“A Wandering Minstrel I”…..

Getting up at the crack of dawn each day and heading northwards had its compensations.  Scenery – always a bonus, new places to see and visit – all I need as an incentive but most satisfying was the sheer pleasure in meeting new people.  I thoroughly enjoyed the teamwork involved in sitting around the table – and occasionally venturing out around the farm –  examining the options and possibilities each field and activity offered for points scoring for the new Glastir scheme.  Of course my cause, and my welcome, was greatly aided by the fact that dozens of erroneous scaremongering tales had circulated around the marts and most farmers were convinced there was no way they would get the points to be accepted.  My opening sentences were therefore guaranteed to make my welcome assured – “I haven’t failed yet!”.  In truth there was little chance that anyone I was meeting wouldn’t be able to get the points, indeed in most instances I could have been in and out in two hours or so but there was an inherent catch awaiting the unwary and that’s where my money was earned.

A ruined farmstead on the shore.

This shoreline ruin was once a viable farmstead. Built of large field clearance boulders and pebbles off the beach it stands forlorn now but the walls which are built in a drystone fashion still stand sound.

Firstly there is a plethora of small print associated with each option; cans and can’t do’s waiting to ensnare the unwary.  In particular there are technical guidelines which have to be adhered to in order to avoid falling foul of authority later on.  Many of the instructions pertaining to a particular option are totally indecipherable to the lay farmer and mentor !  For instance the amount of fertilizer allowed to be spread is a mathematical maze.  Only specified kilograms per hectare are allowed, you’d think that was a fairly easy thing to follow.  Well it is if you are a continental farmer who thinks in hectares; we still think in terms of acres and hundredweights  (cwts) and seeing the confusion on farmer’s faces when I read out the allowable kilograms was often quite amusing.  Luckily I have a back up system,  it’s called my ‘team leader’, a woman of such levels of retained knowledge of the minutiae of the scheme as to be positively scary.  I have yet to discover where the limits of her knowledge lies;  every question or issue I raise is immediately answered – often with a rebuke for not having read it in the book or the question “haven’t you read the email I sent out on the matter?” I don’t have the capacity for the scientific nor the apparently senseless regulations which infect the scheme but there’s no doubt without Ms Barnes’ back-up my farmers would not have gotten the easy ride into the scheme which I have hopefully provided.  In matters that matter I happily defer to a wiser oracle.

Dry Stone Walls on the coast.

My very favourite coastal strip is along from Barmouth towards Harlech, walls walls walls !

My travels edged further and further north,eventually crossing the great estuary of the Mawddach into the heartland of Snowdonia.  Many years ago I discovered a hidden valley that incised its way into the wild hills of the Rhinogs, that mountain range which rises from the coast between Barmouth (Abermaw) and Harlech.  The former is a quintessential Victorian holiday resort frequented by Midlanders for whom the rail-link was the early attraction, the latter is the small town around the impressive castle of Edward 1st, a classical concentric block of towers and walls enclosing a substantial Keep.  It is an early example of the English King’s attempts at controlling the unruly Welsh.  I have mentioned before how I think it is somewhat strange that the relics of English invasion and attempts at subjugation are given such prominence by the Welsh Tourism fraternity.  Much better, in my view, that the cultural landscape should be lauded.  The small valley which I visited recently would equal anything Harlech or Caernarfon could offer.

A simple wall, a simple sign.

The little sign places the little valley on a par with a great Edwardian castle – quite right too.

Cultural landscapes are recognised and protected by various International conventions.  The 1992 International legal instrument created by the World Heritage Convention UNESCO is the current umbrella legislation.  Whilst many see only the great landscapes of the world as being important ‘cultural’ landscapes – such as ‘The Burra’ in Australia, better known erroneously as Ayres Rock – there are examples throughout the world.  In small rural areas such as the Highlands of Scotland and the west of Ireland and in the heartlands of Wales, there exists relict landscapes, shaped by man over thousands of years.  Often now fossilised, in that development ceased several hundreds of years ago, these places offer a view into the past and the layering of society onto the landscape to present what we now see.  In essence ‘Cultural Landscapes’ are the combined work of  nature and man.  There are 3 main types enshrined in the legal protection and it is the ‘organically evolved landscape’ which applies to this secret place in North Wales.

Pack horse bridge in Cwm Bychan

This little stone bridge is characteristic of the relics of man’s influence in this ancient valley.

Cwm Bychan is a steep sided valley running from the high foothills of the Rhinog Fawr to meet the sea at Llanbedr.  It is a landscape of small fields enclosed by high dry stone walls, hanging Sessile oak woods and moss covered stones which cover the open woodlands and hillsides.  The uplands bear the scars of man’s attempts at bringing order to a wild natural place with long lines of walls marching up and over the rock strewn slopes and heather clad moorland.  Often it is difficult to separate a built stone structure from a natural feature so easily do the walls and low buildings merge into the natural features.  Farming in this valley remains hard, the climate is a continuum of harsh and benign.  Summers can be spiritual especially in the shady oak woods teeming with life but winters can be outrageously harsh despite the effects of the warming Gulf stream.

Hanging oak woods

These ancient oak woods are exactly what most of the valleys of Wales would have looked like before man cleared them away.

The farm buildings are constructed of large boulders and the walls are thick, not least due to having to support roofs of heavy stone-tiles.  They are built to keep out the wind which sweeps in off the Irish sea, low to the ground and nestled behind rocky outcrops.  No thought here of a ‘view out to sea’ for the farmer’s wife from her tiny cottage window.  No thought here of brightly painted walls or cottage gardens, just simple vernacular architecture that is absolutely ‘fit for purpose’ with no frills.

There are several old ruins high on the rocky slopes which mark the place of earlier hafodtai or summer dwellings where some members of the family and the cattle would spend the months from May to October giving an opportunity for hay and corn to be grown in the few small fields around the old homestead, the hendre.  The water that pours down from the high Rhinogs carves deep pools and surging falls as it works its way towards the sea.  As the streams rush through the oakwoods that line the banks it creates a moisture filled atmosphere which drenches the nearby rocks and they in turn get covered in mosses whilst the woodland floor is a mass of ferns and wild flowers.  All in all it is an absolute haven for wildlife and an absolute wild life for the few hardy souls who eek out a living farming in these uplands.

An old stone stable.

The solid walls of the stable are typical of the farm architecture in these parts.

In the valley of Cwm Bychan is to be found a clear example of the kind of cultural landscape that exists in dozens of places in the Welsh uplands.

The merging together of ancient farming systems – clearly visible still in the old fieldscapes – and natural resources such as the hanging oak woods are precisely what the legal frameworks are meant to protect.  Like many other smaller nations Wales is woefully bad at identifying and protecting such places.

These hidden gems of nature and history are ideal walking venues and the National Park of Snowdonia and indeed the county of Gwynedd have done a really good job of way-marking the permissible routes through this beautiful area.  I intend to get back up there in the summer to once again roam the hills of the Rhinog Fawr and enjoy the scenery of the Mawddach estuary.

North Wales is not the only place where hidden ‘cultural landscapes’ exist.  Here on my own doorstep is one of the very best and is the featured landscape in the walking holidays which I am guiding in conjunction with my friends over at Ty Gwym in Llandrindod Wells (www.tygwynfarm.co.uk).  The walks take in a landscape over which man’s influence over three thousand years can still be seen  fossilised on the ground.  From Neolithic and Bronze age burials to Iron age hillforts and associated field systems, the area around Castle Bank between Howey and Hundred House is as excellent a ‘cultural landscape’ as can be seen in Wales.  Have a look at the Ty Gwyn website and ‘Like’ their Facebook page for a chance to get entered into the draw for a weekend break !  Of course you also get the rare privilege of hearing me wax lyrical in the flesh rather than having to while away your hours reading through the musings of Welshwaller.

As I write we are once again in the grip of winter.  Snow is causing severe hardship for those very farms I recently visited as they strive to save ewes and lambs from the all pervading cold and drifts.  It has been a harsh blow at the end of an already long winter.  I have already begun to build the next addition to the landscape.  Together with the hardy volunteers of the Radnor Wildlife Trust a series of ‘clawdde‘ walls are being built around the car park of the Trust’s ancient farm of Gilfach north of Rhayader.  Work has been temporarily suspended while snow covers the site and while yours truly fights off yet another hefty chest infection but we will return.  In the meantime I’ll share with you an example of a new clawdde bank I encountered on my journey north.  It is a way of utilising stone and earth (where the former is in short supply) to create a strong stock proof bank. Often turf is used to bed the courses onto but in this example only soil has been used – it will be interesting to see what happens when the rain drives in off the ocean !

Stone faced bank

A newly constructed ‘clawdde bank’ utilising large pebbles and soil has been built by road contractors in the town of Tywyn, Gwynedd.

Enjoy your Easter break, it will be a cold and white break for many with the forecast indicating the freezing temperatures are here for at least another month.  Poor Lambs, poor farmers, poor countryside.  Daffodils are hanging their heads and Welshwaller is not venturing out – bring me my chocolate !!

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3 Responses to ““A Wandering Minstrel I”…..”

  1. tokyobling Says:

    Thought you would enjoy this: http://boingboing.net/2013/04/02/lecture-on-stone-wall-building.html

  2. tokyobling Says:

    I am glad you liked it. I must say, with your writing and his talking – you stone wallers are an amazingly expressive bunch. I have met professional journalists who write with less skill than you and seen many a professional speaker who wouldn’t stand a chance compared to that humble American stone waller when it comes to pure oratory skills! Must be something in the stone that attracts poetic souls?

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