“I know not how I may seem to others, but to myself I am but a small child wandering upon the vast shores of knowledge, every now and then finding a small bright pebble to content myself with”. (Plato 428-348 B.C.)

What about ‘gene memory’ ?  Do you think it’s a viable explanation for knowledge, skills, interest, feelings that seem to come down to us from somewhere beyond the nurture and nature of our childhood ?  After all, if we are such a high percentage of water and water has a memory, it’s perfectly feasible, yes ?  I certainly think it accounts for a great deal of who I am, a salad of intricate aspects of the characteristics of my ancestors.

“I could just do it”, is my stock reply when asked where I learnt to build dry stone walls, the basic skill (and the draw to the work) was, in my assessment, innate.  It was locked up in me, just as my desire to be in quiet places, close to nature and my thirst for discovering the past.  I think there must have been a time when I could just go out and about and not be distracted by elements of nature, the light, the landscape, wildlife and old places, yes, there surely must have been, long ago.

“I was trying to daydream but my mind kept wandering”.   (Stephen Wright)

That sums me up, most days anyhow.  I take off with an intention of going to a particular place – actually or metaphorically – and inevitably end up some place else.  Take today for example; I had full intention all week of going to a vintage show down Carmarthen way,  I had even half thought of taking some artefacts to exhibit, stay overnight (this was to do with a party I was due to attend in that area too) and show on Sunday as well.  Then, on Friday afternoon I was sitting in the kitchen of a farmer friend ‘chewing the fat’ as we do, “are you going to the sale tomorrow ?”.  Unbeknown to me there was a sale of farming bygones etc. in the nearby town of Builth Wells… not good news for me,  I really shouldn’t go to those things and generally I don’t !  Mind you, that is mainly because I have long since stopped buying the local newspaper wherein such events are programmed.  He showed me the advertisement for the sale, it was indeed tempting.  However what really caught my eye was a photograph of an old farmstead being auctioned shortly, by the time I had driven the half hour home my weekend plans had changed somewhat.  They changed even further when I half remembered, half discovered that the main road south west – the very route to the party and the show – was closed for a whole week ! (This is a real nightmare for many people and for me it deprives me of the much needed assistance of my recently returned holidaying helper).

Farm sales always attract hundreds

Lots of people and lots and lots of LOTS for me to peruse !

The decision wasn’t finally made until the dawn, a wet and misty one.  I really, really wanted to go and find the farmstead (still thinking I would head off on a long diversion to the party later) and as the sale was in the same direction… well, why not !

Generally I’m not a fan of sales,  I baulk at the crowded amphitheatre that amasses around the auctioneer and the lot being sold.  Also,  I find a certain reticence befalls me in such a large crowd,  I don’t want to talk to anyone, just look and enjoy.  I did however detour to the sale.  There were indeed a whole host of folk I didn’t much want to talk to – and didn’t – and some I would rather have not even seen (yes,  I too have such acquaintances !),  but my oh my, there was some very interesting items up for grabs.  I was a little late for the one item I would have bought, and was ‘somewhere else’ when an item went unsold, it was a missing item from my collection (drat and double drat), it then got added to the next lot and was sold for a stupidly low price – why wasn’t I bidding ?

Stock knife which a clog-maker used

A Clog-makers stock knife - it didn't sell, what was I doing !!

I was looking at the item as the assistant held it up and I knew what it was – no one else seemed to – and it was being sold with a couple of two-man cross-cut saws.  Normally a stock-knife will make well over £50 !! I wasn’t even day-dreaming…

Another item caught my eye, I had missed its sale actually, but it was a rarely seen item albeit one that was on nearly every upland farm at one time.  The barley hummler was used to ‘bruise’ the husk of barley to allow it to be separated – somewhat as threshing with a flail did for wheat – and was a necessary pre-cursor to feeding the grain to stock.  I have one, a rather good one but I paid more than the £1 this one apparently sold for !!  It showed its age and had clearly been well used but it had survived and I missed it !

Barley hummler and sheep shearing machine

The hummler is the square iron grid in the background - in front are the legs of a hand-wind sheep shearing machine. I would have bid on most everything on this trailer if I'd arrived in time - some greater power was obviously at work...

The most interesting (and hugely tempting) Lots were further down the field, and there I was quickly headed…

Apart from the curiosity value of  old machines  there is not much call for them, they make very little money at auction and mostly they are sold for scrap – at well below scrap value actually.  To me they have a certain pathos, an undignified way to end a life of service to the owners and the land on which they were utilised.  Of course that is pure sentimental dribble, but nevertheless it saddens me that such machinery is cast aside so cheaply.  If one item above all others epitomises the mechanisation of agriculture from the middle of the C19th, it is the reaper-binder.  The example on sale was a sad sight indeed, battered and well used, clearly it had been long abandoned and was in fact beyond restoration as many of its inner workings were long gone.  It went for scrap as most of them have – strangely I saw another later that same day when I went in search of the farmstead, it too was well rotted although it still had its canvasses on, parked on the side of an old farm tack.

Reaper binder lying awaiting its final journey to the scrapyard

Few people can remember what this did, how revolutionary it was when it first appeared well over a hundred years ago. The reaper-binder cut the corn and bundled and tied it into stooks and deposited to the side for gathering. An amazing labour saving devise, not liked by farm labourers when it first appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Of all the machinery that poured forth from the beginning of the 1800s, it was this machine, the Sunshine reaper-binder, that really amazed and alarmed the farming communities.  It has a reciprocating blade which cuts the corn at ground level, large wooden paddles – somewhat resembling sails on a wind-mill – gather the corn and feed it onto a canvas conveyor which feeds the cut stems into the guts of the machine wherein lies the real mystery, a knotting devise that binds the sheaf and ties the cord before cutting it.  How magical (and scary !) must that have seemed to a simple farm hand in the 1800s ?  It still mystifies me today !  The sheaf of corn was then fed, by the canvas belt, out to the side where it was thrown onto the ground to be gathered and stood up in ‘stooks’, bundles of tied sheaves standing to dry before being hauled away to the rickyard or barn.  The binder spelled doom for the traditional harvest where gangs of men, with sickle or scythe, attacked the corn in a regimented and time-honoured ballet.  Now it too is taken away, forever.

I was severely tempted by one machine, oh yes, severely tempted indeed.  I can offer no logical explanation whatsoever for this particular fancy but it has always been with me;  I can’t actually believe I didn’t in fact bring it home, what was I thinking ?!

An old Greens road roller of 1947 vintage

This old roller was built in 1947 and is worthy of being restored, but who will do it ?

The Green’s road roller, built in 1947, is a very rare sight indeed (how annoyed am I with myself even as I write this !) especially on my doorstep so to speak.  I think it is was built around the Standard Fordson N tractor although I’m not altogether certain – looking at the engine it seemed a little unusual – and weighs out at around 2 tons.  It has thick steel framing and the rollers were in very good condition.  In addition to road rollers Greens also built rollers for cricket pitches and other sporting fields.

It must be a measure of my ‘growing up’ that I can see such a ‘small bright pebble’ and walk on by… but why didn’t I buy it !

The whole sale field was a graveyard of farming history, from horse drawn ploughs, cultivators, hay-making machinery such as mowers and tedders, seeding machines and feed choppers.

A double furrow horse drawn plough

This fairly rare double furrow horse drawn plough will make an ornament in someone's garden - they will have no idea the effort in making it or using it. What 'distance' has it travelled in its 100 years, how many furlong (furrow lengths) has the horse and the ploughman guided this old plough...

There will come a time, not far away I suspect, when the sale fields and farm retirements will no longer have these relics of nineteenth and early twentieth century agriculture; once they are gone there will be no more.  Perhaps that’s another reason I am a reluctant observer at these events, it is nothing more than an abattoir of metal.

A Lister double shearing machine at a farm machinery sale

A Lister double shearing machine, how this revolutionised sheep shearing. This example would have tempted me - but I already have a nicely restored example.

I stayed away from the voyeurs buzzing around the white coated auctioneer.  I wandered the rows of lots, all awaiting their fate, it was actually quite a sad site and a sad sight.  I guess an hour was my limit and then, with some regret at not having ‘saved’ one or two items, running out of patience I moved on.  A far more pressing matter was distracting me…

The old farmstead I had seen in the newspaper was in a nearby village, or rather it was in the nearby parish named after the village and its church.  Now for a number of reasons I won’t name the place,  it is due for auction soon and is too precious to risk being publicly identified.  In fact I wasn’t sure where it was, my old Ordnance Survey 1″ map did not show it as one of the named farms but there were several others, just black spots, that were likely candidates.  The photograph in the paper gave some clues as to its probable situation.

The vernacular farm architecture of Radnorshire is more varied than any of the other old Welsh counties, at least I think so.  At one moment a solid stone house with small windows tucked into the hillside changes into a half timbered cruck framed dwelling of some age.  The houses and buildings of these remote hill farms always draw me to them, why is that I wonder, is that too locked up in ‘my water’ ?

The farmstead I was seeking appeared as a small platform house with an attached cow byre.  That is to say it was built on a platform formed out of the slope of the hillside, a common enough practise from the earliest of times.  The photograph clearly showed it thus and the attached byre suggested it had an origin as a long-house – a dwelling in which people and cattle were housed under one roof.  This one, however, had not been altered, well apart that is from having the thatch replaced by corrugated zinc some time in the early twentieth century.  It was an exciting possibility and one I just had to search out.  The name suggested it was close to a larger house of the same category – that is quite a common nomenclature in Welsh place names, an upper or lower, a bigger or smaller, sometimes a middle (uchaf, isaf, fawr, fach, ganol).  The advert for the auction had used the village name, or so I thought, and sure enough there were, in that village, two farms that suggested they were close by my target.  I surmised, correctly as it turned out, that this little long-house was in one of the steep sided narrow valleys, gullies almost, that have been formed in the soft Silurian shale of the hills by the rushing torrent of water in the small streams within them.  Unfortunately they were many, but only two small roads were indicated on my map, off I went.

As the mettled road turned to a stoney track I hesitated, I was not in my trusty Land Rover and ‘baby’ car might struggle to climb the loose stones.  I needn’t have worried, the little van ascended the rough track effortlessly and I stopped at the edge of the in-by, the enclosed land, parked up and began to walk upwards towards what looked like a potential candidate hidden in trees some way up the track.

A stone farmstead now in ruins

Hidden amongst the trees I could just make out the old farmstead, as it turned out it was not the one I was in search of, but it was a genuine 'find' nevertheless.

Fortunately the Public Footpath passed through the old farmyard so I was able to get right to this evocative ruin.  It was a substantial house at one time, now sadly in ruins, but enough of it remains to work out how it was internally divided and the nature of the attached buildings.  I was amazed to see that the old cast iron cooking range was still in-situ and even the ashes of the last bread bake remained in the oven set into the side of the old open fire-place.  I nearly had a nasty surprise when I narrowly missed stepping on a long rusty nail sticking out of one of the fallen timbers.  That would not have been good given I was so far away from the car by then with a long walk back.  Inevitably I would not have been able to get the nail out of my boot nor my foot out of my boot so I would have been in some difficulty – best not dwell on that eh !

A blacksmith made nail from centuries ago

The nail that nearly got me. It is an old blacksmith made iron nail, flattened on the sides and it was in one of the fallen upper floor timbers or roof joists. Can you but help wonder who, when and where made it and who fixed it here hundreds of years ago.

The house was difficult to date, although the name suggests it is very old, maybe even medieval though I suspect these remains are of a house built sometime after 1650 but before 1800.  The attached barn, again in the platformed long-house style, appeared to have been half timbered – a common technique of the Radnor hills where stone was not good or plentiful but Sessile oak was -and it had a pig sty and possibly a stable attached to its lower pine end.

Of course, my daydreams were distracted up there; another bright pebble in my wandering day out took me to days long gone when a family lived up here, grew corn, farmed livestock and eeked out a lonely lovely simple existence which, for all its gruelling difficulty, holds a romantic sentimental charm for most of us…

Cooking was essential and most of what was eaten was grown or reared on site.  Early open fires, with logs burning on the bare floor, gave way to a raised fire, in a basket and a pot-crane fixed to the wall onto which could be hung cauldrons and griddles. By the turn of the C19th/20th cast iron ranges were in place in most houses.  They required coal and thus it needed the railways to have arrived in these remote rural areas before such ranges could be employed; wood and the widespread use of peat still remained in the areas away from railheads.

Cooking range of cast iron still in the open fire where it was fitted over a hundred years ago.

This old cast iron range would be worth some big money if restored ! How nice to see it just where it was put over a hundred years ago.

A stone bread oven in the side of an oopen fireplace

The bread oven, still with the ashes of the last bake - who did that bake and when I wonder.

Spiral stairs adjoin the fireplace.

This is the remains of the tiny spiral staircase that wound around the side of the fireplace to the bedroom. It was always situated to the side of the fireplace in the thick pine-end wall, how on earth they managed to get the beds up there...

An old farmhouse reveals its fireplace

The old fireplace, half buried in the manure of ages. Note how the main floor beam sits on top of the massive oak lintel and the spiral stair remains can be seen on the right.

An old Welsh farmstead nestles in the trees

A lost farmstead. Its name means the dwelling in the woods, it sleeps in the little re-entrant high above the Wye valley, a story lost in time and place.

I sat up there for a long while, enjoying my distraction, looking out over the Wye valley far below, but it was not what I had come to find.  A little way to my right and a half mile or so below me I could see, again hidden in trees, another old building, off to go !

Sometimes one comes across something that is so bizarre that it makes you laugh out loud; my next discovery did just that.  The homestead lay in a typical location, next to a stream, sheltered from the cold east wind and the wild westerlies that blow off the Eppynt to the south-west and with a ‘road to the hill’.  This time however it was fairly intact, had electricity and was clearly not long into its retirement, but it was SO out of place !

A corrugated iron house built high in the hills above the Wye valley.

A corrugated iron sheet house, here in the Welsh hills ! Whatever next...

Built of timber and then clad in corrugated iron sheeting which was then painted with red lead oxide – that pre-dates the more modern ‘zinc’ coated or galvanised sheeting and probably dates from the turn of the C20th – this house is actually well preserved.  There were some indications that an earlier dwelling had existed, mainly some older outbuildings and stone walls but this example has to be one of the most extreme oddities I have come across – it should be listed and preserved !

I had wandered a little further than my still weak calf muscle really wanted to go, and now I had ventured down the slope, little car was half a mile back up.  Several stops, an opportunity to scan the surrounding area with the binoculars to try to spot my elusive farmstead, and I gradually ascended to a cup of coffee and some crab-sticks – my attempt at dumping some of the excess belly baggage I have accumulated.

Where was that little hovel in the hills I was looking for ?

I descended the track and was hoping I might see a farmer whom I could ask, no-one in sight anywhere.  Then, as I re-joined the mettled road I had to give way to a farm truck and stopped him to ask if he knew of it, whilst he didn’t he was able to tell me that the parish extended much further than I had realised and did in fact go far up the next valley, ah ha!

I had expected that the auctioneer house dealing with the sale would have had some serious signage to enable prospective buyers to find the place, this was indeed the case.  Once I had ventured a little way up the next valley the familiar ‘Ar werth‘ signs appeared.  How easy it was then to find my ‘small bright pebble’. I have to tell you now, when I finally saw the place my jaw dropped, how could this have survived so long !!

A very old and important Welsh farmhouse

How do I describe this... an astonishing relic of a medieval vernacular Welsh farmhouse.

This was indeed a real gem, of such significance I couldn’t believe I was actually able to see it here, in-situ, instead of at our National Museum in St. Fagans (where old Welsh buildings are reconstructed having been painstakingly removed from their original location).  I knew immediately that it was most likely of a form called a ‘Peasant hall or long house’ (an outstanding book by Richard Suggett of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales – RCAHMW – looks in detail at the Radnorshire farmhouses of 1400-1800) and that it would have cruck timber frames and trusses.  A cruck is a naturally formed beam of oak – often a large limb grown outwards and upwards from the main trunk – that bends towards the crest and adjoins another to form an ‘A’ frame.  They are increasingly rare and when discovered are eagerly protected by the County listing officer and the Archaeological world.

Timber cruck of an old Welsh farmhouse.

The cruck, it is the main support of the house, two - possibly three - 'A' frames made from similar shaped beams support the main roof timbers and cross trusses lock the whole and support an upper floor or 'crog-loft'.

Sure enough, in the cow-house I found the first and my excitement mounted (surely this was already recorded ?).  If I can describe to you what you are looking at in the photograph above – the taller part is of course the house, it is entered through the large door and the window on the right lets light into the main room with the cooking fire-place.  This room is separated from the cross passage-way – the hall that leads from the main door to a door at the back – by a timber frame lath and plaster wall.  The division between the taller and the lower sections is also a timber frame and clad wall and it has another small room in which a rickety old stairs leads to the small upper bedroom, the window of which can be seen in the roof.  The original roof incidentally would have been thatch, and this can still be seen in places beneath the corrugated iron sheeting, itself a common enough ‘after-market’ cure for old thatching.

The fireplace also retained its later C19th cast iron range though here too the bread oven was kept.  The pot-crane, a simple derrick that allows cooking pots to be dangled over the flames, was also still there and the old kettle stood lonely on the side.  No spiral staircase here which suggests that maybe the upper floor was a later addition.  A chuckle emitted from my throat as I spied the ‘en-suite’; a cast iron bath stood in the middle of the floor of the lean-to at the back of the house with a door leading out to the field beyond.  No taps or outlet waste existed hence it must have been a bucket and pail fill and empty job.  Strangely no toilet or bidet either…

Just a bath in the en suite of an old Welsh farmhouse

The en-suite as viewed from outside (through the fallen-in lean-to roof), the door to the right is the opposite end of the passageway to the large door at the front. You would really need to have been in love to do some back scrubbing here ! I have since learned that the story is she only agreed to marry him (1946) if he installed a bath.... and true to her word, she did !!

Cast iron cooking range in an earlier fireplace in a Welsh farmhouse.

They just walked out in the middle of breakfast..... or so it seems. The range still has cokes in it, the kettle on the side and the pot crane dangling ready to support the bacon as it sizzles on the suspended griddle iron...

I explored the inners of the house and the cow byre,  I located two cruck frames but suspect there is a third at the lower end of the byre.  The whole apparition entranced me, my daydreaming was indeed distracted…

Outside the nature of the platform, how it is tucked into the slope of the hill, becomes very clear. In my mind I guessed it was medieval – the timber cruck frame alone suggested so – and the later barn, positioned higher up the slope was itself an interesting structure, although probably early C19th and having been recently restored with new oak boarding.

Farm and barn in the hills of Wales

This says it all I think, so what's to be done !!??

The place is an absolute gem and I can say no more (you will no doubt be delighted to hear !)

Once back home I researched the place, sure enough it is recorded, indeed it is mentioned in Richard’s book,  I phoned him and he immediately remembered how special a place it was and had in fact heard it was to be auctioned.  The local Archaeological Trust’s Historic Environment Record – H.E.R. – listed the building as a single cruck frame, probable post medieval dwelling, and it has a Listed Building status of Grade 2 – so some protection already exists to prevent major structural damage or changes.  It is clearly much earlier and much more important, a view shared by Richard, who is convinced the building is at least early C16th and probably even earlier – he also thinks there are probably three cruck-frames and such houses fall succinctly into that era of development.

That’ll teach me to persist with these childish wanderings; I recently wrote to a friend that it is often ‘better to travel in hope than arrive’, how very true, how very applicable to me, here, now, for the next two weeks !  I spent a fitful night, seeing dawn break (which I was astounded to find happens around 3.30 am these days !), trying to come up with a viable plan.  I very quickly arrived at the notion of what NEEDS to be done with the place; it needs to be conserved and retained as it is, a fine example of the Peasant Long-house, the thatched roof returned, the interior restored and cows once again in the byre (notwithstanding modern animal welfare standards would prohibit !).  The land – around 2 Ha – can be worked in a traditional manner as a living museum and at last I would have somewhere to exhibit my collection….. it’s absolutely perfect, easy access off a main highway, not far from the major trans-Wales route, a substantial tourist town only 3 miles away, absolutely perfect, GO FOR  IT !

Ok, so I’ve got just 10 days to raise £250K, we’ll worry about the restoration afterwards…. So, that’s 24 thousand people at £100 per head, mmm, not enough time.  That’s a few rich beneficiaries interested in preserving our Welsh heritage, mmm, they are out there somewhere.  That’s a short time to put together a Trust to go after grant aid – Heritage Lottery Funding definitely, HRH maybe…. Oh, help help help !  Where’s the Bailey-wicke of Llangynidr when you need her…

Anybody out there got a quarter of a million sitting idle, anybody got Katherine Jenkins’ mobile number……

Welshwaller needs to get A into G and get walling not wandering in search of bright pebbles…

If only…

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One Response to ““I know not how I may seem to others, but to myself I am but a small child wandering upon the vast shores of knowledge, every now and then finding a small bright pebble to content myself with”. (Plato 428-348 B.C.)”

  1. Local Girl | hot metal : heavy stone : handsome cake Says:

    […] a little reaper-binder video action here. Also, Fry tells  you all about the reaper-binder here. Other […]

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