“Those Autumn Leaves drift by my window …”

Can it really be October !  Where did September go, where did the summer go !?  At least the weather was pleasant and the onset of Autumn is always a time to  enjoy.  Perhaps it’s just knowing that the weak pasty sunshine and clear skies are the last that we shall see this year of nature’s colour.  Already the oak woods are beginning their slow colour-change and the Birch and Ash are already dropping the inevitable carpet of leaf  debris.

The falling Ash leaves are usually a big problem for me, three huge and ancient trees line my boundary and have done so for many a century.  Three huge butts grew from each tree showing clearly the age-old practise of coppicing the mighty specimens, no doubt for the valuable timber as much as for light.  Last winter, partly due to concern for the stability of the trunks of each of them which were showing clear signs of internal decay and in part to save myself the annual dump of a zillion leaves which cover the ground and all around to a depth of several centimetres,  I repeated the practise.  After what turned out to be 60 years of growth – by counting the rings on each butt – each tree was cut back to the original trunk.  Already there is new growth to a height of some two metres but whether that will save the ancient specimens from the dreaded Ash Die-back is doubtful.  I certainly felt that it was better to fell them whilst there was still good timber to be had rather than let the disease begin its incipient work of  terminal decay.

Ash trees showing signs of traditional management

Two of the multi-stemmed Ash trees which dominated my boundary and which needed coppicing.

The Ash is one of the main standard trees in this part of Wales.  They are as common as Sessile Oak and predominate the upland farms and hedgerows.  The loss of these great landscape features will be devastating and will be as great in this land as was the decimation of the mighty Elm to lowland England.  Dutch Elm disease transformed the landscape of rural England forever and I am fearful that Ash Die-back will similarly denude our countryside.

The ecological damage will be immense, the trees are an important part of the general eco-system.  Today little use is made of the timber of this giant, except perhaps for firewood and the one or two old farmers who still use it for tool handles or small gates.  What a loss it would have been a hundred years ago, how impossible would life have been had the Ash tree disappeared two hundred or more years ago.  The Elm and the Ash make up two thirds of a cart wheel, imagine the loss of the Rubber tree today, how would transport be possible.  The timber from  the Ash tree is exceptional and its use was predominant in wheels,in carts, in houses and in tools.  The helve of an axe, that essential of all life, cannot be made from any other native timber (Hickory is  the norm today, imported from the U.S.A.).

Felled Ash

The amount of timber each tree produced was impressive.

I had the trees felled last March, it required men who knew the correct and safe methodology for the trees stood taller than the distance from the house and the main electricity lines.  In all nine major butts were felled producing a huge amount of good sawing timber as well as a mass of smaller diameter wood which will come for fire-wood or small wood products.

The trash was piled into two very large heaps and, in part due to the late snow, was not cleared (by me !) from the field in time to avoid it becoming the nesting site for several small birds this past Spring.  Thus the removal or burning has not been possible until now and it is a job that has to be done pretty soon.  My neighbour, on whose land the trash and timber sits, is retiring from farming after a life-time here on the estate.  His farm will have a new tenant from the end of November and the land will need to be cleared by then.

On the work front several walling projects have come  and gone since I last wrote of them.  I have had my ‘Sorcerer’s apprentice’ with me for a while now, she of Carolinian descent who is quietly leaving her mark on the Welsh countryside as she moves toward a career of her own in the age old craft of ‘Dry Stack building’. (see www.whitneybrownstone.com)

We have continued her education with a couple of elaborate small builds, such as a corbelled round tower which resembles an old pig-sty or bee skep, at one of the regular repair spots.  The large field boulders and heavy stone at Penlanole, home of the Willow Globe, are always a challenge not least because of the manner of much of the earlier building.  This time a section of collapse had occurred on the boundary wall between the pasture and the wooded area which contains the nature trail.  Such is the width of the original build the wall cannot ever be stable and a significant length needed to be stripped out and rebuilt on a narrower base to enable good integration of the two sides, ‘zippering’ as my Stateside ‘pardner’ likes to call it.

Corbelled dry stone tower

The wall was rebuilt much narrower to give good strength and the excess stone went into the corbelled tower or bee-skep which ‘Miss Carolina’ built as her first attempt at anything ’round’ !

That meant there was an inordinate amount of stone left over and so I suggested using it to build a round tower at the end of the wall to add a little interest and to complement the many other objjet d’art that lie dotted around that eclectic place.  In the main it gave an opportunity for my ‘apprentice’ to have a chance to build an artistic piece of dry stonework utilising the method called corbelling.  That entails gradually moving the stone inwards or outwards at each course, weighting the end with other stones so as not to let the face stones over-balance.  The stones gradually form a dome and the circular aspect is maintained by using a length of line which is set in the middle of the circle to determine the radius.  To create such a feature with the very uneven and awkward shapes of stone that is the hallmark of Penlanole walls is no easy feat and the resulting Bee-skep or pig-sty shape is a lasting complement to her growing abilities in the craft.

The next project was at an equally interesting habitation just the other side of the Wye.  In a garden created purely to support and attract wild-life we set about creatIng a small length of ‘clawdde’ wall, a stone faced bank which utilises turves to create a bond between courses and with a small percentage of soil within to enable growth of the root system and thus present an excellent habitat for all sorts of invertebrates and amphibians.  Once again we were faced with heavy oddly shaped stone most of which had to be dug from piles dotted around the sloping garden.  As is often the case with conservation projects aimed at new habitat creation, old and important habitats get destroyed.

Such was the case with this project; the stone piles and old wall from which we acquired the stone we needed were already important cover or homes for a number of animals.  In particular we destroyed the homes of hundreds of invertebrates, dozens of newts and toads and, most importantly, an Adder and a younger snake.

Turf and stone wall

The chunky stones were well suited to being built as a ‘clawdde’ bank.

Smooth Newt

Making new habitats invariably means some animal gets displaced – in this case a young newt.

However, as it was earlier in August I was not  worried that the creatures would suffer too badly.  If it had been now, the displacement would have been critical for the survival of the creatures during the winter.

The last few weeks have seen us begin the first wall in a series of rebuilds that will take most of next year.  A dry stone wall that has lain derelict for several generations has finally been given a new lease of life.  The wall is one of the farm-yard walls at a farm in the Rhogo hills near Llandrindod Wells in Powys.

The accumulation of years of farm debris and nettle roots made the first two days nothing but sweat and toil, made worse by the incessant downpour that finally arrived.  The wall had slipped over to one side and tumbled down the bank making stripping it out more difficult than usual.  Nevertheless we managed to get it sufficiently cleaned away to lay the foundations over a 20 metre length of the total 37 metre wall.

Old fallen wall

The wall was no longer standing and days of digging and stripping-out were needed.

The stone was a yellowish sandstone which resembled the inside of a Cadbury’s Crunchie bar.  It comes in all sizes and makes a good strong wall that looks good too.  Working on the slope of the bank with the buried stone and tree roots was not comfortable and eventually my knee decided to demand a rest.  I ignored its pleas and hence, eventually, the inevitable happened and I ended up doing some damage which has left hobbling around and unable to work on that stone ridden slope.  Luckily the ‘Lady Waller’ on the other side – who last week successfully passed her first Dry Stone Walling test – is more than capable of working a pick as well as building a wall.  So it was that after three weeks or so, interrupted by other work and engagements, we finally finished the total rebuild.  I think the farmer is pleased, it can sometimes be difficult to judge, his son certainly is as he came by to tell us how good it looked.  It is such an encouraging sign to meet a 15 year old who can open a conversation,speak intelligently and interestingly, show appreciation of the work of others and have an opinion on matters beyond the world of ‘artificial intelligence’.  Perhaps not so surprising in this instance as his father and grandfather are two of the finest folk I have encountered in all my years in the countryside.  A fine family all round and it is a privilege to be able to restore the walls on this family farm where tradition and a feeling of ‘this is my watch’ runs through the whole family.  Just as well really, I will be working for them for most of next year !

Newly rebuilt dry stone wall

The finished wall marks the edge of the farm yard and has to keep cattle and sheep safely penned.

Sandstone wall

The first 20 or so metres came up slowly.

The  completion of the rebuild coincides with the ending of the current visit of my American walling assistant – for assistance she has certainly been.  As I said to the farmer recently, “you won’t tell what I’ve built and what she has built”,   She departs shortly, after a visit to the big city to get some ‘Culture’ down her at the Globe where ‘The Scottish Play’ is being performed.  Apparently a mutual friend, who just happens to have directed the current version, is going to stand with her, incognito, in amongst the peasantry !  Me ? Oh I’m upstairs sitting comfortably thank you very much.  That’s providing my knee injury recovers sufficiently to allow me to undertake the long drive and the battle of London Transport and people !!

Then it’s back to my Buddhist friends in Brynmawr, a tractor restoration (the Massey 35 needs an update next post !), some fencing repairs hereabouts and preparations for a journey of my own.  In the meantime I attended the opulent Hotel Metropole in Llandrindod Wells last evening to give a talk on the historic landscapes in and around the town.  A large group of Walkers from another Spa town, Malvern, had descended on the area to partake in several walks of the town and surrounding countryside and were keen to find out about what lay hidden in the area.  The invite came about as a result of my association with Ty Gwyn farm (www.tygwynfarm.co.uk) with whom I have joined forces to deliver the ‘Walking Through History’ guided walks (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VV1tMBuyqGg) and a new venture to provide mid-week breaks offering history walks and dry stone walling days in conjunction with the Metropole Hotel (www.metropole.co.uk).  It is always a challenge, having to set up and operate my own digital slide presentation; a rehearsal on the night prior to the talk proved faultless.  My old and decrepit lap-top conjoined immediately with my digital projector and spewed forth the very Power Point presentation I needed.  Great, or so I thought, or did I suspect it was all a little too easy !?  Well, sure enough, once at the Metropole and about ready to start, what happened ? Yep, you guessed it, the confounded machines refused to talk to each other … what’s more there was NO signal for my mobile phone within the hotel or its environs (no wonder it has so many available rooms mid week !).  I had to walk several hundred yards to get a signal and ‘call a friend’.  Ah yes, press Fn and F8 together, twice,of course.  And a little Buddhist prayer might help too !!

More soon from a stress free Welshwaller !

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2 Responses to ““Those Autumn Leaves drift by my window …””

  1. Rachel Says:

    In this Blog, http://huckleberry-rache.blogspot.com/2013/09/southwest-france-to-uzes-and-walking.html, there’s a photo of a stone wall that has a kind of herringbone pattern. I’ve never seen anything like it; is this just decorative, or is the a structural reason?

    • welshwaller Says:

      Generally the Herringbone pattern occurs in areas susceptible to heavy and sudden downpours. The straight joints -different to normal walling of horizontal courses where joints are deliberately crossed for strength – allow water to egress quickly from the face (such vertical/horizontal coursing is often used to face earth banks such as in Cornwall and the west of Wales and Ireland). However vertical stones means the rainwater pours straight down the lines between stones and can erode the base of the wall, by herringboning the courses the water is slowed. But, and this French wall may well be an example too, I know several places where herringbone walling is either just what the waller knew how to build or is purely for artistic reasons,and why not !

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