The two worst months of the year have come and gone – not that they were that bad here, this time around. We haven’t suffered from too much rain, and very little snow has been dumped on us. And although we had the boiler breakdown before Christmas and the crisis with our garden wall, we’ve had no problems with the house – apart from an astonishingly high insurance quote from our current provider, even though we’ve never made a claim. Ever. Methinks we will be taking our business elsewhere but the whole process is so downright tedious that I’ve been putting it off. My sympathy to those of you who’ve suffered extremes of weather, by the way – I hope you’re all warm and dry now.
A you probably know, last October Michael and I embraced our inner Davy Crockett and joined a bunch of folk known as the Llangattock Woodland Community group. It seemed like a good idea; we’d get to play outdoors with other people and learn about managing woodland areas. And really, what a great way to spend time – surrounded by trees! We meet each Tuesday at a meadow alongside the Monmouth and Brecon Canal and officially we carry out hazel coppicing, collect and chop firewood, make charcoal and generally look after the place.
Part of our woodland meadow
One of the favourite activities – making fire
We also keep bees (at least, some of us do), hang bat- and bird-boxes, and try to maintain the habitat for any other wildlife in the area. There are otters in the canal, though I’ve never seen one – but I live in hope. We have a barge, which is used to transport wood from where it’s been cut to where we can easily store it. This is all good fun – physical activity (but only as much as you want), messing about on a boat, and having a natter.
This lovely thing is called Wyndrush wild…
…and these are Elf Cups. Who knew there were elves living in Welsh woodlands?
As well as that, there’s the food. We get together at about 10am and one of the first jobs is to put the kettle on. Not the first job – that’s to light a fire in an old oil drum; because until that’s been done there’s nowhere to put the kettle…yup, it’s that basic.
And by 10:30 we have some boiling (or almost boiling) water, which means we get to have a cup of tea – and cake. It’s very important to have cake – this cannot be stressed too much. Last week I took along a batch of Welsh cakes (which I’d baked that very morning) and the week before it had been Dorset Apple Cake. Previously I’d suppled a slightly under-cooked Bara Brith – which was eaten with enthusiasm. But the best cakes come from Bob, who’s been away since before Christmas, keeping an eye on his sister’s house somewhere in the West Country while she’s in Australia or Canada or somewhere. I’m looking forward to him coming back, because the strain of being responsible for the baking – not to say trying to reach Bob’s standards – is getting a little too much.
Anyway, once the tea-break is over we get back to whatever task has been decided on for the day, until we reach lunch-time. This is usually around 1pm or so and consists of a couple of frying-pans of sausages from Cashells (the wonderful local butchers in Crickhowell) along with bread and various bottles of sauce. And, of course, another cup of tea to keep us going until the end of the day at about 3pm or so.
In all the time we’ve been going what’s been astonishing is that on only one Tuesday has it rained. This is Wales, remember…it’s supposed to rain! We’re supposed to get wet! Which may be why fate decreed that one of our number should fall into the canal two weeks ago. We were trying – unsuccessfully – to move the ancient, flat-bottomed barge. The canal has been drained upstream so that it can be re-lined, and this section of it has less water than usual. The boat was sitting low as a result and a huge amount of silt had settled around it. Our pathetic endeavours were getting us nowhere and unfortunately Steve’s attempt to get the thing to budge by prodding it with a long, hefty pole was a stretch too far. There’s something indescribably awful about watching helplessly as a grown man slithers slowly but irrevocably off a muddy bank into an even muddier canal. We were all too far from him to help, which was just as well because he would have had company in the canal. I contented myself with wailing “Noooo, oh nooo!” and hopping around, well out of slipping distance. The thing that worried Steve more than anything was that his glasses had come off, but by some complete miracle he found them in the brown water almost straight away. Once he’d clambered out he set off home to clean himself up – and actually came back about an hour later! I have to say I’d have got myself a hot bath and then spent the rest of the day on the sofa.
All of this hard work and trauma deserves a reward, and what better than an upgrade in the food stakes? So as a treat, last week we had a proper lunch party; instead of sausages we had a chicken curry, a vegetable hot-pot, and flatbreads, all cooked at home and then transported to the site by Jackie, one of the longest-serving members of the group. Michael had spent an hour the previous evening making small pancakes (to mark Shrove Tuesday) and we took those along with a jar of our elderberry jelly, and re-heated them (wrapped in foil) on the barbecue that had been brought along for the event. No party is complete without a little drink, though, and Steve had brought a box of cheap Merlot from a French supermarket to celebrate. Sheer luxury, I tell you.
It would have been splendid – except that the weather gods had saved up all of the Tuesday-rain that we haven’t had, and gave it to us this week. So we huddled beneath our hastily erected gazebo, which we’d braced with twenty-foot hazel boughs to combat the wind that was coming our way courtesy of Storm Ewan, or at least the dregs of it. Suffice to say that in true British style we got on with enjoying our grub while hanging on to the sides of the gazebo as it threatened to take off. The paths had turned into mud and we were absolutely freezing – though not literally, as we were spared the snow that had settled on top of the escarpment above us.
Snow on the escarpment – just before the rain moved in
And what a difference a day – or two – makes. Because this morning we went up onto the very same escarpment for a walk, and although the wind was howling up there and threatening to turn us into a pair of Mary Poppinses, the skies were almost clear and out of the gale it wasn’t too cold.
The remnants of large-scale activity from the Industrial Revolution can be seen all around here, from the ancient tram-way and quarries to the grass-covered spoil mounds.
Llangattock escarpment with its limestone quarries
Looking west – Mynydd Troed in the centre, looming over the pass into the centre of the ancient kingdom of Brycheiniog
Looking east – the SugarLoaf with Ysgyryd Fawr just to the right of it
Looking further east, towards the Monmouthshire hills beyond Abergavenny
We managed to get ourselves back home with no mishaps for once. Neither of us fell, slipped into a bog or got our feet wet by stepping in a sneaky stream. We didn’t get lost (and we could see our house from the escarpment so we’d have figured it out) or blown off our feet. And by the time we got home I was in such a good mood that I didn’t even mind sitting down to sort out the house insurance.
I gazed upon the glorious sky and the green mountains round…
William Cullen Bryant