  The deep, water filled trenches and huge craters where thousands lived and died are all too familiar.  How did the local farmers ever get their land back to productivity ?  How long did it take to rebuild villages, houses, farmsteads and the dozens of ancient churches ? In some places they didn’t bother; here and there it is possible to come across preserved trench systems and huge craters now filled with water or just grassed over.  Only ‘young’ woodlands exist and it struck me how nature must also have been devastated.  What happened to the rabbits, what happened to the thousands of birds ?  Clearly, as John McCrae famously tells us, some just hung on in there …

“and in the sky the Larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below”.

In one preserved site I read that it was suggested in 1922 – four years after the end of the war – that the particular area of trenches and craters on a small ridge should be left as it was.  That now forms the evocative memorial to the men of Newfoundland.

Moose statue at the Newfoundland Memorial

The wonderful statue of a Moose looks out across the ground of trenches and craters at the Newfoundland Memorial.

The haphazard system of wriggling trenches interspersed with deep shell craters is shocking, the proximity – a mere 50 metres – of what were German trenches is shocking, the signs warning that it is wise not to enter a particular area of fenced off ground as it is still infested with unexploded shells is shocking.  The strategic importance of the site is clear as one gazes out in a 360 degree panorama over the flat fields where the horizon is barely visible.

Warning - Newfoundland Memorial

The signs say it all – nearly a hundred years and still not safe ..

One thing that did impress me was the number of English school groups that were touring the sites, it was not so much the number – there’s a certain dread in arriving at a site of commemoration to find buses of school kids ! – it was the manner in which they walked around and the interest they seemed to be giving to either the guides, who talked them through the site, or the pictures and letters in the museums.  It was a welcome respite from the badly behaved groups of teenagers I have met at the Normandy battlefield sites, especially the American cemetery at Omaha beach where French schoolchildren seem to have to be taken but are unable to curtail their obvious displeasure and disinterest.

As a Welshman there was one place of pilgrimage that had to be on the itinerary, a small block of woodland near Albert, the site now commemorated by a beautiful piece of sculpture made by a friend of mine, the famous Welsh artist blacksmith David Petersen (son of the even more famous Welsh boxing legend Jack Petersen).

Welsh Dragon at Mametz Woods

The Welsh Dragon roars out towards Mametz Woods, a memorial worthy of the sacrifice and a credit to David Petersen and the Welsh Veterans who raised the funds.

The thing that most strikes you at the Mametz Wood site is the apparent insignificance of it, what was deemed so important about this small woodland in a quiet valley off the main river Somme ?  What was so strategically important that it warranted the FOUR thousand casualties it took to capture the wood in four days of dreadful fighting in July 1916 ?!  The first assault on the 7th July was a failure with men being cut down by heavy German machine gun fire emanating from the deep cover of the wood as they crossed the open ground seen in the photo above.  It cost the Divisional commander his job and the 38th Welsh Division were ordered to carry out a mass attack on the 10th July following a heavy artillery bombardment of the wood.  Again casualties were enormous as they crossed the open ground but eventually the edge of the wood was gained and there much hand to hand fighting took place.  The 14th Battalion (Swansea) lost 400 men out of the 675 who started the attack.  It was in the assault of the 10th July that the War poet Seigfried Sassoon carried out a single handed attack on the German lines.  The awful bloodiness of the attack was captured by Welsh artist Christopher Williams in his 1918 painting.

Mametz Wood by Christopher Williams (1918)

Christopher William’s painting of the assault on Mametz Wood.

We wandered along a muddy track into the wood, now re-grown with ash, oak and field maple.  Some woodland management had been recently carried out and the track-ways were clear of undergrowth but in places deeply rutted and muddy or water filled.  At the edge of the wood, a position identified in records as one of fierce fighting, we stooped to pick up spent cartridge cases and my travelling companion, much to her shock, pulled from the mud the lace holes of a boot (which she later saw clearly in pictures of soldiers at a nearby museum).  Nothing so defines what actually went on in a place as picking up an item of personal wear or bullet cases from the position where, 98 years ago, they were ejected from a rifle, or, more poignantly in the case of the boot remains, where a man died for you do not lose a boot in any other circumstances …

Remains of a boot from Mametz Wood

In July 1916, probably the 10th, a man lost his boot and probably his life. On 21st July 2014 a young American lady picked a piece of mud cased leather with lace holes punched into it from the side of a woodland track in Mametz Wood …

The quiet woodland glade belied the awful truth of its history.  Deep craters, now filled with bramble or moss covered, lay undisturbed on either side as we walked.  Here a large unexploded artillery shell, only recently driven over by a woodsman’s tractor, there an unexploded mortar, too big to remove but deadly in its grave of 98 years. Throughout the now peaceful and leafy glades the trees were festooned with the flag of Wales, hung in long buntings or individually fixed to a tree.  We hardly spoke and I certainly felt very choked and my vision blurred for a long while.

Mametz Woods with Welsh Flags

The woods were hung with the Welsh Dragon, clearly I was not the only Welsh pilgrim to pass by that way in recent times !

The wood is off the beaten track, away from many of the main sites and not near any large town, the small village of Mametz lies a few miles from the site.  The signs are understated and if you did not know the significance it would be easily missed.  We both thought it was fitting that to get to the wood from the village required driving a few miles along a very ‘Welshy’ country lane which twisted and meandered, apparently needlessly, along a wooded hillside, past high hedged pastures and sleepy farmsteads.  You are not going to accidentally come upon Mametz Wood, it is indeed a place towards which Welsh Pilgrims head.

Cartridge Case from Mametz Wood

A .303 cartridge case found a few yards into Mametz Wood.  The mark in the mud was its resting place having been ejected from a Welshman’s rifle 98 years ago on the 10th July 1916.

Throughout the visit, at every memorial really, the sheer futility and indeed stupidity of it all is the dominant mindset.  I’m not one who looks back at the leaders of our country with disdain, they did what they thought was best at the time.  It is certain that more recent military campaigns, even by so called ‘elite’ forces, have had their share of wrong decisions and bloody-minded mistakes.  It is going to be interesting, over the coming period of commemoration, to see just how the modern historian, military and political, portray the First World War leaders.  Even the great Churchill gets his share of incompetency claims when judged by modern standards.  One thing is clear however and that is that the Generals, on all sides not just the British, were ill-prepared for what unfolded.  They continued to think in terms of earlier warfare where modern munitions and mechanisation were not an issue.  The insanity of trench warfare is clear to us today but it is not as simple as condemning those that orchestrated it.

Unexploded shell, Mametz Wood

Careful where you step ! Another large unexploded shell on a track in Mametz Wood – a track the woodsmen have been driving their tractors over just recently …

Of all the memorials to the Great War it is, perhaps, the Menin Gate in the old city of Ypres (Ieper) on the Belgium side of the Franco-Belge border that is most well known.  The massive structure, inaugurated in 1927 and built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, bears the inscription of those whose bodies were never recovered or identified.  It is quite a jolt to the senses to see the lines and lines of inscriptions.  Is it an understandable statistic if I tell you that the total number of names inscribed is FIFTY FOUR THOUSAND, EIGHT HUNDRED AND NINETY SIX ?  Is it just as numbing if I tell you that those are the names of Commonwealth soldiers missing just in the Ypres area BEFORE 15th August 1917 ?!  In other words before ever the great Somme battles began.  Oh yes, and just in case you think that’s not that many, there are tens of thousands more – because there was not enough room at the Gate – on tablets at the main British cemetery of Tyne Cot a few miles east of the city.  Shall I repeat that ?  That’s just the number of those with no known grave … Believe me, there are quite a few with marked graves.

Inscriptions at Menin Gate

Inside the great Menin Gate the names of the missing are inscribed … 54,896 of them.

It stands as one of the great statements of gratitude that each evening at 8pm local dignitaries and four buglers from the town perform a solemn ceremony which includes the long minute of silence, after the sounding of the Last Post (was ever a more evocative refrain composed ?) and then the Reveille, the call to awaken.  Since 1928 the ceremony has taken place (I presume it was curtailed during the 2nd WW though I am not certain) and a large crowd stands in and around the huge portal.  The laying of wreaths by schoolchildren is followed by the reading of the ‘Ode of Remembrance’. The famous poem which begins with the well known line “They shall grow not old” is in fact the second stanza of a poem written by Laurence Binyons.  First published in The Times in September 1914, it appeared at the time the nation was reeling from the losses in the Battle of the Marne. The full poem, ‘Ode for the Fallen’ follows:

They went with songs to the battle, they were young.

Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.

They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted.

They fell with their faces to the foe.

*

They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

*

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;

They sit no more at familiar tables of home:

They have no lot in our labours of the day-time,

They sleep beyond England’s foam.

*

Buglers at Menin Gate.

At 8 pm each evening a large crowd falls silent and the bugles sound.

The old city of Ieper (Ypres) has been beautifully restored and the medieval buildings and city walls/ramparts are a real delight.  The large square is full of restaurants and cafes and the ambience of the place is uplifting despite the awful history that gives it its modern day celebrity status.  We stayed at a lovely municipal camp-site ten minutes outside the wall and it was refreshing to see that not all who holidayed there had come for the 1st World War memorials.  Indeed it is clearly a mecca for the Netherlanders and their bicycles ! The final visit before heading south out of the Ypres area was to the large Commonwealth cemetery at Tyne Cot just east of the city.

CWGC cemetery Tyne Cot

The huge expanse of the Tyne Cot cemetery is staggering and yet beautiful.

The area was given its name by the Northumberland Fusiliers who fought to gain the five or six German pill-boxes that were scattered around the little barn that they called Tyne Cottage (many of the battlefield sites have English names appended by troops who fought or stayed there).  The area was finally captured by the 3rd Australian Division on 4th October 1917 in the push towards Passchendaele – another name synonymous with huge losses.

The current cemetery contains Commonwealth soldiers from many nations (and some German graves).  The burials number 11,956 (and are being added to still as remains are discovered in the course of ploughing or road building) but of those 8,369 are ‘Known unto God’, in other words unidentified !  Staggering indeed.  As if that were not enough the memorial garden bears the names of a further THIRTY FIVE THOUSAND who have no known resting place … These were all lost in the battles of the Ypres Salient AFTER August 1917.

Tyne Cot Cross of Sacrifice

The Cross of Sacrifice at Tyne Cot, placed at the suggestion of King George V, who visited the site in 1922, on the largest of the German pill-boxes.

It is a heavy holiday indeed, not one to be undertaken lightly nor as the only R & R of the year !  Such is the magnitude of the events, of the losses and the memorials that it is best, in my view at least, to take it as one solemn pilgrimage.  It is far too harrowing to actually ‘enjoy’ per-say.   The next four years will see many a commemoration as specific events and battles are remembered.  It may be that it all gets a little too much, it might be we become bored and disenchanted with it all.  The same could be said of the 2nd World War commemorations, such as the 70th Anniversary of D Day just passed.  Maybe the time has come to quietly forget, I’m not sure.  One thing for certain is that the gratitude and affection of the French, the Belgians and the people of the Netherlands is not going to fade.  It is a difficult emotion this ‘remembering’ business.  And what about the Foe ?  What do we do/feel about them? They too had huge losses.   I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that.

That question weighed heavily on my thoughts as we headed south, this time to another place of horrid loss and sacrifice but a generation later and once again at the hands of the same foe.  As for my time on the Western Front, it was a mixture of non-plussed head shaking and shame that I had not visited before.  On the other hand it has struck me how beautiful that part of France is and how pleasant a land is Belgium – in fact we both voted Belgium as our favourite country !  So, a return petet to enjoy the food and culture, the landscape and historic towns sans Le Guerre Mondial especially if they can guarantee the glorious weather …

But on this day, this 4th of August 2014, a hundred years to the day that the First World War began, I leave you with the haunting words of John McCrae and I can tell you that Poppies do indeed ‘blow’ in Flanders Fields …

'Between the Crosses row on row ...

“Between the Crosses row on row …”

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

*

We are the Dead.  Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders Fields.

*

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders Fields.

*

Flanders Poppies

In Flanders Fields …

30/07/2014

Finally, I undertook a journey that has been a long time in the waiting.  For longer than I care to remember I have intended making a pilgrimage to the last resting place of two great uncles, both casualties of the Great calamity which we are about to commemorate.  In a week’s time the centenary of the 1st World War will be upon us, August 4th will pass-by un-heeded  in most folks mind but it marks a four year period of national remembrance.  Circumstances colluded to make it possible for me to visit the battlefields of that colossal event.

The Menin Gate in Ypres

The most well known of the 1st WW sites, the Menin Gate at Ypres (Ieper), is worthy of its status.

An invitation to attend a wedding in the small German town of St. Goar on the Rhine was the impetus I needed to finally get my plans together to make the trip.  In fact it became a triple-decker as I not only built in the 1st World War battlefields  but also a long desired visit to the 1944 site of the Battle of the Bulge and the famous town of Bastogne in southern Belgium as well as a chance to see the wonderful World Heritage Site of the Upper Middle Rhine.  Imagine, a three-in-one holiday to areas I had hitherto never visited, now that doesn’t happen often in my life !

The planning had been ongoing since about March when the wedding invitation and the travel plans of my American migrator, here to avoid the stifling heat of South Carolina (and constantly reminding me, as I swelter and wilt, that this is NOT hot !), were confirmed.  Living in the middle of Wales has its disadvantages when it comes to foreign travel; a day is needed to reach the channel ferries.  Having lived for some years in the seaside resort of Brighton I knew of a little used crossing out of Newhaven to Dieppe.  It is a four hour crossing but avoids the terror of the M25 and the awful route to the main channel ports of Dover and Folkestone.  Also it is BY FAR the cheapest crossing – by booking the late night (11pm) ferry on the outward journey and the very early (4am) boat on the return, I got the whole package for £78 !!  Yes, a car and two passengers for less than a single train trip to London !!  The other advantage is that Dieppe is an ideal entry point for visiting the Western Front with the Somme area less than an hour away and the Ypres salient just over two hours.  It is also a good port for a fast trip to Paris which is only a couple of hours down the fast autoroute.

Dieppe has its memorials too, as does Newhaven, for in 1942 a large raid was mounted on the port by a force of Canadian and British troops who set out from Newhaven to attempt to capture the port in an experimental assault to test both the efficacy of a seaborne attempt to take a port and the defences of the garrison.  It was an unmitigated disaster and left hundreds dead and hundreds more captured.  Mountbatten always referred to it as a success in so much as valuable lessons were learned which influenced the D Day landings two years later but the families of the troops, especially those in Canada, thought otherwise.

Brighton shingle

The classic beach holiday or day trip destination, Brighton beach and big wheel. I spent many summers on that shingle.

I had decided to travel in my old trusty steed, my little Ford Fiesta van which had the advantage of plenty of room for all the camping gear – and a suit or two for the wedding – but more importantly is super fuel efficient (the average mpg for the 1500 mile round trip came out at 74).  It is a little aged now but has recently had a lot of mechanical parts replaced and, despite a worrying noise from the rear wheel which had prevailed for two years despite numerous assurances from my fitter that it was fine, seemed good to go.  Alas that wheel which just the week before was passed ‘ok’, finally decided to collapse on us.  In deepest rural Sussex, at 9 pm on a sunny Sunday evening, just an hour from the port, the wheel bearing finally collapsed.  Luckily we had pulled onto a garage forecourt in the small town of Midhurst and luckily too – unlike most of rural mid-Wales – there was a mobile phone signal.  Funnily enough I had only just recently had my renewal notice for my annual AA fee, and as usual, not having used them during the past twelve months, I had thought that maybe I wouldn’t renew … I had in fact taken out foreign travel break-down rescue and recovery too.  A short call to the control desk assured me that a happy smiling AA man would arrive within the hour and so it was that at ten minutes to ten the yellow transit pulled onto the forecourt.  He immediately agreed with my diagnosis and pronounced nowt could be done.  I have the Relay service which promises to take you and your car on to wherever you want, but where did I want to go ?  It had taken six hours to get that far and the thought of sitting in the back of a relay truck all the way home to Wales to get the bearing fixed and maybe set out again the next day or so was not appealing.  I thought about getting taken to a Ford garage in nearby Chichester and sleeping in the car in the hope that the service manager might fit me in the next day, thus allowing the possibility of catching the next night’s crossing (as that night had clearly gone awry).  The AA man said he knew a small garage in Fareham who would most likely do it for me the next morning.  He tried to get the owner on the phone but it was a Sunday night and it was World Cup Final on TV !!  We decided to go for it and take him at his word and an hour later we were wrapped under a duvet in the front seats parked outside the small garage.  At 7 am the owner arrived and had already learned of our problem.  He apologised for the fact that he couldn’t get the parts until 8 o’clock but told us the nearby Sainsbury store was open for breakfast.  Off we set to walk the fifteen minutes to a hot coffee and rather good English breakfast, yes, even Miss Carolina ate one too !

We returned an hour or so later and the job was nearly done, by 10 am we were on the road.  I was left feeling very humbled by the friendliness and honest helpfulness accorded us.  So, our subsequent amazing trip was down to two fine gentlemen whom I had never before met, John Breeze and Sean Barton at J & S  M.O.T. & Repairs on Wickham Road in Fareham.  Thank you guys !

Having missed the Sunday night ferry we now had a day to kill on the south coast.  A blazing sun tempted us onto Climping beach for a few hours and then on to Brighton.  My travel companion had never been to the resort,  I had lived there back in the 1970s, for both of us it was a visit to a new city !

A lovely sunny day but the sea was too rough to enter.

Climping Beach in Sussex.  A lovely sunny day but the sea was too rough to enter.

Living in a place is a different experience to visiting as a tourist.  In the intervening 30 plus years much had changed but also, much had stayed the same.  I even remembered where certain streets were – my travelling companion wanted to visit a particular cosmetic emporium which was located in a small street running parallel to the main London road and the road from the railway station to the sea.  It was a street that used to hold a regular Saturday morning antique market and memories of roaming the stalls with my dear old mum came flooding back.  She lived and loved Brighton back then, especially she liked the open markets but also the posh shops around Churchill Square and Western Road.  She had the strange habit of indulging her need for retail therapy on a Friday after work, as she wandered home from the hectic office she endured.  By Saturday morning she had usually decided the shoes weren’t what she wanted, the blouse was the wrong colour, the sweater was too big etc. etc. and so the afternoon was spent returning items to the shops.  It was also a way to get cash in the days before ATM.

By Monday evening we were in the small sea-port of Newhaven enjoying some local seafood at a seafront hostelry as we watched and waited for the ferry to arrive.  It is only from the shore, on the side-walk of the narrow river into which the ship has to fit, that you get to see the real size of the thing.  Ferries are huge lumps of steel and to watch the ‘driver’ park the beast accurately and gently onto the link-span is one of my all time jaw-dropping voyeuristic past-times.

Hope Inn, Newhaven

Taken from the deck of the ferry, the Hope Inn looks to be way below.

The crossing meant we landed in France at 5 a.m. which has its advantages but given we had just endured our second night of little or no sleep, it was rather trying.  We headed north up the coast toward the little port of  Le Treport which had been an important site during the 1st World War.  It had a major French and British field hospital from early in the war.  The capacity of the British hospital rose to 10,000 ‘beds and between 28th December 1914, when the first soldier died in the hospital, and the Armistice on November 11th 1918 a total of 2857 soldiers died at what became No. 3 General Hospital.

My particular reason for a quick visit to what is today a busy holiday and fishing port, was to see the building that housed the Royal Flying Corp’s Lady Murray’s Hospital in which resided one Godfrey Jones (later Pendrell) of Garth Farm, Pontardawe, a pilot in 32 Squadron RFC.  He had been wounded whilst flying over enemy territory and whilst being treated in the hospital he received a telegram informing him he had been awarded the Military Cross ‘under the authority of  ‘The King Commander’.

I have mentioned him in these pages before, he lies in the small cemetery at Llangiwg Church above the small Swansea valley town.

From that little town we headed inland toward the city of Amiens and some much needed breakfast and a little shut-eye.  In a small town we spotted an early morning bakery and immediately stopped to buy our first fresh, hot croissants.  The first of many !

Because of the lost day my schedule was already knocked off course but we quickly made up time and headed off to the first of the main targets of my 1st World War sites.  On 12th January 1918 one Private Richard George Cantle of the 3rd Battalion The Tank Corps, the son of Gideon and Charlotte Cantle of Five Locks, Pontnewydd, Gwent, died of injuries received.  He lies in the BucquoyRoad Cemetery, Ficheux in the Pas de Calais region near Albert, east of Amiens.

Grave of Richard George Cantle.

The Military grave in the Somme where lies my Great Uncle. Richard George Cantle.

My mother’s mother was a Cantle, ‘Uncle Dick’, as he was known in the family, was her brother; in other words Richard George Cantle was my Great Uncle.  My poor old ‘Nanny Deakin’ (she married my Grandfather, a Black-country emigre to Wales, during the war) rarely spoke of her lost brother, at least I don’t remember her doing so but he was clearly well ‘remembered’, though clearly never known, by my uncles in particular. They themselves had to endure 2nd World War fighting and wounds.  My Uncle Billy (mentioned here previously and now sadly departed) would tell me each time he visited the grave of ‘Uncle Dick’ and each time he would ask me if and when I would be going.  Well, now I have and a deeply moving experience it was.  It felt strangely ‘out-of-body’ to stand at the standard Commonwealth War Graves Commission head-stone and realise that in that small plot of ground, in an anonymous field in France, lay some of my DNA, lay someone whom my dear grandmother had known and loved and clearly missed.  I laid two wild poppies which I plucked from a roadside verge near the river Somme and then wandered the small cemetery reading the other head-stones.  One small cemetery among hundreds that we drove past over the next two days.

I found it a strangely 'heavy' experience to stand at the grave of one of my family.

I found it a strangely ‘heavy’ experience to stand at the grave of one of my family.

I have a copy of the war diary of ‘Uncle Dick’ which begins with his arrival in France in January 1915.  It is a sombre read, often light hearted and understated, often shocking and bewildering.  It is a harrowing tale of deprivation, death (of friends and colleagues), boredom and fatigue but is interspersed with glimpses of humanity and pleasure.  A diary of a family member, albeit a person I never knew, had the effect of narrowing the focus of the magnitude of what I was seeing, of what I had read and  what was to come.  To think he endured three years of that hell before being killed is somewhat galling.

The Cantles were my mother’s maternal line, they came to Pontnewydd in the early 1800s to be the Lock Keepers on the five locks that gave their name to the area of the old village through which the Brecon/Monmouthshire canal flowed.  They hailed originally from the Cotswolds and way back in the line, at the end of the 1700s, there were two Dry Stone Wallers in the family …

From Ficheux our journey took us northward towards Baupame and Arras, the latter town chosen as our lunch stop where we enjoyed THE most amazing ‘canard‘ and salad.  Arras was another of the main battlefield towns heavily destroyed and fought over for the four awful years of the war.  It seemed that every couple of miles we encountered yet another small cemetery, sometimes a regimental plot, sometimes a mixed international plot and occasionally set apart within a large local civilian cemetery but always immaculately kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  I have oft made the point that I have no problem with my taxes being spent on that !

My next visit was but a few miles north in the small town of  Noeux-les-Mines where, in the town’s communal cemetery, there lies a large CWGC plot.  In a small corner at the back of the large cemetery there stands another white tablet which bears the name of another of my Great Uncles, this time from my father’s side.

CWGC Ivor Guest Davies

The grave of L/Cpl Ivor Guest Davies, South Wales Borderers, who lived at Great St. Dials Farm, Old Cwmbran.

Lance Corporal Ivor Guest Davies was the son of  Henry and Elizabeth Davies who farmed at Great St. Dials Farm in the old village of Cwmbran.  His sister Irene was my paternal Grandmother.  He had enlisted in the army as a boy soldier in 1907 and joined the South Wales Borderers – a famous and much admired Regiment with the distinguished Zulu war defence of Rorkes Drift amongst its Battle Honours – and probably served in India prior to the start of the Great War.  In mid May – probably the 20th – his company was heavily decimated in an attack on the German trenches near Baupame – he received wounds from which he died on the 29th May 1916.  He endured two years in the front line never managing to get back home to see his family.  He too must have been sorely missed by his sisters and parents.  It was an aunt, an elder sister of my father, who told me of him, though she could not have known him either.  I have the plaque that the family received and his medals which were presumably received posthumously.

That first day was a very tiring and emotional one and involved quite a lot of driving.  As the afternoon wore on we headed north toward the Belgium border and our first camp site in the infamous city of Ypres (Ieper to give it its correct modern name).  As the sun set over Flanders Fields I found myself feeling pleased that I had at last made the journey and in my head I kept repeating the old words

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We Will Remember them”

Part two of my Flanders Fields pilgrimage follows.

Everywhere the monuments, everywhere the headstones, every where the words 'Their Name Liveth for Evermore.

Everywhere the monuments, everywhere the headstones, everywhere the words
‘Their Name Liveth for Evermore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Make Hay while the Sun shines…

08/07/2014

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.

A traditional hay meadow

My very own hay field is full of mixed flowers and herbs and it too is ready for cutting… where’s my neighbour !!??

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.

Country fields laid bare

The patchwork of cut and cleared fields contrast with the uncut and the woodlands now in full leaf after the hot dry spell.

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.

Collapsed wall on Edwinsford

The wet winter caused many small collapses.

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.

High Dry Stone Wall.

This boundary wall runs on the ridge-line between the Tywi valley and the Black Mountain west of Trichrug. In my view it is the finest wall in the Brecon Beacons National Park.

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.

Look at the way the craftsman builders moulded their wall around the natural outcrops; over two hundred years have past and it is as good as the day it was built.

Look at the way the craftsman builders moulded their wall around the natural outcrops; over two hundred years have past and it is as good as the day it was built.

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 !

Retaining wall of boulders

Round and big but they make for a good looking wall providing it is BIG.

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.

Six Bells Colliery disaster monument

The Guardian. Tall, imposing and dignified. The Six Bells monument hits you where it hurts.

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.

Six Bells Guardian

The Guardian dominates the skyline at the site of the old Six Bells Colliery

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.

Roll of Honour, Six Bells

The plasma cut copper plate carries the names of those who died.

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.

The little village of Six Bells in the narrow valley of the Ebbw, quiet and by-passed by modernity and traffic but finally remembered for its suffering all those years ago.

The little village of Six Bells in the narrow valley of the Ebbw, quiet and by-passed by modernity and traffic but finally remembered for its suffering all those years ago.

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.

Half a year, half a year, half a year onward…

03/06/2014

What !!??  June is upon us, the ‘flaming’ month has run me down.  It is always the case that I am surprised at the arrival of the half way mark of the year.  I am always depressed that in 20 days time the sun begins its southward journey, the longest day is only three weeks away !

The Longest Day is also just five days away; the 70th anniversary of the invasion of the north French coast, ‘D day’ or Jour J (jay) as our French friends refer to it. Le Debarquement, the Invasion, is well honoured and commemorated throughout France but especially along the Cote de Nacre, the Normandy coast between Caen, Carentan and northwards along the Cherbourg peninsula to St. Mere Eglise.  Alas this year I will not be present, having been present for the 30th, 40th, 50th and 60th events (and many more in between) circumstances have conspired against me.  An old friend contacted me back in the winter to see if I was thinking of going as he fancied coming along and it did start me thinking.  However I am booked on a Newhaven-Dieppe ferry in early July en-route to Germany.

Whilst visiting with my Carolinian friend a couple of years ago I met the extended family.  Within the large numbers of cousins is one who is married to an ex-U.S. Airforce pilot, who himself flew C130 transport planes which carried American paratroops of both the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions in commemorative drops over the old landing fields of Normandy.  His normal day job was somewhat secret and a colleague of his, a rather attractive Lady pilot of German extract, was an adoptee of the family as she was so far from her own folk.  I met both her and her man, a Colonel pilot in the same high-tech section of the United States Army Air Force.  They are now to be married and I, along with my present house guest, are heading to the Rhineland to join in the celebrations.

Of course this year sees another important commemoration of an earlier war.  August sees the Centenary of the onset of World War One, the Great War as it has subsequently been called.  Like most other families in this country and indeed most other European countries as well as America, I had some close ancestors who fought and died in that awful war.  A great uncle on my mother’s side and another on my father’s side lie in cemeteries in the French countryside.  Hence my decision to ship to Dieppe (a port which itself saw terrible slaughter in the 1942 raid by Canadian troops) which is a short drive from the main battlefields of WW1.  I will seek out the graves of my great uncles and visit some of the memorial sites before, ironically, heading for Germany.

I have visited most of the major battlefields of the 2nd World War which relate to the invasion and the drive through France and Belgium.  The last remaining battle ground which I have yet to visit just happens to be on the route from my planned 1st WW sites to the Rhine.  In December 1944 in a last ditch attempt to turn the course of the war, Hitler launched a winner-take-all surprise attack through the Ardennes forest of south Belgium, a route dismissed by Allied planners as impossible for armour, and hit the Americans hard in the are of the major towns of Malmedy and Bastogne.  Called the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ as the thrust caused a bulge into the Allied lines, the attack took place in the harshness of winter and snow lay thick on the ground causing hardship for both sides.  So, a little stop-over in Bastogne on the way to or from the wedding will complete a rather intense 10 days.  I am already regretting not going to Normandy especially as the TV coverage is in my face every day.  It is for sure that this anniversary will be the last of the decade marking events, there are very few alive today who took part and come the eightieth there’ll be very few indeed.  This year will see me having to be satisfied with a front row seat in front of my TV.

Out on the hill things have been progressing slowly but surely.  I have been rejoined by my overseas little helper and have had the invaluable assistance of my other ‘little helper’ for a few days also.  I need them both, the stones are growing heavier by the day and multiplying before my very eyes.  Luckily the weather has been kind to us and the rough schedule I had pencilled into my diary is not too far out of kilter just yet.

A number of other jobs are looming large and it is likely that some time will have to be devoted to them before too long.  Indeed I visited one of them just today to catch up with the farmer having not seen him since late last year.  It is another Glastir Advanced job involving the restoration of a sheepfold and needs to be completed during the summer months – if indeed the forthcoming months turn out to be a summer !  The area is deep in the heartland of the Cambrian mountains near the flooded valleys of the Elan and Claerwen.  A little Sunday afternoon wander in the close vicinity was rewarded with the discovery of an old ruin which had once been a family home and farmstead though in earlier times it had clearly had a role in the Welsh practise of transhumance.

lluest in mid Wales

The now ruined farmstead that was once a summer dairy in the Cambrian mountains.

The old lluest of Abercaethon sits alone in a small cwm high above the waters of Pen-y-Garreg in the complex of reservoirs that is known as the Elan valley.  It is an interesting place showing hundreds of years of history in its now derelict structures.  The early one roomed house with a large fireplace at one end is joined to a cow-house and later barn.  Sometime in the nineteenth century, perhaps coinciding with the building of the first reservoirs, a more modern house was built next to the old.  The later house shows clearly the use of imported bricks in contrast to the grey sombre stones of the earlier buildings.

Old and derelict firebreast in a derelict homestead in the Cambrian mountains.

The old fireplace of the original homestead  still stands after hundreds of years but the lean looks menacing.

The name implies that the original steading was a summer dairy where cattle were milked and butter and cheese produced before being taken back to the old home, the hendre, which would have been up to a days walk down the valley.  The usual location was at a confluence of two streams where fresh clean water was available and necessary for the operation of the dairy.  It was the practise for some of the younger members of the family to take the cattle up to the summer shieling and live there from May until early October to give the fields of the home farm a chance to grow hay and crops.  The cattle roamed free on the upland pastures watched over by a young ‘goad’ who kept them within a given area which was the rhesfa for that farm.  The building would have been a temporary shelter of small walls and a couple of ‘A’ frames onto which was laid ling or rush as a roof.  Each year repairs would have been necessary to make the shelter waterproof and suitable for the months of occupation.

Later, probably in the early centuries after the Acts of Union (1536), these temporary summer dwellings (hafod and lluest) took on a more permanent role.  Following the change in the inheritance law whereby the old Welsh system of dividing the land of the father amongst his sons – partible inheritance – changed to one of primogeniture, the second sons had to go and find their own farm and the old summer shieling was an obvious solution albeit the creation of a permanent holding with fields being ‘stolen’ or encroached from the open mountain was often not officially sanctioned by the landowner.

The silhouette of the old farmstead  and ancient summer dairy of Abercaethon.

The silhouette of the old farmstead and ancient summer dairy of Abercaethon.

The spring weather has been kind to wallers and nature alike.  The hue of bluebells has covered the hillsides and now the incredible blossom of the ‘May’, the hawthorn trees, which populate the uplands either singly or along the ancient hedgerows.  To my mind this year the blossom has been spectacular and enduring, partly due to the lack of May gales and partly, no doubt, due to the mild winter we experienced.

The song birds are also resplendent around the hillside especially the Cuckoo and the Sky Larks.  The residents of the wall or rather the debris of the old wall, are noticeable by their absence perhaps having retreated to the marshy ground and pond that lies in the bottom of the enclosure.

Rhogo rubble

This pile of debris is an ideal over-wintering site for amphibians and invertebrates but they have had to leg it as I need the stone !

The usual culprits appear every now and then, newts a-plenty, toads and frogs and innumerable creepy-crawlies and care has to be taken when digging out stone.  Because of the large amount of soil that was used in the original building of the wall and the old house, the remains of which I am now working around, the excavation of the stone is a long and tedious operation which results in a slow build.  Thus far the upward rise of the new wall is occurring at around half the normal rate because the stone needs to be ‘won’ from the earth pile.  Luckily the ‘shoot-boom’ or ‘tele-handler’ of the farmer has been a great boon in lifting stone over the wall to the upside which saves me hours of toil.  Nevertheless it is a slow slog with each day seeing little progress, the steepness of slope and the changes in direction – there are four corners to build – make it appear as if not a lot is being achieved but in fact a wall is beginning to appear out of the rubble.  It needs to, the sixth month means I should be half the way through but am yet some way off and now other jobs loom large.  Head down and plod on is the answer, every stone placed on the wall is one less stone to place on the wall !!

For now Welshwaller is ‘in the zone’ with little other than stone and the promise of an ‘end-of-day’ culinary treat as my ‘Southern Chef’ creates another amazing meal using just ‘healthy’ foods !!  Although in reality I’m not sure such consumption aids longevity, it just feels like you live longer …… now, I’m off to find me some chocolate and a cream topped coffee !

Lamb on wall

So, now rebuilt, the wall is supposed to be stockproof ….

 

 

 

 

 

 


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