“Act the way you’d like to be and soon you’ll be the way you act.” L. Cohen Esq.

25/11/2016

I have to say that I’m rather hoping Leonard is not absolutely correct in that assertion – it bodes badly for the United States if it is true !  On the other hand, most of the folk I regard as my friends and close associates must have followed that course as they flowed through their lives.

Many whom I have spoken to and corresponded with the last couple of weeks are variously dismayed or frightened or both – the world suddenly seems a rather darker place to them.  I’m not losing any sleep over it, though I certainly forfeited one night to watch events across the ocean, just as I did a few months back when we in this country decided to re-flood the English channel.  Que sera sera.  I’m far more concerned at the latest report from the climate scientists, another year when record temperatures heated the globe.  I do hope The Donald is at least correct about that; please, for all our sakes, let it really be a con trick by people out to make a quick buck (or millions) from making air conditioning units and freezers !

My time in Yorkshire was a period of no rain, my friends in the Carolinas are suffering drought – raging wild fires in November in the Blue Ridge !?  Since returning to Wales it has been mainly dry and warm as toast in the day and reasonably cold at night.  Creepy-crawlies and biting insects are still assaulting me when really they should be asleep or dead by now.  What a good year for fungus though !  Thankful we are for that, at least !

As for me well,the pleasures of a quiet retirement have yet to manifest themselves, work seems to keep popping-up and try as I might, my customer seem unable to take ‘No’ for an answer.  Thus it is I have found myself back in the upper reaches of the South Wales valleys with my friends at the Brynmawr Buddhist centre – or Palpung as it is correctly named.  Since first going there a few years back to train some of the folk in dry stone wall building – they have a large perimeter wall around the old graveyard at the rear of the old Baptist chapel they have re-branded – there has been an area of the ‘garden’ which has been of great concern to me.

Cemetery garden at the Buddhist centre in Brynmawr.

Cemetery coming alive with bright flowers and hard working volunteers. The Baptists are looking down, frowning no doubt !

The ground at the rear is much higher than the building and to ascend from the ‘back-yard’ to the cemetery (or garden as it is gradually becoming), some seriously dangerous steps, or rather, the relics of some steps, have to be tackled !  I seriously cannot believe one of the tribe have not come a real cropper whilst negotiating them.  I had rather hoped they would get a local builder to rebuild them but no, they wanted me to do it – that is a sure sign I am too cheap !

The important thing to make sure with any step building is to keep the height of each step and the depth of the tread the same all the way up and all the way down.  To not do so is to ensure someone will trip or fall headlong.  20cms or 8inches is the standard rise and the depth of the tread should either allow one foot to be placed comfortably, i.e. about 30-40 cms or 12 to 13 inches, or should allow for a land and one step before rising again.  Of course it all depends on the distance the steps have to rise vertically and horizontally but the given is the height of the riser.  A simple mathematical exercise will give you the answer, measure the vertical height, divide it by 20cms/8″; measure the horizontal distance from front to back of the ground the steps are to ascend and divide that figure by the number of ‘steps’ (risers) you have.  So for a vertical height of  4 metres you would have 400 divided by 20 = 20 steps.  If the horizontal distance was 10 metres you would divide that by 20 giving you a tread depth of 50 cms.  In order to get a nice even tread depth over the whole range of the steps some digging away of the slope or filling-in can be done.  Whichever way you chose, get it right, there’s nothing worse than an uneven, unequal set of steps !

Stone steps at the Palpung Buddhist centre in Brynmawr

New steps for my friend ‘Dai’ Lama, he has struggled far too long up very dangerous steps – but the carpenters had better get all that junk of my steps !

Fortunately there was sufficient stone, slabs and rubble to make quite a large lower set of steps and even though the upper five were much narrower I was still able to continue the 20cms rise by 32cms tread.  Of course, as the stone was not suitable for a dry stone set of steps I had to use a mortar mix.  Actually, where there is going to be  regular and fairly numerous ‘people traffic’ I always use mortar – in these days of ‘blame’ you can’t afford to have any accidents as a result of your workmanship.

Accidents are always just waiting to befall the unwary, especially when hugely heavy tombstones are involved.  I knew when the lady asked me some months ago, knew I didn’t really want to be doing what she was asking.  The old cemetery of the Brynmawr Baptists is a real reflection of how wealthy those old non-conformists were and just how determined they were to be remembered.  I have wandered around a lot of grave-yards in my time and yes, now and then you do come across large tombs and rather over the top memorial stones.  This cemetery must have had an income qualification, a bit like wanting to go and live in Jersey !  The memorial stones are just so ridiculously huge and massively heavy.  How do I know that ? Because I’ve just spent three days moving some of them, or rather, me and my little helper have.  Such huge stones are so very dangerous and have caused some serious injuries and even death to unfortunate visitors to churchyards.  At some time in the past twenty years or so many of the Baptist stones have fallen down or been taken down and stacked at various places around the acre or so cemetery.  In order to respect those graves the Buddhists decided to place the stones around the boundary, just leaning them against the wall.  Some have been broken and they are going to be used to create a sort of crazy-paving patio.

Moving tomb-stones - with difficulty !

“How do we move it?” Don’t forget, my ‘little helper’ – holding the stone – is 6ft 8 ins. tall and as strong as an ox and even HE was nonplussed.

The only way to get them moved was by a slow ‘walking’ motion, it was very difficult and extremely dangerous.  Several times we had to just let it fall when we inadvertently lost the balance.  I was both worried and annoyed; worried about my back and annoyed that I had been stupid enough to have allowed myself to be talked into it.  I am definitely paying the price, both my knees and back are feeling very damaged and painful !  We managed, with another helper, to move most of the large ones but in the end I had to say “No more” as ‘she’ tried to persuade us to move some really stupidly heavy stones which were lying out of the way under a yew tree.  I could see even my youthful helpers had expended their reserves of strength and energy and I had certainly done more than I should have done.  I suspect ‘she’ was not best pleased (as she didn’t give us her usual fond farewell !) but “frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!”  I’ve not got through twenty something years of building dry stone walls without damaging my back to fall at the last hurdle, or gravestone!

Grave-stones moved to the boundary wall of the old Baptist church in Brynmawr.

Grave stones of the Brynmawr Baptists now safely leaned against the boundary wall. How on earth did the memorial masons ever get them there in the first place !?

 

Whilst the journey time to Brynmawr is now somewhat extended as I have moved further west, I feel a sense of duty towards these fine folk but they will have to allow me to enjoy my religious celebrations before expecting me to return; that’s the birthday celebrations of Jesus and his death …. first full moon after Lent is quite late in 2017 I believe !?

Physical work is only one activity just now; I am engaged in some ‘archaeological’ research also but not the normal sort of landscape stuff I usually bore you with.  No, this time I’m in pursuit of some agricultural archaeology in the form of an unusual vehicle.

I say ‘vehicle’ because to call it a ‘cart’ would be to mislead the reader, it is not strictly of that type, albeit it is a two wheeler.  Neither is it a ‘wagon’ or ‘wain’, those terms by tradition would be four wheeled vehicles.  It is classed as a ‘car’, a wheel-car in fact but I rather suspect that term is a throw back to the Welsh name for a sled, car-llusg.  This particular ‘wheel-car’ is very much a peculiarity of the old border county of Radnorshire (now apart of the modern county of Powys – itself an ancient Kingdom of early medieval Wales).

dscf5021-3

 Radnor Wheel Car

I have been on the trail of the makers and the last remaining examples -one of which  I recovered from the hills of the old county.  Hopefully I’ll give a much fuller report in my next post – before the end of the  year !

Finally, with thanks to those of you who sent me ideas as to what the ‘mysterious’ object at the end of my last post might be, here is the answer ….

A large relic from a canal lock

No, not a watering can ! I’ll give you a clue or two, it’s been cut down, it’s upside down …. and it weighs over 300lbs !

It’s a section of the main frame of a lock gate – it is upside down and is the bottom of the ‘hanging’ post.  The metal pin sat in a ‘cup’ set into the floor of the lock and acted as the hinge to allow the gate to swing open and shut.  A real piece of history which, can you believe (!!!) a friend of mine actually identified.  I was absolutely astonished but then, William Brittain is a fairly astonishing Welshman.  Son of a ‘Llani’ doctor, expert cabinetmaker and educationalist and a man whom I shared a rather illustrious period of higher education with …. way back …. when Wales ALWAYS won a rugby international … yes, we are that old !

Happy Thanksgiving dear American friends – enjoy it while you can ! Black Friday eh ?  We’ll see.

 

Three hundred plus

03/11/2016

Years that is, a long long time ago is three hundred years, add a few more decades and you get way back into an interesting period of Welsh history.  The last few months have thrown me back to those days and I have enjoyed the company of some super folks while venturing there.

Just before I left for the northern climes of England I journeyed to the rugged landscape of the Rhinogs, north of Dolgellau and into the southern reaches of the Snowdonia National Park.  I was on an expedition with my dear Carolinian walling friend and two of Wales’ most eminent cultural and environmental historians.  We were headed to view an ancient farmstead which the Woodland Trust have recently acquired but we also had a stop or two on the way !  All of our sites were at least three hundred years young.

Then there was the weekend celebrating 350 years of the establishment of the great estate of Penpont, a few miles west of Brecon and home to two dear friends of some 25 years.  The wonderful mansion has been brought back to life in their period of tenure after falling into a rather dismal state in the half century prior.

Old buildings, old walls and, naturally, old tools displayed by old fools !  Let me begin with the first adventure, north to Gwynedd.

Stone lintel in derelict farmhouse

Massive lintels and huge stones make up the walls of this old farmstead.

Above the main A470 trunk road, where it wends its way north from Dolgellau toward the towers of the nuclear power station at Trawsfynydd, lies a steep sided valley, a re-entrant into the deep gorge which the road runs in.  A small stream, Nant Las, crashes over huge boulders and there, in the most sublime little clearing  stands a cluster of derelict buildings.  Such sites are common throughout the uplands of mid and north Wales but what sets the ruins in that part of the country apart is the size of the stones that had to be used.  Even in my fit and fastidious youth I would not have entertained using the stones the medieval builders of these dwellings chose.  The oft heard phrase when I mention the question “how did they do it?” is that “there were lots of men working on it”.  There are only so many men that can surround a stone and lift it six, ten, fifteen feet into the air !  In particular on this old farmstead the lintels which sat above the windows and doorways were extraordinarily huge and heavy.

The building technique was nothing more than that used to build a dry stone wall, just put one stone on top of another, cross the joints and make sure each stone sits securely onto and next to its neighbour.  There was no mortar in these walls, just the ‘dubbing-out’ of the joints to add a semblance of insulation and the interior was probably lime plastered though there is no signs of that today.  My friends, one a well known photographer of wild Wales and the other the country’s most eminent botanist, both with a fascination for old places and the history they exude, thought I might like to see this place …                           Yes, I just might !

Our main reason for the trip was to examine the walls and stone field barns of a very old farmstead high in the hills over-looking that monstrous edifice of 1960s electricity generation.  The Woodland Trust have acquired the old farm to protect its ancient hanging oak woodland but there are other parts of the farm, including the farm house and buildings, that merit attention too and I and my ‘attractive assistant’ waller were asked along to see what we thought of the historical aspects of the walls and the repairs needed to keep them stock proof.

Llenyrch lies at around 150 metres above sea-level, so not particularly high for these parts,. with an aspect which provides for sunshine and shelter from both westerly and northerly gales.  It lies immediately west of Trawsfynydd whose huge lake can be clearly seen from the homestead and to the north is the Vale of Ffestioniog and the Italianate absurdity that is Portmeirion.  The fields are ancient there is no doubt about that, cleared of stone long before the Princes of Gwynedd and Deheubarth were fighting each other, some of the walls may even have been built before the Legions bashed their way through the Bala valley and set up  camp near Trawsfynydd.  Some of the enclosures have ‘field barns’ in them and that was a feature I was particularly interested to view.

Stone barn in north Wales

Field barn built with some stone cleared from the fields.

It is a peculiarity to find such field barns in upland Wales.  They do appear but not in any significant numbers and often are relics left behind after a homestead has collapsed and been removed.  In Wales the general practise was to take the cattle back to the homestead, the Hendre, in the winter.  Hay, grown in fields protected from browsing animals throughout the summer months by removing them to the hills, the Hafod, was cut and dried in the field but then hauled by some primitive cart or car-llusg (essentially a simple sled) back to the same homestead to be stacked in a rick or later, in a barn.  The idea of the very substantial field barn of the type found in abundance in the Llenyrch area is quite alien to the Welsh agricultural scene.  Instead of taking  cattle and hay back to the homestead both are housed in the barn.  The hay, cut in that field, is merely swept to the barn and tossed loose into the hayloft.  A small number of cattle, two or three usually, are then stalled below and fed in a manger directly below the tollet, a gap in the loft floor through which the hay can be dropped straight down into the manger.  The cattle, chained to a post for most of the time, would be visited daily to be milked and/or watered.  A clever labour saving devise in one sense.  It is exactly the system which evolved in northern regions of England, it gave rise to the characteristic landscape so familiar in the Yorkshire Dales (and to a lesser extent in the North York Moors area).  Beautifully built stone barns dotted about the traditional hay meadows and fields make-up what is the main cultural and landscape attraction of those regions.

Waller in a wall

Field barn in North Wales, how big are those stones ?!

Why such a system should have come into play in that area of Gwynedd is something I need to examine but it is certainly a super place to spend some time in.  My companions are just the very best to undertake such wanderings and I can’t wait to get back up there and do some repairs – apparently a botanist is going to try his hand !

Conservation wanderers in the Rhinogs

‘Conservation Heroes’ was the title given to this photo taken by a young lady from South Carolina who enjoys the historic landscapes of Wales as much as those of us born to it.

Ray Woods is by far the most knowledgeable man I know when it comes to all things botanical and Liz Fleming-Williams’ enthusiasm for all things bright and beautiful, as well as old and Welsh (which is presumably why she likes me !) is absolutely contagious.  Long may we wander the hills and vales !

My other historic venue was much further south, in the valley of the Usk just west of Brecon.  Adjacent to the main trunk road, the A40, lies a stunning old estate mansion, simply named ‘the top bridge’, Penpont in another language !  Some twenty or so years ago I met up with the then new arrivals at the run-down mansion and together we, and several others, somehow managed to stage a Country Fair.  It also included a dry stone walling competition which our local branch of the Dry Stone Walling Association of GB put on as part of the national Grand Prix competition.  Yes folks, people actually go out on a weekend – after walling all week ! – and build walls for free as a competitive challenge.  So many metres in so many hours have to be stripped out and rebuilt.  If I remember we had a dozen or so competitors from all over England and Wales together with their own ‘rent-a-crowd’, their family, who sat immediately behind the waller and cheered him on (we didn’t, in those days, get any ladies competing unlike today !).  I do remember very well that the judges had a really difficult job in deciding the winner and runners up, it took them several hours after the end of the competition to come to a definite choice and then only after re-visiting the sections of wall a dozen times.

I had kept fleetingly in-touch with my friends at the ‘big house’ over the intervening years and was thus delighted to be asked to attend the anniversary event to mark 350 years of the estate’s existence.  Now I know that’s a strange number to celebrate but hey, we ain’t going to be around to host the four hundredth !!

The old Orangery was totally derelict and unsafe but look what it’s like today and as for the old box hedge ‘out back’ well, what can I say ?  Is it not just the finest piece of topiary you have ever seen !!?  The whole place is just so wonderfully restored and a joy to wander around.  They now host all sorts of events and have accommodation to rent.  The walled gardens produce wonderful fruit and veg all of which is sold through the on-site farm shop.   The management of the land and the adherence to tradition (and rules!) and the will to make things happen in a proper manner, restores my faith in such hereditary  land-ownership.  After my experiences on another old Welsh estate how pleasing to join up again with my friends Gavin and Davina and what a fabulous weekend was had by all.

I was  asked to display some of my old farming items to supplement a growing collection which they have already from the estate’s many farms and gardens.  There were the usual exhibitors, the spinners, the honey maker, the woodsmen and apple pressers.  Several other friends were in attendance, Ty Mawr Lime was busy all weekend and what a place to show just what traditional lime plasters and paints can do to invigorate old buildings.  Another long standing acquaintance, Martin Fraser, had his mobile saw-mill in operation planking one of the great old cypress trees which had finally succumbed to the ravages of time but still managed to be turned into some fabulous planks – nice to see you Martin.

Welshwaller's tools at Penpont

My little display was in the barn on the Saturday but outside once the sun returned on Sunday. What a great weekend I had at Penpont’s birthday bash !

It wasn’t all country pursuits and crafts, oh no.  On Saturday some very distinguished people gave fascinating lectures about the history of the house and the estate and my old friend Richard Suggett from the Royal Commission (on Ancient and Historic Monuments Wales – RCAHMW) gave a really interesting account of the great houses of Breconshire.  Needless to say all those lectures were sold-out well before the day !

Since returning from the dry lands of Yorkshire I have quietly got myself back into the old routine of some walling, some wandering, some restoration.  I need to get a few small jobs completed before the winter really sets in.  Fortunately I had an able ‘stand-in’ whilst I was away who managed to get around a few of the outstanding repairs and I’m beginning to think my customers are more pleased to see her than me !  www.whitneybrownstone.com has gone back to the Carolinas to complete some walling work of her own – and await with trepidation the outcome of the upcoming Presidential election.  Thanks for all your help Missie.

My Buddhist friends up in Brynmawr are calling, I have artefacts awaiting attention and I need to do the final round of garden work before putting the mowers etc. away for the winter.  I must remember to remove fuel from all of the petrol engined machines so as to avoid the clogging up of the fuel pipes which will inevitably happen if I don’t – heed the warning folks, empty your tanks !!

So, back to Wales, back to work, back to the weird and wonderful world of Welshwaller.  I’ll leave you with with a photograph of a little momento I hauled all the way home from Thornton Lock on the Pocklington canal,  can you work out what it is !? Answers on a postcard please – I’ll tell you in the next post, that’ll get you back !

A large relic from a canal lock

No, not a watering can ! I’ll give you a clue or two, it’s been cut down, it’s upside down …. and it weighs over 300lbs !

Pick-a-Pock or two ….

18/10/2016

Rarely do I come across a vision that is both new and enthralling.  It happens, certainly if I am in a new place I can often stumble upon a view, a building, an animal or just a ‘thing’ that catches my attention and brings forth the much vaunted ‘Wow’ expression.  Last week I had the opportunity to see something which few folks ever get to see – a set of four canal lock gates being hoisted from their sodden sockets for the first time in ‘quite a long time’ !

Lock gates lifted skyward

Lock gate hoisted from its resting place at Thornton lock on the Pocklington canal in North Yorkshire.

For six weeks I have been alongside veteran soldiers and airmen on the second Help for Heroes/Canal & River Trust project restoring a lovely stretch of canal near the Yorkshire town of Pocklington.  The canal is quite a short waterway which was built at the end of the great Canal Mania period of the early nineteenth century,  in a short three year period starting in the year of the great Battle of Waterloo.  Over its nine and a half miles the canal required nine locks and four rather special road bridges as well as seven swing bridges.  I was surprised to find that the height gain was so much in a landscape as flat as any I have ever encountered.  Mile upon mile of huge arable fields and long straight roads with only the occasional winding lane.  The idea of the canal was to join the small market town with the river Derwent and hence the rest of the waterway network.

Pocklington Canal east of York.

The Pocklington Canal is a stunning nine-mile corridor of unspoiled nature – and it’s a flat walk !

Like all canals it was built to carry heavy goods and in this case it was coal, lime and stone on the inward journey toward the town and farm produce on the outward trip.  The canal was beset with problems not least of which was the failure to actually reach the town – barred by the York to Hull toll road.  The amount of water to fill a lock is astonishing and the fact that there were so many to fill on the inward journey was a major issue; there was not enough flowing down from the Wolds which rise to the north.  No doubt the porosity of the local geology was a major factor.  However, the demise of the canal came in the end from the arrival of the railway.

Pocklington canal head

Canal Head – the beginning (or end) of the Pocklington canal. The old warehouse is now a private house and the deep still water is an angler’s dream.

The last working boat stopped in 1932 and since then nature has been in charge.  The waterway became clogged with weed and reed and the engineering crumbled.  Lock gates rotted  and sluices seized up.  Not only was the waterway a target for nature but the bank-sides and adjoining fields gradually evolved too such that the majority of the whole environment is today a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The end of the 1960s saw a nationwide movement to try to restore canals as amenity waterways and in 1969 the local people formed the Pocklington Canal Amenity Society (PCAS).  In addition to the quality of the natural resource the ‘built environment’ of the canal, its locks and bridges, have been recognised with the attribution of Listed status to protect them.

Church Bridge on the Pocklington canal.

Church Bridge is Grade 2 listed and you can see why – it is a classic example of “if we are going to build a bridge lets make it beautiful”.

Fast forward to September 2016 and I find myself involved with some super Heroes engaged in the restoration work.  The two year project is attempting to bring new challenges and thereby progress the recovery of our sick and injured service men and women.  Early this year I found myself on the Stroudwater Navigation with some other guys and next year two more groups of ex-service folk will get the chance to enjoy similar work on two other canals.  This time we got stuck into creating a nature trail and build a ‘dipping platform’ on a small pond next to the canal basin at Melbourne and get down and dirty in the Thornton lock.  For various reasons I am restricted to what I can write about the involvement of my wonder team, but believe me when I say it has been a huge honour and such a life enhancing opportunity to be alongside them.  The funding for the project comes from the People’s Post Code Lottery (PPL) and I want to thank all of you who buy those tickets – it is probably the best use of your money, believe me !

That area of North Yorkshire is not a place I would ever have thought of visiting, it is very much overshadowed by the Dales and the Moors (as you will see in earlier posts) but the flat-lands east of York, not least the Pocklington canal and the wonderful Wolds a few miles to the north, is as worthy of lauding as those better known geographies. We were accommodated at the nearby Yorkway Motel where Mike and Julia and their wonderful staff went beyond the call of duty to make the veterans feel important, respected and admired.  Every one of us came away somewhat heavier !

On my final weekend I finally got to see a building that has been another in bold on my bucket list.  From afar, not least from the Wolds, a huge edifice rises on the horizon.  The tower of York Minster needs to be seen from a distance to appreciate just how much it dominates the horizon, but then, go see it !

York Minister

York Minster defies my ability to describe it. Lets just agree it is big and unfathomable. “How did they do it?” was my most uttered remark.

All great medieval buildings leave me scratching my head, the stone work is totally magnificent and the design of each section, each carved stone, each archway is quite the most beautiful thing.  I cannot begin to imagine the mind-set of the original builders who knew full well they would never get to see it completed.  The height alone of the the nave and transept beggars belief, in an age of wooden scaffolding and blocks and tackle.  I found myself wondering how many men must have fallen to their end from the rickety structures. Goodness me it is a sight to behold.  The basement or crypt is open to view and there are the massive foundation pillars – some had to be shored up with that most modern of material, concrete, to stop the whole massive tower collapsing !  Apparently the Roman foundations on which it was built were not up to scratch …

Several folk had told me I should definitely go up the tower if I visited.  I wasn’t at all sure my level of fitness was up to the challenge but, along with my much younger soldier colleague, decided it had to be done.  It is, after all,only 275 steps !  Organised ascents have superceded the days of free upward and downward movement.  How on earth that ever worked is beyond me, there is no room on the tight spiral stairs to pass, I was jammed in like a sausage in a tin, brushing both shoulders on the side walls as I slowly went skyward.  These days tickets are bought and a limited number of folk are allowed on each ascent.  A slow panting line of multi-national tourists rhythmically tramped their way to the top.  It took about five minutes or so and I managed it with only a couple of breath-gathering halts.  I did wonder how the hell they’d have gotten me out if my old ticker had decided it had come to the end of its beating life !  Maybe they would just wall me into the sides and let me decompose slowly  …

York Minister tower view

View from the top – the great tower of York Minster is a demanding ascent but well worth the effort. The view of the front bell towers and the city below.

Once at the top – a caged in square walk-around viewing platform – the reward is astonishing.  Views out to the Wolds, the Dales and southwards to the great cooling towers of the power stations along the Humber hold the now recovered breath.  The’Shambles’ is clearly seen for what it is far below and a little hut in which sits a lady who monitors and counts the folk on each ascent and sells you a badge which proudly states “I got to the Top of York Minster – my young ‘carer’ bought me one, I think he was as chuffed (and astonished !) as I was that I had made it.

The Shambles of york

The ‘Shambles’ of York seen from the top of the Minster tower – it is what it says it is !

The descent, whilst easier,was nonetheless another exercise in determined effort.  Squeezed into the narrow spiral staircase is somewhat claustrophobic and the narrow steps invite a slip, especially when one stands in size 12 boots !  I found the easiest way was to go down slightly sideways so that the whole of one boot was on a step and by jamming my shoulders against the outer walls I almost slid down.  Two Yorkshire lasses of mature years had got to the top with delighted glee but had to sit for quite a while.  They asked my young colleague where the way down was; they were absolutely disbelieving when he told them it was down the same way ! They really thought he was joking and went looking for the lift ….

The whole visit was capped by the wondrous sound of the great organ and choir singing at Evensong.  What a way to enjoy York Minster.  I was saddened to hear that they have sacked the team of bell ringers, the sound of the bells out over the city is a great part of the heritage, what are they doing !?

These two marvellous photographs were taken my young ‘assistant’, one J. Robson Esq., and they are so good I had to include them (with his permission). I reckon he should stay on that platform all day and take photos of the folks as they ascend and sell to them, don’t you agree ?

Of course York is also a modern city and as such a Saturday afternoon sees it alive with young men and women out for a good time.  The mix of loud, scantily clad lasses, loud scantily clad lads, both on pre-nuptial outings and the well wrapped tourist from hot Asian countries – and several hundreds from cold U.S.A. – was, shall we say,interesting ! As the day wore on and early evening descended, walking a straight line became pretty much impossible; my old side-stepping skills came to the fore as I aimed myself in the direction of the next way-marker.  We eventually jumped aboard the double-decker bus which was to return us to the little town.  My colleague, being young and fit and exceedingly personable and it being a Saturday night, decided he would stay and enjoy the pleasures of the pubs and bars of that country town.  I got a taxi back to the motel and was slightly concerned how he would get back later on as taxis were few and far between.  The next morning at breakfast he regaled us with his stories of daring do amongst the young ladies of the area.  “How did you get back?” I enquired.  It transpired that at about half past midnight he came out of a pub and feeling somewhat peckish and very unlike taking a two mile walk back, he went into the local oriental fast food house. “Do you do home deliveries?” he enquired, when the owner said yes he promptly ordered a rather large meal and asked for it to be delivered to the Yorkway motel “And can you take me too?” ….. initiative personified I say !

A very enjoyable if somewhat energy sapping six weeks in that beautiful part of England, where the sun shone on us every day, and folk were right good to us !  Now it’s back to good old wet Wales where the remnants of that hurricane Malcolm is sure to arrive.  Never mind, I’ve not a great deal to get done, well except for sorting a museum and unpacking ten hundred boxes !  There are a few sojourns not yet reported to you which I undertook halfway through the six weeks and a short time prior.  Plenty to keep Welshwaller in your thoughts no doubt !

Scott Pierce's stone at Melbourne basin on the Pocklington canal.

A stone carved by a fine craftsman apprentice working with Historic Scotland. A man of high calibre in uniform and in overalls. A man who, every weekend, undertook a 1000 mile round trip to return home and back to us again. A Heritage Hero if ever there was one. Scott Pierce is going to do my tombstone, he’s that good !

 

 

 

 

Moor Walls, Dales and Wolds. (Part 2)

07/10/2016

In the most glorious September sunshine I left Wharram Percy and headed across the flat lands between Malton and Pickering to the edge of the North York Moors.  A brief stop in the bustling Friday market town and tourist mecca of Pickering was curtailed by my abject failure at working out how the car park pay machine operated – it was totally unfathomable to me, sorry, I should say “It t’were totally unfathomable to me !”

After several weeks up in’t north I’m already saying “nowt” and “t’were”… but that’s surely a sign of how much I am enjoying being up in this pleasant land with such amiable folk.

Sandstone dry stone walls in North York moors

Can these stones be real !? Surely they are just too uniform …

Immediately on leaving the town and heading a few miles west to Wrelton, I started to see dry stone walls.  The stone was quite astonishing, big evenly bedded blocks laid in regular courses, just like man-made bricks, created a ‘tidiness’ not familiar to my eye.  I quashed the need to stop and build a fallen section I encountered !

Turning off the main A170 I followed the valley of the River Seven (that’s Seven not Severn, as in Wales !) northwards to the little hamlet of Rosedale Abbey.  This was not one of the great Cistercian houses of the area but a little ‘ecclesiastical’ type house around a small village green, very crowded on that Friday afternoon.  It was another sign of just how popular this area is to caravanners and holidaying foreigners.  Once through the village the road narrowed and began climbing inexorably to the high moors.  I pulled off the road at a high point, looking down on the Rosedale valley and out over the vastness of the heather moorland.  The ‘clecking’ of the resident game bird could be clearly heard and soon I saw several pecking away in the purple blanket.  The high plateau of North Yorkshire is nothing but mile after mile of Grouse moorland, managed  with one intent, to blast the poor creatures to death once the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ arrives.  At least the birds are native and are not kept in such large numbers as to destroy the other ecosystems that exist.  It can be justifiably argued that the shooting is why the heather is so bountiful.  Controlled burns and other management regimes, whilst all about providing good feeding and breeding grounds so as to make a successful shoot, result in a fine heather covered moor which is quite something to behold.

Standing stones on the North York Moors

Heather, grouse and pre-history all exist in some sort of harmony on’t moors.

There is, unfortunately, a price to be paid, not just by the poor grouse.  I saw several road-kills, not of grouse interestingly (they seem to have learned that the motor car is dangerous, unlike the silly pheasants that commit suicide everywhere they are released) but the other (partly) native critter, the rabbit.  Now where I live a run-over rabbit would be incessantly pecked away at by buzzard, kite and crow until, in a very short time, it disappeared.  Not so here, the carcasses were untouched leading me to suspect myxomotosis was abroad in the area.  I stopped to examine three large dead bunnies expecting to find the tell-tale signs of emaciation and bulging blind eyes.  Nothing of the sort, these were perfectly healthy specimens which would have afforded an excellent meal to any passing raptor or predator.  Why then hadn’t they been touched ?  Quite simply, there are no predators, winged or on four legs.  I saw not one bird of prey, indeed I saw not even a corvid or any small bird for that matter.  Certainly no fox or badger roam these moorlands, they, like the avian predators, are not welcome.  The only predator allowed to exist up there is homo-erectus with his shotgun.  So sad when there is room and food for a thriving upland moorland eco-system.  In that sense the beauty is a sham, lovely as the heather is to see, yes, it can be quite satisfying to see the odd grouse within it but to see ‘nowt’ else is quite tragic.

My intention for the trip was to find a good camping ground from which to venture out in the coming couple of days and to that end I aimed myself in the general direction of the National Park’s Moor Centre at Danby in the vale of the river Esk.  There I was given the address of a farm that turned out to be exactly my sort of place, in more ways than one !

Fryup vale in the north York moors.

Great Fryup Vale was my camping spot for my moorland adventure.

Firstly the site was a peaceful corner of a field which looked out across the vale of the Esk and the setting sun.  That aspect is a must for me when out in my little tent.  As the weather was so clear the sunsets were quite something and sitting out until well after nine o’clock was an added bonus (only a week later I was snuggled up in my canvas shelter by 8.30pm !).  The vale of Fryup of course had its own attraction but when I got chatting to the farmer I discovered he knew well my ‘traveller’s guide’ (Ingleby & Hart’s book) and pointed me to his father’s name in the section on Peat cutting.  Imagine, to find that man in that vale when one of my main aims was to explore the tradition of peat cutting as well as visit Welshwaller’s eponymous valley !

Despite there being only one other vehicle in the field when I arrived, and they were well away from me, some Nederland folk in a rather sumptuous mobile camper van, soon the familiar whirr of a VW ‘splitty’ was heard.  And of course they decided ten yards from me was the place to set up !  I was not particularly bothered as my ‘home’ was facing the field wall and the valley thus they were, in effect, behind me.  Unfortunately they had a rather nice awning on my side of their van and I could hear every word, fart, and worst of all, a ship’s horn of a nose blow !  He clearly had some mucous issue … She on the other hand clearly had one of those ‘leaky women’ issues that seems to beset ladies of a certain mature age and thus, every couple of hours, through each night, she heedlessly slid back the very loud and distinctive side door, slid it closed with the required amount of force and ‘bang’, unzipped and re-zipped the dozen or so three metre long zips that allowed her to walk off across the field – with the brightest flashlight I ever saw – to the ablutions.  After a longish while my tent was awash with light as she aimed the beam back in the general direction of her bedroom, which just happened to be in a straight line to mine.  Then, unzipping and re-zipping, sliding back the door and having a chat with the two dogs, sliding and slamming the door, she had a little chat to hubby.  Then but a few hours later, still dark and whilst I had finally got down into ‘omega’, a repeat performance.

I breakfasted, as always, on porridge…  You can’t beat sitting out in the morning sun cooking your own grub and making a nice cup of real coffee in a rather clever little mug- come-press I acquired in South Carolina.  I had decided to wander to the west and set off in the direction of Great Ayton.  It really is the most amazing landscape, vast open spaces atop green dales and isolated farmsteads.  Walls, of course, are everywhere and it was interesting to match the building style with known periods of building.  Much of the ‘head dyke’ building is quite late, erected as the enclosure of upland commons and large open fields of the small townships took place in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  There are patches of much older walling, medieval in places, but the common landscape is a post medieval one.

'Single' dry stone wall above Glaisdale in the North York Moors.

Dry stone wall built as a ‘single’ and deliberately left ‘open’ so as to allow air to blow through and sheep to sense it is unstable – hence deter them from jumping, or so the thinking goes !

After an hour of ‘poodling’ up and down over the northern edge of the moors I descended to the small town of Great Ayton (with Captain Cook’s monument standing proud on the hillside) and onwards to Stokesley.  I had heard that a great country fair takes place in September but alas it was the following weekend.  From there it was south down the main road towards Helmsley and the next ‘must see’ element in that part of the country.

It is impossible to be a student of landscape, its origins and patterns, boundaries and buildings, without coming across the great ‘houses’ of the medieval orders of monastic settlements.  There were several ‘brotherhoods’ which built great abbeys but perhaps the Cistecians were the greatest and the remains of one of their monasteries was my next port of call.

Riveaux Abbey, North Yorkshire.

The great church of Riveaux Abbey, magnificent in its dereliction.

The ‘shock and awe’ element of Cistercian abbeys is always present, especially when encountering  one for the first time.  In part it is the size but in the main it is the utter astonishment of turning a corner in an isolated valley, often along a narrow single track lane, to come face to face with an enormous stone edifice.  So it was with Riveaux, massive, out of proportion to its environs but beautiful in its dereliction.  Many of the great houses are in a very poor state today, some are nothing but a pile of stone or one or two standing archways, not so this abbey.  Yes, it is derelict, but the grandeur of it is not diminished.  It is easy to understand what each section was and the English Heritage graphics and ‘audio tour’ are excellent.  We seem very far behind in Wales with our interpretation of such monuments.

I wandered around the acres of buildings admiring the engineering, the stone carvings, the’spirituality of the place’ – not easy in some areas due to the fact that it was an English Heritage ‘free’ weekend and thus the place was full of families with hundreds of screaming under 10s racing around the place.  There was also the rather surreal presence of a large film crew hauling miles of thick cables and wheeling dozens of large black boxes into every nook and cranny making ready for the next great period drama no doubt. The many men were clearly all from the outer perimeter of east London and their accents were so out of place in that cloister of “ere lass” and “t’were lad”.  If you find yourself ‘up north’ head for this majestic place.  Of course the remoteness of Yorkshire and its plethora of isolated fertile valleys made it an ideal land for the Cistercians and there are several other excellent abbeys all within a day’s tour, Fountains being perhaps the greatest but Bolton and Whitby are worthy of your time and money.  I briefly called at Whitby Abbey on my way back to Pocklington, deciding to take the coastal route back and see the sites of the seaside towns of Scarborough and Bridlington – I was soon disabused of that notion !  A hot Sunday afternoon at the end of summer is NOT the time to go to such places !

Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire

Whitby Abbey stands on the headland above the town and looks out over the north sea. I caught it on a bright sunny day, it must be a bleak setting when the ‘north wind doth blow’ and rain falls from low cloud.

I am getting ahead of myself – back to the moors !  Leaving Riveaux was a difficult decision but I had another target I wanted to find in the southern sector of the North York Moors and time was racing on.

In the small picturesque village of Hutton-le-Hole is the Rydedale Folklife museum, an excellent place to find out about the life of the moors in generations gone.  I was particularly interested to visit as it had been an important element in Ingilby and Hart’s book.  The buildings have been brought down from various Dales and represent typical hill farm and village steads.  Naturally I was on the look out for the tools and equipment peculiar to the area but also to see the vernacular architecture of the region.  Even though it was a very busy Saturday afternoon with many visitors – aided and abetted by the fact it was an English Heritage Free Weekend !- it was no problem wandering around un-interrupted.

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I spent about three hours looking at the array of exhibits and really enjoyed the Iron Age roundhouse and several of the more unusual outbuildings.  Of course I could include dozens of photos of the tools and equipment I saw …. but I’ll save you that yawn !

Well, maybe just a few !

Ryedale Folk Museum Roundhouse

Round-house at Ryedale. A very good representation of a Celtic roundhouse built as part of the Iron Village and farming scene.

Horse-gin house at Ryedale museum

House for horse-gin, a mechanical gearing system for driving barn machinery which is powered by a horse walking around and around a circle turning a vertical shaft which, through a bevelled gear, is transferred into horizontal motion into the barn.

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Tyring plate for fitting the metal outer ring, or tyre, to a wooden cart wheel. There were hundreds if not thousands a hundred years ago but try finding one now ! They mostly went off to the scrap yard due to their immense thickness and quality.

I wandered over the moors and dales covering most of the area I think.  It really is a unique place and well worth the effort to get there.  My quiet campsite was just the place to enjoy the sunny evenings and was well situated to get me up onto the flat open moor.  One aspect of the cultural heritage I was particularly keen to investigate was the cutting of turf and peat.  I say “and” because up there they distinguish between both and use both unlike in other regions where the words are often interchangeable.  I was astonished to find that the annual cutting still took place and although I was too late to see it – normally a June or July activity  with the turves being brought from the moor after drying-out sometime in August –  I was keen to visit the faces.  Luckily my host (whose father is actually mentioned in ‘the book’ in relation to peat cutting) was able to explain to me exactly where to go and so, on my last morning, I sallied forth.

Peat cutting in North Yorkshire

Peat cutting faces on the North York Moors.

I had about a half mile trek from the road across an old track and I could soon see, in the distance, the black lines that marked the freshly cut face of the bank.  What had become apparent to me from my reading and from talking with my host was that the method of cutting differed to that commonly used in Wales (and most other places where peat was cut for winter fuel).  My tools, my old photographs and the oral history I have gathered all indicate a method of standing on top of the bank and slicing down into the face with the various spades and long handled knives.  Up there however the opposite approach was utilised whereby the cutter stood on the boggy ground at the bottom of the bank and cut into it from the front.  Another effort-saving element here was that the bricks of peat were merely dropped onto the ground not heaved up onto the top of the bank.  Because of the difference the tools varied slightly and I was thrilled to later find an example of the distinctive cutting skane in an antique shop outside Whitby.

The cutting face of a peat bank

Looking into the ‘box’ shows how the face has been cut back each year over a long period of time. The face is about 30mtrs in length and 1.5 mtrs high.

Whilst the fuel is the same and the hand tools are family heirlooms there have been some changes in the ancient practice.  Instead of hand barrows and sledges to cart the peat off the moor, the commoners have adapted all manner of contraptions to save time and effort and of course the ubiquitous quad bike and the four wheel drive tractor has revolutionised that toilsome element.  I did however, see a number of ‘Heath Robinson’ relics lying discarded near the face.  Clearly some of the alternative methods of transport have been less successful than others !

Discarded peat cart on the moor

A modern contraption used – briefly it seems – to carry peat off the moor. It utilises an old motorbike wheel and some shaped timber handles to make a wheel-barrow. The wider tyre would have been easier to push across the boggy ground, alas it eventually fell apart and was left for the bog to claim it. Naughty naughty Mr !

I gathered a few discarded bricks of peat to take home with me- it is useful to display them along with my peat cutting tools as fewer and fewer folk know what it is !  As I headed back across the boggy ground I encountered one of the many drains that have been cut to take away the water from the face and hence leave it a little drier than it would otherwise have been.  Although I had spotted many such deep cuts on my way in and carefully watched where I trod, I clearly got a little distracted on the way back, excited no doubt to be carrying my souvenirs !  Suddenly my left leg plunged down into  a deep rut which was up to my thigh and the pitch forward made me topple headlong into the mire.  I extracted myself with some difficulty and with the realisation that had I got stuck or broken a bone or even just twisted my ankle, that would probably have been my burial place.  A ‘body in the bog’ to be discovered, hopefully in a few years rather than a thousand !  Of course there was no mobile signal and it made me realise just what an isolated inhospitable place that vast moor could be, thankfully it was a bright sunny day and by the time I had walked back to my car my trousers had dried – they were light brown so the added camouflage of dark brown, peat stained water, merely added to the country look…

Leaving the high moor I headed eastwards, already the sea was visible and I wanted to get to Whitby by early afternoon.  By accident more than intent. I suddenly came upon some sort of northern Mecca; dozens if not hundreds, of cars lined the road and grass verges and  flocks of folk wandered around the little village.  I knew not what it was all about but I was told later that Goathland is now world famous as the film set for a TV series, Heartbeat.  It seems very strange to me that the unreality of TV transforms a quiet village, already full of beauty and charm as a village, into some sort of pagan worshipping ground.  It was the same in Oxford where Christchurch, amongst other buildings,  has become more famous as the venue for Harry Potter than as the marvellous historic building it is.  None so queer as folk …

What a fabulous trip I had to the North York Moors; I’m not altogether sure I’ll completely cross it off my ‘bucket list’ just yet.  Maybe the need to return will come over me in a few years.  Meantime Welshwaller is back on the restoration of the Pocklington canal and I’ll bring you that story shortly.

Moor Walls, Dales and Wolds. (Part 1)

22/09/2016

You know the idea of the ‘Bucket List’, a whole page of dream wishes that you one day WILL do; often places to visit, challenges to attempt (why eighty year olds want to go sky diving is beyond me and as for Kilamanjaroo …) or deciding to wear purple clothing, well ….

Being less adventurous and perhaps more sloth-like in my vision of my dotage, I have some geographic targets in my bucket (but nothing that requires extreme effort or endurance!).  Some of them are near continent but most of them are on the shores of this ‘sceptred isle’.  Fate has picked one of the areas out of my pale and galvanised bucket and set me into venturing forth.

Circumstances have landed me in North Yorkshire.  Being that far north has enabled me to go and explore two areas I have long wanted to visit.  My main target for a long while has been the moors of North Yorkshire.  It has similarities to the Dales but is also different in many ways.  For one thing the large expanses of open moors !  I imagine somewhere in my distant past I learned that this particular area was also a landscape of walled fields and isolated farmsteads.  That vision must certainly have been coloured by the incredible TV series following one remarkable old lady who lived and farmed alone in the bleakest of places.  ‘Hannah’ became very famous and several biographies were written about her.  The TV programmes were sensitive to both her and the area, the books gave the reader the true sense of the hardship, loneliness and extremities of weather endured by this lady over a lifetime.

North York Moors

Open heather moors stretch to the skyline. The North York Moors are definitely a place to see.

The impetus to one day visit the area, a determination to visit the area in fact, came from an accidental discovery of a wonderfully descriptive book about the old farming methods and communities of the area. Titled ‘Life in the Moorlands of North Yorkshire’ (published by J.M. Dent in 1972 Isbn: 0 460 03961 x) the book was compiled by two intrepid ladies, Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby (they also did a similar account of life in the Yorkshire Dales).  It is a deeply evocative account of the people and their methods of living and farming the dales and moors of the area.

Another part of the old East Riding which summoned me is the ‘Wolds’, an area of rolling chalk hills, softly rounded, with deeply incised valleys.  This geographic zone exists to the east of York and is bordered by the Humber on the south, the sea on the east (with famous places like Flamborough Head and Bridlington) and the Plain of Pickering to the north.  As the name implies, it is historically an area of sheep rearing.  As well as boasting the largest standing stone in Britain at Rudston, it is also home to the most studied DMV.  Now I am sure many of you will already be thinking “a most studied motor car?”.  You would be nowhere near, the simple pseudonym stands for Deserted Medieval Village.

I set forth on a peculiarly hot Friday in the middle of September, driving north from the small market town of Pocklington in the lowlands to begin the long slow climb to the Wolds.

Arable fields of wheat in East Yorkshire

Yorkshire Wolds: large arable fields looking out over the plain of York with the Minster just visible in the distance.

The area around Pocklington and way out to the east coast is nothing but huge rable fields as is the first part of the wolds, before the geology really changes.  Rising to the ridgeway along which runs the A166 York to Bridlington road, I stopped to gaze out over the vast flat plain of York and saw the edifice of the Minster, uncluttered by the surrounding city buildings, rising in the distance.  It clearly showed how the great tower had dominated the medieval landscape.  Crossing the A166 I was immediately into chalk land where arable changed to pasture.  Ancient looking valleys plunged from the flat open top on which relatively ‘modern’ enclosed fields were either not bordered or edged with hedgerows of limited (sometimes single) species.  A hedgerow full of hawthorn is a sure sign of a hedge planted by the local estate owner around the middle to end of the eighteenth century.

I went down steep hills into valley bottoms in which sat small villages with ‘Quixotic’ names (which are actually olde Anglo Saxon) like Thixendale.  Single lanes wind between the fields with, here and there, re-entrants in which root crops and some oil seed rape grew.  Navigating by the sun as much as my road map I turned north and climbed a steep incline with the scar of a large chalk quarry off to my right.  In the narrowest of valley bottoms there seemed to run the old course of a long gone railway.  I stopped in a gateway, mainly to see the bright blue flower that was growing in the field edge which, at first, I did not recognise.  A passing walker stopped to chat and informed the plant was chicory and the railway line was the one which used to run from Driffield to Malton.  “But it appears to end just there” I said pointing to the valley head.  “There was a tunnel under Burndale Warren” said my knowledgeable local.  Apparently, in the weeks prior to D Day, both De Gaulle and Churchill had travelled in the latter’s private train to visit Free French Forces training in the area.  The night saw the train parked in the tunnel with tanks parked at each end.

Burndale Warren on the old Driffield to Malton line

The course of the old railway line from Driffield to Malton at Burndale Warren where it disappeared into a tunnel. Churchill and De Gaulle spent the night aboard Churchill’s train in the tunnel guarded by Free French tanks at each end.

Cresting the brow of the hill I came in sight of my first ‘bucket list’ target.  For years, since beginning my studies of Landscape History, one name has been at the forefront of my places to see, a national treasure of medieval revelation.  Wharram Percy is the most studied and thus most celebrated of DMVs.  Hidden until aerial photography picked out the strange lines on the side of a steep Wold’s valley and the ‘derelict church’ of  St. Martin’s appeared on Ordnance Survey maps, the village became the forty year obsession of two renown academics.

St. Martin's church, Wharram Percy.

St. Martin’s church in the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy in the folds of the Wolds in the old East Riding of Yorkshire.

The first to get interested was not an archaeologist but rather an economic historian named Maurice Beresford.  His particular area of interest and writing was the ordinary lives of the working class and land labourers especially of the medieval period.  A chance encounter with a geologist turned aerial photograph interpreter named J.K. St Joseph set Beresford on the trail that led him to his forty year study of Wharram Percy.  Fortunaately he was soon joined by a ‘proper’ archaeologist who introduced scientific methods of excavation and recording which probably saved the whole from becoming something of a disaster.  John Hurst exploited the fairly new notion of  ‘open area excavation’ (rather than digging small pits the idea was to open up large areas of ground to expose the various layers beneath) which revealed the buildings themselves not just small pot sherds or metal remains.

Wharram Percy house foundation

One of the stone foundations revealed in the excavation. It is a house in one of the long rows which occupy the hillside to the north of the church.

Dozens of houses of the ‘longhouse’ style with the animals and cattle housed under the same roof, were revealed in two separate rows.  A large village green where stock was allowed to graze and large strip fields to the east of the site were also plotted.  As well as the church there were the remains of mill ponds and mills, manor houses and farm buildings.  The whole is nestled in a narrow valley in which runs a clear chalk stream and is gained by descending a pre-historic sunken lane.

From 1950 to 1990 the two intrepid explorers, able assisted by hundreds of volunteers and other experts revealed the palimpsest that the hidden layers revealed.  A village occupied and vibrant suddenly gone after the ravages of the Black Death, changes in land ownership and a move to open ‘wold’ sheep farming where small tenants farmers were a nuisance.

All in all an astonishing and spiritual place which more than lived up to its billing – in my humble view !

Not too far from that historic settlement lay another astonishing and rather under-stated monument.  I did not even know of its existence until a colleague mentioned that if I was wandering the Wolds I should definitely head to Rudston.  Perhaps even more of a shock as it was unknown !

 

Monument, Rudston, Yorkshire

Neolithic standing stone at Rudston in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The tallest in Britain can you believe !

The stone stands well over 7 metres and dominates the surrounding countryside, or at least it did when it was first erected around 2000 year BC in the late Neolithic.  Unfortunately some clot went and built a church right next door  almost touching in fact, probably to extinguish once and for all whatever ‘pagan’ practise the huge stone represented.  As usual, how it got there, how it was erected and all the other questions which envelope such perplexing pre-historic emblems lie unanswered here too.  It’s not often I am rendered open-mouthed but arriving at this hidden gem  my jaw drop for sure.

Rudston Monument and All Saints Church

All Saints Church, Rudston, North Yorkshire. A large stone stands next to it !

The site has another  hidden gem, again rather understated on a small notice.  In a dark corner of the churchyard, nearest the junction of the two roadways that converge just outside, lies a pretty impressive Roman grave.  The stone lined tomb lies un-noticed alongside a couple of other important early Christian chambers.

Roman grave lying in churchyard at Rudston

Roman stone grave at Rudston church

As if a rather impressive Roman grave and a Neolithic standing stone was not enough there are two other plots of some significance.  One a gentlewoman, the other a whole tribe of warring chieftains !

Macdonalds of the Isles burial plot at All Saints, Rudston

The graveyard plot of the Macdonalds of the Isles, several Baronets lie within.

I have no idea why the 15th, 16th and 17th Baronets, all Bosvilles, should be buried in this corner of North Yorkshire but there they are;  it just goes to show how wandering around a country graveyard can bring forth an elegy !

Baronets of Sleat burial plot.

Baronets of Sleat lie in the corner of a quiet English churchyard in North Yorkshire.

In the photo above can also be seen the flower bedecked grave of Winifred Holtby, the early twentieth century writer and feminist.  She is perhaps best known for her novel ‘South Riding’ which was published after her death in 1936 and has been adapted several times for television and radio and is still in print.  She also wrote the first critical account of Virginia Woolf, ‘Mandoa Mandoa’.  As well as her early feminist activities (her book Women and a changing Civilisation published in 1934 is still relevant today) Winifred was a pacifist and a strong socialist, perhaps coming from her strong agricultural roots in the old East Riding of Yorkshire and the Wolds especially.

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Quite a church that All Saints at Rudston, perhaps the better as I came across it quite unexpectedly….. who put that big stone in the way !

From the beautiful Wolds I headed north across the plain of Pickering to enter the North York Moors National Park, a journey a long time in the making….

Coming soon to Welshwaller !

In August company

05/09/2016

The month has been a busy one for me with rather too much driving (on our increasingly busy roads) and a great deal of consuming rather good food etc.

First off was a special trip to the exceptional Countryfile Live event at Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire.  This coincided with the arrival of my summer migrant into Heathrow on a hot sunlit morning just a few days into the new month.  We headed west but only a short distance to a favourite camp site at Benson, south of Oxford.  I’ve written about the site before (see July 2015) so I’ll spare you the details; suffice to say it’s a great venue alongside the river, having a super on-site restaurant and is reasonably quiet – excepting the very busy main road and some early awakening wood pigeons.  The weather stayed hot for the whole four days of our visit and the sunsets sitting by the river enjoying well cooked and presented food, was just what was needed after my hectic schedule over the last several months.

DSCF5040 The Thames is quite a boating river for those of you that are not familiar with the old girl and as it was a weekend there were dozens of motor cruisers and Canadian type canoes drifting quietly by.

The main point in staying on in England rather than returning to Wales – the normal desire for my American visitor, “Get me to Wales asap !”-was to attend the inaugural Countryfile show in the great parkland of Blenheim Palace.  We headed there on the Friday morning and were thus saved the enormous traffic queues of the weekend.  I had been to Blenheim, at least into the grounds, many years ago and was excited to get to have a good look around.  The event was much larger than I had anticipated an spread itself over several hundred acres of the parkland and fields.

The range of foods to eat, drinks to absorb, clothes to ponder (all far too posh and expensive for the likes of we two wallers !) and equipment to behold was staggering.  The relief for me was that it was so spread out I didn’t have to concern myself with ‘below eye-level’ babies in push chairs (‘strollers’ as I kept getting reminded !) which generally catch me out at such affairs.  Wandering through crowds looking to left or right at the next stall or interesting exhibit often results in me crashing into, over, down onto, a little person being carelessly perambulated through the crowds by an equally unattentive mother !  At least the weather meant I wasn’t forever guarding my eyes against the prongs of low opening umbrellas !

Blenheim Palace ha ha

Ha Ha ! It’s Blenheim with the REAL ha ha doing exactly what it should; fooling the folks in’t big house that there is no stock barrier for the eye to be insulted by, just acres and acres (about six thousand if I remember correctly) of open countryside – slightly manipulated by one Capability Brown of course !)

 

Of course I was drawn inexorably to the vintage displays; nice old threshing machines and smoke belching tractors of nineteen fifties vintage and earlier.  There were also several countryside craft displays and I was particularly taken with the man making traditionsl lip work bee-hives.  These ‘skeps’ are woven from straw which was readily available in the great arable areas of the countryside of middle England.  Skeps are linked with dry stone walling as the warm walls were an excellent place to site such an artificial hive, in a recess built into the walls called bee-boles.

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Traditional ‘lip work’ making bee skeps from straw. This excellent craftsman was a real delight to see at the Countryfile live show.

I could ramble on and on about what there was, I could upload dozens of interesting photographs but I’m mindful of time and space – I’m rapidly running out of megabites on this here blog of mine so time to move on.

Work has to be done in order to enjoy leisure, does it not?  Leisure time and enjoying hobbies or visiting places is only relevant when balanced with work, in all its many guises.  For myself and Miss Carolina that meant getting back to one of our most favourite landscapes and putting stiffening muscles into exercise mode heaving stone.

Collapsed wall being stripped out by a 'Lady waller' from the Carolinas

Whitney Brown of Whitney Brownstone walling from South Carolina bends to the task of stripping out a massive collapse on an old Welsh upland wall.

A rather extensive collapse of a wall I had worked on three years ago – thankfully NOT a section I had repaired ! – needed our attention.  It was back near our old haunt on Rhogo hill near Llandrindod Wells where in 2014 we had restored a large historic enclosure.  I left missie to deal with the large collapse, after all she is young, fit and needs to hone her skills …. whilst I, being old and decrepit, worked on a couple of incomplete sections a little further along.  A good long hard day is just what the body and soul requires after a long weekend of indulgence.  A good long hard day it proved to be too, but despite aching muscles, the satisfaction of finishing the job and standing back looking at the view and enjoying the sense of well-being was more than rewarding.  Well done both of us !

Completed section of wall by Whitney Brown

A very satisfied young ‘Lady waller’ (as she keeps reminding me !)

 

Very soon another journey was required, this time to the far north, well as far as York anyway.  I am soon to be engaged in another project of canal restoration this time on the old canal east of York in the flat lands around Pocklington.  A recon trip was needed to assess both the work and the domestic arrangements.  Hell, it’s a long journey.  Luckily my navigator thinks nothing of a five hour drive, though even she was unimpressed with just how few miles is achievable in that time on our congested road network.  A ‘should have been’ five hour trip ended in a seven hour drive but due to expert time analysis on my part we arrived at the designated canal side RV at exactly the allotted time.

What a superb piece of our industrial archaeology this quiet section of inland waterway is.  It runs from the river Derwent near and east of York to just south of the small town of Pocklington.  Thus far only a short section has been restored to navigable quality but, as with the Cotswold canal I mentioned a short while back, big plans are afoot to re-open the whole length.

Pocklington canal at Melbourne

This photograph shows the current condition of much of the stretch from Melbourne to the canal head near Pocklington; silted up and clogged with reed mace, water lilies and silt it is no good for boating but my oh my is it a real haven for nature.  The importance of the canal and its immediate environs is reflected in the designation of much of it as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).  I shall be reporting on the progress of the six week project to carry out some small part of the restoration over the coming weeks.

Finally to end this rather late August post I want to report my very first (“can that be true?” I hear you ask) to the great city of York.  On a very wet Friday in mid month I and my travelling companion took ourselves, via the rather excellent ‘Park & Ride’ facility, into the centre of that ancient city.  Our target was the National Railway Museum – me being the son of a footplate man on the Great Western Railway working out of Pontypool Roads through the wartime years and well into the fifties – and Miss Carolina just being a nut about all things big and steam driven !  What a fabulous place, what visions of the great British engineering prowess of the previous two centuries and what wonderful machines to be seen.  Astonishingly there is no entry fee ! Can you believe it !? And there was me thinking only Wales had free museums, well done England !

Mallard at York museum

What is there to say about this engine ?  Mallard the Magnificent’ says it all.  What a wonderful experience to wander those halls and get right up close to the great edifices of British engineering.

From there we headed into the Yorkshire Dales and the wonder that is the walled landscape of that beautiful part of Yorkshire.  Alas the rain did its usual and despite struggling up through Wharfedale and over to Hawes we were forced to retreat south. We passed-by another great railway heritage site at Ribble head where the viaduct, even on a sodden Saturday in August, was crowded with worshippers.  None of the great three peaks  could be seen so a quick but staggeringly good lunch in a little garden centre in Settle ended our invasion and we set of for home.  This time it only took another seven hours …. Do I need a faster chariot ?   Or maybe I’m just acting my age …… Yes, another damnable birthday has arrived !  Catch you all again soon.  And a VERY HEARTFELT thank you to my reader who answered my plea in an early version of this post – Diolch yn Fawr Ade !

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This poor old bull had also had enough of the rain, backed into a wall high on the pass out of Wharfedale to Hawes, he totally ignored our passing but I’m sure I heard him mutter …..

“Where have you been my blue eyed son ?”

27/07/2016

I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains – and a whole lot more besides !

Firstly, thank you all for your kind messages and queries as to where I’ve gone !  Moving home, working on a project with some Veteran soldiers as part of a Help for Heroes team and lastly, but not leastly, I popped over to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to catch up with some friends.

The Spring just seemed to disappear into an endless journey of moving between locations.  The new base for my collection of Historic Farming bygones is just wonderful and I am excited to get some time to get it all sorted and displayed so that others can finally enjoy it also.  The dozens and dozens of boxes – enough to actually build a new damn house in fact – surround me in all directions but time is on my side and slowly I will get my life back into some order …. he says !

IMG_20160525_162813  The Stroudwater Navigation near Stonehouse / Stroud in Gloucestershire occupied my time for six weeks during May and June.

Sometimes in life the ‘Small World Syndrome’ has the ability to shock.  In 1792 a man became a lock keeper at a rather unique double lock at Ryeford.  He was a Lewis, a good Welsh name, he carried out the duties, onerous ones at that, of operating the double lock for several years.  One of his descendants married another Lock keeping expert, a man named Cantle, who eventually moved to be a lock keeper on the Five Locks flight of the Mon and Brecon canal at Pontnewydd.  His descendants stayed for several generations and eventually my mother popped out into the line.  The family tree shows that original Ryeford Lock-keeper to be my 4 x great grand father.  So there I was,some two hundred years later, standing in the porch of the very house he had lived in on the side of the Ryeford Double Lock between Stroud and Stonehouse.  A strange coincidence and a very strange feeling indeed…

Lock-keeper's cottage, Ryeford Double Lock

Welshwaller – suitably attired in PPE for canal-side working – stands in the doorway of his ancestor at the Ryeford Double Lock on the Stroudwater Navigation section of the Cotswold canal.

The reason I was in the area was to be a facilitator for veteran soldiers to work alongside the canal restoration folk.  For best part of forty years the canal has been undergoing some astonishing restoration such that it is quietly returning to its former glory.  That includes the complete restoration of some of the lock systems which were and are so fundamental to lifting the canal from the flood plain of the river Severn just south of Gloucester to the Cotswold plateau and then lowering it down to join the Thames at Lechlade.

Having grown up alongside the old and disused canal in Pontnewydd I have an affinity with the water highways of eighteenth century Britain.  Today they are being brought back into use throughout the land for pleasure cruising but they are also a wonderful place for all manner of wildlife as was certainly the case when I was a lad  pottering along the canal bank in search of all the ‘critters’ that inhabited both the banksides and the water.

Help for Heroes become Heritage Heroes

Happy Heritage Heroes working on Lock restoration in Stroud as part of the Help for Heroes / Canal and River Trust joint project.

The Help for Heroes charity has joined forces with the Canal and River Trust and with the aid of funding from the People’s Lottery have been able to hold four six week long courses for men and women who have various injuries as a result of their service.

So for the merry month of May and much of June we small band of Heritage Heroes busied ourselves on canal bank restoration, putting up signs, laying footpaths and restoring benches in and around the town of Stroud.  The enthusiasm and enjoyment of the volunteers who work tirelessly to bring the old waterway back to life is something to behold as was their warmth and gratitude to the soldiers.

My next project takes me north to the York area and the restoration of the Pocklington canal.  Thus September and October will be spent up north enjoying a new adventure in a part of the country I have never yet visited.  Watch this space, as they say !

Having finished that ‘posting’ I immediately headed west, very far west, to the land where much Trump eting is taking place !  I returned to Washington DC to visit the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and catch up with some folk I haven’t seen in a while.

Basque programme at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2016

2016 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington DC. The Basque region has walls too apparently !

Those of you who regularly read my chuntering stories will know that I took part in the Festival back in 2009, building a number of dry stone structures as part of the Wales programme that summer.  A young lady took an interest in the craft and she has been a regular visitor to my part of Wales honing her skills and becoming a very competent waller in her own right.  This year Whitney Brown squared our circle by herself building a section of dry stone wall on that very same hallowed ground as part f the Basque programme at this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival.  Hell, the girl done good too !

Of course, as her tutor and mentor I just had to go see what she had built…. as we say in this part of Wales “It stands looking at !”.

Whitney Brownstone stands by her wall at the 2016 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Miss Carolina, Whitney Brown, stays in the shadows and allows her rather splendid dry stone wall to do the talking for her ! Proud of you Girl !

It was HOT in the city and being there for the July 4th celebrations (the second time I’ve managed to do that !) was a real bonus.  I met up with some of the fine Smithsonian team once again and revisited some of the old haunts of that long ago trip.  In particular I took myself off, on the actual 4th itself, to the wonderful Zoo which that city boasts.  I had visited it briefly in the dead of a cold winter in 2012 when many of the animals where inside keeping warm.  This hot July day many were still inside but mostly visible.

Panda in DC

Giant Panda in Washington DC zoo – worth travelling several thousand miles to see don’t you think ?

The Giant Panda is top of my list of animals to see, they are just so astoundingly beautiful.  I guess this one must have a name but I’m afraid I didn’t find it out !  Apologies GP !

Another animal I desperately wanted to see was nowhere near as exotic, in fact it is one of America’s most common wild critters but I’d never seen on in real life and it was very necessary for me so to do.  The Beaver is a most remarkable creature;  what it is capable of in terms of habitat management is quite astonishing, what it is capable of in terms of shere destruction is also quite alarming !  Why was I so interested in the ‘critter’ ?  Well it so happens there is much debate going on in my part of Wales, and indeed throughout Britain, as to whether or not a re-introduction programme should be undertaken…. Yep, some folk, professional wildlife folk at that, think it would be good for our environment to bring them back. Me ?  I’m not so sure.  I’ve been very interested in how they have been used to change the environment and ecological balance of some of the major river systems in the west of the U.S.A. The results have been very positive allowing  the return of many other animals which have benefited from the raised water levels and the resultant vegetation growth which in turn has rejuvenated the food chain to allow Grizzlies and Elk to re-populate zones they left a long time ago.  But that is on a macro scale compared to what we have available her in Wales.  I know some successful re-introductions have taken place in Scotland and there are some in Devon but the areas I have heard suggested as possible sites in Wales are not really suitable in my humble and somewhat ignorant view.  I am worried that the lessons of previous centuries whereby captive animals, such as Mink and Coypu -not to mention Grey Squirrel ! – escaped and colonised the country with detrimental effects on a grand scale, are being forgotten.  Apparently a little family of Beaver are happily living in a  pen on the shores of Llangorse lake …. How long before one escapes !?

I made a point of seeking them out at the Zoo, to get a sense of their size and what they can do.  They are BIG and boy can they chew their way through some fairly large trees.  Yes, I would love to be able to go down to the banks of the Wye or Towy and see them swimming serenely upstream and wonder at the great dams they build but, really ?

Beavers in captivity

Beavers in Washington Zoo – they are not exactly Water Voles are they ?

Pine Martens have been successfully brought back to the forests of mid Wales and that is fantastic but I’m not persuaded it is either a good idea or of ecological benefit to introduce larger species.  No doubt time will out, as my friends out west are prone to say !

Of course, much of the talk in DC was about our decision to leave the European Union.  The Americans I spoke to were pretty astounded I have to say, they were also pretty astounded at what seems to be going down in their own country.  This is not the place to enter the debate, in any case what’s done is done, but as someone who has been largely dependant on European funding to carry out my work, Welshwaller waits with some interest to see what funds come the way of farmers to allow them to continue the conservation of our landscape and wildlife; oh yes, and keep feeding us !  What a tumultuous year of change I have lived through and what awaits all of us in the coming months !?

Back to the side of those misty mountains for me, no more “walking and talking on a crooked highway”.

Good to be back in Blog land !

 

Take me back to the Black Hills.

20/03/2016

The Black Hills of Carmarthenshire that is.  More correctly the ‘Black Mountain’, in its singular form; confusing to visitors as but thirty miles east lies the Black Mountains.  Each delineate the eastern or western extremes of the Brecon Beacons National Park.  The Carmarthenshire range, which strictly also includes sections of hill in the counties of Powys (old Breconshire) and Neath & Port Talbot (old West Glamorgan), is the area in which most of my dry stone wall rebuilding occurred.

Back in the 1980s concern was being raised about degradation of the natural environment by extensification of farming.  In upland areas this meant ‘sheep’ with a diminishing number of cattle and even less horses.  On open hill, the commons or mynydd, the concern was based around overgrazing by the vast hill flocks that roamed on the old ‘rhesfa’ (often called arosfa ) or ‘Hefts’, the areas of land apportioned to a particular farm and often hundreds of years old.  I’m not sure now how much of that concern was directed in the right direction.  There certainly were a lot of sheep and there certainly was a reduction in various species of birds.  I mention the two in the same sentence as it was the awareness raising (based on field research) and political lobbying of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) that countered the strong voices of the farming unions.

Cutting a long story very short (and intentionally not going into the EU Common Agricultural Policy aspects!) a change came about in the early 1990s with a move away from paying subsidies to farmers to increase production – of meat or produce – towards rewarding them for environmental improvements and caring for the land.  Farm Stewardship schemes sprang out of the various UK Government Agricultural Departments and in Wales a pilot project was introduced called Tir Cymen.  It was introduced in five small local authority areas in south,mid and north Wales and was a ten year programme of environmental improvements which intended to produce the by-product of economic enhancement to both the farmer and the local area.

Essentially the scheme paid for work to be done to improve and enhance the natural environment of the farm.  Farmers received grants to either carry out work themselves or employ local contractors and businesses to do the work for them and/or supply the materials.  In particular the restoration of boundaries to enhance the landscape and restore field systems had a large visual and resource implication.  Hedgerow restoration, tree planting and of course my work, the restoration of thousands of metres of old dry stone walls, was in the van of the changes which spread over the landscape in the following ten years.

How it came to be that I happened to be living in an area where ten years work restoring walls dropped into my lap is another story; suffice to say that I do often wonder at the ‘coincidence’.  I didn’t even know that within a five mile radius of my home there were all the walls that needed my attention.

Dry stone walls exist in an environmental and geological bubble.  Mostly they are to be found high above the valley bottoms and sides, at altitude and aspect that is not conducive to the growing of hedges.  As the altitude increases two things happen; the soil becomes thinner and therefore stones become more readily available whilst at the same time rainfall, low temperatures and, most importantly, high winds assail any hedgerow trees that try to grow.  In the area of the Carmarthenshire Black Mountain, Mynydd Ddu, the walls sit above the 250 metre contour and occasionally lower down the slopes in areas where stone is plentiful.  My ‘patch’ was primarily on the northern slopes in the old Borough of Dinefwr and the parishes of Llangadog and Myddfai.

Woven Stones

The walls of  Trichrug and the Carn Powell ridge are mainly of Old Red Sandstone but there are some oddities which the Llandeilo beds throw up such as the basalt and the micaceous rich sandstone of the ‘Tile Stone belt’.  The roofing tiles which clad the houses and barns of the medieval landscape were all worked fro the narrow (about 10 metre wide max) outcrop which stretches all the way from south of Llandeilo right through to the Radnor Hills near Aberedw.

I’ve been busily moving of late (hence my absence from keeping you up to date on working and wondering – should that be ‘wandering’ !?) but I am going to spend an afternoon re-visiting the old haunts and will bring you some photographs of those rebuilds, as long as they are still standing !

All work had ceased for a few weeks but a couple of urgent phone calls took me back to the hills.  A section of hill wall came down in a rather strong northerly gale and it needed putting back up pronto.  With lambing in full swing and the in-bye pasture reserved for new arrivals, the last thing any farmer needs is the hill ewes coming in and devouring the grass.  It was a small four metre section which had collapsed onto the open hill and was easily repaired.  It gave me a chance to have a look at the wall that was restored back in 2014 on the Rhogo.  All seemed well on a bright but still cold March morning.

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The distant hills of the Cambrian mountains were still clad in a covering of snow and the temperature of the soil was still too low to kick start any grass growth.  The section of wall had, apparently, been leaning for much of the winter – it just goes to show how quickly a collapse can occur for only a year ago when I checked the walls, there was no sign of any movement at that point – but down it came.  Another section near the farmhouse also succumbed as a result of a wild wind and that will need doing in the next few weeks.

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The stripping away of the collapsed stone soon reveals the reason for it, some of the foundation stones had begun to tilt into the ground, no doubt as a result of the very wet winter and the sodden soil.  Once a lean begins it can take years to reach the point of collapse on the other hand, with the sub-soil soaked and therefore soft, all that’s needed is a huff and a puff and down it comes.

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A few hours later and it’s back up ready for another few hundred years !

Another little job of a different nature came along a few weeks ago and whilst dry stone walling will eventually be a part of the project, for the moment a change is as good as a rest.

In the Radnor hills are a myriad of small hamlets connected by an equally large number of small lanes, some sign-posted, most not (or the signs have mysteriously moved to point the traveller in the opposite direction !) and that old fashioned tool, the Ordnance Survey map, is an absolute’must-have’ aide.  I was heading for the hamlet of Glascwm, deep in the hills on the road to nowhere or somewhere, depending on your destination and/or local knowledge.

The church is as good a reason to venture into the hinterland as any I can think of.  Built in the enclave of a much older Early Medieval Christian monastery or  ‘Clas’  the Norman church is simple yet statuesque in its station.  The hills of the old county of Radnorshire are littered with such beautiful places, every hamlet seems to conceal one in its bosom away from the glare of  modernity.

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The church at Glascwm showing the typical integrated bell tower and the Early English extension with windows of the ‘Decorated’ period.

Generally the small communities were very self-sufficient, it was a long way to pop into town !  As well as the place of worship (and the pub !) there was almost always a mill close-by.  Often the mill, in earlier times, was owned and operated by the church or the local Manor.  Again, there are dozens of ‘grist’ mills (and a few ‘Pandy’ mills) along the banks of the small rivers which cut their way through the soft Silurian shales of the  hills.  The steep valleys are shady and get little sunshine hence they are also ‘frost-hollows’ and as such do not lend themselves easily to domestic dwelling.  Thus few of the old mills, which sit next to the streams, have been converted to luxury homes, rather they have fallen into decay and been lost in the bank-side woodlands.

My customer has a small pond which needs some attention to both protect the very expensive butyl liner and enhance its wildlife potential.  Whilst showing me her ‘estate’ we came to her ‘mill-pond’, an enchanting piece of water wilderness if ever I saw one.  But where therefore was the mill ?  It didn’t need much working out where it should have been, somewhere in the conifer plantation which covered the downstream bank.  Sure enough, there it was, derelict, forgotten and unnoticed.

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The small mill-pond, overgrown and full of wildlife; it betrays the secret of the downstream woodland

 

 

I quickly worked out two of the salient features of the historic remains; firstly it was LARGE, very large in fact and secondly, it appears to have been an ‘Over-shot’ mill, which is to say the water pours into the wheel from the top rather than running through a channel at the bottom of the wheel.  That implies a large mechanism as the over-shot wheel generates far more power for less water.  The old stone walls of the mill have largely collapsed or have been lost within the woodland undergrowth.  I hunted about and found the wheel supports and the leet which took the water away and back to the small river Glas.  Working out the in-put source of water was rather more tricky; it could be one of two possibilities but I will need some more time and digging about to confirm which one it is.

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The walls have mainly disappeared but enough remain to work out the area of the old mill.

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The wheel pit with, just visible, the channel for the over-shot water source.

Having located the wheel-pit and the in and out water supply I began to look for where the workings might have been.  Within a few metres of the wheel-pit I stumbled upon a very interesting find.  Brushing leaf litter and moss off a large stone it gradually emerged from the camouflage of ages.  There lying in the undergrowth was one of the mill-stones, intact and with its grinding channels still sharp and discernible.  An exciting hour of landscape archaeology which is just about as good as it gets for Welshwaller.

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The old mill-stone (with my glove to scale it for you) lying where time deposited it centuries ago ?  I don’t know when it closed …. another little project for a wet day !

Lunch-time wanderings over I did have to do some work, after all that’s why I was there.  Another pond does not yet have the ‘wilderness feel’ of the old mill-pond but it needs to.  The installers of the ground heat-exchange system created the deep pond as a part of that mind-blowing apparatus (I have absolutely no idea how it works, but it does !) but they left it rather sterile in its environment.  Also, they left a large quantity of the butyl liner exposed to the sun which is a bad thing, UV rays will quickly destroy the rubber’s ability to remain water-tight.  My idea is to cover the area with wood, green-wood cut from the adjacent hedgerow which is also in need of some TLC (because there is a wall hiding in there that needs my ministrations).  Then I will put soil over the logs and brash to create a habitat suitable for the amphibians and water loving birds.  In time the falling leaves from the surrounding trees will coat and contribute to the habitat pile and in a few years the whole will take on a semi-natural quality that fits with the surrounding woods and water.

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New and rather naked, the pond needs some enhancement to fit its environs but already it is full of frog spawn !

I didn’t get too far with my plans on my first visit;  not surprising with so much to discover close-by !  I managed to drop one of the tall ash trees and got about a third of the circumference covered.  I’ll get out there again this week and get it completed, we can’t be cutting trees down after the end of March, in any case I noticed the small birds of the woods are already busy building their nests.  Alas there is at least one less Blue Tit than when I started;  as I was placing the brash around the edge of the pond a grey flash caught my eye and I looked up just in time to see the Sparrow Hawk nab the poor little fellow. Better kill it now than when it has a nest full of youngsters clammering for food.  I know it’s only nature but I wish they wouldn’t do it in front of me !  I don’t think we’ll ever make a vegetarian out of a Sparrow Hawk !

More soon from a Springtime Welshwaller, and aren’t we all glad about that – Spring that is !!

 

Musing on thoughts like these

15/02/2016

did Madoc roam alone along the Towy’s winding shore …

So wrote the poet Robert Southey (1774-1843) in his ‘The River banks of the Towy’. As a conservation minded amateur naturalist it interests me to read in the following lines that

“The Beavers in its bank had hollowed out their social place of dwelling and had dammed the summer current with their perfect art”.

The debate which is currently underway about the re-introduction of our lost mammals, in particular the Beaver, has left me very undecided about the pros and cons.  But reading that those busy little beavers were in the Towy just over two hundred years ago is very interesting !

This only comes to my mind because I have recently revisited one of the very first church walls I undertook.  It was not a rebuild of an old derelict boundary wall, instead it was a totally new piece of work which was needed to form the boundary of an extension to the grave-yard.  It was but a stone’s throw from the banks of the Tywi.

Dry Stone church yard wall newly built

A ‘new’ wall was required to bound the extension to the grave-yard at Llandingat church in Llandovery.

The old grave-yard was getting full and the church elders wisely opted to purchase a section of the field which adjoined the western side.  I say ‘wisely’ because much development was taking place on land surrounding the old parish church of Llandingat in Llandovery.  In fact the wisdom of that move can be clearly seen today, just over twenty years on, as all around are new houses and industrial buildings which have extended the town into the flood plain of the river Tywi. (‘We’ always use the Welsh spelling).

I was asked to give a quote for building a dry stone wall to section off the new grave-yard from the remaining acre or so of pasture.  Pleased as I was to be asked, not least as the town was my ‘home’ town in those days and I had many friends and acquaintances thereabouts, there were some problems. There are NO dry stone walls in or around the town.  In fact the existing wall which surrounds the ancient grave-yard is built of river cobbles set in lime-mortar.  That is because the stone from the river is so rounded and smooth that it is unsuitable to stand freely in a dry stone wall.  Furthermore most of the buildings in the town, including the twelfth century castle and church, are similarly built.  Hundreds of rounded grey pebble type stones are set in lime mortar.

When I questioned the ‘committee’ I learned that it was a requirement of the grant they had managed to obtain (from the then Countryside Council for Wales) as it was under the guise of a ‘conservation’ project, a dry stone wall was the only option.  When I then asked where the stone was to come from I was told that ‘they’ had recently demolished the old church hall and assumed that stone would suffice.  Without going too much into the extended discussions on the matter let me just say that in the end, I built a three metre long section (to 1.2 metres high).  I was actually quite proud of it, nicely coursed and tightly laid, it looked all the world a good piece of wall.  I invited the ‘inner sanctum’ to come and view the piece which they duly did on a sunny evening in early autumn.

They expressed their delight and satisfaction at the result of my efforts and could not understand why I had been so reluctant to use their stone.  It so happened that the treasurer of the church at that time was also my Bank manager, he had been very forthright in his insistence on using their own stone (of course, it meant that they could save some serious money).  I invited him to give my newly built section a good kick, just to test its strength.  Down it came like a stack of custard creams.  No friction you see, the beautiful piece of craftsmanship was an absolute sham, the smooth river stone just slid off each other without the slightest resistance.  In fact I had been fairly amazed I had managed to get it to stay up at all !

Norman Llandingat in Llandovery

Llandingat church in Llandovery, Carmarthenshire.

The old church has stood on the edge of the town since the early twelfth century and has architecture from all the Medieval ‘periods, Norman arches, Early English and Decorated windows and a tower which is from the ‘Perpendicular’ period.  Don’t show your ignorance by thinking “aren’t all towers perpendicular!?” (Don’t forget Pisa !).  The building is coeval with the castle which overlooks the central car-park and old market site.  It marks the furthest point reached by the Normans in the early twelfth century.  Richard Fitz Pons began constructing his motte and bailey castle in 1116 but it was not a particularly peceful place to hang out if you were of French origin.  Warfare raged for hundreds of years, the castle fell to The Lord Rhys of Deheubarth in 1158 and it was won and lost by the Normans and the Welsh off and on for the next hundred years.  Not until Edward 1st conquest did it eventually become an English domain but even then there were periods of turbulence.  By the time of Henry IV reign, in the early 1400s, Owain Glyndwr was on the warpath and an event which has a resonance today in the old Borough of Llandovery (Llanymyddyfri is the Welsh name, derived from the early Christian settlement name of Llan ym Ddyfri which means the ‘church among the waters’).

Castle of Llandovery in Carmarthenshire

Llandovery castle. A Norman fortress begun in the early C12th

 

 

At the turn of the Millenium, a great statue appeared on the old bailey of the castle. Fashioned in gleaming stainless steel, wrought by the two sons of my old friend David Petersen with whom I recently commemorated the death of another Welsh Prince (see December 2015 ‘Oh wind if winter comes…’), it is a quite magnificent, in my view !

Thestatue of Llewelyn ap Gruffydd in Llandovery.

Llewelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan. A sublime statue by the Petersen brothers. It stands on the bailey of the Norman castle of Llandovery.

The monument, for such it is, honours the memory of one Llewelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan.  In the dying years of the fourteenth century with Glyndwr wreaking havoc around the area, Henry IV visited Llewelyn at his home in nearby Caeo.  He persuaded the Welshman (or so he thought) to lead him to Glyndwr’s camp which was hidden somewhere in the surrounding hills.  Llewelyn ‘agreed’ and for several months led Henry and his army on a tour of the area.  Eventually old Henry realised he was being ‘taken for a ride’ and in outraged anger he hauled poor Llewelyn, then a man in his sixties, to the gallows in Llandovery where, on October 9th 1401, the usual ‘severe’ death was meted out.  Disemboweled and dismembered whilst still alive, Llewelyn’s remains were paraded around Wales until they rotted away.  He never gave up Glyndwr and his death is remembered today in the statue.  Its hollow helmet and empty cloak represent the departed warrior and it looks out over the town from the very castle where he met his end.

Where was I ?!  Oh yes, Llandingat church … it is named after the Welsh Saint ‘Dingad‘ who was one of the sons of Brychan, the sixth century eponymous king of Brycheiniog.  Good old Brychan was a busy man, he is supposed to have sired thirty six children – not with the same lady however !  The site is on the river flood plain of the Tywi and has the Bran flowing nearby, in other words it is a water-logged place to build a church !  When I was building the wall the old grave diggers told me that it was quite normal for a grave to be full of water by the time the coffin arrived.

A twenty year old wall in a church yard in Llandovery.

The wall now looks like an ‘old’ wall and the trees, now twenty plus years old, are beginning to look a little threatening to my structure !

So, the question of stone was a tricky one.  But my demonstration persuaded the ‘committee’ that suitable stone needed to be brought in.  As I mentioned, there are no dry stone walls anywhere near because there is no suitable stone.  Certainly the geology of the area meant we had to look further afield.  Now therein lies the issue, by bringing in stone from further afield it changes the whole ‘natural’ feel of the wall.  It is one of the problems of modern building and planning requirements that when ‘local stone’is demanded, the notion of ‘local’ is quite arbitrary.  A short distance can mean quite a change in geology in Wales and thus we end up with alien stone being used quite liberally.

A smoot in a new dry stone wall.

A ‘smoot’ (or ‘smout’) is a necessary passageway for ground living animals; and after all, it was funded under a conservation programme.

The only two options came from a minimum of forty miles away.  Old Red Sandstone occurs just a few miles south of the town but there are no quarries from which to buy it nearby.  Pennant Sandstone, the common stone of the coal field area, just fifteen miles south, is readily available through a number of quarries and hence is the cheaper option.  However, there is something rather unethical about hauling sixty tons of stone over dozens of miles.  The brown/grey stone has weathered quite well and now doesn’t scream ‘alien’ ! It is only in the ‘looks’ of the wall that the difference shows, the ‘morphology’.

A lime mortared wall of river cobbles

River stone sits nicely in a lime mortar but is no use for dry stone walling.

It was interesting to visit the wall after so many years.  The trees which were planted soon after I finished are now looking a little too large to be that near the wall.  The fortunate thing is that the water table is always high and the clay subsoil will draw the roots downwards rather than outwards near the surface. Nevertheless one or two of them, sallows, are getting a little too large and need some attention.  The wall itself, not encumbered by large animals or climbing people, has stood the test of the first twenty odd years, will it last as long as the Church I wonder ?!

Dry stone church yard wall.

The ‘field side’ of the wall showing the ‘through-stones’ which stick out a little way on this side. The water has been standing for weeks on the bare patch but hopefully it will recover.

I am glad I didn’t dig too deep a trench for the foundation stones, just removed the turf and an inch or two of top soil to the clay layer.  Water has been sitting on the surface of the field for some months which has killed the grass but hopefully it will soon recover.

Another wall inspected,one of the early church walls I constructed and totally different in that it was a new wall.  New builds have not featured greatly in my career but there have been some, mainly gardens walls.  I have pursued a different path to many of the other dry stone wallers in the southern half of Wales who have been gainfully employed (and very well remunerated in the process !) on ‘brown field’ sites in the old industrial valleys.  Dry stone walls now adorn many bus stops, lay-by’s, industrial estates and roundabouts throughout the former coal mining and steel making towns.  Walls have even been built near the Cardiff international airport (where there were definitely no others !).  As I have often mentioned herein, there is a whole historic landscape in the south Wales valleys but up on the inter-valley plateau where early agriculture first thrived.

I’m going to continue my journey through past building exploits next time.  For now, at last the rain has slipped away for a while, leaving me time and opportunity to get some of my artefacts packed up and moved to their new home.  Exciting times ahead in 2016 for Welshwaller.

Wrought iron kissing gate

Another lovely old ‘kissing gate’ at the entrance to Llandingat church in Llandovery. It may well have been a ‘pig gate’ at one time as the nearby streets were used for markets right from the twelfth century !

 

 

 

 

 

Method(ists) in my madness

07/02/2016

With not a lot of walling being done during this, the wettest winter for years, I’ve been revisiting some of my very early rebuilds.  Partly this has been to see how they have stood up to the ravages of some twenty years and partly to remind myself what a privilege this occupation of mine has been.

I don’t want to go all sentimental and poetic over it, there are lots of folk happy to do that for me thankfully, but I do want to remind myself what it has all been about.

Two of my first jobs involved places of worship; churches and chapels have featured regularly over the years.  Church walls inevitably have a long history and the boundary walls, which is what I usually worked on, often pre-date the present building.  Many of the rural churches were renovated or rebuilt during the early nineteenth century.  On the other hand, chapels have been around for far fewer centuries, in most instances a mere two at the most.  Few chapels are older than the nineteenth century and many of those were redesigned or rebuilt early in the twentieth.  One chapel however goes back to the end of the eighteenth century with a renovation in 1805 and the job of rebuilding the boundary wall is one of the highlights of my career as a waller.

On a bleak moorland between the Tawe and Amman valleys, bounded on the east and north by the road from Pontardawe to Ammanford and in the west by the Pontarddulais to Ammanford route, lies one of the oldest Methodist chapels in Wales.   Built beyond the mountain boundary, on the mynydd of the Barran mountain, that summer grazing land of the surrounding townships, the chapel stands lonely and somewhat sombre.  Its very existence reveals the strength of non-conformity amongst the Welsh speaking community of hill farmers whose little steads cling to the sides of the small valleys which encircle the hill.  It shows too how, in order to worship in the manner they chose, those early ‘elders’ retreated beyond the boundaries of the existing parish to build their chapel.  An eliptical enclosure (in essence a  llan although such a prefix is not appended to chapel sites) of dry stone walls surrounds the churchyard with a gate on the west side through which horse riders came to dismount on a large mounting block and stable the horse in the small attached lean-to.  The main gate is an interesting design which allows walking worshippers to slip into the yard via a ‘kissing’ or ‘pig’ gate which has a small hinged section to allow full opening when a coffin byre needs to be brought in.

Of course it is the wall which is my concern and at a recent visit I was pleased to see it was still fully intact.  That may seem an obvious statement until I tell you that large Welsh Black cattle roam the open moor and it was they which had caused the major dilapidation which greeted me when I first visited the site nearly twenty five years ago.  Much of the northern perimeter was derelict and both sheep and cattle wandered in and out of the churchyard as they pleased.  The gates were in a bad state also as indeed was the chapel itself.  Money to keep the fabric of the building and the wall came solely from the members and over the years the numbers had dwindled.  Indeed, even by the early 1990s services were limited.  Fortunately at that time there was some Community funding available for heritage type projects in the old coal mining areas and through the good offices of a friend of mine we managed to secure sufficient funds to allow me to rebuild the perimeter and get the gates repaired.

Barran Methodist Chapel

Barran Chapel on the open moor above the Tawe and Amman valleys. I totally rebuilt the wall in the early 1990s.

The stone of the wall is the common underlying rock of the coalfield area, Pennant sandstone.  The stone is a pleasant building medium as it presents in nicely formed flat plates of generally thin (10 – 20 cms 4″-8″) morphology.  Strangely for this period of original build, the foundation stones were all large irregular lumps of quartzite and silica, a common occurrence in the coalfield also.  Such was the shape of those stones I decided to abandon them as foundation stones and instead save them to put on the top as cope stones.

The poor state of the whole length of the wall where it adjoined the open moor meant I had no option but to completely strip it all down.  Taking a wall down is an excellent way to see how it was originally built and that in turn gives more than a hint as to when it might have been erected and if those that undertook the work were craftsmen.  In this case the date was known of course but unusually for that period of land enclosure,  the craftsmanship was good.

Pennant sandstone dry stone wall around a Methodist chapel near Pontardawe.

Boundary wall of Pennant sandstone and a ‘rubble’ cope of quartzite and silica boulders. Built high enough to stop the sheep on the open hill jumping in and now looking like it has stood for the two hundred years of the chapel.

 

It was a long slow job through the winter months and for weeks I did not realise what a magnificent view was to be had from up there.  Suddenly one Saturday morning the whole panorama of Swansea bay, the belching stacks of Port Talbot steelworks, Gower Peninsula and the Devon coast lay before me with the glistening grey waters of the Bristol Channel bisecting the picture.

On a typical misty Saturday morning in early March with visibility  but thirty metres or so and the wind howling, I caught a sound from far in the distance.  Baying hounds and the shrill call of the huntsman’s horn was carried to me from the valley below.  Gradually they came nearer and the hounds sounded excited and pointing.  Out of the corner of my eye, off to the right, a fox slipped around the kissing gate and into the graveyard.  He (for it was clearly a ‘he’ and a big one at that) was in fine health with a glistening coat and puffed up brush.  The foxes of the Welsh hills differ from their lowland and English cousins, not just in their Latin name (Vulpes vulpes vulpes for the Welsh and just Vulpes vulpes for the lowland English species); instead of the classically white underbelly and tip of the tail these hardy highland variety are black underneath and the tip of the tail is like a sable paint brush.  He moved amongst the large gravestones and tombs, clearly knowing his route, eventually squeezing into a crack in the corner of one of the large stone-built tombs with a large slate slab atop.  In a while the baying hounds rushed past, one or two stopped by the gate but could not gain entry and even though they could have jumped through the section of wall I had down, they careered off across the moor wailing like Wolves.  Soon after came the horses and they too drummed past with hardly a glance in my direction from the variously dressed riders.

After a short interlude out he came and with the merest of nods in my direction (for so it seemed) he retraced his path and sliding once more around the tight curve of the gate, trotted off along the track from whence had come the hunting posse.  He had clearly used that ruse before and judging by his size, was quite adept at avoiding those who wished him harm.

Tombs on a Welsh hillside.

Barran Chapel graveyard with the wall in the background. I won’t show the fox’s hideaway !

 

Another encounter with wildlife is one of my all time memories, sad as in a way it is.  As if wearing a watch, each afternoon around two o’clock a stoat would ‘do his rounds’.  By late April birds were busy feeding fledglings and many nests were present in the old wall.  Of course, as I proceeded with my rebuild two things happened.  Firstly the wall was much tighter and hence it was pretty nigh impossible for the stoat to run around inside as he could in the old dilapidated wall.  Secondly there were fewer nests in the new sections for even though whenever I came across an old nest whilst stripping out the old wall, I ensured I built-in a cavity in which the returning bird could make a new nest, in that first Spring few had taken up my kind offer.

Stoat on dry stone wall,

Stoat on a wall – as natural as shoes and socks …

Mr Stoat would run along the top of my new section and then enter into the pile of stripped out stones, in and out he searched to no avail.  Once back into the old wall he would disappear for several minutes and then his little head would pop out of a hole metres further along.  Now and then he would run along the base of the old wall only to dive into a crevasse and again hunt in the innards of the derelict wall.

Stoat at base of an old wall

Looking for another entry into the old wall; he is small enough at 20cms in length and a head smaller than a rat to squeeze in most holes.

By late April a Starling had raised a brood of hungry chicks in a hole in the chapel wall under the rotten weather board.  The noisy youngsters called to her in an irritating cacophony of tweets until she arrived with a beak full of tasty morsels for them.  She did not enter the nest but instead clung to the vertical wall and poked her head inside the nest to feed the demanding youngsters.  At roughly fifteen minute interval she would return, or maybe it was alternately him and her – to my untrained eye one Starling looks like any other !

In early May on a bright sunny afternoon when little of the old derelict wall remained for the friendly neighbourhood stoat to hunt in, I saw him run up the corrugated roof sheets of the lean-to and disappear into the nest hole.  Almost instantly the chirping young fledglings were silenced.  Horrified I watched expecting the stoat to appear with a dead bird in its mouth but nothing happened.  Then, within but a few minutes, mum arrived with her beak full of morsels, she alighted on the wall and stuck her head into the nest.  Almost instantaneously she fell backwards onto the corrugated sheets, a headless twitching mass of ruffled feathers.  Eventually the assassin removed all the babies and finally dragged her carcass off to his own little family.

He clearly had his own home nearby but unfortunately I finished the rebuild before a family of young stoats got to be scampering in and out of the wall and the gravestones.  Stoats are a rare sight,even for the likes of me, they exist in a twilight world of nooks and crannies seeking out their prey.  I have never seen the fabled mesmerising of a rabbit by a dancing stoat, freezing the muscles of the poor creature with fear until a swift fang to the neck ends its torture but I have witnessed other relationships between them.

stoat1

The rabbit population hereabouts is decimated on roughly a five year cycle by mixomytosis;  it is a dreadful slow death which renders the poor rabbit blind and unable to move about.  Whenever an outbreak occurs it is not long before dead stoats appear – I came across a similar occurrence in the Yorkshire Dales some years ago.  I can only surmise that the paralysed and blind rabbit falls easy prey to a stoat who drinks the blood of many such dying creatures and thereby accumulates the dreaded virus in its system resulting in its own demise.  I don’t know this is the case but it is strange to see so many stoats dead.

A friend of mine reports her cat regularly brings home a stoat and in one instance it was still alive.  It ran behind the TV and needed to be caught to be released some way away from the cat’s hunting ground.

On another occasion I was stripping out a wall only to uncover a family of short tailed voles.  The mother and three of her young ran for the cover of my pile of stripped-out stones but one youngster, no bigger than the top of my thumb, refused to leave the nest.  It foiled my every attempt to catch it by running into the little tunnels in the soil.   The high frequency squeaking of the distressed youngster and the call of the mother alerted the resident stoat which, like a shark in the ocean. sniffed blood and appeared as if from nowhere.  It ignored all my attempts to frighten it off and just kept coming after the baby.  I carried on building and watching that the stoat didn’t get to the youngster nor the mother and her other offspring.  Alas, just as I thought the battle had been won the separated baby made a dash for its mother across a metre of open ground.  Like an air-to-ground missile the stoat leapt and grabbed the hapless vole and with a glance in my direction (giving me the stoat version of the ‘bird’ I suspect) he ran off to enjoy a very small dinner.

DSCF4520

I was pleased to revisit the old Capel y Baran though it was sad to see so many of the ‘Elders’ who had thanked me all those years ago were now remembered in the graveyard.  Time marches on and I found myself wondering who, in this day and age, would have the faith and dedication to preserve the old place.  I was fortunate to have returned in the summer of 2005 to attend the Service of Commemoration of the bi-centenary, yn Gymraeg  of course, where I met them all once again.  Who knows what will become of that old chapel on the hill in the next twenty five years.

Next post I’ll revisit one or two other early ecclesiastical excursions in the life of Welshwaller.

Rain Rain go away, come another walling day …