“And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. I would not change it.”

Low clouds make moody mountains.

“Hath not old custom made this life more sweet than that of painted pomp ? Are not these woods more free from peril than the envious court ? Here we feel we not the penalty of Adam, the Season’s difference; as the icy fang and churlish chiding of the winter’s wind, which when it bites and blows upon my body, even till I shrink with cold , I smile and say ‘This is no flattery; these are counsellors that feelingly persuade me what I am’. Sweet are the uses of adversity; Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head; And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. I would not change it. (W.S. As you like it)

Oh my, should I ever have taken note,  “Beware the Ides of March” !  A hard worked equinox is now hard to recall.  I seem to have crammed four months into four weeks, but still….. I wouldn’t change it.  No indeed, a real sense of achievement has greeted the start of April.

For one thing I completed the major wall rebuild at Grafog and even though there is another week or so of fiddling with smaller repairs, before the flocks are turned to the hill, the hard work is done – forever maybe, this is the last of my major rebuilding projects.

A dry stone wall in Breconshire

‘Walio Cerrig Sych’ – the final rebuild section of the mountain wall at Grafog.

Incredibly I managed to complete this without having to don a waterproof !  For the whole month the weather has been exceptionally good, I even got some sun, to the extent the block had to come out.  For some of the time I had my ‘little helper’ – all 6ft 8ins of him – and he is invaluable, especially when it comes to lifting big heavy stones which increasingly seem unattractive to me.

Normally I am quite observant, but of specifics, for instance I continuously look at birds or ‘the distance’ or just the view and, of course, that which is right in front of my eyes, be it stones or creepy crawlies (‘critters’ as my friends ‘on the otherside’ like to call them !).  However, this last week or so I have actually started to notice the ‘light’.  I never really clocked the changing light and the way it alters the aspect of the landscape, makes it moody.  My companion of last winter, Miss Carolina, refers to it in her autobiographical account of the time she spent in this very valley, and she’s right, the light is astonishing.  Look up every now and then and it is as if the backdrop has been changed – ” thus with imagin’d wing our swift scene flies, in motion of no less celerity, than that of thought, ….” and all that,  as though Act 1, Scene 1 blends seamlessly to Scene 2, and so on – ‘mine eyes have seen……’

A mountain wall in a sunlit valley in Breconshire.

The green, the pink and the rust; it looks for all the world as if it is ‘back-lit’, but this is just how it looked at one moment in time, on one day.

I have been building and teaching, ‘knit one, pearl one’ (something my grandmother used always to say when knitting – I know not what it means !).

An invitation arrived to do a demonstration at an environment day back in Ebbw Vale, not half a mile from where I was working with the lads who built the viewing station.  It never ceases to amaze me how one can go years not going near a place then, suddenly without rhyme or reason, end up travelling to the same area several times in a few weeks.

The day was to show off what projects local environmental groups were engaged in and to enthuse folk to join in.  It was a mixed day;  the stone was pretty rough and the wall had been ‘attempted’ already, knock it down and start again was the only choice.  Right next to me was the free food stall – Thai noodles, oh boy !  But, it was a sad reminder of the plight of young and old, male and female, who have to live, exist may be a better word, in the increasingly empty valleys.

The Greening of the Valleys continues.

This picture encapsulates the day; green activites enjoyed by people suffering social and economic deprivation in an area where life expectancy is the lowest in Britain. Healthy eating is alien here.

The number of seriously overweight young people, mainly girls I have to say, was staggering.  There were some ‘big’ older folk too and certainly the young men were not totally ‘bodies beautiful’ although machoism here seemed to be reflected in muscle tone and tattoo.   In that sense the ‘healthy eating’ options being promoted at the free food stall next to me seemed a little out of place.

It is frightening to see what the common diet of a youngster in these communities consists of.  It has been brought home to me even more starkly this week.  I am engaged on a ten day course (one day a week) teaching some guys down in Cwmbran how to build dry stone walls.  They are employed on a community project – though I haven’t quite got a handle on what it is all about – and are on short term contracts, indeed I think two of them are finishing this week, though they are adamant they will continue to attend the course (flattering to me). We meet about 9.30 and drive up to the hillside walls which are probably C17th or early C18th and were the old mountain boundaries.  On the way we have to stop at the local food-store and three of them buy ready made pies and pasties, crisps and other pretty disgusting consumables.  Two of them have been telling me what they eat, the amount is staggering, the quality shocking – fruit and veg is absent.  One of them, who is a very fine young man, with some disability but an amazing sense of humour (and those of you who know me will realise just how much I enjoy that), has caused me great upset this last few days.  He is somewhat work-shy, but that maybe as he is not strong, he is painfully thin – though bright eyed – and he never brings anything to drink or eat.  I have nagged him about this and the others continually offer to share their food with him, he politely refuses.  Now it is not particularly safe to go on lifting stones when the body is depleted,  strength soon disappears and strains and damage to muscles and tendons can occur (as I know to my cost having snapped my achilles through de-hydration). He has finally, and quietly,  admitted that his family is so poor that they cannot afford to have more than one meal a day – it turns out he has no breakfast either and only a cup of tea or coffee when he gets to work.  His evening meal is often baked beans or spaghetti hoops.  I am upset as I write this;  we are living in the twenty first century, we have a free health service and state benefit system and yet here, in the centre of a bustling, apparently affluent, Newtown, packed with cars and oppulent living, I am face to face with abject poverty, a 23 year old disabled young man who cannot earn any money and whose family cannot afford to feed themselves.  I feel ashamed, of myself and of the greed and selfishness which sees wealth as confined as it was when the walls we rebuild were first erected.  In addition to his plight the others, especially those about to end their allotted time-span on the project, are doomed to a lifetime of unemployment and existing on state benefits – currently £50 per week.   I’ve been spending time planning a trip to the U.S. for this summer,  my conscience is an unwelcome bedfellow…..

As the evenings get lighter I often take a circuitous route home or go on a wander if en-route to visit somewhere on the weekend.  Often my weekend entails  working at some small job or going to look at new jobs -oh yes, and going in search of some new addition to my collection !

Whilst on such a wander recently I happened on a very interesting little ‘shrine’ – actually it was another ‘Holy Well’ – on a quiet lane I have rarely travelled.  The inscription over the ‘Lych’ gate intrigued me so I stopped and read the plaque attached to the wall of the well.

Lych gate over Cynidr's well near Glasebury-on-Wye

The lovely oak ‘Lych gate’ is just a shelter over the crystal waters of St. Cynidr’s well on a quiet lane near Glasbury.

St Cynidr is one of the early Celtic Saints and is best known from the church dedicated to him in the Middle Usk Valley village of Llangynidr.  Thus I was somewhat surprised to find this little shrine dedicated to him some miles from that village.  However, it turns out that it is precisely in the right place as Cynidr is the Patron Saint of nearby Glasbury.  The area lies in a heavily fought over part of the border between Wales and England – it is in the ‘March’ between the Wye and the Severn (a little south from the area around Kington that I mentioned in an earlier post).  After the ending of the Roman era, in the mid C5th, the lands of Archenfeld (Ergyng to the Welsh) was claimed by the Saxons and much fighting went on.  Cynidr is believed – for he is not written up in any early documents on the Celtic Saints – to have been the son of Gwynllyw (of Gelli-gaer fame), himself no doubt of Roman nobility, and brother of Cadog who is a well documented and well subscribed Patron of many churches in the county of Gwent.  Cynidr’s mother was a daughter of Brychan (the eponymous King of Brycheiniog) named Keringays and hence his presence in this area and indeed in the middle Usk valley (part of Breconshire) is not surprising.

A little insignificant pool of water but a spring of historical significance - Cynidr's well near Glasbury.

This little insignificant pool, fed by a trickle from a spring, home to tadpoles and diving beetle, yet SO important in the Early Christian life of this part of Wales. St. Cyndir’s Holy Well near Glasbury.

I like it when an insignificant wander through the countryside turns out to be one of the significant days of my year.  To be able to add to my jig-saw puzzle of knowledge, to find a piece that fits in place betwixt and between other areas that I know, to learn something new in my somewhat piecemeal understanding of the lives of the early Celtic Saints is heart-warming.  It saves me from some embarrassment too, for only tonight I am giving a talk in the village of Llangynidr to members of the History Society !

Cynidr was not the only early Saint who has invaded my space this last week or so.  At the other end of the Valleys, on a hill above the Swansea valley near Pontardawe (actually the valley of the river Tawe, hence Pont ar Dawe – bridge over the Tawe) lies a very old church indeed, sadly now defunct.  It has earned a new lease of life as a local group has bought it and have the un-envious task of restoring its fabric before even thinking of what it could be used for.

The Norman church of Llangiwg near Pontardawe.

The Norman church which stands today occupies the site of the Early Christian ‘claas’ or monastery of St. Ciwg who preached Christianity in the area around the middle of the C6th.

It is indeed a Spiritual place, with views southwards towards the Bristol Channel and the setting sun.  Ciwg came here in the period around 560AD and established a small ‘claas’ ,an early monastic settlement, and began to preach throughout the area.  The site sits astride an ancient trackway which later became part of the route from Llandaff to St. Davids, a route travelled by Pilgrims and hence the ruins which stand next to the church are thought to be the ‘Hospice’, a sort of early Youth Hostel, where pilgrims could find simple accommodation – and no doubt buy the odd ‘souvenir’ or ‘relic’ (perhaps a bone from John the Baptist etc !).  Here too is to be found a small ‘pwll’ , a spring of Holy water and is most likely the original source for Ciwg’s baptisms and ministrations.

Holy water inspires a little Jack Russell at Llangiwg in the Swansea valley.

Ciwg’s holy spring, the little Jack Russell gives it scale and he found it very very tasty ! I was dying to put my hand deep into the sediment for surely there are relics and votive offerings down there, alas, not allowed. Such an underaking can only be done with a permit and by properly qualified field archaeologists.

I was taken there by my dear friends from the Garth at Rhyd y Fro -the lady in the photograph is the niece of the gentleman I talked about in my recent post about the desert, Wing Commander Godfrey Pendrell – and she and her husband are amongst those charged with saving this beautiful and significant part of Welsh ecclesiastic history.  At one time a very fine stained glass window was bestowed by her family but, ironically, it was removed by the Church in Wales prior to the de-consecration of Llangiwg and replaced with nothing !  The beautiful stained glass window now lies in a basement storage in Cardiff…….

Much restoration work needs to be done and my part will be to first restore the Holy Well, if only to stop people slipping in.  The perimeter wall needs much attention but there is so much archaeology yet to be recorded that I will have to wait a while yet.  The entrance to the churchyard had the most original ‘kissing-gate’ I have come across.  Instead of a swinging gate set inside a horse-shoe wrought iron fence, the whole horse-shoe pivots, remarkable.

The entrance to Llangiwg churchyard has a unique swinging kissing gate.

It was worth going just to find this little gem – quite the most remarkable design I have seen thus-far

Just to make the whole visit exceptional was the discovery that here, in this quiet churchyard above the valley, lies the grave of a most remarkable man, Wing Commander Godfrey Pendrell.  It is not a War Graves Commission tablet, instead he lies with his mother and family and is understatedly mentioned on the white marble cross.

The resting place of Wing commander Godfrey Pendrell at Llangiwg church near Pontardawe.

“O I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things you have not dreamed of; wheeled and soared and swung high in the sun-lit silence. Hovering there I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air; up, up the long delirious, burning blue I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace, where never Lark nor even Eagle flew; and while, with silent lifting mind I’ve trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space, put out my hand, and touched the Face of God.”   (J.G. Magee)              The last resting place of Wing Commander Godfrey Pendrell.

As I mentioned in my last post, my clogged up diary needs urgent attention and I made a small start by completing some tasks and beginning much overdue others.  One of the long overdue jobs I have is the restoration of the cart-horse wash at Penlanole, home of the Shakespeare Link and Sue and Phil.  I had promised to get going on it by early Spring and so, last Saturday I went along to ‘have a look’, not really to do anything; my energy reserves had been well depleted on Friday in completing the Grafog wall.  However there was an urgent job requiring my attention, it is lambing time everywhere and secure fences are a must to stop the little ones getting out and losing contact with their mother.  A piece of wall had collapsed in the field in front of the elegant old mansion and as ewes and lambs were already grazing in there I had to do it immediately.  If you had read my post from this time last year you will know how heavy these stones are, not really what I wanted to do on my rest day.

Frost heave brings down a section of wall.

This is typical of what ‘gapping’ is all about. A section of wall finally succumbs to some strange force and collapses. The original collapse was about 2 metres but by the time it is stripped out and the ends taken down to a safe and strong section it is usually twice as wide.

Such work is ‘bread and butter’ to a dry stone waller.  Very few wallers get to do what I have been fortunate to do these last 20 years, rebuild long complete lengths of old mountain walls.  Gapping, as it is known, is the process of stripping out an old collapse (or, as in this case, a new collapse) and rebuilding it.  Unfortunately most collapses are thrown back up by unskilled farmers and thereby, when they ultimately re-collapse, the stones are all mixed up.  When a collapse occurs it is normally in one direction, thus the stones from the face on the side of the collapse end up face down into the soil whilst those from the other side end up with their weathered faces, often moss covered, pointing skywards.  so it is fairly easy to work out what stones go where.  The large stones that make up the ‘cope’ will generally be found at the bottom of the pile.  The first job is to clear away the collapsed stones and separate the two sides, throwing the one side back over.  This is really the hardest part of the job, for once cleared and sorted it is fairly straight forward to ‘knock it back up’.  What interests me in the stripping-out process is trying to discover what caused the collapse.  Often the guilty stone is clearly revealed, in the case of this gap it was as I suspected – the foundation stones had been disturbed due to ‘frost heave’ during the exceptional sub-zero temperatures we experienced during this winter.

Sloping stones means collapsed wall.

You can see the problem, the foundation stones have tilted as a result of the heaving of the ground during heavy freezing, the wall will eventually have no option but to collapse.

Once you realise what the problem is it is a simple task to re-set the foundations and get the wall rebuilt.  The size of the gap was about 4 metres by the time I stripped it back to a sound place.  at around 1.2 metres high that would normally be about 5 tons of stone but this mid Wales Silurian sandstone is extremely dense due to a high mineral content – lead mines not far away ! – so I reckon my three hours of rebuilding saw me move about 8 tons.  I treated myself to an ice-cream, reward and solace on such a hot sunny Saturday.

I will have to spend some time at Penlanole, not at all a problem for me; it’s close to home, it is a tranquil place and is occupied by the nicest of folk.  I may even get to see a performance of one of Will’s great ‘outdoor plays’.

Dry Stone wall repaired after winter collapse

The completed gap, about 3 hours work sees the whole structure stock-proof again, one satisfied customer and one tired waller – all in a day’s work….

In all my years of building and repairing walls I had not encountered the sort of ‘frost heave’ that is written about in old books and poems, until these last two winters.  I guess the temperatures needed to cause the ground to heave upward – the freezing of water held within it – have not occurred earlier in my career.  The poet Robert Frost refers to it in his famous ‘Mending Wall’ poem:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

This has certainly been true here in the land of Welshwaller this last winter.  As always there are little ‘perks’, sunshine, lambs and a stunning vista makes working a Saturday bearable.

Meadows and lambs in the late March sun

My ‘office’ for the arduous weekend job, the meadow at Penlanole, looking down the Wye valley, not exactly unpleasant would you say ?

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