If you keep walking in a straight line, you’ll eventually return to the start !

Or in my case, if I keep on Walling I’m bound to end up back at the start !  And I have….

Stone stone everywhere

Back where I started - in a field of stone.....

I’ve come full circle and arrived back where I started, at the farm where it all began 2o odd years ago.  This time however I am adding to the newly built retirement home of the customer, Mr Huw D.  He has been a good customer over the years and there haven’t been many years in all that time when I haven’t been doing something or other for him.  The field walls of his farm were the first I restored under the very first pilot Agri-environment scheme, Tir Cymen.  In the 10 years of that scheme I rebuilt some 2000 metres (yes, 2 Kilometers !) plus a number of smaller new builds or repairs around the farmstead (for some strange reason walls associated with the farmstead were disallowed in the first scheme – not the second however).  He then entered the all Wales scheme, Tir Gofal and I completed a lengthy new build at another farm he owns where his dear old mother lives.  I am now back to build a Ha Ha wall in front of his new house, to separate the garden from the sheep, whilst remaining unobtrusive from the large picture window of his lounge, that is the wall is unobtrusive not me !

Frame and stones, the wall begins.

The rich red soil of the western Brecon Beacons contrasts with the silica rich blocks and sandstones which I have to build the new wall.

The house has been built in a virgin field and only got permission (from the fastidious National Park planning authority) by virtue of being ‘tied’ to the farm.  Now I have vowed not to be ‘political’ in my blog, so I must be careful but, this house was designed (or should I say the original design was forcibly changed by those planners) to look as if it was a ‘Barn Conversion’.  So, as if we haven’t got enough barns and farm buildings being converted for (usually) holiday homes, we now, at the undemocratic behest of some urban-minded planning officer, are creating ‘false’ farm buildings in an attempt to ‘fool’ people into thinking the new build is an old  building.  Is it me I wonder, after all, old farms are a passion of mine, or does this latest ‘decree’ smack of ultimate lunacy ? Ok, not ‘smack’ of, overflows with lunacy; we have struggled for over 30 years with stupid planning rules and even more stupid planners, most of whom come into the National Park not realising it is a living landscape where thousand of years of man’s influence has shaped the very treasures that make it so valued today, not appreciating that long standing communities have to live and work in it, not realising that it cannot and should not be some ‘playground’ for them to implement their middle-class urbane ideas of sustainability and traditionality.  Sorry, I just don’t rate these silly people.

The hills of this farm formed a part of my research into the historic building styles of dry stone walls, in other words, can a wall be dated, more or less, by how it has been constructed; how each stone relates to and is positioned next to others.  I believe differences do exist, I’ve had them in my face, or more correctly, my hands, for a long time.  The geology of this particular area is very confused and this has led to many knowledgeable historians, archaeologists and geologists, assuming that the differences relate to the type of stone rather than to who built it and when.  There is much prehistory in this area and the opposite ridge-line boasts a whole ensemble of Bronze Age burial cairns.  The walls of the hill on which the farm is situated date principly from the enclosing of this former ffridd, or common grazing land of the township (a township in early Welsh society did not mean an urban or built up town rather it was made up of dispersed farms) which took place in the early years of the 1800s (the Enclosure Act was passed in 1812) and hence the wall typology is distinctly of that period.  Not far away, just over the other side of the hill, are field systems and walls that relate to Iron Age farmers who lived close to the great fortress of Garn Goch.

After all the gapping and stone steps I have been doing in the last few months, it is quite satisfying to be back doing the real job, building a dry stone wall of some length.  This wall will work out at about 40 metres at a height of around 1.2/1.5 mtrs, the difference relating to the undulations in the field;  I want to end up with a flat straight top so I have to wall-out those discrepancies.  The stone is a mixture of the three main types that occur nearby and which he gathered for the house build and the curtilege walls.  Thus the foundation stones are large and extremely heavy blocks of silica or basalt from the exposed seams some 300 feet higher up the slope.  There are smaller but equally dense and chunk blocks of Ordovician sandstone and the inevitable flat slabs of Old Red Sandstone which gives the colour to the soil (as can be seen in the photos).

I’m not sure how the finished wall will look, often a wall of mixed stone can look somewhat dishevelled, not at all like it was built by someone who knew what they were doing – after all it has a detrimental effect on the inherent stability and morphology, the courses look odd, the colours and lithography are different, the whole thing looks artificial.  It is not the traditional way of wall building, or is it ?  Actually one of the ways of understanding the changes in the underlying geology is to closely look at the stone in dry stone walls.  Conversely, where the underlying geology is not reflected in the wall (which implies you know what lies beneath or have a geological map), it suggests that the stone has been transported a distance.  The further the stone has been transported – normally a question of hundreds of metres rather than miles, though miles can have been covered in some instances, such as the coastal field systems of  those counties which border the sea – the later in time the walls would have been built; thus by the main C19th enclosure period stone was being quarried and carted or sledged from a convenient outcrop which lay some distance away (or nearby).  Earlier walls tend to have used field clearance stones which are quite easily detected by their more weathered and smoother faces, sometimes topped by quarried stone from a small quarry often at the field edge.  Certainly the old farmsteads almost always have the quarry from which they were built very close-by.

Quarry and wall.

This small quarry was the source of stone for the wall in the background; the stone was 'won' (the term winning' the stone is oft reported in documents of the C17th and C18th) close to where it was needed, in this case a Deer Park wall of the Abermarlais estate, built in the middle of the 1600s. Is it the case that the line of the wall took into account available stone sources I wonder.

I mentioned recently the vast quantity of stone that is required to build dry stone walls, and indeed farmsteads.  I am forever faced with comments about the magnitude of wall building and the astonishing skill and fortitude of the craftsmen of old who built them, far up on steep craggy hillsides.  My own wonderment relates more to the unimaginable effort and endurance of the men (and oxen) who gathered or broke down the stone and transported it to the building site.  It is often possible to discern exactly the spot that a new load of stone arrived at a wall for therein will be seen large stones placed at levels inappropriate and different from the next section.  In other words, as soon as the sled arrived bringing a fresh load of stone, the builders immediately grabbed the big stones and built with them regardless of where {up} the wall they were.  After all, then as now, payment was made on the basis of how much was erected, a wall goes up so much more quickly with large stones !

An old wall made higher with quarried stone.

Here we see an early field wall - built to control cattle, either by excluding them or including them - but later made higher to manage sheep. The lower wall is of field clearance stone, rounded and uneven, the upper courses of quarried stone, the lower of limestone, the upper of sandstone.

We’ll see, and be sure you’ll get to see and judge whether mixed stone is palatable.  What is certain is that it will be a substantial structure which will (hopefully) contribute to the overall appearance of the house with its oak framed picture window and its stone pillars.  It will take a while, I would hope to complete it in two weeks – 10 days building – but that may be optimistic. Talk and tiredness will no doubt intervene, it is one of the downsides of working next to the abode, yes, tea three times a day is nice, but chatting and “come in a moment and take a look at this”, or, “that’s a very nice new Land Rover you have there Mr. D” ! all takes time.  I never worry about passing the time, who knows when it may be the last.  Since I first called to see him back in mid August to discuss the project, Mr D. has been twice at death’s door; undiagnosed diabetes and pneumonia nearly finished him off.  He was six weeks in hospital.  Whilst there, or so it is assumed, over 200 of his flock disappeared from the open mountain, gone for slaughter no doubt.  Others suffered similarly, all in all several hundred young ewes and lambs have been rustled off the hill.  A large reward (over £7000) has had little result.  The culprits are known,  unsurprisingly they have their own slaughter facility, it is only by slaughtering the animals that they could be turned to cash for the tagging and identitiy system of the European big brother has at least ensured traceability should they be sold in a market.  Of course proving such a crime is difficult.  It is a tragedy, fewer and fewer farmers are willing to put flocks to the open hill commons and the ecology of the mountain is suffering as a result.  Ironically Mr. D has been at the forefront of agri-environment scheme take-up, being one of the first to enrol (partly through his place in the Welsh Farming Union, FUW) and is currently driving the graziers on his Common (Mynydd) towards entering the Glastir Commons programme.

Walls of the C19th.

This is the typical state of the walls I had to rebuild at Dafadfa, the Old red sandstone has suffered from a poor initial build quality and two hundred years of wild weather, especially big snow drifts.

I began the week with some social interaction.  I ventured into the city, Cardiff to be precise, not a thing I would normally do out of choice, especially on a Saturday, but I had to receive a surprise birthday present.  Except I knew what it was, a ticket to attend an evening performance of a T.V. quiz show, ‘A Question of Sport’, courtesy of big sis.  The trip to the city always leaves me confused and in dread, particularly about where the hell to park (and how much that will cost !).  As it happens I know some little spots on the Riverside, conveniently near to Nos Da a useful pub on a Saturday afternoon, especially one on which Heineken Cup rugby is being played.  It is also, I should add, a hostel for International students/backpackers and is therefore a very ‘young’ place and cosmopolitan too.  As I sat awaiting the arrival of my fellow show visitors I enjoyed the rugby and a guiness, oh yes, and a certain feeling of deja vu, the place was over-run with American accents !

An Italian meal eased the transformation from State-side to South Walian accents, especially the Cardiff-speak, however I suddenly found myself listening to Swedish/Finish/Norwegian (don’t ask me which was which) speak, in the middle of the main street !

World Rally comes to Cardiff

Ralio, the World Champion Sebastian Loeb, gives an interview in the middle of the main street in Cardiff !!

It was a total surprise to find the centre of Cardiff given over to the Wales Rally GB.  I live on the edge of one of the main ‘off road’ stages on Eppynt and Crychan forest.  Each year thousands of following rally fans invade this area and make it impossible to move around.  it only lasts for half a day before they all shoot off to the finish, in Cardiff.  This year, and a complete change from the usual timetable, the special stages on Eppynt were run on the Sunday (which was Remembrance Sunday and hence raised some eyebrows) which meant I was not too concerned to be out and about on the Saturday.  I used to follow the rally around many of the Welsh stages but it has become so commercialised and hugely popular I now watch from afar.  Hence it was a real thrill to find myself yards from the World Rally Champion (already crowned by Saturday night due to his main competitor crashing out) Sebastian Loeb.  The cars were brought into the main street and the drivers were interviewed.  It was a hard act to follow but the evening at the large and impressive (Cardiff International Arena) ‘Motor something centre’ rounded off the evening.

The show finished around 10pm and I then had to walk back through the centre of the City to my car which was over the river.  I find myself lost for words to describe the sights I saw nor the feelings of despondency I felt as I navigated my way through the hoards of young (and not so young) drunken people.  By their standards the night was young, yet they were already out of their heads – my sister and partner who enjoyed their own late-night found themselves in running battles and curb-side ‘illness’ when they eventually came through at 2 am.  I walked wrapped against the cold November night, they staggered and screamed their way dressed more like they were on a Costa holiday resort in the middle of August.    Society is doomed, or so it seemed to me that night.  It is a nationwide issue, it is a massive challenge for society to turn the tide of this alcohol fuelled loutish, ‘couldn’t give a damn’. behaviour.  I dread to think of the damage these young people are doing to their health, excessive booze and unsuitable clothing subjecting the body to extremes of toxin and temperature.

Much has been made this last week of the plight of the unemployed young people, not just in Britain but throughout the world.  I read an interesting essay by historian A.N. Wilson on the ‘Death of the Working Class’, in which he laments the dismantling of the tiered education system in the 1970s and the drive toward ‘everyone’ getting a university education and meaningless degree.  He argues that we (in Britain) have lost the ‘dignity’ of hard work and jobs in the ‘grafting’ sectors of the capital industries and manufacturing.  I have long argued that a young person is better off learning a trade than getting a degree, purely on the basis of job availability, although I think there is also the question of dispersal of families and the break down of communities which inevitably leads to the disrespectful behaviour I witnessed on Saturday night.  In my own areas of work there is little interest from young people, neither is there much of a future, environmental and traditional work is the first to suffer in times of recession.  In the rural areas the problem of out-migration of young people (to better paid jobs in the cities) has by-and-large disappeared, there are no jobs to go to.  The cost of housing and living in general means more stay at home but there are no jobs to be had in the countryside.  Aspirations to do well seems to have sidelined any consideration of taking up skilled manual work, even in agriculture those young people that remain on the family farm or enter the industry have little interest outside stock and the comfort of operating mechanical machinery.  What the future holds for this ‘lost generation’ is difficult to judge, what the future holds for my little grand-daughter frightens me.  Climate change, economic chaos, increasing failure of our education and health service all point to her generation having it as tough as those of my great grand-mother’s generation.  We are being dragged backwards and I don’t see the ‘I’ phone, the lap-top, the electric car, doing anything to reverse the change.  My feeling is that sooner or later we will be returning to working class jobs as the only means of increasing the wealth of the nation and the wealth of the masses who need them.  Maybe, just maybe, there will be recognition that the large amount of work that needs to be done – like the repairing of the 300 or so miles of dry stone walls in the Brecon Beacons and the re-laying and continued management of our native woodlands and hedge-rows (you will have heard this before !).  I have had long conversations this last week with my customer about these very issues, he sees the future of farming as in crisis, he agrees that the mountain commons will cease to be valued grazing and will revert to waste-land, we both despair at the breakdown in social values that allow someone’s sheep to be herded off the hill and no-one notices or cares.

Oh, woe, woe and thrice woe !  Enough of this methinks, back to the wall and the restorations.  I have actually been quite busy on the restoration front and have added a few items to the collection;  I will do a little update for you in the next post.  In the meantime I’m going to return to my first farm and get another wall built.  Dafadfa, the place of sheep (in translation) is an inspiring place and represents a huge investment of my life and a couple of generations of Mr D’s family.  As I write his dear old mum, Beryl, is preparing for the long journey after 87 years of hard graft.  Her husband lost his leg in a threshing machine in the 1940s and she had to do the lion’s share of the farm work whilst raising 5 of her own children and one waif.  I love her immensely and have spent many a happy hour chatting with her about times past.  The farm was right in the middle of an American training area prior to the ‘D’ day landings and she speaks fondly of them.  Indeed her husband’s life was only saved by the chance passing of an American doctor in his jeep at the time of  the accident so, she too, has a soft spot.  Coincidences abound around there, a light tank called a Stuart lies in the bog at the top of  the farm, stuck where it was abandoned and consumed by the wet claggy peat in 1944;  I continually unearth spent M1 or 0.5″ ammunition cases in or under the walls of the area at places where some young G.I. knelt to fire (live rounds mind you !) all those years ago.  Dafadfa is an important part of my life:

Dafadfa

Dafadfa’s walls stand as a shrine

To labourers from a bygone time

Who toiled and sweated placing stones

That now lay bleached like piles of  bones.

The first were Scots building mile on mile

And then the men from the Emerald Isle

Who climbed the hills after laying tracks

So trains could go and then come back.

And now comes me to fix and mend

These ancient boundaries which ascend

Up through the clouds and winds that scowl

And blast the walls that shape Carn Powell.

The two Dafadfas seem asleep

Despite the sound of countless  sheep,

Because of walls that seem to hide

The ancient homesteads deep inside.

To keep them thus is now my task,

Rebuild those walls to make the mask

That keeps the families, sheep and all

Protected by those Dry Stone Walls.

A lazy little lamb

I know just how you feel little lamb. This is a lazy little critter, everyday he's on his knees chomping away. But then, I always sit down to eat, don't you !

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