Hay Ho, nonnie nonnie no….

Roll out those lazy hazy crazy days of Summer….. It’s hard to believe actually, hard to dare hope for, hard to imagine it is just a short interlude – or is it !  Do you know I think I am beginning to turn brown, despite taking precautions.  Hat on, shirt stays on, sun block, water, lots and lots of water but it is inevitable; in my line of work avoidance of sunshine is not an option.  Like millions before me, country folk who have toiled away through all that the British weather holds in store for them, my skin is prone to just brown-up at the very suggestion of heat and UV rays.  The girl on the radio warned me, yes me personally, to not stay out for longer than 10 minutes a day, but will she sort out my bills !?

British Common Lizard

You know it’s hot, you know it’s summer when you see a Common Lizard basking on a stone high in the Welsh hills.

Working outside in the sunshine is a privilege few get to enjoy these days.  True, there is the ever present danger of skin disease, the dreaded big ‘C’ and I am aware of that each day when the sun is like it has been lately.  The effort is increased tenfold when there is no shade and the heat is debilitating to the point of exhaustion.  However the compensations are immense, especially the sight of less common animals which also enjoy the sunshine.  So far this summer I have only seen one of our common snakes. The adder is more often encountered than the grass snake up where I work.  Adders are often to be seen curled up enjoying the rays though they quickly slither away at the slightest hint of my presence.  Grass snakes like a different environment, they tend to live in lower climes enjoying richer pastures and woodland.  I did see one swimming a few weeks ago in a pond surrounded by Bluebells, impossible to photograph but a real joy to watch.  How fast can they cross a piece of open water, an essential safety feature of their existence so as to not fall prey to some airborne predator.

What I did come across just recently while repairing the Castle Bank walls was a Common Lizard. Perhaps ‘Not So Common Lizard’ would be a better name as few folk have ever seen them.  They are in fact pretty common, they just keep out of our way.  Working on wall repairs is almost guaranteed to give a glimpse of this, our last real upland Lizard.  When I was a youngster they were as common as Great Crested Newts, as oft seen as Slow Worms or indeed Grass Snakes.  The annual visit to the seaside beaches of Pembrokeshire, particularly the sand dunes which backed those beaches, was almost guaranteed to reveal a Sand Lizard or ten.  Long gone are the dunes and the now rare Sand Lizard, confined to a few secret sites in the north of Wales.

Bluebells in June

The bluebell bank sits above the pond in which I saw the swimming grass snake.

Last year farmers were in dire straights trying to get the hay and silage harvests done.  The only week of dry, warm weather was the third week of July, the week of the Royal Welsh Show, and many had to forego the annual outing to the biggest agricultural show in Britain.  This year no such problems exist.  The sun has come just when it should, just when the herbs, grasses and wild flowers which make up most hay meadows are ready for taking.  There is a blanket ban on cutting traditional meadows before July 15th (for farmers signed up for organic or agri-environment programmes).  The stupidity of that broad-brush regulation has been well proven these last couple of weeks.  Despite the late start to the growing season nature has rushed to catch up and sufficient rainfall coupled with warmth has brought a bumper hay crop which is and has been ready for a week or so.  Farmers know far better than scientists when hay is ‘ready’ and that readiness serves both camps.  The farmer wants the grasslands cut and dried at the optimum point of its growth, when the seed is good and ready.  To leave a hay meadow standing uncut after its ‘cut-by’ date sees the crop begin to deteriorate in terms of its value as a fodder for the winter feeding of stock.  Scientists of a conservation minded ilk do not want the fields cut until the seed is ready so that the continuity of species can be assured.  The cutting and shaking – tedding the hay involves turning it and shaking it to get it fully dried out – results in the seed being shed and scattered.  Job done.  To have a set date which applies throughout the land, sea level or mountain top, hot or cold, wet or dry, is such a nonsense that it brings into disrepute the whole of the conservation science within which farming has to operate.

For the last two weeks the countryside around me and through which I have been travelling has been full of busy farm folk, big tractors and silage trailers and here and there the old small ‘Mars bar like’ hay bales which need to be actually handled by a person rather than a machine.  A few evenings ago I had to travel up through the hilly heart of Wales to the little township of Llanbrynmair which straddles the main A470 inland from Machynlleth.  I use the mountain route to get there, over the hlls from Llanidloes, through Staylittle and down into the valley to then cross at Llanbrynmair and wander along a peculiarly straight but narrow lane – it may well be one of the Roman military roads which criss-cross that part of Wales – to the township of Mallwyd.  In all it is about 60 miles, mostly driven at around 40 mph, that evening I reckon to have reversed at least as far as I drove forward such was the frequency of tractors and trailers I met.  I often encounter folk for whom reversing is a dark art, mostly they are town dwellers who find the absence of a pavement somehow confusing, sometimes though, a rural dweller can be pretty useless at manoeuvring their vehicle in the backward plane.  So it was that sunny evening, I came upon three hapless folk who were being forced to retrace the last three, four, five hundred yards of their journey because some giant machine blocked their path.  Luckily for me, and I know not why or when, I am able to reverse using just the wing mirrors – just as well as my ever restricting neck swivel renders turning around impossible…

Empty Hay fields

The countryside is suddenly covered in fields that look as if corn is growing in them, it is the ‘aftermath’ of the hay harvest; a real sight of Summer.

I read a NY Times article recently, sent me by my American ‘consultant’, about nostalgia.  Apparently scientists have worked out we all need it, it gives us a sense of place and hence security; it brings to the fore memories that cheer and comfort us.  If that is the case I fully understand why the hay harvest, the rowed up grass, the stacks of bales awaiting collection and especially the empty, yellowy fields , have such a resonance for me.  They truly are the memories of childhood summers.

Large hay bales

These super large bales are only moveable by BIG tractors, few farmers bale small these days.

The weather was ideal for a guided walk I lead last week through the Rhogo hill near Hundred House.  As part of the Walking Through History series of talks and walks that I am involved in running with tygwynfarm.co.uk a number of happy intrepid folk braved the noon-day sun to ascend through the ancient walled landscape to assail the ‘Dinas’ of Castle Bank and explore the old field systems that surround it.  We were rewarded with fine views out over the Radnor Hills, Aberedw mountain and westward to the Cambrian Mountains and Brecon Beacons.  A rather fine lunch was waiting for us under a thoughtfully provided enormous parasol at the half way mark.  I struggled to get going again after sitting a while, stiffening my joints and adding to the already unnecessary amount of weight I was carrying… reminder to get back on the ‘Dukan’ diet ! I have to admit to feeling rather depleted of energy by the end but the participants just kept on marching and chatting all the way back to the farm and the delicious tea and cake that awaited us.  Sunday saw me doing very little, except watch a bit of tennis …..  I allowed myself some ‘me’ time as we are all supposed to do and in any case, having been booked to lead a walk on the very day of the last rugby Test between the Lions and Australia, the decisive moment of the whole tour, of the whole previous season in fact, was taking place, I felt it was deserved.  Oh yes, and don’t you just love it when you have made arrangements to watch a recorded event, have done your utmost and made huge sacrifices to avoid hearing the result so that the eventual sitting and watching can be as exciting and fulfilling as if it were consumed live, isn’t it just marvellous when some happy excited soul – with every good intent, it’s true – rushes up and tells you the score …… and there was me thinking I was safe, miles from anywhere on top of a hill, with a group of folk who wouldn’t even have heard of the British and Irish Lions, merrily wandering along like Hansel and Grettel knowing that an evening of high drama awaited me ….is nothing sacred ?

This last weekend saw the annual Rhayader Vintage show held at the beginning of Carnival Week in the sleepy market town.  I used always to attend with some of my farming bygones but I have not been for several years now.  I was asked to drive a tractor up to the show by my friend at the Shakespeare Trust – he has kept the old Ferguson tractors of his father-in-law which spent their working lives on the same farm.  In fact when I called at the beginning of the week he was merrily baling small bales of his treasured organic hay using the MF35 to haul the baler while the slightly older Fergie Gold stood in the shade, its work having been completed but the old tedder was still on the three-point linkage.

Fergie convoy

Phil in front on the late 1950s Fergie Gold while I am driving the ‘Frog Eyed’ MF35.

The show is held in the Smithfield Market and it gets very crowded with all kinds of vintage machinery.

I was particularly thrilled to see the old Radnorshire Steam Road Roller which has been partly restored through the efforts of a local group of volunteers and assistance from Tarmac, who ostensibly own it having taken over the old Nash Rocks quarry who had acquired the old roller on its retirement from County Service.

The machine is an Aveling Porter of 1920s vintage.  It is currently painted in a strange light green livery but it is a beauty of past engineering with an excellent local provenance.  I was delighted to see it because, as you may recall, I have a Living Van which was towed behind the steam road roller which Breconshire County used.  It seems the van which followed this old girl around the roads of Radnorshire is also in storage at the Tarmac quarry near Walton.  I’m making a visit !

Steam Road Roller

The old Radnor County road roller was the star of the show.

On the side of one of the sheds I spied something I had never expected to see.  The guy sitting with it was surprised I knew what it was, slightly disappointed even, for it was a very rare exhibit indeed.

Horse Gin

This strange looking cylinder, a really heavy cast iron lump, is a rare survivor of early farm mechanisation. The Horse Gin or ‘part mas’ (outside bit) created ‘horse power’ by turning the circular motion of the horse to a horizontal revolution.

The cylindrical cast iron barrel contains gears which turn the circular motion of a horse – as the guy in the high-viz is demonstrating – into a revolving horizontal motion via long metal shafts, not unlike the prop shaft of a car.  I know where there are several of these lying in-situ beside derelict barns on now deserted upland homesteads and have often thought of retrieval.  I had only ever seen the top as the rest is always buried in the ground (whether this was how it was during its working life, or whether it has sunk over time, I know not).  Having seen the size of this one and judging it to weigh well over 500lbs I think I may just have to dream on !

The purpose of the machine was to allow the horse power to be transfered inside a barn via the shafts, different size wheels were fitted to a long shaft set high in the roof and a flat-belt connected the two.  Belts then ran to various machines in the barn such as winnowers, root choppers and chaff-cutters.

Barn machines, wheels and belts.

Here we can see the overhead shafting with the wheels which are driven by flat belting coming up from the shaft of the horse-gin and other belts then taking the drive to the barn machinery.

Apparently the example at the Rhayader Vintage show is owned by a local engineering company which makes a similar gearing system to that which is contained within the Gin.

There were several different types of  the ‘Horse Engine’ (as it was also known) but the cylindrical cast gear housing is quite the rarest.  I know of other types qalso awaiting rescue but finding the right approach is often difficult !  The reason why something that almost every farm had – there was certainly one here where I live – has become so rare is simple, the value of the heavy cast metal frames and the bronze bearing often included to give a smooth motion.  Most farm machinery once its usefulness is over, gets sold for scrap and is recycled into a more modern piece of usefulness – we hope !

Horse Gin at Acton Scott Museum

The more common type of horse engine is this one where all the gearing is exposed but, as you can see, it required a big ‘walk-way’ for the horse and such large expanse of flat area was not so readily available on upland farms hence the popularity of the cylinder version.

The old over-head shafting with the various circumference wheels can be seen in many barns still.  It is up out of the way and to remove it is difficult and dangerous.  The advance in power that it represented was immense and allowed manufacturers such as Bamfords and Dennings of Chard, to develop heavy cutting and chopping, winnowing and threshing equipment which in turn speeded up farm practise and hence productivity.

There was much more to see at the show, old tractors a plenty, beautifully restored and some ‘not so beautifully’ restored classic cars, working stationery engines and old bicycles from the National Cycle Museum in Llandrindod.  For me the Road Roller and the Horse Gin were definitely the icing on the cake of a lovely day out.

Aveling and Porter nameplate

Aveling and Porter, one of the great names of steam traction engines.

I was asked where the ‘Percy Jones’ tractor and bygones were, ashamedly I promised that next year they would make an appearance – keep nagging me !

For now I’m back on the day job, this time I’m building a dry stone wall to support a pond at the edge of a rather nice garden.  The liner has arrived and the filling has commenced.  Just the place for Welshwaller to cool his hot feet as this wonderful July weather continues.  Lets hope it can hang on at least another week for the grand extravaganza of all things Countryside at the 2013 Royal Welsh Show.


6 Responses to “Hay Ho, nonnie nonnie no….”

  1. Margot Porter Says:

    At least I took the stress out of your evening’s viewing. I can’t imagine why you would think that I would not be a rugby fan! I thought it would enhance your wanderings to know the historic result – how wrong can you be? Never again – my lips will be sealed.

  2. opobs Says:

    You might find this blog entry has a few extra views today, I took the liberty of adding a link from one of my photos on flickr to show what the steam roller looks like now. My photo of the roller was taken in 1972: http://www.flickr.com/photos/opobs/11883601243/

    • welshwaller Says:

      That is quite a snap you have there !! I suspect there are not many of the roller in action, either for Radnorshire nor the quarry. Did you know that the living van that went with it is also still around and housed in the same place as the roller now lives? Thank you for linking – you were right, a lot of hits today !!

  3. Neil Richards Says:

    i found the living van for barry pugh in a field by me owned by george morgan last driver of roller and have photo of it it is now at walton sripped down to be rebuilt i have a imterest in this as my wifes greatgrandfather john thomas was the first roller driver employed by radnorshire in 1899 and perhaps it was his living van before george and barrys grandfather the roller no was fo 1o1o of which i have several photos of with archie willis his stoker i will post them if you would like to see them

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