Par Avion

Mmm, I’m not altogether certain but I feel sure I just endured a novel way of getting to the Continent – I flew !!  In the halls of my memory are other flights but the details are lost in the clouds of time.  Normally I visit the continent of Europe via the age old means of sea travel.  I take a ferry with my car and my independence.  This time I was rushed into agreeing to take a flight, from a stupidly located airfield, in a plane owned by a company whose very name is a challenge to credibility, travelling and living with people I hardly know – my family !!  Merde !!

You know you’ve made a mistake when the details come through  (understand the arrangements were all made for me, down to the last detail of when, where, how, who) and single digit numbers lower than 8  appear with ‘anti-meridium‘ after them.  In deference to the ‘War on Terror‘, all flights are preceded by hours of checks in and out and through and back and up and down.  Two hours – despite the use of I.T. to ‘check-in on-line’ – prior to the purported departure time everyone has to show their faces in both photo format and blodgy, weary eyed form, at a desk where a usually cheery person does the first of many verifications that you are who you are supposed to be, the person you said you were when you parted with the hundreds of pounds of fare.  The last poignant glance of your luggage as it disappears through flapping plastic strips, the only thing between you, it and anywhere in the world, being a thin strip of sticky tape with a number on it.  It never ceases to amaze me that the luggage arrives in the same place as you do, at about the same time.  Apparently the days of  ‘Breakfast in London,  Lunch in New York, Luggage in Bahrein‘ (which used to be the unofficial slogan oft quoted by Concorde users in repost to the B.A. slogan) are long gone and nowadays less than 20% of international baggage goes adrift …..  Apparently, even less gets knicked !

Once the sad goodbye is over there comes the long, confusing, inevitably upward journey to find the security post to ‘go through’ to the departure area.  I, being a consumate trans-Atlantic journeyman automatically removed my trouser belt – with the inevitable results – and my shoes into which I emptied the contents of my pockets and loaded it into a cat-litter tray and set it onwards along its journey through the scanner.  It amuses me (but also alarms me) to see how many trays go  through without the person sitting at the scanner seeing – they being engaged in some  conversation with a colleague about the football results !  It was only when I realised no-one else had taken their belts or shoes off nor had filled their trays with money that it occurred to me that only on flights U.S. bound are explosives going to be in the heels of shoes or in trouser belts ……  Despite all the warnings and explanations of what cannot be taken on board with ‘carry-on’ bags I was astonished to see a dipstick English gentleman – complete with shorts and sandals of a bright colour, Panama hat and gold-rimmed glasses, oh yes, and a frightfully posh accent, getting rather irate with the French security officials on the way back.  He could not understand why his huge tin of sausage and white beans was deemed ‘disallowed’ !

The horribly early flight from Bristol was made quite bearable by the journey which, at that time on a Sunday morning, was traffic free.  Not so on the return when a 5 o’clock arrival meant hitting both the city traffic, in and then back out, and the Severn Bridge toll, or should that be ‘toil’.  The Bordeaux end was slightly confusing in so much as the car firm from whom we had hired didn’t seem to exist until, after 40 minutes, I spied a small logo on an overhead board which matched the even less conspicuous logo on my printed-out reservation confirmation.  As a reward for the miles we had wandered we were given an upgrade.  The new car had both seats and an engine although the ‘baby’ seat which had been booked had  been overlooked (why was that no surprise ?!).  After an hour or so of frustration we headed off in the general direction of a little town I knew called Libourne.

Many years ago, frightening exactly how many, I used to run a north to south route which began at Cherbourg and ended at either Bezier or Narbonne where the wide boats we carried were off-loaded into the Canal du Midi.  In order to avoid the traverse of Bordeaux – bearing in mind we were both high and wide and were not allowed on motorways – we cut across the countryside from a small town called Les Sarbes d’alone and headed for Liborne before cutting back to join the  N133, the ‘Route de deux mer’, at a little town with the rather Spanish sounding name of La Reole.

As it was by then Sunday lunchtime we stopped and sat outside a small cafe enjoying a bowl of Moules and Frites (Mussels and Chips !!) and the first of many ‘demi pressions’.  Onward via St. Foy le Grande on the Bergerac road, to then turn south for the little town of Eymet.  A delightful little medieval Bastide town unfortunately suffering monstrously still from invaders.  Where once the ‘Coeur de Lion’ (Richard the Lion Heart) sat outside the local hostelries now it is the aspiring gentry of middle urban England.  Forgive me, France is French, I go to a foreign country to enjoy the whole experience, not to sit outside a bar that feels like it is in Chelsea !  And, why do BMW driving Englishmen always wear pink and have their sunglasses, even at night, pushed up onto the top of their foreheads !?  I ensure that every French person I meet know that both I and those with me, hail from ‘Pays de Galles’.

Bastide of Eymet

The Bastide in Eymet is a kind of fortified Manor house around which the geometric grid of narrow streets were laid out. Thankfully they resisted the temptation to number and name aka 23rd and East !

I enjoy a short break in the mid south, and despite the Anglification of the area the Pays are still French to the core.  Fields of Maize and Sunflowers, placid cattle and vineyards, miles and miles – that should be kilometeres and kilometers of course ! – of manicured vines, beautifully attended, awaiting this year’s crop.  One of my daughters is an avid cyclist who daily re-enacts the Pamplona Bull run by riding her bike through the streets of the City of London, she was blown away by the long quiet roads and the inbuilt care and respect given to cyclists by native French road users.  Before I arose each morning she was returning from the latest 70k pedal !  Not flat country at all, long slow hills and crazy twisty 70% ups and downs.  Oh to be young and fit !

The markets and fetes were in full swing and the feeling of happy holiday was everywhere.  Wandering around stalls of local produce and artisan crafts is my idea of how to spend an evening, after of course, a rather long, luscious meal outside a local restaurant.  When in the south-west of France sea food is the only option.  Not quite the gourmet extravaganza of Charleston but still too good to miss.

Bunting in Bergerac

Two colours are all that’s really needed for bunting, it’s classic and joyous. Here Bergerac is out to party.

I did not a lot.  I managed to keep driving to a minimum, I avoided the blazing sun on my naked skin (why didn’t I always do that !) and I certainly avoided the freezing cold swimming pool which even the most needy of my travelling companions baulked at.  In fact so cold was it that cycling daughter used it somewhat as the Welsh rugby team use those freezer room treatments for recovery – it seemed to work well for her ……

Of course the ups of a holiday are inevitably followed by the downs of going home.  The flight was at 4.30 pm which meant getting to the airport by 2.30, which meant getting there in time to return the hire car and a hundred other things that need doing when a toddler is in the group….. I’d forgotten the hubble bubble that accompanies these little people.  Somehow I managed to not see the signs to the Bordeaux airport – I insist there were none – and soon realised that Paris was once again appearing on the overhead gantry signs, I had circumnavigated the city.  Fortunately I had begun to suspect my mistake and was thus ready for a quick up and over and back down the other side of a French fly-over.  If you’ve never tried to do a quick about-turn on a peripherique you haven’t lived dangerously !

We were cutting time very short, or so I thought, the others in the car seemed untroubled.  They were correct, the long sinuous queue once we found the Easy Jet check in (a simple sign pointing to Easy jet departure check-in seemed not to have been thought of but the reason became apparent) indicated that a much longer check-in was in store.  Somehow the supposed champions of the proletariat flyer have evolved a system whereby two young ladies are able to check in around 800 people who are boarding four different planes to dispersed destinations in 2 hours !!  Not only that but once the desk is reached – only 45 minutes in our case – the by-now exceedingly heavy baggage is not whisked away through the plastic strips.  Oh no, you have to continue to haul it along in a now much longer queue which moves imperceptibly toward just one young lady who has to check each label, weigh it again, wait for a print-out and still get the 800 frustrated homeward bound holiday-makers to the gates in time to meet push-out.  Mad is not a sufficient word.  In fairness the planes did get off the ground on time and flew home in a much faster time than advertised.  But make no mistake, there is nothing Easy about flying that way.  I may need much more persuading next time !  A slow boat and poodle is even more appealing now I’ve done it the other way.

Dry Stone enclosure

An enclosure awaiting attention.

Back on the hill the day job has been slowly progressing and in a place I could not have expected.  How strange it is when something one has wished for suddenly and unexpectedly comes to pass.  As I have mentioned in previous posts I am particularly fond of an area of historic landscape between the small hamlets of Howey and Hundred House in Radnorshire.  It is a landscape I use in the ‘Walking Through History’ programme which I run in conjunction with Ty Gwyn Farm ( and is full of walled enclosures, relict ridge and furrow plots which once grew corn, burial and fortified hilltop sites.  Ever since I discovered it I have been interested in the dry stone wall enclosures which abound on the upland plateau as well as the ancient field systems which still remain.  The dominant feature, apart from the dry stone walling,  is the imposing Iron Age fort of Castle Bank.  The walls appear to date from a range of periods and are generally in a good condition.  How often have I wished for a commission to work on them.  Now I have, and for the last month or so I have been repairing several smallish collapsed sections which have allowed me to gain an intimate knowledge of the area.

Dry Stone Wall -Gap

This is typical of what I have been repairing these last few weeks. Collapses of a few metres length are common in old un-cared for walls.

The work of ‘gapping’ is often fraught with unseen issues.  Mainly it is certain that what appears to be the size of the gap will grow two-fold by the time it is all stripped out and the sides taken back to a stable point in the old wall.  Some old walls have been built using ‘through stones’ at every few metres or so.  These long stones are set to cross the whole width of the wall at about the half way-up point and possibly at other heights too.  It is good practise if only to prevent a collapse from running too far along the wall.  A section which falls is usually buffered and stopped at the next through stone.  Placing these stones also acts to prevent such collapses in the firs place, a stone prophylactic if you like.  Fortunately the walls of the Rhogo have the throughs set at regular intervals and thus no one gap needed to be taken back further than about four metres.  I surmise that this distance represents the length of wall each builder was doing in a day, called a ‘stint’ and is often a ‘rood’ in length.

The first job is to strip way the collapse and sort the stones so as to put the cope stones and cover-bands, if they are present, safely to one side. The small pieces of hearting are piled close at hand but the main building stone is laid out in lines according to their graded size.  Of course one also has to work out what stone belongs to what side as most collapses see all the stone fall to one side of the wall.  That is not so difficult in fact as the stones from the ‘other side’ i.e. not the side to which the wall has tumbled, will have their weathered faces pointing skyward whereas those on the fall side will be facing toward the ground.  Imagine pushing over a box of corn-flakes and you’ll see what I mean.

Stripped out gap in dry stone wall

First job, clear the fallen stone and sort at the same time ensuring equal amounts on both sides .

As the stone is stripped away it generally becomes clear what has caused the collapse.  In the case of all the gaps on the Rhogo walls it was down to the foundation stones tilting over a very long period of time.  Tilt in the foundation stones is generally caused by the sub-soil on which the wall stands becoming saturated and softening thus being unable to bear the weight of the stone – some two tonnes per running metre – and it slowly leans.  The other problem is often one of build technique and it is common in later medieval walls, which these are, to find that the foundation stones used do not provide a sufficiently large footprint to spread the load.  However, it is somewhat churlish to make criticism of walls or those who built them when they have stood for 400 years or so.

I managed to do a good three to four metre long gap a day and was blessed with some lovely clear weather albeit a little cold for June.  The quiet solitude of working in that place was a reminder of how much I enjoy hill walling, surrounded by views to the horizon and interesting landscape to divert my attention !

Rebuilding a collapse

With stone spread either side and the foundation re-set, the long slow climb back to the top begins. Zippering all the way (as Miss Carolina dubs it !)

Fortunately the contact with this farmer – courtesy of  my ‘team leader’ from FWAG Cymru (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group Wales) – may serve to provide more opportunities to rebuild some of the very prominent enclosure walls on that hill.

The one enclosure in particular that should be rebuilt is alongside the road that comes over the hill from the Howey side and is at the top of a very long and steep ascent.  The descent (or ascent coming the other way of course) is longer but more gentle and it seems to me that the positioning of that particular enclosure is in relation to that steep climb.  In my view, given the age of the enclosure – 1700s it would seem – and its position which is also at a rare point where water oozes out of the ground giving a good supply of drinking for stock, indicates it had a role in the cattle droving trade.  Certainly the route is a recognised Drovers road out of the Wye valley (and out of Cardiganshire via Tregaron and Abergwesyn) and into the Radnor Hills heading toward Painscastle and eventually on to Rhydspence to join another major Wye valley route coming out of the Brecon area and onwards to Hereford and the English Midlands.  Having forded the Wye at Newbridge and the Ithon at Disserth the drove would use up most of the day getting to the high point on the Rhogo and would be ready to turn in the cattle to a safe enclosure with accomodation on hand for the men. It may even be that the pond associated with the spring was also ideal for the geese that were often driven along with the cattle – often by young women making their way to Service in the grand London houses who, incidentally, carried their shoes so as to have respectable footware once they reached their destination, yes, they walked to London barefooted !  The size and location of the enclosure would certainly support my suggestion and I am hopeful that under the new farm support scheme, Glastir, the funding may become available to carry out a major rebuild.

Rebuilt gap in dry stone wall

The rebuilt gap shows how I deal with the danger of a soaked sub soil, the protruding foundation is a means of spreading the load wider than the point of downward pressure from the face.

Drovers enclosure

The dry stone wall enclosure alongside the old Drover’s road; the clump of trees is where the spring and pond is positioned.

Now then, many of you are breathless with anticipation as to whether the Massey 35 made it home with me.  Of course it did, too good an opportunity despite the gamble that it may have had a dud engine.  Sure, the tin work needs replacing and the whole tractor is in need of shot-blasting and spraying but that’s not a hugely expensive job.  The extraction was rather painful; the long track was too narrow and in places just too steep to be able to tow it out on my trailer un-accompanied.  Fortunately I have a very good and faithful friend who is always in my debt … or I reckon he is, who has both the equipment and knowledge to do both for me.

So, a long journey home which also had its own share of drama resulting in a rescue mission by another farmer friend of mine, saw the old, unloved fifty year old tractor arrive at my rest home for just such retired old farm items.  My assumption was, reinforced by the slightly suspect answers I received from the owner, that the engine was seized and maybe other mechanical problems were waiting to bite me.

Fergie Tractors

My two old Fergie tractors sit alongside each other, and though it is not clear in this picture, they are both puffing away quite happily. Ten years or so separates them but they look ageless and they bring a wide smile every time I take a look at them.

For now it will have to sit and wait until my summer jobs are over.  The coming weeks will be taken up with getting small garden jobs completed and travelling to the North in conjunction with the very farm scheme I mentioned above.  Then there is the small matter of 50 tonnes of timber to move for the local Laird who is about to abandon his oil burning heating system for a modern timber burning system.  I’m going to be a busy little boy but then again, I have had a nice little holiday and some new arrivals so work is necessary, even weekends are likely to become normal working days.

You may remember another little item that I had my beady eyes on, an old farm cart….

Watch this space …


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