For the times they are ‘a changing’….

The Sun has gone south for the winter, it passed overhead the Equator last week and already the weather has changed and darkness comes earlier and earlier.  In a few short weeks the clock in my car will again be showing the correct hour – I never bother to change it when the ‘clocks go forward’ at the end of March.  Can it really be that long ago, I can remember it well, for a week or so afterwards I forget the clock is wrong and finish an hour late !  In addition to being an hour slow its also six minutes fast, that way I have a chance of catching the main news and weather bulletins on the radio, though actually I’ve long since stopped listening to ‘news’ and as for the weather forecast….. they can’t even get the present correct let alone tomorrow ! Wales is not a big country, and yet I have so often been astounded at how wrong the weather folk can be.  Sometimes I can be in a place where half of Wales is visible to me, clear or cloud and rain, and they are telling me its going to be the opposite !  Why don’t they have folk all over Wales that they can ring up and ask what the weather is doing !  As for tomorrow, sea weed is as good, better still is good old folklore, that’s my guide.

So September rushes through and leads into true Autumn.  I managed a little respite recently; a concert, a wedding, another Abbey and a Vintage (wet) Fair.  I’ve also been to some very interesting farms on ‘official business’ relating to my part-time role assisting the farmers to assess whether or not they can score enough points to get into the new agri-environment scheme.

Cleft Oak forms a 'roundhouse'

This cleft oak 'corral' represents a Celtic roundhouse and is part of a project I was involved in a few years ago in Llangollen.

On a busy weekend I found myself back in North Wales en-route to the celebration of the wedding of two friends from the Smithsonian Festival team (well actually one and her fiancee, who was out with us too).

A few years ago I was privileged to undertake some work with a group of school pupils and their support staff at Ysgol Dinas Bran in Llangollen.

Now Llangollen is most famous for the International Eisteddfod held each year in the town but it has so much more.  Towering over it is a natural hill fort which was utilised throughout history.  Dinas (meaning fortress) Bran still has the remains of the Norman castle and the outer ditches of an (presumed) Iron-Age defended enclosure.  It is a stunnig position and commands the entrance to the valley of the river Dee leading ultimately into the heartland of North Wales and the early kingdoms of Gwynedd.

Dinas Bran, Llangollen

The natural conical hill of Dinas Bran with the Norman castle outlined on the summit.

The original plan was to create a ‘wildlife garden’ – the oft overworked ‘conservation’ element in many school’s extra curricula activity.  Given the presence of the impressive Dinas,  I designed a project which showed the evolution of man’s occupation of the area.  The centre-piece was a cleft oak timber ‘forest garden’ which represented the Celtic roundhouse.  This was surrounded by fruit trees and bushes and was placed at the end of a ‘processional way’ of standing stones.  The kids who undertook the project were ‘outlaws’ – pupils that no teacher wanted in their class.  My kind of ‘wild bunch’ exactly.  They did all the work and their names were immortalised on an interpretation board but also in concrete – they each impressed  their footprint in wet cement.  I was pleased to see that much had survived the rigours of daily usage, especially the footprints !

The footprints of the 'kids' who built the henge and roundhouse at Ysgol Dinas Bran.

We leave only our footprints.... but in reality they left so much more.

Despite its appearance and prestige, Llangollen has a catchment area for pupils which incudes some highly deprived areas.  The ‘kids’ with me were ‘naughty’, spirited, wild.  They had personality but they were disadvantaged, not least by the school.  Each time I was there I was disheartened to see how their behaviour was affected by the consumption of aspartame filled drinks, Red Bull and diet Coke in particular.  By mid morning they had drunk one or two, by lunch another two and by the time of afternoon break they were ‘off their heads’ (one actually climbed a lamp post on one occasion).  I asked the deputy headmaster why the school put such addictive mind blowing drinks in its vending machines when they caused so much damage to the children. “They raise much needed funds for the school” came the reply. “Without that money the support staff (the three ladies who had the daily task of ‘looking after’ these ‘school refusals’ – and who worked tirelessly with me on the project) would not be employed”.  So, the money from the aspartame infected drinks – which causes the behavioural problems that get the kids kicked out of class – is used to pay the support staff to look after the badly behaved kids who get kicked out of class……… I think its called irony !

Having called to see how the site had survived, and being slightly saddened but also pleasantly surprised – its definately getting used – I briefly called at another of my favourite Welsh spiritual sites. Valle Crucis, the Cistercian Abbey nestling at the foot of the Horseshoe pass, it is another beautiful setting, if today made somewhat enigmatic by being surrounded by static caravans and tents !  Nevertheless, a must to visit if you find yourself that way.

The name is a Latin phrase meaning ‘valley of the cross’ which relates to a C9th stone, the Pillar of Eliseg which stands nearby, and the abbey was founded in 1201.

Valle Crucis abbey, Llangollen.

As it should be seen - 'sans' holiday caravans and tents - nestling in the quiet valley.

Madog ap Gruffudd who was then ruler of northern Powys granted the lands to the abbey and 13 monks from the mother house of Strata Marcella (near Welshpool, and a massive abbey and estates of which nothing is to be seen today) came and established this typically remote and quiet Cistercian site.  However, this was not an empty place, and like many other abbey sites, locals were ousted to make room for the new monastery.  In this case the settlement of Llanegwest was moved to another area of Madog’s lands.

I followed  Telford’s Holyhead road, now designated the A5, out of the gorge and into the open upper reaches of the Dee towards Corwen and thence to visit a Vintage Fair which had long been on my wish list but circumstances, to say nothing of the distance from home, had thus far prevented.  Unfortunately, by the time I arrived the skies had darkened and rain began to fall in that incessant blanket that is the hallmark of the north.  Nevertheless I had a look around, enjoyed a Thai noodle lunch, took tea with some friends from near home and took some pictures !

Fire Engine, pulled by horses and powered by steam

This superbly restored fire pump which is powered by a small steam engine and pulled by a pair of horses served the city of Chester in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Old vehicles are always worth a look in my view, not least to shame me into getting on with at least one of my projects !

Steam traction engine used for ploughingI

This beauty was used to haul a 'steam' plough across a large field. I saw the plough in a yard in France - where is that photo !

The steam engines are always an attraction, and there was a particularly nice selection here.  I took an old gentleman (sadly recently deceased) to a steam fair a few years ago as he had told me of how, when a lad, he had loved to just stand by them when they visited Llandovery with the annual fair.  He said it was the sense of silent power which enthralled him, and it does.

Fowler Traction engine

The Fowler steam traction engine is a common site at vintage fairs just as it once was at the visiting fairs in towns throughout the land

What I really wanted to see were the ‘Heavy Horses’, especially those in working ‘black’ harness.  Unfortunately the rain spoilt the arena display but I did catch up with them later in the holding arena, splendid powerful beasts indeed.

Heavy horses at Corwen

The Heavy Horses line up in a damp Corwen Vintage Fair.

From the Fair I was to head off  to the the evening celebrations post Wedding of my two friends, there to meet up with the ‘gang’ from DC, those of us who had travelled out to build the set.  But also the lady who had asked me to appear – in secret ! – prior to her daughter actually inviting me (us) who is such a dear, a lovely lovely lady whom I call Gwladys, when actually her real name is the Welsh version of Boudica ! Apt indeed.

Mare and foal Suffolk Punch

A lovely Mare and Foal, a once common sight on farms now relegated to the 'at risk' register of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. These Suffolks made the soaking well worth it.

I have actually managed to do some work despite how it may appear.  Its just that I am still on the garden wall at Llanfihangel Nant-bran and progress is slow so not much to report on the Welshwalling front.

I am well into the second 16 tonnes of stone and have all but completed the 2.5 metre high section, so I guess another couple of weeks should see me finish that part but then I’ve got to do dozens of steps !  My arrival at my next site is retreating before my very eyes !  I do not want to be on the high open hillside at the source of the Rhiangoll river, over in the Black Mountains, in November and on through to Christmas, but its looking like that’s where I’ll be.  Merde !

Nature Calls

What has been really noticeable this past few weeks is what a tremendous year it has been for Fungi.  Now I’m not any kind of knowledge on these strange ‘things’, but I find them fascinating – and colourful !

Bracket Fungus around old Beech tree

These Bracket fungi (Grifola gigantea) were enormous. Growing around the old stump of a felled Beech tree, they certainly lived up to the name gigantea !

Bracket fungi always amuse me, they are just so darn big !  They look like huge cushions around the base of old oak and beech trees.  They surreptitiously grow bigger and bigger from mid July – if conditions are favourable – and last well into January – unless they get covered in snow and experience temperatures like last winter, a week at -22 !  My feet are in size 11 boots just to give you some scale in this photo ! When you consider fungi are like ice-bergs, what you see – the mushroom or toadstool – is only a third of what’s in the ground, this is a biggy !  Unfortunately its definitely on the ‘Don’t Eat’ list !

My favourite is the beautiful red with white spots ‘Fly Agaric’ which is just so ‘Fairy Tale’ like and such a bright colour in an otherwise usually dank and dark place.

Fly Agaric mushroom

This 'young' Fly Agaric is just beginning its above ground life in the little hollow of an old larch tree root. This is my favourite, bright and colourful but not to be eaten ! Amanita muscaria is a brazen come-on, smile and say "Not today thank you my dear !"

There’s something about white spots on a bright red background, its slightly ‘tarty’ don’t you think ?  If you succumbed to the charms of Amanita muscaria you will regret it.  She is  not for the table, on toast or anything else !

Fly Agaric

As they grow the mushroom of the Fly agaric spread outwards and flattens out into a tea-plate size red spotted table cloth

Of all the changes that the end of September signals it is the empty skies that really brings home the gathering storms.  All the Swallows, Swifts and House-Matins leave us, heading off to make the long journey back to Africa.  For several weeks the Swallows have been chattering noisily on the wires, the House-Martins have been frantic to fledge the last of their third brood so that they have sufficient strength and stamina to follow mum and dad – unlikely in my view, they just were too small though at least this year they have flown, in the past I have oft had to deal with abandoned youngsters, not a pleasant task.  My little farmstead hosts four Swallow families, three Martins and two Swift families, it is a busy noisy place hence the change is noticeable.  Each year this remarkable feat causes me to wonder at ‘creation’, nature, the universe.

The Swallows’ Dance

Released from winter’s icy grip, the earth to spring responds.                                            And swallows start their homeward trip, recalled by unseen bonds.

From Africa with wit and guile, they fly on slender wing,                                                       Forsaking regions of the Nile where Pharoah once was King.

Their route is etched in history, through centuries defined.                                              A sacred guiding mystery is in their hearts entwined.

Their symmetry is finally tuned for epic wander-lust,                                                              With streamlined form uniquely plumed, in black and white and rust.

Relying on celestial drift, they journey in a throng,                                                                    From God, a graceful welcome gift to fill the air with song.

And as each precious soul arrives I’ve cause to utter prayer,                                               For nature’s pulse yet still survives Man’s feckless fetid care.

Dramatically they sweep and soar, recharged by flapping prance,                                   With wondrous weaving to and fore, they flaunt their vibrant dance.

In captivating pirouettes they ply their artistry,                                                                          With winsome fork-tail silhouettes outlined enchantingly.

From river mud their nests they forge high on an old barn’s beam.                                Their greedy fledgling’s beaks will gorge on flies, the parent’s cream.

The young with earnest mimicry their fabled lore will learn.                                             Allowed one summer’s frippery ’til to the South they turn.

When summer’s sun begins to wane they heed a secret call;                                               A bidding they must not profane, to leave before the fall.

For then with urgent chattering, they gather on a wire.                                                         A noisy, lively gathering; ahead, a journey dire.

Before the swallows take their leave they stage a final show,                                             As if to give a brief reprieve to watchful eyes below.

Beneath this reel a purpose lies, a ritualistic test,                                                                         For old and young must synchronise to tarry with the rest.

Then when they leave, I feel bereft and ponder nature’s ways,                                       For swallow’s antics, swift and deft, now grace another’s gaze.

When last our lives on earth are done perhaps we’re given chance                               To choose the being we become, our ethos to enhance.

So, when its said – that last goodbye, then upwards sometimes glance                         For shimmering in the summer sky resplendant I shall dance.

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