Spring loaded

Once again I have been terribly remiss in my narrative; the sudden onset of an early Spring has caught me on the hop.  What a pleasant few weeks have befallen Welshwaller.  The first harbinger of warmer times appeared on April 7th, swooping low over the lake of the mansion as I sat enjoying a late afternoon cup of tea with m’Lady of the house.  She being a ‘city’ girl saw absolutely no significance, partly because she didn’t know what it was I was pointing excitedly at and also she would not have a care other than “oh great, now there will be droppings everywhere!”.  No matter, I was thrilled and whilst it was not strictly ‘my place’, where the swallows normally arrive about the 12th, it was an early siting and I did not have to wait long until the skies around my little homestead was full of them. I had begun to see signs out on the hill too.  Tadpoles were suddenly swarming in a shallow muddy pool which I had to step over to reach my work station and the tell tale dart of something in the molinia as I brushed through, indicated that lizards had awoken.  Wheatears were bobbing on the top of the wall and there was an all around sense that nature was getting busy.  The downside of the lack of rain is that those baby trees I planted in the new hedgerows down near Carreg Cennen will be dying as it is for sure the farmer will not have thought to water them, despite me nagging him before I left.  I have been diligent about watering my fifty or so saplings especially the willow which needs a very damp ground to set roots.  The fields round about and the hill where I am working are full of lambs of course and their playful chases and merry japes amuse me all day through.

Tadpoles in a pool

A small puddle is all that a frog needs to be persuaded to dump a whole load of spawn, which eventually hatch ! But will they survive ?

Lizard on rock

A young Common Lizard warms itself in the early spring sunshine.

I have mainly been constructing a new gate-way in a field wall and doing some small repairs along its length.  It is back in the area where I spent most of last year, the Gilwern Hill region of the Radnor countryside.  It has been a much quieter spot than last year which was adjacent to a fairly busy road and was a favoured spot for folk to park and walk their dogs.  The ‘passing trade’ was far less this time although of the locals who drove past me along the very bumpy track that runs the ridge-line, two stopped to ask me to carry out some repairs for them.  One of them, a farmer who actually stopped by last June and mentioned he might need my services, had a small collapse that was causing him some nuisance and I agreed to fix it post-haste.

This 2 metre gap was causing the farmer some issues - fix it then !

This 2 metre gap was causing the farmer some issues – fix it then !

The geology of that hill is very erratic and within a few hundred metres a totally different rock occurs.  That in turn means the stone with which the old hill walls are built is different too – I know what you are thinking, when does a rock become a stone !? – and that means a careful analysis is required before commencing the rebuild.  The first thing always is to ‘risk assess’ the job.  Risk Assessments can be something of a chore when done to meet ‘paper-work’ requirements as I’ve recently had to do to renew my ‘ApprovedStatus’ with the company which employs me for work around the estate.  For me they are carried out with some care although rarely is it committed to paper.  When a section of wall has collapsed and especially if it has been down for some time, there are always hidden dangers.  There will inevitably be the temporary barricade, usually old corrugated sheeting, rusted and lethal, there will be lots of orange baler twine tying it all together and securing it all in a manner which can be difficult to fathom.  These barricades are made secure to stop the ingress or egress of stock and only the farmer knows how it was constructed (and he won’t remember !).  Undoing the string and pulling at the sheets or whatever is making the barricade is where most accidents will occur.  A sudden coming-away of the obstacle unbalances you and sharp edges just wait to cut and scratch.  There will inevitably be nettles and brambles if the collapse has been down a while and at this time of year they have a nasty sting. Once the barricade and growth has been dealt with the careful un-picking of the fallen stone can commence.  Sometimes special feature stones have to be located such as cover-bands, copes and through stones – as in the collapse I have just completed and will narrate below – and set to one side for use at the appropriate juncture.  In this particular case the geology is such that the Silurian shale presents in haphazard lumps and thus the wall is a jumble of irregular shapes and sizes.  It is by far the hardest stone to work with, give me the big slabs of Old Red sandstone or the volcanic outcrops of the Rhogo anyday. Care needs to be taken when clearing the rubble; care that no further collapse is going to catch you out and smash a digit or twist an ankle or, worst of all, cause a fall.  All of these things have happened to me on numerous occasions despite my careful analysis and risk assessment but mostly they are mitigated by the precaution taken.  As the fallen stone is stripped away two facets hold my attention, firstly, how and why has the collapse occurred and secondly are any ‘critters’ hiding within the stone pile and are thus in danger of being maimed or, rarely, of maiming me !  As I clear away the stone, which invariably has collapsed and fallen all to one side, it is essential to ensure at least half gets thrown back to the other side.  This can be both tiring and exacting as the temptation is to just get it cleared as quickly as possible and to keep all the ‘good’ stuff near to hand.  A semblance of sorting takes place as I clear away the mass of rubble, largest nearest to the wall, smallest furthest back, hearting in piles either side so as to be be readily to hand.  It is many years since I stripped a wall and laid the stone according to the principles of the Walling bible although, in my mind, I am diligent enough.

Floor of conifer wood

The dense trees keeps out the light and nothing grows within

The particular section which was near Upper Gilwern, was a boundary wall between a very green pasture and a bleak and dead looking conifer plantation.  The Spruce trees leave little in the way of undergrowth and the floor of the woodland is dead.  This is a factor of lack of light and the acidification of the soil as the needles absorb the acid rain that blows past and dumps it in the soil.  However there is one food source for small animals and birds and that is the pine-cones which are full of nutritious seeds.  As I stripped away the stone pile I came across a secret stash of empty cores and shells, the amount indicated some little creature had enjoyed a good winter feasting.  However, I am at a loss to know for certain what it is, clearly a small rodent but which one !?  I imagine it must be a mouse as a Dormouse would hardly be strong enough to carry a full cone over the stones – the stash was on the opposite side of the wall to the wood – and drag them into the hidden labyrinth.

The cones lying around on the floor will feed some critters into the summer.

The cones lying around on the floor will feed some critters into the summer.

The cones are meticulously stripped leaving only the bare stem which resembles a bottle brush.  Strangely there were several places in the darkness of the wood where large numbers of cones lay untouched on the ground.  I would have thought none would have been left as all the little creatures enjoyed the feast.  There was one tree which caught my eye and presented me with a real mystery. It was a dead and rotten pine tree in which many holes existed, the results of some boring critter as I do not believe woodpeckers bother with conifers and in any case the holes were extensive and right to the base.  Into several of the lower holes pine cones had been jambed, almost as if in an attempt to drag them into the core of the rotten trunk.  It was quite astonishing.  At first I imagined the cones where just caught in the bark as they fell or hung up in some creeper growth or even spider web but no, they were tight in the trunk, so much so that they could not be easily pulled free.  I had never come across this before and have no idea what little creature performs such feats but, once again, I suspect it will turn out to be a wood mouse.  Oh for one of those wildlife cameras that can be left to record the day and night antics of those that live in the forest !

Cones stuck in a tree trunk.

What little creature pulled these cones into the tree is a mystery indeed.

Pine cones eaten by mouse?

The stripped cones show how the ‘eater’ worked through them.

This many cones at least shows the trees are healthy.

This many cones at least shows the trees are healthy.

From there it was westwards back to one of my regular haunts, the great deer-park wall of the Edwinsford estate and the Dinas of Llansawel.  I had already visited once this year to repair the usual winter fall of yet another section of the 300 year old wall.  Whilst there I had spied a section that looked ominously like it would go sooner rather than later and so it proved.  I spent some ten years rebuilding the many collapsed sections of the old wall. For three months a year I worked my way along the many gaps which had been caused by huge blocks of stone blown out of the ground by quarrying explosives to cascade down the steep slope of the old Iron Age fortress and smash into the great wall.  About two thirds of the mile long wall was dry stone walling but once the wall became visible from the mansion it was mortared using a strong lime putty.  That which was dry stone was made of excellent walling stone whereas the lime built section utilised far smaller and irregular stones which are totally unsuitable for dry stone building techniques.  For several years it is that section which has caused the problems and the repairs are tedious and difficult.  This time however, it was a section of the old dry stone wall which had succumbed.  At first I thought it may have been a piece I had previously rebuilt but it soon became clear it was in fact the last remaining original length, between my repair and the start of the lime built stretch.

Collapse in wall.

The latest gap to appear in the Deer-park wall of Edwinsford.

There are a few problems with the wall in terms of repairing it;  firstly it is on a steep slope which means many of the stones roll away down the hill and have to be carried back up, secondly the collapse is almost always on the down side hence half of the stone has to be thrown back uphill and over the pile and then there is the small fact that the wall is some 8ft/2.2mtrs  tall on the lower side which makes it very difficult to build.  Add to that the weight of the carefully dressed cover-bands and the large dressed cope-stones, to say nothing of most of the building stone, and the whole job becomes a hard day’s night.  I met a quarry engineer on the site a few years back and he was able to tell me the precise weight of a cubic metre of that particular stone, extrapolated to the wall it effectively means that a metre of length weighs in at around 4 tons, that’s tons, not tonnes !!  This gap was 3 metres in length … you do the maths !

Rebuilding a gap.

End of day one, two thirds of the way back-up.

I had been forewarned by the farmer that it was a ‘big’ collapse although actually it was far less than I had anticipated,  So it was that on a very bright and sunny day I dismantled the said barricade and set to stripping away the collapse.  I have developed a well worn approach to the activity,it is the mental effort which causes more problem than the physical even to an old stager like me.  Very soon my mind is ‘away with the fairies’ and the stone just gets moved.  During the clearance it is normal to be able to locate the problem which had caused the collapse.  Depending on where the cope-stones and cover-bands are in the pile it will either indicate the tipping outward from the top or, more usually, it shows a bellying out of the middle whereby those stones will be close to the middle of the pile, otherwise they will be at the furthest extent of the fall, elementary my dear Watson !  I already suspected this was going to be a ‘belly out’ collapse having witnessed the tell-tale signs earlier. Unfortunately that meant all those big heavy cover-bands and copes needed carrying back to the up-side.  Very tiring, but it got done and after a quick lunch I started on the rebuild.  It was a hot sunny day and a pleasure to be out on the hill at one of my favourite sites.  Not many places give you Peregrine Falcons overhead, whirling and twisting Red Kites and dozens of smaller birds chirping close-by.  I got a good deal done that afternoon, probably two thirds of the way back up but I knew that still meant a long hard day on the morrow.  The first half of a rebuild is no guide to how long it will take; stone gets smaller and then there is the last big effort to get those top stones lifted back into place.  Friday was different, back on went the warm hat and fleece jacket, more hot coffee was drunk and less cold water and a race to beat the incoming rain left me nicely tired by the end of the day.  Of course a nice cup of tea with the farmer and some of her delicious Welsh cakes cures all … oh yes, and a cheque in the back pocket to go home with ! But there has also been some timber work, oh yes… My partners in timber crime and tired old me have been maintaining the output of high calorie fuel to keep the Laird and his family warm – and hopefully get the revenue stream flowing from the Government RSI scheme. Consuming around 3 tonnes of wood a week, the furnace which heats the massive water tank is something of a cuckoo in the nest.  I don’t think any of us, least of all the Laird, really understood what would be involved in keeping supplies flowing.  Luckily the other two are young and fit, they are also rather peculiar in that they just love getting out into the woods on a weekend and cutting timber.  Luckily too the estate is well blessed with fallen trees which need to be cleared and also some standing timber which, for various reasons, need to be felled.  Mostly we are still dealing with fallen or dead standing timber although, as I mentioned in the previous post, some felling of ash has taken place. It became very clear early on that a certain amount of machinery was going to be needed.  The lads bought a nice old John Deere to work the linkage mounted log splitter which they also bought.  For my part my old International 434 and Fergie trailer did some sterling work right at the start of operations.  After the first hectic few months mutterings started to be heard; a much more efficient way of splitting the logs had to be found and a way of moving the cut and split timber to the storage shed and on to the boiler house.  Will, who is a carpenter by trade and whom the Lady of the House holds in high esteem as a craftsmen – something he gets well ribbed about by the rest of us – knocked up thirty or so large wooden crates which could be lifted by the pallet forks mounted on the John Deere’s linkage.  Luke, another local builder and amateur engineer as well as a busy local farmer, already had a large modern John Deere which does anything requiring power, from winching to lifting and now, log dogging !

Log Splitting

The amazing home-made Log Dog – it does what it will say on the side !

In an operation of some magnitude as well as an excellent example of recycling, the lads created a monster.

Log Dogging - it's what we spend most Saturdays doing, we LOVE it !

Log Dogging – it’s what we spend most Saturdays doing, we LOVE it !

So, Spring has sprung and suddenly May is looming and that is quite a shock… Welshwaller was hoping to be winding down toward a summer of wandering to far away places but there’s still walls awaiting … I wonder if I’ll get any help this year ! Oh yes, and there’s that question of Risk Assessments …

Welsh wildlife !  Who did the Risk Assessment on this job !?

Welsh wildlife ! Who did the Risk Assessment on this job !?

The diary of Great Uncle Dick is showing the increase in the violence and death as 1915 enters the first Spring of the war …

Tuesday 20th April.   J. Gallivan blown to pieces.  T. Green and N. Kings badly wounded. Good time.  Germans blow up                                          mine.

21st.     Relieved by Essex in the afternoon.  Appointed storeman.

Next few days are unintelligible.

30th  Marched off to near Ypres.  Awful place for shelling at night.  Sent to dig trenches near firing line.  Billeted in the open.

Saturday May 1st.  Off to Ypres in the night.Awful march, killing all the way Had to dig trenches from shellfire.

2nd.    Lt. Fraser Reed killed.  Germans attacked us with poisonous gas but we repelled them with heavy loss.  Our battalion lost about 80 killed.

3rd.  Heavy shelling, nerve racking experience.

4th.  Terrible shelling, cannot be described.  Wet feet and wounded.  J.M. Parfitt and I had hard ?

5th.  Plenty of bombarding. E. Lancs left trenches our battalion took over. Sgt Major Brown wounded.

The following weeks of May show how harrowing the battles were becoming.  More next time.


One Response to “Spring loaded”

  1. Whitney Brown Says:

    I believe help is on the way!

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