The early weeks of a new year often leave me somewhat confused; you know the feeling – “Who am I ? “Where am I going?” “Will the pub still be open when I get there?” Oh yes, and WILL Wales beat England ?!
This year some added confusion has beset me, not that the issues are particularly complicated nor difficult to sort out, more that my silly brain has become fixated on them, especially the very words !
The first brain-teaser has to do with a 1960s Aga cooker range. Yes, that’s right, an Aga cooker; a heavy block of iron and steel and something else. It has given me some concerns for many months, it could realistically kill me (and ‘my little helper’), it needs urgent attention and I’be been putting it off for far too long. You see, the problem is that the old cream Aga is in my way. It’s not where one would normally expect to find an Aga, not in the house at all in fact, it’s in a rather fine shed which I NEED to make use of PDQ.
It transpires that around fifteen or so years ago my farmer friend and his son, clearly in the prime of strength and fitness, hauled the old cooking range out of the farmhouse where it had served its owners faithfully for many a year. I haven’t enquired why they felt it necessary to remove the old solid lump, I’m sure it could still be doing sterling service. That they did and how they did it leaves me somewhat in awe. It is so extremely heavy and it had to be hauled up three narrow steps out of the old house, even they do not know now how on earth they managed it. Once outside it was placed on a wooden pallet and forked into the said shed. There it has languished, unloved, forgotten and worst of all, rusting !! The result is that the innards have spilled out. If, like me, you hadn’t realised Aga cookers had innards, then be ready to be amazed. The front and top of the cooker are clearly very solid lumps of iron and steel, the sides and back on the other hand are thin sheet steel. I suspect that when the two Hercules got it out of the kitchen and onto the pallet they were so pleased with themselves and extremely exhausted, that the thought of maybe draining the water from the boiler did not seem important. As the shed into which said Aga was deposited is clad in corrugated metal sheets and as the site is generally quite exposed and relatively high, it suffers from extremes of temperature. In summer it is hot and humid, in winter it is very cold and usually damp.
By now the sides and back of the old Aga have disintegrated into a soft cardboard like material called ‘rusty metal’. In fact most of it has disappeared altogether, leaving the innards and the boiler exposed. It is clear that the boiler, at some time in the past fifteen years -probably exactly fourteen years ago is my guess – froze and the metal was cracked open by the force of the ice inside. It never ceases to amaze me just how strong ice can be, it makes metal seem like glass. The water, when it eventually thawed, was trapped in the innards and aided the rusting process until eventually the whole of the inside of the cooker became exposed. Do you know what is in the guts of an Aga ? No? Neither did I. On the floor all around the cooker lies a large mound of white powdery substance and much more still remains in the old carcass. Obviously some sort of insulation, I deduced; what could a white powdery insulation material possibly have been made of back in the 1950s/60s ? I’ll give you a clue, it begins with ‘A’ and ends in ‘S’, and you definitely DO NOT want to be breathing it in !
The shed had not been opened for years and it was on my mid to do so ever since moving my collection there back in the summer. Having a mini-digger on site for another job gave me the opportunity to clear away the debris and accumulated earth from the door and eventually we managed to force it open. Both myself and the two men with me looked at the white pile, looked at each other, and immediately closed the door again. That was some weeks ago and ever since I have been scratching my head as to how the issue could be resolved. Serious masks is about all I managed to come up with but then, what was I going to do with it ? Clearing that killer material is extremely expensive and fraught with paper-work !
Whilst talking to an old neighbour about the issue, he remarked that when he had taken out his old Rayburn it turned out that the insulating material was bone meal. That raised my hopes and I braved entering the shed to take a closer look. It seemed possible but not certain, I needed confirmation. I then realised that I actually have an Aga in my own kitchen and had it serviced but a few months back. I telephoned my service engineer to ask if he knew what old Agas were insulated with. He didn’t but he put me on to a man in North Wales who refurbishes old Aga and Rayburn cookers. It’s ‘Kheiselgere’ he wrote back. It is actually spelled kieselguhr, presumably a Scandanavian word, and is a diatomaceous earth (known as diatomite) which derives from the silaceous shells of unicellular plants of microscopic size. Confusing isn’t it !? So at least I can now start moving it; I’ve decided to use the powder as an aggregate in a mortar mix I’m about to do to lay a new pathway. I think masks will still be a good idea however …
My second piece of head scratching came when I made one of my usual winter visits to my all-time favourite lakes at Llangorse in Breconshire. I like to go in the winter (as well as all other seasons actually) as there is guaranteed to be a fine collection of over-wintering ducks and geese. There is also guaranteed to be a large flock of ducks around the lake edge car-park waiting for the daily visit of bread delivered by well meaning folk from the area who just love to feed the noisy creatures. This year my attention and interest was drawn to a very unusual member of the flock, I’ve not seen him before on this lake.
I have always been attracted to (what we call) ornamental water fowl but of course, they are only ‘ornamental’ to us as they are not native. In fact the Mandarin duck is from East Asia (the name is something of a give-away wouldn’t you say ?) and is one of the few ducks which is able to perch. The one most commonly seen on farms and in back-yard flocks in this country is the Muscovy which is a much larger bird but still regularly perches in trees. The Muscovy is actually half goose as it has more chromasones than a duck but also one less than a goose, a real French muddle of confused identity. The little Mandarin seems quite at home amongst the large flock of Mallards and some odds and ends of wild-fowl such as Coot and Moor-hen. The bird has the latin name of Aix Galericulata which loosely translated means a diving bird with a colourful bonnet. It certainly has the hat but I can’t say I’ve ever seen it take a dive, but then, it is mid-winter and there’s ice on the lake !
As you can see, there is a right mish-mash of breeds in this flock on the car-park of the lake. The ducks are not the only water-fowl that make Llyn Syffyddyn their winter residence (most of them seem to actually stay all year round !) and there are plenty of Canada Geese, Cormorants and swans to see as well.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, some walling has been required. The same house from which the Aga was removed has been left unattended for many years, probably since the heavy metal object was dragged out. The front garden had been reclaimed by nature with bramble being the dominant species. It is a natural progression when land is reverting back from any form of man made cultivation or management. The bramble spreads over the ground to protect the young saplings which will inevitably stick their young leafy heads above soil and start heading for the sunlight. It’s nature’s way of giving new woodland the chance to take hold in an area which has been cleared of standing trees, naturally through the actions of fire or storm. This little garden was well on its way to becoming a little piece of woodland, the young trees were already poking out through the bramble and their leafy canopy would eventually close out the sunlight to the ground and the bramble would die away to be replaced by woodland plants which like dappled light and shade.
The garden wall has been covered by ground ivy and the roots have penetrated into the heart of the old stone structure. In a couple of places some collapse had occurred, I’m told one of the sections was the result of a sleepy tractor driver failing to notice the bend in the track. Forensic examination of various pieces of grey and black plastic led me to believe it was a Massey Ferguson 100 series, most likely a 135, which had caused the ‘Newton’s cradle’ effect whereby the outside of the wall remained fairly intact whilst the inner face had burst out into the garden – with the result the stones had been covered by later growth and had to be extricated. Ivy is something of a conundrum for old walls. The formation of woody roots in the tight joints and packed heart of the wall causes displacement of stones and will eventually cause the wall to collapse. Except that the ivy then also acts as a corset holding the wall in shape and place, ever increasing the grip it has on the structure until eventually it is the ivy which is actually stopping the wall from collapsing. It is a real problem organisations such as the National Trust which have to decide whether to cut away ivy from old walled gardens and buildings for instance, in the sure knowledge that the ivy is both ‘killing’ the wall but also holding it up ! My problem was not as serious but just as difficult to overcome. Removing the ivy from the section which had been damaged was reasonably easy, even though the roots of the plant were some 5cms/2″ thick. I needed to take the wall down so it mattered not. However, I struggled to free all the other plants from the wall, not least a section of ornamental hedge which had gleefully invaded the tumble of fallen stones. I had already spent several days hacking my way through the brambles inside the garden to get at that side of the wall and there was still much to do. The aim was to free the garden of all such growth in order to try to re-establish a semblance of grace back to the old plot. I eventually came to the conclusion that as the section of wall was now much bigger than I had at first imagined it would be, and as there was still so much to do in the garden, why not get a machine in to do it all for me.
Once the brambles had been cleared and I have cut the young ash and sycamore saplings I got on with rebuilding the collapsed section of the garden wall. It is a pleasure to work with stones that were chosen for a garden wall by a discerning owner or his builder some four centuries ago. Old Red sandstone takes some beating as a walling medium and this wall is right in the geological zone for that sedimentary rock.
A couple of days work for me and one for the machine boys and suddenly the old house looks a bit more ‘cared for’. In addition to rebuilding some damaged walls we also managed to demolish an old dilapidated shed which was something of an eyesore on the edge of the farm yard. Gradually the old farmstead, parts of which date back to the fifteenth century, is being returned to a condition that befits its heritage.
Already the old place, now the home of my collection of old farming artefacts, is starting to begin to look like somewhere I will be grateful to show off as the museum of Welsh farming I hope it will become. The evenings are already stretching out so that I can work on until 5 pm. I’ve brought ‘home’ the Radnor Wheel car and it is safely ‘cwtched’ up in the newly cleaned-out shed. In the next few weeks I’ll move the other two carts into that shed so that all my horse drawn wooden carts are in one place and ready for some restoration work in the early Spring months.
My phone has been alerting me to a number of repairs in need of urgent attention, the usual winter damage on walls often feature here. I need to face-up to getting out into the cold and frosty countryside and do what I do. I so wish there was someone else, younger and fitter, whom I could pass the baton on to. I would be happy enough in the sheds !
I suppose if I insist on using the title of Welshwaller, I need to damn well do it !!