“I’ll cross the stream – I have a dream…”

Finally the corner is reached and I turn for home – or rather I turn for the last stretch of the Pool House enclosure.  The long length of total take down and rebuild is finally completed, including a new water leat, a smout , which helps the drainage flow.  I was very surprised that no such structure had been included in the original build.  On the other hand it is not clear when and by whom that particular section of the enclosure was built, or rebuilt.

Rebuilt dry stone wall

The long section which required total demolition and rebuilding is finally complete – thankfully !

Judging by the ramshackle structure that presented itself to me, a world away from the earlier sections of well built and sound wall, I reckon that some drastic rebuild had taken place.

As I reported in the last blog post, findings of pottery indicated a much later date and now the discovery of clay drainage pipe pieces further adds credence to the notion.  I feel sure the north wall is an imposter !

A dilapidated wall from the nineteenth century ?

No-one who knew anything about building a dry stone wall was present when this section was last erected… no sir !

The stone is the same as occurs over the rest of the enclosure, indeed the distinct separation of ‘good’ stone from the less useful is carried on.  The flat faced rectangular blocks are reserved for the ‘outside’ in order to present a smooth face which is difficult – if well built – for sheep to climb.  The internal wall is far less regular, far less easy to build with and hence, in a way, is far more impressive.  To build that badly is very hard !

I have now moved from relatively dry ground to a much wetter section of the field.  Rush is prevalent and water flows through the moss and grass.  There is a clear distinction within the enclosure, a defined geological interface where impermeable rock forces the ground water to emerge and is in fact responsible for the very pool that gives the whole its name, Pool House.  Heavy clay covers the underlying hard rock and is itself topped with a layer of rich peat.  Water soaks into and through the peat but cannot penetrate the clay and has therefore to find another route to the river and ultimately the sea – the goal of all land water.  Unfortunately for me a slight fall in the field had become a regular wetland and it urgently needed to be relieved.  Fortunately I know just the man for opening ditches …

A water channel through an old wall

Half an hour with Mr Smith’s digger and a century of blocked drainage is dealt with. Water has been running clear and constant for two weeks already !

I stripped out the wall where the ditch appeared to be – it showed clearly in the enclosure and out on the hill but was very clogged and overgrown.  The opening of the ditch in the field and on the down-side of the hill allowed water to finally run freely out of the soaked ground and will, hopefully, aid in the restoration of the pasture.

It meant a few days of struggling in thick claggy mud for my poor aching ankles but at least I discovered my wellington boots were no longer waterproof !  The struggle at the end of a long tiring day to remove an internally wet boot is one of the hardest tests of fortitude – it is an unwelcome and frankly unnecessary torture.  Buy some new ones !  No doubt I will continue, using plastic carrier bags to both keep my feet dry and aid removal, you’d be amazed how easily your foot slides out if it’s encased in plastic  – nowhere nearly as readily available nowadays, indeed at 5p a bag I will probably save money going and buying my new boots tomorrow !!

I had some excellent large lintels amongst the stones that made up the old wall and a new water course was created.  It is the same construction as any other smout except I always put a stone slab in the bottom so that water does not erode the channel and eventually undermine the quoins that support the lintels.  As long as the weight on top of the lintels is sufficiently spread there is no danger of them cracking or giving way and the wall can be confidently built on top.

Water smout through a dry stone wall.

A new water smout to take the water through the newly rebuilt wall – who knows, it may be used by an Otter ! The mud will make spotting the tell-tale footprints quite an easy task.

The final piece of the long straight rebuild took me to the corner, a curved corner which had seemingly slipped sideways.  Upon stripping it out the reason for the dereliction became all to clear; a massive foundation stone, ideally shaped to create the curve, had subsided into the mire with the result the stones on top had slipped off.  There was absolutely no way I was going to be able to re-position that stone nor move it out of the way so a tractor was called for and the offending lump was unceremoniously dragged out.  We were both interested and surprised to find clear marks of quarry drilling on it which clearly showed it had not just been a stone that was there already but had been intentionally dragged from the source – probably the old nearby workings – to be used specifically for the curved corner.

Dilapidate curve ready for rebuilding

Walling around the bend … the final corner is reached !  The big stone can be seen on the top left of the photo.

The winter has arrived with a vengeance, the Friday afternoon when we moved the stone was the worst thus far, driving rain and low, cold mist.  I was so determined – back in April – to be done and dusted up there by the end of the summer …. ‘the best laid plans of mice and men …’

Partly my own fault of course, I keep slipping away to complete other commitments and the days add up.

For the last five weeks, one day a week, I have been returning to the site of my early walling years near the Carmarthenshire village of Gwynfe.  I was asked by the YMCA in Llandovery to provide a Dry Stone Walling course as part of their programme of country skills training which is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Five trainees duly turned up and we ventured out to the hills of the Black Mountain, at the foot of Trichrug, to do some rebuilding of old walls.  The stone is Old Red Sandstone and it presents in various forms, the morphology and lithography is varied over a very short distance.  The farm we visited was an old customer of mine from the days of the Agri-environment scheme Tir Gorfal.  The land straddles the ridge which overlooks the Tywi valley and between us and that fine river is the Iron Age fortress of Garn Goch.

Dry Stone Walling course at Gwynfe

The trainees were slightly shocked at the water and mud … it’s Wales !!

We were lucky to avoid any rainy days which was a pleasant surprise but nevertheless the ground was very wet and water was running through the foundations.  Water through the foundations is not too much of an issue as long as proper channels are left to allow it to run through and out rather than sit and soak into the sub-soil which can ultimately cause the weight of the wall to push the foundation stones downward causing collapses.

The first section was a low wall that was built around 1812 when the open Ffriddoed which was an open grazing area of particular ecological make-up and was used by a number of farms whose lands opened on to it.  All the walls were ‘gang-built’ and hence have the tell-tale signs which is common to all ‘enclosure walls’ of the period viz. poor build quality with a preponderance of ‘trace walling’ (the placing of stones length ways along the face rather than the length of the stone into the wall which is the correct methodology), poor packing of the hearting resulting in it settling to the base of the wall thus leaving the upper courses unsupported which ultimately leads to an inward collapse of the two faces.  Generally walls which were built by these large gangs have not lasted well, in fact it is fairly safe to assume if a wall is in a state of near total collapse or dereliction it will be from this era.

YMCA wallers from Llandovery

My bunch of ‘foreigners’ standing proudly in front of their rebuilt section – best not give up the day jobs just yet boys ..

The group were ‘foreigners’, almost all newly arrived in rural west Wales.  I was slightly bemused that after all the years of in-migration we are still seeing escapees from the urban rat race of English conurbations.  I had several chuckles at their assessment of the rural idylls to which they have gravitated, their pronunciation of the place names that now surround them and the stories of the loss of chickens to the fox ….

As we approach the final month of the year I am eagerly awaiting completion of work for this year.  It seems everything has been stored up for the autumn and early winter. Jobs that could have, should have been done months ago are now having to be squeezed in.  One such was a church yard retaining wall which I had first assessed back in March – a collapse no doubt caused by last winter’s heavy and incessant rainfall.  I had to wait for two large Scots Pine trees to be felled, partly because their dropping may have done further damage to the wall.  Unfortunately the tree surgeon had an accident – yep, he fell out of a tree and broke his leg – and so the felling was postponed.  The trees were eventually felled in mid October and so I made my way up the Wye valley to the ancient hamlet of St Harmons which lies a few miles north of Rhayader.  The site is very ancient although the present day church is a typical early nineteenth century rebuild.  St. Garmon is a rarely encountered saint and the history of the place ranges from Bronze Age through to the famous Vortigern.

The churchyard has the ancient circular form and is raised above the surrounding land through which flows the river Marteg.  It is a strange ‘flat-land’ in the midst of steep sided valleys and rugged hills.  The stone is the typical slate of the area and varies in size from almost un-liftable slabs to fragile – I mean fall apart in your hand fragile – pieces the size of bars of chocolate.  It is exactly the same stone which Ms Carolina and I encountered at the sheep-fold we repaired back in June in the area of Pen y Garreg reservoir in the Elan Valley complex.   It is a lovely stone to build with in my view, the pieces are so rhomboid that fitting them together is quite easy and gives an attractive, rugged morphology.

The collapse in the retaining wall and the slice of Scot's Pine.

The collapse in the retaining wall and the slice of Scots Pine.

When a section of a retaining wall collapses it does so in one of two ways; it slides out from the bottom which results in the upper courses falling backward into the void, or it bulges in the middle and ultimately that bulge causes the lower courses, including the foundation stones in some cases, to tilt forward sending the whole section out and allowing the top to fall down on top of it.  Whichever method the ‘destroyer of walls’ employs it leaves an unholy (no pun intended) mess to be cleared away.  It is by far the hardest task of such a job, it is also a real mental challenge when first viewed…

I reckon on spending the first hour or so, usually until it’s time for my morning coffee, stripping the whole mess away.  In addition to the mass of face stones one has to deal with all the hearting or back-fill and more often than not, a whole horrid pile of soil.  Indeed it is usually the soil which causes the collapse in the first place.  In periods of heavy rainfall, made-up soil, i.e. that which has been moved into place rather than occurring naturally, absorbs large amounts of water and becomes increasingly heavy and soup-like, a phenomena known as liquifaction.  Ultimately the mass becomes both too heavy and too unstable and it pushes the face out and causes the total collapse.  I never want to put any soil back into my repair thus it has to be all shovelled away from the site, another dour and hard half hour or so.

This wall has a large amount of soil piled up behind it, it is something of a mystery where it came from.  It is far too much to have come from grave digging but may have been brought in to raise the level of the grave yard to allow further interments.  Whatever the reason the result has been a perpetual problem of small collapses.  I did my first repair of this church yard wall back in 2005 and have returned fairly regularly each year since.  I have a real problem doing work for old churches, charging a realistic fee is not something I feel I can do given the struggles of the ever diminishing congregations to keep the old places up-together.  So far I have promised three of my regular church customers that once I retire I will do their repairs for free … there’s only so many complimentary burial plots I can manage !

The Scots Pine was actually felled after the wall fell.

The Scots Pine was actually felled after the wall crashed down.

So, a long hard Saturday in early November saw me toiling away to get the repair completed.  I managed to do it just as darkness fell but unfortunately ran out of time to do two other small repairs.  Thus another weekend was going to be required.

The following Friday I received an email from the Warden thanking me for doing the repair but informing me that another collapse had occurred !  This section was twice as large (it is the section showing directly below the large window in the transept above) and was a few metres along from the first repair.  This time I am sure the felling of the trees did have a part to play.

The repair sits between two other earlier repairs which were competed with mortar, a common misconception and an inevitable future problem.

The repair sits between two other earlier repairs which were competed with mortar, a common misconception and an inevitable future problem.

Hence another hard Saturday was endured but once again I managed to get it completed. However, again I still didn’t manage the two other small sections.  Thus a third Saturday of November had to be assigned to Garmon’s little fortress but this time I was finished by lunchtime and as the New Zealand game was not until 5.30, I took the opportunity to have a look at another project which was completed some eighteen months ago.  The car-park at Marteg Bridge, undertaken for and with the volunteers of  the Radnor Wildlife Trust, was just along the road.

The stone and turf bank was constructed back at the beginning of 2013 and has therefore had two summers to grow.

The stone and turf bank was constructed back at the beginning of 2013 and has therefore had two summers to grow.

The car-park project involved a number of low stone-faced banks which had turf between the courses.  The first summer, 2013, the growth was slow and somewhat disappointing but the banks held and following the mild, wet winter of 2013/14 no damage had occurred.  However, the long dry and hot summer was a worry; stones heat up and dry out the roots of the grasses and the soil too dries and shrinks often resulting in stones being displaced.  Given these banks were in a popular parking place where people and dogs would inevitably clamber, damage could well have been incurred.  I was therefore delighted to see the state of banks in November 2014 !  The grasses and wild flowers including heather, had grown well and the root systems have combined to really lock up the whole structure.  The turf and stone bank at the rear of the car-park was really well grown and the whole car-park looks like it has been there for years and apart from one discarded drinks container there was no wilful damage nor litter.  I must confess to having a little smile of satisfaction at seeing the result of my idea and others efforts !

The stone and turf faced bank at the rear f the car-park has done remarkably well given the hot dry summer we have just endured.  I swear it's still growing !

The stone and turf faced bank at the rear of the car-park has done remarkably well given the hot dry summer we have just endured. I swear it’s still growing !

The surprise was how well the grass looked on that rear bank.  The mild autumn and recent rainfall has allowed the grass to maintain its growth and hence its green colour.  It’s hard sometimes to be objective about the weather I endure.  It is only upon reflection that I realise how mild and reasonably dry the autumn was and even now, bemoaning the odd wet afternoon, I have to remind myself it is winter !  Only now, at the end of November, has the first frost appeared.  Even so the long unseasonable weather of autumn has thrown nature into a little confusion.  There are still large amounts of fungus to be seen, only last week some interestingly attired folk were wandering the enclosure gathering some mushrooms to provide winter solace…  Wax caps are in abundance.

Autumnal Frog Spawn

This splodge of frog-spawn appeared one morning last week – the middle of November ! Clearly it is too early, the little black eggs are mostly absent but something spurred the frog to spawn !

I was slightly disorientated to come upon a splodge of frog-spawn at my feet one mild morning last week.  Clearly it was a premature deposit and few eggs are visible but it seems the climate has put the poor frogs out of kilter.  I actually remember a croaking male back in mid -October in that very area, I wonder if he’s the dad !?

I finished by taking advantage of the blue sky and enjoyed a short ‘poodle’ around the Elan Valley reservoirs, which I confidently expected to be overflowing the dam parapets.  Alas no,  apart from the ‘bottom’ dam of Caban Goch.  Nevertheless I was rewarded with some stunning late autumn colours.

Claerwen in the Elan Valley reservoir area.

The course of the Claerwen downstream of the reservoir is always a fine sight, whatever the season.

The browns and greens blend with the blue of the sky and the water of Graig Goch.

The browns and greens blend with the blue of the sky and the water of Graig Goch.

A sheet of water is always photogenic whichever season or light..

A sheet of water is always photogenic whichever season or light.. Caban Goch reservoir.

December is looming large, the Yule Tide commercialism is already assaulting my insensibilities – I cannot find my regular food items amidst the glitz and offers of Christmas gluttony.  My cats are not really into boxes of chocolates, tins of sweets, festive battery packs !!  Nor am I; it’s an embarrassment I find uncomfortable to experience.  It’s hard to walk out of my local superstore weighed down with foodstuff I don’t really need and walk past folk who are waiting for the store to eject the cardboard boxes emptied that day so they can get their night time bedding …

Spare a thought for the poor, dear readers, the season of Goodwill is nigh, let your conscience out of the bag !!

Hopefully my next post will be full of excited joy at the completion of a ten month job !  Time will tell, no time to go shopping just yet !  Black Friday has a different meaning for Welshwaller !!

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