Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Why we Moved to Wales - Part III

We drove up the steep zig-zag hill, and on the bend was a farm and the farmhouse, looking grey rather than white in the rain, which was falling steadily (the shape of things to come!) and here was the house we had fallen in love with . . . on paper at any rate.

The farmer met us and told us to go on in and look around for ourselves, but to make sure we shut the gate, as there were calves grazing in the . . . "garden".   A wide Georgian glazed door led into a wide long hall tiled with black, red and primrose yellow tiles.  To the left, a narrow Victorian panelled door led into a big kitchen.  What colour the stick-on floor tiles were was hard to see as they were just lighter and dark, and covered in what we could only (rightly as it turned out) assume was cow muck.  The "chap who milked" was currently living in just two downstairs rooms, this and the sitting room.  It was dark and gloomy.  A bay window shed diffused light at one end and very much smaller window looked across the yard.  Washer-uppers had an uncompromising view of the back wall.  Mouse-droppings were across all the work-surfaces which were extremely dated and needed replacing.  A once-beamed ceiling was covered completely with pine tongue-and-groove panelling.  The fireplace was bricked up and a tacky-looking stove sat out into the room.  A little door led off into a storage area.

The sitting room opposite was even worse.  A truly awful wallpaper was clinging damply to the walls - the sort that is the cheapest you can buy even in a DIY store sale.  The sort that makes you want to leave home to avoid it!  A beige-tiled 1940s fireplace hid the original blocked-up one.  Black and red quarry tiles provided the flooring.  Once again, the beams were covered in tongue-and-groove - this, we were to discover - was a feature throughout the house dating from the 1970s "modernisation".  

Back in the hallway, one side led into a small cloakroom, then a solid door on a Suffolk latch opened onto a . . . space.  You could hardly call it a room although it had a window at the back - which reached right up to the cat-slide roof.  It had obviously been tacked onto the earlier building and the original doorway into the room next door had been blocked up perhaps two centuries earlier.  This "room next door" was enormous - 16 feet square - with a huge window taking up half of the wall space on one side, and overlooking the paddock with its tall apple tree (a "Leatherjacket" Russet).  There was dentil freeze moulding around the room, obvious damp in the fireplace wall, and the greying magnolia paint did nothing for the room.  However, where the doorway had been blocked up, was a big arch-topped recess which added to the character of the room.

There was a "below the room next door" too.  We walked down to find two ruined rooms and an even more ruinous staircase which had been blocked by the cloakroom.  A vast inglenook fireplace and bread oven,  with a brick arch above it was in the kitchen.  There were flagstones on the floor, and it was filthy and festooned with cobwebs and dirt.  Next door was a room with an ancient cobbled floor and blocked-in windows.  We could just make out the shapes of shallow slate dairy troughs.  The doors were rotten at the bottom and hanging on their hinges, but here the huge beams had been left alone . . . to rot and to provide homes for Death Watch beetle and woodworm.  We looked out into the yard, where there was a row of 3 calf sheds, an old cart shed with pigsties behind it, and another lean-to building beside it.  The old Ty Bach can be seen in the photo below - in use until the 1970s when a loo and bathroom were put in the house.

Up the wide shallow Georgian stairs were four bedrooms and a door that opened onto a little storage platform beneath the cat-slide roof, and over the void below which was the non-room. We were intrigued to find the skirting boards had the tops of baked bean tins tacked onto them at intervals . . .  All fireplaces had been blocked up.  All beams covered in tongue-and-groove. 

The bathroom was uncompromisingly slurry green, from walls to bathroom suite.  It was akin to walking into a silage clamp . . .

Another door on a Suffolk latch led to more stairs (and more spiders,  festoons of filthy cobwebs) to the rotting flooring of what had once been the attic where the farm servants lived.  Several of the rooms, we noticed, had chains on - just a couple of links, so from the outside you could lock them with a bar going through.  Strange . . .

Outside, we looked at the land through curtains of rain.  The field behind the house had a fair slope to it, but was still quite good grazing, and had a belt of woodland in one corner.  With a small daughter in tow (she wasn't even a year old then) we decided not to explore further. There was a shared water supply located . . . "in the field behind the house" . . .  There should have been alarm bells ringing but they were silent.

The "garden" as it was in 1988 . . .

We should, of course, have walked away, smelling the damp, noticing the woodworm, the need to re-roof, replace doors, reinstate derelict rooms, and having a reality check when we saw just how much work there was to do to bring it back from the brink.  How much MONEY needed to be spent. But of course, we didn't.  We drove straight up the hill to see the farmer and offered him the full asking price (were we MAD?!!!!)  He accepted our offer.  We drove home.  We didn't even have a second viewing.  Then suddenly TWO people wanted to buy our house and before we had a chance to have cold feet or even misgivings, we found it was all systems go on moving to Wales.  I think you can honestly say - it was MEANT TO BE . . .

Why We Moved to Wales Part II

Our wild river valley in Autumn.

We really DID search all over for houses.  We viewed a lovely farmhouse in Altarnun, near Bodmin Moor in Cornwall.  There was a lovely level field with a stone wall on one side of it, and a big fireplace in the kitchen with a massive granite lintel over.  It was very promising, but there was a Radon Gas scare at the time and my husband wouldn't contemplate it once he knew there was granite in the fabric of the house (and probably underneath it too as bedrock).

We travelled up to the Lake District too, and viewed a lovely old house in a little hamlet just above Ullswater. There were only 3 or 4 houses there, and they were all cheek-by-jowl.  There was no land, and the garden was small and bisected by a footpath, but it had a lot of character and  we liked it well enough to offer on it.  There was a "sealed bid" situation and we missed it by £10,000 . . .  Another, near Appleby, was in  truly beautiful spot, with views across to the Fells, and a big barn, but it had been modernized beyond belief.  The vendors actually apologized for the one tiny bit of wood left in a wall beneath a window, saying that it was supporting the wall and they couldn't remove it!

We looked all along the Welsh marches too, booking several viewings in a day on our way from Dorset to see Granny C up in Manchester.  One half-timbered cottage just outside Ludlow looked lovely on paper.  We arrived there very late as we had underestimated the time it took to view and travel onwards in unknown territory.  It was TINY.  I think the agent must have written down the room sizes from memory as no way would we have gone to look if we'd known you couldn't even FIT a cat in a room, let alone swing one!    The garden was long and thin and overlooked by half a dozen other properties, so no privacy whatsoever.

Another I can actually remember the name of - it was the Bell House, Wooferton.  It had a lot of charm, but the land was very over-used from ponies and other livestock.  I think we did well to discard it, as looking at the map, it is very close to the A49.

So, we returned back to Dorset despondent.  There was nothing which really ticked the boxes in Devon - well, not in our price range anyway.  There were a few properties in Wales we liked the look of - especially the one in Carmarthenshire.  We made a few phone calls and set off one September day to Wales to view . . . 

The first house couldn't have been more in the Welsh valleys if it had tried.  It was close to Llanhilleth, near Pontypool - and below Ebbw Vale.  I didn't know it at the time, but it was close to where my maternal grandfather had been a coal miner before the First World War.  His half-brother ("Uncle Will" to my mum) - his widowed mother had remarried - had moved to Aberbargoed and was a miner, with a wife and two daughters.  

The coal mine on the opposite hillside to the house had closed and was going to be "landscaped" but it still looked bleak enough.  There was a steep and winding driveway to the house, which had once been the Mine Owner's, and it looked like it wouldn't be navigable if it was icy.  

The house was close to a modern bungalow and the land that went with it was the far side of the bungalow and was rank grass and rushes - the sort that you get on acidic peat upland soils.  The fencing was sagging barbed wire.  The view from the field looked across to the steep terraced houses of Llanhilleth, which looked very alien to my Southern English eyes . . .  Which was a pity as the house inside had great possibilities, with good room sizes, an impressive staircase, and a huge Edwardian greenhouse at the back, though sadly-neglected over the years.

With the bridge over the Severn at our backs, we drove even deeper into Wales, excited at the prospect of the house which had leapt off the page at us, and the prospect of viewing a Welsh long house afterwards.  We had a gut feeling about the first property.  The directions were quite accurate, apart from the distance from the main road to the turning we needed.  We dropped down a little hill and the magic of the river valley took our breath away.  Even though it was raining, the view on the bend looking up the river valley was stunning.  We drove on, past a little mill on the river bank, then across a narrow iron bridge which looked like the Army had built it during the war and never come back from it.  We followed the lane up a steep zig-zag hill and there it was, gleaming white despite the rain as it had just been newly-whitewashed to impress buyers (hum - waste of time!) and with the paintwork in a chocolate brown which had also been used down at the Mill.  There must have been a job lot doing the rounds . . .

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Going Green in the Hills . . . and Why We Moved to Wales revisited

Last weekend we were back in Hay-on-Wye, selling our wares, and a lovely old lady came in and was asking K if she could hold one of his muskets as she wanted to see how heavy it was.  She had a lively and enquiring mind, and we fell into conversation.  Her name was Jenny Green, and she began to tell me how she and her family had come to live in Wales.  She was a real kindred spirit and we got on like a house on fire and chatted non-stop for about half an hour.  It transpires she had written a book about her experiences and to cut a long story short, a little while later she came back with a copy which I promptly bought from her and read non-stop with great delight.  I can't recommend it enough.  

With the exception of keeping goats, her life has been VERY similar to mine, and when she was wine-making, bread-making, jam-making, foraging, hand-sewing patchwork quilts and growing food, I was right there beside her.  In the early days, frugality and self-reliance also loomed large (fortunately for Jenny, her husband Gordon was a great one for his practical inventions - I could do with borrowing the Gordon Green Patent Roof Tile Replacer right now in fact!!  If you can find this book (there are a couple on Amazon and Ebay), I know you will greatly enjoy reading her story.  I look forward to meeting her again and she knows when we are next likely to be in Hay.

Of course, this has taken me back down Memory Lane 30 years and more, and I have found a few posts from 2012, where I wrote about us moving to Wales.  Revisiting them won't go amiss.  (P.S.  the medication has kicked in now and I am Feeling Brighter!)


As I was reading my long-desired book "The Unsought Farm" by Monica Edwards, it occurred to me that she had much to do with us ending up here in Wales.  Her books, house prices going MAD back in 1988 when we finally sold our house in Dorset, and a chance holiday in Carmarthenshire with a penpal back in the early 1970s.

As a child, I had pretty well all of Monica Edwards' childrens' novels,both the Westling ones and the Punchbowl Farm series.  I absolutely adored the Punchbowl Farm books, and wanted to be the heroine, Lindsey.  I wanted to live in an old farmhouse with a double bridle hanging from one of the kitchen beams, and the soft light of oil lamps, and Jersey cows to milk, and have the footings of an old wing of the farmhouse where I could open a long-forgotten door and step straight back through time to the 17th Century.  I wanted Siamese cats, and ponies in Barn Field, and a yew tree to play my recorder in.  As you will probably realize, living in a house on a bus route in suburban Southampton (for all the wild land down the back) didn't quite fit the bill.  It was too late though - I was programmed for life.  Hardwired to country living and historic houses, sloping floors and crooked doorways, still rooms and cellars.  To baking my own cakes and making my own bread.  I am still a dreamer . . . but I have LIVED the dream.

The holiday with the penpal really opened my eyes to what living in the country proper could be like.  She had a sweetheart of a donkey, and a pet sheep called Primrose who had arrived as a lamb to be bottle-fed and stayed forever.  We walked on the marshes beside the estuary, visited the ruins of the once-grand house that was now just soaring brick walls and blind windows, with pigeons nesting where bedroom fireplaces had once been, and a smell of decay.  I remember looking across the estuary through their telescope and watching the Welsh world go by so slowly, ponies at the riding stables across the river being caught up for work, and cows meandering across pastures to be milked.  I recall seeing stars in an inky sky unsullied by neon lights.  No sound of traffic, only the occasional moo of a cow or the hoot of an owl.  Sheepdogs that ran out to attack the tyres of the car as we drove past.  Verges that were a mass of wild flowers I had only seen as occasional specimens, not by the 100 yard length.  The nearest town had a market, and no big shops at all, and I was amazed to find that the juke box in the pub we went in had records of HYMNS!!  Being a 20 year old townee, this was really quite a shock!  This really WAS the back of beyond!

When my husband and I decided to move away from the busy main road we lived on in Dorset, our intention was to stay in the West Country, and we house-hunted in Devon and the Cornish borders for an old place with a bit of land, "to do up".   So did the world and his wife!  

We found and fell in love with a small cottage near Beaworthy.  It was everything I had ever dreamed of - a long driveway planted with Snowdrops and Daffodils, a pretty garden bordered by a stream; a little barn; a greenhouse; an outbuilding just perfect for my husband's woodworking; an acre and a half and buzzards wheeling overhead.  We had a buyer.  We had our offer accepted on the cottage.  We lost our buyer.  And another.  The lady with the cottage HAD to sell.  I broke my heart over that little house.  I kept the details - and the photos taken the weekend we stayed there to cat-sit for the owner whilst she went up to her brother's.  I found them recently, and there was still the pang of loss, although looking back now, it WAS small and we would have had to extend or move on once T had her sister and brother.

Anyway, glumly, without a buyer, we watched house prices rise by the week in the West Country until the sort of property we were looking for was becoming beyond our range, as our house price had stayed the same.  We searched further afield, in the Welsh Marches, Lancashire and what used to be Westmoreland.  "Wales is lovely," I told my husband.  He agreed to include this in our remit, and we sent off for various house details.  One enterprising estate agent in Carmarthen sent a printed brochure of all the properties on its books - and there were SO many.  Then it happened.  We turned a page and a photo of an old shabby white farmhouse literally LEAPT off the page at us.  It had land - 5 1/2 acres - and outbuildings.  The rooms sounded HUGE.  It had potential (a term we were to hear regularly mentioned down the years).  We contacted the estate agent one September day and arranged to go and view it . . .

Taking a break

I'm taking a little break as my asthma has been very bad after this "pollen bomb" last week where the sudden hot spell made all the trees flower at once.  I don't normally react to it (not many flowering early in our valley) but we had been out and about in the car with the windows open. . .

I've had to go on steroids and sleep is at a premium.  We have a viewing on Saturday and our builder still hasn't been able to get here to replace missing tiles near chimney . . .  Resultant damp wall is NOT a good selling point . . .

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Back again with some more seaside photos from last week

I am so sorry at taking so long to get back to you, but we had a busy week, what with a house viewing, restocking our Unit, the trip to the coast, a business trip to Leominster, work on house and garden, and a selling opportunity again.  Hectic.  This week will be busy too as we have another viewing next Saturday, and the garden still needs mucho work, but I have been quite poorly with my Asthma as this recent hot spell resulted in a "pollen bomb" and although I don't normally react to NORMAL amounts of tree pollen, driving along in a car with the windows open for several days in a row got lots of pollen deep into my lungs and my inhalers didn't work.  I am now on steroids and my breathing is a little easier already.  I would rather not have to take them but they are a lifesaver at times like these.  Hopefully a short course will work.

Here we are in the Antique shop in Newport, Pembs.  They sell books as well (but none to tempt me this time) and specialize in Railway collectables.  We had a lovely chat with the lady working  there, and my darling man bought me a selection of fabulous cards by a local artist, Sarah Earl, when I couldn't choose between them.  My favourite pic is the 3rd to last one, with the Swallow.

Walking back to the car.

Views from the beach.

I thought this was Squinancywort, but the leaves are wrong, so I will keep researching and come back with an ID later.

Above and below: Carn Ingli - hill of the Angels.

Above and below: the river which heads out to sea.  Views from the bridge.  There is a Dolmen just across the Newport side of this river - Carreg Coitan Arthur - which we normally visit, but not on this occasion.  It is now incongruously surrounded by bungalows . . .

Mesolithic man thought this place was heaven on earth and came here for the fish, wildfowl, shellfish etc.  On an Archaeology Field Trip we found flint arrowheads amongst the rushes at the tide's edge.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Down to Pembrokeshire for some sea air

Pic for Pat, over at The Weaver of Grass blogspot - the Mollyblobs (Marsh Marigolds) are in full bloom here.

A wonderful photo of Newport castle and trailer of rubbish . . .

At the beach.  Back with more in the morning as they are loading SO slowly.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

What a difference a day makes!

This was our river yesterday, in full spate, after some heavy rain all day.  I haven't been down there today (K went to get the paper) but I imagine it has dropped a fair bit.

It has been WONDERFUL here today as the predicted sunshine and hot temps from Africa have arrived.  We have been out in the garden soaking it up.  I had a friend visit today, and we talked the hind legs off a few donkeys, then I relaxed with my book on the patio, on the little rocker seat we bought last year.  It was good just to REST.  Then I did some gardening, read a bit more, then some more gardening (of the weeding variety, removing THUGS) and feel so much better for fresh air and sunshine.  It rained pretty well all the time we were out yesterday and now it's like suddenly falling into summer.  Long may it last.