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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 !!