My Friends and other Animals

Common Toad

My friend Bufo, he's around me most days when I'm building the stell. I do the 'grocery' shopping for him.

One of the great benefits of my job, building dry stone walls, is that I get to ‘commune’ with nature.  Over the years I have pretty much seen every mammal, insect, bird and plant that there is to be found in Wales.  Common occurrences, daily really, in upland areas are these little fellows, Bufo Bufo, the Common Toad.  It always amuses me that things were named, generally by some well meaning Victorian naturalist, as common when in fact, especially today, they are far from it.  How many people for instance regularly see toads !  Now normally these little amphibians – a slightly erroneous name as they spend very little time in the water, basically its a quick shag and then they are off back to dry land – are nocturnal, but I, unfortunately, disturb their slumbers by moving the stones under which they sleep.  However, this little fellow seems to have quickly realised that if I’m disturbing him I’m also disturbing his food, little creepy crawlies and small worms.  His bigger relatives will quite happily eat a big slug, taking several hours to suck it dry, and in this sense they are great to have in the garden.  Go out with a torch and have a hunt, you’re sure to see them, but beware, big toads are BIG.  One thing in their favour is that they don’t hop – something which seems to be the basis of a lot of phobias about frogs – they just crawl / walk.  If you pick them up (try not to though) they puff their body and spread their four limbs thereby doubling their size, presumably to make it more difficult for a predator.  They needn’t bother really, hedgehogs, badgers, foxes, birds and cats, just don’t like them, they have an inbuilt defensive smell and bitterness and they spit !

I like toads, they are amusing, very intelligent and extremely cute, in an ugly sort of way.  Somewhere in my collection of wild-life photos (pre digital days) I have a picture of one who has lost his arm (front left lower leg actually) but he was getting on just fine.

Slow Worm

Legless in Llandyfan. One of the adult Slow Worms I am encountering as I move stones.

Another companion often encountered is the Slow-worm (Anguis fragilis – family Anguidae).  Most people would naturally assume it to be a snake, but actually its a leg-less lizard (though its family group differs from the other lizards of Britain which are classed Lacertidae).  It is very much of my past, in my childhood hunting for slow-worms whilst train-spotting, was an exciting challenge, though we had to be careful as adders also liked the warm stones of the railway line !  One of the sad aspects of these attractive animals is their distressing habit of casting the end four inches or so of their tails – which then continues to wriggle and distracts any attacker thus allowing the slow worm to ‘leg it’ into cover (sorry, couldn’t resist that one !),  So its a habit of mine to go slowly myself when moving stones and, if I spot one, allow it to slowly slide away rather than distressing or frightening it, there’s nothing worse than seeing it cast its tail.  It never fully grows back, and like lizards too, I often encounter stubbed tail slow worms.

This adult female was 14 inches long.

For some reason which I can’t figure, slow worms give birth in the autumn.  The females are ovo-viviparous (here’s one for the pub quizzers amongst you) and six to twelve eggs hatch inside her and grow to around three to four inches before being born.  Of course the colour, once you realise they are born in the autumn, is ideal for camouflage, especially among the dying fronds of bracken.  I have often found whole families of young strung out along bracken fronds inside walls or piles of stones, very difficult to spot and they remain motionless.

I’ll talk about other creatures as and when they crop up, which is quite regularly.  In the meantime, this week has been another of those ‘bitty’ ones where I seem to struggle to accomplish anything except clocking up the miles.  However I am getting on with the ‘Stell’ and, unusually for me, I’m quite pleased with how its shaping up – given the awful crap stone I have to use !  Its got a certain ‘pre-historic’ air about it and even though its based on a C20th iconic symbol (Coco-chanel interlocked C’s) the narrow entrances give it an air of mystery.

Stell at Llandyfan

The Stell takes shape

It fits in rather nicely with the whole area actually.  Its a place I have been building walls for 15 years or so – the owner and I have known each other for much longer- and the limestone is a challenge but gives a good result.  In the background is ‘one I prepared earlier’ which utilises Pennant sandstone, the common rock formation of the South Wales coalfield, which is slightly alien here but occurs just a few miles south.  It makes a good contrast I think – and is sooo easy after the limestone.

The outline is beginning to emerge.

The curves of the stell match the other curvy walls. The grass bank in the background is actually a 'comma' ! My friend has weird ideas - but 'the customer is always right' !

The lime kiln which overlooks the stell is itself pretty unique and is a relic of an industrial/agricultural past that can be found throughout this area.

Circles are difficult to get right, there is a tendency to end up with  ‘flat-spots’ if one uses long stones, and the batter is also a bit tricky.  I do it by eye once I have scribed the foundation with a centre pole and string.

The idea of the stell came from the ‘Book of the Farm’ written by Henry Stephens in the early years of the C19th.  I used his writings extensively in my recent study of wall-building techniques.  It is hard to find an original (a fascimile exists which is where this customer saw them) but my sister found me a three volume set in America.  It came from the library of  the late Professor Ernest F. Fenellosa, at ‘Kobinata’ Southern Alabama.  I suggest you Google him, he was quite something, especially in terms of Japanese art.  I was almost as pleased with where the books had come from as getting them. I digress, the stell is a common structure on the upland moors of the north, and can be found in some places in The Great Forest (of Brecknock) where Scottish farmers were brought in as tenants bringing with them this method of building shelters for flocks on the exposed bleak uplands.  The Coc0-Chanel logo of interlocking C’s is only visible as you fly to America, unfortunately, but a good guide to where, over Wales, you are at that moment !

Lime Kiln overlooks the Stell

The Lime Kiln towers over the stell - past and present interlocked.

The magnificent Lime Kiln is a very rare example of a double arch within an outer arch.  It dominates the site and is an important landscape feature in the area, although very few people – especially among the ‘local history’ fraternity – even know it exists.  I rarely do ‘new work’, I never do Art projects and so I am rather ‘chuffed’ to have my work alongside an important piece of C18th agri/industrial architecture.

This little enclave, in a small corner of Carmarthenshire, contains a whole ‘portfolio’ of my walling work over the past 15 years or so.  The old Pub at the centre of the site has been so well restored by my friend that it should be a featured property in one of the in-vogue country house programmes (not that he would in any way want that !).  About ten years ago he managed to add the range of farm buildings, including a leet and wheel pit – he hopes to one-day get a wheel installed – and, now, yards of dry stone wall.  Its been a privilege to have contributed to the project which will stand as a testament to us both for centuries to come.

A limestone wall curtains the yard.

The wall I built 15 years ago has now weathered and looks like it is part of the original farmstead.

Pennant wall, left, pasture and limestone wall at back.

More walls built here over the past years. As you see, the customer likes his OO La La curves.

I hope the stell will be finished soon – I’m dependent on the customer digging and moving stone to the site – though I’ve a few days yet.  Unfortunately time is not on my side.  Next week is Royal Welsh and I’ll have to have a day there, but Wednesday I go off to Flatholm Island in the Bristol Channel to do some instructing with volunteers (see www.flatholmisland.com ) until Friday providing the sea-state allows boats to cross to the island – which I will give you in the next posting.  This weekend I’m off to West Wales to a little village fete with my sisters and friends in the Llanfallteg village community.  The following week I’m instructing all week to a group of Prince’s Trust youngsters down at Ty Mawr (www.calchtymawr) .  My customers are going to be getting a little peeved, as is my Bank manager !  The trouble with so much work is that nothing seems to get completed and so, I don’t get paid !  AND I’m going off on a Continental journey soon…….

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