“Oh to be in England now that April’s there”.

“And after April, when May follows, and the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows…”

Rainbow against a black April sky

The rainbow's end, not alas the end of the rain ! Some wild skies have greeted us this last few weeks.


If March was trying to impress us with fine sunshine, oh my, how April has stamped her authority on the status-quo of folklore and weather.  It is to be hoped that “though April showers may come my way, they bring the flowers that bloom in May” ! So, I’m wondering… when does a shower become rain !?  For what seems like ‘forever’,  water has been deluging from the sky, apparently they are ‘showers’.  I’m not sure, if that is the case, that we ever actually get rain.  I mean, if more than twelve hours of constant down-pouring doesn’t constitute rain, then what does !  True, we needed to get some moisture into the ground, and most of England is apparently suffering drought, but I need to get some work done !

Once again I have slipped through the March of Wales and into the English county of Herefordshire.  Not too far mind you, in fact had I been a few hundred years earlier I would not have found myself out of my home country at all.  The border between Wales and England washed to and fro for several hundreds of years and the presence of Welsh names on farms and townships on what is now the English side,  evinces this.  The great boundary of Offa’s Dyke runs close to the farm where I found myself working for a short while this past week. The fact that I was still on the Welsh side of that great 8th century barrier just shows the confusion…

An old Tudor manor house

English Tudor manors, classically timber framed with English Oak, indicate clearly that one is in a foreign land.

The small market town of Kington is a typical small market town, though once it was far more eminent and strategic than it is today.  The small river on which it stands, the Arrow, meanders through the Herefordshire countryside and along its course are some really fabulous traditional timber framed farmhouses.  They are grand and would have been called Manor or Manoire had they been in Normandy.  I enjoy a drive through the lush green pasture-lands, the large ‘champion’ arable and the linear orchards.  It takes me back to a halcyon time of childhood when  I would accompany my uncle in an old Morris van, loaded with wooden crates, on a journey to find apples which would then be transported to the family grocery store back in Pontnewydd.

Why is it, I wonder, that those crooked timber frame houses, with their tiny windows and low ceilings, their narrow doorways which deny access to any furniture larger than one of the apple crates we carried, the rickety twisting stairways which lead to unimaginably small and low ceilinged bedrooms, why is it indeed that such dwellings attract such affection and desire.  I would be a hopeless occupant, spending most of my time unconscious or bad tempered as my head constantly cracked against some medieval timber baulk !

My workstation in the ancient hamlet of Chickward was equally charming, but for some reason its ceilings were sufficiently high and its doors and windows amply proportioned.  I would have no problem moving in, and even though it is technically in England, it is sufficiently close to the Radnorshire border and is historically well on the Welsh side, so as to cause me no political or emotional guilt.

The medieval farmhouse near Kington

This lovely old farmhouse is nigh on 500 years old and has the classic design of the Radnorshire Hall House even though it is in England.

I was called to this lovely spot by an equally lovely lady whom I had first met some five years or so ago.  I had been asked to do some repairs at the nearby ancient church at Gladestry and she was a prominent member of the Parochial council – a relic of medievalism indeed !

It was a simple task to build a small retaining wall at the redesigned entrance.  Of course being simple didn’t ensure it was to be  ‘quick’. The problem with doing a job for ‘nice’ people, especially on their yard, is that tea is often served and takes up an interminable amount of pleasurable time; the fact that they were Radnorshire folk and farmers to boot did nothing to speed up the proceedings !

The geology is also a bonus, lovely light sandstone which comes in nicely manicured slabs, well it usually does but my supply here was in fact the remnants of an old farm building long since demolished.  The problem with using stones from a building is that they are often too ‘short’ because they were set in lime mortar.  In building a dry stone wall it is necessary to have stones with some length  so as to penetrate into the heart of the wall.  Nevertheless a reasonable job was achieved.

One of the interesting places on the outskirts of Kington is Hergest Camp.  Begun at the start of the 2nd World War, it ultimately became one of the largest American military hospitals receiving hundreds of wounded soldiers from the D day landings and the subsequent battles through Normandy and onwards into Germany.  First commissioned as a British camp in 1939 the construction of two general hospitals for the American forces began in 1943.  By the time of the invasion in June 1944 the two hospitals, 107th and 122nd, had bed space for 1250 in wards of forty beds.  Officially opened in August of 1944, the 107th hospital had started to receive wounded from the Normandy invasion soon after June 6th.  Between June of 1944 and May 1945 over 13000 American wounded were treated at the camp.

Hergest camp, Kington, Herefordshire.

Hergest Camp at Kington still has a number of the old prefabricated concrete buildings that once housed two American general hospitals in WW2.

Today several dozen of the old buildings still remain, some used as workshops or storage, some just empty and forlorn.  There are moves afoot to create a museum and more and more of the history of the of the camp is being catalogued (just google Hergest camp and several options come up including oral history from residents).  Driving past the camp on my way to Chickward it struck me how undistinguished the whole area now looks.  Old buildings and even the huge brick built water tower stand scattered in an otherwise rural setting.  Yet nightly, during the summer of 1944, trains loaded  with wounded American forces personnel, up to 300 per train, would arrive at the nearby station and a convoy of field ambulances took them to the hospitals.  Many older residents, then young children, remember the sound of engines passing through the town all night in those long ago days.

Kington or Hergest camp, old buildings

What a story these buildings tell, how much suffering but also relief was experienced here nearly 70 years ago.

Another connection with American forces and my work places was also to the fore this last week.  On the farm where I was building, in 1943, a P51 Mustang of the American Air Force crashed killing the pilot.  The family recovered the body and assembled the scattered wreckage.  There is a small memorial and an information leaflet which is given out to visitors and school children who come to the farm on visits as part of a Farm Stewardship scheme.  History of farming and past happenings are being well catered for.

Now you may think I am always harking on about Americans ! Well it certainly seems so this week, and in general much of the area in which I work (as I have mentioned on several occasions) was ‘occupied’ by our friends from the New World during the 2nd World War.  Whether as training areas or bases there was a huge presence.  However, with an apology, I have to go even further this week and mention some artefacts which have their origin in that far away land.

Cues for shoeing Oxen

Cattle or Ox shoes, called 'cues' or cuiw in Welsh, affixed for driving cattle long distances.

A part of the history of this area, and indeed where I live near Llanwyrtd Wells, has a long history of cattle droving.  Large numbers of Welsh Black cattle were walked out of the rich fertile coastal pasture lands of Wales and into England, either for fattening or direct to the urban markets.  This trade began in the 15th century and really only ceased with the coming of the railways in the mid 19th century.  Kington is on an old route and as part of the farm visits I mentioned above, I am to take some of my collection of farming memorabilia to demonstrate how things were done in days gone by.  A rare item, highly prized as it happens, are the shoes which were fitted to the feet of cattle in order for them to walk the hundreds of miles involved in a drove.  Even though there must have been tens of thousands of them made, there a very few to be found.  In fact the only new ones I’ve seen have been in the local museums.  Thus I was particularly excited when, on my recent visit to the Carolinas, I came across a brand new pair at a ‘flea market’ in a little township called Pickens. (Pickens Flea Market is ‘awesome’ and then some !).  They are exactly the same as the ones used here and it must be supposed that the settlers took with them the knowledge of such shoeing and how the cues were made.

Shoeing Oxen in a frame

This very rare photo is from an old glass slide I found and shows the frame in which cattle were locked whilst being shod ready for a drove.

Blood jar and fleam

The green glass bottle is for gathering the blood let from the neck of horses- mainly stallions - having made an incision with the fleam.

Another item I shall be taking along is my treasured ‘fleam’ which is a bladed instrument for making a small incision in the neck of horses in order to withdraw blood.  Whilst fleams are themselves difficult to find, the correct glass jars are almost non-existent (again only to be seen in museums) so I was particularly pleased to find one on ebay.  It was however in North Carolina (don’t you get struck by coincidence ?  I saw it a week or so before I was due to fly off to the States, and it was in a town I actually got to drive through !), the seller kindly sent it on to Greenville for me and – much to the surprise of ‘mine hosts’ – the parcel was waiting for me when I got there some 2 weeks later.  It is an 18th century glass jar and hence was more likely to have been collecting blood for human medicinal purposes (used to enhance fertility of the female) of a more basic nature.  As previously mentioned, by the time of the 2nd World War, blood from horses was a nice little earner for farmers as it was needed for making plasma.

My final little trans-Atlantic connection comes in the form of pigs.  Every farm would have reared at least one pig which, when killed in the early autumn, provided meat and meat products to carry the family through the long hard winter.  Pig killing was a gruesome business and one which even the hardest of farmers often found too much to endure (and hence they went off to the fields).  On the farm at Chickward there is even a field called the ‘Butcher’s field’ where, instead of killing the poor animal in the yard, it was taken away to a quiet corner.  I have been asked to take some items relating to that unsavoury yet necessary activity, and again Pickens comes into play.

Hog scrapers

These scrapers were used to scratch away the hair from the carcass of the slain pig.

I have seen very few ‘scrapers’, devices which resemble a candle stick – indeed the one Welsh pig-scraper I have is  a’candle-stick’ in that a candle was inserted into the one end to singe the hair – and are gripped in the fist and drawn down the hanging carcass to scratch away the bristles.

Perhaps because they were used also as candle-sticks or maybe just because they were rather flimsy tin, few seem to have survived.  I was therefore delighted when a casual request to one Mr Brown when he visited Wales back last autumn, to keep a look out for a ‘hog scraper’ (hog is the name given to pigs in the U.S.) knowing that the south, in particular North Carolina, is a big hog rearing area.  Now he is a man out of my own heart, quite up to wandering the miles of stalls at Pickens Flea Market, indeed he does so at least once a week throughout the year, and whilst he had no idea what I was on about, within a very short time of his returning home he duly found me three very nice examples for a very reasonable ‘few dollars’.  I collected them on my visit and they now too make a very interesting and valuable addition to my educational collection.  Being of equally generous spirit I gave one to a dear friend of mine, ‘Dai-it-is’, (so called because every phone call he makes is precipitated by those three little words) who, if anything, is a bigger collector than yours truly – yes, it’s true !

So, there you have it.  A couple of days in a foreign land, a connection to wartime history and farming history and once again the Stars and Stripes have invaded the life of Welshwaller !  What can I say !  May has arrived, with glee I turn the page on my calendar – another New World connection ! – it is without doubt my most favourite of months, at the end of which I go off to another foreign land, the home of our Celtic cousins, the Scots.  In the meantime I’m battling through the wettest Spring on record – Wales apparently received three times more rain in April than it would normally expect – I’ve moved back down to the Rhiangoll to do a little rebuild of an ancient wall at the Grafog, which I swear has had three times more rain than the rest of Wales !  It didn’t even abate for HRH, who visited nearby Glanusk Park on her Jubillee tour of Wales.  My sister’s grand-daughter (umm, is that my great neice ?) saw Her as she officially opened the new school at Aberfan, Wales’ most tragic of locations. “Nanny, she’s very old !”, well who isn’t when you’re 4 !!

Mayday Mayday, send the Sun, urgent !

The grass is always greener

The grass is always greener - even if it means a swim in a freezing raging torrent... These two just had to get across once they saw I had taken the fence down to start my next rebuild - then the rest followed.... oops !

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