Shelley was a frequent visitor to a place I have spent not a little time in myself. He however, arrived long before the landscape that now defines the place was created. By man that is, not by the natural world or some greater being. I wrote last time about the water places that have been a dominant factor in my wanderings of late, so it has carried on. So too has the precipitation that gives those places their core attraction. The amount of rainfall has been quite staggering and the awful flooding in the north of England and in some parts of Wales is heart-rending to see. A flooded home or business is a terribly traumatic event but at this time of year it seems to be magnified tenfold.
There is normally a 2 metre high waterfall here and the bridge on which I am standing is usually a good 4 metres above the river !
Here in Sweet Beulah Land we have not suffered such catastrophes but even here water levels have been reaching historic heights. The 4 metre wide water-course of the river Cammarch which runs alongside the track to my homestead has been quite a sight. There are several waterfalls along the 200 metre stretch but none have been visible for several days, just white water and raging brown soup. At normal levels the river is quite easily crossed with some wellington boots on but this last week it has reached levels which mean there is over 4 metres of water surging down stream. The river Wye in Builth Wells burst onto the town in a surprise attack which caught people and places un-prepared. The worst came on the very day the annual Royal Welsh Winter Fair opened and dozens of parked vehicles were consumed under the swirling waters. A flood on the Wye is powerful and has the effect of not allowing the waters of smaller rivers, such as the Irfon and Ithon, to enter the main flow. Consequently they too back-up and flood and in turn, small innocuous streams and rivers such as the Cammarch cannot enter those rivers so they too over-flow their inconsequential banks and pour out onto unsuspecting fields and roads. I inadvertently found myself crossing the wild gale-swept Eppynt range where wind strengths caused my little box-like car to be at once on both sides of the road. Visibility was zero thus I was ‘flying on instruments’ for mile after mile.
Such was the drama of it all that I and my winter migrant took ourselves off to that place which Percy Bysshe loved so well but never saw in the rawness of winter water which presented to our excited eyes.
The flooding of the valleys of the Elan and Claerwen rivers over a century ago (and again in the early 1950s in the case of the Claerwen reservoir) created the spectacle that is now the ‘Elan Valley’. This dramatic landscape of wilderness and man made lakes lies a few miles west of Rhayader in mid Powys and is the gem in the tourism package of the area. The system of dams which impound the waters of the two small rivers creates some dramatic scenery at all times of the year but when the water levels are so high that over-topping of the stone structures occurs, then it is quite astounding. So much so that even on an extremely windy (dangerously so) and rain sodden Saturday afternoon in early December dozens, maybe hundreds, of cars were roaming the narrow circumnavigation.
The dam of CabanGoch overspills in December 2015
The lowest of the dams, Caban Goch, was over-spilling in a crazy fashion.
The wind was roaring down the reservoir of Caban Goch and huge waves caused the over-spilling water to surge in a deafening cacophony. There is something exhilarating about standing close-by a tumultuous fall even if remaining standing was nigh-on an impossibility. We drove around the lake and through the dense conifer plantation which had deposited large branches onto the road such that it resembled a Christmas tree harvest. On we ventured along the dead-end road towards Claerwen reservoir, past the small dam destroyed in an experimental attack which preluded the Dambuster raid in 1941, past the narrow rocky gorges of the Claerwen river and up onto the dam itself.
A road less travelled, around the lake of Claerwen reservoir.
Around the northern shore runs a stone track which leads to the remote farm of Claerwen and at one time was drivable onward to Teifi pools and Ystrad Flur. In fact the latter length of the road is a section of the ancient Cistercian ‘Monk’s Trod’ which linked the abbey of Cwm Hir to Ystrad Flur. Sadly years of abuse by over-zealous off-road drivers has forced the imposition of a closure to wheeled vehicles and now only the track to the farm is open. It is of course only as old as the reservoir (1953) as the ancient road to the farm now lies under several hundred feet of water.
Nevertheless it is an exciting piece of off-road driving; concentration and slow advance is an absolute necessity as the fall to the water is a threatening adjunct. It is not often I venture out in my Land Rover Discovery and even less often do I turn off the tarmacadam, not least because it is an increasingly unpopular past-time, this road however is an exception and well worth the expense. The remoteness of the farm is awe inspiring, even in a modern vehicle it is quite a far-out place to live. Apparently the post man made a daily trip along the long stony road each day until fairly recently.
The old Claerwen farm has an historical connection with my side of the mountain; in the early years of the twentieth century a lady who lived in an equally remote farm, Nant Ddu, in the pass of Abergwesyn, rode her horse over the windswept featureless mountain for eleven miles to Claerwen where she stabled her horse and then proceeded to walk the eight miles along the track to Ysbyty-ystwyth where she climbed aboard a charabanc which took her the nine miles to Aberystwyth. There she sold her eggs and butter and then set off back, returning home around eleven o’clock at night.
Our journey took us on up the valley to reach the upper two reservoirs of Pen y Garreg and Craig Goch. They too were over-topping the dam walls sending thousands of tonnes of water crashing down the stone faced dams. Dramatic and awesome are words which could be applied to each of the great Victorian edifices which impound and send forth their waters to the sprawling metropolis of Birmingham. The purpose of the massive engineering wonders is often not considered by those who visit the area, neither is the fact that in order to build the reservoirs people and places had to be cleared.
Impressive stone ramparts withstand the deluge on Pen y Garreg.
Time moves on and whilst it suits some to remain antagonistic to those at fault of the ‘clearance’ and subsequent drowning of beautiful Welsh valleys, it seems to me we should make the best of a bad job and enjoy the beauty and wilderness that the many Welsh reservoirs now present to us.
The ‘top’ dam, Craig Goch , is dramatic always but in this state …
On the other hand there is one act of remembrance that I do happily indulge in even though, this year (and most years if truth be told !) it too is often accompanied by a watery back-drop.
The weekend of 12/13 December saw the annual commemoration event in the small village of Cilmeri near Builth Wells. At the side of the main road through the village stands a rather large stone. Passers-by may not even notice it but for Welsh folk it is a significant monument and one which is seared into the nation’s psyche.
The sombre monument to the last true Welsh Prince.
On the 11th December 1282 the last true Prince of Wales was intercepted by soldiers of the English army (Edward 1st) under the command of the Mortimers, There are no certain accounts of how he came to be separated from his army (3 thousand of whom were killed in a battle on the land of what is now Builth Wells golf club) but both the written accounts (50 years or so after the event) record that he and a small band of his escort together with some clergy, became separated, or were tricked into leaving the main force, and he was killed by a lone lance-man. Not until he was dying and supposedly asked for a priest, was his identity revealed. He was then assassinated and his head “hewn from his body” and taken to Edward who was on Anglesey. From there it was sent to London where it was displayed with a garland of ivy (in mockery of a Welsh prediction that a Welshman should one day be crowned King of England) on the Tower of London, where it remained for 15 years !
The ivy wreaths and banner with the blue clawed dragon of Llywelyn, on his grave at Abbey Cwm Hir.
Tradition has it that the headless body was taken north to the Cistercian monastery at Cwm Hir, north of Rhayader. That most prominent of the great abbeys of Wales was itself destroyed at the Dissolution in 1536 (when there were actually only 3 monks left in residence) but a grave stone to the last King of Wales is still honoured.
Llywelyn acceded to the Kingship in 1258 when Henry III granted him the title under the Treaty of Montgomery. ‘Llywelyn ap Grufudd’ or ‘Llywelyn the Last’ was the grandson of ‘Llywelyn the Great’ (there are a lot of Llywelyns in Welsh history !) and ruled in a wildly violent time where constant fighting and strife was the norm. When Edward 1st became king in 1272 (although it was 1274 before he returned to England from the 8th Crusade) he decided to sort the Welsh problem once and for all and began the great castle building for which Wales is now famous – it always puzzles me why the Wales Tourist Board is so keen on promoting the edifices of medieval oppression ! Following the death of Llywelyn, the Welsh had to wait a couple of centuries before the next great leader appeared.
So it is that on the weekend nearest the 11th December a group of Welsh patriots, historians, politicians and mere mortals assemble at Cilmeri and process to the little church of Llanynys beside the river Irfon for a service of remembrance. This year I and an American attended and took part in the services at the church and at the grave in Abbey Cwm Hir.
Llywelyn’s banner is processed to the little riverside church of Llanynys for the 2015 commemorative service.
It was also a meeting of old friends including that wonderful geologist and Welsh historian Dr. John (the rocks) Davies, previously mentioned herein and another friend of mine, equally as noted in Welsh annals, David Petersen (whose Mametz Wood memorial dragon was featured in my tales from the Western Front – Flander’s Fields 2014) whom I had met up with only recently to give some artefacts recovered from the Mametz Wood when I visited in the summer of 2014. There were other friends and associates who I either regularly meet or seldom encounter, so all-in-all it was an enjoyable commemorative event.
I was flattered to be asked to read a poem at the Llanynys service and astounded to be ‘invited’ (more “an offer I couldn’t refuse” !) to give the lecture following the service at Abbey Cwm Hir on Sunday afternoon. (The person due to give the lecture had, in keeping with other ‘off-piste’ happenings of the weekend, turned up on the Saturday …). Both invitations came ten minutes before the delivery ! I have no problem reciprocating the kindness and assistance both the above gentleman give me throughout the year.
The service at the grave of Llywelyn in the precinct of Abbey Cwm Hir.
The singing and chanting at both services was very emotive and my compatriot commented how astounding it is to hear unaccompanied harmonious singing in such beautiful and tranquil surroundings. Tranquil that is apart from the wild wind and rain but that typical Welsh weather added a certain atmosphere to the proceedings. It certainly kept the flags flying vigorously.
David Petersen parades Llywelyn ap Grufudd’s banner at the 2015 ceremony to commemorate the Prince’s death in 1282.
Due to a prior commitment on the Saturday afternoon, Miss Carolina and I had to absent ourselves from the procession to the stone monument where, by all accounts, speeches were given despite torrential downpours and tornado-type winds.
Nevertheless we managed to rejoin the group in the evening at one of our favourite ‘watering holes’, the Neuadd in Llanwyrtd Wells, for a wonderful sing-along Noson Llawen which included the sound of one of my all-time favourite instruments, the piano-accordion.
Our other ‘visit’ was over the Eppynt to the old estate mansion of Penpont on the banks of a raging river Usk. The event that drew us was the Christmas Fair which saw a dozen or so stalls of foods, wines, chocolates and crafts assembled throughout the great rooms of the mansion and the old stables. We had visited a few days earlier to purchase some super fresh winter vegetables and meet up with my old friends Gavin and Davina who are the current owners of the wonderful estate.
The welcoming cafe in the old stable block of Penpont is a really special place to enjoy a hot drink and some CAKE !
I have known them and the old estate for over twenty years and admire greatly what they have achieved in restoring the magnificent mansion, outbuildings and gardens. I also respect the way they have undertaken the care of the land which is a model of sustainable land management which encompasses all the aspects of modern conservation practise and sympathetic entrepreneurial expertise. I only wish other estate owners could have such a low-impact approach to running their estates.
The fair was another chance to meet some folk I haven’t seen for a while and enjoy talking to the craft workers, which is something I always enjoy. In particular the basket weaver and the wood-turner had to endure a long cross-examination but replied to my every question with willingness and enthusiasm. As always, I came away wiser than I arrived !
This lady was a superb basket maker and we had a discussion about Welsh whiskets and the possibility of doing a class in making them!
An all-round busy and enjoyable weekend which left me feeling proud to be a Welshman and grateful for long-standing friends who live their lives in a manner which contributes to the beauty, culture and understanding of this nation.
Then it was back to work, in a still wet and windy landscape. We headed westwards toward the lands of the medieval castle of Carreg Cennen and another encounter with one of Wales’ heroes of yesteryear.
The job was twofold; firstly a short section of drystone wall needed to be rebuilt at an ancient farmstead called Cilmaenllwyd which looks out toward the great castle. It is a farm I have often had to work at and was the place I did much planting of hedgerow trees earlier in the year. The incessant rain had turned the wall site into a real quagmire and there was nothing to do but laugh our way through the two days of building. The ability of a girl from the sunny south of Carolina to keep smiling in such conditions – as well as building an impressive wall – is clearly testament to my ability as a teacher and my charm and efficacy as a host …. (comments not required !)
Whitney Brown is her name not her condition …
We had to strip out an old collapsed field wall on the edge of the farmyard which was not too problematic but at least three quarters of the stone had been cleared away by the digger driver so a great deal of walking to and fro in the sticky mud was needed. Nevertheless we got it back up in two days and retired back to the Neuadd to celebrate.
The great castle dominates the landscape around our current work station.
We then had to return to install forty bird and bat boxes in the woodlands of the nearby Rhandir farm. Rhandir refers to the medieval field strips of the bonded slaves of the Lords of the castle. The river Cennen flows through the narrow valley at the base of the castle on the south side and below the farm called Rhandir is a very interesting structure which is associated with Owain Glyndwr, the 14th century Prince of Wales. Glyndwr fell out with Henry IV in September 1400 and so began the famous Welsh Revolt. This raged for several years and by 1403 most Welshmen had joined the revolt. In that year Owain and his forces laid seige to Carreg Cennen and as part of that he is assumed to have remodelled a natural feature on the flat land adjacent to the river.
Is this really Glyndwr’s Motte on the banks of the Cennen below the castle ?
It is a substantial mound or motte and definitely shows the influence of man on the structure. Around the base is a clear ditch and bank with the remnants of a stone wall. The mound is a good six metres high and around sixty metres circumference. I have asked the oracle (John the Rocks) about it and await his knowledgeable response. For now we have added to the nature of the tree clad mound by installing a dozen or so bat and bird boxes.
The water filled ditch and the stone lined bank around the supposed motte of Glyndwr.
We had to climb up forty trees to affix bat boxes and a smaller number of bird boxes throughout the woodland and along the river bank. It is a fabulous wildlife corridor and is undisturbed for most of the year. The mound itself is now populated by birch, ash and beech trees and is a wonderful habitat. Fortunately I had the tree-climbing services of a younger helper so my duties were more managerial than laborious.
The boxes and the wall were part of the Glastir programme for the farmer and it was a great relief for him to see it completed in the allotted time. I’m not altogether sure that the boxes for bats ever get to be inhabited but Pied Flycatchers and smaller tits certainly grab the bird boxes as soon as they appear.
Miss Carolina fixing boxes on Glyndwr’s Motte below Carreg Cennen.
Luckily the rain held off for most of the day which allowed us to get the job completed without too much damage to us or the fields and woods. However by the time we rejoined to the Friday night Christmas celebrations in the Neuadd the deluge had re-commenced and so it rages.
If the weather allows we’ll get another day of coppicing completed down at a friend’s cottage beside the river Wye at Aberedw and then pack the tools and goretex away for a while and get ready for the celebrations.
The year is ending quietly and slowly, a year which has seen some big changes in the life of Welshwaller and there are yet more changes still to come. For now I wish you all a Happy Christmas. I hope to post a final report before the end of the year as a review and a look forward to the coming year. In the meantime I will conclude my Great Uncle Dick’s wartime diary from 1915. The second Christmas of the war was as unexpected as it was tragic, most had assumed that the Great War would have ended by the Christmas of 2014. By the end of 2015 both sides realised that it would stretch on far into the coming years. Uncle Dick had another two years of trench warfare to endure before his tragic death in January 1918 at the age of 26. Reproducing his diary in this blog has been my way of honouring a member of my family whom I never knew but whose presence was still felt when I arrived in the years after the Second Great War in which uncles took part but thankfully, all came home.
Sunday December 5th 1915. Left Boulogne for Amiens. Stayed the night.
6th. Left for Acheux and reached battalion. Went to Helles Square.
7th. In Helles square. Water up to the waist.
8th. In Helles square. Relieved at night by Jocks.
9th. Changed billets at Belesart.
10th. Instruction on Lewis gun.
11th. Instruction on gun. Removed to flats (?). Having a good time.
12th. Stayed in flats. Moved to (?)
13th. Instruction in (?)
15th. Instruction and rifle inspection.
16th. Firing at Malling (?) range.
17th. Instruction and moved to Beusart.
18th. Instruction and drill in huts at Beusart. Paid in Francs.
19th. Instructions in gun drill.
20th. Instruction in flats (?)
21st. Remove to Mailly.
22nd. In Mailly. Instruction. Good time.
23rd. Easy time.
24th. Firing in morning and firing in afternoon.
25th. A good time. Plenty of noise a good dinner and presents. Concert at night.
26th. Instruction in gun drill.
27th. Working party.
28th. Easy time.
29th. Working party. Digging detail.
30th. Orderly man, easy time.
31st. Relieved medium guns in Mailly. First time for the Lewis guns to fire in the trenches. Instruction and move to Mailly at 2 a.m.
So ends Great Uncle Dick’s war diary for 1915. As always it is understated and contains only the briefest of details. In essence it was notes jotted in a smudged booklet, in pencil, probably never intended to have been read by anyone but himself. It is the sort of diary I keep to remind me where I was working or where I visited so that, at some time, I can look back and be reminded of places and events. It lacks any sense of the wider happenings of the Great War, it reveals nothing of the strategy or tactics of the British army, it is merely one man’s list of his dreary tiresome life on the Western Front in 1915. R.I.P. Private Richard George Cantle of Five Locks, Pontnewydd, Cwmbran. Monmouthshire. Remembered with Honour at the Bicquoy Road Cemetery, Fischeux, Pas de Calais, France.