And on the Seventh day I rested…

In between all the complaining and moaning I’ve been doing – apologies all – I have been quite diligent.  I had been due to have been building a horrid concrete block wall at one of the farms on the estate but a delay to sort out what exactly was to be done and who was going to pay – the estate or the farmer – sent me elsewhere.  In fact I assumed the whole job had been abandoned and had re-organised my final quarter programme.  (It has now been approved and I have had to change my plans yet again ! – interestingly another job further south on another estate seems to have  similarly gone astray in the in-box of the Agent who (apparently) organises that estate… ahem).  Instead I have been attacking the reconstruction of a stone wall using lime mortar.

Stone wall for rebuilding

The owner had sorted the stone and had actually begun a rebuild but found he needed ME !

Using Lime is another traditional building technique which, like dry stone walling, had pretty much died out.  Certainly among the fraternity of self accredited builders (and indeed those who attended the local technical colleges to learn one or other of the construction trades) who appeared in every corner of the land during the boom years of the first and second ‘White Settler’ movements when the property prices in the English home counties enabled folk to sell up and come here to chase the dream of a self-sufficient life style.

The old farms and hill cottages became highly sought after as did local builders who could renovate or convert them to modern standards.  Unfortunately much of that restoration work was erroneously modern and ignored centuries old knowledge and understanding of geology, timber and the use of lime.  I’d like to be able to report that today things are different.  There are some builders who have gone out and learned the traditional skills required but there are far more who still assume modern methods are suitable to use on old stone buildings.

Lime was, in centuries past, a miracle product given by nature to aid man’s move toward civilized living – then we forgot it !  At once a fertilizing agent with which to turn poor acid soils to productive fields, a disinfectant to keep away the myriad of pests which infect animals and people, a mortar with which to glue together stones and go ever higher and the base of a waterproof paint with which to repel the excesses of the worst of the winter storms, lime is indeed alchemy.

The wonderful properties of this sedimentary rock must have been an early discovery.  I can well imagine that prehistoric man noticed that the stones he had gathered to surround his fire had seemingly burnt away, turned to a powder.  Then, once rain had fallen on the powder, how it magically bubbled and steamed, creating frightening heat before cooling into a sludgy claggy morass which would cause pain and burning if touched.  He may even have noticed that any bones of his food left in the fire disappeared altogether.  Then, when he tried to remove the mess, how the whole had become glued together, almost impossible to separate.  The following spring he may well have noticed how the grass seemed much greener around the site of the old fire.   Those stone age folk who lived in the caves of the limestone belts were probably well aware that fewer illnesses and biting insects occurred than elsewhere in that hostile landscape.  We know that they used the powder of burnt lime as a base for the coloured cave drawings.

The use of lime mortar with stone is preferable to modern cement for a number of reasons.  Firstly it is a ‘living’ medium which is to say it contracts and expands with the changes in moisture and temperature and therefore remains stuck to the stones.  Modern sand and cement mortars expand and contract at a different rate to stone and therefore are prone to cracking and separation.  The problem, in terms of modern building methods, in using lime mortar is the length of time it takes to set and the care that is required in working in suitable climatic conditions, certainly cold, wet winters are not at all suitable.

I am using a slightly modified mortar, cheating really, which is based on hydraulic lime, a substance first used by the Romans to set bridge foundations under water.  It sets more quickly and in more extreme conditions.  Even so I am anxious to get the work completed before the end of  September to allow it a good setting time prior to the first frosts of the autumn season.  The other advantage of using hydraulic lime is that I can mix it in a standard cement-mixer, one that rotates on a horizontal axis, a churn if you like, whereas pure lime putty needs to be rotated slowly in a mill type machine which rotates around a vertical axis and remains level.  The aggregate used would have traditionally been whatever was locally available.  Thus river sand was common – and is still the best – as was coal dust further south in the Coal field areas.  Generally I use a mixture of stone dust and river sand.  The other issue with lime mortars is a cost factor; whilst not majorly more expensive than a modern cement, the mix proportions require more lime.  For example on the block work job I have to do the mix will be 5:1, using the hydraulic I use 1 lime, 1 sand and 2 stone dust, hence a 3:1 mixture.  Despite all its apparent problems a traditional mortar based on lime is by far the best for stone work especially when it is within an historic setting.

Stone wall coming up

The first three-quarters went up quite quickly, this is after 4 days. Thereafter, as the size of the stone reduced, progress slowed, nevertheless it is creeping onward and upward.

This particular wall is a garden boundary within the bounds of the old Manor House and later Vicarage which is now being restored to its former glory.  The wall had succumbed to the ravages of time and two bad winters of temperatures in the minus 20’s although there must have been an issue of build quality or some under-mining given the rest of the wall is still sound.

What is nice for me about this job, and the next, is its proximity to home which means no travelling costs or time.  The price of fuel is on the increase again and having to pay out £40 to £50 per week on diesel to travel to jobs an hour or more away is becoming a questionable activity.  Also it means I have more time at home both in the morning and the evening to get pre-winter jobs and preparations done.  I have to install an arch over the gateway which is a new addition so I will need another week but the nice thing is that the owner has a lot more work he wants me to undertake.  It is nice to know I have some jobs lined up for the next year or so as I was beginning to look at a bare cupboard.  That is a new phenomenon for me as from the time I started I knew I had over 12 months work each year for some ten years ahead thanks to the manner of the farm schemes which lasted for that period.

I mentioned the burning properties of lime and it requires care in handling and using especially to avoid eye and skin contact.  What is fascinating to me is the length of time the substance retains its ability to burn such that even old mortar will eventually start to irritate.  All the more fascinating then to find, in the debris and old lime mortar from the fallen wall, small animals living in that caustic environment.  The amphibians are always a mystery to me, their skin is so tender looking and sensitive and yet they are to be found in large numbers in the dust and detritus.  Newts – presumably from the nearby lake – are difficult to spot, especially the very young ones, but I have seen and moved to safety several dozen this past week.

Common newt about 2 year old

This little newt is probably 2 to 3 years old, it is a Palmate and was happily squeezed into a gap in the stones and insulated by old lime mortar – why doesn’t it irritate her I wonder?

The pile of stone is an important over-wintering area and provides a safe environment for small creatures, away from predators who are busily looking for protein before the winter sets in.

Whilst I am not particularly fond of mortar work it has been a change and its good to keep the skill levels up in all the areas of my work.  Pricing such work is more difficult than dry stone walling where I have a better idea of what I can build in a day.  With mortar work there is quite a bit of time spent mixing and sorting the stone and it isn’t just laying the stones thereafter.  Once built the mortar has to be worked and shaped so that joints are sealed and cleaned of excess mortar.  It is normal for at least an hour each morning to be taken up cleaning the work of the previous day and, as the mortar begins to set, there is more time spent brushing and scraping away any excess.  Thus a good day is taken up just on dubbing-out (pointing if you like) for every 6 or 7 days building and that needs to be taken into consideration when working out the price.  Invariably I over-estimate the amount per-day I will manage to build, especially when, as here, I am dependent on someone else to bring me stone.  The owner said he would dig out stone from a covered pile of soil some distance away and in fairness he has.  The problem comes in the kind of stone he brings me and how much of it.  He is an older gent and not used to physical work so his output is slow, slower than my building, thus I am always short of material, not least because half of what he digs out is of no use.  It’s the question of understanding stone and what shape and size is required and really I need to be doing it.

Stone and lime mortar wall being built

Nearly there ! Another day will see me finish the wall and then I have to build the arch over the former that can just be seen in the photo. I trust he has the stone set aside somewhere….

The weekend seems to arrive very quickly these days and invariably Saturday is taken up with some ‘have to do’ commitment – like the Show last weekend.  Sunday on the other hand is the day of rest, the Sabbath, though in truth this month has seen the day taken up with  a small exhibition somewhere.

I have not attended many shows this year, the weather has seen many cancelled, and as a result my display was not organised nor in the trailer.  Normally I will decide what will be the theme at the start of the show season.  It is then loaded into the trailer and is ready for each and any event I attend.  Not so this year and it was something of a rushed job last week to get a display sorted and loaded.  The first outing was the Beulah show and the following day I took the same display to the annual ‘Apple Day’ at the Willow Theatre up the road near Llanwrthwl on the A470 toward Rhayader.  The event is only a short afternoon and is attended by a variety of nice folk, local and not so local, connected and not connected to the Shakespearian activities normally associated with the Penlanole estate.

Ditching and Peat tools on display.

Peat cutting and Ditching tools were the theme I chose for the few small events this month.

I decided on a display of Peat cutting implements and Ditching tools which seemed particularly relevant this wet summer and also because the next field is called the ‘Turbary’, the very place where peat was cut on this estate. (Note: the term ‘turbary’ relates to Common rights to take fuel and in non-peat areas can refer to the cutting of wood for fuel)

There is a similarity in the tools and some confusion amongst folk who have a vague recollection of the activities.  Certainly there would have been some duplication of use with specialist ditching spades being used on the peat fields and particular peat cutting knives used to slice the edges of ditches.

It is always a well received display not least because in areas of the uplands where I live, many farms and individuals have old tools tucked away in sheds which they either recall their fathers using or have no idea what they are for.  The Forestry Commission was a big employer of labour in years gone by and the ground work on the open moorlands which needed to be undertaken prior to planting used many of the tools in my collection.  I have often listened to old Foresters telling me how much ditching they had done, how hard the work was and the names and use of each of the tools on display.  Indeed many of the old ditching implements I have came as gifts from retired forestry workers.

For now I will give a general account of the shows and the tools but in a later post I will give a description of each tool and activity – be warned !

This past Sunday I went to the final vintage show of the season which is an annual event organised by old friends from the Llandovery Vintage Club in association with the National Trust and held at the impressive Dinefwr House in Llandeilo.  The show is always well attended by exhibitors although the numbers of visitors is not great and mainly made up of those who come to see the House and Castle and just happen on the eclectic mix of old cars, tractors, buses, lorries, engines and tools !

Vintage day at Dinefwr house 2012

The impressive house has four of these grand towers and makes the perfect backdrop for vintage and classic vehicles.

I reduced my display as the weather was threatening, even so I had an interesting day and met up with some old friends I hadn’t seen for a while.

The end of season show is a chance for me to repay those who support me at the local show here which I am glad to do.  Also I was pleased to see that the injured Stanley Archer is on the mend and already promising to bring my recently acquired Ferguson trailer up to Beulah behind his repaired Fordson Major.

The other reunion was with my old pal ‘Dai-it-is’ who makes a regular and rare attendance at this day.  The problem with Dai is he always brings two items of his collection which he knows turns me dark green with envy.

Hog Oilers for pig skin

These two items are brought just to upset me, oh yes. They are called Hog Oilers and revolve as the pig rubs against the wheels which in turn scoop up oil from the bath and deposits it on the skin. I want one !

I came very close to bringing a Hog Oiler back from the States earlier in the year but they are such heavy cast iron items.  The oilers are for use in preserving the skin of pigs who rub against the revolving wheels which in turn scoop oil out of the bath and deposit it on the pig’s skin.

The old lorries and buses are always a huge attraction and look absolutely correct in front of the grand house.

Bedford Lorries at the vintage day in Dinefwr house, Llandeilo.

These old coal lorries of the 1950s are from a local merchant in Ammanford. The two old Bedfords are particular favourites of mine.

My little display of ditching tools looked somewhat minor in the grand scheme of it all but it attracted a lot of attention which kept me busy until the afternoon rain drove everyone indoors.

Pipes and tools from a bygone era of land drainage

Drainage was an important element of land management and the pipes and tools were specialist for the job and well remembered by many of the older land labourers.

A rope maker demonstrating at a vintage show in Llandeilo.

One of the more unusual displays was a Rope Maker who used an old machine to wind and twist hemp ropes into larger and stronger ones.

Fordson pick-up in Fordson colours

Probably my favourite ‘want it’ item was this Fordson E38 pick-up truck displayed as a Fordson tractor service vehicle of the early 1950s.

The final item I will mention was another that I have tucked away in my collection – not that the owner of this one believed me.  He kept saying that dozens of people had previously told him they had one but they turned out to be wrong.  I know I have one and I will be sure to take a photo of it by next blog-post !

Mechanical mower blade sharpener

This mechanical mower blade/knife sharpener is a real rarity, I’ve got one, honest I do !

A good, albeit tiring, Sabbath or two.  It is not an easy way to spend the seventh day, a day of supposed rest, but then,  they do say

‘A change is as good as a rest’

And so it is, for me anyway.  Besides what’s the point in having these hundreds of items of farming history if I don’t show them to others and share in their memories of using them?

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