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 …”

 

 

 

 

Lambing Live … well, almost.

30/03/2014
Lamb and mother 2014

“Are you sure we’re allowed to walk in the road, Mum?”

‘T’is the season of newbirth and rebirth.  From the wet and dismal days of the earlier months we have moved inexorably toward Spring.  So ready was I that I almost remembered the change to BST;  sometimes it can be several days before I notice the change in the time, this year I altered my clocks by midday on Sunday !  The fields around are already the playgrounds of dozens of lambs.  Indeed my workplace has been a hive of tired activity for several weeks already.  The arrival of this year’s stock of lambs is well underway throughout the land, it is even a ‘hit’ show every evening on TV.  I was surprised to find the lady of the house on which I am currently employed is a fan !  She spends every day just now pulling slimey babies from their mothers rear ends, why would you want to sit down and watch ‘Lambing Live’ !?

Lambing Shed

Suitably attired and suitably tired in the nursery… and no doubt horrified to now be world famous !

The annual lambing season is a time of extreme effort and no little stress for those farmers and their wives, their children and their parents whose livelihood is dependent upon the survival and health of the little creatures.

I am always on the edge of the activity; for over twenty years now I have been an annual onlooker at whatever farm I happen to be working on.  I can, if I have to, pull a lamb and have done so on several occasions in the past.  Many years ago I had a small flock of Jacob sheep and had my own mini lambing season but it was nothing like the real thing.

Lambing Dead

Not all of the little dears make it, lambing live can quickly become lambing dead.

Now the average town dweller, indeed many country dwellers too, will have not the slightest idea just how hectic nor how exhausting the lambing shed can be.  Just like all other animals, the time of arrival of a newborn is a total lottery and hence it is necessary for someone to ‘watch the flock by night’.  Few of the male members of the farming family get to sleep in a real bed for the weeks of lambing.  I am always in awe of the dedication the whole family displays to the business of farming at this time of year.  True there’s not a great deal of sentimentality about the birth of hundreds of lambs, but there is care and often tenderness.  True many lambs don’t make it, dead on arrival or soon thereafter;  I was touched at the lament of my host’s father at the avoidable loss of a lamb had he only been there to clear the birth-bag from the airways.  True the loss is one of financial return foregone, but I see too the pleasure derived from the safe delivery of a young life and the joy of taking the baby and its mother to the meadow to begin the process of growth.

My world, whilst purely from the observatory of comfort, is surrounded by such scenes and will be for the next six months.  This year, for the first time since I moved to my little farmstead, I have a new flock in the fields outside my yard.  My old neighbour has retired and a new younger farmer, albeit the son of a long standing estate tenant, has taken over.  His breeds are true hill breeds and generally smaller than the previous tenant, it is strange to see new lambs arriving from mothers I have not seen before.  I knew many of the old flock and each year a number of ewes would produce lambs with characteristic coloured patches on their backs or feet.

It is a mark of the longevity and closeness of the farming community in the area that my new neighbour is a cousin of the farmer for whom I am wall building.  Their fathers are brothers and only today I moved my materials to effect some repairs on an old cow-house at the estate farm here where the father of my new neighbour lives.  Understand ?  The intertwined network that is as ageless as the lambing season and is the very backbone of the countryside.  It makes me proud to be a small contributory part;  I mend the walls that keep the newborn lambs and their mums safe and enclosed.  My efforts pale into insignificance when judged against that of every farmer, every farmer’s wife and extended family at this time of year.

A new lamb with its mum

The hills, the woods, the ewes and the lambs; Wales in the spring.

The wall repairs have progressed to the point of an intermission.  I have completed as much as I can for now.  I have to wait until the end of the lambing marathon as for now every waking and sleeping moment is directed there.  Hence the stone I require to complete the sections in hand will be a while arriving.  That is not a particular problem for me, it allows me to tackle a couple of smaller jobs which have been outstanding for a while.  Soon the attack will take place on the huge enclosure wall which will occupy my time, probably until year’s end.

The stone on the Rhogo is an interesting mix, indeed it is famous for the number of fossils which occur in the sedimentary rock of the area.  Whilst it is a good stone to build with, being nicely laminated and reasonably sized, it can be quite heavy and care has to be taken especially when dismantling sections which can suddenly collapse.

Wall down

Wall down

 

Wall up !

Wall up !

I am always intrigued at the patterns that can appear in stones, the temptation to let the imagination run wild is sometimes overwhelming.  I have seen cave drawings in the south of  France which represent animals around at the time, some of the patterns on the Rhogo stones are similar …

Primitive man-made ?  Nope, just natural, but still amazing don't you think ?

Primitive man-made ? Nope, just natural, but still amazing don’t you think ?

 

And another - Stone Circles ?

And another – Stone Circles ?  They are actually called Liesegang rings and are basically made of cement which runs through the sediments as they are setting.

 

You may have read in my last post of the history that surrounds me on this site, it continues to throw up new discoveries and new complexities.  The landscape features are far more extensive than I had realised and far more unfathomable to me.  The farm too has some historic artefacts lying around, one is a rather fine quern stone which was retrieved from a nearby site of an old farmstead.  It is the top of a two stone grinding set with what appears to sockets into which turning handles were fixed.  As with all old farms the scrap that often lies in old walls and hedgerows reveal past activities in the form of old implements or remnants of machinery or carts.  There are several lying around which I will bring you in a later post.

The top stone of a medieval quern.

The top stone of a medieval quern.

During the ‘down-time’ of earlier months I  got into some light restoration of some small tools I had been given.  One of them is a total mystery to me (and those I have asked) and another is a rather rare little wooden item that I am thrilled to have acquired.

Strange farm tool

This item is a real mystery, it is well made and has a model number stamped on it; as you can see by my size 12 wellington boot, it is a long shafted tool with a chain at one end and a hook at the other. Any ideas anyone !?

The small wooden ‘coffin’ is worked out of a piece of boxwood and was affixed to the belt by the metal hook.  It was to hold a whetstone whilst working in the field.  I don’t know if it should have had a top – as I assume it held some water as well as the stone but am not totally sure – and it clearly has some antiquity.

The stone which came with it is not a carborundum one as those did not become readily and cheaply available until the early twentieth century.  It appears to be of millstone grit and is interesting for a number of reasons.  Most early sharpening of scythes and sickles was done using a rip stick or strickle, a wooden four sided block onto which was smeared goose grease and then sand.  The size of my whetstone coffin suggests a sickle sharpener which sets it as very early, the scythe took over from the sickle by the mid 1700s in most places.

Wooden holder for whetstone

The box-wood coffin holds an old sharpening stone and would have been fixed to the belt.

 

The evenings will gradually get longer and lighter now, if I can reserve a little of my diminishing energy pot I will be able to invest some time in one of the many restorations which lay guilt on me each time I go around the back !  The week ahead holds a number of technical challenges in terms of what I need to ‘build’ and in terms of assessments I have to do on one or two major construction projects that await me.

Clearly I have finally solved my ‘connection’ issue with good old BT.  And yes, two days after fixing my three month old fault which deprived you of me, they did indeed cut me off for non-payment of a bill which covered that period …  Eventually a rather unusually sympathetic employee based on the Indian sub-continent sorted matters for me, he did a deal whereby I only had to pay half of what BT wanted me to give them for the privilege of having a very quiet 3 months…

Should a waller in the Welsh hills really be bothered about information technology ?  After all, there are still more sheep in Wales than computers and there are definitely more stones than sheep …

 

 

 

 

 

“Daffodils that come before the swallow dares and take the winds of March with beauty…”

19/03/2014

At last ! At last the wild winter of rain and wind has passed and AT LAST my phone line has been finally put back into service.

The onset of spring may be still some-way off, despite my daffodils raising their nationalistic heads.  Although I have finally dumped the wellies and even peeled off two layers of clothing – the thermal underwear has definitely been shelved – there is still the likelihood of a further spell of wet and cold weather.  After all, was it not this time last year that heavy snow spelled calamity in the Welsh uplands with the death of hundreds of new-born lambs.  I’m not dwelling on that just now, no, I am enjoying being able to work without slipping and sticking in mud !

So, back to the day job and back to writing.  Just to close the saga of my absent telecommunications, it was a three month battle to either speak to or get action which might fix the  problem.  To cut a very long story short, I spent 23 hours on the telephone (generally those of neighbours and friends) made up of 14 separate attempts to connect to the faults department, or to complain, 8 of which resulted in success (after an average of 1 hour and 20 minutes of waiting).  I was promised on four occasions that an engineer would call at a specified time on a precise day, usually between the hours of 8 am and 1 pm or 5 pm.  Those promises required my being at home which in turn meant a day of lost income.  No-one ever turned up and on each occasion I then had to go all through the calling and waiting again.  Once-upon-a-time an engineer did arrive but was unable to locate the fault in the two hours he was allowed.  He promised to ensure that the ‘broadband’ engineers followed up.  Nothing happened of course.  Eventually he came back, 3 weeks later, and confessed that he knew precisely where the fault was – between a post 19 metres from my connection box and the box itself BUT he was not allowed to climb that post as it had not received a safety check since 1987 – it was supposed to have been checked every 12 years, signified by a metal tag nailed to the post.  We agreed that my scaffold tower would solve the problem and he duly replaced the length of wire, badly chewed by pesky grey squirrels !

I now face being cut-off as I am refusing to pay an apparent bill for line rental since January.  I pointed out that as I had no connection since December 18th it was hardly credible that I owed anything !!  We’ll see, I may not get to the end of this post !!  The phone has already been cut-off, strange as it’s usually the broadband that goes first.  I spent another 2 hours trying to get through to and (after 45 mins) speaking to five different Indian gentlemen only to be put on hold for 25 minutes and eventually arriving at Technical Help – apparently Billing goes home at 8pm and so I was just sent to anyone !!  I did find out that BT no longer have a complaints department as it was just too busy … Why do they still exist !!??

Back to the Day Job.

For nigh on two months not a stone was placed upon another.  This year is already promising to be a busy one with a large rebuild of an old Drover’s enclosure and a sheepfold awaiting attention as part of the new Glastir Advanced farming scheme.  A myriad of small jobs await also, many as a result of the horrendous weather which caused several sections of walls to collapse.  Thus far I have built one large cheek-end and repaired some small collapses.

A rebuilt cheekend.

A sunny Saturday in March and a 6 hour task to rebuild a large cheek-end which had been down for several years. It is of Old Red Sandstone and is on the western edge of the Epynt above the main trunk road from Brecon to Llandovery.

The cheek-end (or ‘wall end’) was done for a farmer in the west of the county of Brecon, in fact I think his land is the border between Breconshire and Carmarthenshire.  Actually I think of them, him and his dear wife, as more Carmarthen than Brecks.  They are first language Welsh speakers and have a long family history in the area.  The farm is called Crugybwbach, which is generally taken to mean the ‘rock of the scarecrow’ (and should therefore be craig y bwbach as crug means heather but these terms often get mixed up and as there are rocks all around the place …) but in reality is more likely to mean the rocky place where the ‘little people’, the Goblins, live. Spooky ! If I were a Goblin I think heather would make a more comfortable bed than rocks.

The farmer is one of life’s amazing characters, full of stories – in response to me chiding him for being ‘tight’, that is always moaning about having to pay me ! I likened him to folk in an expression another friend of mine, John the Rocks (he is a geologist of some repute!), uses about folk from Cardiganshire, “they sell their kittens” (i.e. they are mean !!). Pritch explained that he came from ancestors who were known to draw water from the well to scald the pig carcass and return the unused water to the well afterwards … Enough said, well except to say he was very pleased with the job and did pay me without grumble !!  But then, he is having a significant birthday this year…

The main activity has been to commence THE major job of 2014 back at a farm on the Rhogo near Howey and Llandrindod Wells.  The first task is a number of collapses on a very old and very large boundary wall which divides two farms and forms one side of an ancient roadway.  The main wall is over 6ft/2mtrs tall and inordinately wide which makes for a hard day’s work.  Hundreds of buckets-full of hearting stone has to be lifted and tipped into the wall and then packed tightly.  The stone is a mixture of large field clearance type boulders of dolerite and some slabbed sandstone.  Unsurprisingly I quickly ran short of stone and await a time slot in the farmer’s hectic schedule of feeding livestock and lambing wherein he can bring me more.

Collapsed wall in Radnorshire

The collapsed sections have been down a while and the father of my client told me he never ever thought he’d see the walls put back up  but up they are going, slowly and surely.

When I first arrived on site the ground was absolutely glutinous, claggy clinging mud that made movement difficult and dangerous.  Matters were not helped by a nearby sheep-feeding cratch but within a week of the sun appearing the ground has dried out amazingly and it is an altogether ‘nice’ place to be.  Not least as it is an area I know increasingly well and is the venue for my Walking Through History programme run in conjunction with my colleagues at nearby Ty Gwyn farm (www.tygwynfarm.co.uk).  However I had not had the opportunity to explore and examine this particular section of the hill before and have been exceedingly excited by what I have discovered.

Bronze-Age Cist

Not ten metres from my wall stands this amazing ‘cist’, a Bronze Age burial chamber.

I have been exploring and recording the well preserved Iron-Age landscape in the vicinity of Castle Bank and the farm on which I am working.  The defended enclosure of Castle Bank is recorded as being of late Bronze or early Iron Age and thus it was fairly certain that relics of the earlier period would be in evidence somewhere.  I had not, however, expected to stumble upon it quite so dramatically or that it would be so prestigious.

The farmer had mentioned to me that there was an interesting burial chamber in the field adjacent to his, the other side of the wall in fact.  I had scoured the Radnorshire records to see if there was anything listed in the area.  Nothing was showing on either the Clwyd and Powys (CPAT) Historic Environment Record (HER) nor the Archwilio site of the Royal Commission (RCAHMW).  Indeed a full survey of the Radnorsire Prehistoric funerary and ritual monuments which was completed in 2006, does not mention any such sites in the area (see Nigel Jones in Radnor Society Transactions, 2004).  However, the farmer recalls that many years ago ‘someone’ came from one of the organisations to do with ‘Archaeology’ and stated there was such a grave (though erroneously he thought it was said to be Mesolithic – in my view the most likely ‘culprit’ would have been someone from the National Museum of Wales, a body famous for losing and/or not recording gathered information; at least not in any place the public can find it !!).  It is quite astonishing the number of times I get told a similar tale, that something was indeed identified by ‘someone’, many years ago but I am never able to find any record.

Burial cist on Rogo hill

The wall I am repairing can be seen in the background, a matter of metres away from this relic of 4 thousand years ago.

The cist is now exposed whereas at one time it would most probably have been surrounded by a large stone revetment and covered in a mound of earth.  Indeed what may well be the remains of the stone curb which surrounded the burial cairn can be seen on the eastern side.

It is an altogether intriguing site.  For one thing the position of the chamber is not characteristic of Bronze Age funerary cairns.  Whereas the major Neolithic chambered tombs, the Cotswold/Severn type which abound in the Llangorse area for instance, are generally set just below the summit or skyline thus visible only from below and relatively close-by, Bronze Age cairns are generally on a ridge-line or summit which make them visible from some distance (notwithstanding the density of forest cover at that time).  In Radnorshire however, there are a number of sites which occur in the valley bottom but this site is in neither of those more common locations.  An examination of the area around the cist shows several other likely burial mounds and all are set in a small west facing enclave below the surrounding hills and hidden from the valleys below.  Indeed the whole site, approximately 15 acres or thereabouts, is sufficiently well hidden as to be ‘secluded’.

Stone wall of prehistoric origin

The size of the stones in this ‘wall’ and its proximity to the burial chamber suggest it may be the remnants of the original revetment which surrounded the mound.

The remnant walling which exists at several locations around the site has a characteristic ‘prehistoric feel’ about it; by which I mean that the stones, all of which are placed in situ and not naturally occurring, are so massive and stupidly irregular as to be classically that which are found in pre-Roman structures, such as the Dolmens of Pembrokeshire and Glamorgan.

Of course this little parcel of possible Bronze Age settlement is a mere half mile from the field systems and defended enclosure of the later Iron Age site at Castle Bank, a major Dinas in the area.  I’m sure you can imagine just how long my lunch breaks are with this little discovery t’other side of the wall !

Probable mound of Bronze Age origin.

Another likely site for a burial mound lies in the next field on a more prominent hill-top and is an enticing suggestion of a wider settlement.

When I first became seriously interested in all this ‘Landscape Archaeology stuff’ (as a friend so aptly calls it) I genuinely assumed there was nothing left to be discovered but here is a perfect example of what lies out there just waiting for someone to ‘see’ it.  The problem is of course that geology and geomorphology leave stones in places which hint at  ‘man’s influence’ and it is easy to get caught up in the euphoria of discovery when in reality there’s nowt there.  In this area for instance the soft Ordivician shales which underlie the fertile farm land and create the gentler rounded hill-tops are intruded by harder igneous rocks and dolerite which do not erode so easily and can create the exposed stone cairns on the more prominent hillocks.  I must be wary; what I need is someone who knows a whole lot more about the subject to come and opinion on the matter !

Meanwhile, as I await the arrival of hundreds of lambs which is altogether consuming every waking (and many sleeping) hours of my host, preventing any transportation of stone to my repairs, I am progressing with another wall, this time of sandstone and partly a retaining wall.  The mound which the wall surrounds is another element to ponder…

Whilst I was laid up waiting for ‘winter’ to blow through I sought some solace on a day out with an old friend at the Malvern Tractor show.  It was some years since I visited the major ‘anorak’ event for vintage tractor enthusiasts and thought it would be a good break from the monotony of bad weather.  An early morning start saw us arrive at the Three Counties Showground on the outskirts of the Worcester spa town of Malvern.  The first problem was the car-park field, it was like a paddy-field with water oozing from under the tyres as we edged our 4 x 4 across the grass.

Massey Ferguson 3 cylinder 35 at the Malvern Tractor World show

My travelling companion, the irrepressible Mr Smith, Radnorshire’s finest tractor mechanic and diesel engine guru, admires a MF35 3 cyl knowing full well he will be causing green eyes in an overseas tractor nut !

The major attraction on the Saturday is a huge auction, and I mean HUGE !  Run over three sites simultaneously – hence useless if you are interested in lots in more than one section – the auction sees literally hundreds of tractors, thousands of odds and ends all farm related and a large selection of smaller items such as hand tools and literature relating to the collecting and restoration of such items.  I used to have the patience for auctions, I used to be able to stand for hour on end awaiting the lot I was after, generally to then  lose it to a higher bidder.  No more, those days are long gone, I have neither patience nor enthusiasm to be pushed and jostled by a seething mass of crazed machinery nuts.  We walked on past and arrived at the large indoor display arenas in which were arrayed hundreds of pristine restored tractors.  Again I found my patience had drained away and I was no longer as enthusiastic to peruse the long lines of machinery and side-step hundreds of other promenaders.  Clearly my long standing assertion that “I’m not really into tractors” is  true after all.  Only one or two items caught my eye, including a rather nice line-up of early Land Rovers.  I wasn’t in a position to purchase some items I badly need to complete the restoration of my own Massey Ferguson 35, like a complete new bonnet unit, but I did get chance to examine the stock of a dozen or so suppliers of those items and found some good prices for future reference.  Sadly, as no work had been possible for such a long time, I was not able to make a grab at a rather excellent ‘show offer’ for a bonnet unit at nearly half the normal price !

FE35 at Malvern

This rather over-done FE35 was worth a photo I thought. Whilst it would not be my choice it is fair to say the restoration was immaculate and had produced a machine that could quite easily be a mode of personal transport at the beach or down-town Llandrindod Wells.

Of course there were a number of old friends to chat with, a large bus load of folk had come from Llandovery and the wives had gone off to a Craft Fair next door.  It was something of a shock to realise just how long it had been since I last attended the Tractor World show and even more of a shock to realise just how long I had been going to the show all told – was I really that young ?!  I suspect it may be a long while yet until I visit again but it served the purpose of lifting the spirits of both of us and for me it sent me homeward enthused to get into the barn and begin the task of running up the engines of those tractors that languish therein and which, apparently, I’m not really interested in …

TE20 half track

Another that did catch my eye, a Grey Fergie tractor fitted with a track system.

Apart from finally being able to return to the ‘day job’ and giving some lectures and talks there is not much else to report from the land and life of Welshwaller;  Spring is not far off, another week sees the clocks go forward – or is it back ? I never can tell – and soon the Ides of March give way to April, will it be rain or snow, is it too much to hope that a late Easter will see the sun shining?  If today is anything to go by those thermals will be coming out of the drawer pretty quickly.  Onward and upward and all else being equal, which it generally is not, I may be able to report again from this green and pleasant land where hundreds of lambs are already gambolling along field edges; or BT may well sever my server – I’m on a mission and there may well be casualties !

Brittanica Technica … not quite.

27/01/2014

Already the first month of the New Year is almost gone, where have I been ?  You may well ask.

A long while ago a big storm blew through this part of Wild Wales, as well as uprooting many grand old trees it also disrupted telecommunications.  For nigh on six weeks I have had no service of any use from the National communications body, British Telecom.  I’m not in a ‘Not-Spot  more a sort of Maybe-Not Spot where some-days you can connect, some days you can’t.  It is quite usual that at least once a year, and often more, I have to endure the torture of attempting to communicate with the body charged with delivering our communications network.  BT are without doubt a blight on this country.  I know of no-one who has a good word to say about them – least of all the good folk who work for them –  and all-in-all they should be done away with.  Now I have been warned before about using this here blog of mine as a moan platform, I know, I shouldn’t.  It’s just that I am now six weeks into waiting to get this line repaired,  I have spent four long sessions on friend’s phone lines trying to communicate with the communications organisation – and I mean four sessions of at least an hour and twenty minutes each – listening to endless requests to press buttons, speak clearly, try to make myself understood by some nice little man in Mumbai or some other Indian town ( how come BT can get a clear line to India but not to anywhere I want to get to ??!!) and each time it’s as if I have never reported it before.  The best is the automated service that asks you if you are speaking from the number you want  to speak about (which I have occasionally been able to do) and when you say ‘yes’ it asks you (repeatedly) to stay on the line while checks are carried out.  After fifteen minutes or so of constant “stay on the line”, it then reports that as the line is busy it is not possible to carry out checks and I should call back when the line is not busy….  Who designs these systems ??!!  I would like to drag the multi-millionaire CEO of BT onto one of those ‘Undercover Boss’ type programmes and make him sit and try to report a fault.  Oh yes, that’s just what I want to do. Brittanica Technica ?  I think not.

Anyway, enough of that for now,  I just wanted you all to know that I would have welcomed you to 2014 but have been prevented from so doing – and it’s not even that I haven’t paid my bill – for once !!  They ain’t getting the next until they re-connect me.

The night I was returning from my State-side visit a big storm swept down the east coast (funny thing was, I left the morning after a BIG storm as well !) at the same time a cyclonic wind blew across the Atlantic and hit Wales.  Such was the strength of the wind my nine and a half hour flight out was reduced to just over seven hours on the way back, we just surfed the old jet stream all the way from Newfoundland to Wales !  The result here was the uprooting of a great number of large and old trees, some of which fell across my very track requiring a couple of hours of chainsaw work before I could even get to the door !

Fallen Firs

 Some seriously big and old Noble Fir -planted way back in the mid C19th – finally decided to end their lives, too much bad weather for them.

One of the major issues was the wetness of the ground, roots could not stay anchored against the onslaught of the wind and the fir trees in particular, with their full canopies, succumbed.  Two very old and stately land marks on the lane to my little homestead, a lane originally built to allow the Lady of the House to be driven to the railway station at nearby Garth, toppled.  The two Noble Fir dated back to the 1860s and were thus planted around the time of the road construction.  They just tipped over, no snapping or limb tearing, no, just a slow old topple.  Unfortunately their path to the ground was blocked by an even older Sessile Oak of some magnitude, sufficient to bear the weight of the two fir trees which remained leaning on it for a few weeks until they could be safely dealt with.  Hung up trees are the worst to have to tackle, there is no way of knowing where the stresses and strains are in the timber and a chain saw cut into the trunk can release a huge force of pent up energy endangering anyone close-by.  The operation was gingerly undertaken by Will and Luke, the two intrepid woodsmen who have taken on the task of dealing with timber felling and sawing on the estate.  The Laird has installed a huge wood burning boiler to replace his oil-guzzling old system, it is linked to a government scheme to encourage sustainable energy use.  We have estimated around 50 tons (that’s tons not tonnes  !!) will be required to get through the winter – three months in and already we are running short … but at least the Mansion is finally warm !  The whole root-plate of the two big trees was tilted at a 45 degree angle and the hole which it had left in the ground had filled with water.  Now root-plates of fir trees are not very deep, one of the reasons they are so susceptible to high winds, in fact it is difficult to see how such huge trees were ever sufficiently anchored into the ground to enable them to attain such height and for SO long; I mean, there has surely been high winds of equal strength sometime in the last 150 years !!

The final cut of the second trunk was met with a huge ‘splash’ which drowned the three of us working nearby and caused a small flood in the adjacent house as the huge root-plate crashed back into the pond which had been formed in the hole.  It was a rare moment of joviality in an otherwise dismal couple of months.  Nothing but rain and high wind have lashed the whole country, we are at least fortunate that we live in hill country, there is no flat land to flood !  All the rain that falls on us and in the surrounding mountains rushes downwards and onwards into the rivers that ultimately flood towns in  England and thousands of acres of flat open fields.

There are finally some ideas circling that relate to the amount of open tree-less mountains onto which most of the rain falls and, as there is nothing to trap the water and then release it slowly, whether upland farming is to ‘blame’.  Well of course it is but it has been three thousand years in the making.  We can’t suddenly end upland sheep farming, though it is rapidly reducing anyway, and it does no good to ‘blame’ farmers, after all they were and are just doing what has always been done.  Most flat-land dwellers and urbanites don’t realise why they flood; they always look to ‘blame’ someone.  Usually it is the local authority or the government or the Environment agency.  No-one ever mentions climate change even though it is clear to the professionals and outdoor workers, like yours truly, that weather patterns are changing.  Oh well, if things don’t change they’ll stay the same…

Meanwhile, back on the estate, one of the monsters that came crashing down fell absolutely where it needed to, straight into a narrow open corridor in a patch of woodland adjacent to the main drive to the Mansion.  The tree is another Noble Fir but probably a hundred years or so older than the ones that blocked my lane.  We will know once we start to cut it up and can count the tree-rings enabling us to date it.  For now it lies over 60ft (20 metres) along the ground and the root-plate is like the end of an old barn.

Root-plate

The huge root-plate of the Noble Fir dwarfs my Discovery. How we are going to move it I know not !

The work has been non-stop for it is not just the cutting up of the main trunk and bigger limbs of a fallen tree, the amount of ‘trash’ – unusable smaller branches and pine needles – is astonishing.  The fact that the firs are evergreen means their branches are fully leafed and extremely heavy.  Days and days of hard manual work has been my lot for the past month or so, good for the fitness levels and excellent for ensuring a good night’s sleep !!

As for dry stone walling work well that has been rather difficult !  However, this last couple of weeks I have managed to complete a small job for an old friend of mine – one of the Junk-Yard Angels from Trecastle Antique Centre (www.kingdomofrust.co.uk) – who contacted me while I was away to say she needed my skills.  A rather large hole had been dug in her garden to allow car-parking and the bank, which stood around 8ft/2.5mtrs high, needed to be revetted.  Fortunately she lives in a rather attractive spot, high on the side of a hill overlooking the Usk Valley below Bwlch.  The views out over Mynydd Llangynidr and down to the Sugar Loaf near Abergavenny are superb, the stone too is pretty good !  The mountain on which the house stands is Mynydd Llangorse, a whale-back hill which separates the basin of Llangorse Lake from the Rhiangoll valley.  Directly below lies the Roman camp of Pen-y-Gaer (see archive for May 2011 ‘Any fool can face a crisis) and the medieval village of Cwmdu.  It is a place steeped in history and the old farmsteads and walled enclosures relate to the period after the Normans arrived in the area in about 1078.   The cottage in which my friend lives is an old quarry-workers smallholding which at one time belonged to the Beaufort estate (latterly Glanusk).  The acre garden is surrounded by dry stone walls with the top wall forming the mountain boundary beyond which is the open Mynydd, the common grazing of the township.

Steep and angled dry stone wall.

There were several right-angled corners, a curve and some gradients, not just a small retaining wall then !

The stone is my all-time favourite, Old Red Sandstone, that most ancient of sedimentary rock that produces the rich reddish brown soil of the area.  The whole of the Black Mountain range consists of the beds of this sandstone and it stretches all the way to Llandeilo.  Being a sandstone it comes in nice flat chunks and is a good rough stone that locks together well and stands against the rough weather which blows through this landscape.

Stone steps

Oh yes, there were steps and a mortared section into which an ornate gate is to be hung. Not just a retaining wall then !

The job was, in fact, quite a large project, with a curved section to allow ease of turning in off the narrow lane the first thing to deal with.  Then there were two external right angles and an internal right angle.  Luckily Old Red Sandstone fractures in a way that produces some nice corner stones. A set of steps were needed to rise up from the car-park level to the yard.  Luckily some rather nicely dressed blocks which bore the traces of having once been part of a lime-mortared building, were available and these made an excellent set of steps.  More dressed blocks were used to match a mortared wall which already existed and into which hinges were fixed to hang the ornate gate – not surprisingly an antique metal gate from the Kingdom of Rust.

‘A friend in need….’ so the saying goes, I’ve always been a soft touch when doing work for friends; I don’t have much to give them but my skill is always given as cheaply as I can reasonably afford !!  You know what ?  It generally is the case that what you give out you get back; a farmer driving past asked her for my number as he has some dry stone walls he needs repairing just along the road… The year is getting fuller !!

Retaining wall of dry stone.

The whole car-park already looks long time established ….

The job was elongated because of the dreadful deluge, although as Bwlch is in the rain shadow of the Brecon Beacons, it gets a lot less rainfall than Beulah !  Nevertheless there has been a substantial amount of water falling in the surrounding hills.  The cottage is on the south side and has two small streams running through the ground, the flow has been greater than anyone remembers.  Over the hill, on the north side, water flows down small brooks into Llangorse Lake.  The lake sits in a saucer of high ground and the outflow is the river Llynfi which joins the Wye at Glasbury.  I took a drive along the old road from Pengenffordd to Llangorse via the Sorgwm on which sits a Neolithic burial chamber.  The lake had expanded beyond its shores, gone beyond a level that many locals have ever seen.

It is interesting to see the lake at the current level for it was always thus until the early C17th when a new ditch allowed the level to fall by letting more water into the Llynfi.  Again in the 1860s the level was lowered and this time the man-made island, the Crannog, was rediscovered having been under water for the previous three centuries.  At this time too the famous dug-out canoe was retrieved from the mud near the eastern shore (and now resides in Brecon museum).

Llangorse in flood.

The ancient church of Llangasty on the western shore of Llangorse lake. The name means the ‘enclosure’ (llan) in the ‘bog’ (cors), surrounded again by water. The shoreline can be plainly seen marked by the reed bed many yards out into the water.

Days of rain are a depressing thing to endure, on top of that I acquired my first cold of the winter and, being a pathetic man, that always leaves me feeling down and out.  I enjoyed some of the time, finding it a useful opportunity to tackle some domestic sorting, completing this year’s tax return – not an easy thing to do on-line with my present issues !!  Eventually I needed to escape and combined a journey to plan dates for this year’s courses with a little r & r. The Walking Through History and Dry Stone Walling courses run in conjunction with my colleagues at Ty Gwyn (www.tygywnfarm.co.uk) and the short-break programme which the Metropole Hotel in Llandrindod Wells are hosting (www.metropole.co.uk) will take place from May until September. From there I drove out through the Walton Basin and crossed the border at Kington and on to the market town of Leominster.

My version of ‘retail therapy’ involves, as regular readers will know, an elongated poodle through interesting landscape and a few hours wandering the antique emporiums which are amply represented in that medieval sheep marketing town of Lemster.  The town owes its origin and early wealth to the wool trade.  The very wool on which the Lord Chancellor sits, the ‘Woolsack’, came from the Leominster market, the wool being of the then dominant breed, the Ryeland.  It is a good place to escape the rain of the Welsh hills.

Ryeland metal sculpture

The importance of wool to the market town of Leominster is recorded in this artistic metal sculpture of a Ryeland ewe.

The wool trade in Leominster

The trip was another one of bygone discoveries which I’ll bring to you in my next post.  Meanwhile the rain and wind continues and there is even a hint that the first of the white stuff is heading our way.  Dry Stone Walling in the Welsh hills will have to wait a while longer methinks!

On the Trail of the Longleaf Pine…

22/12/2013

Woodlands have long held a special place in my psyche.  I know not why, it is interesting to ponder the reasons, time-consuming to speculate on the origins of that draw.  I’m not going to get deep into a psychological assessment or even dwell on the fact – I like woods and forests and there’s an end ! The historical management of our native woodlands is an aspect of my interest as is the  concern for the flora and fauna that exists within.  There’s no doubt we have squandered our woodland heritage, we have abandoned the age-old traditions of using native timber to manufacture and build.  Foreign timber is, so we are told, cheaper and often of better quality but surely that is a narrow and cowardly view ?  I have been involved in trying to get land-owners, farmers in particular, to manage their woodlands for longer than I care to remember.  The basic fact is that unless someone wants the timber produced from the management – which in effect means the controlled harvesting of species in the woodland – then it is an un-economic enterprise. The demise of well managed woodlands and the century old afforestation of uplands with non-native conifer has had a devastating effect on issues such as carbon capture and water quality to say nothing of the loss of habitat to so many of our native plants and animals.  The fact that grant aid, through numerous schemes over past decades, has been targeted at such management merely shows that the problem is not imagined, it is a scientifically proven issue. Now this post is not about the problems of Welsh nor even British woodlands, that is an ongoing issue which I will continue to champion.  No, this article is about a similar issue that ‘we’ hold responsibility for, in a land that we first ‘invaded’ over 400 years ago.

Range of the Long Leaf Pine

The whole of the green area was once the land of the Long Leaf Pine forest and all the animals and plants and hence Native Americans that it supported.

This particular part of the Globe, this particular parcel of Colonial pillage occurred over a short period really, just a few hundred years during which time millions of years of evolution was halted, extinguished even, all because of a particular tree. The south eastern corner of the United States was the region in which the vast forests of the Long Leaf Pine reigned supreme.  From Texas through to the Virginia lowlands in a great arc that consumed most of Louisiana Georgia, the Carolinas and Florida, the great trees dominated.  Once the first settlers discovered the endless bounty of the forests the end was nigh.  The fact that the trees grew tall and straight to heights of 100 feet and more meant they were ruthlessly felled to provide masts for ships.  The fact that they also contained turpentine doomed them further, the nature of the close grained timber meant they were hugely strong and hence desirable in all manner of construction projects.  The coming of the railroads – themselves massive consumers of timber for the tracks and engines – opened up access to both the forests and the markets.  “Railroads were to Pines what they were to Buffalo, the means to extinction” (Janisse Ray). By the end of the nineteenth century those great forests were all but gone and with them the flora and fauna.  Forests that had stood for millenia, which had seen man exist in harmony for much of that time, were gone, destroyed forever.  Of the 85 million acres of Longleaf Pine within the area of its range – a total area of 156 million hence over 50% – only about 2 million acres remain and of that only 10 thousand acres are virgin forest.

Longleaf Pine remnant forest

This is how all of that land would have looked when the first settlers arrived.

Now you may be wondering why I have picked on this particular piece of habitat destruction, after all I could have stuck a pin anywhere in the map of the world and a similar issue would, most likely, pop up.  It is one of those inexplicable events, a coming together of a number of occurrences, small of themselves but together capable of a huge impact.  That huge impact is, in a way, a microcosm of the problems we have nationally, internationally, globally, it hit me between the eyes with such a force I haven’t yet fully understood it myself. The awakening came when I was given a book to read on my recent visit to South Carolina.  I had travelled determined to re-read Faulk’s Bird Song as the centenary of the Great War looms. I had forgotten what an immense piece of literature it is, forgotten how it grips the mind and urges the next session of reading to come quickly.  I duly finished it and picked up the proffered book.  If I tell you that in the first session I got through nearly 80 pages you will understand its impact.

Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

This book mesmerised me and got me all wound about the Long Leaf Pine – as if I haven’t got enough to concern me already !

It is an autobiographical account of a childhood and an awakening that flows fast and furiously, flicking the reader from the abject poverty and dignity of a post-war Southern childhood as the daughter of a scrap dealer (Junk yard) to the awful tragedy of the demise of the Long Leaf Pine forests.  In essence it is two books in one except that the growth of the mind of the child, out of which comes a great Conservationist, is inextricably intertwined with her awakening to the devastation which had taken place. I’m not  going to give you some kind of a review of the book – it’s cheap enough and is available in Libraries so go and read it !!  You won’t be sorry.  What it opened my eyes to was a part of the history of the Southern States that had been totally unknown. The remaining stands are mostly contained within protected zones of conservation or National Parks such as the Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee in Florida or, interestingly, within the area of a number of military bases which are dotted throughout the relevant Sates.  For instance about 5 thousand acres stand within the bounds of Elgin Air Force base also in Florida.  Ms Ray eloquently leads us into that loss, a loss which she seems to feel in her soul.  “Maybe a vision (of the original Longleaf Pine Forest) has been endowed to me through genes (because I seem to remember their endlessness)” (p65).  I think it is writing of a genre capable of illuminating something in our own gene memory.  I found myself drawn into her passion and her pathos.  A recognition that something within the landscape, the forest landscape in this instance, is locked up within us, only to be revealed at the behest of some unexpected prompt. “I drink old-growth forest in like water.  This is the homeland that built us.  Here I walk shoulder to shoulder with history – my history.  I am in the presence of something ancient and venerable, perhaps of time itself, its unhurried passing marked by intensity and stolidity, each year purged by fire.  I can see my place as human in a natural order more grand, whole and functional than I’ve ever witnessed and I am humbled, not frightened”.  (p69) For me that simple statement encapsulates much of my own unspoken senses in the hills and enclosures in which I work.  For sure just being in an ancient woodland is a transcendental experience for me too.  The terrible loss of the great forests of the South and Janisse Ray’s writing mirrors much of what occurred here centuries ago.  Indeed the very drive to emigrate to that New World of promised opportunity and wealth was partly tied up in the problems of a diminishing agricultural output here.  Ironic therefore to realise that within a century much of the fertility and diversity of the vast forested lands, not only of the Longleaf States but right through the eastern seaboard, had been so depleted as to be unable to sustain life. An ecology which had sustained the Native Americans for thousands of years, was  destroyed by the introduction of European models of agriculture and the inevitable slash and burn policy which not only destroyed the forests and all they supported but at once rendered the ground susceptible to depletion and erosion. “In no place during the ante-bellum period (that hundred or so years between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War) was it easier for the Celts to maintain their traditional pastoral ways than in these great forests that covered the old South”.   (Mc Whinney p56) Sadly that pastoralism outgrew the very land that sustained it and as the population grew, particularly in the urban areas, demands for the resources of the forests provided quick prosperity for those who owned the land or exploited it.  No-one ever considered the “Endless Forests” would one day be gone.  “Another chapter in the sorry tale of the unbridled exploitation of our Nation’s natural resources”. (Ray p155) “Our relationship with the land wasn’t one of give and return.  The land itself has been the victim of social dilemmas – racial injustice, lack of education and dire poverty.  It was over tilled, eroded, cut, littered, polluted, treated as a commodity, sometimes the only one, and not as a living thing.  Most people worried about getting by and when getting by meant using the land we used it. When getting by meant ignoring the land we ignored it”. ( Ray p165) The problem of course is not merely one of the loss of the noble pine.  The ecology of the Longleaf forests was so interwoven, so interdependent that removing one element negatively, nay disasterously, impacted on all the other constituent pieces.  The natural forest saw trees spread out in an unordered fashion, light was able to penetrate to the understory, plants and animals lived long lives in the light of that forest.

Grass stage Longleaf Pine

The baby Longleaf – the Grass stage – looks just like a young Pampas Grass. Fire is its friend !

The one thing that separates the Longleaf from other pines is its need for ‘FIRE’ !!  Only through regular burning can natural regeneration occur, and therein lies one of the big problems.  Humans don’t want fires raging around them !  Of course the Native Americans used fire in the forests to keep the under-story clear so that hunting was made a little easier.  Through fire the highly pyrophyte Pinus Palustris becomes the dominant species.  The other element in this fire dependent ecosystem is the Wire grass which grows throughout the forest floor – Carolina Wire-grass, Aristida stricta, in the northern zone and Southern Wire-grass, Aristida beyrichiana, in the south of the zone.  This coarse grass provides combustible material to speed the fire through the forest without allowing it to burn too deeply.  In Britain farmers and game estates use the same principle, a not too windy day which causes a quick burn across the surface rather than burning into the peat which is disastrous for the heather and grasses as well as the peat.

Now fire and animals don’t go well together, unless at a BBQ !  One animal that has suffered catastrophic decline as a result of the demise of the Longleaf forests was also the animal that provided ‘fire-shelter’ for other species which lived in the ecosystem.  The Gopher Tortoise is a keystone species, as a burrowing animal it allowed other animals, particularly the southern Salamander and snakes, to share its burrow during flash burns.  It would be interesting to know what the warning signs were which caused animals to run underground.  In nature the fires would have been started by the violent lightning that accompanies the huge southern thunderstorms.   The ecosystem supports many plants and animals, especially carnivorous plants and orchids as well as the really rare Red Cockaded Woodpecker.  I was fortunate to see TWO of these fabulous birds on my visit to Congaree Swamp National Park in January 2012.

Congaree Swamp Red Cockaded Woodpecker

Can you see it ? It is there, hiding on the ground, this Red Cockaded Woodpecker was the first thing we saw in Congaree !

In total within the Pine Savannas there are 27 Federal Endangered species and 100 species of concern.  Not surprisingly there are, at last, serious concern and effort being put into research and protection of the remaining stands.  Interestingly these Longleaf Forests and the ecosystem they support are viewed as being very suitable for adapting to any Global warming issues !

Now I have probably given a very inadequate account or description of the Forests and the issues.  Apologies, but my intention was to merely report something that had become an important element in my ‘education’ about the Southern Sates of America.  The whole question of the loss and conservation efforts became a little more personal for me too.  In one of those strange events, almost another case of ‘synchronisity’, the Longleaf Forests cropped up in two un-related parts of my recent excursion.

Regenerating Longleaf forest.

This is a naturally regenerated Longleaf stand showing the spaced nature of the growth and the important wire grass.

Firstly, you may recall my comrade waller joined the Ministry to conduct the wedding of two of her longest and closest friends.  The bride, the delightful Kyle Palmquist, has just completed her Doctorate and her area of study has been, for five years and more, the plant diversity within Longleaf Pine forests.  Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to meet up and discuss her findings face to face.  Her CV is staggering and her ‘defence’ (a presentation of her Thesis findings) makes fascinating reading (she can be found on-line).  I saw her briefly the day after her wedding in her beach house on Folly Beach near Charleston, long before I began reading Janisse Ray’s book.  How I would have revelled in an evening with dear Kyle after I had read it.

The last and perhaps most unreal coincidence in the whole story came as I was engrossed in the story.  We were invited to go and view a new mansion that was being built by a friend of my host’s cousin.  It was a huge stone edifice in a huge number of acres.  I can’t describe the building or show you pictures but one of the unbelievable discoveries was the stable block.  I thought it looked like a Medieval Tithe barn and when I mentioned this to the designer/builder he said that was what he had researched !  What was even more remarkable was the timber, huge beams of what looked, to me, like Pitch Pine.  No, it was Longleaf Pine.  In another quirk of coincidence the great baulks had been recovered from an old cotton mill which was being demolished in the very town we passed through on the way to the bridge building site, Spartanburg.

The strength of the slow growing pine trees made it the timber of choice when building the huge 19th century mills which were built throughout the southern States after the Civil War.  This explosion in industrial building ended once and for all the Longleaf domination of southern forests.  To see actual beams of the timber was unbelievable for me and it was immediately apparent why it was such a capable building material.  Slow growth results in tight grain and immense tensile strength.  The tree grew straight and tall, ideal for building wide multi-storey mills.  To see this example of ‘building salvage’ was a privilege and I have to congratulate the owner and particularly the designer for giving a third life to the magnificent beams.  Clearly my enthusiasm for his buildings and the timber impressed the owner, he gave both of us a huge block of the stuff !!

I was lost for words and I hope, in my disbelief and gratitude, I thanked him sufficiently – albeit he had loads of it lying around ! – for a gift that left me SO excited.  Ridiculous I know, getting all worked up about a piece of wood, an exceptionally heavy piece of wood at that.  The 35 cms x 35 cms x 10 cms (14″x14″x4″) weighs in at 15lbs !!

Block of Longleaf timber

My very own block of Longleaf Pine, how chuffed was I !? Now then, will it fit in my luggage and is it legal !?

The block I was given had been cut from a tall beam, it in turn was hewn from a 300 year old tree, a tree that had just sprouted when de Soto was beginning his expedition back in the early 1500s.  It is such a precious piece of wood, to me anyhow.

The gift of that simple block of wood gave me more than immense pleasure.  I had in my mind that I would give it to Kyle as a belated wedding present but my host felt she would not want it.  I then turned my thoughts to whether I could actually take it back to Wales with me.  Weighing in at over a stone (15 lb to be exact) it certainly meant re-arranging my luggage.  I had already decided to leave some items of work-wear, not least a heavy pair of old boots that had worked their last shift.  I had also unloaded a few wooden items, gifts to Whitney from Dai-it-is and my old neighbour Bryn who had given her an ash axe helve that he had himself fashioned with a draw-knife and spokeshave – my delight was nothing compared to hers when he gave her that piece of Welsh heritage !  My bag had been ever so slightly over weight at Heathrow and I estimated that I had shed a good few pounds, but not 15 !!  Also I had acquired some items, like special clothing and camping accessories, as well as a stunning early Christmas present ! (An outdoor sweater from the incredible outdoor shop REI – thanks boss !!).

I variously thought I could get it in, then I thought there was no chance, then again I thought maybe it was possible.  Eventually I decided to go for it – notwithstanding I wasn’t absolutely sure it was an allowed item, certainly bringing such a piece of wood into the U.S.A. wouldn’t be allowed.  It was suggested that polishing it might be a good idea.  With much re-arranging of items, including  two very full carry-on bags, I got the check-in luggage weight down to 51lbs and the kind Delta check-in lady let it through.  To cut a long story short, it arrived in London and is now amongst my prize possessions.

Finally, and another strange encounter in the saga of the Longleaf, on a walk through the attractive grounds of Furman Universityh in Greenville aimed at working up an appetite, what did we encounter …

Sapling Longleaf

A ‘baby’ yet, but this is the real deal, a Longleaf Pine up close and personal !

In an action packed trip I got immersed in the culture and geography of those Carolina States.  I read as much as I could, I learned more of the terrible years of Slavery and the Civil War.  I almost completed watching Ken Burn’s series on the Civil War and came back with two interesting books on the subject courtesy of Mr Brown (and his uncanny ability at finding items at the world famous Pickens Flea Market) an event we should all know more about as it defines who and what the United States of America is.  I was treated as an honoured guest and I hope my Ambassadorial skills were a match for the hospitality of those kind, generous folk.  Judging by the numbers threatening to come here next year, I did fine !!  For now Welshwaller is back in the rain and gales of Mid Wales, and wishing Y’ALL heartfelt Season’s Greetings.

I just felt altogether attached to that intriguing State ....

I just felt altogether attached to that intriguing State ….

Nadolig Llawen 2013.  Have fun and I’ll catch you in 2014 !!

On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine …

17/12/2013

Deserving of a short period of R & C (Rest and Culture) a route north was plotted, the intended target was the ‘hip’ town of Asheville in North Carolina.  It was only eighty or so miles and was an interesting drive on a reasonably quiet Friday afternoon.

Road to Asheville

A quiet drive to an altogether ‘crazy’ town !

I always enjoyed my travels along the State Highways, full of huge trucks and interesting driving skills !  The speed limits are rigorously adhered to – State Troopers in their Dodge Chargers are feared predators -and much lower than we are used to.

Asheville is a large city – the largest in the west of North Carolina – nestling in the hills of the Blue Ridge.  It sits at the confluence of the French Broad River and the Swannanoa river in an area once the tribal lands of the Cherokee.

The arrival of the Spanish in 1540, an expedition by Hernando de Soto, decimated the Native Americans through the introduction of European diseases.  By 1784 the land along the Swannanoa was settled by Col. Davidson who acquired it through his ‘Land Grant’ for military service.  He was ultimately killed by the very Cherokee from whom the land had been pillaged.  By 1790 the town was growing.  It developed through the nineteenth century and grew even larger in the earlier part of the twentieth century when the Arts and Crafts element emerged in both the architecture and the local craft enterprises.

One of the quirkiest of the buildings which is a mecca today – for the rich and famous – was begun in 1912.  The Grove Park Inn is without doubt the least beautiful buildings I have seen, certainly in respect of its stonework, and yet, as a student of architecture, it is hard to view it in any way other than ‘unique’.

Grove Park Inn at Asheville NC

What can you say about the stonework ? It reminds me of a ginger-bread house from a Grimms Fairy Tale !

The granite stone was hauled, by mules, down from Sunset Mountain on which the inn is built, facing westwards to the distant ridges of the Blue mountains.  The astonishing thing about this massive stone edifice was that it was built in less than a year !  In fact it took just 11 months and 27 days in 1912.  Over 400 men worked 10 hour shifts to get it completed and it was furnished with beautiful Arts and Crafts furniture from New York.

Naturally the great and the not-so-good have stayed and the Inn proudly lists all the Presidents who passed through.  We just sat and had a beer on the terrace, in balmy November weather.  That was a good way to slip into the city which has variously been dubbed the ‘Best place for Women’, the ‘Best place to restart your life’ and one of the top seven places to live in the United States.  For me just the fact that Nina Simone went to school there and Dirty Dancing was part filmed around about is sufficient !  We should all be interested in Asheville for another reason, it is the place in which resides the World’s largest archive of weather data at the U.S. National Climatic Data Center (that IS how Centre is correctly spelled … ahem!).

The main purpose apart from taking what we felt was a well deserved rest from stone work, was to attend a concert in the Arts area.  At a small venue called the ‘Grey Eagle’ I got to see, up close and real, Gillian Welsh (along with Dave Rawlins) a great favourite of mine since I was first introduced to her music by Miss Carolina back in 2009.  The crowd was a mixture of all ages and creeds, also of all manner of manners, some attentive and polite, others … well, you know.  The concert was however hijacked – for me at least – by a small insignificant little bearded guy who suddenly produced the most mesmerising voice I have ever heard.  He just left me a-gog !  Hailing from a band called Old Crow Medicine Show, with fiddle and guitar playing abilities to match the best, he stunned me.

The city is famous for its music, street music in particular and the following afternoon we came across another little trio, this time sitting on plastic buckets outside an old Woolworth’s store in one of the main streets.  Words fail me, you needed to be there !!  The banjo playing of the dude in a cowboy hat was, I am reliably informed by ‘she who knows’, top drawer.  The little lady with the demeanour of a wooden puppet and a smile to set warships afloat, was playing a strange steel mandolin type instrument, both were great singers.  The third member was a somewhat ‘thrown together’ gummy looking lady who tapped a desk bell with her foot each time a dollar bill landed in the box.  You should have heard the noise coming from the spoons she held in her hand.  Apparently her name is Abby, Abby the Spoonlady (www.SpoonLadyMusic.Com) and she was making a ‘guest appearance’ with the two members of ’2 Dollars More’.  We stood and listened and watched the playing and tap dancing for a long while.  Without doubt a trip highlight !

Street artists called $2 More

This trio were truly AWESOME, and then some ! They not only sat and and played with alacrity but they ‘performed’ as well. I can still hear the banjo and mandolin and those darned spoons !

I should say also that it was freezing cold, temperatures plummeted on the Friday night and by late on Saturday afternoon it was seriously cold.  How they sat there all that time and managed to keep their fingers warm enough to pluck as they did is quite remarkable.

I threw my last dollar bill into the hat requesting that in return Missie Mandolin playing Tap Dancer gave me one last rendering of her dancing routine.  She duly obliged, I’m easily pleased !

Doesn't this just say it all ?!  She played the part and played that instrument while he plucked that ol' banjo like you never heard !  Asheville rocks !

Doesn’t this just say it all ?! She played the part and played that instrument while he plucked that ol’ banjo like you never heard ! Asheville rocks !

The Asheville Spoon Lady

Abby the Spoon Lady deserves a frame of her own, she too was quite a star !

Now I have a sister who fancies herself as something of a Spoon player, maybe I should treat her to one of Abby’s classes, she ain’t seen nothing yet !!

I should mention the fabulous food too, but I won’t.  Asheville is renown for its eating and if the noodles and Indian meals I had – both regarded as not ‘real’ Asheville cuisine by my guide – are anything to judge by, it is well worth calling by.  The Arts area is in the old derelict industrial part of the town and the disused buildings lend themselves perfectly as studios and cafes, bars and galleries.  We enjoyed some real beer in a joint called the ‘Wedge’ and as it was alongside the freight railway I was able finally to see close-up, some of the enormous rolling stock that is used over there.

Freight Engines in a triple header

These three huge engines haul the most enormous trains of freight wagons.

Railways criss-cross the States but very little use is made of them by passengers.  Apparently it is far too erratic a service and exhorbitant prices; so much so that air travel dominates medium and long distance travel.  In fact no passenger service is even available on the Norfolk Southern Railway that services Asheville.

The motor-car dominates and has done for a century or so.  The nearby Blue Ridge Parkway is the epitomy of that domination.  It is a 469 mile drive at a maximum speed of 45 mph and sometimes 30 mph.  It wanders through some of the most stunning scenery that the eastern United States has to offer.  Built in the years of the Great Depression to create work and bring prosperity into the poverty stricken hills of the Appalachians, the Parkway links the National Parks of Shenandoah and the Smokies, Virginia to Georgia.  The Blue Ridge is but a small part of that route but is certainly one of the most scenic.  At altitudes higher than any of the great summits of Britain, the road has numerous ‘View points’, pull-ins that allow one to gaze out over lush green valleys or endless hillside forests.  We got to drive a 50 mile section just a few days before ice and snow closed the Parkway for the winter.  Already sheets of ice hung on the wet rock faces and a biting cold wind made getting out of the car a rarity.

Cold Mountain

The Lonesome Pine. The famous Cold Mountain viewed from the Blue Ridge Parkway. So many views like this greet the traveller along this most remarkable of roads.

Frozen Parkway.

The temperatures had already reached freezing and these sheets of ice became a common sight.

The fact that the speed limit is set low means the progress is sufficiently calm to allow sightseeing.  Armed with an in-car water boiler and some excellent vittles we had a very pleasant Sunday morning drive.  Some of the ascents are excruciating and yet intrepid cyclists braved the challenge with frozen breath and icicles for noses !  It is a fabulous road for bikes, motor and peddled and the many trails are a mecca for hikers.

There are visitor facilities at periodic intervals and the Folk Art Center* just outside Asheville is a fascinating place to see traditional crafts of the area.  The crafts industry was revitalised in the Depression to bring desperately needed income to the poor folk who lived in the wild remoteness of the mountains.

I was particularly interested to see blue-print drawings of the arches of tunnels and bridges which were constructed along the route and at the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center* one can see all manner of displays of historic construction and wildlife.  The Brown Bear is the emblem, how much did I want to see one of those magnificent animals ?! Alas …

* I use the local spelling !!

Viewing station on the Parkway

The elevation markers are placed at most over-view points. This road is at an elevation higher than any Welsh mountain !

Asheville and the Blue Ridge Parkway are good enough reasons to visit North Carolina, a State rarely on any U.K. visitors itinerary.  I’d love to walk one of the long distance trails and camp out on the hills – maybe then I’d get to see my Brown Bear !

Following the weekend break a little more wall building up at the Table Rock cabin kept us busy until the next mega-event.  ‘Thanksgiving’ – the biggest of American holidays, was rapidly approaching and I was excited to finally get to see what all the fuss was about !

The fourth Thursday of each November sees families – who often travel hundreds of miles to get together – sit down to a great feast.  Turkey is the main course, they don’t usually eat that as Christmas fayre, and depending on which part of the country the ‘trimmings’ are multi-various.  The Festival became an official  Federal holiday in 1863 when Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father in Heaven”.  Although there are those that believe it was actually George Washington that signed the first proclamation.

The origin of the feast and the religious connotation goes all the way back to 1621 where, in the Plymouth Plantation of Massachusetts, the ‘First Thanksgiving’ was celebrated by the Pilgrims after taking their first harvest in the New World.  Accounts tell of a 3 day feast attended by 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans.

I got to attend a long one day event over three venues and which involved consumption of a large number of calories, much chatter, huge laughter and not a little interrogation !

My hosts have an annual tradition that involves a lazy lengthy breakfast watching the Grand Parade in New York – at least I think that’s were it was ! – on TV, followed by a journey to the Piedmont area where the family of Mrs Mine Host had assembled at the old family homestead.  I’m not altogether sure how many folk were in attendance as they were scattered throughout the house.  Those I sat alongside were such amusing and jolly folk, some from near Asheville, that I barely moved but one chair place in the whole 3 hours !  I wish I was articulate enough to describe accurately the accents, the intonations, the jabber and the crack humour around that table.  How we didn’t all end up with indigestion is a mystery.  Little Mema (the Grandma) was a star and proved she is still sharp in the retort as her sense of humour came to the fore.  That after she had prepared a most memorable feast, aided and abetted by other females of the tribe.  We ate collards (like Spring Greens), amazing macaroni cheese, bean salads, hams and turkey with superb sauces and stuffing.  The desserts left me speechless, the famous coconut cream cake of the host exceeded expectation !  There followed an hour and more of laughter and stories which still makes me chuckle.

As if that wasn’t sufficient we then transposed a short hop to another branch of the family where an evening celebration was planned.  After a fire-pit chat in the cold evening air we went inside the beautifully appointed house of the hosts for another feast of amazing flavours and textures, similar but different to the first and again followed by crazily good puds and hilarity !

By the time the day ended I had eaten my fill, laughed more than a year’s worth of stomach cramp, talked a year’s total of words and met such a gaggle of funny, polite, interesting folk that I’ve probably ever met in one day before.  I have to say there was no mention of any Pilgrims but each meal began with a sincere Blessing, there were no guns or hand on hearts or flag waving, there was just the warmth and joy of extended families sitting down together and jabbering !!  The feast was clearly just a polite way of thanking everyone for turning up !!  Me ‘gusto’ a Southern Thanksgiving hootenanny !!

A few short days of wandering, more wall building, discovery and soon home would be beckoning.  Before the end I was anxious to finish a book I had been loaned to read whilst there, it was a story which captivated and saddened.  It is a story of the death  of a landscape, of an important ecological disaster that slipped by un-noticed, of an eventual awakening and desire to make amends.  It is a story of the death of the huge forest which covered most of the southern States of Georgia, the low country of South Carolina, Florida and parts of Louisiana and Tennessee.  It is a short story which will make up the majority of my last post relating an amazing month spent in the Carolinas.  Stay tuned !!


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.