How poor are they who have not patience ! What wound did ever heal but by degree ? (WS)

One Titus Maccius Plautus who was hanging around in 254 BC (to 184 BC) wrote that “Patience is the best remedy for every trouble”; it seems therefore that I am required to bide my time in silence…. I think it was that recently departed Beautiful person, Elizabeth Taylor, who remarked on the fact that the less time we have left the more willing we are to wait for things, well that maybe – perhaps I’m not quite old enough !!  I hate being unable to do that which I want, or have to do.  This silly silly calf injury is only two weeks old and they – the medics – did tell me it was a six week job and I am guilty of ‘trying to run before I can walk’ (if ever that was true !) so Patience, Patience, Patience…

A Toll House at St. Fagans Museum of Welsh Life.

This quaint little house fits in well with this week's 'story'... it stands in the National Museum of Wales St Fagans, the museum of Folklife in which characteristic buildings have been brought from all over Wales and rebuilt to show the historic culture and vernacular architecture of the Nation.

Taking a Toll is what my injury is doing, but the phrase is rooted in history and nowhere is it more evocative than here in Wales.  Oddly I have encountered the historic origin of the term twice since a crutch has been my companion.  The strange little house shown above is an example of ‘houses’ that began to appear in the Welsh countryside from about 1800.  It brought a smile to my grimaced face this past week as I hobbled, beggar-like, around the National Museum of Welsh folk-life (now called the National Museum of Wales, St. Fagans).  My visit to one of our most splendid museums was to meet a number of my family members – it is a useful rendevous point and as entry to the site is free it is easy to just pop in for an hour or so (though it is becoming questionable exactly how ‘free’ it is given that car-parking has risen quickly this year to £3.50 with no hourly rate!!).

The toll house is an example of the later ‘posh’ houses that the Turnpike Trusts began to erect from about 1800 at fixed gates on their turnpike roads.  Today we have the odd ‘toll’ road (in France the motorway system is mainly “peage”) but mainly our roads are free to travel (but boy-oh-boy we pay in other ways – fuel now at £1.50 a litre …).  From the first Turnpike Trust established in 1663 to their demise around the end of the 1880s (the last gate was removed in 1895) the network of ‘major’ roads, i.e. those that connected important trading centres, was established and the condition of existing highways was supposed to have been greatly improved.  Apparently little of the money collected from tolls made its way back into the system to improve travel for the ‘paying’ customer.  You might be forgiven for thinking not much has altered….  Naturally many people, not least those living locally and having need to use the roads for short trips or, as in the case of local traders, to earn a living, were not best pleased at suddenly having to pay to pass through gates which were erected along turnpike roads at almost every town or village.  Some exemptions were allowed, such as for church-going or to get a horse shod, farmers were allowed to go to market and to fetch lime as long as they got back through the gate within 12 hours – or they had to pay to re-enter. That was rescinded in the 1840s and then things really got heated !

Toll fees displayed on side of toll House (National Museum of Wales, St. Fagans)

Each Toll House had the required fees displayed on the side of the house..

There had been some violent objections to gates from the mid 1700s but by the time of the repeal of the Corn Laws agriculture was in a poor state and the increasingly high costs of passing through gates became a real contentious issue.  This culminated, in the 1840s, in riots in which gates were burned and gate-keepers assaulted.  The Trustees, always members of the local establishment, came down heavily on those apprehended and many were deported.  In Wales a very notable protest was enacted, following on from the Chartists riots in the industrial areas  The Rebecca riots – as they have become known – came to prominence in the western counties such as Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion (Cardiganshire).

The ‘daughters of Rebecca’ were the rioters and they allowed their cross-dressing fantasies to overcome their self respect when they took to going out to burn the gates dressed in their female finery.  Of course there is nothing more frightening than a bunch of crazy Welsh women on a night out – things indeed don’t change – and the vision of these ‘lady-boys’ in the light of flaming torches scared the crap out of many a gate-keeper who, in order to not appear to have fallen prostrate at the feet of a bunch of women,  over-egged the pudding in their accounts of violent intent at the scene of such laying to waste of  the gates and the houses.  The ‘fear’ of the daughters swept the land and many gates were burned, unfortunately many daughters were caught and some paid a high price on a high beam, others became the first ‘guests’ in the far off ‘Van Diemens’ land.

A carving of the turnpike gate and Rebecca rioters.

This fine wooden carving commemorates the local Daughters of Rebecca and the gate that they burned at St. clears in west Carmarthenshire.

The second encounter I had with the ‘taking of a toll’ came on a pleasant night out at a rather good ‘Curry house’ in the small west Carmarthenshire town of St. Clears.  This town lies at what was the centre of the Rebecca riots and its gate was attacked several times and burned.  A rather fine wooden carving of the Welsh C19th cross-dressing farmer types who put right before pride and went out at night to attack and burn the toll gates stands in the centre of this little town.

One of the groups of ‘tradesmen’ who were badly affected by suddenly having to pay high sums to pass through the gates that barred their cross-country passage was the Drovers.

Gate burners in St. Clears

The statue is life size, as is the gate. Another important part of Welsh social history depicted in modern Welsh craftsmanship.

The practice of taking cattle from Wales (and indeed Scotland) to the lowlands of England to fatten ready for the bigger markets there, can be traced back to the middle ages.  Raised in the lush upland pastures and river valleys of west Wales, the cattle were gathered in large herds and walked up to 200 miles to reach the English farms where they were fattened by the large estates.  By the C18th this trade was important and large, it was the main market for beef farmers in the Welsh uplands.  Not unlike the great herds that were moved across the plains of the mid west of America – so often depicted on the silver screen – but with one important difference in terms of the landscape across which they travelled, the Welsh Drovers stand alongside the Daughters of Rebecca and the Chartists in their influence on the development of life in Wales.  For one thing they are held responsible for the establishment of the early banking system, by providing secure means of transferring money from remote areas to the cities.  Later they were instrumental in the development of ‘notes of credit’, later to become ‘cheques’ and the Bank of the Black Ox in Llandovery is heralded as the first bank.

My journeys to and from the various places I get to visit in Wales invariably involves crossing one or more of the ancient Drovers routes which are still extant in the upland areas.  Some of the routes became established roadways but many remain as green roads crossing bleak moorland and remote valleys.  At night the Drovers turned the cattle into fields and found lodging at the farmhouse or inns.  The welcome was indicated by a stand of Scots pine trees which stood tall and were, of course, always green – especially visible in the Springtime when most droves took place.  Today these strange stands still occupy the skyline in those old overnight stop-overs.

Sunken lane and old Pines on an ancient Drovers route-way in Carmarthenshire

The tall pines at the end of this deeply sunken lane near Llangadog in Carmarthenshire, marks the over-night turn in for C18th and C19th Drovers.

I recently put together two short walks for a community tourism project based in the middle Tywi valley around Llandeilo.  One of the routes included a very ancient drove-way from the Swansea valley into the Tywi where the lush pastures replaced those English fattening fields and allowed the cattle to be brought to condtion and walked directly to the major English market towns.  It took 13 days to get to Smithfield from the gathering sites near Llandovery and Tregaron in Ceredigion.

The route around the lanes to the south of Llangadog, a mere five miles or so, takes in landscape features from Roman times to the modern day but the old sunken lanes, caused by thousands of hooves and centuries of rain, are by far the most evocative of those features.  What can be more pleasant than a quiet stroll down a silent country lane in the month of May when all the wild flowers and hedgerow trees are in bloom and birds sing such a cacophany of joyous music.

The brochure for a walk through time

The leaflet which guides the walker and highlights what is to be seen. So many local people have no idea what's on their doorstep !

The second walk is primarily about geology – for which the area is famous – but the stones are picked out in man-made structures such as the dry stone walls and the great Deer Park of the medieval Abermarlais Estate on the outskirts of Llangadog.  I guess I will never know how many people pick-up one of those leaflets and ‘walk the walk’, I hope many do and that at least some of them are ‘local’;  how often is it the local dwellers who know least of their environment and the history that surrounds them.

I of course, will not be walking the route for a while….. strange to think that it was the very route I used as a training run during my rugby playing days, another part of the history of the area !!  In fact, my family and friends were (and are) amused by the presence of a photograph of a rugby game between Llandovery and Llanelli – in which I feature – which appears in a book of photographs of ‘Old Llandovery and its environs’……

The several Bank Holidays we have had this last few weeks have been the ideal time to undertake those walks, the weather has continued to be unbelievable.  Rain has not made an appearance for over 12 weeks and water levels in rivers and ponds is causing problems for aquatic eco-systems.  The small streams are almost non-existent and even the major waterways such as the Wye and Usk are seriously depleted with detrimental effects on adjacent habitats as well as the fish stocks.

The Wye is severley depleted.

The rocks in the river bed are rarely seen, especially this time of year. The river Wye from the Aberedw bridge is normally bank to bank water.

We are not used to such ‘pleasant’ springtime weather and it has a bad effect on the Welsh pysche.  So much so that already folk are wearing worried frowns about the amount of rain that must eventually fall – just when it’s most inconvenient, showtime and harvest, school holidays and gardening.  Lets face it, we had better change our mentality towards where we live and the weather we get !  It’s not just us !

Low water levels at an important pond on the common of Mynydd Illtyd.

This pond is usually full to overflowing at time of year, this picture should be all water !

Fear not, the clouds are coming….. as I ventured out on my rather attractive highly polished crutches, as far as the car and then I drove, the sky was darkening and by the time I got to my destination, a small hill farm at the head of the Senni valley in the Brecon Beacons National Park, a few drops were falling.  Rounding a bend I met the man I had come to see, a good ol’ boy who farms in the shadow of the steep hills and along the banks of the Senni river.  He had already donned his green waterproofs, I leaned on the gate with him discussing the headless corpse of a month old lamb lying out in the middle of the field.  The whole head had been taken the previous night by a dog fox, taken no doubt to cubs and the vixen high on the hill above.  We ‘chewed the fat’ for best part of an hour, topics ranging far and wide from the forthcoming election result and the probable demise of Plaid Cymru – we got that right – to the cost of fuel and the problems of agriculture.  We caught up with who had died, got married, lost his license, usual stuff, bade each other ‘Hywl nawr’ and parted company.  The reason for our meeting was related to a project I am involved in for the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) and the Farming and Wildlife Group Cymru (FWAG Cymru) which I will relate to you in a later post.  By the time we parted I was actually quite wet – not having bothered to don my waterproofs – and the road was already wet.

Like a Duck to Water

Miss Puddle Duck. This little lady was happy to see some rain, her local jacuzzi was soon filled and ready for her to have a good old preen !

As I rounded another bend a little gathering stopped my progress, several immediately waddled into the field but the little lady above stayed put, until she had finished her ablutions, looked at me eschew then she too waddled away.  Whenever I see a white duck my grandfather comes to mind, he tormented me with riddles when I was young – I guess 6 or 7 years old – that were always mathematical (an excellent way to improve my mental arithmetic), the ‘Duck’ one went like this:-

A man was driving a flock of ducks down the road, a man sitting on the gate asked, as he drove them past, “how many ducks do you have, do you have 20?”;  “No” answered the herder, “but if I had as many again, half as many again, a duck, half a duck and a duck I would have 20”.

So how many did he have – algebra and/or arithmetic ? Work it out !

Answers to an ever-so patient but frustrated Welsh non waller !!


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