“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow”. (Lin Yutang)

Back home with something of a hangover, was it jet-lag, was it an American head cold, was it just the huge anti-climax ?  No, I think it was just the usual lethargy (maybe that is jet-lag !) that afflicts those who travel and then have to put away the day-dreams and fantasies and get back on the horse. I didn’t manage to mount-up and ride out (you’ll have to just live with the ‘cow-boy’ analogies, it’s sad I know) until a week after landing back into a snow covered Heathrow.  I was savagely attacked by all the above mentioned reasons for not going back to work.  Again a spot of ‘man-flu’ turned me to a miserable self-pitying specimen and I amused myself with sleeping in my overly comfortable bed and gradually unpacking the travel bags.  How easily I am distracted by books and photographs, anything that allows me to avoid the necessary jobs and idle my hours doing something else.  For a whole week I variously slept, ate, reminisced and read, sometimes all at once !

Finally all excuses passed and I awoke one morning feeling duly refreshed and ready to do it – partly enthused by the ever decreasing choice of ‘treats’ in my cupboard and food in my fridge, oh yes, and the daily letters from various service providers who required – nay, demanded ! – payment of overdue bills; can’t they understand I’ve been away !!  I had decided already what little job I was going to first, just to ease myself back into the routine and get the old body used to the daily up and down of wall building.  Believe it or not – and I only just realised myself that it was yet another set of steps (or should I use the term ‘stairs’ which is what I got used to hearing ‘over there !) – I was returning to the same type of work that had filled my autumn, garden steps.  This time I was to attempt to restore some dignity to an old yet grand ‘staircase’ at the mansion of the estate on which I live.

Stone steps

The first set of restored steps, curves were very popular in these parts....

The days of the great houses have long gone and very few of those still in the ownership of their historical families are sustaining the grandeur they once eschewed.  My estate still retains some of the old farms and houses (which used to be for the estate workers) which once formed a very small proportion of the nineteenth century estate.  Like all such Gentry estates, the ravages of time and decay has attacked both the family coffers and the fabric of the estate’s built environment.  The current ‘Laird’ is a fine man who takes his responsibility towards the estate very seriously.  He is the descendant of a dozen or so generations of ‘Lairds’ of this estate and his sense of duty is a badge of honour.  I have a high regard for him and his diligent lady who both work hard to maintain the last vestiges of this once great Welsh institution, hidden away in the middle of Wales.  For my part I lament the  passing of the old cohesion such estates brought to a rural community.  A sense of belonging, albeit life was not easy, is lacking in many small settlements, the neighbourhood of the estate provided a good basis on which society could sustain itself and tenants worked for the common cause.  True, the life of a tenant farmer or estate worker / labourer was a tight-rope of hard work matched by constant strife and fear of some financial disaster brought on by the failure of a harvest, illness or injury.  True also that many were the tenants that found themselves kicked out for such failures and doomed to penury and homelessness or the workhouse.  By and large however, life in the closed community of an estate was more secure than outside it and generations of farmers  worked and lived under the umbrella which the Laird provided.  He and his family lived well but their comforts and survival were interlinked with the success and loyalty of their tenants and workers.  It was a mutually dependant economic and social community and it was the backbone of the countryside for several centuries.

The mansion here is a conglomeration of different periods of development.  The original house was nothing but a small farmstead in the remote valley.  The first use of it by the landowner was as a hunting lodge (the main house was the present day Pencerrig Hotel near Builth Wells) and not until the later C17th and early C18th did the house begin to take on the grandeur of later years.  The grand gardens, which included a large walled garden and formal layout, was of necessity set over a number of elevated terraces (the narrow valley location limited flat areas) and thus sets of steps and ramps were essential.  From what I can ascertain there has been little or no maintenance of the built environment of the grand stone features which frame the gardens.  Anything which man builds has a shelf-life and the walls and steps of this mansion have long since passed their date.  As I reported in earlier posts, I have been quietly working to bring the condition of these features back to somewhere near their original state, certainly to make them safe and fit for use.  The current set of steps are in need of urgent attention as in just a few months hoards of visitors are expected to view the wonderful display of Azelias and Rhodies that the grounds are famed for.

Steps needing urgent attention.

The steps to the lower level, they are still usable with care but they are far too dangerous for the general public to negotiate and, in my view, they lower the tone of the whole place and as I live on this estate too I can't have that !

In truth I have had to work quite hard convincing m’lady that these jobs needed doing.  It is common, is it not, to find fault with the way others live whilst remaining completely oblivious to our own areas of neglect !  I hold my hand up high to that criticism, yes Sir.  One gets used to using things and ‘not’ seeing that which others immediately zoom in on.  The steps to and from the lower levels of the garden have been in need of attention for as long as I have been living on the estate but recently the dilapidation has increased – not least because of the last two winters – and this at a time when great improvements have been carried out in this area of the grounds.  A large restoration programme entailing the dredging and re-lining of the lake and the rebuilding of the tennis court, both of which are accessed via these steps, has meant something needed to be done, and quickly.  The steps appear to have been built in the 1920s.  The construction is primarily a concrete one, utilising river gravel and stones to provide the aggregate and an early example of Portland cement (as against lime which would have been the ‘cement’ a few years earlier).  The curved treads are separately cast and have lasted well.  The main dereliction has occurred in the weaker mix of the risers and in-fill and these have been eroded by the action of water and frost.  I would really have preferred to have re-built the lower curved section but cost would have been too high in my view.  Instead I was certain I could ‘make-do and mend’ using a mix of stone dust and sand (1 cement + 2 sand + 4 stone dust).

Grand garden steps

Yes, it's concrete, yes it's a bit beneath me, but you have to admit, it does look a whole lot better and it is, after all, a grand staircase is it not ?

It never ceases to amaze me just how long such a seemingly simple job takes.  When you look at the finished product it is hard to believe it took two of us 3 days, but it did.  Not having the materials close at hand adds quite a bit of time, the mix was done up in the old courtyard which meant dozens of buckets were carried down.  Just cleaning away all the old accumulated debris, mud and invasive roots took a whole day so I suppose it wasn’t that bad really.  Such work is pretty dreary actually and both myself and my ‘little helper’ were hard pressed to stay jolly, not least because being stuck in a bent over, kneeling down position for long times did neither of our backs any good – I resisted the wonder of ibuprofen just in case !!  Nevertheless there’s always something to have a laugh about and the various characters that flit in and out of our day, actually or imaginary, provide endless cause for speculation and amusement (and that’s all I am going to say !).  The notion that one person had ‘the intellect of a Ginger-bread man’ amused us greatly and sums up the depths to which we had to aspire in order to overcome the insipid creep of tedium.  That being said, I’m glad we did it, the grand staircase has been given a new lease of life and is, once again, fit for purpose.  Now we move on to another set which are actually dry stone construction and in a far more precarious state.

Renovated garden steps made of concrete

From the side the elegance and geometry can be appreciated; that's the one thing about working on old garden features, they are always well designed and perfectly accurate.

The one thing that can always be relied on when working on such features is that they are almost certain to have been carefully designed and properly constructed.  Steps are one of my pet hates; not because I don’t like doing them, quite the contrary, they are an excellent means of keeping the skill level up.  It is more the case that I am constantly coming across newly constructed steps, be it in the urban or rural environment, which have been badly laid down.  There is a mathematical formula which is often not adhered to and, as such, this often renders steps unsuitable for their intended purpose or the user group for whom they were constructed.

Most people have heard of building regulations, yes ?  In a house the stair construction is very strictly controlled – you only have to go to an old house or building to realise how awkward older stairs can be – and the dimensions are scientifically assessed so that the stairs are comfortable, hence safe, for every likely user.  There are two basic step formats, one where the person rises with each footstep, thus alternated legs bear the burden of the lift or, secondly where the same leg leads on each rise there being a stride on the tread in between rising.  It very much depends on the angle of the slope and the height to be gained.  On an exceptionally long flight of steps/stairs, especially where the same leg steps up each time, it is normal to provide a wide tread at intervals – a ‘landing’ –  to allow the ‘change-step’ stride, allowing the alternate leg to then take the lifting burden, clear ?  Mmm.  One thing that is sacrosanct is the height of each riser, in other words, each step is the same height or else tripping occurs.  We tend not to watch where we are stepping when climbing stairs !!  How often, especially where outdoor ‘rustic’ type steps are provided, often built by well intentioned voluntary groups of conservation enthusiasts, does one encounter such steps which do not conform to a uniform pattern either in rise or tread and one is forever missing a step, tripping, or having to take an extended stretch to reach the next ‘up’ or, worse still, having to put in a short step to get to the next riser, and that is usually when the trip occurs !  Normally a 20 cms / 8 inch rise is what is encountered, that is comfortable for old and young alike.  Where a set of old steps is climbed it is normal that a one step, alternate leg, rise is the design and so it is with the sets I am working on.   It is good exercise to stride up such a flight, as I have had re-enforced this last week.  The next set have slightly lower risers and are built of slate, they will be more challenging I’m sure.

Apart from all the above I have also had to brave entering the cobweb infested outbuildings which house my collection of tools and equipment.  I suppose, on reflection, spiders have to set far more traps in the winter than at other times as there are far fewer flying insects to catch and eat.  Why don’t spiders hibernate ? Maybe they do, maybe those long sinuous silky strands and the clogging nets of their webs have actually been there much longer than I imagine … but they can’t have been as I definitely ventured into all corners and recesses prior to my departure ! Nevertheless my recent excursion into the old cow byre left me covered in the grey gossamer traps, my face and my clothes were literally hanging with the damned things.  My main concern was to get to the various engine driven machines that linger therein and give them a run, where necessary, and crank them over vigorously where not.  In the cold damp conditions of those old farm buildings engines suffer and valves are apt to stick unless regularly turned over.  Two engines in particular need regular running if the nuisance of an overhaul is to be avoided at the start of the show season.

1937 Lister D Shearing Machine

The Lister D Shearing machine has two heads powered by the belts, it dates to the 1930s and was used on a farm near Monmouth. It runs well enough providing it gets regularly fired up.

I am constantly being surprised just how many things linger in those outbuildings (as are the few visitors who brave the bumpy track !).  Only the other day whilst making space to ‘swing’ the starting handle on the Lister, I stumbled (literally !) on a little engine-driven battery charging system of WD (War Department) origin which I had totally forgotten I had.  It dates from the 1940s and was used as an auxiliary charging set for parked up armoured vehicles and radio trucks.  It needs my attention too.  The Lister Shearing machine is a prized possession (aren’t they all !) and is always well received when I take it to a show or exhibition.  The evolution from hand shearing to hand cranked and then engine assisted shearing (and ultimately to the modern electric shearer) is an interesting story and one which many old farmers still alive can recount with painful accuracy.  How anyone could sit all day hand shearing sheep is beyond my comprehension, that those that did should find themselves, in later life, with terribly deformed fingers through arthritis is no surprise at all.  I have several of the intermediate mechanical shearers, a shaft similar to that which drives the head of the Lister pictured, is rotated by the action of turning a large wheel which drives a chain and cog (I’ll put a photograph up when I get an example out of the cobwebs !).  A gentleman I know from the nearby village of Rhandirmyn (who strangely also recognised my charging set having served in the Tank Regiment in WW2) showed me his somewhat deformed arm – he is well into his eighties – which had been caused by having to turn the shearing machine when he was about 10 years old until he was 16, his father would give him a right good clout if he slowed the pace – for doing so caused the clipper to clog in the fleece – the last clout was the day he turned on his father and he never cranked that handle again, nor did his father ever raise his hand to him again !  Such are the stories that get told to me by folk just stopping-by to view one or other of my displays.

The second engine which regularly needs attention is a Ruston-Hornsby 3hp of 1927 vintage.  It too spent most of its life as the motive power for a shearing attachment, another simple Lister devise which made the annual sheep shearing marathon slightly easier for the smaller farm.  It came from the farm of one Percy Jones who farmed near Sennybridge but hailed originally from just over the hill from me at Llanwyrthwl.  It has a shaft driven magneto which I remove and store in a dry warm cupboard in the house – having spent over £400 having rewound I can’t afford for it to get damp – but the oil needs to be circulated and the engine run at least once a month or so.  One big problem which  besets all of us who restore and display such engines is the current state of gasoline.  Various new additives are causing serious issues with older engines as the cleaners tend to separate out and form deposits at the bottom of fuel lines and tanks.  It is the same with agricultural grade diesel fuel – red diesel – and my old practise of leaving fuel tanks full over the winter in order to avoid condensation building up in the tank and lines has had to be abandoned.  Instead I, and everyone else with this sad affliction, now have to drain everything each time I run the engines.  I have managed to acquire some paraffin – quite difficult to source these days – with which to fill the tanks of the stationary engines (the type of engine mentioned above, in reference to the fact they just stay in one place and drive some piece of machinery or equipment, normally by means of a belt)  but even though these engines were originally designed to run on that fuel, they were referred to as paraffin engines, to do so today risks immediate arrest for causing a huge polluting cloud !

A 1920s Ruston Hornsby PB stationery engine

Percy Jones' hard working stationary engine, a Ruston Hornsby PB 3hp. It took many many hours of hard work to get it restored - you can see what paraffin does to modern paint ! Where I have spilled some around the tank filler, the paint has peeled away - ah well, restoration Volume 2 !

A man much more famous than Welshwaller once coined the phrase “the infernal combustion engine”, how right he was.  They – like this infernal machine I am now using to write this blog post – have a mind of their own, some days they just fire-up and run all day without a hiccup. Other days they can be the very devil to even start let alone run !  I hate the bloody things, well, I mostly do, but there is something intrinsically fascinating about them, I can’t resist them, that’s why somewhere amid the cobwebs lingers around 30 of the wretched things.  What I need is a local version of Pickens Flea Market, then I may be tempted, just a little, just a few…

Perhaps I’ll begin a little series showing you some of the more unusual engines and engine driven machines that lurk ready to trip me up. After all, very early chainsaws, two wheel walk-behind tractors, milking machines, vacuum pumps, milk coolers, saw benches, water pumps and others I can’t even recall, will be unfamiliar to many of my readers.  On the other hand….. are you really that interested !  We’ll see.

There we have it, back to normal.  Sleeping in my own little bed dreaming blissfully on my feather pillow, waking with frost on the blankets (I kid you not !), what on earth did I bother going away for.  Offer me a flight to Washington next week, offer me a fajita in Columbus or a berrito in Chapel Hill, tempt me with managing a team about to take part in the Bridge Run in Charleston, ask me to build a dry stack wall somewhere in the Blue Ridge mountains, ask me if I can be bothered with any of that again…………….

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