Brittanica Technica … not quite.

Already the first month of the New Year is almost gone, where have I been ?  You may well ask.

A long while ago a big storm blew through this part of Wild Wales, as well as uprooting many grand old trees it also disrupted telecommunications.  For nigh on six weeks I have had no service of any use from the National communications body, British Telecom.  I’m not in a ‘Not-Spot  more a sort of Maybe-Not Spot where some-days you can connect, some days you can’t.  It is quite usual that at least once a year, and often more, I have to endure the torture of attempting to communicate with the body charged with delivering our communications network.  BT are without doubt a blight on this country.  I know of no-one who has a good word to say about them – least of all the good folk who work for them –  and all-in-all they should be done away with.  Now I have been warned before about using this here blog of mine as a moan platform, I know, I shouldn’t.  It’s just that I am now six weeks into waiting to get this line repaired,  I have spent four long sessions on friend’s phone lines trying to communicate with the communications organisation – and I mean four sessions of at least an hour and twenty minutes each – listening to endless requests to press buttons, speak clearly, try to make myself understood by some nice little man in Mumbai or some other Indian town ( how come BT can get a clear line to India but not to anywhere I want to get to ??!!) and each time it’s as if I have never reported it before.  The best is the automated service that asks you if you are speaking from the number you want  to speak about (which I have occasionally been able to do) and when you say ‘yes’ it asks you (repeatedly) to stay on the line while checks are carried out.  After fifteen minutes or so of constant “stay on the line”, it then reports that as the line is busy it is not possible to carry out checks and I should call back when the line is not busy….  Who designs these systems ??!!  I would like to drag the multi-millionaire CEO of BT onto one of those ‘Undercover Boss’ type programmes and make him sit and try to report a fault.  Oh yes, that’s just what I want to do. Brittanica Technica ?  I think not.

Anyway, enough of that for now,  I just wanted you all to know that I would have welcomed you to 2014 but have been prevented from so doing – and it’s not even that I haven’t paid my bill – for once !!  They ain’t getting the next until they re-connect me.

The night I was returning from my State-side visit a big storm swept down the east coast (funny thing was, I left the morning after a BIG storm as well !) at the same time a cyclonic wind blew across the Atlantic and hit Wales.  Such was the strength of the wind my nine and a half hour flight out was reduced to just over seven hours on the way back, we just surfed the old jet stream all the way from Newfoundland to Wales !  The result here was the uprooting of a great number of large and old trees, some of which fell across my very track requiring a couple of hours of chainsaw work before I could even get to the door !

Fallen Firs

 Some seriously big and old Noble Fir -planted way back in the mid C19th – finally decided to end their lives, too much bad weather for them.

One of the major issues was the wetness of the ground, roots could not stay anchored against the onslaught of the wind and the fir trees in particular, with their full canopies, succumbed.  Two very old and stately land marks on the lane to my little homestead, a lane originally built to allow the Lady of the House to be driven to the railway station at nearby Garth, toppled.  The two Noble Fir dated back to the 1860s and were thus planted around the time of the road construction.  They just tipped over, no snapping or limb tearing, no, just a slow old topple.  Unfortunately their path to the ground was blocked by an even older Sessile Oak of some magnitude, sufficient to bear the weight of the two fir trees which remained leaning on it for a few weeks until they could be safely dealt with.  Hung up trees are the worst to have to tackle, there is no way of knowing where the stresses and strains are in the timber and a chain saw cut into the trunk can release a huge force of pent up energy endangering anyone close-by.  The operation was gingerly undertaken by Will and Luke, the two intrepid woodsmen who have taken on the task of dealing with timber felling and sawing on the estate.  The Laird has installed a huge wood burning boiler to replace his oil-guzzling old system, it is linked to a government scheme to encourage sustainable energy use.  We have estimated around 50 tons (that’s tons not tonnes  !!) will be required to get through the winter – three months in and already we are running short … but at least the Mansion is finally warm !  The whole root-plate of the two big trees was tilted at a 45 degree angle and the hole which it had left in the ground had filled with water.  Now root-plates of fir trees are not very deep, one of the reasons they are so susceptible to high winds, in fact it is difficult to see how such huge trees were ever sufficiently anchored into the ground to enable them to attain such height and for SO long; I mean, there has surely been high winds of equal strength sometime in the last 150 years !!

The final cut of the second trunk was met with a huge ‘splash’ which drowned the three of us working nearby and caused a small flood in the adjacent house as the huge root-plate crashed back into the pond which had been formed in the hole.  It was a rare moment of joviality in an otherwise dismal couple of months.  Nothing but rain and high wind have lashed the whole country, we are at least fortunate that we live in hill country, there is no flat land to flood !  All the rain that falls on us and in the surrounding mountains rushes downwards and onwards into the rivers that ultimately flood towns in  England and thousands of acres of flat open fields.

There are finally some ideas circling that relate to the amount of open tree-less mountains onto which most of the rain falls and, as there is nothing to trap the water and then release it slowly, whether upland farming is to ‘blame’.  Well of course it is but it has been three thousand years in the making.  We can’t suddenly end upland sheep farming, though it is rapidly reducing anyway, and it does no good to ‘blame’ farmers, after all they were and are just doing what has always been done.  Most flat-land dwellers and urbanites don’t realise why they flood; they always look to ‘blame’ someone.  Usually it is the local authority or the government or the Environment agency.  No-one ever mentions climate change even though it is clear to the professionals and outdoor workers, like yours truly, that weather patterns are changing.  Oh well, if things don’t change they’ll stay the same…

Meanwhile, back on the estate, one of the monsters that came crashing down fell absolutely where it needed to, straight into a narrow open corridor in a patch of woodland adjacent to the main drive to the Mansion.  The tree is another Noble Fir but probably a hundred years or so older than the ones that blocked my lane.  We will know once we start to cut it up and can count the tree-rings enabling us to date it.  For now it lies over 60ft (20 metres) along the ground and the root-plate is like the end of an old barn.

Root-plate

The huge root-plate of the Noble Fir dwarfs my Discovery. How we are going to move it I know not !

The work has been non-stop for it is not just the cutting up of the main trunk and bigger limbs of a fallen tree, the amount of ‘trash’ – unusable smaller branches and pine needles – is astonishing.  The fact that the firs are evergreen means their branches are fully leafed and extremely heavy.  Days and days of hard manual work has been my lot for the past month or so, good for the fitness levels and excellent for ensuring a good night’s sleep !!

As for dry stone walling work well that has been rather difficult !  However, this last couple of weeks I have managed to complete a small job for an old friend of mine – one of the Junk-Yard Angels from Trecastle Antique Centre (www.kingdomofrust.co.uk) – who contacted me while I was away to say she needed my skills.  A rather large hole had been dug in her garden to allow car-parking and the bank, which stood around 8ft/2.5mtrs high, needed to be revetted.  Fortunately she lives in a rather attractive spot, high on the side of a hill overlooking the Usk Valley below Bwlch.  The views out over Mynydd Llangynidr and down to the Sugar Loaf near Abergavenny are superb, the stone too is pretty good !  The mountain on which the house stands is Mynydd Llangorse, a whale-back hill which separates the basin of Llangorse Lake from the Rhiangoll valley.  Directly below lies the Roman camp of Pen-y-Gaer (see archive for May 2011 ‘Any fool can face a crisis) and the medieval village of Cwmdu.  It is a place steeped in history and the old farmsteads and walled enclosures relate to the period after the Normans arrived in the area in about 1078.   The cottage in which my friend lives is an old quarry-workers smallholding which at one time belonged to the Beaufort estate (latterly Glanusk).  The acre garden is surrounded by dry stone walls with the top wall forming the mountain boundary beyond which is the open Mynydd, the common grazing of the township.

Steep and angled dry stone wall.

There were several right-angled corners, a curve and some gradients, not just a small retaining wall then !

The stone is my all-time favourite, Old Red Sandstone, that most ancient of sedimentary rock that produces the rich reddish brown soil of the area.  The whole of the Black Mountain range consists of the beds of this sandstone and it stretches all the way to Llandeilo.  Being a sandstone it comes in nice flat chunks and is a good rough stone that locks together well and stands against the rough weather which blows through this landscape.

Stone steps

Oh yes, there were steps and a mortared section into which an ornate gate is to be hung. Not just a retaining wall then !

The job was, in fact, quite a large project, with a curved section to allow ease of turning in off the narrow lane the first thing to deal with.  Then there were two external right angles and an internal right angle.  Luckily Old Red Sandstone fractures in a way that produces some nice corner stones. A set of steps were needed to rise up from the car-park level to the yard.  Luckily some rather nicely dressed blocks which bore the traces of having once been part of a lime-mortared building, were available and these made an excellent set of steps.  More dressed blocks were used to match a mortared wall which already existed and into which hinges were fixed to hang the ornate gate – not surprisingly an antique metal gate from the Kingdom of Rust.

‘A friend in need….’ so the saying goes, I’ve always been a soft touch when doing work for friends; I don’t have much to give them but my skill is always given as cheaply as I can reasonably afford !!  You know what ?  It generally is the case that what you give out you get back; a farmer driving past asked her for my number as he has some dry stone walls he needs repairing just along the road… The year is getting fuller !!

Retaining wall of dry stone.

The whole car-park already looks long time established ….

The job was elongated because of the dreadful deluge, although as Bwlch is in the rain shadow of the Brecon Beacons, it gets a lot less rainfall than Beulah !  Nevertheless there has been a substantial amount of water falling in the surrounding hills.  The cottage is on the south side and has two small streams running through the ground, the flow has been greater than anyone remembers.  Over the hill, on the north side, water flows down small brooks into Llangorse Lake.  The lake sits in a saucer of high ground and the outflow is the river Llynfi which joins the Wye at Glasbury.  I took a drive along the old road from Pengenffordd to Llangorse via the Sorgwm on which sits a Neolithic burial chamber.  The lake had expanded beyond its shores, gone beyond a level that many locals have ever seen.

It is interesting to see the lake at the current level for it was always thus until the early C17th when a new ditch allowed the level to fall by letting more water into the Llynfi.  Again in the 1860s the level was lowered and this time the man-made island, the Crannog, was rediscovered having been under water for the previous three centuries.  At this time too the famous dug-out canoe was retrieved from the mud near the eastern shore (and now resides in Brecon museum).

Llangorse in flood.

The ancient church of Llangasty on the western shore of Llangorse lake. The name means the ‘enclosure’ (llan) in the ‘bog’ (cors), surrounded again by water. The shoreline can be plainly seen marked by the reed bed many yards out into the water.

Days of rain are a depressing thing to endure, on top of that I acquired my first cold of the winter and, being a pathetic man, that always leaves me feeling down and out.  I enjoyed some of the time, finding it a useful opportunity to tackle some domestic sorting, completing this year’s tax return – not an easy thing to do on-line with my present issues !!  Eventually I needed to escape and combined a journey to plan dates for this year’s courses with a little r & r. The Walking Through History and Dry Stone Walling courses run in conjunction with my colleagues at Ty Gwyn (www.tygywnfarm.co.uk) and the short-break programme which the Metropole Hotel in Llandrindod Wells are hosting (www.metropole.co.uk) will take place from May until September. From there I drove out through the Walton Basin and crossed the border at Kington and on to the market town of Leominster.

My version of ‘retail therapy’ involves, as regular readers will know, an elongated poodle through interesting landscape and a few hours wandering the antique emporiums which are amply represented in that medieval sheep marketing town of Lemster.  The town owes its origin and early wealth to the wool trade.  The very wool on which the Lord Chancellor sits, the ‘Woolsack’, came from the Leominster market, the wool being of the then dominant breed, the Ryeland.  It is a good place to escape the rain of the Welsh hills.

Ryeland metal sculpture

The importance of wool to the market town of Leominster is recorded in this artistic metal sculpture of a Ryeland ewe.

The wool trade in Leominster

The trip was another one of bygone discoveries which I’ll bring to you in my next post.  Meanwhile the rain and wind continues and there is even a hint that the first of the white stuff is heading our way.  Dry Stone Walling in the Welsh hills will have to wait a while longer methinks!

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