With not a lot of walling being done during this, the wettest winter for years, I’ve been revisiting some of my very early rebuilds. Partly this has been to see how they have stood up to the ravages of some twenty years and partly to remind myself what a privilege this occupation of mine has been.
I don’t want to go all sentimental and poetic over it, there are lots of folk happy to do that for me thankfully, but I do want to remind myself what it has all been about.
Two of my first jobs involved places of worship; churches and chapels have featured regularly over the years. Church walls inevitably have a long history and the boundary walls, which is what I usually worked on, often pre-date the present building. Many of the rural churches were renovated or rebuilt during the early nineteenth century. On the other hand, chapels have been around for far fewer centuries, in most instances a mere two at the most. Few chapels are older than the nineteenth century and many of those were redesigned or rebuilt early in the twentieth. One chapel however goes back to the end of the eighteenth century with a renovation in 1805 and the job of rebuilding the boundary wall is one of the highlights of my career as a waller.
On a bleak moorland between the Tawe and Amman valleys, bounded on the east and north by the road from Pontardawe to Ammanford and in the west by the Pontarddulais to Ammanford route, lies one of the oldest Methodist chapels in Wales. Built beyond the mountain boundary, on the mynydd of the Barran mountain, that summer grazing land of the surrounding townships, the chapel stands lonely and somewhat sombre. Its very existence reveals the strength of non-conformity amongst the Welsh speaking community of hill farmers whose little steads cling to the sides of the small valleys which encircle the hill. It shows too how, in order to worship in the manner they chose, those early ‘elders’ retreated beyond the boundaries of the existing parish to build their chapel. An eliptical enclosure (in essence a llan although such a prefix is not appended to chapel sites) of dry stone walls surrounds the churchyard with a gate on the west side through which horse riders came to dismount on a large mounting block and stable the horse in the small attached lean-to. The main gate is an interesting design which allows walking worshippers to slip into the yard via a ‘kissing’ or ‘pig’ gate which has a small hinged section to allow full opening when a coffin byre needs to be brought in.
Of course it is the wall which is my concern and at a recent visit I was pleased to see it was still fully intact. That may seem an obvious statement until I tell you that large Welsh Black cattle roam the open moor and it was they which had caused the major dilapidation which greeted me when I first visited the site nearly twenty five years ago. Much of the northern perimeter was derelict and both sheep and cattle wandered in and out of the churchyard as they pleased. The gates were in a bad state also as indeed was the chapel itself. Money to keep the fabric of the building and the wall came solely from the members and over the years the numbers had dwindled. Indeed, even by the early 1990s services were limited. Fortunately at that time there was some Community funding available for heritage type projects in the old coal mining areas and through the good offices of a friend of mine we managed to secure sufficient funds to allow me to rebuild the perimeter and get the gates repaired.
The stone of the wall is the common underlying rock of the coalfield area, Pennant sandstone. The stone is a pleasant building medium as it presents in nicely formed flat plates of generally thin (10 – 20 cms 4″-8″) morphology. Strangely for this period of original build, the foundation stones were all large irregular lumps of quartzite and silica, a common occurrence in the coalfield also. Such was the shape of those stones I decided to abandon them as foundation stones and instead save them to put on the top as cope stones.
The poor state of the whole length of the wall where it adjoined the open moor meant I had no option but to completely strip it all down. Taking a wall down is an excellent way to see how it was originally built and that in turn gives more than a hint as to when it might have been erected and if those that undertook the work were craftsmen. In this case the date was known of course but unusually for that period of land enclosure, the craftsmanship was good.
It was a long slow job through the winter months and for weeks I did not realise what a magnificent view was to be had from up there. Suddenly one Saturday morning the whole panorama of Swansea bay, the belching stacks of Port Talbot steelworks, Gower Peninsula and the Devon coast lay before me with the glistening grey waters of the Bristol Channel bisecting the picture.
On a typical misty Saturday morning in early March with visibility but thirty metres or so and the wind howling, I caught a sound from far in the distance. Baying hounds and the shrill call of the huntsman’s horn was carried to me from the valley below. Gradually they came nearer and the hounds sounded excited and pointing. Out of the corner of my eye, off to the right, a fox slipped around the kissing gate and into the graveyard. He (for it was clearly a ‘he’ and a big one at that) was in fine health with a glistening coat and puffed up brush. The foxes of the Welsh hills differ from their lowland and English cousins, not just in their Latin name (Vulpes vulpes vulpes for the Welsh and just Vulpes vulpes for the lowland English species); instead of the classically white underbelly and tip of the tail these hardy highland variety are black underneath and the tip of the tail is like a sable paint brush. He moved amongst the large gravestones and tombs, clearly knowing his route, eventually squeezing into a crack in the corner of one of the large stone-built tombs with a large slate slab atop. In a while the baying hounds rushed past, one or two stopped by the gate but could not gain entry and even though they could have jumped through the section of wall I had down, they careered off across the moor wailing like Wolves. Soon after came the horses and they too drummed past with hardly a glance in my direction from the variously dressed riders.
After a short interlude out he came and with the merest of nods in my direction (for so it seemed) he retraced his path and sliding once more around the tight curve of the gate, trotted off along the track from whence had come the hunting posse. He had clearly used that ruse before and judging by his size, was quite adept at avoiding those who wished him harm.
Another encounter with wildlife is one of my all time memories, sad as in a way it is. As if wearing a watch, each afternoon around two o’clock a stoat would ‘do his rounds’. By late April birds were busy feeding fledglings and many nests were present in the old wall. Of course, as I proceeded with my rebuild two things happened. Firstly the wall was much tighter and hence it was pretty nigh impossible for the stoat to run around inside as he could in the old dilapidated wall. Secondly there were fewer nests in the new sections for even though whenever I came across an old nest whilst stripping out the old wall, I ensured I built-in a cavity in which the returning bird could make a new nest, in that first Spring few had taken up my kind offer.
Mr Stoat would run along the top of my new section and then enter into the pile of stripped out stones, in and out he searched to no avail. Once back into the old wall he would disappear for several minutes and then his little head would pop out of a hole metres further along. Now and then he would run along the base of the old wall only to dive into a crevasse and again hunt in the innards of the derelict wall.
By late April a Starling had raised a brood of hungry chicks in a hole in the chapel wall under the rotten weather board. The noisy youngsters called to her in an irritating cacophony of tweets until she arrived with a beak full of tasty morsels for them. She did not enter the nest but instead clung to the vertical wall and poked her head inside the nest to feed the demanding youngsters. At roughly fifteen minute interval she would return, or maybe it was alternately him and her – to my untrained eye one Starling looks like any other !
In early May on a bright sunny afternoon when little of the old derelict wall remained for the friendly neighbourhood stoat to hunt in, I saw him run up the corrugated roof sheets of the lean-to and disappear into the nest hole. Almost instantly the chirping young fledglings were silenced. Horrified I watched expecting the stoat to appear with a dead bird in its mouth but nothing happened. Then, within but a few minutes, mum arrived with her beak full of morsels, she alighted on the wall and stuck her head into the nest. Almost instantaneously she fell backwards onto the corrugated sheets, a headless twitching mass of ruffled feathers. Eventually the assassin removed all the babies and finally dragged her carcass off to his own little family.
He clearly had his own home nearby but unfortunately I finished the rebuild before a family of young stoats got to be scampering in and out of the wall and the gravestones. Stoats are a rare sight,even for the likes of me, they exist in a twilight world of nooks and crannies seeking out their prey. I have never seen the fabled mesmerising of a rabbit by a dancing stoat, freezing the muscles of the poor creature with fear until a swift fang to the neck ends its torture but I have witnessed other relationships between them.
The rabbit population hereabouts is decimated on roughly a five year cycle by mixomytosis; it is a dreadful slow death which renders the poor rabbit blind and unable to move about. Whenever an outbreak occurs it is not long before dead stoats appear – I came across a similar occurrence in the Yorkshire Dales some years ago. I can only surmise that the paralysed and blind rabbit falls easy prey to a stoat who drinks the blood of many such dying creatures and thereby accumulates the dreaded virus in its system resulting in its own demise. I don’t know this is the case but it is strange to see so many stoats dead.
A friend of mine reports her cat regularly brings home a stoat and in one instance it was still alive. It ran behind the TV and needed to be caught to be released some way away from the cat’s hunting ground.
On another occasion I was stripping out a wall only to uncover a family of short tailed voles. The mother and three of her young ran for the cover of my pile of stripped-out stones but one youngster, no bigger than the top of my thumb, refused to leave the nest. It foiled my every attempt to catch it by running into the little tunnels in the soil. The high frequency squeaking of the distressed youngster and the call of the mother alerted the resident stoat which, like a shark in the ocean. sniffed blood and appeared as if from nowhere. It ignored all my attempts to frighten it off and just kept coming after the baby. I carried on building and watching that the stoat didn’t get to the youngster nor the mother and her other offspring. Alas, just as I thought the battle had been won the separated baby made a dash for its mother across a metre of open ground. Line an air-to-ground missile the stoat leapt and grabbed the hapless vole and with a glance in my direction (giving me the stoat version of the ‘bird’ I suspect) he ran off to enjoy a very small dinner.
I was pleased to revisit the old Capel y Baran though it was sad to see so many of the ‘Elders’ who had thanked me all those years ago were now remembered in the graveyard. Time marches on and I found myself wondering who, in this day and age, would have the faith and dedication to preserve the old place. I was fortunate to have returned in the summer of 2005 to attend the Service of Commemoration of the bi-centenary, yn Gymraeg of course, where I met them all once again. Who knows what will become of that old chapel on the hill in the next twenty five years.
Next post I’ll revisit one or two other early ecclesiastical excursions in the life of Welshwaller.
Rain Rain go away, come another walling day …