“I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas…….”

Where did that month go to !?  I have been busy doing very little, well if hosting a house guest can be regarded as such, and have also been laid pretty low by the annual bug which inevitably leaves me flattened for two weeks or so.  I finally submitted and got the dreaded antibiotics from my friendly neighbourhood doctor.  Hopefully I will be able to get out and about in a few days.  The incarceration has at least coincided with some unsuitable walling weather and already the hills are white though the rain is never far away.  At least if it snows I only have to mop up melted frozen water, that would be such a relief after what seems like an endless trail of mud, in and out.  I have become a fantasist, deserts fill my dreams (as do desserts !).

Of late walling has been but a supporting activity, subservient to shed tidying, restoration of tools and machinery and some exploring.  I have managed to get a couple of small jobs done, one a nice rebuild of an old stone-faced hedge-bank, a repair of a small section of a mountain wall that has kept me busy over a number of years and lastly the on-going restoration of the C18th walled garden at the estate Mansion.  In-between I have been wandering the hills in these parts, partly in search of antiquity, partly in search of new pathways and deserted homesteads but mainly just for some leisurely exercise.

Wildnerness Breconshire

The steep slopes of the narrow valley marks the course of the upper reaches of the Cammarch, the winding river that enters the Irfon at Llangammarch Wells.

One of my continuing explorations is the very valley in which I live, the Cammarch.  The river that bears the simplistic name of ‘winding’, rises in the southern uplands of the central mountain range of Wales, the Cambrian mountains.  The geology of soft Silurian shale and slate outcrops interspersed with some harder overliers such as the Brownstones and sandstones, has enabled the fast flowing waters to cut deeply into the hills creating some classic ‘V’ shaped valleys.  In one sense the river does not exist in one valley, rather it flows through one steep sided narrow cutting before opening out into a broad flat saucer where ancient fields can still be traced only to then disappear again into a narrow gorge.  The pattern repeats itself over half a dozen times in the short 8 miles or so of the river’s life.  So far I have only penetrated into three of those saucers, each one bearing the evidence of early farming and a continual presence of self sufficiency and marginal farming right up to the middle of the twentieth century.  My aim is to map and record the several old farmsteads that exist up-stream from my own very old farmstead which itself sits on a steep slope above the river.

As well as the old ‘modern’ farmsteads – themselves often medieval in origin – there are a number of Iron-age features which need investigation as they have only ever been looked at superficially and mostly by those intrepid and, I’m afraid, slap-dash antiquarians of the nineteenth century.  In fact I live in the middle of a probable Iron-age settlement with a defended hillfort behind, a small but significant burial mound on the hill-top in front and what I believe maybe the actual village of round-houses in a circular field with a ring ditch, to the rear of my farmstead.  In certain light or thin snow covering the distinct circles of the ditches which ran around the outside of the round-houses to take the water dripping off the thatched roofs, can be clearly discerned.

Work has been centred on the valley of the Honddu which runs south from the Eppynt hills and joins the river Usk at Brecon – Aberhonddu in Welsh (mouth of the Honddu).  That valley too is blessed with a number of large hill-forts and some smaller  defended enclosures.  I mentioned in an earlier post the interesting mounds at Castell Madoc near Lower Chapel and there are several others which all seem interlinked by a line-of-sight geo-setting.  As well as the hillforts the valley and ridgeways which flank it, are criss-crossed with numerous ancient trackways and these too have an important role in my work.  I often get a request to rebuild the old stone walls that invariably line these ‘sunken’ tracks and so it has been recently.

I returned to Pwllgloyw a small but historically significant hamlet between Lower Chapel and Brecon, to rebuild just such a wall.  An old trackway which runs down from Battle hill, itself of great significance, to the valley bottom and fords the river to climb away on the east side towards one of the defended hill top enclosures, happens to be on the land of a customer of mine and it has been earmarked for renovation for 10 years or so !

It was unfortunately a terribly muddy site but having the assistance of my accomplished walling colleague, the job was completed in a few short days.  It always surprises me how much more two people can do than two people, if you get my meaning.  It’s as if we both actually build one and a half times the amount we would if working alone thus the two of us do the work of three in one day.  If I had sufficient work lined up I would be negotiating for a longer stay no doubt.  Alas with the demise of the environmental on-farm schemes and the financial squeeze on Local Authorities my farm wall repairs have all but dried up and I am reliant on an ever decreasing number of small garden jobs or ‘gapping’ work.

The recession has been going on for so long now that it seems people assume it is over but the reality is very different and farming has yet to enter its dip which it surely will if historical evidence is reliable.  Whenever the economy dips agriculture can often be strong in terms of market prices but the ever increasing cost of fuel and fertilizer together with an inevitable reduction in market demand for produce – to say nothing of the dreadful growing season we have just endured – will ultimately affect the rural economy.  Hard times lay ahead for sure.

Always when things become difficult, when budgets get stretched – i.e. income is small !! – every facet of life conspires to demand more and more expenditure, or it does in my little world.  I live a fairly frugal life in general, no great weekly expenditure on food or entertainment, it is not necessary.  I couldn’t in all honesty, tell you when I last visited a shopping centre or big town/city for the purposes of ‘retail therapy’.   True,  I do peruse the great world of ebay, here and abroad, and thus I understand fully the pleasure to be obtained from ‘window shopping’.  For a rural dweller the internet has provided a wonderful service not least in managing to obtain necessary (and sometimes un-necessary) items quickly and competitively.  Just this last week I was saved large expense by managing to find an illusive and stupidly priced item(if bought new) from an ebay seller.

One of my ‘luxury’ items is my Land Rover Discovery, it is a part of my ‘work’ transport and is the vehicle which I use if trailers need towing or difficult access to a site is to be encountered.  Largely it sits and quietly rots away; in over four years of owning it I have driven it just 4 thousand miles !  However, it is paid for and is not worth very much if I tried to sell it, it still recoups me some tax advantage and is generally in very good condition.  The problem with all Land Rover products – regardless of which multi-national actually owns the company – is that generally they are total crap.  I have always had them, it is a kind of bug,  I just ‘love’ them as it were.  Generally there are several around here although in the last year or so several have been sold on – via ebay ! – so that now there only remains the Disco and my faithful 90 which has just passed another M.O.T with no problems.  It apparently was driven for just over 200 kilometers (it being a left-hand drive vehicle from overseas) in the intervening 12 months !  The Discovery is the last of the Series 2, it is in the Commercial form which is to say it is a ‘van’ with no rear seats.  It suits me fine and is a comfortable ride and good pulling vehicle for my large trailers.  It has the 5 cylinder engine which has done just over 60 thousand miles and ought therefore to be good for a long while yet not withstanding the various gremlins that beset this engine, like the injector loom which is in need of replacement as the design of it (is ‘design’ the correct word ?) encourages oil to run down it and into the workings thereby rendering the whole thing u.s.

The current problem concerned a classic piece of Land Rover idiocy, the kind of ludicrous stupidity for which the company is world renown – ask my friends in the United States how Land Rover and Discovery especially, is regarded over there !  For reasons best known to themselves LR has used a Bosch switch to control the automatic transmission, colloquially termed the XYZ switch.  Basically it senses which position you have selected for the transmission stick and allows the engine to be started when neutral or park is selected.  Most vehicles use a simple spring loaded switch fitted into the stick but not Land Rover, talk about over-egging the pudding !  Now a Bosch switch is top drawer, no question, and should outlive the vehicle quite easily, especially one used as little as mine has been.  However, for some reason the great design team at Land Rover, presumably as fitting Air Conditioning was a ‘long-time afterwards after-thought’, placed the AC over-flow pipe directly above the place where the electric leads to the XYZ switch run into it.  Now whilst not a huge amount of liquid drips out of the AC, some does, and over time all of it makes its way down into the switch housing and eventually the whole switch ceases to work.  Naturally, it being a Land Rover gearbox, it is nigh impossible to get at without some fairly major dismantling.  I discovered on the various forums on the internet that this is an almost inevitable problem with an automatic transmission Discovery (and early Range Rovers).  As if to demonstrate the workings of demand and supply, a replacement switch is near the £500 mark… That meant there was no way I was going to be able to get my vehicle moving again !  The risk of buying a second-hand part was debated with my mechanic.  I searched the ebay world and found various switches in guaranteed working order but here too the supply and demand curve set the price at around the £300 mark, far too much to pay for a switch that was likely to pack up soon anyway.  Eventually I found a reasonable priced item, said to be in excellent condition and the seller had a good ebay score for reliability.   I decided to take the chance and bought the item, postage was expensive, £25, especially as the switch weighs about 4 ozs.  On the other hand it was in Connecticut (what a tragic name that has now become) and thus it had a long way to travel.  It was duly sent, passing quickly through the USPS Priority mail system and onto a plane to the U.K. – it took 4 days to get airborne.  Then of course the little package descends into the abyss of our postal system and worse still, of our customs and excise people. Oh boy !  Now I was expecting it so it was no great surprise that I was still waiting for the packet two weeks later, no surprise at all. Neither was the little letter which finally arrived from Staffordshire central clearing office telling me that British Customs had demanded £20 or so in V.A.T. (don’t even think about that one) before they would let me have the item.  Eventually I got it and it is indeed in excellent working order,  I have covered it in a waterproof tape and extended the AC overflow pipe so that no dripping onto the switch occurs again.  Fingers crossed that will keep going for a while, at least until I can send the old XYZ away to be repaired.  Oh Land Rover, a true piece of British engineering heritage, why oh why are you so useless !?  I thank the Lord that the designers of Techni-Lego didn’t go to the same design college or my Christmas mornings would have been hell.  Not having enough batteries was a nightmare, imagine if the wheels didn’t turn on the robot vehicle…..

Happy Christmas to all my readers wherever you are, may your own XYZ switches keep working through this most stressful of all times !!  As for me, well, my chest is finally responding to the anti-biotics, the weather is slightly better, America has gone home and so a little walling may happen this next week.  Even I will have to buy a present or two !

Nadolig Llawen ich y gyd.

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