And when they’re up they’re up, and when they’re down they’re down, but when they’re only half way up …

23/08/2015

So,here we are, the middle of August and the weather is more like October and my productivity is more like January – zero !!  I am struggling to make inroads into two walls that have been awaiting my attention for over a year !  The one wall is just one of those that needs to be totally ignored, in the sense that it is a little daunting and therefore it’s best not thought too much about.  Just turn up (now and then, with an increasing amount of then!) and get on with it.  I find the mental aspect of the build has always been one I can conquer more quickly than the building side.

The wall is a mortared retaining wall about 4 metres high and the section is 8 metres long.  It is a slate wall built from the waste of the quarry which the estate operated for a century and more during the C18th and C19th.  I estimate the wall to have been built during the second half of the C18th when much of thebuilding of the ornamental gardens, the walled garden and house extensions, were carried out.  Unfortunately, sometime later, a yew hedge was planted very close to the edge of the bank which the great wall retains – the ground being all ‘made-up’.  Whilst most of the roots of the now 3 metre high and 3 metre thick hedge have tracked back into the soil of the raised ground behind, some have worked their way down into the double faced wall and over the years sections have regularly collapsed.  The growth of woody roots in the middle of a closely packed wall will force stones in the face to move outward and eventually a bulge occurs. The gap thus formed is prone to filling with water during periods of heavy rainfall and it is usually this factor which causes the ultimate collapse of the section.  This particular collapse had been threatening for years as the bulge became increasingly noticeable and acute.

Retaining wall of lime mortar and slate

Going up quietly. The stone is generally quite thin and hence progress in the vertical plane is slow – even when I’m there !

It finally came crashing down the winter before last – yes, in early 2014 !  For various reasons I have not been very good at getting there to begin the rebuild.  One of my hopes in delaying was that the yew hedge – the roots of which can be seen amongst the fox-gloves and the overhanging trees are visible on the left – would actually tumble out.  It has had 18 months and been subjected to terrible deluges and high winds over much of that time and it hasn’t moved a centimetre.  It ain’t going to fall.  In essence then, all that is going to collapse out of the earth bank has done so and thus I can happily build the wall back up without having to concern myself that the retained earth is going to come down on me !

As can be seen in the photo, the wall, whilst being a retaining wall, is still built as a ‘double’, which is to say it has two faces and a middle.  It is quite common in large retaining walls that such a strong wall is built, at least in previous centuries.  It suggests that the wall was built and then the ground was filled in and raised to the required height.

As the mansion is a Grade 2 listed building it therefore means everything (that has been built) within the curtilege is also listed and thus must be restored in a manner that recreates the original.  I am fairly sure that the local Listing Officer is supposed to be notified and his agreement sought on the methodology of any restoration but the owners of the estate seem to consider they are above such menial bureaucracy and would be quite happy for me to use a modern cement.  That ain’t the way I work I’m afraid but I have compromised on the type of lime mortar.  As several sections of the old wall have previously fallen and been rebuilt with total disregard to the historic integrity, even to the point of using horrid concrete blocks, I don’t imagine my contribution will diminish the stature of the old wall.  I am using a hydraulic lime (3.5) and a mix with sand of 4:1. On a good day, with the size of the stones and the fact they have to be dug out of the pile into which they were heaped by the digger driver, I’m lucky to get 2 square metres built.  But I’m on a schedule and I need to get going, up up and away !  Shortly I will have to erect my scaffold and then the job really slows down as every bucket of mortar and every stone has to be lifted upon to it !  To add to my problems I drove down to the local builder’s merchant to get another six bags of mortar, loaded it into the back of my vehicle, went in to sign for it only to discover the account had been suspended for non payment !  Not just one month, not just two months, oh no, the local gentry in the big mansion had not paid their March, April, May, June nor July bills !  I am more than surprised my signing for materials during the last three months was not stopped sooner.  It’s nothing to do with lack of funds, oh no, it’s just a total couldn’t care attitude to such matters.  At least the local peasants get to have a laugh at their expense !

The other on-going job is at another grand house in the village of Beulah, in fact it was the original Manor house (and later Vicarage) which dates back probably into the C17th if not earlier.  I have done work there before and again lime mortar is required.  This time it is at the insistence of  the owner who wants to ensure all restoration is carried in out in the best traditional way using conservation techniques and materials.  His sympathetic restoration of the Manor house is producing some excellent results.  Paradoxically the job I am currently doing for him is a garden wall which is practically a ‘trompe l’oeil’  in that I am cladding a concrete block retaining wall (which he built some years ago but which also was built with a lime-putty mortar !) with old building stone so that it appears to be a much older wall.  Again I am using a 3.5 hydraulic lime and sand but in a stronger mix of 2:1.  The benefit of hydraulic lime lies in two main areas, firstly it can be easily mixed in a conventional cement-mixer whereas a pure lime putty/aggregate needs to be mixed in a horizontal mill, which is to say it is not tumbled but rather ground together as are the ingredients in a mixing bowl rather than tumbled.  Secondly it cures much more quickly than lime-putty – a factor of the chemical processes of production – which facilitates a quicker build time as further courses can be added within 48 hours.  I tend to build about 4 courses over the 5 metre length and then leave for a full week before returning.  Traditional lime mortar needed much longer to cure, probably over a month and hence is a much slower building material.  I am not ‘dubbing-out’ the joints (pointing if you like) but rather just leaving whatever mortar can be seen in between courses and stones to resemble an old wall in which the mortar has begun to fall out.  This also encourages more plant growth in the crevices created.

While I’m busy in the garden the owner is diligently dubbing’out the walls of the manor.  He is high on a scaffold, up near the barge-boards of the roof.  I came back from the garden – some 200 metres or so from the yard – only to see him up on the scaffold dressed in his bee-keepers outfit.  Apparently he was working near the entrance to a nest and he was concerned not to be stung as he had recently – after years of keeping bees and many stings – suffered  anaphylactic-shock after a sting on the head.  It is thought that a build-up occurs within the body after so many stings that eventually, after years of no reaction, triggers such an event.  In addition to his ‘space-suit’ he now carries an adrenalin pen with him at all times.

Bee keeping up high

Bee careful up that scaffold Ivor ! It’s not often you see a man pointing a wall dressed like this !

I am going to have to get a move on with both these jobs, lime mortar is especially susceptible to temperature, too hot and it dries out too quickly, too cold and it doesn’t cure effectively.  We could get either types of weather in the next month or so !

The other major job has been down in the Ebbw Vale area where the old mountain wall has been slowly being brought back to stock-proof status.  As part of the contract I had been asked to run a two day dry stone walling course for volunteers from the Gwent Wildlife Trust and staff members together with some other locals who had expressed an interest, including some ‘white-collar’ workers from the local council, Blaenau-Gwent.

After a morning in the classroom, which luckily was the wet part of the day, we had an afternoon stripping out the several collapses which I had left and preparing the wall for rebuilding the next day.  Working in pairs they all did exceptionally well.  Not only did they all complete the stints I had given them but they all built in such a good manner that none of the work had to be taken back down again – and that is quite unusual for a walling course !

Wallers under tuition

These two ‘Men of Gwent’ are local school teachers who also do volunteer conservation work – they were not half bad for school teachers !

Two of the participants were school teachers which , in normal circumstances can often prove problematic – “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach” (and those that can’t teach, teach teachers …”), but these two, being men of the valleys, took to it like a clout ’round the head and actually seemed to enjoy it.  Giving up days of their hard-earned holidays to come walling …..

The two council folk took some ribbing about their hours of work – they always seemed to have to go off to meetings … ahem – but they did fine and they too seemed to relish the chance to be out in the open having a go at something which they had often been involved in commissioning or grant aiding but had never known anything about.

There were two members of staff of the Wildlife Trust who also performed well and worked very hard, indeed the local based worker, Chris, had been with me man-handling some fifteen tonnes of stone for several days prior to the course and grateful I was to him.  The site was impossible to get near with a truck, neither was it possible to get a tractor near the wall and yet, somehow, the stone for the rebuild had to be got to site.  The first loads which had been tipped some 300 metres down the slope by the council was brought up using a power barrow borrowed from another Gwent Wildlife site.  It served the purpose but was difficult to handle on the steep sloping ground, and the narrow track did not allow for tipping so all the stone had to be handled into the barrow and out again.  It also was not particularly well maintained and starting difficulties resulting in a broken pull-cord on more than one occasion !  Nevertheless it did the job and a good job too !

Tom of GWT drives the power barrow - he seemed to always appear when mechanical aids were about but seldom when manual handling was needed !

Tom of GWT drives the power barrow – he seemed to always appear when mechanical aids were about but seldom when manual handling was needed !

The other ten tonnes came from a quarry down the Swansea valley and came in one tonne dumpy bags.  A four-wheel drive dumper was hired in and a competent operator borrowed from another GWT site to transport the bags several hundred metres up a steep and narrow mountain track to a position some thirty metres or so above the wall.  From there the stone had to be thrown down the slope to land, or rather be stopped, by a wire fence which runs next to the wall.  This Chris did with much aplomb likening it to both scrum-half training and cricket practise.

Luckily every last stone that had been thrown down to the wall was found a place in it; no-one wanted to have to carry it away again.  The second day was fine and bright and everyone worked hard and seemed to enjoy themselves.  I was more than happy to spend a little time clearing the site at the end of the day and bid farewell to the scenery of the Ebbw valley.  I’m to re-visit in October to take part in an open weekend talking and teaching about how important walls are for wildlife and showing folks how to build appropriate birds nests and creep holes and hideaways for critters !

The finished restoration of the mountain wall. This is the first time anyone has touched it for a long long time.

The finished restoration of the mountain wall. This is the first time anyone has touched it for a long long time.

The thing with a mountain wall rebuild, where you put all your skills and effort into doing a good job, is that generally speaking no-one gets to see it, except the animals that live thereabouts.  We encountered hundreds of froglets during the two days of the course, they had crawled out of the nearby pond and were making their way upwards, following some unknown call that no doubt generations of frogs before them had followed.  The ground was alive with them and at first they looked like flies crawling around so tiny were they.  I was interested to see if any actually got through the wall to continue upwards or whether the wall was their final resting place.  Sure enough, by the second day, hundreds started to appear on the up side of the wall continuing their upward journey.  Lizards were common too and the odd toad made an appearance.  Sheep were not very visible but some other interested parties came by most days to see the progress …

Highland Cattle

He had a very judgemental attitude, each afternoon he stood and watched for an hour or so …

I have to say there is something very enjoyable about working with Valleys folk.  It’s where I was brought up and even though it’s many years since I moved north, there is always a ‘Welcome in the hillsides’ of the valleys communities and a great sense of humour and joy amongst those that live there.

There has also been a little fun during the last few weeks, Vintage fun that is, some ‘steamy’ afternoons the details of which I will bring you in the next post.

 

In Flanders, one hundred years ago, my Great Uncle Dick was showing increasing signs of fatigue and frustration.  For the week beginning Sunday 15th August right through until the Wednesday of the following week (25th) he was involved in making roads.

On Wednesday 25th they returned to the line and started digging trenches at night in front of the forward positions.  This went on for four nights until heavy rain and lightning (which would obviously have silhouetted them to the enemy) made it too impossible to continue.

In the week beginning 29th August 1915 the company were engaged in more road building alongside Engineers.  The frustration shows through in the diary until on the Thursday night they marched through the night in full battle order “over very bad roads”.  The following night they marched again to their new position near Acheux.

 

 

 

Men of Steel (published on the 70th Anniversaryof the Hiroshima bomb)

06/08/2015

Steel is on my mind just now. I am conscious of the fact that few of you will remember anything of which I write this week, fast fades the eventide …

The first item on the agenda is the commemoration of events 70 years ago (6th August 1945) when, at a few seconds after 8.15 in the morning, local time, a brilliant flash of light extinguished the lives of sixty thousand people.  A few seconds later a high decibel ‘bang’ deafened those that were left and this was quickly followed by frightening winds as the atomic wave swept outwards from the epicentre of the air burst.  Little Boy had exploded above the ancient – and mostly wooden – city of Hiroshima in Japan.  The men who had delivered the bomb were already some miles away when the flash occurred and soon they were to witness the sight which we all now immediately recognise, the great mushroom cloud.  Three days later Fat Boy exploded over Nagasaki, a different bomb but of almost greater enormity.  Those were the first and the last nuclear bombs exploded in anger that the world has ever had to endure.

Although those events of seventy years ago happened before I joined the human race, they have been influential in my life.  Firstly they framed the world of fear into which I was born, culminating in the (what seems today) unbelievable rehearsals for the ending of the world which accompanied the Bay of Pigs crisis in 1962.   How I remember the prayers at school assembly and the delicate way our Religious Education teacher tried to prepare us for the ending of the world !  Secondly the ‘safety net’ of our own ‘nuclear deterrent’ has given my lifetime an easiness which my forefathers never had.  Despite the awful wars and troubles that have pervaded the world since those terrible days in August 1945 we should all remember, absolutely with anguish, the events which secured that fear of all out total war, MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) as it became known.

It is certainly something which has been etched, for whatever reason, into my mind and a few years ago I stood in stunned silence, awe even, as I gazed down into the cockpit of the very aeroplane which had delivered the bomb to Hiroshima.  The B29 Enola Gay was named after the mother of the pilot who flew it the 1500 miles from the island of Timian to Japan on that fateful morning all those years ago.  Tibbets was the first man to bomb Tokyo in an audacious attack launched from an aircraft carrier in 1942 and he  dropped one of the bombs which ultimately ended the war against Japan.

Atomic Bomber - Enola Gay

The plane that delivered the first atomic bomb to Hiroshima on August 6th 1945 is now in the Uber-Hazy/Smisthsonian aeronautical museum at Dulles International airport outside Washington D.C.

Of all the historic items I have seen, looking down at that plane has had the most profound and lasting impact upon me.  It happened but a few years ago, a long long time after any conscious level of concern or thought on the matter occupied my mind.    As well as that shock which I felt at seeing that shining metal deliverer, for shock it was, I had another encounter with the reality of the dropping of the Atomic bombs.  Many years ago I met and talked with a man who witnessed the second bomb drop, a British pilot who went along as an observer.  Leonard Cheshire V.C. was an experienced bomber pilot himself and flew Pathfinder missions for the huge bombing raids that decimated German cities in the latter years of the war.  It is often written that such was the effect on him of seeing the Atomic explosion and the aftermath that he dedicated the rest of his life to helping disabled people.  In actuality that was not strictly the case; I had a chance encounter with him and another famous British war-time pilot, Douglas ‘Tin-legs’ Bader in the early 1970s and their thoughts on the matter of war as a means to ending conflict had a substantial effect on my subsequent view of the world. This week take a moment to remember an event that changed our world forever.

The ‘steel’ of men like Tibbets and Cheshire often comes to the fore in times of great need, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” and all that but there are other ‘men of steel’ whose lives are less notable.  I have been working in a place where such unsung heroes grafted their lives away.

The south Wales valleys are renowned as the centre of Britain’s industrial heritage.  Coal is the foremost of the great industries that ruled the region but iron and steel had their place.  The early pioneers of iron making, such as the Crawshays, came to the heads of the eastern valleys where limestone and iron ore were easily accessed and where coal and water were plentiful.  The valleys of Gwent in particular were hot-beds of iron and steel production for nigh on two hundred years.  One of those valleys is my current work station although my subject pre-dates by a few centuries, the coming of the Industrial Revolution.

Old mountain wall, Ebbw Vale

This old wall is getting some TLC, a bit of tidying up which is purely for aesthetic reasons ….

The valleys are an interesting place archaeologically, not merely for the industrial heritage.  The steepness of the valley sides and the very little flat land alongside the rivers which gouge out the valley bottoms meant that early agriculture took place on the higher open tops and small plateaus or ‘blaenau‘.  There are many prehistoric sites on the flat open ‘mynydd’ (moorlands used as grazing for the old farm townships) and several early Christian sites mark the coming of the Celtic Saints in the early years of that faith arriving on these shores.  The Romans have left their mark too with long roads and forts marking the route northwards from Cardiff, via Gelligaer, and onwards to Brecon.

There are many indicators of Early Medieval Welsh settlements with place-name evidence and boundary markers such as long ‘cross-dykes’ as well as yet more ancient ridgeline trackways.  All these exist above the steep valley sides which, along with the valley bottoms, were and still are in places, heavily wooded with deciduous native trees.

Thus it is not surprising that any field systems are also to be found on the higher ground and due to the harshness of the wind and the heavy rainfall, the boundaries of these fields are dry stone walls.  It is certain then that any walls, and there are many, which stand on the open inter-valley moors pre-date the coming of the industrial revolution.  Straight away therefore we know we are looking at walls that, at their latest, must have been built by 1800.  In fact in most cases the field systems and their walls are centuries earlier.  It is likely the one I am rebuilding is at least as old as the Acts of Union in 1536 when, together with Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries,  land ownership changed dramatically.  Prior to that date much of the area was farmed as Grange farms –Mynachdy – of the great Cistercian houses of Tintern, Llantarnam and Margam.  Indeed the very area in which this current wall sits was a heavily fought over landscape changing ownership between Margam and Llantarnam several times.

The industrialisation of the area saw the establishment of a large steel works owned by the firm Richard, Thomas and Baldwins or RTB to everyone who lived in the valleys.  The very site of that great works lies just below my work station and right next to me is a now (thankfully) disused tip which is undergoing ‘greening’ following years of dumping.  But that tip itself was created from waste land which once was the site of a great slag tip, waste from the Bessemer process in the blast furnesses below.  The route of the old tram-way sits directly below me, marking the route down to what was a huge smoke and pollution belching Dante’s inferno.

Over six thousand men worked there and it provided much needed and highly paid (relatively) employment to the community.  With its closure back in the 1980s dereliction and depression was the lot of those who lived on in the old lines of workers cottages.  In the early 1990s Michael Heseltine came up with the idea of Garden Festivals in several of the bigger ‘depressed areas’ and Ebbw Vale was chosen as one of those sites.  It was a short-lived piece of theatre and included some upgrading of the old derelict industrial sites and, in my opinion anyway (but then I didn’t live there !), it was a fun event and provided a much needed lift to the whole of the valleys.

Today the old steel-works site is no more, replaced by light industry, offices and social amenities.  The Garden Festival site is now a retail area and nice new houses – occupied by commuters who drive to Newport and Cardiff to their high paid office jobs.  On a part of the old works site sits the offices of my current hosts, Gwent Wildlife Trust and through them the wall is being renovated for the local Blaenau Gwent Council.  I just wish somehow we could tell the story of the wall and what it represents in the different layers, the palimpsest, of the valleys.  I was left pretty speechless the other day when two old men came walking up to see what I was doing.  They told me the story of their lives, of the years spent in nearby Graig colliery for one of them and a similar duration spent on the rolling mill of the Steelworks for the other.  They thought what I did seemed like a “hard way to make a living”.  Men of steel think I have it hard !!  What could I say…

I mentioned in my previous post an enjoyable event at Ty Mawr on the shores of Llangorse Lake.  150 years ago, on the 28th July 1865 a bunch of Welsh folk landed on the shores of Patagonia to establish their very own Welsh community in Argentina.  Whilst the first arrivals came mainly from the South Wales valleys, indeed four were from the very steelworks town I mention above, the original drive came from America.  A non-conformist preacher, Prof. Michael D. Jones, was concerned at the disappearing Welsh culture in the New England states as America evolved out of the multi-cultural nation it once was.  He persuaded 153 settlers(28 married couples, 33 single men, 12 single women and 52 children) to pay the £12 fare (£6 for children) and sail with him in the converted Tea Clipper the Mimosa.  It was not a comfortable journey that they undertook from Liverpool in the summer of 1865.  Nor was it a comfortable place they arrived in, a lack of farming skills was just one of their problems.  After some time on the coast the settlers pushed inland to the high plateau area of the Chibutt valley.  They endured a hard winter with little food and things looked very bleak for the survival of the colony.  Rachel Jenkins came up with the idea of cutting irrigation channels from the river in order to bring some fertility to the land and by 1885 the 50 mile stretch of the river had become the finest wheat growing land in all of Argentina, producing some 6000 tons of wheat in that year.  The twenty years in between were very hard but the colony survived and prospered and the Welsh language prevailed.  Today Welsh is still spoken and it is reckoned there are over fifty thousand descendants of those first settlers.  Y Wladfa Gymreig (Y Wladychfa) stands as a great tribute to those early pioneers who braved all to ensure the survival of their language and their culture.  Men and women of steel indeed.

My own ‘Man of Steel’ was enduring his own hardship and fight for survival 100 years ago. Great Uncle Dick was finding it increasingly hard to write and even harder to write anything cheery:

Sunday 1st August 1915.  Working at night with engineers.

2nd (Bank Holiday – ha ha) Easy day and night.

3rd.  Stand-to at 2 o’clock.  Digging party till 2 o’clock pm .  Tiring

4th.  Working party in afternoon.

5th.  Working party taking roofs off houses.

6th.  Working party digging in shell holes.  Happy as Rasputin.  (A very funny phrase indeed !)

7th.  Widening track for a patrol and rations at night.

8th.  Working party carrying Tank R.E.

9th.  Working party clearing roadway with R.E.

10th.  Working with R.E.

11th.  Learning trenches

12th.  Working party laying road.

13th.  Back at  Loneville.  14 mile route march.  Col. Jenkins commander

14th.  Working party with R.E. Route march to (?) at night 7.30

August is come, and cold windy days remind me of typical school holidays.  Soon Welshwaller will finish the repair at the Ebbw Vale site and begin walking the not so long and winding road that leads me to a quietier time, yes folks, Welshwaller is approaching retirement !!  Whether that means I won’t have any more walling tales to tell you is questionable, apparently there are several jobs I have forgotten about …

For now, I’m looking forward to another day of Steel, it’s the Steam fair at Three Cocks Vintage…. watch this space !!

Tales from the River Bank.

24/07/2015

Summer evenings are best spent near water, at least that’s my view.  Nothing gives me greater pleasure than wandering along a river bank, stream side, canal bank or even the sea shore.  Notwithstanding one is likely to be driven to diving into the water by the endless aerial attacks of flying insects, most of which are unseen or unheard, evening shadows over water are sublime.

Weeping Willow on Thames

Old Father Thames slips by under this magnificent Weeping Willow.

I have recently had several such encounters, in between an assortment of small walling projects and the inevitable timber hauling.

The river Thames is not a water-way I have much to do with, indeed for the past twenty years or so my contact with it has been limited to the occasional bridge crossing as I head into or out of west London on a family visit or, more commonly it seems, arriving or departing from Heathrow.  Earlier this month, and indeed connected to a Heathrow appointment whereby my usual summer migrant was heading home to America, I had a more leisurely encounter with Old Father Thames.

Not wishing to risk a nervous drive from the wilds of Wales to the chaos of Heathrow and the M4 in time for a midday check-in, I thought it best to get near the evening prior to departure.  In fact we decided to make the journey eastwards a pleasant countryside poodle and thus we set of early the day before and headed for Hereford and thence the Cotswolds.   I had found an interesting camping site on the banks of the Thames at Benson just south of Oxford and thus a scenic route through dry stone wall country seemed appropriate.

Hereford is usually a traffic nightmare with its classic historical position as a focus of routes and the single crossing of the Wye.  The current ring-road is a constant nose-to-tail crawl whichever direction one is heading and thus it is common for a circumvention to last well over an hour !  Our journey was even longer as we got stuck behind a large and very slow chicken-processing lorry, the driver of which was clearly in no rush to reach his destination.  By the time we had cleared the city on our eastward journey lunch beckoned, whereas I had hoped to be pulling in for elevenses somewhere near Ledbury !  Tewkesbury was my intended lunch stop but time had gotten the better of us so we drove on through Stow and eventually pulled in to the charming Cotswold town of Chipping Norton.  Naturally my fellow traveller felt immediately at home as ‘Ooos’ and ‘Aahhs’ emanated from her lips and joined forces with the dozens of other New World accents which floated through the ancient streets.  My, how the Americans love the quaint and quintessential Englishness of an old Cotswold town !

We took afternoon cream-tea in a typically adorned ‘salon de te’ and I have to say it was delicious !!  A wander around the town, stopping to peruse the estate agent’s windows and the country-wear clothes shops confirmed our view that this was not somewhere we could afford to live !  So off we set toward Woodstock, a town which occupies a small part of my history.  I drove into the main street, past the Bear Hotel and on to the entrance to Blenheim for a sneak preview of what will apparently be a little birthday visit for me… we’ll see !

Shortly after leaving the historic town we entered the white-water rapids of the Oxford ring road, its raging torrent of fast moving cars and lorries re-affirmed my ‘town mouse / country mouse’ status.  Fortunately we had a very short distance in that melee before turning south toward Benson and the campsite.  Let me say that it was THE most amazing little venue; a small marina on the Thames has grown into an idyllic chalet, caravan and tent holiday venue.  It has a lovely restaurant right on the river, an ideal place to sit and wind-down after a long drive.

Canadian Canoe at Benson

What a lovely way to canoodle down a river …

The river bank was a real nature haven and as we walked I said, “I wonder if we’ll see a King Fisher”, and at the very moment one flashed by !  It has been a while since I saw that beautiful bird with its iridescent blue blaze zoom along the water.  I am envious of people who manage to capture that rarity on a camera, especially a shot of the bird on a post with a minnow.

The bank-side path ran upstream toward Abingdon and along the length we walked there was such an array of birds, trees and views.  I had forgotten just how much I enjoy a river-side wander.  What’s better than a cold beer sitting next to the river watching the boat people go by.  Unfortunately some of those folk were just the sort that give the English a bad name and make me want to torpedo them.  But fortunately there were more of the type who I could happily wave to and sit and have a chat; “put the world to rights” as my Granny used to say !

Swans on the Thames.

Way down upon the Swanee river … There is nothing quite like Swans to set the summer scene !

A little way upstream, on the opposite bank, was a very interesting structure indeed.  It reminded me of a grand Elizabethan court and it was easy to imagine the great barge with the uniformed rowers pulling the nobles upstream to their grand residence.  The wide steps leading from the water to the elegant garden eschewed wealth and grandeur but I have no idea what lay beyond the roses.

Landing on the Thames

The grand landing on the Thames upstream from Benson; what’s there ?

The flat open fields on either side of the almost motionless river are variously pasture and set-aside, which is to say they have been left to go wild and hence are full of wild flowers, herbs and bushes.  Tremendous old trees stand along the river and in the hedgerows that run at right-angles to the water-course in mixed hedgerows.  This is the ‘Champion’ lands of medieval England, the great open fields of Domesday not enclosed until centuries later.

The history of the place was occupying my thoughts as I surveyed the species in the hedgerows – some of the trees were not what I was used to seeing !  Suddenly I spied a strange structure in one of the hedges; it was barely discernible and quite out of place.  I tramped off through ten foot tall Giant Hemlock and reeds (Bogart in the ‘African Queen’ came immediately to mind) which, minus my trusty machete, was not an easy adventure I can tell you !  Eventually the grey concrete walls revealed slit apertures and I immediately realised it was a Second World War pill-box.  Hidden in the hedgerow it was well camouflaged and even in the 1940s when the fields would have been high with waving wheat, it would have not been easily spotted.  It was in excellent condition and as dry inside as the day it was built.  There was a large aperture and several smaller slits, clearly an anti-tank emplacement with supporting machine-guns.  What totally surprised me was the direction it faced.  I assumed it would have been set up to face the advancing German army as it followed the Thames northwards from the London basin but instead it faced north as if the threat was perceived to be coming down river, very strange.

Pill-box on the Thames at Benson.

Hidden in the foliage of an overgrown riverside hedge, this large anti-tank emplacement was in excellent condition. Is it for sale !?

Standing inside the emplacement and gazing out through the slit apertures across the flat open landscape it was uncanny how quickly I was transported back seventy odd years; it must have been a scary outpost in the dark days of 1940.  I wish these old fortifications could be given a little more recognition and protection, after all they were put there to repel invaders !  I suspect everyone who built them, sat in them and those who ordered their construction were under no illusions as to how ineffective they would be.  But what an excellent place to tell the story of the defence of that part of Oxfordshire.

A view from a Thames-side WW2 pill-box in Oxfordshire

The now obscured view out across open fields toward the town of Abingdon and the bridge over the Thames from  pill-box number 307

A little further along the bank we spied a triple arched bridge, quite old, crossing the river and I surmised that perhaps the pill-box was to assault any German armour which may have crossed and began heading down-stream; who knows !?  But I thoroughly enjoyed my little discovery.

A thoroughly nice way to go to the airport and bid farewell to a dear friend;much nicer than a race through traffic, heart in mouth with worry about hold-ups on the motorway !  Following breakfast on the river we headed off toward Twyford and eventually did have to jump in the morass that is the M4 heading toward London. Within half an hour Terminal  4 was on the signs and I entered my least favourite car-park … How I hate that place !  Mainly because Country mouse is just not equipped with apps, i phone technology, Oyster nor Cockle cards, swipe nor credit cards.  I just got money !!  It seems nobody wants real money anymore !

A short while later whilst on my way to a small walling job on Gilwern Hill (between Howey and Hundred House in Radnorshire) another water-side encounter brought a smile to my weather beaten face.  On the road alongside a super little pond I found myself slowing while a trio of young goslings from the resident Canada Geese family idled along the road trying to find their mum whom I had seen fly over the fence as I rounded the corner.  The fluffy little grey birds waddled as fast as they could go but as it was uphill they soon tired and eventually, after about 30 metres, belly flopped onto the road.  I stopped and got out of my vehicle to slow passing traffic and then, once it was all clear, picked them up and lifted the over the fence into the rushes that fringe the pond.  Hopefully they got reunited with their mum and dad before nightfall or else Mr Fox will have got them !

Canada Geese young

Running as fast as they could go these little goslings of the Canada geese family which reside on the pond were trying to catch up with mum !

I am undecided about Canada geese; they can be a welcome sight after a long winter as they honk their way down the valley toward the small lakes to which they habitually return.  On the other hand they do seem to be increasing in number and they DO eat a lot of grass and that in turn means they DO deposit a lot of poo !  Maybe we should acquire an appetite for the meat and then we would all feel a little more comfortable with them.  And what about all those eggs !?  Now there’s a thought.

A week or so after my encounter with the goslings I was driving past the same pond and was amused to suddenly see half a dozen body-less long necks with silly little heads standing amid the rushes looking like those dreaded Meer Cats standing tall.  I hoped that the shorter ones were the three youngsters although I somehow doubt they could have grown that much in such a short time…

Canada Geese in tall rushes

Look carefully – they are there, peeping out of the tall rushes ! Come out, come out wherever you are !

The walling project was along the ridge which runs between Rhogo and Gilwern Hill.  It was a small rebuild of an old farm-yard enclosure which had been built back at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the farm was first established.  It may well have been an earlier Hafod or summer residence as it sits on the edge of what was once open hill shared by a number of farms that exist in the valley below.  The hill was finally enclosed in the late nineteenth century and the fields have been continuously improved to the lush green state they are in today but here and there are fields in which the old open hill grasses and herbs prevail and these fields are an absolute haven for birds and hence a magnet to bird-watchers.

A piece of farm-yard wall which needed to be completely stripped out and rebuilt

A piece of farm-yard wall which needed to be completely stripped out and rebuilt.

The stone is very fragile, not unlike the slate I encountered in the Elan Valley last summer.  Being a shalestone (Silurian) it tends to fall apart in your hands as you lift it off the wall and dropping onto the floor results in a large pile of useless fragments.  The particular piece had clearly been rebuilt at various stages since it was first put up and not in a particularly sound manner.  In fact several metres literally collapsed at my feet – thankfully not onto my feet ! – as soon as I started to remove the large stones that were precariously balanced on top.  Indeed I had surmised this would be the case so had made sure I stood well to the side to avoid just such an event. Such was the violence of the collapse it assured me my decision to take it all down and rebuild it, rather than attempt a piecemeal patching which had been my first thought, was absolutely the correct one.  There are very young children at the farm and it would only have taken one of them to try to climb onto the wall to have precipitated a terrible accident.  Walls are very attractive to climbing little people and often the adults do not realise  how heavy just one stone falling onto a small person’s leg would be.  The sort of total collapse I witnessed, where around a tonne or two of stone falls outward, could be fatal.  I always warn parents to keep their young ones off walls. Dry stone walls are strong and sturdy but they are not finished with a paved walkway nor are they built to accommodate clambering feet and pulling arms.   You would be amazed how many dead lambs and sheep I have uncovered whilst stripping out a collapse.  I’ve found two badgers which had evidently been caught in a fall precipitated by their climbing and  even a small dog which had clearly wriggled inside a wall, after a rabbit no doubt.  A stone wall weighs in at around a tonne a running metre, more if it is limestone.  Please people, take care !

Meanwhile, back at the lakeside;  Llangorse Lake that is, I was having a jolly time at an event to celebrate the 150 years of the establishment of the Welsh community in Patagonia.  My dear friend from Ty Mawr is setting off in the autumn to re-trace the journey that those early settlers took and funds need to be raised.  I’ll give a full account of the event and some history of the settlement in my nest post.

My last tale from a river bank comes from a little community not quite so far west.  The village of Llanfallteg is home to one of my sisters and each year the village fete is a joyful July event which has all the usual attractions.  Heads placed in stocks to be thrown at, hoopla, bottle stalls, plant stalls and of course, my little ‘Guess what these are’ collection of old farming artefacts.

Tools at Llanfallteg Fete 2015

The bottle of wine is the prize although it was quite a vintage; the top score came from the folks on the left, 6/10 which is actually much better than normal !

My contribution is a mixture of old farming tools, ten of which are in a competition to guess what they are or what they do.  Visitors seem to quite like to have a go and even though very few have a clue what the items are they pay their £1 and put down some really amusing answers !  A winning score can often be as low as 3 or 4 and many an entry ends up with 1 or 2 correct answers !  This year we rose to the dizzy heights of 6 correct identifications and the folk (seen on the left in the photo) are not even from farming backgrounds !  No sooner had I announced the results than a couple of mature farming ladies arrived at the table and knew most of the artefacts !  It is very noticeable that fewer and fewer of the ‘older’ generation of today have any recollection of the tools I display.  Ten years ago I would be regaled with stories of how an individual had used a particular item, how good it was or how likely it was that it would cause a cut; what that person remembered about occasions when he or she would have been using the tool.  Sometimes it would be a memory of the person’s parents using it or at least having it hanging in the barn.  Even back then it was the case that the age of the person who was telling me the story got younger the further into remote Wales I displayed.  Clearly modernisation moved slowly northwards and ‘the old ways’ were hard to shake off in the uplands.

It’s been quite a while since I had stories told me of using such tools and implements or of memories of parents using them.  Clearly the folk-lore around the old farming methods is disappearing as the last generation to use or see them dies out.  All the more reason to get them out and show folk I reckon !

Fete at Llanfallteg 2015

The Llanfallteg Village Fete was busier than usual, or so it seemed to me !

The British village fete is a national heritage event, it brings together small communities in a way nothing else does today.  Whilst it is often the case that the same folk end up doing all the work, the very fact that anyone comes out of the house and voluntarily gives of their time and effort, not just on the day, so that others may enjoy a day out is a matter that needs commending.  In a time when everyone is so busy, so wrapped up in their own travailles and ‘important’ selfishness, how nice to celebrate with one’s neighbours and friends.

I’m an outsider in that community but I am made as welcome as anyone and I enjoy being a part of the ‘team’ if just for the day.  The ‘Community Heroes’ do not get the recognition they deserve and it is often only when they have left the stage that it becomes apparent how much they actually did.

The big Community Hero in Llanfallteg has, sadly, departed stage right and gone to another community where his skills will no doubt be of immense value.  The village lost its engine, its petrol and its mechanic when Dave King passed away earlier in the year.  He was a quiet diligent man who oozed enthusiasm and zeal for all matters ‘community’.  He was immensely knowledgeable in many areas from technical innovation to history.  He was a ‘go-getter’ who drove forward grant applications, ideas and opportunities which all the village and its environs benefit from.  If he had a flaw it was his manner of just getting on with it and not delegating responsibilities for the multivarious elements of the community activities he championed.  Thus his unexpected departure left a lot of head scratching and tail-chasing amongst those left to carry on the work. “Where’s the key for …”, “anyone know how this works?”, where did he get that from?”, ” and so on and so on.  For my part I found him always jolly and kind and whilst the fete was a joyful occasion there was a gap that will probably never be filled.

Dave King, Llanfallteg

The photo personifies the man; jolly, efferfescent and a Community Hero in the Llanfallteg area.

Another pleasure in visiting the village is the wonderful river-side walk along the Taf.  It is an interesting area for both wildlife and history.  Flat open fields on the right bank adjacent to the village display a network of ditches and along the river bank itself is a large bank which prevents flooding – or does it !?  Some years ago Dave asked me to have a look at the bank and see if anything came to mind.  I had never thought it was a flood defence, that made no sense as there was nothing to protect other than the flood plain !  The network of ditches gives it away, it is a system of water-meadow management called ‘Downward floating’ which is to say that rather than damming the river with a weir and a sluice system to allow water to be impounded and hence flood back upstream, the water is diverted out of the river above the meadows and allowed to flow freely over the grass.  The high bank prevents the water from re-entering the river until much further downstream and the cross field and perimeter ditches empty the water once the diversion ceases.  It was a system well used by the Cistercian monks (there is a fine example at Abbey Dore in the Golden Valley of Herefordshire) to prevent the ground freezing over winter and thus allow early grass growth.  The great house of the Cistercians at Whitland had a grange near Llanfallteg and no doubt they made good use of the flat fertile land adjacent to the Taf.

Cistercian river bank along the Taf

The high bank is clearly visible not least because today it is well over-grown with tall hemlocks, nettles and willow.

I don’t know who the land-owner is but he is to be complemented for leaving the valuable grazing along the bank and and field edge to nature. Of course such a large wilderness along a river bank is a superb habitat corridor and even though the footpath that used to run along the top of the bank seems now impassable (and hence the good view of the waterway has gone too) it is a superb haven for wildlife.  Something my dear sister values enormously and I am oft regaled with the latest sightings… “oh, just another Kingfisher eh !?”

River Taf at Llanfallteg in Carms.

Sleepy flows the summer Taf but it comes alive after heavy rain in the Presceli hills from whence it flows.  But its only got Otters and Kingfishers …what’s the fuss !!?

July is fast disappearing, already the Royal Welsh Show is upon us and that, for me, is the turn of the year.  Before long I will be getting my own ‘community’ hat on and planning for the Beulah Show tractor run in early September.  August will not be a holiday month this year it appears.  I have some work awaiting my attention in the Ebbw Vale area and still two walls to finish here in the village.  One of those has been long overdue for attention and although I have begun the long climb back to the top of the 4 metre high retaining wall, it is painfully slow.  Never mind, as I always say, “Every stone put on the wall is one less stone to put on the wall”.  Welshwaller is nowt if not a philosopher !!

The only Tale from the River-bank Great Uncle Dick had to report was from that devastated waterway of the Somme as the offensive momentum took hold in July 1915:

Sunday 11th July 1915.  In Trenches.  Put up barbed wire (this went on for 3 days !)

14th.  Relieved by Welsh.  Put on Listening patrol.  Raining awful.

15th.  Got in very late – 2 O’clock in the morning.  wet through. Marched to West Hook

16th.  In Barn at night. Marched to Loi(?)

17th.  In huts all day.

Sun. 18th.  Non conformist Service in Field.  Marched 6 miles to (?)

19th.  In huts.  Orderly move to relieve Welsh in trenches.

20th.  Carry parties to firing line.

21st.  Carry parties.  Plenty of hard work.  Complaining to officers.

22nd. Carrying parties to firing line and relieved by Welsh.  Marched to Loi(re?)

23rd.  In huts.  Broke off from 1st & 3rd Mons.

24th.  Marched to Credeauville (?) and intrained all night to Douelle.  On Advanced party under Lt. Dunn.

25th.  Arrived at Douelle.  Breakfasted on road.  Marched to (indiscipherable)

26th.  Stayed at  ?

27th.  Paid at L… (still unreadable) 8 Francs.  Marched at night 8 0’clock to (?)

28th.  One parade in day.  Went out at night for a walk with (?)

* It is clear that the rain had affected the pencil/paper and much of the last week of July is un-readable.

29th. One parade.  Bayonet practise.  Marched at night to   Auch ….ville (?)

30th.  On Guard.  Working at night in trenches.

31st.  On Patrol at night in tunnels.  Lost Sgt. Griffiths and Capt. Brown D.S.O.  Came back to Claremond (?)

The diary for July is difficult to read but is also clearly brief and understated.  It was a time of hardship and strain as the German barrages and the awful rain kept up a constant deluge.  It is the brevity of the entries that give the clue to the increasing strain he is under.

“On the idle hill of Summer, sleepy with the flow of streams…” (Houseman)

28/06/2015

Goodness, the longest day already !  Where DID that Spring flit away?  It seems only a week or so ago that I was munching my way through the sickly chocolate of Easter.  But then, doesn’t each year bring forth such exclamations from me when the realisation dawns that only 187 days remain until it is Christmas… Spending those few weeks away meant I was catapulted back into a ‘full bloom’ countryside and garden.  Many were the hours it took me to recover the pathways through my own woodland garden and cut away the bramble to allow entry to the various sheds and barns.  I am always astounded at the rate of growth of bramble. one day, when I am retired, I am going to just sit by an emerging bramble and watch it grow, it surely must make a metre a day !  Of course, with full bloom comes full insect coverage too.  Midges emerge around 7 pm and that is the time to be thinking about heading indoors, unless that is one is protected by the exhaust fumes of a strimmer.  I find the strimming activity is a useful end to the day, it allows another hour of outside enjoyment as the evening sun lights up the western side of my wooded grounds.  Horse flies are not deterred by carbon monoxide so long sleeves are very necessary.  My absence also meant I arrived back to dozens of fledglings chirping in the bushes and flitting hither and thither.  Redstarts seem to love it around here and I have three pairs within a stone’s throw.  Pied Flycatchers return each year to two particular bird boxes I have in the hazel trees which abound in my hedgerows.  I am lucky to still have a small flock of House Sparrows which return each summer to nest in the open eaves of my roof.  Here too the best of my summer visitors choose to nest.  They are always late arriving and each year I watch the skies as April turns to May hoping they will make it across the thousands of air miles they have to endure.  At last they zoom in, like fighter jets amidst the more ponderous tits and Dunnocks, the very pinnacle of aerobatic display.  Swifts are fast but alas are fast disappearing from our skies, I spend an inordinate amount of time watching them of an evening, worried this may be the last summer… It is a sad fact that for much of our woodland environment, not just here on this old estate, it will be the last summer.  The continuing onslaught of diseases such as phytophthora ramorum and lophodermium, pine weevil, spruce bark beetle all of which are devastating conifer plantations and phytophthora kernoviae killing ornamentals such as rhododendrum, azelias and camilia is scary.  The broadleaf woodlands are suffering too with ash die back (chalara fraximus) the big concern but alder phytopthora is creeping along rivers and streams. Oak processionary moth is a cause for concern as it poses a major public health threat, beech is facing nothofagus, chestnut is facing the Japanese gall wasp and there are many beetles which have arrived from foreign shores beginning to make their presence felt.

Paragraphs removed whilst investigations are carried out.

Buzzard found dead in Beulah area

The whole of this area is especially popular for Green Tourism holidays.  Only last week thousands gathered to watch the annual Man V Horse cross country event; next door to the estate is a very successful mountain bike centre with various courses set out in the woodlands.  Walking and bird watching bring hundreds of people to stay and wander in the area.  We need to protect the fragile environment for future generations as well as for those who enjoy it now.

I want to enjoy a few more years of solitude and peace on the “idle hills of summer, sleepy with the flow of streams”… Once all this darned walling is finished that is, but there’s a bit to do yet.  No depressive moaning next time, I promise, just more tales from the land and works of Welshwaller.  I have actually been building you know !!

The diary of Great Uncle Dick has been absent from the last post but here is the news fro the front for June 1915:

Thursday June 3rd.    King’s birthday.  Review and Salute in Hergest Square.

June 4th.   2 parades.  Rather long day.  Adjutant’s parade.

June 5th.    2 parades.  Half day off.  On quarter guard at night.  2 hours on, 10 off.

June 6th.    On quarter guard.  Very hot.  Lovely singing from Ron Conservicus (?)

June 7th.    Route march.  Terrible hot.  Many fell out.  No sense in march.

June 8th.    Adjutant’s parade.  Very hot.  Only shirts worn. 5 feinted as drill commenced.  Treating us like dogs.

June 9th.    Much rain and lightening.  2 parades.  Rolle came back.

June 10th.    Route March at 4a.m,  10 miles !!  Parade in afternoon.  M&D at night.

June 11th.    Capt. Thormel (?) marched us 4 miles to duty. Stayed all night.  Awful marche through Popperingher.

June 12th.    2 parades.  Marched at night,  Trenches held by KRR.  Clinton and Maid wounded on road.  We had been                            treated like dogs in the rear.

June 13th.    Ration party out through communication trench.

June 14th.    Easy day.  Awful Poor rations.  4 of us at night went to a cottage to snipe dogs.

June 15th.    In trenches.  Guard at night.  Easy day.

June 16th.    Rolly Jones killed.  Heavy firing at Ypres.

June 17th.    In trenches on carrying party.  Ammunition and water.  Lie Slaves.

June 18th.    In trenches.  Went to house to keep guard.  Relieved by Welsh and Cheshire.

June 19th.    Cameout to bivouac in woods.  Slept in open.  Changed bivouac.  Rotten time.

June 20th.    In bivouac.  Other company digging at night.

June 21st.    C.O.’s inspection on parade.  2 hours in hot sun – daft.  Digging at night.  Rotten time. Rotten officers.

June 22nd.    Feeling unwell, feinted 1st time in life.  parade 12.30.

June 23rd.    12.30 parade.  Rotten time getting dressed.

June 24th.    1 parade 12.30.  Digging at night.  Communication trench.  Capt Steel killed.

June 25th.    Scavenging wood at night in pouring rain.  Worst than trenches. Awful night in bivouac.

June 26th.    19.30 parade.  Changed bivouacs to go into reserve.  Our battalion manned trenches, relieved by Welsh.

June 27th.    Orderley man.  Digging at night.  Rotten time.  In water up to knees.

June 28th.    Relieved to be in trenches.

June 29th.    In trenches.  Digging at night.

June 30th.    In trenches.  Digging at night.

Thursday July 1st:    In trenches. Listening patrol at night Many narrow misses.

July 2nd.    In trenches.  On sentry at night.

July 3rd.    In trenches.  Working day-time in woods.    Narrow escapes from Shells.  Relieved by Welsh.

July 4th.    On sentry as soon as out of trenches.  Marched to lower bivouacs.

July 5th.    Bivouac.  Marched at night to huts.

July 6th.    Went 6 miles in shorts.  Came back, went for bath.

July 7th.    General’s inspection.  Booker away from camp.  Absent

The months of heavy shelling and the terrible conditions in the trenches coupled with poor food and senseless parades is showing in the writing of Dick.  He gets himself into trouble soon !

In a land of Milk (Snakes) and Honey (Bears).

09/06/2015

Most of us take a lot of time deciding and planning on an adventure, a holiday, a break from the monotony of the daily grind.  I certainly do, much of the winter is spent in fantasy land, planning expeditions to the furthest regions of the Realm. Every so often a surprise trip lands on the breakfast table, unexpected and unplanned, a bit like a pregnancy really.  Four weeks ago I ‘conceived’, or rather, was ‘conceived’ of such a surprise adventure.  Sure, it involved some graft, sure, it involved some heat exchange, sure, it involved endless hours sitting in a silver metal cigar high in the sky.  Sure, it was WORTH of all of it.  I was needed out west, in those famous Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I’ve been out to the ‘Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave’ several times and each time I have to pinch myself; I find it hard to believe I am actually there.  The long flight is even getting shorter – in my mind at least – and Airline food is actually very enjoyable !  This time my outward journey took me to Charlotte in North Carolina.  The normal crossing via Newfoundland, the St. Lawrence river and onward down the Shenandoah valley to Atlanta or Washington D.C. was not on the route card.  Instead we slipped out over St. David’s Head to cross the Irish Sea then onward over the Emerald Isle and began our Oceanic stage by passing over the Dingle Peninsula, glistening thirty six thousand feet below.  Landfall some five hours later was near Baltimore and off the port wing the great white edifices of the Capitol could be seen.  Next came the winding shores of  Chesapeake Bay and in the clear afternoon air I could see the great naval base of Norfolk in the distance.  Soon the hills of the Appalachian range appeared, through cumulus clouds rising in the heat of a May afternoon. “We are beginning our descent to Charlotte”, and in a short time the ground rushed up and we bashed onto the hot sticky tarmac of the runway. My previous excursions to the land of the Cherokee had steeled me to the elongated wait-in-line, the scary approach along the yellow line to persuade a stern Immigration Official that I was worthy of the stamp that allowed me to enter the Homeland.  This time it was a pleasant surprise to be politely questioned and bade ‘a pleasant stay’ – after checking I was leaving in a few weeks ! Outside the air-conditioned  glass edifice someone had left the oven on, it was HOT !  Miss Carolina, as is her way, eventually turned up having allowed me time to acclimatise, and we set of north toward the distant haze that was the Blue Ridge and the land of Daniel Boone and Cumberland.  A couple of hours drive along Highway 77 took us to the edge of the Piedmont and the foot of the mountains.  Soon we were high in the woods and before long my most favourite road in the whole wide world was slipping by under our over sized ‘tires’ ….  The Blue Ridge Parkway HAS to be seen, especially in mid May when Flaming Azelias and Rhododendron, Dogwoods and Tulip Poplars are in full bloom.

Azelias on the Blue Ridge Parkway

The Parkway is ablaze with Azelias in May,

The four hundred odd miles of the quiet two lane road runs from just south of Washington all the way to the Great Smoky Mountains in north Georgia.  With no trucks or commercial vehicles, with a 45 mph maximum speed limit, with altitudes over five thousand feet and views to distant horizons from specially constructed ‘Overviews’.Give me the Parkway as my morning commute and my evening solace, everyday !

It's what is says on the sign !

It’s what is says on the sign !

I would, one day, like to drive the whole length of that amazing road but for this trip a short daily commute of some twenty miles had to suffice. Ever since I was first taken up there – and I mean ‘up there’, the road runs higher than the great mountains of Wales (which rather suggests they are not that ‘Great’ !) – I have been fascinated to see the ‘worm’ fences of cleft hemlock (they were once of Chestnut but the great blight of the  1920s killed off all those immense trees) which line the upland pastures.  This time, in the house in which we were staying, I found an old book that explained how to make them, watch this space !

Appalachian Tulip Poplar

The ground was covered in the blooms of the Tulip Poplar which ranges throughout the Appalachian Forests.

Virginia Worm Fences

These cleft Worm fences line the Parkway where pastures grow adjacent. So simple and easily moved, they are so attractive don’t you think ?

The work-station was a few miles off the Parkway and involved passing through a small country town called Floyd.  It was absolutely the quintessential time-warp where wooden walkways in front of porch framed stores and good old boys sitting out front was the norm.  I immediately knew I was in a place which would bring a big wide smile to my face each time I went through.  That smile got even broader when we stopped to climb a rickety old wooden staircase to enter a small coffee-house.  The charming young waitress greeted us with the common question, “How are y’all today ?”, and a smile that shamed you into smiling back.  I’m no connoisseur of the coffee bean but with a little guidance from my host I soon got into the swing.  A rather good coconut macaroon set me up for a day of walling in sunshine that had me melting.

Floyd is a quiet sleepy sort of town but it comes alive on a Friday night and a Saturday morning when the streets are thronged with mountain folk and those that have ‘blown in’.  The locals seem to accept the presence of ‘white settlers’ and tourists although I did hear some laments at the loss of the ‘old ways’.  The incomers have come up from the hot south seeking the cool of the mountains and the lush green forests, those from the north have come in search of warmth and sunshine in clean clear air and the slower pace of country life.   If I  decided to move, Floyd and its environs would be high on my wish list.

Floyd in Virginia.

A ‘one horse town’ from an age long gone. Floyd is THE most charming of Virginia towns.

The Friday night music is famous and small bands lined the streets whilst in the ‘Country Store’, where a strict ‘no booze’ rule applies, locals sit and listen to local fiddlers, banjo and guitar players and ultimately rise to their feet to enjoy  traditional ‘clogging’ and a two-step waltz.

Music at the Country Store in Floyd

Floyd’s Country Store is the place to be on a Friday night – if you love the fiddle that is !

“Take your partners by the hand…”

I enjoyed wandering the street listening to astounding banjo and fiddle playing and even joined in with a small trio, singing some well know Irish ballads of all things. “As I was going over …” etc.  So impressed were they at my vocal dexterity they gave me a copy of their CD, with a suggestion I should listen to it before returning the following week … ahem.

Tower Spring Band of Pembroke, Virginia

Three members of the Tower Spring Band from the nearby town of Pembroke in Virginia, warm up on the Floyd high street prior to their appearance at the Country Store later in the evening.

There is something truly addictive about a fiddle and banjo pumping out a foot-tapping’ traditional song of the southern mountains.

The walling was a mere inconvenience to an otherwise thoroughly enthralling three weeks.  The heat was bearable, especially as a convenient hose provided hourly cooling off sessions.  It is always interesting to visit the ‘Stone Stores’ which are the depositories of geology from all over the United States.  Apparently both Pennsylvania and Tennessee are getting flatter and flatter as stone from these states seem to be very popular, at least with my colleague Whitneybrownstone .com but luckily it is a very similar sandstone to that which I encounter here in mid Wales.

Along the Parkway are various historic buildings which show the type of house and farm buildings that were commonly used in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Unsurprisingly they were always on my ‘stop to have a look’ list.  Close-by our woodland residence was an old mill which is apparently the MOST visited cultural site on the whole Parkway. Mabry Mill is a fascinating insight into an old Appalachian family who built the grist mill and adjoining saw-mill.

Mabry Mill, Meadows of Dan

Mabry Mill sits next to the Blue Ridge Parkway and is a real tourist hot spot though I think I was the only Welshman !

Ed Mabry was something of a ‘Heath Robinson’ character who, with no formal engineering or carpentry training, built the mill and all its working machinery.  He began as a self taught blacksmith and wagon builder having bought some land nearby the present site.  By 1910 the mill was in full swing grinding the corn of locals (there were over 15 such mills in Floyd County at that time) and Ed’s thoughts turned to installing a sawmill to provide the locals with good sawn ‘lumber’.  Together with his wife Lizzie he soon had the rack saw-bench up and running with its own separate power source delivered by the mill wheel.  The mill race was a wooden box construction which delivered the required water in an ‘over-shot’ manner thus providing much more power to run all the machinery.

Mabry Mill overshot wheel

The over-shot water wheel delivers more power by virtue of the full half turn of the wheel full of water.

The construction of the wooden race is a feat in itself running, as it does, over several hundred metres.  The trestle on which the wooden trough sits appears to be of chestnut and may be the last vestiges of that once common tree which provided much income to the mountain folk of the Appalachian chain.  The chestnuts were a valuable product that brought much needed cash flow to subsistence farmers.  In 1910 the neighbouring county produced over 160,000 pounds of nuts and the three counties that make up that part of Virginia produced in excess of 360,000 tons, over half of the total produced by the state of Virginia.

The current mill still contains the machinery of production and surrounding the building is the old blacksmith shop which Ed Mabry used and a small log cabin.  Various pieces of farm equipment and timber working artefacts are scattered around the well kept grounds.  You can be sure I visited that delightful oasis on more than one occasion !

Wooden mill workings

The internal workings are still in-situ and a local guide is on hand to explain what’s what.

There is something in all of us that finds the past intriguing notwithstanding nostalgia is not what it used to be… To see old homesteads and to imagine the lives that were lived therein, especially if some small details of the previous occupants is known, is of particular fascination to me.  The old log built houses of the area stopped me each time.

Slave house rebuilt at Virginia tech

This old slave house has been rebuilt on the site of an old plantation in the grounds of what is now Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

Cabin of Mrs Puckett on Parkway.

This single room cabin was the home of the local midwife, Orlena Hawks Pluckett. She delivered over a thousand babies but all 24 of her own died in infancy … not the best of recommendations perhaps.

Appalachian homestead

This old cabin once housed a family who farmed a small acreage out near Indian Valley west of the Parkway.

Parkway Homestead

This old homestead sits longside the Parkway near Meadows of Dan.

The whole landscape was evocative and shows how hard a life it was living in the high mountains.  It’s hard for a non American like me to forget the displacement of the Native Americans which prefaced the settlement of these regions but putting that to one side there has to be a certain wonder and respect at those early pioneers who battled all of nature’s artillery to clear small parcels of land and eke out an existence up there.  I read in one of the many books I perused whilst there that the Cherokee, who had been driven from the lowlands, the Piedmont, to the mountains, found it just as hard as did the white settlers and of the three hundred thousand or so that fled from the lowlands of the Carolinas within but a decade only four thousand survived to be driven into the reservation.

Typical dispersed farmsteads and meadows in the valleys of  the Blue Ridge

Typical dispersed farmsteads and meadows in the valleys of the Blue Ridge

The over-riding matter on my mind when thinking of those pioneers was how on earth did they deal with the totally alien wildlife !?  The animals, great and small, of the Appalachian range, indeed of the whole of America, are a total wonder to me.  I suppose I would be thought of as an amateur naturalist, I have always had a fascination with all manner of wildlife, plants and animals.  Thus the days driving the Parkway and nearby country roads were spent in total 360 degree observation, hoping and waiting just to catch sight of any of the animals that inhabit the region.

Appalachian Deer

Deer were the most common sighting, before they ‘high-tailed it into the woods.

Of all the animals of the region deer are the most commonly seen and, I think it fair to say, the most annoying to the inhabitants.  They are apparently the cause of more motoring insurance claims than any other factor in the whole U.S.A.  Fortunately the speed limit on the Parkway gives some chance to both deer and driver but even here we saw road killed animals.  May is the time for babies and sure enough I saw a newly born fawn with mum close by.  I got my chauffeuse to halt and got out to take a photo but mamma deer high-tailed it into the wood (the term refers to the habit of lifting the tail to show the white underside, much as do rabbits, as a warning to other deer that danger is near and its time to get gone and it also gives the deer its correct name of White Tailed Deer) and without a subsequent movement, little fawn slunk to the ground and disappeared into the tall grass with only its ears to give its position away.

Some years ago whilst visiting me in Wales, Miss Carolina was driving ‘baby car’ (her term for my rather small Ford Fiesta of the time) down my bumpy track when she suddenly slammed on the brakes shouting “Turtle!” …. Naturally I was somewhat confused and assumed this was some colloquial American term which referred to a female condition of some embarrassment or other. No, the dear girl had genuinely believed that a large round stone, which I have to say did resemble the back of a turtle,  was indeed a native Welsh animal.  She was rather dis-believing when I pointed out that, in fact, we did not have such animals which were indigenous to Britain.  This trip made me understand her confusion.  Box turtles, which resemble the tortoise I had as a pet an age ago, are quite commonly encountered and we saw two within a matter of days.  Snapping turtles are rather bigger, think steering wheel size, and rarely appear on land although I saw one idling along a roadside near a pond one sunny morning and another one floated aimlessly in the rather grand pond of some English folk we had lunch with.  That poor creature was about to experience a specially shaped fishing hook which would jank him out of that particular pond to be re-housed elsewhere, the lady liked to swim you see !

Box Turtle

This little creature was about to get its shell shape drastically altered as it slunk across the track.

They are the strangest of animals to see on a road in the middle of woodland.  The Box Turtle actually lives in woodland and only rarely immerses itself.  It is so called because it can literally shut both ends of its shell and disappear inside, I nicknamed him FedEx.

The Snapping Turtle is far more fierce-some and grows to over 20 inches (50 cms) with a rather scary beak-like tooth which it reveals as it holds its head aloft and gets ready to snap the jaw shut on some poor critter, or your finger if you get too close – I’m glad I wasn’t on the end of the rod !

Boxy turtle

Are you sure it’s not a Tortoise ? This little Box Turtle was heading in out of the rain.

Other critters which were seen in the fields were the beaver-like Groundhog or Woodchuck.  I saw several in mown meadows, they are big animals to live in holes in the ground, about the size of a small badger.  My favourite little animal is without doubt, the Chipmunk, something which will horrify a certain Berea Gardener for whom the cheeky little critters are a total anathema.  They dash about in the undergrowth or commit suicide on the highway where the largest bald-headed ugly buzzards you have ever seen devour them.  As usual road kills were numerous with Racoons and Opposums being the favourite, but I also saw Fox and Skunk.  You don’t actually need to see a Skunk to know one is about …

On my first visit to Carolina, while digging away the bank of a small creek in readiness to build a bridge, I disturbed a snake which turned out to be rather unfriendly but then I had awoken it three months early from a winter slumber.  It was a Timber Rattler which is apparently quite a nasty critter.  This time, hot steamy May, I was well aware of the likelihood of such an encounter especially as a pile of stone which had lain undisturbed for a few years was the source of my back-fill.  I gingerly removed stones over a few days and gradually got nearer the ground.  I reckoned that the cool damp earth under the bottom stones of the heap was the most likely hiding place … and so it turned out !

Milk Snake

This 4 ft long ‘snake in the stone’ was just where I expected him to be.

A rather long, if somewhat thin, banded beauty was curled silently under a nice flat stone and as its head was buried in a hole, it took a while before it realised the sun was on its back.  It then began to unfurl itself allowing us time to see it in all its glory, head and tail.  Now I have no knowledge of American snakes and unfortunately neither does Miss Carolina, her instinct is always to assume it is the dreaded Copper Head or Cotton Mouth, a bite from either proving rather paralysing if not fatal !  Thus extreme care is required, like shooing it away into the long grass.  Later photographic interpretation showed it to be a Milk Snake (Lampropeltis) which is harmless to us but not very nice to either other snakes or little mouse-type critters which it winds itself around and constricts the life out of them.  At up to 4 feet long and banded very similarly to the more venomous others it can easily be mistaken and often needlessly killed.

Virginian Band Snake

This little snake needed just as much care. it turned out to be a harmless Band Snake.

A short time later and a few stones more removed, another little wriggler was revealed.  This, to me, actually looked more sinister.  Black with a band around its neck, this much smaller snake had all the qualities of a killer, or so I thought.  Again it proved to be quite harmless.

Snakes are one of the earth’s creatures that generate fear and unbridled venom amongst us humans and the instinct is to quickly kill them.  It was a shock to me to discover this mind-set but similarly it was a pleasant surprise to find that our hosts/customers were not of that ilk and, as a matter of course, remove any snakes they discover whilst gardening, to a quiet corner.

I found myself tense and alert each time I went to the stone pile, actually I was both excited at the prospect of seeing another snake but also  nervous and tentative at such an encounter.  It was indeed an unusual walling experience.

Of all the animals that roam the forests of the Appalachian range one stands out more than any other as an animal I dearly wanted to see – but had no prospect of so doing.  I have, on my study wall, a picture of the animal which is the symbol of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Ursus Americanus is the must-see big daddy of the mountains and I SO wanted to see one.  On each previous trip I have bored my hosts going on about it.  To see a Black Bear was my all time desire.  It was a futile hope really, they are so elusive, so much so that few locals have ever seen one.  Except that is, the man whose wall we were building who not a few days previous had seen, and photographed (which he delighted in showing me …) a female (Sow) with two cubs in a hay meadow on his land.  On the very last morning of our walling at Check, north of Floyd, I casually glanced over to the left into a field below the road with a large wood along its edge.  There, plodding purposefully along the edge of the field was a very large, very black BEAR !

Ursus Americanus

I swear he’s looking at me … but is he licking his lips ? This made my day !

In one sense the sight of that beautiful beast ruined my trip.  For one thing there was seemingly nothing else to look forward to – but that was idiotic.  For another it was like the end of a long, hopeful campaign and the ending of such searches is often anti-climactic.  But it will stand as one of the memorable moments in this whole long exciting journey which makes up the life of Welshwaller !

Three weeks in the Blue Ridge Parkway was unbelievable.  I met some super folk and enjoyed illustrious hospitality.  I saw scenery and architecture, flora and fauna to fill several calenders !  And yes, we did some good walling which will hopefully remain for several centuries, just like the mill of Ed Mabry and the cabin of Orlena Hawks Pluckett

Welshwaller and Whinteybrownstone

Me and Miss Carolina,Whitneybrownstone sitting on the ‘stairs’ (that’s garden steps to you and me from the old world) which we knocked up in the last couple of days, just to show off you understand !

And what was it all in aid of ?  So Miss Carolina can get on a plane and spend the next three weeks in Wales … it’s hardly environmentally friendly walling, is it !?

Thank you, all you kind folk of Meadows of Dan and Floyd, for welcoming me and feeding me all kinds of amazing food and enduring my endless questions and exclamations !  See y’all again one day I hope ! And thanks Miss Carolina, you have no idea how I enjoyed that trip !

Perish the thought.

10/05/2015

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.

70th anniversary parade Guernsey

Guernsey celebrates the 70th anniversary of its Liberation from occupation by the Nazis – the only part of the UK to be invaded. My daughter was there to witness the  parades !

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.

Imagine just walking out of the back door into this !

Imagine just walking out of the back door into this !

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.

Ancient stone-faced banks in the Blackdown of Somerset

These large, flint faced,stone and earth banks range throughout the area north of Chard, Anglo Saxon or Norman I wonder ?

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.

Barley Hook C19th

This old barley hook was a common tool in the C19th and early C20th when ‘stooks’ were thrown up onto the cart. It joins my collection from its Somerset home.

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.

Big retaining wall at Garth, Rhyd y Fro

The left hand side of the 3 metre high wall had collapsed from top to bottom, as far across as the wooden posts, why ? Who knows but up it had to go and hopefully that will do the trick – at least until I am retired.

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.

Panaeolus semiovatus

She was very thrilled with her very own artistic display of the egg-head motte-gill mushroom.

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.

Fordson N 1943

The 72 year old Fordson wakes from her winter hibernation and emerges into Spring sunshine – reluctantly !

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 …

Fergie rear tyre burst

The problem is clear – if you have a prolapse make sure it is at the top !

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 !

Perished beyond repair, but it is 65 years old !

Perished beyond repair, but it is 65 years old !

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.

Grey Fergie minus a wheel

The Fergie is minus a wheel which means the 35 is stuck in the shed for a while.

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.

Just another wheel to put back on a tractor !  At least the 434 didn't require a new tyre ...

Just another wheel to put back on a tractor ! At least the 434 didn’t require a new tyre …

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 …

Spring loaded

28/04/2015

Once again I have been terribly remiss in my narrative; the sudden onset of an early Spring has caught me on the hop.  What a pleasant few weeks have befallen Welshwaller.  The first harbinger of warmer times appeared on April 7th, swooping low over the lake of the mansion as I sat enjoying a late afternoon cup of tea with m’Lady of the house.  She being a ‘city’ girl saw absolutely no significance, partly because she didn’t know what it was I was pointing excitedly at and also she would not have a care other than “oh great, now there will be droppings everywhere!”.  No matter, I was thrilled and whilst it was not strictly ‘my place’, where the swallows normally arrive about the 12th, it was an early siting and I did not have to wait long until the skies around my little homestead was full of them. I had begun to see signs out on the hill too.  Tadpoles were suddenly swarming in a shallow muddy pool which I had to step over to reach my work station and the tell tale dart of something in the molinia as I brushed through, indicated that lizards had awoken.  Wheatears were bobbing on the top of the wall and there was an all around sense that nature was getting busy.  The downside of the lack of rain is that those baby trees I planted in the new hedgerows down near Carreg Cennen will be dying as it is for sure the farmer will not have thought to water them, despite me nagging him before I left.  I have been diligent about watering my fifty or so saplings especially the willow which needs a very damp ground to set roots.  The fields round about and the hill where I am working are full of lambs of course and their playful chases and merry japes amuse me all day through.

Tadpoles in a pool

A small puddle is all that a frog needs to be persuaded to dump a whole load of spawn, which eventually hatch ! But will they survive ?

Lizard on rock

A young Common Lizard warms itself in the early spring sunshine.

I have mainly been constructing a new gate-way in a field wall and doing some small repairs along its length.  It is back in the area where I spent most of last year, the Gilwern Hill region of the Radnor countryside.  It has been a much quieter spot than last year which was adjacent to a fairly busy road and was a favoured spot for folk to park and walk their dogs.  The ‘passing trade’ was far less this time although of the locals who drove past me along the very bumpy track that runs the ridge-line, two stopped to ask me to carry out some repairs for them.  One of them, a farmer who actually stopped by last June and mentioned he might need my services, had a small collapse that was causing him some nuisance and I agreed to fix it post-haste.

This 2 metre gap was causing the farmer some issues - fix it then !

This 2 metre gap was causing the farmer some issues – fix it then !

The geology of that hill is very erratic and within a few hundred metres a totally different rock occurs.  That in turn means the stone with which the old hill walls are built is different too – I know what you are thinking, when does a rock become a stone !? – and that means a careful analysis is required before commencing the rebuild.  The first thing always is to ‘risk assess’ the job.  Risk Assessments can be something of a chore when done to meet ‘paper-work’ requirements as I’ve recently had to do to renew my ‘ApprovedStatus’ with the company which employs me for work around the estate.  For me they are carried out with some care although rarely is it committed to paper.  When a section of wall has collapsed and especially if it has been down for some time, there are always hidden dangers.  There will inevitably be the temporary barricade, usually old corrugated sheeting, rusted and lethal, there will be lots of orange baler twine tying it all together and securing it all in a manner which can be difficult to fathom.  These barricades are made secure to stop the ingress or egress of stock and only the farmer knows how it was constructed (and he won’t remember !).  Undoing the string and pulling at the sheets or whatever is making the barricade is where most accidents will occur.  A sudden coming-away of the obstacle unbalances you and sharp edges just wait to cut and scratch.  There will inevitably be nettles and brambles if the collapse has been down a while and at this time of year they have a nasty sting. Once the barricade and growth has been dealt with the careful un-picking of the fallen stone can commence.  Sometimes special feature stones have to be located such as cover-bands, copes and through stones – as in the collapse I have just completed and will narrate below – and set to one side for use at the appropriate juncture.  In this particular case the geology is such that the Silurian shale presents in haphazard lumps and thus the wall is a jumble of irregular shapes and sizes.  It is by far the hardest stone to work with, give me the big slabs of Old Red sandstone or the volcanic outcrops of the Rhogo anyday. Care needs to be taken when clearing the rubble; care that no further collapse is going to catch you out and smash a digit or twist an ankle or, worst of all, cause a fall.  All of these things have happened to me on numerous occasions despite my careful analysis and risk assessment but mostly they are mitigated by the precaution taken.  As the fallen stone is stripped away two facets hold my attention, firstly, how and why has the collapse occurred and secondly are any ‘critters’ hiding within the stone pile and are thus in danger of being maimed or, rarely, of maiming me !  As I clear away the stone, which invariably has collapsed and fallen all to one side, it is essential to ensure at least half gets thrown back to the other side.  This can be both tiring and exacting as the temptation is to just get it cleared as quickly as possible and to keep all the ‘good’ stuff near to hand.  A semblance of sorting takes place as I clear away the mass of rubble, largest nearest to the wall, smallest furthest back, hearting in piles either side so as to be be readily to hand.  It is many years since I stripped a wall and laid the stone according to the principles of the Walling bible although, in my mind, I am diligent enough.

Floor of conifer wood

The dense trees keeps out the light and nothing grows within

The particular section which was near Upper Gilwern, was a boundary wall between a very green pasture and a bleak and dead looking conifer plantation.  The Spruce trees leave little in the way of undergrowth and the floor of the woodland is dead.  This is a factor of lack of light and the acidification of the soil as the needles absorb the acid rain that blows past and dumps it in the soil.  However there is one food source for small animals and birds and that is the pine-cones which are full of nutritious seeds.  As I stripped away the stone pile I came across a secret stash of empty cores and shells, the amount indicated some little creature had enjoyed a good winter feasting.  However, I am at a loss to know for certain what it is, clearly a small rodent but which one !?  I imagine it must be a mouse as a Dormouse would hardly be strong enough to carry a full cone over the stones – the stash was on the opposite side of the wall to the wood – and drag them into the hidden labyrinth.

The cones lying around on the floor will feed some critters into the summer.

The cones lying around on the floor will feed some critters into the summer.

The cones are meticulously stripped leaving only the bare stem which resembles a bottle brush.  Strangely there were several places in the darkness of the wood where large numbers of cones lay untouched on the ground.  I would have thought none would have been left as all the little creatures enjoyed the feast.  There was one tree which caught my eye and presented me with a real mystery. It was a dead and rotten pine tree in which many holes existed, the results of some boring critter as I do not believe woodpeckers bother with conifers and in any case the holes were extensive and right to the base.  Into several of the lower holes pine cones had been jambed, almost as if in an attempt to drag them into the core of the rotten trunk.  It was quite astonishing.  At first I imagined the cones where just caught in the bark as they fell or hung up in some creeper growth or even spider web but no, they were tight in the trunk, so much so that they could not be easily pulled free.  I had never come across this before and have no idea what little creature performs such feats but, once again, I suspect it will turn out to be a wood mouse.  Oh for one of those wildlife cameras that can be left to record the day and night antics of those that live in the forest !

Cones stuck in a tree trunk.

What little creature pulled these cones into the tree is a mystery indeed.

Pine cones eaten by mouse?

The stripped cones show how the ‘eater’ worked through them.

This many cones at least shows the trees are healthy.

This many cones at least shows the trees are healthy.

From there it was westwards back to one of my regular haunts, the great deer-park wall of the Edwinsford estate and the Dinas of Llansawel.  I had already visited once this year to repair the usual winter fall of yet another section of the 300 year old wall.  Whilst there I had spied a section that looked ominously like it would go sooner rather than later and so it proved.  I spent some ten years rebuilding the many collapsed sections of the old wall. For three months a year I worked my way along the many gaps which had been caused by huge blocks of stone blown out of the ground by quarrying explosives to cascade down the steep slope of the old Iron Age fortress and smash into the great wall.  About two thirds of the mile long wall was dry stone walling but once the wall became visible from the mansion it was mortared using a strong lime putty.  That which was dry stone was made of excellent walling stone whereas the lime built section utilised far smaller and irregular stones which are totally unsuitable for dry stone building techniques.  For several years it is that section which has caused the problems and the repairs are tedious and difficult.  This time however, it was a section of the old dry stone wall which had succumbed.  At first I thought it may have been a piece I had previously rebuilt but it soon became clear it was in fact the last remaining original length, between my repair and the start of the lime built stretch.

Collapse in wall.

The latest gap to appear in the Deer-park wall of Edwinsford.

There are a few problems with the wall in terms of repairing it;  firstly it is on a steep slope which means many of the stones roll away down the hill and have to be carried back up, secondly the collapse is almost always on the down side hence half of the stone has to be thrown back uphill and over the pile and then there is the small fact that the wall is some 8ft/2.2mtrs  tall on the lower side which makes it very difficult to build.  Add to that the weight of the carefully dressed cover-bands and the large dressed cope-stones, to say nothing of most of the building stone, and the whole job becomes a hard day’s night.  I met a quarry engineer on the site a few years back and he was able to tell me the precise weight of a cubic metre of that particular stone, extrapolated to the wall it effectively means that a metre of length weighs in at around 4 tons, that’s tons, not tonnes !!  This gap was 3 metres in length … you do the maths !

Rebuilding a gap.

End of day one, two thirds of the way back-up.

I had been forewarned by the farmer that it was a ‘big’ collapse although actually it was far less than I had anticipated,  So it was that on a very bright and sunny day I dismantled the said barricade and set to stripping away the collapse.  I have developed a well worn approach to the activity,it is the mental effort which causes more problem than the physical even to an old stager like me.  Very soon my mind is ‘away with the fairies’ and the stone just gets moved.  During the clearance it is normal to be able to locate the problem which had caused the collapse.  Depending on where the cope-stones and cover-bands are in the pile it will either indicate the tipping outward from the top or, more usually, it shows a bellying out of the middle whereby those stones will be close to the middle of the pile, otherwise they will be at the furthest extent of the fall, elementary my dear Watson !  I already suspected this was going to be a ‘belly out’ collapse having witnessed the tell-tale signs earlier. Unfortunately that meant all those big heavy cover-bands and copes needed carrying back to the up-side.  Very tiring, but it got done and after a quick lunch I started on the rebuild.  It was a hot sunny day and a pleasure to be out on the hill at one of my favourite sites.  Not many places give you Peregrine Falcons overhead, whirling and twisting Red Kites and dozens of smaller birds chirping close-by.  I got a good deal done that afternoon, probably two thirds of the way back up but I knew that still meant a long hard day on the morrow.  The first half of a rebuild is no guide to how long it will take; stone gets smaller and then there is the last big effort to get those top stones lifted back into place.  Friday was different, back on went the warm hat and fleece jacket, more hot coffee was drunk and less cold water and a race to beat the incoming rain left me nicely tired by the end of the day.  Of course a nice cup of tea with the farmer and some of her delicious Welsh cakes cures all … oh yes, and a cheque in the back pocket to go home with ! But there has also been some timber work, oh yes… My partners in timber crime and tired old me have been maintaining the output of high calorie fuel to keep the Laird and his family warm – and hopefully get the revenue stream flowing from the Government RSI scheme. Consuming around 3 tonnes of wood a week, the furnace which heats the massive water tank is something of a cuckoo in the nest.  I don’t think any of us, least of all the Laird, really understood what would be involved in keeping supplies flowing.  Luckily the other two are young and fit, they are also rather peculiar in that they just love getting out into the woods on a weekend and cutting timber.  Luckily too the estate is well blessed with fallen trees which need to be cleared and also some standing timber which, for various reasons, need to be felled.  Mostly we are still dealing with fallen or dead standing timber although, as I mentioned in the previous post, some felling of ash has taken place. It became very clear early on that a certain amount of machinery was going to be needed.  The lads bought a nice old John Deere to work the linkage mounted log splitter which they also bought.  For my part my old International 434 and Fergie trailer did some sterling work right at the start of operations.  After the first hectic few months mutterings started to be heard; a much more efficient way of splitting the logs had to be found and a way of moving the cut and split timber to the storage shed and on to the boiler house.  Will, who is a carpenter by trade and whom the Lady of the House holds in high esteem as a craftsmen – something he gets well ribbed about by the rest of us – knocked up thirty or so large wooden crates which could be lifted by the pallet forks mounted on the John Deere’s linkage.  Luke, another local builder and amateur engineer as well as a busy local farmer, already had a large modern John Deere which does anything requiring power, from winching to lifting and now, log dogging !

Log Splitting

The amazing home-made Log Dog – it does what it will say on the side !

In an operation of some magnitude as well as an excellent example of recycling, the lads created a monster.

Log Dogging - it's what we spend most Saturdays doing, we LOVE it !

Log Dogging – it’s what we spend most Saturdays doing, we LOVE it !

So, Spring has sprung and suddenly May is looming and that is quite a shock… Welshwaller was hoping to be winding down toward a summer of wandering to far away places but there’s still walls awaiting … I wonder if I’ll get any help this year ! Oh yes, and there’s that question of Risk Assessments …

Welsh wildlife !  Who did the Risk Assessment on this job !?

Welsh wildlife ! Who did the Risk Assessment on this job !?

The diary of Great Uncle Dick is showing the increase in the violence and death as 1915 enters the first Spring of the war …

Tuesday 20th April.   J. Gallivan blown to pieces.  T. Green and N. Kings badly wounded. Good time.  Germans blow up                                          mine.

21st.     Relieved by Essex in the afternoon.  Appointed storeman.

Next few days are unintelligible.

30th  Marched off to near Ypres.  Awful place for shelling at night.  Sent to dig trenches near firing line.  Billeted in the open.

Saturday May 1st.  Off to Ypres in the night.Awful march, killing all the way Had to dig trenches from shellfire.

2nd.    Lt. Fraser Reed killed.  Germans attacked us with poisonous gas but we repelled them with heavy loss.  Our battalion lost about 80 killed.

3rd.  Heavy shelling, nerve racking experience.

4th.  Terrible shelling, cannot be described.  Wet feet and wounded.  J.M. Parfitt and I had hard ?

5th.  Plenty of bombarding. E. Lancs left trenches our battalion took over. Sgt Major Brown wounded.

The following weeks of May show how harrowing the battles were becoming.  More next time.

Solitude is the best prophylactic…

19/03/2015

As soon as I walked through the door I knew I was in trouble, serious trouble.  The place was wriggling with ‘Little people’; some running and tripping, some crawling, others sitting comfortably and threateningly in their designer pushchairs and yet more huddled in groups glued to the screen of some hand-held techie thing.  The give away was the constant appearance of tissues in the hands of the doting mothers as they leaned forward to grab the back of the head of their offspring and slam the horrid dripping nose into their other hand in which was hidden the miserly paper. I was doomed, I had stupidly come down out of the hills for the first time since late autumn straight into a trap.  Sure enough that two hours on a Saturday afternoon was to turn into an expensive and very unpleasant week.

Being a man I am adversely affected by simple little germs that leave their hosts untouched.  Mothers too seem to be immune to the wretched chest ripping sneezing and dam burst noses that render me pathetically comatose.  What to the female of the species is a mere ‘head-cold’ to me turns into a near death experience where each cough or sneeze feels like a wire brush is being dragged through my thorax and my head feels as if an orange has grown in my skull.  I am pathetic, a useless lump of dead meat just waiting for the last breath to relieve me from the most diabolical of life’s experiences.  By Monday evening the inexplicable headache had me confused, Tuesday morning saw me wake with the beginnings of a sore throat and fear rose in me.  I attacked the invaders with all the dosing I could muster and indeed by Wednesday evening I was confident I had beaten the wretched germs.  So much so that I set forth on Thursday to plant some trees.  By that evening, with rain teeming down, I retreated to my maggot sleeping bag and proceeded to become really, really pathetic, to my mind, seriously, seriously ill.  I don’t care that it’s just a cold or even if it is flu, man or otherwise.  I don’t care if it’s Nora or Gladys or Janice virus or pneumonia (which a friend of mine endured around Christmas time), I don’t care, as the famous Spike’s epitaph states, “I told you I was ill!”

So, here I am, on Monday, a week later and  some four days into this nightmare, just about to open the fifth box of tissues, trying to construct a blog post of the more interesting events in the life of Welshwaller in the last couple of weeks, here goes …

To begin at the place of infection is to transport you briefly to the Oriel in Carmarthen, a gallery that exhibits some of the finest works of the current artists in Wales.  Several of my family and friends were to be present at the opening of a new exhibition by Wales’ prima-female artist blacksmith, Angharad Pierce-Jones.  Har, as she is known to us all, has a growing status as an innovative and perceptive sculptor in the medium of metal.  She is married to the son of my cousin (I think that makes him ‘first cousin once removed’ rather than a second cousin, but who knows !) and thus I call her’my relative’!  This time she has gone back to the outsized representation of everyday objects such as her huge chairs at the Cywain Centre in Bala.  Perhaps because she has spent the last two years behind one, this current astounding design features the simple pram – or push-chair to be precise.

Pram in the Hallway by Angharad Pierce-Jones

Angharad Pierce-Jones stands behind her latest offering, the ‘Pram in the Hall’ on display in Oriel, Carmarthen.

It is an intriguing construction of mega steel and moon-buggy wheels surrounded by a myriad of kids toys set in what looks like a mass of elephant poo but is, in fact, the slag remnants from the plasma cutting operations at her supplier, Dyfed Steel.  The idea is a challenge to a rather infamous quote by Cyril Connolly which suggests that “there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”.   The whole exhibit is up-front and smacks you straight in the face as you walk into the hall.  The great yellow steel beams represent the ‘hall’ in which the 8 foot high pram is ‘left’.  Apparently there were grave concerns about the ability of the floor to take the weight – over a ton of pram and the same again of beams plus another several tons of people and more pushchairs !!

Angharad Pierce-Jones' Pram in the Hall

Pram in the Hall is nothing if not HEAVY and it is certainly an interesting mix of surreal and every-day.

Pram behind bars

‘Pram behind bars’ maybe more apt …

The weight of the pushchair, sorry, PRAM, was such that the frame buckled just as the installation was finished hence the two chromium joints on each main arm !  I did wonder whether the yellow beams represented more of a prison rather than a hall; perhaps a reflection of how a mother feels after the years of pushing it and caring for its occupant …

I did ask what was to become of it afterwards …. with a little engine I could well make use of it soon !

Stone has not featured these last couple of weeks, it has been all timber, in one form or another.  As March marches on the time for cutting and planting is fast running out and there is yet much to be done – another reason this damn lay-off is such a nuisance.  Each winter I try to fell a sufficient amount of hardwood to see me through another winter some years hence.  Ideally I like to be at least three years ahead, that is timber which I fell this winter will not be burned until the winter of 2017/18.  I was fortunate to have a major supply dropped for me some three years ago, ash trees which had become threateningly big.  In addition I have a coppice rotation of hazel which makes up the old hedgerows around my boundary and that forms the mainstay of my winter fuel.  Hazel is by far my favourite for my wood stove, it is generally of small diameter and grows well once coppiced.  I have yet to complete the first fell of some of the old hedgerow hazels which are now enormous and provide an excellent amount of timber per cut.

Relict hedgerow of hazel

This relict hedgerow has masses of old hazel awaiting coppicing.

The history of woodland management places hazel right at the top of the ‘most useful’ timber, perhaps alongside ash and then alder.  It is a great tree for providing thin wands which were traditionally used for hurdle making and for sticks to be used in horticulture.  Today, apart from one or two older folk who still like hazel rods rather than bamboo for their runner beans, the only use of this tree is for ornate stick making.  Even the ‘cob’ nut is not harvested, except by the pesky squirrels !

Hazel tree felled for fuel

One tree provides a plentiful supply of good fuel.

Once the old trees are coppiced there is a mass of timber of all sizes which, within a year, can provide excellent kindling, medium and larger logs.  The smaller diameter wood needs to be burned by end of year two or it will start to rot out, even the larger timber can be burned then but I like to leave it a little longer.  It needs to be stored in a dry place preferably just a roofed shed with no sides which lets the air blow through.

Once the old trees are coppiced it immediately starts to re-grow.  If you imagine the mass of foliage which the old tree produces each year via its huge root system it is not surprising that the growth in the first year after cutting can be as much as 6 feet/180cms.  Left for 5 years the tree produces a mass of 2″/5cm to 4″/10cms diameter rods and left for another 5 years a mass of 6″ rods can be harvested.  If you want to talk sustainability then the hazel has it in abundance.

6 year hazel coppice

a 6 year coppice is already providing some good fuel and useful rods.

Alas today the many hedgerows which are full of hazel are not managed in a way which sustains the plants, instead they are trashed by a flailing chain which does nothing for re-growth nor aesthetic in the countryside.

I have a hedgerow which was coppiced and fenced (to keep sheep away from the re-growth) some ten years ago and is now in need of laying into a stock-proof hedge.

I also have, on my track, an old hazel hedge which is annual massacred as well as the one which has had no attention probably for fifty years and more.  Perhaps now that the Laird is in need of so much timber for his insatiable furness which heats the vast mansion, hedgerow management and a coppice cycle might be re-introduced.

The annual flailing of this hedge, as with most others, results in a thin spindly line of sticks which are too thinly spread to be useful for nesting birds and certainly would not be stock-proof.

The annual flailing of this hedge, as with most others, results in a thin spindly line of sticks which are too thinly spread to be useful for nesting birds and certainly would not be stock-proof.

Coppiced hedgerow

This hedgerow was coppiced some 10 years ago and is now ready for laying

Hazel hedge of hazel

This hedgerow is urgently in need of coppicing.

Ash is the other species which was traditionally coppiced and highly prized in a number of joinery tasks.  It too provides excellent fuel which can be quickly utilised after felling.  Within three to four months the split timber can easily and cleanly be burned and hence it is a good stop gap timber when supplies run low.

“For ashwood green and ashwood brown is fit for a Queen with a golden crown.”

So says an old countryside proverb and it is indeed an excellent timber for fire and turning.

It has occupied a great deal of my time of late, moving timber from the store sheds to the mansion and it has come as something of a shock to the three of us who are responsible for keeping the supplies flowing, that we are down to our last six weeks of wood !  So much for being ahead of the game.  Luckily a large line of ash trees needed to be felled as they were creating too much shade in the adjacent field in which the farmer grows his turnips.  A fifteen metre wide strip of failed crop is clear for all to see after this season’s failure.

Newly felled ash trees

These ash trees will be in the oven within six months.

The two ‘chainsaw massacre men’, Will and Luke, were like kids at Euro Disney.  For some strange reason there’s nothing they enjoy more than felling trees and slicing them up with their noisy, smelly chainsaws.  I have wondered whether it is something to do with wearing the bright orange PPE (personal protection equipment) and Foreign legion type head-gear.  Whatever the reason I am grateful they are up for the job because it is a young man’s sport and I am more than happy with just felling my own supplies.  The slice through the trunk and the crash of the tree as it hits the ground is just the start.  The sneading-up of the tree and then the huge amount of clearing is quite staggering.  Both ash and hazel produce a massive amount of brash that has to be sorted, piled and burnt or chipped and it all has to be sorted and moved.

Luke drops another - and he loves it !

Luke drops another – and he loves it !

Fortunately I am in a position to make amends for all the environmental damage and increase in the CO2 levels which my/our tree felling causes.  Each year, as I have mentioned previously, I ensure that I plant at least a hundred hardwood trees and in most years this is exceeded.

As I write I am awaiting an end to this damned infection so as to return to a job I began a week ago.  I, and my little helper, have to plant around 2 thousand hedgerow plants in four locations at the farm near the great castle of Carreg Cennen where we recently cleared a wall.  As part of his Glastir Advanced farm scheme the farmer has to restore some 250 metres of relict hedgerow.  The hedge banks have already been coppiced where required – not much as it turns out – and the earth mounded back up then the required double fencing has been installed.  Thus all we have to do is plant the new trees in neat rows along the top of the banks.

Planting young trees in a hedgerow

Here goes, just 2 thousand bare root baby trees to plant – before it gets warm !

However, there is a little mathematics involved.  For a start some clown up the line has determined that there has to be eight plants per metre.  That is every 25 cms in two parallel rows and in a staggered box formation.  In addition 60% of the total must be thorn, of which, in turn, 60% is to be hawthorn and 40% blackthorn.  Then the remainder must be interspersed in singles and must include at least another three native hedgerow species.  It is something of a nightmare to try to remember where and when let alone what, goes in where.

I chose the first one thousand plants as follows; 600 thorn in the percentage above, two hundred hazel, being the next most common hedgerow species in these parts, fifty crab apple, fifty oak, fifty wild cherry and fifty rowan.  The next thousand will differ slightly as the ground is somewhat wetter and I will include willow and alder.

My method is to get ‘my little helper’ (who has a conveniently large size 14 boot) to make a small 5cm diameter hole at the specified distance along a relatively straight line on top of the hedgebank.  Then he works his way down the other side leaving a 30 cm or so gap between the two rows and the holes alternate to the ones he has already made.  Simple !  Except ….

The ancient hedge-bank which never was a 'hedgerow' but now is to become one ..

The ancient hedge-bank which never was a ‘hedgerow’ but now is to become one ..

The first two sections were old hedgerows of probable post-medieval date (being on land previously a strip field system or rhandir  worked by the bonded slaves of the Lord of Carreg Cennen castle which looms over the fields) and which had already been re-made and fenced.  The bank was mainly of soil with few stones and hence making the holes was relatively easy.

The trick is to ensure no air is left around the tiny fibrous roots of the young plants and also that the soil is not compacted around them or those same tiny roots will not be able to penetrate.  My method is to place the plant in the pre-made hole and then cut up the ground around with a spade just as when digging a garden.  That serves to aerate the soil and loosen the ground around the root system.  Normally I  soak the roots for an hour or so prior to planting.

The final section of hedgerow planting took me back to the land where much of my walling was done back in the 1990s.  Several kilometres of dry stone walls cover the upper reaches of the hill which, prior to the Napoleonic Wars, was at one time the open ffriddoed  of the township, that is to say it was the common grazing of those farmers who lived nearby.  An Enclosure Act of 1812 allowed its ‘inclosing’ into the fields which we see today.  The original boundary was a large earth bank with ditches on either side as was the norm.  That bank, or more correctly that ‘hedge’, still exists and is an historic feature of the upland zone.  Unfortunately the clot who is in charge of this particular Glastir farm programme has decided it is a ‘traditional’ hedgerow (it is a common error to read old ‘hedge’ as meaning the same as the hedges we talk about today) despite the absolute evidence to the contrary, like NO trees !  (Apart from one or two old hawthorn and one small oak all of which are out of the obvious line of any old hedge that may have been present).  Furthermore the environment, altitude, exposure to high wind and rainfall, predetermines that hedges will not successfully grow.  The existence of dry stone walls might be a clue !!

Oh, I am so weary of having to deal with the idiotic rules of Environmental on-farm schemes constructed by so-called experts in the highly paid departments of the various agricultural departments.  The 8 plants per metre, the current ‘thinking’,  was once 6 plants per metre and before that, in the first programmes, was 4 plants per metre.  The double row system came from I know not where, it is certainly NEVER present in an old hedge.  The increase is to try to alleviate the 30% loss of plants expected (because they are either badly planted or badly maintained)  thus leaving a sufficient number of healthy plants with which to ultimately ‘make’ a hedge.  Except a hedge will never be made, there is no chance that any of these hedges will ever be laid into a ‘traditional’ – and manageable – hedgerow which gives  longevity to the trees therein.  They will never be expected to fulfil the role of a stock-proof barrier, their original purpose, no, instead a fence either side, at immense cost and environmental damage in terms of its manufacture and its installation, the steel and the chemicals that fails to preserve the posts etc etc,  keep sheep away.

Now if there was a one third loss it might give the hedge a chance , it might give the individual trees a chance to grow into healthy adult trees.  There are, however, two major problems; firstly if 30% do fail the farmer is heavy penalised, a financial penalty of hundreds of pounds which he gets hit with twice.  This current farmer, a long standing customer of over 20 years whom I regard as a friend, got fined £500 last year as a number of plants had died (in fact they hadn’t died at all, they had been flattened by the tall grass growing inside the double fencing – as nothing can graze it ! – but were happily growing horizontally, a common occurrence).  As if that wasn’t bad enough, he then suffered the same penalty from his Single Farm Payment, the European grant to all farmers.  Where the hell is the justice in that !?

The ditch and bank formed the cattle barrier, maybe built back in the Iron age - that old hawthorn is NOT the remnants of a hedge!!

The ditch and bank formed the cattle barrier, maybe built back in the Iron age – that old hawthorn is NOT the remnants of a hedge!!

So, here we are, having to plant a stupid number of young trees on a bank that is an important historic feature which never had a hedge growing on it, in an environment (look at the vegetation, what chance do the young trees have of ever growing ?!!) totally unsuitable and, when it fails, the farmer will get hammered.  That is the incompetence those of us working with supposed agri-environment schemes have to deal with.

Having spent some time helping farmers to put together their applications to the current Glastir scheme, I know just how absurd much of the science which is supposed to underpin these regulations really is.  Why doesn’t anyone study the ‘tradition’ they are so eager to promote.  Little Miss R can bloody well look out when I bump into her !

My poor friend/customer lives in total fear (as do most farmers I know, who are in the ‘scheme’) of doing something inadvertently which costs him large amounts of money when the dreaded Gestapo, the inspector who comes to check up on all that has been done, comes around.

All I can do is my best, to plant the young trees in a manner that gives them a chance of survival and trust to nature to help me.  Of course, at the absurd closeness they stand to each other they will not be able to produce enough leaves and hence photosynthesis will be limited which in turn stunts growth. In truth all I am planting is a line of trees which may or may not ever grow into a linear wood.  It won’t be a hedge but it will have some habitat benefit.  Fortunately there are still some folk who are willing to either do, or pay to have done, the old way of managing a hedgerow – laying it in the customary way, in my part of the world that means ‘Breconshire style’.

A newly and magnificently laid hedge along the nearby main road, done in the Breconshire style with the hazel heatherings along the top.

A newly and magnificently laid hedge along the nearby main road, done in the Breconshire style with the hazel heatherings along the top.

It is such a joy to see the product of a fellow country craftsman.

But my travails are as nothing, indeed, ARE nothing to what my Great Uncle Dick was enduring a century ago…

Sunday 14th March.   Church service in Factory.  2 parades and bath.

15th.  Advance practise by whole Battalion.

16th.  Relieved Essex.  My dear friend G.M. Saltery killed near Despery farm.

17th.  Corporal Williams killed. Bert Watkins and many others wounded.

18th.  Lt. Roberts killed.  Germans shelled Kings Own trenches.

19th.  Fall of snow.  Awful cold.  Dreadful day.

20th.  Relieved by Essex.  Bad time.  31 killed and many wounded. Came out through communication trench.  Awful 4 days for us in trenches.  Lt. Henshaw and Capt. Walddo(?) wounded. 37 killed and wounded.

22nd.  Easy day in Billets.  Narrow escape from shells.

23rd.  Easy day in Billet.

24th.  Communications trench open.  Relieved Essex in A3 trench.  Wet night.

25th.  Wet day.  Plenty of work digging in trenches.

26th.  Digging new trench at Nobervern (?) Very cold.

27th.  Leicesters joined at night.  Digging trenches.  Good haul of fireworks.

Letter from Mr. Mathews. Bit of a predicament.

28th.   Relieved by Essex at night.  Only 1 killed and 1 wounded.

29th.  In Billets.  Had letter from mother and Maggie.

30th.  2 Parades.  Easy time.

31st.  2 Parades.  Easy time.

 

Spring is upon us and an eclipse of the sun is bringing some (unexplained) excitement for tomorrow.  But for Welshwaller the amazing site of the Northern Lights setting the night sky rippling fluorescent green has been enough excitement for one week.

That and the first dollops of FROG  SPAWN – oh yes, frog spawn definitely means Spring …  I know, sad isn’t it !!

 

 

 

 

 

And it came to pass that in those days ….

04/03/2015

Winter slips unwillingly into hibernation, hopefully not to be seen or heard of for ten months or so.  Its departure is elongated and just when it seems Spring is abroad another little death throw casts us back into a frozen landscape, often with a dusting of snow.  Saint David’s day arrived with wind and rain to rock the slow rising daffodils and I retreated to the wood stove early.  By the next evening snow had covered the land once again.

Mainly my time has been utilised hauling yet more timber for the huge wood burning furnace that heats the mansion.  I’ve been grateful for that work as it has been much too unpleasant to venture out onto the hills where some wall repairs await.  The last Friday of February finally brought some respite and a warm sun and some high air pressure sent the wind away and allowed me to sally forth and attend to an overdue build.  It is a year since I began the repair of an old wall on the farm which occupied much of last year’s work.  I was unable to complete the gateway until the gate-posts had been knocked in and as that didn’t happen before I moved to the Pool House enclosure, the gateway has been in a somewhat derelict looking state.

It has been a year waiting to be completed; for once not my fault !  I was waiting the arrival of a post !

It has been a year waiting to be completed; for once not my fault ! I was waiting the arrival of a post !

Whilst it was a good 3 square metres and the cheek-end of wall building I had the benefit of some good stone.  Often when a cheek-end is to be rebuilt or built new, there is insufficient corner stones with suitable right-angled edges and length to build a strong and well interlocked end.  Having been aware that a gateway was to be built, and having already been able to build one of the ends – one cheek-end can be built before posts are knocked in but the second needs to be left until the posts are in to ensure the wall is tight to the post – I had set aside a goodly supply of corner stones and large through stones to enable me to complete the job.  Thus I was able to get the cheek-end up and sound in a few hours and was homeward bound before the sun had set.

At last, the gateway is now just waiting the GATE !

At last, the gateway is now just awaiting the GATE !

There was a large section of repair left over on an adjacent wall, left for a whole year also.  The land was far too wet when I began the repair in March of 2014 which made it impractical to bring the required extra stone to the site.  Then, before we knew it, lambing was upon us and then, within the month, I removed to the restoration which was to consume the greater part of the year.  So, there still remains a substantial section to complete and it was whilst viewing that wall from this gateway that my eye was suddenly attracted, or rather was ‘horrified’, by a further problem !

Oh no, another section succumbs to age and weather ...

Oh no, another section succumbs to age and weather …

A large collapse of the 2 metre high boundary wall had occurred.  It is on the same stretch of wall and is a real disappointment.  Firstly, it is a difficult build with large stones, insufficient hearting – hence the need to import extra stone – and an uncomfortable steep bank on which to work.  Secondly, and this is a common issue with part rebuilds and gapping – see my previous post on the great deer-park wall at the Dinas in Llansawel – which is grant aided under some scheme or other.  I have had to deal with the problem for twenty years, or rather the farmers have; the wall is assessed at the start of a funding programme and the gaps or derelict sections are measured at that time.  It is expected that at the end of the scheme the whole wall will be in a state of good repair and, most importantly, stock-proof.  If further collapses occur after the start of the scheme, or as in this case, after the repairs have been completed, then the farmer is faced with either leaving the work and risk being financially penalised at the end of the scheme for not maintaining the wall in good condition, or funding the extra work.  It is a dilemma for both of us.  It is generally not possible to foretell the collapse of sections of wall, indeed it is often the case that sections which look for all the world as if they will collapse imminently remain, often leaning at Tower of Pisa angles, for years.  I had certainly not seen any signs that this particular section was terminal.  Annoyingly I had only just agreed the fee with the farmer for other repairs on a wall some distance out on the hill and that had pretty much used up his funds for wall repairs this year.

It was satisfying to get back to the day job after some weeks away but it did emphasise the loss of fitness; I certainly slept well that night !

Some r & r was justified, or so I reckoned, and so it came to pass that I ventured westward to the end of Wales, the St. David’s peninsula to be exact, just a few days before the celebration of ‘His’ day as the Patron Saint of this little land.  ‘My little helper’ was celebrating his own day, his birthday in fact, and had been hauled off with his family to stay in a rather enchanting castle.  Roch castle has been renovated to the highest standard architecturally and tastefully fitted out as an up-market bed and breakfast enterprise.  Have a look at it !  When I was young and holidaying in the area, the old ruinous Norman Keep dominated the flat surrounding land of the peninsula north west of Haverfordwest, on the road to Newgale and onwards to St. David’s.  It has been an amazing achievement to bring it to its present condition though, in some respects, the historic presence of the old ruin has been removed forever.

We ventured a little way further up the coast to the Saints eponymous city, the smallest in Britain, and spent a short time visiting the medieval cathedral and adjacent Bishop’s Palace.  It is strange to visit a holiday hot-spot in the dead of winter.  In the summer months it is hardly possible to find a parking place nor a seat in a cafe let alone walk on the pavement without having to constantly step into the road to avoid pushchairs and gossiping holiday-makers.  In the chill of February whilst there are still a large number of visitors to the cathedral, the town is closed and few promenaders are encountered.

The restaurant is definitely one of west Wales' top eating houses and the local sea food tops the menu - look out fishies !!

The restaurant is definitely one of west Wales’ top eating houses and the local sea food tops the menu – look out fishies !!

Our lunch venue was the well proclaimed restaurant in the small sea port village of Porthgain.  ‘The Shed’ has earned a reputation for excellent sea-food and did not disappoint.  Situated in an old port-side factory unit which once housed a brick making enterprise,  Indeed the little harbour is dominated by the ruined industrial archaeology of earlier quarry and brick making.  The local dolerite was crushed for road-stone and the slate was crushed to make the dark grey bricks.  It is strange to see a quaint sea-side harbour with large structures right alongside the harbour wall.  I last went there over twenty years ago when the ‘shed’ was used by local shell fisherman.

The old stone buildings and the large brick kilns dominate the little sea-side harbour of  Porthgain

The old stone buildings and the large brick kilns dominate the little sea-side harbour of Porthgain

Lunch in the Shed was very enjoyable and is to be recommended, of course fish was the chosen food and judging by the number of diners it is as popular in the winter as it is in the summer months.  Luckily I was warned that booking was necessary !  A visit to sea-side is a great way to re-generate after a long cold winter.  I can always find something of interest, usually geological and the little cove of Abereiddy provided it this time.  The strata of the sand and soil at the foreshore was fascinating and complex.  Apparently the dark slate shale was taken on a tram road over to the brick works at Porthgain.

These interesting layers at the sea shore in Abereiddy show why the area had such an important stone industry.

These interesting layers at the sea shore in Abereiddy show why the area had such an important stone industry.

An hour standing on the shore on a wintry day is as good a dose of uplifitng therapy as a shot of serotonin !

An hour standing on the shore on a wintry day is as good a dose of uplifitng therapy as a shot of serotonin !

An enjoyable day out ended with a game of Trivial Pursuits at which I did not excel …

The Diary of Great Uncle Dick:

Monday March 1st 1915;  We celebrated St. David’s day at Dispary Farm. Visited Brigit. Plenty of sniping.

2nd.  At Dispary farm, easy day.

3rd.  Drew rations for 2 days. Transport to farm.

4th.  Easy day. Visited Le Bisertin (?) and removed to billets.

5th.  Easy day. Q.M. Smith came back from England.

6th.  Plenty of rain and German shelling.  Our big guns doing a lot of damage.

7th.  C.O. inspection. Stayed in at night.

8th.  Relieved Essex guard at Dispary farm. Plenty of sniping.

9th.  On guard at Dispary farm.  Our artillery shelled the Germans.

10th. On guard at Dispary farm.  Germans shelled near (shrapnell)

11th. Relieved by Essex.  We had 5 killed and 20 wounded.  Captain Taylor killed.

12th. In billets.  Sgt Major acquitted for being drunk.

13th. Taunton made a fool of himself by inspecting rifles.  Arthur and I exchanged rifles, Arthur’s is clean and Taunton said “same dirt”

The more I re-read the diary of my Great Uncle and marry it to other sources which give account of what was actually going on around him, the more I understand how understated his account is and thus how ‘normal’ the whole trench warfare had become (to him).  How easy we become accustomed to every day events regardless of how dreadful they actually are.  How easy does ‘normality’ overcome us.  We are seeing it still in the awful accounts of child abuse and of the lives being experienced by those in Syria and Ukraine.

On a lighter note, I saw a caption post on a friend’s Facebook page the other day which consisted of a rather middle class 1950s mother sitting next to her equally middle class young daughter; “What is ‘normal’ mummy ?”, she asks. “Oh, it’s a setting on the tumble drier”, answers mother ….. Yep, that about sums it up, don’t you think !?

“Why what’s the matter that you have such a February face ? So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness…” (WS: Much Ado about nowt)

09/02/2015

That my face is full of frost is very true; so, for that matter, are my boots, my gloves and my upstairs rooms !! Lordie I live in a cold house…. Insulation is a wonderful thing, it keeps temperatures constant.  Thus, in summer my little hovel in the hills remains blessedly cool regardless of the tropical heat outdoors.  In the dead of winter however, it remains cursedly cold, absurdly so.  The only way I can keep my butter soft enough to spread is to keep it in the fridge !

These last few weeks I have been severely beaten about the nether regions by icy blasts and wild westerlies.  One day, gales and rain, the next snow and ice, a real January cocktail for sure.  Of late clear skies have seen temperatures maintained at several degrees below and the snow that fell on the Cambrian mountains shows no sign of wanting to be gone.  I have not ventured too far, just a few small jobs and then home to my medieval ice house.  But there is an upside to living in a hovel, the bugs and viruses stay away; ‘touch-wood’ no winter sneezes have attacked as yet, as long as I can stay away from zones of infection, such as supermarkets and doctor’s surgeries, I have a chance, slim though it may be.

Fortunately – in a way – I have nothing too pressing in the matter of wall building.  The filo-fax is  markedly blank when it comes to work awaiting attack but that is not the reality, it’s just a measure of how easily I forget the jobs that are out there and which I have promised to do but have merely forgotten to write down.  Two are near at hand and have been ‘on-the-floor’ for over a year now, I’m ashamed to say.  To make matters worse they are at the estate mansion and M’lady is beginning to frown at me;  I am playing the sympathy vote, pleading on her sensibilities to not expect me to suffer outdoor in the winter…. but as she keeps reminding me, “That’s what you said LAST year!”

The first work of the year was a small renovation of a dry stone wall at a site near Ebbw Vale in the valleys.  The old steel town was host to one of the great Garden Festivals which, if memory serves me correctly, Michael Heseltine proposed, an attempt to breathe new life into ailing industrial areas where the old capital industries were in rapid decline in the later years of the Thatcher government.  The early 1990s saw much re-development of the old steelworks and a rather splendid Festival took place which has left a legacy of some kind.  Mainly it is out-of-town retail parks and some landscaping of the old brown-field site.

My journey was to take me through the modernised town to a small side valley where a rather remarkable piece of woodland exists.  The ‘Silent Valley’ is a natural beech wood, apparently the most westerly and highest natural beech wood in Britain.  It would be more aptly named the ‘Secret Valley’ as very few know of its existence.  Today it is managed as a nature reserve by the Gwent Wildlife Trust out of their offices at the Environment Centre on the old industrial site.  I first became aware of it in 1996 when post Garden Festival work was being carried out to enhance the environmental aspects of both the steelworks and the festival areas.  I visited the beech woods with volunteers from the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) to train them in woodland management techniques and tree identification (difficult in a purely beech infested woodland !).

Silent Valley Ebbw Vale

The staff and volunteer of Gwent Wildlife Trust at the Silent Valley site where the newly renovated dry stone wall guards the entrance.

The entrance to the car park is bounded by a small dry stone wall which had become damaged and was beginning to look a little tatty.  My role was to oversee the restoration by staff and volunteers for whom I was to provide some basic instruction in the technique of dry stone walling.

The wall is not old, it was built back in the late 1990s at the time the area became a nature reserve.  The stone is the local Pennant Sandstone which is a good stone for walling as it presents in nicely flat-bedded slabs.  It is the underlying stone of the coalfield and is heavily laden with ferrous deposits giving it a rusty brown hue which mixes with the over-riding grey.  The cope-stones are set vertically in the manner common to the area and markedly different to the copes in my usual zones of operation.

A day was sufficient to complete the repair and I was thankful for that, snow lay thickly on my route home and indeed all around my little homestead.  I’m to return to the site in October to take part in an open-day at the nature reserve – writing that into my diary seemed rather meaningless, experience tells me it will soon appear !

My next sojourn took me west to another of my regular building sites.  Firstly my annual visit to the deer park wall of the old Edwinsford estate near Llansawel where the Dinas quarry hosts my ‘winter school’.  Each year a section of the old 2 metre high wall seems to give in to the ravages of age and weather and decides to fall.  Fortunately this year it was a mere 3 metres long but it still took me two days to clear away the fallen stone and rebuild the section.  I was relieved to see a mass of lime mortar residue in the fallen stone indicating clearly it was NOT a section I had already repaired.  The problem for me is that the stone in the length of wall where these collapses occur is very suitable for a mortared wall but not at all suitable for dry stone walling; it tends to be small and of odd shape with no discernible bedding plane.  No doubt I will return !

Next it was to the hills of Gwynfe where I recently attended to the sheepfolds.  This time it was to finally honour a promise I made ten years or more ago to a very good friend and customer for whom I had built several kilometres of wall under the Tir Cymen agri-environment scheme of the mid 1990s.  It is an insignificant piece of wall, a small garden retaining wall in reality but, oh my, it is a place of such history and eminence in the area and such a tranquil place to work.

Close to the great edifice of the only truly Welsh castle, Carreg Cennen, the farm is of medieval origin and the land and buildings demonstrate the wealth of history in which it is immersed.  The fields are large and have bank and ditch boundaries and may well have been a part of the desmesne land of the castle (the ‘home farm’ of the Lord or King).  Nearby is a farm the name of which clearly indicates the historic nature of the area, Rhandir, which denotes the small strips of land worked by each bonded slave of the manor for his subsistence.  Lying south of the small market town of Llandeilo and its own Welsh castle of Dinefwr, the great limestone crag on which stands Carreg Cennen is by far the best kept secret of pre Norman Wales – go take a look !!

Carreg Cennen skyline

The dark silhouette of Carreg Cennen dominates the southern sky from the ancient landscape.

The homestead and farm buildings are of a much later period The barns clearly indicate just how productive an arable farm it was and thus how important it would have been to the Kings and Princes of Deheuberth who inhabited the area  over a thousand years ago.

I would love to be involved in the restoration of this important piece of Welsh historical architecture but alas it requires skills beyond those of a mere dry stone waller !  I’ll do my bit, and the small garden wall is a start.

It is there, honestly it is, hidden in the overgrown hedgerow, the remnants of a Ha-ha actually though the ditch is much filled.

It is there, honestly it is, hidden in the overgrown hedgerow, the remnants of a Ha-ha actually though the ditch is much filled.

As can be seen in the photo above, the garden wall is not the only stonework that needs attention; the whole corner of the house is fracturing out and the buttresses evidence it has been a centuries old problem !

The great barns and stable show just what a productive farm this was.

The great barns and stable show just what a productive farm this was.

The whole place is an absolute idyll and I wish I could do more to assist my old friend to restore it to its former greatness.  For now I’ll have to content myself with some small repairs to an old dry stone Ha-ha….  Nature abounds in the quiet of the animal-less yard and the buildings are home to many birds and creatures.  The gloriously cold but sunny day was greatly enhanced when my rattlings disturbed a large Barn Owl from his slumbers and he drifted out over the open fields.  Folklore advises seeing an owl in daylight foretells death…… a little worrying !!

As February slides onward to Spring and nothing but clear skies and frosty mornings greet each day, it’s hard to think that maybe, just maybe, winter is behind us…. On the other hand, I’m still crunching over frozen snow as I battle on keeping the Laird supplied with much needed fire-wood.

Diary from the Trenches:

In February 1915 my great uncle Dick wrote:

Monday 1st Feb:    Relieve No. 1 company in Trenches.

2nd.    In trenches.  Germans shelled but no loss. Put up barbed wire.

3rd.    T. Murray & J. Day killed. Relieved by No. 4 company.

4th.    Helped with rations.  Heavy gun firing at night.

5th.    Ditto.  Plenty of firing going on.

6th.    Received parcel from mother also diaries.

7th.    Guardsman Paddear (?) and I had tea together.  Buffy ordered me back to platoon.

8th.    Absent off parade at 10.45,  Digging all night.

9th.    Buffy give me 9 nights digging.   Relieved not in trenches. Dangerous place.

10th.   In trenches. VERY narrow escape from OUR shells !

11th.   In trenches. 2 narrow escapes.  Relieved by No. 4 company.

12th.   Billeting in Fabrice.  Easy day.  Buffy goes home on furlough.

13th.   Mother’s birthday, 50th. Easy day. Cake from P & E.

14th.   Have food with Gdm 8. Good time.

 

In the following week the diary reports a cold spell of clear weather which causes great discomfort in the trenches where ice forms and digging becomes really arduous.  A century later I’m grateful for clear skies and dry ground, how many years have I endured a February so wet that every step becomes a challenge to extricate stuck wellington boots; I’m grateful too for my mid 20th century birth, at least my wet February months did not involve keeping my head down in a rat infested mud hole of a Flanders trench…

For now Welshwaller is wrapped well against the frosty nights and is more than happy to scrape the windscreen…. it’s just a shame the Welsh rugby boys didn’t think to clear their windshields before venturing out into the cold of a Cardiff night, maybe they would have done better to have faced up to it sooner instead of hiding in the warm changing rooms whilst the foe stood bravely on the field of battle….  Sometimes I despair… what numb-skulls do we have in charge of organising the greatest of all Welsh battles? Do they think blasting the sky with fire-works and rendering everyone deaf and blind with smoke and laser lights is the appropriate prelude ?  Lord save us from politicians and X factor seduced promo men at the WRU …..

Come to think of it, there is a perfectly good fit-for-purpose dungeon in Carreg Cennen castle ….

 

 

 

 


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