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 ….

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Rough winds do shake the Darling buds of May”.

12/05/2014

For what seems like a very long time, no goretex or waterproof leggings, no wellington boots and woolly hat hath adorned my withering frame.  Indeed so benign has been the Spring thus far that I have reverted to youthful thoughts and youthful productivity – at least in my own mind and hence my self esteem is soaring.  In addition I have started to receive long overdue treatment on an increasingly debilitating knee injury and this has put a further ‘spring’ in my step.

That all changed at the end of this week; a day of driving rain and cold sou’westerly wind drove me into the all encompassing prophylactic of rainwear.  Out came my highly prized caharrt rubberised and totally waterproof leggings overlain with my time-served French army goretex smock.  Snug as the veritable bug I beat the elements to achieve my first objective on the Pool House enclosure, I got to the first corner.  Two hundred or so metres of wall have been rebuilt or renovated to as near as original a state as I can get it.

A dry stone wall under repair.

The dry stone wall of the Pool House enclosure begins to present a stock-proof barrier once more.

I have been something of a nuisance to the over-worked farmer who, in between trying to deal with all the jobs of this busy time, has had to be bringing me trailer and trailer loads of stone to enable me to get the wall back to a suitable height to exclude the very agile sheep that inhabit the open common.  They will take some ‘persuading’ to vacate a rather good larder which has been theirs for as long as anyone can recall.  Sheep are very intelligent and very determined, any change to their regular walkways or denial of long favoured grazing turns them into gymnastic escapologists, it takes a good strong barrier to stand fast against them.  Height and lack of footholds are the primary defence mechanisms.

Lamb on a wall.

Defiant little so-and-so ! Looking on at my efforts this little fellow challenges me to keep him out … we’ll see !

On the section of the enclosure which lies adjacent to easily accessible roads and parking so much stone has been pilfered over the years.  Theft of stone from dry stone walls is a national problem especially near built up areas.  Some years ago while attending a walling test in Sowerby Bridge I was shown miles of wall which had lost the cope stones.  In the western Brecon Beacons a Park Ranger and I came across a half mile of missing wall.  In that instance the nearby farmer told us that a JCB, a tipper truck, men in fluorescent jackets with appropriate road signage had removed the wall over a period of a day.  He assumed they were ‘kosher’ !

It is fortunate that my present employer has access to stone with which to make up the loss.  In terms of value I would estimate the loss to be in the thousands of pounds.  As I have previously mentioned, we hope the rebuilt wall will be persuasion enough to stop the theft.  I have finished the major stretch where stone has disappeared, a relief to both myself and the harassed farmer.  It is an interesting wall for a number of reasons.  Firstly, it is clear from the circular nature of the section just repaired that this enclosure was used to grow crops, the curve enabling the slow turn of an ox plough-team.  That in turn gives a clue to the age of the enclosure although in Radnorshire agricultural change and improvement was notoriously slow to be adopted and oxen remained the main draught animal into the early twentieth century.  It is most likely to have been a field for the growing of oats and investigation may yet reveal an ‘Odyn faes‘, a field kiln used to dry oats prior to removal to the barn.

The build method is also worthy of mention.  It is the case that walls were historically  erected to keep stock out thereby allowing crops, arable or hay, to be grown.  This particular wall shows clearly that heritage, the inner face is of a rough inarticulate style utilising rough stones of all sizes and shapes.  The outer face, that which presents to the open common, is of coursed flat faced stone which disallows any purchase of little cloven feet.  The absence of batter on the outer face and most of the inner face (it is difficult to assess whether the section just repaired has a deliberate batter or is the result of creeping dilapidation) again suggests that this enclosure is of an early date certainly prior to the mid eighteenth century.

Tightly built wall face

The ‘outer’ face is of high quality flat faced stones which prevent any clambering by sheep. The cover-band hangs out over the wall to act as a drip tray – keeping the wall ‘dry’ – and deters jumping attempts.

This is a fairly common practise but the extreme difference in the two faces of this wall is unusual.  So too is the use of soil to fill the middle of the wall.  I began to encounter the soil on some of the smaller collapses but assumed it was plough-soil which had blown into the wall over the centuries of cultivation.  The farmer suggested to me that the quantity surely implied intentional inclusion and he was right, the section just completed shows a solid centre utilising soil as well as smaller stones.  To prevent the soil from washing out or falling down into the wall a solid course of large slabs are laid at the normal through-stone height (just below half-way up the wall) and the upper half is packed tightly with rammed soil.  Normally this would not ever have been used, only in areas where stone is in short supply does the practise occur, shortage of stone is not an issue here.  Was it therefore a means of construction which prevented air-flow thus giving a wind-free growing environment ?  Was it merely a means of packing the wall and using soil as a mortar ?  It is not something I have come across in Wales but it is a method that was recommended by a writer in the eighteenth century (Hale, S. 1756, A Compleat Book of Husbandry. London) and seems to have been effectively employed here on the windy hills of Rhogo and Gilwern.  It appears thus far that soil has only been utilised on the southern curtilege which presents other questions.

The centre of this section was packed with soil and small stones.  It would have meant much shovelling and hundreds of bucketfuls to use the method throughout.

The centre of this section was packed with soil and small stones. It would have meant much shovelling and hundreds of bucketfuls to use the method throughout.

The style of building does not remain constant over the whole length of wall and the dimensions alter, another peculiarity which confuses me.  Clearly it implies either different builders or different build phases.  Apparently there used to be a dividing wall and this joined the outer wall at the point where the width and build style changes dramatically.

In addition there used to be a homestead (Pool House) within the enclosure, again the exact position is yet to be determined.  However, small items of domestic refuse such as pottery and iron have begun to surface in the debris that was excavated.  We will hopefully be able to identify how the original smallholding looked once the various sections have been cleared and examined.  It is an exciting project when it includes some field archaeology and landscape history.

As some of you will know, the area is one which I utilise for historic guided walks and I know there are numerous interesting, if sometimes perplexing,  features on the hill.  The Bronze age burial sites and the Iron-age defended camp of Castle Bank being the most notable.  For me however, lumps and bumps in the turf and rush of the open hill are the most distracting and challenging.

In particular are a pair of horseshoe shaped enclosures on gentle sloping ground in which are stone bases of some type of building.  The Ordnance Survey identifies one as an ‘Earthwork’ and one as an ancient religious site.  The latter appears on the earlier 1″ maps but has disappeared from the current 1:50,000.  As for the numerous long banks and ditches, they are not recorded although some of them do appear on the 1838 Tithe map suggesting they were still in use as field boundaries at that time.

Ancient enclosure on Gilwern Hill

It is difficult to photograph clearly from ground level but the horseshoe enclosure is just discernible behind the walker.

I had searched for any information on the various settlements on the hill, both Rhogo and Gilwern but had found little.  Last week the farmer alerted me to a report he had come across on the RCAHMW (Royal Commission on Historic and Ancient Monuments, Wales – now you see why it is abbreviated !) web pages.  In fact the report was a very detailed account of all extant remains on the hills of Gilwern, Castle Bank and on a hill to the south called Llandeilo.  It was commissioned as part of the on-going Upland Inititiative which RCAHMW have been conducting for ten years or so and undertaken by two private archaeology contractors, Wendy Horton and Richard Hayman.  By sheer coincidence I was due to attend a day school on the Upland Inititiative at Sennybridge Army Camp just a few days later.  It so happened that Richard Hayman was delivering two papers on other areas they had recently surveyed one of which, Mynydd Fochriw near Merthyr Tydfil, is another area I have recently re-visited after studying it back in 2007/8.  Small world syndrome in action !  He and I had lunch together and I managed to extract some of his ideas on why he had interpreted some features as he had.

Anyone with an interest in the uplands should get onto the Royal Commissions site and explore what they have for your particular area.  Most of the reports given at the day school from various areas throughout Wales had massively increased the number of sites which had been previously recorded from low hundreds to thousands ! Much of the day was concerned with the old military sites that are dotted around Wales but also the archaeology that lies, much yet to be discovered or interpreted, on the vast range on Eppynt.  I have often reported on aspects of what is to be found up there and much of the area I have had the opportunity to see during my work for the land management company Landmarc and other contracts.  The frozen agricultural landscape which presents hundreds of years of land management and enclosure is woven around a myriad of prehistoric sites which continue to be discovered.

It was a pleasant change to immerse myself in some intellectual stimulation for a day and also to meet up with some of the professional archaeologists and like-minded amateurs who attended.  I reconnected with some folk I hadn’t seen for a while, from Clwyd ~Powys Archaeological Trust (CPAT), from the Royal Commission and some friends from around the country.  I got a chance to speak to some professionals about some finds and ideas I had and made arrangements to meet up or send photos and reports.  Typically my enthusiasm runs amock and then, when I get home, I think  “oh dear, why do I set myself with more to do!”

The wild inclement weather raged throughout the weekend, from sun-block and sweat I was plunged back into mud and soaking.  It set the scene for a sombre Saturday.

Whilst the week went well for me in terms of productivity and use of the old grey matter, it was also one of short fused high tension, not that I realised it for a while.  “You having a bad day?” came the question over the mobile air waves in response to a rather terse text message I had sent – not quite realising its terseness !  “No I’m ….. not” … Then a short (terse even ?) message on my answer-machine generated absolutely no response from me despite the message ‘commanding’ (or at least I thought it sounded commanding) me to call immediately on receipt of the message.  Another example of my rising inner anger ? Probably.  It took me a couple of days to realise that I was, in fact, wound up, short on tolerance, ready to fall out with my shadow and the dirty dishes.  Once I recognised it I dealt with it, once I realised that a terrible event hereabouts had indeed affected me, I withdrew for a while.  Withdrew that is until a dismal wet Saturday afternoon, late in the afternoon in fact, when I and a couple of hundred other locals stood, head bowed, in the pouring rain in the little churchyard of Eglwys Oen Duw here in Beulah.  We gathered to pay respects and honour the memory of a local character, a farmer for whom I had a great affection despite having only known him a few short years, a man of skill on the rugby field, in the farmyard, in a tight spot – if you get my meaning.  I had spent many an hour talking with him about his memories of all, and wild stories they were !  He talked to me about his father, a famous and highly skilled maker of ‘whiskets’, a traditional open basket highly sought by farmers hereabouts. Indeed not so long ago he showed me two examples of his father’s work which he still retained.  I asked if I could photograph them and him with them to which he agreed.  Alas an illness of his and then lambing prevented this happening and only two days before his death he reminded me I should come and “take those pictures soon” … I’m left wondering…

He was something of an enigma, cantankerous at times, apparently, belligerent at times, apparently, full of fun and devilment at times, apparently.  I speak as I found, a huge knowledge blended with true Welshness, a sense of the ridiculous and a sense of humour to match, friendly and welcoming, straight and loyal.  I was shocked to discover he had departed his farm after a hard life spent in these hills.  I will miss him, rest in peace Victor Lewis of Bryngwynfel, things will never quite be the same around this estate …

 

 

One Swallow doesn’t make a Summer …

20/04/2014

How true that saying is, but after the dreadful winter we have endured it was SO uplifting to see just one.  It was a bright Sunday morning last weekend, I was standing with some folk who were about to endure a two day dry stone walling course under my tutelage at Ty Gwyn farm in the hills above Llandrindod Wells (see the report at www.tygwynfarm.co.uk).  One of the group said that whilst out taking an early morning stroll – he was staying at the converted stable on the farm – he had seen his first swallow of the season.  I said I would probably have to wait a week or so for them to arrive at my upland homestead.  Just then the lone swallow swooped over us, that unmistakeable shape and flight pattern, that bookmarker of the coming of the sun.  And so it proved, a sunny weekend followed by a week of clear skies and dangerous UV levels – there’s always a down for every up !

That simple vision had, and always does have, the effect of lifting the spirits.  We all trudged off to the walling site chirpy and enthused.  The course is one of a number of different taster days we run at Ty Gwyn.  I say ‘Taster’ for it’s not designed to turn folk into dry stone wallers – impossible in two days in any-case !! – rather it’s to enlighten participants as to the ‘why’s and wherefore’s’ of walls.  We spend some time on the practical with each being able to have-a-go at stripping an old piece of wall, laying the new foundations and starting the rebuild.  It is unusual to get the section of wall back up in the limited time but this group actually managed it !  No-one was more surprised than me, but as my attractive assistant from Carolina would tell you, I always but always under-estimate what’s achievable !

Wallers at Ty Gwyn

A small but enthusiastic group of ‘mature students’ learning the graft, sorry, ‘craft’, of walling !

The site was not on the high open moor but in a sheltered valley below Little Hill.  The wall was hardly recognisable as such when I was first shown it by ‘mine host’.  Aged blackthorn trees hung over it and stinging nettles grew in front.  It was a dilapidated pile of  small boulders, typical of the field clearance stones that occur in this ancient volcanic zone.  It was a boundary of both a field and an ancient trackway leading up onto the hill beyond and as such was certainly several centuries old, maybe even older.

It is always a difficult judgement, to leave or rebuild, to respect the fact that the wall is an historic monument or return it to its former practical state.  This section was a remnant, most of the length had long-since been robbed away and thus by rebuilding it we will ensure it has  function and hence a future.

An old wall gets rebuilt

The structure of the build can be clearly seen here, large stones penetrating deeply into the heart of the wall.

Most of the stones were of lava and hence were not too heavy or large; there were, however, a few exceptions and these were gingerly levered into position.  The old wall was rather too wide for the size of the face-stones which meant the heart of the wall, the small stones that are packed into the centre, was taking up  too great a percentage of the overall width.  It is not good to have the centre of the wall wider than about a third of the width and preferably a bit less.  We therefore squeezed the wall in enabling us to ‘zipper’ (a term I have taken from the New World vocabulary of my protege !) the faces, which is to say there is contact and integration of the two faces.

After only four hours or so of the first day we had stripped the section for rebuilding and had laid the new course of foundations and about two courses on top of that.  An early start on  the bright Sunday,  when the swallow joined us again, saw us wander the farm looking at ‘one I prepared earlier’ – a large length of wall which I had rebuilt about 10 years ago as part of the farm’s agri/environmental programme under the old E.S.A. (Environmentally Sensitive Area) scheme which grant aided such work – and also gave us an opportunity to see the native wildlife.  That particular part of Radnorshire is blessed with excellent habitat for Hares and they are a common sight to those of us who live or work therein.  For the urban folk they are a rare and exciting glimpse of real wild Wales and we spent many minutes watching three of them chasing each other around the pasture.  I have been fortunate to see all the antics of this stunning animal from its ‘madness’ in March, which is in fact just the males showing off to attract the ladies, through to the delightful sight of small light grey balls of fur hiding in a form in the long grass of summer, there is nothing quite as beautiful as a young leveret.

The young hares remain in the form, motionless and will not move even when threatened.  I once had the dreadful experience of stepping on one and breaking its back, forcing me to despatch it, a guilty memory that comes to mind each time I see Lepus Europaeus cross my path.  When I was young, hares were a favourite food and as many as thirty a night were caught by some friends of my father.  The usual method was driving them with dogs into large strung- out nets.  One will often find smouts, small openings left in the bottom of dry stone walls, through which ground living animals routinely pass, these too were often utilised to net both rabbits and hares by shooing them from an open pasture whereby they would bolt for the known smouts and get caught.  Fortunately those days are gone, notwithstanding the despicable antics of the sick souls who continue to course hares, frequently illegally and out of season.  What pleasure can be gotten from seeing a defenceless and increasingly rare animal pursued by mad dogs across vast open fields until, exhausted, it is torn screaming, to shreds, is beyond my comprehension.  I have a large iron man-trap in my collection, how much would I like to set that up for those outlaws !

Anyway, we saw hares and we returned to complete the rebuild of the old wall.  Everyone seemed well pleased with their achievements and I, it must be said, was astounded at my clear and obvious talents as a tutor, turning straw to gold !

Birthday girl waller at Ty Gwyn Farm

Doesn’t she look pleased with herself ?! So she should, its not every woman gets a birthday present like that !

After a rather good lunch we set off to examine my current building site and the other walls on the Rhogo, a mere couple of miles or so away.  The course includes an examination of different building styles and historic landscape features in the hills of the Rhogo which, as you may already know, is the location of my work for the next six months or so.

Stone wall on the Rhogo hill

The Pool House enclosure high on the Rhogo. Stop pinching the stone !!

I have finally begun the major restoration of  the Pool house enclosure on Rhogo.  The wall has long been on my ‘wish list’ to repair but I had not thought it would ever come about.  Through a fortunate coincidence, a colleague of mine at FWAG Cymru (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, Wales) Ms Helen Barnes, herself an absolute fountain of knowledge on all matters agricultural and conservational, was at the farm assisting in the preparation of a Glastir application.  Glastir is the current agricultural programme assisting farmers to enhance the quality of air and water and hence the overall environment of their holding by offering financial assistance for such works.  She, realising dry stone walling would be an important aspect of the farms Advanced programme, mentioned me to the farmer and the rest, as they say, is history, or soon will be !

There are a number of factors to take into consideration in preparing for such a restoration.  I use the term ‘restoration’ intentionally as, to me at least, it involves the returning of a piece of historic landscape to as near as is possible, its condition at the point of completion all those centuries ago.  Now of course, that is not at all likely as the environmental conditions, the ecology and the farming practise has all radically changed in the intervening centuries, nevertheless, in terms of the boundary wall, that is my ‘mission statement’.  Walls are archaeological relics, the have an important historic integrity and position informing us of the social and economic conditions prevailing at the time of their construction.  Often it is difficult to accurately assess when that may have been but careful analysis and research can sometimes throw some light on the matter.  Certainly a close and careful deconstruction of the old wall and an examination of finds that may occur will generally assist.  Already some interesting items and aspects have come to light !

I had measured and quantified the work required a long while back, almost a year if my memory serves me correctly.  It is often difficult to accurately assess exactly how much wall will need to be totally demolished to foundation level, how much will need part dismantling, how much will only require the re-setting of the cover bands and the top stones tidying up.  What is most difficult is knowing precisely how much stone has been stolen from the wall.  Unfortunately the site is a popular one for walkers and wanderers, dog walkers and garden landscapers.  The latter can all too easily park close to the wall and load their car-boot or estate with nice stone to enhance their garden designs.  I am sure a large percentage of them would never consider themselves thieves, they have probably never even had a parking ticket and would be horrified at the thought of shop-lifting, yet lift they do, by the tens of kilos, by the hundredweights of stone, away it has been taken.  Many, it is true, do not realise the wall is part of a farm, a privately owned boundary to a field, but it is surely clear to everyone that the taking of the stone is a felony.  An amazing amount has gone missing and that makes the rebuilding to original specifications very very difficult.  It is difficult for me and it is expensive for the land-owner who has to somehow find stone to replace that which has been stolen.  Either that or accept the wall cannot be returned to its original height – for that is in essence what it means – and there may be some gaps that cannot be rebuilt at all.  Fortunately this is one farmer who is not going to be beaten by such vandalism and we both are determined to overcome all obstacles to return the enclosure and its boundary wall to the condition it was in when completed all those centuries ago.  So, thieves beware, we are on your case !

This whole section has been robbed, the proximity to the road, the remoteness and the attractive geology have all conspired in favour of the thieving gnomes who want a prettier garden !!

This whole section has been robbed, the proximity to the road, the remoteness and the attractive geology have all conspired in favour of the thieving gnomes who want a prettier garden !!

The first section to be dealt with has to be, therefore, those sections which are easiest to access with a motor vehicle.  We are of the view that maybe, just maybe, if the wall is in good repair the likelihood of stone being stolen is somewhat lessened; are we being too kind to the low life who sneak around looking to pinch it ?  Time will tell.  Only last week, while I was sitting in my vehicle having lunch, an estate car pulled into one of the gateways and began to take stone from my newly excavated pile !  The rebuke that echoed out over the hill is not printable here but it had the desired effect and they quickly scooted off.  I should mention that this was a late middle aged couple in a late middle aged type car, clearly respectable law abiding folk, clearly …

In an attempt to bolster reserves to help alleviate the problem of absent stone we have agreed that any sections which will not be required to be restored should be recycled.  In essence that means a short section which sits in the boggy area adjacent to the pond will be re-positioned.  The small area of water is an incredibly rich and diverse wildlife sanctuary and much care has to be taken to minimise disturbance to the asset.  There is never a good time to undertake conservation activities, whatever time of year is chosen some animal or other, big or small, will be made homeless, be it the invertebrates, the amphibians, birds or aquatic life.  Winter is a no-no as many creatures rely on walls and the surrounding grass covered debris as over-wintering sites and disturbance can result in much loss of wildlife.  From April onward too many creatures, especially birds, are involved in breeding and thus must not, in many cases by Law, be disturbed.  Late summer, when the young have weaned or departed, is as good a time as any, so too is early spring, now in fact, when creatures are emerging from winter’s slumber and beginning to think about having some sex and ultimately some babies.  By clearing sites or demolishing sections of wall now, animals know not to use them as nesting or breeding sites and thereby the damage is reduced.  However, there is no doubt and much guilt on my part, at the displacement that occurs as a result of my activities.  Already this week several young newts have had to be awakened early and moved to a new spot, a dozen or so Common lizard have scuttled away from places where I have had to be digging out fallen stone.  I dread to think what came out of the wall that was being removed by my friendly neighbourhood digger-driver !  Needs must and I console myself in the certain knowledge that the habitat will be safer and more diverse once all the restoration is completed, just in time for the critters to move back in for the winter !

Occasionally manual is replaced by mechanical.  Digging out decades old wall collapses is easiest achieved by Les !

Occasionally manual is replaced by mechanical. Digging out decades old wall collapses is easiest achieved by Les !

The important thing with a major wall restoration is to ensure any demolition is completed before the birds begin to nest.  More especially it needs to be on the ground before the summer visitors arrive.  Upland walls are extremely important nesting sites for a number of birds that make the long journey each year from the African continent.  This week has seen the first of many.  The swallow on Sunday I have already mentioned, then on Tuesday I heard my first Cuckoo, always a major thrill, not an hour after the farmer and I had been saying we had not yet heard one !  Wheatears had arrived a few days earlier and they are already laying claim to their old nest sites.  At home I have already been joined by House Martins and Pied Wagtails have laid claim to the wagon as a nest site !

So all in all a week of FIRSTS !  However the arrival of long awaited feathered friends has been only one of those ‘firsts’.  Above you will have read about the dry stone walling course; the lady on the course was celebrating an important birthday.  Considerately her husband had treated her to the weekend course  (which included a two night stay in a delightful bed and breakfast where the hostess is a cook of some repute and, adding to the family network I talked of in my last post,  she is the aunty of the farmer I am working for on Rhogo !)  which is, I’m sure you will agree, a novel and inspired birthday gift.  However, my jaw dropped when she told me that he had not revealed the nature of the present until about 30 miles down the road as they drove to us on the Saturday morning …. a brave man methinks !

The other ‘first’ was even more jaw dropping.  Now I am well used to being asked strange questions as I build walls out on the hill.  Passing walkers will often show some interest and can often ask some staggeringly unanswerable questions.  The most popular is “What are you doing?”, followed closely, and usually by younger folk, with “Why are you doing that?”.  Neither of those questions have ever elicited an appropriate response, what CAN you say ?!  This week a question came my way which has reached new heights, or maybe, plumbed new depths …

“Is that a REAL wall ?”

Welshwaller strives ever onward to build a REAL WALL …

 

Happy Easter, happy twitching,  may the ‘Clock-bird’ visit you soon.

 

 

 

I shot the Sheriff but I did not shoot the Deputy …

10/04/2014

Sometimes a Man’s gotta do what a Man’s gotta do; walk the walk, bite the bullet, face his own   ‘OK Corral’.  In my case more a ‘Doc Holliday’ persona than Wyatt himself.  Nevertheless, Welshwaller has met the challenge put before him this last week, and come out without any wounds, just the odd scar.

As a Welshman I carry the heavy burden of a history of repression and the even greater burden of optimism.  Hope for what, however, has long since faded from memory,  I mostly forget that I’m supposed to be an angry insurrectionist fighting against English overlordship.  I mostly reserve such animosity for the annual rugby international against ‘The Old Foe’. In 1536 the ageless battles for supremacy gave way to a tacit agreement to forego killing each other in order to start sharing the spoils of peace and inter-marriage.  The rule of the Marcher Lords over the disputed territory that formed the ever shifting border between England and Wales ceased, or apparently it did.

Why then did I find myself invited to the ceremony to mark the appointment of the new High Sheriff of Powys ?! Powys, that most ancient and famous Kingdom of Walia which even the good old Italians found difficult to suppress, is still, or so it would seem, under the direct control of the English Sovereign !!  Well I never … With not a little shake of the head and a look skyward to apologies to the ancestors, I duly accepted the invitation.  Friendship and courtesy comes before personal politics as pride comes before a fall.  There are but few English Gentleman who deserve my allegiance, the new High Sheriff of Powys stands tall in a short line.  And so it was, on a Friday afternoon in early April – oh that it could have been April 1st – I found myself amongst the great and good who gathered at the unique and enlightening Willow Globe Theatre, the home of Shakespeare Link in Llanwrthwl between Newbridge-on-Wye and Rhayader (shakespearelink.co.uk). It is a place that has featured often in these pages, a place where much repairing of walls and construction of interesting features has occurred as well as some interesting antics by owners of vintage Austin 7 motor cars.

It takes a great deal of will-power for me to open the wardrobe in which resides several suits of indeterminate age.  It takes even more will-power to hold my tummy in sufficiently long enough to fasten my trews, as for trying to shrink my neck to a smaller size, that I find increasingly difficult… There are several dozen shirts which seem inexplicably to have shrunken…  As for my clothes being suitable for today’s fashion, I needn’t have worried…

“Be suspicious of any enterprise that requires the wearing of fancy dress”

Waller and Sheriff

Wondering exactly why HE is standing next to a dry stone waller…. the newly appointed High Sheriff of Powys realises early on that he has to mix with everyone !

The role of the Sheriff is an historic one, going back to a pre-Norman time when the Reave of the Lord collected the taxes and ensured ‘herriot’ dues were made.  The organisation of  Shires in the Norman period saw the role of the ‘Shire Reave’ expanded to one of almost absolute power and control over the communities under his thumb – we all remember that awful villain, the Sheriff of Nottingham don’t we !

The 474th High Sheriff has a slightly less onerous task, merely to support the Sovereign if she decides to come visit, welcome the Judges when they wander around the Assize Courts (I thought they had disappeared too !) and generally do good and support charitable intents in the county.  Fortunately the fancy dress doesn’t have to make regular appearances …

The event was a real celebration of history and local tradition, the ‘high table’ joined in the fun with even His Honour Judge Mark Furness laughing at his own ‘fancy dress’.

sherif 006

 

The party included the local vicar and the Lord Lieutenant of Powys, the Hon. Shan Legge-Burke (the primrose clad lady) for whom, just that very week, I was repairing a wall at her home, Glanusk near Crickhowell.  Oh yes, Welshwaller is not always in the mud and wild hills of mid-Wales !

The ceremony consisted of a number of highlights which combined to make the whole event memorable.  The Welsh costumed children of the local Nantmel school, the High Table, the very eclectic specially invited audience and finally a bunch of interlopers who almost stole the show !

Daughters of Rebecca at the High Sheriff's table

Through the Willow Globe, the High Table look on in fear as the rebellious Daughters of Rebecca proclaim their intentions for the forthcoming year.

The Rebecca Riots of the early nineteenth century were the culmination of a growing frustration and anger amongst the farming community of rural Wales at increased taxation and the state of agriculture.  In particular there was a groundswell of radicalism which boiled over into attacks on the hated Toll Gates.  Those gates were placed at strategic points on important communication routes leading from the rural farming communities to their markets and their supplies.  The charges imposed were supposed to pay for drastic improvements to the terrible roads which criss-crossed the land.  Charges were deemed unfair, not least as little improvement was forthcoming, and night-time attacks began on the gates.  Burning was a common tactic but so too was smashing and dismantling them, attacking the Toll Gate houses in which the gate-keeper lived was usual, sometimes even the gate-keeper himself was assaulted.  In fact a girl, Sarah Williams, who kept a gate in the village of Hendy in west Glamorgan, was shot and killed during an attack on her gate and toll house on the 7th September 1843.

To disguise themselves the rioters took to dressing as women and assumed the title of Daughters of Rebecca.  I find myself wondering how under-fed those men were or how over-fed were their women …  The name of Rebecca (Rebeka) comes from the Old Testament (Genesis 24:60)

‘And they blessed Rebeka and said unto her “Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions and let thy seed possess the gate of those that hate them” ‘. 

The Radnorshire gangs continued long after the rest of Wales had settled down – and even after many of the Daughters had been deported – but on a different gripe.  Right through the latter half of the nineteenth century and as late as 1930, the rampaging cross-dressers carried out attacks in protest at the Fishery Laws which deprived them of long held rights to take fish from rivers and streams.  One of the protests involved nailing smelly salmon to church doors !

 

 

High Sheriff and Rebecca rioters with Judge

Daughters of Rebecca face His Honour and the Sheriff referees… a truce was agreed

A covern of Daughters burst upon the scene and made a proclamation (which was historical and hysterical) in which they agreed to forego their activities for the year of office of the new High Sheriff.  They promised too not to poach salmon from the pools of the Lord Lieutenant on her Glanusk waters, they agreed to cease nailing the stinking fish to the church door of the local churches, much to the relief of the Vicar.

It was an amusing and erstwhile interjection and was a superb antidote to the solemnity of the declarations and promises of the Judge and Sheriff.  It appears that two of the Daughters had actual ancestors who were known Radnorshire Rioters.  You couldn’t have scripted it, well, Shakespeare probably could have and would certainly have approved of the performance in his very own Willow Globe on the lands of the former Marcher Lords.

The Honourable gathering to bear witness to the declaration of the new High Sheriff of Powys, my friend Phillip Bowen Esq.

The Honourable gathering to bear witness to the declaration of the new High Sheriff of Powys, my friend Phillip Bowen Esq.

So for the next twelve months an honourable thespian of some repute takes Overlordship in the lands of the Ordovices.  ‘Pricked Well’ by Her Majesty Liz 2 using a bobbin – a long held practise which hitherto prevented any erasing of a mark placed next to a nominee’s name on the vellum parchment on which the list of suggested names were written – he commands my respect, not least because he has achieved something I have miserably failed in, learning the language of heaven and my forgiveness for his annoying habit of parading around Penlanole in an English cricket sweater.

I too do pledge that I will refrain from any harassment of  the High Sheriff in respect of his proclivities, just as long as he continues to ply me with his usual excellent standard of wine and attends the annual Beulah Show along with his dear wife Sue and the Series one Land Rover – on which we’ll find a way of attaching the pennant of the High Sheriff of Powys !

 

Forsooth, the burden of office is already weighing heavily, the High Sheriff is shrinking ...

Forsooth, the burden of office is already weighing heavily, the High Sheriff is shrinking …

And so it came to pass that poor lowly Welshwaller was present at the ceremony to appoint the new High Sheriff of Powys, he got to sing aloud the Welsh National Anthem in an English theatre and wash down cucumber sandwiches sans crusts with a rather good bubbly whilst being sweet- talked by a couple of ‘Honourable’ ladies in need of his special expertise …

‘The Life of a Waller is terribly phoney …”

 

 

 

 


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