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.
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 !