Something there is that doesn’t love a Wall. (Frost)

Wall on a road

Sheep don't love walls, for sure

 This is typically the state of a wall once it has become dilapidated enough for sheep to clamber over.  This was the last section of the boulder wall at Ton y Fildre.  Because the stone is of field clearance origin it lacks the bedding plane flat surfaces associated with quarried sedimentary stone.  I like it, it looks rugged and how an old wall should look.  As I mentioned earlier, this wall runs along the middle of the aggar of Sarn Helen, the roman military road from Neath to Brecon.  Its finished now, and I thought I had finished, but so pleased are Mr and Mrs that they’ve commissioned me to build some rectilinear structures at the entrance to the farm in which they want to plant flowers….

The rebuilt section in the shade of the old ash.

Another completed piece of Welsh historic landscape.

What is suprising about a wall is the vast amount of stone that is required to construct it.  Yes, the building of walls, especially where they march ‘millipede like’ across bleak upland moors or steeply up rocky mountain sides, is astounding; however, consider for a moment how the stone got to the site of the wall.  Remember, this wall is probably C18th, thus the means of transporting stone, after it had been ‘handballed’ onto a sled – ‘car llysg’ (w), was by oxen.  The sled was an ubiquitous piece of agricultural equipment, simple and cheap in construction – no expensive wheels to be made or delicate shafts to break on rough ground  – but its capacity was limited, about half a ton, which in terms of stone and what it converts to in square metres / yards in the wall, is insignificant.  It’s one of the things that always amazes farmers who have to help me (no point in asking them to bring it unsupervised – they will bring crap stone) by using the front loader or link box (the big box that mounts on the rear of the tractor) on their tractor,  and Ton y fildre has been no different.  Byron has been astounded at the amount of stone we have had to haul to the wall.  Now you may wonder why, if the wall was there, new stone is needed.  Its because when a wall falls the stones get broken or scattered and moved or, as in this case, stone gets pinched for some other purpose.  We calculated we had moved twenty two loads, each load about 2 tonnes.  Quite a bit you’ll agree, but when you then consider that only builds about 30 linear metres (to 1.5 metres high) it begins to illustrate how many tonnes a dry stone wall contains.  For my recent University course I calculated the tonnage in a number of walls and sheepfolds, a two kilometre wall of 1.8 metres height and built of limestone had in excess of 6500 tonnes, an isignificant sixteen pen sheepfold, way out on the bleak hillside of the Carmarthenshire Black Mountain, well over 600 tonnes.  Remarkable, I think you’ll agree.  Moved in half ton loads, loaded and off-loaded by hand, hauled by oxen; what a herculian undertaking indeed.

I have, within my Farm Museum collection, two sleds, one a ‘car-llysg’ the other a ‘Radnorshire Wheel car’.  These once common items of every upland farm in my area, are now extremely rare, maybe even unique outside the National Museum at St. Fagans, although it is likely that many linger on in barns, yards and field margins.  I will talk about these items in a later blog, they are my passion, along with the other carts which I mentioned I had recently acquired from the Swansea valley – and which incidentally will finally be moved this week.  However, I will mention here that the Wheel car was made by the grandfather of an outstanding contemporary Welsh craftsman who graced the National Mall in Washington D.C. last summer and who I very much hope I will see next week, at the reception for the ‘one year on’ celebration hosted by the Welsh Assembly Government in Cardiff.  He also made the only other known wheel car which is in the collection of the museum – sadly not on display but housed in Nantgarw available for academic study only – but this one never worked, it was made especially for the museum in the 1920s.  Mine, on the other hand, had a hard life in the hills around Beguildy on the English border.  Enough, more later, back to stone and walls….

To build the Ton y fildre wall I used a timber frame called a batter-frame.  As you can see, it resembles an easel, tapering inwards as it rises.  In fact if  reduces half of its width over the height of the wall.  This method of buildng is often stated to relate to strengthening of the wall by getting it to lean in on itself.  I believe it is more to do with acting as an aerofoil to dissipate airflow, and hence pressure, as wind blows over the wall.  It does not appear before the post-medieval period and then not until the Agricultural revolution.  It seems to me it comes with a greater understanding of sheep ailments and ensuring air swirls around both faces of a wall and renews.

The batter-frame in place

The frame dictates the profile, it 'batters' the wall - knocks it off the vertical - not to be confused with battering fish, that's different !!

Now I have cheated a bit here, the original wall at Ton y Fildre was not battered.  In fact it was probably not even this high,  I think, given the evidence of all the other walls on the farm, that it was originally only about 60cms (2 feet or so).  This suggests that the enclosures were originally linked to arable production with cattle grazing the stubble, or, hay meadows with cattle being turned onto the latter-math.  Given that sheep are now the dominant stock – although Welsh Black cattle are here and are Byron’s pride and joy – walls need to be much higher if they are to be effective stock barriers.  Even with cattle we have to run a single strand of barbed wire to stop cattle rubbing on the top stones and dislodging them.  So walls and walling are a little more scientific than we may imagine.  All land management has application of scientific principles (albeit this may not have been recognised as such) throughout, the understanding of water management, of weather, of geology and geography, and of course the ability of the soil to grow as a result of all these other factors.

I have been back to the Ancient Cwmbran project this week, the walls in the woods are beginning to reveal their secrets.  Interestingly I had voiced to me a common misconception about wall building over the historic period, effectively that the ‘poorer’ built the wall the older it is.  In reality the opposite is usually true, the further back into the historic periods we go, the better the construction methods are.  I use the term ‘better’ of course, in a non scientific manner; more as a judgement by one craftsman of another’s work.  Essentially it is a matter of the line and placing of stones in relation to each other.  In the woods of Greenmeadow and Thornhill are walls that probably pre-date the Roman occupation, certainly they would have witnessed the coming of Christianity and the establishment of the early ‘claas’ monastery at Llanderfel.

So, once again I find myself moving from one place of Italian occupation to another and another. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to get interested in the Legions….

My next work station should be on the southern slopes of the military range at Eppynt, the ancient ecclesiastical settlement of Llanfihangel Nant Bran – the enclosure of St Michael by the brook of the crow (probably crows were common in the steep sided remote valley in which the village sits).  There are still jobs to do at the quarry sites – and more history and archaeology to report – and some ‘artistic’ building at another ancient site, which moves me into the realms of my dear artist friends who came to DC with me.

I met with one of them this week, in Abergavenny, a market town badly in need of some contemporary art within its building renovations.  Howie (Bowcott) had been working for five years on a re-modelling of an old brewery site.  We hadn’t met since the National Eisteddfod back in August last year, we missed a planned meet over Christmas.  It was great to see him and enthused me for next week’s get together.  His work always astounds me, especially the slate work, so small, so precise, so patient – so expensive !

Slate now enhances the streetscene in Abergavenny - amazing Howard, truly amazing.

A year ago I, and the rest of the ‘advance party’ – the ‘Famous Five’ – were at work on the structures that were to frame the Welsh programme at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington D.C.  Next Sunday those of us lucky enough to have been invited to represent our country will meet, for the first time since then in most cases.  There’s no doubt most of us have been affected by our experience, positively in most instances.  Friendships were forged across the ocean and also here at home.  I am looking forward to seeing folk I haven’t met for a year and others who I see more often,  but I’ve determined too that this will mark the closure I have sought,  life has to go on and, reluctantly, I have to move on too.  But to all my friends, especially in the U.S. of A,  I’ll never forget y’all or your fine country.  It saddens me that your beautiful southern shores are being dessimated, that floods have wrecked mid west areas, places I had only heard of now have a resonance through friendships forged last year.  You never know….. I might just re-appear !!

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