There is a Green Hill far away …

Goodness, Easter come and gone already !  How is it that every thing I try to accomplish takes an absolute age and my every movement and thought seems to be overtaken by yet another sunset ?  How is it that we are approaching the end of April and yet I’m still trying to finish February jobs !?  To add to my concerns the grass has begun to grow again and I’m away from home for another spell of canal restoration.  This time my Heritage Heroes and I are based around the Kennett and Avon canal near the Caen Lock flight at Devizes.

It never ceases to amaze me how eighteenth century engineers saw no problem as insurmountable.  “Let’s build a canal to link Bristol with London using the Avon and the Thames”. “And let’s make sure we join all the towns along the route”.  What a grand plan, but there is the slight issue of height and fall, in particular where the great mass of the Wiltshire downs blocks the route.  “Nay bother, we’ll build some locks!”  Yes, twenty two of them in one vast flight.  It is an astonishing feat of engineering and quite awe inspiring in spectacle.  For a lad from the wonders of the Five Locks at Pontnewydd (Cwmbran) on the Mon. & Brecs. canal, it is quite the most jaw dropping sight.

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Unlike our previous project on the Pocklington canal near York, this time we are working on a fully functioning tourist mecca.  Dozens of folk walk the tow-path and dozens of narrow boats ply their way up and down the locks en-route to their next pub-side night halt.  The engineering and systems associated with any lock is quite un-heeded by most folk and my crew are no different.  Some had seen canal locks previously and some had never, none of them had any idea how they worked nor the amount of water required to keep them functioning.  When it comes to water requirement the Caen flight is unquenchable.  Huge ponds sit alongside each in-between section so that water being released out of one lock (to allow a boat to descend) can be impounded ready to fill the next one down (for ascent or descent).  At the bottom of the flight the final empty gets pumped all the way back to the top by a solar powered pump, which of course is not original !

The canal reaches a high point south of the town of Marlborough near the little rural idyll of Burbidge.  In order to fill the locks at that point a huge pumping station, Crofton, was built and its beam engine is now an attraction in its own right.

One of the major repairs still to be completed is at a bridge near the pumping station, bridge number 99.  This particular bridge was built merely to allow the estate owner to access his land and has no public right of way across it.  It’s just as well really as right next to it – and I mean the other side of a dilapidated fence – sits the main Bristol to London railway where every few minutes massive high speed trains flash past or mile long freight trains trundle endlessly along.  Old Isambard wasn’t stupid, why cut a whole new route when one already existed, just buy out the canal and run your line next to it !

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Apart from the historic stature of the canal and its structures there is another aspect which is now protected and listed.  During the Second World War when invasion was thought to be a probability, various strategies were put in place to impede the progress of the invading armies.  Various ‘Stop lines’ were drawn up to which staged withdrawals could be made and a stand made, at least for a while, before retreating to the next line.  A water filled canal, like a river, is an excellent way of preventing progress of mechanised armies and so the bridges on the K&A were blocked with huge concrete bollards, weighing around 7 tons (old money) each.  It is a testament to the original bridge builders that the brick arches still hold fast with the half dozen or so concrete blockades still sitting on them !

As the bridge parapet needs rebuilding and many of the old facing bricks need to be cut out and replaced, a certain level of competence is required by my merry men in order to do the work to the required conservation standard.  Naturally modern cement is not allowed nor is it appropriate, instead a hydraulic lime mortar (HNL 5) is being used.  Now the use of lime is in itself a specialist technique and in order to equip the team with the required skills I took them off to my old friends at Ty Mawr on the shores of Llangorse lake near Brecon (www.lime.org.uk).  As it was the first week the group had been together it also served as a good ‘bonding’ session but, most importantly, they learned the basic concepts and practicalities of laying bricks using a lime mortar.  As always the reception was excellent and the valiant service of Ray in providing superb breakfast and lunches was much appreciated.  The venue is a superb place for a course and everyone was bowled over with the magnificence of Ty Mawr, the lake and the whole area.  Sunshine helped quite a bit of course, Llangorse with the rain beating down and the view of the lake blocked out by ten-ten mist quite a different matter.

 

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Installed to block the progress of German Panzers, these 7 ton concrete blockades are easy prey to a modern ‘pecker’ equipped mechanical excavator.

 

The bridge will take a good deal of repairing but once completed it will become another jewel in the canal system.  Its special interest comes from the fact it is a ‘skew’ bridge, which is to say that instead of crossing the canal at right angles (as do most bridges) it crosses at an angle.  This was simply an expedient way of respecting the existing ‘ride’, or bridleway, which the Duke of Marlborough insisted should be retained.  The actual building technique and the angle of the brickwork on the underside of the arch is quite astonishing and in fact, shows the difficulties the original builders had in fathoming out how it should be done.

My old school rugby pitches (West Mon Grammar for Boys, Pontypool) were named after a similar bridge on the Monmouthshire & Breconshire canal (Mon & Brecs.) at Pontymoile. ‘Skew Fields’ still exist and are still the home of the school’s Old Boys rugby team.

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Bridge 99 on the Kennett & Avon Canal – an unusual Skew bridge

The Easter holiday weekend saw me having to address a small wall collapse close to the site of one of my first jobs, over 25 years ago now.  A neighbour at the farm where my collection is housed asked me to have a look at a collapse on a wall which formed the boundary between his land and a neighbour.  It is a ‘hidden’ piece of ground and despite my years of working close to it, I had never actually seen the wall before nor the section of the tilestone quarries from which it gained most of its stone.

DSCF6124 The scar of the quarrying of the micaceous sandstone which roofed the homes and barns of the area for hundreds of years can be traced from this end of the outcrop, just south of Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire to Llandeilo Graban in Radnorshire.  Now just grassy lumps and bumps often covered in bright yellow gorse, the spoil heaps have been invaded by rabbits and, badgers and as here, a nice little nursery for a Vixen to raise her cubs.  I could hear them crying as I walked past.

The collapse is a typical happening on the walls in these parts; they are mostly of early nineteenth century construction and built by gangs during the enclosure of the hitherto open ‘friddoed‘, the better common grazing available to the local township.  By far too much ‘trace’walling, which is to say that instead of the stones being placed so as to penetrate deeply into the wall, they are laid as would bricks be laid, lengthways, was used.  This method of building is typical when a quick build in required and a ‘quick’ build was always desired by builders who got paid for what they put up and then very little.

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The strange thing about walls in this particular part of Carmarthenshire is the height at which they were finished.  Normally a 4ft/1.2 metre height suffices but here the builders have gone on to at least 5ft/1.5 mtrs and here and there, in order to maintain the appearance of a level line running across the land, they have levelled out where dips in the ground occur. So although in one sense the build is not particularly good – notwithstanding it’s been there since about 1812 ! – there are other aspects of the wall that show care and attention.  One of the main problems always with enclosure walls is the paucity of hearting, those stones which pack the centre of the two faces of the wall.  This is a factor of the build method whereby two wallers, facing each other, built the faces while an unskilled labourer threw stones into the middle without packing them tightly.  Thus over time the hearting settles to the bottom of the wall leaving the upper half and more, unsupported.  Gradually the faces start to move, either due to the pressure of stock or snow drift or just the spinning of the earth !  Ultimately a collapse occurs, suddenly and without any logical explanation.  So it was with this particular section, one day the farmer drove past and it was fine, the next it was down in a heap.  As always it had fallen one way and so all the stones were in one field meaning half the day was spent sorting and throwing half of it back over.

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It took me most of the Easter weekend to get it back up but that was in no small part due to my malingering.  It was such an interesting parcel of land and the walls were new to me,  I spent far too much time looking instead of doing.

The remainder of April and into the middle of May was spent with my intrepid Heritage Heroes back in Devizes on the Caen Hill lock complex.  It is a real honour to work with them and a privilege to (hopefully) play a small part in their recovery.  They certainly learnt some new skills and the products of their endeavours were a rather splendid set of steps leading to a viewing area which looked out across the flat open lands towards Chippenham and a dipping platform on the side of one of the feeder ponds for the locks.

They also constructed around sixty metres of access path to enable wheelchairs to get to the viewing platform and painted endless lock gate beams !  Oh yes, and they all completed their City & Guild Landbased studies award and learned something about Wildlife along the way – or maybe that is being too hopeful !

I’ve a few weeks R.&R now before starting it all again with another group on another canal.  However R&R for this Welshwaller means getting back up into the hills to do some quick builds before that happens.  And who knows, maybe I can squeeze in a little excursion to some remote spot for a little holiday.  Stay tuned – I promise to be more productive in the coming weeks, I mean to say, such a long break between posts will see y’all going elsewhere for your coffee time reading….

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