“I was alright for a while, for a while I could smile…”

28/03/2017

With Don Maclean blasting out in the little motor-car to drown my sorrows (England, Scotland and France put us to bed !!) I’ve been doing rather more ‘expedition’ work than perhaps I ought, given the inexorable upward creep of fuel prices.  Is anyone noticing ?  We are pretty much back to the level it was when the protests and blockades of the refineries occurred all those years ago ! No wonder inflation is on the rise; as a sign on a truck I was following so aptly put it “If you’ve got it, it came by lorry”, very true.

Having said that I have been really enjoying my little excursions up into the Radnor hills to do what my friends across the ocean would call ‘Folklore’.  Now to us in these islands that has a certain ‘fairytale’ element about it, little people and ‘spirits of the woodlands’ kind of stuff.  That is something of a pity in my view; we ought to have Folklore (or Folklife if you want) studies in our universities just as they do Stateside.  We are missing out on a lot of the important recording of culture and heritage.  I know serious academics who tutor and research all manner of ‘folklife’ topics from music, food and dress in the southern States.  We have elements of that being undertaken but not in a co-ordinated nor recognised way.  There are some excellent academic institutions and government bodies which study our built heritage, our archaeology and our history and geography.  Certainly there are some superb craftsmen and women perpetuating age old crafts as was witnessed in our attendance at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival back in 2009 (Was it really all that time ago !?).  We lack however, a recognised study path for students and that which is undertaken is piecemeal and often, once recorded, lost in the institutions that undertake the work.

That’s not to decry  some excellent work still being undertaken by the curatorial staff at the National History Museum at St. Fagans – interestingly formerly called the Museum of Folk Life – nor to devalue community projects and academic research being undertaken to preserve the heritage of this small country.  It’s just that I feel it is done ‘on the QT’ with only dedicated, interested people beavering away, “you in your small corner and I in mine!”  We need to have Folk life or Folklore studies locked into the national curriculum, we need students to be queuing up to fill the places which should be available in all our universities and colleges.  We need to blur the edges of history and geography, make them focus on the local as well as the national.  We need to somehow fetch ‘out of the closet’ as it were, the fine brains and extensive knowledge that is locked up in our Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments, the experts on the built heritage who reside in CADW, the vast knowledge and resource that exists within the National Library of Wales and all the other bodies and trusts who are doing excellent work to record and preserve all this ‘folklife’ stuff.  In essence I believe so much of it is a case of ‘lights hidden under bushels’ !  The first curator of the National Folklife Museum and one of the men responsible for its inception, Iorwerth Peate (1901-1982) did so very much in the early days, pre second world war, to record and gather all manner of written, spoken, sung and built aspects of Welsh folk life.  Perhaps it’s time to free up time and resources and get back out into the fields and villages to revisit and re-invigorate the kind of work he was doing nearly a century ago.  I know that curators and experts that I meet would love to be doing original field work if only time and resources allowed.

I have been doing my own small project seeking out and recording, audio and in film, some fine old characters who reside in the heartland of Radnorshire.

I have mentioned them before, Frank and Harold, separated in time by a mere ten years or so and linked by a lifetime of knowledge and shared history gleaned from living in the same village for seven decades and more.  I got them together to chat for a while … I thought I had better prepare some questions just in case the conversation faltered … as if !

For two hours and more they flowed effortlessly through time; births, marriages and deaths – severe and otherwise – were argued over.  What fields had mangolds in them and which had oats (in 1942), where the tractor nearly tipped and whose fault it was – it seems it was the Timber Corps Land Army girls who had left bits of logs in the trackway thereby causing the ‘spud’ wheels of the old Fordson to lurch.  The Italian prisoners of war were excellent workers and some stayed and married local girls but ‘Joey’ couldn’t settle and was forever disappearing back to Italy and then returning, usually in time for harvest.  Did the man who brought them out from the camp down near Witton have a rifle with him ?  The jury was split on that historic fact.  All agreed however, that the introduction of new blood stock, land girls and POWs, was a good thing for the valley.

Harold could not quite remember exactly when he started working for Frank – taken on at the Hiring Fair in Knighton.  Frank produced a small pocket diary in which was noted the exact day – Easter Monday 1951 – that Harold began working at the Crungoed, for the princely sum of 10s per week plus board and lodging (did I even know that Hiring Fairs were still going on after the war !?).  Harold remarked how sad he had been to be living just across the road !  They both remembered the one and only time they fell out; it was “white over” as Harold recalled and he had had enough of freezing fingers whilst pulling ‘mangles’ so he told Frank where to stick it and went home.  Within the hour Frank called at Harold’s home, the Gravel wheelwright shop, to say he had another, warmer job he could do and so off they both went, chums again.

A few hours and I had saved an important piece of the family’s history (none of it known to them of course!), a fascinating account of mid twentieth century rural life (although it might just as well have been mid 1800s !) for the archive and had the privilege of enjoying the company of two men whom most would regard as ‘salt of the earth’.

In case you are wondering; the horse shoe which Frank is showing us was given to him by ol’ Tonge, the blacksmith who, during the First World War, had to make a hundred shoes a week for the army, out of cast iron so they could not be of any use if stolen.  That one was the last one and he gave it to Frank back in the 1920s.  Harold’s standard response to a pleasant surprise is always “Well bugger me”.  He’s a Radnor man you see, whereas you and I would say “Well I’ll be buggered”. Or “Say no more!”

So, as you see, I have not been idle !  I even managed to get some walling done …

As usual at this time of year a number of ’emergency’ calls come in reporting small collapses which have occurred over the winter.  As usual also, a panic phone call comes in from my host farmer who has suddenly been confronted with an impending ‘visit’ from the inspectors of the farm environmental scheme he is in and as usual, there are several hundred metres of hedgerow planting that needs to be urgently done – like in the next two days !

I had been looking forward to a small trip down to Somerset to join up with my old friend Pete who resides near Chard, we intended an in-house afternoon watching the final episodes in this year’s Six Nations Rugby contest.  Alas I ended up planting hawthorn and blackthorn, hazel and holly in long straight lines.  I seem to have spent SO MANY years doing exactly that, surely there can’t be any rows left to plant !?

Another regular call at this time of year comes from the farmer who has the misfortune to own the old Deer park wall at the Edwinsford estate near Llansawel and Talley some miles north of Llandeilo.  I don’t know how many times that particular wall has featured herein but once again I headed back up there.  The gap was small, about three metres in length and as usual, it was in the long section which was originally built using lime mortar.  I had waited for some weeks as the weather was not at all inducing me to going out but when I eventually got there it was a gloriously warm clear, day;  I found myself very over dressed and actually spent most of the day in a ‘T’ shirt !

As is generally the case, the doing of it was nowhere near as formidable as I had imagined it would be.  Once the fallen stone is stripped away the rebuilding is not so difficult.  However, lack of fitness and low energy as a result of a winter bug, saw me completely out of fuel by around mid afternoon and I headed down with about half a day of rebuild left.  I felt quite content if extremely tired and drove home with a plan to return on the Sunday morning for a few hours.

As I was able to drive up the rather steep slope I was saved the long walk in through the old quarry but on my return on the Sunday morning, something looked a little odd up on the line of the wall where I had been working.  It is a long slow ascent in low ratio and the wall was quietly adorned in mist so was not at all clear until I got much closer.  To my horror I saw that another six metres had collapsed right next to where I had been building.  Strangely my spirits didn’t falter and I felt a calm acceptance of the fact that I was not going to be finished that day after all.  I stripped out the new collapse so as to be able to put up a temporary fence to stop the yearling lambs escaping into the quarry and then set to completing the original collapse.  As I had guessed, that was finished in but a few hours and I set off home with the intention of returning later in the week.

The first collapse was a 3 metre stretch which, once stripped out, could have gone back up in a day.  The second collapse was somewhat larger …

The trouble with this wall, as I’ve oft mentioned, is that the stone is really just too small for the size of the wall when rebuilding as a dry stone wall.  Luckily the presence of so much old lime mortar was the evidence that it was not a section I had previously done !  That makes giving the bill a lot easier !

I had already planned to head back up to the Radnor hills to do another gap up on the Gilwern hill and that in turn was the second repair of the year up there.  Earlier in February, again on a rather pleasant bright day, I had attended to another collapse at a ‘T’ junction of two walls but that time I had the able assistance of a lady from South Carolina who just happened to be passing through.  Two people put up more than the amount two people would do if working alone.  Consequently we got the rather large repair done in about six hours.

The trouble with both of the walls is that they have an up-side and a down-side, the difference is about a metre or so (approx 4 ft).  Therefore, sooner rather than later, there comes the need to climb from the lower side, the higher face, to the upper side, the lower face.  Now because I’m decrepit and have janky knees, I use the simple expedient of a step ladder.  Because Miss Carolina is young, fit and heedless, she leaps.  We both hobbled off after six hours; me because of my age, her because she jumped and sprained her knee.  I have told her on numerous occasions but, you know how it is !  However, I did point out that if that had happened in a remote working spot in the Blue Ridge, with no mobile signal and a mile back to the truck (and Black Bears all around !) she might have been in some trouble !  Luckily we were in separate vehicles !

So, here we are at the end of March, Spring is definitely springing and the daffodils are out along the lanes and gardens.  As I mentioned, I was even working in a ‘T’ shirt the first day on the wall collapse. But now and then, despite the clocks moving to British Summer time, the weather can catch us.  I was, a few days later, back in winter garb and the hills were showing why.

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The peaks of the Carmarthenshire Fans (Black Mountain) in late March.

My wall repairs will have to be put on hold for a while, I’m heading off to foreign climes.  The Kennett and Avon canal beckons and for six weeks or so I’ll be surrounded by English landscape and English folk; thank you Ireland for at least crumpling their erect feathers a little bit !

Welshwaller becomes an English Navvie …. again !

 

Animo Confusus Sum

12/02/2017

The early weeks of a new year often leave me somewhat confused; you know the feeling – “Who am I ? “Where am I going?” “Will the pub still be open when I get there?”  Oh yes, and WILL Wales beat England ?!

This year some added confusion has beset me, not that the issues are particularly complicated nor difficult to sort out, more that my silly brain has become fixated on them, especially the very words !

The first brain-teaser has to do with a 1960s Aga cooker range.  Yes, that’s right, an Aga cooker; a heavy block of iron and steel and something else.  It has given me some concerns for many months, it could realistically kill me (and ‘my little helper’), it needs urgent attention and I’be been putting it off for far too long.  You see, the problem is that the old cream Aga is in my way.  It’s not where one would normally expect to find an Aga, not in the house at all in fact, it’s in a rather fine shed which I NEED to make use of PDQ.

It transpires that around fifteen or so years ago my farmer friend and his son, clearly in the prime of strength and fitness, hauled the old cooking range out of the farmhouse where it had served its owners faithfully for many a year.  I haven’t enquired why they felt it necessary to remove the old solid lump, I’m sure it could still be doing sterling service.  That they did and how they did it leaves me somewhat in awe.  It is so extremely heavy and it had to be hauled up three narrow steps out of the old house, even they do not know now how on earth they managed it.  Once outside it was placed on a wooden pallet and forked into the said shed.  There it has languished, unloved, forgotten and worst of all, rusting !!  The result is that the innards have spilled out.  If, like me, you hadn’t realised Aga cookers had innards, then be ready to be amazed.  The front and top of the cooker are clearly  very solid lumps of iron and steel, the sides and back on the other hand are thin sheet steel.  I suspect that when the two Hercules got it out of the kitchen and onto the pallet they were so pleased with themselves and extremely exhausted, that the thought of maybe draining the water from the boiler did not seem important.  As the shed into which said Aga was deposited is clad in corrugated metal sheets and as the site is generally quite exposed and relatively high, it suffers from extremes of temperature.  In summer it is hot and humid, in winter it is very cold and usually damp.

By now the sides and back of the old Aga have disintegrated into a soft cardboard like material called ‘rusty metal’.  In fact most of it has disappeared altogether, leaving the innards and the boiler exposed.  It is clear that the boiler, at some time in the past fifteen years -probably exactly fourteen years ago is my guess – froze and the metal was cracked open by the force of the ice inside.  It never ceases to amaze me just how strong ice can be, it makes metal seem like glass.  The water, when it eventually thawed, was trapped in the innards and aided the rusting process until eventually the whole of the inside of the cooker became exposed.  Do you know what is in the guts of an Aga ? No? Neither did I.  On the floor all around the cooker lies a large mound of white powdery substance and much more still remains in the old carcass.  Obviously some sort of insulation, I deduced; what could a white powdery insulation material possibly have been made of back in the 1950s/60s ?  I’ll give you a clue, it begins with ‘A’ and ends in ‘S’, and you definitely DO NOT want to be breathing it in !

The shed had not been opened for years and it was on my mid to do so ever since moving my collection there back in the summer.  Having a mini-digger on site for another job gave me the opportunity to clear away the debris and accumulated earth from the door and eventually we managed to force it open.  Both myself and the two men with me looked at the white pile, looked at each other, and immediately closed the door again. That was some weeks ago and ever since I have been scratching my head as to how the issue could be resolved.  Serious masks is about all I managed to come up with but then, what was I going to do with it ?  Clearing that killer material is extremely expensive and fraught with paper-work !

Whilst talking to an old neighbour about the issue, he remarked that when he had taken out his old Rayburn it turned out that the insulating material was bone meal.  That raised my hopes and I braved entering the shed to take a closer look.  It seemed possible but not certain, I needed confirmation.  I then realised that I actually have an Aga in my own kitchen and had it serviced but a few months back.  I telephoned my service engineer to ask if he knew what old Agas were insulated with.  He didn’t but he put me on to a man in North Wales who refurbishes old Aga and Rayburn cookers.  It’s ‘Kheiselgere’ he wrote back.   It is actually spelled kieselguhr, presumably a Scandanavian word, and is a diatomaceous earth (known as diatomite) which derives from the silaceous shells of unicellular plants of microscopic size.  Confusing isn’t it !?  So at least I can now start moving it; I’ve decided to use the powder as an aggregate in a mortar mix I’m about to do to lay a new pathway.  I think masks will still be a good idea however …

My second piece of head scratching came when I made one of my usual winter visits to my all-time favourite lakes at Llangorse in Breconshire.  I like to go in the winter (as well as all other seasons actually) as there is guaranteed to be a fine collection of over-wintering ducks and geese.  There is also guaranteed to be a large flock of ducks around the lake edge car-park waiting for the daily visit of bread delivered by well meaning folk from the area who just love to feed the noisy creatures.  This year my attention and interest was drawn to a very unusual member of the flock, I’ve not seen him before on this lake.

Aix galericulata, Mandarin duck.

Mandarin duck at Llangorse lake.

I have always been attracted to (what we call) ornamental water fowl but of course, they are only ‘ornamental’ to us as they are not native.  In fact the Mandarin duck is from East Asia (the name is something of a give-away wouldn’t you say ?) and is one of the few ducks which is able to perch.  The one most commonly seen on farms and in back-yard flocks in this country is the Muscovy which is a much larger bird but still regularly perches in trees.  The Muscovy is actually half goose as it has more chromasones than a duck but also one less than a goose, a real French muddle of confused identity.  The little Mandarin seems quite at home amongst the large flock of Mallards and some odds and ends of wild-fowl such as Coot and Moor-hen.  The bird has the latin name of Aix Galericulata which loosely translated means a diving bird with a colourful bonnet.  It certainly has the hat but I can’t say I’ve ever seen it take a dive, but then, it is mid-winter and there’s ice on the lake !

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As you can see, there is a right mish-mash of breeds in this flock on the car-park of the lake.  The ducks are not the only water-fowl that make Llyn Syffyddyn their winter residence (most of them seem to actually stay all year round !) and there are plenty of Canada Geese, Cormorants and swans to see as well.

Meanwhile, back at the farm, some walling has been required.  The same house from which the Aga was removed has been left unattended for many years, probably since the heavy metal object was dragged out.  The front garden had been reclaimed by nature with bramble being the dominant species.  It is a natural progression when land is reverting back from any form of man made cultivation or management.  The bramble spreads over the ground to protect the young saplings which will inevitably stick their young leafy heads above soil and start heading for the sunlight.  It’s nature’s way of giving new woodland the chance to take hold in an area which has been cleared of standing trees, naturally through the actions of fire or storm.  This little garden was well on its way to becoming a little piece of woodland, the young trees were already poking out through the bramble and their leafy canopy would eventually close out the sunlight to the ground and the bramble would die away to be replaced by woodland plants which like dappled light and shade.

Bramble garden

Nature has taken back this once well manicured garden, an impenetrable mass of bramble, ash and sycamore saplings, has grown well in the fertile soil.

The garden wall has been covered by ground ivy and the roots have penetrated into the heart of the old stone structure.  In a couple of places some collapse had occurred, I’m told one of the sections was the result of a sleepy tractor driver failing to notice the bend in the track.  Forensic examination of various pieces of grey and black plastic led me to believe it was a Massey Ferguson 100 series, most likely a 135, which had caused the ‘Newton’s cradle’ effect whereby the outside of the wall remained fairly intact whilst the inner face had burst out into the garden – with the result the stones had been covered by later growth and had to be extricated.  Ivy is something of a conundrum for old walls.  The formation of woody roots in the tight joints and packed heart of the wall causes displacement of stones and will eventually cause the wall to collapse.  Except that the ivy then also acts as a corset holding the wall in shape and place, ever increasing the grip it has on the structure until eventually it is the ivy which is actually stopping the wall from collapsing.  It is a real problem organisations such as the National Trust which have to decide whether to cut away ivy from old walled gardens and buildings for instance, in the sure knowledge that the ivy is both ‘killing’ the wall but also holding it up !  My problem was not as serious but just as difficult to overcome.  Removing the ivy from the section which had been damaged was reasonably easy, even though the roots of the plant were some 5cms/2″ thick.  I needed to take the wall down so it mattered not.  However, I struggled to free all the other plants from the wall, not least a section of ornamental hedge which had gleefully invaded the tumble of fallen stones.  I had already spent several days hacking my way through the brambles inside the garden to get at that side of the wall and there was still much to do.  The aim was to free the garden of all such growth in order to try to re-establish a semblance of grace back to the old plot.  I eventually came to the conclusion that as the section of wall was now much bigger than I had at first imagined it would be, and as there was still so much to do in the garden, why not get a machine in to do it all for me.

Digger clears a bramble covered garden

5 Tonne digger = death to brambles ! Now I’ve just got to rebuild the wall …

Once the brambles had been cleared and I have cut the young ash and sycamore saplings I got on with rebuilding the collapsed section of the garden wall.  It is a pleasure to work with stones that were chosen for a garden wall by a discerning owner or his builder some four centuries ago.  Old Red sandstone takes some beating as a walling medium and this wall is right in the geological zone for that sedimentary rock.

A couple of days work for me and one for the machine boys and suddenly the old house looks a bit more ‘cared for’.  In addition to rebuilding some damaged walls we also managed to demolish an old dilapidated shed which was something of an eyesore on the edge of the farm yard.  Gradually the old farmstead, parts of which date back to the fifteenth century, is being returned to a condition that befits its heritage.

Old Red Sandstone dry stone wall gap is rebuilt.

A gap is rebuilt returning the garden to a sound stock-proof state and ready for the Spring sowing of a new lawn

Already the old place, now the home of my collection of old farming artefacts, is starting to begin to look like somewhere I will be grateful to show off as the museum of Welsh farming I hope it will become.  The evenings are already stretching out so that I can work on until 5 pm.  I’ve brought ‘home’ the Radnor Wheel car and it is safely ‘cwtched’ up in the newly cleaned-out shed.  In the next few weeks I’ll move the other two carts into that shed so that all my horse drawn   wooden carts are in one place and ready for some restoration work in the early Spring months.

Radnor Wheelcar restored

Wheelcar loaded and ready for taking to its new lodging house.

 

My phone has been alerting me to a number of repairs in need of urgent attention, the usual winter damage on walls often feature here.  I need to face-up to getting out into the cold and frosty countryside and do what I do.  I so wish there was someone else, younger and fitter, whom I could pass the baton on to.  I would be happy enough in the sheds !

I suppose if I insist on using the title of Welshwaller, I need to damn well do it !!

 

 

 

 

January 2017 ! Now there’s a date we’re all likely to remember …

17/01/2017

Welcome to  New Year in the land of the ‘Werin‘, us long suffering natives of the upland tribes.  Actually, truth be told, we are not really that long suffering;  whenever I get to feeling slightly oppressed by weather or politics I go and look at the view.  For even though I am now ensconced far below the snow line – useful given that last week the hills of the hendre were very beautifully white – I have again discovered the beauty of the middle Towy vale.  If I need something more invigorating I head but a short distance to the hill on which I spent a good fifteen years of my walling days rebuilding around 15 kilometres of old enclosure walls.

I am tiring slightly of being constantly asked by friends and relatives “what’s it like to be in a warm house?” Well, actually, it’s warm !  Hopefully not too expensively so but it is genuinely pleasant and the more so for not feeling I have to worry incessantly about getting ill.  I know full well that my health definitely suffered from living in a cold, damp house.  All in all 2017 promises to be not too bad, except that is ….

Important  matters first;  I am exceedingly concerned at what kind of performance Wales will manage to put up against the other five nations in the coming competition.  Perhaps fearful might be a  more accurate expression.  I just spent a rather lazy weekend watching the European rugby competition and I have to say it was terrifyingly awesome, the power and pace of the French, English and Irish sides is casting a rather long shadow over the Land of my Fathers.  Last year I got to watch the English defeat us rather convincingly in the home of an Englishman.  I’m already thinking that might be where I’ll be this year again.  There’s something far less painful about being in the victor’s camp, alone and being sympathised with, rather than in the heart of the dismay where even a trip to the take-away will guarantee a half hour of gloom filled discussion.

And then of course there’s Europe !  Do I go across the channel for my hols this year or do I not.  Probably yes, I think, but not too far from the places where we are still liked.  I have a yearning to head across to the Flanders area again as there have been some new memorials dedicated recently and I did so enjoy the countryside on my brief 2014 visit. Make the most of open borders while we can is my advice !

I don’t imagine I will be journeying to the New World anytime soon, much as I enjoyed the recent BBC2 series on the seasons of Yellowstone.  How I would love to go and see that amazing wildlife and astonishing landscapes.  On the other hand, as ‘my little helper’ constantly reminds me, there is a bloody great magma pool just below the surface, waiting to blow and exterminate the northern hemisphere.  Maybe that will be the solution to what appears to be a somewhat unfathomable future for that land of some 300 million folk.

One place I definitely want to head is back up to Orkney. I visited in 2012 but there have been some major excavations and discoveries since such that I feel it is high time to head north once more.  Again my appetite has been whetted by the series ‘Britain’s Ancient Capital’ which BBC2 has just aired.    In any case, planning a long trip is an excellent way of spending the long dark nights of January.

Another enjoyable pursuit has kept me entertained for the last couple of months and appears to be likely to take up much of the year.  You may recall I mentioned a little project I have been working on, the strange contraption that is the Radnor wheel-car.  Well I have also become very immersed in the story of the wheelwright family who made them.

The wooden ‘car’ is something of a hybrid vehicle, neither cart nor sled.  It’s evolution has been the subject of much conjecture since first being academically introduced in the 1930s by Cyril Fox (later Sir) the then head of the National Museum of Wales.  He stumbled across one outside a wheelwright’s shop in the small hamlet of Gravel Arch near Llanbister Road ( a station on the Swansea to Shrewsbury line north east of Llandrindod Wells) deep in the hills of Radnorshire.  He ultimately acquired an example for the museum which was housed at the Museum of Welsh Rural Life at St. Fagans.

I have absolutely no recollection of when or why I became interested in this strange artefact of agricultural transport but I remember well the important breakthrough I had in finding one.  I was on the trail of an old tractor, a 2nd World War era Standard Fordson ‘N’, and had been pointed to one in the small village of Beguildy in the Teme valley in Radnorshire.  In fact it was only just in Wales for the river forms the boundary thereabouts.  The tractor was in an old shed where it had languished unloved for over fifty years and for ‘not a lot’ of dry stone wall repairs I got to take it home.

Whilst working at the farm – and as is my wont, peering into all the old dilapidated sheds and barns, hedgerows and overgrown corners of fields – I spied under a collapsed roof of an old wain house something that made my heart jump.  Disbelieving I might have, at long last after several years of fruitless searching, found the by now mythical ‘whilca’ (as it is known in the local dialect) I gingerly began removing the debris of the collapse.  It was both energising and worrying; firstly the excitement coursing through my veins, secondly the tilestone roof which threatened at any moment to crash down upon me.  Some forensic archaeology and gentle excavation was the order of the day.  After several hours, the passing of which I did not notice, I eventually got to see the whole vehicle in its wonderful sadness.  I’m certain that the farmer and his wife thought I was a total basket case (they certainly thought the wheel-car was), he could not understand why on earth I wanted such a heap of rotten old wood. “Take it if you want it”, he said, “there’s a few other old bits in the next shed you might be interested in too”.  Well of course there was, the whole damn place was of interest to me !  But without doubt the wheel-car was the absolute Holy Grail.

Radnor Wheel-car discovered in old shed.

The Radnor Wheel-car as I found it in 2006. It had probably been in that shed for fifty years or so. Note the large wagon wheels at the rear and the old Bamford Wuffler to the right.

Then the story gets into one of those spirals of intrigue that only truth can construct, no author would dare to imagine such preposterous coincidences.  In the early months of 2009, some three years after my acquisition of said wheel-car, I was at a meeting in the Metropole Hotel in Llandrindod Wells.  The occasion was the first getting together of the team of crafts folk, musicians, cooks and choristers, artisans and bureaucrats who were going to be the Welsh contingent at that year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival. During a break for coffee I found myself sitting next to a dignified gentleman from the Welsh Museum of Rural Life, the very eminent Ray Smith.  His craftsmanship over decades had brought back to life many of the wooden decorative items of the old buildings and furniture.  He had, at that time, recently completed the Rood Screen which adorns the wonderfully reconstructed St. Teilo’s church, it is a carving of such astonishing exquisiteness that it defies my understanding of how a man could make it.  We got to talking about what the Museum was going to send over, it being the repository of the treasures of Welsh folklife artefacts.  It transpired that there was to be none, just Ray and a couple of other craftsmen demonstrating their skills.  I mentioned that it had been mooted that maybe I should send over a few of my items including a couple of carts.  Ray told me his family had been wainwrights in Radnorshire,  I told him of the wheel-car, he told me it was his grandfather that had made the wheel-car in the museum.  I was dumfounded, a link to the very man and the very rare wheel-car that Sir Cyril Fox had acquired back in 1929.

That maker was Aeron Lewis of the Gravel Arch wheelwright shop.  The family were generations in the same trade, at least as far back as the early 1800s.  Father gives way to son, Aeron succeeded by Stanley.  Stanley was the maker of the very nice example of a Radnor Wheelcar that sits, somewhat ignored, in a shed at the Acton Scott Working Victorian Farm near Church Stretton in Shropshire.  It spent its life on a farm in the hamlet of Llangunllo near Presteigne and was sold (too cheaply the man who sold it tells me !) to Ralph Oldham from whom it passed to Acton Scott.  That original owner is Frank Jones of the Crungoed at Llangunllo, a man I had the privilege to meet and record his memories of the’smellpost’, which is another ‘nick’ name it was given due to its apparent habit of ‘sniffing’ out gateposts as it was squeezed through by the horse and trace chains.

Aeron begat Stanley who begat the next in the chain, a man who I miraculously managed to find thanks to that original contact back in the Metropole hotel, Ray Smith.  The last in the line of wheelwrights (for the Gravel Arch Wheelwright shop is no more) is Harold, an outstanding man whose memory, thank goodness, is indefatigable.  Mind you, it is  greatly assisted by the fact that he fortuitously decided to keep all the records of the Lewis’ business going right back to the early 1800s !  Yes, that’s  right folks,  he has the business records, large account books, listing every day of work, every tree felled, every saw sharpened, coffin made, grave dug, gambo made, wheel repaired and wheel-car made or repaired.

 

The photograph is of Harold outside his family home and the old workshop of the Lewis’.  He has allowed me to interview him and given me access to these priceless  documents and I intend to write the history of the family business.  In the meantime I’m researching the wheel-car, its geographic boundaries of use, the variations in manufacture that may indicate detail changes in the family line and the other wheelwrights in the area of the Radnor Forest who also made them.

As a starter, myself, Harold and Mike Davies the wheelwright who made the new wheels for my ‘whilca’ headed off to the National Museum of Wales at St. Fagans to take a good look at that original and famous (well it will be after I’ve finished my doting !) example made by Harold’s grandfather nearly a century ago.

Wheelwrights and Wheelcar

Honourable company indeed; Mike the present day wheelwright wizard who actually works at Acton Scott (when he’s not farming that is, nor working on my wheel-car !) on my right and the amazing Harold Lewis whose grand-father made the very wheel-car we are standing by at the National Museum of Wales St. Fagans.

I am indebted to the curator, Gareth Beech, for arranging our visit and welcoming us so heartily.  He came up with his own amazing collection of documentary artefacts including the original letter ordering the vehicle for the museum.

As for my very own example, ten years in the waiting, it is nearing the end of the restoration and will be exhibited at a number of shows this coming summer.

Wheelcar undergoing restoration

Welshwaller’s very own Radnor Wheel-car undergoing restoration by the incredibly capable Hundred House wheelwright, Mike Davies – just look at that wheel !!

I know what you are thinking, “where’s the dry stone wall stories !?”  I’m sorry, I just get too excited about these oddities from the past.  I promise next time I’ll get back to the day job, in fact I think I’ll show y’all how to build a dry stone underground nuclear shelter along the lines of those astonishing Neolithic chamber tombs on Orkney.  What ? You think I can’t do that ….

“Imagine, all those people wanting to be together!”

20/12/2016

Not one for venturing far from home, especially once the leaves leave the trees, I was a reluctant traveller a few weeks back.  Despite wriggling and pleading like a piggy off to slaughter, I was insistently told I had to be there.  Where ?  London !! Can you imagine !? Me, lowly Welshwaller, used to narrow empty lanes and wide open hills with only sheep for company, dragged screaming into that melee, it was nothing but an afront to my human rights !

Do you have the slightest idea how many people there are in London !?  They are everywhere, on all the streets, in every shop, railway station, on every bus, driving at 0 mph along every street…. it’s CRAZY !!  Believe it or not, for just a few hours, I ENJOYED myself, well, kind of…

Paddington Station

Paddington Station, beautiful and horrid at the same time.

Any journey from the south of Wales to the capital by rail entails riding the Great Western line into Paddington.  It is one of the first routes which good old Isambard built and utilises the astonishing underwater structure that is the Severn Tunnel,  a brick built wonder of the Victorian era.  Now as the son of a railwayman who regularly ran the line from Wales to England I know a thing or two about that tunnel.  For one thing it is actually two tunnels, one on top of the other, the bottom one is there to collect all the water that leaks into the first one and pump it out – before everyone drowns !  The pumping station can still be seen with its large chimney just to the side of the modern road-bridge on the Welsh side.  Yes folks, it LEAKS, it leaks like crazy !!  It is no surprise that most Sundays they have to close it …..

Not for me that five minute zoom through the blackness, I can’t hold my breath for that long neither can I stand tiny wet dark holes – I managed to get out of one a lifetime ago and I ain’t going back in !  No Sir, for me it’s a matter of joining the train on the English side of that waterworld.  Fortunately and perchance, I now have an offspring living in Cirencester so I can jump on the GWR train to Paddington from the quaint little station at Kemble.  Marvellous indeed ! (It still cost best part of £100 for a day return !! Absolutely guaranteed to get folks out of their cars don’t you think !?)

The GWRline at Kemble in Gloucestershire.

Kemble station in Gloucestershire.

It is indeed a throwback to the old days of steam, the great water tank still stands at the end of the platform where it quenched the mighty thirst of Castles, Manors and Kings as they took a breather after hauling their massive loads from London.

From Kemble it is but a short hour and a half or so into Paddington, there are but three stops, (Swindon, Didcot and Reading) familiar names to those of us who spent hour after hour standing on platforms along the line spotting and recording engine numbers in those far off days of steam.  It always amuses me that references to that ‘Golden era of Steam’ conveniently omit that it was also an era of thick smelly sulpherous smoke and soot covered everything !  My own father spent ten years or so on the footplate and died an early death from lung cancer as did many of his old work colleagues.  Sure, the twenty or so fags each day aided the tumours but I’m sure the roots of the cancers were laid down in those days of breathing that smoke on the footplate of those magnificent machines.  He often told the stories of how they would be halted in the tunnel so the heavily laden goods train did not become a victim of the Luftwaffe bombers as they blitzed Bristol and the Portishead docks. For long periods with the engine puffing merrily away and the smoke with nowhere to go but into the cab, he and the driver were obliged to sit breathing in that perilous concoction.  Passive smoking ? You’d better believe it !

My journey by train was, as it always is, a nostalgic undertaking.  My summons to the City was to attend a meeting of the Canal and River Trust and the Help for Heroes project folk with whom I have been working this past year.  Fitting then that the irresistible attraction of engines should deliver a fine siting of an aptly named monster, given the reason for my visit !

I have some old friends who were ‘bootnecks’, I don’t hold it against them though I was astonished to find they were quite that old !  Fitting that the hard men who wear the green beret and the Globe and Laurel are commemorated by a sixty ton loco ! (Have you seen what they have to do to get that beret !?  They are all LOCO !!).

So, with no little trepidation I alighted at Paddington, nervous as to my ability to locate the tube station and then the correct line and then the correct train going in the correct direction.  Fortunately I had no need to deal with getting an Oyster card – I have had run-ins with those on the DC metro ! – as my daughter, who of course had done all the arranging,  had got me a day-roamer ticket for the journeys in the city.

It’s not that I don’t know my way around London; I did actually spend quite some time there years ago and happily drove or flitted about on the public transport system – TFL as it is now called !  Over the years my hard-drive has become clogged and much slower and thus to try to retrieve files on tube stations of the District or Bakerloo lines or indeed which destination the train I want is heading to (is Ealing Broadway east or west ?) is extremely difficult.  Added to that is the problem I now have in reading the damn map but as I struggled to see where my station was on the map displayed along the side of the tube carriage a strange event occurred.  A person spoke to me, yes, truly, he spoke to me !  Yes, it is also true he had neither ear plugs nor a hand held device of an electronic nature (and certainly no newspaper- I didn’t see anyone reading a paper !!) so he was obviously an alien like myself.  He had clearly recognised my difficulty and (rather sardonically I thought) pointed to the scrolling electronic message above and pointing to his ear, indicated I should listen to the message being broadcast by a lady of indeterminate origin, both of which were telling me what the next station was going to be !  Whoever thought of that idea should be knighted !

I was heading for ‘Monument’ which I guessed was something to do with the Great Fire of London and thus must be right in the heart of the City.  From Paddington that required a change of line at Embankment which, despite some serious wrong turns in the labyrinth of tunnels, I completed accurately.  However my self-congratulation was short lived when, on alighting at ‘Monument’, I saw the Tower of London !!  No monument but the Tower !!

Tower of London from Cheapside.

Tower of London – not the monument I was expecting ! Nevertheless it was nice to see it, from the outside !

This was very confusing indeed, and before all those smart-Alecs amongst you say “why didn’t you use your ‘i’phone and google maps?”,  I want to say I did have a street plan showing my destination from the station (I am not yet up-to-speed on using my ‘i’ phone for much beyond telephone matters !).  The problem was, and I’m sure many of you can identify with this, there is no way of knowing which exit from the station you have popped out of and so it can be difficult to get a bearing – especially as the sun was not visible to ascertain south !!  By pure chance I stumbled upon the road I needed and although it took me half a mile to realise I was walking the wrong way along it, I eventually arrived at my destination.  I was even there first and as the others arrived, suitably astonished and impressed that I was there at all, I brushed aside their concerned questions as to my possible difficulties – it had apparently been a matter of common knowledge that I was somewhat nervous about my trip into the unknown.

A quick two hour meeting and it was all over; back out into the raging torrent of hurried humanity.  I had arrived post-morning rush-hour, not that it looked like that to me.  How many more people can you get into a tube !?  The one good thing about negotiating the tube is that the stream of  rushers you are swimming in are all headed in the same direction.  A sort of one-way journey into the bowels of the earth.  Similarly, coming out of the underground is another white-water ride up and up the endless escalators and along white tiled tunnels carried along in a long endless busy line of ants but all headed in the same direction.  That is not how it is on the outside.  Oh no Sir, no-one out there is going in the same direction.  The pavement (that’s ‘walkway’ to you on the other side of the Atlantic !) is a hop-scotch game, a practise run for the Artfull Dodger, a side-stepping snakes and ladders of minimal forward and maximum side-way progression.  I was taken back half a century to the Quadrangle of West Mon School where, in break times, a dozen-a-side game of touch rugby took place within a fifteen metre box using a rolled-up exercise book (the ‘rough’ book’ or Pill as it was known) as the ‘ball’.  Playing in that tight confined space required guile, swiftness of hand and the ability to throw an opponent as does the Matador deceive the bull.  Throwing a ‘dummy’, dipping a shoulder to effect a ruse and commit the most outrageous of side-steps was the only way to ever score a try.  So it was on that cold December morning in the thronged streets of the City of London that those long forgotten yet innate skills came to the fore to get me along the likes of Pudding Lane and Eastcheap.

You see, the problem is no-one is looking where they are walking !  Hands are full, an electronic communication devise in one and a coffee-to-go held high in the other (why DO people carry their coffee so high ?  Does the airflow cool it or something ? ) and often hearing is impaired by ear-plugs funnelling Lord only knows what into their brain.  I lost count of the number of those subtle side-steps I performed, of the immediate halts I made to avoid a head-on, of rear-end shunts as the person in front suddenly decided she (sorry, it usually was a SHE !) needed to look into that window.  Eventually, after a dozen or more collisions with folk who were not at all engaged in the art of crowd walking but rather immersed in some ethereal communication, I decided to see just how many head-on collisions I could enact.  It was astonishing, clearly I had been the only person that was in anyway trying to avoid human face to face contact. Hit after hit, men, women and folk of indeterminate gender, all just careered into me.  At six foot three inches and wide as a bus I’m not exactly hard to see and before you ask, no, I was not wearing ‘urban camo’.  They just do not watch the road ahead !  One young lady whose high-held coffee-to-go came in, exocet like, at face level had the misfortune to soak the person walking to her left as the Costa cup flew out of her hand on impact and ejaculated its contents all over the hapless ‘rusher’.  I walked on, more and more enjoying the ‘battering ram’ status I had awarded myself.  I reckon on a total of seven high impact heads-on, which resulted in dislodging one or other items from the grasp of the victim, about eight screech-to-a-halt impacts of low velocity, often just resulting in an arm-to-arm defensive embrace and about three falls off the pavement as they tried to perform the sort of side-step only an accomplished touch-rugby player could possibly hope to do.  Only one of those actually resulted in knees hitting the road, one collided with a parking meter causing the de-rigeur CTG to spew everywhere, not least on a rather nice parked Jaguar and one other carried on ‘tripping’ and actually managed to get right across the other side without falling.  What a merry jape, I SO enjoyed my wander through the City !

I had a return train booked at around 3.30pm but was well on my way back to Paddington by 1.45pm.  Did I perhaps ought to take in some of the sights / sites ?  Did I perhaps ought to take advantage of Oxford Street and do some Christmas shopping, did I have time for a quick shufty in an incognito manner through the back-streets of Soho? Ahem …  Indecision overcame me and before I could barter with my doubts I was back at the grand old terminal.  I decided I would just have a wander around in the near vicinity and left the main concourse to enter the nearby street … and there I nearly freaked out !  It was an absolute riot of people filling the pavement, spilling into the road as others stopped to chat to friends well met or gazed into shop windows thereby blocking the anyway too narrow thoroughfare.   I stood, slightly panic stricken, wondering if I had either the need or the will to take the plunge.  Two minutes later I was happily seated in a quiet corner of the huge waiting lounge with my very own coffee-to-go and a rather good baguette !

London has its fair share of Welsh ex-pats, always has and thus it is not inconceivable that a familiar face might be encountered (in a population as large as Wales’ total of 3 million plus !) and sure enough, as I sat enjoying my lunch and watching all manner of folk walk by, my name was called out across the wide open expanse.  A ‘local’ from my home village saw me (he hadn’t seen me in many a year – which must mean I haven’t put that much weight on then ? ), a man I had played rugby with some twenty five years or so ago.  He had rode in on  the GWR all the way from Port Talbot, leaving at 6am that morning and was then about to make the 3 hour return trip.

I was grateful to board my train which slowly crept out of that wonderful structure of glass and iron and headed westward following the setting sun.  Even at 3.30pm it was a full train but just as in the morning, no-one spoke nor looked at anyone else.  Eyes glued to their screens they did not notice the suburbs flash by, did not see the fiery red of the sun-set nor the still waters of the Thames.  It is a strange world, this place where everyone is constantly communicating but no-one is speaking, this place where everyone is immaculately dressed and elegantly manicured yet is seen by no-one.  Invisible beings crammed into a metal tube hurtling them homeward, no doubt to flop exhausted and silent in front of an even larger screen or maybe sending texts to their friends whom they forgot to say “goodbye” to on the train …. “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare …”

I was not sorry to leave that place, glad to have an evening with a daughter I rarely get to spend what she calls “quality time” with (by which I presume she means without her lap-top or ‘i’ phone).  We wandered the old Roman city and found a quiet (!) little French restaurant on a street glistening with the lights of a Christmas to come.  I ate my fill and drank some rather good vino, slept a sleep any Roman would be proud of and headed west with the morning sun at my back.  Too long spent in that foreign land with all those people is not good for my soul.

I mean, imagine, all those people wanting to be together !

Happy Christmas merry readers.  Another year of battling with the musings of Welshwaller surely entitles you to have a GOOD  ONE !

Blwyddyn Newydd Dda.

“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 …..