What ‘Estate’ I’m in ….

So, it’s back to the day job; enough of pleasurable pursuit to satisfy my other self.  I have been busily restoring a rather large, rather leaning, rather too long section of an estate wall which had finally succumbed to gravity.  I have known the particular section of wall for nigh on twenty years and always knew that one day,  probably during my working life-time,  it would come crashing down.

A leaning estate wall finally gets rebuilt

The newly built section shows clearly the prominent lean on the original old estate wall.

A phone call several weeks ago – I think when we were hit by the March snow – alerted me to a collapse.  It was agreed that I could hold off on the rebuild until I had some assistance, that was due in late April.

The wall formed the impressive boundary of the in-by land – that which is cultivated and enclosed – from the mynydd – the open grazing hill – and also the old roadway which runs gently from the valley bottom past the mansion and on into the next valley.  It was built in the mid nineteenth century and was constructed using lime mortar.  The aggregate for the mortar was mainly coal dust which gives a grey ashen finish.  The stone, the local Pennant sandstone, was dressed and/or cut into rather fine blocks ranging from 10 – 15 cms in depth and these were used to create various ‘bands’ running along the wall at two different heights.  I think of it as a Victoria (stone) Sandwich, it is nothing but artistic showmanship, demonstrating the grandiose taste of the owners.

The problem with a collapse, especially of a wall nigh on 2 metres high (well over 6 ft !), is that the stone ends up in a huge pile which needs to be sorted stone by stone.  I was anxious to re-create the ‘band’ effect and thus wanted the large dressed blocks to be set aside and not used until the appropriate time.  My ‘attractive assistant’ – different from ‘my little helper’ you understand – and I took best part of the first day just sorting and clearing the stone and debris so as to  be able to see what the issues were.  One of the problems was that the wall had all fallen into the field and hence we had to make sure at least half of the stone was thrown back on the ‘up-side’ so as to have sufficient to build both faces.  It is a job that requires both a blank mind and concentration, somewhat like making pastry so I am told…

Whitney Brown's wall in Wales

The wall was rebuilt without lime mortar, mainly a cost/time factor, but the stone,as you can see, was perfectly suitable for dry stone walling. This is the side my lovely American lady built – it’s better than my side !!

The clearing of the fallen stone reveals the problem, in this case it was all the way to the foundation – sometimes a collapse can occur from higher in the wall due to a broken stone or some other cause – where the stones had tilted with the double effects of the softening ground and the weight of stone above.

We cleared away all the debris from the old mortar filling and re-laid the foundation stones.  Actually we changed the foundation stones for much bigger and sturdier ones from those which had originally been used.  I have a suspicion that the wall may have been heightened from an earlier low wall and hence the foundation stones were not really suitable for the finished article.

I am normally a lone worker, all the quiet, the views, the toil and rewards are mine.  However there are benefits in working with someone – for a short period at least !  I often get ‘my little helper’ along and he is great for stones that require brute strength  and agility and is becoming quite adroit at packing hearting, mortar mixing and brick-laying, all the things I am not particularly fond of.  On this wall I had the professional accompaniment of a dry stone waller of increasing aptitude, one Whitney Brown from South Carolina.  She has visited on several occasions and has gradually developed her own skills in dry stone wall building.  As you can see from these photographs, she ain’t half bad !!  Ms Brown, unfortunately for me and Wales, is now practising in her home state and will no doubt attract much attention (www.whitneybrownstone.com).  Working alongside another good waller has the effect of more than doubling the production levels.  Two people do more the work of three.  Luckily for me neither of my assistants are great talkers, unluckily neither of them appreciate my rather lovely singing voice ….. but both of them appreciate a good pasty for lunch !!

Even though the estate is placed firmly in the industrial area it is a haven for wildlife and is actually a farming area.  The once thriving coal pit has long since gone and although the land is still being ravaged by land-fill, it is possible to enjoy the views and the wildlife.  On the last day Dan and I – that’s ‘my little helper’ – had the pleasure of seeing two Cuckoos as they sat calling to each other in trees not ten yards away.  There are always Red Kites and Falcons overhead as well as some rather beautiful White Park Cattle which roam by occasionally.

Whitney Brown walling in Wales

An American in Wales, her walling is good, now we just need to sort out her attire …..

The job turned out to be far more than had been first envisaged.  Once the repair of  the collapsed section was begun it became apparent that the remaining wall was too leaned over to possibly be left standing, in any case, there would have been no way to tie in the two sections.  It therefore had to be taken down for at least another 15 metres.  This time we had to use hammer and chisels to free the mortar which was still strong after nearly 200 years.  Also the removal of the huge cope stones, heavy silica quartz blocks which had all been dressed, showed just why the wall needed to be upright !  Those cope-stones weighed 100lb each and more !

Park Cattle

These splendid beasts came down from the hill to drink at the trough adjacent to where we were building. They were so placid and just wandered on by.

A job that I had planned to complete in a week thus turned into a month of hard graft.  Furthermore it was a long way from home and necessitated some early starts and late returns.  The hosts, dear old friends of mine whom I have written about oft before, are the nicest of the nice.  They are generous to a fault and each day saw various beverages and cool drinks, Welsh cakes and lunches, even an overnight stay complete with a meal at a nearby restaurant.  I am actually embarrassed to give them a bill.  I’ve told them that once I retire I will come and wall for them for board and lodging !!

They are both retired professional people who returned to her family home some twenty five years ago.  The responsibility which they feel to the estate is profound and they have worked tirelessly to give back dignity to the land, and indeed the homestead, after years of decay and destruction of the natural landscape through the ravages of the old tips and the subsequent land-fill.  Today the fields and the gardens are a joy to see and despite the ceaseless noise of heavy traffic and the on-going work at the old pit site, it is possible to ‘be’ in the countryside and enjoy what they have brought about.  I first began work there some twenty years ago and saw the home-farm develop through ten years of the Agri-environment scheme, Tir Gofal.  The change has been also profound and justified the hope and optimism that I wrote of those long years ago :

Y Garth

Garth the hillside, steep on steep,

Straining daily just to peep

Sun arising, sun going down.

Early shadows cast a frown

On squelchy meadows framed with pain

From battered tarmac on the lane

To quiet water killed by fines

And turned by man to a frothy brine.

Behind, two tracks, aligned with stone

Built by one old man alone.

One goes up to a heather moor

The other down to Beelzebub’s door.

Both have walls to hide the sight

And save the traveller from the fright

Of seeing just how high he’s gone

Or where Earth’s cry for Help comes from.

The Land is calling once again

After years of soaking, acid rain.

A Caesar’s cut to take her coal

And now come Shanks to fill the hole

With a dreadful mix of man made slush

To stop the Spring flowers from their flush;

But soon the trees and grass will grow

And birds will fly, both high and low.

So walk the tracks both up and down,

The smile will come where once the frown

At looking on at Nature’s plight

Did scar the face and blur the sight.

So smell the heather, count the fish,

Pick the fruit to fill the dish.

For as ye sow so shall ye reap

At Garth, the hillside, steep on steep.

A rebuilt estate wall

The completed rebuilt section with those massive cope stones atop.  I give an increasingly shorter life-time’s guarantee…. fingers crossed !

There was another little event which occurred whilst working down at Garth, one of those ‘seize the moment’ happenings.  The tenant of the farm, a notable character called Huw, has a tendency to come and chat for a (long) while.  He is a local man and once had a rather nice little holding, past down through generations of his ancestors, in the remote valley behind.  Alas he lost the farm in a divorce settlement and now just has the open hill grazing and the fields of Garth in and on which he keeps dozens of horses, actually they are Shetland ponies.  We got talking old tractors one afternoon, some years ago I acquired a Massey Ferguson 165 from him.  He asked if I was interested in a  Massey 35 as he knew of one which was available on a smallholding in the same valley as his old farm.  Now a Massey 35 is a very sought after little tractor, indeed such is the price they fetch, even in off farm condition, that the chances of me ever owning one were pretty slim.  I listened to his story, the old boy was selling up, he had bought a Massey 135 about 12 or 15 years ago and the 35 had just been stood idle.  Only that week the front-end loader was taken to scrap (how useful would that have been !) and the likely-hood was that the tractor would follow.  I thought I should maybe take a look, just in case you understand.  That same evening Huw took me over to see it.

The first thing to say is that the valley was indeed remote, a mile or more of narrow rutted track that led along the steep valley side to an old homestead on the valley bottom.  The house had been modernised but retained it’s sense of an old farmhouse.  Around about were bits of old machinery and the usual detritus of farming.

A narrow remote valley in south Wales

The long winding road that leads to your 35 …

It was immediately clear that the very act of recovering the tractor would be an exercise in daring-do.  The journey in to the farm took us over 20 minutes and there were some serious gradients and narrow bends which would prove somewhat tricky with a long trailer in tow.

We duly arrived and there was the little red/rusty beast sitting awaiting my inspection – she had been pulled out of her covered resting place for me to see her in all her glory.  The first thing to check on an old tractor is the state of the tyres.  Unless it is a really rare and valuable machine the cost of replacing worn tyres can be more than the tractor is actually worth.  I am not SO into old tractors – despite what some folk think ! – that I would or could spend out large sums on a restoration.  With front tyres at around £100 each and rear tyres nearer £300 each the deal is made or broken on that simple factor.  Surprisingly the tyres were good, a simple test is if they are ‘up’, holding air !  They were.  Look next for cracks and perishing, often on the inside of the wall of the tyres and especially where they have remained flat for some years so that the weight of the machine has caused them to split.   Even though tractor tyres are low pressure they can still explode with devastating consequences for the person bent over them holding the air-line onto the valve !  My old pal Dai-it-is nearly lost his hand back last year with just such a bang.  These tyres looked remarkably good, indeed the rears looked quite new.  The next thing to examine is the tin-work, that is the bonnet and wings, though easily replaced or repaired, they can prove very expensive.  You may think that the engine and gearbox would be the first thing to suss out, true, you do want to know what state they are in but how do you tell ?  If the tractor is running that’s a different matter, it is still a gamble but the fact that the machine runs and moves is a plus; that ‘plus’ of course is reflected in the price.  A non-runner is more difficult, more of a gamble, an uncertain proposition.  It requires a gambling mind.

MF 35 3 cyl.

Here she is, a nice little red tractor, the favourite for enthusiasts, a MF35 3 cylinder.

I’m not really that way inclined….. or am I ?

Welshwaller took all of five minutes to make a decision, you’ll probably have to wait a week longer to find out what that decision was !


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