And there was light, and you could see for miles….

March, what do you think you are !! You are no June or even September, what on earth are those temperatures about, and – where’s the rain ??!!  Even here in (normally) wet Wales we haven’t seen a drop.  I love it of course, but even I am beginning to wonder, ” when am I going to get soaked !?”  A northern holiday is on the horizon as is a mountain job, both planned for after the winds and rain of March and April… we’ll see.

As it is, I have been revelling in the warmest, driest and most enjoyable working March for as long as I can recall.  Such has been the warmth and brightness, such also has been the number of small jobs awaiting my attention, that I have even risked a certain Heavenly wrath by breaking the Sabbath.  For three Sundays now I have been out on the hillsides of Brecknock and Radnorshire.  Palm Sunday saw me once again at a site I first visited some ten years or so ago.  The rolling hills of Radnor take some beating and this particular spot is a real gem, with stunning views and pleasant environment and, as always in my life, the type of customers you don’t mind giving up time for.

Walling in the March sunshine.

You in your small corner and I in mine... The corner of a field that was my Sunday work spot, a little corner of Radnorshire, looking out over the hills of Central Wales; where better to sing hymns !!

The first time I came here, all those years ago, it was to build this wall, or rather rebuild it.  Much to the surprise of the man who drove the mechanical digger – and, I suspect, the landowner – I asked him to take the whole of it down, foundations and all; strip it right out and pull it back on either side.  I intended doing a total rebuild, frankly, it was the only option !  The wall is, as I remember, around 130 yards / metres in length and stands about 4ft/120cm.  Made of the local sandstone it had stood for around 250 years and had endured much.  It deserved some TLC.

Sandstone wall, rebuilt in 2002, now looking 'ancient'

My rebuilt wall is now 10 years old and is already looking like it has indeed been here since the mid 1700s.

Today it stands as good as when I handed it back to the farmer.  So why was I back ?  Can you believe a section of it is to be demolished to make way for a gallop !  Pure sacrilege, don’t you agree !!??  I had to build the two wall ends that were now required at each side of the gap.  I have to admit to a certain sadness at taking my own wall down; true, I have rebuilt odd sections of my own walls as and when they have collapsed – as you have read recently- but to deliberately destroy something I created was not nice.  However, it did allow me the opportunity to examine just how well my building skills had stood the test of time – not that 10 years comes anywhere near the life expectancy of such a wall, after all, the old one had stood for 250 years !  I was pleasantly surprised, not that I should have been surprised, but it was satisfying to see how good the innard of the wall was, the ‘heart’ of the wall.  The fact that I had to rip back so far from my intended line indicated how well I had integrated the stones, each overlapping its neighbour and joints well crossed.  It took some taking down I can tell you !  I constructed the two new wall-ends or ‘cheek-ends’, without too much difficulty, notwithstanding it is never easy to construct corners without the specially chosen or dressed stones.  Luckily this sandstone naturally throws up some relatively keen right angles, certainly sufficient for a field wall, especially for a wall that is only ever going to be examined by a galloping horse and head-down rider !

The cheek-end of a wall

The new cheek-end isn't show-winning but it is strong enough and thus fit for purpose, which generally is all I want from a field wall. It is always difficult creating a new wall-end as often there are unsuitable or insufficient stones with a nice corner. This sandstone isn't too bad and I managed to find enough that were only a degree or two off 90 !

The fields of this farm are high above the county town of Powys (I should point out that Powys was an ancient Kingdom the name of which and the general boundaries of which, were resurrected in a Local Government re-organisation way back in the 1970s, prior to that the area consisted of the three counties of Brecknock, Radnorshire and Montgomery) which was/is also the old county town of Radnorshire.  Radnorshire is only 450 years old having been created as a result of the Acts of Union (1536-42) which effectively ended Welsh independence (and came about as a result of the Glyndwr rebellion).  The new county replaced several of the old Marcher lordships and was created to straddle the Welsh -English border between Herefordshire and Shropshire.  It is a mystical place in my view, with a great many hidden valleys and ancient farmsteads locked in an age long since past, open rolling hills where medieval sheep-walks still exist and where pre-historic settlements and early Medieval landscapes abound, many yet to be discovered.

This particular hilltop is shared by three farms and a modern golf course.  When I first came up here to work I could not understand why so many golfers were such bad hitters of the ball.  The field in which I worked stands at right angles to the main driving line of two of the holes and some 300 yards away and yet, in the wall were dozens of old and not-so-old golf balls.  Weird, or so I thought !  Again on Sunday, pretty much the first thing I saw as I began to strip down the wall was a bright white shiny golf ball !

A golf ball hidden in a stone wall

The ball lies just in the top of the wall, often they drop in a few inches and get covered by leaves or moss.

I hadn’t been working on the wall very many days (back in 2002) before I had a bucketful of nice new balls as well as some older fairly dilapidated ones which had clearly been in the wall for some time.  Now it so happened that I had found golf balls in an old wall before, but that wall was nowhere near a golf course.  However, the lady of that farm  (the very farm I was working at recently when I delivered the lambs !) is a mad keen golfer and was just beginning to play back in 2002.  I took her the good balls which I had recovered from this wall and explained where I had got them as well as expressing my puzzlement at why and how they got there. “Ah, that’s simple” she said, “it’s the crows”.  Apparently the crows pluck the balls out of the grass, even off the fairway itself (much to the chagrin of the golfer !) thinking they are eggs.  They then fly to the nearest wall and drop the ball expecting it to break, but of course it doesn’t, it merely bounces into a crevasse, or off into the field no doubt, and is irretrievable.  The balls which I had found in her wall, a wall nowhere near a course, had been carried up to the high pastures and dropped onto the walls there by crows who were picking them up at a course two miles lower down the valley !  The problem, not least for the golfers of Llandrindod Golf Club, is that the crows never seem to learn and just go on pinching the balls before the players can get to them ! A little aside to this tale is that whilst in Charlston we witnessed a seagull do exactly the same thing with an oyster, it flew up into the air with it in its beak and then dropped it onto the concrete path on which we were walking (!!) where it split open and the bird descended to enjoy the contents.  Bird brains indeed !

These now green fields, in this high exposed spot, have been important agricultural land for millenia.  It is likely that a pre-historic settlement existed up here, maybe as long ago as the Bronze age, certainly by the arrival of our uninvited Italian visitors in the late 1st Century AD (it is uncertain when exactly the Legions arrived in the Brecknock/Radnor area, certainly it seems that it was as late as AD 70s, under the leadership of the Flavian governor Julius Frontinus, that the warring Silures in this region were subjugated) the land was well settled and field systems of the Iron-age northern Silures are to be found nearby.  Although susceptible to the worst excesses of the Welsh weather, this land is fertile – as can be seen by the rich soil the Moles regularly turn up – and has been utilised for arable farming for centuries.

Iron wheels idle on a Welsh hill.

The evidence that this land was even recently under arable cultivation is here, in this relic of early twentieth century mechanisation. The old seed drill lies forgotten and rotting but the strong iron of its wheels and frame defy all efforts of nature to destroy it. Too far for the scrap-man to scavenge the metal, it lies elegantly on the high point, left where it was abandoned over 60 years ago.

Evidence of recent arable activity is often encountered, a rusty iron plough share, estimated by my Iron expert to be early 1800s.  Lumps of burnt lime applied as fertilizer still lie on the surface.  This is a left-over from the 1700s when the understanding of the benefits of using a calcium dressing to enrich the soil (by moving the Ph toward neutrality from its normal highly acidic state) however the process of slaking the lime was often imperfect and instead of a nice powdery dressing throughout, large lumps were left in the product.  Once spread onto the ground these lumps do not dissolve but absorb carbon dioxide and gradually move back toward the original calcium carbonate from which it came.  Another clue came in the form of  rotten old wooden tow pole with a little cast iron plaque which invokes a maximum speed of 3 mile per hour on the road !!  I use that old sign as a part of my ‘Guess what it is’ competition, but I’ll tell you.  It’s off an Albion Sunshine reaper binder.  The American machine was the first mechanised form of combined harvesting although all it did was cut the corn, move it onto canvass sheets by means of revolving sails, similar to a windmill, and knot the stooks before ejecting them to the side to await manual stacking.  The discovery of this old relic high up in these hills shows clearly how, just a lifetime ago, corn was grown successfully up there. Of course when we talk of ‘corn‘ it means oats or barley not wheat or maize.

Slaked lime lump in a pasture

The large lump of slaked lime lies on the surface of the (now) pasture and is an indication of much earlier enrichment of the soil to make the it suitable for arable production.

The soft sandstone has been responsible for both the high fertility of the soil, not least because of its good drainage qualities, but also the very shape of the hills.  The Radnor hills are slow rolling, gently on the eye and on the breathing when walking them.  They have many secret valleys and open flat top plateaux or ‘blaenau’ the low productive land sitting betwixt and between the high open sheep walks and the enclosed ‘in-byes’ of the lower slopes.

Old Iron Plough Share found in a dry stone wall

The rusty old iron share was discovered in the dilapidated wall when I first rebuilt it ten years ago, it was placed on top of the wall where it remains; a reminder that these fields have been ploughed for centuries.

As well as constructing the two new wall ends I did a quick maintenance walk, replacing stones that had been knocked off the wall by young cattle scratching their chins or by sheep, on a lower wall, jumping up to reach the grass growing on top of the bank.  I also had to take care of a large collapse of the wall at the front of the house, again something I had first constructed a decade ago.  This time I could apportion blame to a well grown Forsythia bush the roots of which had pushed out stones in the inner face of the retaining wall causing a major and catastrophic failure of the structure.  In all about 6 sq metres had crashed down.  It was a slightly daunting sight at first but as usual, once the stone is cleared away and the wall made safe, it looks a much less challenging job.  Rebuilding is never as difficult as it may first appear.

Stones everywhere but they will make a wall !

This great pile of stone was once a really nice wall ! Shrubs and walls need to be kept apart !

I managed to get it all stripped out and partially sorted, discovered the ‘root cause’ – excuse the pun – and reset the foundations before starting upwards.  I had not intended or expected that I could get it all done in one day, it was a large gap and as it was a Saturday, I had not exactly started early.  However by 4pm I was nearing the last few courses so decided to push on and get it all finished.  I should have remembered what I teach my walling students !!  Don’t over-extend yourself, burn only the energy available for today and do not start into tomorrow’s reserves!  By the time I drove the 20 minutes home I was barely awake and certainly my muscles had stiffened up so much I could hardly get out of the car ! My fitness levels, for what they are, are geared to building for six hours a day, and I can do that day in day out, with no bad effects.  If  I, as I sometimes though rarely do, decide to work on longer to get something done I invariably end up paying for it out of tomorrow’s hours.  Know your limits is the answer, I did but I was greedy.  By the following morning I had not recovered sufficiently to do another hard day and thus the field wall took much longer than it should have.  Mind you, in such a beautiful place on such a bright day I was easily distracted.

Dry stone garden wall retaining the high bank

The high wall retains the garden which is over a metre higher than the field level at its lowest point and where the collapse had taken place it was around 1.8 mtrs or 6ft. The collapse was about 6 sq mtrs and probably weighed in at about 4 tons of stone.

In addition to clues about the past farming activities, dry stone walls often throw up interesting artefacts of other historical events.  The long field wall yielded a number of items which indicated that activity of a warring nature took place at various times in the past.

Sunshine Reaper Binder 3 mph advisory plate off tow shaft

Personally I would not want to tow an Albion Sunshine reaper binder at all ! 3 mph is way too fast, especially along a country lane !

The first items I discovered back in 2002 were musket balls.  These were not lead however but rolled stone balls.  They have been examined by a weapons archaeologist who suggests they are probably from the Civil War(1642-51).  As yet I have no idea what was going on in these parts in relation to that event but it is fascinating to imagine.

The second set of artefacts relate to a much later war and to people from a far-away land.  In the year or so prior to the D-day landings in June 1944, many upland areas of Wales were used as training grounds for the armies that were to invade France.  I have already written about the great land clearance that took place on the Epynt range to create a military training ground.  Many other areas were utilised by American forces and the hills around Llandrindod Wells are such a place.  In the field wall I found numerous empty rifle cases which were for the Garand rifle, the common rifle of the U.S. Infantry divisions.  Also a 2″ U.S. mortar round, or the fins of one.  Neither were drill rounds or blanks showing clearly that live-fire exercises took place on this spot in the build up to the D-day landings.

Stone Musket balls from the English Civil War

The stone musket balls are large and heavy - apologies to overseas readers who are not familiar with the British 50p piece used to size them - I cannot imagine the damage they would have inflicted on human flesh and bone.

Garand rifle cases and a 2" mortar fin from the Llandrindod area.

The WW2 U.S. army rifle cases and mortar remains which were found in the old dry stone wall on the hill south of Llandrindod Wells in Powys.

My four great interests are catered for at Ty Gwyn, on those old fields in the Radnor hills.  I have always been something of a Military historian, I am a student of Historical Landscapes and Agricultural history and, last but by no means least, I am a keen Naturalist.

The area is a haven for wildlife and all manner of flora and fauna are to be found in this small area. In particular I will mention some fairly rare creatures which caused me to make some structural provision within the dry stone wall I rebuilt.

Tracks in the grass to a specially constructed passage in a dry stone wall

The trackway in the grass leads straight to the passageway I built in the dry stone wall - called a 'smout' - and is clearly well utilised. Intended for the Hares that live hereabout it is clearly also being used by badgers and foxes.

Hares are becoming increasingly rare in the pasturelands of Wales.  Changes in grassland management has meant that the young Hares – Leverets – are left exposed in early- cut silage fields or killed by the machinery carrying out the harvest.  Normally the mother leaves her two or three youngsters – there is nothing much prettier than a young hare, light grey and cute beyond words, believe me – in a small ‘form’ which is often a hollow in a pasture field.  Soon after they are born they are separated for security, so that if a fox or other predator finds one the others have a chance.  There they remain motionless and do not even move when danger is right on top of them.  I once had the despair of stepping on a little youngster lying in a form,  I had passed by dozens of times that day walking to and fro between the wall I was building and my vehicle.  At the end of the day I took some steps backward to view my work and to my horror felt and heard the deathly step.  Poor little thing had been paralysed when I stepped onto it and as if in punishment, I had to despatch the beautiful little animal.  That horror lives with me after 15 years and I am much more careful where I step when walking in long grass.

In the fields around my wall there are several Hares and during the summer I was rebuilding the wall I had the absolute delight of watching the youngsters ‘haring’ around the newly mown and cleared fields.  They chased each other around the large round bales that had been left in the field to dry and cool, hour after hour they raced like they were on a greyhound track with the pack after them.  Alas those were days before I had a good digital camera or my handycam.  However, I noted their habits and how they had gotten used to crossing the old wall at a place where it was fallen to the ground and there – in two spots along its length – I built a special little passage, taller and slimmer than a normal smout might be, to allow them to pass through, thereby not breaking their known routeways.  It is an easy thing to do and one which I always encourage others to undertake whenever an obvious track in the surrounding fields leads to a spot through a broken down old wall.  Not doing so results in huge disruption to the habits of the ground living animal and also means that they are likely to attempt to climb the wall to get over to the known path on the other side.  A 40lb badger very soon dislodges the cope-stones and continues to pull stones off  the wall to make it easier to cross.  Much easier and better for all if a little passage is made, we all share the countryside !

Another interesting relic of this landscape and one which gives some indication of the period in which the land was first enclosed by the walls, are the open quarries from where the stone was ‘won’.  It is one of the methods of estimating the age of the wall by ascertaining how far the stone has been conveyed from quarry to site.  Here the quarries are a matter of yards from the walls, only later in the C18th and C19th was stone transported any distance.  If it were not for the presence of even earlier banks and ditches in the area which created earlier field systems such close proximity of quarry to wall could have indicated an earlier build period.

A field quarry from which stone was won for nearby walls

The winning of stone (the term used for quarrying stone from field quarries) was a hard gruelling job and moving the heavy material to the required location was equally hard and used up large amounts of time and energy of men and oxen.

All in all Ty Gwyn farm is a place that I enjoy.  The walls are old and important, the ancient landscape that is all around and the views that lead on into Wales and towards the English border is as good as any I’ve seen.  In addition the good folk that live there are into the kind of farming that I admire.  They also have an entrepreneurial spirit in terms of diversification.  They already have self catering accommodation and now new projects are being incubated.

The first involves the remarkable and amazingly quick construction of quasi Shepherd’s Huts for use as ‘Glamping’ accommodation – glamping for those of you that are not familiar with the term is about ‘posh’ camping in ready available temporary units such as large heated tents or yerts or wagons.

A newly constructed Shepherds Hut

This amazing and brand new Shepherds hut has an en-suite ! It is to be located in a stream-side location and will be available for rent soon !!

www.tygwynfarm will give you the booking information and tell you all about this place.  Soon WE will be launching some walking holidays taking in the local Historic Landscapes and utilising the hospitality and accommodation of both ‘mine hosts’ and local B & Bs.  It would be nice to see more of the Radnor Hills and have the chance to explore them without having to build walls in-between !

I started this week talking of warm unseasonal weather, I end wishing you well for the Easter holiday and showing you how April has changed the way I go to work !  Fur hats and thermals have been donned once more by Welshwaller !  Unseasonal greetings to you all !

A snowy road in April

My journey to my next walling site looked like this all week ! So much for my sun-block...

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