Smokin’ !!

My writing rambling has been somewhat interrupted these past weeks – apologies all – firstly by an increasingly regular reduction in broadband width which renders such activity unachievable – BT seems unable to explain or remedy the problem – and secondly by having to once again put on my Welcome Host/World Tourism Ambassador badge to deal with a short sharp invasion from the New World.

What a week !  Strange encounters and surprising progress, all things considered.  To start with I finally managed to get back to a full week of work, albeit by the end of the day I did not move far from my arm chair.  The construction of the last section of ‘clawdde wall’ took me all of five days but it was done and now there only remains a few small pieces of wall and some ‘pitching’ to do.

Clawdde bank

The low turf and stone bank will ‘grass over’ in a short time and make an excellent habitat on the edge of this Nature reserve.

The old open car-park has taken on the image of a purposeful area and one in keeping with the surroundings of a Nature Reserve and the Site of Special Scientific Interest.

The effort of building  showed clearly the effect the dreadful winter bug had upon me.  It is said that recovery takes as long as the event, I would certainly agree with that sentiment.  Hopefully that is my last bug for this year, I will make every effort to avoid infectious little people.  They have been the carriers of the bugs that have got me twice this winter !

Steaming on with the job was one part of my time but ‘steaming’ was also a part of the wider picture of my environment and my leisure.

The Gilfach Nature Reserve lies just a few miles north of Rhayader, in the valley of the river Marteg.  It is an ‘old’ place, a place where man’s influence is benign, limited to ancient fields and small dispersed farmsteads.  However there is another relic of man’s influence which reflects a far from benign past.  Disguised in the trees and heather is the old trackway of a nineteenth century rail line.

Mid Wales Railway at Marteg

The old line passes over the old track which now forms part of the Wye Valley Walk, unfortunately safety concerns has meant the closure of it and a huge amount of money needs to be found to restore it.

The line was closed 60 years ago along with hundreds of others as part of Dr. Beeching’s ideas to turn British Rail into a profitable business.  Luckily this section was abandoned and not turned into a by-pass or reclaimed by the farmers through whose land the trackway passed (this was the preferred way of disposing of the permanent way).  A small notice board tells of the part the line played in the Great War when hundreds of coal trucks passed through on the journey north to supply the ships of Jellicoe’s fleet anchored in Scapa Flow.

I have a particular liking and a particular link to the old steam railways and the roaming lines over which they ran.  My father worked on the footplate of dirty noisy steam engines as a ‘fireman’, the man who shovelled the coal into the roaring inferno.  Thus it was with great joy that I stumbled across those monsters from my distant past on a simple shopping trip to Llandrindod Wells.

Steam Engine on the Heart of Wales line

The ‘double-header’ train steams past Disserth bridge near Llandrindod Wells on its journey along the Heart of Wales line to Swansea.

There parked up at the quaint old station was a ‘double header’, the term for a train with two great steam engines at the head as the pulling force.  It was a jaw-dropping encounter though clearly not unexpected for the hundreds of others who lined the platform and stood on the over-footbridge.  I pulled into the adjacent car-park and got out to enjoy the sight and smell, for smell there is to those old monsters, for over an hour.  The two old engines were the large ‘express’ train type which, as a boy, I used to watch race by as we, my friends and I, eagerly sought out the name and number to cross it off our ‘train spotting’ log books (small pocket-size books which listed every engine running on the networks).  It was however a reminder of just how terribly polluting these leviathans were, billowing black smoke and steam in clouds across the landscape.  In this case the whole town became infected by that nostalgic pollution.

Steam engine at rest in Llandrindod station

Smoke and steam, the hallmark pollutants which covered everything in the old days of steam but there is something irresistibly romantic about it.

The carriages too are so reminiscent of my youth and I can still conjure the memory of the smell of the leather and the red-checked seat covers, the silly pictures above the luggage rack and the strange leather strap with which to open and close the windows.  I counted over 20 carriages on that train and could see folk sitting having lunch in the dining car.  I don’t know what the event was but I guess it was a round-robin sort of special treat for railway buffs, probably from Crewe to Swansea and back along the easterly route via Newport and Abergavenny to Shrewsbury.

Steam Engine idling at the platform

Flying Scotsman she wasn’t but nevertheless the whole spectacle cheered my day.

I drove out of the town to a little bridge over the line near the church of Disserth and watched the train career along the tack underneath.  I went home with a broad grin and nostalgic memories of my father, Pontypool Roads and journeys to school in a small two carriage train hauled by a saddle-tanker on its way to Blaenavon.  Later the next week I was in the mansion of ‘my little helper’ alongside the Tywi not far from Llandovery when I heard the chuff-chuffing of another steamer as it hauled a long train of red carriages up the track from Llangadog on its way north to cross the Cynghordy viaduct and the Sugar Loaf tunnel.  I resolved to make enquiries and maybe next year get aboard !

Returning to the Nature Reserve car-park, matters progressed quickly.  Once the clawdde boundaries were completed there was the little task of some small retaining walls and then the ‘pitching’ of stones to lay a cobbled band between the upper and lower areas so as to reduce slippage of the new surface.

Stone pathway

Miss Carolina learned the art of ‘pitching’ a stone path very quickly and produced a fine professional job. Better her knees than mine !

Pitching is a traditional method of producing a hard wearing surface from poor but readily available materials.  Most old trackways have stone pitching, even those that march over the open moorlands.  Certainly around farmyards and courtyards of old houses ‘cobbles’ – the name of the stones and usually the finished article – are the preferred method of paving the area.  The stone of choice is river pebbles as they are nicely shaped and smoothed but any stone can be used and in this case we used random limestone from the quarry at Llanelwedd.  As long as there is enough depth to the stone to be ‘inserted’ (by hammering with a block of wood and lump hammer) into the loosened sub-soil and a flattish surface on which to walk then any stone can be used.  Of course, the old cobbled areas used stone from as near to the job as could be possibly found and where old farms and houses are concerned, a stream was always nearby.  Strictly speaking ‘cobbles’ are the rounded river pebbles but the name has become synonymous with any pitched area.  Once laid the stones are packed around with rammed earth and then a dusting of sandy soil or river sand is brushed into the gaps.  It produces a nice traditional pathway.

I was lucky enough to have my ‘apprentice’ back with me and as she had already done some pitching on a previous visit and liked it, she willingly took on the task of completing the section.  It is a slow job with barely a square metre a day being achievable but in two days she had the area completed and a fine job it is.  It was amusing to see the reaction of the passing walkers, most of whom stopped to chat, when they realised it was someone doing pitching in the wilds of Wales, then they saw it was a ‘Girl’ (!) and then they realised she was an American !!  I’m sure the story has been told in pubs and homes all over the land by now.

Pont Marteg Car Park

The completed car-park, with its nice new surface, the clawdde banks and the stone pitched path looks really good and fit for purpose.

The finished car-park looks really good, the clawdde walls really suit the area and were a good choice by Darryle Hardy the project manager.  The volunteers did a remarkable job in building the long bank and roadside double-sided bank and the new surface sets it all off.  I was pleasantly surprised at just how much use it gets with walkers, from near and far, daily marching off to explore the nature reserve.

At the top end of the car-park I constructed a facsimile of the ancient boundary banks that are to be found in these parts.  The use of large ‘orthostats’ to create stock barriers is common in areas where the geology presents the sandstone slabs.

Orthostats of sandstone in bank

The use of large orthostats is common in the Radnorshire hills and suggest a really ancient landscape.

The old boundaries in the area are of large sandstone slabs placed on end and sunk partially into the ground.  They generally act as a face to an earth bank but sometimes can be stood alone and form a perfectly sound barrier to cattle, alas not for sheep !

Whilst there is a suggestion by colleagues researching the old Cistercian Granges of Strata Florida that the medieval monks employed this system, in my view they represent a much earlier form of land division.

As the area of Gilfach and the Marteg valley is within the former lands of Abbey Cwm Hir and named granges existed thereabouts it may well be the case that these banks do relate to the management of the hill flocks common to the ‘White Monks’.  The weakness in the case for such an origin seems to me to be in the fact that the boundaries do not present a sheep-proof barrier but are perfectly fine for cattle and thus are suggestive 0f a much earlier construction date.

Sandstone orthostats in a stone faced bank in Mid Wales

The slabs used are mighty indeed and probably sit over a metre into the ground. They have good lichen growths which possibly could aid dating.

The banks and stone faces point to the open hill and were designed to prevent stock from re-entering the precious hay pastures or arable fields which were needed to keep stock over the winter and feed the family the large amounts of oats required to survive in that hostile environment.

It is interesting to me that so many folk come to walk in the area and yet few, if any at all, take any notice of the boundaries which frame the landscape.  History and Archaeology are still very much only ‘seen’ in the great castles of Wales, the old mansions or churches and yet farming was the reason for all the others historic features.  The management of the land and the settlement patterns which existed thousands of years ago still sit for us to discover but most folk just pass by on the other side.

I’ll be writing more about my ancient landscape discoveries in my next post along with some ‘small world’ encounters with an old tractor.

For now, and belatedly, Happy May Day to everyone out there, watch the UV levels, the sun has come out in the land of Welshwaller and mighty welcome it is too.



2 Responses to “Smokin’ !!”

  1. John Tonen Says:

    Did you buy the Cardigan tip cart?
    Regards, John

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