2 Wheels on my Wagon….

A new wheel of wood

A brand new cartwheel, made by a brand new Wheelwright, and its finally mine !

I am finally the proud owner of a pair of brand new cartwheels.  I cannot describe the level of craftsmanship represented in these wooden wonders, it has to be seen to be believed.

The story began six years ago when I finally – and purely by chance – found a rare (maybe even unique save for a ‘new, never used’ one in the National Museum of Wales’ collection) farm cart.  The pursuit of the illusive example had straddled a decade and more.  I had never actually seen one – the National Museum’s version is hidden away from public gaze – but had read  and heard of it from old Radnor farmers.  On the steep slopes of the Radnor hills a vehicle evolved that absolutely suited the needs of the farmer.  The early form of haulage (discounting ‘pack’ animals and people) was a simple sled – car llysg in Welsh – which was a simple ladder frame structure with runners that was hauled across the ground, usually by oxen.  The first wheeled wagon probably came in from the continent and its descendant became the Gambo, the common farm cart for over three hundred years.

Radnor Wheel Car discovered in an old shed

The Radnor Wheel Car as I first found it, the roof had fallen in on it and the ravages of water and worm had done dastardly deeds to it, but it was a real one, still where it had been put away 60 years or so ago, and it was mine for the asking.

In the upland farms of mid Wales, in particular the old county of Radnorshire (now subsumed into Powys, itself an ancient Kingdom) a hybrid evolved, a cart somewhere between the car-llysg and the gambo.  Yes, it had wheels, but it also had runners like a sled.  It could be wheeled or dragged, it was pulled by trace chains – oxen and later horse – and when empty the balance was such that the front lifted sufficiently to allow the cart to be moved on its wheels, when loaded the front sat down onto the sled runners and, with the wheels ‘braked’ with a chain, the whole thing became a car-llysg.

An old Radnor County Council sign still in-situ near Whitton.

Although Radnorshire (County Council) is long gone, this old sign survives in a remote corner.

With the arrival of the tractor many pieces of old horse-drawn farm equipment had the shafts cut off and an adaptation allowing attachment to the tractor draw bar added.  The wheel car was unsuited to this modernisation and was thus abandoned, usually outdoors in a corner, there to rot away.  Within one generation of post-war agriculture one of the most common vehicles of this mid-Wales county disappeared.

I had been on several wild-goose chases following tips-off or invitations to view, all in vain, although I did manage to salvage iron-work which could have been used should making a new one become the only option.  Then, whilst  visiting an old semi-derelict farm in the village of Beguildy in east Radnor, on another matter completely, it happened.  Whilst looking around the old buildings, which incidentally are  mentioned in the Royal Commission book on Radnor Houses, a collapsed outbuilding attracted my attention.  In the corner of the yard, the old shed had stone tiles on the roof which had collapsed but through the roof I could see a wheel.  I looked and looked not believing what it might be, with growing excitement I started removing debris to be able to see.  I could not contain my excitement but didn’t know how to proceed.

Breconshire Gambo

My Gambo which I restored some years ago was as common as chickens on farms in upland Wales, now it attracts great attention at shows, usually to the comment "we had one of those..."

The farm had recently become ‘widowed’.  The old farmer had died and the farm had been inherited by a niece.  A friend who had once farmed nearby told me of the Standard Fordson (1943) tractor stored in a small shed.  I met the niece’s husband, a real ‘salt of the earth’ farmer and we agreed that for some wall rebuilding I could have the tractor.  For the ‘promise’ that I would restore it (them) I could have the wheel-car and anything else that I thought was historically important.  I ended up with the wheel-car and a car-llysg and several other old wheels and bits and pieces.

Standard Fordson 1943 War-Ag narrow wing.

The old 1943 narrow wing Standard Fordson acquired through the War Agricultural Executive Committee, as found and brought into the light for the first time since 1954.

I was so thrilled, the pursuit for three items of agricultural history which had eluded me for so long all found in one place, the farm on which they had worked all their lives.  Provenance indeed.

Stripped down Standard Fordson

The stripped down tractor is shot-blasted and treated with a rust inhibiting red-oxide primer.

The work on the tractor began immediately.  The engine had seized from over fifty years of standing idle but a little trick told me by an old engineer worked a treat.  Jacking the tractor up and placing a block under the starting handle, then removing the jack so that the whole weight of the tractor is on the handle and hence the engine, then, removing the spark plugs and pouring some Coca-Cola into the cylinders, leave the tractor for a week or so.  Within the week I couldn’t believe that the front wheels were on the ground – the engine must have turned – and several more repeats eventually meant I could turn the engine on the starting handle.

Standard Fordson narrow wing tractor

Resplendent in its new paintwork and running once again after a 50 year or more retirement, the Standard Fordson takes pride of place in my tractor collection.

The tractor was stripped down and the metal-work shot-blasted and primed.  Remarkably no repairs were needed, the shed had done its job well and is proof, if proof were needed, that merely keeping the rain off and allowing air to circulate is sufficient to prevent rot in metalwork.  The only major cost was having the magneto re-wound, even the original tyres were still serviceable, oh yes, and there was a tank-full of TVO (tractor vaporising oil which has been unavailable for many years).  The narrow wings and green paint are the result of war-time restrictions on steel and the need for camouflage at the Dagenham works.

Old Cart Wheel

The old wheel was just too far gone, but a young Craftsman saved the day.

The Wheel Car is the real focus here however, especially the problem of the wheels; I will return to the restoration of the cart at a later date.  I generally try not to replace and / or renew major components of any restoration project, I don’t even like replacing tool handles if I can help it.  Thus to consider the total replacement of the wheels was a big deal.  Of course, it’s one thing to decide to get new wheels, it’s an altogether different matter to find someone to make them for you.

A cart wheel is a complex piece of engineering, it is not just a round piece of wood, it is scientifically designed to bear the heavy loads, stresses and strains placed upon it by the weight of the wagon body, the load being carried and the rough, uneven roads on which they had to operate. Then there is the wood, the timber from which it is to be made.  There are three different species of tree needed to make a wooden cart wheel.  In days past all the timber required by the wheelwright was locally sourced, indeed it was locally nurtured, almost ‘artificially in some cases in order to obtain the required optimum shape from which to shape the various elements.  Today little of the timber needed is available ‘off the shelf’, it just can’t be got from the local timber merchant.

The biggest problem is accessing the wood for the hub, the centre section into which the spokes fit and the ‘box’, the collar or ‘metal’ which receives the stub axle.  This needs to be Elm, hard and strong, but since  the scourge of Dutch Elm Disease it is almost impossible to source.  The spokes are of oak, readily available you might think, but not so.  The spokes need to be cut in a particular way in order to ensure ultimate strength.  the grain needs to be correctly aligned for the spoke to be of absolute strength, one spoke, the one at six o’clock, takes the whole weight of the vehicle.  The rim of the wheel is made up of curved sections called ‘Felloes’ (locally pronounced fellies ), there are two spokes per felloe, hence in my ten spoked wheel five felloes needed to be cut.  These are of Ash, and again a specially ‘encouraged’ limb of a mature tree is best.   The wheel is protected and ‘squeezed’ by a tyre of iron or, as in my wheels, sections called ‘strakes’ which are the size of the felloes but are fixed over the joints and nailed into place.

The 'dish' of the cart wheel

The old wheel, it had worked hard and deserved its retirement, note the 'dish', the way the wheel shapes like a saucer.

The wheel is not just a flat disc, it is instead shaped like a saucer, thus when the load is put onto it it is forced outward and hence tightens.  My wheels were fitted to a wooden axle and the stubs are canted downwards which means the bottom half of the wheel is in a vertical plain whilst the top half leans outward.  The wheels are weighty, around 120 lb each, they are built to work hard.

Dished Cart Wheel

Compare the two, how good a copy is this..... Craftsmanship at its very best

So who made these works of art ?  Well actually he is a newly qualified wheelwright from a small village not too far away.  I saw his work – small wheels on a ‘dog cart’- a couple of years ago and decided to give him the commission.  Craftsman need to be supported, they are artists, they are rare, they are necessary.

I want to share with you a passage from a book by an enlightened man, sadly now departed, who led the movement back to a self sufficient way of living, and preached the need to honour and encourage craftsmanship.

“The dream of high industrial and technological civilization is fast turning into a nightmare.  It may be ‘progress’ for scientists to devise ever more sophisticated and complicated ways of making what we think we need, but it is hell for the men and women who have to drag themselves to the dreary places where they make these things to watch dials and press the buttons, and it is hell for the men and women – increasing in numbers daily – who are told they are redundant.  Redundant human beings ?  Mass industry has, from its inception, had a strong tendency to class its operatives as mere components of the machine.  Like the machine the worker becomes just a means to an end. He or she is, on this Earth, the end towards which all human production must be the means.

Whether mankind just gets fed up with a way of working which is boring, and sordid, and produces ugly things, or whether the constraints imposed by the dwindling resources of our planet finally halt the Gadarene rush to the cliff’s edge, in the end, if mankind is to survive at any kind of level of true civilization, the craftsman must triumph.

The whole and happy life possible to a woman or man on this planet is a life in which work -honest and noble work – is the greatest joy.  Leisure yes, but leisure can only be a joy if it is true leisure, which means leisure from work.  Just constant idleness – the idleness of the unemployed – is not leisure at all but is a corrosive and corrupting thing.  That good craftsman, Eric Gill, once wrote : ‘Leisure is secular, work is sacred.  The object of leisure is work, the object of work is holiness.  Holiness means Wholeness. “

The search for wholeness leads to appreciating the beauty in craft, the beauty of the artist which is present in all craft.  I am a disciple of Seymour, I aspire to follow his values, hence my commission to the young wheelwright.  True, my wheels cost a lot of money, but Seymour answers this too:

“Hand-crafted goods often cost more than the mass-produced equivalent initially, but do they in the long term?  Surely it is more economical to pay money to a friend and neighbour – a local craftsman – to make something good for you than to pay a little less money for some rubbishy item mass-produced far away and  God knows by whom ?  The money you pay your neighbour may come back to you.  By helping to keep your neighbour in business you are enriching your own locality.  Furthermore, you are increasing the total sum of real enjoyment in the world, for your craftsman almost certainly enjoys making the article for you and you will certainly enjoy owning and using it.  The operative in the factory may enjoy the wages he or she gets but the work, well, no. “

That succinctly encompasses where I’m at, and I know a lot of my customers are there (or thereabouts) though they may not articulate it so.    John Seymour wrote these words way back in the late 1970s, he died nearly 10 years ago now,  like many others, he was thought to be ‘cranky’, a prophet is indeed without honour in his own land.

Without apology, I’ll end this week with what I regard to be his greatest assessment of our stupid world, a prayer if ever,  for appreciating Craft and Art and those who are the custodians of it:

“Practically every artefact a person uses today can be easily made from oil-derived plastic, in a large factory, by machine-minders whose chief quality is their ability to survive lives of intense boredom.  Even the machine-minders are being replaced rapidly by robots who, we are told, don’t get bored at all. (he got that right didn’t he !)

Artefacts so produced often do their jobs perfectly well.  They are ugly, for beauty in an artefact depends on the texture of some natural material, combined with the skill and loving care of an artisan; they are short-lived, so consequently our world is becoming choked with partly degraded, broken-down plastic objects, and their production is causing the pollution of our planet on a scale never before experienced.  But, by and large, they work.

If everything we use is to be ugly and boring to make, what is the purpose of living at all ?  Was there once really something people called ‘the quality of life’ ?  A good and satisfying quality of life that is,  could there be again ?  Or are we, as a species, doomed to live out the rest of our destiny doing boring jobs and surrounded by mediocrity and ugliness ?”

We are currently experiencing the results of economic greed, and lets not be too quick to throw stones at those high rise glass houses, we all have a little of it in us.  We can’t go on, we don’t need all this money and all these goods, we can’t have more than we need.

“The real craftsman does not need more than enough.  In our times of social mobility, everyone is after more than enough.  We no longer ask “what is our product worth?” or “how much do I need?” but “how much can I get?”…. a planet on which every inhabitant tries to get more than enough is a planet that is in for a hard time.  and, in the final reckoning,  I am sure that having more than enough does not make us more happy…. what makes a person happy is doing work that she or he loves doing, being fairly paid for it, and having it properly appreciated.” ( Seymour J.  1984. The Forgotten Arts )

Mike Davies, the young Wheelwright from Hundred House in Powys, has discovered this early in his life, I discovered it much later, my dearest friend in the Carolinas has found it too, as have all the wonderful artists and craftspeople that are out there.  Save the Planet by saving Craft.


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