“Anyone’s life ‘truly’ lived consists of work, sunshine, exercise, soap, plenty of fresh air and a happy contented spirit”. (Lilly Langtree)

Absolutely !  I concur.  Don’t we all just feel so much better with a little sunshine, some exercise and nice smellies – soap on a rope being my favourite, although why the rope is always so damned short I never can understand.  The week has been just one of those perfect summer periods of bearable heat, clear skies and a great place to work.  Although, for me it has been tinged with a little sadness as I had so hoped to have been back on the National Mall in Washington D.C. with my friends on the staff of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.  Alas, it was not to be, but I want to remember them and that great institution.  I have fond memories of that wonderful time when Wales was a featured Nation and friendships were forged in the tropical heat of high summer in D.C.

Stone wall supports rugby posts in D.C.

A little memory from my time in D.C. One of the walls that created the entrance to a part of the Wales display area and supported the red rugby posts.

Anyway, that’s my little piece of sad nostalgia – over with !   I have had plenty of fresh air, excess of exercise and generally speaking, my spirit is happily contented.  Why should that be ?

A flower bed with deep blue Irises

June and early July are the best times for enjoying really, really smelly gardens, wouldn't you say ? I find the colours staggeringly intense, and I'm jealous of such well manicured, aroma filled walkways !

Firstly I am at last ‘finding my feet’ again !  The damaged right leg and the badly repaired left leg seem finally to have come to an agreement with my brain.  As long as no stupid demands are sent down the wires they, my legs, will co-operate in the gentle activity – read exercise and work – which is asked of them without resorting to strike action.  Thus I have been able to undertake some more garden restoration, which seems to be my lot recently, and some gentle promenading.

The picture of the Irises is of particular relevance at this time.  You may know that another name for them is ‘Flag’, and such a name occurs over much of England in wet and boggy places, where these elegant plants thrive, uncultivated and uninvited.  Indeed one of the most amazing archaeological sites is Flag Fen in Cambridge (have a look at the web site: Flag Fen Archaeological Park) where much has been discovered as to how the Bronze-age folk who dwelt there lived their lives so long ago.

‘Like a Flag’ is a colloquial little phrase oft used in the area of Wales where I lived for a very long time, it is applied to a gentle soul who struggles to ‘get it right’ so to speak.  I use it more than I realise – mainly about myself and the errant attempts I make at certain activities…

Of course, to most people a ‘flag’ is a pretty coloured emblem of nationhood or some such, raised high and flapping in the wind – yes, ‘flapping about like a flag’ could indeed be the origin of my little Welsh phrase.  Or did it arise from another meaning of the word, the quill-feather of a bird’s wing;  if any of you have attempted scribbling with a quill pen you will know how that may also be an applicable description of one who is scratching around trying to make sense of it all.

My seeming obsession with the ‘Flag’ word this week is in fact very simple to explain – my work and my exercise, even my “happy and content spirit” has centred around that very word.

Slate flagstones being laid for a patio.

'Like a flag', this one would not flap about, this one and dozens like it, have been occupying my body and mind this past week.

Flagstone is one of those generic English language terms that conjure up pretty cottage floors, old well trodden walkways and country gardens.  Even my ‘pretty cottage’ has a flagstone floor as indeed do most of the old places around about.  The use of these large flat slabs of stone as flooring is age old, indeed flagstone floors were the ‘fitted carpet’ of their day following on from the packed earth that was the norm in vernacular rural dwellings.  Laid simply onto the old bare earth floor, these great tablets of stone did at least mean winter was lived on a dry(ish) floor rather than a constantly damp and somewhat muddy one -‘ Wipe your feet on the Way Out’ was likely the sign hanging on the back of most Welsh cottage doors !  Flagstones are only able to be hewn out of sedimentary rocks, the sandstones and slates primarily.  Limestone, where it occurs in the Jurassic beds, can provide a poor quality flag which easily wears away and is susceptible to fracture, as does the weaker shale and mudstones which dominate large parts of central Wales.  Luckily, here in sunny Beulah land a geological anomaly has provided a rich source of these beauties.  You may recall I mentioned the quarry at the back of my place in a recent post; a significant relic of C18th and  C19th industrial activity on a pretty substantial scale.  Indeed Penceulan Quarry  (although that is its name, in reality it was a slate mine), nestling on the right bank of the river Cammarch (meaning winding stream) provided much in the way of building materials for the estate and the surrounding areas.  Whilst roofing tiles were the main product worked for sale – in 1829 a shilling would buy you a hundred of them -flagstones were also worked and I have an array of the finest to juggle with this time.  Cutting tiles and flags was a very skilled job, so much so that the lack of local slate craftsmen resulted in the in-migration of such workers from North Wales.  The 1851 census shows several north Walians resident in some of the small cottages or farms around the estate and many more show up in later census surveys.  In addition to the products of the slate quarry much waste was created, some reports suggest 90% of quarried slate was waste, and this was put to good use in building houses and farms buildings and of course walls.  Also, as I wrote recently, the waste was good for garden landscaping.

A flagstone that once formed the entrance to a building

This 'long-tall-sally' once formed the entrance step to the Orangery. The door frame sockets and the centre bolt hole can be clearly seen and although not clear in this picture, the French doors were more used on the left as the step is very worn away on that side only.

The current work has been on the books awaiting my pleasure for nearly two years !  This time I am once again back at the ‘Laird’s’ house, the master of the estate on which I live.  It is a very ancient estate and certainly extends back to the later medieval period.  The house in which I dwell was once a small farmstead and is listed in a will of 1694 when, upon the death of the then ‘Laird’, Thomas ap Evan, it was left to his wife (interestingly only for five years – presumably he guessed she would have snuffed it by then or be too ga-ga to run the place, or perhaps he thought she would shack up with the gardener and his son’s inheritance would disappear !) and thence to his son Edward Thomas.

Although today it is an estate more in name than in actuality – by which I mean that the Laird is still the land-owner but there is little ‘estate work’ in the manner of employed craftsmen attending to the hundreds of jobs that needed doing, indeed still need doing !  There is no sense of ‘community’ amongst those who live ‘on the estate’, it is in fact fully dysfunctional in that respect.  That is a shame in my view,  I can see many ways in which the economic and social problems which beset those of us in this rural area could be assuaged by recreating that sense of ‘belonging’ , of pride in place and work and in the shared pleasures of communal food production and social gathering.  Then, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be…

The laying of flagstones was itself a craft and there were men whose sole occupation it was to undertake that activity.  I suppose it is not really related to the art of dry stone walling but it’s something I have done on several previous occasions hence this little job was happily accepted.

Slate flagstones make-up a patio

The patio area to the side of the mansion as it was; it was in a bad state, uneven and full of the dreaded 'trip hazards' as well as being invaded by the rampant 'Lady's mantle'.

It was evident from the start that the patio needed complete restructuring as the levels were all awry and in any case it was planned to extend it over the gravel area seen in front.  The uneven surface and the mixture of flagstone types and sizes suggested this was not an original feature of the historic garden.  The mansion is a fine building and the gardens still today, are worthy of it.  In centuries past a large workforce were employed both in the house and in the gardens where large greenhouses and vegetable areas supplied the household with food and exotic fruits.  Now a single gardener maintains the whole, something I find quite remarkable especially when you see the wonderful floral displays and manicured lawned areas.

The patio lies in the area that once housed the orangery – a must for any self respecting Victorian estate – which sadly fell into disrepair and was removed many years ago.  It is my guess that the patio was laid down in place of the quarry tiles that formed the floor of the glass covered orangery.  Judging by the array of recycled flagstones – slabs from the old cold room or dairy, slate bases from an old billiards table, in fact a full size table and a half size table judging by the pockets, long tall sally slabs that formed sills or doorways etc. etc.

Flagstones are not just ‘plonked’ down, believe it or not there are traditional patterns to be followed.  These old patterns are termed ‘opus’ which is a musical word relating to the composition (of a particular composer) so I guess it became applied to the regular form that should be followed when laying flags.  However, just like music where the regulated time – 3/3, 4/4, 6/8 and so on – determines the sound, so with flagstones, the number of differing sizes determines the pattern.  There were normally four standard patterns, the choice of which one to use depended on how many sizes were to be laid,  3 (3 way opus), 4 or 5 (the classical Roman opus), 5 (classical opus), 8 (Versailles opus).  The sizes of the flags were constant, so that a regular pattern could be followed, each small, medium, large and really large were cut to the same measurement and hence were relatively easy to lay.  Not so with my little array, hardly any were of similar size – which is even more reason to suppose they were not especially chosen for the job – and thickness too is variable.

Flagstones newly laid on an old terrace.

The white sheet is a semi permeable membrane to stop weeds coming through, the flagstones are being laid in as near a classical opus as I can manage given how many different sizes I have to deal with.

The method is reasonably straight forward, if somewhat pedantic, and involves getting a level bed of dust (I use stone dust, called duff, instead of sharp sand as it is more readily available hereabouts and much cheaper) prior to placing the slab – some weigh around 250 lbs (over 100 kilos) so they do not want to have to be re-lifted ! Sometimes, with the thinner ones, I place a brick of mortar on each corner prior to placing the stone in place.  If I’ve judged it correctly the slab will be 90% or better level, if it needs slight adjustment I use a ‘gentle persuader’ in the form of a ‘beetle’ or ‘flagger’s maul’.  These ancient traditional tools can be seen in old psallters and agricultural journals and treatise of the medieval and post-medieval periods.  I like to use my old tools and they do the job better than any modern substitute.  Tapping the flagstones with a moderate force will sink them into the dust and achieve the necessary level.  Unusually for me, the ‘bubble stick’ (my all-time favourite adopted word from the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave ! – spirit-level to you and me…) is in constant use.  Building a dry stone wall usually requires a keen eye for a level in nature which often differs from the scientific exact equivalent.

Two old wooden tools - a flag layers maul and a beetle

The flag layers maul (left) is of elm and oak handles, the beetle (an all purpose mallet) is generally of pine or European Larch with metal bands to prevent splitting and an ash handle.

The other ‘old thing’ from my collection which has been in use this week is much more modern, a mere 58 years old.  ‘Gladys’ is my means of moving the five tons of dust from the courtyard of the mansion around to the front of the house and as near to where I need it as is possible in this up and down site.  At least this way it gets carried down steps, the alternative would be to wheelbarrow it through an old outbuilding and then up four steps, no contest.  This therefore means that five ton is shovelled onto Gladys and five ton shovelled off into a bucket and carried the twenty yards to where it is needed.  I have discovered that in fact it is excellent physiotherapy for my injury, I cannot praise it enough, better than all the pool exercises or pedalling !

So, a word in praise of Gladys.  She was assembled in early 1953 and was sold in Buckinghamshire to a farmer.  it spent most of its life there and did not move on until the late 1970s.  She went through various hobbyists hands until I got hold of her some six years or so ago.  I have an affliction which makes me irresistible to Land Rovers, they just seem to make their way here, to Land Rover Manor.

A working Series 1 Land Rover.

Gladys, my Series One 86" Land Rover, still working for her living, parked up in front of the mansion. A nice period photo don't you think !?

It is such a refreshing change for me to not have to drive very far each day.  The mansion is less than a mile away from my little farmstead and it is easy to lose sense of time and century poodling back and fore between the two places.  The work is hard, those flags are heavy and the constant shovelling and carrying and mixing mortar certainly burns up the energy.  Soap is a very necessary application at the end of these days.  That and hot water and maybe a little glass of scotch whilst taking a soak, oh yes, and Abba blaring out – a life ‘truly’ lived indeed.

I have been doing some serious walking too, mainly to build up the leg strength but also because the sunny evenings have been so pleasant to just wander.  I got to the top of a hill to the rear of my place, the site of an old Iron Age defended enclosure, a major achievement.  On another hill in front of my house, visible from my bed – probably as it would have been from the round houses of the settlement –  is a burial mound, maybe Bronze age, over 3000 years old then.  I suspect that settlement existed on a flat plateau immediately behind my old farmstead for in certain low sunlight the traces of circular crop marks can be seen, in snow too there is a clear outline, Celtic roundhouses maybe ?  One day soon I must get seriously searching.

A post-script to the story of the old farmstead -Neuadd Fach at Llanfaredd (I can now reveal) – which I wrote about in the last post:  I went to the auction which was held one evening near Builth Wells.  The sale was for three lots, the medieval house with some 6 acres, 13 acres of nice hay pastures and another parcel of around 12 acres of which over 3 acres were woodland.  I was firstly surprised at how few people were present, secondly I was interested to see two neighbours who I guessed would be after the land.  The Lot 3 of 13 acres typified the absurdity of land prices at this time.  Notwithstanding two people clearly wanted it and it would add nicely to their holdings, the money that was paid can never be recouped from the profit of stock raised on that land.  Over £60k for 12 acres of not particularly great land is just plain barmy !

As for the house and the lot of land attached, they remained unsold, the house reached £190k between an apparent two bidders (many thought it was shadow bidding – I couldn’t possibly comment !) but did not reach what I presume was a reserve of £200k.  As a result of that failure the auctioneer decided not to offer the other lot of land which ideally should remain with the house,  I guess he foresaw a good fight, and hence high price, between whoever purchases the old house and farm buildings and the neighbours who would like the pastures.

Syncronicity kicks in – why did I see the advert ?  Why did I go and visit the place and immediately recognise its importance as a Welsh historic icon ?  Why, when I actually thought the auction was at 11am did I see, whilst sitting in the dentist surgery at lunchtime, a notice indicating the auction was at 6 pm !  I work without a watch and my day is governed by how hungry I get and when I reach my target for that day, why then did I get home at 5 pm – normally it would be nearer 6pm – and decide to go to the auction ?  Why did it not sell…  Is something telling me I need to actually start seriously thinking about how to put this project together ?  We’ll see.  Watch this space !

My ‘happily  contented spirit’  is now very put about, luckily a few ton of flagstones and plenty of fresh air makes sleep easily achieved, but, my little brain is whirring away !!


One Response to ““Anyone’s life ‘truly’ lived consists of work, sunshine, exercise, soap, plenty of fresh air and a happy contented spirit”. (Lilly Langtree)”

  1. Helen Barnes Says:

    Opus is the latin noun for work (one of the benefits of boarding school education!), hence its use in cataloging musicians’ output, but it is not used exclusively for music. I like your idea that flags have a rhythm though. Have you come across the Radnorshire word “hucking” for a measure of work?

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