Welcome to New Year in the land of the ‘Werin‘, us long suffering natives of the upland tribes. Actually, truth be told, we are not really that long suffering; whenever I get to feeling slightly oppressed by weather or politics I go and look at the view. For even though I am now ensconced far below the snow line – useful given that last week the hills of the hendre were very beautifully white – I have again discovered the beauty of the middle Towy vale. If I need something more invigorating I head but a short distance to the hill on which I spent a good fifteen years of my walling days rebuilding around 15 kilometres of old enclosure walls.
I am tiring slightly of being constantly asked by friends and relatives “what’s it like to be in a warm house?” Well, actually, it’s warm ! Hopefully not too expensively so but it is genuinely pleasant and the more so for not feeling I have to worry incessantly about getting ill. I know full well that my health definitely suffered from living in a cold, damp house. All in all 2017 promises to be not too bad, except that is ….
Important matters first; I am exceedingly concerned at what kind of performance Wales will manage to put up against the other five nations in the coming competition. Perhaps fearful might be a more accurate expression. I just spent a rather lazy weekend watching the European rugby competition and I have to say it was terrifyingly awesome, the power and pace of the French, English and Irish sides is casting a rather long shadow over the Land of my Fathers. Last year I got to watch the English defeat us rather convincingly in the home of an Englishman. I’m already thinking that might be where I’ll be this year again. There’s something far less painful about being in the victor’s camp, alone and being sympathised with, rather than in the heart of the dismay where even a trip to the take-away will guarantee a half hour of gloom filled discussion.
And then of course there’s Europe ! Do I go across the channel for my hols this year or do I not. Probably yes, I think, but not too far from the places where we are still liked. I have a yearning to head across to the Flanders area again as there have been some new memorials dedicated recently and I did so enjoy the countryside on my brief 2014 visit. Make the most of open borders while we can is my advice !
I don’t imagine I will be journeying to the New World anytime soon, much as I enjoyed the recent BBC2 series on the seasons of Yellowstone. How I would love to go and see that amazing wildlife and astonishing landscapes. On the other hand, as ‘my little helper’ constantly reminds me, there is a bloody great magma pool just below the surface, waiting to blow and exterminate the northern hemisphere. Maybe that will be the solution to what appears to be a somewhat unfathomable future for that land of some 300 million folk.
One place I definitely want to head is back up to Orkney. I visited in 2012 but there have been some major excavations and discoveries since such that I feel it is high time to head north once more. Again my appetite has been whetted by the series ‘Britain’s Ancient Capital’ which BBC2 has just aired. In any case, planning a long trip is an excellent way of spending the long dark nights of January.
Another enjoyable pursuit has kept me entertained for the last couple of months and appears to be likely to take up much of the year. You may recall I mentioned a little project I have been working on, the strange contraption that is the Radnor wheel-car. Well I have also become very immersed in the story of the wheelwright family who made them.
The wooden ‘car’ is something of a hybrid vehicle, neither cart nor sled. It’s evolution has been the subject of much conjecture since first being academically introduced in the 1930s by Cyril Fox (later Sir) the then head of the National Museum of Wales. He stumbled across one outside a wheelwright’s shop in the small hamlet of Gravel Arch near Llanbister Road ( a station on the Swansea to Shrewsbury line north east of Llandrindod Wells) deep in the hills of Radnorshire. He ultimately acquired an example for the museum which was housed at the Museum of Welsh Rural Life at St. Fagans.
I have absolutely no recollection of when or why I became interested in this strange artefact of agricultural transport but I remember well the important breakthrough I had in finding one. I was on the trail of an old tractor, a 2nd World War era Standard Fordson ‘N’, and had been pointed to one in the small village of Beguildy in the Teme valley in Radnorshire. In fact it was only just in Wales for the river forms the boundary thereabouts. The tractor was in an old shed where it had languished unloved for over fifty years and for ‘not a lot’ of dry stone wall repairs I got to take it home.
Whilst working at the farm – and as is my wont, peering into all the old dilapidated sheds and barns, hedgerows and overgrown corners of fields – I spied under a collapsed roof of an old wain house something that made my heart jump. Disbelieving I might have, at long last after several years of fruitless searching, found the by now mythical ‘whilca’ (as it is known in the local dialect) I gingerly began removing the debris of the collapse. It was both energising and worrying; firstly the excitement coursing through my veins, secondly the tilestone roof which threatened at any moment to crash down upon me. Some forensic archaeology and gentle excavation was the order of the day. After several hours, the passing of which I did not notice, I eventually got to see the whole vehicle in its wonderful sadness. I’m certain that the farmer and his wife thought I was a total basket case (they certainly thought the wheel-car was), he could not understand why on earth I wanted such a heap of rotten old wood. “Take it if you want it”, he said, “there’s a few other old bits in the next shed you might be interested in too”. Well of course there was, the whole damn place was of interest to me ! But without doubt the wheel-car was the absolute Holy Grail.
Then the story gets into one of those spirals of intrigue that only truth can construct, no author would dare to imagine such preposterous coincidences. In the early months of 2009, some three years after my acquisition of said wheel-car, I was at a meeting in the Metropole Hotel in Llandrindod Wells. The occasion was the first getting together of the team of crafts folk, musicians, cooks and choristers, artisans and bureaucrats who were going to be the Welsh contingent at that year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival. During a break for coffee I found myself sitting next to a dignified gentleman from the Welsh Museum of Rural Life, the very eminent Ray Smith. His craftsmanship over decades had brought back to life many of the wooden decorative items of the old buildings and furniture. He had, at that time, recently completed the Rood Screen which adorns the wonderfully reconstructed St. Teilo’s church, it is a carving of such astonishing exquisiteness that it defies my understanding of how a man could make it. We got to talking about what the Museum was going to send over, it being the repository of the treasures of Welsh folklife artefacts. It transpired that there was to be none, just Ray and a couple of other craftsmen demonstrating their skills. I mentioned that it had been mooted that maybe I should send over a few of my items including a couple of carts. Ray told me his family had been wainwrights in Radnorshire, I told him of the wheel-car, he told me it was his grandfather that had made the wheel-car in the museum. I was dumfounded, a link to the very man and the very rare wheel-car that Sir Cyril Fox had acquired back in 1929.
That maker was Aeron Lewis of the Gravel Arch wheelwright shop. The family were generations in the same trade, at least as far back as the early 1800s. Father gives way to son, Aeron succeeded by Stanley. Stanley was the maker of the very nice example of a Radnor Wheelcar that sits, somewhat ignored, in a shed at the Acton Scott Working Victorian Farm near Church Stretton in Shropshire. It spent its life on a farm in the hamlet of Llangunllo near Presteigne and was sold (too cheaply the man who sold it tells me !) to Ralph Oldham from whom it passed to Acton Scott. That original owner is Frank Jones of the Crungoed at Llangunllo, a man I had the privilege to meet and record his memories of the’smellpost’, which is another ‘nick’ name it was given due to its apparent habit of ‘sniffing’ out gateposts as it was squeezed through by the horse and trace chains.
Aeron begat Stanley who begat the next in the chain, a man who I miraculously managed to find thanks to that original contact back in the Metropole hotel, Ray Smith. The last in the line of wheelwrights (for the Gravel Arch Wheelwright shop is no more) is Harold, an outstanding man whose memory, thank goodness, is indefatigable. Mind you, it is greatly assisted by the fact that he fortuitously decided to keep all the records of the Lewis’ business going right back to the early 1800s ! Yes, that’s right folks, he has the business records, large account books, listing every day of work, every tree felled, every saw sharpened, coffin made, grave dug, gambo made, wheel repaired and wheel-car made or repaired.
The photograph is of Harold outside his family home and the old workshop of the Lewis’. He has allowed me to interview him and given me access to these priceless documents and I intend to write the history of the family business. In the meantime I’m researching the wheel-car, its geographic boundaries of use, the variations in manufacture that may indicate detail changes in the family line and the other wheelwrights in the area of the Radnor Forest who also made them.
As a starter, myself, Harold and Mike Davies the wheelwright who made the new wheels for my ‘whilca’ headed off to the National Museum of Wales at St. Fagans to take a good look at that original and famous (well it will be after I’ve finished my doting !) example made by Harold’s grandfather nearly a century ago.
I am indebted to the curator, Gareth Beech, for arranging our visit and welcoming us so heartily. He came up with his own amazing collection of documentary artefacts including the original letter ordering the vehicle for the museum.
As for my very own example, ten years in the waiting, it is nearing the end of the restoration and will be exhibited at a number of shows this coming summer.
I know what you are thinking, “where’s the dry stone wall stories !?” I’m sorry, I just get too excited about these oddities from the past. I promise next time I’ll get back to the day job, in fact I think I’ll show y’all how to build a dry stone underground nuclear shelter along the lines of those astonishing Neolithic chamber tombs on Orkney. What ? You think I can’t do that ….