The Magnificent Seven – and a few other friends.

Bab Austin

The ‘baby’ Austin 7 – a whole cavalcade of them invaded my space recently.

Each year, about this time, the roads hereabout are infected with (what seems like) hundreds of ant-like tiny cars, running hither and thither, seemingly going nowhere fast.  Speed is certainly not a part of the 1930s Austin 7, nor of the other motor cars of that era which scuttled about the main roads and lanes  of Breconshire and Radnorshire.  Normally I would be cursing their presence, especially if I needed to get somewhere – poodling along at 25-30mph they cause some consternation on the fast moving highways of the 21st century.

Vintage motor in pristine concourse condition.

I was so taken with this pristine motor of the 1920s I neglected to note what name it bore – a Lagonda maybe ?

This year I happened to be invited to one of the venues to which these busy little bees homed-in.  I only ever saw them hurrying along the roadways but realised that in several places they disappeared into dark woodlands or leafy drives.  One of those leafy drives belongs to my dear old friends at Shakespeare Link and the grand drive-way of the mansion of Penlanole.  It turns out that these rather valuable and rare little machines were not just touring the Welsh countryside on a cold but sunny April weekend, oh no !  The crazy owners were actually off-roading in those dinky toys !

I wouldn’t even be able to fit into one of them, to see several large gentlemen and ladies squashed into the tiny seats, sometimes with others hanging on in the back – as it turned out, to provide ballast whilst traversing soft ground – was amusing.  To see these lovely old machines, with tyres no wider than a small motor-bike or, in some instances, the size of a tyre on a mountain bike, taking to bumpy forest racks and boulder strewn fields was a real eye opener.

Austin 7 off-road

Off road in a ‘Chummy’, with the roof down it could be mistaken for a jeep…. or not !

The idea seemed to be a sort of off-road obstacle course, a trial, where points and disqualification awaited those who manoeuvred their way around, between, over and past little flags, big trees, boulders and soft ground – indeed there was some sadness at the lack of mud !

A large crowd of spectators, most of whom were also members of the association which was staging the event, stood around watching each of the intrepid drivers and crew.  One car in particular caused me some amusement if not incredulity.  Alas, once again I do not know the make of vehicle – sincerest apologies – as I was so intent on watching, and photographing the fun.

Old off roaders never die

This was the car that amused and amazed me most of all – it had solid wheels, a turning circle the size of an airliner and tyres the width of a pushchair !

The little toy-like car had solid wheels that looked like dustbin lids, the tyres were so narrow that they would be useless on a child’s pram, the turning circle was over the horizon.  No surprise then that it struggled a little on some of the tighter turns and in the soft soil under the oak trees.  It was the only one I saw fail to negotiate all of the obstacles and the only one I saw which had to be assisted out by a few by-standers lending a push !  It was certainly the only one I really wanted to take home !

A gentle push got it moving again

A helping hand was readily available when my favourite got stuck.

I watched a dozen or so of the little cars negotiate their way around the obstacle course then wandered down to the refreshment area where many of the cars were parked up.  There was a jolly atmosphere and lots of animated chatter.  My friends arrived in their very own vintage vehicle, a Series 1 Land Rover which had been owned originally by the father of the current Lady of the Manor, some 60 years ago.  I was amused to hear the large number of comments that accompanied its arrival, “Wow, look at that beautiful Landie”, being the general ilk of them.  The grass is always greener….. or in this case the Landie is greener than the Chummies !

Land Rover 1953

The old Series 1 Land Rover raised more than eye-brows, it was greeted with much admiration by the owners of the vintage cars – well why wouldn’t it be!?

The Sunday morning disappeared in a ‘flash’ of slowly moving, slowly negotiating, Austin Chummies and other lovely vintage cars.  I was then treated to a lovely lunch in the company of the ‘Company’, those folk who make up the actors and back-room staff of the Shakespeare Trust’s performing troupe.  All’s well that ends well….

The reason I happened to know that the event was taking place there in that familiar of surroundings – how many walls have I repaired there ! – was down to an event a few days earlier.

One of the underlying themes of the folk at Penlanole is the sea.  They are both avid and experienced sailors.  Indeed Suzannah once crossed the Atlantic in a boat of exactly the same model as the one they now have.  That was in the mid 1960s and stands as a true tale of that crazy period of youth enlightenment.  The little yacht is kept in the harbour at Aberaeron on the west Wales coast.  For the winter it is lifted onto the hard and de-rigged.  The time had come to put her back into the water and I was asked by Phil to go help him get her ready for that plunge.

Westerly Sailing Sloop

The little sloop, built in the early 1960s by Westerly Marine Construction, is a small 22ft long sailing sloop and is the exact type in which one Suzannah Best nee Pulford, crossed the Atlantic.

Now I have a little experience of sailing boats, in the 1980s I often drove an escort vehicle for large ‘Convoi Exceptionnel’ boat haulage through France and Spain.  Unfortunately all my experience was on dry land and with boats ‘sans’ mast and rigging.

In other words, I have absolutely no idea where all the lines and wires of a rigged sailing boat are attached, routed, tied off.  The only thing I could offer was height and strength but apparently that was all very useful.  We had the thing masted and rigged in about 4 hours. There were four of us, the man who knew where and how it all fitted together showed no sign of dementia nor indeed any kind of brain deterioration.  In my view rigging a small sailing boat equals any of the brain teasers, such as sedoku, which we are encouraged to practise in order to stave off the onset of  loss of brain cells.  I think it could provide useful and fulfilling activity for those suffering from such malaise.  It is beyond me for sure !

Finally both the snow and my dreadful winter bug seem to have dwindled away and it has finally been possible to get back to my current walling site.

Some months ago – before Christmas in fact – I was approached by the Radnorshire Wildlife Trust about a possible ‘Clawdde bank’ project that they were hoping to undertake at the car-park associated with their very own ancient farmstead of Gilfach.  The old farm has a traditional long-house dwelling with attached cow byre and a rather fine early C19th barn which indicates that a large amount of oats (and possibly some barley) were grown in the valley at the turn of the C18/19th.  When the last farmer, himself a traditionalist in his methods, retired some 25 years or so ago the Trust managed to raise the funds to buy the place and safeguard its ancient woodlands and hay meadows.  Today the adjacent mountain areas are part of a Nature reserve and the long distance footpath, the Wye Valley Walk, passes through the farm and over the hill to the south  and onwards to Rhayader.  The area lies in the valley of the Marteg, a small river which rises in the hills of Radnorshire above the old villages of St Harmon and Pant-y-Dwr.  It is an ancient place indeed with pre-historic monuments, Roman camps and roads as well as the famous Cistercian route-way, the Monk’s Trod, which linked the two great houses of Abbey Cwm Hir, a few miles to the east, and Ystrad Fler or Strata Florida, a great deal further to the west,  over the hills of the Elan Valley and Cambrian Mountains near the headwaters of the river Teifi.  The farmstead is dissected by the course of the old railway line which ran from Brecon, via Builth and Rhayader and crossed the Wye just below the point at which the Marteg enters the fast flowing river.  It made its way along a tortuous twisty route to the Severn Valley at Llanidloes where it linked with the other lines running eastward into England.  The old line of the railway is still very visible as it runs along an embankment and then a cutting just below the farm.  The old iron bridge which crossed the line to provide access to the farm is now a footpath.

The Nature reserve is accessed just at the point where the road from St. Harmon meets the modern A470 at Marteg Bridge and there a large parking area is provided for the many walkers who come to enjoy the wonderful scenery.  The project envisaged giving some sense of order to the parking area (whilst subtly discouraging large lorries from using it and damaging the loose surface) by building a traditional boundary around it and along the frontage of the roadway thus allowing only one entrance/exit.

I was not involved in the decision of what the boundary type was to be, the plan had already evolved and involved the building of a stone faced earth bank or ‘clawdde‘ in Welsh.  Such banks are commonly seen throughout the upland and coastal areas and are an historic method of enclosing an area to keep stock out.  Generally such a structure occurs in areas where there was insufficient stone to build a dry stone wall but sufficient depth of soil to dig a ditch and use the spoil to fill the void between two stone faces.  In some case only one face needed to be built as the bank was in fact merely retaining higher ground beyond, in other words a retaining wall.

Clawdde bank newly built

The new ‘clawdde’ bank I showed last time, built near Tywyn. Note the straight joints which speeds water out of the structure.

Actually in the area in which the Gilfach farm and Nature Reserve is situated such structures are not very prevalent but one does not have to travel too far in Wales nor Radnorshire to find them and thus it is an acceptable option.  In particular it provides an excellent living bank in which all manner of ‘critters’ can make a home.  In particular such banks are favoured by bees as the gaps in the stones make for easy excavation of a small burrow, the stones get warm and hence so does the soil and the hard surface makes it difficult for those pesky predators, like the adorable Great Tit, to penetrate to the growing larvae.

Every time I build such a bank the famous words of the visitors to the Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. come to mind, “What’s with the sods?”.  The times I was asked that question about the clawdde bank I had built there as part of the Wales programme.  In essence the turf, or sods, act as a binding agent to hold back the soil, the live and grow and hence lock the stones by the root system.  The upturned sods, to ensure moisture penetrates the roots of the grass, also provides a bed onto which the next course of stones can be laid and the whole gives the impression of precision and strength.  In time the grass becomes so thick that it is barely possible to discern that there are stones in the face at all.  In explaining the system to those interested Americans I found that using the example of the ‘Bocage’ in Normandy (huge stone faced banks, often over 2 metres high and thick) which held up the Allied advance for months and the U.S. army had a particularly difficult and costly battle overcoming the Germans who used the cover and strength of the ancient banks to good effect.

This time I’ve had the assistance of the Volunteers of the Wildlife Trust, in fact ‘assistance’ is not the real word, they did the work,  I did the talking….

Volunteers at work on a clawdde bank.

The Radnorshire Wildlife Trust volunteers beginning the clawdde bank around the car-park.

The valley of the Marteg, the Gilfach farm and the nature reserve are well worth more of my time. So too is the wonderful work of those intrepid volunteers and, of course, Welshwaller.

The weather has been a little kinder with that dreadful east wind abating slightly and the snow slipping imperceptibly away from the surrounding hills.  I have got some energy back and will soon have completed the project which I shall bring to you in the briefest of interludes.

For the moment I’ll leave you finishing the holiday period and gleefully welcoming the ending of the interminable Easter school holidays.  Why didn’t I remain a teacher ! Perish the thought….

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