“Any idiot can face a crisis – it’s day to day living that wears you out.” (Chekhov)

Once the novelty wears off, reality hits home, the ‘holiday is over’ – get back at it !!  Being at home is hard work, is it ever !  How a house-wife, especially if she’s a mother of young children as well, does it day in, day out, is beyond me.  Housework is anathema to me, it is so not in my make-up.  For one thing I don’t really know how to do it properly (or is that just an excuse ?).  I’m fine at simple things like getting the washing done – and I defy any woman to iron a shirt better than me – but dusting and that sucking machine thing that my sister is obsessed with…… that’s something else.  What is dust then ?  Where does it come from all the time ? No sooner have I dusted (and even, on occasions, spray some polish – don’t really like doing that, it is surely bad for something) than it’s back !  Every room has it, even the ones I don’t actually visit very often, so it’s not my doing clearly.  I went into a room last weekend – actually I slept in it as I had visitors – for the first time since………. can’t remember, the door had been shut, where did the dust come from ? It was over everything.

Another matter that seems to obsess the fairer sex is those strange silky webs that silently appear in every corner, behind every piece of furniture and on top of it, my windows seem particularly prone to attack.  Now whilst not being a fan of arachnids, I don’t much like the big spiders that share this sixteenth century cottage of mine, they are necessary.  Even though they are nothing like those that other countries have, living with big or small poisonous ones is not for me; the creature that marches across my floor every night around 11 pm is quite enough to make me lift my feet, and as for the one in the bathroom – frightening ! Once or twice I have had one walk over my face in bed, now that was ‘exciting’….

But, they are important elements in my housekeeping strategy, something I have great difficulty persuading my peripatetic ‘cleaner’ about.  You see I live in a wooded area, a damp place with a river close-by, that means I am forever in the flight path of buzzing biting minute flying things.  As it happens,  my arachnid house-mates have a liking for things that fly, that makes them my friends.  They cunningly catch them in gossamer webs of silk which they place in strategic flying places – like windows and corners where they can get double the strength.  Sometimes, like a drift net, they let them hang from the light shade or the curtain rail or the books in my several bookcases.  I like to feel I am well protected from buzzing biting flying insects, thus I am very happy to see as many silk traps around the place as possible.  Brushing them down or sucking into that noisy pipe rather defeats the object, don’t you agree?  Cobwebs are an essential part of living in the country.

A strange flying insect

You see my problem - this 'thing' (for I'm ashamed to confess I know not what it is) alighted on my land-rover the other evening, it is about 10cms / 4" in length. Pretty indeed, but I don't want it buzzing around my head whilst in bed !!

For a gallant spirit there can never be defeat”.

There would be a certain conceit in claiming a ‘gallant spirit’, but that phrase of Wallace Simpson travels with me, especially at times of adversity.  I have gotten used to this present ‘issue’ and have made the best I can of it.  House-work, yes, outside ‘tidying’, yes; preparing artefacts for showing, yes, and for selling……. well, actually, not doing so well at that.  In fact I have accumulated a little more for the museum.  A telephone call early one morning sent me on a mission to gather some interesting, valuable and historically important farming relics. (see below).  Even though walking remains a little difficult, embarrassing almost, I have been determined to be gallant and soldier -on (despite a right rollicking from the doctor when I visited for a check-up this week), not so much out of duty or diligence, more a question of sanity.

One of the outcomes of last weekend’s machinations was the readiness (at last) of one of the land-rovers for movement to the landie hospital near Talgarth.  I arranged with my ‘little helper’ to follow me down (I had decided to have a few jobs done on the Discovery as well) in order to drive me home.  The long drive down the Wye valley meant travelling along one of Wales’ major roads, always full of cars and heavy trucks.  I got my ‘oppo’ to tuck in behind me (to avoid any traffic-cop having a lengthy stay in my rear and getting to study the legality of my trailer and load !) and had warned him that it would be a slow – 40 mph – journey which would cause some irate drivers behind,  I suggested I would pull-in often to let the queue pass us.  As it turned out the road was at a snail’s pace due to roadworks,  I hardly ever got up to speed.

Following the delivery of two vehicles for repair we set off for a late breakfast at a rather good little cafe in the village of Cwmdu, near Crickhowell.  It is run by two local ladies and the food is top notch.  It is a slightly bizarre scenario, a quiet village, on a fairly quiet road with nothing but a pub and a few houses but with a well apportioned cafe, serving the best of cooked breakfasts.

Another reason for arranging this little escapade was an altogether different matter.  Cwmdu sits in what I regard as one of Wales’ most beautiful valleys – the Rhiangoll will be familiar to regular readers as the site of my recent wall repair at Grafog – with the flat fields of corn sitting betwixt the high flat-tops of the Black mountains and the rounded hills of Mynydd Llangorse and the Myarth (a glacial morraine that sits in the Usk valley and was once the hunting forest of the Lords of Tre-tower).  Whilst the village is the ancient settlement, a half mile down the road is the medieval defended Manor house of Tre-twr, a wonderful example of the architecture of the C16th with a much ealier Norman tower.  However, the purpose of my visit was from a much earlier period.

Pen y Gaer roman fort

The exciting discovery at the archaeological dig on the site of the Roman camp of Pen y Gaer.

My disinterest in the Italian invaders is well known – only this week I have been arguing that the only useful thing they gave us was crucifixion – but even I get a thrill out of seeing things uncovered (in this case,  just below the surface) which were first put in place nearly two thousand years ago.  A two week dig, organised by the’ Madame extraordinairre’ of local community action, has already uncovered many finds of pottery and metal artefacts.  The building is very interesting indeed, in particular – for me at least – the dry stone build suggests that some re-thinking of the accepted evolution of this site may now need addressing.  Whilst it is clearly a significant Roman camp with extensive Vicus buildings, the excavation has yet to reveal what exactly this particular structure was.  I am sure the understanding of the subjugation of the tribes that inhabited this area, and the nearby basin of Llangorse – of particular fascination to me – will be better understood once all the dating evidence hidden in the finds, the extent of the military camp and, perhaps most importantly, the size of the vicus -the civilian settlement outside the camp – is deciphered.

On your knees is what archaeology is about

Hands, knees and a bumps-a-daisy, it's what 'digs' are about - scraping for hours with a small trowel.

I would have wanted to ‘get down and get dirty’ with the team of diggers,  not least because they were uncovering so much, but being unable to extend my ankle/achilles means kneeling is not possible just now, perhaps next week.  It’s what ‘digs’ entail, hours and hours of little progress, scratching away at the soil and carefully uncovering every stone and piece of suspect pottery or metal-work.  I’ve done it, it is a game of patience – naturally I excel ! – and often for little reward.

This site is very different,  I could not believe how much had been recovered in the first few days; mind you, there are only so many pieces of Roman pottery or roof tile that one can get excited about…..

Assorted pottery, roofing tile andmetalwork from an archaeological dig on a Roman site.

All this needed to be washed - I could have done that, what with my prowess in house-work ! But my hands !! Do they make marigolds my size ?

Next week I have to talk about my own ideas for a similarly exciting site in ancient Cwmbran.  As a rule I’m not one for ‘holes in the ground’ type of analysis.  Sure, it’s really interesting to see the finds and to have them reveal the date of the site, although even then I sometimes wonder – if my house burnt down and was left for nature to cover it over, archaeologists in hundreds of years would find artefacts from several centuries prior to my actually being here – my Grandma’s china for instance – which would mislead them.

What excites me about what ‘digs’ reveal is how it can expand our understanding of the activities – mainly farming of course – in the settlement and the type of tools that were used.  Paleo-environmental study can reveal much about what was being grown and eaten – unfortunately such scientific examinations are expensive and are seldom carried out.

Expensive Roman pottery - this Samian ware has been recently recovered

The Royal Doulton of its day - this Samian ware reveals high status and trade, but we would not really expect anything else of such an important military site - but my, oh my, they were clumsy buggers those Romans - maybe a glass of wine too many....

Of course there is an alternate view, a simple question of reasoning, something my companion, my little helper  (who incidentally has just announced his departure for warmer climes for a few weeks,  just as I’m contemplating a return to stones, just when I need his 6 feet 8 inch frame and Herculean strength! I hope the Bahamas is wet and windy) can always be relied upon to ask, to get right at the core of the issue. “‘So what ?”, ‘so what’ indeed – I find myself debating exactly that point.  In a world, a society, where so few have so much and so many have so little, does revealing the dwellings of C4th Italians, and the locals who decided to take their money, really warrant the expense and effort ?  “I don’t know” is the simple answer.

Another matter that was in-comprehensible to ‘little ‘D’ was that once the fortnight is over, everything gets covered over again !  I tried to explain Keynes’ Theory of Employment to him, but as the notion of work,  as a necessary element in life’s long journey, is completely alien to him – there’s no future in working for a living – I failed miserably.  Nevertheless, I think we both enjoyed the visit.

One of the problems with the archaeological fraternity (in my humble opinion, of course) is their complete reluctance to come to any conclusions.  Inevitably evidence which is not datable is either ignored or, more likely, attributed to post-medieval .  Unless they see the veritable ‘hole in the hand’ these little DT’s (for non-Christian readers -Doubting Thomas !!) always, but always, put things down to after the mid 1600s.  I have a very good example of this absurdity on a new project I am getting involved in.  High on an open hill above Hay-on-Wye are a couple of small farmsteads.  They are characteristically ‘encroachments’ onto the ‘mynydd’ (the common grazing land of the community) and may be the evidence of the evolution of an old ‘hafod’ into a permanent homestead – this is often linked to the change in inheritance law that came about with the joining of Wales to England – the Acts of Union (1535-43) – whereby the Welsh law of ‘partible inheritance’, the division of lands of the father amongst the sons, was replaced by ‘primogeniture’, the eldest inherits.  This resulted in younger sons having to find new land and the mountain pasture with its summer shieling was an obvious place to build a new farm. (It also resulted in many younger sons emigrating and the movement westwards to the ‘New World’ began in earnest after this time).

This little farmstead (of which I will write much more later) is called ‘Cockalofty’ ( a strange mixture of English and Welsh which may well have been ‘Crog-y-loft’ – I need to research) and some distance beyond its boundary hedgeline lies a large linear bank.  This bank has an outer ditch and was clearly a major construction, running as it does for a great distance across the hill.  The esteemed archaeologist who visited the site has marked this bank as ‘post-medieval’.  Two things scream aloud that this is a complete non-sense. Firstly, any major work of that period would be readily found in documentary evidence, it could only have been built by the riperian landowner – the large estate that owned this land – the records of which are lodged in the National Library of Wales.  Secondly, it is classically the type of landscape relic that denotes early medieval Welsh estates, ‘Tref’, even its width (12ft) is indicative of its date and purpose (approx C6-8th AD).  The Welsh Law tracts of Hywel Dda lay down precisely how big these boundary banks should be.  It isn’t fair to be too critical of those young archaeologists who currently work in our Archaeological Trusts, for the most part they are English (and thus have not been reared in the tradition of Welsh folklore, poetry and history), they have been trained in ‘hole in the ground’ type archaeology and certainly would never have studied the early history of Wales.

Now then, back to my recent gifts.

Butter pats and bowls, baskets and pinafore.

What a lovely collection of butter making items, and don't you just love the pinafore !

I have spoken previously about the Eppynt hills which dominate the skyline beyond my little homestead.  The clearance of the 2nd World War, when over 40 farms and 200 or so people were forced to leave the land they had occupied for generations, has left a lingering legacy of pain.  One of the villages which received some of those displaced was Babel, about five miles or so into the hill outside Llandovery.  I recently did a talk there (see Feb 2011 – ‘If you can dream…’) and a lady who attended got in touch to offer me some artefacts.  She and her husband have retired to the town and her son has inherited the farm.  She was clearing items that represented her family heritage and, for some inexplicable reason, her son and his wife did not want them.  She wanted to give them to me to save for posterity and I was humbled to receive them.  Amongst the many items I was given was the butter making equipment.  I have a particular love of wooden articles, especially small hand turned tools of old farming.  Household items are not prevalent in my collection and in particular I have never acquired those small wooden articles that were required in the making of butter.  The ‘pats’, those little bat-n-ball type pieces of box wood, used to shape butter are highly sought after and fetch high prices in antique shops.  I, however, mostly like to know the provenance of items I add to my collection;  I want to know their history, who used them and where they were housed.

Stone jars and wicker baskets

Wicker and wood, simple stone jars, the common everyday items of a bygone age. The products of local artisan crafts-people, themselves now long gone.

Another aspect of these items is the history of their manufacture.  Local artisans, working in small workshops to provide the local communities with the items required to carry-out tasks such as butter making, are equally as important in the heritage of those farming communities.

I have a particular fondness for barrels.  These complicated wooden casks were an essential element in carriage and storage.  The variety of style and size is astounding and of course they often relate to ancient measures of volume, such as ‘ferkins’ and gills’ as well as ‘gallons’.

Butter churns were in every farmstead, often they have long gone, cast aside and consumed by worm and rot.  I have several, as you may recall in a recent post, and now I have another.  I was really touched to be given the churn that had served the family of this farm, first on the old farm on Eppynt and, since 1941, in the little hill farm near Babel.

An oak barrel butter churn made by Hatherways of Cheltenham.

This 11 gallon churn has earned its retirement. It will get some tlc and will be cherished and shown. I wonder, wouldn't it be nice if, just a few times more, it churned butter again...

You can imagine then that very little house-work has been executed here these last few days.  There’s nothing quite like the sound of glass-paper on wood and the sense of achievement that an hour or so of rubbing bees wax into wood can bring.

Forget the crisis, present and looming !  This day to day living is surely wearing Welshwaller to a frazzle……. and then some !

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2 Responses to ““Any idiot can face a crisis – it’s day to day living that wears you out.” (Chekhov)”

  1. Monastic Dave Says:

    Ah, the old ‘we-don’t-understand-it-so-it-must-be-post-medieval’ episode. I have quite recent experience of this. I think archaeologists have a need, or even perhaps, are pressurised into dating something they have visited, regardless of whether they understand it or not. Well actually, I do not think that, I know it. They probably do not want to be classed as incompetent, even though by doing what they do, they quite simply are.

    It is rather funny that these things end up on the Historic Environment Record. Perhaps its acronym should read CHER, Corrupt Historic Record. Very apt I think (know).

    As these features are checked and investigated, by future generations of archaeologists who will hopefully have a greater knowledge of such things; you can just imagine the scenario that will develop, expand and then eventually hold archaeologists of this generation in complete and utter disdain.

    And rightly so.

    It has to be asked though, is it really the current batch of archaeologists that are at fault here? They, by and large, do what they are taught. If they are putting into practice what is passed onto them, are they to blame?

    To a certain extant this can be taken as a given. The proof is in the pudding. It is there to be eaten but the humble pie for the future generations is cooking nicely at a very low temperature. You see, it has to be understood that in time these features that are all over Britain, let alone Wales, will be investigated properly. When they are, hopefully with the post Roman period fully integrated into their lectures, the truth will out.

    That is when it will all start to come tumbling down. There is a real chance that the current batch of incumbents will be looked back on as they do themselves on antiquarians. Record after record will be called into question. In turn, those archaeologists that created current records will then have their archaeological techniques and conclusions questioned regardless.

    They will be right to do so.

  2. Keith Hodges Says:

    I wandered up a lane near Llangammarch in the early ’60’s… as I walked into a farm yard a lady was busy churning – something I hadn’t seen before..I did it for 10 minutes for her! hard work!! she said it took her an hour or two… quite a famous place as well ..Cefn Brith the home of John Penry (1559 – 1593) Wales’s most famous Protestant martyr… I had a history lesson whilst churning..

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