No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees, no fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds: November. (Thomas Hood)

Indeed, or rather, so it should be, but awry is everything or so it appears.  The land of dear friends has already seen a deluge of snow such as ne’er been witnessed this early.  In my very own garden two sunflower heads are just blooming and other flowers are still in bloom.  I open the window and flies pour in, driving me demented with their incessant buzzing,  “Go to sleep you infuriating little sods !”.  At least I remembered the change of the hour, well I did when I arrived an hour early on Sunday morning, for a meeting with my customers over in Cathedine.  Still, better than last time, it was Wednesday before I realised…

The first day of November wasn’t quite in accordance with Hood’s description;

Autumn sunrise

The sun breaks the skyline around 8.30am now, but it always breaks the skyline through the winter if it's a clear morning, useful for de-frosting my windscreen.

Sunflower in autumn

Ok, it's a bit of a runt, but it's still a Sunflower, and it's still 1st November !!

A bright clear morning and the sunshine cast a long shadow over my garden causing the sunflower heads to look skyward.   I’m not complaining, with the change to GMT getting up early is enjoyable for a few more weeks.

Flowers bloom in November in Wales.

Another Sunflower head, Lavetera (I think !) and Night Scented Stock, it is November isn't it or did I hibernate and not notice.....

Nature is being challenged if my garden and my surroundings are to be believed.  One thing Hood did get right was the lack of birds, hardly a small bird to be seen in and around my garden nor along the hedgerows or in the oak wood.  That in itself is not too surprising, it is an annual event.  Those of you who have been with me a long time will recall me talking last year of the great plague that descends on the land hereabouts each fall.

Once again those most unwelcome of countryside pests are infecting the land, eating all before them, every seed, insect, berry, worm and anything else they can hoover up in their race to get fat enough to be ready to die in a week or so.  I’m talking pheasants of course;  it is my reminder that the pleasure and privilege I enjoy living where I do comes at a price.  The annual ritual of rearing and releasing thousands of pheasant poults, then, for some months, daily whistling and feeding them, drawing them further and further (or at least that’s the theory – not working very well this year) away from the release pens and into the fields and woods from whence they will be driven to the guns, is well underway.  Annually my hatred and disdain of the poor wretched birds and the sad excuses that try to pass themselves off as country-loving folk, who rear and kill them, grows.  I have, for several years now, been applying some scientific survey techniques to try to establish whether my hypothesis that these locusts do indeed drive away nature and even cause long term diminution of native species.  The results are worrying, not least because I have witnessed several of these creatures actually taking bees off plants.  They certainly put paid to any ‘critter’ that hangs around longer than the mid August release date.  No caterpillar, no beetle, no grub of any sort will survive, no moth, no butterfly, no insect of any sort will survive if it alights on a stem near one of these prehistoric looking creatures.  The roads around are littered with dead carcasses, only this morning I had a near miss as a lady swerved violently onto my side of the road in an instinctive reaction to one running in front of her.  Of greater concern is that all this carrion on the road attracts large corvids and top feeders such as the Red Kite and Buzzards.  So far on the roads onto which these vermin have now infiltrated I have seen  two buzzards and one Kite.  Before I was able to photograph the Kite it disappeared, maybe someone has taken it for research or to report it, maybe even to have it mounted, though that is a problematic thing to attempt due to the strict laws that protect these birds.  Why is it not an offence to cause so many animals to be loose on our roads with all the inherrant nuisance and danger to road users and predators ?  It puzzles me daily as I negotiate my way through the hoards; my only comfort is that the Laird’s house is even more over-run with them than is my own little patch  !!

A plague on your house - pheasants fill the countryside

A plague on my house ! HN51 can't come soon enough....

The other scourge which has befallen the natural world here, on my doorstep, is that most dreadful of diseases myxomatosis.  So far I have had to deliver the coup-de-gras to 15 little bunnies as they sat helpless, blind and gurgling as the man-made killer ate them away. Although it’s not actually ‘man-made’, it was first discovered in Uruguay in the 1890s and shipped over to Australia where rabbits were causing some concern, it worked so well it was decided to use on the great arable fields of England in the 1950s, and ever since it has a cyclic re-appearance.   I was half expecting it this year; firstly there were so many youngsters around the place – strange how nature knows when to bring forth a multitude of babies when the food source is plentiful and what a growing season it has been, even for grass – secondly, it’s been around five years since it swept through these fields and a five year cycle seems to be the pattern.  I don’t like having to shoot them but their suffering is too much to have to witness and ‘passing by on the other side’ is not possible, not for me anyhow.

Poor infected rabbit

Blind and barely able to breathe, this sad little spectacle sat by my gate, as if asking me to release it from its suffering.

Apparently the virus only afflicts rabbits but I’m worried about my little resident killer, Marti, my young tom cat.  He seems to be taking them just at the stage they can’t run away from him and he is clearly devouring some parts – only today I found several part eaten carcasses in the lean-to.  Other carrion eaters seem to leave the dead and dying rabbits alone, none of the ones I have despatched have been touched and there are several buzzards and kites about the place, happily eating up as many pheasants as they can.  The old vixen that crosses my pass at least a couple of times a week seems to be not interested either which makes me think there is something detectable in the creatures.  I mention last year when I came across an outbreak near Brecon, how I had witnesses in a number of places, indeed here five years ago and in the Yorkshire Dales a couple of years later, a great number of dead stoats.  A live stoat is a rare sight, a dead one, even on the road, is almost unheard of, thus I feel that the virus must accumulate in carrion eaters and those that hunt the poor debilitated rabbits just prior to death.

All in all the natural and quasi-natural world which I inhabit is a little bereft at the moment.  The gales have begun to create the annual leaf chaos with blocked drains and sludgy pathways; already the ash trees have dumped several tons onto my lawn and vehicles, all in one night, it is an amazing sight but a damned nuisance.

Puss in sun

A shady character indeed; my resident 'killer', little Marti, he can be cute but not for long ! The 1st of November early morning sun creates his shadow.

I abandoned the deer park wall at the Dinas as the weather has been just too crazy, I don’t mind working in the rain to a degree but this week has been a little too much even for me.  Instead I returned to the old pig-sty at the mansion and completed the re-building of the walls, although I cheated somewhat by using a cement based mortar – frost is not kind to slow curing lime mortar – and will ‘dub-out’ and semi plaster with lime in the spring.  Not a very good thing in many ways with old buildings but there are already large areas of the old walls that have been re-built with cement.  After four days of hard shovelling and herculean feats of wheel barrow operation by my little helper – without whom this could not have been accomplished – the yard was clear and the pressure washer revealed the old purple sets of the sty floor.  M’lady is well chuffed and so too, apparently, for our paths rarely cross as he leaves early for the office and returns long after we have left for home, is the Laird.  All in all it took two weeks of hard graft and yet the end product, whilst being admired, seems to hide the effort.  It’s why ‘before and after’ photos are useful !

restored pig sty

The finished product, well worth the effort don't you think ? The building is sound again and the sets are once again revealed in all their glory.

Pig sty

The pig sty sits below the yard of the mansion and was something of an eyesore, now it has had its dignity restored.

Muck in't pig sty

The muck was nothing to do with pigs, just people and nature. It took four days of shovel and wheelbarrow to clear it all away.

Piggy pig sty needs some attention.

What a state it was in, how could anyone have put a new roof on and not fix it to the supporting back wall ?! Time will tell if my cure saves the front wall or whether it still succumbs to gravity.

So bad has the gloomy weather been that I felt in need of a little respite.  In Wales nowhere is very far from the coast and that is the place to head for a bit of re-invigoration.  I especially like it out of season when all the holiday makers are gone -well almost -and shops are shuttered.  My usual haunt for these trips is the place of my childhood holidays (and my children’s early holidays), the little harbour and beach resort of Saundersfoot in south Pembrokeshire.  It is a one street kind of town with a history linked to the export of coal from the nearby pit at Stepaside.  A small railway brought the coal to the harbour and its route now forms the coastal walkway with tunnels hewn out of the rock.  Of  course nowadays it is a leisure port with sailing boats and small fishing vessels which ply their trade in the summer months, by the late autumn the harbour is a sad sight with few boats still in the water and lobster pots stacked around the sides.

Tide out and most of the boats out.

No water, few boats, the tide still comes in but few boats go out.

I know I have mentioned this favourite place before, but it’s where I go when I need to get a recharge and bad weather is guaranteed to put me in need.  I should really be grateful for a little respite to put things in order here but I find that if I have missed too many days,  then having an enjoyable day in my sheds is plagued by guilt.  Leisure time is only satisfying if it comes after hard work.

Pots put to dry for the winter.

Lobster pots stacked around the harbour walls, a real sign of the onset of winter.

I’m clearly not alone in the desire to get some sea air, a number of intrepid souls braved the wild onshore wind and walked way out on the sands, taking advantage of the ebb tide.  It reminded me of how disappointed I used to be to arrive at the beach only to find the sea had disappeared out of sight.  Of course, when you are only 3ft high the horizon or the sea when the ‘tide’s out’ may as well be Africa.

Tide's out.

A windswept expanse of sand is just the place to blow away the blues.

Now in the area in which I live there aren’t many roads which I have never travelled.  My work and my interests in old farms and landscape history have taken me to most of the out-of-the-way places and down most of the narrow lanes.  However there are still a few and last week a call to look at a job took me down one.  It was a turn off my main route home from Llandovery, at Cynghordy.  That little village name has a resonance with railway buffs as the place where a rather spectacular viaduct crosses the broad valley of the river Bran carrying the Heart of Wales line.

I have crossed the viaduct tens of times on the train and I have viewed it from afar, it dominates the landscape from high ground.  I have never, however, been under it and didn’t actually know there was a road.  My little expedition to look at work found me unexpectedly right under the impressive structure.

Railway viaduct at Cynghordy on the Heart of Wales line.

The Cynghordy viaduct from the little road that runs under it.

I don’t count myself amongst the ‘railwayana’ brigade, certainly not in any way a railway anorak – though I did spend an inordinate amount of my early teens ticking off engine numbers from a little green book as my friends and I crouched beside the main line from Newport to Abergavenny and on to Manchester.  I well remember the excitement and anticipation of the ten to eight (pm) ‘Castle’ which hauled the mail train.  Indeed there was even one of those cradles from which the mail bag was plucked as the express flashed past.  Even greater thrills came when we spotted a ‘double-header’ pumping up the long slow climb from Llantarnam and onwards towards Pontpool roads (yes, it really existed, not just the home of the Fat Controller or a certain blue bug- eyed steam engine).  My interest, in so far as I have one, is in the historic, long gone routes that wound through some of the wildest parts of Wales and how on earth such engineering was achieved in the middle of the nineteenth century, even worse, how it came to be disregarded within a hundred years.  Cynghordy viaduct is certainly in that bracket.  I actually rode on the footplate of a little side-tank engine pulling coal trucks across the Crumlin viaduct, the most iconic of all railway viaducts (in Wales in any case), how come ?  My father was a fireman on the Great Western Railway (later British Railways) from the age of 14 until he left in the mid 1950s, perhaps foreseeing the demise that lay in store for that great institution.  I sat and gazed up at the viaduct in that remote beautiful valley and drifted back to those days; nostalgia is never far below the surface of my psyche.

The arches of Cynghordy viaduct.

The viaduct actually curves, something I hadn't realised until I stood under it. It has 18 arches which spans 259 metres (around 850 ft) across the valley, rising to nearly 30 metres (100ft). The stone-work is immense, like all railway architecture. It has stood dominating this valley and the landscape since 1867.

That little road to nowhere was a real adventure of discovery for me, architecture galore including old farms and derelict river-side mills, wooded valleys and some interesting place names for me  to research.  One in particular reminded me of the difficulty of pronunciation and the disbelief that such vowel-less Welsh words engendered in my American visitors.  Understandable.

Forest name - Fwng

See what I mean ? An interesting little forest plot which clearly has an interesting past.


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