If at first … tri tri again !


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

Guernsey Tri Tri 2015

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

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

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

Guernsey Tri tri - ladies only.

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

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

Tri Tri Fry

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

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

Copo beach, Guernsey

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

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

Guernsey blockhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broken pottery chapel

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

Little Chapel interior.

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

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

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

Baptist to Buddha

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

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

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

Brynmawr Buddhist centre garden.

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

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

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

Walling at the Brynmawr Buddhist Centre

Budding wallers at the Buddhist centre in Brynmawr.

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

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

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


October 1915

Friday 1st.  Skirmishing at dawn.  Afternoon off.

2nd.    Working party all day near Forceville.

3rd.  General’s inspection and practise attacks.

4th.  Bath at Acheux.

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

6th.  Relieved Dublin Fusiliers in trenches.

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

8th.  Easy day.  On sentry at night.

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

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






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


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

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

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

Orthostat wall

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

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

Stone faced bank at car-park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1st World War, September 1915:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26th.   In trenches.

27th.  In trenches.  Easy day.

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

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

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

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

My Friends and other animals: Beulah Show 2015

Suffolk Black Face Ram. Beulah 2015

I would definitely want this young man on my side …. He is BIG !

Beulah Show 2015: the day began rather worryingly with a serious amount of precipitation and the forecast of the night before – “rain will have moved through by dawn” – seemed the usual pipe-dream.  But indeed by 10 am things began to brighten and by the time my friends and I headed off the show-ground into the hills, the sun was trying its best to break through.  By the time we got back, blue skies dominated and the afternoon was sometimes even warm !

As Vintage Steward (that’s a role not a description !) it is my task each year to plot a suitable route for the gentlemen and lady of the Classic Tractor brigade who annually attend to exhibit their wares.  As usual we had a good dozen exhibits and 8 tractors roamed the hills north of the village for a couple of hours.

Tractors at Beulah 2015

All lined for inspection prior to departure on the Beulah Show Tractor run 2015.

The regular runners are all local so it is unlikely that I can ever find a route most of them are not already familiar with.  I thought just maybe this year I had succeeded but it transpired they all knew the area better than I !  One had spent much of his child-hood at the remotest of the farms we came across, one still owned it and much of the surrounding land, another remote, now derelict, homestead had been the farmstead of the grand-parents of yet another rider and for several of the remainder it was a place they regular rode through on their quad bikes …. Ah well, never mind, they all seemed to enjoy the route and the views were certainly spectacular.  Also, given the amount of rain, the surface of the forest roads we were driving on was just what was needed so that we did no damage (apart from the usual air pollution !).

We set off from the showground just after noon and headed north west toward Abergwesyn.  We drove past the old farmstead of Lloft y Bardd, home of the inimitable ‘Bryn’ whom we lost just over a year ago but whose good and faithful friend, his ‘Fergie Fach’, I had taken to the show with a photograph taken a few years previously of him standing by it, adorning the bonnet.  At the Trallwm mountain bike centre we turned into the forest and passed through the land owned by George who had kindly given us permission to trespass.  A long slow climb led eventually to the old road that linked the farmsteads of the upper Cammarch.

Beulah Tractor run 1. 2015

The summit of a long slow climb that had the smokestacks puffing.

We journeyed along one of the forest roads towards the valley and came out at a clearing where we stopped and everyone chatted about this ruin or that ruin or whose parents came from there and how many brothers and sisters he had or who married the daughter from that place etc. etc.  It is one of the aspects I like about the tractor run; all the riders know each other and have done for many years and yet, out on the tractor run, they all find so much new information to talk to each other about and certainly, looking out over the old farms of that mountain prompted much conversation.

Whilst stopped at the first halt we were suddenly joined by a late arrival; a Fergie Gold (FE 35) owned by Brindley from Newbridge, a previous winner of the Vintage section of Beulah Show.  He had driven a long way from a little village called Merthyr Cynog which is high in the Eppynt, a good ten miles from Beulah.  Given we were in the middle of nowhere, a good few miles into the forest and had crossed several junctions and at least one cross roads, his tracking skills were exemplary…

Classic Tractors on the tractor run at Beulah 2015

The happy gang line-up in one of the forest clearings, Miss Carolina in the usual posing shades …

We had a new addition to the run this time, a retired local farmer, an old neighbour of mine in fact.  He borrowed a Fergie TED and by the grin on his face throughout,I think he enjoyed himself !  We had two Fordson Majors, one that had never seen hot water or a rag in sixty years, the other in immaculate restored condition, Dai and Deryl bring a touch of ‘before and after’ to the run.  Gareth and Shane had their usual cool look as they rode astride the Dextas, they have been coming since the very first tractor run 6 years ago.  There were two Massey Ferguson 35s, one of them was driven by a local man, Edwin, and he won the prize for best tractor, the other, which was clearly actually the best tractor, ahem, was the one of a certain South Carolina gal who was appearing in her fourth run and, as usual won the ‘farthest travelled’ award …

Another tradition which has become an established part of the run is to return to the Trout Inn for a pint and a plate of sausage and chips !  Eventually they all return to the show-ground and line up ready for the judging and for the visitors to enjoy the nostalgic display.  This year there seemed to be more visitors than in previous years and it was pleasing to see so many of them viewing the tractors and chatting to the owners.

MF35 girl driver

Whitney Brown leads the pack home on the Beulah Tractor run in 2015.

Edwin (Foxy)receives his winners rosette from the chairman and judge Huwey ! Fixed !!

Edwin (Foxy)receives his winners rosette from the chairman and judge Huwey ! Fixed !!

Tractors are now being prepared for winter storage, my little fleet will need to be squeezed back into the small barn. that is always a slightly sad task marking, as it does, the end of summer.

The Beulah show is nothing if not a local celebration of animals – horses and sheep – and the produce of gardens and school rooms.  As always the sheep section was very well attended and judging saw a large gathered crowd second guessing the Judge.

Judging Sheep at Beulah 2015

A crowd always eagerly awaits the judge’s decision.

Beulah Sheep Judging 2015

The ladies are made ready for inspection by the judge at Beulah Show 2015

Longest Thistle at Beulah Show 2015

Tallest American lady V tallest Welsh Thistle – both exceedingly prickly in my experience ! If I say she stands at around 6 ft you get a sense of the thistle’s size…

Some of the more bizarre competitions always bring a smile and the ‘Longest Thistle’ is one such.  Sometimes it can be difficult to scale the item in a photograph but having a 6 ft tall glamor puss (yes, that IS how glamour is spelled over there !) stand next to it does the trick.  Apparently Deryl won the competition.  Personally I’d be embarrassed to have thistles that long in my fields !!

Vegetables always amaze me.  I’m no gardener and certainly the growing of vegetables is atomic science to me,  so what was laid out in the ‘tent’ I found quite astonishing.  I felt somewhat overwhelmed by the effort and pride that goes into the growing and the displaying of the produce.  How ‘we’ find judges willing and able to separate one group from another and pick a winner is beyond me.  Spare a thought for the poor judge who had to taste dozens of pickle onions and decide on the best …. Surely once you have had one in your mouth there’s no way you can taste any others !!

The astonishing array of vegetables always amazes me - me who grows only trees and weeds !

The astonishing array of vegetables always amazes me – me who grows only trees and weeds !

The afternoon of Beulah show is rounded off by the ‘Trotting’races, that crazy spectacle where ladies and lads sit wide-legged on a wheel barrow frame and bounce along on solid wheels while a huge horse trots fast, a foot or so in front of them.  As if that is bonkers enough they do that surrounded by other folk doing exactly the same thing right next to  them !  It brings forth a large crowd and is a hugely popular sport here in Wales and it is guaranteed to get my admiration,  it looks SO uncomfortable and pretty darned dangerous !

Trotting races whizzing by

Sitting right next to the course gives a real sense of the drama and speed of the race.

It is only at the end of the day that all those of us involved in the Show organisation can sit and breathe out.   Those who attend have little idea of what goes into getting the show off the ground.  We have an amazing Secretary who does the massive amount of letter writing, fund raising and ordering.  There is a great deal of moving of heavy items such as sheep hurdles and tables and chairs, all of which come from some distance.  The massive number of posts that need to be knocked in to take the ropes of the trotting circuit is mind boggling.  Toilets and tents, vets and first aid, trailers and tractors and then, on the following morning, there is the whole clear up operation.  It is a massive effort by a few people that keep the show going.  We are lucky to have them, a neighbouring village has had to finally give up their show as not enough volunteers came forward to organise and run.  For over 80 years this little village has celebrated the agricultural and horticultural prowess of the locals and long may it continue.

A century ago in Flanders, my Great Uncle Dick was not having a jolly time …

Monday 6th September 1915.    Relieved of Guard at 1.30.  Nothing to do afterwards.

7th.  Working party at night.  Carrying pikes to trenches. Terrible rotten job really.

8th.  Inspection by Lt. Baddeley.  No working party.

9th.  Relieved Dublin in trenches at night.

10th. In trenches.  On sentry during day.

11th. In trenches.  On sentry again during day. Things are rather quiet.  No water to wash.  All very wrong.

12th. Building traverse with Cpl Griffiths.

13th. Working party making traverse.

14th. Working party digging traverse.

15th. Easy day.

16th. Heavy shelling during night.  Long rotten march to billets.

17th. In Varrines.  Route March at night.

18th. Working party all day near Forieville.  Plenty of work to do after 7 days in Trenches.

Back to some walling next week, jobs need to get done before the cold weather sets in, my lime mortar don’t like the cold !

Sad ? Who ? Me!?


I am well aware that many of my friends and visitors develop an involuntary shaking of the head, a bemused look of sympathy, a raised eye that students of non-verbal communication will tell you stands for “Sad B…….d”  I’m not talking here about out on the hill whilst I’m building walls, oh no, I’m talking here, in the emporium of my sheds and barns where languishes one of the finest collections of agricultural bygonorrhea ever amassed.  And if that is sad, then so be it, it gives me immense pleasure …I think !  However, every now and then I need some reassurance, firstly that I’m not alone in this affliction and, secondly, there are actually some who are even sadder !

I recently felt the need for such an uplifting experience so I headed off to a little place where I knew ‘a fix’ would be found.  I headed off to the annual Kington Vintage show, a two day extravaganza in the small Herefordshire town ( a mile from the site of the old United States 2nd WW military hospital at nearby Hergest), which is one of the best in the show season.  I went along with my old pal Les Smith who took his rather magnificent Norton racing motorbike of 1950s vintage which always gets many admirers.  It has been a few years since I went and immediately I realised I had been remiss.

There is one person who is guaranteed to erase my self-doubt, he is by far the ‘saddest’ collector I have had the pleasure of knowing !  Strangely, he and his wife are some of the nicest folk one could hope to meet.  As it was a few long years since we had met I was rather suspecting he would not have remembered me but a loud shout across the aisle containing a variety of interesting exhibitions of tools and memorabilia, did away with that notion immediately !  He was so pleased to see me and greeted me like an old long lost relative; this rather suggests to me that he views me in the same way that I view him, “the saddest collector I know”!!  But look, surely anyone who collects Electricity Insulators must come first in that competition !  He has the most amazing collection (numbering into the thousands) of insulators – you know, those white or brown china things that are fixed to electricity poles and houses to carry the wires – and worse still he knows the name, type, nomenclature, number, manufacturer, user, date of production, size of production run, end of life date etc etc etc. Can you believe he goes to the U.S.A. to a convention of like minded folk …. yes people, a convention of like minded folk !!  And you think I’m sad !!??

insulators for electric cables

Is this not just the most bizarre but most fascinating collection ever !?

But I’ll tell you what, it is a stunning collection of pieces of ceramic art, each insulator has delicate curves and shapes and represent the twentieth century miracle that was electricity.  There are even text books and catalogues about the subject …. my collection doesn’t have those so I cannot possibly be the saddest, can I !?

Kington attracts an excellent variety of all the usual exhibits from classic cars, tractors, engines, both steam and stationary and dozens of individual collections ranging from milk bottles and hot irons to dinky toys and oil cans.  There are all the usual ‘rusty spanner’ car boot stalls (my companion stands accused by his daughter and grandchildren of being obsessed with the items) which, quite naturally, is the first port of call for both of us.

Milk Botles at Kington 2015

This nostalgic display of milk bottles and dairy items caught my eye. The butter churn is rare !

We generally lose track of each other once we enter the melee that is the car boot sale.  We have some common interests and hence will gaze at the same stalls for a while but eventually he gets drawn to some motor-bike junk and I to a book stall !  Indeed I picked up two excellent little books (as if I need yet more !),one a copy, still with its dust jacket, of a collection of poems by the famous ‘Shropshire Lad’, A.E. Houseman.  It’s not, alas, a first edition but it is pretty rare to find in the condition of this one and with its dust jacket AND for the princely sum of £1, yes, that’s one pound !!  For those of you not familiar with Houseman – shame on you  – next time you watch ‘Out of Africa’ with the delectable Ms Streep (you know “I had a farm in Arrfreeka”…) you will hear one of Houseman’s greatest poems at the funeral of Dennis Fitch-Hatton as she stands forelorn and heart-broken on the mound..

“The time you won your town the race we chaired you through the market place; man and boy stood cheering by, and home we brought you shoulder high. Today, the road all runners come, Shoulder-high we bring you home, and set you at your threshold down, townsman of a stiller town.  Smart lad, to slip betimes away, from fields where glory does not stay and early though the laurel grows, it withers quicker than a rose”.  I can hear her reading it now, and that tragic stuttered ending, “and round that early laurelled head will flock to gaze the strengthless dead, and find unwithered on its curls a garland briefer than a girls”.  Dear me, no wonder my pal leaves me to wander alone !  My other book was acquired from the stall of the Kington Historical Society (a thriving group who have an exceptional area in which to be historical !), again for £1 and a real gem it is.  ‘The Diary of a Farmer’s Wife. 1796-1797’, it is what it says on the cover; the diary of a lady named Ann Hughes who farmed in a remote area close to Chepstow at the bottom of the Wye Valley where it enters the Severn Estuary.  It makes fascinating reading indeed:

Feb. ye 14. ‘This be Saint Val’s day and this morn I did see Sarah cum in from milkin’ looking all red about the cheek and her cap awry.  I bein curious did stop her, and she did say Carter True’s son did say he was her Valentine, and she had said yes.  She did giggel a great deal and I did tell her to get on with her work, and not to be a silly wench; but I fear me there will be much whispering and kissen going on, they bein both young.  I must be watchful of Sarah and see she do not neglect the calfs and piggies and hens, which do now lay good egges; which is good for me as John do let me keep hen monies for my pokett, which do suit me much”.

It is such a fascinating insight into the late eighteenth century country life.  A wander along the car-boot is a good start to any day !

There was much to see and many folk to talk to and there are also many miles to walk, dear me there is some walking done at these shows !  Far too much on view to attempt to even give you a flavour but I want to pull out a few of the more interesting exhibits; interesting to me that is !

Road Signage from the 1950s

Nostalgic road signs … trouble is I learned to drive with these !!

A collection of old road signs from the immediate post war period (I think) was a shock reminder of an approaching birthday …. they were the ones I had to learn for my driving test !! Halt at Major Road Ahead..  Never did get to ever meet old Major Road but I did once meet Colonel Hump Bridge, head on !!

If what it’s about is nostalgia, and I guess it probably is, it is not surprising therefore that I was stopped in my tracks by a bus !  Not just any old bus but one I most probably rode in over 50 years ago, and certainly one showing the destinations which every bus that came through my bus-stop journeyed to; it was my school route for seven years !

The eastern valleys of Gwent were served by the Western Welsh Omnibus Company and the buses I caught going to school – up the valley – usually set forth from Newport, at the bottom of the valley and headed for a strangely named place which I never actually ever saw until tens of years after leaving school, Varteg Hill.  My school destination was Pontypool and one or other of those bill boards would be displayed on the destination slot of the bus.   On the way home, down the valley, it was a Cwmbran destination or a Newport destination that needed to be boarded.  And there, at Kington Vintage show 2015 I came face to face with my past !

Western Welsh at Kington 2015

This Western Welsh is part of my late childhood/teenage years – it took me to school !

Before anyone points it out, we did not actually ever get to ride in an exciting ‘Double-Decker’ (where such fun could be had upstairs out of sight of the conductor !) because a short way down the hill from the ‘Lowlands’ stop where I got on, there was a very low railway bridge which meant we always had single deckers.  The old railway was closed in 1963 but the bridge remained for many years after, too many years as it turned out.  One day an absent minded bus driver taking a party of mums and children on a day outing, forgot about the bridge and tragedy struck, as did the bus, and the top was sliced clean off resulting in some awful injuries and although I seem to recall there were fatalities, I’m not altogether sure.  What I do know is that my father was emerging from a nearby side road as the double decker passed and immediately knew an awful accident was imminent.  Unthinking he rushed past the mangled top lying in the road and up the rear stairs of the bus.  What he saw haunted him for the rest of his days.

I had a long chat with the owners of the bus at Kington who were delighted to meet someone – so far from the towns in which the bus operated – who remembered travelling daily on them.

This I wanted to take home ....

This I wanted to take home ….

Walking around the vehicle exhibits I must have made up my mind that I wanted at least five different pick-ups and six classic cars and seven classic tractors and, and, and.

Dodge Weapons Carrier at Kington 2015

A very nicely presented WW2 Dodge Weapons Carrier was also very tempting but at around 8 miles to the gallon …

A very enjoyable and inexpensive day out at Kington Vintage 2015.  Old vehicles, old tractors, old buses, old funny all sorts of things and lots of old friends who just also happen to be OLD !!

As August bade farewell and my birthday month arrived I took myself (and some artefacts) over to the annual Hundred House Show held in (you guessed it !) Hundred House, or more accurately at the Forest Fields Caravan park just outside the village.  It’s the area I spent most of last year working in and there are a number of colleagues and customers who regularly attend so it’s a good ‘meet-up’ show.  I even had a surprise visit from a cousin whom I had not seen in a while which added a certain something to the day.

Chatting at the show

This, for me, sums up what a local show is all about – chat and catch-up

Sheep are a VERY important element of Hundred House show (as it is for my village show) and a big entry was clearly received this year.  In addition one of Wales’ best sheep shearing champions passed the day by shearing 400 lambs …. crazy S.O.B. !!

A knowledgeable eye being run over the judge's choice.

A knowledgeable eye being run over the judge’s choice.

The collection of exhibits in the vintage section is quite astounding for a small village show.  A good selection of mostly local old tractors is always assured as are many beautiful classic cars and a few odds and ends like me and some of the Llandovery Vintage club stalwarts who surprised us all by arriving, un-announced, after years of being cajoled to turn up !

“Its got an engine !?”

The crowd is always a big one and it can be a long tiring day answering all the questions that get asked about my exhibits but it is what show-time is about.   I have yet to go to a show and not glean some new information about an item, meet some new interesting farmer with a wealth of tales and knowledge to tap and always there are the new people, the folk who have moved to Wales and love to come along to their local show.

I took a small display of hand tools, different from those I took last year of course, and I was pretty much talking for the whole six hours of the show !  Sometimes it’s just a case of listening, sometimes it’s an in depth description of one or all of the tools on display.  Either way it is what it all about and whilst it’s a tiring day it is very enjoyable and enlightening.

These oldmarking irons were handled more than all the other items on my stand.

These old marking irons were handled more than all the other items on my stand.

A good couple of days which was greatly and gratefully enjoyed.  And now Welshwaller has to don the ‘organiser’ vest and get the 2015 Beulah Show tractor run organised.  It’s a day away, the route is recce’d and the trophies polished !  All we need is some dry sunny weather so’s we can enjoy the fume filled ramble through some beautiful Welsh countryside !!  Beulah Show cometh !  Now has anyone seen my tractor driving buddy from Carolina, she’s here somewhere …

The stable is getting prep'd, where is WB !!??

The stable is getting prep’d, where is WB !!??

And when they’re up they’re up, and when they’re down they’re down, but when they’re only half way up …


So,here we are, the middle of August and the weather is more like October and my productivity is more like January – zero !!  I am struggling to make inroads into two walls that have been awaiting my attention for over a year !  The one wall is just one of those that needs to be totally ignored, in the sense that it is a little daunting and therefore it’s best not thought too much about.  Just turn up (now and then, with an increasing amount of then!) and get on with it.  I find the mental aspect of the build has always been one I can conquer more quickly than the building side.

The wall is a mortared retaining wall about 4 metres high and the section is 8 metres long.  It is a slate wall built from the waste of the quarry which the estate operated for a century and more during the C18th and C19th.  I estimate the wall to have been built during the second half of the C18th when much of thebuilding of the ornamental gardens, the walled garden and house extensions, were carried out.  Unfortunately, sometime later, a yew hedge was planted very close to the edge of the bank which the great wall retains – the ground being all ‘made-up’.  Whilst most of the roots of the now 3 metre high and 3 metre thick hedge have tracked back into the soil of the raised ground behind, some have worked their way down into the double faced wall and over the years sections have regularly collapsed.  The growth of woody roots in the middle of a closely packed wall will force stones in the face to move outward and eventually a bulge occurs. The gap thus formed is prone to filling with water during periods of heavy rainfall and it is usually this factor which causes the ultimate collapse of the section.  This particular collapse had been threatening for years as the bulge became increasingly noticeable and acute.

Retaining wall of lime mortar and slate

Going up quietly. The stone is generally quite thin and hence progress in the vertical plane is slow – even when I’m there !

It finally came crashing down the winter before last – yes, in early 2014 !  For various reasons I have not been very good at getting there to begin the rebuild.  One of my hopes in delaying was that the yew hedge – the roots of which can be seen amongst the fox-gloves and the overhanging trees are visible on the left – would actually tumble out.  It has had 18 months and been subjected to terrible deluges and high winds over much of that time and it hasn’t moved a centimetre.  It ain’t going to fall.  In essence then, all that is going to collapse out of the earth bank has done so and thus I can happily build the wall back up without having to concern myself that the retained earth is going to come down on me !

As can be seen in the photo, the wall, whilst being a retaining wall, is still built as a ‘double’, which is to say it has two faces and a middle.  It is quite common in large retaining walls that such a stron.  As several sections of the old wall have previously fallen and been rebuilt with total disregard to the historic integrity, even to the point of using horrid concrete blocks, I don’t imagine my contribution will diminish the stature of the old wall.  On a good day, with the size of the stones and the fact they have to be dug out of the pile into which they were heaped by the digger driver, I’m lucky to get 2 square metres built.  But I’m on a schedule and I need to get going, up up and away !  Shortly I will have to erect my scaffold and then the job really slows down as every bucket of mortar and every stone has to be lifted upon the scaffold.

The other on-going job is at another grand house in the village of Beulah, in fact it was the original Manor house (and later Vicarage) which dates back probably into the C17th if not earlier.  I have done work there before and again lime mortar is required.  This time it is at the insistence of  the owner who wants to ensure all restoration is carried in out in the best traditional way using conservation techniques and materials.  His sympathetic restoration of the Manor house is producing some excellent results.  Paradoxically the job I am currently doing for him is a garden wall which is practically a ‘trompe l’oeil’  in that I am cladding a concrete block retaining wall (which he built some years ago but which also was built with a lime-putty mortar !) with old building stone so that it appears to be a much older wall.  Again I am using a 3.5 hydraulic lime and sand but in a stronger mix of 2:1.  The benefit of hydraulic lime lies in two main areas, firstly it can be easily mixed in a conventional cement-mixer whereas a pure lime putty/aggregate needs to be mixed in a horizontal mill, which is to say it is not tumbled but rather ground together as are the ingredients in a mixing bowl rather than tumbled.  Secondly it cures much more quickly than lime-putty – a factor of the chemical processes of production – which facilitates a quicker build time as further courses can be added within 48 hours.  I tend to build about 4 courses over the 5 metre length and then leave for a full week before returning.  Traditional lime mortar needed much longer to cure, probably over a month and hence is a much slower building material.  I am not ‘dubbing-out’ the joints (pointing if you like) but rather just leaving whatever mortar can be seen in between courses and stones to resemble an old wall in which the mortar has begun to fall out.  This also encourages more plant growth in the crevices created.

While I’m busy in the garden the owner is diligently dubbing’out the walls of the manor.  He is high on a scaffold, up near the barge-boards of the roof.  I came back from the garden – some 200 metres or so from the yard – only to see him up on the scaffold dressed in his bee-keepers outfit.  Apparently he was working near the entrance to a nest and he was concerned not to be stung as he had recently – after years of keeping bees and many stings – suffered  anaphylactic-shock after a sting on the head.  It is thought that a build-up occurs within the body after so many stings that eventually, after years of no reaction, triggers such an event.  In addition to his ‘space-suit’ he now carries an adrenalin pen with him at all times.

Bee keeping up high

Bee careful up that scaffold Ivor ! It’s not often you see a man pointing a wall dressed like this !

I am going to have to get a move on with both these jobs, lime mortar is especially susceptible to temperature, too hot and it dries out too quickly, too cold and it doesn’t cure effectively.  We could get either types of weather in the next month or so !

The other major job has been down in the Ebbw Vale area where the old mountain wall has been slowly being brought back to stock-proof status.  As part of the contract I had been asked to run a two day dry stone walling course for volunteers from the Gwent Wildlife Trust and staff members together with some other locals who had expressed an interest, including some ‘white-collar’ workers from the local council, Blaenau-Gwent.

After a morning in the classroom, which luckily was the wet part of the day, we had an afternoon stripping out the several collapses which I had left and preparing the wall for rebuilding the next day.  Working in pairs they all did exceptionally well.  Not only did they all complete the stints I had given them but they all built in such a good manner that none of the work had to be taken back down again – and that is quite unusual for a walling course !

Wallers under tuition

These two ‘Men of Gwent’ are local school teachers who also do volunteer conservation work – they were not half bad for school teachers !

Two of the participants were school teachers which , in normal circumstances can often prove problematic – “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach” (and those that can’t teach, teach teachers …”), but these two, being men of the valleys, took to it like a clout ’round the head and actually seemed to enjoy it.  Giving up days of their hard-earned holidays to come walling …..

The two council folk took some ribbing about their hours of work – they always seemed to have to go off to meetings … ahem – but they did fine and they too seemed to relish the chance to be out in the open having a go at something which they had often been involved in commissioning or grant aiding but had never known anything about.

There were two members of staff of the Wildlife Trust who also performed well and worked very hard, indeed the local based worker, Chris, had been with me man-handling some fifteen tonnes of stone for several days prior to the course and grateful I was to him.  The site was impossible to get near with a truck, neither was it possible to get a tractor near the wall and yet, somehow, the stone for the rebuild had to be got to site.  The first loads which had been tipped some 300 metres down the slope by the council was brought up using a power barrow borrowed from another Gwent Wildlife site.  It served the purpose but was difficult to handle on the steep sloping ground, and the narrow track did not allow for tipping so all the stone had to be handled into the barrow and out again.  It also was not particularly well maintained and starting difficulties resulting in a broken pull-cord on more than one occasion !  Nevertheless it did the job and a good job too !

Tom of GWT drives the power barrow - he seemed to always appear when mechanical aids were about but seldom when manual handling was needed !

Tom of GWT drives the power barrow – he seemed to always appear when mechanical aids were about but seldom when manual handling was needed !

The other ten tonnes came from a quarry down the Swansea valley and came in one tonne dumpy bags.  A four-wheel drive dumper was hired in and a competent operator borrowed from another GWT site to transport the bags several hundred metres up a steep and narrow mountain track to a position some thirty metres or so above the wall.  From there the stone had to be thrown down the slope to land, or rather be stopped, by a wire fence which runs next to the wall.  This Chris did with much aplomb likening it to both scrum-half training and cricket practise.

Luckily every last stone that had been thrown down to the wall was found a place in it; no-one wanted to have to carry it away again.  The second day was fine and bright and everyone worked hard and seemed to enjoy themselves.  I was more than happy to spend a little time clearing the site at the end of the day and bid farewell to the scenery of the Ebbw valley.  I’m to re-visit in October to take part in an open weekend talking and teaching about how important walls are for wildlife and showing folks how to build appropriate birds nests and creep holes and hideaways for critters !

The finished restoration of the mountain wall. This is the first time anyone has touched it for a long long time.

The finished restoration of the mountain wall. This is the first time anyone has touched it for a long long time.

The thing with a mountain wall rebuild, where you put all your skills and effort into doing a good job, is that generally speaking no-one gets to see it, except the animals that live thereabouts.  We encountered hundreds of froglets during the two days of the course, they had crawled out of the nearby pond and were making their way upwards, following some unknown call that no doubt generations of frogs before them had followed.  The ground was alive with them and at first they looked like flies crawling around so tiny were they.  I was interested to see if any actually got through the wall to continue upwards or whether the wall was their final resting place.  Sure enough, by the second day, hundreds started to appear on the up side of the wall continuing their upward journey.  Lizards were common too and the odd toad made an appearance.  Sheep were not very visible but some other interested parties came by most days to see the progress …

Highland Cattle

He had a very judgemental attitude, each afternoon he stood and watched for an hour or so …

I have to say there is something very enjoyable about working with Valleys folk.  It’s where I was brought up and even though it’s many years since I moved north, there is always a ‘Welcome in the hillsides’ of the valleys communities and a great sense of humour and joy amongst those that live there.

There has also been a little fun during the last few weeks, Vintage fun that is, some ‘steamy’ afternoons the details of which I will bring you in the next post.

In Flanders, one hundred years ago, my Great Uncle Dick was showing increasing signs of fatigue and frustration.  For the week beginning Sunday 15th August right through until the Wednesday of the following week (25th) he was involved in making roads.

On Wednesday 25th they returned to the line and started digging trenches at night in front of the forward positions.  This went on for four nights until heavy rain and lightning (which would obviously have silhouetted them to the enemy) made it too impossible to continue.

In the week beginning 29th August 1915 the company were engaged in more road building alongside Engineers.  The frustration shows through in the diary until on the Thursday night they marched through the night in full battle order “over very bad roads”.  The following night they marched again to their new position near Acheux.

Men of Steel (published on the 70th Anniversaryof the Hiroshima bomb)


Steel is on my mind just now. I am conscious of the fact that few of you will remember anything of which I write this week, fast fades the eventide …

The first item on the agenda is the commemoration of events 70 years ago (6th August 1945) when, at a few seconds after 8.15 in the morning, local time, a brilliant flash of light extinguished the lives of sixty thousand people.  A few seconds later a high decibel ‘bang’ deafened those that were left and this was quickly followed by frightening winds as the atomic wave swept outwards from the epicentre of the air burst.  Little Boy had exploded above the ancient – and mostly wooden – city of Hiroshima in Japan.  The men who had delivered the bomb were already some miles away when the flash occurred and soon they were to witness the sight which we all now immediately recognise, the great mushroom cloud.  Three days later Fat Boy exploded over Nagasaki, a different bomb but of almost greater enormity.  Those were the first and the last nuclear bombs exploded in anger that the world has ever had to endure.

Although those events of seventy years ago happened before I joined the human race, they have been influential in my life.  Firstly they framed the world of fear into which I was born, culminating in the (what seems today) unbelievable rehearsals for the ending of the world which accompanied the Bay of Pigs crisis in 1962.   How I remember the prayers at school assembly and the delicate way our Religious Education teacher tried to prepare us for the ending of the world !  Secondly the ‘safety net’ of our own ‘nuclear deterrent’ has given my lifetime an easiness which my forefathers never had.  Despite the awful wars and troubles that have pervaded the world since those terrible days in August 1945 we should all remember, absolutely with anguish, the events which secured that fear of all out total war, MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) as it became known.

It is certainly something which has been etched, for whatever reason, into my mind and a few years ago I stood in stunned silence, awe even, as I gazed down into the cockpit of the very aeroplane which had delivered the bomb to Hiroshima.  The B29 Enola Gay was named after the mother of the pilot who flew it the 1500 miles from the island of Timian to Japan on that fateful morning all those years ago.  Tibbets was the first man to bomb Tokyo in an audacious attack launched from an aircraft carrier in 1942 and he  dropped one of the bombs which ultimately ended the war against Japan.

Atomic Bomber - Enola Gay

The plane that delivered the first atomic bomb to Hiroshima on August 6th 1945 is now in the Uber-Hazy/Smisthsonian aeronautical museum at Dulles International airport outside Washington D.C.

Of all the historic items I have seen, looking down at that plane has had the most profound and lasting impact upon me.  It happened but a few years ago, a long long time after any conscious level of concern or thought on the matter occupied my mind.    As well as that shock which I felt at seeing that shining metal deliverer, for shock it was, I had another encounter with the reality of the dropping of the Atomic bombs.  Many years ago I met and talked with a man who witnessed the second bomb drop, a British pilot who went along as an observer.  Leonard Cheshire V.C. was an experienced bomber pilot himself and flew Pathfinder missions for the huge bombing raids that decimated German cities in the latter years of the war.  It is often written that such was the effect on him of seeing the Atomic explosion and the aftermath that he dedicated the rest of his life to helping disabled people.  In actuality that was not strictly the case; I had a chance encounter with him and another famous British war-time pilot, Douglas ‘Tin-legs’ Bader in the early 1970s and their thoughts on the matter of war as a means to ending conflict had a substantial effect on my subsequent view of the world. This week take a moment to remember an event that changed our world forever.

The ‘steel’ of men like Tibbets and Cheshire often comes to the fore in times of great need, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” and all that but there are other ‘men of steel’ whose lives are less notable.  I have been working in a place where such unsung heroes grafted their lives away.

The south Wales valleys are renowned as the centre of Britain’s industrial heritage.  Coal is the foremost of the great industries that ruled the region but iron and steel had their place.  The early pioneers of iron making, such as the Crawshays, came to the heads of the eastern valleys where limestone and iron ore were easily accessed and where coal and water were plentiful.  The valleys of Gwent in particular were hot-beds of iron and steel production for nigh on two hundred years.  One of those valleys is my current work station although my subject pre-dates by a few centuries, the coming of the Industrial Revolution.

Old mountain wall, Ebbw Vale

This old wall is getting some TLC, a bit of tidying up which is purely for aesthetic reasons ….

The valleys are an interesting place archaeologically, not merely for the industrial heritage.  The steepness of the valley sides and the very little flat land alongside the rivers which gouge out the valley bottoms meant that early agriculture took place on the higher open tops and small plateaus or ‘blaenau‘.  There are many prehistoric sites on the flat open ‘mynydd’ (moorlands used as grazing for the old farm townships) and several early Christian sites mark the coming of the Celtic Saints in the early years of that faith arriving on these shores.  The Romans have left their mark too with long roads and forts marking the route northwards from Cardiff, via Gelligaer, and onwards to Brecon.

There are many indicators of Early Medieval Welsh settlements with place-name evidence and boundary markers such as long ‘cross-dykes’ as well as yet more ancient ridgeline trackways.  All these exist above the steep valley sides which, along with the valley bottoms, were and still are in places, heavily wooded with deciduous native trees.

Thus it is not surprising that any field systems are also to be found on the higher ground and due to the harshness of the wind and the heavy rainfall, the boundaries of these fields are dry stone walls.  It is certain then that any walls, and there are many, which stand on the open inter-valley moors pre-date the coming of the industrial revolution.  Straight away therefore we know we are looking at walls that, at their latest, must have been built by 1800.  In fact in most cases the field systems and their walls are centuries earlier.  It is likely the one I am rebuilding is at least as old as the Acts of Union in 1536 when, together with Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries,  land ownership changed dramatically.  Prior to that date much of the area was farmed as Grange farms –Mynachdy – of the great Cistercian houses of Tintern, Llantarnam and Margam.  Indeed the very area in which this current wall sits was a heavily fought over landscape changing ownership between Margam and Llantarnam several times.

The industrialisation of the area saw the establishment of a large steel works owned by the firm Richard, Thomas and Baldwins or RTB to everyone who lived in the valleys.  The very site of that great works lies just below my work station and right next to me is a now (thankfully) disused tip which is undergoing ‘greening’ following years of dumping.  But that tip itself was created from waste land which once was the site of a great slag tip, waste from the Bessemer process in the blast furnesses below.  The route of the old tram-way sits directly below me, marking the route down to what was a huge smoke and pollution belching Dante’s inferno.

Over six thousand men worked there and it provided much needed and highly paid (relatively) employment to the community.  With its closure back in the 1980s dereliction and depression was the lot of those who lived on in the old lines of workers cottages.  In the early 1990s Michael Heseltine came up with the idea of Garden Festivals in several of the bigger ‘depressed areas’ and Ebbw Vale was chosen as one of those sites.  It was a short-lived piece of theatre and included some upgrading of the old derelict industrial sites and, in my opinion anyway (but then I didn’t live there !), it was a fun event and provided a much needed lift to the whole of the valleys.

Today the old steel-works site is no more, replaced by light industry, offices and social amenities.  The Garden Festival site is now a retail area and nice new houses – occupied by commuters who drive to Newport and Cardiff to their high paid office jobs.  On a part of the old works site sits the offices of my current hosts, Gwent Wildlife Trust and through them the wall is being renovated for the local Blaenau Gwent Council.  I just wish somehow we could tell the story of the wall and what it represents in the different layers, the palimpsest, of the valleys.  I was left pretty speechless the other day when two old men came walking up to see what I was doing.  They told me the story of their lives, of the years spent in nearby Graig colliery for one of them and a similar duration spent on the rolling mill of the Steelworks for the other.  They thought what I did seemed like a “hard way to make a living”.  Men of steel think I have it hard !!  What could I say…

I mentioned in my previous post an enjoyable event at Ty Mawr on the shores of Llangorse Lake.  150 years ago, on the 28th July 1865 a bunch of Welsh folk landed on the shores of Patagonia to establish their very own Welsh community in Argentina.  Whilst the first arrivals came mainly from the South Wales valleys, indeed four were from the very steelworks town I mention above, the original drive came from America.  A non-conformist preacher, Prof. Michael D. Jones, was concerned at the disappearing Welsh culture in the New England states as America evolved out of the multi-cultural nation it once was.  He persuaded 153 settlers(28 married couples, 33 single men, 12 single women and 52 children) to pay the £12 fare (£6 for children) and sail with him in the converted Tea Clipper the Mimosa.  It was not a comfortable journey that they undertook from Liverpool in the summer of 1865.  Nor was it a comfortable place they arrived in, a lack of farming skills was just one of their problems.  After some time on the coast the settlers pushed inland to the high plateau area of the Chibutt valley.  They endured a hard winter with little food and things looked very bleak for the survival of the colony.  Rachel Jenkins came up with the idea of cutting irrigation channels from the river in order to bring some fertility to the land and by 1885 the 50 mile stretch of the river had become the finest wheat growing land in all of Argentina, producing some 6000 tons of wheat in that year.  The twenty years in between were very hard but the colony survived and prospered and the Welsh language prevailed.  Today Welsh is still spoken and it is reckoned there are over fifty thousand descendants of those first settlers.  Y Wladfa Gymreig (Y Wladychfa) stands as a great tribute to those early pioneers who braved all to ensure the survival of their language and their culture.  Men and women of steel indeed.

My own ‘Man of Steel’ was enduring his own hardship and fight for survival 100 years ago. Great Uncle Dick was finding it increasingly hard to write and even harder to write anything cheery:

Sunday 1st August 1915.  Working at night with engineers.

2nd (Bank Holiday – ha ha) Easy day and night.

3rd.  Stand-to at 2 o’clock.  Digging party till 2 o’clock pm .  Tiring

4th.  Working party in afternoon.

5th.  Working party taking roofs off houses.

6th.  Working party digging in shell holes.  Happy as Rasputin.  (A very funny phrase indeed !)

7th.  Widening track for a patrol and rations at night.

8th.  Working party carrying Tank R.E.

9th.  Working party clearing roadway with R.E.

10th.  Working with R.E.

11th.  Learning trenches

12th.  Working party laying road.

13th.  Back at  Loneville.  14 mile route march.  Col. Jenkins commander

14th.  Working party with R.E. Route march to (?) at night 7.30

August is come, and cold windy days remind me of typical school holidays.  Soon Welshwaller will finish the repair at the Ebbw Vale site and begin walking the not so long and winding road that leads me to a quietier time, yes folks, Welshwaller is approaching retirement !!  Whether that means I won’t have any more walling tales to tell you is questionable, apparently there are several jobs I have forgotten about …

For now, I’m looking forward to another day of Steel, it’s the Steam fair at Three Cocks Vintage…. watch this space !!

Tales from the River Bank.


Summer evenings are best spent near water, at least that’s my view.  Nothing gives me greater pleasure than wandering along a river bank, stream side, canal bank or even the sea shore.  Notwithstanding one is likely to be driven to diving into the water by the endless aerial attacks of flying insects, most of which are unseen or unheard, evening shadows over water are sublime.

Weeping Willow on Thames

Old Father Thames slips by under this magnificent Weeping Willow.

I have recently had several such encounters, in between an assortment of small walling projects and the inevitable timber hauling.

The river Thames is not a water-way I have much to do with, indeed for the past twenty years or so my contact with it has been limited to the occasional bridge crossing as I head into or out of west London on a family visit or, more commonly it seems, arriving or departing from Heathrow.  Earlier this month, and indeed connected to a Heathrow appointment whereby my usual summer migrant was heading home to America, I had a more leisurely encounter with Old Father Thames.

Not wishing to risk a nervous drive from the wilds of Wales to the chaos of Heathrow and the M4 in time for a midday check-in, I thought it best to get near the evening prior to departure.  In fact we decided to make the journey eastwards a pleasant countryside poodle and thus we set of early the day before and headed for Hereford and thence the Cotswolds.   I had found an interesting camping site on the banks of the Thames at Benson just south of Oxford and thus a scenic route through dry stone wall country seemed appropriate.

Hereford is usually a traffic nightmare with its classic historical position as a focus of routes and the single crossing of the Wye.  The current ring-road is a constant nose-to-tail crawl whichever direction one is heading and thus it is common for a circumvention to last well over an hour !  Our journey was even longer as we got stuck behind a large and very slow chicken-processing lorry, the driver of which was clearly in no rush to reach his destination.  By the time we had cleared the city on our eastward journey lunch beckoned, whereas I had hoped to be pulling in for elevenses somewhere near Ledbury !  Tewkesbury was my intended lunch stop but time had gotten the better of us so we drove on through Stow and eventually pulled in to the charming Cotswold town of Chipping Norton.  Naturally my fellow traveller felt immediately at home as ‘Ooos’ and ‘Aahhs’ emanated from her lips and joined forces with the dozens of other New World accents which floated through the ancient streets.  My, how the Americans love the quaint and quintessential Englishness of an old Cotswold town !

We took afternoon cream-tea in a typically adorned ‘salon de te’ and I have to say it was delicious !!  A wander around the town, stopping to peruse the estate agent’s windows and the country-wear clothes shops confirmed our view that this was not somewhere we could afford to live !  So off we set toward Woodstock, a town which occupies a small part of my history.  I drove into the main street, past the Bear Hotel and on to the entrance to Blenheim for a sneak preview of what will apparently be a little birthday visit for me… we’ll see !

Shortly after leaving the historic town we entered the white-water rapids of the Oxford ring road, its raging torrent of fast moving cars and lorries re-affirmed my ‘town mouse / country mouse’ status.  Fortunately we had a very short distance in that melee before turning south toward Benson and the campsite.  Let me say that it was THE most amazing little venue; a small marina on the Thames has grown into an idyllic chalet, caravan and tent holiday venue.  It has a lovely restaurant right on the river, an ideal place to sit and wind-down after a long drive.

Canadian Canoe at Benson

What a lovely way to canoodle down a river …

The river bank was a real nature haven and as we walked I said, “I wonder if we’ll see a King Fisher”, and at the very moment one flashed by !  It has been a while since I saw that beautiful bird with its iridescent blue blaze zoom along the water.  I am envious of people who manage to capture that rarity on a camera, especially a shot of the bird on a post with a minnow.

The bank-side path ran upstream toward Abingdon and along the length we walked there was such an array of birds, trees and views.  I had forgotten just how much I enjoy a river-side wander.  What’s better than a cold beer sitting next to the river watching the boat people go by.  Unfortunately some of those folk were just the sort that give the English a bad name and make me want to torpedo them.  But fortunately there were more of the type who I could happily wave to and sit and have a chat; “put the world to rights” as my Granny used to say !

Swans on the Thames.

Way down upon the Swanee river … There is nothing quite like Swans to set the summer scene !

A little way upstream, on the opposite bank, was a very interesting structure indeed.  It reminded me of a grand Elizabethan court and it was easy to imagine the great barge with the uniformed rowers pulling the nobles upstream to their grand residence.  The wide steps leading from the water to the elegant garden eschewed wealth and grandeur but I have no idea what lay beyond the roses.

Landing on the Thames

The grand landing on the Thames upstream from Benson; what’s there ?

The flat open fields on either side of the almost motionless river are variously pasture and set-aside, which is to say they have been left to go wild and hence are full of wild flowers, herbs and bushes.  Tremendous old trees stand along the river and in the hedgerows that run at right-angles to the water-course in mixed hedgerows.  This is the ‘Champion’ lands of medieval England, the great open fields of Domesday not enclosed until centuries later.

The history of the place was occupying my thoughts as I surveyed the species in the hedgerows – some of the trees were not what I was used to seeing !  Suddenly I spied a strange structure in one of the hedges; it was barely discernible and quite out of place.  I tramped off through ten foot tall Giant Hemlock and reeds (Bogart in the ‘African Queen’ came immediately to mind) which, minus my trusty machete, was not an easy adventure I can tell you !  Eventually the grey concrete walls revealed slit apertures and I immediately realised it was a Second World War pill-box.  Hidden in the hedgerow it was well camouflaged and even in the 1940s when the fields would have been high with waving wheat, it would have not been easily spotted.  It was in excellent condition and as dry inside as the day it was built.  There was a large aperture and several smaller slits, clearly an anti-tank emplacement with supporting machine-guns.  What totally surprised me was the direction it faced.  I assumed it would have been set up to face the advancing German army as it followed the Thames northwards from the London basin but instead it faced north as if the threat was perceived to be coming down river, very strange.

Pill-box on the Thames at Benson.

Hidden in the foliage of an overgrown riverside hedge, this large anti-tank emplacement was in excellent condition. Is it for sale !?

Standing inside the emplacement and gazing out through the slit apertures across the flat open landscape it was uncanny how quickly I was transported back seventy odd years; it must have been a scary outpost in the dark days of 1940.  I wish these old fortifications could be given a little more recognition and protection, after all they were put there to repel invaders !  I suspect everyone who built them, sat in them and those who ordered their construction were under no illusions as to how ineffective they would be.  But what an excellent place to tell the story of the defence of that part of Oxfordshire.

A view from a Thames-side WW2 pill-box in Oxfordshire

The now obscured view out across open fields toward the town of Abingdon and the bridge over the Thames from  pill-box number 307

A little further along the bank we spied a triple arched bridge, quite old, crossing the river and I surmised that perhaps the pill-box was to assault any German armour which may have crossed and began heading down-stream; who knows !?  But I thoroughly enjoyed my little discovery.

A thoroughly nice way to go to the airport and bid farewell to a dear friend;much nicer than a race through traffic, heart in mouth with worry about hold-ups on the motorway !  Following breakfast on the river we headed off toward Twyford and eventually did have to jump in the morass that is the M4 heading toward London. Within half an hour Terminal  4 was on the signs and I entered my least favourite car-park … How I hate that place !  Mainly because Country mouse is just not equipped with apps, i phone technology, Oyster nor Cockle cards, swipe nor credit cards.  I just got money !!  It seems nobody wants real money anymore !

A short while later whilst on my way to a small walling job on Gilwern Hill (between Howey and Hundred House in Radnorshire) another water-side encounter brought a smile to my weather beaten face.  On the road alongside a super little pond I found myself slowing while a trio of young goslings from the resident Canada Geese family idled along the road trying to find their mum whom I had seen fly over the fence as I rounded the corner.  The fluffy little grey birds waddled as fast as they could go but as it was uphill they soon tired and eventually, after about 30 metres, belly flopped onto the road.  I stopped and got out of my vehicle to slow passing traffic and then, once it was all clear, picked them up and lifted the over the fence into the rushes that fringe the pond.  Hopefully they got reunited with their mum and dad before nightfall or else Mr Fox will have got them !

Canada Geese young

Running as fast as they could go these little goslings of the Canada geese family which reside on the pond were trying to catch up with mum !

I am undecided about Canada geese; they can be a welcome sight after a long winter as they honk their way down the valley toward the small lakes to which they habitually return.  On the other hand they do seem to be increasing in number and they DO eat a lot of grass and that in turn means they DO deposit a lot of poo !  Maybe we should acquire an appetite for the meat and then we would all feel a little more comfortable with them.  And what about all those eggs !?  Now there’s a thought.

A week or so after my encounter with the goslings I was driving past the same pond and was amused to suddenly see half a dozen body-less long necks with silly little heads standing amid the rushes looking like those dreaded Meer Cats standing tall.  I hoped that the shorter ones were the three youngsters although I somehow doubt they could have grown that much in such a short time…

Canada Geese in tall rushes

Look carefully – they are there, peeping out of the tall rushes ! Come out, come out wherever you are !

The walling project was along the ridge which runs between Rhogo and Gilwern Hill.  It was a small rebuild of an old farm-yard enclosure which had been built back at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the farm was first established.  It may well have been an earlier Hafod or summer residence as it sits on the edge of what was once open hill shared by a number of farms that exist in the valley below.  The hill was finally enclosed in the late nineteenth century and the fields have been continuously improved to the lush green state they are in today but here and there are fields in which the old open hill grasses and herbs prevail and these fields are an absolute haven for birds and hence a magnet to bird-watchers.

A piece of farm-yard wall which needed to be completely stripped out and rebuilt

A piece of farm-yard wall which needed to be completely stripped out and rebuilt.

The stone is very fragile, not unlike the slate I encountered in the Elan Valley last summer.  Being a shalestone (Silurian) it tends to fall apart in your hands as you lift it off the wall and dropping onto the floor results in a large pile of useless fragments.  The particular piece had clearly been rebuilt at various stages since it was first put up and not in a particularly sound manner.  In fact several metres literally collapsed at my feet – thankfully not onto my feet ! – as soon as I started to remove the large stones that were precariously balanced on top.  Indeed I had surmised this would be the case so had made sure I stood well to the side to avoid just such an event. Such was the violence of the collapse it assured me my decision to take it all down and rebuild it, rather than attempt a piecemeal patching which had been my first thought, was absolutely the correct one.  There are very young children at the farm and it would only have taken one of them to try to climb onto the wall to have precipitated a terrible accident.  Walls are very attractive to climbing little people and often the adults do not realise  how heavy just one stone falling onto a small person’s leg would be.  The sort of total collapse I witnessed, where around a tonne or two of stone falls outward, could be fatal.  I always warn parents to keep their young ones off walls. Dry stone walls are strong and sturdy but they are not finished with a paved walkway nor are they built to accommodate clambering feet and pulling arms.   You would be amazed how many dead lambs and sheep I have uncovered whilst stripping out a collapse.  I’ve found two badgers which had evidently been caught in a fall precipitated by their climbing and  even a small dog which had clearly wriggled inside a wall, after a rabbit no doubt.  A stone wall weighs in at around a tonne a running metre, more if it is limestone.  Please people, take care !

Meanwhile, back at the lakeside;  Llangorse Lake that is, I was having a jolly time at an event to celebrate the 150 years of the establishment of the Welsh community in Patagonia.  My dear friend from Ty Mawr is setting off in the autumn to re-trace the journey that those early settlers took and funds need to be raised.  I’ll give a full account of the event and some history of the settlement in my nest post.

My last tale from a river bank comes from a little community not quite so far west.  The village of Llanfallteg is home to one of my sisters and each year the village fete is a joyful July event which has all the usual attractions.  Heads placed in stocks to be thrown at, hoopla, bottle stalls, plant stalls and of course, my little ‘Guess what these are’ collection of old farming artefacts.

Tools at Llanfallteg Fete 2015

The bottle of wine is the prize although it was quite a vintage; the top score came from the folks on the left, 6/10 which is actually much better than normal !

My contribution is a mixture of old farming tools, ten of which are in a competition to guess what they are or what they do.  Visitors seem to quite like to have a go and even though very few have a clue what the items are they pay their £1 and put down some really amusing answers !  A winning score can often be as low as 3 or 4 and many an entry ends up with 1 or 2 correct answers !  This year we rose to the dizzy heights of 6 correct identifications and the folk (seen on the left in the photo) are not even from farming backgrounds !  No sooner had I announced the results than a couple of mature farming ladies arrived at the table and knew most of the artefacts !  It is very noticeable that fewer and fewer of the ‘older’ generation of today have any recollection of the tools I display.  Ten years ago I would be regaled with stories of how an individual had used a particular item, how good it was or how likely it was that it would cause a cut; what that person remembered about occasions when he or she would have been using the tool.  Sometimes it would be a memory of the person’s parents using it or at least having it hanging in the barn.  Even back then it was the case that the age of the person who was telling me the story got younger the further into remote Wales I displayed.  Clearly modernisation moved slowly northwards and ‘the old ways’ were hard to shake off in the uplands.

It’s been quite a while since I had stories told me of using such tools and implements or of memories of parents using them.  Clearly the folk-lore around the old farming methods is disappearing as the last generation to use or see them dies out.  All the more reason to get them out and show folk I reckon !

Fete at Llanfallteg 2015

The Llanfallteg Village Fete was busier than usual, or so it seemed to me !

The British village fete is a national heritage event, it brings together small communities in a way nothing else does today.  Whilst it is often the case that the same folk end up doing all the work, the very fact that anyone comes out of the house and voluntarily gives of their time and effort, not just on the day, so that others may enjoy a day out is a matter that needs commending.  In a time when everyone is so busy, so wrapped up in their own travailles and ‘important’ selfishness, how nice to celebrate with one’s neighbours and friends.

I’m an outsider in that community but I am made as welcome as anyone and I enjoy being a part of the ‘team’ if just for the day.  The ‘Community Heroes’ do not get the recognition they deserve and it is often only when they have left the stage that it becomes apparent how much they actually did.

The big Community Hero in Llanfallteg has, sadly, departed stage right and gone to another community where his skills will no doubt be of immense value.  The village lost its engine, its petrol and its mechanic when Dave King passed away earlier in the year.  He was a quiet diligent man who oozed enthusiasm and zeal for all matters ‘community’.  He was immensely knowledgeable in many areas from technical innovation to history.  He was a ‘go-getter’ who drove forward grant applications, ideas and opportunities which all the village and its environs benefit from.  If he had a flaw it was his manner of just getting on with it and not delegating responsibilities for the multivarious elements of the community activities he championed.  Thus his unexpected departure left a lot of head scratching and tail-chasing amongst those left to carry on the work. “Where’s the key for …”, “anyone know how this works?”, where did he get that from?”, ” and so on and so on.  For my part I found him always jolly and kind and whilst the fete was a joyful occasion there was a gap that will probably never be filled.

Dave King, Llanfallteg

The photo personifies the man; jolly, efferfescent and a Community Hero in the Llanfallteg area.

Another pleasure in visiting the village is the wonderful river-side walk along the Taf.  It is an interesting area for both wildlife and history.  Flat open fields on the right bank adjacent to the village display a network of ditches and along the river bank itself is a large bank which prevents flooding – or does it !?  Some years ago Dave asked me to have a look at the bank and see if anything came to mind.  I had never thought it was a flood defence, that made no sense as there was nothing to protect other than the flood plain !  The network of ditches gives it away, it is a system of water-meadow management called ‘Downward floating’ which is to say that rather than damming the river with a weir and a sluice system to allow water to be impounded and hence flood back upstream, the water is diverted out of the river above the meadows and allowed to flow freely over the grass.  The high bank prevents the water from re-entering the river until much further downstream and the cross field and perimeter ditches empty the water once the diversion ceases.  It was a system well used by the Cistercian monks (there is a fine example at Abbey Dore in the Golden Valley of Herefordshire) to prevent the ground freezing over winter and thus allow early grass growth.  The great house of the Cistercians at Whitland had a grange near Llanfallteg and no doubt they made good use of the flat fertile land adjacent to the Taf.

Cistercian river bank along the Taf

The high bank is clearly visible not least because today it is well over-grown with tall hemlocks, nettles and willow.

I don’t know who the land-owner is but he is to be complemented for leaving the valuable grazing along the bank and and field edge to nature. Of course such a large wilderness along a river bank is a superb habitat corridor and even though the footpath that used to run along the top of the bank seems now impassable (and hence the good view of the waterway has gone too) it is a superb haven for wildlife.  Something my dear sister values enormously and I am oft regaled with the latest sightings… “oh, just another Kingfisher eh !?”

River Taf at Llanfallteg in Carms.

Sleepy flows the summer Taf but it comes alive after heavy rain in the Presceli hills from whence it flows.  But its only got Otters and Kingfishers …what’s the fuss !!?

July is fast disappearing, already the Royal Welsh Show is upon us and that, for me, is the turn of the year.  Before long I will be getting my own ‘community’ hat on and planning for the Beulah Show tractor run in early September.  August will not be a holiday month this year it appears.  I have some work awaiting my attention in the Ebbw Vale area and still two walls to finish here in the village.  One of those has been long overdue for attention and although I have begun the long climb back to the top of the 4 metre high retaining wall, it is painfully slow.  Never mind, as I always say, “Every stone put on the wall is one less stone to put on the wall”.  Welshwaller is nowt if not a philosopher !!

The only Tale from the River-bank Great Uncle Dick had to report was from that devastated waterway of the Somme as the offensive momentum took hold in July 1915:

Sunday 11th July 1915.  In Trenches.  Put up barbed wire (this went on for 3 days !)

14th.  Relieved by Welsh.  Put on Listening patrol.  Raining awful.

15th.  Got in very late – 2 O’clock in the morning.  wet through. Marched to West Hook

16th.  In Barn at night. Marched to Loi(?)

17th.  In huts all day.

Sun. 18th.  Non conformist Service in Field.  Marched 6 miles to (?)

19th.  In huts.  Orderly move to relieve Welsh in trenches.

20th.  Carry parties to firing line.

21st.  Carry parties.  Plenty of hard work.  Complaining to officers.

22nd. Carrying parties to firing line and relieved by Welsh.  Marched to Loi(re?)

23rd.  In huts.  Broke off from 1st & 3rd Mons.

24th.  Marched to Credeauville (?) and intrained all night to Douelle.  On Advanced party under Lt. Dunn.

25th.  Arrived at Douelle.  Breakfasted on road.  Marched to (indiscipherable)

26th.  Stayed at  ?

27th.  Paid at L… (still unreadable) 8 Francs.  Marched at night 8 0’clock to (?)

28th.  One parade in day.  Went out at night for a walk with (?)

* It is clear that the rain had affected the pencil/paper and much of the last week of July is un-readable.

29th. One parade.  Bayonet practise.  Marched at night to   Auch ….ville (?)

30th.  On Guard.  Working at night in trenches.

31st.  On Patrol at night in tunnels.  Lost Sgt. Griffiths and Capt. Brown D.S.O.  Came back to Claremond (?)

The diary for July is difficult to read but is also clearly brief and understated.  It was a time of hardship and strain as the German barrages and the awful rain kept up a constant deluge.  It is the brevity of the entries that give the clue to the increasing strain he is under.

“On the idle hill of Summer, sleepy with the flow of streams…” (Houseman)


Goodness, the longest day already !  Where DID that Spring flit away?  It seems only a week or so ago that I was munching my way through the sickly chocolate of Easter.  But then, doesn’t each year bring forth such exclamations from me when the realisation dawns that only 187 days remain until it is Christmas… Spending those few weeks away meant I was catapulted back into a ‘full bloom’ countryside and garden.  Many were the hours it took me to recover the pathways through my own woodland garden and cut away the bramble to allow entry to the various sheds and barns.  I am always astounded at the rate of growth of bramble. one day, when I am retired, I am going to just sit by an emerging bramble and watch it grow, it surely must make a metre a day !  Of course, with full bloom comes full insect coverage too.  Midges emerge around 7 pm and that is the time to be thinking about heading indoors, unless that is one is protected by the exhaust fumes of a strimmer.  I find the strimming activity is a useful end to the day, it allows another hour of outside enjoyment as the evening sun lights up the western side of my wooded grounds.  Horse flies are not deterred by carbon monoxide so long sleeves are very necessary.  My absence also meant I arrived back to dozens of fledglings chirping in the bushes and flitting hither and thither.  Redstarts seem to love it around here and I have three pairs within a stone’s throw.  Pied Flycatchers return each year to two particular bird boxes I have in the hazel trees which abound in my hedgerows.  I am lucky to still have a small flock of House Sparrows which return each summer to nest in the open eaves of my roof.  Here too the best of my summer visitors choose to nest.  They are always late arriving and each year I watch the skies as April turns to May hoping they will make it across the thousands of air miles they have to endure.  At last they zoom in, like fighter jets amidst the more ponderous tits and Dunnocks, the very pinnacle of aerobatic display.  Swifts are fast but alas are fast disappearing from our skies, I spend an inordinate amount of time watching them of an evening, worried this may be the last summer… It is a sad fact that for much of our woodland environment, not just here on this old estate, it will be the last summer.  The continuing onslaught of diseases such as phytophthora ramorum and lophodermium, pine weevil, spruce bark beetle all of which are devastating conifer plantations and phytophthora kernoviae killing ornamentals such as rhododendrum, azelias and camilia is scary.  The broadleaf woodlands are suffering too with ash die back (chalara fraximus) the big concern but alder phytopthora is creeping along rivers and streams. Oak processionary moth is a cause for concern as it poses a major public health threat, beech is facing nothofagus, chestnut is facing the Japanese gall wasp and there are many beetles which have arrived from foreign shores beginning to make their presence felt.

Paragraphs removed whilst investigations are carried out.

Buzzard found dead in Beulah area

The whole of this area is especially popular for Green Tourism holidays.  Only last week thousands gathered to watch the annual Man V Horse cross country event; next door to the estate is a very successful mountain bike centre with various courses set out in the woodlands.  Walking and bird watching bring hundreds of people to stay and wander in the area.  We need to protect the fragile environment for future generations as well as for those who enjoy it now.

I want to enjoy a few more years of solitude and peace on the “idle hills of summer, sleepy with the flow of streams”… Once all this darned walling is finished that is, but there’s a bit to do yet.  No depressive moaning next time, I promise, just more tales from the land and works of Welshwaller.  I have actually been building you know !!

The diary of Great Uncle Dick has been absent from the last post but here is the news fro the front for June 1915:

Thursday June 3rd.    King’s birthday.  Review and Salute in Hergest Square.

June 4th.   2 parades.  Rather long day.  Adjutant’s parade.

June 5th.    2 parades.  Half day off.  On quarter guard at night.  2 hours on, 10 off.

June 6th.    On quarter guard.  Very hot.  Lovely singing from Ron Conservicus (?)

June 7th.    Route march.  Terrible hot.  Many fell out.  No sense in march.

June 8th.    Adjutant’s parade.  Very hot.  Only shirts worn. 5 feinted as drill commenced.  Treating us like dogs.

June 9th.    Much rain and lightening.  2 parades.  Rolle came back.

June 10th.    Route March at 4a.m,  10 miles !!  Parade in afternoon.  M&D at night.

June 11th.    Capt. Thormel (?) marched us 4 miles to duty. Stayed all night.  Awful marche through Popperingher.

June 12th.    2 parades.  Marched at night,  Trenches held by KRR.  Clinton and Maid wounded on road.  We had been                            treated like dogs in the rear.

June 13th.    Ration party out through communication trench.

June 14th.    Easy day.  Awful Poor rations.  4 of us at night went to a cottage to snipe dogs.

June 15th.    In trenches.  Guard at night.  Easy day.

June 16th.    Rolly Jones killed.  Heavy firing at Ypres.

June 17th.    In trenches on carrying party.  Ammunition and water.  Lie Slaves.

June 18th.    In trenches.  Went to house to keep guard.  Relieved by Welsh and Cheshire.

June 19th.    Cameout to bivouac in woods.  Slept in open.  Changed bivouac.  Rotten time.

June 20th.    In bivouac.  Other company digging at night.

June 21st.    C.O.’s inspection on parade.  2 hours in hot sun – daft.  Digging at night.  Rotten time. Rotten officers.

June 22nd.    Feeling unwell, feinted 1st time in life.  parade 12.30.

June 23rd.    12.30 parade.  Rotten time getting dressed.

June 24th.    1 parade 12.30.  Digging at night.  Communication trench.  Capt Steel killed.

June 25th.    Scavenging wood at night in pouring rain.  Worst than trenches. Awful night in bivouac.

June 26th.    19.30 parade.  Changed bivouacs to go into reserve.  Our battalion manned trenches, relieved by Welsh.

June 27th.    Orderley man.  Digging at night.  Rotten time.  In water up to knees.

June 28th.    Relieved to be in trenches.

June 29th.    In trenches.  Digging at night.

June 30th.    In trenches.  Digging at night.

Thursday July 1st:    In trenches. Listening patrol at night Many narrow misses.

July 2nd.    In trenches.  On sentry at night.

July 3rd.    In trenches.  Working day-time in woods.    Narrow escapes from Shells.  Relieved by Welsh.

July 4th.    On sentry as soon as out of trenches.  Marched to lower bivouacs.

July 5th.    Bivouac.  Marched at night to huts.

July 6th.    Went 6 miles in shorts.  Came back, went for bath.

July 7th.    General’s inspection.  Booker away from camp.  Absent

The months of heavy shelling and the terrible conditions in the trenches coupled with poor food and senseless parades is showing in the writing of Dick.  He gets himself into trouble soon !

In a land of Milk (Snakes) and Honey (Bears).


Most of us take a lot of time deciding and planning on an adventure, a holiday, a break from the monotony of the daily grind.  I certainly do, much of the winter is spent in fantasy land, planning expeditions to the furthest regions of the Realm. Every so often a surprise trip lands on the breakfast table, unexpected and unplanned, a bit like a pregnancy really.  Four weeks ago I ‘conceived’, or rather, was ‘conceived’ of such a surprise adventure.  Sure, it involved some graft, sure, it involved some heat exchange, sure, it involved endless hours sitting in a silver metal cigar high in the sky.  Sure, it was WORTH of all of it.  I was needed out west, in those famous Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I’ve been out to the ‘Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave’ several times and each time I have to pinch myself; I find it hard to believe I am actually there.  The long flight is even getting shorter – in my mind at least – and Airline food is actually very enjoyable !  This time my outward journey took me to Charlotte in North Carolina.  The normal crossing via Newfoundland, the St. Lawrence river and onward down the Shenandoah valley to Atlanta or Washington D.C. was not on the route card.  Instead we slipped out over St. David’s Head to cross the Irish Sea then onward over the Emerald Isle and began our Oceanic stage by passing over the Dingle Peninsula, glistening thirty six thousand feet below.  Landfall some five hours later was near Baltimore and off the port wing the great white edifices of the Capitol could be seen.  Next came the winding shores of  Chesapeake Bay and in the clear afternoon air I could see the great naval base of Norfolk in the distance.  Soon the hills of the Appalachian range appeared, through cumulus clouds rising in the heat of a May afternoon. “We are beginning our descent to Charlotte”, and in a short time the ground rushed up and we bashed onto the hot sticky tarmac of the runway. My previous excursions to the land of the Cherokee had steeled me to the elongated wait-in-line, the scary approach along the yellow line to persuade a stern Immigration Official that I was worthy of the stamp that allowed me to enter the Homeland.  This time it was a pleasant surprise to be politely questioned and bade ‘a pleasant stay’ – after checking I was leaving in a few weeks ! Outside the air-conditioned  glass edifice someone had left the oven on, it was HOT !  Miss Carolina, as is her way, eventually turned up having allowed me time to acclimatise, and we set of north toward the distant haze that was the Blue Ridge and the land of Daniel Boone and Cumberland.  A couple of hours drive along Highway 77 took us to the edge of the Piedmont and the foot of the mountains.  Soon we were high in the woods and before long my most favourite road in the whole wide world was slipping by under our over sized ‘tires’ ….  The Blue Ridge Parkway HAS to be seen, especially in mid May when Flaming Azelias and Rhododendron, Dogwoods and Tulip Poplars are in full bloom.

Azelias on the Blue Ridge Parkway

The Parkway is ablaze with Azelias in May,

The four hundred odd miles of the quiet two lane road runs from just south of Washington all the way to the Great Smoky Mountains in north Georgia.  With no trucks or commercial vehicles, with a 45 mph maximum speed limit, with altitudes over five thousand feet and views to distant horizons from specially constructed ‘Overviews’.Give me the Parkway as my morning commute and my evening solace, everyday !

It's what is says on the sign !

It’s what is says on the sign !

I would, one day, like to drive the whole length of that amazing road but for this trip a short daily commute of some twenty miles had to suffice. Ever since I was first taken up there – and I mean ‘up there’, the road runs higher than the great mountains of Wales (which rather suggests they are not that ‘Great’ !) – I have been fascinated to see the ‘worm’ fences of cleft hemlock (they were once of Chestnut but the great blight of the  1920s killed off all those immense trees) which line the upland pastures.  This time, in the house in which we were staying, I found an old book that explained how to make them, watch this space !

Appalachian Tulip Poplar

The ground was covered in the blooms of the Tulip Poplar which ranges throughout the Appalachian Forests.

Virginia Worm Fences

These cleft Worm fences line the Parkway where pastures grow adjacent. So simple and easily moved, they are so attractive don’t you think ?

The work-station was a few miles off the Parkway and involved passing through a small country town called Floyd.  It was absolutely the quintessential time-warp where wooden walkways in front of porch framed stores and good old boys sitting out front was the norm.  I immediately knew I was in a place which would bring a big wide smile to my face each time I went through.  That smile got even broader when we stopped to climb a rickety old wooden staircase to enter a small coffee-house.  The charming young waitress greeted us with the common question, “How are y’all today ?”, and a smile that shamed you into smiling back.  I’m no connoisseur of the coffee bean but with a little guidance from my host I soon got into the swing.  A rather good coconut macaroon set me up for a day of walling in sunshine that had me melting.

Floyd is a quiet sleepy sort of town but it comes alive on a Friday night and a Saturday morning when the streets are thronged with mountain folk and those that have ‘blown in’.  The locals seem to accept the presence of ‘white settlers’ and tourists although I did hear some laments at the loss of the ‘old ways’.  The incomers have come up from the hot south seeking the cool of the mountains and the lush green forests, those from the north have come in search of warmth and sunshine in clean clear air and the slower pace of country life.   If I  decided to move, Floyd and its environs would be high on my wish list.

Floyd in Virginia.

A ‘one horse town’ from an age long gone. Floyd is THE most charming of Virginia towns.

The Friday night music is famous and small bands lined the streets whilst in the ‘Country Store’, where a strict ‘no booze’ rule applies, locals sit and listen to local fiddlers, banjo and guitar players and ultimately rise to their feet to enjoy  traditional ‘clogging’ and a two-step waltz.

Music at the Country Store in Floyd

Floyd’s Country Store is the place to be on a Friday night – if you love the fiddle that is !

“Take your partners by the hand…”

I enjoyed wandering the street listening to astounding banjo and fiddle playing and even joined in with a small trio, singing some well know Irish ballads of all things. “As I was going over …” etc.  So impressed were they at my vocal dexterity they gave me a copy of their CD, with a suggestion I should listen to it before returning the following week … ahem.

Tower Spring Band of Pembroke, Virginia

Three members of the Tower Spring Band from the nearby town of Pembroke in Virginia, warm up on the Floyd high street prior to their appearance at the Country Store later in the evening.

There is something truly addictive about a fiddle and banjo pumping out a foot-tapping’ traditional song of the southern mountains.

The walling was a mere inconvenience to an otherwise thoroughly enthralling three weeks.  The heat was bearable, especially as a convenient hose provided hourly cooling off sessions.  It is always interesting to visit the ‘Stone Stores’ which are the depositories of geology from all over the United States.  Apparently both Pennsylvania and Tennessee are getting flatter and flatter as stone from these states seem to be very popular, at least with my colleague Whitneybrownstone .com but luckily it is a very similar sandstone to that which I encounter here in mid Wales.

Along the Parkway are various historic buildings which show the type of house and farm buildings that were commonly used in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Unsurprisingly they were always on my ‘stop to have a look’ list.  Close-by our woodland residence was an old mill which is apparently the MOST visited cultural site on the whole Parkway. Mabry Mill is a fascinating insight into an old Appalachian family who built the grist mill and adjoining saw-mill.

Mabry Mill, Meadows of Dan

Mabry Mill sits next to the Blue Ridge Parkway and is a real tourist hot spot though I think I was the only Welshman !

Ed Mabry was something of a ‘Heath Robinson’ character who, with no formal engineering or carpentry training, built the mill and all its working machinery.  He began as a self taught blacksmith and wagon builder having bought some land nearby the present site.  By 1910 the mill was in full swing grinding the corn of locals (there were over 15 such mills in Floyd County at that time) and Ed’s thoughts turned to installing a sawmill to provide the locals with good sawn ‘lumber’.  Together with his wife Lizzie he soon had the rack saw-bench up and running with its own separate power source delivered by the mill wheel.  The mill race was a wooden box construction which delivered the required water in an ‘over-shot’ manner thus providing much more power to run all the machinery.

Mabry Mill overshot wheel

The over-shot water wheel delivers more power by virtue of the full half turn of the wheel full of water.

The construction of the wooden race is a feat in itself running, as it does, over several hundred metres.  The trestle on which the wooden trough sits appears to be of chestnut and may be the last vestiges of that once common tree which provided much income to the mountain folk of the Appalachian chain.  The chestnuts were a valuable product that brought much needed cash flow to subsistence farmers.  In 1910 the neighbouring county produced over 160,000 pounds of nuts and the three counties that make up that part of Virginia produced in excess of 360,000 tons, over half of the total produced by the state of Virginia.

The current mill still contains the machinery of production and surrounding the building is the old blacksmith shop which Ed Mabry used and a small log cabin.  Various pieces of farm equipment and timber working artefacts are scattered around the well kept grounds.  You can be sure I visited that delightful oasis on more than one occasion !

Wooden mill workings

The internal workings are still in-situ and a local guide is on hand to explain what’s what.

There is something in all of us that finds the past intriguing notwithstanding nostalgia is not what it used to be… To see old homesteads and to imagine the lives that were lived therein, especially if some small details of the previous occupants is known, is of particular fascination to me.  The old log built houses of the area stopped me each time.

Slave house rebuilt at Virginia tech

This old slave house has been rebuilt on the site of an old plantation in the grounds of what is now Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

Cabin of Mrs Puckett on Parkway.

This single room cabin was the home of the local midwife, Orlena Hawks Pluckett. She delivered over a thousand babies but all 24 of her own died in infancy … not the best of recommendations perhaps.

Appalachian homestead

This old cabin once housed a family who farmed a small acreage out near Indian Valley west of the Parkway.

Parkway Homestead

This old homestead sits longside the Parkway near Meadows of Dan.

The whole landscape was evocative and shows how hard a life it was living in the high mountains.  It’s hard for a non American like me to forget the displacement of the Native Americans which prefaced the settlement of these regions but putting that to one side there has to be a certain wonder and respect at those early pioneers who battled all of nature’s artillery to clear small parcels of land and eke out an existence up there.  I read in one of the many books I perused whilst there that the Cherokee, who had been driven from the lowlands, the Piedmont, to the mountains, found it just as hard as did the white settlers and of the three hundred thousand or so that fled from the lowlands of the Carolinas within but a decade only four thousand survived to be driven into the reservation.

Typical dispersed farmsteads and meadows in the valleys of  the Blue Ridge

Typical dispersed farmsteads and meadows in the valleys of the Blue Ridge

The over-riding matter on my mind when thinking of those pioneers was how on earth did they deal with the totally alien wildlife !?  The animals, great and small, of the Appalachian range, indeed of the whole of America, are a total wonder to me.  I suppose I would be thought of as an amateur naturalist, I have always had a fascination with all manner of wildlife, plants and animals.  Thus the days driving the Parkway and nearby country roads were spent in total 360 degree observation, hoping and waiting just to catch sight of any of the animals that inhabit the region.

Appalachian Deer

Deer were the most common sighting, before they ‘high-tailed it into the woods.

Of all the animals of the region deer are the most commonly seen and, I think it fair to say, the most annoying to the inhabitants.  They are apparently the cause of more motoring insurance claims than any other factor in the whole U.S.A.  Fortunately the speed limit on the Parkway gives some chance to both deer and driver but even here we saw road killed animals.  May is the time for babies and sure enough I saw a newly born fawn with mum close by.  I got my chauffeuse to halt and got out to take a photo but mamma deer high-tailed it into the wood (the term refers to the habit of lifting the tail to show the white underside, much as do rabbits, as a warning to other deer that danger is near and its time to get gone and it also gives the deer its correct name of White Tailed Deer) and without a subsequent movement, little fawn slunk to the ground and disappeared into the tall grass with only its ears to give its position away.

Some years ago whilst visiting me in Wales, Miss Carolina was driving ‘baby car’ (her term for my rather small Ford Fiesta of the time) down my bumpy track when she suddenly slammed on the brakes shouting “Turtle!” …. Naturally I was somewhat confused and assumed this was some colloquial American term which referred to a female condition of some embarrassment or other. No, the dear girl had genuinely believed that a large round stone, which I have to say did resemble the back of a turtle,  was indeed a native Welsh animal.  She was rather dis-believing when I pointed out that, in fact, we did not have such animals which were indigenous to Britain.  This trip made me understand her confusion.  Box turtles, which resemble the tortoise I had as a pet an age ago, are quite commonly encountered and we saw two within a matter of days.  Snapping turtles are rather bigger, think steering wheel size, and rarely appear on land although I saw one idling along a roadside near a pond one sunny morning and another one floated aimlessly in the rather grand pond of some English folk we had lunch with.  That poor creature was about to experience a specially shaped fishing hook which would jank him out of that particular pond to be re-housed elsewhere, the lady liked to swim you see !

Box Turtle

This little creature was about to get its shell shape drastically altered as it slunk across the track.

They are the strangest of animals to see on a road in the middle of woodland.  The Box Turtle actually lives in woodland and only rarely immerses itself.  It is so called because it can literally shut both ends of its shell and disappear inside, I nicknamed him FedEx.

The Snapping Turtle is far more fierce-some and grows to over 20 inches (50 cms) with a rather scary beak-like tooth which it reveals as it holds its head aloft and gets ready to snap the jaw shut on some poor critter, or your finger if you get too close – I’m glad I wasn’t on the end of the rod !

Boxy turtle

Are you sure it’s not a Tortoise ? This little Box Turtle was heading in out of the rain.

Other critters which were seen in the fields were the beaver-like Groundhog or Woodchuck.  I saw several in mown meadows, they are big animals to live in holes in the ground, about the size of a small badger.  My favourite little animal is without doubt, the Chipmunk, something which will horrify a certain Berea Gardener for whom the cheeky little critters are a total anathema.  They dash about in the undergrowth or commit suicide on the highway where the largest bald-headed ugly buzzards you have ever seen devour them.  As usual road kills were numerous with Racoons and Opposums being the favourite, but I also saw Fox and Skunk.  You don’t actually need to see a Skunk to know one is about …

On my first visit to Carolina, while digging away the bank of a small creek in readiness to build a bridge, I disturbed a snake which turned out to be rather unfriendly but then I had awoken it three months early from a winter slumber.  It was a Timber Rattler which is apparently quite a nasty critter.  This time, hot steamy May, I was well aware of the likelihood of such an encounter especially as a pile of stone which had lain undisturbed for a few years was the source of my back-fill.  I gingerly removed stones over a few days and gradually got nearer the ground.  I reckoned that the cool damp earth under the bottom stones of the heap was the most likely hiding place … and so it turned out !

Milk Snake

This 4 ft long ‘snake in the stone’ was just where I expected him to be.

A rather long, if somewhat thin, banded beauty was curled silently under a nice flat stone and as its head was buried in a hole, it took a while before it realised the sun was on its back.  It then began to unfurl itself allowing us time to see it in all its glory, head and tail.  Now I have no knowledge of American snakes and unfortunately neither does Miss Carolina, her instinct is always to assume it is the dreaded Copper Head or Cotton Mouth, a bite from either proving rather paralysing if not fatal !  Thus extreme care is required, like shooing it away into the long grass.  Later photographic interpretation showed it to be a Milk Snake (Lampropeltis) which is harmless to us but not very nice to either other snakes or little mouse-type critters which it winds itself around and constricts the life out of them.  At up to 4 feet long and banded very similarly to the more venomous others it can easily be mistaken and often needlessly killed.

Virginian Band Snake

This little snake needed just as much care. it turned out to be a harmless Band Snake.

A short time later and a few stones more removed, another little wriggler was revealed.  This, to me, actually looked more sinister.  Black with a band around its neck, this much smaller snake had all the qualities of a killer, or so I thought.  Again it proved to be quite harmless.

Snakes are one of the earth’s creatures that generate fear and unbridled venom amongst us humans and the instinct is to quickly kill them.  It was a shock to me to discover this mind-set but similarly it was a pleasant surprise to find that our hosts/customers were not of that ilk and, as a matter of course, remove any snakes they discover whilst gardening, to a quiet corner.

I found myself tense and alert each time I went to the stone pile, actually I was both excited at the prospect of seeing another snake but also  nervous and tentative at such an encounter.  It was indeed an unusual walling experience.

Of all the animals that roam the forests of the Appalachian range one stands out more than any other as an animal I dearly wanted to see – but had no prospect of so doing.  I have, on my study wall, a picture of the animal which is the symbol of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Ursus Americanus is the must-see big daddy of the mountains and I SO wanted to see one.  On each previous trip I have bored my hosts going on about it.  To see a Black Bear was my all time desire.  It was a futile hope really, they are so elusive, so much so that few locals have ever seen one.  Except that is, the man whose wall we were building who not a few days previous had seen, and photographed (which he delighted in showing me …) a female (Sow) with two cubs in a hay meadow on his land.  On the very last morning of our walling at Check, north of Floyd, I casually glanced over to the left into a field below the road with a large wood along its edge.  There, plodding purposefully along the edge of the field was a very large, very black BEAR !

Ursus Americanus

I swear he’s looking at me … but is he licking his lips ? This made my day !

In one sense the sight of that beautiful beast ruined my trip.  For one thing there was seemingly nothing else to look forward to – but that was idiotic.  For another it was like the end of a long, hopeful campaign and the ending of such searches is often anti-climactic.  But it will stand as one of the memorable moments in this whole long exciting journey which makes up the life of Welshwaller !

Three weeks in the Blue Ridge Parkway was unbelievable.  I met some super folk and enjoyed illustrious hospitality.  I saw scenery and architecture, flora and fauna to fill several calenders !  And yes, we did some good walling which will hopefully remain for several centuries, just like the mill of Ed Mabry and the cabin of Orlena Hawks Pluckett

Welshwaller and Whinteybrownstone

Me and Miss Carolina,Whitneybrownstone sitting on the ‘stairs’ (that’s garden steps to you and me from the old world) which we knocked up in the last couple of days, just to show off you understand !

And what was it all in aid of ?  So Miss Carolina can get on a plane and spend the next three weeks in Wales … it’s hardly environmentally friendly walling, is it !?

Thank you, all you kind folk of Meadows of Dan and Floyd, for welcoming me and feeding me all kinds of amazing food and enduring my endless questions and exclamations !  See y’all again one day I hope ! And thanks Miss Carolina, you have no idea how I enjoyed that trip !

Perish the thought.


In a week that will see a new government at Westminster – and don’t think it hasn’t been difficult for me to avoid commenting ! – other significant dates have been somewhat overshadowed.  Firstly Friday, the very day which will see wall to wall media coverage on the outcome of the said election, marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war against Germany in 1945.  VE day is THE important day of the week to my mind.  We might also commemorate the terrible events of 7th May -election day here and the actual day hostilities ended in 1945 – when the largest ocean liner of the day was sent to the bottom of the Atlantic eleven miles off the southern tip of Ireland whilst bound for Liverpool.  The sinking of the Lusitania one hundred years ago was one of the most dreadful events of the First World War causing as it did, the deaths of some 1201 souls.  The Germans had warned that the liner was sailing into a war zone on her route from New York but no-one actually saw that as a serious threat.  Another significant date of the week is the 9th May which, almost incomprehensibly, marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the only part of the U.K. to be occupied by the Nazis, the Channel Islands.

70th anniversary parade Guernsey

Guernsey celebrates the 70th anniversary of its Liberation from occupation by the Nazis – the only part of the UK to be invaded. My daughter was there to witness the  parades !

Funny how those highly significant events which determined the future of this country, for instance it was the sinking of the Lusitania which finally brought the United States into the 1st World War and ultimately ensured victory, Victory in Europe and the liberation of the Channel Islands and now, the most dramatic election which will reshape U.K. politics for the next generation, all occur in May.  Indeed I remember writing five years ago when the last election resulted in days of bartering by the three parties to find a solution to allow two of them to coalesce.   What a week ! A new Government and a parliament full of raging Scots, perish the thought !

As for my week, well… When it comes to going away from home for a night or two I am not the first to pack a bag.  Indeed as far as I can remember, the last night I spent away from my lovely bed was 8 months ago and that was one short stay in a travel-lodge.  Prior to that it was the 2014 holiday in July !  Maybe that’s not so strange, maybe there are many of you who do not venture far from home either, after all, there’s no place like home … Never-the-less I did succumb to an invitation, albeit one of some years standing, and headed out of Wales to the other side of the Bristol channel and the once sodden county of Somerset.  I returned to an area I hadn’t seen for many a year.  Indeed it was over 40 years since I performed the duties of a ‘Best Man’ for a college buddy as he wed the love of his life.  I left early and arrived, after a three hour drive down reasonably quiet roads and motorways, to a scrumptious cooked breakfast.  We sat and chatted and remembered old times, as you do, then he walked me out and through some beautiful Beech woodlands that range over the vast area of the Blackdown . The area is designated an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) which gives it both recognition and protection against unsightly development whilst ensuring the characteristics of landscape and architecture are maintained.  It certainly lived up to its billing in my view.

Imagine just walking out of the back door into this !

Imagine just walking out of the back door into this !

Those of you who are regular consumers of this story will know that I have something of an infatuation with old field boundaries, whether walled or not.  Ancient field systems are always on my list of things to seek out and the woodlands did not disappoint.  Very ancient banks of earth and stone lined the many paths we walked and stretched off into the dappled light of the Spring leafed beech wood.  These old boundaries were large, high and thick and in many places beech trees had seeded and grown on the banks although they were clearly never intended.  I was surprised to find that the local stone was white flint.  I am familiar with the dark grey and black flint of the east and south of England but had not realised it was present in south Somerset.  White flint is unusual, in Wales any flints that are recovered from field walking or archaeological digs are the dark type and are indicative of pre-historic trade, having been brought from those far off parts of the country.  Any white flint is normally an indication of the stone having been burnt, intentionally or accidentally.  It then resembles  marble but there in the woods of the Blackdown white stone littered the ground and blazed from the ancient hedge-banks.

Ancient stone-faced banks in the Blackdown of Somerset

These large, flint faced,stone and earth banks range throughout the area north of Chard, Anglo Saxon or Norman I wonder ?

Stone-faced banks of the sort that ran arrow straight through those woods would most likely be Early Medieval if they were in the Welsh uplands but there in Roman/Anglo Saxon/Norman England, who knows !? I had a real thrill wandering with my old Seis Anglo-Saxon pal through his historic landscape. The ancient Forest, the King’s hunting grounds, had much to look at and I was even more intrigued when, later in the day, I came upon a copy of the Domesday Book for Somerset (History from the sources volume by Phillimore Publishers 1980) in which the very names I had seen on the quaint countryside road-signs appeared in the list of those ancient Hundreds and Manors.  An Historic Landscape indeed. One thing which was of note was that the woodlands were ‘young’, bereft of any ancient trees which one would expect to see.  This was apparently because of the clear-fell which occurred during the first and second World Wars.We walked not many a mile but were subjected to a delicious home-made soup on our return… I began to feel rather large !

A few years ago my old pal had journeyed to my little home in the hills and, on seeing my collection of old farming artefacts, had mentioned that his younger brother was in fact something of a dealer in those type of items !  Now don’t go thinking “Ah, that’s why you went!”, not so; but I couldn’t say no to the invitation to go over and see one of his stalls in a nearby antique centre, well, it would have been rude, don’t you think ? You see, farming and the tools of farming is as varied as the countryside in which it takes place.  Hence for me to be in a new land where methods and the tools that effected those methods differed from my area, was enticing.  Whereas many of the tools were actually the same or very similar to those that might be found around here, the names were totally different.  Of course many of the hand tools were viewed for the first time in my case and there was no way I would not have been tempted to export one or two back home to Wales, just as a comparison you understand!  Luckily budget restraints prevailed and only a few small items were acquired.

Barley Hook C19th

This old barley hook was a common tool in the C19th and early C20th when ‘stooks’ were thrown up onto the cart. It joins my collection from its Somerset home.

The area I was visiting was  not ‘chocolate box England’ but it was certainly very quaint with thatched cottages dispersed amidst the beech woods, high hedges with mixed species of trees and banks of wild-flowers, both indicative of long established features and, of course, the small country inn.  There was no actual village core, as is often the case in areas where the Normans did not re-shape the landscape by creating ‘planted villages’, instead the pub stood some way from the farms which stood some way from the church which stood some way from the old peasant cottages hiding in the dark recesses of the woods.  The pub  did not bear the name of the hamlet instead it, and many of the other features, bore the name of the local estate as is often the case in rural England.  We visited that little inn and I was treated to a super supper in convivial company with real ale and a real fire.  We walked the mile or so home along moonlit lanes serenaded by hooting owls.

I slept the sleep of the Gods. The morning dawned bright and after breakfast I was taken back to the home-farm where, forty odd years ago, I stayed during the wedding celebration.  I met again the ‘young man’ who had taken me out on that wedding morning to shoot a rabbit which I later ‘pulled out of the hat’ – a top hat actually – as part of my Best Man’s speech.  We chatted long in the old farm kitchen and then, much to my delight, got taken to the secret stash of farming bygones which the dealer brother keeps at the farm.  Now there I could have signed a blank cheque !  What an array of fascinating hand tools and equipment from a bygone farming era lay in that little shed;  I may have to go back sooner than forty years this time !

The other activity to add to the diversity of my week was a morning rebuilding a small collapse on one of my favourite walls down *Gwynfe way but this time it was under the watchful eye of a film crew. With camera in my face, microphone clipped under one of my chins and Wales’ best known TV Naturalist asking the questions it was a little different.  Although it is coming up to the second week of May, it was absolutely freezing with a cold wet wind howling up from the south and the poor sound man was having a hard job hearing us above the noise.  Iolo Williams has a long history of working in the Welsh environment in his pre-television days and has become well known for his programmes on Wales, its wildlife and wild places but he left the wall repair to me …

I also had to visit another of my old haunts, this time on the other side of the Black Mountain near Pontardawe.  Garth is the old estate house of the Pendrell family and I have written much about it in the past.  I returned to rebuild a small collapse in a rather high retaining wall which seems to constantly collapse and I know not why – was the discovery of a crow-bar under the debris a clue I wonder !? Luckily I was able to call on ‘my little helper’ who, at over 2 metre tall and blessed with oxen-like strength, found lifting the big blocks no problem at all.

Big retaining wall at Garth, Rhyd y Fro

The left hand side of the 3 metre high wall had collapsed from top to bottom, as far across as the wooden posts, why ? Who knows but up it had to go and hopefully that will do the trick – at least until I am retired.

It was a hard day’s work, clearing the fallen mass was not easy.  However by late afternoon the last cope-stones on the upper tier were in place.  At that point my dear friends Johnny and Jenny took me to see a rather remarkable ‘growth’ in the cow-shed. I’m not greatly knowledgeable when it comes to fungus, indeed so incompetent am  I that rather than risk an upset tummy, or worse, I do not ever pick mushrooms or toadstools.  I know a man in my old village who grows strange coloured mushrooms in a dark shed on rotting logs of timber and sells them to high class restaurants in London.  I wouldn’t even risk those ! The strange but enchanting display which was revealed as the old cow-shed door was opened elicited such a smile from both of us.  The frothy-coffee colour and the bell head looked for all the world as if they were porcelain such as can be seen in classy craft shops.  But no, these were natural and seemed to be profuse throughout the dark inner sanctum of the byre. Apparently they are the panaeolus semiovatus or egg-head motte-gill and are common throughout the British isles and north America.  Common in any dung heap or in fields where dung has been spread they are found from May to November,  Common or not I had never seen such an artistic display.

Panaeolus semiovatus

She was very thrilled with her very own artistic display of the egg-head motte-gill mushroom.

As we are moving into warmer times, supposedly, I’ve been getting the ‘collection’ out of moth-balls ready for some appearances.  First to be awakened are the tractors which have been wrapped against the cold and damp of the winter shed.  I keep the batteries off the machines and on a trickle charge throughout the winter months so they are ready for action.  Tyres will sometimes seep some air and need re-inflating but there is always the slight worry, perish the thought, that they may just have ….perished !  The Standard Fordson is the last to be backed into the hibernation hole and thus has to be the first to be fired up and driven out.  She always has leaky tyres especially the front ones but they are the original 1943 tyres so I can hardly complain !  Modern petrol is a real problem when it comes to being left in a fuel tank or in the fuel lines.  There is an additive which solidifies and blocks the pipes if left in for more than a few months – lawn-mowers are especially prone to suffer !  Thus the fuel system needs to be drained before being put to bed.  So too the diesel which is produced today has a tendency to separate out the various additives which supposedly makes it clean and so it too needs to be drained.  The problem with leaving fuel tanks empty throughout the winter is that condensation builds up and creates rusting which eventually creates pin-holes in the metal tank and results in tiny pieces of rust blocking the system especially the carburretor.  To avoid this I always fill the tanks with paraffin which does the trick very well but of course I need to remember to drain it before I attempt to start the engines !  Many old tractors suffered the ignominy of a cracked engine block when water was left in the radiator over winter.  Modern anti-freeze does two jobs, it prevents freezing of the water but almost more importantly, it stops rusting in the narrow tubes of the block and the radiator so I keep it in all my tractors at a high percentage (50/50) and make sure it is renewed after two winters which is all it is guaranteed for.

Fordson N 1943

The 72 year old Fordson wakes from her winter hibernation and emerges into Spring sunshine – reluctantly !

The old Fordson is always a temperamental starter but she eventually kicks into life and after running for a while on petrol I switch her over to TVO (tractor vaporising oil) which is definitely her preferred fuel. At 72 years of age this month she is the Queen of the collection and gets away with more than the others ! I drove her out into an early Spring sunshine and got to work on the other two.  The ‘Fergie Fach’ was next in line and once the battery was put on and new petrol poured into the tank she fired up first go but the tyres were a different proposition.  There’s always been a slow leak in the front left, even when dear old Bryn had her I used to have to go up to the farm regularly to blow it up for him.  One day soon it will get fixed as the tyre is beginning to show signs of perishing.  Not the same with the rear tyre, the one original Firestone is still on her.  I knew it was poorly, for as long as I’ve known the tractor there has been a prolapse on the inside wall, the innards are trying to get out !  I started to pump air into the tyre but nothing seemed to be happening, when I looked to the inner side of the wheel I saw the problem …

Fergie rear tyre burst

The problem is clear – if you have a prolapse make sure it is at the top !

I saw immediately that the tyre had finally split open and was a total basket case.  Unfortunately a new tyre is a bit out of the question just now, at around £300 including the dreaded 20% VAT it will have to wait a while. As it was pouring with rain I had no choice but to  back the tractor into a position where I could remove the wheel and jacked her up. Now a tractor wheel is not light, even on a small grey 1951 Fergie, so care needs to be taken.  Luckily the wheel nuts were well oiled and came away easily after which the wheel slipped off the hub.  I wheeled it out and rolled it down to the trailer to await the tyre shop.  Once I dropped it down on the ground the extent of the rot was clear, it looked like a shark had bitten into it !

Perished beyond repair, but it is 65 years old !

Perished beyond repair, but it is 65 years old !

The tread was as new indicating how little use this old tractor had experienced.  That of course makes the demise harder to bear, if the tread was threadbare well then a new tyre would be expected but this one is like new ! So now I had a three wheel tractor blocking the path of the Massey 35 out of the shed.  Nevertheless I decided to start her up.  That’s not as simple as just putting fresh red diesel in the tank and connecting up the battery, oh no.  The fuel system of the old 3 cylinder engine requires that each cylinder has to be individually bled of air until fuel flows freely.  That requires turning the engine over while unlocking the nut that secures the inlet pipe from the injector pump.  Each cylinder in turn is loosened and tightened as fuel squirts out.  Everything was going fine until the last cylinder and then, out of the blue, the engine stopped starting !  I thought maybe the battery had run low or, perish the thought,the starter motor had burnt out!  I put the battery on charge and left it and the tractor alone for the night.  Next morning, with a fully charged battery, I tried again but the same ‘no response’ was the result.  Fearing it was indeed the starter motor I decided to call in the man who got her running for me a year ago.

Grey Fergie minus a wheel

The Fergie is minus a wheel which means the 35 is stuck in the shed for a while.

A couple of (wet) days later Les duly called by and, fearlessly, shorted the two poles of the starter motor with a spanner – something I never like doing – and the starter motor fired up.  So, it was an electrical fault.  A spare piece of wire soon found the offending connection and within half an hour all was back to normal.

The 35 is ready for the road, just as soon as a new tyre is fitted to the little Fergie. That just leaves me with one last tractor problem, and another ‘perish the thought’ moment.  A while ago I was pulling the International 434 out of the yard when I suddenly felt the wing jump rhythmically.  It turned out I had driven over a small piece of batten out of which protruded two four inch nails and of course they had inserted themselves deeply into my rear tyre.  Now that tyre also shows signs of perishing but it has some age, about 45 years, and it stood outside for many a year.  I was worried it would not be salvageable but hoped a new inner tube would suffice.  I drove it down to my good and faithful tyre man in Llandovery, Sammy tyres (Llandovery Tyres & Battery) and I have been pals for longer than either of us would want to remember.  He has built a big business with a big reputation but remains the same old ‘local boy’ he always was.  He has some really good workers and one of them assured me the tyre would be fine with a new tube.

Just another wheel to put back on a tractor !  At least the 434 didn't require a new tyre ...

Just another wheel to put back on a tractor ! At least the 434 didn’t require a new tyre …

Have you noticed how, when you try to get one thing done, something else crops up to impede the forward movement.  Like when I was hauling the 35 back over the Black Mountain with my old Land Rover Discovery I blew the head and had to get a new one plus all the gaskets etc.  This time, with my supposedly much newer and better Discovery 2, I was driving down to Llandovery with my small stock trailer in which was my 434 wheel and punctured tyre when …

Stopped at some traffic lights I suddenly got a waft of hot brakes as a large truck passed in the opposite direction.  “He’s got a brake problem” quoth me.  When I pulled into Sammy’s yard fifteen minutes later I could still smell it ….  When I put my hand onto my rear nearside wheel the skin blistered immediately !  My brake calliper had seized, no doubt from lack of use, and the whole wheel and tyre was about to ignite !

So, for every problem I’ve tried to solve this past week or so I’ve ended up with at least two others !!  Now I have to consider whether to replace one or both of my rear brake callipers and probably the pads and probably the housing and probably … Perish the thought, I’m heading for the hills !

Diary of Uncle Dick from May 1915, just 30 years before VE day !

Thursday May 6th     Germans attacked.  I crawled out to cut barbed wire.  Our boys killed two and one surrendered, brought back as prisoner.

May 7th.   Awful shelling.  many killed incl Capt. Watkins and Lt. Walters.

May 8th.  A Regular Hell.  Cannot be described.  Shelling awful.  Our boys have a good name.  Our battalion loses hundreds. A. Jones killed.

May 9th.  Our battalion relieved.  Terrible shelling.  Moved a mile back.

May 10th.  Issued rations twice.  Terrible shelling.

May 11th.  Bivouaced in the open near the canal and pontoon.  Rob reduced to Sergt. Sergt Lawes P.M.S.

May 12th.  Parfitt made Sergt. Major.

May 13th.  Artillery dual.  We moved near firing line through shells.

May 14th.  J.M. Lawes and I lived back of a house.  Narrow escape from shell, one hit front of house.  Battalion to trenches. May 15th.  Battalion in trenches, issued rations.  Rather quiet.  Germans subdued and rather quiet.

The following week, from Sunday May 16th to the following Sunday, Dick and his comrades were pulled back to a quiet farm where they lived in the barn in dry conditions.  Only a CO’s inspection and a “lovely Church parade” broke the pleasant monotony of the week.   Thereafter things began to heat up …


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 34 other followers