Backs to the Wall.

10/10/2017

Does anyone actually understand the gradient percentages which appear on road signs ?  What does a 30% uphill or a 20% downhill mean in terms of how steep the damned slope is !?  I have no idea, it’s the same with the weather forecast on my i phone – what does “there’s a 40% chance of rain” tell me ?  I was in a place with a 10% chance of rain the other day and it hammered down all day. Help !!

As for slopes and gradients, well, I am currently working (yes, I know, I’m supposed to be NOT working, I’m supposed to be in retirement, in a retirement home or on a sunny beach somewhere) on a painfully steep slope.  The pain element relates to ankles and knees, hands and back.  Now it is true that twenty or so years ago I would also have struggled somewhat but in the Autumn (that’s MY autumn and the season) in the Wye valley, high in the Cambrian mountains, it is especially daunting.  In fact it is so steep I merely have to reach out my arm straight in front to rest on the ground – I’m reminded of an old Radnorshire farmer who, whilst demonstrating how to use one of my Aero Seed Fiddles at a show, commented that “I have used these on land so steep the bow was sticking in the ground”, did I ever doubt him !

This particular wall is one of those iconic features which have caught my eye for decades.  It rises at right angles from the main road, the A470, that runs from north to south Wales.  Driving ever upward from the small town of Rhayader and almost at the village of Llangurig, where the Aberystwyth road splits to head westwards and the A470 turns east towards Llanidloes and all points thereafter, the wall jumps into the scenery.  It is the only wall visible on that stretch of road, it is such a feature that several of my friends have commented how well they know it and how they have often thought it should be restored.  For me, the only good thing I can say about it at present is it has taken me to work in the only Welsh county yet to have the pleasure of my ministrations.  Montgomeryshire is now part of the unmanageable administrative county of Powys.  It is the only Welsh county which is bordered by five other counties and it reaches the English border.  The southern west to east route runs the course of the river Severn and in the west and north-west the dramatic landscape of the Dovey valley marks its territory.  My work station is in the upper Wye valley, a dramatic enough landscape made more poetic by the onset of the autumnal colourscape.

 

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The wall, the Wye valley looking south and the A470 north/south trunk road

Despite being in the ancient lands of the Ordivices – the Iron Age tribe which lived in this zone, the geological nature of my building material is named after the Silures who occupied land further south.  Ordovician and Silurian sedimentary rocks confuse the mind in Wales !  I’m sure it was some years after leaving school that I realised the rocks and the tribes weren’t co-terminus …

This particular project has been several years in the making, so much so that when it was first broached to me I was living much closer to it than I now do.  In addition I also had an enthusiastic American assistant who was excited to think there might be some summer work in the following two years for her to use as an excuse to come back to Wales.  Neither is now the case, I am left alone to do it all and I live far too far away.  Of even more concern is the fact that the project was delayed, then it was abandoned, then it was reborn under a new grant aid scheme.  That was the precise moment when I should have said “No”.  I cannot remember – after all it was last February! –  why I didn’t, it was a seriously bad mistake.  By then I hadn’t even seen the wall for nearly three years and had no real idea how much there was to do.

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In essence the project is three walls; the main wall, the steep one, is around 80 metres in length but only has around a quarter of its length that requires rebuilding.  The other two walls run with the contour line and create the cross of the ‘T’ which is the shape of them all.  One is around 60 metres of which about 40 is totally derelict and the rest needs attention of some kind.  The left hand side of the T is approximately 70 metres in length with about 75 square metres needs rebuilding.  Now the clever ones amongst you will have noticed that the amount to be rebuilt is greater than the length of the wall.  That is because the wall is around 1.3 to 1.5 metres tall and when working out the rebuild quantity a square metre figure is used,  simply because that is how the grant money is paid.  Thus a metre of length of 1.5 metre in height amounts to 1.5 square metres.  If the rate was £50 per square metre (I wish !!) that would derive £75 for every metre of length.  Simple isn’t it ?  Well not if you are an old farmer still working in feet and inches and never dealt in anything squared.

The original scheme which was going to fund the restoration was the current farm environmental scheme called Glastir and its advanced element was going to be used.  However, the farmer was not willing to sacrifice a small piece of deciduous woodland which clings to the side of the steep slope and consists of scrubby hazel, wind blown birch and the odd hawthorn, all of them runts in the forest due to the excessive wind to which they have been exposed.  Nevertheless it is an important shelter belt for lambing ewes and is thus an economic factor to the farmer.  To the environmentalist the wood is a very important habitat with a good stock of quite scarce summer birds, such as Yellow Hammer and various other summer visitors.  Just now it is teeming with those chatterbox teenage hooligans the Long Tailed Tits, which are having a ball amongst the seed laden birch.  It really is an exemplary piece of ancient woodland.

Because of the bird life, the project officer of Natural Resources Wales, the body now overseeing the programme, insisted the farmer fenced the woodland to exclude all stock from entering it.  It was felt that the sheep were far too damaging and dangerous to be allowed access, they would surely ruin the habitat.  Some of you will have already spotted the absurdity of that demand.  Sheep, and sometimes cattle, have been grazing, resting and giving birth in that five acres of hanging woodland for centuries.  If the woodland is such an important habitat surely it is precisely because the farm stock have been using it !!  Their presence has kept the ground grazed and limited the choking bramble and other species that would alter both the ground flora and the density of the canopy.  True, there is a problem in terms of the age of the trees extant at present and there are no saplings coming through but that problem can be dealt with piecemeal in a way that still allows the farmer to utilise the woodland.  To have fenced off the area would lead to a dramatic and drastic change to the woodland in a very few years and those rare birds which currently love it would be forced to move elsewhere.

How many times have I encountered that very issue over the past twenty five years.  A pristine habitat is discovered on a farm, be it pasture, wetland, woodland or whatever, stock have been grazing it in a certain density for years and years thereby creating that important habitat. The plants or animals that live there and are now so highly regarded, do so because of what exits under the management regime as it has been for generations.  Along comes ‘an expert’ who recognises its importance and immediately switches into ‘protection’ mode – stop the farmer using it as he has been doing, it is far too important to be damaged by farming !  Luckily this particular farmer was not so desperate for the money that he conceded or else my noisy companions would have already have flown off to some other precious woodland.

Instead he was persuaded, a year or so later, by a much more understanding conservation minded countryside consultant, to enter a different scheme.  Hence the walling project was back on along with some hedge laying and other activities.  Now I have a high regard for this particular expert, we have known each other and worked  together for many years.  Perhaps her powers of persuasion were beyond my defences, perhaps I didn’t want to let her or the farmer, whom I like a great deal, down.  Whatever the reason I just acquiesced and landed myself with a real winter headache.   It meant I would have to travel fifty miles to the site, stay over for several nights and graft through the worst of the autumn and winter weather to get anywhere near completing what was to be done by the end of the year.  That was as bad as it would get, or so I thought.  Last week she arrived with ‘some good news and some bad news’ (not that she recognised she was delivering either).  The money was better than the original scheme, that’s nice (and the good news).  The bad news ? It all, and I mean ALL, had to be completed by middle of February.

That is just not possible, not even if the weather is the best it has been for the winter months, in a century.  Certainly the current weather pattern of constant wind and rain is not going to result in much being rebuilt.  Had she arrived with that news but a day earlier I would have walked away.  There is just no way I can do it in the time.  I’d felt daunted about getting half of it done but was sure the rest would come easily next spring and summer.  Alas, just a day before, a large mechanical excavator had arrived to clear away the numerous collapsed sections and attempt to retrieve the stone which had mostly tipped to the down-hill side and needed to be brought back up the slope.  That means the whole site now looks far worse than it did when it was just an old collapsed length of wall.  There are now great heaps of stone and soil and patches of bare earth where the turf has been scraped away or the foundation sub soil exposed.

So now I just have to soldier on, I can’t let the farmer down and he would get a financial penalty if the work is not completed but in all honesty, on my own, through the winter, up there, it’s unlikely I will get it done.  I rage at the wind, I bemoan the lack of knowledge and understanding of what was feasible exhibited by the planner but most of all I shout at myself.  Saying ‘No’ to work has always been my Achilles heel – God forbid that snaps again or that really will be the end – of the restoration and me !!

Meanwhile back at the ‘museum’ (my grandiose term for my collection!), I got together some ‘harvest’ related items and headed out into the wilds of Radnorshire, to Glascwm in fact and the church of St. David, to help celebrate Harvest Festival.

Again I had been unable to say no and ended up with another hundred mile round trip – folk don’t seem to have realised I have moved !  The little village is a real gem amongst Radnorshire settlements.  It is hidden in the narrow valley and its medieval church is typical of those found in the hills of the county.  David is believed to have come to Glascwm and there are several references in historical accounts of the fact.

“And Glascwm with its church by the verdant mountains, lofty clearings full of groves, where sanctuary never fails”.  So wrote Gwynfardd Frycheiniog the Welsh poet (1160-1230).

There was some confusion, mine and theirs, about my presence and where exactly I was to display.  As there was no-one around when I arrived at 4.30pm (despite being told there would be but then again I was also led to believe it was a 6pm service!) I wandered around for half an hour or so.  I walked down to the village hall where a harvest supper was to be held but there was no-one there either.  As six o’clock approached I decided to set up in the porch-way and utilised the benches on either side to place my various items upon.  Six o’clock came and went and no-one appeared; then, about a quarter past, one person wandered up, the retired Bishop of Hereford who now lives in this Welsh village.  We had met previously although I’m sure he didn’t recall that, he looked at my display and chatted until another person arrived and then one or two more, none of whom were interested in my offerings and all of whom looked somewhat bemused at my presence.  Eventually the vicar arrived and she did seem to have been aware I was coming along.  In all about ten folk walked past me into the church and chatted inside.  Just before the six thirty service was to begin – delayed by the non appearance of the pianist (and in any case the electric keyboard was broken, which presumably she knew and hence didn’t bother turning up !) – the lady whose request I had felt duty bound to honour, walked past me into the church with ne’er a glance.  The door closed and the strains of  ‘All things bright and beautiful’ unaccompanied by anything musical, seeped muffled through the walls.  I packed my precious items away and drove off into the night foregoing the proffered harvest supper, there surely was no place laid for an itinerant curator …  fish and chips in Llandovery an hour later and the second half of a Scarlets’ rugby game changed my evening immeasurably…

For the next few months I’ll be heading north but there are also some small tasks to do nearer home and some really special fungus sightings to bring you – there is an upside to the downside of constant rain!

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Who knows what this little mushroom is called then ?

I’m hopeful of writing at least another couple of posts before my  WordPress GB’s run out, there’s about 10% left apparently.  It would be nice to finish my walling career AND my blog about the same time, don’t you think !?

Catch y’all soon, autumnal blessings from the blustery Wye Valley.

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Big Wheel keeps on Burning…

03/09/2017

It’s not often a chance to put a tyre on a wheel comes along.  That’s not a modern rubber tyre you understand. No, I’m talking about putting a metal tyre or band around a wooden cart wheel – like what they did a hundred years ago and more !

It came about because my friend Mike, who happens to be an excellent wheelwright, was giving a demonstration at the prestigious Gower Show.  The show was celebrating its one hundredth happening – it is slightly older but various postponements over the years through wars and foot and mouth epidemics had delayed the centenary.

Gower was the very first designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (1956) and is one of the more popular holiday and day-trip destinations in south Wales.  It manages to blend some ancient landscapes with cliff backed stunning beaches although the sea is hardly ever warm !  It also maintains its medieval road system which is not really suitable for the amount of traffic that now stutters along the narrow, hedge lined lanes.

Over the years it has featured regularly in my work programme either as a venue for dry stone wall repairs or as a venue for various training courses which I ran in environmental subjects.  It also featured in my academic historical landscape studies as it has an important place in medieval Welsh history, not least as a study area for early field systems.  Fitting then that my first visit for some years should be linked to a medieval activity !

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Mike Davies of Hundred House, Radnorsire, lights the fire to heat the iron tyre which will be fixed to the cart wheel which can be seen to the left.

The method of fixing a metal rim to a wooden wheel is basically a matter of physics.  The metal is heated so that it expands to beyond the circumference of the wooden wheel.  This requires the fire to be extremely hot.  I asked Mike what sort of temperature it needed to reach,”bloody hot” was the precise answer, but whether that was ‘bloody hot’ centigrade or ‘bloody hot’ Fahrenheit I’m not sure.  The test was to watch the colour of the metal tyre which was buried within the fire and once it had reached an all-over red glow, that was the time.  Too hot, indicated by a yellow glow, and the rim would buckle as it was being lifted from the flames, white glow meant it was not hot enough and wouldn’t fit.

The wheel is fixed to a large steel plate by means of a screw system.  We had to dig quite a deep hole into which was placed the inverted ‘u’ shaped bracing plate into which the screw system fitted.  When wheelwright shops existed they were mostly adjacent to the village blacksmith and it was he who mostly did the fitting of the tyre.  The plate was a fixed feature just outside the workshop and I know several derelict blacksmiths shops where the old tiring plate is still in place.  They are extremely heavy and very difficult to lift so despite the high scrap value they often survive the itinerant scrap thieves.

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Cart wheel fixed in place on the tiring plate awaiting the new tyre.

Fortunately we managed to persuade a passing tractor driver to use his front loader and pallet forks to unload the plate for us –  he was nowhere to be found at the end of the day, alas !

A large crowd gathered awaiting the moment when the red-hot metal band appeared out of the inferno and Mike engaged them with his explanations of wheelwrighting techniques and explained what we were about to do.  After approximately 20 minutes the red glow was clear to see and we donned some seriously thick woollen coats to protect us from the searing heat – my word was it hot – and we soaked our caps in the drum of water placed ready for dousing the heat once the tyre was in place.

The tongs are about a metre long with a very simple inverted ‘u’ shaped grab about 10 cms long set at right angles to the handle rods.  They slot over the rim of the tyre and by the simple expedient of both of us pulling and lifting, out of the inferno the glowing steel ring appears.  The heat on my face was SO intense that my brain was insisting I ran away, like immediately.  The pain was difficult to resist and I could not help but think about a recent fire tragedy in London and how dreadful a death it must be; thankfully in those circumstances smoke usually takes the victim long before the flames.

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The red-hot tyre is lifted from the inferno, our faces turned the same colour !

The placing of the steel band over the wheel has to be done in unison to avoid any chance of the ring being placed at an angle and jamming itself on to the wheel.  Then it is sledge hammered into place and immediately buckets of cold water are poured around it to cause instant cooling and shrinkage.  As the wheel began to be squeezed, loud creaks and cracks were heard but Mike assured the crowd that this was precisely what he needed to hear.  In fact, on a new wheel rather than a repaired wheel such as the one we had, the noise of the timber is seriously loud as then the spokes also had to be driven securely home into the hub.

In about fifteen minutes the whole exercise was over and we were able to remove the wheel from the plate and wheel it over to the crowd so they could see and feel the secure fixing.  I can’t say I would necessarily want to do it again, perhaps with a face protector, but I certainly relished the experience and even though it wasn’t on my ‘bucket’ list it is a small claim to fame, wouldn’t you say ?

Duty done I then had some time to take in what other delights the show had to offer.  Naturally I found myself wandering off to the ‘vintage’ section where there were some rather nicely restored tractors and vehicles.  What I particularly liked was the fact that there was just a few of each type; perhaps half a dozen tractors, a few land rovers, some old cars and a small selection of stationery engines phutting away.  At most shows the numbers of each type are far too great in my view, too many to really take notice especially for the non-believer who just wants to look and not be engaged by the niceties of which model it is or whether it has the ‘Type 3’ solenoid or the ‘Mark 12’ valve spring !  Well done Gower, a really enjoyable display.

The other attraction which drew me very quickly to the ring was a fine display of Shire horses.  The huge animals are always a favourite with the crowds regardless of whether they are country folk or city dwellers, horsey types or not.  This show certainly had more than its share of wonderful animals on display.  Of course it lacked the all round ‘working’ display such as can be seen at The Great Dorset where all types of carts and machinery are hauled by the Shires, but for a small local country show it was quite a magnificent parade.

By a strange coincidence, the sort that occurs more often than perhaps chance alone allows, I nearly ended up returning to Gower a few weeks later.  It is uncanny how often that happens to me;  I don’t visit a place for years, maybe never ever been near it, and suddenly I end up visiting or passing several times in a few weeks.

The importance of Gower as a protected historic landscape has been recognised by the granting of a substantial Heritage Lottery Fund award which is being used to restore and enhance certain aspect of the built environment, the culture and historic integrity of the area.  This is being co-ordinated through the Gower Partnership and a contract was on offer to carry out some dry stone walling training on the important boundary wall at Mewslade.  Unfortunately myself and the Training Provider with whom I work judged that we were unable to deliver the required courses at the venue due to the rigorous risk assessment we apply and the very necessary Health & Safety requirements of such courses.  In the old days it was possible to march a load of innocent trainees, of whatever ability and fitness, over some fields or up (in this case, down) a winding track to some exposed remote wall where the views were stunning and the wind howling.  Men were pointed to one section of wall or wood as their ‘relief’ point and ladies in the opposite direction.  Lunch and breaks were taken sitting on a rock or damp grass and everyone laughed and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, or so we trainers assumed.  Quality accredited training, such as we now have to provide, demands a safer more comfortable venue with adequate welfare facilities, access by emergency services should it be required and this in turn demands the site has a serviceable mobile phone signal.  None of these were available to us on this occasion so we decided not to bid.  Many folk bemoan all the regulations and apparent nonsensical Health & Safety requirements, I’m not one of them.  Society has changed, everyone is more sophisticated, even those who venture out into hostile environments do so in a far more protected and comfortable manner than in my early days.  Modern clothing and equipment lessens the risks to a degree but the danger of a mishap is ever present and when an individual entrusts their well being to you (paid or free) it is incumbent on those of us who invite and provide to eliminate as much of that risk as is possible without diluting the product too much.  It is a difficult balance but our judgement was that, in the instance at least, the scales were too tipped against us.  My visit to the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty of Gower will be limited to one for the foreseeable future but “I will return!!”

The next journey took me east into England and the border area of Shropshire where once again the delights of Acton Scott, the Victorian Farm museum, was my target.  This time however, it was not the harvest or threshing nor the general artefacts for which the place is famous, this time I was on a mission to film and photograph a unique event.

Accompanied by the now familiar octogenarian Harold Lewis, the remaining wheelwright of the Lewis’ of Gravel Arch at Llanbister Road in Radnorshire, my visit was a long time in the planning but eagerly anticipated.  Mike, mentioned above, just happens to be the resident wheelwright at Acton Scott and gives demonstrations of his craft several times a week.  One of the seldom seen artefacts is the wheelcar which languishes for most of the time in one of the cart sheds.  That particular rarity was made by Harold’s father and Mike had arranged with Simon, the resident ostler, that an attempt would be made to hitch up the wheelcar and haul it around, just to see how it actually operated.  Do you imagine we were a little excited ?

I have only recently come across a photograph of a wheelcar with a horse attached, they are so rare that I had given up hope that one existed.  There is, as far as I am aware, no film of one being hauled by horse or tractor and that one photograph is very small and grainy.  In that sense what we were about to witness was pretty important historically and archaeologically.

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A wheelcar, a horse and me – a rare sight indeed.

Simon had never attempted to haul the wheelcar before but the horse was well used to operating with a load in trace chains – chains which pull directly to the load rather than via a spreader (such as a swingle tree) or even shafts as on most carts.  What I wanted to see was the inclination of the vehicle to bounce ad swing around from which motion comes it’s nickname of ‘smellpost’.  It appears to want to sniff each gate-post as it passes through.  Once harnessed Simon gingerly set the car in motion and the horse merely plodded off.  Stopping was slightly more difficult, the car ran on and bumped into the back legs of the poor creature but the well heeled old horse didn’t bat an eyelid.  Turning was also quite interesting, the chains meant that the front of the car sort of leapt around in short hops.  Of course, had we had a load of hay or corn board the front runners, which are sled like, would not have lifted off the ground and the whole motion would have been more measured and controlled.  As it was, once we chained one of the wheels to stop it turning, the wheelcar stopped when the horse stopped and followed around a gentle turn as if on rails.

Mike and Harold, both being wheelwrights and cart makers, had long detailed discussions about the intricacies of the wheelcar, the old ‘hoss’ on the ohter hand, frankly m’Dear, didn’t give a damn, he just plodded on.  The event culminated in Harold sitting aboard and taking the reins to drive his father’s Radnor wheelcar around the Acton Scott grass.  Just like me at Gower show, he made the very same point; “How often at my age do you get to do something you’ve never done before?”  A few more times yet we hope Harold !

The wheelcar saga came full circle to a rather elegant close on Saturday September 2nd (my birthday as it happened !) at the Hundred House Show where my restored car made its first public appearance alongside Mike’s Standard Fordson Tractor and Gambo.  He had used a very rare ‘iron horse’, a devise which allowed the shafts of a cart to be clamped to a tow hitch for use with a tractor thereby obviating the need to cut off the shafts. The gambo was thus able to be hitched to his 1943 Standard Fordson and the whole unit was driven from his home to the show field. The tractor which towed my wheelcar around the arena much to everyone’s astonishment and delight, was a nicely restored BMC mini tractor.  There were just a few for whom the vision brought back memories.  For me it was another piece of archival footage for, as with the horse, no films nor even photographs have been found of such an event.

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My restored Radnor Wheelcar on show back in the county of its birth.

The show is an annual pilgrimage for me and this year it held a particular joy as it was the first time I had visited since leaving the area (last year was a ‘no show’ due to the wet weather).  I met up with several old friends and customers whom I see little of nowadays. Many had come along just to see me and most importantly darling Emma brought me cake !!  And would you believe she is the daughter of the very farm where the dry stone walling training on Gower was sited, she had been down there that very week !  My world is definitely getting smaller !

Heroic Challenges

25/07/2017

I’ve just completed the second of this year’s Heritage Heroes project with another group of astonishing veterans.  The joint project between the Canal and River Trust and the Help for Heroes charity has been funded by the People’s Post Code Lottery and as I’ve mentioned in previous reports on the earlier projects, it is certainly one of the best uses of public donations I’ve seen.

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This time we found ourselves not far down the waterway from the previous project at the Caen Lock in Devizes but instead of the busy Kennett and Avon canal our base this time was the picturesque but disused Wilts & Berks canal near Chippenham.

Talk about de ja’vu;  I was constantly Dr. Who’d back to the nineteen fifties and another disused canal in Cwmbran, the old Mon & Brec at Five Locks.  The Wilts& Berks (NOT the Wiltshire and Berkshire due to a clerical oversight in the Act of Parliament granting permission to construct it in ) is a haven of tranquility and wildlife as was my childhood playground.  All the creatures of the still waterway were present and all the flora abounded along its banks and disused lock pounds.  True, there are a group of volunteers doing their best to reconstruct the lock system and keep the waterway open in so far as it can be – there are few places ‘in water’ along the whole stretch.  By and large however, the canal is a fine habitat and wildlife corridor and therein lies the debate about such restoration.

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The ‘navvies’ of course want the canal to be the industrial-age highway it once was, nature (and I suspect, most of those who walk, run and ride along it) on the other hand needs to be left in peace.  Nature has been in charge of this man-made corridor for a century and more and there are well established habitats and colonies.  There are certainly some rarities but somehow the stretch between Pewsham Lock and Lacock has been missed by the Wildlife politzei and has never been protected by any official conservation category such as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  That’s probably just as well or the keen restorationists would have some real problems on their hands.  I came across a similar issue up in Yorkshire on the Pocklington canal where five SSSIs ‘hindered’ those seeking to re-open the waterway.

However, there is an easy balance if only people would be willing to listen to arguments from both sides.  I and my merry gang were constantly aghast at some of the actions and arguments of the restorationists.  Of course, it is the case that the majority of folk have little understanding of the ways of the countryside and even less about the methods of sympathetic management.  We, unfortunately, arrived at just the time when sympathetic management was needed.  June and July are critical months for flora and fauna reproduction and the destruction of food sources and breeding habitats is to be avoided if at all possible.  Cutting grassland full of wild flowers, some of them rare, smashing hedgerows and pulling emergent plants from the waterway is not really the best way to help nature at that particularly important time of year.  For the sake of a few weeks much damage was wreaked on an otherwise stable and productive wildlife corridor.  You can imagine that I was not flavour of the (two !) months as I tried to persuade the ‘committee’ to not do what they always do ….. It became quite clear to all of us that their reticence to even listen to our arguments in favour of helping nature was more to do with their determination not to give in to any other viewpoint.  In fairness, the ‘obstinates’ were few and most of the volunteer team were good folk to work alongside.  Sadly it seems a common factor in community groups that committee folk often have their faults but being wrong is definitely not one of them.

As for the contribution of my merry team of veterans – how come they are veteran when they are thirty years younger than me !? – we got stuck into creating a life size outline of one of the narrow boats that plied the canal in its short lifetime as an industrial highway.  Using standard fence posts cut to around 300mm above ground level and hammered home using the brute strength of a sixteen pound sledge-hammer (which, because of injuries, only a few could wield) the 28 metre long x 2.7 metre wide boat emerged from the ground.  It was impressively big !  Surrounded by a post and rail fence a children’s play area began to take shape and with logs set into the ground to step up and on the whole began to take shape.

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For six weeks, Monday to Thursday, we bashed and banged posts into the baked clay, my oh my, was the ground hard !?  Some of the days in mid June the temperature reached thirty three degrees and the boys mixing mortar and laying bricks on the lock reconstruction had a hard time of it, the mortar was drying out far too quickly but at least they eventually had a sun-shade.  The post bashers remarked that it was “like being back in Afghan!”

The stoicism of these men is remarkable and humbling as is their ability to laugh and enjoy ‘the crack’ of being back with like minded souls.  Rank is never mentioned, there is some inter-unit banter but nothing serious, in fact little talk takes place around service stories, it’s more likely to be the appreciation of nature – in the form of runners and walkers of the fairer sex … and there were plenty of those along that tranquil shady canal bank.  As was often mentioned, “it beats working for a living!”

IMG_0363 My ‘Very Special Forces’ in a remake of a famous film where Aliens emerge from the maize …..  Six weeks of crazy bonkers laughter with a bunch of guys that all warrant our salute.

And now I’ve to get back into normal life and get some walls built, some machinery restored, some articles written and some talks prepared.  Somewhere along the way, sometime before the sun crosses the Equator, I need to take a holiday …..

Most urgent is to get my Radnor Wheelcar completed for the upcoming shows in its home county.  I’m well on the way but as the paint I am using requires UV rays to dry it and as the sun seems to conveniently always hide when I have the time to paint, it is taking rather longer than I had hoped.

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Resplendent in a vegetable undercoat, which is way to0 bright for a working vehicle, the wheelcar is beginning the last phase of restoration.  As soon as possible I will apply the top coat and deal with the metal work.

Whilst I was away in Wiltshire I happened upon a rather good ‘junk and disorderly’ kind of place.  It was the sort of antique emporium I cannot resist and almost as soon as I walked into the yard I spied one of the few agricultural implements I lack in my collection but it is one definitely on the bucket list.  Admittedly it was not in the best of condition, in fact it was snapped but it was mainly all there and certainly not something I could walk away from.

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The hay sweep was a common implement in the old days of horse harvesting.   Dragged through the field it swept the hay before it and once at its destination,  a field barn or rick stack,  the handles were flicked and the whole sweep was turned over ready for a reverse sweep.  As you can see, mine is missing its handles and has broken on the main beam but fortunately I have the answer.  Not far over the hill from me is an extremely knowledgeable and skilled craftsman who knows a thing or two about all matters farming and wooden.

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John Tonen of Brynamman is a Master Craftsman in the minutiae of wooden farm carts and implements.  He happened to mention to me that he had a model of a hay sweep which was integrally accurate and an exact scale model.  That is an enormous help to me in remaking the missing parts of my newly acquired sweep.

However, my contact with John is spasmodic and tends to be annual, at one or other of the vintage shows where he displays his magnificent collection of models.  He had visited me a couple of years ago to measure one of my tipping carts and subsequently made a model of it.  He has the only model I have seen of the Radnor Wheelcar and he and I have often discussed the origins and finer points.  I was about to write to him to invite him over to see my wheelcar, which is now only five miles or so from his home.  He beat me to it with a note asking if I was attending a forthcoming show as he had something to show me.  I replied inviting him to the farm to see my wheelcar which he gladly accepted.

When he turned up it was not just to see my actual wheelcar but to bring me a model of the very one held in the National Museum of Wales, St. Fagans.  A wheelcar made by the Lewis’ of Gravel Arch at Llanbister Road which I have written of previously.  It’s not often I’m left speechless, I really didn’t know what to say.  For one thing I know (or can at least guesstimate) how many hours it must take to make one of those models. For another, how do you thank someone for presenting you with something you have always desired but never ever expected to acquire !?  ‘Humbled’ might be the most suitable term.  And what an astonishing model it is, accurate in every respect and scaled at one inch to the foot.

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Can you believe this is a model ?  Exquisite or what !

I am due to give a lecture about the Radnor Wheelcar in November and had, for several months, been wondering if I dare ask John if he would either attend the lecture with his model or allow me to borrow it to show folks what a wheelcar actually looks like.  Well, now that problem is solved, except that for ever and a day I will be indebted to the Master Modelmaker from Brynamman.  Diolch yn Fawr John Bach !

 

There is a Green Hill far away …

12/05/2017

Goodness, Easter come and gone already !  How is it that every thing I try to accomplish takes an absolute age and my every movement and thought seems to be overtaken by yet another sunset ?  How is it that we are approaching the end of April and yet I’m still trying to finish February jobs !?  To add to my concerns the grass has begun to grow again and I’m away from home for another spell of canal restoration.  This time my Heritage Heroes and I are based around the Kennett and Avon canal near the Caen Lock flight at Devizes.

It never ceases to amaze me how eighteenth century engineers saw no problem as insurmountable.  “Let’s build a canal to link Bristol with London using the Avon and the Thames”. “And let’s make sure we join all the towns along the route”.  What a grand plan, but there is the slight issue of height and fall, in particular where the great mass of the Wiltshire downs blocks the route.  “Nay bother, we’ll build some locks!”  Yes, twenty two of them in one vast flight.  It is an astonishing feat of engineering and quite awe inspiring in spectacle.  For a lad from the wonders of the Five Locks at Pontnewydd (Cwmbran) on the Mon. & Brecs. canal, it is quite the most jaw dropping sight.

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Unlike our previous project on the Pocklington canal near York, this time we are working on a fully functioning tourist mecca.  Dozens of folk walk the tow-path and dozens of narrow boats ply their way up and down the locks en-route to their next pub-side night halt.  The engineering and systems associated with any lock is quite un-heeded by most folk and my crew are no different.  Some had seen canal locks previously and some had never, none of them had any idea how they worked nor the amount of water required to keep them functioning.  When it comes to water requirement the Caen flight is unquenchable.  Huge ponds sit alongside each in-between section so that water being released out of one lock (to allow a boat to descend) can be impounded ready to fill the next one down (for ascent or descent).  At the bottom of the flight the final empty gets pumped all the way back to the top by a solar powered pump, which of course is not original !

The canal reaches a high point south of the town of Marlborough near the little rural idyll of Burbidge.  In order to fill the locks at that point a huge pumping station, Crofton, was built and its beam engine is now an attraction in its own right.

One of the major repairs still to be completed is at a bridge near the pumping station, bridge number 99.  This particular bridge was built merely to allow the estate owner to access his land and has no public right of way across it.  It’s just as well really as right next to it – and I mean the other side of a dilapidated fence – sits the main Bristol to London railway where every few minutes massive high speed trains flash past or mile long freight trains trundle endlessly along.  Old Isambard wasn’t stupid, why cut a whole new route when one already existed, just buy out the canal and run your line next to it !

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Apart from the historic stature of the canal and its structures there is another aspect which is now protected and listed.  During the Second World War when invasion was thought to be a probability, various strategies were put in place to impede the progress of the invading armies.  Various ‘Stop lines’ were drawn up to which staged withdrawals could be made and a stand made, at least for a while, before retreating to the next line.  A water filled canal, like a river, is an excellent way of preventing progress of mechanised armies and so the bridges on the K&A were blocked with huge concrete bollards, weighing around 7 tons (old money) each.  It is a testament to the original bridge builders that the brick arches still hold fast with the half dozen or so concrete blockades still sitting on them !

As the bridge parapet needs rebuilding and many of the old facing bricks need to be cut out and replaced, a certain level of competence is required by my merry men in order to do the work to the required conservation standard.  Naturally modern cement is not allowed nor is it appropriate, instead a hydraulic lime mortar (HNL 5) is being used.  Now the use of lime is in itself a specialist technique and in order to equip the team with the required skills I took them off to my old friends at Ty Mawr on the shores of Llangorse lake near Brecon (www.lime.org.uk).  As it was the first week the group had been together it also served as a good ‘bonding’ session but, most importantly, they learned the basic concepts and practicalities of laying bricks using a lime mortar.  As always the reception was excellent and the valiant service of Ray in providing superb breakfast and lunches was much appreciated.  The venue is a superb place for a course and everyone was bowled over with the magnificence of Ty Mawr, the lake and the whole area.  Sunshine helped quite a bit of course, Llangorse with the rain beating down and the view of the lake blocked out by ten-ten mist quite a different matter.

 

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Installed to block the progress of German Panzers, these 7 ton concrete blockades are easy prey to a modern ‘pecker’ equipped mechanical excavator.

 

The bridge will take a good deal of repairing but once completed it will become another jewel in the canal system.  Its special interest comes from the fact it is a ‘skew’ bridge, which is to say that instead of crossing the canal at right angles (as do most bridges) it crosses at an angle.  This was simply an expedient way of respecting the existing ‘ride’, or bridleway, which the Duke of Marlborough insisted should be retained.  The actual building technique and the angle of the brickwork on the underside of the arch is quite astonishing and in fact, shows the difficulties the original builders had in fathoming out how it should be done.

My old school rugby pitches (West Mon Grammar for Boys, Pontypool) were named after a similar bridge on the Monmouthshire & Breconshire canal (Mon & Brecs.) at Pontymoile. ‘Skew Fields’ still exist and are still the home of the school’s Old Boys rugby team.

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Bridge 99 on the Kennett & Avon Canal – an unusual Skew bridge

The Easter holiday weekend saw me having to address a small wall collapse close to the site of one of my first jobs, over 25 years ago now.  A neighbour at the farm where my collection is housed asked me to have a look at a collapse on a wall which formed the boundary between his land and a neighbour.  It is a ‘hidden’ piece of ground and despite my years of working close to it, I had never actually seen the wall before nor the section of the tilestone quarries from which it gained most of its stone.

DSCF6124 The scar of the quarrying of the micaceous sandstone which roofed the homes and barns of the area for hundreds of years can be traced from this end of the outcrop, just south of Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire to Llandeilo Graban in Radnorshire.  Now just grassy lumps and bumps often covered in bright yellow gorse, the spoil heaps have been invaded by rabbits and, badgers and as here, a nice little nursery for a Vixen to raise her cubs.  I could hear them crying as I walked past.

The collapse is a typical happening on the walls in these parts; they are mostly of early nineteenth century construction and built by gangs during the enclosure of the hitherto open ‘friddoed‘, the better common grazing available to the local township.  By far too much ‘trace’walling, which is to say that instead of the stones being placed so as to penetrate deeply into the wall, they are laid as would bricks be laid, lengthways, was used.  This method of building is typical when a quick build in required and a ‘quick’ build was always desired by builders who got paid for what they put up and then very little.

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The strange thing about walls in this particular part of Carmarthenshire is the height at which they were finished.  Normally a 4ft/1.2 metre height suffices but here the builders have gone on to at least 5ft/1.5 mtrs and here and there, in order to maintain the appearance of a level line running across the land, they have levelled out where dips in the ground occur. So although in one sense the build is not particularly good – notwithstanding it’s been there since about 1812 ! – there are other aspects of the wall that show care and attention.  One of the main problems always with enclosure walls is the paucity of hearting, those stones which pack the centre of the two faces of the wall.  This is a factor of the build method whereby two wallers, facing each other, built the faces while an unskilled labourer threw stones into the middle without packing them tightly.  Thus over time the hearting settles to the bottom of the wall leaving the upper half and more, unsupported.  Gradually the faces start to move, either due to the pressure of stock or snow drift or just the spinning of the earth !  Ultimately a collapse occurs, suddenly and without any logical explanation.  So it was with this particular section, one day the farmer drove past and it was fine, the next it was down in a heap.  As always it had fallen one way and so all the stones were in one field meaning half the day was spent sorting and throwing half of it back over.

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It took me most of the Easter weekend to get it back up but that was in no small part due to my malingering.  It was such an interesting parcel of land and the walls were new to me,  I spent far too much time looking instead of doing.

The remainder of April and into the middle of May was spent with my intrepid Heritage Heroes back in Devizes on the Caen Hill lock complex.  It is a real honour to work with them and a privilege to (hopefully) play a small part in their recovery.  They certainly learnt some new skills and the products of their endeavours were a rather splendid set of steps leading to a viewing area which looked out across the flat open lands towards Chippenham and a dipping platform on the side of one of the feeder ponds for the locks.

They also constructed around sixty metres of access path to enable wheelchairs to get to the viewing platform and painted endless lock gate beams !  Oh yes, and they all completed their City & Guild Landbased studies award and learned something about Wildlife along the way – or maybe that is being too hopeful !

I’ve a few weeks R.&R now before starting it all again with another group on another canal.  However R&R for this Welshwaller means getting back up into the hills to do some quick builds before that happens.  And who knows, maybe I can squeeze in a little excursion to some remote spot for a little holiday.  Stay tuned – I promise to be more productive in the coming weeks, I mean to say, such a long break between posts will see y’all going elsewhere for your coffee time reading….

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

28/03/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welshwaller becomes an English Navvie …. again !

 

Animo Confusus Sum

12/02/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aix galericulata, Mandarin duck.

Mandarin duck at Llangorse lake.

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

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

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

Bramble garden

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

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

Digger clears a bramble covered garden

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

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

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

Old Red Sandstone dry stone wall gap is rebuilt.

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

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

Radnor Wheelcar restored

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

17/01/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radnor Wheel-car discovered in old shed.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Wheelwrights and Wheelcar

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

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

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

Wheelcar undergoing restoration

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

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

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

20/12/2016

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

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

Paddington Station

Paddington Station, beautiful and horrid at the same time.

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

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

The GWRline at Kemble in Gloucestershire.

Kemble station in Gloucestershire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tower of London from Cheapside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blwyddyn Newydd Dda.

“Act the way you’d like to be and soon you’ll be the way you act.” L. Cohen Esq.

25/11/2016

I have to say that I’m rather hoping Leonard is not absolutely correct in that assertion – it bodes badly for the United States if it is true !  On the other hand, most of the folk I regard as my friends and close associates must have followed that course as they flowed through their lives.

Many whom I have spoken to and corresponded with the last couple of weeks are variously dismayed or frightened or both – the world suddenly seems a rather darker place to them.  I’m not losing any sleep over it, though I certainly forfeited one night to watch events across the ocean, just as I did a few months back when we in this country decided to re-flood the English channel.  Que sera sera.  I’m far more concerned at the latest report from the climate scientists, another year when record temperatures heated the globe.  I do hope The Donald is at least correct about that; please, for all our sakes, let it really be a con trick by people out to make a quick buck (or millions) from making air conditioning units and freezers !

My time in Yorkshire was a period of no rain, my friends in the Carolinas are suffering drought – raging wild fires in November in the Blue Ridge !?  Since returning to Wales it has been mainly dry and warm as toast in the day and reasonably cold at night.  Creepy-crawlies and biting insects are still assaulting me when really they should be asleep or dead by now.  What a good year for fungus though !  Thankful we are for that, at least !

As for me well,the pleasures of a quiet retirement have yet to manifest themselves, work seems to keep popping-up and try as I might, my customer seem unable to take ‘No’ for an answer.  Thus it is I have found myself back in the upper reaches of the South Wales valleys with my friends at the Brynmawr Buddhist centre – or Palpung as it is correctly named.  Since first going there a few years back to train some of the folk in dry stone wall building – they have a large perimeter wall around the old graveyard at the rear of the old Baptist chapel they have re-branded – there has been an area of the ‘garden’ which has been of great concern to me.

Cemetery garden at the Buddhist centre in Brynmawr.

Cemetery coming alive with bright flowers and hard working volunteers. The Baptists are looking down, frowning no doubt !

The ground at the rear is much higher than the building and to ascend from the ‘back-yard’ to the cemetery (or garden as it is gradually becoming), some seriously dangerous steps, or rather, the relics of some steps, have to be tackled !  I seriously cannot believe one of the tribe have not come a real cropper whilst negotiating them.  I had rather hoped they would get a local builder to rebuild them but no, they wanted me to do it – that is a sure sign I am too cheap !

The important thing to make sure with any step building is to keep the height of each step and the depth of the tread the same all the way up and all the way down.  To not do so is to ensure someone will trip or fall headlong.  20cms or 8inches is the standard rise and the depth of the tread should either allow one foot to be placed comfortably, i.e. about 30-40 cms or 12 to 13 inches, or should allow for a land and one step before rising again.  Of course it all depends on the distance the steps have to rise vertically and horizontally but the given is the height of the riser.  A simple mathematical exercise will give you the answer, measure the vertical height, divide it by 20cms/8″; measure the horizontal distance from front to back of the ground the steps are to ascend and divide that figure by the number of ‘steps’ (risers) you have.  So for a vertical height of  4 metres you would have 400 divided by 20 = 20 steps.  If the horizontal distance was 10 metres you would divide that by 20 giving you a tread depth of 50 cms.  In order to get a nice even tread depth over the whole range of the steps some digging away of the slope or filling-in can be done.  Whichever way you chose, get it right, there’s nothing worse than an uneven, unequal set of steps !

Stone steps at the Palpung Buddhist centre in Brynmawr

New steps for my friend ‘Dai’ Lama, he has struggled far too long up very dangerous steps – but the carpenters had better get all that junk of my steps !

Fortunately there was sufficient stone, slabs and rubble to make quite a large lower set of steps and even though the upper five were much narrower I was still able to continue the 20cms rise by 32cms tread.  Of course, as the stone was not suitable for a dry stone set of steps I had to use a mortar mix.  Actually, where there is going to be  regular and fairly numerous ‘people traffic’ I always use mortar – in these days of ‘blame’ you can’t afford to have any accidents as a result of your workmanship.

Accidents are always just waiting to befall the unwary, especially when hugely heavy tombstones are involved.  I knew when the lady asked me some months ago, knew I didn’t really want to be doing what she was asking.  The old cemetery of the Brynmawr Baptists is a real reflection of how wealthy those old non-conformists were and just how determined they were to be remembered.  I have wandered around a lot of grave-yards in my time and yes, now and then you do come across large tombs and rather over the top memorial stones.  This cemetery must have had an income qualification, a bit like wanting to go and live in Jersey !  The memorial stones are just so ridiculously huge and massively heavy.  How do I know that ? Because I’ve just spent three days moving some of them, or rather, me and my little helper have.  Such huge stones are so very dangerous and have caused some serious injuries and even death to unfortunate visitors to churchyards.  At some time in the past twenty years or so many of the Baptist stones have fallen down or been taken down and stacked at various places around the acre or so cemetery.  In order to respect those graves the Buddhists decided to place the stones around the boundary, just leaning them against the wall.  Some have been broken and they are going to be used to create a sort of crazy-paving patio.

Moving tomb-stones - with difficulty !

“How do we move it?” Don’t forget, my ‘little helper’ – holding the stone – is 6ft 8 ins. tall and as strong as an ox and even HE was nonplussed.

The only way to get them moved was by a slow ‘walking’ motion, it was very difficult and extremely dangerous.  Several times we had to just let it fall when we inadvertently lost the balance.  I was both worried and annoyed; worried about my back and annoyed that I had been stupid enough to have allowed myself to be talked into it.  I am definitely paying the price, both my knees and back are feeling very damaged and painful !  We managed, with another helper, to move most of the large ones but in the end I had to say “No more” as ‘she’ tried to persuade us to move some really stupidly heavy stones which were lying out of the way under a yew tree.  I could see even my youthful helpers had expended their reserves of strength and energy and I had certainly done more than I should have done.  I suspect ‘she’ was not best pleased (as she didn’t give us her usual fond farewell !) but “frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!”  I’ve not got through twenty something years of building dry stone walls without damaging my back to fall at the last hurdle, or gravestone!

Grave-stones moved to the boundary wall of the old Baptist church in Brynmawr.

Grave stones of the Brynmawr Baptists now safely leaned against the boundary wall. How on earth did the memorial masons ever get them there in the first place !?

 

Whilst the journey time to Brynmawr is now somewhat extended as I have moved further west, I feel a sense of duty towards these fine folk but they will have to allow me to enjoy my religious celebrations before expecting me to return; that’s the birthday celebrations of Jesus and his death …. first full moon after Lent is quite late in 2017 I believe !?

Physical work is only one activity just now; I am engaged in some ‘archaeological’ research also but not the normal sort of landscape stuff I usually bore you with.  No, this time I’m in pursuit of some agricultural archaeology in the form of an unusual vehicle.

I say ‘vehicle’ because to call it a ‘cart’ would be to mislead the reader, it is not strictly of that type, albeit it is a two wheeler.  Neither is it a ‘wagon’ or ‘wain’, those terms by tradition would be four wheeled vehicles.  It is classed as a ‘car’, a wheel-car in fact but I rather suspect that term is a throw back to the Welsh name for a sled, car-llusg.  This particular ‘wheel-car’ is very much a peculiarity of the old border county of Radnorshire (now apart of the modern county of Powys – itself an ancient Kingdom of early medieval Wales).

dscf5021-3

 Radnor Wheel Car

I have been on the trail of the makers and the last remaining examples -one of which  I recovered from the hills of the old county.  Hopefully I’ll give a much fuller report in my next post – before the end of the  year !

Finally, with thanks to those of you who sent me ideas as to what the ‘mysterious’ object at the end of my last post might be, here is the answer ….

A large relic from a canal lock

No, not a watering can ! I’ll give you a clue or two, it’s been cut down, it’s upside down …. and it weighs over 300lbs !

It’s a section of the main frame of a lock gate – it is upside down and is the bottom of the ‘hanging’ post.  The metal pin sat in a ‘cup’ set into the floor of the lock and acted as the hinge to allow the gate to swing open and shut.  A real piece of history which, can you believe (!!!) a friend of mine actually identified.  I was absolutely astonished but then, William Brittain is a fairly astonishing Welshman.  Son of a ‘Llani’ doctor, expert cabinetmaker and educationalist and a man whom I shared a rather illustrious period of higher education with …. way back …. when Wales ALWAYS won a rugby international … yes, we are that old !

Happy Thanksgiving dear American friends – enjoy it while you can ! Black Friday eh ?  We’ll see.

 

Three hundred plus

03/11/2016

Years that is, a long long time ago is three hundred years, add a few more decades and you get way back into an interesting period of Welsh history.  The last few months have thrown me back to those days and I have enjoyed the company of some super folks while venturing there.

Just before I left for the northern climes of England I journeyed to the rugged landscape of the Rhinogs, north of Dolgellau and into the southern reaches of the Snowdonia National Park.  I was on an expedition with my dear Carolinian walling friend and two of Wales’ most eminent cultural and environmental historians.  We were headed to view an ancient farmstead which the Woodland Trust have recently acquired but we also had a stop or two on the way !  All of our sites were at least three hundred years young.

Then there was the weekend celebrating 350 years of the establishment of the great estate of Penpont, a few miles west of Brecon and home to two dear friends of some 25 years.  The wonderful mansion has been brought back to life in their period of tenure after falling into a rather dismal state in the half century prior.

Old buildings, old walls and, naturally, old tools displayed by old fools !  Let me begin with the first adventure, north to Gwynedd.

Stone lintel in derelict farmhouse

Massive lintels and huge stones make up the walls of this old farmstead.

Above the main A470 trunk road, where it wends its way north from Dolgellau toward the towers of the nuclear power station at Trawsfynydd, lies a steep sided valley, a re-entrant into the deep gorge which the road runs in.  A small stream, Nant Las, crashes over huge boulders and there, in the most sublime little clearing  stands a cluster of derelict buildings.  Such sites are common throughout the uplands of mid and north Wales but what sets the ruins in that part of the country apart is the size of the stones that had to be used.  Even in my fit and fastidious youth I would not have entertained using the stones the medieval builders of these dwellings chose.  The oft heard phrase when I mention the question “how did they do it?” is that “there were lots of men working on it”.  There are only so many men that can surround a stone and lift it six, ten, fifteen feet into the air !  In particular on this old farmstead the lintels which sat above the windows and doorways were extraordinarily huge and heavy.

The building technique was nothing more than that used to build a dry stone wall, just put one stone on top of another, cross the joints and make sure each stone sits securely onto and next to its neighbour.  There was no mortar in these walls, just the ‘dubbing-out’ of the joints to add a semblance of insulation and the interior was probably lime plastered though there is no signs of that today.  My friends, one a well known photographer of wild Wales and the other the country’s most eminent botanist, both with a fascination for old places and the history they exude, thought I might like to see this place …                           Yes, I just might !

Our main reason for the trip was to examine the walls and stone field barns of a very old farmstead high in the hills over-looking that monstrous edifice of 1960s electricity generation.  The Woodland Trust have acquired the old farm to protect its ancient hanging oak woodland but there are other parts of the farm, including the farm house and buildings, that merit attention too and I and my ‘attractive assistant’ waller were asked along to see what we thought of the historical aspects of the walls and the repairs needed to keep them stock proof.

Llenyrch lies at around 150 metres above sea-level, so not particularly high for these parts,. with an aspect which provides for sunshine and shelter from both westerly and northerly gales.  It lies immediately west of Trawsfynydd whose huge lake can be clearly seen from the homestead and to the north is the Vale of Ffestioniog and the Italianate absurdity that is Portmeirion.  The fields are ancient there is no doubt about that, cleared of stone long before the Princes of Gwynedd and Deheubarth were fighting each other, some of the walls may even have been built before the Legions bashed their way through the Bala valley and set up  camp near Trawsfynydd.  Some of the enclosures have ‘field barns’ in them and that was a feature I was particularly interested to view.

Stone barn in north Wales

Field barn built with some stone cleared from the fields.

It is a peculiarity to find such field barns in upland Wales.  They do appear but not in any significant numbers and often are relics left behind after a homestead has collapsed and been removed.  In Wales the general practise was to take the cattle back to the homestead, the Hendre, in the winter.  Hay, grown in fields protected from browsing animals throughout the summer months by removing them to the hills, the Hafod, was cut and dried in the field but then hauled by some primitive cart or car-llusg (essentially a simple sled) back to the same homestead to be stacked in a rick or later, in a barn.  The idea of the very substantial field barn of the type found in abundance in the Llenyrch area is quite alien to the Welsh agricultural scene.  Instead of taking  cattle and hay back to the homestead both are housed in the barn.  The hay, cut in that field, is merely swept to the barn and tossed loose into the hayloft.  A small number of cattle, two or three usually, are then stalled below and fed in a manger directly below the tollet, a gap in the loft floor through which the hay can be dropped straight down into the manger.  The cattle, chained to a post for most of the time, would be visited daily to be milked and/or watered.  A clever labour saving devise in one sense.  It is exactly the system which evolved in northern regions of England, it gave rise to the characteristic landscape so familiar in the Yorkshire Dales (and to a lesser extent in the North York Moors area).  Beautifully built stone barns dotted about the traditional hay meadows and fields make-up what is the main cultural and landscape attraction of those regions.

Waller in a wall

Field barn in North Wales, how big are those stones ?!

Why such a system should have come into play in that area of Gwynedd is something I need to examine but it is certainly a super place to spend some time in.  My companions are just the very best to undertake such wanderings and I can’t wait to get back up there and do some repairs – apparently a botanist is going to try his hand !

Conservation wanderers in the Rhinogs

‘Conservation Heroes’ was the title given to this photo taken by a young lady from South Carolina who enjoys the historic landscapes of Wales as much as those of us born to it.

Ray Woods is by far the most knowledgeable man I know when it comes to all things botanical and Liz Fleming-Williams’ enthusiasm for all things bright and beautiful, as well as old and Welsh (which is presumably why she likes me !) is absolutely contagious.  Long may we wander the hills and vales !

My other historic venue was much further south, in the valley of the Usk just west of Brecon.  Adjacent to the main trunk road, the A40, lies a stunning old estate mansion, simply named ‘the top bridge’, Penpont in another language !  Some twenty or so years ago I met up with the then new arrivals at the run-down mansion and together we, and several others, somehow managed to stage a Country Fair.  It also included a dry stone walling competition which our local branch of the Dry Stone Walling Association of GB put on as part of the national Grand Prix competition.  Yes folks, people actually go out on a weekend – after walling all week ! – and build walls for free as a competitive challenge.  So many metres in so many hours have to be stripped out and rebuilt.  If I remember we had a dozen or so competitors from all over England and Wales together with their own ‘rent-a-crowd’, their family, who sat immediately behind the waller and cheered him on (we didn’t, in those days, get any ladies competing unlike today !).  I do remember very well that the judges had a really difficult job in deciding the winner and runners up, it took them several hours after the end of the competition to come to a definite choice and then only after re-visiting the sections of wall a dozen times.

I had kept fleetingly in-touch with my friends at the ‘big house’ over the intervening years and was thus delighted to be asked to attend the anniversary event to mark 350 years of the estate’s existence.  Now I know that’s a strange number to celebrate but hey, we ain’t going to be around to host the four hundredth !!

The old Orangery was totally derelict and unsafe but look what it’s like today and as for the old box hedge ‘out back’ well, what can I say ?  Is it not just the finest piece of topiary you have ever seen !!?  The whole place is just so wonderfully restored and a joy to wander around.  They now host all sorts of events and have accommodation to rent.  The walled gardens produce wonderful fruit and veg all of which is sold through the on-site farm shop.   The management of the land and the adherence to tradition (and rules!) and the will to make things happen in a proper manner, restores my faith in such hereditary  land-ownership.  After my experiences on another old Welsh estate how pleasing to join up again with my friends Gavin and Davina and what a fabulous weekend was had by all.

I was  asked to display some of my old farming items to supplement a growing collection which they have already from the estate’s many farms and gardens.  There were the usual exhibitors, the spinners, the honey maker, the woodsmen and apple pressers.  Several other friends were in attendance, Ty Mawr Lime was busy all weekend and what a place to show just what traditional lime plasters and paints can do to invigorate old buildings.  Another long standing acquaintance, Martin Fraser, had his mobile saw-mill in operation planking one of the great old cypress trees which had finally succumbed to the ravages of time but still managed to be turned into some fabulous planks – nice to see you Martin.

Welshwaller's tools at Penpont

My little display was in the barn on the Saturday but outside once the sun returned on Sunday. What a great weekend I had at Penpont’s birthday bash !

It wasn’t all country pursuits and crafts, oh no.  On Saturday some very distinguished people gave fascinating lectures about the history of the house and the estate and my old friend Richard Suggett from the Royal Commission (on Ancient and Historic Monuments Wales – RCAHMW) gave a really interesting account of the great houses of Breconshire.  Needless to say all those lectures were sold-out well before the day !

Since returning from the dry lands of Yorkshire I have quietly got myself back into the old routine of some walling, some wandering, some restoration.  I need to get a few small jobs completed before the winter really sets in.  Fortunately I had an able ‘stand-in’ whilst I was away who managed to get around a few of the outstanding repairs and I’m beginning to think my customers are more pleased to see her than me !  www.whitneybrownstone.com has gone back to the Carolinas to complete some walling work of her own – and await with trepidation the outcome of the upcoming Presidential election.  Thanks for all your help Missie.

My Buddhist friends up in Brynmawr are calling, I have artefacts awaiting attention and I need to do the final round of garden work before putting the mowers etc. away for the winter.  I must remember to remove fuel from all of the petrol engined machines so as to avoid the clogging up of the fuel pipes which will inevitably happen if I don’t – heed the warning folks, empty your tanks !!

So, back to Wales, back to work, back to the weird and wonderful world of Welshwaller.  I’ll leave you with with a photograph of a little momento I hauled all the way home from Thornton Lock on the Pocklington canal,  can you work out what it is !? Answers on a postcard please – I’ll tell you in the next post, that’ll get you back !

A large relic from a canal lock

No, not a watering can ! I’ll give you a clue or two, it’s been cut down, it’s upside down …. and it weighs over 300lbs !