“The summer’s gone and all the leaves are falling…”

Here I am, with sincerest apologies for such an absence … remind me to tell you the story about how I decided to clean my laptop’s keyboard which had become quite disgustingly clogged with all sorts of food matter and dust and dead insects swotted off the screen etc, etc, you know the scene !  Well, clever old me decided that probably the easiest and quickest way to get all that crap out of the gaps between the keys was to hoover it all out.  What no-one had ever pointed out to me was that the keys are not actually fixed very securely …..  I got them all out of the dust bag of the vacuum cleaner but it took one hell of a time to fit them all back ! Thus any apparent ‘typos’ or spelling  mistakes may well be that the keys are in the wrong order … lorry ig shap ivvers.

‘Tis true, our glorious lazy-day summer is long gone.  Despite the most amazing September and October weather which saw me still working in short sleeves, the  onset of ‘the Fall’ is very apparent.  Each cut of the grass makes me think that it is the last, each bowl of blackberries is definitely the last and the ground is littered with empty hazel nut cases and pods showing both what an amazing crop there has been and also how many darned grey squirrels are about.  I commented to my American colleague just how much of a nuisance these critters from her homeland are and how they seem to be in abundance this year, fortunately the increase is noticeable in roadkill !  Blow me down if the farmer’s wife where we have been working said exactly the same thing, “doesn’t there seem a lot of dead squirrels this year?”.  We all need to start making squirrel hot-pot, or else there will be no nuts and no birds – they decimate nests; what’s more, they destroy young trees.

Despite all my best endeavours I am still some weeks away from completing the mammoth reconstruction of the Pool House enclosure on the ‘Rhogo’.  Partly this has been my own fault as I have had to slip away for a week now and then to attend to other pressing work but thankfully most of those other jobs are now done and the remaining weeks of the year can be spent on finishing the work.  It has to be completed this year in order to meet the requirements of the Glastir plan of which it is part.

Dilapidated wall on Rhogo

Now we have arrived at the worst length of the old wall – it’s all got to come down…

The progress along the wall was painfully slow for a few months; we were embarked on a fairly massive rebuild of a long section which needed total rebuilding and to a rather abnormal height.  To add to the travails the stone was hugely tiny and the number of courses seemed interminable.

Finally the corner was reached and we turned for home, at least that’s how I saw it in my mind.  I am heading towards the final corner and the roadside wall which marks the finish line.  Unfortunately, long before that goal is reached, there is the matter of  best part of a hundred metres of total take-down and rebuild.

 

Generally speaking I conform to the old adage of ‘if it ain’t broke…’, repairing only that which has  already fallen or is showing every possibility of so doing shortly.  This next length has nothing at all worth salvaging, it needs a total rebuild and that’s some task !  Fortunately for the first two weeks or so I still had the greatly needed assistance of Miss Carolina, who, despite living up to her Welsh nick-name of ‘Pili-pala‘ (butterfly) and flitting off every so often to go sailing, to go Shakespeare or opera stalking, to pop to Italy for a few days house hunting, never-the-less added her immense energy and talent to getting the first section down and back up.  Thank you dear girl !

Stripped-out wall

It can be a little daunting when the stone pile is SO huge, but quietly the wall emerges …

Stripping-out a wall is a tedious and tiring activity but it is the opportunity to study how the builders worked all those years ago.  This particular length has a different build style to the rest of the enclosure.  For one thing it is much more ‘badly’ constructed in so much as it has erroneous stone placement technique and poor packing of the hearting.  Once again, for a short length at least, we encountered the old problem of soil being used to fill the middle of the wall.

I find the whole enclosure perplexing and this wall just adds to the complexity.  As soon as we started stripping it out I felt it showed hallmarks of a later build period.  One of the classic signs of the later C18th, early C19th, wall building is the tendency for it not to have survived in a very good order.  Primarily this is due to it have been built by a ‘gang’ of builders brought it by the land-owner to put it up.  Paid on a piece-rate, they threw up as much as possible in a day, stones badly placed and hearting bucketed loosely into the middle.  Often, as in this case, the line of the wall is unclear and the collapses are generally of the inward type, a sort of belly-flop, when the whole section implodes.  As if to confirm my suspicions we discovered several large pieces of pottery which were in the foundation and hence must have been placed there at the construction stage. I’m no expert on pottery sherds but I know someone who is and I await their assessment of the finds to see if it confirms my view that the pieces are mid to late C18th.

A wall disappears into the distance.

Trying to get a straight line whilst not encroaching or giving away land can be difficult; surely it was straight once upon a time ?!

The problem also comes in the removal of strangely shaped and awkwardly placed foundation stones which, or so it seems to me, were instrumental in some of the collapses.  Some of them were so far into the subsoil, almost ice-berg like, that huge amounts of energy and time were expended digging them out, mainly I have to say, not by me !

The onset of autumn and the shortening days, the changing temperatures and the cooling of both standing water and soil are the triggers for the animals that live in the enclosure, in the pond and the rush and in the base of the wall, to start the process of ‘bedding-down’ for the winter.  It is thus important to get a move on and get all the disturbance done before slumber overtakes the amphibians and the land-lubbers like the common lizard.

Half way up and straight, a moment to take a breather.

Half way up and straight, a moment to take a breather.

Walls in the uplands are THE primary habitat for over-wintering just as they are for summer migratory birds.  It is always a difficult call, whether to rebuild the wall for the benefits that will accrue – whatever they may be ! – or leave as is and not disturb the animals that live there.  In fact there is probably a good argument for both, depending on which hat is being worn.  I am always in favour of the’critters’ and do my utmost to preserve the habitat and protect the creatures that live therein.  Thus much time over the last weeks or so has been spent carefully removing newts and lizards, froglets and toads, to positions back along the wall where the work has already been completed.

 

Never mind, how much of a privilege and how enlightening it is to get to see the elusive animals of this land that few ever catch a glimpse of let alone get to study in some detail.  I have always been a student of the ‘critters’ of Wales.  Ever since I was too young to be near a canal unattended I have been enthralled at the diversity and beauty of amphibians.  Lizards too enthralled me and I remember well the sand lizards on the dunes at Coppet Hall near Saundersfoot on our family holidays and the Slow Worms under stones next to the main railway line where friends and I train spotted.  Birds came much later and other accumulated knowledge such as trees, meadow and hedgerow flowers and upland flora was and still is assimilated over time.  In that time I have learned much about the secretive lives of the animals that occupy my present work station.

What is it ?

What is it ?  Actually it is a dark recess in the wall in which many animals were already ‘bedded down’ – we left it undisturbed and closed it back up.

The life of the Great Crested Newt is not widely understood, at least not when it leaves the water.  Water for most amphibians is just a local pick-up spot, a local dance or night-club if you like.  All of them only go there to meet a mate and do the business.  It’s usually a one-night stand and she never sees him again unless they slip by in the mud.  The summer sees very few amphibians anywhere near a pond and certainly by the September equinox they are on their way to winter dwellings.  Most newts are loners when it comes to spending the long winter months and the Great Crested is the most lonely of the loners. However it is thought that when the ‘later-leavers’ exit the pond and head for winter quarters they do so collectively and end up in an intertwined ball thereby, supposedly, limiting moisture loss.  I recall, as a young lad, finding such writhing masses in compost heaps in a great Aunt’s wilderness garden which adjoined the old cana at Five Locks on Pontnewydd.  I encountered another such ball in the cavern above, quite astonishing to see quite so many in one place.  As a rule, they bury themselves deep into banks and walls, usually way down until they hit the sub-soil, that’s where we wallers find them, under the very last stone, the foundation stone.  Young newts, efts, those that have left the pond in their second summer and face a long crawl to a shelter, lead by some unseen instinct to risk all until shelter is reached, are to be found in groups.  I have found over thirty all wrapped around each other or clustered around ochre coloured roots for which their camouflage is ideally suited.  I’ve never seen that in a text book !  It amazes me how the animals breathe, they are so deep in the soil it seems unlikely that air penetrates to them.  The dark recess in the photo above is an old oven, dark and damp until I accidentally opened it – now resealed – in which dwelt large numbers of amphibians of all denominations !

So too the Common Lizard, it’s life cycle is little understood and often guessed at in books. Being vivipara (eggs retained and hatched within the body thus young are born live) there seems to be a close bond between the mother and her young so much so that come the winter she and they nestle-in together.  I found a family of four just this week, a mother and three young lizards all wrapped around each other and close-by, as is often the case in my experience, an adult male which I assume is the father/mate.  It is normal to find a pair of Common Lizard and although it is not written I suspect they are life-long companions.

I need therefore to get a move-on, winter is knocking and already the first cold blasts are hitting me.  Migratory birds are all but gone, the last of them, a small flock of Ring Ouzels, stopped by for a day or two to feed on the thistle seeds.  Winter visitors were announced with the first unmistakable ‘honkings’ of the Canada Geese – gosh it only seems a few short weeks ago that they were here ! – coming back to the nearby ponds.  Field Fares have begun the assault on the Rowan and Hawthorn berries and soon those trees will hold nought for the smaller locals.  At home, thankfully, the verminous pheasant have started to die in large numbers, blasted out of the air by tweed clad infidels in the name of sport…

Walling in winter has ceased to be the attraction it once may have been, or is it my imagination ?  Did I ever enjoy the wet and cold ?  Well actually there is something primeval and self-satisfying about being out in the elements, battling against all that the wild weather can hurl my way but it is far more pleasurable to have a bright clear frosty day with a blue azure overhead and mist hanging below in the valley.  I’ve had both this last week or so as I near the end of the job.  Another few weeks and maybe, just maybe, I can hang me wellies up to dry !

Pool House wall, Gilwern Hill

The final long rebuild is well underway, stretching into the distance it’s beginning to look something like a dry stone wall, at last !

Wall lit by moonlight

Bright blue frosty day ? Well not quite, the camera lies a little,  this was 5.30pm and the moon was so bright – 2 days away from full – that I was able to work on into almost darkness !

Windows 8 has arrived in Welshwaller’s life …. whether that means you’ll be hearing from me sooner awaits to be seen …. what on earth are ’tiles’ ??

 

 

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