“I can live for two months on a good compliment”. (Mark Twain)

It looks like that’s just what I’m going to have to do.  The wall building activities have terminated for the year I suspect.  Despite a fairly intolerable period of windy, wet weather, I managed to complete the’ wall in the mud’, as it has become known, and did so without damaging my lower leg mechanics nor, and I am just as pleased about this, toppling into the quagmire.  I am not a little self congratulatory about this success, it is by far the most difficult build I’ve done in many a year – maybe ever.  The stone was glued firmly into the mire, each one had to be dug out,  the mud scraped off as far as was possible, and then it had to be carried a dozen or so paces to the wall.  It was neither an economic use of time and motion nor was it therefore, well remunerated.  Money isn’t necessarily everything however, and a compliment, albeit slightly ‘off piste’, is recompense enough for much of the toil and tribulations of the past month.

A muddy mire in which to work

Mud, mud, Glorious mud, nothing quite like it for cooling the blood..... Though actually mine felt like it was boiling over, now and then. Each stone had to be retrieved from it and then carried to the wall. The 'photographer' is on the wall, I'm getting the stone, yep, it was that far !!

It’s an almost universal truth that men find it difficult to be complimentary about other men – except perhaps on the sports field.  It is certainly the case in my line of work, the hard working upland farmer takes toil and struggle in his stride and thinks nothing of someone who doesn’t match his efforts.  Thus, for me at least, to be treated with respect for what I do – which is more about the mystery of it, the fact that it is generally beyond the farmer’s ability or comprehension – is sufficient.  My current customer is, as I mentioned earlier, a long standing one, a grafter of a farmer, well respected in the community for his stockmanship and personality.  He doesn’t give out either “thank you’s” nor compliments freely or easily, thus to receive one is, I feel, quite an achievement.  He liked this wall, he didn’t say it directly, but he liked it.  It pleased me that he liked it, it was worth the effort.  He has built himself a new retirement home of which he is very proud, he wanted my wall to merely separate his garden from the field in which the house had been built.  The wall cannot be seen by any but the sheep, from the house it will be hidden by the raised lawn area – a Ha Ha.  He said something to the effect that the drive-way to the house should be moved to approach from the west so that the wall would be seen by those that visited.  That’s a compliment by anybody’s standards, wouldn’t you say !  It is not fully completed, decisions have to be made about how it is to be capped, but that awaits the levelling of the ground behind first.

A new house and a new wall

The house, the wall, the mud, and just visible, my 'little helper' who has been immense in keeping my spirits up all these weeks.

It has been physically testing working in those conditions, the wind is by far the most debilitating aspect but the rain and the mud have contributed.  Throughout the weeks however,  my spirits have never faltered (though my language has !) and that is due, in part, to the demeanour of my accomplice, my ‘little helper’.  His daily updates on world affairs, conspiratorial events, the damned and unworthy Americans, the damned and unworthy supermarket slaves, indeed the damned and unworthy women who occupy his world, all have provided demanding, if less than intellectual, retort.  Each lunch time we wrack our ever diminishing brain cells to complete the ‘quick crossword’, and mostly do, then we attempt some quiz which generally requires knowledge far beyond our fields of operation – usually about pop stars or soap opera actors – and we end up with the perusal of our (and those we know) horror-scopes.  It appears that those we know are always  getting a better deal than us.  No matter, we are content in the sure knowledge that the rest of the world is doomed, deservedly so, and only we are worthy.  I have bought him a ‘T’ shirt for Christmas, emblazoned on the front is the word ‘Infidel’ – he’ll like that !

It'll be nice when the lawn is done !

Only the sheep will get to see it, unless he moves the drive-way....... that ain't never going to happen !

I have joked about the site being like the ‘Trenches’, I shouldn’t really do that.  Working in the mud has made me realise just how bloody awful, how terrifyingly impossible, how moronically stupid, was the very notion of trench warfare.  Everyday the red mud infiltrated every part of my clothing, the inner sanctums of my person – try  attending to a call of nature without getting mud into everywhere ! – were inevitably caked by the time I stripped off in front of the rayburn stove.  The cost of laundering all my gear has been a noticeable expense, I kid you not.  Gloves, which normally last a week or more, have had to be changed after lunch, and generally disintegrate after a few days.  The wetness demanded rubber gloves be used, they are cold and lifeless, they are impossible to get off and, worst of all, they make your hands stink, a smell that ingratiates itself into your nostrils and, ultimately, into your bed.  The water that is drunk inevitably has mud in it, the food has mud in it, my stomach has mud in it, that which comes out of me has mud in it.  How on earth could anybody sleep in that and then, at dawn, go over the top.  That thought has been very much with me too these last weeks.

Anyway, enough of mud and moral fortitude – the Festive season beckons……..  The problem is that working as I do, living beyond the curtilege of everyday life, being oblivious to most of the happenings going on around and about, I don’t really get infected by the ‘spirit’.  I hadn’t seen any town Christmas lights until just the other evening when I ventured out after dark – realise if you will that normally, once I get home, negotiate a number of gate openings and closures, get the wood burning stove alight, cook supper (whilst attempting to wash away mud from nether regions of the torso) the temptation to then go back out is not strong.  In the nearby town of Builth Wells is a very fine theatre and cinema called the Wyeside, it is a great little place and has amazing live entertainment and a goodly selection of the most up to date films.  A film shot in the Black Mountain – close-by my work place at Grafog farm – was showing, it tells the imaginary tale of a successful German invasion of Britain and the men of this Welsh farming valley all go off to join the resistance movement, leaving their womenfolk to mind the farms.  The relationship between the struggles of the women and the German soldiers sent to the valley (in search of a hidden treasure which looks awfully like the Map o Mundi) presents a challenging and provocative scenario.  I of course, being the sad ‘B’ that I am, was just as interested in the farms and the farm ‘props’ which were used and then trying to work out where it had been shot exactly.   I was rather pleased with myself,  I immediately saw by the stone-work, the geology and the style of the farm buildings, that it was the southern valleys of the Black Mountain (of Monmouthshire).  I soon spotted some tell-tale architectural features in the farms that indicated they had been built by the Beaufort estate (Dukes of Beaufort owned much of the area for most of the medieval and post medieval periods) in the middle to late C18th.  I was fairly happy I had located the area where the film had been shot as being in or around the Llanthony valley.  Just toward the end of the film some scenes showed the actual abbey remains, big smile !!  If you get chance, go see the film, ‘Resistance’, but look at the scenery and the farming !!

A threat of severe snow allowed me to plan a day or two at home.  Some comfort food was purchased and fuel for the stove brought in.  Then, as usual when the weather gurus warn of  such events, nothing actually transpired, so I took myself off to find some presents for the family.  Mine I had already ordered – wonderful thing, ebay !!  You will not be surprised to learn that such an expedition does not involve visiting any sort of large shopping centre.  I cannot imagine a worse method of  trying to engender the Festive spirit.  What pleasure can there possibly be in herding through mass produced buildings looking at mass produced goods, buying mass produced goods.

I am a very lucky Christmas shopper, less than a dozen miles down the road is the little craft centre and gallery at the Old Station, Erwood.  It is a quirky little emporium on the banks of the river Wye.  As the name implies, it was once the old railway station on the line from Talgarth and Brecon to Builth Wells (and on into mid Wales).  It has an excellent assortment of craft goods made by local artists and is a popular gallery which offers a window for potters and painters alike.    Apart from all that it does good coffee and indescribably good mince pies !  It features on my itinerary quite often.

Old Station craft centre and gallery at Erwood on the Wye

How's that for an entrance to a Craft centre and Gallery ! unless you don't like trains...

After an hour of perusing, a piping hot coffee and mince pie (as a ‘Friend of Erwood Station’ I get to have free refreshment) and with several presents under my arm, I returned home, happy and stress free – and no parking problems !!

Old Railway Station Craft Centre,  erwood

It's got everything you could possibly want !! And no crowds !!

For obvious reasons I can’t reveal what I bought – though I can’t imagine for one moment any of my close family reads this ! – but I could, just in case you are interested, divulge my own little indulgences.

I am always looking for items that relate to the  practices of the Welsh upland farmer.  A couple of interesting artefacts came my way recently and they alone would have been sufficient to make my Yule tide jolly.  However, something far more important and valuable – read ‘not to be missed !’ – appeared on the horizon and I went in hot pursuit.

Photography is, today, a universal hobby.  Almost everyone, certainly every family, has access to a camera of some sort.  Increasingly mobile phones are replacing digital cameras, just as I began to catch up, having finally packed away my old 35mm SLR.  It’s difficult to think of a world where photography was very limited, non existent even.  For most people alive in the early twentieth century, family pictures were almost limited to the posed photograph taken by a professional at an arranged sitting.  Impromptu ‘snaps’ of people going about their daily lives, at work, in the home, on holidays and so on were indeed few and far between.  In my field of interest, agriculture in the Welsh uplands, such photographs are indeed rare.  I have managed to acquire several from local families which depict their relatives carrying out some farming activity in the period just before or just after the Second World War.  Even by the 1960s not all families had a camera, despite the cheaply available ‘Box Brownie’ produced by Kodak.  My first camera was a Brownie but very soon, when I was 11 years old, I bought myself a brand new and revolutionary little Instamatic.  It introduced the world to the idea of the cartridge film and was small and compact with a good 50mm lens.  Such mass photography of the family activities seemed not to penetrate the upland farms and hence such pictures are hard to find.  Early photographs of simple everyday farming are so rare (limited often to collections in National Libraries and museums) that when they do become available I go after them with a passion.

Scything hay

How rare to find this kind of photograph - it is by Llew Morgan of Ystradgynlais in the Swansea valley (family retains copyright)

I found a number for sale just this last week and moved quickly to secure them.  They are prints taken from the original glass slides amassed by the Swansea valley photographer Llew Morgan 1885-1960.   He covered a number of aspects of Welsh life but his portraits of the ordinary Welsh farmer is special – but remember, I am one-eyed !  An important element of my collection are the photographs which illustrate how and when the artefacts I display were used.  Because the various aspects of the farming year, ploughing, cultivation, sowing seeds and the harvest, the care of the stock and the marketing of the produce, were taking place throughout the land it was almost too common an activity to photograph.  It is the very basis of my collection, every farm had each and every one of the tools and artefacts,  but because they were so common they have been given scant attention and most have long gone, scrapped or rotted away.  “We had one of those, what happened to it?”, is the most frequently heard comment at my exhibitions and displays.  The photos taken by Llew Morgan are priceless in bringing to life the actual people and places in which those long forgotten practices took place.  I am hoping to be allowed to view his original glass slides, now in the possession of his grand-daughter, the writer Carole Morgan-Hopkin.  Coincidentally she just happens to be involved with the restoration of the church of Llangiwg near Pontardawe, I wrote about it in an earlier post (6 April 2011) and it is a place I am due to be working in shortly.  Turn on the charm !!

Sharpening a scythe using a 'rip'

It's a simple shot, the act of sharpening the scythe, he is using a wooden 'rip' stick, onto which goose grease was spread and a sand then added to provide the abrasive element. Every farmer could sharpen a scythe this way, who can do it today ? (Llew Morgan collection)

Christmas has come early for Welshwaller,  I am so thrilled to have found the prints but even more to have made contact with Llew’s family, hidden in his collection is the photographic evidence of how each item in my collection, or at least most of them, were used.

So, we approach the Christmas celebrations, less than a week in which to get my act together and prepare for entering the fray.  A number of dutiful visits, some festive consumption.  I try as far as possible to call upon customers for whom I have worked in the past year and some I have seen already.  I’ll give an update in my last post of the year.  For now, to all my faithful readers especially those of you who have been kind enough to make comment and those of you mad enough or sad enough to be a subscriber !!

Nadolig  Llawen

The beautiful restored C19th church of Oen Duw, Beulah

My little church at the bottom of my lane, Eglwys Oen Duw, Beulah. Happy Christmas everyone !

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