Solitude is the best prophylactic…

As soon as I walked through the door I knew I was in trouble, serious trouble.  The place was wriggling with ‘Little people’; some running and tripping, some crawling, others sitting comfortably and threateningly in their designer pushchairs and yet more huddled in groups glued to the screen of some hand-held techie thing.  The give away was the constant appearance of tissues in the hands of the doting mothers as they leaned forward to grab the back of the head of their offspring and slam the horrid dripping nose into their other hand in which was hidden the miserly paper. I was doomed, I had stupidly come down out of the hills for the first time since late autumn straight into a trap.  Sure enough that two hours on a Saturday afternoon was to turn into an expensive and very unpleasant week.

Being a man I am adversely affected by simple little germs that leave their hosts untouched.  Mothers too seem to be immune to the wretched chest ripping sneezing and dam burst noses that render me pathetically comatose.  What to the female of the species is a mere ‘head-cold’ to me turns into a near death experience where each cough or sneeze feels like a wire brush is being dragged through my thorax and my head feels as if an orange has grown in my skull.  I am pathetic, a useless lump of dead meat just waiting for the last breath to relieve me from the most diabolical of life’s experiences.  By Monday evening the inexplicable headache had me confused, Tuesday morning saw me wake with the beginnings of a sore throat and fear rose in me.  I attacked the invaders with all the dosing I could muster and indeed by Wednesday evening I was confident I had beaten the wretched germs.  So much so that I set forth on Thursday to plant some trees.  By that evening, with rain teeming down, I retreated to my maggot sleeping bag and proceeded to become really, really pathetic, to my mind, seriously, seriously ill.  I don’t care that it’s just a cold or even if it is flu, man or otherwise.  I don’t care if it’s Nora or Gladys or Janice virus or pneumonia (which a friend of mine endured around Christmas time), I don’t care, as the famous Spike’s epitaph states, “I told you I was ill!”

So, here I am, on Monday, a week later and  some four days into this nightmare, just about to open the fifth box of tissues, trying to construct a blog post of the more interesting events in the life of Welshwaller in the last couple of weeks, here goes …

To begin at the place of infection is to transport you briefly to the Oriel in Carmarthen, a gallery that exhibits some of the finest works of the current artists in Wales.  Several of my family and friends were to be present at the opening of a new exhibition by Wales’ prima-female artist blacksmith, Angharad Pierce-Jones.  Har, as she is known to us all, has a growing status as an innovative and perceptive sculptor in the medium of metal.  She is married to the son of my cousin (I think that makes him ‘first cousin once removed’ rather than a second cousin, but who knows !) and thus I call her’my relative’!  This time she has gone back to the outsized representation of everyday objects such as her huge chairs at the Cywain Centre in Bala.  Perhaps because she has spent the last two years behind one, this current astounding design features the simple pram – or push-chair to be precise.

Pram in the Hallway by Angharad Pierce-Jones

Angharad Pierce-Jones stands behind her latest offering, the ‘Pram in the Hall’ on display in Oriel, Carmarthen.

It is an intriguing construction of mega steel and moon-buggy wheels surrounded by a myriad of kids toys set in what looks like a mass of elephant poo but is, in fact, the slag remnants from the plasma cutting operations at her supplier, Dyfed Steel.  The idea is a challenge to a rather infamous quote by Cyril Connolly which suggests that “there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”.   The whole exhibit is up-front and smacks you straight in the face as you walk into the hall.  The great yellow steel beams represent the ‘hall’ in which the 8 foot high pram is ‘left’.  Apparently there were grave concerns about the ability of the floor to take the weight – over a ton of pram and the same again of beams plus another several tons of people and more pushchairs !!

Angharad Pierce-Jones' Pram in the Hall

Pram in the Hall is nothing if not HEAVY and it is certainly an interesting mix of surreal and every-day.

Pram behind bars

‘Pram behind bars’ maybe more apt …

The weight of the pushchair, sorry, PRAM, was such that the frame buckled just as the installation was finished hence the two chromium joints on each main arm !  I did wonder whether the yellow beams represented more of a prison rather than a hall; perhaps a reflection of how a mother feels after the years of pushing it and caring for its occupant …

I did ask what was to become of it afterwards …. with a little engine I could well make use of it soon !

Stone has not featured these last couple of weeks, it has been all timber, in one form or another.  As March marches on the time for cutting and planting is fast running out and there is yet much to be done – another reason this damn lay-off is such a nuisance.  Each winter I try to fell a sufficient amount of hardwood to see me through another winter some years hence.  Ideally I like to be at least three years ahead, that is timber which I fell this winter will not be burned until the winter of 2017/18.  I was fortunate to have a major supply dropped for me some three years ago, ash trees which had become threateningly big.  In addition I have a coppice rotation of hazel which makes up the old hedgerows around my boundary and that forms the mainstay of my winter fuel.  Hazel is by far my favourite for my wood stove, it is generally of small diameter and grows well once coppiced.  I have yet to complete the first fell of some of the old hedgerow hazels which are now enormous and provide an excellent amount of timber per cut.

Relict hedgerow of hazel

This relict hedgerow has masses of old hazel awaiting coppicing.

The history of woodland management places hazel right at the top of the ‘most useful’ timber, perhaps alongside ash and then alder.  It is a great tree for providing thin wands which were traditionally used for hurdle making and for sticks to be used in horticulture.  Today, apart from one or two older folk who still like hazel rods rather than bamboo for their runner beans, the only use of this tree is for ornate stick making.  Even the ‘cob’ nut is not harvested, except by the pesky squirrels !

Hazel tree felled for fuel

One tree provides a plentiful supply of good fuel.

Once the old trees are coppiced there is a mass of timber of all sizes which, within a year, can provide excellent kindling, medium and larger logs.  The smaller diameter wood needs to be burned by end of year two or it will start to rot out, even the larger timber can be burned then but I like to leave it a little longer.  It needs to be stored in a dry place preferably just a roofed shed with no sides which lets the air blow through.

Once the old trees are coppiced it immediately starts to re-grow.  If you imagine the mass of foliage which the old tree produces each year via its huge root system it is not surprising that the growth in the first year after cutting can be as much as 6 feet/180cms.  Left for 5 years the tree produces a mass of 2″/5cm to 4″/10cms diameter rods and left for another 5 years a mass of 6″ rods can be harvested.  If you want to talk sustainability then the hazel has it in abundance.

6 year hazel coppice

a 6 year coppice is already providing some good fuel and useful rods.

Alas today the many hedgerows which are full of hazel are not managed in a way which sustains the plants, instead they are trashed by a flailing chain which does nothing for re-growth nor aesthetic in the countryside.

I have a hedgerow which was coppiced and fenced (to keep sheep away from the re-growth) some ten years ago and is now in need of laying into a stock-proof hedge.

I also have, on my track, an old hazel hedge which is annual massacred as well as the one which has had no attention probably for fifty years and more.  Perhaps now that the Laird is in need of so much timber for his insatiable furness which heats the vast mansion, hedgerow management and a coppice cycle might be re-introduced.

The annual flailing of this hedge, as with most others, results in a thin spindly line of sticks which are too thinly spread to be useful for nesting birds and certainly would not be stock-proof.

The annual flailing of this hedge, as with most others, results in a thin spindly line of sticks which are too thinly spread to be useful for nesting birds and certainly would not be stock-proof.

Coppiced hedgerow

This hedgerow was coppiced some 10 years ago and is now ready for laying

Hazel hedge of hazel

This hedgerow is urgently in need of coppicing.

Ash is the other species which was traditionally coppiced and highly prized in a number of joinery tasks.  It too provides excellent fuel which can be quickly utilised after felling.  Within three to four months the split timber can easily and cleanly be burned and hence it is a good stop gap timber when supplies run low.

“For ashwood green and ashwood brown is fit for a Queen with a golden crown.”

So says an old countryside proverb and it is indeed an excellent timber for fire and turning.

It has occupied a great deal of my time of late, moving timber from the store sheds to the mansion and it has come as something of a shock to the three of us who are responsible for keeping the supplies flowing, that we are down to our last six weeks of wood !  So much for being ahead of the game.  Luckily a large line of ash trees needed to be felled as they were creating too much shade in the adjacent field in which the farmer grows his turnips.  A fifteen metre wide strip of failed crop is clear for all to see after this season’s failure.

Newly felled ash trees

These ash trees will be in the oven within six months.

The two ‘chainsaw massacre men’, Will and Luke, were like kids at Euro Disney.  For some strange reason there’s nothing they enjoy more than felling trees and slicing them up with their noisy, smelly chainsaws.  I have wondered whether it is something to do with wearing the bright orange PPE (personal protection equipment) and Foreign legion type head-gear.  Whatever the reason I am grateful they are up for the job because it is a young man’s sport and I am more than happy with just felling my own supplies.  The slice through the trunk and the crash of the tree as it hits the ground is just the start.  The sneading-up of the tree and then the huge amount of clearing is quite staggering.  Both ash and hazel produce a massive amount of brash that has to be sorted, piled and burnt or chipped and it all has to be sorted and moved.

Luke drops another - and he loves it !

Luke drops another – and he loves it !

Fortunately I am in a position to make amends for all the environmental damage and increase in the CO2 levels which my/our tree felling causes.  Each year, as I have mentioned previously, I ensure that I plant at least a hundred hardwood trees and in most years this is exceeded.

As I write I am awaiting an end to this damned infection so as to return to a job I began a week ago.  I, and my little helper, have to plant around 2 thousand hedgerow plants in four locations at the farm near the great castle of Carreg Cennen where we recently cleared a wall.  As part of his Glastir Advanced farm scheme the farmer has to restore some 250 metres of relict hedgerow.  The hedge banks have already been coppiced where required – not much as it turns out – and the earth mounded back up then the required double fencing has been installed.  Thus all we have to do is plant the new trees in neat rows along the top of the banks.

Planting young trees in a hedgerow

Here goes, just 2 thousand bare root baby trees to plant – before it gets warm !

However, there is a little mathematics involved.  For a start some clown up the line has determined that there has to be eight plants per metre.  That is every 25 cms in two parallel rows and in a staggered box formation.  In addition 60% of the total must be thorn, of which, in turn, 60% is to be hawthorn and 40% blackthorn.  Then the remainder must be interspersed in singles and must include at least another three native hedgerow species.  It is something of a nightmare to try to remember where and when let alone what, goes in where.

I chose the first one thousand plants as follows; 600 thorn in the percentage above, two hundred hazel, being the next most common hedgerow species in these parts, fifty crab apple, fifty oak, fifty wild cherry and fifty rowan.  The next thousand will differ slightly as the ground is somewhat wetter and I will include willow and alder.

My method is to get ‘my little helper’ (who has a conveniently large size 14 boot) to make a small 5cm diameter hole at the specified distance along a relatively straight line on top of the hedgebank.  Then he works his way down the other side leaving a 30 cm or so gap between the two rows and the holes alternate to the ones he has already made.  Simple !  Except ….

The ancient hedge-bank which never was a 'hedgerow' but now is to become one ..

The ancient hedge-bank which never was a ‘hedgerow’ but now is to become one ..

The first two sections were old hedgerows of probable post-medieval date (being on land previously a strip field system or rhandir  worked by the bonded slaves of the Lord of Carreg Cennen castle which looms over the fields) and which had already been re-made and fenced.  The bank was mainly of soil with few stones and hence making the holes was relatively easy.

The trick is to ensure no air is left around the tiny fibrous roots of the young plants and also that the soil is not compacted around them or those same tiny roots will not be able to penetrate.  My method is to place the plant in the pre-made hole and then cut up the ground around with a spade just as when digging a garden.  That serves to aerate the soil and loosen the ground around the root system.  Normally I  soak the roots for an hour or so prior to planting.

The final section of hedgerow planting took me back to the land where much of my walling was done back in the 1990s.  Several kilometres of dry stone walls cover the upper reaches of the hill which, prior to the Napoleonic Wars, was at one time the open ffriddoed  of the township, that is to say it was the common grazing of those farmers who lived nearby.  An Enclosure Act of 1812 allowed its ‘inclosing’ into the fields which we see today.  The original boundary was a large earth bank with ditches on either side as was the norm.  That bank, or more correctly that ‘hedge’, still exists and is an historic feature of the upland zone.  Unfortunately the clot who is in charge of this particular Glastir farm programme has decided it is a ‘traditional’ hedgerow (it is a common error to read old ‘hedge’ as meaning the same as the hedges we talk about today) despite the absolute evidence to the contrary, like NO trees !  (Apart from one or two old hawthorn and one small oak all of which are out of the obvious line of any old hedge that may have been present).  Furthermore the environment, altitude, exposure to high wind and rainfall, predetermines that hedges will not successfully grow.  The existence of dry stone walls might be a clue !!

Oh, I am so weary of having to deal with the idiotic rules of Environmental on-farm schemes constructed by so-called experts in the highly paid departments of the various agricultural departments.  The 8 plants per metre, the current ‘thinking’,  was once 6 plants per metre and before that, in the first programmes, was 4 plants per metre.  The double row system came from I know not where, it is certainly NEVER present in an old hedge.  The increase is to try to alleviate the 30% loss of plants expected (because they are either badly planted or badly maintained)  thus leaving a sufficient number of healthy plants with which to ultimately ‘make’ a hedge.  Except a hedge will never be made, there is no chance that any of these hedges will ever be laid into a ‘traditional’ – and manageable – hedgerow which gives  longevity to the trees therein.  They will never be expected to fulfil the role of a stock-proof barrier, their original purpose, no, instead a fence either side, at immense cost and environmental damage in terms of its manufacture and its installation, the steel and the chemicals that fails to preserve the posts etc etc,  keep sheep away.

Now if there was a one third loss it might give the hedge a chance , it might give the individual trees a chance to grow into healthy adult trees.  There are, however, two major problems; firstly if 30% do fail the farmer is heavy penalised, a financial penalty of hundreds of pounds which he gets hit with twice.  This current farmer, a long standing customer of over 20 years whom I regard as a friend, got fined £500 last year as a number of plants had died (in fact they hadn’t died at all, they had been flattened by the tall grass growing inside the double fencing – as nothing can graze it ! – but were happily growing horizontally, a common occurrence).  As if that wasn’t bad enough, he then suffered the same penalty from his Single Farm Payment, the European grant to all farmers.  Where the hell is the justice in that !?

The ditch and bank formed the cattle barrier, maybe built back in the Iron age - that old hawthorn is NOT the remnants of a hedge!!

The ditch and bank formed the cattle barrier, maybe built back in the Iron age – that old hawthorn is NOT the remnants of a hedge!!

So, here we are, having to plant a stupid number of young trees on a bank that is an important historic feature which never had a hedge growing on it, in an environment (look at the vegetation, what chance do the young trees have of ever growing ?!!) totally unsuitable and, when it fails, the farmer will get hammered.  That is the incompetence those of us working with supposed agri-environment schemes have to deal with.

Having spent some time helping farmers to put together their applications to the current Glastir scheme, I know just how absurd much of the science which is supposed to underpin these regulations really is.  Why doesn’t anyone study the ‘tradition’ they are so eager to promote.  Little Miss R can bloody well look out when I bump into her !

My poor friend/customer lives in total fear (as do most farmers I know, who are in the ‘scheme’) of doing something inadvertently which costs him large amounts of money when the dreaded Gestapo, the inspector who comes to check up on all that has been done, comes around.

All I can do is my best, to plant the young trees in a manner that gives them a chance of survival and trust to nature to help me.  Of course, at the absurd closeness they stand to each other they will not be able to produce enough leaves and hence photosynthesis will be limited which in turn stunts growth. In truth all I am planting is a line of trees which may or may not ever grow into a linear wood.  It won’t be a hedge but it will have some habitat benefit.  Fortunately there are still some folk who are willing to either do, or pay to have done, the old way of managing a hedgerow – laying it in the customary way, in my part of the world that means ‘Breconshire style’.

A newly and magnificently laid hedge along the nearby main road, done in the Breconshire style with the hazel heatherings along the top.

A newly and magnificently laid hedge along the nearby main road, done in the Breconshire style with the hazel heatherings along the top.

It is such a joy to see the product of a fellow country craftsman.

But my travails are as nothing, indeed, ARE nothing to what my Great Uncle Dick was enduring a century ago…

Sunday 14th March.   Church service in Factory.  2 parades and bath.

15th.  Advance practise by whole Battalion.

16th.  Relieved Essex.  My dear friend G.M. Saltery killed near Despery farm.

17th.  Corporal Williams killed. Bert Watkins and many others wounded.

18th.  Lt. Roberts killed.  Germans shelled Kings Own trenches.

19th.  Fall of snow.  Awful cold.  Dreadful day.

20th.  Relieved by Essex.  Bad time.  31 killed and many wounded. Came out through communication trench.  Awful 4 days for us in trenches.  Lt. Henshaw and Capt. Walddo(?) wounded. 37 killed and wounded.

22nd.  Easy day in Billets.  Narrow escape from shells.

23rd.  Easy day in Billet.

24th.  Communications trench open.  Relieved Essex in A3 trench.  Wet night.

25th.  Wet day.  Plenty of work digging in trenches.

26th.  Digging new trench at Nobervern (?) Very cold.

27th.  Leicesters joined at night.  Digging trenches.  Good haul of fireworks.

Letter from Mr. Mathews. Bit of a predicament.

28th.   Relieved by Essex at night.  Only 1 killed and 1 wounded.

29th.  In Billets.  Had letter from mother and Maggie.

30th.  2 Parades.  Easy time.

31st.  2 Parades.  Easy time.


Spring is upon us and an eclipse of the sun is bringing some (unexplained) excitement for tomorrow.  But for Welshwaller the amazing site of the Northern Lights setting the night sky rippling fluorescent green has been enough excitement for one week.

That and the first dollops of FROG  SPAWN – oh yes, frog spawn definitely means Spring …  I know, sad isn’t it !!







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