“When the winds of change blow some people build walls and others build windmills.” (Chinese proverb)

As a Waller I have always to be aware that I can be rather resistant to change; each wall, although different, is essentially the same challenge as the last.  Stones can vary in size and shape, in weight and colour, but the construction of a wall takes little note of those differences.  The weather changes constantly but in truth, when I look back, it is mostly the same.  I can remember snow if I focus on it; I do not remember rain even though I’ve endured some absolute soakings over the last twenty five years, I do not remember sunburn or any other discomfort.  I do remember autumns and frosts, sunsets and hues over summer meadows, my brain is well able to conjure up the feeling of well being at the end of a long day on a hill.  I know the calls of the wild without reference, Buzzards and Kites, Curlews and Green Woodpeckers are as familiar as the voice of a friend.  Cawing crows do not differentiate themselves in my mind but there are one or two individuals I remember well; the ‘telephone bird’ on Trichrug who sounded for all the world like one of those push button phone tones, the Raven which seemed to impersonate the honk of a steam boat as he rode the thermals on Gilwern hill.  All these have been constants in my life, as much a part of it as my Stanley thermos flask and my gloves – though how many hundreds of pairs of those I’ve gone through I have no idea ! (I could go back through my accounts and work out how many pairs I had bought each year !)  I probably have averaged a pair a week so work it out !  It is perhaps not surprising therefore that change is not something I am familiar with.

As I contemplate the next few years, change is going to be a real issue; I have to face up to it and get my strategies in place.  I awoke a few weeks ago to the realisation that I no longer need to go to work; pensions have started to arrive apparently, money drips into my bank account without toil.  I am not yet able to come to terms with that strange fact and I have been busier than ever this last month.  Only small jobs you understand, a garden wall for a friend and another training course back in the Ebbw Vale area.  But there is no doubt, I am enjoying working now that I don’t need to.  It’s rather akin to getting up early on a morning when I could stay in bed, the opposite of the torture of getting up late on a work morning !

Sandstone retaining wall

This little wall replaced a dreadful concrete block monstrosity.

The garden wall was not really a ‘garden’ in the true sense of the word.  It was a small retaining wall at the front of a farmhouse which served to keep sheep from jumping onto the lawn … but there are steps !!  Actually it was replacing the most awful concrete block wall which had stood in situ since the 1960s and thus it was always going to be an improvement.  The farmer is also a most excellent wheelwright, the very man in fact who made a pair of wheels for me some years ago to fit to my Radnor Wheel Car.

He is also the resident wheelwright at the Acton Scott Victorian farm which is featured below.

I agreed to do the job a few months ago and was waiting for him to get the stone from the nearby quarry at Colva.  It is a rather good sandstone which has a rich mellow yellow hue and makes a good stone for both mortar walls and dry stone walls.

As is often the case with garden work, it grows inexorably  so that the ‘end’ of the job is difficult to assess.  So it was with this job, I was somehow ‘persuaded’ to rebuild the steps as well !  Luckily I had another date in the diary which took me back to the Ebbw Vale area to instruct a group of folk in the gentle art of ‘clawdde’ banking – that’s a stone-faced earth and turf bank.  The course was one of the longest ‘bookings’ I had ever received, I was contacted in August 2014 by the hosts, Gwent Wildlife Trust, to check my availability !  Now that’s what I call ‘forward planning’ !

Silent Valley wallers

My intrepid group of trainees enthusiastically building a stone faced ‘clawdde’ bank.

The focus of the training course was ‘Wildlife in Walling’, something which is very close to my heart, as I’m sure you regular readers will know only too well !

The problem with a dry stone wall is that it has a limited capability as a habitat, important as they are in the upland areas.  Really the collapsed dry stone wall is a far more important resource in habitat terms than a newly built wall.  Apart from birds nests and small creatures in the sub-soil under the foundation stones there is not much else that a wall can offer a home to.  Lichens and mosses do form on some walls where the micro-environment allows but actually the last thing a wall needs is plants growing in it.  Thus an earth filled bank with stones and turf in the face provides a much better home for a diverse range of plants and animals.

This was a repeat of a project which I undertook for Radnor Wildlife Trust at their Gilfach / Marteg Bridge site a couple of years ago.  The site for this course was at the Silent Valley Nature reserve south of Ebbw Vale in the Sirhowy valley.  Currently the barrier to prevent vehicles accessing the wild flower meadow are the large logs that can be seen in the photograph but these are reaching the end of their life-span and thus a replacement is needed.  The stone faced, ‘clawdde’ bank (a Welsh term for’bank) is a good way of delineating a car parking area as it is a living barrier that continues to strengthen as it matures.  Unlike a dry stone wall the earth filled bank absorbs the impact of a vehicle collision whereas the stone wall tends to burst open.  Also it is a good training structure for folk to learn the skill of building with stone.  The turf, which is placed inverted, acts as a mortar bed allowing oddly shaped stones to be placed firmly.  The earth centre is protected by the stone and the turf and eventually the root systems grow into it and binds the stones into the bank.  Of course plants soon root into the structure – we actually sprinkled wild flower seeds onto the top of the bank – and within a year or two the whole structure looks quite different.

The finished stone faced 'clawdde' at Silent Valley with two very happy and proud builders.

The finished stone faced ‘clawdde’ at Silent Valley with two very happy and proud builders.

One I preparedearlier - this stone facedbank is the onethat was built by Radnor Wildlife Trust volunteers two years ago.

One I prepared earlier – this stone faced bank is the one that was built by Radnor Wildlife Trust volunteers two years ago.

We didn’t quite finish the whole length  of the clawdde, but a day more by the two ladies in the photograph above will see it completed.

The fact that change is inevitable was brought home to me in glorious ‘technicolor’ a few weekends ago.  I ventured out of Wales to the city of Bristol to revisit the place of my first stint of higher education.  For nearly a year I have been regularly updated on plans to hold a reunion of former students of the Redland College of Education during the latter years of the 1960s and early 1970s.  I have been in touch with a few old mates in the interim but as for the other several dozen attendees it was a first sighting they had of me since all those years ago.  Change indeed !  I suppose I should be flattered that many of them recognised me … or maybe I should be a little worried ….. surely I have changed, surely I didn’t look like this back then !?

Autumn is the season of biggest change; it crashes in without warning – well normally it does.  This year the weather has been as sunny and dry as an autumn can be.  Rain has been absent and warm sunshine by day followed by frosty misty mornings have greeted me for several weeks.  The leaves have changed without me noticing and this year they have stayed on the trees instead of being blasted away by gales.

Misty mornings greet the arrival of Autumn - change is abroad.

Misty mornings greet the arrival of Autumn – change is abroad.

In the countryside change is much more noticeable than in the city – my weekend in Bristol could have been in any season – and in particular the final gathering of produce, wild and cultivated, is celebrated at numerous Harvest Festivals in villages throughout the land.  The harvest is all gathered in and preparations for over wintering people and animals would traditionally, by now, be well in hand.  Perhaps a pig would be ready for killing, old ewes would be culled, cockerels despatched and in the kitchen fruits would be being preserved n jams and pickles and hedgerow fruits and nuts would be collected.

Threshing day at Acton Scott 2015

Threshing day at Acton Scott Victorian farm near Church Stretton in Shropshire.

Not wanting to waste the good autumn weather I took myself off to Acton Scott, the working Victorian Farm made famous in the TV series of the same name.  It is about an hour and a half from me, a pleasant drive out of the Radnor Hills eastwards through the Clun Hills and into Shropshire.

The day was given over to the threshing of the corn ready for feeding and grinding.  A good crowd had gathered to see the old steam engine power up the threshing box, a Garvie machine, and witness an old activity of the agricultural year.  Of course the machine age totally changed the nature of agriculture.  To watch the sheaves disappear into the top of the box to emerge in three separate places, one as straw and one as chaff and the other as grain, must surely have been a’wonder of the world’ to the old country folk and farm labourers of the mid nineteenth century.  Of course not only did the new fangled machines speed up the practices of agriculture, they also caused many labourers to become unemployed and thus often homeless.  I’m not sure the steam engine and threshing box created unemployment, there certainly seemed to be a lot of people engaged in this demonstration !

Two things stand out to me about the activity. Firstly it is a frenzy of diligence, the men feeding the box are rhythmic, the pitcher who tosses the sheaves from the rick to the top of the box with his ‘pikle’, the catcher who grabs the sheaf and cuts the binding twine (these sheaves were reaped and bound by a ‘reaper-binder’ rather than being cut by sickle or scythe and stacked loose), the feeder who pushes the corn onto the feeder belt so it disappears cleanly down into the inner workings of the threshing box

The Threshing of corn at Acton Scott.

The stationery baler produces the straw bales that can be seen on the wagon. The ricks of corn stand either side of the threshing box and the engine puffs away in the background. Busy, smoky but strangely quiet !

Then there are all the cleaners and gleaners, the folk who busy themselves around the various ejection holes. the grain is shooting out from the sieves and has to be carefully channelled into large sacks with as little waste as possible, that which does evade the sack drops onto hessian sheets and is gleaned for use as poultry or horse feed.  Chaff dumps onto the ground and needs to be constantly shovelled into barrows and carted away.  Straw is either ejected onto the ground to be re-stacked onto a wagon or, as in this case, automatically fed into a stationery baler to be squashed into bales.  All these activities require folk and all those folk need to be ‘switched on’ to what they are doing and work as a team.  There is inherent danger in powerful machinery !

The driving force for all this activity is the Steam Engine, that mighty brute which conjures up the great days of British engineering.  There are two things that stand out about those mighty beasts of yesteryear, firstly they seem immensely dirty by modern standards, they belch thick black smoke from the coal fire and clouds of steam seem to be forever seeping out from some valve or other but, for all that, they are SO amazingly quiet.  In fact the whole operation is one which has little noise at all and the working team can quite easily chat away to each other above the whir of the belts that drive the inner cogs of the box.  It is possible to stand right next to the engine and the box and have no difficulty in talking to a friend.  The only presence is the gentle vibration of the ground as the great mass of iron and steel rocks gently to the turn of the driving gear.  How different from today’s noisy tractors.

Steam at Acton Scott

The power source was this beautifully restored Fowler steam engine.

Of course, just as the farming year ends, so it begins again.  All over the country sheep farmers are beginning the life cycle once more, the ram or ‘Tup’, is in with the ewes performing his once yearly nuptial foray.  In arable country land is being made ready for the sowing of winter corn and in the traditional manner of Acton Scott a plough team was working the field preparing the soil to receive the seed to produce the corn for next year’s threshing.

We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land”

Plough team at Acton Scott

The cycle begins again as the horses plod their way hauling the plough to turn the soil ready for the sowing of next year’s crop.

The whole experience of a visit to Acton Scott has a twofold effect on me; it allows me to immerse myself in some nostalgia but it also inspires me to get going on some restoration of my own collection – forsooth, there’s not much at Acton Scott that doesn’t also linger in my barns and sheds – except the living critters of course !

Tamworth piglets at Acton Scott

New life at the end of the year – I know someone who gets very excited to see new born piglets !

The last week of October usually marks the end of the autumn sunshine, with the changing of time comes the changing of climate and Atlantic low pressure systems begin to bring gales and heavy rain.  Already a monster storm has raged across Mexico and on into Texas, even my walling compatriot plying her trade in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia is expecting a serious change from ‘T’ shirt wearing temperatures to goretex and caharrts !  For Welshwaller much change has to be faced as I prepare to get the last few jobs done and make myself ready for a significant life changing period.  Watch this space !

On the Western Front in October 1915 things were not looking good for my Great Uncle Dick…

Sunday October 10th.   On Sentry at night.  Listening post morning.

11th.  Listening post in morning.  Listening post at ight ’til 12

12th.  Went with 7 platoon.  Me and Griff working at night.

13th.  Relieved by Dublin Fusiliers.  Marched to Beausarth (?). Taught 8th Irish Rifles.

14th.  Bath at Meuilly.

15th.  Rifle inspection day.  Working party at night.

16th.  Kit inspection by officers.  Billeted at Beusal (?) in kitchen.

17th.  – 23rd A quiet week of drills and inspections coupled with sentry duties but all back from the lane.

21st – 30th. Back to the trenches where the only thing Dick felt he wanted to record was the endless guard duty.

In actual fact his battalion was suffering massive losses in the autumn of 1915, the front was under constant bombardment and for the first time gas started to drift over the battlefield.  The tunnelling war reached a new level of activity and men from the coalfields of South Wales as well as other mining areas were recruited to dig the long underground tunnels in an attempt to get under the German trenches and set mines to blow them up.  The listening post duties may well have been deep underground in that tunnel.






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