January ! Sick and tired, you keep Hanging on me…

Do you know, I’m not altogether certain I have anything at all worth saying this week !  Which probably means this will end up an extra long, badly constructed and essentially uninteresting blog post !  You see, I’ve still not done much, well, not quite accurate, I’ve done ‘nowt’ !

By the middle of last week I was feeling well repaired, my flu had all but gone, my back problem was much eased and I was, as my ‘Stars’ had suggested, feeling mucho positive.  A sneeze put an end to all of that.  I ventured outside after too many days indoors, and did a little ‘pottering’ (a euphemism for ‘nothing particular’), which was nothing essential or useful but made me happy.  In essence I hobbled around, viewing this and that, scratching a bit of paint off here, emptying water from there, generally a contemplative reconnecting with all my junk.  This went on for over an hour and I was feeling well uplifted – then a sneeze caught me unprepared.  A nuclear explosion that wracked my body from head to toe, and on the way down just popped my weakened back injury yet again.  I won’t dwell on the discomfort nor mention any of the very loud expletives that rang out across the valley causing dozens of pheasant to take fright and flight.  Suffice to say I have endured another week stuck in this super soft (and therefore contributory factor in my disability) arm chair.

Sneezes are such an awful experience aren’t they!  I had a conversation with my ‘little helper’ whilst working on the garden wall at Llan Nant Bran back in November (at the onset of my first cold of the current winter when sneezing became persistent !).  I reckoned that I always seem to sneeze three times in a row, bang bang bang.  He said he had read some report about sneezing which showed that everyone thought they always sneezed the same number of times in a row but that, in fact, it was not so.  He was proved right, I apparently mostly sneezed FOUR times in a row, then three, sometimes just two, but never, no never, just once !  Now why is that, what are these bodily functions supposed to do ?  It is certainly one of the most damaging of actions and many people end up with ruptures and strains, burst blood vessels and worse.

Not many years ago I had a nasty experience thanks to an unfortunate sneeze.  Working in a fairly remote spot in the Gwendraeth Valley not far from Kidweli, I was bending to sort stones when a sneeze ambushed me without warning – none of the usual ugh ugh ugh ugh tishooo! – a real 9 on the Richter scale.  Next thing I knew I was on my knees, bottom up,  head down (actually head sideways in a muddy puddle) one arm under me the other outstretched, fortunately preventing me from toppling sideways.  I could not move, basically I was paralysed from the neck down !  Now time has erased much of the actual trauma / fear / amusement / confusion, but I do have some vivid memories.  It was in early July so evenings were long, it was quite cloudy and had been raining for several days and did that night.  My sneeze happened around 2.45pm ish.  Fortunately, for it was an unusual occurrence and only due to a problem carving cow, the wife of the farmer on whose land I was working came at around 11.0am the following morning to check on the beast.  Now normally she wouldn’t have ventured over to me, indeed may not even have noticed me for I was some fields away from the problem cow.  Something that morning troubled her, she couldn’t articulate what or why, but something made her come over to see me.

Speeding this tale up somewhat…. some hours later I was on the way to hospital.  Strangely the most painful part -and I mean painful to the point of alarming the ambulance attendant by loud screaming ! – was once they had braced my neck and back on a backboard type stretcher.  I guess that the straightening had released the pressure on the nerves to my arms and legs and, just like the uncomfortable feeling of blood returning to a limb which had just had ‘pins and needles’ , my whole body felt as if it was swelling and I was about to explode !  Three days bolted by the head to a bedstead with weights hanging off my feet fixed the problem.  Apparently all the years of hyper-extension of my neck – caused by continual bending to pick up stones and tilting the head backwards in an extreme way – had given me what the medical profession, in their usual jocular manner, call ‘Blue-rinse syndrome’.  So called because it is a common affliction in older ladies who regularly have their hair washed and dyed, and tilt their heads, hyper-extensively, backward into the wash-basin to have the hair rinsed.  This continual action wears away the sharp edges of the neck vertebra and makes it easier for them to dislocate.  The dislocation of course traps all nerves and renders a paralysis.  The ‘cure’ is an operation to fuse together several neck vertebra……. I think I said something to the effect that I may indeed look a little like ‘Lurch’ but an immoveable neck would complete the illusion !  No way Hose, you ain’t ‘cutting and shutting’ my neck.

I was ‘taught’ a number of moves and positions to adopt if I should feel a sneeze coming on, and told always to be standing ramrod straight before it hits.  So far so good, but, like the San Francisco Earthquake (the one that’s coming not the one that’s gone !) it will likely happen again… Last time the medics reckoned that hypothermia had shut my systems down – I was after all only in a tee-shirt, and the night was long, cold and wet – which, ironically,  had probably contributed to  my surviving the night.  Farmer’s wife was a bigger reason to my survival I suspect.  Next time…… who knows, if you haven’t seen a new blog post for a few weeks maybe you send out the hounds !!

However, I did get some excitement, one doesn’t go far around here before something of interest to ME is encountered !  I managed to drive out – only because the sheep which normally inhabit the land through which my track runs and makes it necessary to shut two gates (it used to be three but during my incarceration with the achilles problem a prolonged ‘battle’ with my hard nosed neighbour over me being unable to open and close the middle gate, due to the difficulty at that point on the track in me being able to use my crutches !, resulted in, firstly, me being visited by the local bobbies and threatened with an ASBO ! and ultimately the installation of a cattle grid !! The neighbour made such a nuisance of himself by ringing the land agent repeatedly that he persuaded the Laird to fork out!).  Luckily the sheep are in other parts of the farm at the moment and so I could get out with only the need to get out of the car once and leaving the gates open until my return.

I went into Llanfair y Muallt, better known as Builth Wells, about 8 miles hence.  I needed to get some supplies but I needed also to stick a piece of plastic into a ‘hole in the wall’ and, with everything crossed, await the result.  I can’t imagine why, but it coughed money at me !

It was a very foggy day and as driving was a comfortable activity for me I decided to prolong my outing by driving back along a road I had never travelled.  It is the ancient roadway, possibly another Roman route, which links the town with the old Abbey grange of Tir Abad via Llangamarch Wells.  I can’t believe I’ve never driven the road before, I’m talking approximately 5 miles !  But I’m glad I did !

Almost immediately my eyes were widened in the misty light….

A century of hard work, now rusting and forgotten, these old horse drawn hay rakes are important relics

An old Lister Blackstone horse drawn hay-rake, rusting and forgotten in a corner of a quiet field, after years of service an ignoble end for a machine that revolutionised the gathering of haysel.

At various times, the present being an example, scrap metal is worth the gathering.  In particular iron and quality steel fetches a worthwhile amount of cash.  It is therefore surprising when old iron wheeled farm machinery is found close to a road.  Normally the tinkers would have long ago ‘negotiated’ for them !  Indeed a few hundred metres beyond my village, adjacent to the main road, is a ‘dealer’ who regularly collects such items.  I’m glad he missed these, or maybe the farmer just wasn’t interested.

The horse drawn rake, with shafts still attached, is a particularly rare relic.  Normally horse drawn machinery was converted to tractor drawn machinery by the simple expedient of replacing the wooden shafts with a much shorter centre tractor hitch.  These two examples were painting a picture of the past life of this particular meadow.

An early horse drawn hay rake.

I want to take it home !! Alas, these hay rakes are so difficult to restore but to find one with its wooden shafts still attached is pretty rare - I will return !

Another extremely rare though not nearly as old,  machine was a 1950s ‘Round Baler’ – I think it is a John Deere.   This machine was revolutionary -in more ways than one ! – being the first break with the more traditional rectangular (often called ‘square bales’ though in fact they were 2 X 1, twice as long as its square profile).  Round bales are of course the norm today but the idea was slow to be accepted, especially in conservative rural Wales, well known for the reticence of its farmers to embrace technological and scientific change.  A fact noted by chroniclers throughout history.  Without the modern facility of  tele-handlers able to lift and move round bales, they were difficult to handle and stack and were therefore not popular.  Strange then to find this rare machine on a small hillside farm tucked under the Eppynt.  They were popular for baling bracken off the hill which was a valuable bedding and fodder crop freely available for those with ‘rights’ to gather it.  Today very few farmers I know take advantage of this free resource, instead they pay large sums for straw bedding.  A side effect of this has been the vast increase in the spread of bracken on slopes that were once valuable grazing ‘mynydd’ and ‘blaenau’.

An early John Deere Round Baler

This really should be saved but rust has eaten some of the thin steel-plate but most of the important bits are there, even the 'elastic band' that makes it work.... no, I mustn't, must I

This one field had a myriad of interesting rusty artefacts to help me to forget my aching back for a while.  In fact the moving around actually did me some good, until that is another sneeze hit me and before I knew it I was on my knees, the shock sends a stabbing pain of high octave through my right side and my legs collapse – embarrassing if anyone was about !

A Lister Blackstone sign on an old hay rake

It's what it says it is !

I am nowadays more focussed and realistic about what I can do in terms of saving all this stuff, this Heritage as I see it.  No one else seems to be interested, it frustrates me that every lorry load of scrap that the dealer in the village delivers to the scrap yard – albeit it is more sustainable as it will be re-smelted- means a part of our rural history is gone.  It is hard to believe that no museum dedicated to the technology of farming exists in Wales, perhaps I should start buying a lottery ticket !  Better still perhaps I should be putting together a Lottery Heritage Funding application, now there’s a thought….

The road itself was interesting, once I negotiated obvious small gorges formed by fast torrents rushing down the escarpment of the Eppynt which causes the road to swerve and curve.  Suddenly the road opened out, a wide road indeed,  I didn’t measure its width but I will.  The width of a road is a good historical guide to its age and purpose.  The Roman road suggestion is partly based on this width but also on its straightness and direction.  However it could also be a road prescribed under the ancient Laws of Hywel Dda as a township road leading to the hill.  Of course the one could have evolved into the other but not usually, I will need to have a good investigation once I’m fit.  Exciting times !  Of course Beulah,my village is a hugely important Roman site with two major forts and the military road; this new discovery ties in well being only a few miles away.

An unusually wide and straight road

Most people would just drive along this road, not me, it's such an affliction !

Another little gem, well two actually, caught my nostalgic eye on this ten minute diversion.

Another 'relic' of an age past, the Red Phone Box.

This icon of design and a welcome facility in pre-mobile phone days, these old red phone boxes are all but superfluous today and will surely soon be just as much a memory as the other artefacts I saw today.

A Fordson Dexta of the late 1950s

This little beauty was just sitting there! One of the most sought after post-war tractors, a Fordson Dexta, I couldn't get out to see which model, it may have been the Super Dexta - I'll check when I go back. It would be nice to buy this for a little, it's worth a lot !! But does he know it.....

In half an hour I had completely forgotten my problem,  I was inspired and excited and playing all sorts of scenarios in my head.  I’ll certainly go in search of one or other of the items – not the phone box however, they currently market for over two thousand pounds.  However, before I got back onto my main road another little ‘spot’ caused a smile !

A Fordson maybe, or is it an Austin, or maybe a....

I feel it has potential.... but is it a Fordson or an Austin ?

The engine is all there, that's always a good start !

Well there you have it, my only excitement of the week.  Oh except I had been forced – by snow and inability to work – to raise some funds by actually selling some items on E bay.  It breaks my heart to have to do it but needs must.  It annoys me though, not least because my friends can be guaranteed  to demonstrate how little they understand my passion, and therefore my sad reluctance to lose items.  So, a very rare and clearly valuable, old Land Rover has departed Land Rover Manor.  Fortunately my grief was soothed by the fact she will be thoroughly restored, probably to a standard beyond my means, and by the greasing of my palm to more than twice what I hoped to make on her.  That allows me to give a little ‘slap in the chops’ to those who treat my indulgences (read ” investments’!) as some kind of ‘illness’ ! (Thumbing my nose as I write !!).

Nature calls:

It seems the world is all well again, at least the media thinks it is; no more mention of mass deaths, even the floods have clearly been ended and mended !  But Wales is waking up to the death of its trees, except for now, it is Japanese larch that is suffering and the Forestry Commission is clearing vast areas in South Wales in an attempt to eradicate the disease.

The pathogen that is wreaking such havoc, Phytophthora Ramorum, is of the same family of virus that caused the great Potato blights in Ireland in the 1840s, no control is available other than felling.

I’m no fan of the large plantations of conifers that blight the skyline and mountains, especially as we seem to be still importing massive amounts of softwood.  In the areas I work, not surprisingly, given I’m mostly high and remote, I’m often close to vast swathes of conifer green, marching soldierly over the hills and far away.  They do however have a certain benefit where two rare creatures of the Welsh fauna population are concerned.

I spent my childhood in a natural setting, I grew up in a wildlife paradise in some respects, the rural fringe of a fast growing new town where a disused canal provided the inspiration for my knowledge and passion for our fauna.  That interest stayed with me and ultimately led me to be a teacher of environmental studies.  In particular I set up a ‘School Forest Project’ which involved the school being given a lease on a forestry plantation and managing it.  The 15 ha we had were adjacent to the massive Llanwern steel works just outside Newport in Gwent.  The larch that were the mainstay of the conifer content had failed due to the acid rainfall from the works (not that anyone back in the early 1970s had the slightest idea that was the cause) and thus the Forestry Commission were more than happy to let us have it.  Originally it had been a broadleaved mixed woodland with a predominant sessile oak element.  As stock had been fenced out the woodland had already begun to naturally regenerate and myself and two groups of ‘less able’ (can you believe they were classed ESN – educationally sub normal !) pupils assisted its restoration.  In that woodland we were able to spot numerous birds and animals.

Today, I think I am correct in saying, there is only one animal present in Wales that I have never seen alive.  It is one of the two animals that actually benefit from conifer plantations albeit they need some variety in light and species to be truly ideal for these animals.  One of them is the original native squirrel, the Red Squirrel, which has been mostly wiped out, it is thought because of competition from the alien Grey squirrel.  (I will talk about the squirrel issue in a later post).  The other is the uber-rare Pine Marten.

In some areas of Britain, especially Scotland (and very many European countries) the Marten is still relatively successful although illusive.  In Wales that ability to be invisible means we don’t actually know where they are, indeed ‘IF’ they are !  Close to an area I frequently work is the vast Brechfa forest (using the word ‘vast’ is clearly relative, for those of you reading this outside Britain, just smile !) and it is believed there may still be Pine Marten there but no sightings as yet.  I would dearly love to see one.  So much so that whilst visiting with my favourite Junk Yard Angels (www.kingdomofrust.co.uk) recently I bought one !

An old but rare stuffed Pine Marten

This rather rare 'stuffed' example of a Pine Marten (martes martes) will be an excellent 'teaching aid' for me in my 'Landscape Walks' programme. Most people have no idea how big they are or what they look like.

He is a rather tatty example and his colouring has faded  – he would normally be much more ‘rusty red’ on the upper coat – but it is such a rare find and so useful to me when giving talks etc. that I had to have it.  A member of the Mustelidae family Martes martes is about 25-30 inches nose to tail (63-76cms) of which the tail is about a third.  It was mercilessly hunted throughout the middle ages and the recent centuries as were most others of this group, stoat, weasel,polecat and otter.  This was primarily because they are phenomenal killing machines, especially of the very creatures that men wanted to hunt such as partridge, rabbit, fish and eels. Of all the mustelidae the Marten seems to have been most effectively eradicated hence its rarity today.  We realise now of course that much of its reputation, indeed all of their reputations, were erroneously earned and in a diverse ecology there is place for the hunter and the hunted.

The Pine Marten is omnivorous with seasonal woodland fruit as important in its diet as young birds, eggs and, ironically, squirrel !  Of course in the days before the arrival of the grey squirrel (mid C19th) it was the native Red that was its target.  By the time the grey was spreading like wildfire (the early years of the C20th) Pine Martens had all but disappeared and thus the pesky grey, which could have been ‘naturally’ controlled by the marten, soon spread throughout the land.

I am thrilled to have found this example, and although, as I say, it is slightly moth eaten (actually the main destructive creature for stuffed animals is the carpet mite, hence the reason glass cases were favoured for displaying taxidermy).  Once again the Angels at the Kingdom of Rust have taken my money but enhanced my collection !

It looks like I was correct way back up there at the top of the page, it is a long dis-jointed post.  Surely by the next deliberation from Welshwaller there will be something to report from the hills and vales of mid Wales.  Hopefully as January creeps solemnly away it takes with it this crazy weather.  After the monstrous cold and snow the Jet Stream moved back north and in swept mild air from the Atlantic, rain rain and more rain with flash flooding in many areas.  Maybe I wasn’t meant to be outside after all ! DRY stone walling is no fun in the wet !  Ask a little Butterfly !

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