Method(ists) in my madness

07/02/2016

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

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

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

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

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

Barran Methodist Chapel

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Tombs on a Welsh hillside.

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

 

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

Stoat on dry stone wall,

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

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

Stoat at base of an old wall

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

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

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

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

stoat1

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

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

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

DSCF4520

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

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

Rain Rain go away, come another walling day …

“If I were to remain silent, I would be guilty of complicity”. (Einstein)

01/02/2016

A while ago (August 2015) I wrote in a post about the issue of doing things the right way; of acting properly in accordance with the societal rules and general decency which co-operative living and community membership require.  It was disguised in some comments about the way those requirements are readily dismissed by the people in my community who should absolutely adhere and set the example.

In the post I mentioned how embarrassed I had been (and how amused were the locals !) to find that the account of my landlord, a local solicitor and  owner of the estate, was suspended due to non payment of outstanding bills.  Those bills had remained unpaid despite numerous follow up requests and the good grace of the business owner in allowing me to continue to ‘sign for’ materials (required for a large wall repair at the mansion) for six months.  Despite my reminding the lady of the house, on three consecutive months, that the bill was in urgent need of payment and her assuring me it would be dealt with, nothing happened.  As I was using my bonafides with the owner of the business and assuring him it would be paid forthwith it caused me some loss of credibility too. The system had worked for several years and yet, for some reason, a glitch had occurred.  Now I know full well how that came to be; unlike myself who often has to delay a payment due to lack of funds, this is nothing more than oversight.  But that oversight is not merely a matter of forgetfulness, it is more a case of the issue being not regarded as important enough to warrant due care and attention.  It is not the only such case I could quote, equally as regular and equally receiving the good grace of the hopeful recipient.  In my view all of the instances are because the persons responsible have a disregard for their duty within the community.  Although they are all too ready to play the role of Squire and Mistress when the opportunities arise, there is a distasteful commentary on the nature and personality of the “people around here” who apparently make her sick. That is especially so when the tenant farmers are the subject matter and it often has a narrative which is anti-Welsh in sentiment.

I wrote too of the manner in which rules and regulations designed to protect the natural, cultural and built heritage of the nation are routinely ignored.  In particular I cited how building repair work on the Grade 2 listed mansion house is regularly carried out without any  thought to applying for the necessary Listed Building Consents from the local Planning Department and is undertaken with total disregard for the essential requirement of traditionality in effecting such repairs.  I could have cited numerous other such ‘oversights’ all of which stem, in my view, from the general mind-set that such trivia does not apply to the self-appointed ‘Great and Good’.  In this area of Beulah Land, in the beautiful ancient valleys of the Cammarch and the Cyneffiad, nature and community are being sacrificed to greed.  The inheritance of duty and caring, for both the tenants and the land, has long been abandoned in favour of personal gain resulting in degradation of the natural resources and despair amongst those who have to live and work under the regime.

As if to give immediate credence to my claim, the action of the ‘Master’ and  m’Lady on reading Welshwaller’s comments was  (according to informed sources !) to issue me, within a matter of a couple of hours it seems, an eviction notice.  They of course, as landlords, have every right under Assured Short Term tenancies,  to give notice to a tenant that they require vacant possession, but it is  a very characteristic trait of this particular landlord that he will tolerate no challenge and no comment on his rule over this estate. (Isn’t that called ‘tyrannical’?).  It is equally characteristic, as it is of all bullies, that rather than facing me man to man to deliver his sentence, it was furtively delivered in a silly hand-written note placed (unnoticed for several weeks !) into the wooden box which serves as my post-box a half mile from my home.  Pathetic or what ?

By all accounts un-fettered rage and embarrassment accompanied their reading of my blog, (did they really imagine that no-one knew of these transgressions, didn’t the staff of the businesses know, didn’t the builders know, didn’t all the tenants know and hadn’t everyone who knew told someone else who had then told someone else and did they really think that in a tight-knit rural community everyone wouldn’t enjoy a laugh at their expense ? What planet do they occupy !?)  and I was accused of being spiteful and of throwing my weight around.  Alas not sufficient weight it seems to  prevent any of the calamitous damage that is occurring throughout the farmland, gardens, woodlands and waterways of this estate and the neighbouring area.

I was clearly labouring under an illusion (2016 or 1816 ?); that free speech, the freedom to express opinions which differ from others and the right to complain when the rules which control our lives are ignored or broken, are inalienable rights under our laws and traditions.  The same freedoms actually which allow him and his mates to wander around the countryside blasting the life out of birds and animals – didn’t I read somewhere last year about celebrations relating to some event which happened at Runnymede a while back !?  As a student of Agricultural History I am familiar with eighteenth and nineteenth century estate owners who regularly evicted tenants for such heinous crimes as attending a different church, of voting for a different political party or, worst of all, taking part in activities which brought the inequality, the awful poverty and conditions under which estate tenants lived, to the notice of the general populace by combining in Trade Unions and the like.  I have lived in my little old farmstead for fifteen years (which means over £80,000 of my hard earned cash has gone into the coffers of the estate) and have worked diligently and cheaply to enhance the environment of this place and the estate in general.  I suppose I should be thankful I am only being made homeless and not being sent off to Van Deiman’s land.  Oh yes, and of course I have to remember that as a regular Church attendee (front pew naturally) his actions must surely have the authority of sound Christian ethics…

In truth I expected nothing less;  I had long since come to realise that there is no love of the land nor any sense of stewardship, guardianship, nor a duty of care towards the tenants of this old estate.  Every aspect of the management of this five thousand acre (or thereabouts !) estate is directed towards accruing as much money as possible from the natural resources and the tenants.  In particular it is the new ‘Shoot’ which is the main cause of despair amongst the farmers and other tenants (as well as those unfortunate enough to live within a ten mile radius).  In the past the constant battles between farmers and ‘the shoot’ was because of the dreadful character of the resident gamekeeper.  He operated in a manner which created a groundswell of disrespect towards himself and the estate owner who regularly backed him in any dispute.  Ironic then that when eventually the gamekeeper was sent packing it was accompanied by an admission from the estate owner that he had indeed backed him even though he (the owner) knew the gamekeeper was at fault.  For that oversight he pays dearly in terms of how he is viewed by the tenants and the community at large.  However, the new battle is with a much bigger, much more damaging and hugely derisive ‘shoot’ .

Be with a Leader when he is right, stay with him while he is still right, but leave him when he is wrong”

(Abraham Lincoln)

It is, in fact, in relation to the activities of this new shoot and my battles with them that the real truth behind my eviction lies; or rather, I hope it does, for if it really is because of my brief blog comments then ‘we’ are in more trouble than we realise !  Unfortunately I cannot yet comment on matters which are currently under investigation by the relevant authorities but one day soon I, and the local and national media, will be free to expose what is really going on hereabouts.  Then the oft quoted (by the owner) phrase “It’s my land and I can do what I like with it”, will be shown to be quite as erroneous as most sensible folk already realise.

“Do your duty as you see it, and damn the consequences”.  (George S. Patton) 

For my part it is the serious and terminal damage that is being rained down upon the environment of this area that has caused me to speak out and take action.  Ecological disaster is the result of the blitzkreig that has swept through woodlands and pasture.  Tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of pheasants  (we do not know for sure but by extrapolating figures from the number of shooting days and the number of guns, that assessment seems reasonable)  have been released onto the farmland and into the woods of the estate and are wreaking havoc.  Imagine, if you can, a plague of locusts landing in a beautiful meadow of insect rich flora, now imagine those locusts a hundred times bigger and a hundred times more voracious.  That is what happens when the vermin which descends upon us from July onwards, are released.  Every insect, every seed, every worm and invertebrate are devoured.  Along the water-courses and in the wetland areas no amphibian which sets foot on land survives.  Thus the annual exodus of young toads and frogs, newts and larvae are exterminated.  As summer turns to autumn and the berries of hedgerow and garden, as well as the fruit of the orchard, ripen, disaster strikes as all are decimated by the wretched creatures.  By early October every berry in the rowan trees and all the bounteous crop of elder berries and haws had all been stripped.  The result is no food to carry our native birds through the winter.  In fact, no field or hedgerow birds are seen once the hordes arrive.  It is a sickening sight to behold and it brings shame on the perpetrators.

Pheasant pollution

The fields look like one of the plagues of Egypt. The farmers are in despair.

As if the ecological destruction was not enough there is physical damage too.  The jungle fowl love to clean their feathers in dry earth and scratch away the surface to reveal the soil underneath.  This results in terrible damage to pastures and hedgerows which have the roots of the hedgerow trees and plants exposed and killed.  The excavations of these feathered rats actually get lower than the fence posts and collapse eventually occurs.  Imagine, if you can, how tens of thousands (x 2) of feet flatten grassland and then add to that the tons of faeces that continually drop out of the plague.  Farmers are in despair and where they attempt to re-seed old pastures or grow winter fodder crops, such as turnip or swede, their efforts are constantly thwarted, the financial loss is staggering.  Yet neither the estate owner nor the owner of the shoot and his henchmen have the slightest concern.  Shame on all of them I say.

Pheasant damage

No, not a rabbit warren; this is what the hordes of pheasants do to the land.

The farmers have had large areas of their land sequestrated in order to have massive pheasant pens constructed on them.  It is true that they get compensated for the loss but they would much rather have the grassland.  It is farming country !  They do not get compensated for the damage that occurs outside the pens and the land inside the pens is so polluted as to be rendered useless as pasture.  Not that the pens will be removed for ten years or so by which time the plant growth within will be non existent and the nutrient levels from all the manuring will change the soil forever.  That these monstrous pens are built on unimproved pastures and wetland areas is both disastrous and arguably, in contravention of European Agricultural rules.

There are serious questions to be asked too about the legality of changing pasture to pheasant pens.  Whilst the rearing of game birds is allowed under the law without requiring a ‘change of use’ permission, the term ‘rearing’ needs addressing.  The agricultural regulation allows for the keeping of breeding stock, the gathering and hatching (or selling) of eggs and the sale thereafter of the young birds.  It is a moot point carefully ignored by authority, as to whether the rearing of birds for the sole purpose of then shooting them is strictly in adherence.  In this case however, the birds are hatched in France, shipped to eastern England to be reared to a point where they are then brought in truck loads to Wales (in late June and early July) to be turned into holding pens for a short few weeks before being set loose on the farmland, woods, gardens and roads of the area.

Unfortunately for everyone in the area, they are not ‘homing pigeons’ and come winter they have spread far and wide.  This year we have recordings from an eight mile radius to the south and west and a ten mile radius to the east.  To the north lies open hill but they have certainly penetrated deep into the afforested hills which cloth the northern hills.

Fence line damage by pheasants

This is what the vermin do to the fence lines.

Pheasant damage to a fence line.

Hundreds of metres of fence line now looks like this.

In woodlands where pens have been erected the damage has been catastrophic and in one instance a serious offence has occurred. The erection of pens near or in some cases, across important rivers and streams, which in this area are ALL protected sites of scientific interest (SSSI) is so unimaginably stupid as to leave me (and officers of the relevant agencies) lost for adjectives.  This is all taking place on a Welsh estate in one of the most beautiful areas of hill country where ‘Green Tourism’ is extremely important and successful.  Indeed even the website advert for the self catering accommodation at the mansion highlights the ‘beautiful countryside and wildlife’ !  Anachronic land mis-management or what !?

Some of the greatest and irreparable damage has been done by the construction of track-ways to allow the ATVs (all terrain vehicles) of the gamekeepers to service the feathered hordes.  The constant driving around has eroded the surface of grassland and where tracks have been carved through woods the environmental damage is nightmarish.  Once the four wheel drive trucks have gouged their way along woodland tracks they leave deep ruts which soon fill with water or act as stream beds and in no time at all they are running and eroding.  Farmers would not be allowed to do such damage without being seriously penalised and lose money from their Single Farm Payment. Indeed when I, in an attempt to preserve access to my home along an already rough track, taped off a thirty metre section, it resulted in both the agent and the landlord arriving in double-time – normally nothing brings either of them to deal with a problem but, of course, this was a complaint by the gamekeepers ! It was this action that brought forth the accusation of ‘weight throwing’.  Instant repairs were effected which, as I predicted, actually made the problem worse, especially as three months of rain followed.  Such was the state of the track-way without the deluge, it was hardly navigable in anything other than a four-wheel drive vehicle.  As the rains descended and the water flowed  erosion made things much worse, and then the ‘couldn’t give-a-damn’ brigade arrived with their convoys of expensive 4x4s and the gamekeeper’s trucks to bring the beaters and dogs.  Whereas the previous head keeper at least had the sense to not drive the brigade up the worst of the track in bad weather (and he cared little for anything or anybody other than his precious ‘shoot’), this lot just carried on, sometimes in the absolute worst of the downpours, driving up as if they were on an ‘off-road’ expedition.  The outcome of it all is that my eviction will need to be an airlift by Chinook helicopters !

Out in woods and hills footpaths have been blocked or fenced, fortunately several complaints by walkers seems to have alerted the authorities and the locked gates have been re-opened but it should not have happened in the first place. Clearly the shoot do not care one little bit and sadly, neither does the estate owner.  But as an aspiring member of the hunting, shooting gentry and a local solicitor, one might be forgiven for assuming that, at the very least, he would have the sense and courtesy to ensure all that is done is done with the correct permissions and concern for both the environment and the people who have to live and work in the area.  I’ll soon be able to report on the investigations of the authorities and agencies charged with ensuring such ‘adherence to rules and regulations’.

Woodland scarring.

This is the typical damage that has been wreaked on the ancient oak woodlands.

Another activity which has sent shock waves throughout the Conservation community is the incredulous decision to plant laurel throughout many of the ancient semi-natural oak woodlands of the estate.  Laurel is an absolute ‘no no’ as far as the agencies responsible for the woods and forests of Wales are concerned.  Under no circumstances is a woodland owner allowed to plant laurel, it is one of the major problems which we are still battling to overcome, it is a legacy from the great nineteenth century planting mania which, along with rhododendron, has caused massive ecological damage.  Oh yes, and by the way, it was planted back then to give cover to the new game birds which replaced the old sport of rabbit shooting, pheasants !  There have been a succession of grants available to woodland owners to encourage them to manage our old deciduous plantations in an ecologically sound way.  I wonder how much public money has poured into the woodlands of this estate.  Why is laurel planting even being considered !?  It’s NOT allowed – do things correctly, especially if you are taking tax payers money !

I could go on and on about the transgressions, I could narrate tale after tale of conflict between farmer and gamekeepers.  Just today I was told by a very depressed estate farmer that back in October, when he asked the senior resident gamekeeper to not drive endlessly around his field just to chase a few pheasants out (he was hoping to get the last growth out of the pasture after having spread some late fertilizer) the response he got was “you better get used to it”.  That particular gamekeeper is rapidly becoming as despised as the one he replaced and his under-keeper comes a close second!  Why is the farmer, who is paying the estate owner good money for his land, having to deal with that sort of conflict?  A wife of one of the farmers sensibly commented to me recently that as it is quite obvious that conflict (between farmers and shoot) will occur, there ought to be a system in place to deal with it.  Instead neither the estate-owner nor his agent will arbitrate and the owner of the shoot is as dismissive of complaints as are his on-site workers. Another tenant told me of how a shot-gun was blasted off outside their house in retaliation for complaining to the shoot about certain activities.  The fields where these so called ‘country lovers’ have insisted on driving throughout the shooting months are seriously damaged as are track-ways and footpaths.  The feeding of ‘cake’ to pregnant ewes to sustain them through the winter does nothing more than entice pheasants onto the ground or the yard.  A neighbour counted seventy pheasants at his sheep-troughs within fifteen minutes of him pouring the feed.  Apart from costing him money and denying his sheep their daily ration, it is a real health problem to his animals.  Imagine the amount of droppings left by that number of birds !  Why do any of us have to live in constant conflict ?  A similar situation is occurring in an area near Talgarth where the same company operate another shoot but there the locals seem to be taking them on.  Here many of the farmers live in fear of the estate owner who has been known to threaten them with eviction on one or more occasions when they have stood up to the henchmen of the ‘shoot’.  I guess that’s the mistake I made, clearly I too was expected to shake and quiver with trepidation ….  Sorry matey, I didn’t realise.

From October to the end of January, on several days a week, we have endured the endless cacophony of shotguns ringing out across these otherwise tranquil valleys.  Disturbance to the farm animals, to the wildlife, to the neighbours, are not a consideration.  Damage to the land, the tracks, the woods and the watercourses are not even thought about.  Money is all that matters; two thousand pounds a day each (plus the Value Added Tax of 20% which is presumably always paid to the Exchequer) is obscenely squandered by gun-slingers who arrive in their expensive 4 x 4 vehicles and, with their posse of flag waving beaters and dozens of dogs, wreak havoc in this ancient part of Wales.  The land of the ‘werin’, the true natives of these hills.  The hundreds of years of toil and sweat by farmers who have created this landscape so ‘appreciated’ by the visiting shooting fraternity is cast aside with ne’er a thought.  I and the others who have to witness this vile desecration of our heritage, may be forgiven for wishing the spirit of Llewellyn ap Grufydd and Glyndwr would arise and lead us into the final battle to drive these mercenaries from ‘our’  (yes, that’s ours, not yours !) land.

There are other more serious concerns; where did the four pairs of Red Kites which nested in the woods of the estate mysteriously go ?  Why were so many dead raptors found around the estate ? (The results of tests on a Buzzard carcass are awaited) Do we accept the resident gamekeeper’s assertion that when he fires at goshawks his cartridges are just blank firing ? I guess the dead one must have died of shock !  And in any case is that allowed under the Wildlife and Countryside Act ?  Where did the badgers disappear and whilst accepting that the numbers of foxes needs to be controlled (in order to protect ground nesting birds and farming interests) does wiping out the entire fox population really benefit the ecology of the area.  Could it be that the widespread scattering of corn around the estate (to feed the hordes of feathered vermin and entice them into the killing zones) has had an influence on the vastly increased number of rats that are now to be found – numbers which may have been controlled if more foxes were present.  At least this present regime seem to have refrained from setting snares along riverside tracks which happened also to be the pathways used by the Otters whose presence contribute to the status of SSSI.  That was the favoured activity of the previous gamekeeper.  He often got quite annoyed with me when he saw me carrying the snares away !  For goodness sake, there are more dead pheasants all over the roads than all those predators together could possibly eat in the whole season.  That too adds to the deaths of raptors as they descend to feed on the road kill and themselves get hit by cars.  In fact the whole road safety issue – for whereas us locals just run over the wretched creatures, visitors often swerve or brake suddenly and accidents occur – is currently being discussed by the relevant authorities.

Clearly I was extremely naive to think that modern gamekeeping methods bore no resemblance to the nineteenth and early twentieth century pograms.  How ironic that this particular assault on nature is occurring but a short flight from the very valley where the Red Kite was saved from extinction after it had been persecuted to the edge by gamekeepers !  Oh, and by the way, Kites are no threat to live pheasants however big, they eat carrion !

There are also questions relating to the spread of disease and the threat to human health through the pollution of water courses and groundwater.  Neighbours who have long battled the estate over the presence of bacteria polluting their water supply have finally been forced to have their own bore-hole to secure their supply.  Lord knows what will happen when the dreaded ‘bird-flu’ arrives.

Simply it is neither sensible nor morally acceptable to subject the farmers and residents of the estate and wider community to this plague and environmental degradation.  Furthermore the ecological damage is unsustainable, already the spread of phytophthora through the conifer woodlands is serious and it is now known that the first spread of the tree killing disease was caused by beaters driving birds out of woodlands in Cornwall and the next day repeating the activity in Wiltshire whilst wearing their ‘de-riguer’ wax jackets, leggings and wellington boots.  Bio-security is as absent hereabouts as is care for the environment.  The cost is already emerging with Defra insisting on the destruction of ornamental rhododendron in the gardens of the mansion !  I once tried to discuss bio-security with the land-agent …

It will be but a short time before my ‘watch’ will be brought to a premature end.  The policeman investigating the more serious offences asked me why I stayed living in this nightmare of  mindless environmental destruction.  He had a point, but if we all run in fear, if nobody speaks out and acts to protect that which the Law deems worthy of its protection, by default we are all complicit.  I am not in favour of denying people their right to enjoy their country sports nor any individual’s right to get out on their bikes, motor or mountain, their 4 x 4s, the hikers nor the twitchers.  But just as the collecting of birds eggs was finally outlawed so too has the old ways of gamekeeping to ‘protect’ sporting rights been outlawed.  In Wales, as in the rest of Britain, there is a strong law, the Wildlife and Countryside Act, it is all encompassing and just as laws and rules that protect the built environment are vigorously enforced, it is to be hoped that the legal eagles of Natural Resources Wales (NRW), the body now responsible for protecting our natural heritage, has the interests of the countryside at the forefront of their thinking.  That being so, I shall soon be able to write about the large percentage of the obscene income derived from this degradation which has flowed back to the coffers of the state in the form of fines.  I wonder if the thousands of pounds which are paid in cash each week by those attending the shoots and staying overnight at the mansion will be included …

In the meantime ‘they’ sit in that mansion counting their money while nature is left to count the cost.

Buzzard suspiciously dead

We are all hoping this poor creature died from natural causes but initial tests suggest otherwise.

 

Time of “The Hardest Moon”.

10/01/2016

For the Native Americans of the eastern United States, the Lakota Sioux, the beginning of a new year was the time when stores were running low, when the animals on which they depended hid away in the deepest forests, the time when the rivers froze and the ground became rock hard.  Definitely the ‘hardest moon’ period.  Mmm, not quite that bad here just now…. plenty of rain though.  Apparently, here in the hills of mid-Wales, there has not been a day without rain since October 22nd !  The landscape is certainly confirming that, the ground is just so sodden that movement of any sort across it has become a hardship for animals and us humans.  Any attempt at using mechanical means of traversing the hills and fields results in permanent damage to the fragile leys and top-soil.

Flooded valley near Llandeilo

The flood plain of the river Tywi between Llangadog and Llandeilo lives up to its name in January.

 

I had to venture out to carry out some tree planting back at the farm where Miss Carolina and I were walling just prior to the Christmas break.  The route down the Tywi valley is guaranteed to involve some diversions to avoid flooded roads and there will always be large areas of land under water; always that is when rain has been incessant up in the mountains.

Thus far Wales has not had to endure as much flooding of property as has the north of England and Scotland but some townships have been inundated and homes and businesses ruined by flood water.  The farmers are really having a difficult time as the ground is so very saturated that getting about and carrying out the normal activities of feeding animals and preparing the soil is causing damage.  We need the ground to be frozen at this time of year not squelching under each foot-step or tyre.

Planting a small number of apple trees to begin an orchard was not at all difficult as the soil was so wet and as the temperatures are still quite abnormally high for the time of year, the soil was still up to allowing some early root growth.  The problem will come if we do suddenly experience a change to below freezing temperatures for then the water in the soil, especially that around the newly planted trees, will freeze and could damage the roots.  We will just have to chance our luck and hope for the best,  there was no time to wait for warmer weeks, the trees should have been in the ground a long time ago;  another case of pressure due to belatedly addressing the requirements of the environmental scheme for which the farmer is enrolled !

A re-run of last year's tree planting on a hedgerow near Carreg Cennen castle.

A re-run of last year’s tree planting on a hedgerow near Carreg Cennen castle.

Being behind with the practical work is almost par for the course when the weather has been so dreadful.  Getting onto the land to erect fences, build walls or, as we did recently, install bird-boxes and plant trees is an absolute nightmare.  However, the planting of around 200 hedge-row trees in a small section near the farmstead was an avoidable activity.  I had already planted the new hedge in March last year and the young trees were doing very well, until that is a strimmer wielding gardener, apparently unaware of my activities, decided the bank looked so untidy it needed to be heavily cut.  Strimmers and saplings do not mix.  Of course the scalped saplings (they were all at least 50cms tall !) will carry-on growing, in essence all he did was some premature coppicing.  However, in total fear of the inspecting officer who is likely to descend upon him shortly, the farmer was happier to spend yet more money to re-plant the section.

No doubt, in a few years, I’ll have to go back and thin the trees out a little !

The problem of damage to surfaces because of the incessant soakings was clearly evidenced to me when I, and my co-walker, strode out to explore a section of the Radnor hills around the strangely named ‘Moelfre City’ between Llanbister and Llangunllo.  The open hill is full of ancient settlement remains and the ‘city’ is precisely that, a deserted medieval village (DMV).  All over the bracken covered commons relics will be encountered showing that man had been farming up there in times past.  In particular the lengthy and substantial banks and ditches represent some serious heavy manual labour and construct the ancient field pattern and boundaries.

Ditch and Bank boundary

The ditch and bank that separates the ‘in-bye’ from the open hill or ‘mynydd’ is substantial at over 1.5 mtrs.

There are numerous old trackways which stand out as dark green roads through the bronze bracken clad hills.  Unfortunately many of them have been deeply rutted by tractors which have made their way up onto the hills carrying feed for the flocks of sheep which winter up there.  The farmers have to get to their animals and by and large they use the same track each time so at least the damage is restricted.  The problem is that in weather like we are currently experiencing those deep ruts fill with water and when the tracks are on a hillside, as most of them are, the water runs.  Running water erodes the soil and small stones and ultimately a new stream bed is created which continues for ever and a day.   What was really depressing up on the moor was the widespread damage caused by scrambler motor-bikes.  Now I’m not one who would necessarily deprive everyone of their fun in the countryside,  as I wrote recently, I like the odd off-road sojourn myself, but there has to be some common-sense approach when the conditions clearly indicate damage will occur.

There were numerous places where a number of bikes had clearly been raced up steep grassy tracks resulting in the turf being ripped up and rutting by the tyres.  A number of bikes side by side had created serious erosion over hundreds of metres and the ruts of their tyres were now running with water.  In places, especially on the steeper trackways, the water had already washed away all soil and the bedrock was being eroded.  These people have had a really good time up there no doubt, mud covered and noisy, they have roared around the open moors in a ‘couldn’t care less’ mindset which has left permanent scars on that historic landscape.  More than that they have taken away much valuable grazing (for it is the short sward of the trackways which bears the sweetest grasses for the sheep and it is they in turn who keep the trackways lawn-like and walkable) and turned once base-green walks into rutted stone ankle twister routes.

Damage to the open hill

The scars of the silly scramblers can be clearly seen in this photo; already the steep grassy track is turning into a stream.

One thing that is guaranteed when wandering around the hills and narrow valleys of Radnorshire  is the surprise that awaits around the next corner.  In deepest dreary Moelfre on a wet January afternoon, even I was somewhat startled to come upon a piece of British army history.  There. on the banks of a small stream in a steep sided valley, sat a 1950s Saracen armoured personnel carrier, seemingly still armed with its turret mounted 0.3 Browning machine gun.  The six wheeled vehicle has a massive Rolls-Royce B80 8 cylinder petrol engine and was one of a variant of the FV600 series which included the amphibious Stalwart, the Salamander airfield crash tender and the ambulance and command car version.  A later version, the Saladin (FV601), was a pure armoured car with a a 75mm gun.  At 11 ton in weight and some serious armour it is hardly the the usual farmer friendly ex-military truck; especially as it does about 2 gallons to the mile !

Armoured car in a wood.

What on earth is a 1950s armoured car doing sitting next to a stream in deepest Radnorshire.

Another little jaunt took us up to the beautiful Irfon valley at the head of the Abergwesyn pass and the old farmstead of Llanerch-yrfa (Glade of the place of the sheep).  Taking the newly created forestry road which runs parallel with the ancient road to the other Llanerch on the Claerwen side of the mountain (Llanerch-y-cawr, which means glade of the giant !) via the great monument of Drygarn Fawr, we strolled in some welcome afternoon sunshine.  After climbing for a short while we found ourselves in an area where clear felling of the valley below us had occurred and there, revealed for the first time in over half a century, was a really exciting (well, to sad ‘ol me that is !) find.

The old stone walls of an early ‘hafod‘, a summer dwelling used by a farmer from lower down the valley, classically positioned at the confluence of two small streams, was clearly visible in the newly exposed valley bottom.  I wanted to immediately get down there but as the day was already fading and it was a difficult descent from where I was viewing it, it has been postponed for another dry day.  However, it is clearly an important discovery and even from my high perch I could see it was a cattle corral with adjoining smaller enclosures and the remains of what appears to be the low walls of a house structure.

Cattle corral in the Abergwesyn pass

The fascinating pattern of dry stone walls paints the outline of a medieval ‘hafod’ where cattle were corralled and folks lived for the summer months.

 

It is a good remedy to the depressing darkness and wild weather of this winter; even in the driving rain  a walk over the hills is a counter to all the negativity of January.  Mainly and mostly I retreat from the elements and enjoy my seclusion in front of a warm wood-burner, reading that book which I’ve been meaning to get stuck into for years.  I like to follow the advise of one of my favourite poets, Dame Edith Sitwell;

“Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire; it is the time for home”

The change is coming, so I’m told, white precipitation is on its way so it has been all hands to the chainsaw and axe bringing in the necessary fuel stores.  Luckily I have sufficient cordwood which only requires logging into wood-stove size chunks on my amazing log-horse which secures the chainsaw into a hinged frame thus ensuring my safety and cutting the wood into regular sized logs.

Apart from some small amount of manual work and some countryside wandering – oh yes, and loads of fire-side reading – most of my time has been taken up trying to sort out my vast collection of tools and farm equipment.  A few trailer loads have been removed from the grounds or buildings to new storage or the dump but as the track to my homestead is now so damaged by constant four wheel drive convoys and running water, no movement is any longer possible.   I’ve spent the very wet days – as opposed to just ‘wet’ days – photographing and writing up some descriptions of a few of the latest additions to my collection.  It’s been some long while since I’ve included some of my artefacts here and so, as there is little else to report, here are just a few to amuse you.

Breast Plough heads

The iron heads of two old Bieting irons or Breast Ploughs.

The life of a farmer (and his labourers) was almost entirely dependant upon manual labour and the power of the oxen and horse throughout the centuries.  Prior to the arrival of various mechanised harvest machinery in the nineteenth century and then the infernal combustion engine at the start of the twentieth, hard labour was the lot of the men and women of agriculture.

As a manual labourer myself I am always intrigued by the various activities of early farming which demanded stamina and a resolute mindset.  Whether it was the extreme physical effort of ploughing behind the ox or horse, the mowing with sickle and later, the scythe, or merely battling the elements throughout the seasons, a life on the land was nothing if not physical.

One of the more astounding activities was that of paring the old stubble (known as ‘burnbaking’) with an implement known erroneously as the ‘breast plough’ (also as the ‘bietling iron or bettling/beting iron).  I say erroneously as in fact the plough is not pushed by the breast but rather by the power of the upper thighs.  The small plough-share like head needs to be run at a flat plane and this demands a long shaft to the implement.  Indeed, as with the snead of the scythe, each plough would be tailored to the height of the worker to ensure the cutting edge did not dig into the ground.  A man was expected to clear a half an acre in a day’s work but it needs to be realised that the ‘day’ would have been short in the field as early morning and end of day jobs needed also to be done.

Betting iron or Bietling iron

This example in my collection has a 7ft (1.75 mtr)long shaft of European Larch and comes from the Tregaron area of Cardiganshire. Pushed in this manner rather than from the chest.

The Scottish equivalent is known as the Flaughter spade and two examples are in my collection.  The practise of paring the top couple of inches/5cms is a means of clearing the stalks and roots of the previous summer’s crop.  In upland Wales that would normally mean oats and the waste was then piled up and burnt and the potash then spread back onto the field as a fertilizer.  Whereas mention is often made in written accounts of the activity being used to clear the grass prior to ploughing, I believe that is very unlikely, not least as it would be very time consuming and immensely difficult.  Sometimes these tools are listed as being associated with ‘turf’ but here again some scepticism is needed not least as the term is confusing. ‘Turf’ in upland country areas can often mean ‘peat’ and it is not a use I have ever found for the bieting iron.

In my part of Wales the name ‘Cae Bieting/Beting‘ is often encountered in field names.  This immediately indicates the field was at sometime an arable field used for growing oats.  I have collected a dozen or so different irons of differing size and angle (the angle of the socket to receive the shaft in relation to the horizontal) from north Carmarthenshire, east Ceredigion and Powys (Brecknock and Radnor).  They normally come from small upland farms where steep sided banks enclosed into relatively tiny fields are the norm.  Similarly, my Scottish flaughters came from a Highland croft with fields the size of a good garden only.  What I have never yet found are the wooden blocks, called ‘clappers’, which hung from the belt to protect the thighs whilst pushing the plough.  Fortunately I have met men who used these “tools of torture” (as one farmer described them) but only three and they are now all ploughing their furrow in a brighter place.

I am in the process of establishing another blog specifically given over to my collection and will soon have my website finalised also.  In the meantime, thank you to all my regular readers and those who ‘happen’ upon me accidentally.  Apparently over 10 thousand of you visited Welshwaller last year from countries as far away as Australia, Korea, Brazil, Russia and of course all the Americas as well as most of Europe !

Diolch yn fawr !!

Blwyddyn Newydd dda ich y gyd

 

 

 

 

 

“O, wind, if winter comes can spring be far behind ?” (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

20/12/2015

Shelley was a frequent visitor to a place I have spent not a little time in myself.  He however, arrived long before the landscape that now defines the place was created.  By man that is, not by the natural world or some greater being.  I wrote last time about the water places that have been a dominant factor in my wanderings of late, so it has carried on.  So too has the precipitation that gives those places their core attraction.  The amount of rainfall has been quite staggering and the awful flooding in the north of England and in some parts of Wales is heart-rending to see.  A flooded home or business is a terribly traumatic event but at this time of year it seems to be magnified tenfold.

Cammarch at Beulah Dec2015

There is normally a 2 metre high waterfall here and the bridge on which I am standing is usually a good 4 metres above the river !

Here in Sweet Beulah Land we have not suffered such catastrophes but even here water levels have been reaching historic heights.  The 4 metre wide water-course of the river Cammarch which runs alongside the track to my homestead has been quite a sight.  There are several waterfalls along the 200 metre stretch but none have been visible for several days, just white water and raging brown soup.  At normal levels the river is quite easily crossed with some wellington boots on but this last week it has reached levels which mean there is over 4 metres of water surging down stream.  The river Wye in Builth Wells burst onto the town in  a surprise attack which caught people and places un-prepared.  The worst came on the very day the annual Royal Welsh Winter Fair opened and dozens of parked vehicles were consumed under the swirling waters.  A flood on the Wye is powerful and has the effect of not allowing the waters of smaller rivers, such as the Irfon and Ithon, to enter the main flow.  Consequently they too back-up and flood and in turn, small innocuous streams and rivers such as the Cammarch cannot enter those rivers so they too over-flow their inconsequential banks and pour out onto unsuspecting fields and roads.  I inadvertently found myself crossing the wild gale-swept Eppynt range where wind strengths caused my little box-like car to be at once on both sides of the road.  Visibility was zero thus I was ‘flying on instruments’ for mile after mile.

Such was the drama of it all that I and my winter migrant took ourselves off to that place which Percy Bysshe loved so well but never saw in the rawness of winter water which presented to our excited eyes.

The flooding of the valleys of the Elan and Claerwen rivers over a century ago (and again in the early 1950s in the case of the Claerwen reservoir) created the spectacle that is now the ‘Elan Valley’.  This dramatic landscape of wilderness and man made lakes lies a few miles west of Rhayader in mid Powys and is the gem in the tourism package of the area.  The system of dams which impound the waters of the two small rivers creates some dramatic scenery at all times of the year but when the water levels are so high that over-topping of the stone structures occurs, then it is quite astounding.  So much so that even on an extremely windy (dangerously so) and rain sodden Saturday afternoon in early December dozens, maybe hundreds, of cars were roaming the narrow circumnavigation.

The dam of CabanGoch overspills in December 2015

The dam of CabanGoch overspills in December 2015

The lowest of the dams, Caban Goch, was over-spilling in a crazy fashion.

The lowest of the dams, Caban Goch, was over-spilling in a crazy fashion.

The wind was roaring down the reservoir of Caban Goch and huge waves caused the over-spilling water to surge in a deafening cacophony.  There is something exhilarating about standing close-by a tumultuous fall even if remaining  standing was nigh-on an impossibility. We drove around the lake and through the dense conifer plantation which had deposited large branches onto the road such that it resembled a Christmas tree harvest.  On we ventured along the dead-end road towards Claerwen reservoir, past the small dam destroyed in an experimental attack which preluded the Dambuster raid in 1941, past the narrow rocky gorges of the Claerwen river and up onto the dam itself.

Discovering Claerwen

A road less travelled, around the lake of Claerwen reservoir.

Around the northern shore runs a stone track which leads to the remote farm of Claerwen and at one time was drivable onward to Teifi pools and Ystrad Flur.  In fact the latter length of the road is a section of the ancient Cistercian ‘Monk’s Trod’ which linked the abbey of Cwm Hir to Ystrad Flur.  Sadly years of abuse by over-zealous off-road drivers has forced the imposition of a closure to wheeled vehicles and now only the track to the farm is open.  It is of course only as old as the reservoir (1953) as the ancient road to the farm now lies under several hundred feet of water.

Nevertheless it is an exciting piece of off-road driving; concentration and slow advance is an absolute necessity as the fall to the water is a threatening adjunct.  It is not often I venture out in my Land Rover Discovery and even less often do I turn off the tarmacadam, not least because it is an increasingly unpopular past-time, this road however is an exception and well worth the expense.  The remoteness of the farm is awe inspiring, even in a modern vehicle it is quite a far-out place to live.  Apparently the post man made a daily trip along the long stony road each day until fairly recently.

The old Claerwen farm has an historical connection with my side of the mountain; in the early years of the twentieth century a lady who lived in an equally remote farm, Nant Ddu, in the pass of Abergwesyn, rode her horse over the windswept featureless mountain for eleven miles to Claerwen where she stabled her horse and then proceeded to walk the eight miles along the track to Ysbyty-ystwyth where she climbed aboard a charabanc which took her the nine miles to Aberystwyth.  There she sold her eggs and butter and then set off back, returning home around eleven o’clock at night.

Our journey took us on up the valley to reach the upper two reservoirs of Pen y Garreg and Craig Goch.  They too were over-topping the dam walls sending thousands of tonnes of water crashing down the stone faced dams.  Dramatic and awesome are words which could be applied to each of the great Victorian edifices which impound and send forth their waters to the sprawling metropolis of Birmingham.  The purpose of the massive engineering wonders is often not considered by those who visit the area, neither is the fact that in order to build the reservoirs people and places had to be cleared.

Overtopped Pen y Garreg, Elan Valley

Impressive stone ramparts withstand the deluge on Pen y Garreg.

Time moves on and whilst it suits some to remain antagonistic to those at fault of the ‘clearance’ and subsequent drowning of beautiful Welsh valleys, it seems to me we should make the best of a bad job and enjoy the beauty and wilderness that the many Welsh reservoirs now present to us.

Craig Goch in spate

The ‘top’ dam, Craig Goch , is dramatic always but in this state …

On the other hand there is one act of remembrance that I do happily indulge in even though, this year (and most years if truth be told !) it too is often accompanied by a watery back-drop.

The weekend of 12/13 December saw the annual commemoration event in the small village of Cilmeri near Builth Wells.  At the side of the main road through the village stands a rather large stone.  Passers-by may not even notice it but for Welsh folk it is a significant monument and one which is seared into the nation’s psyche.

Prince Llewellyn stone

The sombre monument to the last true Welsh Prince.

On the 11th December 1282 the last true Prince of Wales was intercepted by soldiers of the English army (Edward 1st) under the command of the Mortimers,  There are no certain accounts of how he came to be separated from his army (3 thousand of whom were killed in a battle on the land of what is now Builth Wells golf club) but both the written accounts (50 years or so after the event) record that he and a small band of his escort together with some clergy, became separated, or were tricked into leaving the main force, and he was killed by a lone lance-man.  Not until he was dying and supposedly asked for a priest, was his identity revealed.  He was then assassinated and his head “hewn from his body” and taken to Edward who was on Anglesey.  From there it was sent to London where it was displayed with a garland of ivy (in mockery of a Welsh prediction that a Welshman should one day be crowned King of England) on the Tower of London, where it remained for 15 years !

Prince Llywe,lyn's grave Abbey Cwm Hir

The ivy wreaths and banner with the blue clawed dragon of Llywelyn, on his grave at Abbey Cwm Hir.

Tradition has it that the headless body was taken north to the Cistercian monastery at Cwm Hir, north of Rhayader.  That most prominent of the great abbeys of Wales was itself destroyed at the Dissolution in 1536 (when there were actually only 3 monks left in residence) but a grave stone to the last King of Wales is still honoured.

Llywelyn acceded to the Kingship in 1258 when Henry  III granted him the title under the Treaty of Montgomery.  ‘Llywelyn ap Grufudd’ or ‘Llywelyn the Last’ was the grandson of ‘Llewelyn the Great’ (there are a lot of Llywelyns in Welsh history !) and ruled in a wildly violent time where constant fighting and strife was the norm.  When Edward 1st became king in 1272 (although it was 1274 before he returned to England from the 8th Crusade)  he decided to sort the Welsh problem once and for all and began the great castle building for which Wales is now famous – it always puzzles me why the Wales Tourist Board is so keen on promoting the edifices of medieval oppression !  Following the death of Llywelyn, the Welsh had to wait a couple of centuries before the next great leader appeared.

So it is that on the weekend nearest the 11th December a group of Welsh patriots, historians, politicians and mere mortals assemble at Cilmeri and process to the little church of Llanynys beside the river Irfon for a service of remembrance.  This year I and an American attended and took part in the services at the church and at the grave in Abbey Cwm Hir.

Llywelyn ap Grufudd, Llanynys

Llywelyn’s banner is processed to the little riverside church of Llanynys for the 2015 commemorative service.

It was also a meeting of old friends including that wonderful geologist and Welsh historian Dr. John (the rocks) Davies, previously mentioned herein and another friend of mine, equally as noted in Welsh annals, David Petersen (whose Mametz Wood memorial dragon was featured in my tales from the Western Front – Flander’s Fields 2014) whom I had met up with only recently to give some artefacts recovered from the Mametz Wood when I visited in the summer of 2014.  There were other friends and associates who I either regularly meet or seldom encounter, so all-in-all it was an enjoyable commemorative event.

I was flattered to be asked to read a poem at the Llanynys service and astounded to be ‘invited’ (more “an offer I couldn’t refuse” !) to give the lecture following the service at Abbey Cwm Hir on Sunday afternoon.  (The person due to give the lecture had, in keeping with other ‘off-piste’ happenings of the weekend, turned up on the Saturday …).  Both invitations came ten minutes before the delivery !  I have no problem reciprocating the kindness and assistance both the above gentleman give me throughout the year.

Service at Abaty Cwm Hir 2015

The service at the grave of Llywelyn in the precinct of Abbey Cwm Hir.

The singing and chanting at both services was very emotive and my compatriot commented how astounding it is to hear unaccompanied harmonious singing in such beautiful and tranquil surroundings.  Tranquil that is apart from the wild wind and rain but that typical Welsh weather added a certain atmosphere to the proceedings.  It certainly kept the flags flying vigorously.

Prince Llywelyn's banner at Llanynys church, 2015

David Petersen parades Llywelyn ap Grufudd’s banner at the 2015 ceremony to commemorate the Prince’s death in 1282.

Due to a prior commitment on the Saturday afternoon, Miss Carolina and I had to absent ourselves from the procession to the stone monument where, by all accounts, speeches were given despite torrential downpours and tornado-type winds.

Nevertheless we managed to rejoin the group in the evening at one of our favourite ‘watering holes’, the Neuadd in Llanwyrtd Wells, for a wonderful sing-along Noson Llawen which included the sound of one of my all-time favourite instruments, the piano-accordion.

Our other ‘visit’ was over the Eppynt to the old estate mansion of Penpont on the banks of a raging river Usk.  The event that drew us was the Christmas Fair which saw a dozen or so stalls of foods, wines, chocolates and crafts assembled throughout the great rooms of the mansion and the old stables.  We had visited a few days earlier to purchase some super fresh winter vegetables and meet up with my old friends Gavin and Davina who are the current owners of the wonderful estate.

Penpont Cafe at Christmas 2015

The welcoming cafe in the old stable block of Penpont is a really special place to enjoy a hot drink and some CAKE !

I have known them and the old estate for over twenty years and admire greatly what they have achieved in restoring the magnificent mansion, outbuildings and gardens.  I also respect the way they have undertaken the care of the land which is a model of sustainable land management which encompasses all the aspects of modern conservation practise and sympathetic entrepreneurial expertise.  I only wish other estate owners could have such a low-impact approach to running their estates.

The fair was another chance to meet some folk I haven’t seen for a while and enjoy talking to the craft workers, which is something I always enjoy.  In particular the basket weaver and the wood-turner had to endure a long cross-examination but replied to my every question with willingness and enthusiasm.  As always, I came away wiser than I arrived !

This lady was a superb basket maker and we had a discussion about Welsh whiskets and the possibility of doing a class in making the of them!

This lady was a superb basket maker and we had a discussion about Welsh whiskets and the possibility of doing a class in making them!

An all-round busy and enjoyable weekend which left me feeling proud to be a Welshman and grateful for long-standing friends who live their lives in a manner which contributes to the beauty, culture and understanding of this nation.

Then it was back to work, in a still wet and windy landscape.  We headed westwards toward the lands of the medieval castle of Carreg Cennen and another encounter with one of Wales’ heroes of yesteryear.

The job was twofold; firstly a short section of drystone wall needed to be rebuilt at an ancient farmstead called Cilmaenllwyd which looks out toward the great castle.  It is a farm I have often had to work at and was the place I did much planting of hedgerow trees earlier in the year.  The incessant rain had turned the wall site into a real quagmire and there was nothing to do but laugh our way through the two days of building.  The ability of a girl from the sunny south of Carolina to keep smiling in such conditions  – as well as building an impressive wall – is clearly testament to my ability as a teacher and my charm and efficacy as a host …. (comments not required !)

Whitney Brown in Wales

Whitney Brown is her name not her condition …

We had to strip out an old collapsed field wall on the edge of the farmyard which was not too problematic but at least three quarters of the stone had been cleared away by the digger driver so a great deal of walking to and fro in the sticky mud was needed.  Nevertheless we got it back up in two days and retired back to the Neuadd to celebrate.

Carreg Cennen Castle, Carmarthenshir

The great castle dominates the landscape around our current work station.

We then had to return to install forty bird and bat boxes in the woodlands of the nearby Rhandir farm.  Rhandir refers to the medieval field strips of the bonded slaves of the Lords of the castle.  The river Cennen flows through the narrow valley at the base of the castle on the south side and below the farm called Rhandir is a very interesting structure which is associated with Owain Glyndwr, the 14th century Prince of Wales.  Glyndwr fell out with Henry IV in September 1400 and so began the famous Welsh Revolt.  This raged for several years and by 1403 most Welshmen had joined the revolt.  In that year Owain and his forces laid seige to Carreg Cennen  and as part of that he is assumed to have remodelled a natural feature on the flat land adjacent to the river.

Motte of Owain Glyndwr

Is this really Glyndwr’s Motte on the banks of the Cennen below the castle ?

It is a substantial mound or motte and definitely shows the influence of man on the structure.  Around the base is a clear ditch and bank with the remnants of a stone wall.  The mound is a good  six metres high and around sixty metres circumference.  I have asked the oracle (John the Rocks) about it and await his knowledgeable response.  For now we have added to the nature of the tree clad mound by installing a dozen or so bat and bird boxes.

The water filled ditch and the stone lined bank around the supposed motte of Glyndwr.

The water filled ditch and the stone lined bank around the supposed motte of Glyndwr.

We had to climb up forty trees to affix bat boxes and a smaller number of bird boxes throughout the woodland and along the river bank.  It is a fabulous wildlife corridor and is undisturbed for most of the year.  The mound itself is now populated by birch, ash and beech trees and is a wonderful habitat.  Fortunately I had the tree-climbing services of a younger helper so my duties were more managerial than laborious.

The boxes and the wall were part of the Glastir programme for the farmer and it was a great relief for him to see it completed in the allotted time.  I’m not altogether sure that the boxes for bats ever get to be inhabited but Pied Flycatchers and smaller tits certainly grab the bird boxes as soon as they appear.

Miss Carolina fixing boxes on Glyndwr's Motte below Carreg Cennen

Miss Carolina fixing boxes on Glyndwr’s Motte below Carreg Cennen.

Luckily the rain held off for most of the day which allowed us to get the job completed without too much damage to us or the fields and woods.  However by the time we rejoined to the Friday night Christmas celebrations in the Neuadd the deluge had re-commenced and so it rages.

If the weather allows we’ll get another day of coppicing completed down at a friend’s cottage beside the river Wye at Aberedw and then pack the tools and goretex away for a while and get ready for the celebrations.

The year is ending quietly and slowly, a year which has seen some big changes in the life of Welshwaller and there are yet more changes still to come.  For now I wish you all a Happy Christmas.  I hope to post a final report before the end of the year as a review and a look forward to the coming year.  In the meantime I will conclude my Great Uncle Dick’s wartime diary from 1915.  The second Christmas of the war was as unexpected as it was tragic, most had assumed that the Great War would have ended by the Christmas of 2014.  By the end of 2015 both sides realised that it would stretch on far into the coming years.  Uncle Dick had another two years of trench warfare to endure before his tragic death in January 1918 at the age of 26.  Reproducing his diary in this blog has been my way of honouring a member of my family whom I never knew but whose presence was still felt when I arrived in the years after the Second Great War in which uncles took part but thankfully, all came home.

Sunday December 5th 1915.  Left Boulogne for Amiens.  Stayed the night.

6th.  Left for Acheux and reached battalion.  Went to Helles Square.

7th.  In Helles square.  Water up to the waist.

8th.  In Helles square.  Relieved at night by Jocks.

9th.  Changed billets at Belesart.

10th.  Instruction on Lewis gun.

11th.  Instruction on gun.  Removed to flats (?).  Having a good time.

12th.  Stayed in flats.  Moved to (?)

13th.  Instruction in (?)

14h.  Instruction.

15th.  Instruction and rifle inspection.

16th.  Firing at Malling (?) range.

17th.  Instruction and moved to Beusart.

18th.  Instruction and drill in huts at Beusart.  Paid in Francs.

19th.  Instructions in gun drill.

20th.  Instruction in flats (?)

21st.  Remove to Mailly.

22nd.  In Mailly.  Instruction.  Good time.

23rd.  Easy time.

24th.  Firing in morning and firing in afternoon.

25th.  A good time.  Plenty of noise a good dinner and presents.  Concert at night.

26th.  Instruction in gun drill.

27th.  Working party.

28th.  Easy time.

29th.  Working party.  Digging detail.

30th.  Orderly man, easy time.

31st.  Relieved medium guns in Mailly.  First time for the  Lewis guns to fire in the trenches.  Instruction and move to Mailly at 2 a.m.

So ends Great Uncle Dick’s war diary for 1915.  As always it is understated and contains only the briefest of details.  In essence it was notes jotted in a smudged booklet, in pencil, probably never intended to have been read by anyone but himself.  It is the sort of diary I keep to remind me where I was working or where I visited so that, at some time, I can look back and be reminded of places and events.  It lacks any sense of the wider happenings of the Great War, it reveals nothing of the strategy or tactics of the British army,  it is merely one man’s list of his dreary tiresome life on the Western Front in 1915.  R.I.P.  Private Richard George Cantle of Five Locks, Pontnewydd, Cwmbran.  Monmouthshire.   Remembered with Honour at the Bicquoy Road Cemetery, Fischeux, Pas de Calais, France.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

i

“Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, nor the furious winter’s rages; Thou thy wordly task hast done…” (W.S. Cym.)

30/11/2015

How nice is this !?  I get up when I want, I stay up as long as I want, I do what I want, I walk out where and when I want.  Apparently it’s called ‘retirement’, and I am finally beginning to understand what it entails !

A few weeks have now past without me having to attend to any walling work.  There is an outstanding job awaiting my attention and sooner now rather than later, I’m going to have to get on it; it needs to be completed by the end of the year which really means before Christmas.  That has been somewhat fortuitous given the state of play, wind and rain has been incessant, thus it has been a grateful Welshwaller who has either stayed indoors or gone and satiated other needs.

It is actually coincidental that much of my ‘wandering’ has involved water; inland water which holds various memories and fascinations.

Crannog at Llangorse

The little man-made island off the east shore of Llangorse Lake. A crannog.

My first sojourn took me to a place I visit fairly often, or used to.  This year I seem to have had very few encounters with the quiet waters of Llangorse Lake in the south of the old county of Breconshire.

It is both historic in my life and in the story of man in that part of Wales.  I have often recounted in this blog, my visits to the old Elizabethan manor house of Ty Mawr, the home of my friends at Ty Mawr lime.  (As I wrote back in August, the lady of the house, Joyce, is, as I write, following in the footsteps of the first Welsh settlers to Patagonia) There is history all around the shores of the lake, much of it, I’m certain, still to be discovered and interpreted.

For example, the very name throws up some questions in my mind as to the accuracy of much of the perceived wisdom of historical origins.  History records the lake under the name ‘Brecenanmere’  which is to say ‘the sea of Brecon’.  In Welsh it is known as Llyn Syfaddyn’ and it is that name with which it was known throughout much of the medieval period.  In fact it was not until the nineteenth century that the name Llangorse came into common parlance.  It bears some examination as an eponymous title.  The nearby village of that name is not really that historic, it was in fact a Norman ‘planted’ village, which is to say it was an example of town planning commonly employed by the French overlords once they had subdued the locals in about 1067.  Instead of the scattered farmsteads of the natives, the ‘Welshry’, with their associated dispersed field strips or ‘Rhandirs’  and the inherent inefficiencies of agricultural production, the Normans simply rebuilt the farms in a cluster around a church, a pond, a smithy and an ale house, of course. The village core usually had a cross roads (and was thus often built at a strategic confluence of routes or rivers, fords and defensive sites).  Llangorse village is an excellent example of such planted villages (as are the nearby villages of Llanwern, Llanfihangel Talyllyn and Llanfilo) with its five farms, church, pubs and ‘burgages’, the shops of their day.  But it is the name which is interesting; the Llan is often associated with the extant church, generally an original Norman (or a few centuries later) but the term actually refers to the enclosure in which the church is sited.  Llan sites can often be much earlier constructions and are often thought to be the sites of very early Christian monastic cells. The second element of the name is often the name of the Saint (usually an early Celtic Saint) but can sometimes be a reference to the geography in which it is placed.  Such is the case with Llangorse; the prefix is clear but the second element is a mutated form of the word ‘Cors’  which is generally taken to mean a very boggy or wet parcel of land (as in Cors Caron, the 8 mile long bog at the head of the river Teifi in Cardiganshire).  Therein lies my question; the village to which that name is appended is not at all in a wet place, far from it, the farmland which surrounds the planted village is excellent well draining sandstone soil of proven fertility.  Most academics presume the name of the village is taken from the name of the nearby lake but that must be erroneous as the lake was not known by that name at the time the village was created.

Llangasty and the lake.

The lake has a characteristic shape and on the ‘inside’ curve where the brown rush can be seen in this photograph, lies the church of Llangasty.

There is however, a church which does sit in a boggy place and what’s more, it sits right on the shore of the lake; indeed it is surrounded by the lake at times of high water.  That church bears the name of a little recorded Celtic Saint, Castyn (in fact it is the only site which bears his name).  The little Llangasty church sits amongst the rushes on the western shore of the lake.  To my thinking IT is the ‘llan cors’ which historic documents record.

Now in one sense it is no matter, after all, time has determined that the village of Llangorse is deemed to be named after the lake and that somehow the Welsh description must apply to the church in the village.  So much so that many archaeological explorations and digs, including the famous Time Team and the ‘not-so-famous’ experts from the National Museum of Wales and Oxford University, have spent hundreds of hours and pounds searching for lost buildings and ‘finds’.

Much of that searching has been for the site of an abbey, a mention of which occurs in the C6th Charter granting a large amount of land to the Bishop of ‘Llancors’.  The six thousand or so acres of land was enclosed by a large earth bank some of which I have been able to locate on the slopes above the village (close-by is the farm Cwrt y Prior).  The assumption has always been, reinforced by a suspicion (for it is no more than that in reality) that the llan of the church in the village is of a mainly circular form (suggesting possible early, if not pre Christian, occupation), and that the abbey is in that locality.  Indeed a circular field on the nearby common, which itself joins the lake shore, has also been much investigated.   Surprise, surprise, they haven’t yet found anything.

The site to my mind, is more likely to be on the western side of the lake, somewhere near Castyn’s little monastic cell or Clas.  In fact there are massive foundations in the field adjacent to the manor of Ty Mawr, a few hundred yards from Llangasty, which, to my in-experienced eye, should be investigated.  The stone-work seems far too immense in size and construction to have been merely the foundation of the Elizabethan manor for which they are presumed to have been built.

Then there is the Crannog issue.  Much excitement and thousands of hours of interpretation (thinking and writing) has been expended on the little island which sits some thirty metres from the east shore of the lake.  It came back into public conscience in the middle of the C19th when a lowering of the lake water level saw it emerge from the dark water.  At the same time a dug-out canoe was exhumed from the muddy foreshore. The crannog is a man made island made up of various layers of hazel and stones and surrounded by oak paling driven into the lake bed.  It is a common construction on the lakes of Ireland and is presumed to be a fairly early, maybe even pre Roman, type of structure.  The Llangorse crannog is thought to have been the site of a ‘palace’ which King Brychan (the eponymous ruler of Brycheiniog) had built for his Irish wife.  He came to Wales after the end of the Roman period, sometime in the C5th but was actually the son of an Irish king and a Welsh (not that Wales existed then !) mother.  He occupied lands in the Garthmadryn domain (Trecastle area of west Breconshire) and it is there that many standing stones with the Irish ogham inscriptions were found (and now reside in the museum in Brecon).  To my mind it seems a little small for a weekend condo on the lake.  Finds from the site include quite valuable items such as slate rings and Persian silks, all of which have contributed to the notion of a royal palace.  The little island certainly was built well, it was still there in  AD916 when an Anglo Saxon crazy woman called Athelflaed (daughter of Arthur, King of Wessex) attacked it and supposedly burned the palace.

Brychan himself is supposed to have had a couple of punch-ups around the lake, most notably with a bunch of Cornish hooligans led by one  King Arthur.  Indeed it has been suggested the whole ‘Sword in the Stone’ malarky happened on this very lake.

Arthur's Sword

Excalibur. The Sword-in-the-Stone which alludes to King Arthur being here at Llangorse Lake. It sits looking out at the crannog.

The problem with the ‘Excalibur’tale is,”which one to be believe!”  (If any !)  I get very confused – did ‘he’ just heave it out of the stone or did he go into the water and take it off the damsel who was holding it aloft out of the water ?  The ‘Lady of the Lake’ story seems to be more of a ‘Welsh’ idea (we being slightly less sexist and machoistic …ahem) and the ‘tough guy’ ‘Arnie’ type Arthur, who just ripples the old biceps and out it pops, is more Cornish/ English.  Who knows ? Who cares !?  Whatever, it is a clever bit of ‘Touristic license’ and is certainly an attractive piece of public sculpture.

‘As they rode Arthur said “I have no sword”. “No force”, said Merlin, “hereby is a sword and it shall be yours, and I may”.  So they rode ’til they came to a lake, the which was a fair and broad, and in the midst of the lake Arthur was ware of an arm clothed in white samite, that held a fair sword in that hand.  “Lo”, said Merlin, “yonder is that sword that I spoke of”.  With that they saw a damosel going upon the lake.  “What damosel is that?” said Arthur. “That is the Lady of the Lake”, said Merlin.’

There is another interesting link to Llangorse and the crannog finds that often crosses my mind whilst I sit looking out at the little island.  The church of Llangorse village is dedicated to St. Paulinus (unfortunately there are two of those and no-one is certain which one is which).  Paulinus roamed between Brittany, Cornwall and Wales and is honoured in many churches.  His life story (St. Pol de Leon) is interesting and it seems he was  a Roman nobleman.  But he disappears from history and the last reference tells of him going to live ‘on an island in the sea’.  No-one knows where that ‘sea’ was but given that right up until his disappearance he was active in the areas of Carmarthenshire and Breconshire, given that in the centuries in which he lived the lake was known as the ‘sea of Brycheiniog’, given that the rich silks and rings found in the silts around the crannog (an island !) came from the east …. might it just be that it was the Llangorse crannog that was Paulinus’ last domain ?  After all, why else should the church bear his name and surely even Brychan was not so ‘connected’ he could buy his wife expensive gifts from the orient ?  But who am I to come up with such silly suggestions !?

Llangasty church from the lake

The ‘enclosure in the bog’, the ancient site of St. Castyn on the western shore of Llangorse lake. Surely this is the llancors!

I have enjoyed the still waters of Llangorse lake since my childhood days.  My uncle Bryn had a small rowing boat to which a two stroke Seagull engine was attached and once or twice each summer he would take myself and some other boys, all of whom worked Saturday jobs in the grocery/bakery shop that my grandfather, uncles, mother and aunts worked in and owned (B. Deakin & Sons of Five Locks Road, Pontnewydd), on an outing.  Of course to a young boy the lake seemed enormous and it took forever for us to row or motor around it.  The favourite part was when we cut the motor, just on the edge of the massively tall reed beds on the south west tip of the lake, and proceeded to punt our way into them using the wooden oars.  I well remember we all felt we were following in the wake of the ‘African Queen’ (which I suppose was a ‘newly released’ film back then !) and ultimately uncle Bryn would have to get out aka Bogart, and haul us off the mud banks back out of the rushes to deeper water. The noisy speed-boats which hauled their skiers around the lake in those days were, to us, the German patrol boats, and we imagined how we would ram them and blow them from the water !

We always entered the lake on the small beach next to Llangasty church, little did I imagine that years later I would still be intrigued by that tranquil sheet of water and that small round stone enclosure.  I eventually had that small boat given to me and continued to take it out on the lake, by then as a fisherman, often with my father on board.  Even when I was able to drive myself to the lake I was still hauling the boat out of the reeds where I used to hide it throughout the Spring and Summer months.  Fishing the lake was a sublime activity especially in the early light of dawn when the mist sat across the water.  One really strange and somewhat spooky event happened on such a June morning.  I rowed the boat out toward what I judged to be the middle of the lake for the mist was so thick I could not see but a few yards.  The red ball of the dawn sun guided me to the east and when I adjudged I had gone far enough – deeper water was my goal for therein lay my quarry, the spiky finned Perch – I dropped the little anchor and set-to with my tackle.  Quietly the little craft drifted around so that I was casting my bait on the side which faced back to the western shore and Llangasty.  After an hour or so I became aware of an occasional ‘plop’ behind me, each time making me jump a little.  On and on it went, probably at a half hour interval or so.  As the sun rose and the mist began to burn away I began to see the tower of the little church and could at last see the da-glo tip of my little float as it bobbed in the still water.  “Good morning !”  I fell over backwards into the bottom of the boat such was I startled.  Looking behind me I saw another fisherman, his boat but six feet from mine, in fact so close had we been casting toward each other we should certainly have hooked ourselves !  Amazingly he had rowed out from the eastern shore, a much greater distance than I had come and somehow, in the impenetrable gloom of the dawn mist, we had set anchor in such proximity !  The damnation of it was that he had been catching fish whereas I had not !  How we laughed, how our laughs turned to consternation when we realised we could have collided and both ended up in the water.  In the days before safety concerns we neither of us had any buoyancy jackets,no, just thick heavy clothing and Wellington boots !

There is another sheet of  still water which, although much smaller, is equally as enchanting and possibly more mysterious.  In a secluded hollow off a quiet lane in the parish of Nantmel, hidden behind a block of conifers, lies Llyn Gwyn.  Confusingly another lake of similar size lies just outside  the mid Wales town of Rhayder but it is named Gwyn Llyn !  Now the llyn element is simply ‘lake’ but the ‘gwyn’ is a matter of some debate.  It can mean variously,’white’, ‘fair’ or ‘holy’.  It sometimes appears that historians use whichever meaning suits their argument but I have to say that the notion of ‘white’ is too often applied.  I think in a geographical application the word may well relate to a ‘fair’ or hospitable setting, for instance facing the morning sun or  in a sheltered spot.  Often however, it is the ‘holy’ that can be missed.  Holy that is in the sense of’ ‘spiritual’ as well as connected to some Christian place.  In the case of Llyn Gwyn many have assumed it to be an association with Abbey Cwm Hir which lies to the north.  As the lake holds carp it is argued it was the fish pond of the abbey.  That may well be so but given the paucity of fish species normally associated with  monastic ponds it is open to question.  Some have suggested the ‘gwyn’ relates to the use or ownership of the lake by the ‘white’ (Cistercian) monks of the abbey.  It may just as easily denote a ‘fair’ or beautiful spot for that it surely is.

Small lake of llyn Gwyn in Radnorshire

The strange little island in Llyn Gwyn is intriguing – is it a …?

What intrigues me about this secret place is it’s potential for pre-historic revelation.  For one thing there is a substantial, (read ‘massive’) semi-circular earthwork which is marked on the O.S. map.  It has a diameter of some 60 metres and is a good 5 metres high.  On the ‘outside’ (i.e. away from the lake) there is a significant ditch which in winter is often filled with water.  Whilst today the ends of the bank, which curves toward the lake, are some fifteen metres from the water’s edge, it is possible the lake was higher in the distant past.  That is suggested by some ancient dry stone walls which look as if they should terminate at the water but end some metres short.

Then there is the matter of a strange little island which sits in the middle of the lake toward the northern end.  There is no apparent reason for such a feature in terms of geology; the basin in which the lake sits is of a rich clay deposit of some depth with only small boulders scattered in it.  As far as I have been able to ascertain no research has ever been done on either feature.  The earth bank is mentioned in records, the island is not and the whole is noted as the probable fish pond of the abbey.  I want to get into the water and have a look at that island, could it just be another crannog !?  It would be a sensible construction in that setting and may well be co-eval with the embankment  Another mystery to solve in my dotage !

My other water wanderings have taken me over the hills to the great reservoirs of mid Wales, Llyn Brianne and the Elan Valley, but I think they will have to wait for a later posting.  Welshwaller needs to get out and gather fuel ‘ere the winter storms begin’ !  More like ‘ere they end’, days of torrential rain and howling winds have had me cocooned in a shed or in front of a roaring log fire but food stores and fuel stores need replenishing. Oh yes, and a festival approaches, an appropriate one given all the religious elements in this post !

Tales from 1915:

Sunday 15th November.  Bad night.  Shelling of lines.

16th.  In Mons, full of friends.  Best time of all.

17th.  Went back to Company.

18th.  Working party afternoon

19th.  Nothing doing beside feet growling.  (term for pain of trench foot)

20th.  Relieved Warwicks at (?).  On guard in trench.

21st.  Went on mining.  Making bomb store.

22nd.  Mining party.

23rd.  Mining party.

24th.  Mining party.

25th.  Mining party. (It is not known if ‘mining party’ refers to underground digging or laying of mines)

26th. Left for Acheux to proceed on leave.  Had a bath and change

27th.  Entrained at Acheux at 3 pm arrived at Le Havre and got on boat at 7pm.  Left for England at 12 o’clock.

28th.  Arrived at Southampton.  Arrived Newport via London at 3 pm and got home.

29th.  Visited Pontnewydd *

(*Pontnewydd is my home village and where Uncle Dick’s sisters lived)

30th.  Visited Foundry (probably in Old Cwmbran where he used to work)

December 1st.  Wednesday.  Went to Pontypool.

2nd.  Went to Newport and Risca and (?) concert at night.

3rd.  Visited foundry and Pontnewydd.  Stayed in at night.

4th.  Left for London.  3 hours in London then boat to Boulogne from Folkestone.  Stayed at camp in Boulogne at night.

Within two days Dick was back in the trenches “up to waist in water”.  That was his last time at home for nearly a year and ahead lay a very awful winter in the Somme salient.  It is hard to imagine what it must have been like to have to operate in the sort of weather I’m looking at out of my window on this bleak last day of November 2015.  A century ago to the day, my Great Uncle and millions more in all the Armies just had to sit it out and try to survive whilst carrying on fighting and digging and working.  And dying in their thousands or being terribly wounded or gassed.  Would they think it had all been worth it ?

 

 

 

 

 

November in gay Paris …

16/11/2015

I had begun this post on Friday night (13th) and as I wrote, with the BBC news coming on in the background, the terrible story began to unfold.  By the time I hit the pillow at 2 am one hundred and twenty nine people had died and many dozens more were fighting for their lives,  Writing a blog post about the mundane happenings in the life of Welshwaller seemed somewhat superficial.

A few days later and the true enormity of those few hours of slaughter in the bars and restaurants of youthful Paris is in all our faces.  Thankfully someone was switched-on enough to refuse entry to the football match.  If those suicide bombers had got in amongst the crowd several hundred more would no doubt have died.  I hope those in hospital fight through, I hope those survivors who escaped or lay still while chaos and massacre rained down upon them get the pyschological help they will so desperately need.  PTSD will inevitably become familiar to many.  I just wish the media interviewers and reporters would have a little more empathy with what those survivors and witnesses have endured;  I find myself increasingly wanting to shout at them to stop asking such idiotic and thoughtless questions.  We don’t need to see and hear all that we are being shown and told, surely not.  Surely all this coverage multiplies by hundreds the PR which the perpetrators relish !?

President Hollande declared it an ‘Act of War’, well, yes, of course it was an act of war.  It’s what participants on both, or in this case ALL, sides of a conflict do to each other, they kill as many of the ‘enemy’ as they can, how they can and where they can and when they can.  We are naturally outraged, we think it very ‘not playing by the rules’ to arrive unannounced in a city and kill civilians whilst they go about their lives, innocents in a far off conflict.  ‘They’ didn’t deserve to die but who does in such conflicts ?  (Clearly the same emotions do not apply to dead Russians, blown from the sky on their way home from a sunny holiday, the media furore around that incident lasted all of 48 hours !) It would be very nice if, instead of sneaking around undercover, like fifth columnists’ (as one observer declared them) they would wear uniforms – preferably of the enemy – and march into town guns blazing and engage with the forces arranged ready to meet them.  Then the only deaths would be ‘soldiers’, those paid to lay down their lives and of course, in the self-assured belief that they do it gladly for God and country. Well, don’t they ?  And as for bombing civilians well, absolutely not within the rules.  No, it’s very unfair, ‘they’ (whomsoever ‘they’ are just now) should not come over this side of the water and attack us, they should stay where they are and just kill their own countrymen and women.  We wouldn’t do that would we !?  You won’t see ‘us’ bombing innocent people, gunning down women and children, we wouldn’t strike without warning … would we ?

We are indeed at war, with an enemy we have, as yet, no understanding of or answer to.  Imagine, if you can, how different our own problems with I.R.A. bombers would have been had they been ready to die for the cause they so loudly proclaimed.  Suicide bombers in 1970s London would have caused far more deaths and panic than car bombs planted by those keen to effect an escape.  This is a far more difficult and scary ‘war’, one in which we engage from afar, or from ‘on high’, with our stealth weapons and laser guided killers, often it seems, without even having to put pilots in danger – Lord help us if a western pilot gets downed and captured. We don’t like ‘our’ people to get killed do we ?  But if one side has bigger and better weapons than the other, for instance if one side has planes and one doesn’t, what then ?  There is no ‘deterrent’ element in this war, both sides assume they will overcome the enemy and ultimately win (WIN what is not made clear), indeed Paris and the rest of Europe is today shouting aloud that ‘we will overcome’.  So lets carry on. Lets us keep bombing them with unannounced stealth missiles and let them keep sneaking over here and shooting and bombing us with their suicide vests (at least theirs is a one-way mission).  That way the good old leaders of Western democratic civilization can keep on justifying spending 2% of GDP on ‘defence’ and the Mullahs can keep justifying sending young jihadis off to meet those promised 75 virgins.  For sure, hundreds of ‘innocents’ on both sides get to die but we all get to shout aloud that they died to uphold the beliefs of their Gods and Countries. And look at all the job creation opportunities it throws up !  1500 new ‘spooks’ to be recruited immediately (announced today), all those people who are going to be needed to keep watch on our mobile phone chatter and our internet use (oops, that’s me in trouble again !) and all those new bombs and bullets that will be needed, surely, before long we’ll need hundreds and hundreds of new soldiers …. unemployment ? What unemployment ?  The ‘poor’ ? What about the poor, we can’t afford to worry about them, we have to protect ourselves (against all those nasty and evil people we seem to be constantly angering), we can’t worry about rights and wrongs or silly things like human rights and civil liberties, oh no, we have a WAR to deal with …

Whichever side God is really on, he ain’t doing a very good job in my view.   Or is he ?  I mean, there’s clearly far too many people in the world, perhaps finally the most intelligent species on the planet has actually evolved to such an intellectual level that it can, at last, kill itself off and leave the planet to creatures that will look after it, somewhat more carefully than homo-sapiens have managed to do.  But that’s just me, I mean, who believes all this climate change stuff anyhow, so what if there’s no polar bears or tigers left, so what if we have to go bomb the whole of the Middle East (may as well do Russia while we’re at it)? We’re clearly ‘in the right’ and God wouldn’t have given us all the CO2   making industries if he didn’t want us to use them (to make weapons to eradicate all human life especially ‘them’), now would he !?

I need to stick to building walls and reporting on nature, I’m far too cynical to make comment on World affairs…. “What?  Oh, there’s another hurricane on its way, excuse me I have to go batten down the hatches …”  “What ?”  “Oh it’s a blizzard this time …”

The irony of Paris is in those who died, young people all, the very ones who could save the World.

A Prochaine. Je suis Paris

“We are all born ignorant but one must work hard to remain stupid”. (Benjamin Franklin)

05/11/2015
Septarian Nodules

This was a total mystery, but I knew a man who would know what it was…

I’ve worked hard, occasionally, I suspect, not hard enough, but then I come across an immediate repost.  Such was the case a week ago, a farmer friend, assuming I knew a bit about geology, showed me a strange pebble he had recovered whilst ploughing a field.  I was stupid enough to assume it was some sort of prehistoric fishing net weight whereon the net had become fossilized.  Luckily I know a man who has been very lethargic at remaining stupid, he is by far the most knowledgeable geologist and Welsh historian I have met.  Dr. John Davies, a true Welshman, reigns supreme when it comes to answering any query I put to him, without reference he just eschews a detailed explanation.

This particular oddity was not any challenge to ‘John Rocks’ (as he is colloquially known in Wales), no, not even a cause for pause.  It is a ‘Septarian Nodule’ (well of course it is !) formed when the siderite crystals (that’s Iron Carbonate to you and me) found in the local Wenlock Shale, especially where it outcrops with the adjacent Llandovery, get squashed from their original spherical shape into something resembling a smartie or M & Ms (that’s ‘discoid ellipsoids’ to you and me).  They then fracture into reticulate patterns.  The iron carbonate crystals grow into the fractures and then the softer mud-stone erodes leaving the crystals standing proud.

Fish net ? No, Septarian Nodules

These Septarian Nodules are found in the Edw valley area of Radnorshire. Nature is STRANGE !

Yes, the prehistoric fishing net weight is definitely more imaginative, but imagine just knowing the whole life story of that formation.  John, you are not working hard enough …

I enjoy being nonplussed by such natural phenomena, I never cease to be amazed at how geology can make such astonishing patterns.  I’m not surprised at how stupid I am but I am thankful that I have, within my network of friends, colleagues and associates,  folk who respond without hesitation to my queries and when it comes to stones and geology, the best in Wales responds without fail. Diolch yn fawr John bach.

The farm where the stone was found is in the Edw valley of Radnorshire, near the village of Hundred House.  John told me that when he was curator of Radnor Museum in Llandrindod Wells such finds were commonly brought in.  The soft shales erode to form the gentle rounded hills of the Radnor Forest but once the river cuts its way into the Aberedw hills the harder rocks present as great craggy outcrops and steep sided gullies.  The area is one of the most scenic zones of Wales and yet few from outside ever visit.  Fortunately that allows those of us who do appreciate its beauty the pleasure of empty roads and empty hills.

A late autumn sun-fest which coincided nicely with the half term holiday week, brought hordes to many parts of the hill country.  I had need to venture south, across the Eppynt range to the valley of the river Usk and the Brecon Beacons National Park.  When I eventually broke out of the extreme fog, which reduced visibility to such an extent even the wretched pheasants couldn’t see cars coming and dozens lay dead in the road, blue skies and sunshine greeted me.

Mynydd Eppynt 1/112015

My oft travelled road over the Eppynt military range to Trecastle is guaranteed to throw up some lovely views in the late autumnal sun.

Temperature inversion, whereby fog lingers in the valleys until midday, is common in the Welsh uplands and indeed my valley has been bathed in the opaque mist for days.  For some reason just twenty miles south,in the valley of the Usk, the mist had been burned off by the bright sunshine by mid morning but instead of totally dissipating it had risen a few hundred feet and there it sat.  By the time I got up onto the flat open common of  Mynydd Illtyd (an area of low open hill betwixt the two main communication routes of the A40 Brecon to Llandovery and the A470 to Merthyr via the high pass at Storey arms, the head of the Tarrell valley) I was in clear air but the high peaks of the Beacons, Pen y Fan and Corn Ddu, sat on a base of low cloud.

My destination was the Mountain Centre where I had to meet a customer and, hopefully, enjoy some lunch.  Alas, the sunshine and the end of the school hols had persuaded hundreds of others to head for the same venue and such was the queue for parking and eating,  I headed off in another direction!

Brecon Beacon misty

The top of Pen y Fan peaks out over the fog that lingers in the valley of the Tarrell, viewed from the BBNP Mountain Centre.

The open spaces of the common of Mynydd Illtyd attracts many walkers who are, shall we say, more of the ‘stroller’ than the mountaineer.  It is an ideal place to wander along cropped turf paths and enjoy the views south to the Beacons or north to the hills of mid Wales.

It is a place I have known and enjoyed for a long, long time but it is always a joy no matter what weather is prevalent.  But autumn sunshine, clear air and the colours of change takes some beating.  What I particularly like about the hill is that the bracken, which is very virulent throughout the common (except along the sheep walks which are kept very cropped and green), is still cut and baled for use as animal bedding.  Even though today the bales are large and round it is still good to see traditional uses being made of the nuisance plant.  In far too many areas the commons have been let go and bracken has spread upwards and downwards leaving little grazing for the ever decreasing flocks of sheep.  My worry is that, even in my life time, a time is coming when the hills will become impassable for walkers and barren of diversity in both plant and animal life;  in my view it is the reducing numbers of hill flocks that should concern us not too many sheep !

Bracken bales on Mynydd Illtyd

The hill of Mynydd Illtyd with the Iron Age enclosure of the Silures on top and the slopes of baled bracken. Walking, history and just a little tradition.

The O.S. identifies a Roman road running east/west across the common and although the line is erroneous (the road is actually a few hundred metres or so south of the O.S. line), this is the route of Sarn Helen, the major military road that ran from the fortress at Neath to the Gaer camp on the banks of the river Usk, two miles west of Brecon.  (It may interest you to know that my headline photo of a wall at the top of the page is actually on that Roman road at Coelbren, a marching camp north of Neath).  Another significant O.S. mark on the common is Bedd Gwl Illtyd, the supposed grave of Illtyd.  The custom in Roman times was to bury folk adjacent to important roads and thus there may be some truth in the folklore. Yes, Illtyd is the name of a person, a sixth century Saint (Illtud Farchog) after whom several churches are dedicated.  Llanilltud in the Vale of Glamorgan was the first school which the Abbot Illtud established and alumni included the saints Patrick and David and the historian Giraldus as well as Samson of Dol.  The link between the Celtic Saints and Dol in Brittany is an important and well documented one.  There was an old church just west of the Mountain Centre, sadly demolished some years ago as it was deemed dangerous.  Capel Illtyd was an interesting place, it was set in a circular raised enclosure – often regarded as an earlier Iron Age site (deemed Pagan by the Christians !) – with 365 trees growing around the circumference.   The fascinating aspect of it to my mind was the fact that electronic battery driven cameras failed to operate within the church.  Very spooky !

Illtyd is celebrated on November 6th and is also glorified at another site close to where I have been recently working.  St. Illtyd’s church at Aberbeeg is but a short crow flight from the Ebbw Vale site where I and my trusty band of Gwent Wildlife Trust volunteers have been persevering with the Clawdde stone-faced banks which are now adorning the entrance to the Resource Centre at the Trust’s Blaenau Gwent centre.

A bendy bank of stone and turf

One I prepared earlier, an Oo-La-La line requested by the boss lady but it adds to the entrance.

A merry half dozen or so of these hard-working folk turned up to construct a single face stone and turf retaining wall, just to the left behind the box like building in the photo above.  There was a bank which was a mixture of stones, slag waste and lumps of tarmacadam dumped years ago by the local council road-men.  The area has been well colonised by trees, in particular alder which seems to like the rather polluted soil !  Normally one would associate alder with wet ground but this banks seems very well draining and yet they have done very well.  So much so that they probably now need coppicing which will have the effect of lengthening their life-span considerably.  Fitting perhaps that alder should be growing on an old metal foundry site where workers would have worn alder clogs to protect their feet from the hot floor and red hot cinders.

GWT volunteers working hard

The trusty volunteers built a really good stone faced bank AND did it with a smile on their faces !

 

DSCF4293

The stone and turf walls with a soil in-fill are an excellent way of facing or revetting a bank as nature will quickly colonise the area with new flora and insects, particularly bees, will burrow into the warm face to lay their eggs.  The whole site is a wonderful nature reserve with ponds and wet woodland areas which teem with flying critters throughout the summer.  Why, at October’s end, dragon flies should still be hurling themselves around the skies is a little peculiar.  But then, November 1st did break all temperature records with Wales recording 22 degrees (that’s C not F of course, in case my trans-Atlantic friends get worried !).  I also got caught out with those pesky midges which I assumed had gone away for the year but which ambushed me when I was unprotected.  Annoying itchy bites is not what is supposed to happen this time of year !  I blame that damn El Ninio and everyone else west of the Pecos !

 

Great Uncle Dick’s diary for November 1915:

Monday November 1st:  Easy day in billets.

2nd.  Working in R.E (Royal Engineers) timber yard.

3rd.  Easy day.  6.30 a.m. parade cancelled !

4th.  Working party at night.

5th.  Working party at night.

6th.  Co’s inspection and relieved to get pay.  Easy day after. Very cold.

7th.  Relieved Warwicks in Trenches.  Ration party.

8th.  Rations and working party.  Trenches rotten and much rain.

9th.  Working party afternoon.  Germans bombarded with torpedoes and grenades.

10th.  Guide to r. Irish.  Working party.   Returned at night.

11th.  Helping Sergt Yates.  Sent to Officers mess.

12th.  Helped to cook and hedgetop mess (camouflage)

13th.  Helped in mess.  good time.  Rotten in trenches. Company have an awful time.

14th.  Helped in mess.  Relieved by Warwicks.

 

 

 

 

“When the winds of change blow some people build walls and others build windmills.” (Chinese proverb)

26/10/2015

As a Waller I have always to be aware that I can be rather resistant to change; each wall, although different, is essentially the same challenge as the last.  Stones can vary in size and shape, in weight and colour, but the construction of a wall takes little note of those differences.  The weather changes constantly but in truth, when I look back, it is mostly the same.  I can remember snow if I focus on it; I do not remember rain even though I’ve endured some absolute soakings over the last twenty five years, I do not remember sunburn or any other discomfort.  I do remember autumns and frosts, sunsets and hues over summer meadows, my brain is well able to conjure up the feeling of well being at the end of a long day on a hill.  I know the calls of the wild without reference, Buzzards and Kites, Curlews and Green Woodpeckers are as familiar as the voice of a friend.  Cawing crows do not differentiate themselves in my mind but there are one or two individuals I remember well; the ‘telephone bird’ on Trichrug who sounded for all the world like one of those push button phone tones, the Raven which seemed to impersonate the honk of a steam boat as he rode the thermals on Gilwern hill.  All these have been constants in my life, as much a part of it as my Stanley thermos flask and my gloves – though how many hundreds of pairs of those I’ve gone through I have no idea ! (I could go back through my accounts and work out how many pairs I had bought each year !)  I probably have averaged a pair a week so work it out !  It is perhaps not surprising therefore that change is not something I am familiar with.

As I contemplate the next few years, change is going to be a real issue; I have to face up to it and get my strategies in place.  I awoke a few weeks ago to the realisation that I no longer need to go to work; pensions have started to arrive apparently, money drips into my bank account without toil.  I am not yet able to come to terms with that strange fact and I have been busier than ever this last month.  Only small jobs you understand, a garden wall for a friend and another training course back in the Ebbw Vale area.  But there is no doubt, I am enjoying working now that I don’t need to.  It’s rather akin to getting up early on a morning when I could stay in bed, the opposite of the torture of getting up late on a work morning !

Sandstone retaining wall

This little wall replaced a dreadful concrete block monstrosity.

The garden wall was not really a ‘garden’ in the true sense of the word.  It was a small retaining wall at the front of a farmhouse which served to keep sheep from jumping onto the lawn … but there are steps !!  Actually it was replacing the most awful concrete block wall which had stood in situ since the 1960s and thus it was always going to be an improvement.  The farmer is also a most excellent wheelwright, the very man in fact who made a pair of wheels for me some years ago to fit to my Radnor Wheel Car.

He is also the resident wheelwright at the Acton Scott Victorian farm which is featured below.

I agreed to do the job a few months ago and was waiting for him to get the stone from the nearby quarry at Colva.  It is a rather good sandstone which has a rich mellow yellow hue and makes a good stone for both mortar walls and dry stone walls.

As is often the case with garden work, it grows inexorably  so that the ‘end’ of the job is difficult to assess.  So it was with this job, I was somehow ‘persuaded’ to rebuild the steps as well !  Luckily I had another date in the diary which took me back to the Ebbw Vale area to instruct a group of folk in the gentle art of ‘clawdde’ banking – that’s a stone-faced earth and turf bank.  The course was one of the longest ‘bookings’ I had ever received, I was contacted in August 2014 by the hosts, Gwent Wildlife Trust, to check my availability !  Now that’s what I call ‘forward planning’ !

Silent Valley wallers

My intrepid group of trainees enthusiastically building a stone faced ‘clawdde’ bank.

The focus of the training course was ‘Wildlife in Walling’, something which is very close to my heart, as I’m sure you regular readers will know only too well !

The problem with a dry stone wall is that it has a limited capability as a habitat, important as they are in the upland areas.  Really the collapsed dry stone wall is a far more important resource in habitat terms than a newly built wall.  Apart from birds nests and small creatures in the sub-soil under the foundation stones there is not much else that a wall can offer a home to.  Lichens and mosses do form on some walls where the micro-environment allows but actually the last thing a wall needs is plants growing in it.  Thus an earth filled bank with stones and turf in the face provides a much better home for a diverse range of plants and animals.

This was a repeat of a project which I undertook for Radnor Wildlife Trust at their Gilfach / Marteg Bridge site a couple of years ago.  The site for this course was at the Silent Valley Nature reserve south of Ebbw Vale in the Sirhowy valley.  Currently the barrier to prevent vehicles accessing the wild flower meadow are the large logs that can be seen in the photograph but these are reaching the end of their life-span and thus a replacement is needed.  The stone faced, ‘clawdde’ bank (a Welsh term for’bank) is a good way of delineating a car parking area as it is a living barrier that continues to strengthen as it matures.  Unlike a dry stone wall the earth filled bank absorbs the impact of a vehicle collision whereas the stone wall tends to burst open.  Also it is a good training structure for folk to learn the skill of building with stone.  The turf, which is placed inverted, acts as a mortar bed allowing oddly shaped stones to be placed firmly.  The earth centre is protected by the stone and the turf and eventually the root systems grow into it and binds the stones into the bank.  Of course plants soon root into the structure – we actually sprinkled wild flower seeds onto the top of the bank – and within a year or two the whole structure looks quite different.

The finished stone faced 'clawdde' at Silent Valley with two very happy and proud builders.

The finished stone faced ‘clawdde’ at Silent Valley with two very happy and proud builders.

One I preparedearlier - this stone facedbank is the onethat was built by Radnor Wildlife Trust volunteers two years ago.

One I prepared earlier – this stone faced bank is the one that was built by Radnor Wildlife Trust volunteers two years ago.

We didn’t quite finish the whole length  of the clawdde, but a day more by the two ladies in the photograph above will see it completed.

The fact that change is inevitable was brought home to me in glorious ‘technicolor’ a few weekends ago.  I ventured out of Wales to the city of Bristol to revisit the place of my first stint of higher education.  For nearly a year I have been regularly updated on plans to hold a reunion of former students of the Redland College of Education during the latter years of the 1960s and early 1970s.  I have been in touch with a few old mates in the interim but as for the other several dozen attendees it was a first sighting they had of me since all those years ago.  Change indeed !  I suppose I should be flattered that many of them recognised me … or maybe I should be a little worried ….. surely I have changed, surely I didn’t look like this back then !?

Autumn is the season of biggest change; it crashes in without warning – well normally it does.  This year the weather has been as sunny and dry as an autumn can be.  Rain has been absent and warm sunshine by day followed by frosty misty mornings have greeted me for several weeks.  The leaves have changed without me noticing and this year they have stayed on the trees instead of being blasted away by gales.

Misty mornings greet the arrival of Autumn - change is abroad.

Misty mornings greet the arrival of Autumn – change is abroad.

In the countryside change is much more noticeable than in the city – my weekend in Bristol could have been in any season – and in particular the final gathering of produce, wild and cultivated, is celebrated at numerous Harvest Festivals in villages throughout the land.  The harvest is all gathered in and preparations for over wintering people and animals would traditionally, by now, be well in hand.  Perhaps a pig would be ready for killing, old ewes would be culled, cockerels despatched and in the kitchen fruits would be being preserved n jams and pickles and hedgerow fruits and nuts would be collected.

Threshing day at Acton Scott 2015

Threshing day at Acton Scott Victorian farm near Church Stretton in Shropshire.

Not wanting to waste the good autumn weather I took myself off to Acton Scott, the working Victorian Farm made famous in the TV series of the same name.  It is about an hour and a half from me, a pleasant drive out of the Radnor Hills eastwards through the Clun Hills and into Shropshire.

The day was given over to the threshing of the corn ready for feeding and grinding.  A good crowd had gathered to see the old steam engine power up the threshing box, a Garvie machine, and witness an old activity of the agricultural year.  Of course the machine age totally changed the nature of agriculture.  To watch the sheaves disappear into the top of the box to emerge in three separate places, one as straw and one as chaff and the other as grain, must surely have been a’wonder of the world’ to the old country folk and farm labourers of the mid nineteenth century.  Of course not only did the new fangled machines speed up the practices of agriculture, they also caused many labourers to become unemployed and thus often homeless.  I’m not sure the steam engine and threshing box created unemployment, there certainly seemed to be a lot of people engaged in this demonstration !

Two things stand out to me about the activity. Firstly it is a frenzy of diligence, the men feeding the box are rhythmic, the pitcher who tosses the sheaves from the rick to the top of the box with his ‘pikle’, the catcher who grabs the sheaf and cuts the binding twine (these sheaves were reaped and bound by a ‘reaper-binder’ rather than being cut by sickle or scythe and stacked loose), the feeder who pushes the corn onto the feeder belt so it disappears cleanly down into the inner workings of the threshing box

The Threshing of corn at Acton Scott.

The stationery baler produces the straw bales that can be seen on the wagon. The ricks of corn stand either side of the threshing box and the engine puffs away in the background. Busy, smoky but strangely quiet !

Then there are all the cleaners and gleaners, the folk who busy themselves around the various ejection holes. the grain is shooting out from the sieves and has to be carefully channelled into large sacks with as little waste as possible, that which does evade the sack drops onto hessian sheets and is gleaned for use as poultry or horse feed.  Chaff dumps onto the ground and needs to be constantly shovelled into barrows and carted away.  Straw is either ejected onto the ground to be re-stacked onto a wagon or, as in this case, automatically fed into a stationery baler to be squashed into bales.  All these activities require folk and all those folk need to be ‘switched on’ to what they are doing and work as a team.  There is inherent danger in powerful machinery !

The driving force for all this activity is the Steam Engine, that mighty brute which conjures up the great days of British engineering.  There are two things that stand out about those mighty beasts of yesteryear, firstly they seem immensely dirty by modern standards, they belch thick black smoke from the coal fire and clouds of steam seem to be forever seeping out from some valve or other but, for all that, they are SO amazingly quiet.  In fact the whole operation is one which has little noise at all and the working team can quite easily chat away to each other above the whir of the belts that drive the inner cogs of the box.  It is possible to stand right next to the engine and the box and have no difficulty in talking to a friend.  The only presence is the gentle vibration of the ground as the great mass of iron and steel rocks gently to the turn of the driving gear.  How different from today’s noisy tractors.

Steam at Acton Scott

The power source was this beautifully restored Fowler steam engine.

Of course, just as the farming year ends, so it begins again.  All over the country sheep farmers are beginning the life cycle once more, the ram or ‘Tup’, is in with the ewes performing his once yearly nuptial foray.  In arable country land is being made ready for the sowing of winter corn and in the traditional manner of Acton Scott a plough team was working the field preparing the soil to receive the seed to produce the corn for next year’s threshing.

We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land”

Plough team at Acton Scott

The cycle begins again as the horses plod their way hauling the plough to turn the soil ready for the sowing of next year’s crop.

The whole experience of a visit to Acton Scott has a twofold effect on me; it allows me to immerse myself in some nostalgia but it also inspires me to get going on some restoration of my own collection – forsooth, there’s not much at Acton Scott that doesn’t also linger in my barns and sheds – except the living critters of course !

Tamworth piglets at Acton Scott

New life at the end of the year – I know someone who gets very excited to see new born piglets !

The last week of October usually marks the end of the autumn sunshine, with the changing of time comes the changing of climate and Atlantic low pressure systems begin to bring gales and heavy rain.  Already a monster storm has raged across Mexico and on into Texas, even my walling compatriot plying her trade in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia is expecting a serious change from ‘T’ shirt wearing temperatures to goretex and caharrts !  For Welshwaller much change has to be faced as I prepare to get the last few jobs done and make myself ready for a significant life changing period.  Watch this space !

On the Western Front in October 1915 things were not looking good for my Great Uncle Dick…

Sunday October 10th.   On Sentry at night.  Listening post morning.

11th.  Listening post in morning.  Listening post at ight ’til 12

12th.  Went with 7 platoon.  Me and Griff working at night.

13th.  Relieved by Dublin Fusiliers.  Marched to Beausarth (?). Taught 8th Irish Rifles.

14th.  Bath at Meuilly.

15th.  Rifle inspection day.  Working party at night.

16th.  Kit inspection by officers.  Billeted at Beusal (?) in kitchen.

17th.  – 23rd A quiet week of drills and inspections coupled with sentry duties but all back from the lane.

21st – 30th. Back to the trenches where the only thing Dick felt he wanted to record was the endless guard duty.

In actual fact his battalion was suffering massive losses in the autumn of 1915, the front was under constant bombardment and for the first time gas started to drift over the battlefield.  The tunnelling war reached a new level of activity and men from the coalfields of South Wales as well as other mining areas were recruited to dig the long underground tunnels in an attempt to get under the German trenches and set mines to blow them up.  The listening post duties may well have been deep underground in that tunnel.

 

 

 

 

If at first … tri tri again !

08/10/2015

Escaping the troubled waters of sweet Beulah land was a very good idea;  I headed off to a place I had never (shamefully) before visited, the island of Guernsey.  The Channel Islands has been on my bucket ‘to visit’ list for many years but it had never quite made it onto the planning board.  The impetus came from my youngest daughter who now lives on the island and was organising the very first women’s Triathlon event, a Tri Tri for novices and those with some experience.  She is heavy into the three aspects of the triathlon, cycling, swimming and running and earns her keep as a fitness trainer on the idyllic isle.  It seemed a good opportunity to go visit and hopefully be of use in the running of the event.

Guernsey Tri Tri 2015

The intrepid women make their way to the sea for the 8 a.m. (yes, that’s in the morning !) kick off.

I am really impressed how many folk are involved in the outdoor activities of cycling and running, even here in the hill country of mid Wales.  Swimming is and always has been, fairly popular but the lengths (excuse the pun) that people now go to are far and away beyond what used to be the norm.  A friend of mine who actually came along and took part in the Guernsey Tri Tri, regularly does eighty plus lengths in her local pool.  To go swimming in some outdoor waterway, sea or fresh, is a different matter altogether.  To take a plunge, at 8 o’clock in the morning in October, is shear madness to my mind but 125 women did last weekend in the waters of Pembroke beach on Guernsey.

Preparations for the event had only begun a few short months ago but the turnout of both participants and supporters as well as the local media, was impressive.  If I remember correctly the swim was 400 metres, the bike ride was 10 kilometres and the run 5 kilometres and the chaos of the transition corridor was just as mad !  I hope the ladies won’t be offended if I say that the event was an absolute pandora of shapes, sizes, ages and levels of fitness.  In one way that is what made the event so joyful, everyone was willing to have a go, everyone was ready to put aside shyness, vanity and fear and do their best.  My duty was to marshall the final stretch of the bike ride and thus I got to see the competitors – and competition there was ! – as they turned the final bend in the long road.  All of them were red faced and puffing but all of them smiled and shouted ‘good morning’ or some such at me as they whizzed past and I saw, on every face, the sense of pleasure and achievement.  Well done all of you !

Guernsey Tri tri - ladies only.

Dawn creeps across thesky as the ladies of Guernsey get themselves ready … Tri Tri day has arrived !

Needless to say I also had a little bit of a smile and a whole lot of pride in the achievement of my ‘little girl’.  She ran around in her ‘Race Director’ vest with the widest of grins and a spring in her step, ably supported by her dear friends.  Guernsey has welcomed her with open arms !

Tri Tri Fry

Little Miss Waller bossing the event – she never did like walling anyway …

The island has some interesting coastal geography and rocky shoals create broken shorelines with lots of scrambles and pools.  The beaches in the north and west of the island are as good as any I have seen and the glorious early autumn weather added to the enjoyment.  The roads around the island are generally quite narrow and mostly busy but with a maximum speed limit of 35 mph it is generally a safe ride although I did spend the whole time worrying about my wing mirrors …

Copo beach, Guernsey

This is the norm when it comes to the sandy beaches and rocky shore – awesome !

Of course the Channel Islands have the unfortunate distinction of being the only part of Britain to have been occupied by the Nazis in the Second World War and Guernsey, being one of the two largest (Jersey being the other) had an immense amount of fortifications around the coast.  Those sinister concrete bunkers which held the sea-pointing guns, ready for any attempt to reclaim them, now have become a part of the landscape and indeed the tourism of the island.  It is almost impossible to go anywhere on the coast without finding them, mostly hidden in the cliffs or blended into the rocky outcrops.  In a few places they have been adapted and turned into useful accommodation for businesses or beach facilities.  They are not places I enjoy exploring nor even seeing but they remind us all of a time, not so very long ago, when all of Europe was threatened with a long darkness which would still have been with us were it not for courage and sacrifice, duty and fortitude.  We may well be in need of similar traits in the not too distant future.

Guernsey blockhouse

Blockhouses like this are all around the island reminding us of the terrible events of 75 years ago.

I was interested to better understand the political structure of the Channel islands in relationship to the United Kingdom.  Each island is technically a ‘Bailiwicke’, a self governing state with responsibility for it’s own finances and it’s own governance.  I was confused to find they are not a part of the European Union and if they are not a part of the UK why don’t we need passports to visit ? Why also is there a ‘duty free’ shop on the ferry ?  All very confusing indeed. It’s all to do with medieval history and the wars with the French, apparently !  Just in case we decide to leave the European Union maybe you better all get over there PDQ !

The French influence is of course omnipresent and is particularly and pleasingly adopted in matters of the heart, well the stomach actually.  The food I enjoyed was memorable, all three meals a day of it !   Although, in fairness, breakfast was a pretty good impersonation of the traditional ‘Full English’ !

One bizarre event will stay with me for a while; I got to watch the English elimination from the Rugby World Cup in an Irish bar on the island of Guernsey , surrounded by an increasingly quiet crowd of  Red Rose supporters …. and no, I didn’t cheer each time Australia scored and, no, I didn’t wear anything which identified my true allegiance but I did utter a muted ‘Yes’ as the final whistle blew … Apologies to all my English readers …

The memory I have most of Guernsey is Tomatoes !  When I was young it was the only tomato we ever saw, delivered in small wooden crates which stacked onto each other, the label is in my mind’s-eye even today.  The other Guernsey product was cream which came out of those lovely light brown cows.  Alas those days are long gone and today tomatoes come in to Britain from anywhere but Guernsey.  Throughout the island the graveyard of tomato growing is to be seen, large areas of glass houses still stand, empty and forlorn.  There is so much of it because grants were available to erect them and the growers employed large numbers of islanders and Portugese seasonal migrant workers.  By the 1980s that vast horticultural industry was doomed as cheaper imports from Europe cut the demand to zero.  Few of the extant glass-houses are in use today, those that are concentrate on flowers and seedling growing and cultivation.

I must tell you about the most bizarre discovery I made after a tip-off from my daughter.  The Little Chapel is one of the quaintest and mind boggling constructions I have ever seen.

Broken pottery chapel

Millions of pot sherds stuck onto mortar makes the Little Chapel one of the quirkiest ‘follies’ I have seen.

Little Chapel interior.

The brightly coloured decoration resulting from all the pieces of broken pottery was quite stunning.

A welcome break in sunshine and history and just a little family reunion;  I should indulge myself more often …

Then it was time to get back to the day job…. and return to my friends at the Brynmawr Buddhist centre to continue building the wall around the old cemetery.

Baptist to Buddha

How’s this for a good use for an old Baptist Chapel ! The temple of the Buddhist centre in Brynmawr.

The more I visit the centre and mingle with the folk who attend the more my faith in human nature is restored.  I love the colours of the rejuvenated chapel.  How the old Baptists would scowl to see such ‘joy’ in a place of worship where serious contemplation, doom mongering and fear was supposed to be instilled in the congregation.  How well I remember the dark scumbled wood grained pews and doors of my own childhood Baptist Sunday school, how much more inspiring would it have been to be in these bright colours and joyful celebration.

This time I was attending to run a couple of dry stone walling workshops of two days each.  The participants were not Buddhists as such but several had experience of retreats and meditation along the lines of the teachings of Buddha.  A part of the course was spent engaging with the notion of ‘Mindfullness’ , something I am familiar with as it is very pertinent to a dry stone waller.  I was very taken with the teachings of the ‘Lama’ and it was a lesson in dealing with the issues that currently threaten to over-run my daily thinking.

Brynmawr Buddhist centre garden.

The old cemetery of the Brynmawr Baptists now sings with blooms and birdsong.

The walling is not easy as the stone is variously large blocks of Pennant sandstone and much smaller pieces which come from a demolished building and are not really suitable for dry stone wall building.  The old cemetery has been transformed now and most of the huge memorial grave stones have been removed from their positions above the bones of the nineteenth century Baptists.  Flowers bloom over much of the lower garden and there are plans to create various meditation areas and a small wildlife pond.

The two courses had ten trainees each most of whom found the whole experience very enthralling.  They, for the most part, had never done any walling before and some had plans to go home and build a small wall or repair one in their gardens.  It is difficult stone to learn on, it can be very challenging but they all did very well and I take the view that it is better to learn on difficult stone than lovely layered sedimentary stone !

Walling at the Brynmawr Buddhist Centre

Budding wallers at the Buddhist centre in Brynmawr.

One of the courses  enjoyed sunny weather and the next, just a few days later, was wet and cold.  Both groups knuckled down and built a substantial amount of wall which is good for the developmental plans of the project.  Funding for the course came from an usual source, the Gwent Police community fund which aims to assist groups to improve the general environment of their areas.

Whilst teaching is somewhat harder than doing (‘those that can do …’) and on this particular site involves quite an amount of walking to and fro between the different building areas, I get an immense sense of satisfaction from empowering folk to go and build a wall that will stand for a long long time.  Albeit the walls are small and in gardens.  In addition, through the introductory talk and instruction, folk get to better understand why walls exist where they do and to get an idea of the historic periods in which they were built.  Even better is …. I get paid to do it !!

October has crept in un-noticed whilst I was away and there is a definite change in temperature but thankfully we are getting some late sunshine to compensate for all those weeks of rain.  I have a few small jobs to get done and I am  therefore glad of a little dry weather but the change is on its way with some strangely named hurricane heading our way.  Thank you Guernsey, thank you Brynmawr Buddhists, you’ve put a smile on my face as I face up to a rather hectic slide toward winter.

Meanwhile…

October 1915

Friday 1st.  Skirmishing at dawn.  Afternoon off.

2nd.    Working party all day near Forceville.

3rd.  General’s inspection and practise attacks.

4th.  Bath at Acheux.

5th.  Working party at Forieville.  Stopped by rain at 2.

6th.  Relieved Dublin Fusiliers in trenches.

7th.  On sentry in trenches all night listening post.  Rotten time.

8th.  Easy day.  On sentry at night.

9th.  Working party at night on listening post shelter.

It is noticeable, as the year drags on, how little energy and enthusiasm Great Uncle Dick can muster for his diary.  The battles are raging all around him on the Ypres Salient but he records the mundane activities and omits the fear and losses; perhaps, at last, he is not even noticing them.

 

 

 

 

 

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”

20/09/2015

Someone mentioned to me that some crazy happening way out in space was affecting my star sign, apparently it was going to cause all kinds of bad things to happen in my little corner of the world. “Really ?”, I remarked as I concealed a somewhat sceptical grin.  But ‘oh boy’ was it ever true.  Various terms come to mind, “it never rains but it pours” seems the most appropriate, “s…. happens” might be another.  For a couple of weeks, since a few days before my birthday in fact, all sorts of calamities have befallen poor old Welshwaller.  Mainly it involves betrayal, insults, humiliation; some received, some given out.  All of it is resulting in fairly major changes to life here in the tranquility of ‘Beulah land’, where Heaven has been pretty much invisible of late.  Much anger and hostility has been the result and some long-time friendships and relationships are gone forever.  Much of it I can’t relate just yet, processes need to be gone through and it will likely be some time before the final result is known but “A change is gonna come” !

When such things land in the breakfast bowl it’s best, in my experience, to take to the hills.  Go build a wall, it is a guaranteed way of dissipating negative feelings and it certainly burns up energy, negative or positive.  If I’m not in the mood for stone moving (then you know things are bad !) just wandering looking at some historic landscape usually does the trick.  In extreme situations I generally find attacking the chaos of my yard or one of the sheds is the best medicine.  If I tell you the scrap-man has called twice these last few days and taken away masses of items I once considered precious artefacts awaiting restoration, you’ll get the picture.  But the result is so uplifting, for one thing I can now turn my vehicle without having to shunt back and forth ten times and risk bumping into a solid cast iron chaff cutter or some such.  “It’s an ill wind…..”, as the saying goes.  For several days I have not ventured out nor spoken to anyone, I have just put in a nine hour shift, and ‘shift’ is the operative word.   I don’t know where my energy has come from but I have been heaving and hauling, cutting and stacking, smashing and chucking and suddenly there is SPACE !  I’ve even managed to finish painting the windows and door, a job I started some months ago.  I realise that inside I am absolutely raging and to release the pressure I am engaging in a maniacal attack on mess rather than people, which is what I really want to do !

Unfortunately my time for avoiding the face to face confrontations that are an inevitable consequence of those stellar inputs is fast running out.  Sooner now, rather than later, people who I would prefer never to have to see or talk to again will have to be  dealt with.  In the meantime some little respite was called for and off I took myself for some stones and some landscape and some pleasant people.

Orthostat wall

These great slabs – orthostats – line one of the old track-ways that traverse the Marteg valley. Very ancient indeed.

A short journey up the Wye valley brought me to the peaceful and scenic nature reserve at the Gilfach, once a traditional upland farm but now owned by the Radnor Wildlife Trust and operated as their visitor centre.  The longhouse sits snuggly in the shade of a north facing hillside looking out over the valley of the river Marteg in its final rocky cascade to the Wye.   Woodland walks along the slopes of the heather covered hill are an absolute tonic and the September sunshine still had the birds singing.  I wandered and pondered, as is my wont, spending time examining the fascinating orthostat walls that align old trackways.  These barriers of huge stone slabs are a distinct feature of the valley and trying to evaluate when they may have been erected in that situation takes up an inordinate amount of my time when I visit the area.

Stone faced bank at car-park

The low stone faced banks which separate the car park from the road have become well colonised after just two summers.

I was pleased to see that the car-park at the entrance to the valley, Pont Marteg (just off the main A470)  which I was involved in constructing some two and a half years ago, has become well established and well used.  The stone faced banks which define the parking lot have become colonised with all manner of plants and grasses, even a tall Great Mulleen had found a home on the bank furthest from the road.  The grass has now rooted well into the soil and has locked the stones in place and the whole area looks to have been in existence for millenia !

I was summoned to that place to have a discussion with the Wildlife Trust’s project officer but, much to my surprise, found myself involved in a larger meeting of Trust staff and committee members and those intrepid volunteers who did most of the work on the car-park.  The discussions were concerning some new proposals for the car-park and how it should welcome visitors and offer a better information and interpretation facility.  In the assembled group were two professionals whom I have known, in various guises, for twenty five years or so.  They are so knowledgeable in the area of bio-diversity, habitat management and species specific identification and ecology that I am constantly astounded whilst in their presence.  For one thing they are old enough to now be forgetful but their ‘hard drives’ show no signs of being either full or malfunctioning !  Now, where was I …. Oh yes.  Nice people.

Lift up your eyes to the hills to lift your spirits - works every time !

Lift up your eyes to the hills to lift your spirits – works every time !

It was SO refreshing to spend some hours in the company of people who really, really care about our environment, who understand the interconnectivity of it all and who do something about it at every opportunity.  To sit and talk with professionals and dedicated amateurs who give freely of their time and their knowledge to promote and enhance good practise in farming and countryside management was such a pleasant way to spend a few hours.  It was such an extreme alternative to the desecration of habitat and countryside that surrounds me daily.

As if to counter that no good solar wind I then immersed myself in two days of interaction with yet more ‘nice people’; this time they were attending a Dry Stone Walling course at Ty Gwyn Farm (www.tygwynfarm.co.uk) in Llandrindod Wells.  The one thing that can be guaranteed about folk who give up a weekend – and spend their hard earned money – to travel some distance, albeit to a particularly special place, to learn the skills involved in building a wall, is that they will be enthusiastic and pleasant.

DSCF4103The weather was as bright and sunny as a September day can be.  Six intrepid students travelled from Bath, Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan.  It can be slightly worrying, as the tutor, when some of the participants had the course presented to them as a birthday present – one even had it as a present for last year !  If they had requested it that’s not too worrying but when it is a surprise ….

If a picture says a thousand words, they had a good time !

The rebuilt wall blends in well with the old and the builders are happy !

The rebuilt wall blends in well with the old and the builders are happy !

The wall we were repairing is an enclosure some two hundred years old and is built with some particularly difficult stone in terms of shape and size – no shape and no size !  It presents a difficulty for the student and the tutor but I generally take the view that it is better to learn on difficult stone than nice easy flat, evenly sized sandstones. If they can build with that stone they should be quite capable of building with some ‘nicer’ stone.

There’s nothing better to counter the sourness of ‘not nice people’ than to spend a day with really, really super folk who have no reason  to judge me other than in my ability to teach them how to build a dry stone wall.  Hooray !!  And now it’s home to watch some Rugby !!  Apparently there’s a Welsh encounter to endure …

1st World War, September 1915:

Sunday Sept. 19th.  March past General.  Afterwards practise attack in fields.

20th.  Practise attack.  Bath at Acheux.  Went to Follies at night.

21st.  Working party, all okay, near Forignyville (?)

22nd.  Relieved AH in Guard trench.  Fire dug-out

23rd.  Easy day in Forniche (?). I put Pioneer to clean trenches.  Much rain.

24th.  Easy time in trenches.  Saw 22 aeroplanes ! Ours.

25th.  Easy time in trenches.  We had a good time in trenches, good dugout with fire,

26th.   In trenches.

27th.  In trenches.  Easy day.

28th.  Easy day in trenches.  Plenty of rain.

29th.  Relieved, marched through Colincampe (?) to V (?) *

30th.  Easy day in trenches.  German airship knocked down near Varennes.  Changed billet.

  • It is difficult to read the town names which Uncle Dick writes in his diary, partly, I suspect, because his own spelling of the French names inaccurate.

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