It wouldn’t be New Year’s if I didn’t have regrets! (William Thomas)

This helter-skelter year is nearing the crash mat, I’ve hit so many end of year crash mats I hardly blink anymore.  I remember writing this time last year about the notion of Auld Acquaintances being set aside.  I never got around to it actually, and to a greater degree I’m happy about that.  Friendships and acquaintances that I may well have appended to any list around that notion have actually grown stronger, have become more valuable to me, have brought forth new experiences.

Just this afternoon I set about putting together the annual laying bare of my soul to the honourable Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – my tax return.  Every year I make the same two promises to myself; I will get the tax return done by the summer (rather than the last few weeks before my time runs out and the full force and might of those demons descends upon me !) and secondly, I will just bugger off from the wet, the cold, the snow and the winter in general.  For twenty years I have thought what a good idea it would be to get all the jobs done – meaning funds would be accumulated – and, instead of battling the elements for little reward, go away for a long holiday.  “It’s cheaper in the long run because you save on heating and electric, food and everything.” are the words I hear from those to whom I suggest my idea.  Well, this year, it’s going to happen !  January will be spent in a far away land.  Not necessarily a warmer or dryer place, but a place where I will get to meet old friends, see fascinating places, explore history and generally just chill !  Watch out for blog posts from my secret destination……..

Back to the review of this ‘soon gone year’ in the life of Welshwaller.  I start with the last few days, that most taxing (forgive me, tax is heavy on my mind at the moment) of all the holiday periods, or so it would seem, according to many folk.  Not for me,  I have always enjoyed Christmas and still do.  It may be because I don’t expect too much of  it, I don’t build it up either positively or negatively, I certainly don’t over indulge on expenditure or input (well maybe just a few inches to the waistline !) but everyone gets a nice present and I manage a 6 to 8 hour stint ‘en famille’, after which both they and I are content to bid each other goodnight.

Phonio, phonio, wherefore are though

Home for Christmas but we must keep in touch ! "Phonio, phonio, wherefore art though ?!" I guess this is what most people's hall table looks like when the 'family' come home. How do they know which one to answer !!

At least I am pleased to see ‘my lot’, after all I haven’t seen them (I don’t think) since the summer holiday in Norfolk.

It’s funny how highlights shine through when looking back.  Like little dots on those drawing games whereby merely joining them produces a pretty picture.  So it is with our reflections, our recollections, our time altered view of how we enjoyed what we did, when we did it and who we did it with !  I always seem to have been on a different trip to everyone else, always have different memories, different level of enjoyment.  I seem to be the one who had the best time !

What I have been shocked at is how little I can remember about what I did this last year.  As for 2010 – the tax year I have just finished my accounts for – I simply have no idea where I was working, and where the hell all that income came from!  While I was living it I didn’t exactly feel as if I was ‘doing ok’ !  Luckily I keep a diary of where I am each day (80% anyway) and it is something of a revelation to look back and remember jobs.  On the other hand, it is increasingly worrying that what I remember is a shorter and shorter time past.  As I sit here writing I am straining the hard drive to bring forth what the hell I was doing at the start of the year !  To be honest, this year has really jet streamed;  I can remember parts but not much.  Highlights therefore are key, and each year it is important to make sure that high points are built in to the schedule.

Scorched earth

A large part of the year seemed to be at the Dinas near Llansawel, a hard wall but a great site. I'll be back there in the summer this year.

On the wall building front I have fond memories of two long jobs, two short jobs and two ‘domestic’ jobs.  Only recently have I done a job that has a somewhat negative effect on the memory, that too will fade.

The return to one of my long standing jobs (‘long standing’ is an inevitable ingredient of my work !) was a particular high spot.  The great Deer Park wall of the old Edwinsford estate, between Talley and Llansawel, has been in my psyche for ten years and more, and it still ain’t finished !! It surely will be the wall where my skeleton will be found, one autumn, after someone realises they haven’t seen me about for a while – hopefully not just yet.

The year began with a peculiarly dry spell, once the snow went away that is !  Snow  through December and January caused a forced lay-off, not hugely problematic as long as one can ignore the growing pile of mail asking for bills to be paid……. there’s always ebay !  The return to work was also the return to a place high on the ‘best ever walling sites’, a definite contender for inclusion in to my book ‘Twenty Years, Twenty Walls’ (it started out as ‘Ten Years Ten Walls’ – but the time just seemed to pass…) the completion of which now has to be on the New Year’s Resolution list.

Mountain wall in the Rhiangoll valley

The 'Whitney' wall in the Rhiangoll valley. A place that defines the craft.

The mountain wall which separates the enclosed pastures of Grafog farm from the open hill of the Black Mountain, high in the narrow upper reaches of the Rhiangoll river, was the venue for the first quarter of the year.  It is without doubt a deeply spiritual place, steeped in history.  The wall itself is not particularly old, just some three hundred years or so, but surrounding the enclosures are prehistoric settlements and medieval summer sheilings.  The great ‘Dinas‘, the fortress of the Iron age tribe, the Silures, dominates the pass (note the name, it is the same as the place mentioned above, the common Celtic title for the defended hill fort) and it is certain that the slopes of the hill, now the fields of the Grafog and Rhyd-y-Car farms, were once the cultivated lands of the people of that pre-Roman settlement.  In the post Roman era, what we now call the Early Medieval period, the whole area was a preserved hunting forest of the local King (fforest in Welsh).  This preserved area continued well after the coming of the Normans and only in the early 1960s, with the creation of the Brecon Beacons National Park, were the rights of the titled owner to hunt over the land, extinguished.  However, by the mid 1400s the area was quietly being encroached by farmers who used the grazing in the summer months for their cattle.  The later middle ages saw the land being let to these farmers who then often built a temporary structure called a hafod,  in which some members of the family would spend the summer with the cattle.  Often a lluest, a dairy, was created in these remote upland place – always within a day’s walk of the hendre (hen meaning old and tre mea ning homestead or estate – the ‘t’ is mutated to a ‘d’ and the ‘f” is dropped) which was the main homestead.  Close-by my work site was just such a structure, undisturbed and unknown.  A remarkable place to work.

A medieval cattle corral high in the Welsh uplands

The stones in the wall of this cattle corral, not far beyond the mountain wall of Grafog, were put there five hundred years ago, maybe even longer.

An enjoyable couple of training courses also occupied my days in the early months and the lads of the Ebbw Vale Taskforce were an especially entertaining bunch who managed, in very difficult circumstances, to create a piece of ‘built environment’ worthy of any craftsman.  Another lengthy lay-off occurred sometime soon after – you see, I can’t even remember the exact month ! – when a calf muscle ruptured leaving me crippled for two months or so.  The rehabilitation and ‘back-to-work’ fitness was acquired at a garden, here in the village, where slate was the medium for a garden wall.  There then followed one of the more interesting little jobs of the year.

About 30 miles north lies the little village of Llangurig, on the main route into the Cambrian mountains and on to Aberystwyth.  I was called to restore a piece of garden history at the Clochfaen estate, an important Arts and Crafts house, lovingly being restored.  Just recently I happened to be passing and made a courtesy call – I try always to revisit my customers at the end of the year, not least to  check the structure is still sound and to see if anything else has cropped up – and inspect the two features after a long summer and recent heavy rain (as both involved the management of water!).

The water spout at Clochfaen, Llangurig

The water spout - called the Fountain - at Clochfaen, has survived and is pouring forth water. Alas the overflow system is still somewhat awry and hence the surrounding garden is a 'welly area' !

Both the water spout, or fountain as it is called by the owners, and the well are functioning as required and now that the vegetation has died back both can be seen to their best advantage. A cup of tea with the very kind host and seasons greetings and off to go.  As I drove down the long lane towards the village, my lasting memory of those seemingly hot steamy June days was………. those bloody midges !!

On the way south from Llangurig, the route follows the Wye valley and is, without question, one of my most favourite scenic roads.  The little market town of Rhayader hosts an inevitable bottleneck as the main north – south A470 squeezes traffic through a single width piece of road, whilst negotiating a busy cross-road where ‘right of way’ is open to interpretation.  The locals have a different view to those passing through, and neither has an interpretation that could be found in the Highway Code !  A few miles south is another of my sanctuaries, a place of work which is often intellectually taxing, always physically demanding due to the weight of the stones, and of late, incredibly wet and muddy, and yet the welcome and kindness of ‘mine hosts’ is without measure.  The grand house of the Penlanole estate is home to the Shakespeare link, a place where plays by the bard are performed outdoor in the Living Willow Theatre and in the surrounding wood copses.

A pond that once washed the feet of cart horses.

It has finally filled, the old mangle acting as the windlass for the sluice gate will soon be turned methinks, water is once again impounded in the cart horse wash at Penlanole.

The main job this year has been to restore the cart horse wash which now acts as a duck pond for the resident water fowl.  It was a job begun back last year when ‘my little helper’ and I cleared the smoots which passed under the trackways and took down the old wall through which the water passed into the pond.  The lintels had collapsed and woodland debris caused blockages which any self respecting beaver would have been proud of.  This summer, with the mud mostly removed, and the water level low, I set about reconstruction.  It was here that another helper arrived and became consumed by the place.

MF35

She fell for a Massey 35, probably the most attractive tractor driving assistant any waller, and certainly any 1950s tractor, ever had.

I was relieved to arrive and find the pool had finally filled.  For a while it seemed that the absence of sufficient clay around the base of the stone walls was allowing more water to escape than was being impounded.  Of course, traditionally, the sluice would only have been closed when horses were working, such as when ploughing was carried out which would ensure their ‘feathers’ would be caked in mud.  The rest of the time the flow of the stream which feeds the pool was not impeded.  The problem with keeping it as a pond for ducks and geese is that mud accumulates very quickly and this becomes a smelly mire when the water level recedes in the summer.

One of the most satisfying jobs came near to home with the re-laying of the terrace at the mansion of Llwynmadoc.  The slate slabs were large and heavy and had been tipped and tilted by years of use and by poor sub layers.  It took a lot of effort and again midges were a constant nuisance but everyone, especially the mistress, was delighted with the finished product.  That also led to a number of other jobs around the gardens and buildings such as the restoration of the pig-sty recently reported and further work in the coming months.

Terrace and steps in a grand garden

The newly laid terrace and steps at the grand mansion - another pleasing job completed.

August saw three major events of the year, the holiday to Norfolk, the visit to the Great Dorset Steam Fair and, of course, the arrival of my American friend who came to reconnect with a land she has become very attached to.

The arrival of my overseas visitor was later reinforced by her whole family and I took on the  mantle of Tourist Ambassador for a few weeks.

My trip to the east of England was indeed a highlight.  The fenland of Cambridgeshire is a fascinating mixture of agriculture, nature, history and water management.  Of particular note was the visit to Flag Fen, the amazing prehistoric settlement and its oak walkway across the marshland.  So too, the medieval cathedral city of Ely astounded.

An Iron Age roundhouse at Flag Fen

A wonderful facsimile of a Celtic roundhouse at the Flag Fen exhibition.

Norfolk and its varied countryside and agriculture was also very interesting to me and I enjoyed very much my visits to Blickling Hall and the bleak windswept coast line where seals captivated me for a long while.

The great tower of Ely cathedral

Ely cathedral was even more impressive than I had imagined it would be. Visible from miles around, it is the dominant feature in the vast flat landscape of east Cambridgeshire.

The area was a leading centre of agricultural innovation during the 17th and 18th centuries and continued to be the centre for technological invention and manufacture of farming implements (by Ransomes for instance) well into the 20th century.  A number of museums provide a fascinating journey back to the agriculture of  Coke of Holkham and inventors like Tull.

Seals along the Norfolk coast

The sight of seals bobbing in the water not far off the beach was certainly something I had not expected to see.

Following my short holiday I returned to work to complete a job that had been ongoing for what seemed like years – and indeed it is years, for I am still going there !

A large retaining wall begun in the summer of 2010 was approaching completion, my part having been held up awaiting machinery to move the last earth heaps and the landscape gardener to lay the granite sets (interestingly bought and brought from the industrial towns of Yorkshire !).

Walls either side of the set steps needed to be built and my Carolina trainee relished the chance to build something new, a set of curved walls.  Later I would introduce her to building dry stone steps, another very useful skill in gaining work in the garden landscaping field.

Dry stone garden walls and steps

The old red sandstone side walls are curved so as to lose the change in height as the ground falls from right to left.

As August drifted away the trip of the year beckoned.  An attendance at Llangynidr show over the bank holiday weekend was the prelude to a week of vintage gluttony as we headed off to the Great Dorset Steam Fair. The fair is an extravanganza of restored vehicles and machinery, of steam engines and horse power, of nightime olde worlde fairground sounds and sights and, most memorable of all, amazing cider, beer, food and frivolity.  I enjoyed my few days in Dorset as much as anything I’ve done in a long while and the little village in which we stayed, Alvediston, was a real gem of olde worlde charm set amongst the glory of Cranbourne Chase in the Dorset downland.  The little church held an astonishing secret, the grave of the old Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden.

Steam engines are more about smoke

The evening sky is more about smoke than steam, but the old engines gave a great night time display.

The second weekend of September is always the local village show, this year it coincided with the arrival of guests from Carolina and me taking on the responsibility of showing them Wales.  It is not difficult in some ways to provide an enjoyable experience to overseas visitors but it is a very intimidating role to play.  Hopefully they left having seen enough of the beautiful scenery, met enough of the quirky hill folk and understood a little better why a certain member of their family bores everyone rigid going on about Wales all the time !!!  But she is right of course !

Friends chat at Beulah show 2011

A lady from the other side of the world discusses farming with a man who has been at his all his life, I think this shows the real essence of experiencing the local when visiting abroad - just having a chat !. Or maybe they were just wondering who would win the vintage tractor award !

The autumn was somewhat anti-climatic once everyone had left but work soon immersed me again in complicated endeavour.  The roof of the old pig sty at the mansion was coming away from the wall against which it leaned, and the wall was falling.  A couple of hard weeks by Dan and myself created a very nice feature out of what looked like neglect and dereliction.  Then, to take us toward the end of the season, we moved to a farm high in the hills above Llandeilo, in the small hamlet of Gwynfe.  Here one of the saddest events of the year occurred with the passing of the matriarch of the family.  Some forty plus members of her immediate offspring attended the private funeral, and I lost a very dear old friend with whom I had spent many long hours.  The wall that was built in December will always remind me of her.

Dry stone wall of silica conglomerate

The Wall in the Mud, the last job of 2011, and what an endurance to get it done. Behind me (I'm taking the picture) is a clear unobstructed line to the Atlantic, and boy did it blow, and boy did it rain !!

I struggle to remember each job that was done, but once they have been brought to the front of the mind, hauled back from the recesses of my deepening hard drive, I can remember almost every stone that was placed.  If I go back to a wall that I have built, even those restored 20 years ago, I can look at individual stones and remember them, remember putting them in and what the shape of each one was. I don’t know why I can do that, it certainly explains why my hard drive is overloaded.

So, another year gone, another year beckons.  I can certainly remember sitting here last year at this time with no idea that what became the highlights of 2011 lay before me.  This year is somewhat different.  Soon I will set forth on an adventure that will surpass anything I have done thus far.  I am putting myself in the care of people that know me a little, in a land that I know very little but whose history has fascinated me for a long while.  For the next few weeks I hope to explore some of the early settlements in the Virginia and Carolina states, see where early farms were established and look at the walls that enclosed them.  I will see places I’ve only heard about, often in song, often as part of the turbulent past and conflagrations that tore the great land apart in centuries past.  I can’t wait to be where Blues and Soul music sweats out of bricks, where crazy Cajun violins and hot spicy food are the equal of male voice choirs and fish and chips.  I can’t wait to meet people I’ve only heard of from my dear friend, I can’t wait to see those who shed a tear as I left them over two years ago.  As if that were not enough for one year, the year of five rings and Diamonds, I am setting off to Orkney in late May, the place that is re-writing the Neolithic Age and our understanding of it.  I can’t wait to go see the Brochs and walls of those islands, to study the amazing archaeology which is everywhere, to enjoy the wildlife and the night life.

Somewhere, in the next twelve months, walls will have to be built, artefacts of  our farming past will need to be restored and shown and new, as yet unknown,  encounters and experiences met.  For now loyal readers, I leave you with the old Irish blessing

“In the New Year, may your hand always be outstretched in friendship,

and never in want”.

Blwyddyn Newydd Dda, ich y gyd

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2 Responses to “It wouldn’t be New Year’s if I didn’t have regrets! (William Thomas)”

  1. Rachel Says:

    Thank you for the Irish Blessing – – and I wish the same for you. We’ve never met, never will, but you should know that I find your periodic reports and musings food for thought.

  2. search engine marketing Says:

    lottie maddox i have been going to dorset steam fair for 13 years this year and i am 15 years old, my dad loves his truck and landrovers and and i think that goin to the show each year tops off a summer holiday perfectly, i’d reccommend it to anyone old, or young, just have a look!

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