A Pilgrim’s Progress

Suddenly I find myself facing another crisis !  I’ve somehow missed a week, somewhere time slipped by without me realising it.  Thus, in a very few short days, I have to complete a large number of tasks before I too set off on another Pilgrimage.

I say “I too” for it seems I have been involved in the ‘journeys’ of others for some time now.  Firstly my visitor from the ‘New World’ has gone back over the ocean.  Luckily she timed it to arrive just as the U.S. opened for business again after that retarded affair in Congress.  She has been a true Pilgrim this time, encompassing many and varied exploits including successfully completing her first walling examination, journeying to London on a National Express Coach, satiating her need for culture with visits to art galleries, the Old Vic and the Globe and managing, all alone, to get said coach back to Cardiff.  “She who would valiant be…” , it was certainly something that would have daunted me; in fact I was supposed to have accompanied her, alas a nagging knee injury and the suggestion of the first ‘cold’ of the winter scuppered that proposal.  I’m not a very happy Pilgrim when it comes to visiting the big city !

In a short while I too have to cross the great ocean to that far off land where the Pilgrim Fathers landed nigh on four hundred years ago.  I recently mentioned to some American visitors here how Radnor folk were some of the first to make that epic journey, in that small sailing ship, for weeks on end on a one way journey to a place of infinite challenges and mystery.  I can’t begin to comprehend how that must have felt, it is bad enough facing up to the prospect of 10 hours in a plane never mind 10 weeks in a boat !  A Pilgrimage should include some hardship, a little suffering along the way, a test of body and mind which ultimately enhances the soul …  Yep. that’s what I will be doing !

In the meantime another project has completed; my all-too-short association with the Buddhists of Brynmawr.  For six days over several weeks I was charged with teaching these exceptionally nice folk how to rebuild the dry stone wall which curtained the old cemetery of the Baptist chapel which they have converted to their temple.  I mentioned previously how bright and colourful the place now was, such a contrast to the dark ‘scumble’ stained pine of its earlier life.  I well remember  the dark dismal feel of the old chapels I attended when young, the old Richmond road Baptist chapel in Pontnewydd in which my maternal grandfather, Bertie Deakin, served as a Deacon and which seemed to glower at me each time I crept guiltily into the White Rose cinema directly opposite.  My father’s family were from’old’ Cwmbran and there worship took place in Elim chapel.  I found that place infinitely more appealing and I can remember well being enchanted by the little wooden doors, the height of the pews, which were closed behind you as you took your seat.  What the purpose of that strange accoutrement was I know not, after all, everyone came to worship freely, didn’t we !!??

If only the chapel elders had thought to bring light and joy into the place, what a difference that would have made, but then, the hell and brimfire preachings of ‘Evan Dai’ would not have carried the weight they did! Living by his rules was supposed to guarantee a long life, my dear old Nan used to say “you don’t actually get to live any longer, it just feels like you do!” – as she sat in her chair with a woodbine clamped in her teeth and a glass of stout on the arm, she refused to go near the place ! I’m sure she may well have been persuaded to join the ranks of my new found friends in Brynmawr, they are a joy to be with and their temple is a ray of light and colour in that old run-down industrial town which sits high in the mists of the ‘Western valley’ of Monmouthshire.

Buddhist Temple in Brynmawr

The old dark stained wood of the Baptists has been replaced by bright primary colours and the great Buddha which sits aloft where preachers of doom used to reign. The balcony from which harmonious dirges rang forth now echoes to rhythmic chanting.

In the valleys communities in which I grew up, the land of “Who’s coat is that Jacket?” and ‘Evan Dai’, the sense of friendship and familiarity still remains.  On my first morning, wandering the town trying to locate the Temple, I was greeted with “O’right Butt” and “Hiyaaa” from folk I passed in the street, I was repeatedly called ‘Love’ or ‘my Lovely’ by ladies of indeterminate age (in part due to the obligatory coloured hair and slight chubbiness !).  The folk at the temple were a mixed bunch indeed; some valleys born and bred, some incomers, a young lady from Finland, also now toting orange hair, and of course the resident monk, the Lama, whom I quickly dubbed ‘Dai Lama’ – not that he understood the pun !

The job itself was challenging, from the outset I had grave doubts (again, apologies for the un-intended pun) that the group would ever manage to complete the task.  For one thing this old Baptist chapel certainly had some wealthy clientele in its day, at least if the size of the tombstones were anything to go by.  I found it a little uncomfortable to be literally walking over someone’s grave and the sorry state of the overgrown cemetery was sad to behold.  Unlike old Churches (Church of England/Wales) where the grave-yards are kept as consecrated ground even after the church is sold off for other uses – as with my friends at Llangiwg near Pontardawe – and remain the responsibility of the church authorities, chapels seem willing to pass on or over that element of their history.  Thus the old burial sites of nineteenth century Brynmawr Baptists is no more, the large and grand headstones are fallen and grown over.  There is a plan to place them around the rebuilt wall but many are now broken or in-decipherable as the sandstone faces have been eroded by years of acid rain.

Dry Stone Wall repairs at a Buddhist Temple

The old cemetery wall is on the way back up; it forms a garden boundary with next-door properties and is built of large lumps of Pennant sandstone.

The first job was to clear away the undergrowth and pick out those massive tombstones.  At the early stage I had four volunteers from the temple and two of the staff of Gwent Wildlife Trust, the organisation which funded the project.  We spent two days clearing the site and stripping out what remained of the old wall.  The under-foot conditions were not particularly good with lots of opportunity to twist an ankle or trip.  Normally the first priority is a safe working area, a flat area on which to stand and lift or carry stone to their place on the wall. One of the real dangers of stone work is the weight of the darned things should they drop on the toes or fingers.  Thus safety boots with strong steel toe caps and high ankle support is a must.  Here I was faced with ladies in pretty coloured wellies and young men in trainers.  Gloves are a must too, they provide better grip than wet fingers and give some protection from a pinch or sharp edge, also the sandstone can quickly wear away the skin on finger tips leaving a raw sore patch which prevents further work and risks infection.  I made it quite clear that great care needed to be taken and indeed no mishaps occurred but it severely compromised my position in respect of Health and Safety and hence insurance.

Building a wall in Brynmawr

The stone in the lower courses was big and blocky but the volunteers cracked on and slowly the wall emerged from the mire.

On somedays there were just three of us working, myself – I normally wouldn’t do quite so much building on a course but it needed doing – and the young Finnish lady whois resident at the centre along with her constant worker come worshipper Mark.  He was once a Fleet Street journalist but long ago escaped that evil occupation and took to Buddhism, he is, or so it seemed to me, the backbone of the work that is constantly being undertaken in the conversion of the old Baptist chapel and he is no mean chef either.  I should point out that it is not just the old Chapel alone; attached to it was the old house and school rooms which have now been converted to allow a dozen or so ‘residents’ to stay at the centre.

We didn’t complete the section but much progress was made and I’ve every confidence that by the time I get back from my own pilgrimage they will be ready for me to come and show them how to set the cope stones.  Hopefully they have become enthused and will continue with the restoration of the old cemetery, there are three walls left yet !

The last weekend saw several more volunteers turn up, I say volunteers but in reality they are members of the Temple who regularly come for weekends of work and prayer and teaching by Dai Lama.  Two young Greek ladies arrived, the lunch was excellent !  A Scot and his English wife who now live in a famous Welsh valleys village down Neath way were other hard workers and he and I had an interesting discussion on the prospects for Scottish independence.  The usual ‘locals’ were there too,  the two guys in the photos above, the one on the right an ex-miner from west Wales, Pontarddulais and the other a one time rock band drummer, continued their stoical construction.  All in all the group and the constituent members were some of the nicest people it’s been my fortune to meet in the time I’ve been running training courses.

Another little pilgrimage took me back to  Caerleon, to the university where I studied some five years  and more ago.  In particular I wanted to catch up with my old tutors to have a chat about what they were currently doing and discuss some studies I am involved in.  One of them, Dr.Jonathan Kissock is particularly interested in relict landscapes and was instrumental in inspiring me to become so fascinated myself.  He, fortunately, had a short time to spare me and we discussed his current work on the subject of Welsh Multiple estates (in the Abergavenny area), something I am exploring in the area of the Rhogo and Llanwrthwl.  Also I managed to grab some time with Prof. Ray Howells, the leading academic and field archaeologist on the subject of the Silures tribe of pre-Roman south Wales and the Iron Age in general.  I discussed my findings on the landscape around Castle Bank on the Rhogo, in particular the relict field systems which lie hidden in the bracken and heath cover.  It’s a funny thing, almost daily I either read about or observe some aspect of historic landscapes.  I give talks on the subject and I lead walks which show people what is there, what I’ve found and what I think it means.  I do it in isolation, I’m sure many of my associates find my interest something rather akin to OCD !  However, a short hour visit back to a seat of academic learning and active investigation was like a re-charge, my enthusiasm bolstered and my ideas approved, onward and upwards then, a good winter of exploration lies ahead !

The final little pilgrimage I want to update you on was a little visit to an important shrine on the hill above Llandrindod.  A shrine that both myself and my Carolinian tractor nut love to visit, we did on the day before her departure, just one last chance for her to see her favourite machine !

You may recall the arrival of a rather decrepit Massey Ferguson 35 tractor some months ago.  It is a tractor which for some strange reason inspires adulation on the part of her from over there.  When it arrived it was running but in a pretty poor state both mechanically and appearance.  Luckily I know just the man to sort such problems.  He is a true Radnorian, a self taught mechanical magician and fixer of things requiring to be fixed.  In short his shrine is a place of pilgrimage for all who need some TLC for a piece of engineering.

MF35 stripped ready for restoration

The tractor doctor and the lady who just can’t get enough of Massey Ferguson 35s

MF35 shotblasted and undercoated

The first coat,the red oxide,is applied after the old 35 was shot-blasted.

The dismantling of an old tractor is nothing if not frustrating.  Nuts and bolts which have remained tight for over 50 years are reluctant to separate, screws and wires refuse to co-operate in the dis-assembly.  Often extreme force and heat is the only answer in order to prize apart the old metal.  On this 35 the wing bolts, the steering column and the front axle were all beyond gentle persuasion.  Once the wheels are off and the fuel tank removed the whole thing looks primeval, like some huge insect from the set of Dr. Who.  I won’t go into the detail of the restoration here, I will do a one-off post later.  Suffice to say that many hours of hard cursing and hammer blows have been invested thus far but now, with the innards of the engine sorted, which strangely required valve stem inserts from the same side of the Ocean as the lady above, the old girl is running again though much remains to be done.

MF35 3 cylinder

As she looked on arrival; a tractor that was assembled in Coventry in the late 1950s, that worked hard in the Swansea valley for most of the intervening period and then lay abandoned and un-loved for many years. Finally …

MF35 under restoration

Not yet fully restored but she is running and resplendent in her new attire – and the tractor looks good too !!

The onset of the winter months and the fact that I will be away for the start of it has spurred me into getting the rest of my tractor collection ready for the (expected) hard winter.  Anti-freeze has been renewed in the old Fordson and the little Grey Fergie, both are very susceptible to having their blocks cracked open by frozen water in the internal water jackets.  Indeed my first Standard Fordson and my first diesel Fergie had suffered that very fate and were thus, at least in those days, beyond saving.  I’m going to have a busy week getting my machines laid up and covered against the onset of winter, which judging by the berries everywhere, could be a harsh one.

I’ll keep you appraised of my  progress, a Pilgrim in a foreign land. I’m sure the blessings of my old pal ‘Dai the Lama’ will stand me in good stead… I wonder what Homeland Security will think of that !!

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