What IF this is As Good as it Gets !

My poor old head is already sore with too much ‘Soleil Brille’ !  I absolutely can’t get enough of sunny weather as long as I’m out in it, preferably working as then I get to soak up the serotonin and turn my skin to leather without feeling guilt or, worse still, slobbish !  I get to earn a crust and get a tan that others would die for (maybe that will be my ultimate punishment for such vanity !), lose some weight and, best of all, revel in the changing countryside.  However, it’s only the middle of April, already London has logged its hottest day on record for this month, already I know we are experiencing dramatic changes in our weather patterns.  Since 1992 I have kept simple weather diaries, well, in truth, I keep a daily log of where I worked, what I saw and what the weather was like.  When I fist started to build walls April was nearly always wet wet wet, as was February, November and December.  January was mostly dry, March cold and, if any came, it is when we had snow.  From May through to August we had hot days and wet days, especially if a major event was due, such as the Royal Welsh show and the Eisteddfod, then it generally rained to ensure the mud was the major memory we had, thereby attendance the following year was a whole new adventure – I laugh most at the ‘crach’ /posh ladies who have to don wellies or risk ruining those ‘special show clothes and shoes’ and love to walk behind girls in flip flops to see just how much mud they flick up there backsides as they plod through the mire, yep, I am a little peverse !

In some ways it feels like we are due some respite after the second hellish cold winter but….. what happened to April showers ?  I am working near a couple of major reservoirs, they are depleted and then some.  The little river I live by and the one I am having to cross to get to the wall are mere trickles and I can comfortably cross in trainers.  This has been the situation for some months, since the snow melt in fact.  It’s bad for running salmon, it’s bad for key prompts that nature relies on to kick-start the spring cycle of rejuvenation and breeding.  Thus far there has been no major rainfall to cause toads and frogs (and to a lesser extent newts) to begin their mass exodus – and road crossing which sees thousands squashed – from the damp woodlands to the breeding ponds and lakes.  There are tadpoles in several of the small pools and ponds I see, but nothing like the usual amount.  The family of birds that shares my little hovel in the hills are already hard at feeding the first young, weeks early. So far none of the’foreigners’ have returned, that’s late, where are they !  The whole pattern seems to be shifting.  Is that necessarily a problem ?  Time will tell, for now I am enjoying what’s on offer – maybe it IS as good as it will get ! Rain must and will come, I live in Wales !!

I live nearly in the middle and so venturing ‘abroad’ is something not to be undertaken lightly.  In fact I dislike driving too far on ‘rest’ days; partly because it’s bad for the planet and my bank balance (I am now paying £7.70 per gallon of fuel – is that possible) and partly, indeed mainly, because the weekend roads are a lethal concoction of shopping Doris’s and mad bad Bikers.  I need to nail my colours to the mast here – I DETEST bikers, no, I HATE bikers, a loathing that takes me close to my alter-ego as a psycho mass murderer.  My latest fantasy is an optically delusive false road that leads them over a ravine….. I’ve done the ‘wire across the road’, the farm trailer ‘accidentally’ reversed onto the road. oops, just as some 100 mile an hour mad bad bas….. bikers zoom up.  In reality there’s no need to fantasise, every weekend lessens their number significantly through their own stupidity.

I haven’t been able to decide for certain if its the fact that they can live outside the law with impunity – speed cameras are unable to log them due to a lack of a front number plate and blacked out face-visors – and travel at speeds so far in excess of National limits that they are off the scales for fixed or hand held cameras. Or maybe it’s the annoyance of having roads closed when one or other of them suffers severe death, for some reason the politzei insist on total road closure, normally for about ten hours, to ‘measure up’.  Why should the rest of us be even more inconvenienced by these morons, isn’t it enough to be frightened witless by their crazy overtaking antics and supersonic speeds.  I console myself by imagining that the endless road closure following a biker suicide is merely to allow the dogs to find all the body parts – dream on.  Wales is not alone in this anarchical invasion but it is certainly one of the worst areas.  Venturing onto our roads on a sunny weekend is not to be recommended.

Now and then I brave it, no, I risk it !  But, there has to be a good reason, and recently there was.

An old Roy Rogers enamel sign

This was even older than my childish mind could remember ! It is SO representative of the eclectic shed I visited recently.

The ongoing compilation of my Farming Heritage project sometimes necessitates a sacrifice, such as a Sunday road trip.  One of the missing artefacts from my collection of equipment, reminiscent of a mid twentieth century upland Welsh farm, relates to the ‘in-house’ dairying activities.  I have a very nice butter-churn which is an example of the most common Lister type.  There were several manufacturers on the national scale but there were also small local manufacturers.  One of these was the Williams family of Hay-on-Wye, a small town on the border with England and now famous for its annual Literary Festival (held each year in May).  I knew that the ‘Williams’ churn was different and had been, at one time, very popular in this area, but had never found one in sufficiently good condition to include in my collection.

An unusual butter churn with six sides.

A very unusual design of Butter churn; this Williams of Hay model is now undergoing restoration for inclusion in my Our Farming Heritage project. Dont ignore what's in the background, that is as rare, an early 1960s Austin Devon pick-up, my eyes matched its colour !

I found one, oddly enough, in Somerset.  It was in reasonable condition, considering it is nearly 100 years old.  The tub of course is made of oak and the frame of pitch-pine so woodworm and rot is not usually a problem.  It is normal to find some rot in the bottom of the legs as they are invariably left abandoned in an old barn or shed with an earth floor or residue of rotting hay or manure.  One of the cross-rails needs to be replaced but all in all, it’s a good’un !

Not that I knew that, but from the description the seller gave me I was happy to take a punt.  More-so was my assessment of him from what he said, and from what he had !

The price was negotiated and he allowed me a substantial reduction to assist with the cost of going to collect it, over 120 miles plus the obscenity of having to pay £11.20 to return into Wales over the French owned Severn Bridge  ( don’t get me going on that !).  I got the measurements sent through and reckoned I could fit it into my little ford van.  That being the case the cost of fetching it home would be around £40.  I set off early one Sunday morning.  Ten minutes later I had a puncture, so I returned home on the spare not willing to risk such a long journey without one.  I had to go in my rather comfortable but far more thirsty Land Rover Discovery.  That meant the cost of getting the churn escalated somewhat, about £30 more ! Still, it was a worthwhile trip.

This nicely refabricated van is on Model 'T' running gear.

This is what was in his shed, just one of several old vehicles, motor bikes and all manner of interesting motoring relics.

The gentleman from whom I was buying the churn was as eclectic a collector as am I, actually, I think he was worse !

He lived down on the Somerset levels, an area of very flat, below sea-level, fertile farming land that was reclaimed from the sea.  Probably begun by the Romans, the great drains, reens and dykes take away the water drained from the land by ancient ridge and furrow systems.  The area is a mirror of the Gwent levels on the Welsh side (of which I shall write more shortly), an area lying between the Severn Bridge and Cardiff, again well below sea-level and drained originally by our uninvited Italian visitors. “What did the Romans every do for us” – there are actually several answers !

The area near Highbridge is very fertile and a good dairying area, thus I suppose the discovery of a Welsh heritage butter churn is not altogether surprising, except that Somerset had some very good manufacturers of its own.  Of course the great diverse company of Lister – the major farm machinery producer of the late nineteenth and three quarters of the twentieth century – is not far up the road at Dursley near Gloucester.

I arrived at the village near Highbridge by about 11.30 and knew immediately I had been right to trust my instincts.  I was met by a big sign out on the road saying ‘Stu here’, how considerate and how nice to be immediately on Christian name terms.  The yard was as much an indicator of who lived within as would have been a huge noticeboard outside.  It was full of artefacts from motoring and farming.  The vehicles inside the nicely laid out garage (I guess about 60ft x 40ft / 20m x 15m or so) were rare and in beautiful condition.  You can tell a true fanatic by the displays at home, this man was a real expert.  My churn was exactly as he had described and he willingly showed me around and explained all his prides and joys.  Maybe it’s the shared enthusiasm that bridges the divides, maybe it is just something about country loving folk, but we got on finely together and after two hours or so I bade him and his kind wife farewell, with arrangements made for him to come to some shows here in Wales that I attend and me to visit his local shows and one or two larger events in the Somerset calendar which he attends.  Such is the bond of comradeship formed around a pile of old junk and rust !

National Benzole, a rare old petrol pump.

Now this is how to mark your territory, a petrol head with the antiques to match. This old National Benzole petrol pump was a common sight outside rural garages since the dawn of the motoring age. It is just one of a large number my mate from Somerset had, just dotted about....

To fund my hedonistic jaunts I have, of course,  to carry on with the ‘day’ job.  I am often accused of a kind of alchemy, the turning of a pile of stone into a wall with all its intrinsic craftsmanship and artistic flair.  However, whilst I get immense satisfaction from just that activity, my real sense of achievement is not in turning a pile of stones into a wall, no, it is turning a pile of seemingly hopeless individuals into Wallers.  That I have achieved with some astonishing success these last few weeks.  I mentioned previously my involvement in the Ancient Cwmbran and Cistercian project, in particular my assessment of historic field boundaries extant in relict woodlands scattered throughout the modern day estates.  I suggested the possibility of  some ‘Experimental Archaeology’ to determine just how these walls were constructed – the typology – and to find out just how high they were, from which can be deduced the domestic animals it was built to manage.

A Wall that pre-dates the woodland that now encloses it.

This wall, hidden in the wood, has been re-built by my band of walling beginners, not only does it look the part, it is the part, well built and typically typologically correct. In other words, it has been rebuilt according to the typology of the original mid 1600s mountain boundary wall of which this section is but a short part.

Out of this suggestion came the idea to train up some of the local volunteers who are involved in the project, so that they could carry out the reconstruction.

Well, it didn’t quite work out that way but I was given money to run a 10 day training course which is being attended by a mixture of volunteers and staff of the local housing association’s ground-works team.

None of the six had done any walling and most had no idea what a dry stone wall was.  They are of mixed ages and physical stature, educationally they are equally as diverse and their work experience has taken them nowhere near hard outdoor work.  But they have mastered the craft in three short sessions.  We used an old mountain boundary wall in a community woodland in the Mynydd Maen area of Upper Cwmbran.  Blaen bran woodland is not old, about sixty years, indeed just after the 2nd world War when the Forestry Commission began eagerly planting up the hillsides of many of the South Wales industrial valleys.  The site is an old mining area – in fact it is the coal mine in which my maternal Grandfather was the resident engineer – and may date back to the Roman presence at nearby Caerleon (the huge military town of Isca) and the early Christian settlement some 500 metres along the hillside of St. Derfel.  Certainly the Cistercian monks of Llantarnam had a grange at Llanderfel and are known to have been accessing coal by simple open cast or bell pit mining for their foundries.  The landscape is deformed by the platforms and waste piles of these activities.  The wall marks the boundary of a medieval farmstead, Blaenbran farm, the ruins of which can still be found hidden in the woodland about three hundred feet (100m) or so above us.  From documentary evidence and the typology of the wall I am fairly happy we are rebuilding a wall originally constructed in the mid 1600s, in other words,  just after the dissolution of the Monasteries and the Acts of Union which saw Wales become conjoined with England,  precipitating some peace at long last.

Dry Stone Walling in a woodland setting in old Cwmbran.

My merry band of very good trainees, and make no mistake, the stones are heavy !

The geology of the area is complex, not exactly typical of the coal measures of South Wales which is dominated by Pennant sandstone.  The walls in the old woodlands are majorly of massive quartz-conglomerate blocks weighing upwards of 2-4 tons.  We are dealing with large dense blocks of an Ordovician sandstone which has little or no discernible bedding plain.  My little band have so far rebuilt a 12 metre section which we estimate means we have moved about 36 tons of extremely heavy stones.

An Ordovician sandstone wall of large blocks rebuilt by trainee volunteers in Cwmbran.

You can see the size of the stones, partly, but you cant see how heavy they are. Believe me, they are heavy, so much so that I tend to stand back and let the youngsters exercise their muscles.

I am so pleased with their progress that next week we are moving onto another section of the same wall but which is still used as a field boundary enclosing sheep.  In other words, they will build a ‘real wall’ that needs to be functional, unlike this one which has been a practise and serves no useful purpose in the modern landscape.

That apart, projects keep coming in, suggestions for more landscape work and art in the landscape through my connections with old friends from the Smithsonian gang as well as bread’n butter walling work and training.  However, as Easter looms I am going to have some time off to get the Museum displays ready for the coming season of shows.  Holidays too are on the horizon and a possible trip Stateside, if I can navigate the minefield of U.S. visitor legislation and persuade some insurance company that Welshwaller is not too much of a risk to underwrite !

Happy Easter, remember it is supposed to be a significant Religious commemoration not some Choc Fest, oh yes, and a Royal Wedding to amuse us, his dad hasn’t got me an invite to the evening party – well not yet anyway……. oh well, maybe time restoring my Butter Churn, a chocolate egg and a visit to the newly restored Onen Duw Church at the end of my lane is as good as it gets !

Except I’ve just had an invitation to attend a world record attempt (for entry into the Guinness Book of Records) to gather a thousand Land Rovers in one place – the Gaydon Heritage Centre in Warwickshire – over the holiday weekend.   Of course the problem for me is which one do I take !  Suggestions gratefully received.


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