“Rough winds do shake the Darling buds of May”.

For what seems like a very long time, no goretex or waterproof leggings, no wellington boots and woolly hat hath adorned my withering frame.  Indeed so benign has been the Spring thus far that I have reverted to youthful thoughts and youthful productivity – at least in my own mind and hence my self esteem is soaring.  In addition I have started to receive long overdue treatment on an increasingly debilitating knee injury and this has put a further ‘spring’ in my step.

That all changed at the end of this week; a day of driving rain and cold sou’westerly wind drove me into the all encompassing prophylactic of rainwear.  Out came my highly prized caharrt rubberised and totally waterproof leggings overlain with my time-served French army goretex smock.  Snug as the veritable bug I beat the elements to achieve my first objective on the Pool House enclosure, I got to the first corner.  Two hundred or so metres of wall have been rebuilt or renovated to as near as original a state as I can get it.

A dry stone wall under repair.

The dry stone wall of the Pool House enclosure begins to present a stock-proof barrier once more.

I have been something of a nuisance to the over-worked farmer who, in between trying to deal with all the jobs of this busy time, has had to be bringing me trailer and trailer loads of stone to enable me to get the wall back to a suitable height to exclude the very agile sheep that inhabit the open common.  They will take some ‘persuading’ to vacate a rather good larder which has been theirs for as long as anyone can recall.  Sheep are very intelligent and very determined, any change to their regular walkways or denial of long favoured grazing turns them into gymnastic escapologists, it takes a good strong barrier to stand fast against them.  Height and lack of footholds are the primary defence mechanisms.

Lamb on a wall.

Defiant little so-and-so ! Looking on at my efforts this little fellow challenges me to keep him out … we’ll see !

On the section of the enclosure which lies adjacent to easily accessible roads and parking so much stone has been pilfered over the years.  Theft of stone from dry stone walls is a national problem especially near built up areas.  Some years ago while attending a walling test in Sowerby Bridge I was shown miles of wall which had lost the cope stones.  In the western Brecon Beacons a Park Ranger and I came across a half mile of missing wall.  In that instance the nearby farmer told us that a JCB, a tipper truck, men in fluorescent jackets with appropriate road signage had removed the wall over a period of a day.  He assumed they were ‘kosher’ !

It is fortunate that my present employer has access to stone with which to make up the loss.  In terms of value I would estimate the loss to be in the thousands of pounds.  As I have previously mentioned, we hope the rebuilt wall will be persuasion enough to stop the theft.  I have finished the major stretch where stone has disappeared, a relief to both myself and the harassed farmer.  It is an interesting wall for a number of reasons.  Firstly, it is clear from the circular nature of the section just repaired that this enclosure was used to grow crops, the curve enabling the slow turn of an ox plough-team.  That in turn gives a clue to the age of the enclosure although in Radnorshire agricultural change and improvement was notoriously slow to be adopted and oxen remained the main draught animal into the early twentieth century.  It is most likely to have been a field for the growing of oats and investigation may yet reveal an ‘Odyn faes‘, a field kiln used to dry oats prior to removal to the barn.

The build method is also worthy of mention.  It is the case that walls were historically  erected to keep stock out thereby allowing crops, arable or hay, to be grown.  This particular wall shows clearly that heritage, the inner face is of a rough inarticulate style utilising rough stones of all sizes and shapes.  The outer face, that which presents to the open common, is of coursed flat faced stone which disallows any purchase of little cloven feet.  The absence of batter on the outer face and most of the inner face (it is difficult to assess whether the section just repaired has a deliberate batter or is the result of creeping dilapidation) again suggests that this enclosure is of an early date certainly prior to the mid eighteenth century.

Tightly built wall face

The ‘outer’ face is of high quality flat faced stones which prevent any clambering by sheep. The cover-band hangs out over the wall to act as a drip tray – keeping the wall ‘dry’ – and deters jumping attempts.

This is a fairly common practise but the extreme difference in the two faces of this wall is unusual.  So too is the use of soil to fill the middle of the wall.  I began to encounter the soil on some of the smaller collapses but assumed it was plough-soil which had blown into the wall over the centuries of cultivation.  The farmer suggested to me that the quantity surely implied intentional inclusion and he was right, the section just completed shows a solid centre utilising soil as well as smaller stones.  To prevent the soil from washing out or falling down into the wall a solid course of large slabs are laid at the normal through-stone height (just below half-way up the wall) and the upper half is packed tightly with rammed soil.  Normally this would not ever have been used, only in areas where stone is in short supply does the practise occur, shortage of stone is not an issue here.  Was it therefore a means of construction which prevented air-flow thus giving a wind-free growing environment ?  Was it merely a means of packing the wall and using soil as a mortar ?  It is not something I have come across in Wales but it is a method that was recommended by a writer in the eighteenth century (Hale, S. 1756, A Compleat Book of Husbandry. London) and seems to have been effectively employed here on the windy hills of Rhogo and Gilwern.  It appears thus far that soil has only been utilised on the southern curtilege which presents other questions.

The centre of this section was packed with soil and small stones.  It would have meant much shovelling and hundreds of bucketfuls to use the method throughout.

The centre of this section was packed with soil and small stones. It would have meant much shovelling and hundreds of bucketfuls to use the method throughout.

The style of building does not remain constant over the whole length of wall and the dimensions alter, another peculiarity which confuses me.  Clearly it implies either different builders or different build phases.  Apparently there used to be a dividing wall and this joined the outer wall at the point where the width and build style changes dramatically.

In addition there used to be a homestead (Pool House) within the enclosure, again the exact position is yet to be determined.  However, small items of domestic refuse such as pottery and iron have begun to surface in the debris that was excavated.  We will hopefully be able to identify how the original smallholding looked once the various sections have been cleared and examined.  It is an exciting project when it includes some field archaeology and landscape history.

As some of you will know, the area is one which I utilise for historic guided walks and I know there are numerous interesting, if sometimes perplexing,  features on the hill.  The Bronze age burial sites and the Iron-age defended camp of Castle Bank being the most notable.  For me however, lumps and bumps in the turf and rush of the open hill are the most distracting and challenging.

In particular are a pair of horseshoe shaped enclosures on gentle sloping ground in which are stone bases of some type of building.  The Ordnance Survey identifies one as an ‘Earthwork’ and one as an ancient religious site.  The latter appears on the earlier 1″ maps but has disappeared from the current 1:50,000.  As for the numerous long banks and ditches, they are not recorded although some of them do appear on the 1838 Tithe map suggesting they were still in use as field boundaries at that time.

Ancient enclosure on Gilwern Hill

It is difficult to photograph clearly from ground level but the horseshoe enclosure is just discernible behind the walker.

I had searched for any information on the various settlements on the hill, both Rhogo and Gilwern but had found little.  Last week the farmer alerted me to a report he had come across on the RCAHMW (Royal Commission on Historic and Ancient Monuments, Wales – now you see why it is abbreviated !) web pages.  In fact the report was a very detailed account of all extant remains on the hills of Gilwern, Castle Bank and on a hill to the south called Llandeilo.  It was commissioned as part of the on-going Upland Inititiative which RCAHMW have been conducting for ten years or so and undertaken by two private archaeology contractors, Wendy Horton and Richard Hayman.  By sheer coincidence I was due to attend a day school on the Upland Inititiative at Sennybridge Army Camp just a few days later.  It so happened that Richard Hayman was delivering two papers on other areas they had recently surveyed one of which, Mynydd Fochriw near Merthyr Tydfil, is another area I have recently re-visited after studying it back in 2007/8.  Small world syndrome in action !  He and I had lunch together and I managed to extract some of his ideas on why he had interpreted some features as he had.

Anyone with an interest in the uplands should get onto the Royal Commissions site and explore what they have for your particular area.  Most of the reports given at the day school from various areas throughout Wales had massively increased the number of sites which had been previously recorded from low hundreds to thousands ! Much of the day was concerned with the old military sites that are dotted around Wales but also the archaeology that lies, much yet to be discovered or interpreted, on the vast range on Eppynt.  I have often reported on aspects of what is to be found up there and much of the area I have had the opportunity to see during my work for the land management company Landmarc and other contracts.  The frozen agricultural landscape which presents hundreds of years of land management and enclosure is woven around a myriad of prehistoric sites which continue to be discovered.

It was a pleasant change to immerse myself in some intellectual stimulation for a day and also to meet up with some of the professional archaeologists and like-minded amateurs who attended.  I reconnected with some folk I hadn’t seen for a while, from Clwyd ~Powys Archaeological Trust (CPAT), from the Royal Commission and some friends from around the country.  I got a chance to speak to some professionals about some finds and ideas I had and made arrangements to meet up or send photos and reports.  Typically my enthusiasm runs amock and then, when I get home, I think  “oh dear, why do I set myself with more to do!”

The wild inclement weather raged throughout the weekend, from sun-block and sweat I was plunged back into mud and soaking.  It set the scene for a sombre Saturday.

Whilst the week went well for me in terms of productivity and use of the old grey matter, it was also one of short fused high tension, not that I realised it for a while.  “You having a bad day?” came the question over the mobile air waves in response to a rather terse text message I had sent – not quite realising its terseness !  “No I’m ….. not” … Then a short (terse even ?) message on my answer-machine generated absolutely no response from me despite the message ‘commanding’ (or at least I thought it sounded commanding) me to call immediately on receipt of the message.  Another example of my rising inner anger ? Probably.  It took me a couple of days to realise that I was, in fact, wound up, short on tolerance, ready to fall out with my shadow and the dirty dishes.  Once I recognised it I dealt with it, once I realised that a terrible event hereabouts had indeed affected me, I withdrew for a while.  Withdrew that is until a dismal wet Saturday afternoon, late in the afternoon in fact, when I and a couple of hundred other locals stood, head bowed, in the pouring rain in the little churchyard of Eglwys Oen Duw here in Beulah.  We gathered to pay respects and honour the memory of a local character, a farmer for whom I had a great affection despite having only known him a few short years, a man of skill on the rugby field, in the farmyard, in a tight spot – if you get my meaning.  I had spent many an hour talking with him about his memories of all, and wild stories they were !  He talked to me about his father, a famous and highly skilled maker of ‘whiskets’, a traditional open basket highly sought by farmers hereabouts. Indeed not so long ago he showed me two examples of his father’s work which he still retained.  I asked if I could photograph them and him with them to which he agreed.  Alas an illness of his and then lambing prevented this happening and only two days before his death he reminded me I should come and “take those pictures soon” … I’m left wondering…

He was something of an enigma, cantankerous at times, apparently, belligerent at times, apparently, full of fun and devilment at times, apparently.  I speak as I found, a huge knowledge blended with true Welshness, a sense of the ridiculous and a sense of humour to match, friendly and welcoming, straight and loyal.  I was shocked to discover he had departed his farm after a hard life spent in these hills.  I will miss him, rest in peace Victor Lewis of Bryngwynfel, things will never quite be the same around this estate …

 

 

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