Time of “The Hardest Moon”.

For the Native Americans of the eastern United States, the Lakota Sioux, the beginning of a new year was the time when stores were running low, when the animals on which they depended hid away in the deepest forests, the time when the rivers froze and the ground became rock hard.  Definitely the ‘hardest moon’ period.  Mmm, not quite that bad here just now…. plenty of rain though.  Apparently, here in the hills of mid-Wales, there has not been a day without rain since October 22nd !  The landscape is certainly confirming that, the ground is just so sodden that movement of any sort across it has become a hardship for animals and us humans.  Any attempt at using mechanical means of traversing the hills and fields results in permanent damage to the fragile leys and top-soil.

Flooded valley near Llandeilo

The flood plain of the river Tywi between Llangadog and Llandeilo lives up to its name in January.

 

I had to venture out to carry out some tree planting back at the farm where Miss Carolina and I were walling just prior to the Christmas break.  The route down the Tywi valley is guaranteed to involve some diversions to avoid flooded roads and there will always be large areas of land under water; always that is when rain has been incessant up in the mountains.

Thus far Wales has not had to endure as much flooding of property as has the north of England and Scotland but some townships have been inundated and homes and businesses ruined by flood water.  The farmers are really having a difficult time as the ground is so very saturated that getting about and carrying out the normal activities of feeding animals and preparing the soil is causing damage.  We need the ground to be frozen at this time of year not squelching under each foot-step or tyre.

Planting a small number of apple trees to begin an orchard was not at all difficult as the soil was so wet and as the temperatures are still quite abnormally high for the time of year, the soil was still up to allowing some early root growth.  The problem will come if we do suddenly experience a change to below freezing temperatures for then the water in the soil, especially that around the newly planted trees, will freeze and could damage the roots.  We will just have to chance our luck and hope for the best,  there was no time to wait for warmer weeks, the trees should have been in the ground a long time ago;  another case of pressure due to belatedly addressing the requirements of the environmental scheme for which the farmer is enrolled !

A re-run of last year's tree planting on a hedgerow near Carreg Cennen castle.

A re-run of last year’s tree planting on a hedgerow near Carreg Cennen castle.

Being behind with the practical work is almost par for the course when the weather has been so dreadful.  Getting onto the land to erect fences, build walls or, as we did recently, install bird-boxes and plant trees is an absolute nightmare.  However, the planting of around 200 hedge-row trees in a small section near the farmstead was an avoidable activity.  I had already planted the new hedge in March last year and the young trees were doing very well, until that is a strimmer wielding gardener, apparently unaware of my activities, decided the bank looked so untidy it needed to be heavily cut.  Strimmers and saplings do not mix.  Of course the scalped saplings (they were all at least 50cms tall !) will carry-on growing, in essence all he did was some premature coppicing.  However, in total fear of the inspecting officer who is likely to descend upon him shortly, the farmer was happier to spend yet more money to re-plant the section.

No doubt, in a few years, I’ll have to go back and thin the trees out a little !

The problem of damage to surfaces because of the incessant soakings was clearly evidenced to me when I, and my co-walker, strode out to explore a section of the Radnor hills around the strangely named ‘Moelfre City’ between Llanbister and Llangunllo.  The open hill is full of ancient settlement remains and the ‘city’ is precisely that, a deserted medieval village (DMV).  All over the bracken covered commons relics will be encountered showing that man had been farming up there in times past.  In particular the lengthy and substantial banks and ditches represent some serious heavy manual labour and construct the ancient field pattern and boundaries.

Ditch and Bank boundary

The ditch and bank that separates the ‘in-bye’ from the open hill or ‘mynydd’ is substantial at over 1.5 mtrs.

There are numerous old trackways which stand out as dark green roads through the bronze bracken clad hills.  Unfortunately many of them have been deeply rutted by tractors which have made their way up onto the hills carrying feed for the flocks of sheep which winter up there.  The farmers have to get to their animals and by and large they use the same track each time so at least the damage is restricted.  The problem is that in weather like we are currently experiencing those deep ruts fill with water and when the tracks are on a hillside, as most of them are, the water runs.  Running water erodes the soil and small stones and ultimately a new stream bed is created which continues for ever and a day.   What was really depressing up on the moor was the widespread damage caused by scrambler motor-bikes.  Now I’m not one who would necessarily deprive everyone of their fun in the countryside,  as I wrote recently, I like the odd off-road sojourn myself, but there has to be some common-sense approach when the conditions clearly indicate damage will occur.

There were numerous places where a number of bikes had clearly been raced up steep grassy tracks resulting in the turf being ripped up and rutting by the tyres.  A number of bikes side by side had created serious erosion over hundreds of metres and the ruts of their tyres were now running with water.  In places, especially on the steeper trackways, the water had already washed away all soil and the bedrock was being eroded.  These people have had a really good time up there no doubt, mud covered and noisy, they have roared around the open moors in a ‘couldn’t care less’ mindset which has left permanent scars on that historic landscape.  More than that they have taken away much valuable grazing (for it is the short sward of the trackways which bears the sweetest grasses for the sheep and it is they in turn who keep the trackways lawn-like and walkable) and turned once base-green walks into rutted stone ankle twister routes.

Damage to the open hill

The scars of the silly scramblers can be clearly seen in this photo; already the steep grassy track is turning into a stream.

One thing that is guaranteed when wandering around the hills and narrow valleys of Radnorshire  is the surprise that awaits around the next corner.  In deepest dreary Moelfre on a wet January afternoon, even I was somewhat startled to come upon a piece of British army history.  There. on the banks of a small stream in a steep sided valley, sat a 1950s Saracen armoured personnel carrier, seemingly still armed with its turret mounted 0.3 Browning machine gun.  The six wheeled vehicle has a massive Rolls-Royce B80 8 cylinder petrol engine and was one of a variant of the FV600 series which included the amphibious Stalwart, the Salamander airfield crash tender and the ambulance and command car version.  A later version, the Saladin (FV601), was a pure armoured car with a a 75mm gun.  At 11 ton in weight and some serious armour it is hardly the the usual farmer friendly ex-military truck; especially as it does about 2 gallons to the mile !

Armoured car in a wood.

What on earth is a 1950s armoured car doing sitting next to a stream in deepest Radnorshire.

Another little jaunt took us up to the beautiful Irfon valley at the head of the Abergwesyn pass and the old farmstead of Llanerch-yrfa (Glade of the place of the sheep).  Taking the newly created forestry road which runs parallel with the ancient road to the other Llanerch on the Claerwen side of the mountain (Llanerch-y-cawr, which means glade of the giant !) via the great monument of Drygarn Fawr, we strolled in some welcome afternoon sunshine.  After climbing for a short while we found ourselves in an area where clear felling of the valley below us had occurred and there, revealed for the first time in over half a century, was a really exciting (well, to sad ‘ol me that is !) find.

The old stone walls of an early ‘hafod‘, a summer dwelling used by a farmer from lower down the valley, classically positioned at the confluence of two small streams, was clearly visible in the newly exposed valley bottom.  I wanted to immediately get down there but as the day was already fading and it was a difficult descent from where I was viewing it, it has been postponed for another dry day.  However, it is clearly an important discovery and even from my high perch I could see it was a cattle corral with adjoining smaller enclosures and the remains of what appears to be the low walls of a house structure.

Cattle corral in the Abergwesyn pass

The fascinating pattern of dry stone walls paints the outline of a medieval ‘hafod’ where cattle were corralled and folks lived for the summer months.

 

It is a good remedy to the depressing darkness and wild weather of this winter; even in the driving rain  a walk over the hills is a counter to all the negativity of January.  Mainly and mostly I retreat from the elements and enjoy my seclusion in front of a warm wood-burner, reading that book which I’ve been meaning to get stuck into for years.  I like to follow the advise of one of my favourite poets, Dame Edith Sitwell;

“Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire; it is the time for home”

The change is coming, so I’m told, white precipitation is on its way so it has been all hands to the chainsaw and axe bringing in the necessary fuel stores.  Luckily I have sufficient cordwood which only requires logging into wood-stove size chunks on my amazing log-horse which secures the chainsaw into a hinged frame thus ensuring my safety and cutting the wood into regular sized logs.

Apart from some small amount of manual work and some countryside wandering – oh yes, and loads of fire-side reading – most of my time has been taken up trying to sort out my vast collection of tools and farm equipment.  A few trailer loads have been removed from the grounds or buildings to new storage or the dump but as the track to my homestead is now so damaged by constant four wheel drive convoys and running water, no movement is any longer possible.   I’ve spent the very wet days – as opposed to just ‘wet’ days – photographing and writing up some descriptions of a few of the latest additions to my collection.  It’s been some long while since I’ve included some of my artefacts here and so, as there is little else to report, here are just a few to amuse you.

Breast Plough heads

The iron heads of two old Bieting irons or Breast Ploughs.

The life of a farmer (and his labourers) was almost entirely dependant upon manual labour and the power of the oxen and horse throughout the centuries.  Prior to the arrival of various mechanised harvest machinery in the nineteenth century and then the infernal combustion engine at the start of the twentieth, hard labour was the lot of the men and women of agriculture.

As a manual labourer myself I am always intrigued by the various activities of early farming which demanded stamina and a resolute mindset.  Whether it was the extreme physical effort of ploughing behind the ox or horse, the mowing with sickle and later, the scythe, or merely battling the elements throughout the seasons, a life on the land was nothing if not physical.

One of the more astounding activities was that of paring the old stubble (known as ‘burnbaking’) with an implement known erroneously as the ‘breast plough’ (also as the ‘bietling iron or bettling/beting iron).  I say erroneously as in fact the plough is not pushed by the breast but rather by the power of the upper thighs.  The small plough-share like head needs to be run at a flat plane and this demands a long shaft to the implement.  Indeed, as with the snead of the scythe, each plough would be tailored to the height of the worker to ensure the cutting edge did not dig into the ground.  A man was expected to clear a half an acre in a day’s work but it needs to be realised that the ‘day’ would have been short in the field as early morning and end of day jobs needed also to be done.

Betting iron or Bietling iron

This example in my collection has a 7ft (1.75 mtr)long shaft of European Larch and comes from the Tregaron area of Cardiganshire. Pushed in this manner rather than from the chest.

The Scottish equivalent is known as the Flaughter spade and two examples are in my collection.  The practise of paring the top couple of inches/5cms is a means of clearing the stalks and roots of the previous summer’s crop.  In upland Wales that would normally mean oats and the waste was then piled up and burnt and the potash then spread back onto the field as a fertilizer.  Whereas mention is often made in written accounts of the activity being used to clear the grass prior to ploughing, I believe that is very unlikely, not least as it would be very time consuming and immensely difficult.  Sometimes these tools are listed as being associated with ‘turf’ but here again some scepticism is needed not least as the term is confusing. ‘Turf’ in upland country areas can often mean ‘peat’ and it is not a use I have ever found for the bieting iron.

In my part of Wales the name ‘Cae Bieting/Beting‘ is often encountered in field names.  This immediately indicates the field was at sometime an arable field used for growing oats.  I have collected a dozen or so different irons of differing size and angle (the angle of the socket to receive the shaft in relation to the horizontal) from north Carmarthenshire, east Ceredigion and Powys (Brecknock and Radnor).  They normally come from small upland farms where steep sided banks enclosed into relatively tiny fields are the norm.  Similarly, my Scottish flaughters came from a Highland croft with fields the size of a good garden only.  What I have never yet found are the wooden blocks, called ‘clappers’, which hung from the belt to protect the thighs whilst pushing the plough.  Fortunately I have met men who used these “tools of torture” (as one farmer described them) but only three and they are now all ploughing their furrow in a brighter place.

I am in the process of establishing another blog specifically given over to my collection and will soon have my website finalised also.  In the meantime, thank you to all my regular readers and those who ‘happen’ upon me accidentally.  Apparently over 10 thousand of you visited Welshwaller last year from countries as far away as Australia, Korea, Brazil, Russia and of course all the Americas as well as most of Europe !

Diolch yn fawr !!

Blwyddyn Newydd dda ich y gyd

 

 

 

 

 

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