Secular, Stone and ‘Sweet Beulah Land’

“Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken, neither shall thy land anymore be termed Desolate;  but thou shalt be called Hephzibah and thy land Beulah”. Isaiah 62:4

A tune rattling around in your brain, refusing to let you sleep or listen to any other music, is a real headache is it not !  This last week or so the old Southern Gospel hymn song “Sweet Beulah Land” has replaced “Sentimental Journey” or any number of Bob Dylan songs emanating from my voice-box and drifting out across the hills and vales.  I chuckle now and then at what Edgar Page Stites would be thinking as he sits ‘up there’ (probably next to John Sweeney who set the music) listening to me – my voice is hardly deep south gospel !

Heaven can be seen from Beulah Land you know, or so it is written in John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ (and which is the basis for the 1876 hymn).  The visibility this week has not been too good and as the days passed worried brows looked to the heavens in hope.  This week ‘Summer’s End’ has come to my little home village of Beulah, marked annually by the holding of the village ‘Show’.

Cakes as art at Beulah show 2010

This is Craftsmanship at its best is it not ? I read recently, in a treatise on 'what constitutes art and craftsmanship' that "the primary cause of bad cooking is a lack of artistry" so unless a person is an artist in the broad sense, he or she cannot succeed as a craftsman "since all the physical skilful manipulation of a tool is rendered lifeless in the hands of an insensitive person"

The community comes together to celebrate the year in a manner repeated in thousands of communities here and abroad.  Food, in its many guises, all ‘home produced’,  plays a major part and forms one of the most keenly competitive elements in the show.  How anyone judges these entries is beyond me, it is perhaps no coincidence that a judge is not allowed to return for a minimum of five years – no ‘match fixing’ here you understand !

Marrows at Beulah Show 2010

What would a show be without the 'Biggest & Best Marrow in Show'

This summer has obviously been good for vegetable growing and the entries were quite astonishing.  Much pride is evident in the displays and much skill in the hard long hours spent in the plot.  I can only wonder at this annual exhibition of patience and diligence, I don’t manage to grow anything !

The entries in the tent – actually a marquee which costs the show a lot of dosh – range across the whole gambit of home grown veg, cakes of course, jams and preserves, my favourite side-plate for cheese – pickled onions  (there’s nothing like french bread, cheese and pickled onions whilst watching rugby on TV) – and a whole variety of crafts.  Children grow up getting used to entering one or other of the competitions each year and they in turn encourage their children and thus the tradition lives on.

Vegetables at Beulah show 2010

We'd have no problem getting kids to eat vegetables if they all looked like this !! This is 'art of the land', the gardeners are truly 'wed' to the sweet land of Beulah.

The annual show has been on the Beulah community calendar for over 80 years.  Rooted firmly in the agricultural nature of the area the major competitions are involving horses, dogs and sheep, oh yes, and ‘vintage’ farm machinery, for which of course I am ‘Steward’.

Beulah has an important place in the history of hill breeds of sheep, the ‘Beulah Speckled’ is common in these parts, being well suited to the climate and environment.  The importance of taking part and showing the skill and stockmanship in rearing sheep brings forth a large entry each year.  I look and watch but have absolutely no idea what the judges find to decide which animal wins….. but each year they do, and the pride in being awarded the Rosette for Best in Show is manifest.  Do you know I recently went into a farm on the other side of the Eppynt – at Llanfihangel Nant-Bran, my current ‘office’ – and pinned up in the stable are winning rosettes from Beulah in 1964 and 1966 !

The horse show is confusing to me, there are so many classes and horses and ladies and girls dressed in all sorts of strange outfits that I can’t make head or tail of it all (an old friend of mine who ran a trekking centre used to limit his instruction to riders to simply saying “it bites at this end and sh..s at this end so best stay in the middle”,  my sentiments exactly!).

The sheep pens, tension and confusion !

The sheep pens are a hotbed of 'haute coiffure' !

The entries arrive in the early morning and the judging takes forever, no-one is allowed into the tent until the judges have finished their difficult task.  It’s gone midday by the time anyone gets to see who’s won and the quality and quantity of the entries.

Crafts means kids

At last we get to see who's won and what's won.

Everything runs simultaneously and each ‘committee’ member or group of volunteers knows their role.  I find it remarkable, we have about two meetings of the ‘Show Committee’ each year, the Secretary of course is the main cog, ably assisted by the Chairman who is the natural ‘community figure-head or leader’ and each year the Matriarch of the community – the estate community that is and she is the ‘Dowager’ Laird – is asked (and agrees) to be show President.  It is another link to the past that gives continuity to social adhesion, to a sense of place and maintains the status quo -for better or worse depending on one’s view point.  I watch it from a distance, being an outsider (10 years hardly counts for being ‘local’) and envy them their sense of belonging.

Carriage driving at Beulah show

The horse section has 'Carriage-driving', this is a real link to the past, how this must have been such a common site when the first shows were held.

The day ends with another ‘tradition’ that transcends and connects rural Wales to the industrial areas.  Strangely in many respects, given it evolves from the Gentry practise of schooling horses for carriage driving, the hugely popular horse racing activity called ‘Trotting’ generates a large and vociferous following.

Trotting Races at Beulah

Trotting races create a popular finale to the annual show, but how do they hang on, it looks so uncomfortable and precarious.

The crowd suddenly swells and the excitement the races generates is impressive, but, not being into the jargon – “Luke Lindy 14 at 2 out” – I feel unable to account fully to you for this aspect of the day.

The day ends slowly, there used always to be an evening knees up with folk music (more latterly ‘disco’ !) and a bar, sadly, increasing aspects of health and safety which causes insurance to go ballistic, has caused this to cease.

For me the Show marks a significant turn in the year, it is indeed Summer’s End, and I begin to reflect on work done, undone and un-begun.  At home there is much to do to prepare for the ‘fall’ and long winter.  As yet I haven’t got fuel in, the cord wood from the herculean efforts of my ‘snow goose’ of last winter is stacked waiting for logging-up.  Emptied sheds still need sorting and putting away, vehicles need to be serviced and got ready, either for winter use or hibernation.  In reality it is now I need a long holiday, not to rest but to get ‘stuck-in’ to jobs around here.  Alas bills still need to be paid.

The humming and singing of  ‘Sweet Beulah Land’ had a dual origin.  Most of my activity this last week or so seems to have involved ancient religious places.  To begin with I took a day  to celebrate my birthday and visited my favourite place in Wales.  Ystrad Flur or Strata Florida to give it its English name, is a Cistercian monastery hidden in the vales and hills of the Ellenith on the western side of the Cambrian mountains.  It is, without doubt, one of the most classical settings for a house of the ‘White Monks’ who sought solitude and remoteness.

The main archway of Strata Florida

The sight that greets visitors is the magnificent Norman archway of the West Door of the Abbey.

The abbey was founded in 1164 -though on a site two miles to the south on the stream called the ‘Flur’ – but by 1184 the great building was begun at the present position.  Although the Cistercian order was closely allied with the Normans, the founder of the abbey had definite ‘Welsh’ connections.  Robert FitzStephen was Lord of the north part of the ancient kingdom of Dyfed, his mother was Nest, the daughter of  Rhys ap Tewdur and his nephew was Giraldus – Gerald of Wales.  In 1165 the Lord Rhys took power over most of south Wales and immediately asserted himself as Patron of the new foundation (he also bestowed Talley Abbey to the Premonstratensian Order).  The endowments of Ystrad Flur were vast.  Granges were to be found north of Llandovery – a place on my journey south, Tirabad, meaning land of the Abbot (see ‘Long and Winding Road’)- and outside Builth at Aber -Duhonnu where I did work some years ago and where I received two of my cart collection from the then owner.  The Granges were vast sheep farms and nearby the Abbey is a recently explored set of farms wherein lies a large ‘sheepcote’, the medieval equivalent of the modern monstrosities which every farm has – and it must be said, needs.

The remains of the nave and transept at Strata Florida

Peaceful and tranquil, these sad remains of a once great Monastery.

Throughout its 300 or so years of existence the Abbey had strong links to the Welsh, which gives it an added attraction of course.  The monks themselves were involved in the great works of Welsh history, the Annales Cambriae and the Brut y Tywisogion. Such was the strength of its Welsh political connections that in 1212 King John ordered it destroyed.  This, fortunately, never happened and by 1238 Llywelyn made the Princes of Wales pay homage to his son David at a royal Court (Llys) held at the abbey.

Being in such a hot-spot, the abbey was continually caught up in the warring that went on for several hundred years.  Its Welsh connections are perhaps best certified by the (supposed) burial of Wales’ most famous bard, Dafydd ap Gwilym, in the cemetery.  However, by the time of the Glyndwr rebellion Royalist forces were camped at the abbey and an even greater problem was an ongoing dispute with the monks of Aberconwy which resulted in several attacks on Ystrad Flur.  By the time of the Dissolution in 1539 this once great house was not much to speak of, it had only 8 monks, was rated as being worth around £118 and was in a sorry state of repair.  From its once great estate of 6000 acres and over 1000 sheep it had withered to nought.  Nevertheless, it remains a spiritual place and one locked in the psyche of the Nation.

Building salvage on a medieval scale

Now if you are thinking 'building salvage' how about an old Cistercian Abbey right next door ! The ventilation slit in the barn of the farm right beside the Abbey has a certain 'monastic' feel to it don't you think !

Another reason I like going to Strata is that right next door is an old farm which holds a myriad of treasures, architectural and agricultural !  The farm is an excellent example of what happened after dissolution.   Salvage and reclamation of building material is not a modern phenomena you know.  All the buildings, including the great Gentry house, reveal examples of high architectural stone masonry and the re-use of stone from the abbey.  This is common throughout the land where monastic houses were the source of much material for locals to use.

There are, locked within and without the farm yard and buildings, a whole museum of farming artefacts of a bygone era.  One of the missing items in my collection is a piece of machinery called, in Welsh, a ‘part-mas’, which is to say ‘the piece outside’.  That piece is actually a horse-gin, a gearing mechanism that transfers a vertical motion – provided by a horse walking in a circle around a central shaft and connected to the gearing – into  a horizontal motion in the form of turning rods.  This, in turn, caused a wheel to revolve and ‘flat belting’ around the wheel drove another wheel high in the rafters which itself was fixed to a shaft with differing size wheels fixed at intervals.  These wheels in turn were connected, again by flat belting, to various pieces of barn machinery, such as root choppers, winnowers and chaff cutters.

A horse gin half buried

This now rare piece of rusting machinery needs a home ! It was the machine to which two horses could be attached to provide motive power for driving machinery.

There are numerous rusting relics around the farm which are hopefully going to be rescued and displayed in the renovated buildings if and when a project to turn the farm into a museum / heritage centre come to fruition.

Hidden gems in a collapsed cart shed

Hidden and getting damaged in this collapsed shed is a very rare Cardigan cart of the Gambo type, you can just make out the wheel and the side gates. I know, I've got 3 already, but someone needs to save this...

My ‘lust for rust’ and OCD for landscape archaeology is well catered for at Ystrad Flur.  And by chance I met up with the man who is undertaking the current archaeological work at the site and who wants to (needs to !) get a hold of my research on the dry stone walls of the abbey and grange sites.  We hadn’t met for a year or so, oh my, more work to get through this autumn !

I did actually do some work this week, but again it involved an ancient religious settlement.  Llanddeusant – the ‘enclosure’ of the two saints (Llan is often associated with a church site but strictly speaking it is the enclosure, often circular, in which a later church sits.  The Llan is more synonomous with early Christian sites) lies close to the slopes of the Carmarthenshire Fans, a series of large peaks in the western Brecon Beacons.  The little church is dedicated to St Martin and St Jude.  The establishment of an early ‘claas’ in the C6th is linked to Paulinus who is believed to have been the tutor of St. David.  Llandovery and Llangorse are dedicated to Paulinus.

Llanddeussant church

This little church at Llanddeussant, another setting of immense spirituality.

I have known this little church for thirty years or more, it sits on an ancient roadway leading into the col of the glaciated escarpment of the Fans in which sits the legendary lake of Llyn y Fan Fach.  The legend of ‘the Lady of the Lake’ is one of the important stories of Welsh folklore.  I won’t repeat it here – maybe in a later post – but it attracts many visitors throughout the year.

I have been engaged in renovation of the old wall of the Llan and now the newer graveyard on the opposite side of the wall.  The Llan wall is a dry stone embankment whereas the graveyard requires lime mortar.  I am using a 3.5 hydraulic lime mixed with Sawdde sand – the river Sawdde flows from Llyn y Fan Fach down to the Tywi at Llangadog.

Llanddeussant from the east

The double aisled church of Llanddeussant from the east.

There is something special about this place and working there always has an effect on me.  It is calming and thought provoking, it causes the kind of inner stillness that is associated with ‘going on a retreat’.  There is no noise and, apart from the odd tourist car passing by, nothing disturbs the peace, even the sheep are quiet.  The problem is I get consumed by the place and get little done, hence I have to return again and again for a job that really should have been completed in 2 days !

The aisles of Llanddeussant church

Stepping inside the church is essential to understand what I mean; was the 'feeling' of the place the reason those early Christians came to this spot, I wonder.

Surely I’m allowed a little indulgence, after all I am making up for it in the other jobs, am I ever !  I treat this work as my ‘good deed’ work,  I do it for free – the church is desperate to raise funds to renovate the roof, not suprisingly the congregation is far from large – and so, in a sense, its my ‘weekend’ wander.

There are of course the usual distractions, apart from the scenery.  There is always something to find, something can always be guaranteed to arouse my interest.  Farm rust, as you may realise, is never far from my mind and here too were some nice little gems.

Rusty old Fergie double plough.

This nice old Ferguson double plough is over 60 years old but could still do a good job. Thankfully it's too far out and relatively well hidden to avoid the 'radar' eyes of the scrap dealers.

All in all I had a very quiet and enjoyable week but more was yet to come.  Back last year I had been asked by one of my university tutors whether I would be willing to talk about wall typology at a weekend school held by the ‘Well Springs’ group.  That was all of twelve months ago and, apart from a brief mention when I saw her a few months ago – the weekend of the re-union in fact – I had heard nothing.  Now I had toyed with the idea of phoning, but as I was hoping NOT to have to do it, I avoided the issue.  Friday night I received a call but it was not to do a power-point presentation but merely to join up with the group on Sunday to examine some old Chapel sites built over Holy wells.  Now that I was happy to do, a nice relaxing day after the show, a walk doing what I enjoy, looking at history.

In fact the two sites were absolutely amazing.  Two hidden and ivy covered chapels, probably of early medieval origin – judging by the window architecture which was clearly C13th – and had been built over springs from which crystal waters flowed.  The stonework needed little interpretation and I was able to simply enjoy the experience and examine the two old buildings, seemingly in quiet solitude but actually with a dozen others.  The group are focussed on Holy well / spring sites, recording them and, as in this case, attempting to get them catalogued and protected.  These two sites are on private land and are not officially ‘known about’.  I find this extraordinary given their remaining structures, and the quality of the stone work clearly indicates a rich and important ‘patronage’.

Hidden gem, a medieval Well Chapel

Like a fairy tale, this little Chapel hides in the undergrowth, unloved, unknown even, the water running through it clean and pure.

I have a slightly benign attitude to the issue of what should happen to them.  On the one hand they are gradually declining due to the ingress of ivy and tree roots.  Already some of the face work has collapsed and the inner arch of the door has fallen in, on both the chapels.  On the other hand they have survived unmolested for 700 years and more, hidden away now where once they were obviously important places of religious pilgrimage and devotion.  I’ll see if I can quietly get my friend AP to come take a look and maybe – although it will be another ‘good deed’ job for me – I can get permission from the land-owners to do some remedial protection work.

A hidden chapel of C13th origin.

The second chapel had similar stonework albeit with a different and apparently later upper window.

I did some assessment of the differences in the structural elements, the second chapel seemed to have a ‘half cruck’ roof structure judging by the corbells in the walls and the beam sockets for the cross timber tie beams.  These are important pieces of Welsh history which ought to be saved and investigated, but there is something nice about them being ‘secret places’ all the same… we’ll see.

I’ll save this week’s Nature Calls and finish with my favourite shot of the week, the view from the field opposite the Church at Llanddeussant, its just a reminder of how lucky a Welshwaller I am…..

The distant slopes of Llyn y Fan

The slopes of the Fans and Llyn y Fan Fach, oh yes, and a little piece of farm machinery !


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