One Swallow doesn’t make a Summer …

How true that saying is, but after the dreadful winter we have endured it was SO uplifting to see just one.  It was a bright Sunday morning last weekend, I was standing with some folk who were about to endure a two day dry stone walling course under my tutelage at Ty Gwyn farm in the hills above Llandrindod Wells (see the report at www.tygwynfarm.co.uk).  One of the group said that whilst out taking an early morning stroll – he was staying at the converted stable on the farm – he had seen his first swallow of the season.  I said I would probably have to wait a week or so for them to arrive at my upland homestead.  Just then the lone swallow swooped over us, that unmistakeable shape and flight pattern, that bookmarker of the coming of the sun.  And so it proved, a sunny weekend followed by a week of clear skies and dangerous UV levels – there’s always a down for every up !

That simple vision had, and always does have, the effect of lifting the spirits.  We all trudged off to the walling site chirpy and enthused.  The course is one of a number of different taster days we run at Ty Gwyn.  I say ‘Taster’ for it’s not designed to turn folk into dry stone wallers – impossible in two days in any-case !! – rather it’s to enlighten participants as to the ‘why’s and wherefore’s’ of walls.  We spend some time on the practical with each being able to have-a-go at stripping an old piece of wall, laying the new foundations and starting the rebuild.  It is unusual to get the section of wall back up in the limited time but this group actually managed it !  No-one was more surprised than me, but as my attractive assistant from Carolina would tell you, I always but always under-estimate what’s achievable !

Wallers at Ty Gwyn

A small but enthusiastic group of ‘mature students’ learning the graft, sorry, ‘craft’, of walling !

The site was not on the high open moor but in a sheltered valley below Little Hill.  The wall was hardly recognisable as such when I was first shown it by ‘mine host’.  Aged blackthorn trees hung over it and stinging nettles grew in front.  It was a dilapidated pile of  small boulders, typical of the field clearance stones that occur in this ancient volcanic zone.  It was a boundary of both a field and an ancient trackway leading up onto the hill beyond and as such was certainly several centuries old, maybe even older.

It is always a difficult judgement, to leave or rebuild, to respect the fact that the wall is an historic monument or return it to its former practical state.  This section was a remnant, most of the length had long-since been robbed away and thus by rebuilding it we will ensure it has  function and hence a future.

An old wall gets rebuilt

The structure of the build can be clearly seen here, large stones penetrating deeply into the heart of the wall.

Most of the stones were of lava and hence were not too heavy or large; there were, however, a few exceptions and these were gingerly levered into position.  The old wall was rather too wide for the size of the face-stones which meant the heart of the wall, the small stones that are packed into the centre, was taking up  too great a percentage of the overall width.  It is not good to have the centre of the wall wider than about a third of the width and preferably a bit less.  We therefore squeezed the wall in enabling us to ‘zipper’ (a term I have taken from the New World vocabulary of my protege !) the faces, which is to say there is contact and integration of the two faces.

After only four hours or so of the first day we had stripped the section for rebuilding and had laid the new course of foundations and about two courses on top of that.  An early start on  the bright Sunday,  when the swallow joined us again, saw us wander the farm looking at ‘one I prepared earlier’ – a large length of wall which I had rebuilt about 10 years ago as part of the farm’s agri/environmental programme under the old E.S.A. (Environmentally Sensitive Area) scheme which grant aided such work – and also gave us an opportunity to see the native wildlife.  That particular part of Radnorshire is blessed with excellent habitat for Hares and they are a common sight to those of us who live or work therein.  For the urban folk they are a rare and exciting glimpse of real wild Wales and we spent many minutes watching three of them chasing each other around the pasture.  I have been fortunate to see all the antics of this stunning animal from its ‘madness’ in March, which is in fact just the males showing off to attract the ladies, through to the delightful sight of small light grey balls of fur hiding in a form in the long grass of summer, there is nothing quite as beautiful as a young leveret.

The young hares remain in the form, motionless and will not move even when threatened.  I once had the dreadful experience of stepping on one and breaking its back, forcing me to despatch it, a guilty memory that comes to mind each time I see Lepus Europaeus cross my path.  When I was young, hares were a favourite food and as many as thirty a night were caught by some friends of my father.  The usual method was driving them with dogs into large strung- out nets.  One will often find smouts, small openings left in the bottom of dry stone walls, through which ground living animals routinely pass, these too were often utilised to net both rabbits and hares by shooing them from an open pasture whereby they would bolt for the known smouts and get caught.  Fortunately those days are gone, notwithstanding the despicable antics of the sick souls who continue to course hares, frequently illegally and out of season.  What pleasure can be gotten from seeing a defenceless and increasingly rare animal pursued by mad dogs across vast open fields until, exhausted, it is torn screaming, to shreds, is beyond my comprehension.  I have a large iron man-trap in my collection, how much would I like to set that up for those outlaws !

Anyway, we saw hares and we returned to complete the rebuild of the old wall.  Everyone seemed well pleased with their achievements and I, it must be said, was astounded at my clear and obvious talents as a tutor, turning straw to gold !

Birthday girl waller at Ty Gwyn Farm

Doesn’t she look pleased with herself ?! So she should, its not every woman gets a birthday present like that !

After a rather good lunch we set off to examine my current building site and the other walls on the Rhogo, a mere couple of miles or so away.  The course includes an examination of different building styles and historic landscape features in the hills of the Rhogo which, as you may already know, is the location of my work for the next six months or so.

Stone wall on the Rhogo hill

The Pool House enclosure high on the Rhogo. Stop pinching the stone !!

I have finally begun the major restoration of  the Pool house enclosure on Rhogo.  The wall has long been on my ‘wish list’ to repair but I had not thought it would ever come about.  Through a fortunate coincidence, a colleague of mine at FWAG Cymru (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, Wales) Ms Helen Barnes, herself an absolute fountain of knowledge on all matters agricultural and conservational, was at the farm assisting in the preparation of a Glastir application.  Glastir is the current agricultural programme assisting farmers to enhance the quality of air and water and hence the overall environment of their holding by offering financial assistance for such works.  She, realising dry stone walling would be an important aspect of the farms Advanced programme, mentioned me to the farmer and the rest, as they say, is history, or soon will be !

There are a number of factors to take into consideration in preparing for such a restoration.  I use the term ‘restoration’ intentionally as, to me at least, it involves the returning of a piece of historic landscape to as near as is possible, its condition at the point of completion all those centuries ago.  Now of course, that is not at all likely as the environmental conditions, the ecology and the farming practise has all radically changed in the intervening centuries, nevertheless, in terms of the boundary wall, that is my ‘mission statement’.  Walls are archaeological relics, the have an important historic integrity and position informing us of the social and economic conditions prevailing at the time of their construction.  Often it is difficult to accurately assess when that may have been but careful analysis and research can sometimes throw some light on the matter.  Certainly a close and careful deconstruction of the old wall and an examination of finds that may occur will generally assist.  Already some interesting items and aspects have come to light !

I had measured and quantified the work required a long while back, almost a year if my memory serves me correctly.  It is often difficult to accurately assess exactly how much wall will need to be totally demolished to foundation level, how much will need part dismantling, how much will only require the re-setting of the cover bands and the top stones tidying up.  What is most difficult is knowing precisely how much stone has been stolen from the wall.  Unfortunately the site is a popular one for walkers and wanderers, dog walkers and garden landscapers.  The latter can all too easily park close to the wall and load their car-boot or estate with nice stone to enhance their garden designs.  I am sure a large percentage of them would never consider themselves thieves, they have probably never even had a parking ticket and would be horrified at the thought of shop-lifting, yet lift they do, by the tens of kilos, by the hundredweights of stone, away it has been taken.  Many, it is true, do not realise the wall is part of a farm, a privately owned boundary to a field, but it is surely clear to everyone that the taking of the stone is a felony.  An amazing amount has gone missing and that makes the rebuilding to original specifications very very difficult.  It is difficult for me and it is expensive for the land-owner who has to somehow find stone to replace that which has been stolen.  Either that or accept the wall cannot be returned to its original height – for that is in essence what it means – and there may be some gaps that cannot be rebuilt at all.  Fortunately this is one farmer who is not going to be beaten by such vandalism and we both are determined to overcome all obstacles to return the enclosure and its boundary wall to the condition it was in when completed all those centuries ago.  So, thieves beware, we are on your case !

This whole section has been robbed, the proximity to the road, the remoteness and the attractive geology have all conspired in favour of the thieving gnomes who want a prettier garden !!

This whole section has been robbed, the proximity to the road, the remoteness and the attractive geology have all conspired in favour of the thieving gnomes who want a prettier garden !!

The first section to be dealt with has to be, therefore, those sections which are easiest to access with a motor vehicle.  We are of the view that maybe, just maybe, if the wall is in good repair the likelihood of stone being stolen is somewhat lessened; are we being too kind to the low life who sneak around looking to pinch it ?  Time will tell.  Only last week, while I was sitting in my vehicle having lunch, an estate car pulled into one of the gateways and began to take stone from my newly excavated pile !  The rebuke that echoed out over the hill is not printable here but it had the desired effect and they quickly scooted off.  I should mention that this was a late middle aged couple in a late middle aged type car, clearly respectable law abiding folk, clearly …

In an attempt to bolster reserves to help alleviate the problem of absent stone we have agreed that any sections which will not be required to be restored should be recycled.  In essence that means a short section which sits in the boggy area adjacent to the pond will be re-positioned.  The small area of water is an incredibly rich and diverse wildlife sanctuary and much care has to be taken to minimise disturbance to the asset.  There is never a good time to undertake conservation activities, whatever time of year is chosen some animal or other, big or small, will be made homeless, be it the invertebrates, the amphibians, birds or aquatic life.  Winter is a no-no as many creatures rely on walls and the surrounding grass covered debris as over-wintering sites and disturbance can result in much loss of wildlife.  From April onward too many creatures, especially birds, are involved in breeding and thus must not, in many cases by Law, be disturbed.  Late summer, when the young have weaned or departed, is as good a time as any, so too is early spring, now in fact, when creatures are emerging from winter’s slumber and beginning to think about having some sex and ultimately some babies.  By clearing sites or demolishing sections of wall now, animals know not to use them as nesting or breeding sites and thereby the damage is reduced.  However, there is no doubt and much guilt on my part, at the displacement that occurs as a result of my activities.  Already this week several young newts have had to be awakened early and moved to a new spot, a dozen or so Common lizard have scuttled away from places where I have had to be digging out fallen stone.  I dread to think what came out of the wall that was being removed by my friendly neighbourhood digger-driver !  Needs must and I console myself in the certain knowledge that the habitat will be safer and more diverse once all the restoration is completed, just in time for the critters to move back in for the winter !

Occasionally manual is replaced by mechanical.  Digging out decades old wall collapses is easiest achieved by Les !

Occasionally manual is replaced by mechanical. Digging out decades old wall collapses is easiest achieved by Les !

The important thing with a major wall restoration is to ensure any demolition is completed before the birds begin to nest.  More especially it needs to be on the ground before the summer visitors arrive.  Upland walls are extremely important nesting sites for a number of birds that make the long journey each year from the African continent.  This week has seen the first of many.  The swallow on Sunday I have already mentioned, then on Tuesday I heard my first Cuckoo, always a major thrill, not an hour after the farmer and I had been saying we had not yet heard one !  Wheatears had arrived a few days earlier and they are already laying claim to their old nest sites.  At home I have already been joined by House Martins and Pied Wagtails have laid claim to the wagon as a nest site !

So all in all a week of FIRSTS !  However the arrival of long awaited feathered friends has been only one of those ‘firsts’.  Above you will have read about the dry stone walling course; the lady on the course was celebrating an important birthday.  Considerately her husband had treated her to the weekend course  (which included a two night stay in a delightful bed and breakfast where the hostess is a cook of some repute and, adding to the family network I talked of in my last post,  she is the aunty of the farmer I am working for on Rhogo !)  which is, I’m sure you will agree, a novel and inspired birthday gift.  However, my jaw dropped when she told me that he had not revealed the nature of the present until about 30 miles down the road as they drove to us on the Saturday morning …. a brave man methinks !

The other ‘first’ was even more jaw dropping.  Now I am well used to being asked strange questions as I build walls out on the hill.  Passing walkers will often show some interest and can often ask some staggeringly unanswerable questions.  The most popular is “What are you doing?”, followed closely, and usually by younger folk, with “Why are you doing that?”.  Neither of those questions have ever elicited an appropriate response, what CAN you say ?!  This week a question came my way which has reached new heights, or maybe, plumbed new depths …

“Is that a REAL wall ?”

Welshwaller strives ever onward to build a REAL WALL …

 

Happy Easter, happy twitching,  may the ‘Clock-bird’ visit you soon.

 

 

 

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