“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment”. (Buddha)

A comment from the esteemed man seems appropriate this week, I am daily looking more and more like him !  One thing can always be relied upon in my cyclic life – if I don’t keep up daily physical work, anything I eat arrives within hours around my waistline (and adds another ‘chin’ or two).  So, my six weeks are up – where did that go ! –  and the medical opinion was my ruptured calf and torn tendon would be mended by now……. “Is your calf and tendon better now ?” Umm, not fully I’m afraid.

In truth I am hardly able to walk in a manner that would suggest I am homo-sapien, but nevertheless I have begun to build again.  I have started a small garden wall in a house in the village, thus I can do what I can and come back home when my leg swells sufficiently to persuade the lady for whom I am working that I am not shirking.  As it is close-by the cost of getting there is minimal – if I’d begun one or other of the jobs further away it would have been totally un-economical.

In this part of  Wales the local stone is a bluish / grey slate that fractures into nice laminated blocks – that is there is usually two nice flat surfaces.  Whilst it is fairly brittle and will shatter if it is dropped or hit hard with a hammer, it makes an excellent building stone if it is placed in the wall the way it was laid down in the sea.  Being a sedimentary rock it was laid down in layers, as is sand on the bed of the sea or mud in the estuary.  The compaction, over millions of years, results in layers being ‘glued’ together, but they readily come apart once exposed to rain and frost.  The houses in these parts that were built before the C20th are, for the most part, built of this rock.

The slate has been pointed badly using cement mortar

Despite the modern cement pointing - death knell to sedimentary rocks - the old slate wall shows its characteristic lithography and hue.

One of the problems of sedimentary rock is that it is porous, in other words it absorbs water.  Slate is slightly better than sandstone but worse than limestone, the other major sedimentary stone of Wales.  Thus traditionally houses built from this type of stone would have been waterproofed using a lime based plaster or thickly coated with lime-wash.  The current fashion for exposing stone-work on the face walls of houses is asking for trouble.  Once the stones absorb the rain water it tracks through the stones – drawn by electricity – into the wall and ultimately into the inner face resulting in damp inside the house.  Builders resort to curing this problem in a number of inappropriate ways; cement pointing is the main defence, in fact it is guaranteed to exacerbate the problem, or ‘painting’ the stone with a plastic water-proofer, absolutely guaranteed to fail.  Stone-work needs to ‘breathe’, moisture needs to be allowed to wick away and pass through and out of walls.  By ‘water-proofing’ the face or indeed the internal walls, moisture is trapped and will ultimately cause structural damage – not least once frosty days arrive.

The slate around these parts came from a large mine which is situated not far from my house and was the estate’s resource for building material as well as being a lucrative source for roofing slate.  Although not of the quality of the North Wales slate it was nevertheless a good roofing material and was used far and wide in this area.  At one time in the mid C19th over 400 men were employed in the mine but the coming of the railways, far from opening up business as might have been expected, seems to have been the beginning of the end as it allowed better quality materials to be cheaply brought into the area.

Old slate mine, southern Cambrian mountains, near Llanwyrtd Wells,

Nature has taken back the old mine workings though the waste tips still stand clear like some megalithic garden feature.

The area is now given over to nature to do what she will.  It is a strange feeling to wander around the old levels and climb on the tips, peer into the vast cavern – I have yet to venture very far within to see the huge chambers, hundreds of feet high where men hung on ropes to chip away at the slate walls – and listen to the water dripping eerily within.  It is a place little known to local people, hidden away as it is at the end of a steep valley where the river Cammarch wends its way out of the southern slopes of the Cambrian mountains.  It was a place I visited almost weekly when I had my little companion, Molly, my trusty devoted Cocker spaniel, but I go there less often now.

Slipping and sliding on the slate slope.

Slip sliding away - if you are not careful; it's why 'gentlemen' exist !

I did go there on the weekend, for a walk with my visitors who had called by.  My long-lost cousin and her ‘Frenchman’ came finally to see my little corner of Wales.  They have recently returned from 20 years of exile in the desert kingdom of Kuwait – she is COLD !!  It was they, you may recall, that I visited in France last summer (French poodle posts).  They are falling in love with Wales, he would be happy to live here, she, on the other hand likes the sun of the Mediterranean – so do I – and awaits the completion of their little house in the Sud France.  He has a refreshing ‘bon homie’, a rather paradoxical view of life,  forged after serving many years in the French army – often in African hot-spots – and an amazing second career clearing the detritus of war – bombs, mines and ammunition – from Indo-china war fields and those of Kuwait and Iraq after the two wars.  I’m glad they are here in Wales for a while, I like them immensely – this weekend we are forming a team to play boule at the now famous (after appearing here in a recent post) Court of Llanfallteg, where a major competition takes place.  Wine, much wine, as only a Frenchman – well, and my sister and cousin – can consume, will steady the aim….

Oh my, I do ramble off the subject…. my garden wall, ah yes.

Garden wall of Welsh slate blocks

Chelsea it is not, but Beulah it is - the shape of the stone and its rich colour make it a super garden wall material. It always looks as if it has been there hundreds of years.

The house lies on the old road out of the village – now by-passed – and is probably quite old though significantly amended by various extensions and conversions of the old out-buildings which would have housed a cow and a pig, and of course the ‘ty-bach‘ – the outside loo, which would have sat astride the little drainage ditch that runs from the fields, through the garden, and onward to the river – the common system of old sewage disposal.  The stone was already built into a sort of wall having been removed from the roadside wall when the entrance was enlarged.  Thus it has a weathered hue and moss and lichen have taken root giving the stone an aged look which creates just that impression when built as a new feature.

Slate is my favourite stone, especially for garden work, although any attempt at shaping it with a hammer usually ends in a pile of shale such is its brittle nature.

Whilst down at my little project site in Cwmbran last week my team (two of them !) of trainee wallers had an opportunity to show their skills when we happened upon some recent damage that had been done to the perimeter wall of the woodland.  It looked to me as if sheep had been clambering about on the short section of recently rebuilt wall (though I should add it has not been very well rebuilt) and in some panic judging by the amount of knock-down they had caused.  I suspect they had gotten into the wood from the adjacent field and were either being driven out or were panicking trying to escape when they leapt onto the top of the wall.

Learners come good in wall building.

A real bit of walling, sheep damage, the usual culprits.

I just left them to it and was delighted with the repairs that were done.  These two in particular could easily carry out such ‘gapping’ work in the area, a point I made to the project organiser.  It seems to me that the investment in my alchemic teaching skills ought to result in trained wallers who can then go out and earn some money – after all that is what the project is all about, local employment opportunity – otherwise what’s the point ?  Catch a fish or teach to fish scenario.

The only other stone has been the ending of the dig at the Roman camp of Pen y Gaer.  Wow, what a time they had there.  The uncovering of a very interesting building indeed with some perplexing stone-work.  I’ll be interested to see what the experts make of it.  One feature that I would love to have seen explored was the well.  The circular stone-work in well construction always amazes me, how did they do it ?  Have you ever wondered ?  It’s the same as a mine shaft, you have to start at the top, so how do you build the wall…… I will tell you in a later post !

A stone lined Roman period well

Fascinating, yes ? Unfortunately the 'diggers' weren't allowed, this time, to open it up. One day maybe !

Stone-work is as revealing as any piece of pottery or coin.  By examining the typology of the stone-work, by analysing the mixture of the lime mortar – if present – and by assessing the distance the stone has been transported, it is possible to come to some conclusions as to when it may have been built and thus who was responsible.

It interested me that no sign of mortar was evident in this building; unusual for a Roman build perhaps …

The other feature that intrigued me was the water drain that ran through the building and the small sump or drain that was attached to it.  Various theories were bandied around as to its purpose but in reality more will have to be uncovered and discovered about the site before any conclusions.

Stone work of a Roman period ?

Imagine, this has lain just 6 inches below the surface for two thousand years...

As is often the case in the life of Welshwaller, history and landscape has once agian been at the forefront of the last week.  The evening launch of the ‘Ancient Cwmbran Society’ saw me having to deliver a short description about the area we (my walling trainees and I) have been working in.  Of more interest – to me and the audience no doubt – was the revelations of the discoveries at the Cistercian abbey of Llantarnam, one of Wales’ forgotten historic sites.

The really impressive aspect of the Cwmbran project is it’s nature.  I worked for many years in what is generally referred to as ‘Community Development’, and spent many hours, days, weeks and  months, working with small community based projects.  Often the initiative comes out of some idea or possible funding stream (if you do this you can get this money…) thought up by an officer of the Local Authority.  In this instance it is a pure ‘bottom-up’ initiative.  Local people, admittedly with some ‘local actors’ to drive the idea, have girded their loins and engaged with the Local Authority (who, it must be said, have been amazingly supportive) and other support bodies, even Academia in the form of the local University and the quite famous historians therein, have been ‘enrolled’.  Thus far a video of the discoveries and the ‘finds’ has been produced, a very fine historical account of the area and no end of  educational resources as well as some art work (a wooden statue of the Saint Derfel).

Already radio and television producers are looking at the project, imagine….. and it’s where I grew up !

Regular readers will know of the sad affliction I have for matters old, especially wooden, farm related, or indeed anything !  At a recent sojourn to the country’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), Gower, I happened upon a little heritage centre and as it was raining and my caffeine levels were low….. I stopped by.

A Butter churn.

Butter churn - one of my favourite old artefacts.

The centre has a number of well restored and interesting old machines – such as the water-wheel which drives the over-head shafting.  I am currently recording the different styles of butter-churn and the associated equipment which every farm at one time had.  I am trying to understand why different types of churns evolved and what the benefits (if there were any) of each particular type was.  This little place has two beauties.

This little ‘museum’ is an absolute gem in an area which, despite its stunning landscape and coastal resources, often lacks any real cultural tourism elements.  I was taken with a number of the exhibits and make no apologies for showing you some of them !

An old cart for delivering milk around the town

A lovely little glimpse of the past - this small cart and churn was used for delivering milk around the town.

An old Fire Cart used to take water to the fire

An old Fire water bowser used to take the fight to the fire near its source, a lovely relic indeed.

Old water-wheel for driving over-head shafting.

The old water wheel is a real centre-piece of the exhibits.

I guess I do ‘dwell on the past’ a little too much for my own good – in one respect.  I’m not one for looking back at things done or undone, for instance I almost never get the ‘photo-album’ out.  Neither do I wistfully long for something idealistic in the far off, well not much anyway – and certainly not too far ahead – but one has to do a certain amount of planning.

“Who am I, where am I going and when I get there will the pub still be open”, is sometimes in the frontal lobe, but once the pub is found…  No, dwelling on the past, good or bad, is pretty futile; dreaming of the future will always be somewhere close to the surface, but without doubt ‘concentrating the mind on the present moment’ is an absolute must.  Idling time away in feckless cause or day-dreaming of better times won’t make the likelihood of success increase.  Whenever I wander away from that rule I get clobbered, as has happened this past week !  Welshwaller is focussed on the present;  work is backed-up, grass is growing, diary dates are looming and so are bills !  So,  I haven’t time to sit around with my belly on my knees like little Buddha,  I need to get going ! It’s June already…

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