“How Green was my Valley”

I feel somewhat embarrassed to talk about the incessant wind and rain that Wales has been experiencing for the last week.  Goodness, it’s as nothing compared with that which our Antipodean cousins are getting, or Sri Lanka.  I read too that a terrible drought is so affecting the Amazonian rain forest that scientists fear it will become a net expeller of CO2 rather than the ‘scrubbing board’ of the world’s pollution.  Extreme weather is everywhere.

I have mentioned previously that the very term ‘Dry Stone Wall’ refers to the technique of building which prevents the penetration of water into the  inner heart of the wall.  I can work quite contentedly in rain, head down, well wrapped, I just keep putting one stone on top of another, oblivious to anything beyond the periphery of my vision.  Wind – gwynt – however is a different matter; strong wind brings a number of problems for we who work outside.  Very very strong wind causes some serious problems for those of us who work in high, exposed areas of the hills.

It never ceases to amaze me how much more tiring it is to work in high wind.  The constant sub-conscious re-adjustment of balance through the flexing of calf and ankle is not unlike the ‘auto-pilot’ of an aircraft which senses pitch and yaw and subtly adjusts the ailerons and flaps to keep the aircraft on the straight and level.  Alas, for yours truly, a damaged aileron means that one of my stabilisers does not work as well as it needs to when the wind howls as it has done recently.  Essentially my damaged achilles and subsequent weakened calf muscle lets me down when it comes to keeping me balanced.  In less than half the time it previously took to tire me, the wind causes an early abandonment of work.  Rain and wind has always been the worst of nature’s tests but now it is she who is invariably the Victor.

So it was this past week when, for the first time in many a year, I returned to the hills of my ‘homeland’ district of Gwent to train some young employees of the local Regeneration Project.

Walling in the Wind

The 'gear' rather gives it away ! The wind was extreme up on the exposed hilltop site above the disused site of the great steelworks at Ebbw Vale and the venue of the Garden Festival of Wales back in the early nineties.

The Valleys continue to be ‘regenerated’ following the demise of the great Capital industries of coal and steel.  Each district has been relentlessly attacking dereliction in the landscape so that today there is little evidence of the previous domination.  Coal tips were removed fairly quickly following the catastrophe of Aberfan in October 1966.  The evocative winding wheels of the mines gradually disappeared through the 1970s and were finally obliterated following the bitter dispute and battles of  the Miner’s Strike of 1984.  Thatcher seemed determined to destroy coal mining (actually she was probably out to destroy Scargill and his NUM) and today – with the final closure of Tower – not one deep mine remains in the once world famous valleys of South Wales.

The dereliction of the old mine and steel-work sites as well as the land on which the tips formerly stood has been attacked by environmentally friendly activists, usually funded under some European Union programme and instigated by a  Local Authority promoted ‘scheme’.  Dry Stone Walls have been a favourite of the ‘Regeneration Planners’ for the last 20 years (and has given lucrative work to the few Dry Stone Wallers working in the area), almost every roundabout, entrance (to an industrial estate), bus stop and park has dry stone walls in a variety of styles and designs – some, it has to be said, are quite artistic.

Old Dry Stone Wall in the Gwent Valleys.

New in front of the Old. The dry stone wall has stood here since before the Industrial revolution - that means it is at least 200 years old, actually I reckon it is probably C17th.

I’ve been asked to train a small group of council workers to enable them to complete a new piece of dry stone wall which some ‘office based’ landscape planner has come up with.  The site chosen is called ‘Silent Valley’ although today it is far from it – in fact it is the local landfill tip and is constantly covered in litter blown around in the high wind and a whole cacophony of engine noise as huge earth moving machines and tippers track to and fro.

The geography of the valleys is interesting in that the tops are flat.  In fact it is a ‘peneplain’ – the former sea bed – into which has been cut the steep sided valleys (by guess what ! rain rain and more rain !).  The flat tops which extend between the valleys is a vast area of agriculture and has been for centuries.  Long before the coming of industrialisation and the discovery of coal, iron-ore and limestone, the actual valleys were nothing more than steeply wooded sides with occasional small fields in the rare flat riverside areas.  Fast streams and rivers cut ever deeper into the soft sandstone.  The geology of the area means that as the valleys cut deeper, the overlying Pennant sandstone was eroded to the depth of the underlying impervious clay rich layers and coal seams.  The heavy rainfall of the mountain tops soaked through the soft sandstone until it hit this impervious layer and there it was forced to flow sideways and out.  Where the water emerged on the valley sides, in springs, fynnon, farmsteads were built.   All along the ‘Spring Line’ can be found ancient settlement, in most cases medieval, in some cases early medieval, indeed the valleys of South Wales still hold remnants of early post-Roman estates and communities.  Place name evidence, such as Hendre and Hafod, and field systems and field names – Cae newydd, Ystrang, Erw – show the outlines of centuries old agriculture.

Walls in these upland areas are very old, and the site of the training course was in an area where ancient field systems are still visible.  The large stones of the ancient wall were probably gathered in the clearing of the land to create pasture, in some instances corn, oats or barley, were grown on the lower flat areas called ‘blaenau’ such as where I found my ‘classroom’ this time.

Building a dry stone wall in the wind and the rain isn't much fun !

This is lunch time on the second day - they have done really well all things considered. They now have to complete the straight section without me ! I'll be back to teach them how to do the rather pretentious curved section.

The design entails a ten metre straight section with large ‘standing stones’ at each end, and a curved section into which a bench will be set to allow anyone daft enough to come up here to rest a while and enjoy the sight and sounds of the…. TIP !  I despair sometimes (actually MOST of the time !) at the money that is being wasted by councils on such elaborate ‘middle-class’ effigies as this.  Why is it that those employed – at fairly high salary levels – to undertake the design and planning of such ‘landscape furniture’ (the name of such projects) have an apparent free rein to indulge their over-bearing idealistic notion of what a ‘regenerated’ valley should look like.  Who on earth is going to come up here !  My team of trainees, all local young men in their early twenties, were clearly convinced that, even if they manage to finish it before the stone was stolen, this crazy plan would be vandalised and destroyed in a matter of weeks.  I estimated that the cost of the material alone was nearly £10k !  The other thing which always amuses me is just how little those who design these things know about dry stone wall building.  For example they always insist on some absurd amount of concrete for the foundations – totally ignoring centuries of experience which dictates foundation stones should sit on the sub soil ! – and that ‘weep holes’ should be included at various heights in the wall !  Where the hell have they been, should the flood come – bearing in mind we were on the side of a mountain ! – water can easily seep through, but it isn’t going to….. When will the public and their elected representatives wake up to the utter nonsense and waste that these idiots cause ?

That apart, I really enjoyed the two days with these young men; they were keen and learned quickly.  Of course the ‘banter’ is always good when with young people but often it is base and vulgar, not so here (much to my surprise I have to say), no constant use of Anglo-Saxon expletive, no constant reference to female anatomy or conquests, no apathetic analysis of society, no, these guys were funny, interested, they had views on current affairs – some astounding clarity on the Egyptian issue – and the usual intellectual appraisal of the chances of the Welsh Rugby team.  They had the benefit of a job which they all recognised made them ‘advantaged’ amongst their peers, one had children, one was dyslexic (and had therefore done extremely well to have achieved all he had done given that state schools are often poor at detecting and assisting such issues) and one was deaf .  They were multi-skilled having undertaken training and tasks across a wide range of ‘conservation’ type projects, from hedge laying, fencing, tree planting and gate-hanging, now they were adding dry stone walling to their skills.  Their employers have ensured each have received quality accredited training in matters such as First Aid, Chain-saw operation, Brush-cutting, machine operating and several other similar skill areas.  They restored my enthusiasm for working with youngsters in the Valleys, and my faith in the future of at least some of today’s young men.

He really enjoyed !! No matter we could hardly stand, were soaked and muddied, he really enjoyed ! What's more, he was a good waller !

In normal circumstances I would have postponed or abandoned the course, especially the second day which saw serious wind speeds and rain.  The mud increased and the wind caught several off guard and blew them over.  In the end I had to call a halt and we finished about 2.30pm, it was too dangerous to go on, I could see they were tired and slips and trips increased to the point of stupidity, and I’m talking about me !!

There comes a point when discretion is the winner over valour !  I know my limits and I know their limits (better than they do probably), there is always tomorrow !



Rainy Day Waller

This week has been a week of rain,

It hasn’t stopped, it’s such a pain.

To try to work is a fruitless task;

The Landscape seen through a swimmer’s mask.


The fierce-some wind that slaps the face,

Cold water coursing down each space

To reach my feet, deep in the mire;

Too wet to work I start to tire.

So homeward bound ‘fore I go insane;

I’ll come tomorrow and try again.


It has been several months since I got to see the sea, August in fact, and just as I noted then, it is something that calls to me when the spirit requires uplifting.  A short time ago – in the middle of my enforced rest period – I managed to get down to the coast of West Wales.  My sister suggested a trip to the little sea-side town of Saundersfoot, closeby Tenby, on the southern coast of Pembrokeshire.  I was able to drive reasonably comfortably and so went to stay for a couple of days with her and her partner in their  little village near Narberth.  They have been ‘looking after’ me for too long now and my debt to them is getting beyond being able to be repaid – she’s run out of building projects for me (or at least I think she has !).

Way-back-when Saundersfoot was the place of our annual holiday. A week – sometimes two – at the beginning of August (which, as memory serves me, was ALWAYS sunny !) was spent on the sands and in the water of this little sea port.


A winter seaside

The winter sunshine blends with the curve of the bay, as good a place to walk as anywhere, uplifting indeed.

It’s a strange little sea port, the harbour was built to export coal from a nearby pit, mainly used to small fishing boats, leisure craft and promenaders.  In season it’s a must to avoid – over-run with Midlanders – but out of season it has a quaintness and compact geography just right for someone with a bad back !


The Tide is out at Saundersfoot.

An empty Harbour, tide out and boats dry stored for winter, has a certain appeal, but that would be a little too poetic for my blog !

I enjoy wandering along old harbours and strolling along the sands, especially when everything is closed-up and empty; one day I’ll spend some of my hard earned cash and get someone to analyse why that is !

The other thing about seaside haunts and harbours is the strange and varied objects that are encountered.  To a seafarer they have a utility but to me, they are just fascinating inanimate objects.

I felt well after my little sojourn to a land of good food, too much wine, the sea and fresh air. However there was another aspect of my little trip that got me thinking.  “It’s a small world” is an oft stated truism, but every now and then the reinforcement of the notion hits me between the eyes, smack !


Individual links in a long chain.

Links in a chain, I was taken with the thought of who made this and how long it took but then the analogy of my strange morning with this rusty old chain struck me.

I have several ‘friends’ (the term itself is in need of definition, for my use of the word conjures up meanings to you the reader, which is most probably different to that which I mean !) within the world of antiquities  especially those associated with our farming heritage.  Now I don’t mean that these ‘friends’ are constants in my life, indeed several of those to whom I append the term may really be just ‘acquaintances’ whose path I cross once or twice a year.  One such is D who lives near the coastline I visited.  I have known him, and his super wife, for ten years or so, we met at a vintage show and he regularly rings me for a chat.  Indeed whilst I was housebound with my leg in plaster, he and she rang regularly and even called up.  I am not good at keeping up with communications, I rarely phone anyone I’m afraid, but I do make the effort to visit if I am in the area.  The trip to my sister was to include a visit to D, partly at his insistence but also because I was overdue to honour his ‘friendship’ and he had been promising he had made something for me.  I persuaded my sis and her partner to accompany me as we made our journey through to the coast; a short deviation brought us to the grand  medieval mansion in which D and she live.  He did not know I was to be bringing others, nevertheless we were all welcomed as if we were relatives.  After a short (too short as far as I was concerned) ‘tour’ of his new ‘shed’ in which he has laid out, museum like, his enviable collection of farming tools and artefacts, we rejoined to the large ‘farmhouse’ kitchen – the empire of ‘her indoors’ ! Oh my, ‘N’ is the Welsh equivalent of my ‘Cakeness monster’, that baker of cakes with whom I shared last winter and who introduced me to cookery ‘Southern style’.  Pastry made by these two women needs to be recorded for posterity – it is ‘Love at first Bite !’ The mid-morning coffee call entailed consuming several delicate home cooked ham sandwiches (delicate that is in the hands of a waller and a blacksmith – which is D’s trade) a generous slice of apple tart – with ‘real’ custard – and one or three pieces of carrot cake and ‘bara brith’ (a Welsh ‘tea loaf’ rich in dried fruit).  Of course tea was plentiful and, as it was already 11.30am, as Sis does not consume caffeine (it’s a pseudo health thing) she took her usual mid morning beverage of a tumbler of Scotch !

Now the food is not the point of this inclusion, but as you can see it left an impression, more-so it is the conviviality of people meeting for the first time and the astonishment of discovering the connections through work place and personal friendships.  D and sis’ partner began to ask each other questions about where they worked and lived and there followed the usual discussion which goes something like:

“Who is your mother’s second cousin’s brother’s wife then ?”  “Oh you know, she worked at Johns in Whitland, friends with Bethan the Co-op whose father was the foreman at the creamery”  “Never ! well her father and my mother were cousins, her grandfather worked with me at the camp”.  “Well I never, he was my father’s uncle and married the daughter of the Nant y Ffin and then they moved to Godr’gwail, their boy was the police sergeant in Kilgetty and married the daughter of Brychan who was my mother’s nephew”

etc etc etc you get the drift !

The conversation roamed around Pembrokeshire and included farms, blacksmith shops, creameries, wood yards, shops, pubs and, of course, rugby clubs !  It amused me that it eventually ended with a discussion about which was the best Indian take-away !

Tea (and whiskey) was drunk, cake eaten, the ‘fat was chewed’ (‘chewing the fat’ is a colloquial phrase for gossip and chatter) and eventually D produced a photograph of the wedding of my sister’s partner’s uncle and aunty, a photograph he had never seen !  A small world indeed.

We spent two hours sat around that table, chatting and laughing, D and I talking ‘shop’ about artefacts and our latest aquisitions, the women talked cookery, D and H (my sister’s bloke) established bona-fides and shared opinions on local ‘characters’ (of varying degree of notoriety) and then we left.

A few days later D phoned me to ‘thank’ us for calling and saying how much he and his wife had enjoyed our company ! They were thanking us ?  That is the nature of community and friendship is it not, ‘to give and not to count the cost’.


Goose hook

And this is what he had made for me ! It looks like a Shepherd's crook but is in fact a 'Goose Hook' for catching them by the neck. A hand forged piece of history made by a friend. Thank you Dai, I will treasure it. Incidentally, it's where the saying "By hook or by crook" originates - catch it / do it with either of the tools at the farmer's disposal.


Nature calls:

A short Geology lesson this week (as, once again, I’ve rambled on a little !).  You may recall I talked about the sandstone we were using on the walling project above;  the sandstone that predominates in the South Wales coalfield is called Pennant (sometimes Blue Pennant sandstone).  It is indeed a bluish grey but also has a large amount of ferrous in it which gives it a brownish tint.  As I said, the sandstone was laid down in the deep water of the sea, in this case the south Atlantic – continental drifting of the tectonic plates has brought it north.

At one time the sea bed was above the water and the land was covered in thick forests, very much as is the Amazon basin today.  Massive earth movements eventually sent it back under the water and the sand depositing on top of the sunken forests – brought down by massive floods carrying silt from the eroding rocks of the Andes and surrounding lands  flattened the trees and the build up of weight of sand and water pressured the timbers until, after millions of years, they turned to coal.  The submerged forests became covered in sand and after a long period of earth’s stability,  the bed of the oceans were covered by a build up of the remains of sea creatures, bones and shells.  These deposits ultimately became limestone – calcium carbonate – and this overlies the Pennant sandstone in the areas near the top of the valleys (and elsewhere along the coast).  Thus South Wales is a layer cake of sand – the oldest being the Old Red Sandstone – on top of which lies the coal seams, they in turn are covered by Pennant sandstone and the limestone lies atop that.  The process happened several times over and hence the deeper into the ground the mines were dug, the harder the coal, the Anthracite from deep deep down was the hardest and best coal for steam engines.

Interestingly when I went out to Washington to build the walls for the Smithsonian Festival, the stone I was given was Old Red Sandstone – they call it ‘slate’ – and was exactly the same in size and shape to that with which I work in the Brecon Beacons.  The layer of old red that makes up the Beacons runs right across the Atlantic and reappears in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia, and that was where the stateside stone was sourced.  Amazing.

Have a look at the two photographs below, one is a picture of the sea bed (with the tide out of course) taken last week, one is the surface of a piece of Pennant sandstone.  Similar or what ?


The sea shore

Ripples and dimples in the sand.

Ripples frozen in time.

Hopefully, by the time you next hear from me, the rain will have ceased, the wind will have calmed and Welshwaller will be back in ‘them thar hills’ !


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