“How like a winter hath my absence been from thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year…” (W.S. Sonnet 97)

“What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen,

What old December’s bareness everywhere.”

The shortest day has been gone ten days and already I (think) can see a lengthening of the days … utter nonsense of course, wishful thinking is all !  The time between one blog post and the next seems to fly by insanely fast and I have to think hard about the day and the date.  This year the way that Christmas and New Year have fallen has left me totally confused – everyday seems to be a Sunday !  One thing I do know, it has been cold !  Oh yes, fleetingly everything locked up and dawn revealed a landscape silent and frozen.  The change from a mild late autumn where leaves still hung on hazel trees and catkins hung lazily in the breeze to this is more than I want to contemplate.  However, six weeks after Christmas it’s light at six !! (p.m not a.m !!) and we’re already on our way.

The final month of 2014 was actually quite a good one for me; for once I had finished 90% of the work I’d hoped to complete and the weather held good.  I spent the last days before the holiday working with the other ‘woodsmen’ on the estate making sure the Laird’s supply of fuel was sufficient to take him through to Spring. In essence that meant standing at the rectum end of the ‘Log Dog’ – an immense log splitter – as it disgorged split wood onto the platform where I lifted it and stacked it endlessly into the wooden crates.  I think we did about 30 crates in two days.  The furness demands a lot of nourishment at this time of year, not least because dozens and dozens of strangely attired folk regularly turn up to ‘enjoy’ blasting those pretty little pheasants from the sky … and they like to be warm in their beds at night and in their dining room at even-song !  Luckily for me, bending to fill wood crates is much akin to bending to pick up stones.

Window watcher

I’ve clearly stood far too long gazing out of this window … but the daffodils are definitely coming up !

The festivities were pleasant enough, too much food for sure, not enough wine, for sure, and sufficient social interaction to enable me to get through the next few weeks in indolent solitude – perhaps.

Unfortunately my period of relaxation was briefly interrupted when I had to attend to some unfinished work down Bethlehem way ….

Nant Ffarchog Sheepfold

A muddy mess which needed to be retained … I’m beginning to hate mud..

The old sheepfold of Nant Ffarchog lies adjacent to the ancient route-way from the early Christian settlements at Llanddeussant and Gwynfe to Bettws near Ammanford where it joins an equally old Pilgrim road running westward to St. Davids.  The fold serves farms in the old ‘maenors’ of Gwynfe and Iscennen.  It is one of eight folds which were built variously from the mid C17th to the mid C18th to enable the small flocks of each tenant farm to be gathered and sorted prior to being walked home to the old homestead.

Through a recently agreed management programme under the auspices of the Welsh Assembly Government’s Glastir Commons programme, the Black Mountain Graziers Associations have accessed some grant aid to allow them to repair and up-grade the folds in their respective ‘walks’.  I began the repairs to the walls of Nant Ffarchog back in September whilst I still had my ‘understudy’ with me.  Due to a directive from an over-zealous official, who had completely mis-interpreted historical mapping and categorisation criteria, we were compelled to use a conservation grade lime-mortar to rebuild parts of the two folds which I had been asked to undertake.

It was such a nonsensical requirement that eventually I felt compelled to challenge it.  The two folds in question, Cwmllwyd and Nant Ffarchog no longer retain any substantial element of their earlier ‘historical’ structures.  In the case of Nant Ffarchog it does not even retain the original shape and the internal structures have been totally rebuilt over successive generations.  In respect of Cwmllwyd, I totally rebuilt it in 1998 and whilst I was required to retain the outer walls, all internal pens were done away with and a new internal management system built in their place.  In addition, whereas the original fold had been built (about 1680) using lime-mortar which was readily available from the nearby lime-kilns, I used a modern portland cement and a stone-dust aggregate.  As for Nant Ffarchog, much of the present fold is built of concrete blocks and even the old stone walls have been mostly repaired using cement.  What therefore was the sense in insisting on lime-mortar !?

Sheep-fold in Black Mountain, Carms.

The Cwmllwyd Sheep-fold as it stands today, re-modelled and totally rebuilt in 1998 by Welshwaller – with no lime-mortar !

The 1998 programme of fold repair was funded under a European scheme managed by the Brecon Beacons National Park and as such was more about returning the fold to a usable sheep-management structure than retaining it’s historic integrity.  However, even then it was a requirement that the archaeology was to be respected and recorded.

Originally the officers of the Park and the Archaeologists had assumed the folds were of dry stone wall construction.  Such was the state of Cwmllwyd that was an understandable view; no walls were left standing and the whole area was filled to the top with years of manure from both sheep and mountain ponies.  Such was the amount of waste to be removed it was necessary to engage an earth moving machine.  Luckily the local man, ‘Ivor the Engine’ (as I call him) was on hand.  He was a mainstay of years of wall rebuilding which I undertook in the Gwynfe area from the early 1990s. Another mainstay of that earlier rebuild was a local farmer, John Booth, a man of great presence and a real character, not withstanding he hails from the High Peak !

Pizzle stick

John showing me his prize ‘pizzle’ stick. A real character and a highly respected ‘blow-in’ who hailed from the Derbyshire area.

This time whilst I was doing some repairs at Cwmllwyd, John brought me two really interesting pieces from his collection of old farming artefacts.  I knew what they were but had never seen one outside of a museum, they are quite rare and highly sought after.

The ‘Pizzle’ stick is just a stick which a farmer used to goad cattle.  It is the penis bone from an Ox …. he had two but would he give me one of them ….

Penis bone of Ox

John Booth’s highy prized ‘pizzle’ stick which I understand was his father’s. I want one

The repairs to Cwmllwyd fold was in two parts, firstly some dry stone walling and, secondly, a section of mortar wall which had begun to collapse.

The stone in the folds, because they were originally built with lime-mortar, is unsuited to being built using a dry stone technique.  The big problem is that they are far too short to allow the stone to be secured to a sufficient depth into the wall.  I call them ‘loaves’ as they are very much like an old oven-baked loaf of bread.  Mind you, some of them would have been just right for a certain feast on the shores of Galilee !  Boys boys they are big and heavy.  When I say they are heavy, I mean even 16 years ago I well remember struggling with them, you can imagine the grunting and explosive expletives this time around !

The geology of the area is somewhat erratic, whilst Old Red Sandstone predominates, and is excellent for dry stone walling, there also occurs large blocks of silica and basalt as well as some limestone blocks which get washed down from the escarpment above the folds.  The stone was clearly gathered from nearby stream beds which are deeply cut and can run quite forcefully in spate.  Thus the stones are rounded off and quite smooth, another incompatibility for dry stone building.  The cope-stones are the real biggies; oh yes, they are serious lumps of silica which weigh well over 100lb/60kg+ !

A stripped out wall at Cwmllwyd

Great blocks of stone with enormous copes is what this section was built with.

I had to strip out a 4 metre length of retaining wall at the top of the fold – the fold is dug into the base of the hill and is bounded on three sides by streams.  The wall, which I had indeed rebuilt in 1998, was showing signs of bulging outwards and threatening to collapse.  When stripping-out a collapse in a wall, a ‘gap’, it is usual to discover the offending stone or reason for that collapse.  In this case I could find no positive reason for the bulging, there was no pressure from behind as is often the case in a retaining wall.  I guess it was just badly built !  The other dry stone sections were smaller and  the reason for the collapse more easily discerned.  The base of the sections had been eroded by sheep lying against them.

Sheep-fold in Gwynfe

The mortared curve is cracking out !

The mortared walls were mostly sound but there was one piece, a curved boundary wall, which was cracking and moving, again caused by some erosion of the footing.  I was sad to see that particular problem as it had been the section I was most pleased with when I did the original restoration.  It is guaranteed that things never go back quite the same !

The section was very tall on the outside and somewhat dangerous.  Large stones can suddenly dislodge and if you are in the wrong position it can result in some ‘hurt’ …  The problem with dismantling a wall is that one can never know which is the critical stone, the one which is holding the others together and by merely moving one small stone a whole huge section can instantly collapse – tres dangereux !

A wall in need of attention at Cwmllwyd fold

Slowly but surely this curved section has been moving outward and would eventually collapse. At over 6ft high it was quite dangerous !

There was nothing to be done other than take the whole section down – and stand clear…

The foundation had again been undermined by sheep lying against the foot of the wall and eroding the soil.  Thus it was necessary to dig lower into the subsoil to set the new foundations.  Then it was just a case of slowly coming back up.  Luckily I had the assistance of Miss Carolina for that task which meant we could build both sides simultaneously.  It also meant I didn’t have to do all the mixing !

I had decided to ignore the demands of a lime mortar rebuild and instead used a stronger sand, dust, cement mix (2:2:1) for the laying of the stones but did use lime to ‘dub’ out (point) the joints – a sort of ‘trompe-l’oeil’ if you like !

Lime pointing on sheep-fold

The lime pointing is clear for ‘all’ to see ! Even the sheep seem impressed …

I used a washed river sand and a hydraulic lime which sets more quickly in the proportions of 2:1.  River sand has a different particulate, more like sharp sand, and also does not have the salt impurity of sea sand (normal building sand).  The ‘Hereford washed’ as it is known, is also more in keeping with the red sandstone of the area.

As for Nant Ffarchog, well that was far less complicated but seemed to take a little longer.  Some repairs to the mortared walls were again required and I used the same technique.  In some sections repairs were required to more recently built stone walls where cement pointing was evident and so there that’s what we used.

Fallen wall at Nant Ffarchog

A typical example of the repairs required at Nant Ffarchog – ‘blown’ sections like these are troublesome to repair.

Luckily the weather held fair as this site is notable for the mud.  The fold originally incorporated a ‘wash’ where flocks could be dipped in clean water before being marched home for shearing.  That was obliterated many years past and re-designing of the fold means there is little in the way of historic interest.

Nevertheless, this fold is an extremely important one with a dozen or so farms using it to gather and sort flocks off the hill.  The sheep-walks extend over the limestone slopes of the Black mountain as far as Brynamman in the south-east  and the outskirts of the Ammanford area in the west.  To the north the hill is bounded by the rivers Cennen and Loughor, the former running westwards and passing under the great rocky limestone outcrop on which sits Carreg Cennen castle.  The Loughor emerges from a cave in a field in an area known as ‘Pal y Cwrt’, the ancient demesne lands of the castle.  The Loughor springs forth from a large limestone cave system which extends eastwards as far as the valley of the Tawe and Dan yr Ogof caves.  Some years ago I was repairing the great limestone wall of the ‘Cwrt’ which was the boundary of the very field in which the river emerged.  There was a man living in a motor-home for weeks at a time and he spent every day down in that dark hole determined to find the passage that linked the system with the well known 7 mile system that surrounds Dan yr Ogof.  It was lovely early Spring sunshine and I remember asking him why he wasted the day light and the beautiful weather and superb scenery to spend his days in darkness and mud.  “Why not go down at night?” I asked, given that he was in darkness anyway.  “Do you know ? I never thought of that!”, he said.  And that’s what he did !  Alas he never did succeed in breaking through as each time he went away – he spent a week at a time before returning to his job in Bristol – rain would cause the underground streams to wash yet more debris into the narrow ‘squeeze’ which blocked his path.  I was also able to explain to him why he was always cutting his wet-suit and coming to the surface with bloodied hands and knees.  Silica, the hills around abound with it and it is hellish sharp and hard.  So much so that silica sand from exactly that spot was the highly prized and expensive abrasive used by farmers to sharpen their scythes, using a ‘rip’ or strickle.

Sorry, I digress !!  Meanwhile, back at Nant Ffarchog fold a lady was diligently pointing and I was re-setting the ‘blown’ sections.  We also replaced around 25 metres of large cope-stones but were unable to complete the task.  Which is why I ended up back there last week.

Pointing a wall

This lady has a peculiar liking for the ‘precise’, it kept her quiet for hours and hours – wish we’d had more to do …

There was much clearing of the ground to be done in readiness for a covering of stone.  The fold sits on a number of springs – the permeable limestone and sandstone sit on a  layer of heavy impermeable clay and thus water emits from the ground when it hits that layer.  For most of the winter and indeed summer if it is a wet one, the whole area is a real quagmire which makes it a difficult place to herd and sort sheep.  In order to try to alleviate the problem the renovation grant includes money to clean the site and bring in stone to lay over the pens and create some roadways.

Unfortunately the man to do the job was busy elsewhere until the Christmas break.  Luckily a frosty period of weather came in and he and I were able to do our bit.  His was somewhat more extensive, several hundred tons of stone were lorried in !

Stone comes to Nant Ffarchog

Darren, son of  ‘Ivor the Engine’ gets moving several hundred tons of stone.

Darren is the son of the said ‘Ivor the Engine’, he has ‘machine driven’ in his father’s footsteps so to speak.(I realise many of my readers will not be aware of ‘Ivor the Engine’ having not been enthralled by the exploits of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ …)  He duly arrived with two earth moving machines, a massive dumper truck and a good helper and set forth to clear the site.  Throughout the two days I spent there a constant stream of 16 ton loads of stone arrived and was hurriedly dispersed around the site.  By the time I had finished my little stone wall most of the area was covered in nice dry clean stone and there only remained one day of tidying left to do.

The wall I had to build was a small retaining wall which supports the ramps up to the pens.  Again the fold is ‘dug-in’ to the hill and has several tiers, very much like Cwmllwyd, and so numerous gates and steps, ramps and lunkies are used to move sheep up and down and all around.

The small retaining wall is again built with stone that is brought from the hill and the stream bed - not the best really !

The small retaining wall is again built with stone that is brought from the hill and the stream bed – not the best really !

And so it is done, another sheep fold repaired.  The year has been one of folds really.  The two Black Mountain folds were enjoyable for me as they re-connected me to an area and folk I had not seen for a while.  The hills of the Gwynfe parish gave me over ten years of walling work and during that time I got to know the farmers and the other ‘countryside’ workers.  They are networks that oil the cohesive nature of rural communities.  It seems to matter not that I now live some distance away, the people of the area still think of me as their ‘Waller’, and that warms the cockles of my heart !

I also took time to visit with another old customer/friend for whom I had built hundreds of yards of walls under the very first Agri/Environment scheme, Tir Cymen.  I am very fond of him and his lovely young wife and it seems I will be doing some work for him early in 2015.  He has the envious position of walking out of his door each morning and looking at the great edifice that is Carreg Cennen castle.

Carreg Cennen

Silhouetted against the western sky, Carreg Cennen is my all-time favourite Welsh Castle.

However, the real gem he holds is a very important medieval farmstead and it is there that Welshwaller will be spending much of the coming months.

Thanks to all of you who continue to follow my exploits and endure my rants.  Thanks especially to those who take the trouble to comment and compliment.  You are a ‘select’ group, possibly in need of some therapy or counselling but definitely ‘my kind of folk’ !!

Diolch yn Fawr ich y gyd








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