The Road Less Travelled.

For the last few weeks I have had the real enjoyment of NOT having to venture out onto the highways of my home county.  Well, not the main highways anyway;  I have been lucky to only travel a few hundred metres from the end of my stoney track to the terrace where I continue to re-lay the flag-stones which I told you of in my last post.

Flagstones make a fine outdoor terrace

The first half of the flags are re-laid. I have progressed since this was taken - but I need to have !

The sheer enjoyment of being able to get to work in a few minutes (and home again!) and do it in a manner which adds to my wide grin – in an old landie or tractor – means each day is  a fairly stress free happening.  What’s more, I haven’t had to expend vast sums of money at the fuel pump and that has saved me over £50 per week !  Now, of course what I should be doing, to aid my fitness and save the planet, is walk to work.  Believe me, I do actually feel a little guilty not doing so. The problem for me would come at the end of the day, I am so determined to get this job done that I keep going until my energy is depleted and that happens suddenly and without warning.  One minute I’m lifting and laying, the next I am sitting and sipping (tea that is).  The nice thing is that the sudden end to my daily energy supply is getting later and later, indeed only yesterday I was still laying steps at gone 6.0pm ! – that had as much to do with continued muscle and mental agility as the fact my ‘little helper’ had left me one whole lot of mortar mixed which had to be used up.  However, it got me to the point of play I had hoped to be at by the close of that day.  If, at that moment of collapse, I then had to face up to the walk home, especially the last long climb up the track to my homestead, I would be likely found sleeping in the hedgerow !

My current fitness level is getting progressively better, indeed I cannot be far off full fitness (by my standard that is) although I have to confess this has been part aided and part hindered by the sustained efforts on my part to shed some uninvited pounds.  I have mentioned previously that I have, all my life really (as have most of my family), been always at the mercy of the ‘Fat Fairy’.  I go to sleep thin and wake up fat, I eat one slice of bread and on goes half a stone – I eat fifty mince pies over the Christmas period (yes, it’s true) and no wonder the stairs creak as I ascend (maybe that’s why my car seat is a bit saggy …).  But now I have a whole new approach to food and fatness.  Thanks to my dear cousin and her Frenchman I am losing daily, pound after pound; so much so I will shortly be unable to appear in photographs, to say nothing of having no clothes that fit me, all of them being far too large !  Well that’s my aim.  Thus far 20lbs has gone away !  Apparently I am following a diet plan called ‘The Dukan Diet’ which is a protein based attack on fat.  It works and it solves my “What shall I have tonight” problem – steak, it’s easy.  I get so bored trying to think of what food to get or cook and what to take for lunch.  This takes away all thought, just eat meat and fish and eggs and vegetables or salad.  I can’t actually believe that bread and cakes (and cream !) has just been dumped out of my life, like a lethargic lover I have abandoned them, gone, banished, not even thought of…. (though a cup of coffee in the evening is hard without something sweet !)  The simple answer was not to let them into the house, not here, can’t be eaten.  Amazingly it is actually working out cheaper to feed myself with all this goodness than with all the rubbish I so often lapsed into.  (‘Dukan’ is on-line if you want to find out more).  I have taken a while to get used to eating sufficient protein to see me through the day, making sure my energy remains sufficiently high to move the great slabs I am dealing with.  Welshwaller is becoming ‘Waif-waller’ !

Another part of the current job is to rebuild a set of steps that lead down from the gravel forecourt in front of the mansion to the terrace I am re-laying.

Steps in an old garden

They don't look too bad but the dilapidation was making them dangerous and they were being covered by an Acer.

There are a number of issues with building stone steps, indeed any steps especially if someone else is going to use them.  This particular set had some serious design faults. Firstly, they were too high in the rise, which is to say the height of each individual step was too great for everyone to use.  By everyone I mean from youngsters to older folk and given the place often hosts open garden type events numerous ‘older’ folk have to negotiate them.  Secondly, they were not in a good state of repair, oh sure, they look quaint and ‘olde world’ as garden steps should and the foliage from the Lady’s Mantle adds to the charm but they are not fit for purpose.  Steps need to be mathematical in design, each riser needs to be a comfortable ‘step-up’ or ‘step-down’ and each tread – the depth or length of each flat part of the step from front to back – needs to accommodate every size of foot comfortably.

In order to work out how many steps are needed to ascend a given height it is necessary to measure the vertical, in order to assess the size of the tread it is necessary to measure the horizontal (although sometimes that can be made to fit the design profile by land change).  Once both measurements have been obtained some maths is required.  A normal rise for a step – for instance a stairs in a house – is around 20cms or 8″, so divide that number into the height that needs to be climbed and that gives the number of steps (I am happy to go an inch or so lower but not higher).  Once the number of steps is assessed divide that number into the horizontal distance and that gives the depth of the tread.  If that is not a factor determined for you then go for a tread depth of no less than 12″ /30cms and no more than 24″ / 60cms.  It is normal for a person to ascend or descend steps one at a time, that is, one foot onto the next step and so on.  If the height is too great the foot alights too near the end of the step and on the descent this can cause a stumble, whilst on the ascent a trip is inevitable.  If the depth of the tread is too wide then the person cannot reach the next riser comfortably and often trips, if a wide tread is necessary then it must be wide enough to accommodate a step forward before the next riser is encountered – in other words the same leg steps up or down as opposed to the one-step-alternate method which most people like to use.  Complicated ? Not really, safe ? Yes, and that is the point, ease of use results in carefree ascent and descent and that is what is required. We do not, as a rule, take note of where we are placing our feet – not once we get past the toddler stage anyhow and not until we reach our dotage – so steps have to be built in a manner that allows people to use them without concentrating, fool proof if you like !

Old steps with curved fronts

The old flag steps can be seen here; the beautifully dressed curve and the width - wider one side than the other - confused me for a while.

As with the old terrace, these steps had been cobbled together from the remnants of an earlier grand garden feature.  It was quite clear from the different heights of individual risers and the totally dis-similar tread depths that they were not the product of a master garden designer, or stone mason for that matter.  What is clear however, is that they were the product of highly skilled slate-dressers and had been specially cut to fit into a specific garden feature.  Each step was around 10cms/4″ in thickness, the tread face was smooth – in one sense too smooth, as they can become quite treacherous when wet or icy and they do attract a mossy growth – whilst the underside had been smoothed off around the edges to a width of about 10 cms with the rest left rough to bed into the base.  What was remarkable and somewhat confusing was the curve and the width.  Each step had a curved face but it was soon evident I had a number of different circumferences, which of course one would need for a set of curved steps which graded inwards – concentric circles.  However there was another oddity that I could not fathom, not until it was too late that is.

Flag step with curved frontage

The lead edge was precisely scribed to a set circle diameter but each end differed, what on earth for ?

I worked out that I had four differing diameter circles and that each step had therefore originally been set higher up the set of steps for which they had been cut.  What I could not understand was why one edge was twice as wide as the other and the flat back therefore ran at an odd angle in relation to the face, in other words they were neither semi-circular nor chord.

I set out to merely move the set of steps as shown above, further to the right.  This was precipitated primarily by the need to protect a very fine Japanese Acer which had begun to dominate the approach to the descent and was masking the first two steps.  Madam was happy to massacre it by cutting it back to keep the steps clear but, and here I concur, Mr Gardener was adamant that it was such a prize and rare tree that it should not suffer such an assault.  In one sense I came forward with the idea of rebuilding the steps and at the same time moving them over to solve this debate.  I think Madam was slightly taken aback by my assertion that the steps needed re-building at all !  I persuaded her – easy really, just mention all the old ladies who struggle with them and the fact she has to position a ‘helper’ on the steps whenever an event is hosted.

Once I had started the rebuild, I think the first semi-circle had been competed and the second wall onto which the step would sit was in place – second morning then, I suddenly had a eureka moment.  I was removing the third step when I saw it.  I had taken down the steps one at a time starting at the bottom.  Now that may seem a bit dangerous, and it is normally, but these steps penetrated so far back into the structure that it was possible to undermine each one by removing the supporting stones and sliding the step out whilst the one above stayed in place by the counter-balance from above.  That way I didn’t have to man-handle flags which weighed upwards of 200 kilos down to ground level and then back up onto the prepared stones.  I was able to build each small retaining wall for the step (having scribed the circle into the step below by placing the new step onto bricks placed at each end and then tipping it backwards to allow me to build) and then merely lower the step onto them with the help of my ‘little’ helper – my God he is strong, or is it I’m just old !  On the second morning I was pondering the strange reasoning behind the potato-wedge type shape of each step when I realised that what I had was the remnants of an old spiral stone staircase.  The narrow edge would have fitted into the central axis and the wider, curved outer edge was against the circle of the wall, simple once I saw it, too late to re-create it !

Garden steps of slate built with mortar.

The 'new model', I have built them to force the user away from the acer and lead them onto the new terrace or the grass. Fit for purpose garden steps which will serve the family for a few more hundreds of years - or at least that's the guarantee I give !

I built the steps with a view to steering folk away from the acer and ‘invite’ them to descend towards the flagstone terrace or the grass.  The slope required a little manipulation to lose the stone-work into it and the terrace will have to blend into the bottom of the flight somehow – next week’s conundrum !

Old Land Rover working in Wales

Gladys has grafted this past few weeks, she has hauled stone dust and stone and borne me to and fro. Like me, she is ready for a little holiday... Well, she is 58 years old !

Just a note on why these steps are built with mortar ( a stone dust and sand aggregate with a 1 cement, 1 dust, 3 sand ratio) rather than dry-stone built.  If a garden is privately owned and used and the traffic up and down the steps is slight – family etc., and providing suitable stone is available – again dry-stone steps were usually dressed specifically for the purpose and it is unlikely a good safe set of steps could be built using stone randomly available – then it is possible.  However, where the steps are used by the public and may be subjected to a large amount of use I always secure with mortar.  In one sense it is how the modern scourge of litigation and health and safety requirements has impinged even my craft.  For instance,  I have had to remove stiles from my portfolio of work, apparently a stile – whether on a public right of way or on private land – is an ‘invitation to cross’ and as such is open to litigation should anyone fall whilst crossing, regardless of whether there was any defect in the build.  My insurance, should I wish to include stiles, would go up from around £350 p.a. (for £5 million public indemnity) to £1450 p.a. (with £50 million indemnity).  Steps on the other hand are, apparently, viewed less worryingly by the insurance fraternity.  I guess the moral is, if you are going to have an accident, fall over a stile not down well made steps !

July seems to have slipped by unnoticed whilst I have been at the mansion.  The Royal Welsh Show, that half-way marker of my year, has come and gone with the usual traffic chaos – well 50 plus thousand people each day descending on poor ‘l’il ‘ol Builth Wells is bound to have an effect !  Staying at the mansion were a bunch of Irish guys who had come over especially for it and some folks from ‘up north’ who were showing some sheep – the Royal Welsh is a must for people from all over the U.K. and abroad but essentially it is where the Welsh meet up.  Whilst it is the major agricultural show of the year – and with the demise some years ago of the English equivalent, the Royal at Stoneleigh it is now the major national show (the Royal Highland is big too) – it is also a major attraction for the non-farming communites.  Huge tented shopping malls and display areas for countryside matters (such as dry stone walling !) and forestry as well as country sports like angling and shooting are all present.  Even our rugby regions have a representation.

Staying off the roads whilst that is running its 4 day course is an absolute must.  However, despite my happiness at not driving this past few weeks travel eventually caught up with me.  I had to venture forth into England !

My destination was the old county of Warwickshire, indeed I was bound for the home of one Willy Shakespeare, Stratford-on-Avon.  The route for me is quite straight forward, in fact I follow a route that cattle drovers, taking Welsh beef to the fattening lands and markets of the ‘Champion’ regions of England used for centuries.  The term ‘Champion’ is actually derived from ‘Champagne’, not because grape was ever grown there but it was the area where a substantial and significant percentage of Britain’s  corn was grown from the Roman period right through the medieval and still is today.  Large open fields are the hallmark of the landscape and quaint timber framed houses line the streets of medieval nucleated villages.  These villages were created by the Normans after the invasion of 1066 and were a substantial change to the previously dispersed farmsteads and hamlets.  The contrast with my normal landscape is as extreme as it could be;  small fields with hedgerows or walls dominate the upland areas, not only of Wales but areas of England too, in the champion ‘bread basket’ of Shakespeare country hedgerows are far off on the horizon.  One field in Warwickshire can be bigger than a whole farm where I live.

A picture of the landscape of Gwynfe in Carmathenshire

The typical upland scenery of Wales, small fields and open 'Mynydd', the grazing commons. Those of you who recall the Wales backdrop in the marquee on the D.C. Mall should recognise this scene ! Just picture 'Cymru' scrawled across it in red !

The boundary of Wales with England is also the area where the landscape changes, partly due to geology and partly because of geomorphology – the shape of the land as a result of ice-age glaciation and river erosion – and here too agriculture begins to subtly move from a pastoral economy to one dominated by arable production.  Whilst I am a great lover of traditional upland farms, especially this time of year when hay meadows are at their best, I also get pleasure from seeing a field of waving corn reflecting the sunlight.  Thus the bitter pill of my having to drive was sweetened by the opportunity of seeing rural Warwickshire at the best time of year.

Most people wishing to get to the English Midlands would get onto the motorway network, most of which heads that way.  For me the ‘road less travelled’ is always my first choice.  The route through to Leominster I have described before but eastwards from that market town one moves from Herefordshire and into Worcestershire, as the city of Worcester becomes the target.  The great cathedral dominates the skyline from a long way out but today there is no need to battle through the narrow clogged up streets as a rather circuitous by-pass now exists.  The river Severn (Hafren in Welsh) is often the border but in Worcester it is more a symbolic barrier which once crossed opens up the great flat plains of Warwickshire.

A ripening wheat field in Warwickshire

A waving field of ripening corn is an historical sight in the Warwickshire countryside.

I avoid at all costs, the motorways of this part of the world, not least as driving at a reasonable 55-60 mph returns a good 70 miles to the gallon in my little ford, and in any case, as regular readers will be well aware, ‘poodling’ along country roads is more in my psyche than speed.

From Worcester I headed towards Stratford via Inkberrow along a good straight ‘A’ road which has some wonderful scenery.  It must be well over 25 years since I last visited the tourist mecca that is the home of W.S. (as I recall it was to see Brian Blesset and Kevin Branagh in Hamlet).  Oh my, it is not to be undertaken lightly !  Not least because there was a film crew taking up one side of the main market square, apparently a ‘bollywood’ production!  I had a quick tour of the market which, my to my pleasure, had an antique fair.  Amazingly I found a second hand book stall which had a copy of a book I had been trying to find for ages – The Landscape of Place-names by Margaret Gelling and Ann Cole.  It is a fascinating study into the origins and meanings of words, prefixes and suffixes, appended to places which indicate a land form or environmental aspect pertaining in Anglo-Saxon times.

A bustling Stratford on Avon.

The film crew had encamped on one side of the market square, right outside a de-riguer thatched inn. One can't help wondering if the yellow lines are really in keeping with a traditional view of the home of Will.

Stratford is a real honey-pot for tourism, why are Orientals so into Will Shakespeare ?  Why did I not see groups of British young people ?  One thing I did notice, a distinct absence of state-side drawls, the dollar is clearly struggling.

A short stay then off to another major tourist trap, Warwick Castle.  Warwick of course is synonymous with the reign of H8 and Liz 1 and it too sucks in thousands.  The castle has certainly got it together in terms of being a tourist attraction, hundreds if not thousands of cars – indicated by the fact that the field I parked in had a sign at the gate saying ‘This way to the Castle – 25 minute walk”, yes, it’s true, and every so often another sign would count down the time – strange really, don’t they know people walk at different speeds !

Fancy all these people wanting to spend time together !

Corn and water near Warwick castle

The river Avon flows alongside Warwick castle and the great flat fields, fallow and under corn stretch to the horizon where relic woodland hangs on.

I wandered along the river bank which was at the edge of the over-flow car-park I was in.  The field was fallow this year and much to my surprise a number of oak saplings, ‘quercus robur’ , the great English oak, were growing in the patchy sward.  They had no future as next year the plough will get them, that is if the sheep which will be put onto the ground in an age-old pattern of manure and cultivation, don’t get them first.  So, I came home with a dozen or so small oak trees from the grounds of one of England’s famous medieval castles.  The mature trees around were quite magnificent, the stump of a felled oak at the edge of the car park revealed an approximate age of 800 years and then I lost count !  I will plant them in pots for a couple of years to establish their tap root and then they will be put in a small oak wood here which I am gradually restoring.  It has the English oak already there, they too are old, planted at the beginning of this estate on which I live but due to years of neglect and sheep invasions there is no natural regeneration just yet, and in any case, like the area in general, some addition to the gene pool is always useful !

A long day but the best was yet to come; on the journey home, food was required and I had a mind to stop at a quaint little village in Herefordshire called Eardisland.  The village pub does some excellent ‘different’ food, spicey and foreign !

Eardisland is one of my favourite little villages on my route into England but I had never actually stopped and walked around.  A lovely sunny summer evening was exactly the right time.

The river Arrow at Eardisley

The slowly flowing river Arrow and the old bridge at Eardisland.

The Cross Inn is one of those old pubs that has resisted the temptation to modernise.  The landlady, a scouser, and her husband, a cockney, have a great attitude and the food is out of the top chef’s drawer.  I had an enchilada called a Bayou which was stuffed with bell and jalapeno peppers, cream cheese, spring onions with crayfish tails and Monterey Jack, the whole smothered in Creole tomato sauce and a superb side salad with peppers and olives.  Now you will know full well I am not given to writing a ‘good food’ guide but this was worth it (and I am following a well trodden tradition of blogs written in this little house !)

Good traditional English food !

My reward for enduring a day in the car, a road less travelled can often lead to new discoveries.

The meal was exceptional and the local beer just as good.  Clearly a walk around was required and as the sun was still high I wandered along the river bank and took in some of the village views.

Bridge over the Arrow at Eardisley.

The river cuts through the village and is flanked by lovely buildings and manicured grounds.

A wander through the lanes of an old village takes some beating on such a summer evening.  My grandfather had a saying however, “I like strawberry jam, but I don’t want to be in the pot”, and it equally applies to me.  A rare excursion into a different landscape, into a different culture and alternate farming regime, is a nice change and something I take full advantage of if and when I have to do it.  But in all honesty,  my little hay meadow and the hills around are sufficient to keep me contented.  At least until my little planned holiday even further eastwards in a few weeks , keep tuned for more adventures from Welshwaller, you know you want to !!  In the meantime I have the little matter of a field of hay to make, a job for the old Fordson methinks….

A hay meadow in full bloom.

My own little hay meadow with some old hay making machinery. It is teeming with insects and hence bird-life, the flowers are in full bloom and the sward is as good as I've seen it in many a year.

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