Walk a Mile in these shoes…. blisters assured !

As I write there is a steady, inexorable flutter down onto the keyboard; it’s my head, it is gradually cracking like the shell of the boiled egg I just ate and it alights on the black plastic like heavy dust.  Actually it is my dead skin (‘Ew’ ! I hear you say), it is the result of a fabulous but rather sunny day walking the hills.  More accurately it is my face that is crumbling as (most of the time) I wore a hat but, not anticipating the May sunshine, I neglected the sun-bloc and I am suffering the consequences.

Radnor hills from Castle Bank

The lovely countryside around Castle Bank near Hundred House in Radnorshire. The May sunshine arrived at last and with it the need for sunscreen !

The Saturday stroll, which lasted all of 6 hours in fact, took in the hillfort I mentioned last time, Castle Bank near Llandrindod Wells in Radnorshire, but also some very interesting old tracks and a lunch halt on a Bronze age cairn.  Naturally we didn’t sit on the cairn -despite the presence of an Ordnance Survey concrete Trig Point (triangulation station) inserted into its very epicentre – as, being a Scheduled Ancient Monument, it is a little precious and is suffering from human damage.  Fortunately the area is not at all heavily walked or even known about and thus it is possible to wander this quiet corner of Wales and not say “Bore da” to a passing stranger very often.

Although planned as a guided walk for Ty Gwyn Farm (www.tygwynfarm.co.uk) I was joined by a very old friend of mine; ‘very old’ in the sense we have known each other for a very long time – and hence we are very old ! A country boy from the land of cider apples, this Somerset lad had come to spend the weekend in my ‘Empire of the Sun’ and we took every advantage of the sudden return of Ra.

oak post and strainer

This old oak post and strainer had five elongated holes cut in adjacent sides; in other words the holes through which iron single strand wire was pulled, turns at right angles in the centre of the post ! It places the enclosure of this open hill somewhere around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. Forensic landscape archaeology !

Inland pond adopted by Terns

This little man-made lake has been adopted by a colony of Terns who are happily nesting on the artificial island and seem content with their life away from the sea.

The walk, which begins near Howey, takes in the area of Gilwern Hill across which runs the old Drovers trail out of Ceredigion and onwards to cross the Wye at Rhydspence near Hay and thence into the English heartlands.  We took a circuitous route along the ridgeway past old settlements, ancient banks and ditches as well as more recent dry stone walls and abandoned summer shielings, called hafods, to arrive at the cairns.  It is an astounding view from the 1400ft/450m hill top and it becomes clear why these ritual sites were chosen.  The major landmarks in the region are visible from that spot and indeed from the nearby Iron Age camp of Castle Bank.

Even on a less clear day the area would warrant visiting as there is so much at hand to see.  I’m sure my companion must have been glad to get to the end having been bombarded by information and lyrical waxings for several hours.  We then went off to another of my favourite ‘secret places’, a little forestry area called ‘Water Break-its-Neck’ which has the most amazing Californian Redwoods and a pretty impressive waterfall (hence the name).  On the way we passed a small man-made lake with an artificial island.  The quiet back-water, in the middle of the  Radnorshire hills,  has quite literally been colonised by a 50 or so strong flock of Terns.  These small black headed sea birds, more normally seen on the shores of estuaries around the Welsh coast, have set up home and begun breeding right there.  There are a dozen or so nests on the island and the whole flock rises noisily if you dare stop the car.  Clearly they are finding plenty of food, there are several ploughed fields nearby which I suppose is attractive to them.  I shall return in a couple of weeks and see how the young are doing.  The island home certainly protects the eggs and young from foxes and badgers, which is why it was built of course.  Today any such pond or small lake would not have such an island as they do encourage waterfowl to set up home and that, in turn, greatly reduces the diversity of water loving wildlife especially amphibians and bank-side dwellers.

Water fall in Radnorshire, Water Break-its-Kneck

Water Break-its-Neck, the impressive fall is at the head of a narrow gorge which drips with moisture and its sides are fern and moss covered. Well worth a visit if you are by that way.

The great fall at Water Break-its-Neck, sits at the head of a very narrow gorge which the water is microscopically cutting further and further back.  The fall is the ‘nick-point’ where the softer Silurian shale, a rock hardly worthy of the name ‘stone’ , meets the harder sandstone which surrounds the basin.  The whole area is coated in antiquity and the close-by Walton Basin houses the greatest of all the Henges of pre-historic Britain.  Not great pillars of stone like the Wiltshire monuments, rather this one was of erected straight timber baulks, arranged in concentric circles and covering a huge area.  Roads in the basin delineate it as they curve around the old outer ring.  I feel sure Water Break -its-neck must have been a revered place and the suggestion of a Processional Way nearby adds to that feeling.  To see the water tumble out over the upper edge and crash into the chasm must have been spiritual to a people who held water and sun in such mystical regard.

Today the Basin is traversed by ‘Ogilvy’s road’ from London to Aberystwyth. At the western end, where this water fall sits hidden in the valley, a narrow pass or bwlch squeezes the road through the little village of Llanfihangel Nant Melin, and onwards through the passes of the Llandegley rocks towards Penybont and on to Rhayader.  The Romans tried to come into Wales along this route but were foiled and later Anglo Saxon incursions were similarly rebuffed.  It is an easily defended route-way and even today you really have to want to enter Wales via this route, it is no easy drive.

Giant Redwoods in Wales

I don’t know the origin of the planting of these great Redwoods. They are quite an astonishing sight in a narrow valley just off the main London to Aberystwyth road near Llanfihangel Nant Melin in Radnorshire.

The remarkable weather remained the following day and my guest and I took ourselves off to another wild part of Wales to watch others having some fun.  The great expanse of the Eppynt military training are, the ‘range’, (SENTA in military speak) often hosts civilian activities on weekends. Mainly they tend to be associated with motoring events, speedy motoring events, muddy, noisy speedy motoring events.  Each autumn the Rally GB (still known locally as the R.A.C. Rally or Network Q – old sponsors get free advertising in these parts !) invades and thousands of rally followers in their suped-up Subarus and other copy-cat rally cars descend on the area.  The event we attended was a much more low key affair with few spectators.  It involved the ‘off-road racers’ of the Mid Wales Four Wheel Drive club zooming along muddy, bumpy, well rutted tracks of the military mountain.  Some competitors rode specially built off road racers others just trundled by in their mildly adapted road-legal four wheel drives.  Freelanders seemed popular as did the Discovery and Range-rover based racers.  I liked the little Peugeots and Fords which seemed less concerned about deep water and crazy angles of tilt than did the bigger factory built off -roaders.

Off roading in a Freelander - brave !!

Freelander in Free Flight ! I was suprisingly impressed with the agility of the little land rover, the Freelander is more a townie’s vehicle than a serious 4 x 4 but it did good here !

Now it’s probably the case that half my readers are already tut tutting, off roaders are one of the perceived scourges of conservation minded folk.  It is a subject on which I have some mixed views.  Certainly I, like many others who value the countryside, abhor the convoys of tanked up, winch carrying macho men who regularly infect the landscape hereabouts.  They seem intent on getting into as muddy a place as possible and winching themselves out of, or into, even worse mess than was there to begin with.  Because of the historical classification of roadways and by-ways there is often a perfectly legal right of access for these machismos, although more and more green roads are being closed to them by local authorities.  Therein lies the problem I think, once again the majority suffers in order that the minority can be brought to heel.  For my part I like nothing better than getting off the road in my old 90 landie and quietly roving along stoney trackways but, whilst accepting even my ‘tread lightly’ approach does some damage, I absolutely do not go on such by-ways when they are wet or at sensitive breeding times.  It is a difficult issue, and whereas the 4 X 4 fraternity has been pilloried and demonised by conservation types, go speak to the local hostelries and they are delighted at the trade such activity brings in.  I can show you really bad damage caused by off road motor-cycles, by mountain bikes and certainly by horses, why even at my current work site at Grafog in the Black Mountains, the routes used by the local trekking centre are at least as bad and in some cases worse, than some of the green roads the off road guys use.

Mid Wales Off Roaders roaring over Eppynt.

Even this landscape has value, but it seems probably better to roar through muddy tracks on a military range than through pristine wild country, but that IS pristine wild country, to the creatures that live there !

It is a real issue, especially for bodies such as the National Parks and local authorities.  Some sections of countryside users deem all other users anti-social, there is war between walkers and vehicle users and bikers and horse riders and and and… I don’t know the solution. For sure damage to ancient trackways is a big problem, ruts caused by whatever means leads to water flow and erosion, pretty quickly.  I’ll mention below how such careless ‘off-roading’ just here, on my estate, caused a major and expensive re-build of an old wall.  I have long thought that some of the more popular long distance over-land routes (for my overseas readers you have to take the notion of over-land route metaphorically !) could be used only after buying an entry ticket, for example the Monks Trod which runs over the Cambrian mountains between the two great abbeys of Strata Florida and Abbey Cwm Hir, now long since barred to off roaders, could have been easily barriered and a charge made to cross it. The sums collected could be used to repair and maintain, after all it is a stone lined track and only in a few places where idiots have gone off the road – ironically to avoid deep muddy holes made by other off roaders ! – was there serious erosion.  Of course, there is a social dimension, a ‘class divide’ even.  The rambling societies, the horse riding societies, the bird lobby, are all articulate and connected, they know how to shout loudest and use the ‘democratic’ system to get their voice heard and their point of view adopted.  Generally speaking the vehicular users seem less able to fight their corner and whilst the decision making on planning issues relating to such use of green roads is normally vested within green minded conservation loving local government departments, there seems little hope of any compromise.  Certainly there have been successes and the LARA organisation of off road groups has worked hard at getting its off road members to adhere to damage limitation and accept road closure, or TRO’s, in sensitive conservation areas.  As for bikes, motor and pedal, and horses, I am unable to comment except to say, there has to be room made for everyone, not everyone can be right all the time, either everyone gets a bite of the countryside cake or no-one does, in my humble view.  For now, the sort of event we attended, which gave great pleasure to many people (and yes, it did add to pollution and it did cause damage) seems a good compromise.  Personally I think we, the all destructive human race, has probably tipped the natural balance beyond redemption and so I intend to enjoy as much of the countryside, in as many ways as is possible, for as long as I can.  Besides, you won’t get me out on the roads, certainly not on a Sunday with all those maniacs on power bikes, faces blacked out, riding outside the law,  determined to kill themselves and as many others as they can.  Now a party determined to ban those anti-socialites would get my vote…. the trouble is we’ve been there before.  Llaissez-faire dear friends, each to his or her own, Carpe Diem.

Enough of country controversy, what about work ? This last week has seen a change of venue and task.  Tired of the mud and with an important date looming close, I had to get over to the mansion and begin the task of re-structuring the dereliction that has invaded the walled garden.

An old walled garden undergoing restoration.

The old walled garden is desperately in need of some TLC. This section was once covered in glass, heated greenhouses stood all along this terrace.

Those of you that have been following my progress through the garden restoration, or rather the restoration of the hard landscaping, will know how much has needed to be done at the estate ‘big house’.  Like all post-medieval estates, the ravages of time and diminishing income has seen the once great gardens fall into decline.  Where once a work-force equivalent to some small manufacturing company kept the grounds and productive vegetable gardens in tip-top condition, today one man struggles to keep abreast of ornate plantings and acres of grass.

I first began to work on the walled garden some five years ago.  The ‘back wall’ or north face, stands at around 5 metres high (15ft) and is built of slate stone from the estate quarry.  It is a mortared wall using a strong lime mix and has stood for around 300 years.  Where once grand glass hot houses leaned against it today there is nothing left other than the quarry tiles of the old inside floors and remnants of the cast iron pipes that fed the heat into the houses.  The wooden super-structure and glass panels were demolished in the 1960s – a great shame as, by all accounts, they were quite salvageable even then – and all that remains is now quite derelict.  My first job was to deal with a rather alarming bulge that was seemingly growing ever larger in the base of the northern wall.  The agent and Laird had called in a number of so called ‘experts’ or builders; the solutions offered ranged from demolishing the whole lot and digging away hundreds of square metres of soil from behind, building a large concrete block wall to retain the (supposed) slipping soil and re-facing with stone.  Or just taking it all away.   The costs varied from over £50k to around £25k.  Enter a dry stone waller.  It seemed clear to me that the bulge was being caused by two likely factors.  Firstly the top of the wall was capped with enormously large and heavy slate slabs which had been added after the original construction.  These slabs leaned backwards and had provided a ledge on the garden side under which the glass roof of the hot house could be located.  There was thus a pre-disposition to tip the wall backwards.  That in turn persuaded the bottom to ease outward and with a suggestion of water in behind, there was a clear problem.

I took the section down by hand, four metres wide and five metres high.  Behind the bulging lower metre was nothing but fresh air.  There was in fact no soil slippage, so what was causing the pressure that was forcing the stone outwards?  I had to wait until a winter storm, a serious deluge, to discover the culprit.  Water pouring down the roadway behind was no longer entering the pit of a cattle grid as it has become full of silt.  Instead it was cascading against this particular part of the wall and soaking down the back.  I followed the water back up the hill to find its source, after all, it was not a natural flow.  Sure enough, at the top of the hill behind the mansion there is a pond, the pond overflowed naturally into a small stream or water course that ran eastwards down the side of the hill into the river.  However, a few years previously, the game-keeper had begun to ride his quad bike up that track and not only had he caused ruts down which water flowed, he also had created a new channel for the overflow.  Instead of flowing to the river, the excess of water, and it was some excess, came down to the back of the old wall and gradually, imperceptibly, pushed the bottom outwards.  No one had even noticed it happening let alone tried to work out the cause.  I stopped the overflow, got the cattle grid emptied along with the drain that was supposed to run from it and solved the problem.  All that was needed was just to rebuild the 20 square metres or so of lime-mortared wall… Lets just say it took some time !

Slate wall built with lime mortar.

The section that was taken down and rebuilt, notice the straight vertical lines, it turned out that this had once been the gateway into the garden.

As always, such an undertaking allows the opportunity to do some investigation, some archaeology.  It became apparent that whereas the ground at the back of the wall is now only a metre and a half below the top, all the ground has been artificially made up.  When first built the high wall was equally as tall at front and back.  Indeed within the stratigraphy of the soil behind the demolished section were interesting layers of pottery and food remains.  Amongst the most notable was lots of ‘posh’ porcelain and oyster shells.  It also became clear why the bulging section seemed to have nicely defined vertical cracks.  Once I had taken it down it became apparent that it had in fact once been the main gateway into the garden.

There is a great deal of work to do to bring some semblance of dignity back to an important part of this historic house.  The plan is to create a central pathway lined with bricks – there are ample bricks to be recycled – and plant cordon apple trees against the great wall and possibly some form of topiary at the front.  Unfortunately I won’t get it completed by the time of the ‘Open Garden’ day on the 27th May.  I will have to get a little more completed and some safety tapes erected but at least those coming along will finally see that the grand walled garden of Llwyn Madoc is at last getting the attention it deserves.  A short busy week at the end of which I will take a small display of old garden tools to the Sunday afternoon event before packing the gear and heading 600 miles north.  Scotland get ready, Welshwaller is taking the high road !

a mansion ready for an Open Garden.

Getting ready for a garden open day. Hard work and some hoped for fine weather will result in a good afternoon for all who attend the Llwyn Madoc Open Garden afternoon on Sunday May27th as part of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS).

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