“The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.” (C.S. Lewis)

I’m not so sure anymore, Mr. Lewis.  The ‘age of the quickening’, which may well be a crazy notion of a dear friend of mine (even when she’s sober !), certainly seems to have arrived.  I noted with interest that the Japan earthquake bumped old mother earth off course a bit and we are apparently losing .000166 of a second each day… we ARE going faster then!  For me the days race by and I never am able to do what I plan.  Therefore, stop planning, tomorrow comes at such a rate that no plan will ever come to fruition.  Small, gradual advances in a long term strategy (different to a ‘plan’, you understand) is my new method of dealing with the 60 minute hour.

A varied week has left me quite uplifted; a job completed – no leg damage ! A successful family get-together – never something to take lightly ! A little history and a little – ever so little – nature.  A little rain too, but then, ‘into every life a little rain must fall…’.  I was somewhat startled, given that we are into the middle of ‘flaming June’, to have to dive for cover as a deluge of hail-stones assaulted me whilst mowing the grass;  my anguish not aided by a note from Miss Carolina telling me they are suffering a ‘heat index’ (don’t you just love their mutant form of English !?) over 100 degrees (F not C in case you think America has boiled up…).  Suggestions of such a summer here seem slightly awry, notwithstanding several ‘bush’ fires throughout the land and drought being declared over 5 English eastern counties – June 10th saw snow on top of Snowdon!

Slate and steps - a nice garden material

Slate makes good steps and a natural rockery effect - I managed to do it without ending up in the pond, no mean feat on my dodgy pins, I can tell you.

The first achievement was the completion of the small garden restoration I reported on in the last post.  I managed to barrow the slate along the pathway – about 30 metres – and build the wall and some steps without damaging my injury any further.  In fact the exercise was good for me although I did pay for it in the evening for a while.

It was a lovely little quiet corner of a substantial garden on the edge of my village and the new(ish) owners have taken on the job of restoring it to its former glory – at one time in the past it was one of the ‘Open Gardens’ of the National Garden Scheme.

As is often the case with garden work, it has a tendency to ‘grow’… Once the customer sees what magic can be achieved by bringing a craftsman in – whatever the job, be it wood or plantings or, as in this case, hard landscaping with stone, they quickly start to ask “could you do this for us” and “we have been thinking about… can you give us a price” etc. etc.  Now normally that is a real problem for me, I usually have work backed-up and have already promised the ‘next’ in line that I will be there by … (whenever I worked out I would finish this job).  However, I had completed the original wall and steps much more quickly than I had anticipated, even allowing for my absent ‘helper’ (disappointed to see no hurricanes have hit the Bahamas…) and in-part because the owners took pity on me and my crippled state, and stacked the 500 or so bricks that I had taken down from the original wall and which needed moving.  Thus I was able to do another job for them and (don’t try this on one of your tradesmen !) I gave them a reduction on the price quoted as I had done it in a shorter time.  That of course may seem daft – especially given I have had no income for six weeks – but, and this has always been the case, they immediately asked me to do more work when I have a space.

Slate garden walls

The wall replaced an old brick wall - the bricks have been nicely stacked by the customer in the back-ground. Thank you ma'am !

I have always believed in doing a good job for a fair price.  I am often criticised by walling colleagues and friends for being too cheap but I take the view that what I charge equates to what I need to earn, not what the customer may or may not be able or willing to pay.  Inevitably I get asked back if they had a certain budget and my first job left ‘some in the pot’.  I have grown increasingly worried about the future of my craft by the excessive prices being paid for dry stone walling work.  One of the major problems has been the utterly crazy price that Local Authorities have been willing to pay (based on some national guideline, itself based on London rates) which for the most part is four times that which the grants to farmers – the basis of my work – here in Wales is fixed at.  A few years ago I was asked by a regular customer of mine, the Land-agents for the nearby military ranges, to tender for a job which they wanted doing urgently (as usual, the end of the financial year threw up some spare cash which needed to be spent pronto).  I was not really in a position to do it but I decided to put in a higher than usual price which would either result in me not getting it or, if successful, it would be well worth my while.  I felt slightly embarrassed by my tender of just over £8k, however the two other tenders (both wallers I know well from the valleys area) made me both laugh and despair.  The next highest to me was £56k and the highest was £85k.  Take a breath…

Now I mention this not to say what a jolly fine upstanding chap I am (breathe out!) but merely to emphasise what I think is causing the decline in available work for young wallers.  Dry stone walling is, at best, skilled manual labour.  It is something which every land labourer of the last centuries could probably do to a degree.  Just like laying a hedge or digging and grading a ditch, it was bread and butter country work.  Similarly such a man could probably make a willow or hazel hurdle, fashion an ash gate, fell and saw a great oak tree – when he wasn’t harnessing and working the draught horse or scything the harvest.  It was all common low-life work, manual,  skilled but accepted and expected.

Today such craftsmanship has become somehow elevated to an almost obscene level.  People look on in wonderment and nostalgic admiration – I have often had people stop and watch in amusement when working out on some hillside, and I must feature in hundreds of family holiday photo albums.  A quaint oddity perhaps…. I did once have a fellow in a gleaming Mercedes stop to ask me the way as I did a wall alongside a quiet lane.  He addressed me with the term “My man..”, needless to say the directions he received were to somewhere other than his destination…

We are guilty of intellectualising such manual crafts, of elevating those that can create the product to heights once reserved for those who educated or saved lives.  All I do is put one stone on top of  another, that’s really all it is, albeit there is a skill to it.  I am not saving lives and I am not performing some task for which I have studied long and hard and been examined to the highest standards (notwithstanding I have had to take tests of my craftsmanship).  That is not in anyway to demean either myself or other crafts men and women, it is merely to state where I see my craft in terms of the remuneration it deserves.  To my mind I earn a good standard of living for what I do and my monetary reward is greatly enhanced by the working conditions in which I operate.  I have clean air, no long traffic clogged journeys,  I see wonderful places and daily commune with nature – how much is that worth ?

If there is to be a future for the ‘forgotten crafts’, if work for country craftsmen and women is to be available into the future – and we certainly need to keep it,  for jobs in the countryside are few and far between and the rural areas suffer from out-migration of its young folk – such work needs to be categorised and priced for what it is not for some elevated creation of the urban romantic mind.

Stone of course is what this blog is supposed to be about and this past week has seen me encountering a lot of it.

Blaen Bran, the remains of the old farmhouse.

The well preserved pine-end of the Blaen Bran farmhouse in Upper Cwmbran. Although it looks like a dry-stone wall actually lime-mortar was originally used.

Regular readers will know I have been involved in a training programme in my old home town of Cwmbran.  The woodland in which we have been restoring the boundary wall has a very interesting and ancient history.  Whilst it is generally known as Blaen-bran, meaning the head of the Bran (stream or valley is unclear), it has an older nomenclature relating to the religious occupation of the area.  The Cistercian abbey of Llantarnam had a grange up here and the names of the woodland – Coed Esgob and Coed Gwaun Offeiried – suggest a link to a Bishop and the Priests respectively.  It may be however,  that those names pre-date the coming of the Norman White Monks and relate instead to the early Christian occupation of nearby Llanderfel.  We need to investigate the area fully to better understand the evolution.  What is certain is that Blaen-bran farmhouse was occupied in the early C17th and continued as a farm  into the early C20th.  I have suggested it may have been a ‘hafod’ – a summer shelter for those attending to cattle brought from the home-farm, the ‘hendre’, to pasture on the mynydd for the months of May to late September.  That is not certain and the known dates in which the house was occupied may indicate it was a much earlier homestead than was first thought.  All that is left today is the pine-end of the house which typically is built into the mountainside.  This ‘end-on’ building technique is commonly seen in the upland areas and is often referred to as a ‘long-house’ with the cattle being housed at the lower end of the building and the family nearer the bank.  The stone-work is exemplary and even today it ‘stands looking at’ (a phrase used here in the Breconshire hills where I live).  Next to the remains of the house is another dry stone wall but clearly of a much later date, although it too shows some excellent building technique.

Dry stone retaining wall of C18th

This retaining wall supports the roadway above and was built in the late C18th.

The wall retains the roadway which runs along above it and the old house, and relates to early industrial activity in the area.  My friend and fellow landscape archaeologist, Dave, took these pictures when he dragged me, hobbling, through the wood to view it last week.  It is a whole historic landscape just waiting to be plotted, interpreted and revealed to the hungry consumers of local history that have been awoken in the town.

There is, of course, much industrial economic history to be plotted too but also, as I mentioned previously, some extremely curious aged trees which seem to pre-date the afforestation of the area by several hundred years.  Beech in particular are present in large numbers and some of them show interesting ‘deformity’ suggesting man’s influence over many centuries.

Beech tree very old and very interesting

An old layered hedgeline from which the beech has sent forth new shoots - clearly now extremely old and very very interesting, if only because common teaching has it that beech does not like being coppiced or laid.

The whole landscape is virgin territory and I am fighting the urge to get too involved in an area which fascinated me as a child and is still doing so today.  It is not my town any-more and others must get on with the task of discovering the history locked-up in this classical palimpsest.  There is no doubt that the area has been occupied and farmed for thousands of years, finds of stone axes confirm that, and one only has to look out over the adjoining countryside, all the way to the Bristol Channel and Somerset beyond, to appreciate what a significant hill it is.

Mynydd Maen - view out over the channel to somerset

The Bristol Channel and the hills of Somerset on the horizon, with the town of Cwmbran below, how important has this hill, this Mynydd Maen, been for millenia ?

Ancient landscapes and ancient stones were not confined to Cwmbran this past week.  For reasons that I will elucidate later, I found myself at one of Wales’ most evocative monuments, a true icon of our history, a true icon of British ancient stone structures, a dolmen, a burial chamber of the Neolithic period.

The great Dolmen of Pentre Ifan.

Pentre Ifan is not that big, but it IS impressive.

In a remote corner of Pembrokeshire, high above the little port of Newport and characteristically just below the ridge-line of the Presceli mountains, Pentre Ifan is Wales’ answer to the great stone chambers of England.  It is a special place, an indication of the scientific abilities in mathematics and physics which those ancient people possessed, an ability that allowed them to construct a massive chambered tomb using capstones which weighed over ten tons.

Now that little visit came about as a result of the continued interest my visitors of last week – my cousin and her ‘hombre’ J.C. – are showing in the ancient places of Wales.  This past weekend we visited my sister’s village of Llanfallteg to take part in the Grand Opening Boule competition at the new ‘piste’ (court to you and me) the construction of which I reported in a recent post.  An open invitation to the people of the area to arrive bearing vittles and boule sets was posted in strategic places around the village.  Uncertain of the response we took our place alongside the court in the village playing field, together with good food and good wine.  By the start of the competition over ten teams of two had enrolled and by the time the sun went down over 50 good folk, including younger members, had enjoyed a great evening of ‘bon-hommie’.  Naturally, having a real live (and mainly sober!) Frenchman to make a welcome opening speech and act as referee during the many hotly disputed games (didn’t I warn of that ?) added as certain ‘joi de’vivre’.  As the evening darkened a post-mortem was held in the nearby Plash Inn where much discussion and communal singing heralded the start of a new glue in the community, a new reason to get together.  Didn’t I also warn of the dangers of arousing rivalries in an area where disputes are historic ?  Already the neighbouring village is constructing its own ‘piste’, let battle commence !

Boule competition in a Welsh village

Boule and booze, food and fun - a typical Saturday evening in Llanfallteg.

The following morning some delicate heads indicated it had indeed been a good night all around.  Following an excellent ‘protein’ laden breakfast ‘cousine et moi et lui’ bade farewell and headed off to explore the great stone structures of the Carningli area of the Presceli mountains.

I am aware that it has been some time since I wrote about Nature Calls, so this week I have a little report for you on some creatures I came across whilst working in the garden.  Any ‘link’ between them and events narrated above is purely coincidental…

Nature calls.

Walls are incredibly important habitats, especially in the uplands where little shelter exists for flora or fauna.  I am constantly bemused as to how it is that the smallest of creatures find their way up to walls high on the mountains.  Almost all the walls I have worked on in the high uplands have been colonised by amphibians.  Whilst frogs are found they are less common than toads, both of those are outnumbered by newts.

A year old newt

This little creature left the pond in the late summer of last year having been born in the spring of the previous year - thus it had survived on of the coldest winters in memory.

Newts were an important part of my childhood.  I grew up with a playground that was the bank-side of the dis-used Brecon and Mon canal.  It was a fabulous nature reserve and a wonderful place for young lads (sorry, girls were absent !) to discover all sorts of wild-life.  In particular we treasured the capture of newts – which we always returned to the water – over five spined stickle-backs or minnows.  Champion of all was the Great Crested Newt but they, even then, were seldom seen.  On the other hand Palmate and Smooth newts were less rare though by no means common.  that of course is because they really only enter the water to mate in the spring-time.  Baby newts are not amphibious and do not loose their gills for a year thus they stay in the water over the first winter of their lives.  When they leave they head for secure food rich habitats that must be locked into their D.N.A. downloaded into their sat navs.  I find these tiny little lizard like creatures in walls where the nearest water is several hundreds of metres lower.  Many of course do not make it, buzzards and other predators pick them off along with the thousands of froglets that set forth on the same journey; only toads are ignored – clearly they have a built in taste-deterrent.

The little amphibians that I found this week in the earth at the back of the old brick wall I demolished prior to building the slate one had nowhere near as far to travel.  They had been born lucky, the hiding place was but a few metres across open ground.  I found over a dozen, all roughly the same size and hence probably from the same clutch.  The adults were clearly visible in the pond and the female lost a lot of weight in the two weeks I was there, more babies this year clearly.

A female smooth newt

This is probably mum, she is having a good life in this little garden pond - but beware little newt, the Heron is about ! Get in and get out fast.

The garden pond was indeed a rich wild-life habitat.  I counted three types of dragon fly and several damson flies, red and blue.  In the water there were caddis flies and diving beetles as well as the scorpion like dragon-fly larvae which clutched fully grown tadpoles in their wicked claws.  Pond-scaters and water-boatmen were everywhere and the lovely clear water was well oxygenated by plants.  The owners were generally unaware of what their pond contained, they are city folk moved to the country and are not au-fait with creepy crawlies.  How unfortunate not to have had the advantages I had, a Canal Bank Boy.

Enough for this week I suspect.  If only this took a mere 60 minutes, the future would still be a long way off, a long night’s sleep away.  Alas, Welshwaller must to bed, the hours of the night are nowhere near 60 minutes long and even in this dull cloudy weather, dawn comes sliding soon into my open-curtained room, accompanied by loud birdsong.  It matters not who I am or what I do, 480 minutes of sleep is barely enough.

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One Response to ““The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.” (C.S. Lewis)”

  1. Monastic Dave Says:

    Blimey, where to start!

    Craftsmen and their prices soaring through the roof are not confined to dry stone walling. For 22 years I repaired, restored and renovated historical plaster mouldings. When practising, what is know as a specialised craft within the construction industry, you can, at times, get away with incredibly stupid prices.

    As management firms came to the fore rather than outright contractors this was actively encouraged. The reason for this was that the management firm took a percentage of the price to manage. What I always found hilarious is that the university educated lads and lasses who were employed by these firms at the ‘coal face’ did not have one clue what I ever said to them. Many times I had to stand in a empty and freezing cold building explaining my craft, the time needed to make a mould, cast and then install to a finish ready for decoration. This drove the price up in itself but one of the best incidents of ridiculous ‘management’ came on a restoration project of a rather large listed building in Cardiff. Mouldings are installed just prior to decoration, no other time is suitable as they are made of plaster of Paris and are easily damaged within a ‘hard’ construction environment.

    The price was driven up to £75 a metre for ‘all cornices supplied, fixed and finished ready for decoration by others.’ £75 a metre for cornice that was cast in 4 metre lengths!? Two of us worked half days fixing 30 metres of cornice in one morning, £2,250 per morning! The rest of the days were spent in the fine eateries and shops that Cardiff city centre provides. For 18 months I was rich, yes the overheads cut the profit, they always do, but by God the job should have been completed in half the time. We were asked, with all sincerity, to fix and finish plaster of Paris mouldings in a building with no roof! Seriously. The Uni bods were highly qualified (incredibly qualified actually) and yet seemed surprised that after a weekend of heavy. relentless rain, quite mysteriously, on a Monday morning, the mouldings, miraculously, had fallen to the floor? They had to be re-cast and re-fixed at the same price, Bingo! I could never quite work out how this happened, what with no roof an all.

    Anyway, enough of craftsmen and their troubled, stupidly influenced, crafts.

    Blaen Bran! My word what an exciting landscape to be in. More of the larch is to be stripped away and as it is the troubles that associate themselves with woodland archaeology will start to be put to one side. Indeed, virgin it is – It covers a huge area and the mineral deposits can not be ignored in its investigation. Which would you prefer? Ironstone, coal, maybe some limestone? What about sandstone? – its all there for you (and past societies) if you’re prepared to put the mining effort into acquiring it. Which brings me to a chance meeting in The Bush Public House last week.

    After being introduced to a mining engineer by a trustee of the Blaen Bran Woodland Trust, I managed to have a good chat to him. Worked all over the world he had but importantly, he had been involved during many archaeological surveys, on open cast mining sites, carried out prior to modern methods being employed over the last twenty years. Over those years he had trained his eye by archaeological thought by those he had worked with. He had grabbed my attention with ease. Anyone stupid enough not to listen to a man with these experiences should not be interested in landscapes, certainly not those that had been mined… The fact that there was probably a Hafod up there is without question, its there. But this mynydd and their mineral deposits have been exploited for a rather long time, longer than we understand at present.

    I will endeavour to make this land available for archaeological investigation. Most, although not all, non invasive research has already been carried out. It’s ripe for a hole in the ground.

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