“Behold congenial Autumn comes, the Sabbath of the year”.

The problem is that the arrival of Autumn has not been marked by any difference in the weather.  Indeed if it were not for the changing colour of the leaves and the gradual accumulation of dying grass along the verges it could just be another week in Summer.  True, temperatures are beginning to fall too but the slightest showing by Ra brings forth the dreaded midges to bite at me and on a sunny Sunday morning, open doors and windows still resulted in the house being invaded by buzzing flies.

I was beginning to think maybe it was only me that was noticing how bad the weather has been this last quarter but more and more people from TV, radio and those with whom I meet are commenting.  Farmers in particular, especially the arable growers, are suffering the consequences of this constant wetness.  Around the globe the year has been a bad one with unseasonal drought or rain, heat or cold, wind or calm.  Most alarmingly the ice sheets have shrunk to their all-time smallest area.  I have begun to realise that working outdoors is probably unsustainable into the future.  Much of what was seasonally undertaken has now to be re-appraised.  Certainly the notion of ‘a season of plenty’ no longer means the productivity of a dry stone waller, for me the seasons have swopped about such that  most walls go up in the late Autumn and winter months.

Light on the oaks

The oak wood opposite is my season barometer, it never lies whatever is going in the skies.

This last week I have finally tackled a job a year in the making.  Last October I was summoned to a hastily convened meeting with the agent of the estate, urgent matters needed attention.  One job was an inconsequential repair  to an old calf’s cot at the rear of a cow house on one of the nineteenth century farms at the foot of the hill.  A dozen or so stones had fallen out of the wall under a small window and it seemed the farmer was incapable of repairing it himself.  It took me all of a morning and that was because of much tea and talk, some of which included the farmer proudly showing me the brick and stone work he had done elsewhere !  The second ‘urgent’ job was a concrete block wall which had leaned over so much it finally began to fall.  It formed the boundary of the cattle yard in which the beef herd were overwintered and it was time for them to come in.  I measured it all up, got the machine driver organised and the materials ordered and awaited approval of my price.  Nine months later – well after the cattle had again be sent to the fields and when thoughts were turning once again to bringing them in for this coming winter – I received a request to re-assess the job and give a new price, mainly as the farmer wanted some alterations; a higher wall set further back to widen the yard.  I obliged and also commissioned the machine to begin its efforts to remove years of piled rubbish behind the old block wall and removal of the wall itself ready for me to build anew.

Now I am not fond of using a mixer, it is noisy for one thing and so much time goes into filling the damn thing and then emptying into the barrow and wheeling it to the site required.  It certainly brings home the cost of petrol when a gallon can that used to overflow for £5 now only seems two thirds full !  No, I am happiest using skill and gravity to form a wall out of natural stone, these hollow concrete blocks are so heavy it feels like I have played a hard game of rugby by the time I stagger home.  The wall is 48 blocks long and five courses high and each course takes about five full mixer loads.  The worst of it is the fiddle there is in placing the mortar onto the narrow edges of the hollow blocks onto which I am placing the next course.  At least a quarter of it falls into the void or onto the floor, it is unbelievably inefficient or maybe it is just I am inexperienced at building with these wretched things.  Anyhow, in five days I managed to get the five long courses up, that’s 250 blocks give or take a few, which includes the box-like pillars I have had to build at every ten block length so as to strengthen the wall.  There are also re-inforcing steel rods set into the foundation, one of the reasons to lay a new foundation as it would not have been possible to set the rods onto or into the old concrete slab onto which the previous wall had been built.  Oh so many fiddly issues to deal with.

Ordering sufficient materials was another problem area for me; the agent was adamant that the estate was not willing to pay more than the minimum required and so I erred on the side of caution when ordering, although how I came to need another 40 blocks is a little perplexing…  Not really, I had to use a course of blocks as a foundation set below the old slab level as they wouldn’t pay for a load of ready-mix and I certainly wasn’t going to mix and pour 4 cubic metres on my own.  Typically the cost of doing it the way I’ve had to has turned out more expensive than the ready-mix would have, though of course some of that extra cost is borne by yours faithfully in the extra day it took me (my price was fixed and based on 6 days work).  I then had to try and assess how much stone dust and chippings as well as cement, would be needed to fill the hollow centres of the blocks.  My oh my was that a lesson worth learning.  As each block has two hollow square centres (you can work out the cubic capacity if you want – 6″x6″ x 9″ x 2 x48 x 5) and the gaps in-between the blocks, the vertical joints, needed filling too (it’s not possible to do as bricklayers do and put the mortar on the end of the block prior to setting in onto the wall, it just falls off !) and that requires a board to be held against the outer face whilst inserting the mortar in order to stop it all falling out.  Ugh ! I was pretty brain dead and physically exhausted by the end of a very hard week !

These last few dasy I have had to do a shorter – 11 block length – wall at the end of the yard and begin the task of infilling the hollows.  Fortunately my ‘little helper’ arrived in the nick of time and did sterling work in mixing and filling.  We ran out of materials by early afternoon, just a day after the delivery of yet another bag of stone dust/chippings and a promise from me (to the driver who was convinced of the contrary) that he wouldn’t be bringing any more… today another bag, plus more cement, plus more sand arrived.  The agent is not going to be too happy !!  At least the farmer for whom the job is being done (a tenant of the estate) is mightily pleased as, at last, he can bring in the cattle from the very wet fields which they are slowly destroying.

Hollow concrete block wall.

My site of hardship, a punishment perhaps !? I know now I made a correct choice in what medium I decided to build with …

How glad will I be to get to the hill next week – providing nature allows – and get building ‘sans’ all this messy stuff.  When my daughters were in school and quite young several of their friends used to tell them their dad was just lazy, building walls without mortar just because he couldn’t be bothered to mix it ! Yep, they were right, I have had enough of mortar, lime and cement, these last weeks, give me the quiet of the hill and no noisy machines !

Llandovery Sheep Festival 2012

The Sheep Festival in Llandovery was an interesting mix of woolly items, woolly people and woolly animals, oh yes, and really nice food !!

I have been so exhausted this last week that I have missed reporting on the Sheep Festival in Llandovery.  It was lucky to have a good day on the Saturday but suffered rain on the Sunday.  I got to have a quick look around late on Saturday afternoon having had to work erecting a dry stone garden wall which had long been awaiting my arrival, earlier.  It is an increasingly popular event and is a great end of season boost for the town.  Of course, being held on my old rugby pitch and in my old town, it is inevitable that I spend much time catching up with folk I see little of, and many I have not seen for many a year.  I was suposed to have been exhibiting in the Vintage section – items particularly linked to sheep rearing such as shearing machines, clippers, shearing benches, dipping rods, branding irons and so on –  but work had to come first and in any case the forecast was clear about the deluge that would arrive on the Sunday.  I did not fancy a whole trailer load of wet (fairly precious and water-susceptible) items to cart home.

Wool of all colours at Llandovery Sheep Festival 2012

Joseph’s ‘coat of many colours’ was most probably spun from wool such as this, from the Jacob sheep.

I will however attend next year, it is important to the town and it needs support and as I regard myself as one of the ‘locals’ I feel it is my duty to get there !

I did however get to another little event in my current adopted home-town of Llanwrtyd Wells.  The recently formed Heritage Group had invited me to exhibit some of my farming bygone collection at an evening event they were holding in the hall.  The focus of attention was the farming community and letters had been sent to a number of local farmers to come and bring with them items of past farming that may be photographed and recorded for the local history part of the Heritage programme.

So, on a rather cold but dry Saturday evening I unloaded over a hundred assorted items and laid them out in the hall and waited.  In truth not many folk came along but those that did were some of the best that could have come.  Eminating from the old Welsh speaking family farms of the area, today mainly limited to hill country west of the town, these old boys, these ‘Y Werin pobol’, or natives if you like, were a most fascinating group as indeed were the items they brought.

Farmers at the meeting of the Llanwrtyd Heritage group in the Victoria Hall

My exhibits caused a great deal of discussion and reminiscences at the History evening in the Victoria Hall in Llanwrtyd Wells.

I am never happier than in the company of such ‘folk heroes’, for that is indeed how I see them.  They have the accumulated knowledge of hundreds of years of farming in the hills of mid Wales, of the culture of the Welsh language communities in which they and their generations of forefathers have lived.  They are unassuming, modest ‘ordinary’ folk, always polite, reticent and yet engaging, modest yet so knowledgeable and worldly.  In truth I am envious of them, their sense of place, their straight and unquestioning pathway and most of all, their inner happiness at the hand life has dealt them.  Content of spirit, harmonious with neighbours, nature and family, what  more could anyone want.

True Welshmen of the hills

These two true Welshmen have farmed the hills all their long lives; they both remember cutting peat and using breast-ploughs, can you imagine !?

Two of them had brought tools relating to the cutting of peat, tori mawn, and breast-ploughing.  The old hand tools had been used by them in the nearby hills.  I have several similar items and had some on display but to see these two ‘genuine’ items in the hands of men who had used them was a real privilege and joy for me.

One of the group had been a youngster when his father had to pack up and move from the Eppynt in 1939 when the area was cleared for use as a military training range during the war – and remains so today.  Over 40 farms and 200 people were moved off family farms held for generations, never to return.  His father was lucky to find a farm not too far away, on the hill above the small town of Llanwrtyd Wells and there his son and grandson still remain.

I had  a few hours of absolute joy there in that old Victorian hall, looking at their items and hearing their stories. I found myself feeling somewhat honoured that they took such an interest in the items I had brought, some of which they had never seen.  I was given several of their items, I have been invited to their farms, in one case to see a mountain wall I have longed to see close-up after years of driving  past it, high up on the hill.  I learned several new terms and names of the items I had, so too I gained some new acquaintances with whom a mutual respect was established, or so I like to think.

Old hand tools of a bygone farming era

The items brought in by the old hill farmers. On the right is the breast-plough, next to it the peat spade or skane, a hay knife and Gower mattock. The other item was a’mystery object’ that I suspect is some kind of massager ! and of course the old Tilley lamp, the only form of light for over a hundred years.

Later this week it is the turn of the farmer’s wives to bring forth their items of domestic history, strangely enough I have been asked to attend that evening also.  Butter making, fire-side cooking and preserving will be the subject of my little display.  I’ll tell you all next time !

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