Around and ’round the Garden like a Teddy Bear; one step, two steps…

Gardens and steps, more than I have ever endured, have been my stock-in-trade for too long.  I need to get back to the quiet solitude of the ‘hill’, I want to have no noise other than the wind and birds, maybe some sheep but not totally necessary.  It’s nearly 3 months now since I breathed mountain air, sat with my back against the wall enjoying a cuppa, looking out over some beautiful Welsh countryside.  That being said, I have been working in some very grand places and, by and large, have been working for very nice people.  It is partly a factor of cost and partly a factor of taste that determines where I end up building garden walls.

Restoring an eighteenth century walled garden

What’s the saying ? Something about a pig’s ear and a silk purse… The grand glasshouses have long since gone and trying to give the C18th walled garden a future is testing my design skills, and my endurance !

I am continuing the major project of restoring the early 1700s walled garden at the ‘big house’ of the estate on which I live. The huge glasshouses that once sat against the south-facing back wall were demolished many years ago, since when the whole area has become derelict and dangerous.

The first job, some four years ago, was to take down and rebuild a major section of it which was bulging ominously.  The piece, 5 metres/15ft high by 4 metres/ 12ft wide, was built of the slate waste from the estate quarry and was set with a strong lime mortar.  It transpired that it had also been the original gateway into the garden and the ‘straight joints’ at each side of the bulge enabled it to be demolished without damaging the adjoining sections.

Rebuilt section of high walled garden

The section can be clearly seen as it has yet to be ‘dubbed-out’ (pointed up). The straight sides indicate the sides of the old original gateway entrance.

I used a 3.5 hydraulic lime mixed with stone dust and sand at 1:3:1 and at quarterly height intervals I laid a cement and stone dust slab back into the high ground behind.  The ground behind the wall had been filled to raise it to a height which allowed people to walk and look over the top of the wall into the garden.  Thus although the garden side was very high the back-side was only 1.2 metres/4ft 6″.  The ‘made-up’ ground was full of stratified archaeology in the form of broken pottery from the grand house.  It ranged from expensive porcelain to earthenware crockery, the earliest from the C17th.  There was also a mass of food waste in the form of cattle and deer bones, oyster shells and nut shells.  An array of bottles and broken glass along with old tools and cutlery made it an interesting project !  The damage had not been caused by the pressure of this made-up ground but from water which had poured into the back of the wall at that precise spot from a blocked cattle-grid.  Once in, the water could not escape through the lime mortar and over time it pressured the base of the wall causing it to move outwards.

Once that was done thoughts turned to making the rest of the old glasshouse area safe and useful and in so doing restore some of its dignity.  Debate (between myself and Madam) ranged around what useful but low maintenance planting and hard-landscaping could be achieved at lowest cost.

Edging a path with old bricks.

Recycling was the order of the day, fortunately there are hundreds of old bricks and black and red quarry tiles.

The old glasshouses had floors of black and red 9″ quarry tiles.  These became lethal once the roof had been removed and the wet and moss got on them.  Similarly older slate flag stones were guaranteed to become slip areas once they were exposed to the elements.

The first job therefore was to lift all of those old floors, a reasonably easy task although some of the later floors had been set in lime mortar and even cement under those that had been relaid in the early twentieth century.  Alterations had been made to the structures and layout of the glasshouses as fashions and technology changed.  The last changes saw a coal fired heating system which replaced the old recirculating warm air of the early years.  Thus a number of large cast iron pipe runs and underfloor systems had also to be dealt with.  Indeed, the large slate stones which were removed to make the ‘Henge’ had in fact been the floor of the old boiler house.

Thus far I have re-laid a pathway edged with old brick and running the 60ft (20 metres or so) length of the old glasshouse area.  Also I have covered over the old coal basement of the boiler house and rebuilt a set of brick steps to get up to the platformed area.  The archaeology of the garden is gradually being unpicked, the various stages of development revealed and the systems of management understood.  For instance, how the soil in the glasshouses was changed every now and then.  A series of (now rather unsightly) arches run along the front of the platform.  The wooden semi-circles that act as access hatches to the soil are all very rotten and in some cases have been replaced by stacked bricks.  The decision on what will replace them will hinge on how many bricks are left over after I have completed the new hard landscape.

Brick arches in the walled garden

‘My little helper’ is an expert at building with bricks (and no cement) and is working his way along the arches which were used to extract old soil from the glasshouses.

The plan now is to plant fruit trees, apples and plums, and grow them as cordons across the back wall.  the long bed at the forefront of the platform is currently (Madam’s latest thinking but may well change – Ladies’ prerogative…) earmarked as a Lavender bed which I think will go very well with the brick and stone.

That section of the restoration is nearly ready for planting up, all I have left to do is fill the pathway with gravel and dig the beds over to remove all the stone prior to giving it a good going over with the rotovator.

Later in the year I will start on the old pineapple house, again it needs some brickwork and timber work to create a covered open sided area.

The other garden (and steps !!) that has occupied my time is back in the little village of Pwllgloyw near Lower Chapel outside Brecon.  The old farm has been lovingly transformed into a rather grand house and the old farm buildings converted as self-catering cottages.  As is often the case in my line of work, the owners are perfect customers.  To qualify as such requires that they appreciate the history of their farm and the surrounding area, they have good taste which preserves the character and integrity of the place.  Regular tea and an appreciation of my skill is an added bonus ! Ahem.

A retaining wall, which had been built by a waller colleague of mine some 15 years or so ago, had to be demolished and rebuilt in a new position following the completion of an extension to the farmhouse.  I first assessed the job in August last year, the intention at that time was that the extension would be sufficiently completed in time for me to rebuild the wall in late September.  Builders can be slow !  The ominous approach of a June wedding caused much consternation and as I was away in Orkney until the middle week of June, panic (on the part of the owner) was abroad.  I got stuck into the job on my return and got a suitable amount completed to allow the wedding guests to occupy a particular section of the garden, should they wish.  I returned this last week to complete a set of steps, a curve and a small free standing dry stone wall at the front.

Terraced retaining wall.

The land had been cut back quite a way to enable the extension to be built – that’s the end of it in white – so the height of the sloping garden was greater hence the terracing.

The job had grown quite considerably with two set of steps being required.  How many steps is that I’ve done this last year or so !?

Large dry stone steps in a garden retaining wall.

The first set of steps utilised the original slabs – there was a flight of six steps – which were purchased especially for the job and were easy to set back as steps.

The nature of such projects means the owners are often adjusting, adding, changing significantly, the original plan.  Thus it comes as no surprise to suddenly be asked to do this or that, more steps, curves, other jobs.  Such is the lot of a garden waller, on the mountain there is a start and an end, a garden never seems to end.  No complaints, work well into next year !

Dry stone steps in a curved dry stone retaining wall.

I decided to integrate the steps into the curve of the wall, similar to a spiral staircase, it helps the stability of the treads and risers which otherwise would be liable to movement there being no wall at the outside.

The greater problem comes in the shape, or mishape, of the remaining stone.  The owner had bought a substantial amount of stone when the project first began some 15 years ago.  He hoped to have enough for all the extra especially as an old building had been demolished and the new extension was only stone clad.  The trouble is that stone for a dry stone wall needs a totally different morphology from that used in mortared walls.  The latter tend to be more block shaped, often larger in the face dimensions but shorter in the depth to which they penetrate the wall.  For dry stone walling ‘deep penetration’ is an absolute must.  I had to spend a long time sorting through piles of stone to find suitable material for the retaining wall. To then be asked to scrounge enough from that which remained to build a free standing wall at the front, the main driveway entry to the courtyard… “Umm, you want me to do what !?”

Dry stone wall at courtyard entrance.

The short section of wall needed to match a wall opposite (out of shot). Getting the correct profile was easy, matching the morphology was a little tricky !

I will return to Pwllgloyw in the late autumn, a full year and more from when I was first due to begin work there.  There are a number of other walls to be either rebuilt or newly built.  I have warned that my price will rise if I have to hunt for stone !!

A little diversion came in the form of a guided walk I had to do (as a favour to a colleague who was supposed to be on holiday – or at least she was when she asked me back in April !) around one of mid Wales’ most scenic areas. The Elan Valley, Wales’ lakeland.

View out over Caban Coch and the viaduct of Garreg Ddu.

The Elan valley reservoir of Caban Goch and the viaduct of Garreg Ddu.

The reservoirs were built to supply the industrial heart of Britain.  Birmingham City Corporation began looking for alternative sources of water for the growing industrial centre and commissioned James Mansergh to find suitable sites.  He had already  visited much of rural Wales as a railway surveyor and knew well the potential sites.  Steep sided narrow valleys, plenty of rainfall – over 70″ p.a. – made the Claerwen and Elan valleys ideal.  An Act of Parliament was required, not suprising when one considers that dozens of buildings including farms, churches and one of Wales’ greatest mansions would disappear under the black water.  In 1892 Queen Vic gave Royal Assent to a bill that saw the purchase of some 45 thousand acres (18,400 Ha) by the Corporation and the great dam building began.

Sunlit waters of the Claerwen valley

The water of the reservoirs and the surrounding woodlands and shoreline habitats are wonderful for nature and people, but I can’t help thinking about all the lost places and displaced people…

The project took over a decade and in 1904 King Edward VII opened the scheme.  The clear clean waters of the Welsh hills flowed through a 27″ pipe by gravity alone to the heart of industrial Birmingham, taking a week to get there.

Claerwen dam was completed in 1952 and opened by Queen Elizabeth II on October 23rd.  Today the waters of the reservoirs provide much more than drink for the good folk of the English Midlands.  The whole area is vested as the Welsh Lake District and stunning scenery it is too.  I enjoy it in all seasons but never far from my mind is the lost settlements of the drowned valleys.  The higher farms survived of course and their field systems and names give-away the historic elements of their existence.  The name Mynach is commonly encountered as is the long track of the ‘Monk’s Trod’.  Both relate to the occupation of the area in the centuries after the Norman conquest by the great Houses of the White Monks of the Cistercian Order.  Strata Florida (Ystrad Flur) and Abbey Cwm Hir sit at the east and west extremeties and the former had extensive sheep -walks over the moorlands that now make-up the water-shed of the reservoirs.

My task was to give an explanation to those who came on the walk of the meaning of the Welsh place-names that occur in the valley and to examine the flora of the hay meadows and the trees of the ancient hanging woodlands on the valley sides giving the Welsh names for each species encountered.  Needless to say a great deal of preparation was required and I engaged in a reconnaissance walk the weekend prior to the event to check on what was where and how long and arduous it might be.

Guided walk in the Elan Valley

Walking the walk and talking the talk; it’s something I do, too much some would say ! But only two participants !?

The weather can be quite vile even in summer so I needed to be sure on the level of exposure, where shelter might be had and what escape routes there were should we need to get off the hill quickly.  As it happened the sun shone on both my visits and it was therefore even more disappointing that only two ladies turned up for the Sunday afternoon freebie; and neither were interested in Welsh place-name interpretation !  I felt I had slightly wasted my time, in preparation, in recce, in guiding the walk.  As of this moment no-one from the Trust who organise the walks and from whom I had received the route details, times etc, have had the courtesy to send any form of ‘Thank you’ note.  I did it as a favour to a colleague and it is no reflection on her, but I am getting a little tired of being asked to guide walks, give talks, attend shows and a host of other cost-incurring, time consuming activities and then not even receiving a ‘Thanks’.  It is why several venues I attended this time last year and several festival type gatherings where I gave lectures last year, are not seeing me in 2012.

Last weekend I took myself off for a little self-indulgent day-out to a local Steam Fair which I enjoy but hadn’t attended for some years now.

Three Cocks Vintage day at Boatside 2012

‘Smokin’ Steamers is what a vintage day is all about and the Three Cocks Vintage Society day at Boatside Farm, Hay-on-Wys is as good as it gets for a one day local show.

There are some super little local societies catering for the Vintage enthusiast and the Three Cocks society is up amongst the best of them.  Certainly the second Sunday in August is the day not to miss if you have the slightest interest in all things old.  There is always a good display of Steam Engines (how much it costs to haul those beasts around is anyone’s guess !) and they are without doubt the highlight.  A little away from the main area a little ploughing was taking place, that’s where I headed.

Steam ploughing was supposed to have revolutionised agriculture towards the end of the C19th and into the early C20th.  Huge steam engines sat either side of a large arable field and hauled a massive reversible plough back and forth by means of a winch cable.  The engines are big, the cable is big, the ride-on plough is enormous !  Once the plough has been hauled to one end, the ploughman changes seat to face the other way and, lowering that coulter and mouldboard, it is hauled back by the other engine.  It is hardly environmentally friendly and neither is it user friendly.  The great torque created by the mighty steamers and running through the cable as it hauls the plough through the thick heavy soils is frightening.  Many accounts have I read of terrible accidents occurring to either the ploughman or engine men as a cable snapped or plough tipped.

Steamers, smoke and ploughs at a intage day near Hay on Wye

Straw, steam, smoke and a huge plough hauled by a thick cable. An amazing sight of a long forgotten part of agriculture. Unfortunately forgotten too seems to have been the inherent dangers of such activity; should I really have been able to stand that close !?

I was more than a little surprised to be able to walk unattended into the ploughing field where tractors were merrily zooming up and down.  I was certainly shocked that I – and several others – were allowed to stand right next to the cable hauling the massive plough up quite a slope.  I felt uncomfortable that there were children and elderly folk struggling to negotiate the deeply rutted field in close proximity to such massive working machinery.

Steam engine hauling a plough at the Three Cocks vintage day 2012

The massive engine on the up-side of the field belches as it takes the strain of hauling the plough.

Now I’m no fan of nonsensical Health and Safety rules, no sir.  Too many local shows and community events have had to be abandoned because of such rules or the consequent excessive cost of insuring against all risks.  However, a simple Risk Assessment of what was going on in that ploughing field would have immediately thrown up the need for supervision, for taped off working areas and for marked access and viewing points.  I saw no Marshalls, no signage, no taped walkways or excluded areas.  When I then came across two youngish lads racing (for that is the only description I can give of what they were doing) a Field Marshall with a roller and a Fordson Major with a cultivator attached, up and down the adjacent field at silly speeds with pedestrians in much too close proximity I was pretty shocked.  Imagine then how my mouth dropped open as the Fordson Major drew close enough for my ailing eyesight to pick out a passenger !

Idiotic behaviour on a Vintage Tractor

This has to be the most stupidly dangerous thing I’ve seen in a long while. The young lady is perched on the nicely polished curved wings of a Fordson Major hauling a cultivator over a bumpy ploughed field. The speed at which it was being driven raised a number of comments from older wiser heads standing watching. As for her, there was only one way she was going to fall…

I left the field with an air of great concern and disappointment.  As far as I am aware no accident occurred there that day, that was amazingly fortunate in my view.  Later I was again shocked to see young children running across the path of moving vintage tractors as they drove toward the ring for their display.  This time there were two Marshalls but they just stood by and let the children do it !  When I then came across a young man cross-cutting a large timber baulk with a chainsaw in readiness for a display of steam engine driven rack-sawing I really was in a state of bemused astonishment.  There, in front of dozens of watching members of the public, this lad casually put his trainer clad foot onto the log to stop it moving as he  cut through it with a large (clearly not sharp enough) chain saw.  Not one item of Personal Protective Equipment did he have about him, not even goggles to stop the dust entering his eyes which he therefore had to wipe with one hand whilst the other held the still running, still cutting chainsaw.

The Three Cocks Vintage day has been running for years and, in truth (to my knowledge) there has never been a serious incident resulting in injury to an exhibitor or member of the public.  I imagine the committee of the Vintage Society have now protected themselves with some form of Limited Liability, after all, the financial outlay for such a show is immense.  They no doubt pay a large sum of money to insure the event and one supposes every entrant displaying a piece of machinery has the required level of Third Party Public Indemnity (except I know of at least three who did not have it that day).  Nevertheless, such indemnity is only valid providing all necessary Health and Safety requirements are met.  I have serious doubts that was the case last Sunday.

It would be such a shame if the show could not continue, it is a real good day out for exhibitors, traders and the hundreds who come to view.  It would be an even worse shame if someone, a child perhaps, got seriously injured because of the kind of lapses in Marshalling and security that I witnessed.  It left me feeling somewhat saddened and downhearted, seeing all the people enjoying themselves, knowing the huge effort and work levels of the volunteers who run the show, the pride and the cost involved in displaying a lovingly restored piece of industrial history; seeing all that jeopardised because of inadequate Risk Assessments and subsequent controls and prohibitions is sad.

Old Fordson tractor at Three Cocks.

I watched the old tractors queue, engines running, creeping forward toward the show ring – this one especially caught my eye, I think it’s an old Fordson – it was a great sight, spoiled only by the ever present danger of people diving across the trackway between the moving machines.

Oh, I do sound like an old kill-joy don’t I !

Not so, I had a wonderful day out.  I saw old friends, I bought some nice old artefacts, I had a good laugh – my favourite chuckle came when I read, on the side of the fish and chip van, “The Cod Father”, great (I thought I had photographed it for y’all but apparently not !) – and I had a rather good panini for lunch (at least I think that is what it was called…), some excellent ice-cream and a nice kiss from the rather attractive wife of a dear friend, damn !!

But I left the Three Cocks Vintage show feeling a little less happy than I should have, courtesy of some pretty appalling lapses in the safety rules and regulations that exist to protect the likes of me and YOU !

Lets pray it doesn’t take a tragedy before changes are made.  This time last year I was getting excited about going off to the Great Dorset Steam Fair to show off our wonderful Farming and Industrial heritage to my dear Carolinian Steam Buff, for sure there are no lapses in safety rules there, for sure I don’t leave the Dorset feeling an accident is waiting to happen.

I’ve had some Vintage days of my own these last few days, you’re going to see it all soon !

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