Oh Deer

29/04/2020

In many parts of the globe seeing deer is no great cause for excitement. Indeed even in Britain they are ubiquitous, although hardly ever seen. Given the amount of time I spent out on the hills and close to woods and forests my encounter with the shadows was few.

Some twenty years ago an initiative to monitor and track the number of deer running wild in Wales was launched. At that time I had recently bought a small woodland and was concerned that my plans for it might succumb to roaming browsers. I got involved in the Towy valley survey and was able to give the local project officer some useful information.

Those of you who have read earlier posts of this blog will know that an amount of my wall repairs have taken place on old Deer Park walls. The Towy valley and areas close by had some very large and historically important grand estates. Few of them survive today and some of those that do, like the great Edwinsford mansion north of Llandeilo, are in a sorry state. Only the sombre grey mansion of the Vaughans of Gelli Aur is still habitable. As was the fashion in the eighteenth century, each of the great estates had their own deer parks. They were a status symbol as well as a good hunting area and a source of fresh meat.

I have repaired the walls of deer parks on four of the former estates. Each of them had, in their heydays, viable herds of fallow deer. Many of the descendants of those original herds live on to the present day. That is aremarkable line when you consider the original fallow deer were brought over by the Norman invaders.

In my particular woodland a small herd that existed therein were relics from the nearby Abermarlais estate. The Gelli Aur country park now occupies the former grand grounds of that wonderful estate and until recently retained a managed herd. That seems to have ceased and the animals have spread east and south from the parkland.

I see you !

A few weeks ago I was chatting – from inside my vehicle ! – with a farmer friend who mentioned that he’d noticed some damage to a wall near the ridge line above the valley. It was a wall that contained my Millenium tower and at the eastern end I had built into the wall a seat. The stone seat looks out over the Towy valley and the great Iron age camp of Garn Goch. For some reason stones had been knocked off the top of the wall which formed the back of the seat and more from a section a few yards to the right. The clue as to the culprit lay in the bracken, a wide flattened track which led from the forest road to the wall, just three metres.

I went into the lush grass in the field and sure enough there was the tell tale droppings. Deer droppings are almost indecipherable from sheep poo but to the trained eye it is quite different. So I replaced the fallen stones and hoped they would jump a bit higher. Clearly what they were doing was jumping up on to the top of the wall rather than clearing it in one leap. In fact one of them was using the seat of the bench to get up on the top and the stones were therefore knocked into the field.

The field side at the back of the bench.

Just two days later as I drove along the side of the woodland from whence they came, low and behold there were two deer crossing in front of me. It’s nice to know my tracking and powers of deduction are not yet too diminished! Given that the park at Gelli Aur is only five miles or so to the west and the ridge-line runs most of the way in between with plenty of woodland cover, it’s a fair bet that’s where they wandered from. Luckily they are not much problem to farmers hereabouts as most fields are established pastures and can probably sacrifice some grass to wild animals. It’s young woodland that really suffers but there has been no recent plantings that I am aware of although there has been some new hedgerow planting as I well know. But to my mind it’s nice to see the secretive animals, even if it is just a glimpse of them ‘high-tailing’ it.

Despite this dreadful plague upon our houses and the onward creep of the virus into the heartland of my county, I am trying to keep myself sanely occupied. Farmers are carrying on and with due care and attention, so am I. I am not venturing near any supermarkets, my only (fortnightly) visit is to the local garage which has all I need; well there and my local egg producer whose beautiful free range products are placed on the wall at her gate with an ‘honesty’ jar for the very reasonable £2.50 per dozen. Are you old enough to remember “Go to Work on an Egg” ? Well that’s what I’m doing, I’ll worry about my cholesterol levels if I am chosen to be a survivor …

Whilst it may sound as if I am regularly breaking ‘curfew’ that isn’t actually the case. I have been out to the farm where I keep my collection of agricultural ephemera on most days and the little wall repair was on the way. My journey takes me through three miles of single track country lane and it’s rare to meet another vehicle and I don’t mean now ! Generally I hear no evil, see no evil, alas, the third dictum of ‘speak no evil’ has not been wholly possible to follow of late.

I have another wall repair awaiting my attention; it is back where the large infected ash tree stood which I wrote about . It’s not really that far from the farm where my tractors are housed but it’s just a psychological challenge to walk the two fields to get to it. Not so much the walk there, more the thought that at the end of four or five hours of walling I’d struggle to walk back notwithstanding my lunch box would be a deal lighter.

Now I am greatly overdue to begin this job – like four months overdue – and given the glorious sunny weather I really ought to have got stuck into it. I was able to use the excuse of the terrible February rains and then the cold March winds but now ? Get to it.

Do you know the sort of day ? You decide to do A but before you can begin you have to deal with B which in turn is complicated by having to deal with C which then means D has to be dealt with and as you are doing that you discover E has gone missing and to find that you have to move F which is leaking and so you need G to clean it up and still you haven’t got to B and A is receding …

Thus it was I determined to get down there a day or so ago. For reasons I won’t bore you with my normal trusty steed, my International 434 , has been temporarily taken to another place to be used in assisting a friend clear some timber from his orchard. I therefore decided that it would be a good time to start-up the Massey Ferguson 35 which had lain idle, wrapped and warm, since before Christmas. It is always a fingers-crossed job after such a long lay off. To begin with I had to pull out a four-wheel wagon and a small two wheel gig. That was easy enough as there is a slight downward slope out of the shed and of course afterwards I could tow the big wagon back in with the tractor. So I duly hauled them out and set to undressing the 35. I keep a solar trickle-charge on the battery which works quite well even in winter sunlight, so I was hopeful she would fire up. I turned the key and away she went. It is a good old tractor that has a cosseted life. With a big grin I drove her slowly out into the daylight.

With a whimper the engine stopped. It never does that, sometimes not even when I ask it to ! I thought to myself “that sounds like she’s out of fuel”, that couldn’t be as I distinctly remember putting several gallons in last time I fired her up. Immediately that thought came to mind I remembered that I had shut the fuel tap at the bottom of the tank. There is a small leak on one of the filters and so as to avoid losing all the fuel – and fouling the floor like last winter – I closed it off. “Idiot”, that’s the big issue with short term memory loss.

Anyone who knows a little about old diesel engines probably knows it’s not just a question of putting in more fuel, or, in this case, any fuel. No, to restart the engine after running out of fuel requires a mechanical game of chess. Various fuel lines have to bled to remove any air that may have ingressed. They have to be loosened, bled and tightened in a particular order. Ideally it is a two person activity as the engine needs to be cranked over to allow the fuel pump to push the fuel to the opened line. The trick is to re-tighten the nut as the fuel is squirting out thereby stopping any air being sucked back into the line. Luckily my arms are long enough to reach both the ignition key and the first of the fuel line nuts but not the second nor the third. Besides, I couldn’t remember the order it is supposed to be done.

I first checked there was fuel into and out of the pump, easy to reach and successfully accomplished (with but three crankings of the engine). Then, making an uneducated guess as to which cylinder should be bled first – I went for the furthest from the pump – I slackened the nut and turned the engine over until the fuel flowed but only managed a finger tight closing . I tightened off the first and slackened the second. I reached for the key and turned. Nothing, just a click and deadness. Using some local idioms I surmised the battery had run out of juice and hence I would need to charge it before being able to complete the operation of trying to restart the tractor.

The wagon had to be moved to get the 35 out and then …

I walked around to where the electric gets turned on and off, I guess best part of a hundred metres (?), opened the door (which involves two awkward locks), having first walked back around to my vehicle which was parked close to the tractor and where I had left the keys to the locked door … (Are you feeling my growing frustration ?). I then ran the extension lead to the barn – which lies between the house from where the source of electric emanates – then went to get the key to the locked door that allows me access to the little old stable at the side of the barn and from which I can get to the inside of the barn doors to open them (ahem). Having opened them I connected the extension lead from the house to the one I keep permanently run-out through the barn and out to the back – where the tractor was !

I then walked down to the locked garage where I assumed my battery charger was, except of course, it wasn’t. No, it was in another building because I had used it to de-rust some old tools (using a neat little electrolysis trick) so I walked back around to the yard where the tractor was as the key to that building was in the tool box of the tractor (don’t ask!).

So, walking the hundred or so metres back for the fourth time, I got the charger and did the fifth hundred metres back to the tractor. I connected the crocodile clips and plugged the charger into the extension lead – nothing ! Had I remembered to turn on both switches in the house ? Walk back and check, yes I had. Had the plug come out of the extension to the extension ? No it hadn’t. Ah, therefore it must be the battery charger. Luckily I have another (but it is rather modern for me and is much too electronic to be of use in an electrolysis game as it turns itself off once the battery is charged).

Lets walk back around again and find the other charger – now where did I put it ? By now an hour had surely passed and so it was time for coffee.

Half an hour later (the farmer came by and we had a small chat) I began the search which luckily ended quite quickly as miraculously the second charger was in the first place I looked. Another hundred metres and I was back at the tractor ready to plug in the exchange charger. I’m sure by now you can guess the next sentence ….

So it wasn’t the battery charger after all; no, it was the extension lead which was not working, but which one and why !? I walked back around taking both battery chargers with me (clever, don’t you think ?). I tested the extension from the house to the barn, that was fine – and all the lights on the first battery charger came on so that meant that was fine too – so by power of deduction I quickly worked out it was the extension extension that was not working. But at which end ? Was it the fuse in the plug that fitted into the box of the first extension, or was it the box of the second extension into which fitted the plug for the battery charger. Now are you getting my frustration !?

I changed the fuse on the plug which was in the barn and then walked around to the other end of the extension to re-try the battery charger; still dead. You will be impressed with my next solution – I disconnected the battery and lifted it off the tractor and carried it around to the live extension lead and connected it to the battery charger, success !

Well now all I had to do was wait a couple of hours for it to charge up. I had, by then, pretty much given up on getting any walling done that day. Instead I busied myself with some waxing of tool handles which is an endless task each year, given I have nearly three hundred of the darn things !

An hour later, just after an enjoyable lunch of Welsh cakes and cheese, I noticed the lights on the charger were indicating a full charge had been delivered. Now that was rather strange and not a little disconcerting. If the battery hadn’t in fact been flat that could only mean one thing …

For the n’th time I hauled my weary legs and heavy battery back around and re-installed it on the tractor. A turn of the key resulted in not even a ‘click’ ! Surely it couldn’t be the solenoid ? I had dealt with the same issue last year and ultimately bought a brand new starter motor with new solenoid attached, which solved the issue. I should add that the original solenoid issue had been with me for some years and hence I knew how to circumvent the problem. With my long wooden handled screw driver I shorted across the two terminals of the solenoid (I absolutely hate doing it as it inevitably results in a loud crack and shower of sparks!) and sure enough the starter cranked over.

Of course, she couldn’t start because I hadn’t yet finished the job I started half a day ago, that of bleeding the system through. So I started slackening the injectors one by one and shorting the motor – there is a manual pump which, by cranking it up and down, pushes the fuel through but it’s on the OTHER SIDE of the engine and thus with just me to do it, was not a lot of help. Anyhow, after many loud electrical cracks and showers of sparks the engine finally fired-up. I gratefully hitched up and pulled the wagon back into the shed, manually pulled the gig in after it and went home. Strangely I felt quite impressed with myself, after all, I’m a waller not a tractor mechanic – but oh I so wish I was !

So it was a day later that I actually got across to the site. First job – and it was always thus – was to remove the old pieces of wire fence which the farmer had secured with an armoury of staples and twisted wire. In addition to stapling the wire to posts which he had driven into the ground right next to the old wall, he had then piled big stones against the posts, just in case a herd of elephants roamed by …

That took best part of an hour and then I had to re-erect the fence a few yards away using some of my steel pins. That was simply so that I could work at my own pace and not have to be concerned about closing up any gaps at the end of my day. Once that was done I enjoyed a break and a gaze around.

It’s not a bad work station.

As I mentioned when I did the earlier repair, this old farmstead sits close-by the great edifice that is Carreg Cennen castle. It consumes much of my thinking and the bright sun casts the grey stones in many hues as it tracks westwards.

The castle is perched on a limestone outcrop which actually sits adjacent to a great fault line that stretches from the Loughor estuary right through to the midlands and registers a number of tremors each year. The remains as they are seen today date from the the 12th century and the rule of the Lord Rhys and also from the Norman Lord, John Gifford who was given the castle by Edward 1st after his conquest of Wales in the late 13th century. It was laid seige to by Owen Glyndwr in the early 15th century (a nearby farm bears the name of Parc Owen) and finally fell into disrepair after being sacked by the Yorkists in 1462 during the Wars of the Roses because it had been a Lancastrian stronghold. Imagine, every time I look up from my travailles, that is what I see.

Anyway, I stripped out the worse section the next day but the other half seemed to be salvageable with a little care. That is always my preferred action, try to keep as much of the original as is possible as long as it blends safely with my finished wall.

With the sun and Carreg Cennen to my south it is easy to always face one way but behind me lies an equally interesting piece of history.

An important piece of Welsh agricultural history.

Along a very old track lies a farmstead of some antiquity. I have wanted to visit it for many years but as it is not in the ownership of anyone I know nor close to any walling I’ve undertaken, it has stayed somewhat aloof. To my surprise my workstation was actually right on the old road to the farm and was but two fields away. During my lunch break I walked the two fields and finally stood in the yard of the ancient farmstead.

A good acquaintance of mine who is an expert on old buildings and a senior archaeologist at the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales, mentioned to me over a year ago whilst visiting the medieval homestead where my collection is housed, that he would like to examine it. The old farm is hidden away to most prying eyes but glimpsed from various positions nearby one of which is my wall. He suspected it might have been a longhouse, possibly even a ‘cruck’ house and could therefore be an important relic.

The old fireplace retains its cooking features.

I had a good look at the exterior of the dwelling and attached cow-house and examined the stonework. I was looking to see if I could detect a line in the mortar-work of the house that would line-up with the wall-plate of the cow-house (the beudy) which is a good indicator that at one time they were under one continuous roof. It is usually the case that the human dwelling section of an ancient long-house has had its roof raised to accommodate an upper storey. I could not see such a line and neither could I locate where a door might have existed from the house into the cross-passage of the cow-house.

As the house was locked I had to be satisfied with leaning through the broken windows of the lower front and hold my camera at arms length and just shoot. The old cooking range shows three distinct periods of design but significantly, no twentieth century modernisation. Hence the original open hearth and huge oak lintel can be seen as can the likely eighteenth century bread oven and the iron-work of a mid nineteenth century cooking range complete with pot crane.

There is a suggestion of a door to the left side of the fire-place but whether that leads to a narrow circular stone staircase leading to the upper storey (superceded by a later wooden central staircase) or is in fact the doorway into the cow-house, I cannot yet determine.

The central (immediately inside the front door) staircase which may be a later modernisation.

The flag stone floor is absolutely pristine and shows no sign of any later covering. (It is common that a linoleum cover was over-placed in the early twentieth century). The other side of the staircase is a small ‘living room’ with what I suspect is a later small fireplace. The wattle and daub dividing wall is interesting as it shows large oak uprights forming the main strength giving structure.

The wattle and daub section is revealing its strong oak supports whilst the left side shows a tongue and groove panelling.

There is something very powerful about an old, undisturbed homestead. The fact that no modernisation has blighted this dwelling makes it very rare and I shall certainly been forwarding my photographs to my friend at the Commission.

Alas, I had to head back to do some wall building the results of which – perhaps together with some further reports from the lost farmstead – I’ll report on soon.

Stay safe y’all, this is the time to be serious about your health and everyone else.

And it came to pass that in those days …

02/04/2020

The Prophets were shunned and pilloried and great fires swept many lands killing the creatures of the ground and then great deluges rained down upon the lands and the floods of Noah returned killing all the creatures of the soil and smiting the crops. And still the Prophets were shunned and a great plague came over all the world and the people were sore afraid and many died. And man had no answers for he had too long cast aside the Laws of nature by which all life on earth is controlled…

What times these are to live through – or to hope to live through. I was feeling somewhat apprehensive to write a blog post, the trivial nature of stories of walling in the Welsh hills seem hardly relevant just now. However, so many folk have been reading my historic posts, and kindly commenting, that I felt I perhaps should try to construct something of interest.

It is a strange feeling to be constantly told that I was right, that what I had been saying over the Christmas lunch and New Year’s celebrations and which the majority laughed off, has come to pass. What it has told me is that the great majority, certainly in my close family – with the exception of one enlightened daughter – are oblivious to all but that which directly affects their daily life. It seemed clear to me that what, back then, was assailing a previously unknown Chinese city, would inevitably arrive here and in a short time.

I live under the trans Atlantic air corridor which daily demonstrates the magnitude of international travel. Indeed, I have stood in wonder and head-shaking concern in the various terminals at Heathrow on the few occasions when I too added to the air pollution, at the huge scale of the mass of humanity in transit. Today and for many days past and many yet to come, the skies are clear and quiet. So it seemed, even back then, that we too would succumb to the ravages of this twenty first century Black death.

My difficulties arise not out of the ‘new’ lock-down restrictions, for solitude and self reliance is my stock-in-trade. Goodness, it’s nothing for me to go days without speaking to a soul. In one sense that appears to be some comfort to my family and friends as they don’t seem at all concerned. I am thankful that I do not have to answer to daily telephone enquiries as to my health and well being. I am quite enjoying not having to go to the supermarket and be confronted with all the decisions that usually assault my senses. As long as my stock of half coated chocolate digestive, porridge and full fat milk lasts I’ll endure.

No, my difficulties, such as they are, come from not being able to call for assistance in moving something heavy – like a large Crossley stationary engine I recently acquired. The closure of my local builder’s merchants is something of a problem as I really wanted to use this time to do some interior painting and possibly some mortar work on an old walled garden. Alas I’m limited to doing some dry stone walling and some restoration of some of my artefacts (written about in my other blog http://www.farmhistory.uk ).

One I made earlier..

I revisited an old friend a week or so before things began to close down and was reminded of all the walls I had built for him over more than twenty years. Actually what HE reminded me was how much of his hard earned money had come my way! Our association pre-dates my walling career but when he bought a very old house (a one-time Inn) and some rather lovely late eighteenth century farm buildings he set about creating his ideal landscape.

He lives in the limestone area just south of Llandeilo and much of the work involved trying to create silk purses out of sow’s ears. However, he bought an old barn from down Pontarddulais way and that was in the coal field and hence was built with the local Pennant sandstone. Now compared with the usual great blocks of limestone that is a medium which demands attention to detail and requires a perfect finish. Because he felt such stone was too easy for me (and hence really ought to warrant a cheaper rate per metre) he decided to put a curve into the design. That of course takes away the ability to use a line and it becomes a matter of eye, notwithstanding the foundation can be laid out using a length of alkathene water pipe !

18th century Deer Park Wall

Another jaunt I made during the lovely spell of sunny weather at the end of March was to one of the first wall repairs I did back in the early 1990s. It was grant aided under the very first farm stewardship scheme in Wales, Tir Cymen, and was undoubtedly one of the least financially viable walls I undertook

It had been built in the early 1700s as a boundary wall for the Deer Park of the nearby Abermarlais estate, one time home of the Lord Rhys of Dinefwr. Originally at around 1.8 metres in height and coped with large limestone blocks brought in from about ten miles away, it stood in a sorry dilapidated state and all the cope stones had been taken away. I found the farmstead whence they had gone but won’t mention its name. Besides it was many years previously. So I was left with around thirty courses of very small stones of Ordovician shale which had a tendency to shatter into even smaller shards if handled roughly. I had nothing with which to finish the top of the wall and as ‘all creatures great and small’ were accommodated on the land, sheep of course, crazy wild beef cattle and a whole herd of mountain ponies for which the farmer was held in high regard, I felt sure the repair would not last too long.

I was therefore very pleasantly surprised to find that apart from a cheek end – which had been built so that a gate might be inserted but never was – where some collapse had occurred due to rear-end rubbing, all was well.

Even the ‘lunky’ had survived

Now the problem with a wall built of such small stone is twofold. Firstly it doesn’t have a great deal of inherent strength as it is difficult to get sufficient ‘deep penetration’ of stones into the heart of the wall. Secondly, it is impossible to build sufficient quantity in a day to warrant getting out of bed. As an example let me say that back then the grant was £18 per square metre. Now a proficient waller, and indeed the DSWA Craftsman Certification test requires it, should get up around 4 square metres a day (that is measured length x height on one face) thus earning, in 1993,the vast sum of £72 ! At the same time I was working on this wall I was tasked with another Deer Park wall on the nearby Taliaris estate. That wall was still at 1.8 metres high but was, in part, built using large blocks of quartzite conglomerate. It had only eight courses !

In general a large stone can be put on a wall in the same amount of time it takes to put a small one, in fact, often more quickly. So building only eight courses is rather quicker – a quarter even ! – than building thirty two courses. Thus, whereas at Abermarlais I was lucky to do a metre or two, at Taliaris I could get up five or six metres but boy oh boy did I sleep well. (in limestone there is generally around 8 courses to 1.2 metres high, the normal stock proof height, in sandstone around 10 – 12 courses). So a good day at Abermarlais did not make me much money !

I tend to say that the majority of my work has been undertaken on mountain walls, the majority in the hills south of the Tywi valley between Llandovery and Llandeilo. When I look back I realise that the deer park walls of the great estates that once abounded in or close to the main valley, such as Edwinsford (and the wall around the Dinas mentioned in several earlier posts), Golden Grove and the two mentioned herein, have also been a significant element.

With the coming of Spring and the warming weather I’ll have to get out and finish some wall rebuilding I started way back when …. When the world was only worried about wild fires, drought and floods, the odd war and, oh yes, didn’t we leave the European Union ?

Stay in and stay safe dear people. I don’t want to lose ANY of yous !!

20 years, 20 years, 20 years onward.

13/12/2019
Millenium Tower

It is quite astonishing to me that we are approaching twenty years since that great New Year’s Eve. Can you believe it is that long ago !? At this time back then we were all wondering what exactly the ‘Millenium Bug’ had in store for us. I was rather more interested in getting my various ‘millarium’ memorials finished and one in particular was causing me some head scratching.

High on a ridge above the Towy valley, a place shown on the map as Carn Powell , I was working my way along a 450 metre long wall that was a total rebuild which is to say it was a complete take-down and put up. In fact I had employed my local neighbourhood JCB to pull down what was left of the old boundary, right down to removing the foundation stones as well. At that time the old wall was in a very dilapidated state but stock-proofing was maintained by a wire-fence which had been erected on the field side, the other side was a forestry plantation. At that time the timber-fellers were in the wood and a monster of a machine was grabbing, cutting, stripping and slicing the Norway Spruce. To begin with I couldn’t actually see, only hear the progress of the clearance.

I had been thinking about what I could do to mark the passing of the old millenium and the beginning of a whole new thousand years. The landscape in which I was working had already seen three of these significant events since mankind had been influencing its shape and form. A couple of hundred metres below me, to the north, were several hut circles of the Bronze Age, to the south on the next sky-line, stood three sets of three cairns which marked the sacred burial places of those folk. Further down the slope on the northern side lies the great Iron Age hillfort of Garn Goch the largest such structure in South Wales. To my east, lower down the slope than the fort, lies a known Roman farmstead, Llys Brychan. A little way to the side of the hillfort on the eastern flank are field systems associated with an Early Medieval estate and the whole panorama culminates in the west with the dramatic outline of the stunning castle of Carreg Cennen. What better place to make a monument to mark the passing of yet another millenium!

The walling job was funded under the then pilot Farming Conservation programme called Tir Cymen (loosely translated to ‘looking after the land’) which the European Union, under it’s CAP regime, had agreed to. It was an attempt to move away from ‘headage’ payments – paying pastoral farmers according to the number of stock they kept (or, in the case of arable farmers, by how much they produced, or in the case of dairy, how much milk and, for the grape growers/wine producers, how many thousands of litres – remember the ‘mountains’ !?) to rewarding, (and punishing if found to be in default) for caring for the land they farmed. In other words it was an attempt to ‘green-up’ farming.

I had been fortunate to find myself in one of the pilot areas, the old borough of Dinefwr, in the then county of Dyfed in the west of Wales. Not only was I fortunate enough to live in the borough but by some Divine intervention – worthy of a whole post on its own ! – I was in an area where, within five or so miles of home, were sufficient walls to keep me going for ten years and more (the pilot project was an initial ten year scheme but was successful enough to persuade Europe to fund an All Wales programme, Tir Gofal, for another fifteen or so). In fact I got the contracts with five farms which gave me about fourteen months work each year for ten years. An excellent basis for a business plan wouldn’t you say !

However, as there are only twelve months in a year and as at least two of those will be lost to bad weather, the sort that even I baulked at working in, inevitably I was always behind. The idea was that a farmer entered a binding agreement whereby in order to get his dosh, he agreed in each year to do certain works. As the scheme ran in line with the ‘Financial year’, ending on March 31st (but all works had to be completed, signed off and claimed by about the 14th of March in any given year), inevitably also, much work was done at exactly the wrong time. For instance, hedgerow renovation; hedges needed to be coppiced and/or laid between end of October and end of February, then they had to be fenced of on each side to stop stock getting at and eating the new regrowth. But nobody amongst the planners seemed to have realised that upland Wales gets very wet during the winter and getting onto the land to carry out such tasks is almost impossible – or at least without severely damaging the ground. If a section of hedge, or in my case wall, was not completed the money for it was forfeited and the farmer also got a financial penalty. Thus it was always a race to keep up to speed to ensure a section or an amount that was due to be completed in any given financial year was completed. I know of many instances where that was not done especially where hedging and fencing was concerned. Fortunately I managed, throughout the ten year period, to always get the walling done. But I should also mention that I was fortunate to not have been curtailed by the foot and mouth disaster of 2001.

I decided to try to build a tower which would be visible from both the valley and from the hill behind (to the south). I chose a spot that was the highest on the gently curving ridge which, conveniently, was also the place I had managed to reach by about the middle of August in 1999. As there was not a huge surplus of stone, I had to build the tower using whatever ‘rubbishy’ material I had left over, luckily I was being brought a surfeit of ‘hearting’ – the filling of the wall – from a nearby small quarry which the farmer had opened up (and which he later received a rather hefty penalty for so doing!) which was just as well as the tower was five feet diameter at the base, to outside. Given that I was building with stone which was no more than 12″-15″ in depth it meant there was a rather large hole in the middle of the circle. It is of course, no use just tipping the hearting into a wall, it needs to be carefully packed into every nook and cranny or else it settles over time and leaves the upper portions of the wall, the two faces, unsupported and down it comes. Indeed that was the very reason that the wall had collapsed. It had been erected in 1812 by a large ‘army’ or gang of builders, not particularly skilled nor particularly well paid. They built using a method called ‘trace walling’ which is to say instead of the length of a stone penetrating into the wall they would build as with bricks or blocks with the long face of the stone facing outwards. That meant there was little depth to the face stones and it also resulted in the middle of the wall, the heart, being over half the width of the wall. To further damn the construction the hearting stones were literally bucketed in loosely, not at all packed in, around and under the face stones as required. Indeed it appears that the faces were being built at a far quicker rate than the hearting was being added thus there was no cohesion across the two faces and the middle. Over time, as I said, the hearting rattled down and left the upper third or more unsupported. Throw a snow drift against it for a few months each winter for a dozen or so years and movement is guaranteed.

Each Friday afternoon I allowed myself the time to build the tower. It was constructed as part of the wall which is to say that on each side I had to blend the wall into the tower. This had the effect of giving the base some extra buttressing but also added to my technical issues in that I had to place headers and stretchers at each course, on both sides of the wall and both sides of the tower. Having only left-over stone meant it was difficult to get a good coursed build and the result was very ‘rough’ to the eye.

The tower was a commemoration and thus I thought it would be appropriate to put a time capsule within the centre. I have often wished I could find an artefact in an old wall that gave some inkling as to who had built it and when, although the when is generally easily discerned with a little historical research and analysis. As a matter of course I leave a stamped lead scroll in a wall I have rebuilt – not small repairs but whole-scale restoration which means all the wall is my work. The script gives the date of the rebuild and states the months it took (the scroll is usually inserted during the last week of work), the name of the farmer and my name, the cost and the name of the scheme which funded it if that is appropriate and in the majority of my work it is.

For my time capsule I used an old thermos flask into which I placed some coinage, some photographic negatives, a credit card and some velcro. In addition I wrapped an old mobile phone, minus its battery, in lead having written some text messages into it. Who knows if it will ever be found or be able to be deciphered. I also left a cassette tape with my voice on it describing who I was and the re-build, again wrapped in a lead cover.

I know when the wall was originally built, the enclosure act asserting permission for it was given Parliamentary approval in 1812. So the wall had stood for a hundred years or so before dilapidation had set in – probably, as with the hedges and woodlands I talked about in my last post, once there were no labourers on the farms to carry out repairs, after the Great War. Given the poor build quality of the original wall I would like to think my work will stand the test of time for several centuries longer. It is an idle thought to sit and consider who, if anyone, will be next to rebuild it. Will there be any hill farmers in two hundred years, will the countryside still be set with fields enclosed with walls and hedges, what if any will be the stock that wanders hereabouts…

25 year old gate, 200 year old wall.

Eastwards along the ridge the wall runs as a divide between the northern slope and the southern. It is a coaxial system of field boundaries all laid out in that 1812 enclosure of what had hitherto been the ffriddoed of the opposing townships or, more latterly, the estates which by the close of the seventeenth century, owned the open commons. Apart from one or two fields, most have retained the ecology of the ffridd, sedges, agrostis, rush and mollinea. Where the plough has been used the ley is a fairly standard mix of short sward grasses with very little in the way of ‘wild’ herbs or flowers.

I have worked on over half of the farms whose land comes up, from both slopes, to meet the ridge-way wall. But one farm I had not worked on, despite having been a team mate of the farmer back in our rugby playing days, was in fact the one I had always wanted to work on. Not because the walls were of any particular interest – they followed the same typology or build style, as the rest of the walls on Trichrug – but so as to have an opportunity of exploring some interesting pre-historic remains. In addition, I knew the view from up on those high fields must be quite spectacular and it was.

My opportunity arose because a couple of collapses had occurred on one of the walls which ran down the slop from the ridge. A t the top of the wall stood, or more accurately leaned, one of the old wooden gates which had been installed back in 1993 as part of the Tir Cymen farm environmental scheme. It was one of the more fanciful ideas of ‘re-traditionalising’ the countryside. I was actually at the committee meeting where it was proposed “Wouldn’t it be nice if the gates could be wooden”. I haven’t put a question mark at the end of that statement as it was not actually proffered as a question. It was a statement of intent by the then head of Coed Cymru, a body charged with bringing back into care the native Welsh woodland stock. Of course his idea was that the gates would be made of local oak, a very sound suggestion which not only would have ensured longevity for the gates and gate-posts but also given a reason to re-start management of local sessile oak woods.

It was only half adopted; it was felt that even if local gate makers could be found who would be willing to use local oak – even if that could be sourced – the cost would be prohibitive. Thus we came to see soft-wood gates installed all through the area, even high up on enclosed hills where the sodden peat and high rainfall would ensure they wooden (excuse the pun) survive. Come the end of the ten year agreements when farmers got inspected to ensure they had complied and that all the capital works they had agreed to undertake were complete and in good order, ahem, most gates were in disrepair and most hanging posts had rotted off, as in the picture above. Such was the fear of a heavy fine that a local supplier’rented’ out new gates to farmers just for the inspection after which they were returned to his yard. It was one of the more silly aspects of the drive toward a ‘traditional landscape’. To compound the felony the scheme categorically refused to fund wooden gates for the farm yard or drive-ways and lanes leading to farms. That was rescinded in the All Wales scheme which followed the pilot Tir Cymen scheme. So, high up on remote hills or in fields which were out of sight to all but the farmer and the sheep, where the weather was so foul that farmsteads had NOT been built, indeed there were no hedges, only walls, because it was realised that trees would not survive, there were lovely, expensive new wooden soft wood gates.

At least on these high fields the farmer has retained the classical 2 x 1 dimension of 8 feet long and 4 feet high (my art teacher did explain to me once that this formula is the most pleasing to the human eye – look at the original land rover !) which is exactly the correct proportion, alas so many of the gates that were installed were 10 feet or even 12 feet long and the aesthetic was totally ruined. So too was the ability of the gate to hang straight and level, it was just too heavy for the soft-wood mortice and tenon joints and simple five-bar design. Within a year or so these longer gates were dragging on the ground and the hanging posts soon gave way. But this one at least has a certain photogenic quality, don’t you think ?

So it was that back in late May, as can be seen by the blossom, I finally got to visit the ‘secret’ fields I had seen from afar.

An old stile which frames the far skyline of Trichrug in the western Brecon Beacons NP

The two gaps were about four metres in length, one just a straight-forward wall the other had an old ‘lunky’ which allowed the sheep to pass through the wall. The stile is about three metres along so as to allow the shepherd to climb over the wall. It is likely that the gate was not an original feature as access to these fields was generally from a track which ran with the contour at the bottom of the fields. The gate was right at the top although there was a definite suggestion of an ancient trackway which pre-dated the enclosure of the hill and it may well be that the ‘right-of-way needed to be preserved and hence a gateway was included.

On an extremely hot May Bank Holiday I went up and began stripping out the collapses. That is always the most tiresome task but almost always provides a small discovery, if only “why the wall fell down”! But the higher of the collapses, in a very short time of stripping away fallen stones, revealed the old opening and even thought it was not required as a tool of management any longer, I always respect the archaeology and such features are an important feature to be retained.

Hidden in this collapse was the lunky

The photograph gives an idea how the walls run down the slope, at right-angles to the ridge-way wall thus giving what is known as a co-axial field system.





I started with the lower of the two gaps and completed it in just over a day, a rather short day hence it carried over. The lunky is always an interesting construction and I enjoy turning a pile of stones into an interesting feature. It is basically the same building technique as for a wall end (cheek-end) only at a certain height a lintel is placed across the gap to support the wall built on top. I raised the height a little from its original as today’s sheep are somewhat larger than those that wandered these hills two hundred years ago. Also, as the collapsed wall had become a thoroughfare for the flock they would certainly be using the lunky unofficially (as it was I was asked to block it off with some old concrete blocks and the original ‘shut-stone’ which stood nearby).




Rebuilt lunky to accommodate the slightly larger lady

Having completed the repairs I allowed myself a little free time to wander the adjacent land and examine the prehistoric remains. Several remnants of what were probably burial cairns the stone from which had long since been robbed-out lay nearby and some un-discovered cists drew my attention.

The circle can be discerned in the top photo. This is less clear but is both the ‘natural’ strata and a cist – a stone burial ‘box’ where the bones were placed after the flesh had gone.

I was glad to be able to help-out my old team-mate, glad to have got to see his wonderful farm and fascinating relic field systems and monuments. I was even more glad that his young sheepdog which I ran over on my way-up to the hill one morning seems to have recovered with no ill effects, in fact the farmer graciously eased my concern by stating that he wouldn’t have to worry about the dog getting under the wheels of his own vehicles now that it had had that lesson …

I’ve put the tools away,the goretex is at hand in case I want to venture out but that is less and less an attractive proposition these days. Instead I am working hard at getting my collection of farming bygones prepared for what I hope will finally be the opening of my little museum in the spring.

If you feel so inclined have a look at the founding posts of my other blog at:

http://www.farmhistory.uk

Best wishes to everybody, have a great festive break, we are ALL going to need to face the New Year, the New Decade even, with eyes wide shut …

Two Dozen Moons hath passed…

27/11/2019

“Where have you been my blue eyed son?” I’ve been on the side of twelve misty mountains…

The past two years have seen me ‘go to ground’ in terms of this ‘ere’ interweb. Times and friends changed, I’ve lost more of them than I can remember, especially the old folk who made up much of my network. Black frock coat has replaced grubby old goretex and worn out boots have changed to well polished brogues as my social life seems to consist of one funeral after another.

Walls have faded somewhat as I have been doing less and less, the hammer has passed to the next generation and I’m fortunate to have an excellent ‘young ‘un’ to pass work on to. I am still doing the odd repair for old customers, why just this past week I’ve been putting back a small section of wall that had fallen in the recent torrential rainfall that we have experienced hereabouts. The old sheepfold is used by fewer and fewer farms but for those who need it to manage their hill flocks a gap in one of the boundary walls can be a real problem.

I first encountered Cwmllwyd fold back in 1996 when, as part of an upland regeneration scheme, the Brecon Beacons National Park got a bunch of money – I guess from that European organisation we once belonged to … – which they used to attempt some innovative economic and social development in an area of the western park called The Black Mountain (not to be confused with the eastern massif which is the Black MountainS ). As an assist to local farmers, grants were made available to restore a number of sheepfolds which had fallen into disrepair but which were much missed by those farms who still turned flocks to the hill.

My first encounter was an elongated affair, after all, it entailed a total rebuild of the old fold. What had once been the manorial fold for twelve farms was, by that time, used by four farms, the others having long since ceased to exist. A fold (there are several Welsh terms for a sheepfold depending on which part of Wales one is in, ffald is common hereabouts; loc down south and corllan occurs further north) is fundamental to the management of hill flocks. An archaeological input had caused some issues and put me (not for the first nor the last time) in an awkward position. The heritage of the fold was important as was some of its architectural features. A fold is basically a large stone built pen with a surrounding wall, a way in leading to a central gathering area from which ‘lunkies’ (small sheep-size doors) lead into small pens built to a size to exactly hold the number of sheep the farm to which the pen was allocated were allowed to put out onto the common, the mynydd. The pens were closed off by a large slab of stone (in this case micaceous sandstone from the nearby ’tile-stone’ belt) into which was carved the flock-mark of that particular farm.

On the agreed day for gathering – dates were set by the Court Leet, usually some time in May for putting out and October to clear the hill, with other gatherings for shearing, dipping, separating lambs etc. – all the farms would send out their men and dogs. Many men, often on horseback, moved to the farthest point of their particular section of the mountain. Sheepwalks are set areas on a given mountain to which only particular farms can send their flocks – usually governed by land ownership, the large estates or manors – and these farms drive their flocks to particular folds. There is an understanding abroad amongst townsfolk that sheep always stay within their given area, their ‘heft’ as the English call it, sheep are ‘hefted’ to a section of the hill. The Welsh equivalent is often called the arosfa but accurately should be the rhestfa. The former refers to the area over which the sheep roam whereas the latter refers to the place to which they are driven at night and watched over by the shepherd – ‘”while Shepherds watch their flocks by night …”

Today, of course, there are no shepherds and sheep are left alone for weeks on end except perhaps for the odd drive-by observation by the farmer on his quad bike, not his quadruped mount. As a result some sheep go on walkabout and are often gathered up in folds many miles away. The large expanse of the Black Mountain, an area some twelve miles long and six miles wide, has over half a dozen ‘Graziers Associations’ each responsible for a particular section of the hill. Each association gathers the flocks off its area and drives them to whichever fold they use.

Once all the sheep are rounded up and driven into the main pen the sorting starts. Each farm’s sheep have their own flock mark, usually two letters which often relate to the name of the early farmer. The sheep are man-handled into the small pen allocated for that farm. When all are sorted the time comes to drive them home to the farm. Today that often means loading into a stock-trailer but there are still farms hereabouts who walk their sheep home. Of course the tourists enjoy the spectacle but it’s no fun coming upon a flock just leaving the hill and knowing how far they are going!

There were originally fourteen pens but only four farms were using the fold and of course, they had far more sheep than the farm had when the fold was first built. In this case that was back at the time of the Civil War and individual farms had half a dozen to a dozen breeding ewes. In upland Wales sheep were not the mainstay of pastoral farming, it was beef, the Welsh Black of drovers fame. The famous wool trade of the English wolds hardly touched Wales, the Flemish weavers of Pembrokeshire and the stocking makers of Montgomery stood proud amongst the thousands of beef cattle. The original pens were both redundant and unsuitable but the archaeologists wanted the history preserved by having the fold rebuilt as it originally had been. The farmers were adamant that would render the fold useless to them, impasse! In the end, having begun to rebuild each individual pen, I settled on just setting the foundations to mark the outline of the original pens.

Anyway, that was all of 23 years ago and apart from one small collapse a few years ago, the fold has worked well and the walls have withstood the ravages of time and sheep. A visit with an old customer to enquire as to his health and ‘chew the fat’ (as grandmother used to say) resulted in me being asked to go to Cwmllwyd fold and repair a small collapse, oh yes, and replace one of the oak gate posts that now separate the internal pens.

Cwmllwyd sheepfold at the northern edge of the Carmarthenshire Black Mountain near Gwynfe

One of the lasting memories of working on the fold was the shocking weight of the stones. Most of them were selected as being suitable for setting into lime-mortar which was how the fold had originally been constructed. When I did the reconstruction I used limestone dust and a modern portland cement which was hidden so as to give the appearance of a dry stone build method. Yep, a bit of cheating but with agreement from the funders and the farmers – not the archaeologists of course ! He who pays the Piper picks the tune and in this case the cheques were signed by the Brecon Beacons National Park !

The local geology is fairly erratic and large rounded boulders the size of a corgi dog were the most common and as they were mainly basalt grit or silica, they were a substantial weight. Imagine then, how much heavier they feel to me today ! Fortunately the collapse was small and was in the retaining wall at the top end of the fold (on which I stood to take the photo), the fold having been cut down into the slope. Nevertheless much grunting occurred and much care taken to avoid crushed digits or nasty slips on a somewhat sodden underfoot.

As for the old gate-post which I had also been asked to replace, my fears were unfounded. I well remember that the man who did the gates and wooden fences within the fold had been using 8 inch square oak posts (another requirement of the heritage aspect) from which to hang and fasten the gates. I also well remembered that digging the 2 foot deep holes into which the posts were placed was done using a pneumatic hammer as the fold is directly onto the rock sub-strata. To make the task even more daunting I knew that he had set each post into a strong concrete mix. Now I was not a fencer and therefore I was not in a position to question his method but I do distinctly recall being somewhat puzzled by that technique; “How” I wondered, “was it ever going to be possible to renew those posts AND didn’t the concrete cup in which the post was consequently cocooned, inevitably trap water and hence the below ground section was permanently saturated?”

Notwithstanding the oak posts have survived for over twenty years (but could be reasonable expected to have lasted many, many more decades), sure enough the one that has broken off at ground level has indeed suffered from exactly my prognosis, total water-logging and rot. However, whilst the concrete cup in which the post sat was causal to its demise it did at least make the removal of the below ground section quite easy (I had dreaded the thought of having to extract the old base from its concrete tomb) for all that was left was a sawdust porridge with one small tooth-root in the centre. Once I had scooped the sludge out, the root (which was, in essence, a remnant of the heart-wood, about 6 inches high and maybe 3 inches across) came out easily. I was left with a nice square two foot deep socket into which a new post could easily be slipped, once that is I made some holes in the bottom plate so as to drain away the water.

All in all it was a couple of hours work to do both wall and post hole; I was rather hoping someone else would fit the new post and re-hang the rather heavy oak gate, but we’ll see. Given that it was the first bit of physical work I had done in a while, I quite enjoyed my return to the old Cwmllwyd fold. Back in that long winter of 1996 it seemed an interminable task to rebuild it all but it had its compensations not least of which were the local farmers I got to know. Many of them have continued to be customers or casual ‘have-a-chats’ as we pass on the road or bump into each other along the way.

One such is a man who originally hails from the Derbyshire Peaks but has been farming in the area for decades now. He and his son still use the fold and so I called with him with a view to asking if they would undertake to put a new post in. I got to the old farm around 3pm, a good time to have a chance of finding someone at home in these upland farms – lunch often doesn’t get eaten until mid afternoon. Sure enough there he was, sitting in the corner, alone in the house but the three-legged guard dog, the softest old collie you could meet whose leg had to be amputated after she mis-judged a fence jump, sat expectantly outside the door, guarding his wellies.

He waved me in and we immediately reconvened a meeting or conversation we had begun some three years ago, yes, that’s about when I last saw him. We caught up on what, where, who, when, how, what-if, what about and so on. We spent a short time considering the dim post-brexit future, agreeing we were glad to be at this stage of our lives – both in the ‘Departure lounge’. Darkness came and the wife and son wandered in. We had a further chat about the Roman roads – he had only recently walked one of the most significant in the area – and a little about the Derbyshire Peak district and what I knew about the Cistercian Grange of Royston.

We then adjourned to his massive shed in which he had an array of interesting items not least of which was an elegant, immaculate 1930s American Ford which I never knew he had but which he and his wife spend many happy summer days ‘poodling’ around the whole of the UK in. I always enjoy being shown an eclectic assortment of iron and wooden farm implements but he also had a fairly unusual collection which absolutely sets him high on the ‘sad nerd’ list, yes, even above yours truly !

There, on a steel cross-beam in the enormous shed, was his pride and joy; a significant ‘wall’ of bricks, about 4 metres long and perhaps two metres high. Each had a different brickyard name facing outwards, some local some from very far away, reds and yellows browns and blacks. He, like me, only in my case it’s stones that I bring home from journeys far, brings home bricks from wherever he travels. As it happens I have a couple of bricks which he certainly doesn’t have, I intend taking one up to him as a Christmas gift and a thank-you for sharing some hours with me, oh yes, and agreeing to put a new gate-post in at Cwmllwyd Fold.

A stripped out wall at Cwmllwyd
Great blocks of stone with enormous copes is what this section was built with.

Cwmllwyd Fold

The wall in winter;s bleak and cold, The stone so brittle, the line so bold. Staggering upwards through the mist, Although with age it’s formed a list. In fact it’s fallen here and there Driving the farmer to despair Of ever getting it sound again. That’s why he always asks me “When?” I can come and get it stock-proof again. I say “I’ll come before I’ old, But I’ve still to finish Cwmllwyd Fold.

Despite being ‘retired’ I feel obliged to help an old customer or neighbour if I can and thus I have undertaken to rebuild a very ancient boundary wall of an old homestead. It belongs to the man who removed all the muck from Cwmllwyd Fold when that first major rebuild was done twenty three years ago. He also happens to be the neighbour of the farm wherein all my collection is housed and is a good old soul whom I’m happy to help. After all, he grows oats and harvests them with a vintage combine, he grows organic potatoes and supplies me with sufficient for the winter. What’s more he and his daughters weed the rows of potatoes with hoes, no machinery or herbicides for him. He does employ a vintage potato spinner to throw the spuds from the beds in order that the ‘girls’ can pick them and put them into crates, old wooden ones of course.

For naught but sentimental reasons, he has decided to do some ‘tidying-up’ of the landscape around his holding. In a small valley out of sight of the main drove-ways through his fields (which includes a section of the long-distance Beacons Way near Carreg Cennen castle) is a ruined homestead. Even my fairly extensive local wanderings had never revealed its existence.

Lan fach an old homestead in the historic demesne of Carreg Cennen castle. The middle section is an old building wall and the right wall is a barn wall.

The walls had been invaded by various trees, mainly ash, hawthorn and hazel to the extent that their roots have caused demolition. I counted the rings on one of the cut-off hazels and it showed a tree of around 80 years old. Now that is of no surprise really for it denotes a time when general maintenance of field boundaries and the upkeep of old buildings ceased. Much abandonment of old hedges, walls and buildings resulted from both the depression of agriculture prior to the Great War and the non-return of agricultural labourers and country craftsmen after the war. The countryside battled on trying to deal with the lack of manpower in the 1920s and 1930s. Census records for the farms close-by show that at the 1901 and 1911 census farm labourers and ‘maids’ averaged five per farm. In some instances, humans, family and servants, out-numbered stock ! By the 1921 census non of the farms had more than one labourer, most had none, some still had a few maids.

By the time that conscription began for the Second World War farming was already short of labour and farmers became an exempt category as they were ‘essential’ to the war effort. Never-the-less where more than one son was present the others had to serve and so too did male labourers. Farming efforts were only sustained, as in the Great War, by the creation of the ‘Women’s Land Army’

So, here am I some eighty years on from the disappearance of traditional labourers and their care of the countryside, dealing with dereliction caused by trees which they would not have allowed to take root in walls. That apart, there is a new assault on the field boundaries that is even more startling than the reconstruction I have to perform.

Shows how trees have demolished a wall.
The wall shows how the tree roots cause dereliction. In this case it was a hawthorn which when cut away revealed an age of around 80 years. But note the large Ash tree.

At the end of the section I have to restore stood a large ash tree (tree ring count shows 185 years); it was not in or of the wall thus it suggests it was present when the wall was constructed. The wall is one side of an old pen that abutts the farmyard and probably denotes a modification to the old farm buildings and lay-out. It is an interesting piece of historic landscape analysis. However, the great old ash with a diameter of just over a metre (DBH at 0.80mtr) was showing some signs earlier in the year that all was not well with it. Leaves were curling and dying off early and the total leaf cover was drastically reduced to what it should have been for a such a grand old specimen.

I had been noting for a few years the onset of Ash die-back in the area and had brought my highly knowledgeable botanist friend Ray, to examine some of them. It was likely that this grand old master (the tree not Ray!) was indeed infected. The farmer turned out to be far more aware of the issue than I was expecting and he suggested that it would be best to put the old girl out of her misery. So down she came.

The old ash tree is gone and it opens up the surrounding area for new saplings to get going and the wall to stand free of the threat.

To our astonishment it was clear just how infected the tree actually was. It would have been only a few years until the weakening effect of the rot brought the massive tree crashing down, probably in a winter storm and probably onto the wall. It has been a salutary lesson to all of us; the local County Council have been touring the county marking diseased trees with bright orange tape or paint blazes – it seems to me they are literally marking every ash the come across. Many of them had only a small suggestion of infection and would have taken a few years to die off. Having seen just how badly the heart of this ash tree was affected, I am happy to defend the council’s decision that they all have to be felled. But who is going to foot the bill AND what is the ecological effect going to be. I cannot imagine the countryside without ash trees. They are such an important aspect of the landscape but thankfully they are not the source of our wheels and carriages any longer. Imagine if this had happened a hundred years ago, what an even bigger disaster would have befallen us all.

Showing how Ash die-back has infected the heart of an ash tree
The infection has eaten its way down into the roots of this grand old tree.



Every branch was heavily infected and the rot had travelled down the trunk into the root system. As the pictures show, it had taken over the very heart of the tree.

Now all the trees have been removed off the wall I can get on with completing the restoration. I would like to get that particular section done before Christmas but I shall be back in the New Year, he has yet more he wants to get “tidied up”!

Well I think that’s probably enough for this re-entry. Maybe I’ll get another post out before the end of the year.

“For naught so vile that on the earth doth live.

22/11/2017

“But to the earth some special good doth give.”  (WS:  R&J )

‘Vile’ has been a prominent word in my head of late and I hope and trust ‘some special good’ to earth I have given.  Not through any direct action you understand, no, but by the imparting of knowledge and skill to others (hopefully).

IMG_0867

The ‘Vile’and Worm’s Head at the tip of Gower

At the very tip of the Gower peninsula in south Wales is an area of a relict medieval strip field system.  In truth it is probably one of the best preserved of its type in Britain.  The open fields which contained the old strips, once worked by the enslaved peasantry of both early medieval Welsh Lords and later Norman Lords, are encircled by a boundary dry stone wall.  Sadly this has been much altered from its original state and years of repair by various skilled and unskilled workers has left a mishmash of walling typology.

Originally the large open fields within the boundary were divided by low earth banks and in each field dozens of individual strips were worked.  The debate amongst historians and archaeologists as to how old the system really is will never be fully resolved.  Some years ago whilst engaged on a study of wall typology as a means of dating the build period, I did a study of the inner strip system.  It occurred to me that an easy way of settling the issue – Welsh early medieval or Norman –  was to ascertain the sizes of the strips.  Strip field systems were an integral part of Welsh land tenure in the post-Roman period when the strips were called ‘rhandir’ .  It seemed to me that if measurements of the strips was undertaken then a clearer sense of when they were laid out could be achieved.  In essence the Welsh ‘erw’ or acre was about a quarter smaller than the Norman acre.  This was all to do with the basis of Welsh measurements which was linked to the ‘Rod’ of Hywel (Hywel Dda) which measured at 9 inches to the foot as against the standard 12 inches in the Norman standard.  Simple, yes ?  So, together with some fellow students we set about measuring the size of the relict strips … ‘Erw’ they were !

Why is this particularly relevant in November 2017 ?  Well it so happens that I have ended up doing some instruction in dry stone walling to a group of folk under the auspices of the Gower Partnership and with the kind permission of the National Trust who now bears the responsibility for this ancient, important landscape.  Now some of you may recall reading in an earlier post (3/9/17 Big Wheel keeps on burning) that myself and the Training provider  whom I work with and for – Simply the Best Training Company in Tonyrefail – came to the conclusion that the proffered site for the original courses was not a suitable venue and we thus declined the opportunity to put forward a bid.  Following some discussion and a site meeting with the chief ranger of the National Trust a much safer site was found and the Vile was it.

Actually the wall chosen for repair is not strictly a part of the original strip fields but it does sit within what is now regarded as the medieval system.  Certainly the walls and stone-faced banks that partition the small and larger fields have some age to them.  However, given the height of the particular wall which we were asked to use for the training, which rather suggests it formed a sheep barrier, it may only be a couple of centuries old.  On the other hand, given the exposed nature of the  site which faces the worst of the westerly gales that assault the Welsh coast, it could well be that the extra height was a means of giving some protection to the crops being grown within.  Similar high banks and walls exist all around the western coastline of Britain and indeed France.

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A surprisingly fine morning in mid November emphasises the glory of Rhossili beach on Gower

And so it was that on a rather misty November morning a group of enthusiastic volunteers assembled in the car-park at Rhossili.  The beach was empty of the usual surfers although the car-park, even at 9 a.m., was busy with walkers getting their togs on ready to walk off on one of the many coastal routes.  Our wall was someway toward the centre of the land spur but nevertheless afforded some beautiful views out over the Bristol channel and Devon beyond. To the west the whole of Carmarthen bay lay before us with the glistening sands of Pembrey and Pendine easy to spot as was the island of Caldy with its white light-house and monastic settlement.

The scenery just about compensated me for the pain endured in leaving home at 6.30 a.m. (hell, it’s still dark at that time !) and battling the early morning traffic of the M4, Llanelli and western Swansea.  Then the Gower lanes, for lanes they are, presented a kind of Russian roulette dodge to get to the next lay-by before the school bus filled the road and took off my mirrors.  How anyone drives a big bus there is beyond me nor would I want to live in a tourist area.  Even in late autumn the roads were full of visitors clearly unused to driving on roads that had neither pavements nor white lines marking the middle !  The journey was exactly fifty miles from my home, the two outward trips and the two homeward trips for the two days of the course were never achieved in under two hours, homeward was usually two and a half hours !  You do the maths; how folk do that day in, day out, is totally beyond me.   I get road rage when a ponderous tractor engaged in trashing the roadside hedges delays me, for thirty seconds or so !  I’m sure I read somewhere that road rage is an early indicator of dementia on its way …

My merry band of would-be Wallers were National Trust volunteers, a few farmers and land-based contractors.  A few had done a little previous training but most were totally new to the joys of lifting tonnes of stone and trying to get it to fit into some semblance of a wall.

The geology of Gower is complex but is predominantly limestone.  It’s not ‘nice’ limestone – there is no such thing as ‘nice’ limestone – rather it is of the absolutely most difficult shapes and sizes AND it is heavy !  On arrival the stretch that was to be attended to had already been cleared of the black-thorn which grows on either side of the wall and makes the boundary appear to be just a hedgerow.  For all the world it looked as if a bomb had dropped on to it during the War.  A large dilapidated pile of small stones covered the fallen face stones and it required some effort and time to clear the debris and get to the original line of the wall.

We were very fortunate that over the two days we were there the weather held fair for us.  If nothing else that made my Risk Assessment slightly less onerous, a cliff top site on the western shoreline, in November, is not a good place to be when low pressure systems rush in off the Atlantic.

Two of the team were dispatched to attend to a small collapse a little further along the wall while the remaining ten busied themselves with rebuilding the large section.  It is usually the case that people struggle a little on the first day but when they arrive refreshed for the second day something always seems to have changed.  They suddenly ‘click’, the hand-eye co-ordination gets going and fewer stones get picked up and then discarded and before you know it a wall starts to emerge from the debris.  I was reminded of my group of Buddhists up in Brynmawr who told me how they reckoned building a wall was an excellent ‘mindfulness’ exercise.  The Gower group were almost as quiet in their diligence.  I had very little in the way of reinforcing the message on day two; one or two needed a little cajoling to always place the length of the stone into the wall, especially once stone left on the ground became quite small.  It is the only way to ensure the wall remains tight and upright. ‘Zippering’ (as my American assistant named it) was somewhat impossible as there were just not enough long stones.  To make the wall stronger than that which had fallen we reduced the width by about 30cms/12″, it was far too wide for there to be any contact between the two outer faces and there was no chance of finding any ‘through’ stones (stones which stretch through the length of a wall), they just do not occur in that geology.  Given all the obstacles to success, what the group managed to build was very satisfactory indeed.

The aim of a training course is not really to end up with a section of wall that can be regarded as good enough to stay in-situ, it’s more about getting the participants to gain the necessary knowledge and basic skill level to build a wall that will stay standing.  These fine folk managed to rebuild a section of wall that was equal if not better to what had been there beforehand and that was some achievement given the nature of the materials to hand.  Well done y’all !!

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Happy Gower Wallers with a happy Gower wall – not in the least bit Vile !

A repeat performance or two is planned for the coming weeks, on the same site and please, can we have the same weather !

Generally the autumn has been particularly wet and windy.  Indeed the whole of the second half of the year has been that way, it will be interesting to see the figures at the end of the year.  We already know it has been the warmest on record and by my estimate it will be one of the wettest, at least in the west of Britain, for elsewhere it has been particularly dry.  Those of us who work outdoors know all too well that the climate is definitely changing, and quickly.  I’m glad that my period of tenure of the walls of the Welsh hills is coming to an end, it will be difficult for anyone following on to be able to plan for any period of stability in the weather.  Working outdoors has always been a hard way to live, its no wonder few folk want to do it these days.  For people who spend their whole lives at the mercy of the weather, dry or wet, hot or cold, a payment has to be eventually made for all the well-being and enjoyment of being out in the fresh air and having (perhaps) a less stressful life, notwithstanding the financial rewards are less than can be achieved in industry or the city.  The creaking of joints and the pain of arthritis is sure to come along ultimately.  At least these days the clothing and healthy food can alleviate much of what the old agricultural workers had to endure.  I have only just begun to notice the effects of twenty seven winters outdoors and twenty seven summers of exposure to wind and sun.  Several rather horrid lesions have been removed from my exposed skin, several fingers ache and hurt, both knees creak and grumble at the slightest deviation upwards or downwards in a path well trod.  On the other hand I am many years older than my country ancestors would have lived to and I can jump (that is clearly an exaggeration !) into my nicely heated motor vehicle and head off home to a warm house and hot nutritious food and best of all, mince pie season is upon us !!

November has also been a month of crossing off long standing ‘speaking’ engagements.  It is a strange fact but no matter how much notice I have it is inevitable that I will be rushing to get my presentation together at the last minute.  Then there is the issue of modern technology; it used to be a worry that slides would appear the correct way on the screen, not inverted or back to front.  I always struggled knowing which way to insert a slide into the carousel, was it back to front and upside down or just upside down, or was it just back to front ?   I remember well giving a slide presentation of one of the ‘D-Day’ commemorations I attended in Normandy, all the restored American Second World War trucks had strangely been converted to right hand drive …ahem.  Then came CDs and memory sticks which are great but they still have to be loaded.  My photograph filing system is useless and then some.  I never seem to be able to find the one I need at the time I need it.  In a couple of instances whilst preparing this recent presentation I completely lost two photos and two videos.  They were there when I opened the ‘Pictures’ box in my menu but disappeared when I opened the file to make an insert into my power point programme.  Before anyone writes in, I know power point is now old hat but I’m only just getting it together, I am so pleased to be able to construct a presentation AND transfer it to a memory stick !!  As long as I then REMEMBER to take the MEMORY STICK with me…. Now fortunately most organisations I am asked to speak to have their own set up of lap-top and digital projector so all I need do is take the stick.  A few weeks ago I had to deliver an illustrated talk to the very esteemed gentlemen of the Llandovery Vintage Society, all of whom I know very well.  For that event I had to use my own lap-top and projector and so, sensibly, I thought I had better run it at home as it had been some long while since I had used my personal equipment (I can hear someone saying “That’s what she said” and I know who you are !!).  Just as well I did, apparently since I last used my own projector I had changed my lap-top and now the cable from the projector did not have a suitable port on the new lap-top !!  Luckily I have a local IT guru whom I can call up and seek assistance.  He told me I needed a HDMI cable (not the great screw-in plug of the previous computer) so I rushed off to the nearby town of Llandeilo where I knew my local TV shop would have one – I had to buy one for my TV digi box last year !  Back home and set it all up and began to run the presentation and make my notes etc.  All was fine,  I tried it again on the morning of the talk, just to be sure I remembered which keys to press to get the lap-top talking to the projector… Suddenly the projector light, instead of shooting a picture onto my white wall, just turned blue.  Worst of all, my computer just froze, nothing, not a flicker.  Having stopped screaming at it and having had a coffee and mince pie – always a calming influence upon me – I quietly closed the lid and went away.  An hour or so later I tried again and all was well.  Enthused with my new found technical prowess I loaded all into the car and set off into the night.  I arrived half an hour early and set it all up, switched on and all was fine – for ten minutes, then the same thing happened – blue and blank !!  By then the audience were sitting patiently waiting and so I started, filling in time as best I could, and praying the darned things would come back to life.  I tried the gentle closing down, waiting and re-opening … it returned to life and I managed to get through all the presentation without a glitch.  But what the hell is happening !?!?  The problem is that essentially my little knowledge is a dangerous thing, I just do not know enough about these creatures, which seem to have a mind of their own, to be able to deal with any hiccups that occur.  Fortunately for my second appearance a week or so later, all I needed was my ‘stick’, the organisation even had a magic remote control so I didn’t have to lean over the lap-top every time I wanted to change the picture.  Hell, it even had a laser pointer built into the hand set !!  I was well happy lets say.  I had a feeling that their projector was the same as mine so when I got home I looked into the box and sure enough there is a remote control in there; practise makes perfect, though not in my case and certainly not when me and technology come together.

That last presentation was to members of the Radnor Society at their Annual General Meeting and Lecture.  I was flattered to have been asked to speak at the event and was even more surprised when several old friends and non members  arrived to hear my talk.  In all over fifty folk gave up their early Saturday evening to hear a presentation about the Radnor Wheelcar (which regular readers will know I have been harking on about quite a lot recently !).  Astonished as I was at the turnout what was even better was that several of those in attendance were able to give me new information about where the rare vehicle was used and indeed since then several more have been in touch electronically and by post offering yet more tid-bits which means Final Draft number 6 is on its way to the editors, with my apologies !

This post of Welshwaller is – so my statistical analysis box tells me – the one hundred and ninety ninth time I have rattled the keys.  It is therefore, the penultimate post.  I have been writing this blog since early 2010, sometimes regularly, other times less so.  I have many regular readers and a small handful of ‘followers’ and I trust those of you who do and have read my ramblings have found them useful and readable.  It is a strange thing this internet business, this ‘blogging’; I imagine it is akin to a published author in so far as I have little idea of who is reading my words but unlike a published author I at least know WHERE my readers are, in reality they are all over the world !!  Given all that is happening in cyber space I wonder should I be worried about my Russian readers !!

I have practically come to the end of my allotted free space on WordPress and so I intend to squeeze out one more post nearer the end of the year before bidding you all a fond adieu.  I will be continuing on a new WordPress site but concentrating on my Farming Bygones rather than bringing you stories from my days on the hills, my travels, my opinions and other such fascinating concepts.  Of course in the meantime, I’ve a large amount of walling to complete before year’s end so that it’s not only blogging that I retire from ….fat chance.

I wish all my Stateside readers a Happy Thanksgiving and all my Christian readers a Happy Christmas, to everyone else a big Thank You and watch out for an end of year Hootenanny !!  Now, if Wales could just finally beat the All Blacks for the first time since I was a baby that would be just a wonderful end and a sweet Christmas present.   And if that happens, well, I WILL believe in Santa Claus….

 

Whatever you do – Don’t cross your legs !

03/11/2017

I have always been astonished at the notion the brain can be re-taught how to do things.  My last ‘Aunt’ died recently after eight years of living after a stroke.  She began her post-stroke life pretty speechless and almost totally unable to do anything for herself.  That event happened just prior to her eightieth birthday but with diligence and support she got back to a level of independent living as well as regaining her speech and thought processes.

I have noticed how my brain prevents me from doing simple things that would result in some painful accidents.  For example, my right knee is now extremely useless and cannot bear my weight in a bent position, such as lowering myself to kneel on it or pushing myself back up from a sitting or kneeling position (if I even get there!).  It is quite a surreal feeling, one half of the brain tells me the only way to get under the Land Rover is to kneel and then lie on the ground whilst the other half stops me and gets me to think about how best to do it so as not to damage my joint or cause pain.

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This past week I have had to allow my (ponderous thinking) brain to take over my (subconscious, automaton) brain.  I was working at the end of the wall that runs down the steep slope; the angle at the bottom must be around fifty degrees.  What’s more, the days of incessant rain and the constant passage of hundreds of sheep had turned the work area into a quagmire.  All in all it was a dangerous place in which to try to build a 1.6 metre high cheek-end (the term used for the end of the wall).  One thing that I must never do, must fight instinct, must concentrate, is not to cross my legs.  Allowing one foot to cross to the other side is an absolute guarantor of a heavy slip with no chance of controlling the downfall.  On the positive side there was, at least, plenty of stone although as there had not been a cheek-end there previously – the wall continued for another fifteen metres or so to the road – there were not many stones that had nice right-angled corners with which to construct the perfect pillar.

The dangers were many; firstly, the problem of standing on such a steep slope which was basically a mud-slide.  As soon as a large stone gets picked up the centre of gravity of the body changes significantly and can add just sufficient enough imbalance to send one’s feet slipping off down the slope resulting in a calamitous fall.  Secondly and probably the most alarming and constant concern is the likelihood that the standing part of the wall will decide that gravity is too much to resist and it comes crashing down upon you.  Oh yes, that is a constant worry, it happens often on a steep slope.  Already several of the gaps which the machine driver cleared out for me have grown extensively, on the up side !

I won’t labour the issue for you, suffice to say I did enough labouring over the two days it took me to build the new end.  Because of the steepness of the slope it is necessary to cut into the sub soil or rock as was the case here, and create a level building platform.  The stones have to be placed horizontally to prevent any temptation for them to slip off down the hill.  As the wall is over one and a half metres high I decided that it was safer to build a stepped top so as to reduce the pressure on the end stones which would be created once the new section was joined to the old.  In essence two wall ends are built which give, in my view anyway, added strength.

The first lift which takes the new section to a height where it joins the bottom of the old wall, was reasonably easy, notwithstanding the mud and slips, as I had some level ground on which to stand.  Once I had to move up the wall a little the slope became treacherous not least because where the digger had cut into the bank there were vertical drops of half a metre or so.  More than enough to wreck my dodgy knees or twist an ankle or two.  Eventually, by the end of the first day, I had got to the top of the first cheek end and with some feeling of success but with extremely aching lower joints, I set off to my new ‘home in hills’.

I now have a nice little caravan in which to stay whilst I’m working on this job.  It has been placed inside one of the large, empty sheep sheds which the farmer has on this particular piece of land (although he lives some miles away) and there I have a mains electric connection and water. Being inside protects the caravan from the weather and gives me a dry space in which to get rid of my mud caked outer garments.  I am actually quite enjoying it and already I am thinking I might be joining the ranks of those awful folk who clog up our roads every summer, with their white boxes in train.  Maybe the joys of holidays under canvas (or nylon as it now tends to be) are going to give way to a more sedate and luxurious kind of touring – maybe …

The following day I really had to be careful as a fine drizzle had set in which made both the mud and the grass even more hazardous.  By around mid afternoon I had finished the section, much to my relief.  That slope is not somewhere I want to be, especially right at the bottom end for, at the close of play, which usually comes when I have totally consumed my energy ration for the day, I then have to ascend several hundred feet to get to the track that leads ‘home’.  It is extraordinary how heavy an empty thermos flask and lunch-box can be at four in the afternoon.

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The newly built ‘cheek-end’ with the stepped top to spread the load of the wall pushing constantly against it – I don’t want to be going back to re-build it !

So, onwards and upwards, there’s a few small sections which whilst currently still standing, really need to be stripped out and rebuilt or else they could crash down just after I leave.  Then I get to work on a reasonably flat piece of ground.  Alas the merry month of October has flown by and I have missed my target of getting this particular wall finished – but only by a week.  The worst thing is going to be the early onset of darkness now that we’ve moved into GMT.  I don’t relish the thought of being tucked up in my little metal box by half past four in the afternoon, nice as it is …

Apart from the problem of that particular project other walls have been quietly coming along.  Two jobs that have been occupying my time back home, for several months actually, are nearing the end.  One has been for the daughter of a long-standing customer of mine and has involved some seriously heavy stones and some seriously large tonnage.  It has been a rebuild, of sorts, for there was a wall there previously but it was a lime-mortar built wall and hence was not particularly wide nor were the stones really suitable for a dry stone wall.  Stones that are used in a mortared wall tend to be much shorter in terms of the length to which they penetrate the heart of the wall.  Thus it was necessary to import some ‘real’ stones as this was definitely going to be a ‘real’ wall !  (I often chuckle to myself at the memory of the lady who came running up to me whilst I was building a roadside wall and asked “Is that a REAL wall!?”).

The stone used was therefore a mish-mash of previously used ‘sheep’s-head’ stones (so called because of their intrinsic shape) and large silica blocks.  Some of the stones from the old wall still retained their covering of lime-wash – the previous occupant of the farm house, a dear friend of mine who had lived there since the war years, was nothing if not ‘yard’ proud and the walls and buildings got an annual washing of white lime.

I have to confess that I was not at all confident the stones which the current occupier (of the recently converted barn) wanted me to use would result in a wall that would ‘stand looking at’.  The foundation stones were extremely heavy and I struggled for several days to get the 25 metres laid.  Then I just plodded on -and on and on  – for what seemed to be an interminable duration, mainly at weekends as I was engaged elsewhere with various projects.  However both the number of days and the end product were not so terrible as I had foreseen and the customer was extremely pleased with his massive boundary wall.  I wanted it to be something to be pleased about as it is going to be there a long time, is going to be looked at and most importantly, was done for the daughter (and son-in-law) of one of my longest and loyal customers.

Having completed that little job I then had to do a completely different task for them.  A concrete block retaining wall runs the length of the front of the barn at about a metre in height.  It is without doubt unsightly but functional.  I was asked to face it with a dry stone wall to match the boundary wall.  Alas that meant I would have to secure the face wall to the block wall somehow and that meant the dreaded cement mortar.  I have something of a mental block about mixing mortar; it’s not that I object to it in principle, it’s more the nuisance of having to mix the damned stuff.  My daughter when she was in school, used to get her friends telling her that the reason her dad built dry stone walls was because he was too lazy to mix cement. There may have been a certain truth in that !

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The horrid concrete block wall is hidden, hooray !  The ‘trompe l’oeil’ that is the dry stone face wall is secured by the product from that horrid orange machine on the right.

I like it when I can cross off another job that’s been hanging over me for a long while.  Only three to go !!  The other one I want to show you is a small repair on a section of wall at the farm where my collection is housed and where I have done several repairs already over the years.  This time the whole wall was hidden under a bush of ivy and it took several sessions of chain-sawing, hacking and tugging to clear it away.  Once the collapse was revealed I could clear way the soil which had accumulated, mainly composted leaves from the surrounding sycamores.  What was revealed was the best demonstration I have ever encountered of why you should never let ivy take hold in a wall.

The main root had wormed its way through the innards of the wall, the size was astonishing.  Look at the thickness and length of it and the huge root ball sitting atop the gate pillar.  There really is no space inside a dry stone wall for an intruder (or there shouldn’t be if the hearting is packed correctly and this wall was a well built wall in that respect) so any ‘wood forming’ plant will inevitably only be accommodated in the centre of a wall by pushing stones outwards – and outwards and outwards until, ultimately, the wall crashed down.

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This is how big the Ivy root was once I had cut it out -around 3 metres in length and very serpent like in appearance.  “Nor never Hydra-headed wilfulness so soon did lose its seat” …

Ironically, it is often the case that such invasive, creeping plants become the only support that keeps the wall standing.  It is a constant conundrum for organisations charged with preserving our historic built environment; to remove the dreaded ivy (for it is usually ivy that is the great destroyer) and allow the wall to fall, leave the ivy and let the wall, eventually, fall – to do or not to do, that is the question.

This autumn has, for all its rain and high winds,  been a great year for one of my very favourite growing things.  I find fungi quite the most fascinating of living organisms.  Not quite so fascinating as does my dear friend Ray who is by far the most infatuated fungition (I made that up, in case you are wondering…) possibly in the universe.  When you realise that what we see, the ‘mushroom’, is just the fruit, the tip of the huge underground network of fibrous roots which spreads much farther than we could imagine, it is quite remarkable.  Look at just some of the ones I’ve encountered in my work sites:-

The beech tree is a great host for fungii, the the honey fungus runs along the tree’s root system and the lovely giant polypor (meripelus gigantus), reaches a substantial size if left alone.

Perhaps the most interesting encounter this autumn came in the town.  I was waiting at my local M.O.T. station in the nearby town of Llandovery and wandered over to a picnic bench to sit down in the morning sunshine.  The ground was covered in wind-fall apples emanating from an old tree in the adjacent garden, its branches hanging out over the yard of the garage.  To my utter astonishment – not least as they were the first I had seen all summer – the apples were being attended by a large number of  butterfly.  They seemed to be consuming the soft rotting fruit and clearly suffering the consequences of over indulgence.  Alcohol consumption when you are that small is not good for the flying ability of these precious creatures !

Finally, as October gave way to the penultimate month of another year, some bright and crisp days came my way and I managed to get to the top of the slope and finish the cheekend there. So, apart from one small gap for which I have no stone but for which a tractor is promised in order to bring me some, the wall running the slope is completed.  Now I can concentrate on getting the next section done before winter really sets in.  I’m way above the snow line and if we do get a dose of the white stuff it will be the end of work until it disappears, that would not be good.

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I was asked by a friend whether I minded being all alone on the hill and then in the caravan at night … that’s not really something that occurs to me besides, this week Darling Emma called by, climbed the steep slope and brought me pumkin pie on All Hallows Eve and there’s always the fast boys who flash by most days …

They do tend to make a noise though, ah well, Per Ardua Ad Astra, them and me.

Backs to the Wall.

10/10/2017

Does anyone actually understand the gradient percentages which appear on road signs ?  What does a 30% uphill or a 20% downhill mean in terms of how steep the damned slope is !?  I have no idea, it’s the same with the weather forecast on my i phone – what does “there’s a 40% chance of rain” tell me ?  I was in a place with a 10% chance of rain the other day and it hammered down all day. Help !!

As for slopes and gradients, well, I am currently working (yes, I know, I’m supposed to be NOT working, I’m supposed to be in retirement, in a retirement home or on a sunny beach somewhere) on a painfully steep slope.  The pain element relates to ankles and knees, hands and back.  Now it is true that twenty or so years ago I would also have struggled somewhat but in the Autumn (that’s MY autumn and the season) in the Wye valley, high in the Cambrian mountains, it is especially daunting.  In fact it is so steep I merely have to reach out my arm straight in front to rest on the ground – I’m reminded of an old Radnorshire farmer who, whilst demonstrating how to use one of my Aero Seed Fiddles at a show, commented that “I have used these on land so steep the bow was sticking in the ground”, did I ever doubt him !

This particular wall is one of those iconic features which have caught my eye for decades.  It rises at right angles from the main road, the A470, that runs from north to south Wales.  Driving ever upward from the small town of Rhayader and almost at the village of Llangurig, where the Aberystwyth road splits to head westwards and the A470 turns east towards Llanidloes and all points thereafter, the wall jumps into the scenery.  It is the only wall visible on that stretch of road, it is such a feature that several of my friends have commented how well they know it and how they have often thought it should be restored.  For me, the only good thing I can say about it at present is it has taken me to work in the only Welsh county yet to have the pleasure of my ministrations.  Montgomeryshire is now part of the unmanageable administrative county of Powys.  It is the only Welsh county which is bordered by five other counties and it reaches the English border.  The southern west to east route runs the course of the river Severn and in the west and north-west the dramatic landscape of the Dovey valley marks its territory.  My work station is in the upper Wye valley, a dramatic enough landscape made more poetic by the onset of the autumnal colourscape.

 

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The wall, the Wye valley looking south and the A470 north/south trunk road

Despite being in the ancient lands of the Ordivices – the Iron Age tribe which lived in this zone, the geological nature of my building material is named after the Silures who occupied land further south.  Ordovician and Silurian sedimentary rocks confuse the mind in Wales !  I’m sure it was some years after leaving school that I realised the rocks and the tribes weren’t co-terminus …

This particular project has been several years in the making, so much so that when it was first broached to me I was living much closer to it than I now do.  In addition I also had an enthusiastic American assistant who was excited to think there might be some summer work in the following two years for her to use as an excuse to come back to Wales.  Neither is now the case, I am left alone to do it all and I live far too far away.  Of even more concern is the fact that the project was delayed, then it was abandoned, then it was reborn under a new grant aid scheme.  That was the precise moment when I should have said “No”.  I cannot remember – after all it was last February! –  why I didn’t, it was a seriously bad mistake.  By then I hadn’t even seen the wall for nearly three years and had no real idea how much there was to do.

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In essence the project is three walls; the main wall, the steep one, is around 80 metres in length but only has around a quarter of its length that requires rebuilding.  The other two walls run with the contour line and create the cross of the ‘T’ which is the shape of them all.  One is around 60 metres of which about 40 is totally derelict and the rest needs attention of some kind.  The left hand side of the T is approximately 70 metres in length with about 75 square metres needs rebuilding.  Now the clever ones amongst you will have noticed that the amount to be rebuilt is greater than the length of the wall.  That is because the wall is around 1.3 to 1.5 metres tall and when working out the rebuild quantity a square metre figure is used,  simply because that is how the grant money is paid.  Thus a metre of length of 1.5 metre in height amounts to 1.5 square metres.  If the rate was £50 per square metre (I wish !!) that would derive £75 for every metre of length.  Simple isn’t it ?  Well not if you are an old farmer still working in feet and inches and never dealt in anything squared.

The original scheme which was going to fund the restoration was the current farm environmental scheme called Glastir and its advanced element was going to be used.  However, the farmer was not willing to sacrifice a small piece of deciduous woodland which clings to the side of the steep slope and consists of scrubby hazel, wind blown birch and the odd hawthorn, all of them runts in the forest due to the excessive wind to which they have been exposed.  Nevertheless it is an important shelter belt for lambing ewes and is thus an economic factor to the farmer.  To the environmentalist the wood is a very important habitat with a good stock of quite scarce summer birds, such as Yellow Hammer and various other summer visitors.  Just now it is teeming with those chatterbox teenage hooligans the Long Tailed Tits, which are having a ball amongst the seed laden birch.  It really is an exemplary piece of ancient woodland.

Because of the bird life, the project officer of Natural Resources Wales, the body now overseeing the programme, insisted the farmer fenced the woodland to exclude all stock from entering it.  It was felt that the sheep were far too damaging and dangerous to be allowed access, they would surely ruin the habitat.  Some of you will have already spotted the absurdity of that demand.  Sheep, and sometimes cattle, have been grazing, resting and giving birth in that five acres of hanging woodland for centuries.  If the woodland is such an important habitat surely it is precisely because the farm stock have been using it !!  Their presence has kept the ground grazed and limited the choking bramble and other species that would alter both the ground flora and the density of the canopy.  True, there is a problem in terms of the age of the trees extant at present and there are no saplings coming through but that problem can be dealt with piecemeal in a way that still allows the farmer to utilise the woodland.  To have fenced off the area would lead to a dramatic and drastic change to the woodland in a very few years and those rare birds which currently love it would be forced to move elsewhere.

How many times have I encountered that very issue over the past twenty five years.  A pristine habitat is discovered on a farm, be it pasture, wetland, woodland or whatever, stock have been grazing it in a certain density for years and years thereby creating that important habitat. The plants or animals that live there and are now so highly regarded, do so because of what exits under the management regime as it has been for generations.  Along comes ‘an expert’ who recognises its importance and immediately switches into ‘protection’ mode – stop the farmer using it as he has been doing, it is far too important to be damaged by farming !  Luckily this particular farmer was not so desperate for the money that he conceded or else my noisy companions would have already have flown off to some other precious woodland.

Instead he was persuaded, a year or so later, by a much more understanding conservation minded countryside consultant, to enter a different scheme.  Hence the walling project was back on along with some hedge laying and other activities.  Now I have a high regard for this particular expert, we have known each other and worked  together for many years.  Perhaps her powers of persuasion were beyond my defences, perhaps I didn’t want to let her or the farmer, whom I like a great deal, down.  Whatever the reason I just acquiesced and landed myself with a real winter headache.   It meant I would have to travel fifty miles to the site, stay over for several nights and graft through the worst of the autumn and winter weather to get anywhere near completing what was to be done by the end of the year.  That was as bad as it would get, or so I thought.  Last week she arrived with ‘some good news and some bad news’ (not that she recognised she was delivering either).  The money was better than the original scheme, that’s nice (and the good news).  The bad news ? It all, and I mean ALL, had to be completed by middle of February.

That is just not possible, not even if the weather is the best it has been for the winter months, in a century.  Certainly the current weather pattern of constant wind and rain is not going to result in much being rebuilt.  Had she arrived with that news but a day earlier I would have walked away.  There is just no way I can do it in the time.  I’d felt daunted about getting half of it done but was sure the rest would come easily next spring and summer.  Alas, just a day before, a large mechanical excavator had arrived to clear away the numerous collapsed sections and attempt to retrieve the stone which had mostly tipped to the down-hill side and needed to be brought back up the slope.  That means the whole site now looks far worse than it did when it was just an old collapsed length of wall.  There are now great heaps of stone and soil and patches of bare earth where the turf has been scraped away or the foundation sub soil exposed.

So now I just have to soldier on, I can’t let the farmer down and he would get a financial penalty if the work is not completed but in all honesty, on my own, through the winter, up there, it’s unlikely I will get it done.  I rage at the wind, I bemoan the lack of knowledge and understanding of what was feasible exhibited by the planner but most of all I shout at myself.  Saying ‘No’ to work has always been my Achilles heel – God forbid that snaps again or that really will be the end – of the restoration and me !!

Meanwhile back at the ‘museum’ (my grandiose term for my collection!), I got together some ‘harvest’ related items and headed out into the wilds of Radnorshire, to Glascwm in fact and the church of St. David, to help celebrate Harvest Festival.

Again I had been unable to say no and ended up with another hundred mile round trip – folk don’t seem to have realised I have moved !  The little village is a real gem amongst Radnorshire settlements.  It is hidden in the narrow valley and its medieval church is typical of those found in the hills of the county.  David is believed to have come to Glascwm and there are several references in historical accounts of the fact.

“And Glascwm with its church by the verdant mountains, lofty clearings full of groves, where sanctuary never fails”.  So wrote Gwynfardd Frycheiniog the Welsh poet (1160-1230).

There was some confusion, mine and theirs, about my presence and where exactly I was to display.  As there was no-one around when I arrived at 4.30pm (despite being told there would be but then again I was also led to believe it was a 6pm service!) I wandered around for half an hour or so.  I walked down to the village hall where a harvest supper was to be held but there was no-one there either.  As six o’clock approached I decided to set up in the porch-way and utilised the benches on either side to place my various items upon.  Six o’clock came and went and no-one appeared; then, about a quarter past, one person wandered up, the retired Bishop of Hereford who now lives in this Welsh village.  We had met previously although I’m sure he didn’t recall that, he looked at my display and chatted until another person arrived and then one or two more, none of whom were interested in my offerings and all of whom looked somewhat bemused at my presence.  Eventually the vicar arrived and she did seem to have been aware I was coming along.  In all about ten folk walked past me into the church and chatted inside.  Just before the six thirty service was to begin – delayed by the non appearance of the pianist (and in any case the electric keyboard was broken, which presumably she knew and hence didn’t bother turning up !) – the lady whose request I had felt duty bound to honour, walked past me into the church with ne’er a glance.  The door closed and the strains of  ‘All things bright and beautiful’ unaccompanied by anything musical, seeped muffled through the walls.  I packed my precious items away and drove off into the night foregoing the proffered harvest supper, there surely was no place laid for an itinerant curator …  fish and chips in Llandovery an hour later and the second half of a Scarlets’ rugby game changed my evening immeasurably…

For the next few months I’ll be heading north but there are also some small tasks to do nearer home and some really special fungus sightings to bring you – there is an upside to the downside of constant rain!

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Who knows what this little mushroom is called then ?

I’m hopeful of writing at least another couple of posts before my  WordPress GB’s run out, there’s about 10% left apparently.  It would be nice to finish my walling career AND my blog about the same time, don’t you think !?

Catch y’all soon, autumnal blessings from the blustery Wye Valley.

Big Wheel keeps on Burning…

03/09/2017

It’s not often a chance to put a tyre on a wheel comes along.  That’s not a modern rubber tyre you understand. No, I’m talking about putting a metal tyre or band around a wooden cart wheel – like what they did a hundred years ago and more !

It came about because my friend Mike, who happens to be an excellent wheelwright, was giving a demonstration at the prestigious Gower Show.  The show was celebrating its one hundredth happening – it is slightly older but various postponements over the years through wars and foot and mouth epidemics had delayed the centenary.

Gower was the very first designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (1956) and is one of the more popular holiday and day-trip destinations in south Wales.  It manages to blend some ancient landscapes with cliff backed stunning beaches although the sea is hardly ever warm !  It also maintains its medieval road system which is not really suitable for the amount of traffic that now stutters along the narrow, hedge lined lanes.

Over the years it has featured regularly in my work programme either as a venue for dry stone wall repairs or as a venue for various training courses which I ran in environmental subjects.  It also featured in my academic historical landscape studies as it has an important place in medieval Welsh history, not least as a study area for early field systems.  Fitting then that my first visit for some years should be linked to a medieval activity !

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Mike Davies of Hundred House, Radnorsire, lights the fire to heat the iron tyre which will be fixed to the cart wheel which can be seen to the left.

The method of fixing a metal rim to a wooden wheel is basically a matter of physics.  The metal is heated so that it expands to beyond the circumference of the wooden wheel.  This requires the fire to be extremely hot.  I asked Mike what sort of temperature it needed to reach,”bloody hot” was the precise answer, but whether that was ‘bloody hot’ centigrade or ‘bloody hot’ Fahrenheit I’m not sure.  The test was to watch the colour of the metal tyre which was buried within the fire and once it had reached an all-over red glow, that was the time.  Too hot, indicated by a yellow glow, and the rim would buckle as it was being lifted from the flames, white glow meant it was not hot enough and wouldn’t fit.

The wheel is fixed to a large steel plate by means of a screw system.  We had to dig quite a deep hole into which was placed the inverted ‘u’ shaped bracing plate into which the screw system fitted.  When wheelwright shops existed they were mostly adjacent to the village blacksmith and it was he who mostly did the fitting of the tyre.  The plate was a fixed feature just outside the workshop and I know several derelict blacksmiths shops where the old tiring plate is still in place.  They are extremely heavy and very difficult to lift so despite the high scrap value they often survive the itinerant scrap thieves.

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Cart wheel fixed in place on the tiring plate awaiting the new tyre.

Fortunately we managed to persuade a passing tractor driver to use his front loader and pallet forks to unload the plate for us –  he was nowhere to be found at the end of the day, alas !

A large crowd gathered awaiting the moment when the red-hot metal band appeared out of the inferno and Mike engaged them with his explanations of wheelwrighting techniques and explained what we were about to do.  After approximately 20 minutes the red glow was clear to see and we donned some seriously thick woollen coats to protect us from the searing heat – my word was it hot – and we soaked our caps in the drum of water placed ready for dousing the heat once the tyre was in place.

The tongs are about a metre long with a very simple inverted ‘u’ shaped grab about 10 cms long set at right angles to the handle rods.  They slot over the rim of the tyre and by the simple expedient of both of us pulling and lifting, out of the inferno the glowing steel ring appears.  The heat on my face was SO intense that my brain was insisting I ran away, like immediately.  The pain was difficult to resist and I could not help but think about a recent fire tragedy in London and how dreadful a death it must be; thankfully in those circumstances smoke usually takes the victim long before the flames.

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The red-hot tyre is lifted from the inferno, our faces turned the same colour !

The placing of the steel band over the wheel has to be done in unison to avoid any chance of the ring being placed at an angle and jamming itself on to the wheel.  Then it is sledge hammered into place and immediately buckets of cold water are poured around it to cause instant cooling and shrinkage.  As the wheel began to be squeezed, loud creaks and cracks were heard but Mike assured the crowd that this was precisely what he needed to hear.  In fact, on a new wheel rather than a repaired wheel such as the one we had, the noise of the timber is seriously loud as then the spokes also had to be driven securely home into the hub.

In about fifteen minutes the whole exercise was over and we were able to remove the wheel from the plate and wheel it over to the crowd so they could see and feel the secure fixing.  I can’t say I would necessarily want to do it again, perhaps with a face protector, but I certainly relished the experience and even though it wasn’t on my ‘bucket’ list it is a small claim to fame, wouldn’t you say ?

Duty done I then had some time to take in what other delights the show had to offer.  Naturally I found myself wandering off to the ‘vintage’ section where there were some rather nicely restored tractors and vehicles.  What I particularly liked was the fact that there was just a few of each type; perhaps half a dozen tractors, a few land rovers, some old cars and a small selection of stationery engines phutting away.  At most shows the numbers of each type are far too great in my view, too many to really take notice especially for the non-believer who just wants to look and not be engaged by the niceties of which model it is or whether it has the ‘Type 3’ solenoid or the ‘Mark 12’ valve spring !  Well done Gower, a really enjoyable display.

The other attraction which drew me very quickly to the ring was a fine display of Shire horses.  The huge animals are always a favourite with the crowds regardless of whether they are country folk or city dwellers, horsey types or not.  This show certainly had more than its share of wonderful animals on display.  Of course it lacked the all round ‘working’ display such as can be seen at The Great Dorset where all types of carts and machinery are hauled by the Shires, but for a small local country show it was quite a magnificent parade.

By a strange coincidence, the sort that occurs more often than perhaps chance alone allows, I nearly ended up returning to Gower a few weeks later.  It is uncanny how often that happens to me;  I don’t visit a place for years, maybe never ever been near it, and suddenly I end up visiting or passing several times in a few weeks.

The importance of Gower as a protected historic landscape has been recognised by the granting of a substantial Heritage Lottery Fund award which is being used to restore and enhance certain aspect of the built environment, the culture and historic integrity of the area.  This is being co-ordinated through the Gower Partnership and a contract was on offer to carry out some dry stone walling training on the important boundary wall at Mewslade.  Unfortunately myself and the Training Provider with whom I work judged that we were unable to deliver the required courses at the venue due to the rigorous risk assessment we apply and the very necessary Health & Safety requirements of such courses.  In the old days it was possible to march a load of innocent trainees, of whatever ability and fitness, over some fields or up (in this case, down) a winding track to some exposed remote wall where the views were stunning and the wind howling.  Men were pointed to one section of wall or wood as their ‘relief’ point and ladies in the opposite direction.  Lunch and breaks were taken sitting on a rock or damp grass and everyone laughed and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, or so we trainers assumed.  Quality accredited training, such as we now have to provide, demands a safer more comfortable venue with adequate welfare facilities, access by emergency services should it be required and this in turn demands the site has a serviceable mobile phone signal.  None of these were available to us on this occasion so we decided not to bid.  Many folk bemoan all the regulations and apparent nonsensical Health & Safety requirements, I’m not one of them.  Society has changed, everyone is more sophisticated, even those who venture out into hostile environments do so in a far more protected and comfortable manner than in my early days.  Modern clothing and equipment lessens the risks to a degree but the danger of a mishap is ever present and when an individual entrusts their well being to you (paid or free) it is incumbent on those of us who invite and provide to eliminate as much of that risk as is possible without diluting the product too much.  It is a difficult balance but our judgement was that, in the instance at least, the scales were too tipped against us.  My visit to the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty of Gower will be limited to one for the foreseeable future but “I will return!!”

The next journey took me east into England and the border area of Shropshire where once again the delights of Acton Scott, the Victorian Farm museum, was my target.  This time however, it was not the harvest or threshing nor the general artefacts for which the place is famous, this time I was on a mission to film and photograph a unique event.

Accompanied by the now familiar octogenarian Harold Lewis, the remaining wheelwright of the Lewis’ of Gravel Arch at Llanbister Road in Radnorshire, my visit was a long time in the planning but eagerly anticipated.  Mike, mentioned above, just happens to be the resident wheelwright at Acton Scott and gives demonstrations of his craft several times a week.  One of the seldom seen artefacts is the wheelcar which languishes for most of the time in one of the cart sheds.  That particular rarity was made by Harold’s father and Mike had arranged with Simon, the resident ostler, that an attempt would be made to hitch up the wheelcar and haul it around, just to see how it actually operated.  Do you imagine we were a little excited ?

I have only recently come across a photograph of a wheelcar with a horse attached, they are so rare that I had given up hope that one existed.  There is, as far as I am aware, no film of one being hauled by horse or tractor and that one photograph is very small and grainy.  In that sense what we were about to witness was pretty important historically and archaeologically.

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A wheelcar, a horse and me – a rare sight indeed.

Simon had never attempted to haul the wheelcar before but the horse was well used to operating with a load in trace chains – chains which pull directly to the load rather than via a spreader (such as a swingle tree) or even shafts as on most carts.  What I wanted to see was the inclination of the vehicle to bounce ad swing around from which motion comes it’s nickname of ‘smellpost’.  It appears to want to sniff each gate-post as it passes through.  Once harnessed Simon gingerly set the car in motion and the horse merely plodded off.  Stopping was slightly more difficult, the car ran on and bumped into the back legs of the poor creature but the well heeled old horse didn’t bat an eyelid.  Turning was also quite interesting, the chains meant that the front of the car sort of leapt around in short hops.  Of course, had we had a load of hay or corn board the front runners, which are sled like, would not have lifted off the ground and the whole motion would have been more measured and controlled.  As it was, once we chained one of the wheels to stop it turning, the wheelcar stopped when the horse stopped and followed around a gentle turn as if on rails.

Mike and Harold, both being wheelwrights and cart makers, had long detailed discussions about the intricacies of the wheelcar, the old ‘hoss’ on the ohter hand, frankly m’Dear, didn’t give a damn, he just plodded on.  The event culminated in Harold sitting aboard and taking the reins to drive his father’s Radnor wheelcar around the Acton Scott grass.  Just like me at Gower show, he made the very same point; “How often at my age do you get to do something you’ve never done before?”  A few more times yet we hope Harold !

The wheelcar saga came full circle to a rather elegant close on Saturday September 2nd (my birthday as it happened !) at the Hundred House Show where my restored car made its first public appearance alongside Mike’s Standard Fordson Tractor and Gambo.  He had used a very rare ‘iron horse’, a devise which allowed the shafts of a cart to be clamped to a tow hitch for use with a tractor thereby obviating the need to cut off the shafts. The gambo was thus able to be hitched to his 1943 Standard Fordson and the whole unit was driven from his home to the show field. The tractor which towed my wheelcar around the arena much to everyone’s astonishment and delight, was a nicely restored BMC mini tractor.  There were just a few for whom the vision brought back memories.  For me it was another piece of archival footage for, as with the horse, no films nor even photographs have been found of such an event.

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My restored Radnor Wheelcar on show back in the county of its birth.

The show is an annual pilgrimage for me and this year it held a particular joy as it was the first time I had visited since leaving the area (last year was a ‘no show’ due to the wet weather).  I met up with several old friends and customers whom I see little of nowadays. Many had come along just to see me and most importantly darling Emma brought me cake !!  And would you believe she is the daughter of the very farm where the dry stone walling training on Gower was sited, she had been down there that very week !  My world is definitely getting smaller !

Heroic Challenges

25/07/2017

I’ve just completed the second of this year’s Heritage Heroes project with another group of astonishing veterans.  The joint project between the Canal and River Trust and the Help for Heroes charity has been funded by the People’s Post Code Lottery and as I’ve mentioned in previous reports on the earlier projects, it is certainly one of the best uses of public donations I’ve seen.

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This time we found ourselves not far down the waterway from the previous project at the Caen Lock in Devizes but instead of the busy Kennett and Avon canal our base this time was the picturesque but disused Wilts & Berks canal near Chippenham.

Talk about de ja’vu;  I was constantly Dr. Who’d back to the nineteen fifties and another disused canal in Cwmbran, the old Mon & Brec at Five Locks.  The Wilts& Berks (NOT the Wiltshire and Berkshire due to a clerical oversight in the Act of Parliament granting permission to construct it in ) is a haven of tranquility and wildlife as was my childhood playground.  All the creatures of the still waterway were present and all the flora abounded along its banks and disused lock pounds.  True, there are a group of volunteers doing their best to reconstruct the lock system and keep the waterway open in so far as it can be – there are few places ‘in water’ along the whole stretch.  By and large however, the canal is a fine habitat and wildlife corridor and therein lies the debate about such restoration.

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The ‘navvies’ of course want the canal to be the industrial-age highway it once was, nature (and I suspect, most of those who walk, run and ride along it) on the other hand needs to be left in peace.  Nature has been in charge of this man-made corridor for a century and more and there are well established habitats and colonies.  There are certainly some rarities but somehow the stretch between Pewsham Lock and Lacock has been missed by the Wildlife politzei and has never been protected by any official conservation category such as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  That’s probably just as well or the keen restorationists would have some real problems on their hands.  I came across a similar issue up in Yorkshire on the Pocklington canal where five SSSIs ‘hindered’ those seeking to re-open the waterway.

However, there is an easy balance if only people would be willing to listen to arguments from both sides.  I and my merry gang were constantly aghast at some of the actions and arguments of the restorationists.  Of course, it is the case that the majority of folk have little understanding of the ways of the countryside and even less about the methods of sympathetic management.  We, unfortunately, arrived at just the time when sympathetic management was needed.  June and July are critical months for flora and fauna reproduction and the destruction of food sources and breeding habitats is to be avoided if at all possible.  Cutting grassland full of wild flowers, some of them rare, smashing hedgerows and pulling emergent plants from the waterway is not really the best way to help nature at that particularly important time of year.  For the sake of a few weeks much damage was wreaked on an otherwise stable and productive wildlife corridor.  You can imagine that I was not flavour of the (two !) months as I tried to persuade the ‘committee’ to not do what they always do ….. It became quite clear to all of us that their reticence to even listen to our arguments in favour of helping nature was more to do with their determination not to give in to any other viewpoint.  In fairness, the ‘obstinates’ were few and most of the volunteer team were good folk to work alongside.  Sadly it seems a common factor in community groups that committee folk often have their faults but being wrong is definitely not one of them.

As for the contribution of my merry team of veterans – how come they are veteran when they are thirty years younger than me !? – we got stuck into creating a life size outline of one of the narrow boats that plied the canal in its short lifetime as an industrial highway.  Using standard fence posts cut to around 300mm above ground level and hammered home using the brute strength of a sixteen pound sledge-hammer (which, because of injuries, only a few could wield) the 28 metre long x 2.7 metre wide boat emerged from the ground.  It was impressively big !  Surrounded by a post and rail fence a children’s play area began to take shape and with logs set into the ground to step up and on the whole began to take shape.

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For six weeks, Monday to Thursday, we bashed and banged posts into the baked clay, my oh my, was the ground hard !?  Some of the days in mid June the temperature reached thirty three degrees and the boys mixing mortar and laying bricks on the lock reconstruction had a hard time of it, the mortar was drying out far too quickly but at least they eventually had a sun-shade.  The post bashers remarked that it was “like being back in Afghan!”

The stoicism of these men is remarkable and humbling as is their ability to laugh and enjoy ‘the crack’ of being back with like minded souls.  Rank is never mentioned, there is some inter-unit banter but nothing serious, in fact little talk takes place around service stories, it’s more likely to be the appreciation of nature – in the form of runners and walkers of the fairer sex … and there were plenty of those along that tranquil shady canal bank.  As was often mentioned, “it beats working for a living!”

IMG_0363 My ‘Very Special Forces’ in a remake of a famous film where Aliens emerge from the maize …..  Six weeks of crazy bonkers laughter with a bunch of guys that all warrant our salute.

And now I’ve to get back into normal life and get some walls built, some machinery restored, some articles written and some talks prepared.  Somewhere along the way, sometime before the sun crosses the Equator, I need to take a holiday …..

Most urgent is to get my Radnor Wheelcar completed for the upcoming shows in its home county.  I’m well on the way but as the paint I am using requires UV rays to dry it and as the sun seems to conveniently always hide when I have the time to paint, it is taking rather longer than I had hoped.

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Resplendent in a vegetable undercoat, which is way to0 bright for a working vehicle, the wheelcar is beginning the last phase of restoration.  As soon as possible I will apply the top coat and deal with the metal work.

Whilst I was away in Wiltshire I happened upon a rather good ‘junk and disorderly’ kind of place.  It was the sort of antique emporium I cannot resist and almost as soon as I walked into the yard I spied one of the few agricultural implements I lack in my collection but it is one definitely on the bucket list.  Admittedly it was not in the best of condition, in fact it was snapped but it was mainly all there and certainly not something I could walk away from.

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The hay sweep was a common implement in the old days of horse harvesting.   Dragged through the field it swept the hay before it and once at its destination,  a field barn or rick stack,  the handles were flicked and the whole sweep was turned over ready for a reverse sweep.  As you can see, mine is missing its handles and has broken on the main beam but fortunately I have the answer.  Not far over the hill from me is an extremely knowledgeable and skilled craftsman who knows a thing or two about all matters farming and wooden.

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John Tonen of Brynamman is a Master Craftsman in the minutiae of wooden farm carts and implements.  He happened to mention to me that he had a model of a hay sweep which was integrally accurate and an exact scale model.  That is an enormous help to me in remaking the missing parts of my newly acquired sweep.

However, my contact with John is spasmodic and tends to be annual, at one or other of the vintage shows where he displays his magnificent collection of models.  He had visited me a couple of years ago to measure one of my tipping carts and subsequently made a model of it.  He has the only model I have seen of the Radnor Wheelcar and he and I have often discussed the origins and finer points.  I was about to write to him to invite him over to see my wheelcar, which is now only five miles or so from his home.  He beat me to it with a note asking if I was attending a forthcoming show as he had something to show me.  I replied inviting him to the farm to see my wheelcar which he gladly accepted.

When he turned up it was not just to see my actual wheelcar but to bring me a model of the very one held in the National Museum of Wales, St. Fagans.  A wheelcar made by the Lewis’ of Gravel Arch at Llanbister Road which I have written of previously.  It’s not often I’m left speechless, I really didn’t know what to say.  For one thing I know (or can at least guesstimate) how many hours it must take to make one of those models. For another, how do you thank someone for presenting you with something you have always desired but never ever expected to acquire !?  ‘Humbled’ might be the most suitable term.  And what an astonishing model it is, accurate in every respect and scaled at one inch to the foot.

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Can you believe this is a model ?  Exquisite or what !

I am due to give a lecture about the Radnor Wheelcar in November and had, for several months, been wondering if I dare ask John if he would either attend the lecture with his model or allow me to borrow it to show folks what a wheelcar actually looks like.  Well, now that problem is solved, except that for ever and a day I will be indebted to the Master Modelmaker from Brynamman.  Diolch yn Fawr John Bach !

 

There is a Green Hill far away …

12/05/2017

Goodness, Easter come and gone already !  How is it that every thing I try to accomplish takes an absolute age and my every movement and thought seems to be overtaken by yet another sunset ?  How is it that we are approaching the end of April and yet I’m still trying to finish February jobs !?  To add to my concerns the grass has begun to grow again and I’m away from home for another spell of canal restoration.  This time my Heritage Heroes and I are based around the Kennett and Avon canal near the Caen Lock flight at Devizes.

It never ceases to amaze me how eighteenth century engineers saw no problem as insurmountable.  “Let’s build a canal to link Bristol with London using the Avon and the Thames”. “And let’s make sure we join all the towns along the route”.  What a grand plan, but there is the slight issue of height and fall, in particular where the great mass of the Wiltshire downs blocks the route.  “Nay bother, we’ll build some locks!”  Yes, twenty two of them in one vast flight.  It is an astonishing feat of engineering and quite awe inspiring in spectacle.  For a lad from the wonders of the Five Locks at Pontnewydd (Cwmbran) on the Mon. & Brecs. canal, it is quite the most jaw dropping sight.

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Unlike our previous project on the Pocklington canal near York, this time we are working on a fully functioning tourist mecca.  Dozens of folk walk the tow-path and dozens of narrow boats ply their way up and down the locks en-route to their next pub-side night halt.  The engineering and systems associated with any lock is quite un-heeded by most folk and my crew are no different.  Some had seen canal locks previously and some had never, none of them had any idea how they worked nor the amount of water required to keep them functioning.  When it comes to water requirement the Caen flight is unquenchable.  Huge ponds sit alongside each in-between section so that water being released out of one lock (to allow a boat to descend) can be impounded ready to fill the next one down (for ascent or descent).  At the bottom of the flight the final empty gets pumped all the way back to the top by a solar powered pump, which of course is not original !

The canal reaches a high point south of the town of Marlborough near the little rural idyll of Burbidge.  In order to fill the locks at that point a huge pumping station, Crofton, was built and its beam engine is now an attraction in its own right.

One of the major repairs still to be completed is at a bridge near the pumping station, bridge number 99.  This particular bridge was built merely to allow the estate owner to access his land and has no public right of way across it.  It’s just as well really as right next to it – and I mean the other side of a dilapidated fence – sits the main Bristol to London railway where every few minutes massive high speed trains flash past or mile long freight trains trundle endlessly along.  Old Isambard wasn’t stupid, why cut a whole new route when one already existed, just buy out the canal and run your line next to it !

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Apart from the historic stature of the canal and its structures there is another aspect which is now protected and listed.  During the Second World War when invasion was thought to be a probability, various strategies were put in place to impede the progress of the invading armies.  Various ‘Stop lines’ were drawn up to which staged withdrawals could be made and a stand made, at least for a while, before retreating to the next line.  A water filled canal, like a river, is an excellent way of preventing progress of mechanised armies and so the bridges on the K&A were blocked with huge concrete bollards, weighing around 7 tons (old money) each.  It is a testament to the original bridge builders that the brick arches still hold fast with the half dozen or so concrete blockades still sitting on them !

As the bridge parapet needs rebuilding and many of the old facing bricks need to be cut out and replaced, a certain level of competence is required by my merry men in order to do the work to the required conservation standard.  Naturally modern cement is not allowed nor is it appropriate, instead a hydraulic lime mortar (HNL 5) is being used.  Now the use of lime is in itself a specialist technique and in order to equip the team with the required skills I took them off to my old friends at Ty Mawr on the shores of Llangorse lake near Brecon (www.lime.org.uk).  As it was the first week the group had been together it also served as a good ‘bonding’ session but, most importantly, they learned the basic concepts and practicalities of laying bricks using a lime mortar.  As always the reception was excellent and the valiant service of Ray in providing superb breakfast and lunches was much appreciated.  The venue is a superb place for a course and everyone was bowled over with the magnificence of Ty Mawr, the lake and the whole area.  Sunshine helped quite a bit of course, Llangorse with the rain beating down and the view of the lake blocked out by ten-ten mist quite a different matter.

 

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Installed to block the progress of German Panzers, these 7 ton concrete blockades are easy prey to a modern ‘pecker’ equipped mechanical excavator.

 

The bridge will take a good deal of repairing but once completed it will become another jewel in the canal system.  Its special interest comes from the fact it is a ‘skew’ bridge, which is to say that instead of crossing the canal at right angles (as do most bridges) it crosses at an angle.  This was simply an expedient way of respecting the existing ‘ride’, or bridleway, which the Duke of Marlborough insisted should be retained.  The actual building technique and the angle of the brickwork on the underside of the arch is quite astonishing and in fact, shows the difficulties the original builders had in fathoming out how it should be done.

My old school rugby pitches (West Mon Grammar for Boys, Pontypool) were named after a similar bridge on the Monmouthshire & Breconshire canal (Mon & Brecs.) at Pontymoile. ‘Skew Fields’ still exist and are still the home of the school’s Old Boys rugby team.

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Bridge 99 on the Kennett & Avon Canal – an unusual Skew bridge

The Easter holiday weekend saw me having to address a small wall collapse close to the site of one of my first jobs, over 25 years ago now.  A neighbour at the farm where my collection is housed asked me to have a look at a collapse on a wall which formed the boundary between his land and a neighbour.  It is a ‘hidden’ piece of ground and despite my years of working close to it, I had never actually seen the wall before nor the section of the tilestone quarries from which it gained most of its stone.

DSCF6124 The scar of the quarrying of the micaceous sandstone which roofed the homes and barns of the area for hundreds of years can be traced from this end of the outcrop, just south of Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire to Llandeilo Graban in Radnorshire.  Now just grassy lumps and bumps often covered in bright yellow gorse, the spoil heaps have been invaded by rabbits and, badgers and as here, a nice little nursery for a Vixen to raise her cubs.  I could hear them crying as I walked past.

The collapse is a typical happening on the walls in these parts; they are mostly of early nineteenth century construction and built by gangs during the enclosure of the hitherto open ‘friddoed‘, the better common grazing available to the local township.  By far too much ‘trace’walling, which is to say that instead of the stones being placed so as to penetrate deeply into the wall, they are laid as would bricks be laid, lengthways, was used.  This method of building is typical when a quick build in required and a ‘quick’ build was always desired by builders who got paid for what they put up and then very little.

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The strange thing about walls in this particular part of Carmarthenshire is the height at which they were finished.  Normally a 4ft/1.2 metre height suffices but here the builders have gone on to at least 5ft/1.5 mtrs and here and there, in order to maintain the appearance of a level line running across the land, they have levelled out where dips in the ground occur. So although in one sense the build is not particularly good – notwithstanding it’s been there since about 1812 ! – there are other aspects of the wall that show care and attention.  One of the main problems always with enclosure walls is the paucity of hearting, those stones which pack the centre of the two faces of the wall.  This is a factor of the build method whereby two wallers, facing each other, built the faces while an unskilled labourer threw stones into the middle without packing them tightly.  Thus over time the hearting settles to the bottom of the wall leaving the upper half and more, unsupported.  Gradually the faces start to move, either due to the pressure of stock or snow drift or just the spinning of the earth !  Ultimately a collapse occurs, suddenly and without any logical explanation.  So it was with this particular section, one day the farmer drove past and it was fine, the next it was down in a heap.  As always it had fallen one way and so all the stones were in one field meaning half the day was spent sorting and throwing half of it back over.

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It took me most of the Easter weekend to get it back up but that was in no small part due to my malingering.  It was such an interesting parcel of land and the walls were new to me,  I spent far too much time looking instead of doing.

The remainder of April and into the middle of May was spent with my intrepid Heritage Heroes back in Devizes on the Caen Hill lock complex.  It is a real honour to work with them and a privilege to (hopefully) play a small part in their recovery.  They certainly learnt some new skills and the products of their endeavours were a rather splendid set of steps leading to a viewing area which looked out across the flat open lands towards Chippenham and a dipping platform on the side of one of the feeder ponds for the locks.

They also constructed around sixty metres of access path to enable wheelchairs to get to the viewing platform and painted endless lock gate beams !  Oh yes, and they all completed their City & Guild Landbased studies award and learned something about Wildlife along the way – or maybe that is being too hopeful !

I’ve a few weeks R.&R now before starting it all again with another group on another canal.  However R&R for this Welshwaller means getting back up into the hills to do some quick builds before that happens.  And who knows, maybe I can squeeze in a little excursion to some remote spot for a little holiday.  Stay tuned – I promise to be more productive in the coming weeks, I mean to say, such a long break between posts will see y’all going elsewhere for your coffee time reading….