“I don’t consider myself a pessimist, I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin !” (Leonard Cohen)

It is said that into every life a little rain must fall, but not much falls into mine on the whole.  True, the stuff has been free flowing out of the sky for what seems like months (but is actually only a few weeks and even then intermittent) but apart from making the job ‘dirty’ and more tiring, tiresome even, it’s not really a cause for pessimism.  I know full well from long experience that sunshine always follows a dismal spell and sure enough, even while the first snow of winter is creeping nearer, bright rays descended on Welshwaller.

You may recall mention of an old wagon which I had acquired many moons ago; actually it is now  nigh on five years ago.  It came about quite by accident one August Sunday morning, a simple event which has had  an affect, albeit in a small way, on my life.

I was with a friend setting off to the ‘Three Cocks Vintage Day’ held each year (on the second Sunday in August) at a large arable farm called Boatside, on the banks of the river Wye at Hay.  It is an annual ‘must see’ event for both myself and my friend who is one of the Junkyard Angels from the ‘Kingdom of Rust’ over at the antique centre in Trecastle (www.kingdomofrust.co.uk).  As we joined the road that runs past the church at Cathedine (the one now for sale) and the farm of Lower Cathedine, I saw a black cat dead in the road, just outside the farmhouse.  Knowing that there were young children in the farm and thinking it would be rather upsetting should they come out and see their poor kitty in this state,  I stopped.  I carried the poor creature to the opposite side of the road and placed it in the tall grass then went to the house to tell Mr or Mrs Farmer – at that stage I did not know them other than by sight.  Walking into the yard and around the very fine old buildings – which of course caught my attention immediately – I was stopped dead in my tracks.  There, tucked in against the rear wall of the grand threshing barn and stable, was a wooden wagon.

Living Van. An old wooden wagon towed behind a steam roller

The wagon as first sighted. It is a'Living Van' for pulling behind a Steam Engine in which the crew would live whilst on the job.

I admired it and pondered why it was there, then walked on to the house and knocked the door.  There was no answer so I scribbled a note and left it then went on to the fair.  I thought about the wagon and the farm for a while but soon it went to the back of my mind.  However, and here’s the ‘coincidence’ bit, some weeks later I was down at Ty Mawr, a matter of three miles or so from Cathedine,  and a farmer I know and to whom I had mentioned I was looking for an old dray (a 4 wheeled cart used for haulage), told me that a neighbour of his had an old hay dray that he wanted to get rid of.  It was the very same farm where I had spied the Living Van.

When I called again at the farm and mentioned the story about the cat, the farmer and his wife were pleased to see me and thanked me and then we got to talking business.  I did a deal on the dray and talked to him about the history of the Living Van.  It turned out that his father had bought it from Brecknock County Council at the end of the 1950s, it being one of three they were disposing of, having finally ceased using their own steam driven road rollers behind which these vans were hauled to provide accommodation for the driver and his crewman.  It had been towed home behind an old Fordson Major tractor (useful information as it turns out) and parked in the exact spot where it now stood and there remained for all that time.  In fact the farm yard had been concreted over many years ago and the concrete does not extend under the wagon.

Living Van - the door is at the towing end.

The doorway is at the towing end; the wagon stands high so steps are needed though the originals have long since gone.

It transpired (probably because I mentioned “if you ever decided….”) that it had been agreed to sell it to one of the leading lights of the Three Cocks Vintage Society who himself had a steam engine (and was very well known in vintage / preservation circles).  Tragically he had been killed in a vehicle accident shortly after the deal had been struck and hence the wagon had never moved.  Leaping forward some months, it was eventually agreed that for a fairly lowly price and some wall repairs I could indeed have the living van as long as I restored and preserved it.  That, I think, was the autumn of  2007.

This week I finally got the farmer, who has since become a regular ‘chit chat’ stop of mine, to say nothing of the continuing wall repair work both for him and his neighbour (the very garden in which a certain young Carolina lady rebuilt a wall), to agree to spend the day removing all the accumulated (useful) junk from under and inside the wagon, the majority of which most folk would have just thrown away as being useless, but E has the same idea as myself on these matters – “that might come in handy one day….”.  It took us all day as each piece had to be carefully assessed and placed into a designated sack –  good wood, fire wood, scrap wood, plastic for disposal, plastic for keeping, paper sacks, paper for  burning, feed sacks, feed sacks no good, scrap metal, useful metal, might-be useful metal, rusty metal for disposal, rusty metal for scrap, other metal; galvanised pipes, cast pipes, plastic pipes, drainage pipes, plastic drainage pipes, glass bottles, glass bottles with stuff in it, glass bottles with dangerous stuff in it, glass bottles with God-knows-what in. So on and so forth.  Then we had lunch, now I need to just mention that E, presumably having done the rounds of local suitable maidens with farm wife potential, went on a farming visit to Spain and came back with THE most amazing wife.  She has that dark allure of the flamenco dancer and the paella cooking ability of the true peasant of the Sierra Madre, she is an absolute gem, lunch therefore was not to be missed – she has even taken on the traditional Welsh dessert of blackberry and apple crumble and turned into a new art form !

Thr beginning of the move

Another 'useful' piece of detritus is saved from under the wagon where it had lain for decades - good job really we were moving it, he might have gone and bought just that very item fully forgetting there was already one in his most prized depository.

I had attempted over the intervening years to persuade him to allow me to help him get it cleared so that I could bring it home and begin the restoration.  I had never really pushed it too hard, even after I had completed my end of the deal and paid the cash and rebuilt the walls, actually quite a lot more than had originally been agreed.  That’s something I am prone to do, once I become acquainted and get to enjoy visiting a place and the people I often lose sight of the fact it is my ‘business’ !  I take the view that if I had to ‘go out’ to the pub or some such to meet and chat it would cost me far more than the odd couple of hours lost on a job and is always more enjoyable.  I have learned so much from this man and, frankly, I admire him and his family for the way they conduct themselves and the high quality of their farming, especially the animal welfare side of the enterprise.  I remember Whitney and I being shown a batch of (late) young chicks which were being cared for as if they were children.  My very own resident killer, Marti, came from this farm, he was rescued from having fallen into the hay stack – involving moving a couple of hundred bales just to get to him – and when I first saw him he was laid out on E’s lap being gently stroked and purring contentedly.  All the animals, be they the highly regarded and valuable horses, such as the American Quarter horses which are his passion, the Welsh black cattle or the sheep, the ducks, the chickens, the seemingly dozens of cats and kittens, the four or five farm dogs, most well past their working days, are cared for with respect, dignity and loving attention.  For sure several are kept at immense cost over and above their value to the farm enterprise.  I like E and his wife immensely and value the fact I can call by whenever and be taken in and greeted as an old friend.

I knew he was actually quite reluctant to see the van go, it had been there as long as he could remember and thus had more than a commercial value.  Indeed the money side was not really an issue, he and I both know full well the living van is worth more than ten times what I’ve had it for but he has hopefully seen enough in me to trust that I will restore it to its former glory, for my part I will do so and have already said they must come over and see it once it is done.  I’d half expected that he would change his mind.  Soon after I had paid him the cash part of the deal I was laid up with my snapped achilles tendon, in fact my sister whilst chauffeuring me to the hospital at Abergavenny took me by so I could tell them it would be several months before they saw me again.  Not a week went by before she was on the phone asking if I wanted the cash back – it was put into a drawer not to be touched until after the deal was signed off and the van moved to my place – as they realised I would be struggling financially.  I, to my immediate shame, assumed he wanted to back out.  I think I even assumed he had been offered more by a local vet who desperately wanted it, how wrong could I have been, this man is of the old school, once a hand is shaken there is no going back.  No, it was genuine concern for me.  so I waited, knowing that when he was ready, when he had come to terms with it going, I would be called over to assist.  That happened last week.

Ready for the off, a wagon is prepared.

A day of crawling under finally paid off, she was ready to attempt a move, 50 years of standing in that spot was about to come to an end..... or was it !

By the middle of the afternoon we had pretty much finished clearing the underside and then looked to the inside.  It had been an important vermin proof store and remained weatherproof throughout its 50 plus years in that spot.  Thus there were several valuable items, some quite heavy, to be carried into the cowshed.  Feed sacks are the farmer’s most valuable recyclable item and the paper ones are particularly valued; over a hundred had to be gathered-up.  It was actually the first time I had managed to have a proper look inside the living van.  the first thing that struck me was how large it was, a bunk box-bed across the rear end with a removable hammock type bunk above, a two tier cupboard and fold-away table, two windows and the hole where the stove-pipe passed through the roof.  The original green and pitch paint remains in good condition and the floor is like new with no sign of any woodworm or rot.  I began to rediscover the excitement which I had first felt all those years ago when I first saw her and then again when he agreed I could take her home.  In as much as I can recall, it was akin to the very first time a heart-throb agrees to go out with you !

Wooden wagon brake

The brake had been wound on in about 1960, would I ever get it off ? Can you believe the small wheel which operates it turned with not so much as a grunt ! Amazing, and of course it meant movement was possible..... or was it !

There had been much discussion over the intervening years as to whether or not the wheels would be seized.  E felt very much that they would ‘probably’ be all-right.  Paddy, the resident haulier who had agreed to move it for me when it was finally ready (he was quite convinced that I would never persuade E to let it go !) was convinced the wheels would be seized solid presenting an impossible task in moving and loading.  I was not sure, from my experience with old wooden wheeled farm carts I knew that pre-war grease (with which the hubs would have been packed) was far superior to modern equivalents and would still be soft and sticky – as long as water hadn’t ingressed.  The item that was causing me most concern however, was the small matter of brakes.

4 wheels are on my wagon - but only two are visible

The iron-wheels are only braked on the rear, the front are set on a turntable for sttering - was that seized !

The braking system is a simple worm screw which presses wooden blocks against the rear wheel.  A small cast iron turn-wheel at the rear centre of the wagon operates the screw.  Clearly the brakes had been screwed on when the wagon arrived all those years ago and everything looked pretty well rusted up.  However, while I was crawling underneath to remove the trash I tried a small turn of the wheel.  Unbelievably it moved and by using a lever bar I was able to unscrew the brakes which, of course, was an immense help in the process of moving the wagon, if indeed move it we could.  The whole process of crawling under the wagon and reaching into the furthest recesses of the undercarriage where dozens of lengths of timber and pieces of piping has been cleverly slipped for decades of storage, raised my excitement and conviction that the wagon was indeed in excellent overall condition.  By the time darkness started to descend on the farm yard we were ready to attempt to move the great living van from its 50 year repose.

With a tug and a grunt movement is achieved.

Gently does it, pulling slowly the living van is eased from her half century of idleness.

The motive power of the steam engine which was first used to haul such wagons was a slow strong pull through a strong steel ‘A’ frame.  The attachment through forged ‘eyes’ fixed in turn  to the front oak cross-member and secured with a long steel bar of an inch thickness enabled a horizontal pull as the towing pin on the engine would have been at a similar height.  Partly because the original ‘A’ frame has been somewhat distorted by inappropriate uses over the years and partly because the strength of the wooden cross member is dubious, we decided to affix the towing strops (4 of 2 tonne pulling strain each) to the front stub axles.  Using the modern farm tractor with the strops pinned to the front towing point the pull was exerted.  At first nothing seemed to be happening – remember we had no idea if the wheels would turn and half expected to have to drag the wagon from its resting place – but slowly, almost imperceptibly, the old iron wheels could be seen to turn. ‘E’ eased her slowly with deft clutch control until one full turn of the wheels had been achieved.  Both of us were delighted and surprised, all four wheels had revolved with ne’er a squeak !

All that now remains is for ‘E’ to clear out the stored ‘valuable’ trash in the rear external locker (which is actually the recess formed under the internal bunk) and she will be ready for transporting back home.  I was walking on air and even ‘E’ seemed delighted and voiced his view that she was now ready and deserving of a ‘new life’ and having her dignity restored.  Be assured you will see her triumphant arrival here at Land Rover Manor.

The distorted towing 'A' frame

It's supposed to look like a letter A, but being used with powerful modern machinery has left the original towing frame mis-shapen beyond use. I need a blacksmith !!

The nature of the farmer often defines the continuity or otherwise of old traditions and old tools.  When I first saw the farm buildings all those years ago it was clear that here was a place which had not come willingly into the 21st century.  The scrap heap of any farm is always a good indicator of what lies hidden within.  ‘E’s’ scrap pile – not ‘scrap’ in the sense of waiting to be disposed of, you understand, rather ‘awaiting’ recycling – is an absolute treasure trove of old tools and farm implements.  He comes from a line of traditional farmers and among his close ancestors were some fine craftsmen.  Utilitarianism was the hallmark of nineteenth century and early twentieth century marginal farming, the legacy has lingered on in many Welsh upland farms.  As an example of the approach to using age-old tools in the modern farming enterprise I cite two examples of ‘E’s’ recent requests to me.  Firstly he asked me to find him a ‘hay knife’ as his had finally worn so thin as to be unfit for purpose – the fact he still cuts his hay from the stack is almost unique, I was able to oblige with a fine knife which had never been used, from my collection.  The second request was for a ‘drag’ rake, a five foot wide steel-tine rake used for scratching up the last straw or hay remnants from the field.  My summer visitor used one on my hay and can vouch for how hard a job it is to rake using one of these artefacts.

Drag rake being used in the 21st century

The old 5ft wide drag rake (often erroneously called 'heel' rake in these parts - the heel rake was only 3ft wide and had straight steel tines ) is hard to find in good enough condition to still be used.

I’ve yet to find him an example, or at least one which is priced at a level which will make it attractive to him.  I know of one with my friends, the ‘Junkyard Angels’ , at Trecastle antique centre but the decimal point is one place too far to the right.

As an example of the kind of little treasure that lurks around the farm is a quite amazing artefact.  Fashioned by his grandfather ‘E’ was proud to show me a trug of ash, hazel and briar which was kept in the small stable into which much of the internal collection of the wagon had been placed.  A quite beautiful piece of artisan work from the C19th my eyes were green.  It was, as we would term it today, ergonomic in the extreme.  Used for a number of carrying tasks, from potatoes to grain, the trug had survived the ravages of worm and rot exceptionally well.  I am not at all surprised at that, it is almost certain that his grandfather knew full well the correct time to cut the various species of timber and the briar to ensure its resistance to such attack.  The knowledge of when to fell and harvest our native species of timber, be it hazel or oak, depending on what the end use was to be, has long since been lost, save for one or two old craftsmen I know and one or two books.  I’ll maybe write more about it in a later post.

Old home-made trug

A beautiful piece of home-work, now over a hundred years old.

To end this week, and what a start to my Christmas, a few photographs of what I would have liked in my stocking, but I can’t complain, who else is getting a 100 year old living van !

Also I’m off to the big city again, an invitation from my esteemed friend Jon Gower, one of Wales’ most eminent writers, broadcasters and critics, to go and stay and have dinner with him, his dear American (fantastic cook – what is it with ladies from the U.S. and fine cuisine !) wife and some equally eminent friends, has me getting well into the festive mood.  I hope to meet up with some of the other Cardiff gang and have a browse at the food fair in the Chapter Arts Centre.  I understand JG has been suffering with ‘Deli-belly’ having been in Bangladesh for a couple of weeks,  so maybe his appetite is not what it usually is……. how much can I eat !!

Home made ash and briar trug

This is how it would have been carried, shaped exactly to fit on the hip.

But the week hasn’t been all enjoyment; my happy state has been tempered by the passing of the dear old lady I referred to recently, the mother of my present customer.  She was ready to go, of that I am sure, she talked to me of her own excitement at going to a wonderful place, the existence of which was in no doubt in her mind.  She and I spent many hours discussing such matters, trawling through ‘meaning of life’ issues, wondering at things we had experienced – her life was hard and long, half as long again as mine has been – finding shared beliefs and values.  It is strange to me now to realise I knew more about her inner thoughts on such matters and her readiness to depart this life, than did her own daughters who nursed her these long last months.  Neither they nor her son, my present and longest customer, had any idea how close she and I were, how many hours over many years we had been talking.  Only a few short months ago she and I attended an evening lecture in the nearby village of Bethlehem where we joked (with others that knew us) that I was her ‘Toy boy’.  During my last visit, which lasted a long hour or so,  I remember that the daughter who was there, who doesn’t know me well at all, was fairly sure she wouldn’t want to see me – she was, after all, in her bed – and was quite surprised that I was welcomed and that, when she came up later, I sat holding my dear friend’s hand.  Apparently, after I left, she and her sister were scolded for not giving me tea !  I’m sad that she’s gone but glad that she’s where she was anxious to be but, oh my, how much knowledge and memory has passed with her.  Her son told me of her death on Friday morning when I arrived back at the job in the mud, but I already knew, she passed through on Wednesday night, quite late, I knew she had.

God bless you Mrs Davies, another I shan’t forget.

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