“Why what’s the matter that you have such a February face ? So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness…” (WS: Much Ado about nowt)

That my face is full of frost is very true; so, for that matter, are my boots, my gloves and my upstairs rooms !! Lordie I live in a cold house…. Insulation is a wonderful thing, it keeps temperatures constant.  Thus, in summer my little hovel in the hills remains blessedly cool regardless of the tropical heat outdoors.  In the dead of winter however, it remains cursedly cold, absurdly so.  The only way I can keep my butter soft enough to spread is to keep it in the fridge !

These last few weeks I have been severely beaten about the nether regions by icy blasts and wild westerlies.  One day, gales and rain, the next snow and ice, a real January cocktail for sure.  Of late clear skies have seen temperatures maintained at several degrees below and the snow that fell on the Cambrian mountains shows no sign of wanting to be gone.  I have not ventured too far, just a few small jobs and then home to my medieval ice house.  But there is an upside to living in a hovel, the bugs and viruses stay away; ‘touch-wood’ no winter sneezes have attacked as yet, as long as I can stay away from zones of infection, such as supermarkets and doctor’s surgeries, I have a chance, slim though it may be.

Fortunately – in a way – I have nothing too pressing in the matter of wall building.  The filo-fax is  markedly blank when it comes to work awaiting attack but that is not the reality, it’s just a measure of how easily I forget the jobs that are out there and which I have promised to do but have merely forgotten to write down.  Two are near at hand and have been ‘on-the-floor’ for over a year now, I’m ashamed to say.  To make matters worse they are at the estate mansion and M’lady is beginning to frown at me;  I am playing the sympathy vote, pleading on her sensibilities to not expect me to suffer outdoor in the winter…. but as she keeps reminding me, “That’s what you said LAST year!”

The first work of the year was a small renovation of a dry stone wall at a site near Ebbw Vale in the valleys.  The old steel town was host to one of the great Garden Festivals which, if memory serves me correctly, Michael Heseltine proposed, an attempt to breathe new life into ailing industrial areas where the old capital industries were in rapid decline in the later years of the Thatcher government.  The early 1990s saw much re-development of the old steelworks and a rather splendid Festival took place which has left a legacy of some kind.  Mainly it is out-of-town retail parks and some landscaping of the old brown-field site.

My journey was to take me through the modernised town to a small side valley where a rather remarkable piece of woodland exists.  The ‘Silent Valley’ is a natural beech wood, apparently the most westerly and highest natural beech wood in Britain.  It would be more aptly named the ‘Secret Valley’ as very few know of its existence.  Today it is managed as a nature reserve by the Gwent Wildlife Trust out of their offices at the Environment Centre on the old industrial site.  I first became aware of it in 1996 when post Garden Festival work was being carried out to enhance the environmental aspects of both the steelworks and the festival areas.  I visited the beech woods with volunteers from the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) to train them in woodland management techniques and tree identification (difficult in a purely beech infested woodland !).

Silent Valley Ebbw Vale

The staff and volunteer of Gwent Wildlife Trust at the Silent Valley site where the newly renovated dry stone wall guards the entrance.

The entrance to the car park is bounded by a small dry stone wall which had become damaged and was beginning to look a little tatty.  My role was to oversee the restoration by staff and volunteers for whom I was to provide some basic instruction in the technique of dry stone walling.

The wall is not old, it was built back in the late 1990s at the time the area became a nature reserve.  The stone is the local Pennant Sandstone which is a good stone for walling as it presents in nicely flat-bedded slabs.  It is the underlying stone of the coalfield and is heavily laden with ferrous deposits giving it a rusty brown hue which mixes with the over-riding grey.  The cope-stones are set vertically in the manner common to the area and markedly different to the copes in my usual zones of operation.

A day was sufficient to complete the repair and I was thankful for that, snow lay thickly on my route home and indeed all around my little homestead.  I’m to return to the site in October to take part in an open-day at the nature reserve – writing that into my diary seemed rather meaningless, experience tells me it will soon appear !

My next sojourn took me west to another of my regular building sites.  Firstly my annual visit to the deer park wall of the old Edwinsford estate near Llansawel where the Dinas quarry hosts my ‘winter school’.  Each year a section of the old 2 metre high wall seems to give in to the ravages of age and weather and decides to fall.  Fortunately this year it was a mere 3 metres long but it still took me two days to clear away the fallen stone and rebuild the section.  I was relieved to see a mass of lime mortar residue in the fallen stone indicating clearly it was NOT a section I had already repaired.  The problem for me is that the stone in the length of wall where these collapses occur is very suitable for a mortared wall but not at all suitable for dry stone walling; it tends to be small and of odd shape with no discernible bedding plane.  No doubt I will return !

Next it was to the hills of Gwynfe where I recently attended to the sheepfolds.  This time it was to finally honour a promise I made ten years or more ago to a very good friend and customer for whom I had built several kilometres of wall under the Tir Cymen agri-environment scheme of the mid 1990s.  It is an insignificant piece of wall, a small garden retaining wall in reality but, oh my, it is a place of such history and eminence in the area and such a tranquil place to work.

Close to the great edifice of the only truly Welsh castle, Carreg Cennen, the farm is of medieval origin and the land and buildings demonstrate the wealth of history in which it is immersed.  The fields are large and have bank and ditch boundaries and may well have been a part of the desmesne land of the castle (the ‘home farm’ of the Lord or King).  Nearby is a farm the name of which clearly indicates the historic nature of the area, Rhandir, which denotes the small strips of land worked by each bonded slave of the manor for his subsistence.  Lying south of the small market town of Llandeilo and its own Welsh castle of Dinefwr, the great limestone crag on which stands Carreg Cennen is by far the best kept secret of pre Norman Wales – go take a look !!

Carreg Cennen skyline

The dark silhouette of Carreg Cennen dominates the southern sky from the ancient landscape.

The homestead and farm buildings are of a much later period The barns clearly indicate just how productive an arable farm it was and thus how important it would have been to the Kings and Princes of Deheuberth who inhabited the area  over a thousand years ago.

I would love to be involved in the restoration of this important piece of Welsh historical architecture but alas it requires skills beyond those of a mere dry stone waller !  I’ll do my bit, and the small garden wall is a start.

It is there, honestly it is, hidden in the overgrown hedgerow, the remnants of a Ha-ha actually though the ditch is much filled.

It is there, honestly it is, hidden in the overgrown hedgerow, the remnants of a Ha-ha actually though the ditch is much filled.

As can be seen in the photo above, the garden wall is not the only stonework that needs attention; the whole corner of the house is fracturing out and the buttresses evidence it has been a centuries old problem !

The great barns and stable show just what a productive farm this was.

The great barns and stable show just what a productive farm this was.

The whole place is an absolute idyll and I wish I could do more to assist my old friend to restore it to its former greatness.  For now I’ll have to content myself with some small repairs to an old dry stone Ha-ha….  Nature abounds in the quiet of the animal-less yard and the buildings are home to many birds and creatures.  The gloriously cold but sunny day was greatly enhanced when my rattlings disturbed a large Barn Owl from his slumbers and he drifted out over the open fields.  Folklore advises seeing an owl in daylight foretells death…… a little worrying !!

As February slides onward to Spring and nothing but clear skies and frosty mornings greet each day, it’s hard to think that maybe, just maybe, winter is behind us…. On the other hand, I’m still crunching over frozen snow as I battle on keeping the Laird supplied with much needed fire-wood.

Diary from the Trenches:

In February 1915 my great uncle Dick wrote:

Monday 1st Feb:    Relieve No. 1 company in Trenches.

2nd.    In trenches.  Germans shelled but no loss. Put up barbed wire.

3rd.    T. Murray & J. Day killed. Relieved by No. 4 company.

4th.    Helped with rations.  Heavy gun firing at night.

5th.    Ditto.  Plenty of firing going on.

6th.    Received parcel from mother also diaries.

7th.    Guardsman Paddear (?) and I had tea together.  Buffy ordered me back to platoon.

8th.    Absent off parade at 10.45,  Digging all night.

9th.    Buffy give me 9 nights digging.   Relieved not in trenches. Dangerous place.

10th.   In trenches. VERY narrow escape from OUR shells !

11th.   In trenches. 2 narrow escapes.  Relieved by No. 4 company.

12th.   Billeting in Fabrice.  Easy day.  Buffy goes home on furlough.

13th.   Mother’s birthday, 50th. Easy day. Cake from P & E.

14th.   Have food with Gdm 8. Good time.

 

In the following week the diary reports a cold spell of clear weather which causes great discomfort in the trenches where ice forms and digging becomes really arduous.  A century later I’m grateful for clear skies and dry ground, how many years have I endured a February so wet that every step becomes a challenge to extricate stuck wellington boots; I’m grateful too for my mid 20th century birth, at least my wet February months did not involve keeping my head down in a rat infested mud hole of a Flanders trench…

For now Welshwaller is wrapped well against the frosty nights and is more than happy to scrape the windscreen…. it’s just a shame the Welsh rugby boys didn’t think to clear their windshields before venturing out into the cold of a Cardiff night, maybe they would have done better to have faced up to it sooner instead of hiding in the warm changing rooms whilst the foe stood bravely on the field of battle….  Sometimes I despair… what numb-skulls do we have in charge of organising the greatest of all Welsh battles? Do they think blasting the sky with fire-works and rendering everyone deaf and blind with smoke and laser lights is the appropriate prelude ?  Lord save us from politicians and X factor seduced promo men at the WRU …..

Come to think of it, there is a perfectly good fit-for-purpose dungeon in Carreg Cennen castle ….

 

 

 

 

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