Sunday, 26 April 2009

A stroll round the Antiques Fair & Fleamarket

A lovely old (ship's?) lamp - brass under all that tarnish - and with an electric fitting at present, but I would like to alter it to take a candle - if we can ever work out how to put the removable bottom back in with a squat lit candle on . . . Suggestions on a postcard please. . .

These are infinitely preferable to the Car Boot Sales down on the showground, although it's £3.50 a head to get in. We spent an hour and a half wandering round, slowly, and deliberating about an old lamp which we had fallen in love with, but wasn't as cheap as we'd have liked it. Anyway, we walked all the way round, went back and it was still there, so we brought it home with us - though the people didn't want to shift on the price. I think it may have come from a ship originally, as it has loops top and bottom to be hung from and perhaps tied with for steadiness?

My husband, who loves wooden carvings and collects them, along with Windsor and primitive chairs, couldn't leave two broken carvings behind - he has some mending to do now. They're not quite griffins as they don't have the eagle's beaked head (which has ears too) so I shall have to consult my bestiary. They would originally have possibly graced an elaborate mirror rather like the one we have behind our sideboard, which has King Alfred on the top.

He spent some time drooling over a lovely primitive chair, but that was way over our budget - think it was damn near £3,000!!! I spent just £6 on three books (pictured below). I was delighted with the Hermann Lea photographs from places in Thomas Hardy's novels. Two volumes and untouched - don't think they'd even been opened. I shall settle down with them tonight.

Friday, 24 April 2009

The Battle of Derwen Fawr

The view West along the Towy Valley from Dryslwyn Castle.

Dryslywn Castle in winter.

Every time I drive along the A40 and pass the cross roads at Broad Oak, I look at the low-lying marshy fields and think of them strewn with dead and dieing men. This routeway along the Towy Valley has been in use since the Roman times, when it joined the forts at Carmarthen and Llandeilo and beyond, and doubtless since prehistoric times, as it is an obvious route along the valley bottom. The Grongar Hill of Dyer's famous poem overlooks it and was crowned by an Iron Age hillfort - for there was of course an earlier chain of command than the Roman forts and the later Medieval castles. Originally a glaciated valley, now silted up, a line of hills formed from the harder post-Silurian rocks has formed these obvious settlement areas. Dryslwyn Castle and Dinefwr Castle still stand on two of them.

This particular straight stretch of the A40 was constructed by Thomas Telford in the 1820s so we are unsure of the exact route of the original road. Higher land, heavily wooded in 1257 when the battle of Derwen Fawr took place, overlooks the marshy land. It was here, on the first two days of June, that the Welsh took on the Normans and routed them.

In this year of 1257, Llywelyn III and his uncles Maredudd ap Rhys and Maredudd ap Owain were the Welsh power in the area and the uncles held Dryslywn Castle. The two Maredudds had strong links with Whitland Abbey to the West, as they had been responsible for endowing the Abbey. Stephen de Bauson, and his Norman henchmen and mixed army of Norman, Gascon and even Welsh soldiers attacked Whitland Abbey, killing the monks and lay brothers, and destroying buildings there. They then proceeded along the Towy Valley, laying waste to the small farms and dwellings there, cocking a snook at the Welsh Lords in lofty Dryslwyn who were, I should imagine, grinding their teeth and planning revenge. However, accounts suggest that they avoided the actual main (A40) route since that led past the castles at Llanegwad and Dryslwyn which were in Welsh hands, so they must have taken the route south of the River Towy, crossing where the river can be easily forded near Derwen Fawr and camped the night nearby. Perhaps the intention was to move downstream and the laying waste to the Towy Valley communities would have convinced the Maredudds that they should surrender Dryslwyn without a fight.

The field names still record the slaughter on the first day of June: Congl Gwaedd - the corner of shouting - for it is written then noise figured much in the lead up to the battle, with Llewelyn's men cwtched up in the woodland overlooking the low ground and intimidating the opposing army with a barrage of noise and well-placed arrows (Welsh archers had a fearsome and well-deserved reputation as they proved at Agincourt).

Llether Cadfan - near the present Cadfan Farm - the slope of battle; Cae Dial - the field of retribution; and Cae Trac - the field of defeat, destruction and death . . . Those few words more than sum up the outcome of the battle - particularly to a Welshman.

At Cardigan, 30 or so miles North, were further supplies and reinforcements. Perhaps realizing they had bitten off more than they could chew, the Norman lord and his army moved off but when they reached Llether Cadfan they found that the Welsh army had come out of hiding. In this first fight, the English Army lost its supply train, with horses, weapons, armour and pack animals. Routed, the surviving army apparently headed northwards towards Talley and eventually Cardigan. The valley bottom was wet and marshy, the tributary valleys are steep narrow gorges. Sources suggest that the second battle may have taken place at Pont Myddfai - where several tributaries meet (noted in the records) and one of the streams has an unusual name - Nant Stephanau - quite possibly the place where Stephen du Bauson was killed. In the marshy ground, between 1000 and 3000 troops were killed - dragged from their mired horses and put to the sword. For hundreds of years it was the greatest defeat of an "English" army by the Welsh.

Many thanks to for the facts used in this account.

Above, looking Eastwards (with a touch of South!) from Dryslywn Castle.

Sorry I don't have any photos of the actual battlefield.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009


I have been feeling rather unwell this afternoon, and managed just half an hour's sporadic five minute wanders into the garden to move a few primulas and home-grown plants around to colour up a corner by the wildlife pond. I am going to sit down this evening with a good book.

We had to g to St Clears today, to go to the wonderful butcher there (Eynon's) for steak for our son's 18th birthday tomorrow - how the years have flown by. I can still remember him, very blonde and very angry, in a green and white striped baby-gro, grizzling then yelling blue murder in nearly the same spot as I was gardening today, when it looked very much different with a trellis and some shrubs. Anyway, I digress. Sometimes there is an image which you capture and which will stay with you a long time. By the traffic lights was a big old rendered house with a high-walled garden. All you could see were the tops of a long-abandoned shrubbery, a Magnolia the size of a prefab and the most amazing Rhododendron the size of a caravan, the palest nearly-white pink with baby pink buds - just absolutely stunning. It took me back years, when I was still living in Southampton, and I took my mum to Exbury gardens for a treat. We had chosen our visit well, for all the Azaleas, Camelias and Rhododendrons were in bloom and walking through such a riot of colour was sensual overload.

We walked through a little gateway and found ourselves near the river, and a Stoat ran across our path, stopping to look at us a minute before going unhurriedly on his way. I've just sought out a photograph of Exbury from Creative Commons. I even found the bit where we saw the Stoat (see above). I feel a sudden urge to get in the car and start driving, to drink it all in again, but of course, I won't. I shall just polish the memories.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

What might have been . . .

Birthday Auriculas . . .

Do you ever wonder how your life might have been, if you hadn't taken a crucial decision, met certain people, moved to a particular place? For instance, if I hadn't married my first husband, moved my pony to a certain farm, met a good horsey friend there who subsequently moved back home to Dorset, and moved to Dorset myself when I split up with my husband, I might never have met the love of my life and we've been married 20 years now.

Just so with houses, for if we hadn't lost out on the cottage we were buying near Dartmoor, and if I hadn't been on holiday to Carmarthenshire in 1971 and 1972 and fell in love with the area, we might never have moved to our current home. And in fact, if we hadn't bought a huge £1 mirror at auction and decided that it would be lovely to have an old farmhouse to hang it in, life might have been very different indeed.

I was thinking all these thoughts - and more - driving up to Sheffield with Eldest Daughter on Thursday. Every time I have driven up through mid-Wales and passed the turning to Montgomery, I have wondered what the town looked like, as we were very keen to view a half-timbered farmhouse in the area, which sounded just what we were looking for, but unfortunately the vendor was playing ducks and drakes and every time we tried to make an appointment to view, he cancelled, driving us and the Estate Agents to despair. In the end, we gave up and moved to Carmarthenshire instead.

So when I was driving back home yesterday I thought "S*d it, I'll go and see what we missed!" I have to say, sitting in the serene little market square in Montgomery, with its beautiful houses and 3 or 4 small shops, I think it would have suited us to the ground. I drove up a steep winding hill past the castle (will visit that next time, camera in hand) and out across beautiful countryside back through Abermule and onto the road home.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Living in the past

The tiny tree-clad motte at Llanegwad, where the castle was possibly the one put to the torch in 1203.

There are times when your mind becomes immersed in an idea, a concept, and it returns to this idea like a dog with a bone. Thus when I was awake at 4 a.m. again this morning, my mind kept wandering around this parish (Llanegwad), peopling it with long-dead inhabitants, mulling over the limits of Talley Abbey lands, thinking about the Medieval administrative tiers of Cantref, Commote, Maerdref, Llys, about the kingdom of Deheubarth, the Lord Rhys in his llys at Dinefwr, the battles which waged back and forth between Welsh princelings, and then the hated English.

I thought about Monachdy, with its grange which was the final outpost of the Premonstratension monks of Talley Abbey (that title for the white-robed monks makes me think of PMT!), and the lost chapel in a nearby field and the chunks of high-status dressed stone possibly from there which we found used in the flagstone floor in the bottom kitchen. I thought about the lost chapel attached to Llandeilo-yr-ynys, a grand house on the banks of the Towy, and which probably derived its name from the ancient land divisions when Maenor Brwnws was settled on the confluence of the rivers Cothi and Towy - Llandeilo Rwnws . . .

I thought about the battle here between the Normans and the Welsh in 1116, and the bloody battle further up the Towy Valley near Derwen Fawr in 1257, when - if I remember rightly - the English army were caught wrong-footed and slaughtered like rabbits caught in a car's headlight. That deserves a post in itself, so I shall do just that when I return from taking our eldest daughter back to University.

I wondered if it really WAS the little castle on the motte in Llanegwad which was burnt by the Welsh in 1203, and how, in 1287, people living along our valley would have fled or died when the soldiers sent by the Norman Constable of Carmarthen, Robert de Tibetot plundered and pillaged up as far as Brechfa in pursuit of Rhys ap Maredudd after a beseigement of Dryslwyn Castle. Rhys was patron of Talley Abbey and much against the English king replacing the Welsh canons at Talley with English ones.

I have a feeling I shall be hunting the Records Office again soon . . .

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

"Made in England"

Do you remember when "Made in England" was on just about everything we bought? It was a byword for quality. I'm trying hard to think of anything at the cheaper end of the market which is still Made In England, particularly if it is a garment, but it seems that everything comes in from the Far East sweatshops these days. In fact, everything seems to be farmed out, from food to utilities. Britain has forgotten that it is an Island, and as such, vulnerable in times of duress.

Indeed, back in 1967/68, pride in our country and a motivation to reduce the Government Debt (who would help them out these days?!!!) resulted in a short-lived campaign to work an extra half hour a day for no pay to increase productivity. The slogan was "I'm Backing Britain". Here in Wales of course, it was "I'm Backing Wales" . . . It was started by 5 secretaries in Surbiton, who were working for Colt Ventilation and Heating and you can read all the details on the Wikipedia entry.

Back in the 1930s, Dorothy Hartley was travelling the countryside chronicling the skills and crafts which were recorded faithfully in her book "Made in England", first published in 1939. Her book is divided into crafts associated with Wood; Straw, Reed, Grass and Willow; Stone; Metal; Bricks and Pottery; Leather and Horn and Wool and Feathers. Let me share an extract with you:

"One of the most beautiful things I ever saw of English make was a black oak table, polished with beeswax, upon which stood twelve slender black horn tumblers. They fluted upwards, from ebony to creamy white, and there were black and white horn-handled knives to match - simple, practical, and modern, yet as old as the hills. It is a great pity that the new composition materials, from which so many various things may be fashioned, should have helped to reduce the output of the genuine horn goblet. There is even less 'apparatus' needed to form goblets than spoons - a saw, lathe, and polishing buffs are all that is required.

Apart from the decorative value, travellers find horn light in weight and often more effective for use than metal or glass. In this connection I remember a very English incident in a small horn factory in Gloucestershire. A workman who had been in trade from boyhood, 'and his father before him,' said that his grandfather, 'before that,' had a busy time 'a few years ago' when he (the grandfather) 'got a sudden rush of orders for medicine glasses for the Crimean War'.

Because as soon as the doctors arrived abroad all the medicine glasses were found broken in the knapsacks, so then 'all army medicine glasses had to be made of horn'. It was 'a great rush of work in that small place in those days!' I remember I had spent a happy afternoon in that country workshop, and now the place was very quiet, the workers had gone home, a bee drifting in through the open door zoomed its way across and out through a broken window. On the odd tools and the worn benches, the dust of the day's work and the fluff from the polishing lathes was drifting down.

I remember how the workman stooped slowly, and hunting and rooting in an old oak bin under his bench, produced one of these old glasses for me. He wiped it, and stood it down on the bench. It was 3 inches deep, by about 2 inches in diameter, very dusty. He looked at it reminiscently, 'Very clear horn, these medicine glasses had to be - this one's darkish, expect that's why it got chucked out; it's been there ever since the Crimea . . .'

He chucked it back into the box, together with a short shoe-horn, a snuff box that had warped, and something new that looked as if it might be a piece of aeroplane fitment. The horn, and the workman, were the same: only the wars change." ("Made in England": Dorothy Hartley, 1939, Eyre Methuen.

We still use the old-fashioned bone-handled table knives, a bone-handled carving knife, and I have two very old bone spoons (one Scottish) which are a joy to touch. It is good to find out that items are still being made from horn and its use has not died out entirely.

In case you are interested, the following link is excellent, and horn spoons and other items are still being made and sold, though I suspect there is little British horn now that cattle are generally disbudded as calves. And that link calls up another forgotten skill - the traditional Umbrella Maker . . .

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Heritage craft skills

The Heritage Crafts Network

I have always been fascinated by rural skills and traditions. I can remember riding through woodland at Odstock in Wiltshire and seeing a man making hurdles from carefully-coppiced stools of hazel - I hope his son is carrying on this tradition. At agricultural shows I have always been interested in watching the chap with the pole lathe, turning chair legs, or the basket-maker (something I have had a one day course in and would love to pursue) or the potter or whoever has a demo. spot that day. I often think that I was born in the wrong time. On my mum's side I come from a long long line of Northamptonshire lace makers. I have always been drawn to needlecrafts, and love to embroider, and do x-stitch, spin, needle-felting, hand-made quilts, hand quilting, plus knitting, crochet and upholstery (hitting something with a hammer is SO satisfying!) Although my mum taught me to knit when I was little, and I was shown how to crochet last year (thank you Sarah), and I used to go to Upholstery evening classes, the other skills have been self-taught with the aid of books. My husband works with wood - and is a skilled turner, repairing chairs in particular and antiques in general and he has a real affinity for anything made from wood. He has also done dry stone walling course in the past. The satisfaction derived from making something from scratch - be it a meal, or a loaf, or a cushion-cover or a gate or basket, has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to find three wonderful books about rural crafts - Made in England by Dorothy Hartley; Household and Country Crafts by Allan Jobson, and The Complete Practical Book of country Crafts by Jack Hill. They catalogue wonderful skills and traditions but sadly many of these are dieing out for one reason or another - and not necessarily from lack of demand. So much knowledge and skill has already been lost and these traditional skills should be more than just a demonstration at an agricultural show.

I hope that you will visit the Heritage Crafts Association which is keeping these wonderful traditional crafts alive. If you have a blog, mention them on your blog, and put a link on facebook or twitter or whatever social network you enjoy. Then set yourself a task to learn one new thing to make in the coming year - one skill, one traditional craft perhaps.

Friday, 10 April 2009

I blinked and missed it . . .

Where has the last week gone? I have been bound up with collecting our eldest daughter from Uni - that took 2 days - then it was nearly my birthday, so we had a day out and then a day celebrating (indoors as it rained), and today I have been in the garden practically all day and I am now struggling to stay awake. Tomorrow I have to visit a friend in hospital and on Monday i will be up at first sparrow's f*rt to take our middle daughter to her friend's in Newport (not Pembs!) for onward transition back to Uni . . .

My birthday outing was wonderful - mostly revisiting places which have a special meaning for me. The Pilgrim burials at Llanstephan; Newport - for a beach picnic then a wander round the town including the antique and 2nd hand bookshop; discovering Moylegrove for the first time; gazing at wild flowers and the cairns along the ridge of Carn Ingli; looking at the river where we once found Mesolithic flints; taking Tam to see Pentre Ifan for the first time and of course taking photographs to remind me of the day. We ended up in Newcastle Emlyn, where I couldn't resist spending some of my birthday money on plants for the garden. It cost nothing but the fuel and some bread and cheese for our lunch, but will live in my memory forever.

Cottage at Moylegrove.

It was hard to tell where the sea stopped and the sky began . . .

What a ducky little castle - best I've ever seen.

Window surrounded by slate weatherproofing on a Newport (Pembs) cottage.

How Pentre Ifan may have looked when it was still in use as a burial chamber.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Busy in the garden

Why aren't there more hours in the day? I am going flat out just to stand still at the moment as there is so much to do outside. My fault, my husband tells me - I have made a rod for my own back because I have widened the herbaceous border in the front garden and because of my "intake" area in the paddock. Since February (I started in January, but ice and snow stopped play) I have been gradually been cutting back, mattocking, digging, weeding, removing nettle and bramble roots, and then planting up a new soft fruit area MUCH bigger than my existing one. I did have an overflow area of blackcurrants, and two redcurrants and an escapee gooseberry bush, but now I have planted about 40 raspberry canes (many of them autumn fruiting), a couple more gooseberries, about a dozen blackcurrants and redcurrants - the former home grown, the latter boughten. I have bought and planted a Jostaberry, a lovely Autumn Gold raspberry, a potted cranberry and about to transplant a blueberry, and transplanted dozens of young strawberry plants. Over on the original plot I have added more rhubarb crowns, two tayberries and just transplanted some more autumn fruiting raspberries which were threatening to take over the main veg. plot.

I have resurrected the original herb bed, which surprisingly still had its original inhabitants, despite having Fahly-horse walking over it all winter for the last 6 years (bar last). I have transplanted the inhabitants of my raised herb bed and that is "supposed" to be turned into a plastic-covered greenhouse, but I am waiting on my husband for that . . . and I know him of old - he has a PhD in procrastination . . .

I have planted young fruit trees either side of the pathway - several pears, a Victoria Plum, a Cox's Pippin apple and moved a very well grown Bay tree to the end (it looks like it is surviving). There is still much to do, but we have made good progress. Of course, with the downsizing planned for next year, I am doing this for the incoming family, but I shall enjoy it this year and I think it's a good selling point - the "Good Life" and self-sufficiency and all that . . .

Towards the beginning, when all I had done was clear the bramble brakes, lay the weed suppressant membrane for the path, and put the fruit trees in.

How it is now, with autumn bliss raspberries in the foreground; strawberries - including under the plastic cloche; summer raspberries to their right; young black- and red-currants behind that and established blackcurrants and gooseberries to the right.

Herb bed between the two fruit trees, and foreground shows one end of the first potato plot. The right hand half of the plot will be mostly spuds and perhaps some beans this year, if I get the digging done in time. Ignore Next Door's shabby shed (we do!). Another job to be done is to move the piles of grassy builder's sand and duff which are at the base of our wall. I intend to put tubs of flowers along here.

This is the original soft fruit garden with the transplanted autumn bliss raspberries and tayberries/loganberry the other side of the blue baling twine. Out of sight are 4 well grown gooseberry bushes and some Japanese Wineberries.

Right, I can't put off the digging ANY longer . . .