Heroic Challenges

I’ve just completed the second of this year’s Heritage Heroes project with another group of astonishing veterans.  The joint project between the Canal and River Trust and the Help for Heroes charity has been funded by the People’s Post Code Lottery and as I’ve mentioned in previous reports on the earlier projects, it is certainly one of the best uses of public donations I’ve seen.


This time we found ourselves not far down the waterway from the previous project at the Caen Lock in Devizes but instead of the busy Kennett and Avon canal our base this time was the picturesque but disused Wilts & Berks canal near Chippenham.

Talk about de ja’vu;  I was constantly Dr. Who’d back to the nineteen fifties and another disused canal in Cwmbran, the old Mon & Brec at Five Locks.  The Wilts& Berks (NOT the Wiltshire and Berkshire due to a clerical oversight in the Act of Parliament granting permission to construct it in ) is a haven of tranquility and wildlife as was my childhood playground.  All the creatures of the still waterway were present and all the flora abounded along its banks and disused lock pounds.  True, there are a group of volunteers doing their best to reconstruct the lock system and keep the waterway open in so far as it can be – there are few places ‘in water’ along the whole stretch.  By and large however, the canal is a fine habitat and wildlife corridor and therein lies the debate about such restoration.


The ‘navvies’ of course want the canal to be the industrial-age highway it once was, nature (and I suspect, most of those who walk, run and ride along it) on the other hand needs to be left in peace.  Nature has been in charge of this man-made corridor for a century and more and there are well established habitats and colonies.  There are certainly some rarities but somehow the stretch between Pewsham Lock and Lacock has been missed by the Wildlife politzei and has never been protected by any official conservation category such as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  That’s probably just as well or the keen restorationists would have some real problems on their hands.  I came across a similar issue up in Yorkshire on the Pocklington canal where five SSSIs ‘hindered’ those seeking to re-open the waterway.

However, there is an easy balance if only people would be willing to listen to arguments from both sides.  I and my merry gang were constantly aghast at some of the actions and arguments of the restorationists.  Of course, it is the case that the majority of folk have little understanding of the ways of the countryside and even less about the methods of sympathetic management.  We, unfortunately, arrived at just the time when sympathetic management was needed.  June and July are critical months for flora and fauna reproduction and the destruction of food sources and breeding habitats is to be avoided if at all possible.  Cutting grassland full of wild flowers, some of them rare, smashing hedgerows and pulling emergent plants from the waterway is not really the best way to help nature at that particularly important time of year.  For the sake of a few weeks much damage was wreaked on an otherwise stable and productive wildlife corridor.  You can imagine that I was not flavour of the (two !) months as I tried to persuade the ‘committee’ to not do what they always do ….. It became quite clear to all of us that their reticence to even listen to our arguments in favour of helping nature was more to do with their determination not to give in to any other viewpoint.  In fairness, the ‘obstinates’ were few and most of the volunteer team were good folk to work alongside.  Sadly it seems a common factor in community groups that committee folk often have their faults but being wrong is definitely not one of them.

As for the contribution of my merry team of veterans – how come they are veteran when they are thirty years younger than me !? – we got stuck into creating a life size outline of one of the narrow boats that plied the canal in its short lifetime as an industrial highway.  Using standard fence posts cut to around 300mm above ground level and hammered home using the brute strength of a sixteen pound sledge-hammer (which, because of injuries, only a few could wield) the 28 metre long x 2.7 metre wide boat emerged from the ground.  It was impressively big !  Surrounded by a post and rail fence a children’s play area began to take shape and with logs set into the ground to step up and on the whole began to take shape.


For six weeks, Monday to Thursday, we bashed and banged posts into the baked clay, my oh my, was the ground hard !?  Some of the days in mid June the temperature reached thirty three degrees and the boys mixing mortar and laying bricks on the lock reconstruction had a hard time of it, the mortar was drying out far too quickly but at least they eventually had a sun-shade.  The post bashers remarked that it was “like being back in Afghan!”

The stoicism of these men is remarkable and humbling as is their ability to laugh and enjoy ‘the crack’ of being back with like minded souls.  Rank is never mentioned, there is some inter-unit banter but nothing serious, in fact little talk takes place around service stories, it’s more likely to be the appreciation of nature – in the form of runners and walkers of the fairer sex … and there were plenty of those along that tranquil shady canal bank.  As was often mentioned, “it beats working for a living!”

IMG_0363 My ‘Very Special Forces’ in a remake of a famous film where Aliens emerge from the maize …..  Six weeks of crazy bonkers laughter with a bunch of guys that all warrant our salute.

And now I’ve to get back into normal life and get some walls built, some machinery restored, some articles written and some talks prepared.  Somewhere along the way, sometime before the sun crosses the Equator, I need to take a holiday …..

Most urgent is to get my Radnor Wheelcar completed for the upcoming shows in its home county.  I’m well on the way but as the paint I am using requires UV rays to dry it and as the sun seems to conveniently always hide when I have the time to paint, it is taking rather longer than I had hoped.


Resplendent in a vegetable undercoat, which is way to0 bright for a working vehicle, the wheelcar is beginning the last phase of restoration.  As soon as possible I will apply the top coat and deal with the metal work.

Whilst I was away in Wiltshire I happened upon a rather good ‘junk and disorderly’ kind of place.  It was the sort of antique emporium I cannot resist and almost as soon as I walked into the yard I spied one of the few agricultural implements I lack in my collection but it is one definitely on the bucket list.  Admittedly it was not in the best of condition, in fact it was snapped but it was mainly all there and certainly not something I could walk away from.


The hay sweep was a common implement in the old days of horse harvesting.   Dragged through the field it swept the hay before it and once at its destination,  a field barn or rick stack,  the handles were flicked and the whole sweep was turned over ready for a reverse sweep.  As you can see, mine is missing its handles and has broken on the main beam but fortunately I have the answer.  Not far over the hill from me is an extremely knowledgeable and skilled craftsman who knows a thing or two about all matters farming and wooden.


John Tonen of Brynamman is a Master Craftsman in the minutiae of wooden farm carts and implements.  He happened to mention to me that he had a model of a hay sweep which was integrally accurate and an exact scale model.  That is an enormous help to me in remaking the missing parts of my newly acquired sweep.

However, my contact with John is spasmodic and tends to be annual, at one or other of the vintage shows where he displays his magnificent collection of models.  He had visited me a couple of years ago to measure one of my tipping carts and subsequently made a model of it.  He has the only model I have seen of the Radnor Wheelcar and he and I have often discussed the origins and finer points.  I was about to write to him to invite him over to see my wheelcar, which is now only five miles or so from his home.  He beat me to it with a note asking if I was attending a forthcoming show as he had something to show me.  I replied inviting him to the farm to see my wheelcar which he gladly accepted.

When he turned up it was not just to see my actual wheelcar but to bring me a model of the very one held in the National Museum of Wales, St. Fagans.  A wheelcar made by the Lewis’ of Gravel Arch at Llanbister Road which I have written of previously.  It’s not often I’m left speechless, I really didn’t know what to say.  For one thing I know (or can at least guesstimate) how many hours it must take to make one of those models. For another, how do you thank someone for presenting you with something you have always desired but never ever expected to acquire !?  ‘Humbled’ might be the most suitable term.  And what an astonishing model it is, accurate in every respect and scaled at one inch to the foot.


Can you believe this is a model ?  Exquisite or what !

I am due to give a lecture about the Radnor Wheelcar in November and had, for several months, been wondering if I dare ask John if he would either attend the lecture with his model or allow me to borrow it to show folks what a wheelcar actually looks like.  Well, now that problem is solved, except that for ever and a day I will be indebted to the Master Modelmaker from Brynamman.  Diolch yn Fawr John Bach !



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