In a week that will see a new government at Westminster – and don’t think it hasn’t been difficult for me to avoid commenting ! – other significant dates have been somewhat overshadowed. Firstly Friday, the very day which will see wall to wall media coverage on the outcome of the said election, marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war against Germany in 1945. VE day is THE important day of the week to my mind. We might also commemorate the terrible events of 7th May -election day here and the actual day hostilities ended in 1945 – when the largest ocean liner of the day was sent to the bottom of the Atlantic eleven miles off the southern tip of Ireland whilst bound for Liverpool. The sinking of the Lusitania one hundred years ago was one of the most dreadful events of the First World War causing as it did, the deaths of some 1201 souls. The Germans had warned that the liner was sailing into a war zone on her route from New York but no-one actually saw that as a serious threat. Another significant date of the week is the 9th May which, almost incomprehensibly, marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the only part of the U.K. to be occupied by the Nazis, the Channel Islands.
Funny how those highly significant events which determined the future of this country, for instance it was the sinking of the Lusitania which finally brought the United States into the 1st World War and ultimately ensured victory, Victory in Europe and the liberation of the Channel Islands and now, the most dramatic election which will reshape U.K. politics for the next generation, all occur in May. Indeed I remember writing five years ago when the last election resulted in days of bartering by the three parties to find a solution to allow two of them to coalesce. What a week ! A new Government and a parliament full of raging Scots, perish the thought !
As for my week, well… When it comes to going away from home for a night or two I am not the first to pack a bag. Indeed as far as I can remember, the last night I spent away from my lovely bed was 8 months ago and that was one short stay in a travel-lodge. Prior to that it was the 2014 holiday in July ! Maybe that’s not so strange, maybe there are many of you who do not venture far from home either, after all, there’s no place like home … Never-the-less I did succumb to an invitation, albeit one of some years standing, and headed out of Wales to the other side of the Bristol channel and the once sodden county of Somerset. I returned to an area I hadn’t seen for many a year. Indeed it was over 40 years since I performed the duties of a ‘Best Man’ for a college buddy as he wed the love of his life. I left early and arrived, after a three hour drive down reasonably quiet roads and motorways, to a scrumptious cooked breakfast. We sat and chatted and remembered old times, as you do, then he walked me out and through some beautiful Beech woodlands that range over the vast area of the Blackdown . The area is designated an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) which gives it both recognition and protection against unsightly development whilst ensuring the characteristics of landscape and architecture are maintained. It certainly lived up to its billing in my view.
Those of you who are regular consumers of this story will know that I have something of an infatuation with old field boundaries, whether walled or not. Ancient field systems are always on my list of things to seek out and the woodlands did not disappoint. Very ancient banks of earth and stone lined the many paths we walked and stretched off into the dappled light of the Spring leafed beech wood. These old boundaries were large, high and thick and in many places beech trees had seeded and grown on the banks although they were clearly never intended. I was surprised to find that the local stone was white flint. I am familiar with the dark grey and black flint of the east and south of England but had not realised it was present in south Somerset. White flint is unusual, in Wales any flints that are recovered from field walking or archaeological digs are the dark type and are indicative of pre-historic trade, having been brought from those far off parts of the country. Any white flint is normally an indication of the stone having been burnt, intentionally or accidentally. It then resembles marble but there in the woods of the Blackdown white stone littered the ground and blazed from the ancient hedge-banks.
Stone-faced banks of the sort that ran arrow straight through those woods would most likely be Early Medieval if they were in the Welsh uplands but there in Roman/Anglo Saxon/Norman England, who knows !? I had a real thrill wandering with my old Seis Anglo-Saxon pal through his historic landscape. The ancient Forest, the King’s hunting grounds, had much to look at and I was even more intrigued when, later in the day, I came upon a copy of the Domesday Book for Somerset (History from the sources volume by Phillimore Publishers 1980) in which the very names I had seen on the quaint countryside road-signs appeared in the list of those ancient Hundreds and Manors. An Historic Landscape indeed. One thing which was of note was that the woodlands were ‘young’, bereft of any ancient trees which one would expect to see. This was apparently because of the clear-fell which occurred during the first and second World Wars.We walked not many a mile but were subjected to a delicious home-made soup on our return… I began to feel rather large !
A few years ago my old pal had journeyed to my little home in the hills and, on seeing my collection of old farming artefacts, had mentioned that his younger brother was in fact something of a dealer in those type of items ! Now don’t go thinking “Ah, that’s why you went!”, not so; but I couldn’t say no to the invitation to go over and see one of his stalls in a nearby antique centre, well, it would have been rude, don’t you think ? You see, farming and the tools of farming is as varied as the countryside in which it takes place. Hence for me to be in a new land where methods and the tools that effected those methods differed from my area, was enticing. Whereas many of the tools were actually the same or very similar to those that might be found around here, the names were totally different. Of course many of the hand tools were viewed for the first time in my case and there was no way I would not have been tempted to export one or two back home to Wales, just as a comparison you understand! Luckily budget restraints prevailed and only a few small items were acquired.
The area I was visiting was not ‘chocolate box England’ but it was certainly very quaint with thatched cottages dispersed amidst the beech woods, high hedges with mixed species of trees and banks of wild-flowers, both indicative of long established features and, of course, the small country inn. There was no actual village core, as is often the case in areas where the Normans did not re-shape the landscape by creating ‘planted villages’, instead the pub stood some way from the farms which stood some way from the church which stood some way from the old peasant cottages hiding in the dark recesses of the woods. The pub did not bear the name of the hamlet instead it, and many of the other features, bore the name of the local estate as is often the case in rural England. We visited that little inn and I was treated to a super supper in convivial company with real ale and a real fire. We walked the mile or so home along moonlit lanes serenaded by hooting owls.
I slept the sleep of the Gods. The morning dawned bright and after breakfast I was taken back to the home-farm where, forty odd years ago, I stayed during the wedding celebration. I met again the ‘young man’ who had taken me out on that wedding morning to shoot a rabbit which I later ‘pulled out of the hat’ – a top hat actually – as part of my Best Man’s speech. We chatted long in the old farm kitchen and then, much to my delight, got taken to the secret stash of farming bygones which the dealer brother keeps at the farm. Now there I could have signed a blank cheque ! What an array of fascinating hand tools and equipment from a bygone farming era lay in that little shed; I may have to go back sooner than forty years this time !
The other activity to add to the diversity of my week was a morning rebuilding a small collapse on one of my favourite walls down *Gwynfe way but this time it was under the watchful eye of a film crew. With camera in my face, microphone clipped under one of my chins and Wales’ best known TV Naturalist asking the questions it was a little different. Although it is coming up to the second week of May, it was absolutely freezing with a cold wet wind howling up from the south and the poor sound man was having a hard job hearing us above the noise. Iolo Williams has a long history of working in the Welsh environment in his pre-television days and has become well known for his programmes on Wales, its wildlife and wild places but he left the wall repair to me …
I also had to visit another of my old haunts, this time on the other side of the Black Mountain near Pontardawe. Garth is the old estate house of the Pendrell family and I have written much about it in the past. I returned to rebuild a small collapse in a rather high retaining wall which seems to constantly collapse and I know not why – was the discovery of a crow-bar under the debris a clue I wonder !? Luckily I was able to call on ‘my little helper’ who, at over 2 metre tall and blessed with oxen-like strength, found lifting the big blocks no problem at all.
It was a hard day’s work, clearing the fallen mass was not easy. However by late afternoon the last cope-stones on the upper tier were in place. At that point my dear friends Johnny and Jenny took me to see a rather remarkable ‘growth’ in the cow-shed. I’m not greatly knowledgeable when it comes to fungus, indeed so incompetent am I that rather than risk an upset tummy, or worse, I do not ever pick mushrooms or toadstools. I know a man in my old village who grows strange coloured mushrooms in a dark shed on rotting logs of timber and sells them to high class restaurants in London. I wouldn’t even risk those ! The strange but enchanting display which was revealed as the old cow-shed door was opened elicited such a smile from both of us. The frothy-coffee colour and the bell head looked for all the world as if they were porcelain such as can be seen in classy craft shops. But no, these were natural and seemed to be profuse throughout the dark inner sanctum of the byre. Apparently they are the panaeolus semiovatus or egg-head motte-gill and are common throughout the British isles and north America. Common in any dung heap or in fields where dung has been spread they are found from May to November, Common or not I had never seen such an artistic display.
As we are moving into warmer times, supposedly, I’ve been getting the ‘collection’ out of moth-balls ready for some appearances. First to be awakened are the tractors which have been wrapped against the cold and damp of the winter shed. I keep the batteries off the machines and on a trickle charge throughout the winter months so they are ready for action. Tyres will sometimes seep some air and need re-inflating but there is always the slight worry, perish the thought, that they may just have ….perished ! The Standard Fordson is the last to be backed into the hibernation hole and thus has to be the first to be fired up and driven out. She always has leaky tyres especially the front ones but they are the original 1943 tyres so I can hardly complain ! Modern petrol is a real problem when it comes to being left in a fuel tank or in the fuel lines. There is an additive which solidifies and blocks the pipes if left in for more than a few months – lawn-mowers are especially prone to suffer ! Thus the fuel system needs to be drained before being put to bed. So too the diesel which is produced today has a tendency to separate out the various additives which supposedly makes it clean and so it too needs to be drained. The problem with leaving fuel tanks empty throughout the winter is that condensation builds up and creates rusting which eventually creates pin-holes in the metal tank and results in tiny pieces of rust blocking the system especially the carburretor. To avoid this I always fill the tanks with paraffin which does the trick very well but of course I need to remember to drain it before I attempt to start the engines ! Many old tractors suffered the ignominy of a cracked engine block when water was left in the radiator over winter. Modern anti-freeze does two jobs, it prevents freezing of the water but almost more importantly, it stops rusting in the narrow tubes of the block and the radiator so I keep it in all my tractors at a high percentage (50/50) and make sure it is renewed after two winters which is all it is guaranteed for.
The old Fordson is always a temperamental starter but she eventually kicks into life and after running for a while on petrol I switch her over to TVO (tractor vaporising oil) which is definitely her preferred fuel. At 72 years of age this month she is the Queen of the collection and gets away with more than the others ! I drove her out into an early Spring sunshine and got to work on the other two. The ‘Fergie Fach’ was next in line and once the battery was put on and new petrol poured into the tank she fired up first go but the tyres were a different proposition. There’s always been a slow leak in the front left, even when dear old Bryn had her I used to have to go up to the farm regularly to blow it up for him. One day soon it will get fixed as the tyre is beginning to show signs of perishing. Not the same with the rear tyre, the one original Firestone is still on her. I knew it was poorly, for as long as I’ve known the tractor there has been a prolapse on the inside wall, the innards are trying to get out ! I started to pump air into the tyre but nothing seemed to be happening, when I looked to the inner side of the wheel I saw the problem …
I saw immediately that the tyre had finally split open and was a total basket case. Unfortunately a new tyre is a bit out of the question just now, at around £300 including the dreaded 20% VAT it will have to wait a while. As it was pouring with rain I had no choice but to back the tractor into a position where I could remove the wheel and jacked her up. Now a tractor wheel is not light, even on a small grey 1951 Fergie, so care needs to be taken. Luckily the wheel nuts were well oiled and came away easily after which the wheel slipped off the hub. I wheeled it out and rolled it down to the trailer to await the tyre shop. Once I dropped it down on the ground the extent of the rot was clear, it looked like a shark had bitten into it !
The tread was as new indicating how little use this old tractor had experienced. That of course makes the demise harder to bear, if the tread was threadbare well then a new tyre would be expected but this one is like new ! So now I had a three wheel tractor blocking the path of the Massey 35 out of the shed. Nevertheless I decided to start her up. That’s not as simple as just putting fresh red diesel in the tank and connecting up the battery, oh no. The fuel system of the old 3 cylinder engine requires that each cylinder has to be individually bled of air until fuel flows freely. That requires turning the engine over while unlocking the nut that secures the inlet pipe from the injector pump. Each cylinder in turn is loosened and tightened as fuel squirts out. Everything was going fine until the last cylinder and then, out of the blue, the engine stopped starting ! I thought maybe the battery had run low or, perish the thought,the starter motor had burnt out! I put the battery on charge and left it and the tractor alone for the night. Next morning, with a fully charged battery, I tried again but the same ‘no response’ was the result. Fearing it was indeed the starter motor I decided to call in the man who got her running for me a year ago.
A couple of (wet) days later Les duly called by and, fearlessly, shorted the two poles of the starter motor with a spanner – something I never like doing – and the starter motor fired up. So, it was an electrical fault. A spare piece of wire soon found the offending connection and within half an hour all was back to normal.
The 35 is ready for the road, just as soon as a new tyre is fitted to the little Fergie. That just leaves me with one last tractor problem, and another ‘perish the thought’ moment. A while ago I was pulling the International 434 out of the yard when I suddenly felt the wing jump rhythmically. It turned out I had driven over a small piece of batten out of which protruded two four inch nails and of course they had inserted themselves deeply into my rear tyre. Now that tyre also shows signs of perishing but it has some age, about 45 years, and it stood outside for many a year. I was worried it would not be salvageable but hoped a new inner tube would suffice. I drove it down to my good and faithful tyre man in Llandovery, Sammy tyres (Llandovery Tyres & Battery) and I have been pals for longer than either of us would want to remember. He has built a big business with a big reputation but remains the same old ‘local boy’ he always was. He has some really good workers and one of them assured me the tyre would be fine with a new tube.
Have you noticed how, when you try to get one thing done, something else crops up to impede the forward movement. Like when I was hauling the 35 back over the Black Mountain with my old Land Rover Discovery I blew the head and had to get a new one plus all the gaskets etc. This time, with my supposedly much newer and better Discovery 2, I was driving down to Llandovery with my small stock trailer in which was my 434 wheel and punctured tyre when …
Stopped at some traffic lights I suddenly got a waft of hot brakes as a large truck passed in the opposite direction. “He’s got a brake problem” quoth me. When I pulled into Sammy’s yard fifteen minutes later I could still smell it …. When I put my hand onto my rear nearside wheel the skin blistered immediately ! My brake calliper had seized, no doubt from lack of use, and the whole wheel and tyre was about to ignite !
So, for every problem I’ve tried to solve this past week or so I’ve ended up with at least two others !! Now I have to consider whether to replace one or both of my rear brake callipers and probably the pads and probably the housing and probably … Perish the thought, I’m heading for the hills !
Diary of Uncle Dick from May 1915, just 30 years before VE day !
Thursday May 6th Germans attacked. I crawled out to cut barbed wire. Our boys killed two and one surrendered, brought back as prisoner.
May 7th. Awful shelling. many killed incl Capt. Watkins and Lt. Walters.
May 8th. A Regular Hell. Cannot be described. Shelling awful. Our boys have a good name. Our battalion loses hundreds. A. Jones killed.
May 9th. Our battalion relieved. Terrible shelling. Moved a mile back.
May 10th. Issued rations twice. Terrible shelling.
May 11th. Bivouaced in the open near the canal and pontoon. Rob reduced to Sergt. Sergt Lawes P.M.S.
May 12th. Parfitt made Sergt. Major.
May 13th. Artillery dual. We moved near firing line through shells.
May 14th. J.M. Lawes and I lived back of a house. Narrow escape from shell, one hit front of house. Battalion to trenches. May 15th. Battalion in trenches, issued rations. Rather quiet. Germans subdued and rather quiet.
The following week, from Sunday May 16th to the following Sunday, Dick and his comrades were pulled back to a quiet farm where they lived in the barn in dry conditions. Only a CO’s inspection and a “lovely Church parade” broke the pleasant monotony of the week. Thereafter things began to heat up …