Musing on thoughts like these

did Madoc roam alone along the Towy’s winding shore …

So wrote the poet Robert Southey (1774-1843) in his ‘The River banks of the Towy’. As a conservation minded amateur naturalist it interests me to read in the following lines that

“The Beavers in its bank had hollowed out their social place of dwelling and had dammed the summer current with their perfect art”.

The debate which is currently underway about the re-introduction of our lost mammals, in particular the Beaver, has left me very undecided about the pros and cons.  But reading that those busy little beavers were in the Towy just over two hundred years ago is very interesting !

This only comes to my mind because I have recently revisited one of the very first church walls I undertook.  It was not a rebuild of an old derelict boundary wall, instead it was a totally new piece of work which was needed to form the boundary of an extension to the grave-yard.  It was but a stone’s throw from the banks of the Tywi.

Dry Stone church yard wall newly built

A ‘new’ wall was required to bound the extension to the grave-yard at Llandingat church in Llandovery.

The old grave-yard was getting full and the church elders wisely opted to purchase a section of the field which adjoined the western side.  I say ‘wisely’ because much development was taking place on land surrounding the old parish church of Llandingat in Llandovery.  In fact the wisdom of that move can be clearly seen today, just over twenty years on, as all around are new houses and industrial buildings which have extended the town into the flood plain of the river Tywi. (‘We’ always use the Welsh spelling).

I was asked to give a quote for building a dry stone wall to section off the new grave-yard from the remaining acre or so of pasture.  Pleased as I was to be asked, not least as the town was my ‘home’ town in those days and I had many friends and acquaintances thereabouts, there were some problems. There are NO dry stone walls in or around the town.  In fact the existing wall which surrounds the ancient grave-yard is built of river cobbles set in lime-mortar.  That is because the stone from the river is so rounded and smooth that it is unsuitable to stand freely in a dry stone wall.  Furthermore most of the buildings in the town, including the twelfth century castle and church, are similarly built.  Hundreds of rounded grey pebble type stones are set in lime mortar.

When I questioned the ‘committee’ I learned that it was a requirement of the grant they had managed to obtain (from the then Countryside Council for Wales) as it was under the guise of a ‘conservation’ project, a dry stone wall was the only option.  When I then asked where the stone was to come from I was told that ‘they’ had recently demolished the old church hall and assumed that stone would suffice.  Without going too much into the extended discussions on the matter let me just say that in the end, I built a three metre long section (to 1.2 metres high).  I was actually quite proud of it, nicely coursed and tightly laid, it looked all the world a good piece of wall.  I invited the ‘inner sanctum’ to come and view the piece which they duly did on a sunny evening in early autumn.

They expressed their delight and satisfaction at the result of my efforts and could not understand why I had been so reluctant to use their stone.  It so happened that the treasurer of the church at that time was also my Bank manager, he had been very forthright in his insistence on using their own stone (of course, it meant that they could save some serious money).  I invited him to give my newly built section a good kick, just to test its strength.  Down it came like a stack of custard creams.  No friction you see, the beautiful piece of craftsmanship was an absolute sham, the smooth river stone just slid off each other without the slightest resistance.  In fact I had been fairly amazed I had managed to get it to stay up at all !

Norman Llandingat in Llandovery

Llandingat church in Llandovery, Carmarthenshire.

The old church has stood on the edge of the town since the early twelfth century and has architecture from all the Medieval ‘periods, Norman arches, Early English and Decorated windows and a tower which is from the ‘Perpendicular’ period.  Don’t show your ignorance by thinking “aren’t all towers perpendicular!?” (Don’t forget Pisa !).  The building is coeval with the castle which overlooks the central car-park and old market site.  It marks the furthest point reached by the Normans in the early twelfth century.  Richard Fitz Pons began constructing his motte and bailey castle in 1116 but it was not a particularly peceful place to hang out if you were of French origin.  Warfare raged for hundreds of years, the castle fell to The Lord Rhys of Deheubarth in 1158 and it was won and lost by the Normans and the Welsh off and on for the next hundred years.  Not until Edward 1st conquest did it eventually become an English domain but even then there were periods of turbulence.  By the time of Henry IV reign, in the early 1400s, Owain Glyndwr was on the warpath and an event which has a resonance today in the old Borough of Llandovery (Llanymyddyfri is the Welsh name, derived from the early Christian settlement name of Llan ym Ddyfri which means the ‘church among the waters’).

Castle of Llandovery in Carmarthenshire

Llandovery castle. A Norman fortress begun in the early C12th



At the turn of the Millenium, a great statue appeared on the old bailey of the castle. Fashioned in gleaming stainless steel, wrought by the two sons of my old friend David Petersen with whom I recently commemorated the death of another Welsh Prince (see December 2015 ‘Oh wind if winter comes…’), it is a quite magnificent, in my view !

Thestatue of Llewelyn ap Gruffydd in Llandovery.

Llewelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan. A sublime statue by the Petersen brothers. It stands on the bailey of the Norman castle of Llandovery.

The monument, for such it is, honours the memory of one Llewelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan.  In the dying years of the fourteenth century with Glyndwr wreaking havoc around the area, Henry IV visited Llewelyn at his home in nearby Caeo.  He persuaded the Welshman (or so he thought) to lead him to Glyndwr’s camp which was hidden somewhere in the surrounding hills.  Llewelyn ‘agreed’ and for several months led Henry and his army on a tour of the area.  Eventually old Henry realised he was being ‘taken for a ride’ and in outraged anger he hauled poor Llewelyn, then a man in his sixties, to the gallows in Llandovery where, on October 9th 1401, the usual ‘severe’ death was meted out.  Disemboweled and dismembered whilst still alive, Llewelyn’s remains were paraded around Wales until they rotted away.  He never gave up Glyndwr and his death is remembered today in the statue.  Its hollow helmet and empty cloak represent the departed warrior and it looks out over the town from the very castle where he met his end.

Where was I ?!  Oh yes, Llandingat church … it is named after the Welsh Saint ‘Dingad‘ who was one of the sons of Brychan, the sixth century eponymous king of Brycheiniog.  Good old Brychan was a busy man, he is supposed to have sired thirty six children – not with the same lady however !  The site is on the river flood plain of the Tywi and has the Bran flowing nearby, in other words it is a water-logged place to build a church !  When I was building the wall the old grave diggers told me that it was quite normal for a grave to be full of water by the time the coffin arrived.

A twenty year old wall in a church yard in Llandovery.

The wall now looks like an ‘old’ wall and the trees, now twenty plus years old, are beginning to look a little threatening to my structure !

So, the question of stone was a tricky one.  But my demonstration persuaded the ‘committee’ that suitable stone needed to be brought in.  As I mentioned, there are no dry stone walls anywhere near because there is no suitable stone.  Certainly the geology of the area meant we had to look further afield.  Now therein lies the issue, by bringing in stone from further afield it changes the whole ‘natural’ feel of the wall.  It is one of the problems of modern building and planning requirements that when ‘local stone’is demanded, the notion of ‘local’ is quite arbitrary.  A short distance can mean quite a change in geology in Wales and thus we end up with alien stone being used quite liberally.

A smoot in a new dry stone wall.

A ‘smoot’ (or ‘smout’) is a necessary passageway for ground living animals; and after all, it was funded under a conservation programme.

The only two options came from a minimum of forty miles away.  Old Red Sandstone occurs just a few miles south of the town but there are no quarries from which to buy it nearby.  Pennant Sandstone, the common stone of the coal field area, just fifteen miles south, is readily available through a number of quarries and hence is the cheaper option.  However, there is something rather unethical about hauling sixty tons of stone over dozens of miles.  The brown/grey stone has weathered quite well and now doesn’t scream ‘alien’ ! It is only in the ‘looks’ of the wall that the difference shows, the ‘morphology’.

A lime mortared wall of river cobbles

River stone sits nicely in a lime mortar but is no use for dry stone walling.

It was interesting to visit the wall after so many years.  The trees which were planted soon after I finished are now looking a little too large to be that near the wall.  The fortunate thing is that the water table is always high and the clay subsoil will draw the roots downwards rather than outwards near the surface. Nevertheless one or two of them, sallows, are getting a little too large and need some attention.  The wall itself, not encumbered by large animals or climbing people, has stood the test of the first twenty odd years, will it last as long as the Church I wonder ?!

Dry stone church yard wall.

The ‘field side’ of the wall showing the ‘through-stones’ which stick out a little way on this side. The water has been standing for weeks on the bare patch but hopefully it will recover.

I am glad I didn’t dig too deep a trench for the foundation stones, just removed the turf and an inch or two of top soil to the clay layer.  Water has been sitting on the surface of the field for some months which has killed the grass but hopefully it will soon recover.

Another wall inspected,one of the early church walls I constructed and totally different in that it was a new wall.  New builds have not featured greatly in my career but there have been some, mainly gardens walls.  I have pursued a different path to many of the other dry stone wallers in the southern half of Wales who have been gainfully employed (and very well remunerated in the process !) on ‘brown field’ sites in the old industrial valleys.  Dry stone walls now adorn many bus stops, lay-by’s, industrial estates and roundabouts throughout the former coal mining and steel making towns.  Walls have even been built near the Cardiff international airport (where there were definitely no others !).  As I have often mentioned herein, there is a whole historic landscape in the south Wales valleys but up on the inter-valley plateau where early agriculture first thrived.

I’m going to continue my journey through past building exploits next time.  For now, at last the rain has slipped away for a while, leaving me time and opportunity to get some of my artefacts packed up and moved to their new home.  Exciting times ahead in 2016 for Welshwaller.

Wrought iron kissing gate

Another lovely old ‘kissing gate’ at the entrance to Llandingat church in Llandovery. It may well have been a ‘pig gate’ at one time as the nearby streets were used for markets right from the twelfth century !







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