“If you can dream – and not make dreams your master; If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;” (Kipling)

There’s no doubt that the lengthening days have an uplifting effect on the spirit.  I don’t think I suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder);  like the solar panel which heats the water in my sister’s house, I can absorb sufficient serotonin even in the gloom of a February day  to keep me reasonably ‘warm’ and contented.  Mind you, the real pleasure comes at the end of the day when ‘home the weary waller plods’.

Incy wincy spider climbing up the spout.

'Incy wincy spiders climbing up the spout; down came the rain and washed them all out ! This 'Tea Tree' stands outside my sister's solar heated house, it has become well-known by now, its quirky nature means it is noticed and is as good a means of describing to visitors which house she lives in as would be a large egg cup hanging off the lamp post - it is consistent with the 'thinking' and day-'dreaming' that is the hall mark of my family.

Out on the hill’ thinking’ inevitably leads to ‘dreaming’, especially if it’s a ‘head-down’ day; with my hood up and face covered against the cold and rain, it is  comforting to drift away to some halcyon plain.

Normally the thoughts that occupy my mind relate to day-to-day issues of surviving in these difficult economic times.  Fortunately I am a ‘dreamer’ and therefore I rarely get too distracted with reality,  probably those that know me well would say I have a somewhat carefree attitude towards my responsibilities !

The coming of longer days and slightly warmer weather – notwithstanding yesterday the Radnor Hills were covered in snow ! – sets my mind to contemplating what the year ahead holds, in other words, where am I going to go for breaks and holidays ! Am I that different ?

I live on the southern edge of the Cambrian mountains, the central mountain block of Wales, at an altitude of around 1200ft, consequently Spring battles its way up here against some strong adversaries.  Already in the southern coastal belt and certainly over in England, the blooms of the daffodil, the crocus and other early species are already colouring the countryside.  Elsewhere that marvellous harbinger of the passing of winter, the Snowdrop, has itself already expired, not so here;  I watch longingly for the first signs of my bunches to appear.  Sometimes they are cunningly growing unnoticed beneath the snow.  Not this year, the temperatures were so severe that the bulbs were obviously not inspired to stir.  Even when the snow eventually slipped away there was no sign of the lush green shoots, most years they appear by the middle of January and the drooping white heads burst open soon after.  This past week, at long last,  I was able to mark in my diary the blooming of the first bunches.

Galanthus nivalus, the common Snowdrop

This first little bunch of Galanthus nivalus, the common Snowdrop, appears every year in the shade of a hedge-bank at the rear of my little farmstead.

I am sure that it is the sight of these pretty blooms, the increased twittering of the blue tits and sparrows, the inexorable rise of the daffodil shoots and lengthening days that increases my dreaming.  The trick of course is to not let dreams become my master !

Snowdrops paint the banks.

This is how Snowdrops are best viewed, an invasion of white helmets in clusters. It is not thought to be a native of Britain and had been known by several medieval names - pierce-neige (the Norman name) meaning of course snow piercer, as indeed it is, Candlemas Bells, Fair-Maids-of-February, White Gallant, Dingle Bell, even Death's flower. Snowdrop probably comes from the nordic 'snodroppe' or the German 'schneeglockchen'. A symbol of purity, the flowers were collected to adorn the churches prior to the ceremonies relating to the Feast of Purification on Candlemas day, 2nd Feb. Strangely it was also considered unlucky to pick Snowdrops and bring them into the house as a death was thought inevitable, hence the 'death flower' name. Glanthus nivalis was first mention by Thomas Johnson in his revised version of Gerard's herbal in 1633 then it was called Early-Flowering Bulbous Violet.

So I am building my wall whilst thinking about all sorts of strange things, and all sorts of ‘maybe’s’ and ‘what ifs’.  However, invariably by the time I am driving home day-dreams and meaningful thoughts are edged toward supper and the evening solace.

The thing that most catches my imagination and sets me musing about times to come is a bright misty morning.  I live close to the valley bottom and hence fog and mist is a frequent breakfast backdrop this time of year.  I know full well that once I climb out of the valley up onto the high plateau of the Eppynt I will come out into bright ‘sunlit uplands’ – it is truly a metaphor of life at this dawn of the new year.  So it has been several mornings lately, it is a sight that never ceases to inspire and stimulate thoughts and, yes of course, dreams.  I have begun to formulate a cunning plan….. I so enjoyed the last two summer trips that I want more.  For the majority of my twenty or so years of dry stone walling I did not have any long summer breaks, good weather was always too precious to waste enjoying myself ! No, instead I spent every summer dreaming of a time I could get far enough ahead (and hence sufficiently well placed in terms of how many decimal points my bank balance showed) to allow me to disappear for the winter, for a whole three months….. dream on !  So, now that I’ve re-discovered the pleasure to be had from hedonistic sun-blessed activities, I think I would like some more.  So I’m thinking I might go somewhere wet and windy – the Scottish Isles !!  We’ll see…

Foggy bottom

My very own 'Foggy Bottom' (I loved to hear the 'metro-man announce it !) as cold air on top traps the warmer moist air of the valley, it is like flying, looking down at those mere mortals busy ant-like below.

For the past couple of weeks I have been plotting my schedules for the year.  As always there are key dates, shows and galas, fairs and events, meetings and talks, oh yes, and walls to be built.

I returned briefly to Penlanole, home of Shakespeare Link and Phil and Sue.  They took themselves off to sunnier climes – flooded and burning Australia – and paid a heavy price for their ever-so-heavy carbon footprint, a burst pipe flooded the house.  Whilst the snow covered the lanes around them one poor driver crashed into the roadside wall and so a quick half day repair was required.  It is one of the best examples of ‘Newton’s Cradle’ that you will encounter; a car crashing into a wall at 35 mph dissipates its energy through the stones causing the other side to burst out and fly some distance from the wall, whilst the side it hit is hardly damaged.  Try it, it’s true, and much more fun than shiny chrome balls hanging on string in a cradle…..  Every year I get to repair similar damage, a large number of walls will be discovered in years to come with clear archaeological evidence of the date of their last rebuild – bright orange indicator lenses and plastic trim of various motor cars of the late C20th and early C21st – fortunately they are mostly ‘beamers’ !!  Couldn’t happen to nicer people…..

I have to return to rebuild a wall around the old cart horse wash which I took down back in November to allow the ditches to be cleared and the pond to be dredged.  I have already a full looking diary as far as wall building is concerned.  Talks and exhibitions relating to my ‘Our Farming Heritage’ project are also coming in thick and fast.  This last week I have given several evening talks to various small groups.

The history of the Eppynt, that block of high ground that separates the Brecon Beacons from the Cambrian mountains with Brecon to the south east corner, Builth Wells to the north-east corner, Llandovery to the west,  Sennybridge and Trecastle to the south, is a significant part of Welsh tragedy.

Peopled by early Celtic tribes it remained a wild and hostile place during the four hundred or so years of Roman occupation, whilst Roman camps and military roads encircled it none were established within its bounds.  Early post-Roman Christian settlements were established in the steep sided hidden valleys, such as Llanfihangel-nant-bran where I was working before Christmas.  Remote and barren the area was  home to dozens of small communities and farms.  For centuries life continued, mainly on a subsistence basis, and only in the later post-medieval centuries did small markets develop, especially once the Industrial revolution brought development to the tops of the South Wales valleys, some 20 miles distant.

In late 1939 the farms and communities of the Eppynt received notice that they would be moved.  The War Department had identified the area as a suitable military training ground.  By June of 1940 everyone had gone, over 200 people, 40 or so farms and many chapels, pubs, fields and trackways were abandoned.  The clearance of Eppynt stands alongside the flooding of Welsh valleys to provide reservoirs for English cities in its hurt, and only the circumstances of the 2nd World War gives it any hint of credible justification.

Around the edges of the range there continues to exist small settlements, hamlets if you like, of dispersed farmsteads and isolated homes and it was to one of these that I journeyed on a blustery night this past week.  I attended an old village school, now a village hall, in the hamlet of Babel, a small valley reaching into the southern slopes of the Eppynt range where a few dozen local families had come to see and hear about my collection of historic farming tools and practices.  One of the aspects of my talks that I encourage is for people to bring along artefacts of their own, either that they want identifying or that they think might be of interest, my my, Babel did not disappoint.

Sieve made of a skin

Without doubt one of the rarest items ever to be brought to one of my talks. This milk strainer - for use in butter and cheese making - is covered with the cured skin membrane of a lamb. The gentleman holding it is as Welsh as Glyndwr and struggled to translate into English the names and description of items he had brought. He knew this sieve was his great grandmother's and remembered his grandmother and mother using it. We worked out it was therefore back in the middle of the 1800s that this lamb was born. He was such a font of knowledge, particularly of the Welsh names of the tools I had, he had spent all of his life in that small valley never venturing far and having no need for the English language or the ways of modern society. You wonder why I say I have a privileged life !!

My host was a friend of the family (her daughter and one of mine schooled and partied together) and she had married a farmer from that valley, sadly no longer with us, and although of English stock – Seis – she was well integrated into the community – 30 odd years is not quite long enough to be regarded as ‘local’ ! – and is the ‘secretary’ of the hall committee – every community must have at least half a dozen committees after all.  A long evening of discussion and reminiscing about ‘yr hen gwlad’ , the old ways, saw me learning more than I imparted and the items that had been brought along by those attending were some of the most evocative I have seen.

This is probably as old, it is a simple hazel and ash 'crach' for holding cattle to an upright post in the byre. The loop was placed around the post and the cow's neck allowing the animal to raise and lower its head whilst keeping it tethered in the stall. I have only seen these in St. Fagans National Museum, it was so rare and such a thrill. Most cattle tethers were of a chain and metal clasp and I have several of those, this wooden one is a real gem.

The early milk sieve was only matched by a simple but priceless artefact made of wood.  A semi-circle of hazel attached by a slot to an ash plate created a devise by which cattle could be tethered to an upright post in a stall whilst still allowing them to raise and lower their heads as the frame slid up and down the post.  Cattle were housed in stalls from October to April in the harsh climate of the Welsh hills, that would seem cruel today and was not very pleasant, the animals were kept in semi-darkness and allowed out for water and some exercise.  Of course all the feedstuff had to be carried to them and the manure forked out daily, a labourious task of which I will talk more in a later post.

I particularly like ‘rust’, my ‘lust for rust’ is renowned, and I especially like it when folk bring along some old rusty tool which is a total mystery to them, other than it had been lying around the farm or home and they “always wondered what it was” !  Several such items appeared that evening from old draining swan-necked scoops to an auger for boring into a hay rick to allow the heat to disperse.  Two items I did not know and it took my Welsh farmer to explain them to us all.  One was a bark paddle, a tool I have in my collection but different in shape and size, and the other was a small pocket-knife type tool that was used to mark trees for felling.

Beech plane

These rather rare beech planes were used to taper the ends of sticks to make them into tool handles and pegs for building and furniture making.

Two very unusual planes were brought along by a local couple who had recently moved to the area.  The beech wood planes were used for turning the tapering ends of tool handles and pegs for timber roofs and furniture.  I had a very enlightening evening with these folk and hope to go to visit the gentleman who brought in the sieve – he has, so I’m told, a treasure trove of other similarly rare artefacts from Welsh farming history.

Our Farming Heritage on show

There wasn't much of my display that this gentleman didn't know, he too had spent his life farming on the slopes of Eppynt.

It is an enjoyable way to share my enthusiasm for our agricultural heritage but it is tiring !  By the time I had packed and loaded all the items it was going on for 11 pm and a long drive home left me well sleepy.

Almost as thrilling as the items brought in was a major achievement of my own.  I finally managed to get my lap-top to be friends with my digital projector and succeeded in accompanying my talk with a slide show – not a true power-point presentation but for someone as IT illiterate as I am….. a good outcome, but can I repeat it !!??

So, my long hard winter and physical problems – although not totally repaired – are slipping into the distant past, and whilst we still have some stormy weather to endure I feel excited about the year ahead.  There is every possibility that my web site will finally get launched ( in a month or so I reckon) and that will hopefully stimulate more interest in the mobile museum project and the ‘Landscape Walks’ short break programme that I am launching with my friends at Ty Gwyn farm in Llandrindod (www.info@tygwyn.co.uk).  I have several archaeological projects to get involved in and have already been on a planning walk with the secretary of the Llangynidr history society, an extremely knowledgeable and active group looking at the history of their area of the middle Usk valley.  Tomorrow I am off to my old home town of Cwmbran where the Ancient Cwmbran and Cistercians project are holding a training day to turn several dozen of us into Local Community Ambassadors !!  Well I figured it was time I learned how to be nice to people who come to listen to what I have to say and share…….. (comments gratefully received).

No Nature Calls this week, the Snowdrop story should suffice methinks, but be sure to come back for more from the hills and vales that are the home of Welshwaller – and my goodness, an anniversary looms !!  It is nigh on a whole year that I have been blagging my blogau over the world, I wonder if the very first person to read me is still out there, reading……. Dreaming again, or was I just thinking……..

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One Response to ““If you can dream – and not make dreams your master; If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;” (Kipling)”

  1. Emery Says:

    Larry King once declared, “I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.” That is precisely how I feel. I am grateful to have learned something new today.

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