Be careful ! You might get what you wish for….

A full diary was getting fuller, the weather has been getting better – well, that’s a value judgement of course, we desperately need water ! – and I have been reporting to you how much I need a little break…….  Well a ‘little break’ I got, are you sitting comfortably ?  Then I’ll begin…

The valley of the upper Rhiangoll near Talgarth

A last look back at one of my favourite all time work stations, the secretive upper Rhiangoll valley in which nestles the walls of Grafog farm. It will be as a 'tourist' I next visit, in early August when someone calls to inspect my work..

I finally bade farewell to the delightful little valley of the Rhiangoll and Grafog farm.  The wall that separates the ‘in-by’ from the open hill is sound again, hopefully for the next 200 years or so.  I wonder will anyone still be farming here then, certainly it is unlikely anyone will be putting flocks to the open mountain, or at least that is what those that do so today tell me.  If the flocks disappear the hill will soon revert to scrub and within half a generation nature will grab it back and turn it once again into the wilderness that was once the Welsh and, later, the Norman hunting ‘fforest’ of the Lords of Talgarth.  The little ‘hafod’ and ‘buarth’ – the cattle corral – that I told you of earlier, will lie hidden, a ‘sleeping beauty’ of the hills, awaiting discovery again centuries on.  For now, only the walkers and the youngsters plodding past on their ‘Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme’ expeditions will see the results of the many hours of toil that have been invested in the reconstruction of those ancient mountain boundaries.  They will barely glance at the neatly piled stones, to them and most others, a wall is just a wall, is just a pile of old stones….

So, I move on, a chapter of my book completed – each chapter represents one of my ‘long walls’, those that I spent up to 7 years rebuilding as part of the 10 year farm plans that were Tir Cymen and Tir Gofal, for several months each year I would encamp at a particular wall; sometimes I needed to do 100 metres sometimes 200 metres per year, each year I tried to go to a particular farm at a different time so that I got to see the walls and the landscape in every season and weather.  Thereby of course, I got to see different birds and animals too, which is one of the main perks of my job.

A new born foal of the herd of semi-wild horses that roam the Carmarthen Black Mountain.

One of the real joys of early Spring, newborn foals on the open hill.

I am particularly fond of seeing the foals that are born to the mares running wild on the open hills of the Carmarthenshire Black Mountain.  Today there are far fewer feral horses on the Welsh mountains which is having a detrimental knock-on effect to the diversity of the mountain pastures.  Horses and cattle are a very necessary presence on the rough grazing of the ‘Mynydd‘ as their choice of grasses and method of grazing differs from that of the thousands of sheep that also roam the hills.  Whereas sheep nibble away like nail clippers, horses and cattle rip the coarse stronger grasses that sheep ignore.  It is the veritable ‘Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean’ scenario.  Of course economics play a part in the decision of farmers as to what animals they keep and the market for horses, particularly these scruffy old hill ponies, is at rock bottom.  Mostly they will go for slaughter and be rendered into pet food – we don’t follow our Gallic neighbours in our taste for ‘Steak Chaval’ !

It is a shame, horse fairs were a very important part of Welsh society and it is still within living memory that hundreds of horses would be driven to fairs in Llandovery and Llanwyrtd Wells, where temporary pens lined the main street and hundreds of buyers and sellers convened for a few days of barter and beer !  The Welsh Mountain pony was a favoured ‘work horse’, its small stature belying its strength and endurance and of course thousands were taken underground to work in awful conditions in the pits of south Wales and England.  My father told of how, as a boy, he loved to ride the pit ponies that were brought from the nearby Cwmbran Colliery (where I now find myself teaching people to build dry stone walls !) for their annual two weeks in the light as ‘Miner’s fortnight’ saw the pits closed for the first two weeks in August.

I am not ‘into’ horses, though they were very much a part of my youth as a younger sister was an avid rider and father was heavily involved in them and the ‘social’ scene that went with it.  I do however,  love to see young horses running free, charging around and gleefully ‘leaping for joy’.  I will often take a little diversion just to catch a glimpse of the new arrivals on the high pastures.  The farm that surrounds my little hilly home has a number of ‘real’ horses – thorough-bred racing types for which there is a good market.  Currently I have a mare and foal in one of the fields that adjoin the track up to my home and as I drive up the bumpy track they run alongside until they reach the hedge and then they go charging off on a lap of the large enclosure, leaping and galloping to their heart’s content.

I often wonder what is the ‘thought’ process that makes them decide to go for a gallop.  It is a source of much time wasting on my part, especially when I see my favourite of all animal games.  Wales is of course synonymous with sheep and thus, this time of year, it is full of lambs.  Within a very few days of birth lambs begin to play together.  Two things in particular seems to amuse them, and me too.  Firstly, as soon as they are able lambs love to climb onto their mothers backs, often a pair will lie on the back and sleep.  This little jape caused me problems for a while when I kept a small flock of Jacob sheep some years ago.  I had a field shelter for my donkeys in which hung a hay net.  Ewes would often lie in the field shelter out of the sun and the lambs would climb onto their backs to get at the hay in the nets.  Several times the lambs got their heads stuck in the nets and thus when mum walked away…… hanging lambs were an unfortunate common sight until I worked out what was happening.

The real joy comes when lambs begin to race.  They gang together and race off along the field, often along the bank of the hedge.  I love to see them, there is so much decision making, “shall we have a race ?” “Yeah, over there, go and get the others”, and they gather at the start, when all there, one of them clearly bleats ‘ready, steady’…..’go !’ and off they race, strong at the front weaker bringing up the back;  I feel sorry for the little ones, it is so reminiscent of the school playground, they get left behind so often, just as they get to the end of the race course the others decide to race back and off they all go again.  I often sit and watch, fascinated at the decision making and the hierarchy that quickly evolves, the instinct to flock clearly demonstrated so early on.  As I’m sitting writing this it’s actually going on outside my window !

Lambs having a planning meeting before a race...

Ok, which way shall we race then ? Over to the hedge, up the bank and back, ready steady go !

I am sure lots of people get pleasure from these Spring time visions.  Lambs and foals and the blossoms and scents that can assuage our need for an uplifting of our winter blues.  I have never tired of it, it brings a smile inside and out.

Such a ‘feel good’ factor was all over me like a rash last weekend.  I found my services again in demand, down on the shores of my favourite Welsh lake – Llangorse near Brecon.  I hadn’t been to Ty Mawr since a rather ‘difficult’ week last July so I was rather apprehensive, suffice to say I was welcomed warmly and normal service was resumed.

Ty Mawr sits on the shores of Llyn Syfyddyn, better known as Llangorse lake.  Hidden in a basin this mile and half long lake was formed by the actions of melting glaciers which deposited debris – called morraine -which appears as small hills in the middle of the valley in which the glacier flowed, in this case the middle Usk valley, about 6 miles south of Brecon.  The ‘drumlin’ (the name given to this hillock of glacial debris) blocked the natural flow of water out of the valley in which the lake now sits and thus the waters built up and eventually overflowed eastwards towards the river Wye.  That overflow stream is  called the Llynfi and it enters the Wye at Glasbury, some five miles east of the lake basin.

Llangorse has an important and pivotal place in the history of this part of Wales.  It is a place in which humans  have lived for tens of thousands of years.  Archaeological study of the area has been mainly focussed on the eastern side of the lake near the Norman village of Llangorse.  It, along with neighbouring settlements of Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn and Lanwern, are excellent examples of ‘planted’ villages, early town planning which saw the Normans lay out completely new villages into which they moved the hitherto dispersed farmsteads of the old Welsh ‘trefs’,  a form of estate which itself can be traced back to Roman forms of Villa estate management.  In the Lake is a rare (in Wales) example of a ‘Dark Age’ defended settlement.  A man made island called a Crannog, built up of various layers of hazel wattles and stones, it is more typically found in Ireland and some parts of Scotland.  I’ll talk more about the Llangorse crannog in a later post, it has been central, and therefore, in my view, an erroneous factor in how the history of the basin is perceived.

Ty Mawr is the former Manor or Great house of the six thousand acre estate that can be traced back to before the Normans arrived in about 1068.  Today it is the home of ‘Calch Ty Mawr’ which manufactures lime products for use in restoration projects of old buildings and increasingly in modern sustainable building developments.  Prior to the C20th discovery of cement, lime was the bonding agent by which the stones of buildings were ‘glued’ together.  As well as making the ‘traditional’ lime mortar – a mixture of lime putty and local aggregate, often river sand – the substance was the disinfectant of the day, was the waterproofing agent with which sandstone buildings were painted and was the internal decorating agent when mixed with some natural plant based pigment.  Lime disappeared from post war Britain and old buildings were assaulted and ‘killed’ by the use of modern Portland cements.

Spring on Llangorse lake.

Ty Mawr sits in an ancient landscape. Itself a medieval Manor house, the archaeology within the grounds is revealing much. The fields around too have much awaiting discovery.

The method of building employed in old stone structures is in fact a methodology which evolved from dry stone building techniques.

Appropriate then that dry stone walling courses are held at the home of Lime production.  appropriate too that it is undertaken in this place for not more than three miles away lie the most significant of Neolithic burial chambers, such as I mentioned near Grafog (itself a mere three miles over the hill that can be seen behind the lake), which displays the highest quality of dry stone walling to be found from the pre-historic world.

So, a two day course during which time I attempt to impart skills which are partly innate, partly learned but mostly enthusiasm.  One thing about my trainees at Ty Mawr, they really want to learn – it is an expensive two days !  This time I had only three on which to attempt to perform my magic.  Two men and one lady, one lad in his 20s who is already a competent bricklayer (laying an average of 500 bricks a day – at 50p a brick !!), a man who is at the top of his particular tree as CEO of a Medway based charity but who hailed from the other side of the lake, and a retired social worker who was determined to re-build the garden wall around her little Llanelli cottage.  An interesting and appreciative little group.

Building an Old Red Sandstone wall at Ty Mawr, Llangasty.

Now this is a little different to my usual haunts, unusual in some ways, but dry stone walling is the same wherever it is undertaken so why not have a beautiful back-drop !

We finished the piece of wall which my friends from the Princes’ Foundation had begun last July.  It stands in front of the buildings at Ty Mawr and overlooks the lake, quite a nice place to spend a sunny spring weekend don’t you think.  I always begin by giving an explanation of why walls are where they are and who is likely to have put them there.  It can sometimes be a hard job to judge how far to take the introduction – some folk just want to get building -but these three were anxious for all they could get, for two of them the course had been a Christmas present – requested I should add – for the bricklayer, he had paid his own way and had been on the two-day lime course beforehand, he had invested his own money in extending his skill base and hence his market place.  Notwithstanding that a physical activity of this intensity is tiring for the uninitiated, these three turned out to be really good at the building, they had ‘an eye’ for the right stone in the right place and the finished product is testimony to that.  It is good enough to remain, untouched, that is all that one can ask after two days.

Early morning mist over Llangorse lake.

My reward for an early Sunday morning start, mist over water is surely one of the all time emotional visions, wouldn't you say ?

Having worked all weekend and having had a full week, including back with my little group in Cwmbran, I decided to have Monday morning at home to catch up on some business and domestic issues.  For one thing I had a major risk assessment to write up for this year’s work at the quarry site.  This time there is a real hum-dinger of a job, involving safety ropes and harnesses.  I also needed to get some invoices and quotations written up and sent off, it’s all very well doing the work but getting more work and getting the money in for that which is done takes time and needs regular attention.

In the afternoon I went on a very pleasant bus trip down the Wye valley, the very route I had been travelling for the last 6 weeks or so.  It was nice to be able to see the river and the fields from the high vantage point of the bus and not to have to worry about watching the road.  The purpose of this little trip was to collect my Land Rover 90 from a cousin of the farmer at Grafog who is a time served Land Rover mechanic.  He had worked at the local Franchised dealer for many years but got laid off a couple of years ago and now operates a little repair shop of his own from the family farm.  He is a real craftsman having a great pride in his work and the affliction that we all share for the Solihull baby – Land Rovers are a disease, ALAS, acquired land-rover affliction syndrome, and we are both in the terminal stages.

So, I drove home in my nicely repaired 90 (she had been badly mauled by rust and by a slight accident during the snowy season !) feeling that, yes, this IS as good as it gets.  Half an hour later I was lying face down on a grassy bank at the back of my little homestead wondering what had hit me.  An explosion in my right calf indicated that I was about to have an enforced break from my hectic schedule.  This was confirmed the following morning at the hospital where a ruptured calf muscle and badly torn tendon was the diagnosis.  Getting what you wish for can sometimes be a  double edged sword, I’ve got some time to reflect on just that ! Welshwaller is in for a little  more sitting and thinking, methinks.

Hanging around in a boat

There has to be a good caption here surely ! Flying boat, hanging out in a boat..... I just thought this was a nice bizarre way to end this week !

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