“What’s with the Sods ?” It’s as Devon as clotted cream.

By the end of the first week of the Smithsonian Festival I was getting mighty tired of hearing those famous words “What’s with the Sods ?“.  The question referred to one of the methods I had employed to create a ‘dry stack wall’ (aka dry stone wall) at the middle entrance to the Wales enclosure on the National Mall in June 2009.  Whereas the two main entrances, which featured the rugby posts,  had been built in a ‘normal’ horizontally coursed dry stone build, the centre entrance featured stones set vertically and interspersed with turves.

A Devonshire 'hedge bank'.

The ‘sods’ of grass in this Devonshire stone faced bank are not too dominant but still they act as the binding agent that holds the courses of vertically set stones.

The method of utilising turf sods to act as a binding agent is particular to areas where two factors dominate.  The first issue is that insufficient stones exist to build free standing double faced walls, the second issue is that they occur in areas of high rainfall.  The centre of these ‘hedge-banks’ are filled with earth and stones and only the face has dry stone construction.  If too much water is absorbed into the soil centre the whole mass becomes dangerously heavy and can, at the point of liquifaction, simply collapse.

In areas of high rainfall the water is assisted to run quickly out of the bank by the vertical lines of the joints between the stones.  In areas of exceptional heavy rain the face of the wall is usually devoid of sods and constructed of stones placed vertically and cleverly interlocked.  The occurrence of such stone faced banks (often called ‘hedge-banks’ which is a term I will explain later) is a regional matter, they are particular to the western counties of Britain.

Stone faced bank with vertical stones and no vegetation.

Such a typical sight in the exposed upland areas of the county of Devon.

This method of construction, particularly with turf in between the courses of the vertically set stones, was a total mystery to the visitors to the Mall.  They had some understanding, maybe had even seen, ‘dry stacking’ or ‘rock walling’ as they call it, but this method was alien.  I was asked the question continually throughout the day, people queued politely and patiently to ask me about the walls and what the idea of the sods was.  It became something of a ‘famous phrase’ and I was often jokingly asked in the bar, on the dance floor, at breakfast or in just walking past one or other of the crew or participants “What’s with the sods”.  I really should have just printed an explanatory sheet which I could have given to enquirers.  But actually it was quite fun explaining to those exceptionally polite and interested citizens of the U.S.

A wall incorporating two varieties of building style.

A quite stunning piece of ornate, artistic even, walling at a car park on the northern edge of Exmoor – the valley of the Lyn.

The reason this has come to the forefront of my mind this week is because of a short trip I took down to Devon and the Exmoor National Park.

Exmoor is a near neighbour of the Brecon Beacons National Park being separated by the Bristol Channel but connected by virtue of the seam of Old Red Sandstone which, as an anticline, dips under the channel and re-appears on Exmoor – as I mentioned in an earlier post, it continues through the Atlantic and re-appears in the Appallachian mountains of West Virginia.  The big difference between the two areas is down to altitude and climate.  Exmoor, although a wet place, lies on the north Devon coast and is therefore somewhat protected from the worst of the deluges which the predominant westerly winds blow in from the Atlantic.  The moors of Cornwall and Dartmoor in particular catch the main downpours.  The Brecon Beacons on the other hand is the first high ground that those winds hit when they cross the coast of Wales having surged up the Irish sea heavy with moisture.

Dry stone patch work

This ‘patch-work’ of Dry Stone Walling technique turns a rather bland and obtrusive retaining wall at a roadside car-park into a work of art – or at least I think it does !!

The soft sandstone is easily eroded by fast flowing streams and hence the many ‘coves’ on the coastline only accessible through steep sided ravines heavily wooded with Oak and Ash.  Exmoor is a diverse area with fertile farms and rough open moorland covered with heather, it has its own special animal, the Exmoor Pony, it is a unique landscape well worth exploring.

The notion of the ‘hedge-bank’ is an ancient one which has become something of a misnoma.  In medieval times any barrier between fields or open land was called a hedge, whether or not it had trees or shrubby plants growing in it.  Today we think of a hedge as a line of trees, often cut short, which lines country lanes and divides fields.  In the uplands the division of fields was often achieved by a bank of earth with stone at the face to prevent damage by browsing cattle (sheep were a late introduction to the Welsh hills).  In lower areas a higher bank again with stones on the face and a ditch on each side (from which the earth was dug to from the bank) prevented cattle and horses from straying.  Maintenance was by the grazing of the animals and an annual repair programme carried out in the winter months by the large number of farm labourers.  Once labour began to leave the countryside, either during agricultural depressions or because of the call of  industrialisation, routine maintenance ceased and damage remained.  The coming of sheep required banks to be considerably higher and hence shrubs began to be planted on the tops of existing banks.  Today we assume all hedge-banks were built to have growing plants atop them but this is not so.  In fact shrubs and trees are the cause of much dereliction of ancient banks either through the action of the roots or from animals climbing the face of the banks to reach the forage available from the trees and poaching out the face of the bank.

On Exmoor the old stone-faced banks are still extant and as good as the day they were built – generally sometime from the mid 1600s.  I encountered many on my little day trip, strangely I had been explaining them to some colleagues on a farm visit in the area around Lampeter earlier in the week.  A Cornish variation, as a result of extreme and sudden downpours,  sees the stones set in a herringbone pattern which has the effect of slowing the rate of water flow hence preventing the washing-out of the soil of the bank and the erosion of the ground immediately at the base of the bank thereby endangering the whole structure.

A well built vertical placed dry stone wall.

This wall is over 2 metres high, it is a superb example of the craft of the Devon waller, not a loose stone and no bulging or movement. Am I envious ? You bet !

My trip was to collect a new addition to my farming heritage collection.  I am particularly interested in the evolution of the plough, especially early wooden beam ploughs such as are clearly shown in medieval psallters and drawings associated with the early ‘Improvers’ such as Tusser and Hale.  Now wood does not survive well in our climate and an abandoned tool or piece of farm equipment, especially if left outdoors but also in an old stone barn where woodworm is rife, soon succumbs to rot and fades away.  Thus to find any early wooden plough is exciting, sufficiently so to send me out of Wales !

An early wooden plough from Eastern Europe.

This early form of wooden beam plough with an iron share and elementary mouldboard is now in my collection. Although originating in Bulgaria it has a primitive medieval style akin to the type found in medieval documents in Britain..

There is something about old wooden ploughs, notwithstanding I do not know exactly when this one was made (scientific dating of the wood or metal would be possible but very very expensive) but even if it is only 200 years old the style is so clearly descended from the ploughs that Iron-age farmers used and which continued on in many areas, they can be found in Africa, the middle East and the Russian Caucasus.

The condition of ‘my’ plough is just right, the wood is sound, the metal shows antiquity and wear and the fact that it has been working for a living up until three years ago gives it an added panache.

So,  I had a little trip out, I collected a piece of history and I got to see some really impressive landscape and walls.  BUT I have also done some work this last week.  Do you remember my little gang down in Ebbw Vale who I left building a wall after just two days of instruction ?  Well, I got to go back and introduce them to further techniques, in particular we needed to put the cope on the wall.

Pennant sandstone wall in the Silent Valley of Ebbw Vale.

This is what they built when I was gone !! We used mortar to set the cope stones, just to stop them ‘walking’ into somebody else’s garden.

The cope-stones are the finishing touch to a wall.  It is the part of the wall that the eye is drawn to, it is traditionally the part of the wall that is given the attention of the master craftsman.  The term ‘the Cope’ derives from the name of a medieval cloak of high fashion and flamboyance.  It refers to the processional cloak, a fine ‘finishing touch’ to a man’s flash attire.  In the ‘walling’ world the finishing touch of the cope-stone was important and reflected the wealth of the landowner as well as the skill of  the craftsman.  It has slipped into our vocabulary as a ‘coping’ skill, “I can’t cope !”  Whereas it began as a term in the world of dry stone wallers and masons – “Don’t ask him to do it (dress the stones) he can’t Cope !!”

The walling team at the Silent Valley

The ‘team’ move on to beginning the curved section of the feature. I showed them how to lay out a curved foundation and left them to it. Hopefully I’ll get to see the finished product.

They had done a remarkable job, as good as any work to be found in the valleys where regeneration of dereliction has provided lucrative work for dry stone wallers.  The site is a bleak place, always windy, and a couple of the lads are not altogether ‘over-joyed’ at being asked to build stone walls which makes the result all the more remarkable in my view.

The guy in the foreground is Paul, a man who has already done one lifetime of work in the steel-works at Llanwern near Newport.  He is re-training and has set up a little hard gardening business and is keen to learn the skills of dry stone walling.  He came on the first day as part of his entitlement to re-training provided under a Government scheme.  The other three days he has turned up voluntarily such is his desire to learn.  Training courses seem to be the flavour of the month, I have over 20 days booked for March and April – though it remains to be seen how many actually happen – but I still have to get some major building done and sort out yet more fencing down at the quarry.  I went down to do a little repair at the place where I built the Coco Chanel Stell at Llandyfan near Llandeilo.  You may recall I mentioned the problem that the severe frozen ground had caused to walls, the heaving of the ground obviously has a tendency to cause some collapsing.  Unfortunately I cannot categorically confirm it was the cause of my little repair, I had built the wall some fifteen years or so ago and I had noticed – whilst building the stell – a slight bulging in the place that ultimately collapsed.

It presents me with something of a dilemma, I don’t know how long I should reasonably expect MY building to last undamaged.  Realistically a newly built dry stone wall should stay sound for hundreds of years so if a small section comes down am I endlessly responsible ?  I felt a little guilty getting paid but then again, what’s a guy to do……….  Sometimes, on a very few occasions, I have had to go back and rebuild a section which has come down within a few months of me building it, I mean I have always understood what caused the collapse – usually a water problem which I hadn’t known about – and I always give a year guarantee so ….. but 15 years later…….

A conundrum for me.

This is the wall I just repaired, you can see the stell and the lime kilns and another of my walls; in all I have built over 300 metres in the 18 years I have been coming here – the customer is an old work colleague from before I began my walling days. He has been a good customer and we have moved some stone in that time, most of it very heavy and large limestone boulders. The next project is an arched bridge.

Nature Calls:

Sex has raised its annual menacing head again.  The countryside is alive with males chasing females, animals and birds are just going crazy.  Everywhere I go the signs are all around me from frogs and spawn to chirpy blackbirds and clecking cock pheasants.  Recently I had to venture over to Llandrindod Wells to visit my friend Les who not only restores my tractors but is also the machine operator I use when I need earth moving, which I do.  On the way I passed by the ornamental lake and took time out to walk along the shoreline and watch the antics of those most graceful of water-birds the Mute Swan.

Swans on Llandrindod Lake

The males were taking flight chasing the females all over the lake and the ladies were just teasing them to distraction.

As well as a number of amorous males and coy females there were still a number of last years cygnets – still with remnants of their ugly duckling grey plumage – quietly swimming around and dipping their long necks deep into the muddy sediments to feed.

The lake is home to quite a large ‘swannery’ and the birds remain all year.  They are joined, in the winter months, by Whooper and Bewick’s swans but the mute is the only native swan and, of course, retains its ‘Royal’ title.  All swans belong to HM.  Historically they were a favourite table bird – probably why Turkeys became so popular ! – but today they are left alone to raise their cygnets on large raised platforms.  Unfortunately they suffer, by virtue of their normal habitat, from a man-made threat, the pursuit of fish by coarse fisherman, themselves following a long tradition in the manner of Isaac Walton.  The problem comes from abandoned hooks and lead weights (which although now banned still continue to be used) which are a perennial issue where anglers chose to fish in weedy lakes and along margins where rushes and trees make the likelihood of snapping a line very high.

In the Tywi valley there is a field, near Llandeilo, where I counted over 25 swans grazing in the lush fields – I understand the farmer gets a contribution for the loss incurred – they are present every winter, unfortunately because of the difficulty in stopping on the fast road, I have been unable to get a photograph of them.  They seem so un-gamely on land but in the water and on take-off and landing they present a picture of total chaos,  frantic flapping and pedalling with their broad feet or feet outstretched in front as they water ski to a crash landing.  All of that is set-aside however by the graceful curved wings and the effortless glide across the water.

An inverted swan feeding in deep water

A youngster ‘bottoms up’ while feeding on the bottom of the lake.

I’ll end this week with a glimpse of the coastline to be found on the northern edge of Exmoor, a place I intend to revisit soon,  but I can’t imagine what the  narrow roads will be like once the ‘tourists’ arrive !

A cliff-top road gives an excellent panorama out over the Bristol channel.

Sheep being driven along a Devon lane

Even here on Exmoor sheep conspire to delay my progress…… what the heck, it’s the countryside !


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