“Where have you been my blue eyed son ?”

27/07/2016

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

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

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

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

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

Lock-keeper's cottage, Ryeford Double Lock

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

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

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

Help for Heroes become Heritage Heroes

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

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

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

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

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

Basque programme at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panda in DC

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

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

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

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

Beavers in captivity

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

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

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

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

Good to be back in Blog land !

 

Take me back to the Black Hills.

20/03/2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woven Stones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Musing on thoughts like these

15/02/2016

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

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

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

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

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

Dry Stone church yard wall newly built

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

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

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

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

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

Norman Llandingat in Llandovery

Llandingat church in Llandovery, Carmarthenshire.

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

Castle of Llandovery in Carmarthenshire

Llandovery castle. A Norman fortress begun in the early C12th

 

 

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

Thestatue of Llewelyn ap Gruffydd in Llandovery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A smoot in a new dry stone wall.

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

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

A lime mortared wall of river cobbles

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

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

Dry stone church yard wall.

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

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

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

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

Wrought iron kissing gate

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

 

 

 

 

 

Method(ists) in my madness

07/02/2016

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

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

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

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

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

Barran Methodist Chapel

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Tombs on a Welsh hillside.

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

 

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

Stoat on dry stone wall,

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

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

Stoat at base of an old wall

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

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

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

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

stoat1

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

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

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

DSCF4520

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

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

Rain Rain go away, come another walling day …

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 ‘Llywelyn 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.

 

 

 

 


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