“Mud not fountain gave drink to thee.” (WS)

Muddy wall site

"Since golden October declined into sombre November, and the apples were gathered and stored, and the land became brown sharp points of death in a waste of water and mud ". (T.S. Eliot)

Normally, when I work, my mind is switched off to the task in hand and wanders to every corner of  the universe.  Not this week, no indeed, every step and every stone requires treble the effort and ten times the concentration.  Mud clings mecilessly to my feet, to my gloves, to the stone and anything else it can find.  The red earth of the western Brecon Beacons can be quickly turned to a claggy cement-like morass with the addition of some gentle rain.  Gentle rain has NOT been what has precipitated upon the land this last week, howling westerly gales have driven in torrential downpours.  The site of the wall I am currently building is in an exposed position, lovely views, yes, in fact the southern skyline is of Gower, the western skyline of the Carningli of the Presceli mountains; beyond both is nothing but the open Atlantic, where I stand and flounder is higher than both, thus there is nothing between the low pressure systems hurling themselves off the Atlantic and my little corner of  Wales.

Mud, Man and machine, and just some stone.

It looks like a wall building machine - oh how I wish it was, the machine is still wreaking havoc amongst the wildlife, sadly, and I'm not sure if it is helping me or just making the ground more Somme-like than it otherwise would be.

Nevertheless the wall is creeping inexorably upward and onward.  It is painfully slow however, each stone needs to be extricated from the glue and cleaned off before being placed in the wall.  One good thing is that the wall face nearest the house is not going to be seen once the backfill has been put in, thus I can use big ugly stones without worrying too much how they look.  The outer face is turning out not too badly all things considered, mainly that I don’t really have sufficient stone readily to hand and visible from which to choose the best ‘next’ stone.  Virtually every stone I go and get (or which Dan throws in my direction having clawed it from its hiding place) is positioned in the wall albeit there is probably a better example hiding somewhere in the quagmire.  I am very aware of two important factors, firstly I have dubious lower leg strength given the snapped achilles and the recent calf rupture, secondly the amount being built each day – given the ‘day’ is only about 5 hours long in this weather and early darkness – is barely economical given the current cost of fuel to get there (it is a 60 mile round trip for me).  It has always been the same in the winter months, short days, hard conditions and slow progress means a low rate of earning but at least I am gainfully employed.  Increasingly the levels of unemployment are causing social unrest and despair, especially amongst young people with over a million of them on the scrap heap without ever having got work.  My ‘little helper’ has voiced his opinion several times these last few days as to the lack of sense and unworthiness of the undertaking on which we are embarked.  The future for dry stone walling (read ‘bloody wet winter walling’) is in question despite the high level of unemployment.  No one in their right mind wants to do what we have been doing this past week, but there’s always the sunny days !

Dry Stone wall in the red stone mud

Yes, that is a deep muddy puddle through which every stone had to be carried and out of which it was nigh impossible to extricate my feet if I stood for a moment too long.

The rain does at least give the stones a nightly wash off, in the photo opposite the stones that have been positioned that day can be clearly seen, mud covered.  The large blocks of silica have actually turned out quite attractively and certainly match the stone pillars of the house.  The worry for me with water sitting at the foot of the wall is that the sub soil will become soft and the foundation stones may start to tilt into it.  The answer is – and indeed always has been throughout the history of such walls built in wet areas – to dig a ditch along the foot of the wall, some half metre away from the foundations, to allow water to run off from the vicinity of the wall.  The wall height is now level with what will be the lawned area in front of the picture window.  In essence it is a Ha Ha, that much loved feature of grand houses which prevents  stock entering the grounds but allows an unhindered view out over the parkland or pastures with no apparent barrier.  So far, in this situation, the plan is to build slighlty higher than the lawned area so as to present a low wall from the house side.  Another week should see the wall completed, but the weather is the master at the moment so time will tell.

The wild storms caused me to change my normal ‘Monday’ visit to the Royal Welsh Agriculoutural Society’s Winter Fair in Llanelwedd, Builth Wells.  The fair is a mini version of the main summer 4 day show but is a worthwhile day out whatever the weather.  Last year the show, which events on the last Monday and Tuesday of November or the first couple of days of December, depending on how the calendar shapes, coincided with the arrival of the first major snowfall of the winter and it just kept on all through December and most of January.  This year it was just a cyclonic rain storm with 60-70mph winds.  The Monday promised a reasonably fair day but the Tuesday looked frightening, so I decided to forego my usual first day visit and go on the second day.  I would not have wanted to have been in that exposed spot trying to build a wall, I can tell you.

Crowds gather for the RWAS Winter Fair

People and cattle, sheep and people, people and people, the Winter Fair !

The Winter Fair is the showcase event for fatstock breeders and sheep and cattle dominate.  The parade of fine cattle was quite outstanding and the sheep entries seemed bigger than ever.  Agriculture in general is doing reasonably well during this recession but everyone I speak to from the farming world is fearing the future.  The incessant rise in fuel price and the colossal cost of fertilizer and feedstuff is only sustainable because of the artificially high prices that beef and lamb is currently fetching.  That in turn due to the crazy international currency situation.  With the imminent end of most hill subsidy and the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and  consequent changes to the Single Farm Payment which that will precipitate, farmers are worried about the future.  Nevertheless the Winter Fair is a time for getting out and meeting old friends and spending a little of the cash from under the bed.  Judging by the fact the number of visitors was up on both days and from what I gleaned talking to a number of stallholders I know, trade was brisk.

Nice backsides of beef at the Winter Fair

Some people think I am obsessed with 'butts', not true, but these three fine rear ends did make me chuckle, just wanted to give them a good smack !

As always there were lots of folk to meet (how many did I miss on the Monday?) and the past year to catch up on.  So too work gets proffered and I came away with several new walling jobs and a couple of training events for the first few months of the New Year.  One of the varied branches of my work has, sadly, been irrecoverably removed from the calendar, the demise recently of FWAG (and in particular FWAG Cymru) has left a hole in the environmental side of agriculture which will be sorely missed in my view.  The Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group provided a very necessary and scientifically based service to the landowner.  It was a service devoid of any political influence in terms of the ‘in-vogue’ thinking on Agri-environment schemes or “jump through this hoop and you can get this cash”  type carrot and stick advise.  The reasons for its demise is unclear though I suspect mis-management is a factor but so too is the problem of all environmental work – when things get tight the non-essential (or what is viewed as non essential by politicians) programmes have to be cut and we don’t really need environmental advise or even work in a recession…. do we !

I am truly in awe of the amount of care an attention that certain farmers (or their offspring) lavish on their show animals.  If you have never seen the ‘beauty parlour’ which the holding stalls become prior to the ring appearance, you will be astonished.  I can only say that the fuss and pampering which dogs receive at large shows such as Crufts, is as nought compared to what a heifer or ewe endures in order to look their best for the judges.

Pampering for a cow

The 'poodle parlour' comes to the cattle pen. The hoover is blow drying the coiffure of this young heifer. I wonder if the Drovers did that before getting their charges to Smithfield !

Walking around the animal sheds is always an entertainment, not least because of the amusing conversations one hears about how best to get the animals looking ‘cool’ for the ring !  I am quite sure that I would not have the patience to do that kind of  activity, yes, quite sure.  I used to have a small flock of Jacob sheep and one of my customers was a champion breeder, I was shocked to find that in order to get the ram ready for the ring the poor old thing was tied to a ‘Y’ shaped post with its neck in the  ‘v’ of the post, tied for days while being lovingly groomed !! Huh, not good for the ram or me, so, much as I admire the dedication of those that show their animals, it is not for me.  On the other hand, the Fur and Feather show is far more my kind of thing !

A well turned out Bull

This is what it takes to get to the top in the world of Cow showing - or Bull .... in this case.

The problem for me was that by the time I got in the vicinity of the Chicken shed the heavens had opened, and then some, so everyone was diving for cover.  The crowded sheds are not places I can tolerate, in fact they invoke a certain panic in me.  The other problem comes in the differential that exists in the general physical make-up of the Welsh farmer and his family.  I am a southerner and hence stand rather taller and larger than the average upland Welsh farmer  and Mrs farmer.  That means I have a habit of stepping on or tripping over those below my eye level when imprisoned in crowds of people confined in narrow corridors in sheds !  The bigger problem is mothers pushing buggies in which are cocooned little people, protected behind barely see through plastic rain covers.  Inevitably I trip over them and sometimes even fall on top of the little person and, as occurred on Tuesday, cause the buggy to fold neatly into its ‘in the boot’ configuration.  This is somewhat distressing to the mother and the little person and causes something of a commotion, again making me feel like ejecting through the roof.  Escaping the swarming masses of stop / go /stop / chat / go /stop /look /go / hover / go / stop /greet / etc /etc /etc folk all dressed the same (in strange ‘country ware’ and caps) brings little respite for me.  When it rains all the little ‘Gladys’s’ (lovely little Welsh ladies who all look the same with glasses, blue perms and funny long purple waterproof coats) put their umbrellas up, well they would wouldn’t they !  That is a nightmare for me as the spike ends of the umbrella frames are inevitably on my eye level; the holder of course can’t see me – well maybe they are staring at my approaching torso – and so I get whacked in the eye.  I have learned to just grab the spikes and push upwards which has the effect of lifting them off their feet or bending the handle but generally alerts them to the damage they are about to inflict on those of us who operate at a higher level.  My tolerance of course gets gradually eroded and by lunch time, when I stupidly found myself in the food hall and had to egress most fastly, my fuse was well burned away.  I found myself caught in a one way flow of people moving in a narrow confined walkway which was periodically stopped and blocked by an idiot who decided to answer or call on the mobile phone thus bringing the whole movement to a halt.  Like traffic trying to pass a broken down lorry on a narrow busy road the congestion soon got to fever point, when my turn came to pass the culprit I heard the inevitable “I’m by the Curry van, I’ll meet you by here, what do you want”.    Moving on, the Gladys in front, with her raised umbrella, proceeded to stop, without warning as no rear red lights are fitted to raised umbrellas or purple waterproof long riding coats, which caused me to have to jerk my head vigorously to avoid the spikes.  After about five of these experiences I finally snapped and, catching hold of the long spiked lightning conductor at the top of her umbrellas, I thrust it downwards  and swerved around the little mushroom obstacle.  I was heading for one of my favourite stalls, and I was in a hurry !

Antiquity on show

Purple was even present at my favourite stall, an emporium of bygones from which I inevitably purchase an artefact.

A fine couple of goodly folk from the west country always attends the fair and almost always have some interesting items put aside for me – they know my particular wants and are well versed in presenting me with irresistible items – and this year was no different.  The other factor which added to the ‘charm’ of the vendors was that it was the last day of their last show of the year and hence they were more than happy to ‘haggle’ .

Tools for the discerning collector at the RWAS Winter Fair

No rust here, all well restored and nicely priced artefacts for my temptation !

I am always interested in items that relate to my particular craft.  The tools of the waller are few but there are hammers which are specific to the working and winning of the stone.  The stallholders hail from the edge of Dartmoor and so they often come across old stone working tools, this year again they had a real gem for me.

A large 16lb hammer which was designed for breaking granite had made its way north for me and I gladly added it to my ‘walling’ collection.  I have used several of the items in that collection, there’s nothing better than using a tool which was designed and made well over a century ago.  Apart from anything else the metal is better quality and it has been hand forged, so a craftsman made it for another craftsman and now I get to use it.  For the price of two bottles of medium priced wine I get a piece of  history which will still be around long after I’ve gone.  What I get pleasure from as well is the fact that I am positioning the item back in its environment, where it was meant to be, rather than just in a pile of tools which somehow relate to bygone times.  It will be catalogued in my collection correctly so that, in future, it will be known for what it is.

Shaped sledge for breaking stone.

The unusual sledge hammer for smashing into the laminates of sedimentary rock and splitting it into usable blocks.

I came home with two additions to my collection, the second item is not really something I would have gone out to buy but my friendly stall-holder had thought it was something that would be of interest, he had obviously failed to sell it during the several dozen shows he had attended since obtaining it so I was not too flattered but nevertheless he offered it to me at less than half of what it was marked up at, which itself was very cheap I thought (£18) and so, for the price, it was worth buying.  I often wonder if, behind my back, such people think me slightly eccentric – well I am ! – but I am always met with a greeting from these two and they are not pushy nor do they appear false, indeed at an auction a few years back where he and  I were obviously after the same items, he let me have the two items I really wanted and I, in turn, did not bid on the ones he was after.  That way I know he will keep things which he thinks might enhance my collection, albeit my area of interest is really confined to Welsh upland farming but of course, the upland areas of England had very similar agriculture and hence similar tools.

Walling hammers for splitting sedimentary stone.

The two sledge hammers for splitting sedimentary rock into suitable sizes for wall building. The left one I got several years ago, the new one is different and heavier, it is for granite.

I’m not altogether sure what my other item does although it is something to do with tensioning or linking  a chain or such.  It is a lovely piece of engineering and will be a good item for my 2012 competition of  “What is this tool”.  Someone of course will know and it is how many of my artefacts have ultimately been identified.  It really requires someone who actually knows what an item is by virtue of  having used it.

A chain pliers

I don't quite know what this does, but I know a man who does ! Dai - it has 711 Chain Plier etched onto it and is made by the American chain and cable co. inc. of Bridgeport, Connecticut, USA.

American made Chain Pliers

The pliers are 2ft long (60cms) and the action opens the jaws or closes the snips - intriguing.

The Winter Fair is the start of winter for me, last year the snow was already causing havoc, this year it was just gales and rain.  I ought really to utilise the time at the show-ground to buy Christmas gifts and food – the food hall is an absolute Aladdin’s cave of fine foods and drinks, most of them manufactured in Wales.  Unfortunately everyone else has the same idea but, unlike me, they carry it out and hence every stall, in the food hall and the gift halls, is just jam packed; I like to shop in quiet places and buy my treats from local shops and craft makers.

One of my ‘must see’ displays are the amazing decorative items that children and the inimitable members of the WI’s of Wales.    I am both astonished at the skill level of all of them and also at the time and patience involved in making the cakes and articles.  As always however, it is the floral displays that make my jaw drop.  I have no particular interest in flowers, I certainly have no idea what type they are (if they are not daffodils or roses, forget it) but to see what these ladies can create from natural plants is quite remarkable.  I know a couple of ladies (at my bank actually) who indulge in such creative torture, they tell me of the hours involved and the incredible cost of such creations – £500 doesn’t do it !  I stand and stare at them and wonder who on earth has the time and dexterity to do that, how do they transport it to the show and set it up without damaging it, but most of all I wonder – why doesn’t it all just shrivel up and die !

An astonishing floral display at the Winter Fair in 2011

Who has time to create this, such skill is beyond my comprehension...

The onset of December is often missed, dates mean very little to me, except that is for the fact that monthly bills need paying, again !  The Winter Fair and the Christmas lights in the small towns I pass through eventually begin to make inroads into my shell like brain and I begin to realise I need to do things.  Cards need to be sent, some have a long way to go, presents need to be gathered and work needs to be completed.  I like to end the year with all jobs done, not least because snow often covers my work sites for much of January.  It also means I have some ‘guilt free’ time at home working on some of my projects.  Hard days ahead then, the ‘wall in the mud’ to complete, a small patio repair to complete and, most exciting of all, a day at the farm where my Living Van resides, to prepare it for its move to my little hovel in the hill.



These two characters sums it all up for me, a jolly fine day out at the Royal Welsh Winter Fair, 2011


Amidst all this Christmas time enjoyment came an event that has saddened me immensely and the whole Nation of Wales as well as footballing folk everywhere

R. I. P.  Gary  Speed




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