As far as possible without surrender, be on good terms with all people.

It’s the “without surrender” part that causes me the most difficulty.  Mostly I’m a ‘water off a duck’s back’ kind of person.  I’ve seen too much and done too much to take life too seriously.  What on earth could possibly be important enough or painful enough in my life (or work) to ‘get them in a twist’ about ?  Nothing.  One needn’t look far when the threat of becoming self pitying, or stupidly annoyed, looms large.  Just look at any news bulletin or walk down the street, someone is always worse off.  Better still, go for a walk into the countryside.  And so I did…

Elan Valley reservoir

Caban Coch reservoir in the Elan Valley, ‘far from the maddening’ indeed !

I wandered off around a small 4 mile lake-side walk in the Elan Valley.  I have to guide an organised hike next weekend for the Trust that oversees the guardianship of the countryside of the lakes.  Normally I avoid the area this time of year, far too many tourists and far too many huge coaches on narrow lanes.  Autumn is the best time, not least because by then the reservoirs (lakes) are usually full to overflowing and the cascading water is a sight to behold.  July would be the time to go if one wanted to see the remains of the great Nantgwillt mansion and its walled garden that emerges from the dark peaty waters as the summer drought lowers the levels.  Not this year, oh no, full to overflowing indeed.  The last time I went around the scenic circuit that encircles the reservoirs was as a guide for my American visitors last September – the water level was way down.

Caban Coch overflows in july

Cascading water over-topping the dam of Caban Coch in July is (thankfully) an unusual sight.

I will give an account of the walk and more about the area in my next post.  For now, back to the cause of my needful retreat.

A small job in not far away Lower Chapel has occupied my time for a week or so.  Actually it was only a five day project but the weather and odd duties intervened to spread it out.  It was a job I ended up doing in strange circumstances, a number of coincidences came to play, and utter annoyance was the result.

Wall collapsed into road

And the walls came tumbling down… well I’ll just put it back up again !

The coincidence comes first; for many years I have regularly driven past an old dry stone wall alongside the road near the village of Lower Chapel (the road goes to Upper Chapel and on to Builth Wells – from Brecon, or turns out across the Eppynt army ranges to take me home via the village of Garth).  It is connected to a cottage which in turn is adjacent to the large C18th Mansion (and former estate) of Castell Madoc.  I erroneously assumed the cottage, and the old stable block and dovecote were still a part of that estate.  I had wanted, on numerous occasions, to stop and call-in to ask if they would like the wall rebuilt.  You see, it was in a pretty bad condition, and being next to the road it presented both an eyesore and a danger.  Alas ‘touting’ for work is not something I do, partly I am not good at it and partly I don’t need yet more work !! (A rather rhythmic repetitive song by sums up my frame of mind !).  During the weeks prior to my departure for the northern isles I passed by the wall on several days and felt sure the lean was increasing daily.  Thus, perhaps, guilt played a part in my ultimate decision to call in.

For by the time I returned the wall had collapsed.  I eventually decided I would call and see if my services were needed.  The lady in the house was in fact not the owner but she was delighted to hear of me and passed my details on.  I eventually spoke to the owner who turned out to be one of those people who are soured by a lifetime of assuming everyone is out to ‘do’ her (by some underhanded dealing) and has not thrown off the legacy inherited from farming parents and relatives who struggled to survive hard times and the habit of penny-pinching.  I knew immediately I had made a mistake but agreed to meet her on site having explained what I thought needed doing.  She wanted it all measured and written down – fair enough and I always give a ‘fixed’ price quotation based on the simple measurement of what has to be built with the extra check of finally measuring it all up at the end.  Generally that is not required, this was different.

Wall ready for rebuilding

Clearing away the fallen stone revealed just how much needed to be done.

There was a real need to take the whole wall down and rebuild it.  The collapse had been threatening for a long while but there were two particular sections that defied gravity still.  I gave three options, total take down and rebuild, rebuild half which included the worst remaining ‘bulge’ as well as that which had fallen and, finally, just rebuild what had collapsed.  I gave also the price per metre (she wanted it only in yards) so that at the end there would be a simple addition.

Meeting on site, various ideas were discussed including the request that provision be made for the possibility of hanging a gate at a later date.  That also required that the gateway should be widened – that of course meant that not so much needed to be rebuilt.  That, in turn, meant there would be much rubble to move away, “could the spare stone be stacked in the pig-sty?”.  “Of course” – that was a freebee.  “The gate needs to be a 12ft/4 metre gate”, ok, well that means I have to have a special post made because she wanted the hinge pins just poking out of the stone wall and not fixed to a post.  That also means I need to build the wall-end wider and I am restricted in the size of stone because of the metal post to be set in the wall.  All that means time and effort and travel – my ‘post-maker’ is about 30 miles away.

Then there was the indecision about how high the finished repair (or rebuild – depending on what was finally agreed), the tenant wanted it a little lower so she could see out, owner didn’t seem willing to engage with her on this.  Already this was turning into a regret.  Then there was a “small job”, repairing a collapse on the corner of the pig-sty which was allowing sheep to get into the garden.  I couldn’t be accurate on the amount of that (it was thick with rusty corrugated sheets and nettles) so I guessed it would be “maximum of £100” (my thinking was that it looked like about 3 square metres – I was charging £38 per sq mtr).

Gate-post set into dry stone wall

The requirement to have just hinge-pins showing meant a special post with extended arms onto which the pins were welded, had to be made and set into concrete. A 12 ft gate is a heavy-weight !

Once I began to clear away the fallen section it soon became clear how much I had underestimated the time factor.  The stone was very small and had fractured on falling, what’s more the section I had to take down was literally falling apart in my hands.  The result was barrows full of rubble to be removed but no spare stone to be nicely stacked in the pig sty.

I like to archaeologically examine a wall, forensically almost, to understand how it was built (and thus when) and why it had ultimately fallen.  The reason here was clear.  At first built as a simple field wall – the section further along the road still stands at the original height and has never been rebuilt (thus giving me an excellent example of the local early C18th style of building) – the wall had later been heightened by the mere expediency of building extra courses onto the existing wall.  The problem with that was twofold, firstly the original wall, at its top, was really too narrow to effectively take the extra courses and secondly, the stone used in this extension was a very heavy sandstone which presents in large blocks.  I was familiar with that particular type of stone as I had used it some years previously on a project on the military range which saw one of the old farmhouses turned into a ‘Red Kite Visitor Centre’.  I used the locally available stone from a quarry on the range and that exactly matched the stone used in the Castell Madoc extension.  The block like morphology belied the tendency of the stone to just fall apart once exposed to the elements or stresses.  I suspect the extension took place sometime in the early C20th so one mustn’t be too critical of the builders nor the stone.  Nevertheless it meant I was losing a greater proportion of my building stone as each one fell apart.

Upside down wall - big stones on top, small below = collapse

The larger block-like stones used to raise the height can be clearly seen in this picture as can the original top line and smaller Old Red Sandstone laminates below.

As I began, the agreement was to widen the gateway to accommodate a 12ft gate, thereby losing about 3ft of wall or so, and lower a section 8ft long to a height of 4ft 6″ (120cms) which included stripping the badly bulging section and rebuilding it.  By day 2 this had changed slightly, by day 4 it had changed once more – less height here, more height there….  I had a delay whilst the post was made but eventually the job was done, taking about 4 days actual building time stretched over the two weeks !

I then tackled the pig sty wall which I had not fully seen due to its covering of nettles and brambles and barricades.  To my disappointment, once I had cleared it all away it was considerably larger than the 3 square metres I had guessed.  Also, instead of a corner it had originally been a curve which had been lime mortar built.  I decided a corner was necessary as it would be stronger given the stone I had at my disposal.  This came up quite quickly and I was pleased with the result, despite zillions of stings from nettles and insects !

A right angle corner of a dry stone wall

The pig sty corner was good and strong and replaced the weaker gentle cure which blended the right hand side into the left, set back, section.

Time to measure up and present the bill – but only after barrowing all the (22 loads) of rubble away.  I asked the tenant to phone the owner to see if she would come down (and bring her cheque book) which was duly done and madam arrived a couple of hours later.  I stood aside as she made a detailed inspection which including many “why this?” and “why that?”, oh yes, and “where was the spare stone” – did she think I had pinched it !?  Next I suggested we measure the main job and she duly held the tape and read off the distance.  Fortunately (as she insisted on imperial measurement not metric) it came to 18ft long by 5 ft high, in other words, 6yds x 1.5 yds.  Now for those of you unfamiliar with (or by now long forgotten) such multiplication, square measurement and consequent division, this comes nicely to 90 square feet. There being 9 sq ft in a square yard that results in a total of 10 square yards of built wall.  No dispute.  Add to that the cost of the post, add to that the price I gave for the pig sty repair and a grand total was arrived at (£380 + £50 + £100).

Rebuilt wall end with concealed gate-post

The rebuilt wall with the concealed post and hinge-pins ready for a gate should one ever materialise. 10 square yards of effort and, I like to think, not a little skill and pride.

Unfortunately this exceeded (by £50) my original quotation and madam was most perturbed.  I kept my composure (though a bleeding lip resulted) and explained why that was, extra height and slightly longer length due to state of wall – and WE had measured it together !  She was not at all persuaded and asked as to whether the maximum of £100 I had quoted for the pig sty corner was in fact necessary, in other words, did it really come to the 3 square yards or so I had guestimated.  At this point I played my trump card and invited her to measure it with me.  Once again I gave her the tape and she read off the measurements.  End of discussion, there was at least a further 3 square yards over what I had thought (meaning an extra £114 of work) and she begrudgingly shut up and paid up.

I felt sullied, angry and somewhat blighted by this afront to my work, my integrity in fact.  But I have known it before, I’ve encountered this (what appears to be) mean minded penny pinching psyche.  It is rather perverse, rather sickening and undignified, it is also the stereotype of the tight farmer.  I want to say right here that it is not the normal attitude I encounter.  In my early years of farm wall building I did come across a few customers who matched that stereotype but they were encountered at a time when farming was having a financially difficult time and was suffering some calamitous PR events.  Also the idea of being paid to conserve the countryside was weird to them and they were not used to dealing with Conservation minded contractors – they were suspicious.  That was a long, long time ago and today such suspicion, lack of respect for the work or my integrity as a businessman is rare and therefore all the more of a shock.  It stayed with me for several days.

However, the coincidences I mentioned gave some pleasure to me.  Some of you will recognise the name ‘Madoc‘, it is the name of the estate I live on too.  Castell Madoc (Madog and Madoc   are the same names mutated according to usage) lies in the middle of the Honddu valley, between the village of Lower and Upper Chapel (which refer to later non-conformist Chapels of the nineteenth centuries) and is an interesting site indeed.  The valley has several large and imposing  Iron Age hillforts all of which, as normal, sit on high rounded hills and not in the valley.  Thus it is quite perplexing why the Castell Madoc site is listed as Iron Age (in the Archaeological records), not least when the significance of the name is considered.

The grassy knoll of Castell Madoc

These strange banks are the ramparts of Castell Madoc, strange because they do not resemble any other such valley bottom motte and bailey type structure.

The name of Madog occurs in a number of places in Wales.  The assumption in Powys is that it refers to Madog ap Maredudd who was the last Prince of Powys who died in 1160AD.  Following his death Powys was divided and never again became a whole Princedom. The ‘Dream of Rhonabwy’ in the Mabinogion, tells of one of Madog’s retainers.

The Normans, who are normally credited with the motte and bailey type castles which occur throughout the March of Wales and into the later conquered areas, were certainly in the area.  Nearby Brecon was quickly taken and the surrounding fertile lands of the Usk valley became lands of the Knights.  The Honddu valley has got fertile flat lands, especially in the area of Castell Madoc but there is no documentary evidence of the castle in that period.  Similarly there is no archaeological resemblance to the other French built castles.  I do not know why the site has been listed as Iron Age, there is no record of any archaeological evidence, such as pottery or tools, that I can find although the owner told me that there had been a dig on the site and something was found but she had no idea who carried it out and no follow up report ever came her way, so she had no idea what had been discovered.  I checked with the Clwyd Archaeological Trust (CPAT) who are the responsible body for that area and they certainly didn’t do the work.  I suspect it was an academic institution and they are notoriously bad at issuing follow up reports.

I had long wanted to investigate the site but as it was on private land there was no opportunity.  It is a fascinating structure and a rather unique setting.  It is hard to understand the logic of its situation as it sits below much higher ridges and is some distance from the river.  The valley is hardly an important route-way and the only real valuable asset is the flat fertile land nearby.  So maybe it is a defended domestic site controlling the area.  That being the case the question of ‘when’ needs to be answered.  It is clearly not Iron Age (or it is a unique such site) and neither does it appear to be French.  The appended name of Madoc seems to give a clue (one might be forgiven for thinking) and would put the castle clearly in the Welsh territory of Norman dominated Wales.  It may also be the case that the mounds of the castle are relating to post Roman kingdoms where Powys was an important  and long-standing entity.  I will be trying to discover more about this fascinating, hidden little corner of the Honddu valley.

I mentioned the hillforts that abound in the area, one of them, Gaer Fawr, is a place I have long wanted to examine – I look across at its ramparts as I drive over the adjacent Eppynt range.  Unfortunately it is also on private land and there is no access even though the site is a Scheduled Monument.  It was something of a coincidence to find that the aforementioned lady actually lives in its shadow and even though her land does not include the hillfort it is on the high fields of her neighbour.  Using the recently made connection I intend paying a visit to said neighbour quite soon.  Getting onto that particular Gaer  will be a real moment of excitement for me.

There is another Madog that could be our man, though he is more linked with the north than the old area of Powys. Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd is an interesting character, linked as he is with a possible trans-Atlantic journey which resulted (allegedly) in a number of ‘Welsh Indian’ tribes, the most famous being the Mandans.  A further coincidence is the work being done on the Mandan links by my friend Sean Harris (  who specialised in historically accurate animated films.

A long strange couple of weeks, but at least and at last some respite from the rain has come and sunshine has dominated the week.  Just in time for the annual jamboree that is the Royal Welsh Show and my walk through the water-side woods of the Elan valley as I lead a walk for the Elan Valley Trust which examines some of the ancient landscape and Welsh place-names of the area.

Apologies for the long delay in posting, sometimes I have to do other things !  In any case the delay has allowed the frustration of my encounter with Dickensian finance to diminish a little, I can get on with some interesting restoration work and some housework !


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