“April is the cruellest of months…” (T.S. Elliot)

But it is what it is; showers that give new meaning to the word, at once driving rain and hail, then bright sunshine, always too cold to go hatless and yet pleasant when the wind drops. At last we have something resembling weather of the ‘ol’ days’, you knew where you were when April showers was what you got, when March was not so hot as to allow one to go shirtless on the hill, when the first two months of the year meant waterproof underwear !  Do you know that since I got back from sunny Carolina at the beginning of February, until this last few days, I have not had to don a waterproof at all.  Thus it comes as something of a shock to find that, once again, I have to work in mud, wet and cold, fingers dyed red from the gloves, nose permanently droplet laden.  Nevertheless life has to go on and stones have to be piled on stones and artefacts need some TLC.

Ponies on a Welsh hill road

A misty morning on the Black Mountain, between Llangadog and Brynamman. This little herd were licking the salt which had been put down as there was ice and snow about.

The first project to report on was a short sharp restoration, somewhat clandestinely executed but with an excellent result (which greatly eased my conscience and those of the ‘sponsors’).

A few weeks back I finally got a slot in my busy schedule to attend to a long standing commitment to restore (and in the process deal with a major flooding issue) the supposed ‘Holy Well’ at a decommissioned church in the Swansea valley.  There has been a long standing debate about how it was to be undertaken, firstly it is within the boundary of a listed building and sits in a churchyard which is still owned (and occasionally used) by the Church.  It’s de-consecration saw it put up for sale and a local philanthropist bought it and a small group from the community have taken on the formidable task of saving the structure – a massive undertaking indeed – and giving the medieval building some useful future.

The problem with the whole project, that is the Church including the well,  the water that floods the road and the dry stone wall that surrounds it, is that so many bodies are involved with its (so called) protection.  In Wales the first authority from whom permission has to be sought – to do absolutely anything ! – is the Local Council, they have the planning control and their officers (cough cough) are the font (excuse the Ecclesiastic analogies ) of all knowledge, or certainly think they are, in matters relating to building conservation. Then there is the government body responsible for protecting the built environment, Cadw, then there is the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments in Wales (RCAHMW), responsible for research, protection, archaeological investigation and scheduling – scheduling is allocating protection by recognising the site as nationally important and thus in need of protection – then there is the local Archaeological Trust whose brief is to know about, record and investigate everything in their geographic area and then, last but by no means least, there is the Church in the form of the local vicar and his boss, the Bishop (of the Diocese).  So getting permission to do anything, getting any joined up thinking, getting any  action is, shall we say, an arduous and frustrating process.

I, being fully aware of this bureaucratic heirarchy, suggested to the group now trying to save the church that the well needed to be properly excavated by a professional archaeologist.  I know just the man and duly contacted him to see if he could do the job.  Roger duly visited and told the committee what he felt should be done, that it was indeed an important site, not least by virtue of being within a scheduled area and being recorded with a PRN (an important fact, a Public Record Number means it is regarded as important by all the above mentioned agencies !).

However, the problem of the water from the well flooding the roadway was felt, by the local authority, to be of paramount and urgent (hence over-riding) importance.  As a preliminary investigation, by their workmen, had shown that the overflow pipe emanating from the well was an old galvanised pipe (and therefore unlikely to be early Christian !) and a ‘little poke around’ in the well had revealed 19th century clay piping and other later rubbish, they decided that it was not necessary to go through the long process of gaining multi-agency consent.  Thus it was I came  to be excavating stones and indeed lots and lots of 19th and 20th century rubbish, not only from the mud of the well – it is in fact only about 12″/ 30 cms deep with a stone flagged bottom – but from the back of the few stones that made up the surrounding wall.  Only a small section of the structure was in place and a large pile of stones lay to the side.

A muddy hole, a well, a sacred well ?

The 'Holy Well' was really just a hole in the ground with a few stones still in place. It had been restructured in the late 1800s and again about 50 years ago judging by the evidence of the debris found in and around it.

The notion of it being a ‘Holy Well’ is of course an assumption.  What exactly is a ‘Holy Well’ in any case ?  Certainly there are many such water spouts or springs, pwll  or fynnon in Welsh, throughout Wales.  The pwll is a spring, a ‘spout’ or issue (as it is often referred to on Ordnance Survey maps), whilst the fynnon is truly a well, normally a hole, often with a built stone surround, into which water seeps through the ground.  It has become the fashion to give the nomenclature of a ‘Holy Well’ to any such water issue where there is some documentary suggestion, albeit often only a couple of hundreds of years old, that the water was regarded as having certain healing properties or is within the area of an identifiable early Christian site.  Of course it is likely that the existence of the clear water source was the attraction to locate such a clas, an early hermitage or monastic settlement, at that place in the centuries after the coming of Christianity in the 5th Century AD.  Certainly this well is exactly the type of clear clean water that was needed and the present Church is known to be built on the site of a much earlier Llan   (which means a circular enclosure) and is often much earlier than even the coming of Christianity.

A new stone surround to a much older well

The ancient well was in need of some serious restructuring but as the stone surround had been destroyed by earlier attempts at dealing with the excess water, I was left with having to use my imagination and build something that resembled other 'Holy Wells'. The water enters the well through the ground which is almost more mysterious than it pouring forth from an 'issue'. Of course clay is the secret ingredient.

The true ‘well’ is one which uses ground-water to fill the chamber.  Forget the deep circular stone or brick lined well into which the ‘Pussy’ fell, the one with the windlass and the bucket which is lowered hundreds of feet into the abyss to bring up beautiful clear water, no, the type of well which has the name ‘Holy’ attached to it is somewhat disappointing in construction !

The secret of any simple well lies in the geology below.  The biggest single factor is the presence of an impermeable layer of rock or clay which has the strange property of holding water but also allowing it to pass slowly, ever so slowly, through it.  Simply digging a hole in such ground guarantees the hole will fill with water.  Anyone who has the misfortune of having clay in their garden or farm will know only too well (sorry !) how easily water is held.  Whilst enjoying my little trip in the Carolinas we had to do a quick job for a friend of ‘mine host’.  Fire pits are a fashionable accessory to the ‘al fresco’ lifestyle, a means of getting a little heat and light and the enjoyment of flames whilst ‘chilling-out’ with a beer and some grill.  The one we had to build was in a wood close to the house and it was immediately apparent by the presence  of pools of water all around, that the ground was a water trap.  Sure enough, as soon as we dug into the thick clay, water started to ooze into the fire-pit and indeed after we had finished building the circular stone lining, it became a nicely filled well !!

Clay is the secret with the Llangiwg well, fabulous bright yellow clay of a quality that could make bricks or earthenware.  The clay holds the water and as I built the stone walls of the new well I used the clay as a mortar and layered it between the stones thereby ensuring the magic of water being trapped but also being allowed in; it is quite the most remarkable phenomenon.

A newly built stone surround to an old well

The finished construction looks suitably old and Holy wouldn't you say ? the water is held at a depth of 15 inches (40cms) or so and then overflows into the new pipe which we laid to take it into a roadside culvert thus ending the flooding issue - we hope !

In one sense it was something of a disappointment that the well had been already desecrated.  Despite the fact we would have had to have waited an eternity whilst bureaucracy moved slowly toward a decision, it would have been quite exciting to have held our breath while a professional archaeologist eased away nearly two thousand years of sediment, expecting at any moment to uncover some ancient votive offering or piece of jewellery thrown into the clear waters of this ‘Holy’ place.  Alas, it was not to be, for as with so many such places, others had been there before, maybe not even realising its potential as an historic site.  However I decided to make some offering of our own and using the beautiful ochre clay my ‘little helper’ fashioned two figurines which he baked in his granny’s aga oven – she thought they were ginger-bread men – and I built a secret little chamber within the stonework in which to place them.  Don’t worry, they have the date inscribed, so the future archaeologists will not be deceived !

His and hers, clay figures to be hidden in a well

We named them Liz and Phil and they became the 21st Century votive offering to the water spirits of Llangiwg - now that has to be an original Jubillee commemorative artefact wouldn't you say ! Don't tell anyone though....

There is an active society which examines and records these ancient wells and springs.  I tagged along with one of their field trips back last year and discovered two very interesting wells near Porthyrhyd in Carmarthenshire (see post Secular Stone 14/09/10).  A very good book by one of their members , Phil Cope, called ‘Holy Wells: Wales (isbn978-1-85411-485-3) and published by Seren books (www.seren-books.com) gives a pretty thorough guide and description to the known well sites in the Principality.

Votive offerings in the Jubillee year of QE"

The secret sarcophagus in which L & P will lie until discovered in another thousand years......

The other little project that has consumed my time involved a whole load of cobbles !  Most vernacular buildings over a hundred years old utilised whatever was naturally available from the surrounding environment.  Farm buildings, outbuildings of town houses, courtyards of grand mansions and even roads and track-ways were generally paved with river (sometimes beach) pebbles.  When laid they are called cobbles and the craft of laying them is known as ‘pitching’.  So, I have spent a couple of days pitching cobbles back at the estate mansion.  It was a relatively small job, about 4 square metres, but pitching is a time consuming business.  To lay a square metre a day is my target, much less no doubt than the masters of old.  Firstly however I had to go get my pebbles.

Poorly laid cobbles, slippery and dangerous

The steep pathway beneath the old barn was braking up and had clearly been repaired (badly) with cement. Break it up and lay anew was the only solution.

Today one cannot just do what was done in days of yore.  River beds and bank sides are protected zones and the removal of any, let alone tons, of stone is verbotten.  Especially hereabouts where the whole river catchment of the Wye is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI – triple S I), thus the Cammarch, which is the little river that runs through my part of the estate, is off limits for stone retrieval.  Fortunately over the centuries the river beds move and large deposits of river pebble are to be found in the middle of, what are now, fields of pasture.

The plan was to break up the area of concrete into which pebbles had been pushed – thereby exposing their large surface which makes them terribly slippery – and replace with a traditionally laid cobble path.  There were also several patches where the cobbles had lifted and disappeared, meaning that overall the path was too steep, too slippery and downright shabby.  As I reported in an earlier post, my task is to restore these traditional aspects of the grand house and give it back some of its undoubted dignity.   Cobbled pathways are as much a part of the heritage as as the grand stone steps and formal flower beds (or at least I and m’Lady think so !)

My ‘little helper’ eagerly smashed the concrete, which in fairness was a stronger and thicker mix than I had supposed, and in so doing immediately smashed the sledge hammer shaft…. he is too strong by far.  Once that was done I had to regrade the slope by working out how many shallow steps were required so as to lessen the descent which, in its present form, was just too hostile.

Pitching cobbles in a newly created step.

The pebbles are inserted so that the length becomes the depth and the whole is locked in by a strongly set frame of stone slabs. Pitching the cobbles at right angles to the direction of step means less of the stone is exposed to the sole of the shoe and hence reduces slip potential.

The trick with pitching is to ensure two things, firstly you have pebbles of sufficient length so as to drive them deep into the sub-soil and secondly, construct a robust and firmly set frame of slab stones (by setting them ice-berg like into the sub-soil) against which the cobbles can be forced.

Each pebble is hammered into the sub-soil using a block of wood placed onto it and driving it home with a 4lb lump hammer.  The block of wood acts as a guide to the overall level face of the path and once each pebble is driven in to the correct depth, the long plank can be placed to check each is true and level, only then do they become ‘cobbles’ !

The pattern is basically a series of courses (as best as can be achieved) and should be set so that the length of the face is at right angles to the step, thereby reducing the surface contact between an individual cobble and the sole of the shoe.  However where there is a water-flow issue, as in this case, it is normal to pitch the cobbles so that water can run easily between them and away.  The problem then is that the foot is stepping onto a slippery elongated stone running with the step of the user…. Where that entails a downward slope also, a lethal and dangerous mix of man and cobbles exists ! Such has been the problem here, the pathway descends steeply down the side of the old barn and water runs down.  I surmise the setting of pebbles into concrete was an attempt to minimise the slip factor without the builder considering it was actually exacerbating the issue – or maybe he just didn’t give a damn !

Pitching of new cobbles in garden steps.

The steps reduce the slope of the path and allow descent under a controlled environment ! Notice how the cobbles are at right angles until the top level where they are pitched into the old coursing to allow water to egress quickly.

Once all the pitching is completed the gaps are filled with river sand – again care in accessing it is required ! – as this is the best medium.  Its gravel texture and colour matches the cobbles – providing it is from the same river ! – and it compacts well into the crevasses between the stones.  Several brushings-in will be required as rainfall washes the sand into all the gaps.  It is even possible to get plants to grow – moss will certainly take hold if not dealt with – and I particularly like camomile as when walked on the fragrance of the plant wafts into the air and it is well able to withstand the crushing, though it is only suitable for a seldom used pathway which this one is definitely not.

The upper level of the path, where the old stones were really far too small to be permanent, required some patching too.  Digging out old cobbles or ones which have slumped down (the usual problem) or even raised up required a special hammer.  As yet I do not have one but I know someone who does !

Sloping downward the cobbles run with the flow of the water

Seen from above the change in the direction of flow of the cobbles can be clearly spotted, not so my little repairs I'm thankful to say...

Pitching Hammer for repairing cobblestones.

Almost dental in appearance, this Pitching hammer shows clearly the depth to which the cobbles should be set and how it eases them out. Alas this one is not mine... it resides somewhere in the Carolinas ! And it better get used !!

Apart from those two little projects not much has happened in the world of Welshwaller, except that is a major problem trying to upload photographs into my blog !! Hence the long gap since my last post !

As usual there has been some distraction which inevitably accompanies work.  A very unique and perplexing structure was shown to me by a farmer who had helped at the Llangiwg project.  It was a clearly intentional use of some very large slabs to create a shelter within a wall but the actual purpose is conjectural.  It is certainly large enough for a person to lie down inside and hence could have been what the farmer suggested, a shelter for a shepherd.  However, given that the wall was clearly built at the same time as some of the farm buildings and also that the ‘shelter was actually on the edge of the farmyard, that seems unlikely.  My vote would be a goose pen but that too is only an educated guess.  Geese were not really used to clean pasture of fluke until the late 18th century and I reckon the walls are earlier than that.  Whatever it was designed to do it has stood the test of time and it stands as testament to some very strong folk who understood physics and the use of levers and fulcrums, those slabs are heavy !

Strange shelter in a dry stone wall

The 'cwtch' is big enough to stretch out in but its intended use is not known.

The final little treat came my way each day going to the church; an old dilapidated farm straddles one of the roads I travelled and, naturally, my eyes sought out any rusty implements.  A whole shed full of artefacts residing in an open fronted shed was too much for me.  Moves are afoot to have some of the rust removed to my little museum…. watch this space – like I watch spaces !

Rusty farm equipment left in a shed

A boutique of ferrous oxide, an Aladdin's cave of old and interesting farm machinery, an absolute emporium of rarities that I just have to rescue....


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