Any Old Iron ?

When I was a young lad one of the regular sounds which echoed along the street was a strange linguistic shout which I always thought was “rine -a-rine-a-ragbone”.  It came from the powerful lungs of a rather fierce-some looking man who always had a leather jerkin of 2nd World War vintage to protect his back – he seemed to move most things on his back – and a filthy old black bowler hat.  Even to a five year old that seemed slightly out of place.  He walked the streets on a weekly round with his horse and cart, unless you knew they were together you might have been convinced the horse was wandering alone, they rarely seemed to bump into each other.  Of course such was the bond between them, a bond of friendship I like to think though I did sometimes feel very sorry for the poor old nag as he plodded, head down, in a slow ‘clip-clop’ along the road.  I can’t remember now what the horse’s name was but if the man shouted it the horse would stop and allow the man to throw something onto the cart.

Looking back I suppose what the man was shouting was something along the lines of “iron and iron and rags and bone”.  I don’t know when refuse collection came into being, the ‘ash’ cart as it was known, was definitely another weekly visitor along the streets.  Two men accompanied that cart, which was by then of course, a lorry especially built to allow rubbish to be tipped out of galvanised bins.  They too wore leather jerkins and carried the bins mainly on their backs and shoulders before heaving them upside down into the rear of the lorry.  Both the ‘rag and bone’ man and the ‘ash cart’ were left-overs from an earlier period, a time which both sets of my grandparents often referred to.  Then the items collected were valuable, recycling is not an altogether new idea !  The ‘rag-n-bone’ man had a air of celebrity about him, at least as far as we children were concerned.  He was at the same time enigmatic and a little scary, the words of the old poem by W. B. Rands, ‘The Pedlar’s Caravan’, always came into my mind when I saw him:

“I wish I lived in a caravan,

With a horse to drive, like a pedlar-man!

Where he comes from nobody knows,

Nor where he goes to, but on he goes”.

Nobody seemed to know where he came from, he just appeared early in the morning shouting his clarion call down the street.  There’s no doubt he was regarded with some suspicion by the adults, he was a character of ill-repute, or so it was implied, but nevertheless he always filled his flat cart with old bicycle frames, rusty tins and bottomless buckets, railings and corrugated iron sheets no longer required to keep rabbits out of the garden.  In fact anything metal that was discarded made its way onto his cart and thence to a scrap yard.  In essence he was doing society a good deed and making a living, whatever his life was, out of the waste of others.  The rags and bones were a very small portion of his collection by the time I was around, old clothes were few and far between, for sure in my family any such items were re-used as dusters in the house and rags in the garage.  Bones were rarely seen either but had traditionally been collected and then used in the soap making industry.

Clearly the old horse did not pull the ancient cart very far each day but I have no recollection of any mention of which town he came from.  Somewhat similar to the event that has brought them to my mind this day.  A loud ‘toot’ of a horn this morning alerted me to the presence of an uninvited visitor at my gate.  It is an unusual occurrence and as such generates some disdain.  To begin with my reaction was normal, “What the…….!”  It transpired that my somewhat secret location had been pointed out to the man by my friendly neighbourhood gamekeeper (an issue I will discuss with him at some point) as he loaded scrap items from the front garden of my recently moved nearest neighbour.  He had negotiated his way up the half mile of bumpy track that leads to my hideaway with a large trailer in tow.  Now that IS a problem (a problem clearly known to the gamekeeper also, I should add !) for there is really nowhere to turn a long trailer once my gateway is reached.  I have to drive all the way through the two-level farm yard and out into a rear field to turn and then drive back through ready to go out again when required.  For various reasons, not least  the heavy overnight rain which rendered that option impossible, he was going to have to show his prowess as a good reverser of trailers.

“Any old iron, guv” was his approach; as timeless a question as any I can remember.  My first reaction was “No” but then I thought “Well actually I have”.  “Are you buying or after free items?”, I asked.  He was ready to buy, though quickly pointed out that the price of scrap was falling rapidly, news to me !

I have recently been sorting through two of my overflowing sheds and being uncharacteristically ruthless in throwing out items that clearly were never going to be repaired.  I often joke with visitors to my displays about the shock I had some years ago when I sorted through the upper barn in which was stored a ‘few’ vintage lawn mowers I had unwittingly accumulated.  That shock resulted from the discovery I had over twenty such machines, ahem.  That however was rendered insignificant when it came to the recent clear-out which concentrated on small engines which had mysteriously arrived without me noticing.  The small two stroke and four stroke petrol engines of early twentieth century vintage were the power source for dozens of small items of machinery from water-pumps, rotovators, generators and garden machinery of all sorts, including lawn mowers. Names such as  Villiers, Jap, Petter and the later manufacturers such as Briggs & Stratton, Teagle and B.S.A, were common little engines and are to be found on most farms and in most garden sheds.   Why seventeen of them were languishing in my sheds I have no idea.  None of them were serviceable, most were missing vital parts such as magnetos or carbs, and none of them would have ever run again, not in my ownership anyway.  They had already been placed in a pile awaiting my trip to the scrap yard so it was no big decision to let them go.  I then remembered some old lawn motor mowers manufactured in the 1950s by Atco that could join them.  Road signs, rusted milk churns, a disability car, cast iron gutters, alloy pipes, some copper and lead, steel and cast-iron all suddenly came to mind and within an hour or so his half full trailer was overflowing.  He crossed my palm and then did an impressive job of reversing down my curving track to the point – over 200 yards away – where he could turn onto the field and make good his escape.  His parting shot was to spray me liberally with mud as I stood in front of him as he reversed and got his front wheel into a mud hole.  An hour and a half after he first disturbed my rain sodden morning I tramped back, muddy and wet, to finally finish my breakfast.

I felt strangely uplifted by the clearing away of old iron (steel mainly) and it inspired me to make good use of yet another rainy day to continue the ruthless sorting of years of perplexing acquisitions.  I am pleased to be able to report that in one of the sheds I am finally in sight of the rear wall !

Old iron awaits its future.

Yes, I do have OLD iron, and lots of it but it is SO difficult to condemn it to the furness.

Every now and then I get an overwhelming feeling of doubt – normally assuaged by chocolate, so it is not too serious an affliction – that relates to the amassed blocks of ferrous and wood that fill my farm buildings.  Are they really worth all the effort and attention I give them, are they indeed as valuable as I allow myself to imagine, is anyone really that interested in the tools and equipment of  hardship ?  One thing is certain about such doubt, within in a short time of it rearing its ugly head an event will occur that reasserts my conviction that what I do, what I preserve, is indeed worth the effort.

Chaff cutter, a lump of old iron indeed.

A Bentall Chaff Cutter is a very large lump of old iron, large and heavy. Almost every farm had one and most have gone to the furness, valuable for iron, steel and bronze. Soon mine will be the only one left…. or will it ? Maybe it should have gone with the rest.

Both the Apple Day at Penlanole and the Dinefwr House vintage show demonstrated the interest that my strange collection generates.  A plain envelope dropped into the box at the end of my track that serves as my post box, demonstrates that it is becoming well known !  That and two invitations to give evening lectures are indicative of a growing interest, in small communities, of their past heritage.  The letter invited me to the relatively newly formed Llanwrtyd History Resource Group (www.llanwrtydhistorygroup.com) which is collating old photographs of the area and, most importantly, oral history before they are forever lost.

Just like the groups in Cwmbran investigating their own ancient history and the  society in Llanfallteg which I have referred to previously, the Llanwrtyd group is involved in an important programme of preservation. The preservation of the heritage and culture of a small community whose past ways will be forever lost without such local action is one of the most valuable activities anyone can become involved in.  In my own strange way I am doing my part.

We have not been blessed with the warm sunny September we all hoped for, as I write yet more torrential rain is bringing floods to many parts of the country.  However, there have been days of bright sunshine and they have been sufficient to lift the spirits in between the gloom.  I am fortunate in that my route home, along that same bumpy track that my scrap-man negotiated, often,nay, always, presents  a spirit-lifting panorama which blends sky and woods, grass and water.  Even on the most depressing of days that last few hundred yards up my track is guaranteed to bring forth a smile.

A woody hill lit by a rainbow in September sunshine.

The end of the rainbow is in the little valley in which I live. The woods on the skyline mark the changing of the seasons better than any barometer and a blue sky lifts everyone’s spirits.

By working every dry moment I managed to complete the repair to the walled garden at the nearby old Manor house.  The final two days were spent forming the arch and placing the capping slabs onto the completed repair.  I had left the wall to set for a few days while I concentrated on the arch as the large flagstones which form the caps are extremely heavy, so much so it required the assistance of a good neighbour to help me lift them into place.

Arch into stone wall.

The newly rebuilt section of the walled garden which had collapsed over two years ago and the newly formed arch into which a gate is to be set.

Fortunately there were some good cut stones to make the arch – it is almost impossible to ‘make’ an arch if there are no specially prepared stones especially the ‘vousssoirs‘ without which it is difficult to throw the stones into the arched shape (they are the wedged shape stones that sit on top of the vertical wall-ends) and of course a good ‘key stone’ which locks the both sides of the arch.  Building an arch is not that difficult if a good former has been made and those special stones located.  Building upwards on both left and right sides is the best method and meeting at the top where the key stone slides into place.  The ‘cheese-wedge’ shape of the key stone stops it slipping down and out and thereby locks up the whole arch. Well, that’s the simple theory, in practise it is more difficult, unless you are fortunate enough to find a complete arch that someone else made, a long time ago.  Therefore my recommendation is….. go to an architectural salvage yard – believe me, it will save you time, money and huge stress !

Stone arch built using lime mortar.

Not exactly an Arch Angel but I do my best… at least its tall enough to ensure I don’t crack my head – which I did several times on the wooden former.

The former needs to be left in-situ when mortar is being used – with a dry stone arch it can be removed as soon as the wall above is completed – to allow it to set.  It is important to build sufficient weight on top of the arch to force it together although if it is a modern cement mortar then the arch stones alone can be left if required.  I left the arch former in place for four days, enough time to allow the lime mortar to set in the arch but short enough to allow me to be able to re-work the wall-ends inside and under the arch which had been unavailable because of the wood of the former.  Interestingly that which the air had been able to get at had set very well,  whereas the mortar which had been covered by the wood of the former was still very putty-like.  Unfortunately my plan to point it all up has had to be delayed because of the deluge.  Never mind, the removal of the wooden former, always a “hold your breath” moment, passed without any stones dropping out and the whole rebuild now looks quite monastic, don’t you think !?

All I need now is a little sunshine to complete the pointing which will include covering the rather garish cream mortar with which the owner had begun to rebuild the wall and which you can see at the base.  The grey stone dust I have used will ensure that as the lime continues to cure, and lightens in colour, it eventually matches the old lime-mortar of the centuries old walled garden.

Wispy clouds in a September sky.

Cirrus clouds and the vapour trail heading westward sets the mind wandering at the end of another September day…

I know the next few weeks will be less than enjoyable, the horrid concrete block wall needs completing before the cattle are brought back in for the winter.  The weather is threatening the Sheep Festival due to take place in Llandovery this weekend and my instinct is to err on the side of caution, I don’t want a whole trailer full of wet and rusting tools to have to deal with !  I am a great believer in ‘instinct’, that ‘gut feeling’ about happenings, people, places; it has held me in good stead so far, like this last job, I knew immediately I was in a good place…

Old land Rovers resting in a shed

Sometimes you just know you are in the right place…

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