Three hundred plus

Years that is, a long long time ago is three hundred years, add a few more decades and you get way back into an interesting period of Welsh history.  The last few months have thrown me back to those days and I have enjoyed the company of some super folks while venturing there.

Just before I left for the northern climes of England I journeyed to the rugged landscape of the Rhinogs, north of Dolgellau and into the southern reaches of the Snowdonia National Park.  I was on an expedition with my dear Carolinian walling friend and two of Wales’ most eminent cultural and environmental historians.  We were headed to view an ancient farmstead which the Woodland Trust have recently acquired but we also had a stop or two on the way !  All of our sites were at least three hundred years young.

Then there was the weekend celebrating 350 years of the establishment of the great estate of Penpont, a few miles west of Brecon and home to two dear friends of some 25 years.  The wonderful mansion has been brought back to life in their period of tenure after falling into a rather dismal state in the half century prior.

Old buildings, old walls and, naturally, old tools displayed by old fools !  Let me begin with the first adventure, north to Gwynedd.

Stone lintel in derelict farmhouse

Massive lintels and huge stones make up the walls of this old farmstead.

Above the main A470 trunk road, where it wends its way north from Dolgellau toward the towers of the nuclear power station at Trawsfynydd, lies a steep sided valley, a re-entrant into the deep gorge which the road runs in.  A small stream, Nant Las, crashes over huge boulders and there, in the most sublime little clearing  stands a cluster of derelict buildings.  Such sites are common throughout the uplands of mid and north Wales but what sets the ruins in that part of the country apart is the size of the stones that had to be used.  Even in my fit and fastidious youth I would not have entertained using the stones the medieval builders of these dwellings chose.  The oft heard phrase when I mention the question “how did they do it?” is that “there were lots of men working on it”.  There are only so many men that can surround a stone and lift it six, ten, fifteen feet into the air !  In particular on this old farmstead the lintels which sat above the windows and doorways were extraordinarily huge and heavy.

The building technique was nothing more than that used to build a dry stone wall, just put one stone on top of another, cross the joints and make sure each stone sits securely onto and next to its neighbour.  There was no mortar in these walls, just the ‘dubbing-out’ of the joints to add a semblance of insulation and the interior was probably lime plastered though there is no signs of that today.  My friends, one a well known photographer of wild Wales and the other the country’s most eminent botanist, both with a fascination for old places and the history they exude, thought I might like to see this place …                           Yes, I just might !

Our main reason for the trip was to examine the walls and stone field barns of a very old farmstead high in the hills over-looking that monstrous edifice of 1960s electricity generation.  The Woodland Trust have acquired the old farm to protect its ancient hanging oak woodland but there are other parts of the farm, including the farm house and buildings, that merit attention too and I and my ‘attractive assistant’ waller were asked along to see what we thought of the historical aspects of the walls and the repairs needed to keep them stock proof.

Llenyrch lies at around 150 metres above sea-level, so not particularly high for these parts,. with an aspect which provides for sunshine and shelter from both westerly and northerly gales.  It lies immediately west of Trawsfynydd whose huge lake can be clearly seen from the homestead and to the north is the Vale of Ffestioniog and the Italianate absurdity that is Portmeirion.  The fields are ancient there is no doubt about that, cleared of stone long before the Princes of Gwynedd and Deheubarth were fighting each other, some of the walls may even have been built before the Legions bashed their way through the Bala valley and set up  camp near Trawsfynydd.  Some of the enclosures have ‘field barns’ in them and that was a feature I was particularly interested to view.

Stone barn in north Wales

Field barn built with some stone cleared from the fields.

It is a peculiarity to find such field barns in upland Wales.  They do appear but not in any significant numbers and often are relics left behind after a homestead has collapsed and been removed.  In Wales the general practise was to take the cattle back to the homestead, the Hendre, in the winter.  Hay, grown in fields protected from browsing animals throughout the summer months by removing them to the hills, the Hafod, was cut and dried in the field but then hauled by some primitive cart or car-llusg (essentially a simple sled) back to the same homestead to be stacked in a rick or later, in a barn.  The idea of the very substantial field barn of the type found in abundance in the Llenyrch area is quite alien to the Welsh agricultural scene.  Instead of taking  cattle and hay back to the homestead both are housed in the barn.  The hay, cut in that field, is merely swept to the barn and tossed loose into the hayloft.  A small number of cattle, two or three usually, are then stalled below and fed in a manger directly below the tollet, a gap in the loft floor through which the hay can be dropped straight down into the manger.  The cattle, chained to a post for most of the time, would be visited daily to be milked and/or watered.  A clever labour saving devise in one sense.  It is exactly the system which evolved in northern regions of England, it gave rise to the characteristic landscape so familiar in the Yorkshire Dales (and to a lesser extent in the North York Moors area).  Beautifully built stone barns dotted about the traditional hay meadows and fields make-up what is the main cultural and landscape attraction of those regions.

Waller in a wall

Field barn in North Wales, how big are those stones ?!

Why such a system should have come into play in that area of Gwynedd is something I need to examine but it is certainly a super place to spend some time in.  My companions are just the very best to undertake such wanderings and I can’t wait to get back up there and do some repairs – apparently a botanist is going to try his hand !

Conservation wanderers in the Rhinogs

‘Conservation Heroes’ was the title given to this photo taken by a young lady from South Carolina who enjoys the historic landscapes of Wales as much as those of us born to it.

Ray Woods is by far the most knowledgeable man I know when it comes to all things botanical and Liz Fleming-Williams’ enthusiasm for all things bright and beautiful, as well as old and Welsh (which is presumably why she likes me !) is absolutely contagious.  Long may we wander the hills and vales !

My other historic venue was much further south, in the valley of the Usk just west of Brecon.  Adjacent to the main trunk road, the A40, lies a stunning old estate mansion, simply named ‘the top bridge’, Penpont in another language !  Some twenty or so years ago I met up with the then new arrivals at the run-down mansion and together we, and several others, somehow managed to stage a Country Fair.  It also included a dry stone walling competition which our local branch of the Dry Stone Walling Association of GB put on as part of the national Grand Prix competition.  Yes folks, people actually go out on a weekend – after walling all week ! – and build walls for free as a competitive challenge.  So many metres in so many hours have to be stripped out and rebuilt.  If I remember we had a dozen or so competitors from all over England and Wales together with their own ‘rent-a-crowd’, their family, who sat immediately behind the waller and cheered him on (we didn’t, in those days, get any ladies competing unlike today !).  I do remember very well that the judges had a really difficult job in deciding the winner and runners up, it took them several hours after the end of the competition to come to a definite choice and then only after re-visiting the sections of wall a dozen times.

I had kept fleetingly in-touch with my friends at the ‘big house’ over the intervening years and was thus delighted to be asked to attend the anniversary event to mark 350 years of the estate’s existence.  Now I know that’s a strange number to celebrate but hey, we ain’t going to be around to host the four hundredth !!

The old Orangery was totally derelict and unsafe but look what it’s like today and as for the old box hedge ‘out back’ well, what can I say ?  Is it not just the finest piece of topiary you have ever seen !!?  The whole place is just so wonderfully restored and a joy to wander around.  They now host all sorts of events and have accommodation to rent.  The walled gardens produce wonderful fruit and veg all of which is sold through the on-site farm shop.   The management of the land and the adherence to tradition (and rules!) and the will to make things happen in a proper manner, restores my faith in such hereditary  land-ownership.  After my experiences on another old Welsh estate how pleasing to join up again with my friends Gavin and Davina and what a fabulous weekend was had by all.

I was  asked to display some of my old farming items to supplement a growing collection which they have already from the estate’s many farms and gardens.  There were the usual exhibitors, the spinners, the honey maker, the woodsmen and apple pressers.  Several other friends were in attendance, Ty Mawr Lime was busy all weekend and what a place to show just what traditional lime plasters and paints can do to invigorate old buildings.  Another long standing acquaintance, Martin Fraser, had his mobile saw-mill in operation planking one of the great old cypress trees which had finally succumbed to the ravages of time but still managed to be turned into some fabulous planks – nice to see you Martin.

Welshwaller's tools at Penpont

My little display was in the barn on the Saturday but outside once the sun returned on Sunday. What a great weekend I had at Penpont’s birthday bash !

It wasn’t all country pursuits and crafts, oh no.  On Saturday some very distinguished people gave fascinating lectures about the history of the house and the estate and my old friend Richard Suggett from the Royal Commission (on Ancient and Historic Monuments Wales – RCAHMW) gave a really interesting account of the great houses of Breconshire.  Needless to say all those lectures were sold-out well before the day !

Since returning from the dry lands of Yorkshire I have quietly got myself back into the old routine of some walling, some wandering, some restoration.  I need to get a few small jobs completed before the winter really sets in.  Fortunately I had an able ‘stand-in’ whilst I was away who managed to get around a few of the outstanding repairs and I’m beginning to think my customers are more pleased to see her than me ! has gone back to the Carolinas to complete some walling work of her own – and await with trepidation the outcome of the upcoming Presidential election.  Thanks for all your help Missie.

My Buddhist friends up in Brynmawr are calling, I have artefacts awaiting attention and I need to do the final round of garden work before putting the mowers etc. away for the winter.  I must remember to remove fuel from all of the petrol engined machines so as to avoid the clogging up of the fuel pipes which will inevitably happen if I don’t – heed the warning folks, empty your tanks !!

So, back to Wales, back to work, back to the weird and wonderful world of Welshwaller.  I’ll leave you with with a photograph of a little momento I hauled all the way home from Thornton Lock on the Pocklington canal,  can you work out what it is !? Answers on a postcard please – I’ll tell you in the next post, that’ll get you back !

A large relic from a canal lock

No, not a watering can ! I’ll give you a clue or two, it’s been cut down, it’s upside down …. and it weighs over 300lbs !


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: