“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” (Gandhi)

For sure “I want to die in my sleep like my grandfather…. not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car”.  The reason for all this philosophical death stuff will become apparent.  The last couple of weeks (apologies for my overdue write up – the reason will become apparent !!) has been a mixture of  births, deaths, imminent death and near death, in fact the ‘Ides of March’ attacked in force.

Wall collapse due to frost heave

The first venue was at my favourite Penlanole, the home of the Shakespeare Link and nearly my 'last play' !! The big boulder wall sits on top of a steep bank leading down to a wood... a dodgy site indeed.

I am still on the trail of winter damage to my wall stock, well not mine you understand, but walls which are within my care, lets just say.  Once again the ravages of winter has left several large collapses.  In most cases, I suspect, they were first damaged two winters ago when temperatures dropped to minus 20 c, then again in the winter of 2010/11 when snow lay deep for over two months and ground froze to a depth of ten inches or so.  The recent winter was nowhere near as bad but a large storm around New Year and some really sub-zero temperatures in January (whilst I was lazing in a more temperate zone) has produced a number of casualties amongst the dry stone walls on which I have worked.  The first I had to repair was at the home of my dear friends at Penlanole, site of the cart horse wash repair of last autumn.  Two sections had collapsed, one I had anticipated having seen a large bulge in it when I was there in November, and both were on boundary walls of fields that would soon hold lambs.

Stone wall collapses

The second Penlanole collapse was in a much easier position, flat on both sides !

Those of you who read these pages regularly will be familiar with this venue, large massively heavy stones of no particular shape, difficult to move, difficult to lift and difficult to make into a wall.  Add to that the presence of a steep bank and the apparently simple job of stripping-out a collapsed section and rebuilding to fill the gap becomes an area in need of a serious risk assessment !

Now the majority of my jobs can be covered under a generic risk assessment; they all have aspects of manual handling, heavy lifting – though I’m sure current Health and Safety regulations would put a stop to many of the practises I employ to lift and move heavy stones, indeed I doubt many of my earlier jobs would ever have been allowed to have been undertaken if strict adherence to the rules and more than just me working on site was the norm – and trip hazards.  In addition one has to be alert to temperatures, heat and cold can catch you out, and to the natural world where the odd stinging or biting creature or plant can get you if you are careless.  Of all the problems of which  I have to take note two are particularly serious.  The onset of Spring and unseasonally hot weather means already I have to be ‘blocking’ the sun.  I confess that when I first started out I was woefully bad at protecting myself and spent most of the summer in shorts and shirtless, nor did I wear a hat very often.  I am already paying the price for that carefree attitude with regular ‘freezing’ of  little suspect blotches on my face and head.

Limestone wall under blue sky.

Blue sky in March means I need to be re-assessing my risk assessments.

All these factors are regular features of any risk assessment I carry-out but occasionally something new crops-up.  So it was with the latest little collapse at Penlanole.  The field wall forms the boundary between a small woodland and the pasture.  Unfortunately the woodland floor sits about 4 metres lower than the pasture hence the wall has been built on the top of a steep bank.  The collapse – a clear result of frost heave, as will be seen – had been all one-way, and that way was down the slope.  Hence I was faced with a real problem; the stone was piled where it had fallen, precariously balanced and probably holding back further collapse of the standing wall.  Care was needed, particular and concentrated, or else I would likely end up at the bottom of the slope with half a wall on top of me.  I am well versed with this sort of predicament, I have learned the hard way, many was the time in my early walling days that I would be caught out by a sudden and unexpected further collapse as I stripped out the stone from a fallen gap.  I approached the job carefully and methodically, making sure I had a clear escape route should I need to move out of the way quickly.  I worked slowly and from the side, removing stones individually and placing them securely onto a shelf I had created.  It took over two hours to clear the fallen stone and eventually I arrived at the foundation stones and there, clear for all to see, was the cause of all this dilapidation.  A large and heavy stone had tilted to an angle of about 45 degrees by the action of the up-lifting of the sub-soil under heavy frost condition.

Dry stone wall foundation, tilted by frost action.

The angle of this foundation stone was clearly NOT conducive to holding up a dry-stone wall - especially one as heavy as at Penlanole - the angle of tilt has been caused by the sub-soil lifting due to the frozen water within and this has happened suddenly and a catastrophic collapse can be the only result.

I carefully rolled it forward and dug away the soil until there was once again a flat surface on which to sit the foundation.  Alas, as I attempted to manoeuvre the large stone back into its resting place it attacked me.  Caught off balance I toppled backward (through about 160 degrees !) and, as if in slow-motion, as I fell I thought how painful the landing was going to be… I hit the stones ever so un-gently, banging head, shoulder and hip; then, without suggestion or assistance my body did the most perfect backward roll, a gymnastic feat not performed by this old body for a very long time I can assure you, only to hit the stones once again.  As if that wasn’t enough, yet another perfect roll ensued followed by a landing in the leaf litter on the floor of the wood, some 15 foot or so below my starting position.  As I lay there feeling for any damage and counting my blessings that the fall seemed not to have resulted in any permanent injury, I saw, in the corner of my eye, not  an arms length from my head. a sharp thin cut-off sapling rising some 15″/ 35cms vertically like some native trap in the jungles of Africa.  A cold shiver rippled through me as I imagined the end result had my fall been a smidging to my left…..  dangerous business this walling.

The next job took me back once again to the sheep farm of Dafadfa in the hamlet of Gwynfe.  A small wall at the edge of the yard was required to replace a rather ugly concrete block barrier.  The near death experience of the previous week was replaced with the daily new arrivals in the lambing shed.  One afternoon I had to employ long forgotten shepherding skills to pull a lamb that had begun to appear but with one leg tucked behind it preventing a proper exit from mum.  Not something I enjoy doing, slimey best describes it, but a real sense of satisfaction seeing the two lambs – twins were due and the second one popped quite easily once I had pulled out her brother – running around some short hours later

Mother and baby are doing well

Mother and son are doing well - after being pulled into the world by the gentle hands of Welshwaller.

As I built the wall dozens of lambs were born, so too a rather cute little calf, apparently a weeks or so early.  Mother cows are not to be treated lightly, unlike sheep they do not take kindly to anyone approaching their little baby, no sir !

Cow and calf in the manger

That look says "don't even think about coming near", the calf arrived unexpectedly and was actually 'dropped' onto a messy concrete floor before being bravely moved into this pen and a nice fresh bed.

As I thought about my near miss and all this new life, my thoughts drifted to a dear friend who fights bravely on against the legacy of a life spent defending his country’s interests and clearing another of the remnants of warfare.  Years of exposure to the dreaded Citannes tobacco sticks and depleted uranium in the spent ammunition of a super power, has stacked the odds of winning this particular battle, against him.

Even as the births continued on the farm, departures from other aspects of my life balanced the scales.  A phone call announced the passing of an aunt of mine.  How strange all that should come along within such a short spell of time.  Funerals are not my favourite way of meeting long lost relatives – those still living I mean ! – but that’s how it seems to be these days.

One way traffic while she passes by

Another new life awaiting the time to drop into the world. The mares on the Black Mountain are getting near their time too, I'm surrounded by entrances and exits. She has right of way on the narrow roads of the mountains I have to drive.

Among the mourners were my cousins, children of the deceased aunt and still living brother of my father.  I’m not sure exactly but I am fairly certain, we would have to get back into the mid 1960s to find a time when we might have last met, and it would have been a ‘might have’.  How different from those fine folk I recently met in south Carolina where extended family means they only meet on a Sunday !

An interesting issue arose at that sad get- together; one of the long lost cousins now wants to ‘catch-up’ with everyone. She was genuinely overwhelmed to see us as it appears she had been pestering her father (my uncle) for some time for our addresses (I use the term ‘our’ as I was in attendance with a sister of mine – the other “doesn’t do funerals” – and a male cousin with whom I have had regular contact always).  Now whilst the others were glad enough to go along with her somewhat over-enthusiastic re-connection, and notwithstanding she was burying her mother and hence was entitled to some heartfelt sympathy and family esprit de corps, I am not at all sure.  I mean, we lived our lives quite well enough without contact….. but then I’m a little anti-social when it comes to family, what is it they say ? “You can chose your friends….”

What I did suddenly realise, as I journeyed some 50 miles to attend that gathering, was just how long it’s been since I donned a suit and tie ! AND just how expensive fuel has become, my my, can it really be the case that a 100 mile round trip cost me over £10 !!  Thankfully there aren’t many elder family members left, but by the look of those that are I can put the white shirt, cool three piece and black tie away for a while yet.

Apart from that little trip I have pretty much been doing a 7 day week to catch-up with all those collapses.  I won’t bore you with the details of each venue, instead a little photo essay might suffice.

And the walls came tumbling down

I could not believe this collapse ! You may recognise the wall, it is the Dinas - AGAIN ! - I only finished rebuilding two sections back in October and then this great lump decides to come down along with another piece a few yards along. It is going to keep on happening on this particular section of this wall as it is built with lime mortar and being now 300 years old that is beginning to lose it's adhesion. The problem for me is that the stones are not really suitable to rebuild it as a dry stone wall, they are not long enough to penetrate into the centre of the wall.

Can you see it !

In one of the Dinas collapses a small movement caught my eye as I stripped out the debris. Hiding in the old wall was this little creature - can you make him out ?

Life can be found in all walls, even old collapsed ones.

It nearly got buried and would certainly have been 'walled-in' had I not seen him, a terrible slow death would have ensued as he would not have found a way out once I had rebuilt the section. So lucky that I just saw him but he crawled further into the wall and caused me to have to take a little more down to find him. He scampered off into a little hole where I suspect some of his siblings were hiding.

Down and back up again

At least it went back up fairly easily, and with no mishaps ! There must now be a dozen or so repaired sections along this stretch of the Deer Park wall of the old Edwinsford estate. Looking at the older pieces I can see I'll be back again before too long !!

Last weekend I had to do another emergency repair as sheep are about to be placed back on the hill.  A small section of a wall at Grafog – not a piece we had rebuilt, I hasten to add ! – had suddenly collapsed a few weeks ago and it would have allowed sheep on the hill to easily climb into the in-bye fields.  Although it was a hard day’s work, I would have liked to have taken two days but it is a long way and fuel now at £1.50 a litre…, but lovely blue skies and sunshine and the peace of the upper Rhiangoll made it well worth the while.  The payment was a little barter transaction, wall repair for a nice set of alloy wheels with rather good tyres which will come in handy for my Land Rover.  The farmer had taken them off his recent purchase of a 10 year old Discovery which he intends to now use as his farm runabout and which, therefore, required serious off-road mud tyres – it can get very wet and muddy on those fields !

A tumbled down section of the mountain wall near Pengenffordd, Brecs.

This rather nice piece of wall had originally been built by a young lad from nearby Crickhowell, some ten years ago, it differs from the local build typology as he adheres to a style more akin to the south Wales valleys. I tried, as best I could, to rebuild it so it resembled his original typology, difficult as it is a completely alien method for me to follow.

a repaired section of mountain wall.

What 'dya reckon ? Have I managed to make it look like the original ? I hope so, it is a good piece of wall and an example of a different methodology which results in a completely different appearance. Old red Sandstone is very accomodating to all manner of build competences - thankfully !

So, busy days indeed these last few weeks, with little time for anything else.  I have however been involved in some study work, looking at some interesting landscape features over in the Oxfordshire countryside which I hope to bring to you in a while.  Life, death and learning, a strange introduction to the Welsh Spring, a sunny one thus far too, and my head is already reminding me to break out the sun block.

My day begins at present with the joyous sight and sounds of new life, of lambs gamboling around the field by my gate or sleeping in the early morning sunshine.  A nice way to set forth on another tiring day, but at least the Ides of March have resulted in some work for Welshwaller, so it’s not always a case of “Beware” !  Just as long as I stay upright and avoid stones !

Morning sunshine and lambs

The morning sunshine peeks over the hill and the little lambs are ready for another day in their short playful lives. A nice way to greet the day, for both of us !


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