Solitude is the best prophylactic…

19/03/2015

As soon as I walked through the door I knew I was in trouble, serious trouble.  The place was wriggling with ‘Little people'; some running and tripping, some crawling, others sitting comfortably and threateningly in their designer pushchairs and yet more huddled in groups glued to the screen of some hand-held techie thing.  The give away was the constant appearance of tissues in the hands of the doting mothers as they leaned forward to grab the back of the head of their offspring and slam the horrid dripping nose into their other hand in which was hidden the miserly paper. I was doomed, I had stupidly come down out of the hills for the first time since late autumn straight into a trap.  Sure enough that two hours on a Saturday afternoon was to turn into an expensive and very unpleasant week.

Being a man I am adversely affected by simple little germs that leave their hosts untouched.  Mothers too seem to be immune to the wretched chest ripping sneezing and dam burst noses that render me pathetically comatose.  What to the female of the species is a mere ‘head-cold’ to me turns into a near death experience where each cough or sneeze feels like a wire brush is being dragged through my thorax and my head feels as if an orange has grown in my skull.  I am pathetic, a useless lump of dead meat just waiting for the last breath to relieve me from the most diabolical of life’s experiences.  By Monday evening the inexplicable headache had me confused, Tuesday morning saw me wake with the beginnings of a sore throat and fear rose in me.  I attacked the invaders with all the dosing I could muster and indeed by Wednesday evening I was confident I had beaten the wretched germs.  So much so that I set forth on Thursday to plant some trees.  By that evening, with rain teeming down, I retreated to my maggot sleeping bag and proceeded to become really, really pathetic, to my mind, seriously, seriously ill.  I don’t care that it’s just a cold or even if it is flu, man or otherwise.  I don’t care if it’s Nora or Gladys or Janice virus or pneumonia (which a friend of mine endured around Christmas time), I don’t care, as the famous Spike’s epitaph states, “I told you I was ill!”

So, here I am, on Monday, a week later and  some four days into this nightmare, just about to open the fifth box of tissues, trying to construct a blog post of the more interesting events in the life of Welshwaller in the last couple of weeks, here goes …

To begin at the place of infection is to transport you briefly to the Oriel in Carmarthen, a gallery that exhibits some of the finest works of the current artists in Wales.  Several of my family and friends were to be present at the opening of a new exhibition by Wales’ prima-female artist blacksmith, Angharad Pierce-Jones.  Har, as she is known to us all, has a growing status as an innovative and perceptive sculptor in the medium of metal.  She is married to the son of my cousin (I think that makes him ‘first cousin once removed’ rather than a second cousin, but who knows !) and thus I call her’my relative’!  This time she has gone back to the outsized representation of everyday objects such as her huge chairs at the Cywain Centre in Bala.  Perhaps because she has spent the last two years behind one, this current astounding design features the simple pram – or push-chair to be precise.

Pram in the Hallway by Angharad Pierce-Jones

Angharad Pierce-Jones stands behind her latest offering, the ‘Pram in the Hall’ on display in Oriel, Carmarthen.

It is an intriguing construction of mega steel and moon-buggy wheels surrounded by a myriad of kids toys set in what looks like a mass of elephant poo but is, in fact, the slag remnants from the plasma cutting operations at her supplier, Dyfed Steel.  The idea is a challenge to a rather infamous quote by Cyril Connolly which suggests that “there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”.   The whole exhibit is up-front and smacks you straight in the face as you walk into the hall.  The great yellow steel beams represent the ‘hall’ in which the 8 foot high pram is ‘left’.  Apparently there were grave concerns about the ability of the floor to take the weight – over a ton of pram and the same again of beams plus another several tons of people and more pushchairs !!

Angharad Pierce-Jones' Pram in the Hall

Pram in the Hall is nothing if not HEAVY and it is certainly an interesting mix of surreal and every-day.

Pram behind bars

‘Pram behind bars’ maybe more apt …

The weight of the pushchair, sorry, PRAM, was such that the frame buckled just as the installation was finished hence the two chromium joints on each main arm !  I did wonder whether the yellow beams represented more of a prison rather than a hall; perhaps a reflection of how a mother feels after the years of pushing it and caring for its occupant …

I did ask what was to become of it afterwards …. with a little engine I could well make use of it soon !

Stone has not featured these last couple of weeks, it has been all timber, in one form or another.  As March marches on the time for cutting and planting is fast running out and there is yet much to be done – another reason this damn lay-off is such a nuisance.  Each winter I try to fell a sufficient amount of hardwood to see me through another winter some years hence.  Ideally I like to be at least three years ahead, that is timber which I fell this winter will not be burned until the winter of 2017/18.  I was fortunate to have a major supply dropped for me some three years ago, ash trees which had become threateningly big.  In addition I have a coppice rotation of hazel which makes up the old hedgerows around my boundary and that forms the mainstay of my winter fuel.  Hazel is by far my favourite for my wood stove, it is generally of small diameter and grows well once coppiced.  I have yet to complete the first fell of some of the old hedgerow hazels which are now enormous and provide an excellent amount of timber per cut.

Relict hedgerow of hazel

This relict hedgerow has masses of old hazel awaiting coppicing.

The history of woodland management places hazel right at the top of the ‘most useful’ timber, perhaps alongside ash and then alder.  It is a great tree for providing thin wands which were traditionally used for hurdle making and for sticks to be used in horticulture.  Today, apart from one or two older folk who still like hazel rods rather than bamboo for their runner beans, the only use of this tree is for ornate stick making.  Even the ‘cob’ nut is not harvested, except by the pesky squirrels !

Hazel tree felled for fuel

One tree provides a plentiful supply of good fuel.

Once the old trees are coppiced there is a mass of timber of all sizes which, within a year, can provide excellent kindling, medium and larger logs.  The smaller diameter wood needs to be burned by end of year two or it will start to rot out, even the larger timber can be burned then but I like to leave it a little longer.  It needs to be stored in a dry place preferably just a roofed shed with no sides which lets the air blow through.

Once the old trees are coppiced it immediately starts to re-grow.  If you imagine the mass of foliage which the old tree produces each year via its huge root system it is not surprising that the growth in the first year after cutting can be as much as 6 feet/180cms.  Left for 5 years the tree produces a mass of 2″/5cm to 4″/10cms diameter rods and left for another 5 years a mass of 6″ rods can be harvested.  If you want to talk sustainability then the hazel has it in abundance.

6 year hazel coppice

a 6 year coppice is already providing some good fuel and useful rods.

Alas today the many hedgerows which are full of hazel are not managed in a way which sustains the plants, instead they are trashed by a flailing chain which does nothing for re-growth nor aesthetic in the countryside.

I have a hedgerow which was coppiced and fenced (to keep sheep away from the re-growth) some ten years ago and is now in need of laying into a stock-proof hedge.

I also have, on my track, an old hazel hedge which is annual massacred as well as the one which has had no attention probably for fifty years and more.  Perhaps now that the Laird is in need of so much timber for his insatiable furness which heats the vast mansion, hedgerow management and a coppice cycle might be re-introduced.

The annual flailing of this hedge, as with most others, results in a thin spindly line of sticks which are too thinly spread to be useful for nesting birds and certainly would not be stock-proof.

The annual flailing of this hedge, as with most others, results in a thin spindly line of sticks which are too thinly spread to be useful for nesting birds and certainly would not be stock-proof.

Coppiced hedgerow

This hedgerow was coppiced some 10 years ago and is now ready for laying

Hazel hedge of hazel

This hedgerow is urgently in need of coppicing.

Ash is the other species which was traditionally coppiced and highly prized in a number of joinery tasks.  It too provides excellent fuel which can be quickly utilised after felling.  Within three to four months the split timber can easily and cleanly be burned and hence it is a good stop gap timber when supplies run low.

“For ashwood green and ashwood brown is fit for a Queen with a golden crown.”

So says an old countryside proverb and it is indeed an excellent timber for fire and turning.

It has occupied a great deal of my time of late, moving timber from the store sheds to the mansion and it has come as something of a shock to the three of us who are responsible for keeping the supplies flowing, that we are down to our last six weeks of wood !  So much for being ahead of the game.  Luckily a large line of ash trees needed to be felled as they were creating too much shade in the adjacent field in which the farmer grows his turnips.  A fifteen metre wide strip of failed crop is clear for all to see after this season’s failure.

Newly felled ash trees

These ash trees will be in the oven within six months.

The two ‘chainsaw massacre men’, Will and Luke, were like kids at Euro Disney.  For some strange reason there’s nothing they enjoy more than felling trees and slicing them up with their noisy, smelly chainsaws.  I have wondered whether it is something to do with wearing the bright orange PPE (personal protection equipment) and Foreign legion type head-gear.  Whatever the reason I am grateful they are up for the job because it is a young man’s sport and I am more than happy with just felling my own supplies.  The slice through the trunk and the crash of the tree as it hits the ground is just the start.  The sneading-up of the tree and then the huge amount of clearing is quite staggering.  Both ash and hazel produce a massive amount of brash that has to be sorted, piled and burnt or chipped and it all has to be sorted and moved.

Luke drops another - and he loves it !

Luke drops another – and he loves it !

Fortunately I am in a position to make amends for all the environmental damage and increase in the CO2 levels which my/our tree felling causes.  Each year, as I have mentioned previously, I ensure that I plant at least a hundred hardwood trees and in most years this is exceeded.

As I write I am awaiting an end to this damned infection so as to return to a job I began a week ago.  I, and my little helper, have to plant around 2 thousand hedgerow plants in four locations at the farm near the great castle of Carreg Cennen where we recently cleared a wall.  As part of his Glastir Advanced farm scheme the farmer has to restore some 250 metres of relict hedgerow.  The hedge banks have already been coppiced where required – not much as it turns out – and the earth mounded back up then the required double fencing has been installed.  Thus all we have to do is plant the new trees in neat rows along the top of the banks.

Planting young trees in a hedgerow

Here goes, just 2 thousand bare root baby trees to plant – before it gets warm !

However, there is a little mathematics involved.  For a start some clown up the line has determined that there has to be eight plants per metre.  That is every 25 cms in two parallel rows and in a staggered box formation.  In addition 60% of the total must be thorn, of which, in turn, 60% is to be hawthorn and 40% blackthorn.  Then the remainder must be interspersed in singles and must include at least another three native hedgerow species.  It is something of a nightmare to try to remember where and when let alone what, goes in where.

I chose the first one thousand plants as follows; 600 thorn in the percentage above, two hundred hazel, being the next most common hedgerow species in these parts, fifty crab apple, fifty oak, fifty wild cherry and fifty rowan.  The next thousand will differ slightly as the ground is somewhat wetter and I will include willow and alder.

My method is to get ‘my little helper’ (who has a conveniently large size 14 boot) to make a small 5cm diameter hole at the specified distance along a relatively straight line on top of the hedgebank.  Then he works his way down the other side leaving a 30 cm or so gap between the two rows and the holes alternate to the ones he has already made.  Simple !  Except ….

The ancient hedge-bank which never was a 'hedgerow' but now is to become one ..

The ancient hedge-bank which never was a ‘hedgerow’ but now is to become one ..

The first two sections were old hedgerows of probable post-medieval date (being on land previously a strip field system or rhandir  worked by the bonded slaves of the Lord of Carreg Cennen castle which looms over the fields) and which had already been re-made and fenced.  The bank was mainly of soil with few stones and hence making the holes was relatively easy.

The trick is to ensure no air is left around the tiny fibrous roots of the young plants and also that the soil is not compacted around them or those same tiny roots will not be able to penetrate.  My method is to place the plant in the pre-made hole and then cut up the ground around with a spade just as when digging a garden.  That serves to aerate the soil and loosen the ground around the root system.  Normally I  soak the roots for an hour or so prior to planting.

The final section of hedgerow planting took me back to the land where much of my walling was done back in the 1990s.  Several kilometres of dry stone walls cover the upper reaches of the hill which, prior to the Napoleonic Wars, was at one time the open ffriddoed  of the township, that is to say it was the common grazing of those farmers who lived nearby.  An Enclosure Act of 1812 allowed its ‘inclosing’ into the fields which we see today.  The original boundary was a large earth bank with ditches on either side as was the norm.  That bank, or more correctly that ‘hedge’, still exists and is an historic feature of the upland zone.  Unfortunately the clot who is in charge of this particular Glastir farm programme has decided it is a ‘traditional’ hedgerow (it is a common error to read old ‘hedge’ as meaning the same as the hedges we talk about today) despite the absolute evidence to the contrary, like NO trees !  (Apart from one or two old hawthorn and one small oak all of which are out of the obvious line of any old hedge that may have been present).  Furthermore the environment, altitude, exposure to high wind and rainfall, predetermines that hedges will not successfully grow.  The existence of dry stone walls might be a clue !!

Oh, I am so weary of having to deal with the idiotic rules of Environmental on-farm schemes constructed by so-called experts in the highly paid departments of the various agricultural departments.  The 8 plants per metre, the current ‘thinking’,  was once 6 plants per metre and before that, in the first programmes, was 4 plants per metre.  The double row system came from I know not where, it is certainly NEVER present in an old hedge.  The increase is to try to alleviate the 30% loss of plants expected (because they are either badly planted or badly maintained)  thus leaving a sufficient number of healthy plants with which to ultimately ‘make’ a hedge.  Except a hedge will never be made, there is no chance that any of these hedges will ever be laid into a ‘traditional’ – and manageable – hedgerow which gives  longevity to the trees therein.  They will never be expected to fulfil the role of a stock-proof barrier, their original purpose, no, instead a fence either side, at immense cost and environmental damage in terms of its manufacture and its installation, the steel and the chemicals that fails to preserve the posts etc etc,  keep sheep away.

Now if there was a one third loss it might give the hedge a chance , it might give the individual trees a chance to grow into healthy adult trees.  There are, however, two major problems; firstly if 30% do fail the farmer is heavy penalised, a financial penalty of hundreds of pounds which he gets hit with twice.  This current farmer, a long standing customer of over 20 years whom I regard as a friend, got fined £500 last year as a number of plants had died (in fact they hadn’t died at all, they had been flattened by the tall grass growing inside the double fencing – as nothing can graze it ! – but were happily growing horizontally, a common occurrence).  As if that wasn’t bad enough, he then suffered the same penalty from his Single Farm Payment, the European grant to all farmers.  Where the hell is the justice in that !?

The ditch and bank formed the cattle barrier, maybe built back in the Iron age - that old hawthorn is NOT the remnants of a hedge!!

The ditch and bank formed the cattle barrier, maybe built back in the Iron age – that old hawthorn is NOT the remnants of a hedge!!

So, here we are, having to plant a stupid number of young trees on a bank that is an important historic feature which never had a hedge growing on it, in an environment (look at the vegetation, what chance do the young trees have of ever growing ?!!) totally unsuitable and, when it fails, the farmer will get hammered.  That is the incompetence those of us working with supposed agri-environment schemes have to deal with.

Having spent some time helping farmers to put together their applications to the current Glastir scheme, I know just how absurd much of the science which is supposed to underpin these regulations really is.  Why doesn’t anyone study the ‘tradition’ they are so eager to promote.  Little Miss R can bloody well look out when I bump into her !

My poor friend/customer lives in total fear (as do most farmers I know, who are in the ‘scheme’) of doing something inadvertently which costs him large amounts of money when the dreaded Gestapo, the inspector who comes to check up on all that has been done, comes around.

All I can do is my best, to plant the young trees in a manner that gives them a chance of survival and trust to nature to help me.  Of course, at the absurd closeness they stand to each other they will not be able to produce enough leaves and hence photosynthesis will be limited which in turn stunts growth. In truth all I am planting is a line of trees which may or may not ever grow into a linear wood.  It won’t be a hedge but it will have some habitat benefit.  Fortunately there are still some folk who are willing to either do, or pay to have done, the old way of managing a hedgerow – laying it in the customary way, in my part of the world that means ‘Breconshire style’.

A newly and magnificently laid hedge along the nearby main road, done in the Breconshire style with the hazel heatherings along the top.

A newly and magnificently laid hedge along the nearby main road, done in the Breconshire style with the hazel heatherings along the top.

It is such a joy to see the product of a fellow country craftsman.

But my travails are as nothing, indeed, ARE nothing to what my Great Uncle Dick was enduring a century ago…

Sunday 14th March.   Church service in Factory.  2 parades and bath.

15th.  Advance practise by whole Battalion.

16th.  Relieved Essex.  My dear friend G.M. Saltery killed near Despery farm.

17th.  Corporal Williams killed. Bert Watkins and many others wounded.

18th.  Lt. Roberts killed.  Germans shelled Kings Own trenches.

19th.  Fall of snow.  Awful cold.  Dreadful day.

20th.  Relieved by Essex.  Bad time.  31 killed and many wounded. Came out through communication trench.  Awful 4 days for us in trenches.  Lt. Henshaw and Capt. Walddo(?) wounded. 37 killed and wounded.

22nd.  Easy day in Billets.  Narrow escape from shells.

23rd.  Easy day in Billet.

24th.  Communications trench open.  Relieved Essex in A3 trench.  Wet night.

25th.  Wet day.  Plenty of work digging in trenches.

26th.  Digging new trench at Nobervern (?) Very cold.

27th.  Leicesters joined at night.  Digging trenches.  Good haul of fireworks.

Letter from Mr. Mathews. Bit of a predicament.

28th.   Relieved by Essex at night.  Only 1 killed and 1 wounded.

29th.  In Billets.  Had letter from mother and Maggie.

30th.  2 Parades.  Easy time.

31st.  2 Parades.  Easy time.

 

Spring is upon us and an eclipse of the sun is bringing some (unexplained) excitement for tomorrow.  But for Welshwaller the amazing site of the Northern Lights setting the night sky rippling fluorescent green has been enough excitement for one week.

That and the first dollops of FROG  SPAWN – oh yes, frog spawn definitely means Spring …  I know, sad isn’t it !!

 

 

 

 

 

And it came to pass that in those days ….

04/03/2015

Winter slips unwillingly into hibernation, hopefully not to be seen or heard of for ten months or so.  Its departure is elongated and just when it seems Spring is abroad another little death throw casts us back into a frozen landscape, often with a dusting of snow.  Saint David’s day arrived with wind and rain to rock the slow rising daffodils and I retreated to the wood stove early.  By the next evening snow had covered the land once again.

Mainly my time has been utilised hauling yet more timber for the huge wood burning furnace that heats the mansion.  I’ve been grateful for that work as it has been much too unpleasant to venture out onto the hills where some wall repairs await.  The last Friday of February finally brought some respite and a warm sun and some high air pressure sent the wind away and allowed me to sally forth and attend to an overdue build.  It is a year since I began the repair of an old wall on the farm which occupied much of last year’s work.  I was unable to complete the gateway until the gate-posts had been knocked in and as that didn’t happen before I moved to the Pool House enclosure, the gateway has been in a somewhat derelict looking state.

It has been a year waiting to be completed; for once not my fault !  I was waiting the arrival of a post !

It has been a year waiting to be completed; for once not my fault ! I was waiting the arrival of a post !

Whilst it was a good 3 square metres and the cheek-end of wall building I had the benefit of some good stone.  Often when a cheek-end is to be rebuilt or built new, there is insufficient corner stones with suitable right-angled edges and length to build a strong and well interlocked end.  Having been aware that a gateway was to be built, and having already been able to build one of the ends – one cheek-end can be built before posts are knocked in but the second needs to be left until the posts are in to ensure the wall is tight to the post – I had set aside a goodly supply of corner stones and large through stones to enable me to complete the job.  Thus I was able to get the cheek-end up and sound in a few hours and was homeward bound before the sun had set.

At last, the gateway is now just waiting the GATE !

At last, the gateway is now just awaiting the GATE !

There was a large section of repair left over on an adjacent wall, left for a whole year also.  The land was far too wet when I began the repair in March of 2014 which made it impractical to bring the required extra stone to the site.  Then, before we knew it, lambing was upon us and then, within the month, I removed to the restoration which was to consume the greater part of the year.  So, there still remains a substantial section to complete and it was whilst viewing that wall from this gateway that my eye was suddenly attracted, or rather was ‘horrified’, by a further problem !

Oh no, another section succumbs to age and weather ...

Oh no, another section succumbs to age and weather …

A large collapse of the 2 metre high boundary wall had occurred.  It is on the same stretch of wall and is a real disappointment.  Firstly, it is a difficult build with large stones, insufficient hearting – hence the need to import extra stone – and an uncomfortable steep bank on which to work.  Secondly, and this is a common issue with part rebuilds and gapping – see my previous post on the great deer-park wall at the Dinas in Llansawel – which is grant aided under some scheme or other.  I have had to deal with the problem for twenty years, or rather the farmers have; the wall is assessed at the start of a funding programme and the gaps or derelict sections are measured at that time.  It is expected that at the end of the scheme the whole wall will be in a state of good repair and, most importantly, stock-proof.  If further collapses occur after the start of the scheme, or as in this case, after the repairs have been completed, then the farmer is faced with either leaving the work and risk being financially penalised at the end of the scheme for not maintaining the wall in good condition, or funding the extra work.  It is a dilemma for both of us.  It is generally not possible to foretell the collapse of sections of wall, indeed it is often the case that sections which look for all the world as if they will collapse imminently remain, often leaning at Tower of Pisa angles, for years.  I had certainly not seen any signs that this particular section was terminal.  Annoyingly I had only just agreed the fee with the farmer for other repairs on a wall some distance out on the hill and that had pretty much used up his funds for wall repairs this year.

It was satisfying to get back to the day job after some weeks away but it did emphasise the loss of fitness; I certainly slept well that night !

Some r & r was justified, or so I reckoned, and so it came to pass that I ventured westward to the end of Wales, the St. David’s peninsula to be exact, just a few days before the celebration of ‘His’ day as the Patron Saint of this little land.  ‘My little helper’ was celebrating his own day, his birthday in fact, and had been hauled off with his family to stay in a rather enchanting castle.  Roch castle has been renovated to the highest standard architecturally and tastefully fitted out as an up-market bed and breakfast enterprise.  Have a look at it !  When I was young and holidaying in the area, the old ruinous Norman Keep dominated the flat surrounding land of the peninsula north west of Haverfordwest, on the road to Newgale and onwards to St. David’s.  It has been an amazing achievement to bring it to its present condition though, in some respects, the historic presence of the old ruin has been removed forever.

We ventured a little way further up the coast to the Saints eponymous city, the smallest in Britain, and spent a short time visiting the medieval cathedral and adjacent Bishop’s Palace.  It is strange to visit a holiday hot-spot in the dead of winter.  In the summer months it is hardly possible to find a parking place nor a seat in a cafe let alone walk on the pavement without having to constantly step into the road to avoid pushchairs and gossiping holiday-makers.  In the chill of February whilst there are still a large number of visitors to the cathedral, the town is closed and few promenaders are encountered.

The restaurant is definitely one of west Wales' top eating houses and the local sea food tops the menu - look out fishies !!

The restaurant is definitely one of west Wales’ top eating houses and the local sea food tops the menu – look out fishies !!

Our lunch venue was the well proclaimed restaurant in the small sea port village of Porthgain.  ‘The Shed’ has earned a reputation for excellent sea-food and did not disappoint.  Situated in an old port-side factory unit which once housed a brick making enterprise,  Indeed the little harbour is dominated by the ruined industrial archaeology of earlier quarry and brick making.  The local dolerite was crushed for road-stone and the slate was crushed to make the dark grey bricks.  It is strange to see a quaint sea-side harbour with large structures right alongside the harbour wall.  I last went there over twenty years ago when the ‘shed’ was used by local shell fisherman.

The old stone buildings and the large brick kilns dominate the little sea-side harbour of  Porthgain

The old stone buildings and the large brick kilns dominate the little sea-side harbour of Porthgain

Lunch in the Shed was very enjoyable and is to be recommended, of course fish was the chosen food and judging by the number of diners it is as popular in the winter as it is in the summer months.  Luckily I was warned that booking was necessary !  A visit to sea-side is a great way to re-generate after a long cold winter.  I can always find something of interest, usually geological and the little cove of Abereiddy provided it this time.  The strata of the sand and soil at the foreshore was fascinating and complex.  Apparently the dark slate shale was taken on a tram road over to the brick works at Porthgain.

These interesting layers at the sea shore in Abereiddy show why the area had such an important stone industry.

These interesting layers at the sea shore in Abereiddy show why the area had such an important stone industry.

An hour standing on the shore on a wintry day is as good a dose of uplifitng therapy as a shot of serotonin !

An hour standing on the shore on a wintry day is as good a dose of uplifitng therapy as a shot of serotonin !

An enjoyable day out ended with a game of Trivial Pursuits at which I did not excel …

The Diary of Great Uncle Dick:

Monday March 1st 1915;  We celebrated St. David’s day at Dispary Farm. Visited Brigit. Plenty of sniping.

2nd.  At Dispary farm, easy day.

3rd.  Drew rations for 2 days. Transport to farm.

4th.  Easy day. Visited Le Bisertin (?) and removed to billets.

5th.  Easy day. Q.M. Smith came back from England.

6th.  Plenty of rain and German shelling.  Our big guns doing a lot of damage.

7th.  C.O. inspection. Stayed in at night.

8th.  Relieved Essex guard at Dispary farm. Plenty of sniping.

9th.  On guard at Dispary farm.  Our artillery shelled the Germans.

10th. On guard at Dispary farm.  Germans shelled near (shrapnell)

11th. Relieved by Essex.  We had 5 killed and 20 wounded.  Captain Taylor killed.

12th. In billets.  Sgt Major acquitted for being drunk.

13th. Taunton made a fool of himself by inspecting rifles.  Arthur and I exchanged rifles, Arthur’s is clean and Taunton said “same dirt”

The more I re-read the diary of my Great Uncle and marry it to other sources which give account of what was actually going on around him, the more I understand how understated his account is and thus how ‘normal’ the whole trench warfare had become (to him).  How easy we become accustomed to every day events regardless of how dreadful they actually are.  How easy does ‘normality’ overcome us.  We are seeing it still in the awful accounts of child abuse and of the lives being experienced by those in Syria and Ukraine.

On a lighter note, I saw a caption post on a friend’s Facebook page the other day which consisted of a rather middle class 1950s mother sitting next to her equally middle class young daughter; “What is ‘normal’ mummy ?”, she asks. “Oh, it’s a setting on the tumble drier”, answers mother ….. Yep, that about sums it up, don’t you think !?

“Why what’s the matter that you have such a February face ? So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness…” (WS: Much Ado about nowt)

09/02/2015

That my face is full of frost is very true; so, for that matter, are my boots, my gloves and my upstairs rooms !! Lordie I live in a cold house…. Insulation is a wonderful thing, it keeps temperatures constant.  Thus, in summer my little hovel in the hills remains blessedly cool regardless of the tropical heat outdoors.  In the dead of winter however, it remains cursedly cold, absurdly so.  The only way I can keep my butter soft enough to spread is to keep it in the fridge !

These last few weeks I have been severely beaten about the nether regions by icy blasts and wild westerlies.  One day, gales and rain, the next snow and ice, a real January cocktail for sure.  Of late clear skies have seen temperatures maintained at several degrees below and the snow that fell on the Cambrian mountains shows no sign of wanting to be gone.  I have not ventured too far, just a few small jobs and then home to my medieval ice house.  But there is an upside to living in a hovel, the bugs and viruses stay away; ‘touch-wood’ no winter sneezes have attacked as yet, as long as I can stay away from zones of infection, such as supermarkets and doctor’s surgeries, I have a chance, slim though it may be.

Fortunately – in a way – I have nothing too pressing in the matter of wall building.  The filo-fax is  markedly blank when it comes to work awaiting attack but that is not the reality, it’s just a measure of how easily I forget the jobs that are out there and which I have promised to do but have merely forgotten to write down.  Two are near at hand and have been ‘on-the-floor’ for over a year now, I’m ashamed to say.  To make matters worse they are at the estate mansion and M’lady is beginning to frown at me;  I am playing the sympathy vote, pleading on her sensibilities to not expect me to suffer outdoor in the winter…. but as she keeps reminding me, “That’s what you said LAST year!”

The first work of the year was a small renovation of a dry stone wall at a site near Ebbw Vale in the valleys.  The old steel town was host to one of the great Garden Festivals which, if memory serves me correctly, Michael Heseltine proposed, an attempt to breathe new life into ailing industrial areas where the old capital industries were in rapid decline in the later years of the Thatcher government.  The early 1990s saw much re-development of the old steelworks and a rather splendid Festival took place which has left a legacy of some kind.  Mainly it is out-of-town retail parks and some landscaping of the old brown-field site.

My journey was to take me through the modernised town to a small side valley where a rather remarkable piece of woodland exists.  The ‘Silent Valley’ is a natural beech wood, apparently the most westerly and highest natural beech wood in Britain.  It would be more aptly named the ‘Secret Valley’ as very few know of its existence.  Today it is managed as a nature reserve by the Gwent Wildlife Trust out of their offices at the Environment Centre on the old industrial site.  I first became aware of it in 1996 when post Garden Festival work was being carried out to enhance the environmental aspects of both the steelworks and the festival areas.  I visited the beech woods with volunteers from the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) to train them in woodland management techniques and tree identification (difficult in a purely beech infested woodland !).

Silent Valley Ebbw Vale

The staff and volunteer of Gwent Wildlife Trust at the Silent Valley site where the newly renovated dry stone wall guards the entrance.

The entrance to the car park is bounded by a small dry stone wall which had become damaged and was beginning to look a little tatty.  My role was to oversee the restoration by staff and volunteers for whom I was to provide some basic instruction in the technique of dry stone walling.

The wall is not old, it was built back in the late 1990s at the time the area became a nature reserve.  The stone is the local Pennant Sandstone which is a good stone for walling as it presents in nicely flat-bedded slabs.  It is the underlying stone of the coalfield and is heavily laden with ferrous deposits giving it a rusty brown hue which mixes with the over-riding grey.  The cope-stones are set vertically in the manner common to the area and markedly different to the copes in my usual zones of operation.

A day was sufficient to complete the repair and I was thankful for that, snow lay thickly on my route home and indeed all around my little homestead.  I’m to return to the site in October to take part in an open-day at the nature reserve – writing that into my diary seemed rather meaningless, experience tells me it will soon appear !

My next sojourn took me west to another of my regular building sites.  Firstly my annual visit to the deer park wall of the old Edwinsford estate near Llansawel where the Dinas quarry hosts my ‘winter school’.  Each year a section of the old 2 metre high wall seems to give in to the ravages of age and weather and decides to fall.  Fortunately this year it was a mere 3 metres long but it still took me two days to clear away the fallen stone and rebuild the section.  I was relieved to see a mass of lime mortar residue in the fallen stone indicating clearly it was NOT a section I had already repaired.  The problem for me is that the stone in the length of wall where these collapses occur is very suitable for a mortared wall but not at all suitable for dry stone walling; it tends to be small and of odd shape with no discernible bedding plane.  No doubt I will return !

Next it was to the hills of Gwynfe where I recently attended to the sheepfolds.  This time it was to finally honour a promise I made ten years or more ago to a very good friend and customer for whom I had built several kilometres of wall under the Tir Cymen agri-environment scheme of the mid 1990s.  It is an insignificant piece of wall, a small garden retaining wall in reality but, oh my, it is a place of such history and eminence in the area and such a tranquil place to work.

Close to the great edifice of the only truly Welsh castle, Carreg Cennen, the farm is of medieval origin and the land and buildings demonstrate the wealth of history in which it is immersed.  The fields are large and have bank and ditch boundaries and may well have been a part of the desmesne land of the castle (the ‘home farm’ of the Lord or King).  Nearby is a farm the name of which clearly indicates the historic nature of the area, Rhandir, which denotes the small strips of land worked by each bonded slave of the manor for his subsistence.  Lying south of the small market town of Llandeilo and its own Welsh castle of Dinefwr, the great limestone crag on which stands Carreg Cennen is by far the best kept secret of pre Norman Wales – go take a look !!

Carreg Cennen skyline

The dark silhouette of Carreg Cennen dominates the southern sky from the ancient landscape.

The homestead and farm buildings are of a much later period The barns clearly indicate just how productive an arable farm it was and thus how important it would have been to the Kings and Princes of Deheuberth who inhabited the area  over a thousand years ago.

I would love to be involved in the restoration of this important piece of Welsh historical architecture but alas it requires skills beyond those of a mere dry stone waller !  I’ll do my bit, and the small garden wall is a start.

It is there, honestly it is, hidden in the overgrown hedgerow, the remnants of a Ha-ha actually though the ditch is much filled.

It is there, honestly it is, hidden in the overgrown hedgerow, the remnants of a Ha-ha actually though the ditch is much filled.

As can be seen in the photo above, the garden wall is not the only stonework that needs attention; the whole corner of the house is fracturing out and the buttresses evidence it has been a centuries old problem !

The great barns and stable show just what a productive farm this was.

The great barns and stable show just what a productive farm this was.

The whole place is an absolute idyll and I wish I could do more to assist my old friend to restore it to its former greatness.  For now I’ll have to content myself with some small repairs to an old dry stone Ha-ha….  Nature abounds in the quiet of the animal-less yard and the buildings are home to many birds and creatures.  The gloriously cold but sunny day was greatly enhanced when my rattlings disturbed a large Barn Owl from his slumbers and he drifted out over the open fields.  Folklore advises seeing an owl in daylight foretells death…… a little worrying !!

As February slides onward to Spring and nothing but clear skies and frosty mornings greet each day, it’s hard to think that maybe, just maybe, winter is behind us…. On the other hand, I’m still crunching over frozen snow as I battle on keeping the Laird supplied with much needed fire-wood.

Diary from the Trenches:

In February 1915 my great uncle Dick wrote:

Monday 1st Feb:    Relieve No. 1 company in Trenches.

2nd.    In trenches.  Germans shelled but no loss. Put up barbed wire.

3rd.    T. Murray & J. Day killed. Relieved by No. 4 company.

4th.    Helped with rations.  Heavy gun firing at night.

5th.    Ditto.  Plenty of firing going on.

6th.    Received parcel from mother also diaries.

7th.    Guardsman Paddear (?) and I had tea together.  Buffy ordered me back to platoon.

8th.    Absent off parade at 10.45,  Digging all night.

9th.    Buffy give me 9 nights digging.   Relieved not in trenches. Dangerous place.

10th.   In trenches. VERY narrow escape from OUR shells !

11th.   In trenches. 2 narrow escapes.  Relieved by No. 4 company.

12th.   Billeting in Fabrice.  Easy day.  Buffy goes home on furlough.

13th.   Mother’s birthday, 50th. Easy day. Cake from P & E.

14th.   Have food with Gdm 8. Good time.

 

In the following week the diary reports a cold spell of clear weather which causes great discomfort in the trenches where ice forms and digging becomes really arduous.  A century later I’m grateful for clear skies and dry ground, how many years have I endured a February so wet that every step becomes a challenge to extricate stuck wellington boots; I’m grateful too for my mid 20th century birth, at least my wet February months did not involve keeping my head down in a rat infested mud hole of a Flanders trench…

For now Welshwaller is wrapped well against the frosty nights and is more than happy to scrape the windscreen…. it’s just a shame the Welsh rugby boys didn’t think to clear their windshields before venturing out into the cold of a Cardiff night, maybe they would have done better to have faced up to it sooner instead of hiding in the warm changing rooms whilst the foe stood bravely on the field of battle….  Sometimes I despair… what numb-skulls do we have in charge of organising the greatest of all Welsh battles? Do they think blasting the sky with fire-works and rendering everyone deaf and blind with smoke and laser lights is the appropriate prelude ?  Lord save us from politicians and X factor seduced promo men at the WRU …..

Come to think of it, there is a perfectly good fit-for-purpose dungeon in Carreg Cennen castle ….

 

 

 

 

Keeping a Diary is something we should all do…

20/01/2015

Walking around to the back of the farmhouse I saw my old dear friend stoking a garden fire but the fuel was not the usual garden trash.  She was burning dozens of small hard-covered books. To my utter despair she told me she had decided it was time to start sorting out and getting rid of all the accumulated junk.  Why she had decided that over fifty diaries, dating from the early years of the second world war, came into the category of ‘junk to burn’ is a salutary lesson to us all.

What inspires an individual to daily commit to paper their thoughts. recollections, opinions, happenings and views on their life is as various as the content.  I have kept a diary since I started dry stone walling, mainly as a record from which to work out my daily rate of earning, to assist in compiling invoices and tax returns but it also serves to remind me of the sites where I built. Most importantly, in today’s climatic changes, I record the daily weather.  Already I find it fascinating to look back over them, already I am surprised at how much I don’t remember !  Imagine then the invaluable content of those burning books.  She had kept a daily record of  what was done on that farm, who called, what was bought or sold, how much hay was won from a particular field, how many eggs a particular chicken laid, how many lambs, how many bushels of oats, who was paid how much for helping out.  Nothing personal, nothing controversial, nothing at all of interest really.  Or so she thought, “no-one (in her family) is interested” she duly explained when I voiced my horror.  Oh contrare Mrs D !  Oh contrare !!  What an archive of fascinating facts relating to life on a Welsh upland farm through the dark days of the war when the local Agricultural Executive Committee (the ‘War Ag’) dictated what and where, when and how much, was to be grown.  What an economic fact-file of prices and produce, of land-use record and of weather, those books revealed.  She had diligently kept them as an aid to the farming business and felt that they were of no interest to today’s farmer, her son, and certainly of absolutely no interest to her numerous grand children.  How wrong she was, each of them were as shocked and distraught as was I.

A diary is an easy thing to do, it can become as normal as brushing your teeth at the end of the day, or in my case, as having a cuppa on arriving home – a good time to write it all down.  A diary is short, sharp, succinct.  It is not a journal, although many folk have kept very detailed and emotional diaries while others have used theirs more as a journal.  In these parts the famous diarist was the Rev. Francis Kilvert, who wrote of his daily life as a vicar in several of the local parishes.  Journals, as far as I understand them, are a record often written down some time later and record and reveal more of the inner thoughts of the writer albeit they relate to factual happenings in day to day life.  They are probably more interesting as a read for generations who come after but a simple diary, a record of the day to day banality of life, is of equal merit.

The current fascination with genealogy is testament to the importance of keeping as many records of family life as is feasible.  Now that the British census no longer records origin of parents nor does it record the occupation of individuals, future researchers will be denied much that puts flesh on the mere statistical bones.  It therefore seems even more important that diaries are kept and  safeguarded for grand children and the generations to come.

One of my New Year resolutions is to be more diligent in recording my life in my diary.  This is in part due to recent examples of how poor my memory is, not just on events of many years ago but on those a few moths ago, and also because of the many re-connections I enjoyed in the last year.  As a rule I’m not too into’going back’, even to times that were full of mad happiness and enjoyment.  I like the odd get together with old rugby chums, occasional family meets, as at a recent funeral. and I’ve certainly enjoyed meeting up with old college friends.  The common and shared experience of the time is a bond that transcends all that occurs in the interim.  The thing to remember in all such happenings is that people we knew ten, twenty, thirty and more years ago, friends we got smashed with, team-mates we played with and others we endured hardships alongside, have all had their own lives and are now different to those younger versions we knew.  We are also changed and full of different life experiences and thus the point of contact remains that moment in time all those years ago.  Memories too can often be different, even of the same event, how useful, in addition to those old and now shocking photographs, would a written record be !  I took the advise of a friend who is a serial journal keeper – is that a journalist ? – and diligently wrote on my two lengthy trips to the states.  On my first visit, the Smithsonian Festival, I actually kept a ‘video diary’, how modern.

We have entered a period of historical remembrance for those who endured the ravages of the Great War   The dead are honoured, as are the survivors of those dreadful battles, so too the families and loved ones who were left at home.  All are now to the forefront in family histories.  So it is with me; a diary of a relative I never knew, who died in a foreign field a century ago, is now a treasured heirloom.  I wrote of my visit to the graves of two great uncles who lie in ‘Flanders Fields’ in an earlier series of posts.  One of those great uncles had kept a regular daily diary, as did most men at the time, which somehow survived and was returned to the family.  It is no great tome, it reveals no lucid inner thoughts on the meaning of life or love, it bears little of interest to an enemy or a friend in reality.  It is however a record of endurance and fortitude un-recognised by the writer; he most probably would have thought it of no interest to any but himself, had he lived it too would have long since fuelled a garden fire.  He didn’t live but thankfully his diary survived, its interest is purely ephemeral, one day after another, a story of an ordinary experience no different from thousands of others.  The real fascination lies in the DNA of the writer and the fact the diary still exists and that is why we should be following suit.

The cover of the book that reveals the diary of Richard George Cantle of Five Locks, Pontnewydd, Cwmbran.

The cover of the book that reveals the diary of Richard George Cantle of Five Locks, Pontnewydd, Cwmbran.

Richard George Cantle was my maternal grandmother’s brother, my great uncle.  He was called ‘Dick’ and was one of the first soldiers to serve in the newly formed Tank Corps in mid 1917.  Prior to that he was an infantryman in the South Wales Borderers.  His diary for 1915 has been photocopied and produced in a readable format by a relative, in all there exists diaries for 1915,1916,1917; the diary for the first two weeks of January 1918 probably perished with him in the dreadful fire which ultimately claimed his life.  Petrol engined 1st World War tanks were extremely volatile…

This is how the diary was written, in pencil on a pro-forma diary supplied in rations by sponsored by the various companies whose foodstuffs were included.

This is how the diary was written, in pencil on a pro-forma diary supplied free and sponsored by the various companies whose foodstuffs were emblazoned as adverts.

The pencil written diary is a typical example of a free diary which was commonly given out as a marketing gimmic by manufacturers.  Companies such as ‘Dee & Ess’ (D&S) who manufactured cocoa and the Mazawatee Tea Company Ltd. who supplied chocolate and chocolate drink as well as tinned coffee and, of course,  tea !

The diary is set out in lined form with seven days to a page and one spare section.  The diary was clearly originally intended as an accounts diary and retains the £. S. D. (Pounds, shillings and pence) columns on the right hand side.

When we remember how few ‘ordinary’ working men could read and write in the early twentieth century, the diary of Richard Cantle is a rare record.

It begins on Sunday, January 10th 1915, four months after the beginning of hostilities.  Dick’s company were in the thick of the fighting east of Ypres.

Entries as they are written:

Sunday 10th January – 1st Sunday after Epiphany.

Seargant Parsons shot + died of wounds.  Relieved the same night.

Monday 11th.

Billeted with Madame + Marie Good Billet.

Tuesday12th.

Orderly to Mr West* (?) to help with the Rations

*Mr = Lieutenant

Wednesday 13th.

Seargant Paret died of wounds. Drunk on Rum

Thursday 14th. – Saturday 23rd is missing possibly as resting in the rear.

Sunday 24th.

Went in trenches, had a rough time

Monday 25th.

Dangerous work with pump in trenches.

Tuesday 26th.

Germans shelled but no-one killed. Relieved same night.

Wednesday 27th.

Billited in Ploey Street.  Good billet.  Kaisers birthday !

Thursday 28th.

Helped with the Rations.

Friday 29th.

Helped with the Rations.

Saturday 30th.

Stand-to at 10.  Nothing doing.

Monday 31st.

Mackintoshes issued.

 

Richard George Cantle- grave of

The small Commonwealth Graves Commission cemetery on the Bicquoy Road near Ficheux, east of Amiens in the Pas de Calais region. The final resting place of Great Uncle Dick. Remembered with Honour.

Great Uncle Dick survived from January 1915 until 12th January 1918 when, at the age of 26, he died as a result of injuries received in his burning tank.  The chores of giving out rations, the uninteresting fact of being billeted with Madame and Marie, the brief announcement of deaths or no deaths, the banality of the issue of Mackintoshes, just a record of everyday happenings in the trenches in 1915.  We can only imagine that which he chose not to record – just in case someone else was to read his diary …

I ask your patience dear readers as it is my intention to record the diary month by month throughout this year; it is my way of commemorating and honouring.

Medals and Queen Mary sweet tin.

The posthumously awarded 1st World War medals of Richard George Cantle, kept safe in his brass sweet tin which Queen Mary sent to all troops to celebrate Christmas 1914. In less than 3 weeks he was dead.

As well as diaries and journals there is, of course, a more valuable and far more personal record of an individual’s thoughts and feelings.  Letters !  When did you last receive a letter ?  When did you last write a letter !?  The art of letter writing, indeed the art of writing, is a disappearing one.  This confounded key-board has emasculated my ability to control a pen.  The last ten years has all but ended the joy of an unexpected letter from a far-away place.  What ever happened to Pen-friends !?  How does a 21st century schoolboy or girl experience the excitement of  receiving a letter from some far-away foreign clime ?  I presume the hobby of stamp collecting has gone the way of hop-scotch and skipping …

One section of society where ‘letters from home’ are still hugely important and eagerly anticipated is in the armed forces.  A small envelope brings much joy and the ability to read and re-read at will whilst holding the very paper that the writer held has a value greater than the written word itself.  Of course modern means of communication has crept insidiously into that domain; the instant email or facebook post, the text and the mobile phone-call all now play an important role in maintaining morale.  Imagine, if you can, the absolute thrill of a small hand written epistle breaking into the hell and drudgery of a 1st World War trench.  Imagine too the relief of the parents and family back home when the clap of the letter box resulted not in a brown GPO telegram but a buff British Forces Post Office envelope and a pencilled letter from a much loved son.

Some years ago I came across such a letter; it was stuffed into the back of a drawer in an old satin-wood dressing table I was examining in my regular antique centre over in Trecastle.  The Junk-yard Angel on duty did me a deal on the dressing table and I thus acquired the letter…

Letter to mum, October 1915

The letter from ‘Bob’ to his mother, posted in Aberdeen in October 1915, it lay undiscovered in a dressing table for 90 years.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

 

Dear Mother,

Many thanks for the cake etc. We had a fine treat.  I also had another parcel of sweetmeats, so you may bet I had a feed.  

The pillow is jolly handy and very comfy but the first night I used it, when I woke up in the morning I found the fellow who sleeps next to me with my pillow under his head.

 If I get my commission I will get a fortnights holiday to get my outfit and of course I will come home.  If I am successful I will get it in about a month or 6 weeks.

Have you settled on the flat at Eltham yet, let me know the address and when to start writing there.  I wish I had been in London to see the Zepps. it must have been a fine sight. *

If you could send me Jimmy’s old football nickers which he bought and never used I would be much obliged but you might cut an inch or two off before you send them.  You will find them hanging in the cupboard of my  bedroom.

I received my birth certificate this morning and gave it in with my papers to the colonel for his certificate.  I had to go up to Reith this last weekend and get a letter from the colonel of the 3/6th “the regiment”  I want to get a commission in saying that he would be willing to have me.  I got all right without any trouble and also had a good weekend.  Will you send me Miss Perry’s and Mr Richards’ address and I want to write to both.  I am very comfy now that I have settled down to the new diggs.  I have 4 blankets an overcoat and an air pillow so could one be more comfy in the army.  Well good by and send another German cake some time or other.

                                       Your affectionate son

                                                   Bob

 P.S.  I am sending a little thing for Jimmies 21st and if he should not be at home this weekend please send it on to him.    

      * The Zeppelin raids on London began on 31st May 1915.  Reports on numbers killed in that first raid vary from 7 to 28.  Raids continued throughout 1915 and not just on London.

Pencilled letter home 1915

Written clearly in pencil nearly a century ago, a simple letter from a son to his mother …

Included with the letter to his mother Robert wrote a short one page each to his sisters Agnes and Kitty.

Dear Agnes,

Many thanks for your kindness, I had a fine treat these last few nights it is nice to have a birthday.

I wish the Zepps would come up here for I am longing for a bit of excitement, but they are too frightened to come near the Gordons.

What regiment has Eddie joined and how does he like soldiering ?

I am hoping to get home in a week or two and then we will have a spree.

Well so long and be good.

Bob.

  

Dear Kitty,

Thank you very much for the hankerchiefs they are very nice and useful.

I had a nice weekend in Reith this last weekend and when I got back on Monday night I had parcels and letters innumerable awaiting me.

I am trying hard for a commission and if I get it I will be very much surprised but I hope for the best. I expect you will be proud of me if ever I become an officer.

How does work go down with you, I suppose you have a good time with the officers.

I have got a song for you and am inclosing it in a parcel of clothes. I hope you will like it.

Well good bye for the present.

Your brother Bob.

 

Robert Alexander Monkhouse did achieve his ambition of becoming an officer in the Gordon Highlanders.  In 1917, 2nd Lieutenant Monkhouse of 31 Manor Park, Lee, London, was killed in action.  A letter which he pencilled to his mother in late 1915 contained nothing of interest, just a little chit-chat of family talk around the sending of birthday presents and requests.  A hundred years later it takes on a wholly different level of interest.  Write more letters and keep them safe !

As for Welshwaller, he’s written more than enough for one day !                                                                                             

“How like a winter hath my absence been from thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year…” (W.S. Sonnet 97)

04/01/2015

“What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen,

What old December’s bareness everywhere.”

The shortest day has been gone ten days and already I (think) can see a lengthening of the days … utter nonsense of course, wishful thinking is all !  The time between one blog post and the next seems to fly by insanely fast and I have to think hard about the day and the date.  This year the way that Christmas and New Year have fallen has left me totally confused – everyday seems to be a Sunday !  One thing I do know, it has been cold !  Oh yes, fleetingly everything locked up and dawn revealed a landscape silent and frozen.  The change from a mild late autumn where leaves still hung on hazel trees and catkins hung lazily in the breeze to this is more than I want to contemplate.  However, six weeks after Christmas it’s light at six !! (p.m not a.m !!) and we’re already on our way.

The final month of 2014 was actually quite a good one for me; for once I had finished 90% of the work I’d hoped to complete and the weather held good.  I spent the last days before the holiday working with the other ‘woodsmen’ on the estate making sure the Laird’s supply of fuel was sufficient to take him through to Spring. In essence that meant standing at the rectum end of the ‘Log Dog’ – an immense log splitter – as it disgorged split wood onto the platform where I lifted it and stacked it endlessly into the wooden crates.  I think we did about 30 crates in two days.  The furness demands a lot of nourishment at this time of year, not least because dozens and dozens of strangely attired folk regularly turn up to ‘enjoy’ blasting those pretty little pheasants from the sky … and they like to be warm in their beds at night and in their dining room at even-song !  Luckily for me, bending to fill wood crates is much akin to bending to pick up stones.

Window watcher

I’ve clearly stood far too long gazing out of this window … but the daffodils are definitely coming up !

The festivities were pleasant enough, too much food for sure, not enough wine, for sure, and sufficient social interaction to enable me to get through the next few weeks in indolent solitude – perhaps.

Unfortunately my period of relaxation was briefly interrupted when I had to attend to some unfinished work down Bethlehem way ….

Nant Ffarchog Sheepfold

A muddy mess which needed to be retained … I’m beginning to hate mud..

The old sheepfold of Nant Ffarchog lies adjacent to the ancient route-way from the early Christian settlements at Llanddeussant and Gwynfe to Bettws near Ammanford where it joins an equally old Pilgrim road running westward to St. Davids.  The fold serves farms in the old ‘maenors’ of Gwynfe and Iscennen.  It is one of eight folds which were built variously from the mid C17th to the mid C18th to enable the small flocks of each tenant farm to be gathered and sorted prior to being walked home to the old homestead.

Through a recently agreed management programme under the auspices of the Welsh Assembly Government’s Glastir Commons programme, the Black Mountain Graziers Associations have accessed some grant aid to allow them to repair and up-grade the folds in their respective ‘walks’.  I began the repairs to the walls of Nant Ffarchog back in September whilst I still had my ‘understudy’ with me.  Due to a directive from an over-zealous official, who had completely mis-interpreted historical mapping and categorisation criteria, we were compelled to use a conservation grade lime-mortar to rebuild parts of the two folds which I had been asked to undertake.

It was such a nonsensical requirement that eventually I felt compelled to challenge it.  The two folds in question, Cwmllwyd and Nant Ffarchog no longer retain any substantial element of their earlier ‘historical’ structures.  In the case of Nant Ffarchog it does not even retain the original shape and the internal structures have been totally rebuilt over successive generations.  In respect of Cwmllwyd, I totally rebuilt it in 1998 and whilst I was required to retain the outer walls, all internal pens were done away with and a new internal management system built in their place.  In addition, whereas the original fold had been built (about 1680) using lime-mortar which was readily available from the nearby lime-kilns, I used a modern portland cement and a stone-dust aggregate.  As for Nant Ffarchog, much of the present fold is built of concrete blocks and even the old stone walls have been mostly repaired using cement.  What therefore was the sense in insisting on lime-mortar !?

Sheep-fold in Black Mountain, Carms.

The Cwmllwyd Sheep-fold as it stands today, re-modelled and totally rebuilt in 1998 by Welshwaller – with no lime-mortar !

The 1998 programme of fold repair was funded under a European scheme managed by the Brecon Beacons National Park and as such was more about returning the fold to a usable sheep-management structure than retaining it’s historic integrity.  However, even then it was a requirement that the archaeology was to be respected and recorded.

Originally the officers of the Park and the Archaeologists had assumed the folds were of dry stone wall construction.  Such was the state of Cwmllwyd that was an understandable view; no walls were left standing and the whole area was filled to the top with years of manure from both sheep and mountain ponies.  Such was the amount of waste to be removed it was necessary to engage an earth moving machine.  Luckily the local man, ‘Ivor the Engine’ (as I call him) was on hand.  He was a mainstay of years of wall rebuilding which I undertook in the Gwynfe area from the early 1990s. Another mainstay of that earlier rebuild was a local farmer, John Booth, a man of great presence and a real character, not withstanding he hails from the High Peak !

Pizzle stick

John showing me his prize ‘pizzle’ stick. A real character and a highly respected ‘blow-in’ who hailed from the Derbyshire area.

This time whilst I was doing some repairs at Cwmllwyd, John brought me two really interesting pieces from his collection of old farming artefacts.  I knew what they were but had never seen one outside of a museum, they are quite rare and highly sought after.

The ‘Pizzle’ stick is just a stick which a farmer used to goad cattle.  It is the penis bone from an Ox …. he had two but would he give me one of them ….

Penis bone of Ox

John Booth’s highy prized ‘pizzle’ stick which I understand was his father’s. I want one

The repairs to Cwmllwyd fold was in two parts, firstly some dry stone walling and, secondly, a section of mortar wall which had begun to collapse.

The stone in the folds, because they were originally built with lime-mortar, is unsuited to being built using a dry stone technique.  The big problem is that they are far too short to allow the stone to be secured to a sufficient depth into the wall.  I call them ‘loaves’ as they are very much like an old oven-baked loaf of bread.  Mind you, some of them would have been just right for a certain feast on the shores of Galilee !  Boys boys they are big and heavy.  When I say they are heavy, I mean even 16 years ago I well remember struggling with them, you can imagine the grunting and explosive expletives this time around !

The geology of the area is somewhat erratic, whilst Old Red Sandstone predominates, and is excellent for dry stone walling, there also occurs large blocks of silica and basalt as well as some limestone blocks which get washed down from the escarpment above the folds.  The stone was clearly gathered from nearby stream beds which are deeply cut and can run quite forcefully in spate.  Thus the stones are rounded off and quite smooth, another incompatibility for dry stone building.  The cope-stones are the real biggies; oh yes, they are serious lumps of silica which weigh well over 100lb/60kg+ !

A stripped out wall at Cwmllwyd

Great blocks of stone with enormous copes is what this section was built with.

I had to strip out a 4 metre length of retaining wall at the top of the fold – the fold is dug into the base of the hill and is bounded on three sides by streams.  The wall, which I had indeed rebuilt in 1998, was showing signs of bulging outwards and threatening to collapse.  When stripping-out a collapse in a wall, a ‘gap’, it is usual to discover the offending stone or reason for that collapse.  In this case I could find no positive reason for the bulging, there was no pressure from behind as is often the case in a retaining wall.  I guess it was just badly built !  The other dry stone sections were smaller and  the reason for the collapse more easily discerned.  The base of the sections had been eroded by sheep lying against them.

Sheep-fold in Gwynfe

The mortared curve is cracking out !

The mortared walls were mostly sound but there was one piece, a curved boundary wall, which was cracking and moving, again caused by some erosion of the footing.  I was sad to see that particular problem as it had been the section I was most pleased with when I did the original restoration.  It is guaranteed that things never go back quite the same !

The section was very tall on the outside and somewhat dangerous.  Large stones can suddenly dislodge and if you are in the wrong position it can result in some ‘hurt’ …  The problem with dismantling a wall is that one can never know which is the critical stone, the one which is holding the others together and by merely moving one small stone a whole huge section can instantly collapse – tres dangereux !

A wall in need of attention at Cwmllwyd fold

Slowly but surely this curved section has been moving outward and would eventually collapse. At over 6ft high it was quite dangerous !

There was nothing to be done other than take the whole section down – and stand clear…

The foundation had again been undermined by sheep lying against the foot of the wall and eroding the soil.  Thus it was necessary to dig lower into the subsoil to set the new foundations.  Then it was just a case of slowly coming back up.  Luckily I had the assistance of Miss Carolina for that task which meant we could build both sides simultaneously.  It also meant I didn’t have to do all the mixing !

I had decided to ignore the demands of a lime mortar rebuild and instead used a stronger sand, dust, cement mix (2:2:1) for the laying of the stones but did use lime to ‘dub’ out (point) the joints – a sort of ‘trompe-l’oeil’ if you like !

Lime pointing on sheep-fold

The lime pointing is clear for ‘all’ to see ! Even the sheep seem impressed …

I used a washed river sand and a hydraulic lime which sets more quickly in the proportions of 2:1.  River sand has a different particulate, more like sharp sand, and also does not have the salt impurity of sea sand (normal building sand).  The ‘Hereford washed’ as it is known, is also more in keeping with the red sandstone of the area.

As for Nant Ffarchog, well that was far less complicated but seemed to take a little longer.  Some repairs to the mortared walls were again required and I used the same technique.  In some sections repairs were required to more recently built stone walls where cement pointing was evident and so there that’s what we used.

Fallen wall at Nant Ffarchog

A typical example of the repairs required at Nant Ffarchog – ‘blown’ sections like these are troublesome to repair.

Luckily the weather held fair as this site is notable for the mud.  The fold originally incorporated a ‘wash’ where flocks could be dipped in clean water before being marched home for shearing.  That was obliterated many years past and re-designing of the fold means there is little in the way of historic interest.

Nevertheless, this fold is an extremely important one with a dozen or so farms using it to gather and sort flocks off the hill.  The sheep-walks extend over the limestone slopes of the Black mountain as far as Brynamman in the south-east  and the outskirts of the Ammanford area in the west.  To the north the hill is bounded by the rivers Cennen and Loughor, the former running westwards and passing under the great rocky limestone outcrop on which sits Carreg Cennen castle.  The Loughor emerges from a cave in a field in an area known as ‘Pal y Cwrt’, the ancient demesne lands of the castle.  The Loughor springs forth from a large limestone cave system which extends eastwards as far as the valley of the Tawe and Dan yr Ogof caves.  Some years ago I was repairing the great limestone wall of the ‘Cwrt’ which was the boundary of the very field in which the river emerged.  There was a man living in a motor-home for weeks at a time and he spent every day down in that dark hole determined to find the passage that linked the system with the well known 7 mile system that surrounds Dan yr Ogof.  It was lovely early Spring sunshine and I remember asking him why he wasted the day light and the beautiful weather and superb scenery to spend his days in darkness and mud.  “Why not go down at night?” I asked, given that he was in darkness anyway.  “Do you know ? I never thought of that!”, he said.  And that’s what he did !  Alas he never did succeed in breaking through as each time he went away – he spent a week at a time before returning to his job in Bristol – rain would cause the underground streams to wash yet more debris into the narrow ‘squeeze’ which blocked his path.  I was also able to explain to him why he was always cutting his wet-suit and coming to the surface with bloodied hands and knees.  Silica, the hills around abound with it and it is hellish sharp and hard.  So much so that silica sand from exactly that spot was the highly prized and expensive abrasive used by farmers to sharpen their scythes, using a ‘rip’ or strickle.

Sorry, I digress !!  Meanwhile, back at Nant Ffarchog fold a lady was diligently pointing and I was re-setting the ‘blown’ sections.  We also replaced around 25 metres of large cope-stones but were unable to complete the task.  Which is why I ended up back there last week.

Pointing a wall

This lady has a peculiar liking for the ‘precise’, it kept her quiet for hours and hours – wish we’d had more to do …

There was much clearing of the ground to be done in readiness for a covering of stone.  The fold sits on a number of springs – the permeable limestone and sandstone sit on a  layer of heavy impermeable clay and thus water emits from the ground when it hits that layer.  For most of the winter and indeed summer if it is a wet one, the whole area is a real quagmire which makes it a difficult place to herd and sort sheep.  In order to try to alleviate the problem the renovation grant includes money to clean the site and bring in stone to lay over the pens and create some roadways.

Unfortunately the man to do the job was busy elsewhere until the Christmas break.  Luckily a frosty period of weather came in and he and I were able to do our bit.  His was somewhat more extensive, several hundred tons of stone were lorried in !

Stone comes to Nant Ffarchog

Darren, son of  ‘Ivor the Engine’ gets moving several hundred tons of stone.

Darren is the son of the said ‘Ivor the Engine’, he has ‘machine driven’ in his father’s footsteps so to speak.(I realise many of my readers will not be aware of ‘Ivor the Engine’ having not been enthralled by the exploits of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ …)  He duly arrived with two earth moving machines, a massive dumper truck and a good helper and set forth to clear the site.  Throughout the two days I spent there a constant stream of 16 ton loads of stone arrived and was hurriedly dispersed around the site.  By the time I had finished my little stone wall most of the area was covered in nice dry clean stone and there only remained one day of tidying left to do.

The wall I had to build was a small retaining wall which supports the ramps up to the pens.  Again the fold is ‘dug-in’ to the hill and has several tiers, very much like Cwmllwyd, and so numerous gates and steps, ramps and lunkies are used to move sheep up and down and all around.

The small retaining wall is again built with stone that is brought from the hill and the stream bed - not the best really !

The small retaining wall is again built with stone that is brought from the hill and the stream bed – not the best really !

And so it is done, another sheep fold repaired.  The year has been one of folds really.  The two Black Mountain folds were enjoyable for me as they re-connected me to an area and folk I had not seen for a while.  The hills of the Gwynfe parish gave me over ten years of walling work and during that time I got to know the farmers and the other ‘countryside’ workers.  They are networks that oil the cohesive nature of rural communities.  It seems to matter not that I now live some distance away, the people of the area still think of me as their ‘Waller’, and that warms the cockles of my heart !

I also took time to visit with another old customer/friend for whom I had built hundreds of yards of walls under the very first Agri/Environment scheme, Tir Cymen.  I am very fond of him and his lovely young wife and it seems I will be doing some work for him early in 2015.  He has the envious position of walking out of his door each morning and looking at the great edifice that is Carreg Cennen castle.

Carreg Cennen

Silhouetted against the western sky, Carreg Cennen is my all-time favourite Welsh Castle.

However, the real gem he holds is a very important medieval farmstead and it is there that Welshwaller will be spending much of the coming months.

Thanks to all of you who continue to follow my exploits and endure my rants.  Thanks especially to those who take the trouble to comment and compliment.  You are a ‘select’ group, possibly in need of some therapy or counselling but definitely ‘my kind of folk’ !!

Diolch yn Fawr ich y gyd

BLWYDDYN  NEWYDD DDA

 

 

 

 

 

“Santa Claus has got it right – visit people once a year …”

21/12/2014

Now those of you that don’t actually know me are probably thinking “miserable old git”, those of you (not very many !!) who do know me are saying “still the same miserable old git!!”.  And it’s probably a very accurate assessment; I mean, hard as you may find this to believe, let alone understand, I HATE all those endless ‘game shows’ that we are bombarded by around tea time, just as I want to catch up on world events … nor do I watch the excruciating Saturday singing competitions, nor the awful Apprentice, nor do I wait expectantly for the next episode of any of the two thousand soaps, as for the six hundred cooking show/competitions, aarrghhh !!!  Worst of all, and I know this will be the final nail in my coffin of downgraded social standing, I absolutely, to a degree unfathomable and probably indicating a serious psychopathic malfunction, DETEST Strictly Come bloody Dancing !!! I HATE IT.  In my view, had the inmates of Guantanamo been forced to watch that every week there would have been no need of water-boarding etc !!!

There, I’ve said it; already ‘followers’ of my blog are disconnecting …

In fact such is the disinterest I harbour for that seemingly ‘Biblical’ Saturday night (and every other night it seems) epic that TV has ceased to occupy any place in my evening entertainment until well past 9 pm.  Now I must admit that of late, and as the season of Goodwill descends upon us, this alienation that I have from the rest of the British population has begun to raise questions in my mind.  “What ? You don’t watch Strictly ?!?!”, seems to be the instant response to my inevitable answer to what has been the inevitable question on everyone’s lips as I make the increasingly rare visits to shops etc.  No, I do not and neither am I concerned as to who might win (or lose) the X factor, the Y factor or any of the other 24 factors.  The only ‘factor’ I have any interest in (and even then my understanding of them is minimal) is the number on my sun-bloc !!  It seems to me therefore, I am indeed anti-social and a “miserable old git”.  This realisation and resultant concern is compounded by the fact that I am extremely, nay, ‘ecstatically’ happy in my own little world and my own increasingly large skin (as the mince-pie season rolls on unabated).  What am I to do ?

Paranoia is creeping inexorably into my every thought.  Do you know, I am even beginning to get troubled by the very few Christmas cards I seem to have received … Worrying indeed.

On the other hand ….

I am making my annual attempt, as indeed does Santa, to connect (notice I say “connect”) with the extended family and indeed the close family.  Hell, I might even see some of them.  The extended family is ‘extended’ in one sense – they are far away – but shrunk in another sense – they are mostly dead.  In fact my relatives from the generation above have been reduced to a half this last week as the last auntie passed peacefully onward.  That leaves a ‘step-aunt’ (if such a thing exists) who, despite suffering a stroke some six years ago, seems likely to out-live those of us in the next level.  It has been that sort of year really; people dead or dying unexpectedly have dumped a certain melancholy upon me almost monthly.

I lost a neighbour in awful and painful circumstances back in May, I lost another in August, that was a huge blow and again painfully un-expected and violent.  I heard the tragic news of the death of the wife of a buddy as I headed for my summer holiday.  She was a huge presence and a joy to visit and will be sorely missed this Christmas.  Then it was the graves of two Great Uncles lost in the Great War nearly a hundred years ago.  Now it is my last auntie, a jolly Welsh lady who lived a full yet burdened life having lost a brother flying a Beaufort Bomber in North Africa in 1942 (and never knowing what had happened to him or where he was buried until 1990) and hearing the news that her ‘man’ – Uncle Billy – had been seriously wounded and “was not expected to survive”.  She was a native of Taffs Well north of Cardiff and married my Uncle Billy (who died back in 2012) in 1943.  They lived a life devoted to each other, in the same street and the same house for over 50 years.  She and he were always on my ‘to visit’ list and I am grateful that for a few years between 2006 and 2009 I called with them often.  I am not quite so good at visiting sisters, in fact I am ashamed to say that a visit to my youngest sister back in March was the first for two years !  I don’t get to see the other sister too much either although I caught up with both at the latter end of the year.

A get together with the youngest happened at a jovial event in Hundred House where the local agricultural show saw us all get together.  She and hubby and grand-daughter (and the cutest little dog you ever saw!) brought the caravan for the weekend.  I attended with some artefacts (mainly to support the show and the area in which I spent most of the working year) and finally Miss Carolina got to meet the one member of my family she had never met – well she’s only been here six times in the last six years !

Tools at Hundred House

A small display of my artefacts to support Hundred House Show and the area in which I had spent most of the working year. Miss Carolina got to meet a missing member of my family too !

The ‘catch-up’ with my other sister took place at an event to open a new ‘sensory garden’ at the centre where she works aiding and counselling troubled young folk.  Grant-aided by a charity called ‘The Wooden Spoon’ (an international Rugby centred charity) it was to be opened by one of Wales’ most famous rugby playing sons.  A man so HUGE in Wales it is hardly conceivable that he is such an unassuming, quiet and dignified gentleman.  He had been a huge influence on my life in long ago days, a school hero having been a schoolboy international and a really fine member of the community.  He was my captain when I played at Pontypool and his manner of fulfilling that role was the model I strove to emulate.  He played in a number of the Grand Slam teams and was a British Lion to New Zealand where he was credited with ‘salvaging’ the tour when he took on the role of forwards coach.  He was inexplicably badly treated by the club he had served for so long and with such distinction and left Wales to teach at one of the top English public schools.  He eventually returned to Wales as Director of Rugby for the Welsh Rugby Union where again he played a pivotal role in bringing Welsh rugby out of the doldrums.  It was nigh on 25 years since we last met, boy we had some catching up to do !!

'Cob' cuts the ribbon !

The ribbon is cut by a famous Man of Gwent and Welsh Rugby, Terry Cobner. The ‘Wooden Spoon’ charity had grant aided the construction of the sensory garden at the Young People’s centre in Gilwern.

Once the grand ceremony of the opening had been completed and the ribbon cut, a tour of the sensory garden and newly apportioned centre was the precursor to some super refreshments.  I took the opportunity of chatting to Mrs Cobner and Mrs Norling !  The two wives were an absolute hoot and we laughed and joked about life in the valleys and all manner of subjects – Mrs Norling is the wife of the great international rugby referee, Clive, who was also in attendance (he was famous/notorious for wearing  shorts that were rather too tight !).

Eventually ‘ Cob’ and I got to have a long chat about days gone by, memories of Pontypool rugby and the characters we knew, many have since passed on, committee men and players but all were remembered.  We reminisced about the days at West Mon (Grammar School for Boys) and the crazy way the school was ‘ruled’ by a despotic head who caned boys for the smallest indiscretion (we reckoned we had both had our fair share of thrashings but honours went to me as he had never had 6 strokes of the cane – 3 was the norm!).  We laughed at the idiosyncrasy of teachers who attempted to ‘learn’ us whilst beating our brains out.  How we laughed.  We finished on a question all boys who attended that school in that era (and for years before) ask each other when re-united, “Why were we made to swim in the nude !?”.  Yes folks, in West Mon in the 1960s, boys – aged from 11 to 18 – were expected to go into the swimming pool (it was the only school at that time that had a pool) and parade along the side prior to diving in and swimming around for half an hour totally bollock naked ! (in truth some of us were so young and not yet pubescent, we didn’t even have bollocks !!).  What was that about !?  We’re probably better off not going there !!

For an hour and more we chatted and laughed;  I got his views on some of the happenings in his life and he on mine.  We laughed at some of the crazy charity games we had played in (organised by a character I was to meet that afternoon) and the incredible fun it all was;  we both asked the question, “what do today’s players do for fun ?”.  The common bond of a shared experience of a valleys life, a hard schooling (in educational and in rugby terms) and the joy that the game of rugby brought us and even though he had reached the highest peaks of the game, it was those memories of simple schoolboy rugby, of hard fought games on Pontypool Park and silly charity games (and games in the bar afterwards !) that made the hour one of laughter and  fond recollection.  Nice to see you ‘Dick’ !

Welshaller and Cob

One the most influential of men in my life. Son of a ‘Big Pit’ miner, a Blaenavon lad made of steel, a Man of Gwent and a famous Welshman. Humble and dignified so much so he spent an hour talking with li’l ol’ Welshwaller …

Opened by

From there I spent a jolly hour with sister and her ‘man’ having a rather good lunch and then it was off to another visit !  Actually another re-union of sorts, to meet up with more old rugby/school friends whom I had not seen in a good ten years or so ….   Maybe I’m not as good as Santa after all … but I did call on my ‘step-auntie’ whom I had also not seen for some years, -sorry – but she was out to lunch (that’s a place not a state of mind …).

One of the ‘groups’ of ‘chums’ I have had long association with is another relict community, another link to my school-days.  In all sporting schools, public or state, there is a long tradition of ex-students forming ‘teams’ to carry-on the camaraderie of the school team.  Of course the difference is that a team of ‘old boys’ (or girls for that matter) will contain students from a range of year groups.  For me that meant I would find myself playing alongside those ex-pupils who had been in the 1st XV when I was a mere first year !  Now most ‘young’ school boys admire and look-up to the members of the school’s top team until one day he arrives at the top himself and is looked up to by the youngsters who have followed on.  And so it goes on, so that within the ‘Old Boys’ fraternity there can be a whole mixture of ages and ability.  Now it is true that those boys who were top drawer players, especially the school-boy internationals, would progress to play at senior first class clubs.  West Mon Grammar School has a plethora of ex-pupils who became rugby ‘allumni’ !  The man to score the winning try the last time Wales beat the All Blacks, in 1953, was a Westmonian, the flying winger Ken Jones.  Bryn Meredith, a legendary Wales and British Lion hooker was another great I had the privilege to play with in the ‘Old Boys’.  More recently the great Wales and British Lion forward  ‘Pricey’ of Pontypool Front Row fame was a contemporary of mine.  For those players who did not make it through to first class rugby but who were nevertheless excellent players who, if anything, lacked a certain ambition, teams were plentiful.  Of course the one thing a so called ‘good education’ brings is success in employment, or it used to !  Many of the pupils went on to university and thence to a professional job, more often than not away from the home town.  There are, however, a core for whom neither rugby fame nor employment opportunity has taken them further than the ‘Old Boys’.  That is not to say either that they haven’t done extremely well in their chosen careers or that they can’t play a good game of rugby.  In fact I could pick a team who could have easily played in the top flight had the mood taken them.  Not for them the hard-core training and battles that marked the path of the first class player.  Rugby was but a past-time to be enjoyed, a camaraderie that ran alongside home-life, work and other recreations.  The group that I became a part of, albeit over a prolonged intermittent period, are still together.  Men now in their late 60s and even some in their 70s, all of whom have retired from successful jobs and businesses where they achieved high status, still enjoy getting together once or twice a year – more often in the case of those who are involved in running the rugby club – to watch a game and have a drink with old chums.

Having lived away from the home-land for a long while and having lost contact with some dear friends I was out of the loop as to when these events were planned.  A chance encounter back in the summer of 2013 with an old pal, a now retired police officer, at another family funeral (my father’s last and youngest sibling, who was himself a long serving and senior ranked policeman) resulted in a notification of this year’s get together.  Thus it was that I left lunch with Sis and proceeded onward towards Pontypool.

By some strange quirk of historic fate which I do not understand, the current team of Old Boys still play at the very field we played on when I was in school.  Known as the Skew field (I know not why, funny shape ? Horses grazed on it ? Anybody know ??) it sits between the canal, Monmouthshire and Brecon, near the ‘Basin’ at Pontymoile just at the southern end of Pontypool Park, and the by-pass road that connects Cwmbran to Pontypool.  When I was young the by-pass was the great railway marshalling yard of Pontypool Roads where my father started his working life on the foot-plate of steam engines.  I found my way to the pitch-side, in itself a story worth a post ! and found myself face to face with old friends and playing colleagues.  I was greeted with open arms and back-slapping enough to embarrass the ‘Prodigal Son’.  In the blink of an eye I was transported thirty years back and we were soon all engrossed in watching the game with all the old side-splitting wit and jibes that so personified rugby at that level.

For my part I was thrilled to see that there is still rugby being played at the ‘fun’ level although I’m sure the players would take offence at that comment, to them it was deadly serious.  That was displayed on more than one occasion with a good old bout of punches and swearing !!  Just like in my day !!  Rugby evolved as a game in which every boy, every body shape, every ability, found a place.  The fat and thin, the lanky and stumpy, the physically illiterate and those who couldn’t catch cold let alone catch a rugby ball, could all take part, be a part, enjoy the camaraderie and self esteem of being in a team.  For the most part club rugby is now  far too serious, far too fitness obsessed, far too over-coached.  Here was a game where the ball was thrown with abandon, where players ran like the wind for the line and got hit and tackled with kamikaze abandon.  Here was a game where the referee struggled to keep up and the lines-men added tens of yards each time ‘their’ side kicked the ball to touch and subtracted hundreds when the opposition kicked it !  Rugby like it was meant to be played.  Do you know, they even drank beer afterwards (and played a few games which cannot be mentioned here !!)  Cobner and I had talked about the ending of that ‘grass roots’ type of game, of team and voluntary effort by committee men and wives and girlfriends.  But here it was, alive, well and kicking !!  How I enjoyed it.  How I enjoyed too catching up with dear old friends and hearing the old laughter and revelry.

I mentioned the ‘arranger’ of my last charity game with Cob, he is, or rather was, Aunt Bettie’s son-in-law, that is he was married to my cousin.  He and I were great pals for years and we played many games of rugby.  He was a great runner and had attended the prestigious Loughborough College where athletics were the primary sport.  If I say he is the funniest clown I have ever known it is not a criticism or an insult.  He is the funniest man and he doesn’t have to try ….  I’d forgotten just how chaotic and hilarious anything in which he is involved would inevitably become.  His laugh is so infectious and everyone but everyone loves him.  Shun Price, you are the best !!  Though watching him auctioning the raffle prizes as well as the auction items (despite me telling him several times !) was the real gem of the day, it more than anything zoomed me back to those halcyon days of yesteryear.  I hadn’t laughed so much in such a short time for longer than I can remember.  The friend who let me know it was happening took a picture and managed to overcome the disability of age and booze to send it me !  I will look at it long and often this Christmas.

Do I look happy ?  Can you see how 'sociable' I am being ?  What a great Saturday I had, thank you young Mostyn Sadler - I owe you !!

Do I look happy ? Can you see how ‘sociable’ I am being ? What a great Saturday I had, thank you young Mostyn Sadler – I owe you !!

So, you see, I am following in Santa’s footsteps, sometimes an annual visit, sometimes a little longer but visit I do.  If it’s your turn, and there are certainly many who still need to be visited, I’ll be there sooner or later but please … No mention of competitions, cooking or singing and definitely DON’T MENTION DANCING !!

Those who know me can tell you what I think of dancing … bring it on !!

Happy Christmas to all my readers, my friends, even my enemies.  Thank you all for sticking with this ‘miserable old git’ !!

Now get lost ’til 2015  !!

Blwyddyn Newydd Dda from

Welshwaller

“There’s a certain sound always follows me around …”

03/12/2014

Actually I have two distinct sounds that follow me around; the first is the inescapable growl from a gearbox that is threatening industrial action, the second is the dreaded mobile phone tinkle.  The first has been with me for well over a year, each time I drive my little Ford fiesta van it gruffly sings along, louder and louder it grows as if to warn me of the fact that some terminal illness has befallen it and death awaits.  Diagnosis has been impossible to make, apparently, even by my two most well patronised motor repair establishments.  The end is nigh and I fear my good and faithful servant must soon be discarded.  Despite knowing full-well that my silly sentimentality towards the lump of polluting metal and plastic is embarrassing, I still feel a sense of guilt over what I must soon do.  Is it just me or do others allow their vehicles to become as if alive, like some dear pet dog or goldfish, to be cherished and loved and mourned when the time to separate arrives ?  It is just an absurd sentimentality towards an inanimate object, I know it is, but …  I have always been thus, my vehicle is something I depend upon, it is my means of living where I live, of getting to my work, of all the pleasurable experiences of holidays and visiting.  It takes me to catch a plane and, most importantly, it takes me to meet a plane when an honoured guests flies in.  It is far more than a lump of pollutant, it is indeed my good and faithful servant.  For six and a half long years, driving well over a hundred thousand miles from the top of Scotland to the bottom of France, from the west of Wales to the Rhine, that little ten year old box of Ford tricks has served me well.  Each day of work means it has to go off-roading in some degree or other, my track alone is a good half mile of bumps and bruises.  Mud gathers under the wheel arches until the tyres rub on it.  How many buckets full I have scraped out from under those arches you would not believe.  I could grow a good field of potatoes in it for sure !

I have looked after the little van and in turn it has served me well.  I remember the astonishment of my American visitors when they discovered it returned well over 60 mpg and is quite capable of over 80, as on the summer excursion to France, Belgium and Germany.  Even roaming in the gloaming of the Scottish Highlands I never got less than 72 mpg, astonishing.  Alas the time has come to say goodbye and soon a new steed will bump and trundle up the long track and gather mud from farms all over Wales.  I am both sad and excited, it will be nice to not have to listen to that growling gearbox, to have a heater that does what it says on the controls, a radio that picks up something other than Radio Turkistan and a seat that is off the floor, it will be nice but, at the same time, it will be the end of an era.  We’ve been together a long time, I bought her as a three year old with 23 thousand miles on the clock, back in 2008.  Two weeks later my left achilles tendon ruptured and for over eight months I didn’t get to drive the little car.  My sister, who acted also as my carer for that period of incarceration, used the little motor and loved it. I know, just a silly sentimentalist ..

As for the other pestilence, well …  I know modern means of communication is an asset, to most at least.  I know too that I have to have one of the darn things  as both my customers and my family expect to be able to contact me.  Given the incessant unsolicited calls to my land-line which has resulted in an almost permanent state of un-pluggedness, a mobile phone is really the only chance folk have of getting me.  I don’t always answer, it is true, often there is no signal, well I am in rural Wales after all !  I like that I can see who is calling, I like too that if it is a ‘private number’ I can just choose to ignore it.  My problem comes with the unreadable screen – partly my eyesight, partly the scratches -on which I can make out there is a number showing – names I can usually make out –  and so, if I can, I will answer.  That is becoming an increasingly annoying occurrence.  Apparently the dreadful accident I recently suffered was so serious it has left me devoid of any memory of it.  I must have had an accident because the caller tells me their records show that I did.  I am told to press 5 if I want to discuss how much compensation I might be entitled to, so I do.  Almost everyday I do, sometimes twice a day,I do.  Then, sometimes immediately, sometimes in a few day’s time,  a live person, often in a far away land like Leeds or India, asks me how they can help.  I can’t really print what I say to them,  Whitney overheard me one day and suggested I could well be arrested for such threats and abuse, but say it I do.  You know what ?  It makes me feel a little sense of victory over the low life fraudsters who run the businesses, if they can be called that.  I often say to the young person who calls – it is almost always a youngster –  “Does your mother know what you do ?”  “You know and I know that you are trying to con me, how would you like it if someone did that to your mother or father?”.  Do you know it is astonishing, they almost always apologise and hang up.  Sometimes, especially if a call comes in on my secret number that nobody has – and hence it is bound to be a fraudster – I answer in my broken Arabic (it is a few words certainly not found in the Koran) and that too usually results in a quick termination.

Why do we have to suffer these intrusions ?  Why has our society become plagued by these verminous creatures, is there nothing we can do ?!  It is not just in this country either, when I was visiting in South Carolina the same thing was going on and there too the house phone was never answered because invariably it would be a nuisance call.  I hate the damn people who plague me, day in day out.  But some recompense can be had and it gives me just a small sense of satisfaction to be obnoxious to them, even though I know they are only trying to earn a living.  Sorry mum, I know I shouldn’t but …

And so back to the day job …

A completed wall repair by Welshwaller & Co

All done – a mammoth task that has consumed over 6 months of hard graft. Blue skies on the last day was a fitting end …

Can you believe it, it’s DONE !!!  Yes, that great enclosure on the summit of the Rhogo, beside the Howey to Hundred House road, in deepest rural Radnorshire, has finally been restored.  Restored, I hope, to something nearing it’s former glory, to somewhere close to the wall that those original builders leaned back on in pride and relief, over two hundred years ago.  The last stone to be placed was a marker on top of a re-modelled wall-end where the west and north walls converge.  A marker which stands tall in the landscape and signposts  the historic feature for the next two hundred years and more – certainly until long after my ‘life-time’ guarantee has expired !

Stone marker on a wall in Radnorshire

The tall stone marks the historic enclosure for all to see.

The archaeologists probably won’t like it; but given they never came near after the early protestations that nothing was to be disturbed, given that even though they are charged with recording historic features in the uplands and received detailed description and photographs from me, no interest was ever shown – “we don’t have the funds” was the reply I got (as well as being told I mustn’t remove any stones out of the ground, off the wall, nor any new stones to be brought in and so on and so on…)

No, there will be no congratulatory telegrams from that quarter, nor I suspect from the grant giving body.  Am I bovvered ?!  Not at all, nothing could better the kind remarks and compliments of the locals.  Almost everyday these last few weeks – near the road you see ! – people have stopped their cars “just to say” and comment on how pleased they are to see the wall restored.  Some take the trouble to park and walk over to me, some to photograph.  Neighbouring farmers have gone out of their way to pass-by and congratulate me.  Of course most of the folk also ask where my American girl has gone !  Whitney Brown has been the greater source of interest, well I suppose it is to be expected.  After all, an old boy rebuilding a derelict dry stone wall in the uplands of Wales is an everyday sight; a stunner in caharrt dungarees with Cajun music blaring out of her cleavage is not quite so common, well not near a road anyway !

Whitney Brown in Wales in Caharrts

‘Cool’ or what? This Carolinian caharrt wearing broad can build a wall – and Lordie didn’t the locals just adore her – or was it head-scratching confusion …

That’s the thing really, this work has been visible.  The road runs right next to the enclosure so the same folk who drive it daily, weekly or even once in a while, have been subjected to the slow inexorable progress of the rebuild.  In addition it is the favoured spot of many local dog owners and walkers who regularly come by and sometimes say hello or just walk-on by but they can’t help but have noticed.  To my astonished embarrassment there have been many who, for weeks, have made it a regular chore to come and see how it is progressing and stop and chat.  So too visitors from far away who just happened upon the area and me – like the famous “Is that a real wall?” lady and one a few weeks back who screeched to a halt and ran over with her son and daughter, shouting loudly “Oh my God, I never ever thought I would see someone actually doing this!”, and went on to tell me how she loves walls and has done for all her life and how she goes all over Britain just to see them … yep, know the feeling.

You see, to me it’s just another job, albeit one I have been honoured and proud to have been asked to do and accomplish for the farmer who had the courage of his convictions to ‘go for it’ and the flattering confidence in me that I could deliver – Diolch yn Fawr G.  There are thousands more metres of my rebuilt or newly built walls all over Breconshire, Carmarthenshire and, though much fewer, Radnorshire (For the twenty plus years of full-time work there stands over a kilometre a year…. now there’s a sobering thought !  Especially at an average of a tonne and a half a metre … no wonder I’m so thin … cough cough) but for the most part only the land-owners and the animals see them.  True, there are some that are on popular walking routes, especially in the western area of the Brecon Beacons National Park but walkers don’t and, for the most part, didn’t see me building them.   There are dozens of garden walls which the owners and their visitors get to enjoy but few actually saw me building.

No, that’s why this wall has been different, it has been in the public eye and if I ever doubted it, dry stone walls have a place in the heart of most country folk and many from the city.  They somehow epitomise man’s (oh alright, Woman’s too !!) shaping of the landscape and his togetherness with the natural world.  In reality of course walls are the clearest representation of human degradation of the natural world, not least because the thousands of tons of stone in each wall had to be ripped from some natural feature !  I recognise that my work, which, as most folk tell me, represents a ‘dying craft’ (hopefully it’s just me not the craft !!), is something that most people view as a form of alchemy.  Amongst the hundreds of compliments I’ve received whilst rebuilding the Pool House enclosure a large proportion referred to the ‘hard work’ element.  That it is hard work is true, it is a physical, manual job requiring the sort of investment of mind and body that very few jobs these days require.  Health and Safety has pretty much done away with body damaging work.  No employee would be allowed, nor would they expect, to have to undertake the rigours of heaving stone all day long, in all weathers – can you imagine the fuss there would be if workers were sent out into the hot sun of June or the wet freezing rain of November !!??

(As my ‘little helper’ Daniel likes to say, “Why do you bother?”.  In truth without his help at the start and these last few days, without the skill and fortitude of Miss Carolina, even a young local lady called Emma who volunteered a few days  with me which helped enormously, or dear old ‘digger man’ Les Smith of Llandrindod, who unstintingly saved me much hard graft, to say nothing of the assistance in hauling new and old stone around that the farmer undertook, had I not had such ‘grafters’ around me this would not yet be a happy ending’.  Thanks y’all !!)

Apart from the physical element there is the psychological side of it, if indeed that is what it is.  To set out to restore over 400 metres of wall is something most folk (who stopped to talk to me) cannot comprehend.  The hardest question to answer, and believe me, it was asked on numerous occasions, is always “Why are you doing that?”.  It is something that crosses my mind on more than one occasion, especially when the wind is howling and the rain is blinding me.  But then, on a bright sunny Autumn day or a blazing July afternoon, the answer comes clear and true – it is a privileged life. And that’s why folk admire me, it’s not just the fact I can put a stone on a stone in some ordered fashion, it’s that I have chosen a path so outrageously stupid (in this modern day) and captured the essence of a past way of life that many secretly envy and long for.

It is a difficult aspect of the work always, but these last few weeks it has been a humbling experience: thanking folk for being so kind as to be bothered to go out of their way to commend and compliment me and the work.  Thank you everyone.

Now please, don’t go knocking it down or pinching the stones !!!

Newly restored walled enclosure on Rhogo

The eastern half of the newly restored wall which lost most stone to ‘robbers’ !

Pool House, on Rhogo hill, Radnorshire

The old fireplace of the farmstead called ‘Pool House’ still stands, as does the hearth with its flag stones, lost now within the mass of stones that form the northern boundary wall. Historic landscape indeed …

Wall with its Welsh builder

Welshwaller is going home to put his feet up … not with that bottle though !

So that’s it, a restoration I had dreamed of doing for over 15 years has finally come to fruition.  Now it’s time to rest the weary bones and aching joints, break out the mince pies, run the bath, pour a scotch and RELAX  !

Christmas is coming don’t you know !!

“I’ll cross the stream – I have a dream…”

25/11/2014

Finally the corner is reached and I turn for home – or rather I turn for the last stretch of the Pool House enclosure.  The long length of total take down and rebuild is finally completed, including a new water leat, a smout , which helps the drainage flow.  I was very surprised that no such structure had been included in the original build.  On the other hand it is not clear when and by whom that particular section of the enclosure was built, or rebuilt.

Rebuilt dry stone wall

The long section which required total demolition and rebuilding is finally complete – thankfully !

Judging by the ramshackle structure that presented itself to me, a world away from the earlier sections of well built and sound wall, I reckon that some drastic rebuild had taken place.

As I reported in the last blog post, findings of pottery indicated a much later date and now the discovery of clay drainage pipe pieces further adds credence to the notion.  I feel sure the north wall is an imposter !

A dilapidated wall from the nineteenth century ?

No-one who knew anything about building a dry stone wall was present when this section was last erected… no sir !

The stone is the same as occurs over the rest of the enclosure, indeed the distinct separation of ‘good’ stone from the less useful is carried on.  The flat faced rectangular blocks are reserved for the ‘outside’ in order to present a smooth face which is difficult – if well built – for sheep to climb.  The internal wall is far less regular, far less easy to build with and hence, in a way, is far more impressive.  To build that badly is very hard !

I have now moved from relatively dry ground to a much wetter section of the field.  Rush is prevalent and water flows through the moss and grass.  There is a clear distinction within the enclosure, a defined geological interface where impermeable rock forces the ground water to emerge and is in fact responsible for the very pool that gives the whole its name, Pool House.  Heavy clay covers the underlying hard rock and is itself topped with a layer of rich peat.  Water soaks into and through the peat but cannot penetrate the clay and has therefore to find another route to the river and ultimately the sea – the goal of all land water.  Unfortunately for me a slight fall in the field had become a regular wetland and it urgently needed to be relieved.  Fortunately I know just the man for opening ditches …

A water channel through an old wall

Half an hour with Mr Smith’s digger and a century of blocked drainage is dealt with. Water has been running clear and constant for two weeks already !

I stripped out the wall where the ditch appeared to be – it showed clearly in the enclosure and out on the hill but was very clogged and overgrown.  The opening of the ditch in the field and on the down-side of the hill allowed water to finally run freely out of the soaked ground and will, hopefully, aid in the restoration of the pasture.

It meant a few days of struggling in thick claggy mud for my poor aching ankles but at least I discovered my wellington boots were no longer waterproof !  The struggle at the end of a long tiring day to remove an internally wet boot is one of the hardest tests of fortitude – it is an unwelcome and frankly unnecessary torture.  Buy some new ones !  No doubt I will continue, using plastic carrier bags to both keep my feet dry and aid removal, you’d be amazed how easily your foot slides out if it’s encased in plastic  – nowhere nearly as readily available nowadays, indeed at 5p a bag I will probably save money going and buying my new boots tomorrow !!

I had some excellent large lintels amongst the stones that made up the old wall and a new water course was created.  It is the same construction as any other smout except I always put a stone slab in the bottom so that water does not erode the channel and eventually undermine the quoins that support the lintels.  As long as the weight on top of the lintels is sufficiently spread there is no danger of them cracking or giving way and the wall can be confidently built on top.

Water smout through a dry stone wall.

A new water smout to take the water through the newly rebuilt wall – who knows, it may be used by an Otter ! The mud will make spotting the tell-tale footprints quite an easy task.

The final piece of the long straight rebuild took me to the corner, a curved corner which had seemingly slipped sideways.  Upon stripping it out the reason for the dereliction became all to clear; a massive foundation stone, ideally shaped to create the curve, had subsided into the mire with the result the stones on top had slipped off.  There was absolutely no way I was going to be able to re-position that stone nor move it out of the way so a tractor was called for and the offending lump was unceremoniously dragged out.  We were both interested and surprised to find clear marks of quarry drilling on it which clearly showed it had not just been a stone that was there already but had been intentionally dragged from the source – probably the old nearby workings – to be used specifically for the curved corner.

Dilapidate curve ready for rebuilding

Walling around the bend … the final corner is reached !  The big stone can be seen on the top left of the photo.

The winter has arrived with a vengeance, the Friday afternoon when we moved the stone was the worst thus far, driving rain and low, cold mist.  I was so determined – back in April – to be done and dusted up there by the end of the summer …. ‘the best laid plans of mice and men …’

Partly my own fault of course, I keep slipping away to complete other commitments and the days add up.

For the last five weeks, one day a week, I have been returning to the site of my early walling years near the Carmarthenshire village of Gwynfe.  I was asked by the YMCA in Llandovery to provide a Dry Stone Walling course as part of their programme of country skills training which is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Five trainees duly turned up and we ventured out to the hills of the Black Mountain, at the foot of Trichrug, to do some rebuilding of old walls.  The stone is Old Red Sandstone and it presents in various forms, the morphology and lithography is varied over a very short distance.  The farm we visited was an old customer of mine from the days of the Agri-environment scheme Tir Gorfal.  The land straddles the ridge which overlooks the Tywi valley and between us and that fine river is the Iron Age fortress of Garn Goch.

Dry Stone Walling course at Gwynfe

The trainees were slightly shocked at the water and mud … it’s Wales !!

We were lucky to avoid any rainy days which was a pleasant surprise but nevertheless the ground was very wet and water was running through the foundations.  Water through the foundations is not too much of an issue as long as proper channels are left to allow it to run through and out rather than sit and soak into the sub-soil which can ultimately cause the weight of the wall to push the foundation stones downward causing collapses.

The first section was a low wall that was built around 1812 when the open Ffriddoed which was an open grazing area of particular ecological make-up and was used by a number of farms whose lands opened on to it.  All the walls were ‘gang-built’ and hence have the tell-tale signs which is common to all ‘enclosure walls’ of the period viz. poor build quality with a preponderance of ‘trace walling’ (the placing of stones length ways along the face rather than the length of the stone into the wall which is the correct methodology), poor packing of the hearting resulting in it settling to the base of the wall thus leaving the upper courses unsupported which ultimately leads to an inward collapse of the two faces.  Generally walls which were built by these large gangs have not lasted well, in fact it is fairly safe to assume if a wall is in a state of near total collapse or dereliction it will be from this era.

YMCA wallers from Llandovery

My bunch of ‘foreigners’ standing proudly in front of their rebuilt section – best not give up the day jobs just yet boys ..

The group were ‘foreigners’, almost all newly arrived in rural west Wales.  I was slightly bemused that after all the years of in-migration we are still seeing escapees from the urban rat race of English conurbations.  I had several chuckles at their assessment of the rural idylls to which they have gravitated, their pronunciation of the place names that now surround them and the stories of the loss of chickens to the fox ….

As we approach the final month of the year I am eagerly awaiting completion of work for this year.  It seems everything has been stored up for the autumn and early winter. Jobs that could have, should have been done months ago are now having to be squeezed in.  One such was a church yard retaining wall which I had first assessed back in March – a collapse no doubt caused by last winter’s heavy and incessant rainfall.  I had to wait for two large Scots Pine trees to be felled, partly because their dropping may have done further damage to the wall.  Unfortunately the tree surgeon had an accident – yep, he fell out of a tree and broke his leg – and so the felling was postponed.  The trees were eventually felled in mid October and so I made my way up the Wye valley to the ancient hamlet of St Harmons which lies a few miles north of Rhayader.  The site is very ancient although the present day church is a typical early nineteenth century rebuild.  St. Garmon is a rarely encountered saint and the history of the place ranges from Bronze Age through to the famous Vortigern.

The churchyard has the ancient circular form and is raised above the surrounding land through which flows the river Marteg.  It is a strange ‘flat-land’ in the midst of steep sided valleys and rugged hills.  The stone is the typical slate of the area and varies in size from almost un-liftable slabs to fragile – I mean fall apart in your hand fragile – pieces the size of bars of chocolate.  It is exactly the same stone which Ms Carolina and I encountered at the sheep-fold we repaired back in June in the area of Pen y Garreg reservoir in the Elan Valley complex.   It is a lovely stone to build with in my view, the pieces are so rhomboid that fitting them together is quite easy and gives an attractive, rugged morphology.

The collapse in the retaining wall and the slice of Scot's Pine.

The collapse in the retaining wall and the slice of Scots Pine.

When a section of a retaining wall collapses it does so in one of two ways; it slides out from the bottom which results in the upper courses falling backward into the void, or it bulges in the middle and ultimately that bulge causes the lower courses, including the foundation stones in some cases, to tilt forward sending the whole section out and allowing the top to fall down on top of it.  Whichever method the ‘destroyer of walls’ employs it leaves an unholy (no pun intended) mess to be cleared away.  It is by far the hardest task of such a job, it is also a real mental challenge when first viewed…

I reckon on spending the first hour or so, usually until it’s time for my morning coffee, stripping the whole mess away.  In addition to the mass of face stones one has to deal with all the hearting or back-fill and more often than not, a whole horrid pile of soil.  Indeed it is usually the soil which causes the collapse in the first place.  In periods of heavy rainfall, made-up soil, i.e. that which has been moved into place rather than occurring naturally, absorbs large amounts of water and becomes increasingly heavy and soup-like, a phenomena known as liquifaction.  Ultimately the mass becomes both too heavy and too unstable and it pushes the face out and causes the total collapse.  I never want to put any soil back into my repair thus it has to be all shovelled away from the site, another dour and hard half hour or so.

This wall has a large amount of soil piled up behind it, it is something of a mystery where it came from.  It is far too much to have come from grave digging but may have been brought in to raise the level of the grave yard to allow further interments.  Whatever the reason the result has been a perpetual problem of small collapses.  I did my first repair of this church yard wall back in 2005 and have returned fairly regularly each year since.  I have a real problem doing work for old churches, charging a realistic fee is not something I feel I can do given the struggles of the ever diminishing congregations to keep the old places up-together.  So far I have promised three of my regular church customers that once I retire I will do their repairs for free … there’s only so many complimentary burial plots I can manage !

The Scots Pine was actually felled after the wall fell.

The Scots Pine was actually felled after the wall crashed down.

So, a long hard Saturday in early November saw me toiling away to get the repair completed.  I managed to do it just as darkness fell but unfortunately ran out of time to do two other small repairs.  Thus another weekend was going to be required.

The following Friday I received an email from the Warden thanking me for doing the repair but informing me that another collapse had occurred !  This section was twice as large (it is the section showing directly below the large window in the transept above) and was a few metres along from the first repair.  This time I am sure the felling of the trees did have a part to play.

The repair sits between two other earlier repairs which were competed with mortar, a common misconception and an inevitable future problem.

The repair sits between two other earlier repairs which were competed with mortar, a common misconception and an inevitable future problem.

Hence another hard Saturday was endured but once again I managed to get it completed. However, again I still didn’t manage the two other small sections.  Thus a third Saturday of November had to be assigned to Garmon’s little fortress but this time I was finished by lunchtime and as the New Zealand game was not until 5.30, I took the opportunity to have a look at another project which was completed some eighteen months ago.  The car-park at Marteg Bridge, undertaken for and with the volunteers of  the Radnor Wildlife Trust, was just along the road.

The stone and turf bank was constructed back at the beginning of 2013 and has therefore had two summers to grow.

The stone and turf bank was constructed back at the beginning of 2013 and has therefore had two summers to grow.

The car-park project involved a number of low stone-faced banks which had turf between the courses.  The first summer, 2013, the growth was slow and somewhat disappointing but the banks held and following the mild, wet winter of 2013/14 no damage had occurred.  However, the long dry and hot summer was a worry; stones heat up and dry out the roots of the grasses and the soil too dries and shrinks often resulting in stones being displaced.  Given these banks were in a popular parking place where people and dogs would inevitably clamber, damage could well have been incurred.  I was therefore delighted to see the state of banks in November 2014 !  The grasses and wild flowers including heather, had grown well and the root systems have combined to really lock up the whole structure.  The turf and stone bank at the rear of the car-park was really well grown and the whole car-park looks like it has been there for years and apart from one discarded drinks container there was no wilful damage nor litter.  I must confess to having a little smile of satisfaction at seeing the result of my idea and others efforts !

The stone and turf faced bank at the rear f the car-park has done remarkably well given the hot dry summer we have just endured.  I swear it's still growing !

The stone and turf faced bank at the rear of the car-park has done remarkably well given the hot dry summer we have just endured. I swear it’s still growing !

The surprise was how well the grass looked on that rear bank.  The mild autumn and recent rainfall has allowed the grass to maintain its growth and hence its green colour.  It’s hard sometimes to be objective about the weather I endure.  It is only upon reflection that I realise how mild and reasonably dry the autumn was and even now, bemoaning the odd wet afternoon, I have to remind myself it is winter !  Only now, at the end of November, has the first frost appeared.  Even so the long unseasonable weather of autumn has thrown nature into a little confusion.  There are still large amounts of fungus to be seen, only last week some interestingly attired folk were wandering the enclosure gathering some mushrooms to provide winter solace…  Wax caps are in abundance.

Autumnal Frog Spawn

This splodge of frog-spawn appeared one morning last week – the middle of November ! Clearly it is too early, the little black eggs are mostly absent but something spurred the frog to spawn !

I was slightly disorientated to come upon a splodge of frog-spawn at my feet one mild morning last week.  Clearly it was a premature deposit and few eggs are visible but it seems the climate has put the poor frogs out of kilter.  I actually remember a croaking male back in mid -October in that very area, I wonder if he’s the dad !?

I finished by taking advantage of the blue sky and enjoyed a short ‘poodle’ around the Elan Valley reservoirs, which I confidently expected to be overflowing the dam parapets.  Alas no,  apart from the ‘bottom’ dam of Caban Goch.  Nevertheless I was rewarded with some stunning late autumn colours.

Claerwen in the Elan Valley reservoir area.

The course of the Claerwen downstream of the reservoir is always a fine sight, whatever the season.

The browns and greens blend with the blue of the sky and the water of Graig Goch.

The browns and greens blend with the blue of the sky and the water of Graig Goch.

A sheet of water is always photogenic whichever season or light..

A sheet of water is always photogenic whichever season or light.. Caban Goch reservoir.

December is looming large, the Yule Tide commercialism is already assaulting my insensibilities – I cannot find my regular food items amidst the glitz and offers of Christmas gluttony.  My cats are not really into boxes of chocolates, tins of sweets, festive battery packs !!  Nor am I; it’s an embarrassment I find uncomfortable to experience.  It’s hard to walk out of my local superstore weighed down with foodstuff I don’t really need and walk past folk who are waiting for the store to eject the cardboard boxes emptied that day so they can get their night time bedding …

Spare a thought for the poor, dear readers, the season of Goodwill is nigh, let your conscience out of the bag !!

Hopefully my next post will be full of excited joy at the completion of a ten month job !  Time will tell, no time to go shopping just yet !  Black Friday has a different meaning for Welshwaller !!

“The summer’s gone and all the leaves are falling…”

05/11/2014

Here I am, with sincerest apologies for such an absence … remind me to tell you the story about how I decided to clean my laptop’s keyboard which had become quite disgustingly clogged with all sorts of food matter and dust and dead insects swotted off the screen etc, etc, you know the scene !  Well, clever old me decided that probably the easiest and quickest way to get all that crap out of the gaps between the keys was to hoover it all out.  What no-one had ever pointed out to me was that the keys are not actually fixed very securely …..  I got them all out of the dust bag of the vacuum cleaner but it took one hell of a time to fit them all back ! Thus any apparent ‘typos’ or spelling  mistakes may well be that the keys are in the wrong order … lorry ig shap ivvers.

‘Tis true, our glorious lazy-day summer is long gone.  Despite the most amazing September and October weather which saw me still working in short sleeves, the  onset of ‘the Fall’ is very apparent.  Each cut of the grass makes me think that it is the last, each bowl of blackberries is definitely the last and the ground is littered with empty hazel nut cases and pods showing both what an amazing crop there has been and also how many darned grey squirrels are about.  I commented to my American colleague just how much of a nuisance these critters from her homeland are and how they seem to be in abundance this year, fortunately the increase is noticeable in roadkill !  Blow me down if the farmer’s wife where we have been working said exactly the same thing, “doesn’t there seem a lot of dead squirrels this year?”.  We all need to start making squirrel hot-pot, or else there will be no nuts and no birds – they decimate nests; what’s more, they destroy young trees.

Despite all my best endeavours I am still some weeks away from completing the mammoth reconstruction of the Pool House enclosure on the ‘Rhogo’.  Partly this has been my own fault as I have had to slip away for a week now and then to attend to other pressing work but thankfully most of those other jobs are now done and the remaining weeks of the year can be spent on finishing the work.  It has to be completed this year in order to meet the requirements of the Glastir plan of which it is part.

Dilapidated wall on Rhogo

Now we have arrived at the worst length of the old wall – it’s all got to come down…

The progress along the wall was painfully slow for a few months; we were embarked on a fairly massive rebuild of a long section which needed total rebuilding and to a rather abnormal height.  To add to the travails the stone was hugely tiny and the number of courses seemed interminable.

Finally the corner was reached and we turned for home, at least that’s how I saw it in my mind.  I am heading towards the final corner and the roadside wall which marks the finish line.  Unfortunately, long before that goal is reached, there is the matter of  best part of a hundred metres of total take-down and rebuild.

 

Generally speaking I conform to the old adage of ‘if it ain’t broke…’, repairing only that which has  already fallen or is showing every possibility of so doing shortly.  This next length has nothing at all worth salvaging, it needs a total rebuild and that’s some task !  Fortunately for the first two weeks or so I still had the greatly needed assistance of Miss Carolina, who, despite living up to her Welsh nick-name of ‘Pili-pala‘ (butterfly) and flitting off every so often to go sailing, to go Shakespeare or opera stalking, to pop to Italy for a few days house hunting, never-the-less added her immense energy and talent to getting the first section down and back up.  Thank you dear girl !

Stripped-out wall

It can be a little daunting when the stone pile is SO huge, but quietly the wall emerges …

Stripping-out a wall is a tedious and tiring activity but it is the opportunity to study how the builders worked all those years ago.  This particular length has a different build style to the rest of the enclosure.  For one thing it is much more ‘badly’ constructed in so much as it has erroneous stone placement technique and poor packing of the hearting.  Once again, for a short length at least, we encountered the old problem of soil being used to fill the middle of the wall.

I find the whole enclosure perplexing and this wall just adds to the complexity.  As soon as we started stripping it out I felt it showed hallmarks of a later build period.  One of the classic signs of the later C18th, early C19th, wall building is the tendency for it not to have survived in a very good order.  Primarily this is due to it have been built by a ‘gang’ of builders brought it by the land-owner to put it up.  Paid on a piece-rate, they threw up as much as possible in a day, stones badly placed and hearting bucketed loosely into the middle.  Often, as in this case, the line of the wall is unclear and the collapses are generally of the inward type, a sort of belly-flop, when the whole section implodes.  As if to confirm my suspicions we discovered several large pieces of pottery which were in the foundation and hence must have been placed there at the construction stage. I’m no expert on pottery sherds but I know someone who is and I await their assessment of the finds to see if it confirms my view that the pieces are mid to late C18th.

A wall disappears into the distance.

Trying to get a straight line whilst not encroaching or giving away land can be difficult; surely it was straight once upon a time ?!

The problem also comes in the removal of strangely shaped and awkwardly placed foundation stones which, or so it seems to me, were instrumental in some of the collapses.  Some of them were so far into the subsoil, almost ice-berg like, that huge amounts of energy and time were expended digging them out, mainly I have to say, not by me !

The onset of autumn and the shortening days, the changing temperatures and the cooling of both standing water and soil are the triggers for the animals that live in the enclosure, in the pond and the rush and in the base of the wall, to start the process of ‘bedding-down’ for the winter.  It is thus important to get a move on and get all the disturbance done before slumber overtakes the amphibians and the land-lubbers like the common lizard.

Half way up and straight, a moment to take a breather.

Half way up and straight, a moment to take a breather.

Walls in the uplands are THE primary habitat for over-wintering just as they are for summer migratory birds.  It is always a difficult call, whether to rebuild the wall for the benefits that will accrue – whatever they may be ! – or leave as is and not disturb the animals that live there.  In fact there is probably a good argument for both, depending on which hat is being worn.  I am always in favour of the’critters’ and do my utmost to preserve the habitat and protect the creatures that live therein.  Thus much time over the last weeks or so has been spent carefully removing newts and lizards, froglets and toads, to positions back along the wall where the work has already been completed.

 

Never mind, how much of a privilege and how enlightening it is to get to see the elusive animals of this land that few ever catch a glimpse of let alone get to study in some detail.  I have always been a student of the ‘critters’ of Wales.  Ever since I was too young to be near a canal unattended I have been enthralled at the diversity and beauty of amphibians.  Lizards too enthralled me and I remember well the sand lizards on the dunes at Coppet Hall near Saundersfoot on our family holidays and the Slow Worms under stones next to the main railway line where friends and I train spotted.  Birds came much later and other accumulated knowledge such as trees, meadow and hedgerow flowers and upland flora was and still is assimilated over time.  In that time I have learned much about the secretive lives of the animals that occupy my present work station.

What is it ?

What is it ?  Actually it is a dark recess in the wall in which many animals were already ‘bedded down’ – we left it undisturbed and closed it back up.

The life of the Great Crested Newt is not widely understood, at least not when it leaves the water.  Water for most amphibians is just a local pick-up spot, a local dance or night-club if you like.  All of them only go there to meet a mate and do the business.  It’s usually a one-night stand and she never sees him again unless they slip by in the mud.  The summer sees very few amphibians anywhere near a pond and certainly by the September equinox they are on their way to winter dwellings.  Most newts are loners when it comes to spending the long winter months and the Great Crested is the most lonely of the loners. However it is thought that when the ‘later-leavers’ exit the pond and head for winter quarters they do so collectively and end up in an intertwined ball thereby, supposedly, limiting moisture loss.  I recall, as a young lad, finding such writhing masses in compost heaps in a great Aunt’s wilderness garden which adjoined the old cana at Five Locks on Pontnewydd.  I encountered another such ball in the cavern above, quite astonishing to see quite so many in one place.  As a rule, they bury themselves deep into banks and walls, usually way down until they hit the sub-soil, that’s where we wallers find them, under the very last stone, the foundation stone.  Young newts, efts, those that have left the pond in their second summer and face a long crawl to a shelter, lead by some unseen instinct to risk all until shelter is reached, are to be found in groups.  I have found over thirty all wrapped around each other or clustered around ochre coloured roots for which their camouflage is ideally suited.  I’ve never seen that in a text book !  It amazes me how the animals breathe, they are so deep in the soil it seems unlikely that air penetrates to them.  The dark recess in the photo above is an old oven, dark and damp until I accidentally opened it – now resealed – in which dwelt large numbers of amphibians of all denominations !

So too the Common Lizard, it’s life cycle is little understood and often guessed at in books. Being vivipara (eggs retained and hatched within the body thus young are born live) there seems to be a close bond between the mother and her young so much so that come the winter she and they nestle-in together.  I found a family of four just this week, a mother and three young lizards all wrapped around each other and close-by, as is often the case in my experience, an adult male which I assume is the father/mate.  It is normal to find a pair of Common Lizard and although it is not written I suspect they are life-long companions.

I need therefore to get a move-on, winter is knocking and already the first cold blasts are hitting me.  Migratory birds are all but gone, the last of them, a small flock of Ring Ouzels, stopped by for a day or two to feed on the thistle seeds.  Winter visitors were announced with the first unmistakable ‘honkings’ of the Canada Geese – gosh it only seems a few short weeks ago that they were here ! – coming back to the nearby ponds.  Field Fares have begun the assault on the Rowan and Hawthorn berries and soon those trees will hold nought for the smaller locals.  At home, thankfully, the verminous pheasant have started to die in large numbers, blasted out of the air by tweed clad infidels in the name of sport…

Walling in winter has ceased to be the attraction it once may have been, or is it my imagination ?  Did I ever enjoy the wet and cold ?  Well actually there is something primeval and self-satisfying about being out in the elements, battling against all that the wild weather can hurl my way but it is far more pleasurable to have a bright clear frosty day with a blue azure overhead and mist hanging below in the valley.  I’ve had both this last week or so as I near the end of the job.  Another few weeks and maybe, just maybe, I can hang me wellies up to dry !

Pool House wall, Gilwern Hill

The final long rebuild is well underway, stretching into the distance it’s beginning to look something like a dry stone wall, at last !

Wall lit by moonlight

Bright blue frosty day ? Well not quite, the camera lies a little,  this was 5.30pm and the moon was so bright – 2 days away from full – that I was able to work on into almost darkness !

Windows 8 has arrived in Welshwaller’s life …. whether that means you’ll be hearing from me sooner awaits to be seen …. what on earth are ’tiles’ ??

 

 

Beulah Tractor Run 2014

17/09/2014

The second Saturday of any September is the set date for the small village show here in Beulah land, Powys.  The usual cultural competitions and agricultural exhibits – such as children’s paintings, pots of jams, best set of three onions, best set of three carrots, best bale of hay, longest thistle, reddest raddish, a perfect pom-pom dahlia and a huge number of sheep and pony classes which leave me utterly confused – and the ‘Trotting Races’ make up the biggest attractions but there is a secret section which has been quietly growing, unnoticed by most of those who attend.  The surreptitious Tractor Run has gained a formidable reputation amongst the hard-seat  fume loving brigade of the local classic tractor owners.

This year saw another gathering of many old faithful friends – though the Llandovery brigade were absent, sunning themselves in Cyprus apparently (or maybe sussing out the potential for timber extraction amongst the famous Lawson Cyprus Firs…)  – and just a few more new ones, each year one or two trickle in, attracted by the charm of the countryside we assault and the excellent reward of the ‘show-special’ lunch at the Trout Inn of sausage and chips !

Fergie Fach at Beulah show 2014

The first prize went to this rather nice Fergie TED owned by Mal from Llanwrtyd Wells.

Ten tractors set out on the no-too-long cross country ride, leaving just a few back at the showground to mark our presence.  My contribution, as Steward of the Vintage section, is to organise the run and make sure everyone gets signed in and receives their Cracker-Jack pencils or whatever else it is the Secretary has gotten for a reward.  Unfortunately I don’t normally get to drive a tractor around my chosen route as I have to drive an escort vehicle which is equipped for recovery and carries a certain amount of water in case of over-heating…

Beulah Tractors 2014

Fords and Fordsons on the cross country run

There is a great deal of enjoyment and camaraderie amongst those who take part and even though they all know each other well, the day is full of chatter and discourse on the finer points – or lack of ! – of one or other of the tractors on show.

Beulah Tractors on stop

“Are you sure this is the right end?” Deeply mechanical and deadly serious runs the conversation at each stopping point.

This year we took advantage of the long dry spell and drove a cross-country route along the famous Drover road past Cefn Cardis and on up to the little known lake that hides amongst the hills of the Llwyn Madoc estate.  There we halted and enjoyed the views out over Mynydd Eppynt and north towards Drygarn.  It was new to many and full of old memories for others but everyone had a broad smile which is all I can ask.

Fordsons on Beulah Tractor run 2014

Circle the Fordsons on the summit.

Dexta at Beulah Tractor run 2014

Shane from Llanwrtyd never stops smiling when he’s on that damn Dexta !  It came a worthy second.

MF 35 Beulah 2014

There were some other tractors besides Fords !!

Power Major at Beulah

Deryl Jones of Llanwrtyd, a local boy who returns each year with his very fine Fordson, a third place this year but a winner in my eyes – and his no doubt !

The mainstay of the Classic tractor sots in this area are the blue machines of Ford and Fordson, the Majors and Dextas dominate but there are one or two other makes that creep in.  Fergie Fachs in the shape of either the TED or TEF are also common and the one which rode the course was actually chosen by the judge as Best Tractor this year.  Massey Ferguson 35s are another popular small tractor and two were present.  One of course was displayed by Miss Carolina who proudly drove her MF35 3 cylinder around the course with a fixed smile on her beaming face.  It needs to be mentioned that the tractor was only ‘put together’ the day before having been brought home from the restorers shed a mere 48 hours earlier.  The Friday prior to the show was a day of frantic finishing touches such as applying the decals, fitting a new exhaust – which miraculously arrived in the midday post – and discovering all sorts of leaks and squeaks !

Massey 35 with period muck-spreader

She smiled all the way around, though thankfully the period Massey Ferguson muck-spreader remained in the show field… though in truth it attracted more attention than either the tractor or driver !!

On the way around the cross-country course we happened upon the very man responsible for the restoration, one Leslie Smith of Llandrindod Wells, who was sitting in his land rover having a quiet lunch in a remote hillside spot (he was working up there !).  His face lit up when suddenly his world was full of classic tractors …

The two famous Radnorians discuss the finer points of tractor life ... Brinley Jones from Newbridge-on-Wye and Les Smith from Llandrindod - a picture speaks a thousand words ...

The two famous Radnorians discuss the finer points of tractor life … Brinley Jones from Newbridge-on-Wye and Les Smith from Llandrindod – a picture speaks a thousand words …

Les Smith and Whitney Brown with the MF35

‘Hers n His’ – proud restorer and proud owner of the MF35, Les and Whitney re-united high in the hills of Beulah.

It is a matter of some wonder to me that anyone, least of all those whose job it is to drive one at work, wants to spend a Saturday afternoon (or Sunday morning !) driving a high octane pollutant which jars and bumps every bone in the torso below belly-button height, but they do; oh yes, they do !

Beulah Tractors on the skyline

It is not the case that we were out until dusk, it just looks that way as we broach the skyline.

An hour or so of bumping along the ancient Drover road and stopping here and there to chat and look, happy in the company of  like-minded folk from all sorts of backgrounds is as good a way of generating community cohesion as any I know.  Many of us only meet on that second Saturday in September but we greet like old friends and probably mutter something to the effect that “time flies” !

Tractor over the moor at Beulah 2014

Some beautiful remote countryside is best enjoyed behind the blue hue of diesel exhaust, wouldn’t you agree ?

We descended the old stone road that leads down from the hill to cross the Cnyffiad at Tyncwm and re-joined the Beulah to Abergwesyn road to head back to the village and lunch at the Trout before returning to the display line at the show field.

Beulah Show tractor display

Back to the show field for some judging and just a little more chat, oh yes, and a beer or two.

I get a little embarrassed each year by the seeming indifference of the show-goers of Beulah who pay no interest to the tractors or those that bother to bring them, it is left to one or two local ‘old boys’ to make the effort of the exhibitors feel worthwhile.  It is a difficult matter for me but I know those who turn up with their tractors enjoy their day out and come willingly for their own enjoyment.  But on the horizon is a potential problem; firstly the whole future of the show is jeopardised by the increasing cost of hosting it, the marquee hire and all the costs associated with prizes, trotting, publicity and insurance.  It may just be that 2014 is a pivotal year in the 80 odd years of the shows existence.  In addition and partly in response to the financial issues, there are suggestions being mooted that those who bring tractors to display should actually have to pay to do so.  That is a big change as all other shows, vintage or agricultural, rely on the freely given (and not inexpensive for those participating) attendance of such displays to add attractions and thus enhance the overall show appeal which in turn, hopefully, increases the numbers who pay at the gate.  I know from my own point of view that I have had to drastically reduce the number of shows that I attend each year with my display of Agricultural Bygones.  With the cost of fuel to get to the shows plus the time it takes to clean and load items for display and then pack away on return it is not a cheap activity nor is it an easy one.  I thoroughly enjoy the shows I attend but I have to be sure it is enjoyment worth the financial cost of doing so.  It is very doubtful that if I had to add to that cost by paying to enter the show that I would attend any.  There will be some interesting discussions over the next twelve months for sure.

Meanwhile, with another long tiring day over we all headed for home, some of us still smiling at the very joy of sitting on a hard seat breathing yet more carbon monoxide …

MF35 with muck spreader in tow

After nearly 8 hours in the hard saddle this bronco breaking Carolina gal is still as happy as a ‘clam’ (I know, but that’s what they say !)


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