Into the Land of the Gogs…. and the Gods !

It’s well over a month since these little digits stroked away at my ‘qwerty’ keyboard – for a blog post at least.  Not so in other ways, indeed I have almost worn the white of the letters away, such has been the proliferation of words emanating forth from my old Dell Latitude !  The old machine was ‘an old machine’ when I got it – a hand down from a business friend – and now several of its functions are failing, not least the ‘Shift’ keys and the space bar…. much ‘proof reading’ is required!

Several of my good and faithful followers have been asking when I would return and where had I gone ?  Gone north is the answer, north to the land of the ‘Gogs’ , the intrinsically rude pseudonym for my fellow countrymen and women who occupy lands to the north of the Dovey estuary.

North Wales is rugged, beautiful and entirely Welsh. The people I have been meeting are made in the same vein, welcoming, proud and tough. They need to be,  for farming in the rock strewn hills of the Rhinogs, Cadair and Snowdonia is not for the feint hearted.   I have been on a mission to the heartlands of the wild country to assist the ‘werin’  (the ancient folk of the hills) to access the new grant giving farm programme and what an epic 4 weeks it has been.

To start with it is a land of stone.  Stone is everywhere, used and unused, it is the very soul of the area.

Walls in Happy Valley

Walls in the oddly named ‘Happy Valley’ near Tywyn in Gwynedd. They are the very fabric of the historic landscape up there.

The reason why walls exist (instead of hedges) is generally one of two reasons; firstly the environment, usually altitude, denies the landowner the opportunity of growing a hedge (hedges were quicker to establish and gave timber, fodder and fruit to the local inhabitants) and hence walls are built.  Furthermore the higher one ascends the more stone is generally readily available.  It is this reason which gives the second basis to a walled landscape. Stone, and masses of it.  In order to begin to farm the land, be it pasture or arable, stone needed to be cleared away and this in turn was used to build the boundaries which enclosed the fields.  Environmental decisions become secondary, if there is stone in the way use it !  They certainly did in the rock strewn valleys of North Wales.  Dry stone walls are as prevalent in the north western corner of Wales as they are in the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales, in the Derbyshire Peak District or the Cotswolds.  Purely a fact of SO MUCH stone.  Right down to the coastal strip, walls are the dominant landscape feature and portray a thousand and more years of history.

Old Stone Barn, North Wales.

This old barn, in a valley that has always been a favourite of mine, is a lovely example of the vernacular farm architecture in that region – ‘Stone, the Language of its builder’ (R.S. Thomas)

My journeying to the northern area of Wales began late in life, I think I was probably in my mid twenties before I discovered the amazing sites and sights.  There existed, amongst my family and indeed in the area in which I grew up, a certain antipathy towards the north.  The ‘Gogs’ were hailed as unfriendly, nationalistic and ‘strange’.  The area was portrayed as harsh, bleak, inclement (that’s true !).  As far as I am aware none of my roaming uncles nor my grandfather who was an absolute gypsy of a traveller, ever ventured into the heartland of Snowdonia.  I have certainly made up for their mistakes !

My reason for ‘travelling the North Country far’ (where the wind certainly does ‘hang heavy on the border line’) relates to the new scheme which encourages (or is it ‘black-mail’!?) farmers to protect and enhance water and air quality by controlling the amounts of nutrients entering the soil and by increasing carbon capture through a series of measures such as tree/woodland and hedgerow renovation, protection of wetland areas and peat bogs and a number of other specific targeted elements.

For some reason the intellectual property rights accruing to the design of the scoring system (each farm has to reach a scoreline of 34 points per hectare of land entered) is lodged somewhere in outer space.  A scheme so simple in its basic form has been intellectualised and over-complicated such as to render it almost indecipherable by the very folk it is aimed at encouraging and rewarding.  Farmers are forever being bombarded by badly formatted programmes, apparently silly regulations, which suggest the perpetrators have never visited the countryside and computerised fact gathering or form filling which many older generation farmers do not want to know.  There is a drive to simplify the English which is commonly used in Government forms, there should be a drive to out ‘computer wizards’ from the design element of schemes aimed at farmers.

As a result a large and obscene amount of public money has to be allocated to pay the likes of yours truly to go out to the farms and de-mystify the scheme, assist farmers to interpret the gobble-de-gook and attempt to get them past the finish line with sufficient points to access the scheme and hence the funding.  Whilst I am more than grateful for the unexpected income boost, whilst I absolutely enjoy every minute I spend with those farmers and viewing the land, the buildings and the stunning scenery, I am embarrassed at the amount of money being spent on me and my colleagues.  The farmer gets an 80% grant to cover the cost of my ‘mentoring’ (we are not allowed to give ‘advise’ – don’t ask !) but that money is from a pool that could be used for agricultural support in a more specific manner had the scheme and its processes been designed with ‘end-user’ needs in mind.

Talyllyn near Tywyn, Gwynedd.

The glacial lake of Talyllyn at the southern foot of Cadair Idris. I had never actually travelled this road before, imagine, a ‘first ‘! One of the farms I had to visit occupies those steep slopes you see at the far end of the lake.

The common route north for me is to follow and/or  cross the 4 major rivers of mid-Wales.  I join the Wye valley at Newbridge and head north, following the main north/south trunk road, the A470 (more on this later).  At Llangurig it heads east towards the valley of the River Severn, Hafren in Welsh.  At Llanidloes I turn to the north following the old mountain road to Llanbrynmair, through Staylittle and past the great reservoir of Clywedog. I turn west a little after the village of Staylittle and pass through Dylife, a quaint little spread of houses and a pub which many years ago I visited with a college friend whose father was the doctor in Llanidloes (Llani to the locals).  I well remember the jaw-dropping experience of entering what looked like the parlour of the land lady, and the total silence which fell upon the place as we entered.  Fortunately his local bona-fides were impeccable and we were soon joining in a darts tournament only to leave backwards having won it !

This route to Machynlleth is something of a roulette wheel this time of year.  If it is a bright clear morning, the views are awesome but the road doesn’t receive a covering of road-salt and hence it is treacherous.  On the other hand, if it is a cloudy morning inevitably the 10/10 cover sits on the road hiding anything beyond the end of the bonnet (that’s the ‘hood’ for those of you out west !).  It is an hour and a half to Machynlleth (Mach to the locals) and half of that was regularly driven at around 20mph these last few weeks.  I aimed to get to Mach by 9.30am which allowed me time for a quick coffee and ………. before heading off to whichever area I was visiting that day.

A Welsh reservoir in the morning sunshine.

Sun on the water meant ice on the road. I never tire of the view of Clywedog from the high vantage point of the Staylittle road.

After crossing the Dovey the road north from Mach to Dolgellau and beyond follows a narrow valley, the river Dulas has cut its way into the softer shale of the Silurian beds.  Running with the road is the old course of the Corris Railway, one of Wales’ narrow gauge lines that transported slate from the vast quarries of Corris to the Dovey estuary at Borth.  It is no longer in use but a small team of enthusiasts are working to re-instate a section of it at Pantperthog.  The notable feature on this road is the Centre for Alternative Technology, now a world famous repository of all ideas green and renewable.  Its very own – and the first we in Wales had ever seen – wind turbine dominates the skyline, alone and sad.

In terms of vernacular walling techniques this route enters not only the land of the Gogllewins but also the land of the slate fence.  Large slabs of slate, cut like soldiers from your morning toast to dip in the runny boiled egg, are aligned in a row and held together by two strands of twisted wire with gaps between the slate uprights which gives the impression of a row of decaying teeth when silhouetted against the skyline.  Along the old railway are some interesting examples of this art. Slate fence has been utilised as a cope-stone layer thereby heightening the wall.

Slate fence sits on a stone wall.

This is an unusual wall in that the slate fence sits on top of an existing wall.

Heading north through the old slate village of Corris the road broaches the water-table and descends into the glaciated valley of Talyllyn.

The climb up the long ascent is impressive if only for the walls that march up the steep slopes of Cadair Idris.  Journeying in the opposite direction one is granted a stunning view of Talyllyn.

The river Dovey forms the southern estuary of the large block of mountain called Cadair Idris.  This huge rocky mountain dominates the southern half of the Snowdonia National Park and has some of the best coastal and estuarine scenery to be found anywhere, in my view at least.

Estuary of the Mawddach

The estuary of the river Mawddach is without doubt my favourite vista in all of Wales.

The river Mawddach forms the northern boundary and it holds some of the finest views to be had anywhere in Wales.  The coastal road from Machynnlleth westward to Aberdyfi and Tywyn and then around to the Mawddach is quite a journey but this time I had to take a little valley into the heart of the hills.  For some reason which I have,as yet, been unable to discover Happy Valley sits amidst the Welsh place names of the area.  It was another road I had never travelled and it therefore took a long time !

Hill farm in Happy Valley

The narrow hidden valley was a secret land of old farmsteads, small walled fields and rugged hillsides.

I visited several farms along the Dovey estuary including some in Happy Valley, on the wind swept plateau above Aberdyfi, at Pennal and the impressive steep hillsides of a farm at the top of Talyllyn.  So steep and rocky were his lands that he didn’t own a quad bike. That is definitely a first !

In my travels I met some fine folk, welcoming, resolute and hard working.  Some of the land that was being farmed was just crazy, nothing but steep rock strewn uplands or small fields of a few acres which struggled to produce grass.

For the first two weeks I stayed south of the Mawddach but then I ventured further north into some areas I knew much better, into a valley that is my all time favourite but also to some ‘never been to’ places.  I’ll write those up as soon as I’m able.  For the moment a dreaded virus has attacked me and I anticipate an uncomfortable few days ahead.  Payment for such an enjoyable few weeks no doubt.

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