Blue Skies, Blue Moon, Orange Leaf and Red eyes

 

Early morning light over Clwedog

Blue sky and dark blue water, late October early morning light is worth the effort.

 

I’m not a great fan of early mornings; I claim ‘prehistoric’ rights to wake in the light, sleep when its dark (oh well, occasionally at lunch time -‘cat napping’ is healthy I’m told).  Alarm clocks have to be up there with dentist’s drills, chalk in your nails and nailing your thumb with a hammer (or even dropping a ‘gate-latch’ down onto your little digit !) as experiences best missed.  I hate them, if I have to get up in the dark,  courtesy of those horrible electronic bleepers, I am miserable all day – and I seem to eat twice as much.  What has always astounded me is how, without falter, I wake minutes before the alarm is triggered, why does that happen ?  I’m not confident enough to not set the alarm, but I always, always wake just before, bizarre, my sub conscious mind I guess.

So, when I was dragged screaming from my cosy warm pit t’other morning, into a freezing cold kitchen – I’m being ‘thrifty’ this Autumn, what with all the doom and gloom of ‘cuts’,  I’ve yet to put a match to my antique Rayburn stove, the price of heating oil is relatively low at present, but so is my income !! – I was slightly ‘ratty’.  BUT, it proved a worthwhile effort….

 

Sunrise in a clear Autumn sky.

Sunrise is not something I get to experience very often, I stopped the car and got out to watch this one.

 

I was heading north into the southern hills of Snowdonia, a 70 mile journey over frost covered hills and ungritted roads.  The glow in the clear crisp eastern sky gradually grew to a crescendo and, at a convenient gateway on a hilltop lane, I stopped and got out to watch the sky burn bright as the sun zoomed – why does it come-up and go down much faster at the beginning and end ? – into the blue azure.

It was well worth the enforced eviction from that tropical dreamland beneath my duvets.  Dawn light is purer somehow, perhaps its just the sense of well-being or achievement at being up at such a stupid hour,  its the reward for all the torture.

As October races on, Autumn sunshine seems to be the prevalent experience (though in reality rain is never far away but has, thankfully, limited itself to night-time deposition) and the sheer joy and privilege I feel at being able to travel and work in such astonishing colourscapes eclipses other emotions – most of the day.  Its a strange thing, blue skies lead to blue moons as night time temperatures begin to plummet; the leaves are one minute brown, the next bright flame orange.  Inevitably, the heavy emotion of this changing backdrop coupled with long hard hours and too much road time, leaves my eyes permanently red.  I look hungover,  I look like a weepy widow,  I look like you know what !

 

The Severn Valley in late afternoon sun of an Autumn day

This too was worth stopping to absorb. I came upon it unexpectedly on a rare sojourn into new territory for me. Its a view of the Severn valley eastwards toward Newtown from the hills above Trefeglwys.

 

I was on a journey to assist a farmer to investigate the likelihood of gaining access to the Glastir scheme.  Its a nice change for me, for six weeks I get to go to farms, to look at landscape and, inevitably, agricultural relics.  This day turned out to be one of the best.  The stunning sunrise, the changing light over the hills and lakes of mid Wales, the beauty of the Dovey valley and the relics to be seen.  As I breasted the skyline above Dylife the already snow capped peaks of Eryri (Snowdon) looked unnaturally close and the nearer rugged  crags of Cadair Idris was swept with cloud, as if on fire.

The farmer was a super chap, a total Welshman, a total farmer, a total environmentalist.  He had undertaken such an amount of tree and hedgerow planting, especially along the river banks, that he had single handedly changed the flooding pattern of his riverside farm.  His hedgerows were outstanding – and as you may know, hedges are something of a passion of mine – but most staggeringly, this had all been done just to improve his farm, and NOT to claim any grants !

I revelled in touring this ancient hillside landscape, ruined upland field barns and abandoned ‘hafods’ (old summer dwellings used in a medieval system of transhumance) and natural heath and marsh.

To add to my pleasure (and, I hope, his) we found a common bond in our interest in Welsh farming history, not least in its methods and equipment.  He had an amazing collection of anvils,  over 20, ranging from the early 1700s to the early 1900s.  I won’t dwell on the numerous tractors and old ploughs, no I won’t.  I will however mention a most remarkable, probably unique, collection of ‘rush light’ holders that he had.  Forget my red eyes for a few hours, green was the dominant colour !  A rush light holder is absent from my collection; they usually fetch prices way above my budget.  Many of this fellow’s collection of lights were actually given from neighbours, a glimpse of the past in this most ancient of ancient landscapes.

 

Rush Lights

He was so proud of these, and I was so envious !! These two rush lights are rare, and valuable !!

 

A rush light is made from the pith of the rush, with the outer sheath peeled away, which is drawn through tallow, allowed to dry and then stored ready to give about 10 minutes of poor light to brighten the blackness of Welsh farms in the centuries before tilley lamps and electricity.

 

Rush Light holder

This is a real gem of a rush light holder, very very old indeed, probably early 1700s.

 

I find it strange to be doing this kind of work; meeting and talking to folk is somewhat alien, something I normally avoid, but this week I’ve been a regular socialite.

I returned to the Machynlleth area again at the weekend to visit yet another ancient upland farm with the words of my manager ringing in my ears “Don’t get distracted by non Glastir matters !” – oh yeah, who ? me, as if……

The morning this time was typically autumnal, typically end of October in Wales, storms and wind.  Nature has a way of sending wind to blow the dying and dead leaves and water to wash them down the rivers and out to sea (or block drains, flood houses and roads and remind people that Nature is in charge).

 

Blue skies over Snowdon

In between the storms the skies cleared but not over the Snowdon range; this is the mid point of Wales, from here if you were on the skyline north or south, you could see the sea at the end of the country.

 

I was returning to ‘Mach’ for the first time in a year, indeed next weekend will be the ‘Bonfire Societies’ parade and grand firework display which marks exactly the year that I was there.  The farm this time was along the Dovey estuary near the village of Pennal, the site of the large Roman Fort at Cefn Gaer which sits guarding the estuary at the lowest crossing point at that time.

I wasn’t altogether certain where I was going – I’m not into printing a map off google maps for every visit -and seeing a large shed with farm machinery, I turned in.  It was the wrong place, but not for me, oh my Lord, I thought I had died and gone to the great scrap yard in the sky…

All around the yard, under hedgerows and just languishing along the sides of the big shed, were numerous ploughs.  Most were ‘dragged’ type, pulled behind the tractor rather than connected to the three-point linkage and the hydraulics;  thus they were old, pre 1950 and many much earlier.  You may remember the one I ‘found’ for my Fordson tractor back in the summer.

 

Cockshutt ploughs languishing in the hedgerow.

It's a plough 'graveyard', a mass graveyard in fact, so many rare and valuable ploughs. I want them all !!

 

 

And then a whole clutch of 3 point linkage ploughs !!

These are slightly younger, 1950s, all 3 point linkage.

 

There were some real gems I can tell you, and, so I was told later, the shed was full of other tractors and machinery, the owner ?  An 86 year old local Welsh folk hero.

 

Stationary Baler

This is the business, oh yes, this one I would swop my Aunty for.... Its a rarity and then some. A very old Stationary baler that was used to bale straw and, sometimes, hay; driven by a flat belt from the pulley on a tractor. It so happens I have just the tractor...... well of course I'm going back !

 

I did eventually get to the farm and once again had a really privileged tour of some stunning landscape.  Hidden in the steep valleys were relics of ages past, slate quarrying was important, and the remains of small quarries with derelict dry slate built workshops seemed to be everywhere.  I had mentioned to a friend of mine, a Welsh historian of some eminence, where I was going and he had warned me that it was a fascinating and ancient landscape, he was not wrong.

The farm buildings were quite incredible in respect of the size of the stones with which they had been built.  To add to the effort involved in the build they had used huge quartz blocks (yes, quartz again !  its everywhere around me at the moment !)

What I found most astounding was the size of the barn which clearly showed that in the previous centuries – this farm is old old old, probably an old Hafod made permanent in the medieval period and enhanced by the Talgarth estate in the post medieval period  – oats and barley were extensively grown up here, above 1200 ft.

 

An interesting mix of stone in an old stable block

I stood-in to give scale, I'm 6ft 3" - about 1.8m - how big are the blocks of quartz and slate in this C18th stable block.

 

There have been other heavily populated encounters…..

You may remember the project I wrote of a while ago; the Ancient Cwmbran and Cistercian project (www.ancientcwmbranproject) had commissioned me to do some investigative and analytical work on some walls that had been discovered in ancient semi-natural woodland in Cwmbran – quartz conglomerate!  I attended an evening of presentations as well as delivering a lecture on my thinking of the origins of the Walls in the Woodlands.  What’s more I even managed to finish the 25 page documentary report (for which I now hoped to be remunerated ! pay for report = oil for heating = house warm enough to write yet more reports etc. etc.).  Oh but it is a very wearying activity, or so I find.

As if that wasn’t enough of other humans, I actually went out with a friend for a meal, to a rather good Indian restaurant in the little local town of Llandovery;  the lady who strangely agreed to accompany me is a long standing and, I like to think, close aquaintance whom I’ve written of before, an archaeologist of some repute, she too has had a somewhat hard year.  Sadly she had to spoil the evening by giving me some devastating news about a guy I regard as a real gem,  I find I don’t gell with many men but he and I had a bond and I really, really liked him, like him indeed, except he’s been incarcerated, imprisoned, sent down for so long I will die before he can come shoot rabbits on my farm, as he used to do.  I cannot fathom it,  I cannot cope with it; how will he survive, he is always just on the sane side of mad, kept there by pills and hope and laughter; that support has been taken from him,  I despair for him.  It leaves me in despair,  and I didn’t even know of it, not reading newspapers – and apparently it was front page in the local rags- and it happened several weeks ago after many months of investigation and so on.  I’m not going into the details,  they are clearly not true, the circumstances seem so obviously absurd, and yet, despite even the Judge expressing doubts, he’s gone.  I’m going to try to write, but what do you say, he’s not seeing blue skies, blue moon and orange leaves but he surely has red eyes.  Prayers for a soul in torment must now precede sleep.

Nature Calls:

Last winter, in the bleak mid winter when frosty winds made moan, I had a rare visitor who came to stay in the upper barn.  He stayed for several weeks and then left, once the snow had gone.  I saw him again the other night when I was returning late from my curry,  the ghostly white bird stepped off a fence post and drifted across my path dazzling me, the Barn Owl is still nearby, the fence post was half way up the track, perhaps he’s returned for winter.

Other than that thrill, my encounters with nature have been with poor dead creatures.  One morning, right on the doorstep – hence presumably the act of my resident killer, Marti – a hand size Mole lay perfectly still and undamaged.  Now I’ve seen dead Moles before and wondered how they met their end, after all they are not commonly seen above ground are they.  They are an oddity of nature if ever there was one.

 

Mole

This rarely seen little creature is a strange evolutionary success.

 

Talpa europaea is a sorry little animal, nobody loves him – as in Wind in the Willows – he is much maligned and ever so mis-understood.

Most people only ever see the ‘mess’ he leaves as he digs long tunnels through fields and lawns.  He pushes the soil in front of him in the larger runs so that it appears on the surface – mole-hills.  This is a real problem for farmers when it happens in silage fields and hay meadows.  If the soil gets gathered into the crop it causes serious illness, especially in sheep.  Thus it is a constant battle to kill all moles that dare invade any field.

In fact there are many misconceptions about this little fellow.  The appearance of dozens of soil heaps leads most people to believe they have a plague of moles.  In fact the little velvet clad creatures live a solitary life.  They have a bit of ‘love’ in the Spring (don’t we all !) but, a bit like me, the rest of the year they keep themselves to themselves.  Scientists who have studied them reckon they occupy land at a rate of about 4 per acre.  So how come there are so many mole-hills ?

 

Mole hills ruining pasture.

These tumps of soil are a real nightmare in the harvest season.

 

It seems to me that the number of molehills in any given area represents the length of the deeper – 2″ / 6″ – tunnels, these tunnels are built for the mole to hunt worms.  In reality that is the main destructive element of these little creatures, soil bereft of worms lacks sufficient aeration and organic matter.  If the worm population is low the mole has to dig more tunnels to find them, if the ground freezes forcing worms deep, the moles dig deeper too, then mole hills are bigger – as indeed they tend to be in the cold of mid-winter.  Thus, or so it seems to my unscientific yet logical brain, as well as being concerned about the soil tump problem, the farmer should worry about the paucity of worms in the pasture and get farm yard manure rich in worms onto the ground asap.

 

My, what big feet you have

Now that's what you call 'big feet'. These shovels can move about 10lb of soil every 20 minutes - more proportionately, apparently, than a pick and shovel wielding coal miner.

 

The catching of Moles and the saving of the skins to make a valuable cloth is mind blowing.  How many skins were needed to make a pair of mole-skin breeches !

Little mole is a much maligned member of our fauna, he is a relic of woodlands, his natural habitat, where worms were plentiful.  His name is thought to derive from the old Anglo-saxon mouldiwarp, from molde meaning soil and werpen meaning to throw.

Mole catchers were an established and old ‘trade’ in rural villages but were replaced by strychnine poisoning – now banned – which, it was claimed, killed nine times; that is it killed the worm – on which it was placed – the mole and whatever ate the mole.  I think that is misplaced, I don’t believe anything eats the mole, hence the reason they are always intact when found dead.  My little killer eats most of what he kills and just leaves the head or some little morsel as a present for me.  No, I think Mr Mouldiwarp is inedible and the times 9 death count is actually the worms eaten by birds and foxes etc.  Worms come quickly back to the surface when dipped in strychnine, perhaps in order to wash off the poison, they die slowly on the surface and get eaten.  Thankfully it is now banned, much to the chagrin of those wishing to kill the ‘hundreds’ of moles in their gardens and fields.

Try putting more worms in is my suggestion, then Mr Mole won’t have to dig so many blooming tunnels !!

I thought I should just prove that I have been doing some walling this week, honestly, I have !

 

Dry Stone retaining wall with bee bole

The retaining wall at Llanfihangel Nant Bran is quietly progressing, a week or so more.... how long have I been saying that ! The little dark hole you can see is a 'Bee Bole', a small recess into which straw 'lip' skeps are placed - artificial bee-hives.

 

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