Friends, Romans, Countrymen…..

A 'countryman' through and through. Bryn, farming an ancient farmstead near Carreg Cennen.

Dafs at landy manor
At long last, the daffodils outside the cottage have bloomed, surely now its Spring !

Lend me your ears, indeed, another month nearly half way gone, Aries friends seem to appear at this time of year, I have a hard time remembering when each of the birthdays fall….

It has been a time for friends, who, un-beknown to them, have entered my life again at the most opportune moment.  Isn’t it strange that friends, sometimes those rarely met, re-enter stage right just at the time they are most needed.  I had been particularly low at the ‘loss’ of someone dear and had hardly noticed that loved friends, most who have been with me for over twenty years,  and more, quietly began to re-appear.  First a chance encounter at the super-market with a dear lady with whom (we both agree) some strange connection exists such that circumstances invariably conspire to bring about an encounter at time of need, hers or mine.  What a lift to my spirit that was, and then a friend (sometime lover, sometime enemy, sometime soul-mate) got in touch to ask if I would like to attend a ‘rock’n’roll’ dance club in Brecon…. would I ever.  Those of you who know me less well may be unaware of my love of dancing and, in particular, jive and swing, oh boy (excuse the musical pun).  Certainly those who saw me in the U.S. – night and day – will know how I danced as physio for my ruptured achilles !! So, imperceptibly, my soul repaired, beginning last week with Sue and Phil, on through these meetings and then, to round off a re-energising week, I met with three dear dear friends in Carmarthen.  AJP was there doing her weekly slot for Wedi Tre, and this week the topic was the opening of Evs’ exhibition at Oriel Myrddin, Lowrie was with him and seeing them was the icing on the cake.  Well almost, because another great  ‘support’ of mine, my sister, had invited me down to her village near Narberth (as I was in Carmarthen) for dinner and then to attend a concert in Whitland featuring the Male Voice Choir and two soloists.

Famous 5minus 2

Evs, Lowrie, me and AJP, what a team, what dear friends, what super people

That one can just ‘turn-up’ at a local chapel and hear such stunning recitals is what makes this little country of ours so special.  The young man, Garry Griffiths from Burry Port, had a baritone voice of such quality we could have been at ‘Singer of the World’.  Indeed the soprano, Natalya Romaniw, had sung at the competition in 2007 and won the song prize.  He sang several opera pieces but the best, in my prejudiced view (read last week’s post), was ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ from South Pacific, oh my, did he do it justice, even in God’s little house.  She nearly cracked the windows,  I love soprano arias, this girl brought tears to many an eye, believe me, we will hear more of them both.  To end they sang a duet, no, they sang the duet, ‘Love me’ from Phantom, my all-time, all-time, all-time favourite, normally I would argue that Cliff Richard and Sarah Brightman’s version tops the many covers, but now, well these two did the most stunning, the most passionate rendering I ever heard.

And of course the Whitland Male voice choir brought the usual ‘hiraeth’ out of the (dissapointingly small) audience, with all the usual mixture.  To end the evening we adjourned to the ‘Plash Inn’, coveniently situated next door to sis’ house.  There I enjoyed the sort of conviviality that such ‘locals’ are famed for, they welcome me like one of them, I do go to the village quite often, for various reasons,  mainly to give ‘talks’ to the History society (more of that later).

But what of Romans and Countrymen ?  Well the current dry stone walling ‘office’ is on a special piece of ground.  In the middle of the eighteenth century someone decided that the easiest way to make a sheep-proof barrier between two fields was to build a dry stone wall, quite normal in itself, but this one was built along the aggar of Sarn Helen, the Roman military road that joins Neath with the fort at Brecon – and crosses some wild and inhospitable terrain (no doubt made more hostile by the presence of the odd band of Silures).  Now in normal circumstances to even walk on what is, after all, a scheduled monument, would be frowned upon; to dismantle a wall and rebuild it on the very roadway is tantamount to heresy, a crime punishable by crucifixion in the eyes of the archaeological world.  yet that is precisely what I have to do.  Common sense would have seen the wall dismantled and rebuilt in the field at the bottom of the aggar, not that that would have been easy for me or the farmer, but, as usual,  joined up thinking – in this case between WAG Tir Gofal officers and GGAT (Gwent Glamorgan Archaeological Trust) who prepared a very in-depth report of the whole farm (which includes the Coelbren forts) – is not to the fore.  Nevertheless, a privelege it is to work where the Italians walked, where few have been since and where the landscape hasn’t changed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  Already Curlews trill, larks sing and even plovers – peewits – ‘peewit’ ! 

I’m not a ‘twitcher’ in the normal sense of the word.  I’ve long since become accustomed to seeing all the birds that Wales has to offer, at all the seasons of the year.  Which is not to say I don’t marvel each time I see them,  even now the sight of the Kite, once a privelege few but me enjoyed, or the curlew, the linnet or the swift will stop my work for a while.  I enjoy that what I do, rebuilding walls that provide nesting sites in the high windswept, tree bereft, uplands, repairs not only the landscape but the ecology of my homeland too.

My love of what I do and where I do it, pervades my being, its who I am and why I am who I am.  It is solitary, it is solitude, it is lonely but not in any painful way, it is ‘my’ place.

‘Been nowhere’

I haven’t seen America, but I’ve seen the Peregrine kill;

I haven’t been to Hong Kong, but I’ve heard the Curlew’s trill.

Australia sometimes beckons but just think what I would miss,

A ‘Bar-B’ by the billabong or the Redstart’s passing kiss,

(as she flies and flashes down the wall with a furtive glimpse of rouge).

Who wants two weeks in Goa when I can go each day

And sit and watch all Wales’ birds, at work, at rest, at play.       

Obviously I need to re-phrase the first line now !!  Which reminds me – I haven’t finished telling the story of the Smithsonian Festival,  I will, I will… 

And so the Roman road at Coelbren is my home for the next couple of months, at least for the major dry stone walling;  but it is not the only ‘work’ this time of year.  I have been gathering jobs like there’s no tomorrow, and one of the commissioners of such work is the manager of the Tarmac quarries in this area.  Whitney and I spent several weeks before Christmas repairing a wall which formed the boundary of the Cilyrichen quarry near Llandybie.  That involved a deal of timber felling and some of it so large that I needed an old friend to join the ‘team’.  Dave is a guy I’ve known for many years and is a mad keen ‘axe-man’ – well actually he’s more of a chain-saw massacrist, just loves felling trees – I’ve managed to get him into some conservation minded work.  anyway, so pleased with our work at Cilyrichen was the manager that we’ve now been ‘commissioned’ to complete the fence line repairs all around the quarry.  Now that’s not something I would normally entertain but, partly because I like the area – already its thrown up some very interesting landscape archaeology – see later – and partly because both Dave and I are never very well-off and we both have to run expensive land-rovers, I agreed. (I now have two other contracts with this company all involving woodland management, which I enjoy, and which in part makes me feel somewhat ‘missionary’ in spirit as I bring the conservation gospel to quarry managers…..)

In a way the quarry sites reflect the demise of the grand ‘Gentry’ estates of this part of Wales.  For financial reasons many sold of their mineral rights – coal and stone (and precious metal and ores of course)- and much of the poorer land for afforestation.  In the case of Cilyrichen and Dinas at Edwinsford, the quarries have consumed the hills on which once stood the defended enclosures of Silurian Iron-age tribes and the post-Roman early medieval courts or Llys of the multiple estates of Welsh society represented in the laws of Hywel Dda.  Indeed both Dinas and Cilyrichen are at the heart of well documented estates.  whilst working at the site I have discovered some very interesting early field systems and associated walls and banks and, most excitingly, an unrecorded house-platform site.  Oh, why does my work always get me to places where my fascination with landscape history gets to run amok ? No wonder I take so long to complete a job, and earn any money ! Thank goodness I found ebay …

Finally, the trilogy ends with the countrymen, those people who first occupied these sites are little known, but they live on in the countrymen I now meet in my daily work.  Welsh farmers have a mixed reputation – depending on which county ! – but in my experience they are straight, honourable and genuine.  For the most part they cherish the countryside, they have a love of the land and the creatures that share it with them. True, there are exceptions, but I’ve never met them, not in a work situation anyway, so, is it the case that farmers or farms with walls create good souls ?  Perhaps it is the place where dry stone walls occur, always high, usually bleak, places which are hard to farm, hard to survive, hard to ignore the power of nature and the goodness of neighbours.  Whatever the cause, the source of character, these countrymen are books of biblical proportions; what they know is measureless – don’t imagine multi-skilling is a modern phenomena – humour survives close to the surface, warmth of greeting on the surface, hospitality and friendship there for the asking.  I must stop this gloating over how lucky I am in my work…. “how lucky am I…..”

Friends – I’ve heard from a friend I thought was lost today…. a good day indeed.                           

Romans – they seem to have got everywhere, even in Bethlehem (oh yes, I remember that story..) the one near Llandeilo that is.  Chances are we’ve all got a bit of their DNA !                           

Countrymen – my favourite folk, well them and artists, and literary folk, and musicians, oh yes, and folklorists, and little people, very very little people…


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