The North Wind Will Blow and We Shall Have Snow…

Blue sky but white ground, too early by far.

Oh yes, its very pretty, but this is the 'main road' (track-way actually) to my house ! How am I supposed to get home....

So I have a little trip ‘out West’, to do some walling missionary work, and get home to this !  Its only November for goodness sake.  Last year snow arrived the same weekend, I was going to Cardiff to watch a rugby International, Wales against Australia, but then it was on the high peaks of the Brecon Beacons.  This year its here, on my fields, on my roads, all over the damn place in fact.  Worst of all, its covered all the stones in the wall I am trying to rebuild.

This is a little worrying; we are being told that record (minus)temperatures are being experienced, that this is the earliest heavy snow for five thousand years, that global warming is to blame, that we are in for several weeks of this yet! Last night where I live registered the lowest (-17) temperature in Britain, Wales was colder than Greenland.  If I remember correctly, and I have certain ‘measuring rods’ against which to judge my memory, last year it was around the 18th December that the first snow fall arrived here, mind you, then it kept coming until mid January.  Surely this year can’t be worse, or even as bad. At least I have lots and lots of firewood, courtesy of my resident ‘Snow Goose’ of last winter.

Ever since I began building dry stone walls I have thought what a good idea it would be to just ‘disappear’ to a warm clime for the winter.  Unfortunately I’ve never managed to do it.  I never seem to amass sufficient funds to take a three month sabbatical nor indeed get far enough ahead with work to be able to take time out.  Silly really, if we have another winter like last I will not be able to do any walling for two months.

Snowy routes

The financial crisis comes home to roost, councils barely afford to keep major routes open with salt. This stretch is often blocked as it is a high pass on the road to Builth Wells from Llandovery.

Fortunately I have managed to diversify a little and have a few projects which will earn a crust in the warm.  I am writing some guides, ‘walking through history’ type guides for areas of the Tywi valley which I know well.  As with the project I recently completed for the ‘Ancient Cwmbran and Cistercians’ project, the ‘Tywi Afon Oesoedd’ project, a ‘Valley through Time’ has been involving communities in discovering the history of their areas. (you may recall my embarrassing role as a Roman Centurion, also part of this project).

Not that I needed an excuse, but the presence of  this wretched stuff meant that work was not really possible and so I headed off to the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society’s Winter Fair.  In truth I would normally attend, but this year I had thought of going on the second day as the weather was forecast to be good on the first day and so my conscience persuaded me I should work the good day and attend the show on the second which promised a blizzard !

I had not ventured out since getting home and was assuming that in the lower Wye valley, at Builth Wells, the snow would be far less than where I live, at nearly 1500ft. Oh not so, if anything it was worse.

River frozen Wye at Builth Wells, 29 Nov. 2010

The river crossing at Builth Wells shows succinctly what the conditions were like for the Winter Fair.

It hadn’t deterred people, the 8 mile journey – well the last 2 miles of it – took an hour, in fact I decided to park in town and walk over the river bridge to the show ground.  I was somewhat startled to see the frozen river, small ice floes were drifting in the current, ducks sat frozen on the edge and in the deep snow of the car park a poor young swan sat trapped.  My first job therefore was to find the R.S.P.C.A. stand and get the poor thing rescued.

The winter Fair is an annual two day show which showcases the farming industry’s  fat-stock sector and the ever growing Welsh Food production.  A new food hall hosts a real banquet of every kind of Christmas Fayre, cheese of course, beer and wine, mead and whiskey, meats and preserves, chocolates and, would you believe it, Ice Cream – I actually saw people licking ice-cream whilst wrapped in scarves and hats and holding the cones in gloved hands !

The fat-stock show is a centre of attraction.

The Beef fat-stock market shows off prime beef at the Winter Fair.

I met my old friend Dai who is the ‘boss’ of the Society, he said it was the first Winter Fair to be hit by snow.  Usually, if there is a weather problem, it is floods.  The main show-ring was out of commission, the walkways were treacherous but thousands came and, despite the financial crisis, thousands were spent.

For me the fair is all about meeting colleagues and friends.  Inevitably I bump into folk I have not seen for many a year and this was no exception, two school friends ! amazing, lots of rugby friends of course, and work colleagues from this ‘life’ and the last few.  Politicians, Peers of the Realm, chainsawyers and hedgelayers, farmer customers and farmer friends.  It really is getting as much a ‘must attend’ event as is its bigger Summer brother and little Spring sister.

Bronze statue of Shepherd, dog and sheep.

This Bronze is my all-time favourite; it is stunning in its capture of body posture, alertness and alarm, it stands in the Royal Welsh showground, its rarely seen in this state, maybe this photo will become a rarity !

The Fair is  Wales’ very own ‘Black Friday’, a time when traders hope to go into the black and see the start of the Christmas shopping spree.  Certainly large bags were everywhere on the route homeward.

I met up with a trader whom I always seek out, he and his wife trade in old tools and farm memorabilia and he had something for me.  I’m missing only two items from my collection of tools and equipment relating to a Welsh upland hill farm of the late C19th / early C20th.  Now I’m only missing one.

It struck me as I controlled my excitement at getting the little tool, how much had changed in terms of  Christmas Fayre.  Last week millions of turkeys met an untimely death in the United States,  Thanksgiving sees a massacre of what was once the native wild bird.  Soon, here too, turkeys will meet their end in order to feed us at Christmas.  Not that long ago such meat would have been rare in upland Wales.  The staple meat to carry people through the winter was that derived from the pig.

Pigs, fattened through the summer and early autumn, were almost ritualistically despatched and ‘everything but the squeal’ was used.  The day of the ‘pig killing’ was actually a time of sorrow as well as joy.  Pigs were usually raised singly and became a favourite of the family, especially youngsters who were often responsible for feeding them.  The appointed day involved much preparation, boiling water was needed, clean buckets and sharp knives and, the tool I collected from the Winter Fair.

Pig Sticker. a tool designed to quickly and cleanly kill a pig.

This wooden handled spike was the tool which despatched the poor pig, a 'Pig Sticker was kept by the man who fulfilled the role of pig killer in an area.

The job of actually killing the pig was often too much even for the most hardened farmer.  the poor animal is blessed with an inordinate sense of foreboding and seems always to know the day to die has dawned.  Families would ‘go out’ for the day and leave the job of dealing with the death to the man/men and the local ‘pig killer’.  He was a man who carried out the act in a given village or community and his was the only ‘tool’ in the area.  The pig is usually thought to have been despatched by the slitting of its throat, and true, this is a part of the a ritual, but the correct method was to first ‘kill’ the animal by stabbing it with a long ‘ice-pick’ type tool called a ‘Pig Sticker’.  Because of the limited number of people who did this act few ‘stickers’ are ever found, certainly not amongst the detritus of retired farmers.  Thus I have been lacking this instrument of death from my collection – some of you may think that a good thing – but now I have one and I can give a full description in my talks and exhibitions of the awful ritual that allowed families to survive a hard long winter in Wales.

I didn’t see any pigs in the Winter Fair – they may well have been there in a side shed somewhere – but at this season of self indulgence I am drawn to tales and memories of the position of honour and the tragedy of the life of the pig.

Now, if any proof were needed, this shows simply how ‘off the cuff’ this blog of mine tends to be.  I had no idea when I set out to compile the events and issues in my front lobe this week that talking about the ritual of pig killing would come to the fore.  but then, neither did I expect to find a missing part of my collection – Christmas has come early !!

Nature Calls:

I mentioned some time ago the voluptuous crop of fruit and berries this year and how, if folklore is to be believed, this is deemed to be a harbinger of a bad winter………… did I really poo-poo that notion !  I have been amazed recently how many berries still remain on the trees.  Already large flocks of Field -Fare have arrived and started decimating haw stocks, Mistle Thrush are attacking the big juicy black sloughs, peanuts disappear at an increasingly expensive rate from the holder hanging on my tree, and yet. And yet, the birds seem to be reserving stocks, not totally stripping trees of berries, almost knowingly preparing for a hard winter ahead.  I am not so well stocked, my food stores are insufficient to remain here for longer than a few days, my fuel is reasonably well stock-piled, albeit I will need petrol to run the chainsaw – unless the bow saw and axe are brought out again this year.

Holly with berries

Nothing quite as seasonal as Holly although in reality it begins to show its blood red berries as early as Sept.

I don’t know the origin of decorating the Christmas home with berry laden Holly.  Maybe it has some pagan origin.  I have read that its to do with the green, the ever-green, representing the hope of eternal life and the red berries are the representation of the drops of blood that Jesus shed on the cross.  Although why the celebration of His birth should be tainted with representations of his death is strange to me.

Whatever, what interests me somewhat is that the birds seem reluctant to take the Holly berries until all else is gone.  Are they toxic until later I wonder, if so, why is it that the squirrel, that pesty rat-like grey version, takes them and all else.  Anyone know ?

I was at a farm the other week when my attention was drawn to a lovely holly tree, laden with berries and many had fallen onto the ground – at first I thought they were a kind of late fungus peeping out of the moss – and despite the lane being lined with thick hedgerows and plenty of grassy cover which clearly had many voles and mice, none had eaten the berries.  Why is that ?  You would think that by now I would know these things, but the truth is, I’ve only just asked the question.

Holly berries in the moss

I don't know why the holly berries have not been taken from the mossy centre of this farm lane.

So Ilex aquifolium is something of a mystery to me, and another thing, why do only some trees have berries, is it to do with the sex of the tree, apparently not, it is usually local environmental issues that prevent fertilisation, trees in shady areas often don’t have berries.

I was in a park in Brighton a few weeks ago and I was astonished at the number of grey squirrels that were there, and also how tame they had become.  They are famed acrobats and have the intelligence of the rat, I am going to talk about them in some detail in my next post – avoid it if you want – they are fascinating creatures indeed.

Snow on a wall.

This dry stone wall in the showground is of sandstone from the Radnor hills, it is a reminder of what I have to contend with if and when I get back up the hill.

What the rest of the year holds is uncertain, can this weather really be the start of another long hard winter.  I don’t know how the birds and animals managed last year, certainly the numbers in my garden were greatly reduced last spring.  In the dead of winter last year, with temperatures of minus 20, the pheasants were freezing to death in the trees and dropping onto the ground with their legs in the air.  The river froze over, it has done now, and its not even December, so, indeed

“And what will poor Robin do then ? He’ll sit in (my) barn and keep himself warm, and hide his head under his wing”

Poor thing !

Frozen River in November

The river Cammarch freezes over, the woods are quiet, nature waits. A poem by Frost but always comes into my head: Whose woods these are I think I know, His house is in the village, though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.



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