Midges – the strongest creatures on earth: Discuss.

They surely, surely are.  The tiny little blighters are barely visible, even against the skin it’s hard to spot them, even when you know exactly the spot where the needle-like insertion of their proboscis is occurring, even then they are invisible.  No wonder they are the food of bats, only they, with their sonic radar can ‘see’ these monsters.  I hate them !

Now I bet you are already wondering why I am going on about midges in a blog devoted to Walling in the Welsh Hills.  Because that’s where they are, there and everywhere else I’ve been this past week.

The work-station this time has probably been one of the most interesting, and I have to say, satisfying, jobs I have ever done.  A strong claim given the many and various dry stone walling projects I’ve worked on over the years.  I finally ventured north to the little village of Llanguring, a small quiet place built at the junction of a major route-way into and out of central Wales.

Llangurig sits on the north bank of the river Wye where it slides out of the Cambrian hills into the narrow valley that takes it south to Rhayader and on to Builth Wells.  The main north to south trans-Wales highway – the A470 – clips the edge of the village as it converges with the route to Aberystwyth and heads off to join the Severn valley at Llanidloes, some six miles to the east.  The settlement is early indeed, a monastery, Clas, was established there in the early C6th by St. Curig, a Bishop of nearby Llanbadarn (Aberystwyth) which is an extremely important site in early Christian Wales.  He is well ingratiated into the early Church in Wales and is remembered in the north at Capel Curig and in the south at Porthkerry near Barry.  He left Britain to become Bishop of Brittany and died in AD550- close links existed between Wales and the western French domain and many Celtic Saints came and went from both Wales and Ireland to Brittany in the immediate post-Roman period.

My destination was an important building in that part of central Wales.  At one time it hosted Princes from Siam (1890) and the man who later became a King (with a now famous speech impediment), Prince Albert / George VI (who called to stay in the autumn of 1917).  The Clochfaen is believed to have been named after the audible resonance of water in the nearby Wye running over rocks below the house, though a number of other ideas have also been put forward.  The fact that it is The Clochfaen rather supports the point in my view.

A house of probable post-medieval origin was destroyed by fire in the mid C18th and is thought to have been a typical Montgomeryshire half-timbered dwelling, a fact of significance in its later reconstruction.  A stone house was built which became the home of the Verney family through the C19th.  By the early C20th grandiose plans, as befitted their status, were evolving to make the estate a place of some note.  In 1913 W.A.S. Benson, one of the most significant and forward looking designers of the Arts and Crafts movement and a close friend of William Morris, was asked by the family, with whom he was also well acquainted, to remodel the house along the lines of the Edwardian Arts and Crafts idiom.  Whilst Benson is more famous for his stunning designs and artistic metalware, a trait no doubt influenced by his close association with Sir Edward Burne-Jones the noted Pre-Raphaelite painter, he had in fact begun his professional career apprenticed to an architectural practice in London.  He continued to employ these skills for friends and it was from this that his influence was brought to bear at Clochfaen.  The present owners, James Stirk (whose family subsequently bought the estate after the 1st World War) and Kevin Hughes, have done a wonderful job of restoring the house with many period features and furniture and have a super web site outlining the history of the estate (see http://www.theclochfaen.com).

My role in the grand restoration was to attempt to rescue two garden features, a well and a water spout or fountain.  I first visited the site a month or so ago to make an assessment and, of course, give a price.   What met my eyes was, lets just say, interesting…

Clochfaen fountain before work began

I was assured it WAS indeed an important feature - a Fountain !

I was told that a Lion’s Head once adorned the rock-face and spewed forth the clear waters of the mountain spring.  What met my eyes were a couple of large white quartz boulders and….. a mess !

The ‘well’ similarly had suffered from the ravages of time and nature……. oh boy, this could be tricky me-thought.

Well at The Clochfaen prior to restoration

Therein lies a - Well ! Clear pure water rising out of the ground. If only we could get to it !

Jobs involving ‘restoration’ are terribly difficult to price.  Given that my price (as I mentioned in the last post) is nothing more than a reflection of what I know I need to earn each day in order to maintain the low standard of living to which I am accustomed, there are few figures to the left of the decimal point.  Now most of my work is relatively easily assessed;  I get paid by the square metre, which is to say for every length of wall a metre long by a metre high, I get paid a certain amount and I have a fairly good idea how many square metres a day I can build (of course the cost of clearing the site and taking down or stripping out has to be covered in the rate set as a rebuild price !).  Historically my work has been grant aided (the grant going to the farmer) at a rate set by a higher authority, in the beginning my price was pretty much what the farmer was getting and in 1993 that was £25 per sqm,  that remained for nearly ten years until I ultimately had to increase.  Garden work and jobs such as this are hard to judge in terms of the hours or days they will take.  Unseen problems, to say nothing about the inevitable additions which arise at the whim of the client, can add to the job, sometimes horrendously.  I was often caught out when I began this work.  At the same time one cannot just add days to the price on the off chance something untoward may occur.  The fountain and, to a lesser degree, the well fell squarely into this category.  I did my sums and offered it to the owners who, I am pleased to say, accepted.

Whilst I decided to start with the fountain, as this seemed likely to be the most complicated, I will narrate in reverse order.  So, the Well…

Both sites were heavily overgrown, as indeed was the whole garden, and the recent rain had added a lush verdancy which resembled a tropical jungle.  What do you get in jungles, especially in water-logged places ? You guessed it – bloody midges !!  The first job was to ‘let the dog see the rabbit’ (as my old Gran used to say), which meant clearing the undergrowth.  What lives in the undergrowth ? Yep, bloody midges !!  They were not amused when the man with the strimmer – a super chap who works at the house and lives in the village, a really genuine nice bloke, the sort of honest, hard working soul which rural villages often throw up – started to destroy their habitat, their hide-aways; Tora, tora, tora – attack, attack, attack, like Kamikaze they swarmed around and chose their targets, any exposed flesh, into which they bored like a non-anaethetised dentist’s drill. They drive me crazy, to the point of wanting to dive into the pond !  Luckily, as the strimmer whirred its way into the tangled mass of fern and lillies, I caught a whiff of the very natural deterrent I needed. Mint.  Years ago, while working on a wall high on a heather covered moor in the western Brecon Beacons, an old shepherd told me the answer to the swarming plagues.  Take a handful of mint leaves and crush them onto exposed skin, the little biting monsters don’t like it (strangely they don’t bite lambs either …).  So, I was given some respite by mint growing haphazardly in the overgrown beds.

Exposed stone-work of the Clochfaen well

Ah, so that's what it looks like ! Pretty dilapidated ain't it !

Once the growth of decades was cleared away the actual work required could be assessed properly for the first time – that’s the gamble !  Actually it was not too bad, all things considered.  Both the supporting pillars, on top of which sat a massive slate slab weighing several hundredweight, needed rebuilding.  This meant the slab needed to be supported whilst I took the buttresses down, easily accomplished with the aid of a trolley jack and a block of wood.

Fortunately the original stone was lying in the debris of soil and grass and hence reconstructing was reasonably easy.  the main supporting foundation stones were in -situ, albeit they had tilted (interestingly they can be seen in one of the original photographs in the collection on the web site).  I quickly got one side rebuilt to ensure an over-night collapse did not occur and finished the other side the next morning as well as a small retaining wall to keep slippage off the slab – apparently at one time the family’s fossil collection had been displayed upon it.

The first pillar is rebuilt

The first buttress is rebuilt to prevent further collapse.

While I was doing the work on the well the other two, Kevin the owner, and Wayne his side-kick/handyman, were performing herculean feats in clearing huge fern root-balls from around the fountain and pond side as well as uncovering the slate slabbed walk-ways; they too were being eaten alive, serves them right, disturbing those sleeping midges.

Throughout the days I was there several discoveries of long-hidden features, such as underground water pipes and stone steps, were made by these two intrepid explorers.

The reconstructed well at Clochfaen.

The Well restored, at least to how it had been in the early C20th.

The fountain, although that is an erroneous term as it is, in reality, a spout, had become to all intents, totally dilapidated.  The remains of the Lion’s head is still close-by but the majority of the quartz stones had seemingly disappeared.  I knew they had been there as an original photograph exists which shows the structure in all its glory.  Taken in the 1890s with an elegant looking James Verney posing and giving scale, the photo gave an excellent guide as to what was required in the restoration.  But was it achievable ?  Where had the stones gone ?

Clochfaen fountain prior to commencement of renovation in June 2011

The exposed face reveals the large quartz boulder and some other remains. At this stage I was a little worried...

One stone in particular intrigued me; a very large quartz boulder, sitting precariously unsupported from below.  It must weigh in excess of four hundredweight and doesn’t appear to penetrate into the bank very far.  Nevertheless it is an important stone, it gives the clearest indication of what the original face looked like and its size.

In the original photograph this one stone stands out amongst the dozens of other, much smaller, quartz pebbles and it was essential that it remained in exactly that position – something which I had doubts was achievable once I was able to make a full assessment.

Clochfaen fountain 1890

The 'Fountain' as it appeared in the 1890s. Courtesy of the Clochfaen collection. Can you spot the large stone ?

Fountain of Clochfaen in the 1890s

Another shot courtesy of the Clochfaen Collection. It aided me in reconstructing the stone face.

On the first day I began clearing out stones that had fallen into what I assumed was a shallow bowl into which the water fell.  Several hours later I was standing knee deep in muddy water, with full wellies and all my clothes soaking.  The constant flow of water didn’t help but this was solved the next day when Kevin fitted a tap to the spout allowing the flow to be turned off.  At the same time I did what I had stupidly not done the previous day – I baled-out the water in the trough so that I could work mainly dry.  Of course, all this disturbance once again upset the midges and I, and my two fellow workers, were again assaulted endessly.  I managed to recover most of the stones which had originally been in the face and set about the rebuild.

The wall comes up - restoring the fountain at Clochfaen.

The wall starts coming up, the muddy water stands about knee deep but constant baling kept me reasonable dry, if muddy, on the second day. The new spout - a Chinese type Dragon gargoyle - is placed in position.

A new spout had been acquired to replace the old broken Lion’s head, it was a gargoyle type carving along the lines of an Oriental Dragon.  I got on quite well and by the end of the second day had got the gargoyle and the old bowl and pedestal back in place.  How the bowl survived falling into the rock filled pool from whence it had been retrieved is beyond me.  The fact that it did exactly the same thing that evening (after I had left) is even more astounding – and it still didn’t break !

Unfortunately I made a major cock-up in my original measurements which meant that the bowl couldn’t be fitted under the spout.  I had to do a quick take-down and rebuild to get back to where I had finished off.  We turned the water on just to see how it looked and to make sure the bowl was level.  It wasn’t quite right, but by the time I returned the next morning the others had spent a long overtime session and sorted it out.  They had dared take a grinder to the old bowl and got it to sit flat and level, furthermore they had jambed the bowl under the gargoyle to prevent any further mishaps.  Several hours of being bitten stupid whilst mud was moved, earth back-filled, more quartz collected by Wayne’s undaunted spirit and effort, and masses of huge fern roots dug out, and the whole thing started to look like it had all those years ago.

The fountain from beyond the pond.

The pond sits in front of the 'fountain' and presents a really natural setting. It is an absolute wildlife haven and superb example of what a garden pond can be in terms of an aquatic habitat. All the usual amphibians, several species of Damsel and Dragon flies and all manner of water snails and other pond creatures abound within, oh yes, and Midges !!

In front of the fountain was the most wonderful garden pond.  As it had been ‘neglected’ for decades it had evolved into a really natural habitat with wonderfully clear water, partly as a result of spring water constantly drip feeding it but mainly because of the balance that had been achieved within its dark recesses between the oxygenating plants and the sunlight.  Shade was provided by the mass of ferns and irises that had populated the banks.  I have always loved ponds, my childhood by the canal bank, enhanced by my father’s fascination with ornamental fish in his own marvellously natural pond, ensured it would be so.  This one has to be one of the very best I have ever seen, a real example of what can be achieved by a laissez-faire attitude to conservation !

I kept in mind the original photographs as I wanted to achieve as near as possible a finished article that honoured the restoration efforts of the owners and protected the historic integrity of this important element in Wales’ rich architectural heritage.  A blast with the pressure washer, always a sure way to anger the midgies, to clean up the glistening quartz and the old stone face, with its new water spout and cleaned out basin and all was ready to go to work, the ‘boys’ had even managed to locate and clear the overflow pipe which took the water into the pond.

Clochfaen Fountain restored at last

My own regal pose - partly to give scale and depth !! Mainly just to 'show off' !

Green and white a garden delight

Nestling in amongst the greenery the white stones enhance the quirkyness of the water spout and the trickling water is a lovely addition to the name Clochfaen - the sound of water over stone.

Despite still sitting here scratching hundreds of bite marks, I enjoyed my few days at Clochfaen, a truly fascinating place.  I wish I could show you and do justice with a description of the interior of the house – you’ll have to go and stay !

I began by saying how difficult it can be to be accurate when estimating such a job as this.  I over-estimated the time it would take me and hadn’t banked on the freely given assistance of Kevin and Wayne.  Although I offered to reduce my price, it is a mark of the owners that they insisted on paying me what I had first quoted.  I would like to think it was because they are pleased with the result – I know they are – but actually it’s more about the nature of people who take on such massive restoration projects just because they believe it should be done.  I have always admired Morris and his Arts and Crafts movement, now I have had the opportunity of contributing to the preservation of one of Wales’ best examples of the style.

Maybe the ghost of Benson, wandering the grounds, will be impressed too ….

Do midges bite ghosts !!??


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: