“Some days are Diamonds, some days are Stone, some days the cold wind blows a chill through your bones…”

And some days you get both,  at least that’s my experience.  This week has been days of all three !

Storm brewing

Storm brewing on a diamond landscape at Edwinsford.

I returned to the Dinas at Llansawel, the old Iron Age fortress that was later the Llys of an Early Medieval Welsh multiple estate.  In between it had no doubt hosted Romans or Romano-British farmers and by the 12th century it was under the stewardship of the brethren of the Premonstratensian order from nearby Talley abbey.  Then the hill became the site of a rather grand ‘summer house’ for the landed gentry who occupied the adjacent grand mansion of Edwinsford, on the banks of the river Cothi.  Since the 1920s it has been battered and dis-membered such that it’s height has diminshed by over 200ft and its bowels have been blown out and carted away.  In the late 1990s I began the restoration of the C18th Deer Park wall, and I’m still at it !!

Wall of the Park at Edwinsford

The great Deer Park wall of the Edwinsford estate encircles the old Dinas, the defended enclosure which was the home of the Iron Age dwellers of the Ordivice.

The current gaps have now been repaired and will hopefully stand sound for a long while yet.  This time of year is really the latest that stripping out of collapses should be undertaken.  Already creatures have found their winter shelters and a pile of old stones is the perfect guard against the coming winter weather and hungry predators.  In fact, as habitats, collapsed walls are hugely important.  So one of the things I have to beware of whilst stripping away the piles of stones that lie intertwined at the foot of a collapse, is that itis likely I will disturb ‘critters’ which have settled in for the long cold winter.  Having worked the length of this wall for 8 years and more and at different seasons, I know where there are likely to be certain animals and insects.    For sure I would likely disturb some voles or mice who find the crevasses and runs ideal secret hideaways.  Another animal which was commonly found in the summer months was the Common Lizard, indeed certain sections held very strong colonies of this little seen reptile.  Fortunately the current gaps were not near those areas, nevertheless I was wary and so each stone was lifted carefully, ensuring no further collapses took place which might crush a small animal.  None were found, nor was the equally common (in this area at least) legless lizard, the Slow Worm.  I did however do an amount of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in terms of the field mice that had made themselves a nice little abode amongst the stones.  I was not so worried about their ability to get themselves re-housed before the snow arrived, they are very adept little colonists and moved quickly into the adjacent hedge-row.

Stones are an important habitat.

These piles of fallen stones are important habitats, or become so very quickly, thus it is important to move them before they become colonised.

On the other hand the lizards and slow worms would have been already very drowsy and may not have been sufficiently alert to have wriggled to a new lair, indeed they would have used up irreplaceable energy searching and, at the same time, would have been vulnerable to attack from the air as predatory birds such as Buzzards would have been very able to spot them in the reduced vegetation cover.  I was fortunate this time, however on or two stones had to be just left, they had the little nests of dry grass, shaped into a tennis ball sized egg with a hole in the middle, in which live the Short Tail Field Vole.  You may know from previous posts, that these are my favourite of all our small animals.  So they get extra special treatment and protection, after all, everything is after them, ground and air hunters, night and day they are the ‘take-away’ ready meal of choice.  We all love the under-dog.

Dry grass marks the nest of a short tailed vole

The size of a tennis ball, this little home of snipped dry grass is the winter palace of my favourtite little furry animal. So, it stays.

Slabs that hide a nest

These stones hide a secret hide-away so they are left, even though I could have done with them.

All the gaps have been duly repaired and the customer can breathe a sigh of relief – she has the land ‘tacked’ out during the winter, that is the land is rented to a sheep farmer from the high uplands of Wales, in this case the wild country of the Elan Valley.  The small hillbreed of sheep seem more than happy to be out of the inclement weather of those parts and are gleefully munching their way through the end of season grass growth.   The problem is they are forever getting caught in a small patch of brambles or, like all sheep the grass is always greener, they get their heads through the fence and their short horns prevent them from being able to extract themselves.  Daily retrieval from either situation is the duty of the host (and myself) but even then a couple have been found dead.

A Welsh black amongst the white hill sheep

Can you see the odd one out ? A few black sheep are traditionally placed in the flock to assist spotting them on snow covered hills. These hill-breeds - in this case Welsh mountain - seem so small compared to the cross breeds I normally encounter, they hardly seem worth the effort !

The quarry is a quiet place today, although there is talk that the proposed wind farm on the nearby Llanllwni mountain might see it re-commissioned to supply the stone for the roadway that would lead to the turbine site.  Not so many years ago the quarrymen moved back in to peck out and crush stone for the LNG pipeline which came through close-by.  The remnants of those piles of thousands of tonnes still lie piled, unsold, in the large open basins of the gouged out hill.

The grassy slopes which remain on the southern side are rented by the adjacent farm.  I mentioned earlier how, when blasting was taking place, large stones regularly crashed into the corrugated roof sheets of the farm buildings or rattled into the yard.  The farm was, until recently, owned by two brothers, sadly one of them , the ‘boy’  ( a mere 75 years old) died and now the older brother and his able young grandson are left to fill in the gap.  I have recounted previously how many fine folk I get the privilege of meeting in my work, mostly amongst the hill farmers who are formed out of their surroundings.  These two stood as the imperial measure, the standard against whom all others are counted.  The finest of the fine, the grandson shows all the hallmarks of maintaining the high setting of the bar.  When I first began to restore the wall – understand that the wall divides the in-bye of the fields from the open grazing of the enclosed quarry and also delineates ownership – the both brothers regularly came by on the ubiquitous quad-bike, checking on the sheep or spreading fertilizer (in the most immaculate un-restored John Deere I have ever seen) or setting poisoned worms for the numerous moles that create havoc on the grassy slopes.  They would always stop to chat and compliment me on achieving something they freely admitted they had tried and failed to do – mend a gap by re-building the wall in a manner that stayed up for more than a week – and for doing something that they, and their father before them, had always wanted to see achieved.  The restoration of that historic fine dry stone wall.  Compliments a rare from the mouths of hard working Welsh hill farmers and that’s fine with me,  I’d rather have the respect that they have continually paid me over the near ten years I have known them.  One Christmas the elder brother came by and stopped to give me a ten pound note to have a drink and to thank me for doing a job I was already being paid for.  I was about to decline when I realised that to do so would probably offend, the gesture was as big a gesture as he could have made.  I called by to see him and pay my respects for his loss and tell him what I was doing, he of course already knew, he had seen the gaps gradually evolving into a sound stock-proof wall.

Dry stone wall hit by quarry boulder.

One of the boulders which had come bouncing down from a blasting event to smash into the wall, the damage can be seen in the wall face, mostly such an impact resulted in a collapse.

The restoration of this fine C18th wall is one of my proudest achievements but it has inherent problems.  The wall, like all walls, reflects the underlying geology and even here, where a seemingly unending quantity of stone was readily available, that results in a different building method.  Most of the wall is built in a standard dry stone method, essentially that which all C18th dry stone walls would show.  The sandstone appears in well laminated blocks which sit relatively easy onto one another (as in the photograph adjacent).  However, the length of wall which faces the great mansion is of a different type of sandstone.  It does not occur in evenly bedded laminates of suitable size to be broken into nice building stone.  Instead is occurs as multi-faceted small, sharp faced nuggets which are next to useless for creating a sound and aesthetically pleasing wall.  This stone has been sourced from the south western edge of the hill and was the first area quarried, presumably for the great house and its environs of cottages, stables and walled garden as well as the deer park wall.  It is my experience that where a large wall is visible from the house – regardless of how far away it may be – it is mostly done with lime mortar and built without any batter.  It may even be the case with this wall that it was in fact totally white in appearance where it was visible from the house.  I have found several areas where the still-present lime putty has been so dubbed out as to suggest a lime plaster finish.

Lichen covered wall

The lichen and lime-loving plants betray the fact that here the wall is constructed using lime mortar which has, in turn, been dubbed out to create a perfectly flat surface which may even have been plastered.

The problem for me in trying to rebuild a wall that had been originally a lime mortar wall comes in the size of the individual stones.  It is often the case that the stone in a lime mortar wall is exactly the same as in the dry stone wall (in the same area).  However, in this wall the stones are quite different and not at all suitable for building a dry stone wall, certainly not to the height and thickness of the Edwinsford Deer Park wall.

Stones in the guts

You see my problem ? The stones are too small to penetrate the required distance into the wall (at least a third, preferably almost half way) and have little in the way of a flat surface onto which to sit the next stone.

In most cases where walls are built using lime, for instance in old farm buildings or farmyard walls, it is possible for the lime to almost completely disappear, eroded over the long years of harsh weather and the incessant acid rain of the C20th.  This is because the lime does not contribute to the inherent strength of the wall, each stone sits firmly on its lower companions and the lime merely fills in the gaps.  In the Deer Park wall the adhesion of the lime mortar played a strong part in its integrity.  When the inevitable disintegration of the lime took place – some 200 years after it was first laid – stones began to fall out.  Thus whereas in the dry stone sections the dilapidation was primarily the cause of the blasted boulders, in the lime mortar section it was mainly down to the disintegration of the lime mortar.

In the case of these recent gaps, with the exception of the last I did which was simply due to a large limb snapping off an old ash tree and smashing onto the wall demolishing about 2 metres, the smallness of the stones is a big problem.  Essentially when building a dry wall (remember it is dry because it is designed to keep water out not because it lacks mortar) the stones are turned at right angles to how they are normally placed in a mortar wall – called trace-walling – so that the longest side penetrates the wall.  Because of the high class masonry work in the original build the best/flat surface was placed on the outside, when I rebuild it inevitably means I have an ‘ugly’ face on the surface. Also it generally means the face of the stone that I use is smaller (in surface area) and hence covers less area, in other words, I am short of stone.

Do it the Dry way !

See the difference ? Deep penetration is the only way to make sure it stands up, but it does use up more stone.

So, there you have it, the daily problems of Welshwaller, but the wall is sound again and the customer is happy – well I did keep the price per metre at the rate I charged all those years ago !  However, she has promised more work next year – “as ye sow, so ye shall reap” !

I have enjoyed being back in this location, it is an historic and tranquil place even though it shows the desolation wreaked by man in pursuit of material.  It is one of the paradoxes of the landscape of walls; generally they have resulted in large holes in the ground.  Today quarrying is a definite pariah as far as environmentalism goes and yet, people and planners still demand stone.

People wax lyrical about dry stone walls and the heritage / landscape aspect that they represent.  Few stop to think of the quantity of stone required and how that was accessed and moved to the site.  As part of a recent academic study of the economics of wall building to medieval and early post-medieval rural societies, I quantified the stone in the Edwinsford Deer Park wall.  At around 4 tons per running metre and a total length of around three kilometres (apologies for mixing my metaphors)…….. do the maths !!

I thought I would end this little journey around the great Dinas with a photo tour for you.

The heart has been torn and blasted out of the old fortress.

Defensive banks of the old Dinas or just quarry workings ? The former in my view but we just don't know.

The high point is still tens of metres below its original height.

This old Ash lost a limb and gave me some work, it must mark the park planting of the early 1700s, but why is it 'outside' the deer park, on the hill side ? Did the wall therefore come after the tree plantings..... historical landscape study is never simple !

This shows just how steep the approach to the defences of the old Dinas is, a difficult assault for attacking forces.

This steel shelter was originally for quarrymen to hide in while blasting took place; the brothers moved it along the wall for me as I progressed the rebuilding, it was a welcome shelter from the rain.

The rebuilt 'big' gap with my little steel shelter peeking out behind. As you can see, i cheated, I could not go back to the 2.3 metre height using the stones in this part of the wall, so 1.8 metres will have to do.

I'm sitting having my lunch, this is the view out of my dining room window ! Not a bad office eh !?

Poor Old Waller

“The life of a Waller seems terribly phoney”

Said the man riding by on his Assinine pony.

“The life of a Waller must mean you get wet”,

Said the man with the Poodle awaiting the vet.

“The life of a Waller is all sweat and toil”,

Said the man at the garage stood Dipping his oil.

“The life of a Waller is keeping you poor”,

Said the Listening Bank man as he showed me the door.

True, the life of a Waller isn’t all funny.

There’s plenty of soakings and never much money.

The life of a Waller will never be bliss,

There’s rarely a “Thank you” and never a kiss.

(In fact) the life of a Waller is all graft and thrift

But I wouldn’t change it for that rise in the lift

To the office that’s buzzing with static and germs

And all of the thinking’s of wages and terms.

Where the Sky’s always tinted by blinds and by glass

And even at lunchtime you don’t see the grass.

Where the air is conditioned to kill all the lice

And as for the water, it never tastes nice.

And at the beginning and end of each day

They jump in their cars to get far away.

But after two hours they’ve not gone too far;

So much for the money, so much for the car.

So I’ll keep on Walling, avoiding the crush;

Right through the Winter, the rain, mud and slush.

True, there’s no money and I seem always wet

But it’s got to be better than being a Vet !


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