Jolly Fine Show …. Old Boy !

Finally my journeying comes to an end, the endless up and down over for another lengthy spell – I trust.  For several weeks I have once again been engaged on the Glastir Assessment work for the organisation I do some part-time work for,  FWAG Cymru (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group – Wales).  The next deadline for applications closes at the end of July and, as usual, there is a rush on among farmers in the north of Wales to get theirs done and dusted.  For some strange reason the north region seems to always end up with more people on their lists requiring assistance than anywhere else.  Hence my travels, hence the travels of several of my southern colleagues, drafted north to help out. The area I have been visiting this time has been the Llyn Tegid hinterland (Bala) and the steep sided valleys of the Dinas Mawddwy area.   High summer in the upland farms is something to behold.

Lake Bala

Wales’ largest natural lake with the town of Bala at its head, sits in the very middle of Wales and is surrounded by fertile and ancient farmsteads.

I visited several places that literally made my jaw drop; farming in those remote rugged places is done out of conviction, it’s in the DNA locked in by generations who came before, it is done without question and mostly without complaint.

Beef and Hay making in upland Wales.

Hay and Beef, it’s how it used to be – before all those sheep arrived ! A scene that is timeless – as long as Summer turns up once in a while …

On a farm that sits high above a small hamlet which itself bears the name of its historical status – Tir y Mynach – as a Grange farm of the great Cistercian Abbey of Valle Crucis (Llangollen) I stepped back in time.  I could have gone back a mere fifty years or a mere five hundred years – take away the tractor and the electricity lines !  A small family farm now run by the third generation of the same family, which is atypically a traditional upland Welsh farm.  The buildings have stood for centuries, the field system even older, the whole farm environment stands as an exemplar of what agri-environment schemes aim to achieve.  A man and his young family working hard – he also works  on another farm, she has a job in the local town, as well as two young children and one on the way – endeavouring to keep going a livestock holding that, in truth, is barely sustainable.  The absurdity of our food production system is never more obvious than when visiting such folk, farming 365 days a year to merely survive.  The proposed reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the ending of the various support schemes which have stood to aid these farms makes it all the more necessary for them to apply for entry into the Glastir scheme.  It is by no means the panacea for upland (nor lowland) farming over the next five years but it is all that’s on offer.

Double cart shed

The simple beauty of an old cart shed, one for the tumbril and one for the gambo, belies the skill and effort in creating those perfect arches and corners out of the local stone. It is no less than we would see in a great church.

The complexity of the scheme is not actually as bad as most farmers believe it to be.  One wonders if this was simply a ploy to ensure work for the hundreds, like me, who then drain more money out of the system by going out to simplify it for them.  I often wonder what the general public and even the politicians would think if they knew the real truth behind the stupidity of much of what is included, of much that is enforced on the farmer in the name of protecting the environment.  The civil servants of the Welsh Assembly Government and the scientists of the old Countryside Council for Wales (now absorbed into the ‘even-less-likely’ to work Natural Resource Wales along with the Forestry Commission and the Environment Agency – I was told recently that, despite months of planning and warning of the merger, the old IT systems of the three agencies still cannot ‘talk’ to each other – ha !) should be made to come out with me and justify their absurd, illogical points system and their idiotic assessments of what stocking rates should be levied on parcels of ground deemed to be suffering damage by current farming practises.  Oh that democracy stretched as far as the unseen power houses of government ! That apart, I have again seen some parts of my homeland that were unknown to me, met folk that gladden the heart, saw fine examples of good stock and met good stockmen.  As always the sudden discovery of some old buildings or machinery caused an immediate halt in my travels, to look, to wonder and, usually, to photograph and record !

Rusting Ferguson tractor

These two relics have probably past their ‘restore-by’ date, but you never know….. Lying by the side of an old barn on a quiet lane near Bala.

I saw several old tractors lying in derelict barns or left to rot away in the corner of yards and fields.  The ubiquitous Fergie Fach and the later Fordson Major seemed to have been much used in those parts. There were a number of deserted homesteads and field barns which could still have made strong sound accommodation for man or beast.  In one particular valley, running south from Corwen towards Bala and with another historically meaningful name of Maerdy – the land belonging to the Lord’s Reeve or Steward – I encountered some real gems of traditional buildings and field walls.  When driving at 30 mph or so – all that is possible or safe on those narrow twisty lanes – it is unsurprising that the eyes see so much and just occasionally, I watch the road !  In any case I was not being paid by the hour as such, neither were my expenses being re-imbursed and for an average 12 hour day I feel some little scenic perks are well justified.

Double fronted Wain house

Another double cart shed but this time oak beams provide the lintels instead of stone arches – simply a matter of local geology, try dressing these stones into arch stones !. The width and height of the entrances show clearly that this is a ‘Wain-house’ a place where the larger four wheel wagons would be parked up out of the weather. That in turn tells us this was a large farm producing much in the way of arable crops – probably oats and barley as well as hay in abundance.

It never ceases to amaze me just how large are the stones with which these farmsteads were built.  Myself and a young farmer whose upper body strength bulged from his ‘T’ shirt, stood gazing at an old long-house high in the hills of his farm and  agreed that there was no way that the stones could have been lifted, regardless of how many men were available.  Yes, clearly they had some form of lifting device but even so the stones still had to be moved sideways and placed in the correct position on the wall.  Apart from the sheer effort involved, the time taken to place one stone must have been inordinately long.  Again I find myself wondering why they just didn’t use a dozen or so smaller stones to cover the same area ! The quoins on one old house were quite the biggest I have seen in a vernacular late seventeenth century house.

Farm range of old buildings

The Wain house is the top building of this range of probable late C18th buildings. The stables are next in line. Then the large barn which supports the evidence of the Wain shed – a large quantity of arable crops were grown here. The long and extensive cattle shed shows too how beef production was the main livestock activity. All done on a steep slope !

Is it just coincidence, is it a natural plan, that in places where the climate is harsh and the land big and bleak, stones are also big and plentiful ?  Did some greater town and country planner realise that, for man to be able to live and farm in those rugged places, big stones and lots of them would be a requirement !

Rockies of Wales - Cwm Cywarch

The high rocky mountains mark the end of Cwm Cywarch, a small but stunning valley hidden in the upper reaches of the river Dyfi near Dinas Mawddwy.

As is always the case, once I began to look there were a large number of now derelict homesteads that mark out where hundreds of people lived and farmed.  Dozens of old chapels  mark the place of their births, marriages and deaths; here and there. isolated old workshops that once rang to the sound of metal being bashed or timber being sawn.  In the valley bottoms, alongside even the smallest of streams, the name Melin is oft encountered marking the site of an old grist or pandy mill. There was, of course, a serious element to my travels – my hosts were anxiously awaiting the execution of my skills in deciphering the non-sensical plethora of options from which they hoped to achieve the score required to enter the Glastir scheme.  It means the difference between struggle and strife.  Thus far those I have attended have faced up to the hard choices which have often to be made to achieve those golden points. Thus far the rewards for me, scenery, heritage, culture, have hopefully been paid for in what I have facilitated my hosts to achieve.

Old Stone dwelling

This old homestead stands in a cool wooded area in Cwm Cywrach. There seems to be the elements of an early longhouse hidden within the later evolution of the homestead and farm buildings.  Just look at the size of those quoins !

Journeys over it was time to get off the roads as rural Wales – and much of the industrial areas too – headed for Llanelwedd in Builth Wells for the annual Royal Welsh Show.  The demise of ‘The Royal Show’ which was held at Stoneleigh has meant that the Welsh show is now the biggest in Britain.  Try driving on any of the four major routes which lead to Builth during the third week of July and you’ll see what I mean.  Fortunately I had work which kept me off the roads for the show week although I did venture in to visit the show, partly for work, partly for pleasure, partly for education. The work was a total change from stone, it involved loading tons and tonnes of cordwood onto my trusty tractor and trailer.  The Laird has decided he is going to utilise the hundreds of hectares of woodland he has on the estate to keep the mansion warm.  He is taking advantage of a government scheme to encourage sustainable energy usage.  The price of oil has finally made even the Gold Card holders think again. The timber was already cut and stacked along the course of a small river that runs through the valley, the Cnyffiad, and empties into the Cammarch near the church of Oen Duw.  The Cammarch – meaning a windy river – flows on past the great Roman Camp on the edge of Beulah village and eventually enters the Ithon river in Llangammarch Wells.  The Ithon runs eastward toward Builth Wells and enters the river Wye.  The reason I point this out relates to the reason the timber I had to move lay awaiting my efforts.  Some years ago, in an effort to improve fish run and spawning grounds a Trust was formed, the Wye and Usk River Foundation  – to work with land-owners and provide free labour and fencing to isolate much of the river banks of the main rivers and their lesser tributaries, right up to the head-waters.  The trees along the streams and rivers were coppiced and the bank-sides fenced off from stock to allow a growth of vegetation which in turn slows the water flow in time of spate and provides a much richer and diverse habitat along the water courses.  This has meant a great deal of timber has been cut and stacked; much of it Alder (Wern w.) which is a common tree long water courses and in damp areas.  It is a significant species in conservation terms providing much needed seed food for birds in winter and early spring.  So too it is an excellent hardwood – once dried and seasoned – and was the favoured wood for making clogs.  Indeed such was the value of alder that the right to cut and use it was highly sought after and heavily paid for.  The bright orange wood takes a long time to dry out however and as such needs to be set aside for some years before it can be a suitable fire-wood.

Hauling timber in the 60s !

The trusty 434 coupled to 60 year old Ferguson trailer, my ‘traditional’ way of moving timber.

The nicely stacked cordwood had to be moved from a field that was normally a marshy trap for tractor and trailer but after the month of sunny dry weather we, my ‘trusty helper’ and me (I should add that both the tractor and trailer once belonged to his old Gramps, a real country gent for whom I had a huge regard) were able to get in, load up, and get out.  3 days saw us haul about 20 tons out of there and back to the ‘bay’ which had been cut out of a large bank at the rear of the mansion.  I had estimated that the size I had marked out for the digger man would hold three years supply at 50 tons a year.  My maths were not up to much, we barely will manage 80 tons in there.

Timber stacking

The first load of timber which has to eventually get to 50 tons, is loaded into the newly excavated bay – it ain’t going to be big enough.

The work is going to be an ongoing commitment which will take up quite a few weeks in the coming months but once the system is in full swing it will slow back to about a day a week.

The timber which the river boys cut is a one-off, there is another source which has begun to become available.  In order to establish a large and on-going supply more cutting is required and a small team of chain-saw freaks have begun their sweaty work.

In this part of the world chain-saw teams are at work in many forestry plantations along with those massive machines which grab, cut, sned, strip and cut the timber.  Currently huge timber lorries are running up and down the single track road which heads up the valley past the mansion and the estate woodlands in which we are working.  So far I’ve managed to avoid a head-on encounter with a 30 ton truck, who would reverse…..

What we urgently need is a log-splitter and the Royal Welsh Show was just the place to go shopping for one….

I’ll give you a report on my show days in the next post, meanwhile the rain has arrived and driving an open-top tractor is no fun in that sort of weather so my attention turned elsewhere.

Remember the cart I was hoping to get ?  Finally, after nearly two months of trying, it’s here !

Cardiganshire tipping cart

My recent acquisistion, a lovely Cardiganshire tumbril / tipping cart en-route back to my little rest home for all things agricultural.

The cart has spent its considerable life – judging by the wooden axle it is a good 150 years old – on a fairly large Cardiganshire farm in the parish of Llanwenog (home to the famous sheep breed).  Amazingly it is in excellent overall condition and came with another cart body which bears the name of David Jones of Cwm Nant.

Cardiganshire Tip Cart

The old cart deserves a dignified retirement but first, a little TLC is required.

It’s not that I needed another tumbril cart, the one I have is perfectly good and also has an interesting history but this one is markedly different.  Coming from a lowland farm it has a different build, a much lighter cart than my ‘upland’ Scotch cart.  The wheels on this one are so much more delicate, thinner and lighter, the axle trees are wooden which is normally an indication of a pre-twentieth century construction.  The sides are lower and the tub slightly longer , certainly the elm boards of the floor are much thinner than on the Scotch cart.  The shafts too are more slender, indicating a more lithesome horse than the likely cob type of the upland farm.

Tipping cart

The tip cart tipped, it is so well balanced that even loaded it can be tipped by a one-armed man.

Another restoration now awaits,  is there really time for any more walling ….


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