Saturday 28 July 2012

Climbing Pen-y-Fan

The start of the walk.  You can't see me, but I'm sat in the car in the car park, reading a good book!  (Diana Gabaldon: "A Breath of Snow and Ashes") 

It was a steep and steady climb, but the views soon became worth the effort.

Not just one lake in the view, but three . . .

Looking towards Brecon.

Left over from the glacial period, a tarn nestles amongst the hills.

On a clear day, you can see forever . . .  Brecon town again.

This is truly the TOP!

I was very proud of my husband and daughter as it was quite a challenging climb with a bit of scrambling in places, and it was the 1970s since my husband was last up there!

Thursday 26 July 2012

Jeepers it's HOT!

 Of  course, having written that, we will probably have a Monsoon arrive in time for the weekend, just because we are hoping to have a stall at the Fleamarket . . .

Meanwhile, we are making the most of this glorious weather though I rather stupidly gardened in it yesterday.  You know - you start off dead-heading and an hour later find yourself in a muck sweat with a barrowload of spent leaves and stuff which was growing where it shouldn't have been . . .

I've been clearing bits of the pond too where it was getting clogged up with a pernicious dark green weed which grows EVERYWHERE.  I have to check each handful for little aquatic bugs, and the worst area is where I cannot reach, so that should be interesting . . .  There are still the three frogs in residence, and a few newts but once the latter have mated, apparently they forsake the pond for dry land again.  My Dragonfly larva has metamorphosed into a Dragonfly and I have seen a greeny Dragonfly in the garden so perhaps that is "our" one.

Both daughters in residence last night, but G just for the one night.  T is here until Monday.  Tomorrow we are planning to climb Pen-y-Fan (if it's not too hot).  Leastways, she and her father will climb it - I shall sit in the Storey Arms car park with a good book as I know I'm completely unfit and I'm not even trying the local hills yet - still just walking on the flat until I know I am properly on the mend.  I shan't tempt fate, but let's say I'm heading the right way and I have checked whether I can take my anti-histamines again although I'm still on the last week of the anti-biotics, and yes I can, and I have found this has made quite a difference as it stops the allergic response to pollens/dust so less "gunge" should form as a result.  All the local farmers are cutting/drying/baling hay/haylage and silage so there's a lot of dust in the air.

This was last week's car boot sale.  As you can see, it was absolutely heaving.  We didn't do well, as people were more inclined to buy things like the inflatable Pooh bear on the right, and the rather hideous concrete dragons/dogs/things for the garden as on the left . . .  No accounting for taste.  However, the chair in the top picture is one that my OH bought as his next restoration project . . .

Monday 23 July 2012

For Issy - one of those "ceiling moments" . . .

I will hasten to add, this was an INTENTIONAL hole in the ceiling.  It wasn't the one I fell through . . .

How We Came to be in Wales (8) - "Well . . . it's got Potential . . ."

 That's what people used to say when they visited - looking back, they must have had SUCH a shock.  We were living in a complete and utter DUMP.  There were no two ways about it, the house had seen better days and it would be a good few years before we could do more than just do the minimum to put it right.  For the first few years we didn't even dare to apply for a Council Grant to improve it for fear they would condemn the place!

The top photo shows my dear husband (Hah! when he still had black hair!) showing you just how damp our sitting room was - and how excruciating the wallpaper!  You can see the awful fireplace too - that was one of the first things to go.  As you can see, wallpaper stripping was extremely easy . . .

Here he is reading little T a bedtime story (a Puddle Lane one, judging by the cover).  Look at the concentration on her face : )  As you can see this was before there was a fireplace revealed, so the grotty old Stanley (?) stove sat out in the room.

As you can see the decor of the kitchen left something to be desired . . .  Looking back, I honestly can't remember it being quite so truly awful . . .  As you can see, some foodstuffs had to be hung from the beam so that the mice didn't get them . . .

Here's a close-up.  My ma-in-law had a fit of the vapours when she came to visit and for years said we would never get our money back on the house!  She also insisted I put curtains up at her bedroom window because she knew for a fact that UFOs had been spotted in Wales, and "they took you up into the spacecraft and carried out very painful experiments on you."   !  And she was an intelligent woman . . . supposedly . . .

It was just as well really, that she wasn't here when the workmen came to excavate the old fireplace so the Hergom stove could go in.  We reinstated the beam, as it was missing, and I can remember driving around the Welsh lanes and seeing a falling-down barn and then trying to find out who it belonged to so we could negotiate to buy the beams in it to do up our house . . .

This was the rather grandly-named "Morning Room" which overlooked the paddock.  The wall to your left had quite a damp problem (down the chimney) and eventually we had to have the plaster hacked off and replaced, and it was only about 3 years ago that my husband and grown-up son (not even a twinkle in his daddy's eye in this photo!) also replaced the beautiful dentil coving - hand-made by my husband.  Then, and only then, did the roll of carpet we had bought at auction some 15 years earlier, finally get laid . . .

Outside was still pretty grim too, as the limewash soon got washed off by the blasts of winter wind and rain.  About all that has happened in this photo is a brick path has been laid across the yard and we appear to have painted over the chocolate brown paint around the windows.

However, it wasn't all doom and gloom, as here you can see T's first pony, Jo-Jo, a little section A Welsh mare who we bought aged 11 from a showing family near Sennybridge.  Unfortunately she'd had Laminitis very badly and had dropped soles but she was 100% reliable in every way, and although we always had to watch her weight, she taught all the children to ride, and we had her for many years.  You can see from this photo that the "garden" was a tad . . . basic too!

Here is T, aged nearly 2 1/2 with two of Blackberry's kittens who we kept - Sooty and Bumble.  Gosh, that takes me back.

So, do you think we were completely and utterly bonkers?  I think most sane people would have thought twice before taking THIS house on!

Saturday 21 July 2012

How We Came to be in Wales (7) - "It's like being on holiday all the time"

 Ferryside seen from Llansteffan. . .

Years ago I met someone who had moved to Devon from London and she said to me she was still pinching herself and hoping she didn't wake up as "it's just like being on holiday all the time." I think I can fairly say that about living here.  I was reminded of it this morning as on our way back from the car boot sale we had visited (laden with bargains), I suggested to my OH that we dropped down into Ferryside, and got the papers there, and I fancied a stroll along the beach . . .

I got my stroll and relaxed completely and utterly.  I just wandered quietly up the beach, watching the tide quickly receding, leaving tangled rolags of seaweed stumps and fronds mixed with binder twine, dead crabs, large feathers and plastic bottles.  Beyond Scotts Bay, I could see the deserted strip of beach which borders the MoD land at Pendine, and beyond that, misty in the early morning heat haze, Caldy Island, with the white monastery  of the Cistercian monks gleaming in the sunlight.

I looked at Llansteffan Castle, guarding the entrance to the River Towy as it has done for hundreds of years.  As I can't find my photos from Ferryside, this one taken inside Llansteffan castle will have to suffice.

The little village of Llansteffan seeps right down to the edge of the estuary, with its pastel colour-washed cottages, church and a huge white mansion overlooking it all.  HERE is a link to tell you some of its history.  I like to imagine it in its holiday heyday, as once the railway reached the village in Victorian times, it became a magnet for holidaymakers from the Welsh coalmining valleys during "miners' fortnight" and every spare room in the village was divided and divided again with old sheets or blankets to make up small rooms with put-you-up beds and a "po" in the corner.

It is our nearest "seaside" and is where our children grew up playing in its sands, scrambling up to see what was in the rock pools, and exploring the castle.  We have so many happy memories of Llansteffan, as have most of our neighbours and we often saw people we knew from school or our vicinity.  Oh gosh, if I had a pound for every time we'd climbed up from the beach to the castle, I'd be a rich woman now.

Pembrey, just along the coast, and now a country park, boasts much better beaches - you can walk for miles along the sandy coastline there, and the beaches boast Blue Flag status.  Here our children played for ours in the play area, explored the sandy forest trails through the pine trees, built sand-castles and paddled in the sea, collected bucketfuls of shells and had to be persuaded that gently-stinking dead crabs were better left on the beach . . .

And of course, there's Pendine, further West along the coast, and approached through Laugharne, the village made famous by Dylan Thomas.  Pendine made famous by Parry-Thomas's fatal land speed record attempt back in 1927.  There is now a small (and extremely atmospheric) Museum of Speed where Babs (once buried at Pendine) is now restored and on display.

It has been perhaps our favourite place for a seaside outing over the years, and as you can see from the above photo, even grown-up smalls still love it there (daughter T with her father).

Thursday 19 July 2012

How We Came to Be In Wales (6) - "A view won't pay the rent"

The quote in the title came from Yorkshire friends of ours - salt of the earth - and was a good Yorkshire saying and never a truer word spoken.  When we waxed lyrical about how beautiful it was here, that was their reply!  Whilst we don't have a view from the house as such - just across the valley if we are up in the attic - the surrounding scenery is stunning, and it is so tranquil here - and SAFE. 

They were right, of course, but we were still on Cloud 9 then, before everything started to go pear-shaped, but that will be written about in the fullness of time.

I can remember the Farmer Next Door saying to us, when we had been in residence a few weeks, "I suppose you think it's beautiful here."  Well yes, actually we DID.  We still do.  He had lived here all his life and just saw work when he looked at the fields hereabout . . .

And yet - this is the view a couple of miles up the hill from us, looking across to the Carmarthen Fans (aka Black Mountain, on the right of the picture) this morning, with the twin flat-topped peaks of Pen-y-Fan behind them, some 45 miles or so away.  Our eldest daughter is home next week and plans to climb Pen-y-Fan.  I think it will be her father accompanying her, as I won't be up for it by then!  I had better pack a picnic and take a good book to enjoy in the car park at the Storey Arms!

If we drive towards Horeb, on a clear day (as it was this morning) we can even see the sea at Llanstephan. Centre of the picture you can see the stepped hillsides where Llanstephan Castle dominates the landscape when you are closer.  However, you CAN see the sea there, and the slightly yellow bit which is the beach - so the tide must have been out a fair way for that amount to show.  It's about 18 miles away, as you drive it.  I've always lived within at most, 40 miles of the sea, and I know I would find it hard to be totally land-locked.

I can remember one of the first exploring journeys we took, driving along a narrow steep-sided lane and then through someone's FARMYARD.  They must have been moving sheep or something as we had to open and shut the gates either end of the farmstead (which had buildings both sides of the road) and it felt like we were trespassing! There was nothing like that where we came from in Dorset.

We used to get lost sometimes, particularly when the children were school age, and we had to take them to their friend's houses.  None of this "just along the road" round here - schools had quite big catchment areas and housing is dispersed in the countryside. Sleepovers were the norm. We had to learn where to shop for things, as Carmarthen was a very quiet little market town, with a tiny Tesco's, and a bigger Woolworths, and then individually owned shops with a few chain shops like W H Smith, and shoe shops.  Quite often, if we wanted anything remotely out of the ordinary, we had to drive 25 miles to Swansea for it.  We grew very used to long trips to buy "things" or quite often, went without.  When you are ten miles from the town, and living on a budget, if you have run out of something then it just has to wait until next week.  Making a shopping list of items the moment they got low became a necessity, and I soon learned to keep one spare.

Ah yes, keeping a storecupboard was also something I learned early in our time here, as when the nearest shop is a 10 mile round trip and it only stocks essentials anyway, you need to be a little self-reliant for when circumstances - a broken-down car, icy roads, flooding, keep you within your own four walls.  You do NOT want to run out of loo-paper if you are snowed in!

We had to get used to the mud too.  When you live next door to a working dairy farm, then mud - and worse - are a daily part of your life.  A hundred or so cows puddling past your front gate twice daily make for mess.  Now there are 200 plus, and it's even worse!

When we hit hard times, in those early years, I can remember trying to keep house with a dustpan and brush when our vacuum cleaner bit the dust.  Finances were very tight - almost non-existent in fact - and I can still remember wearing a mask (I am allergic to dust) and taking a stiff brush to the hideous nylon carpet up the stairs.  If you can imagine the colour of the mud outside the front gate, mixed with a Saturday night pavement between the boozer and the takeaway, you have a rough approximation of the decor underfoot when we arrived.  You have no idea of how ECSTATIC I was when that sh*tty carpet finally went!  I felt pretty much the same when we had saved up for a new vacuum too . . .

We soon realized just what a bad state of repair the house was in.  One of the jobs we had to have done, under the terms of our mortgage, was to treat all the beams etc for woodworm, which it had had in the past.  We had a company in to do the work before we took up residence.  Then we worked on a room at a time, taking down the horrid pine "ceilings" (great for firewood) and in later years, when we took down the plasterboard to reveal the joists and rafters, we treated those ourselves.  So no self-respecting wood worm can move in here now without quickly perishing.

Sadly, it wasn't just woodworm (and downstairs, Death Watch Beetle) which was in the house.  The roof needed replacing, and a main beam where two stretches of roof joined in a gulley, had been leaking for years and the big beam beneath it was weak with wet rot.  Every time there was a bad storm we held our breath, praying that the roof wouldn't collapse in that corner.  We made sure we slept in the bedrooms away from it!  As it turned out, it held on for 8 years, when we had a large Council Grant for restoration works.

The first couple of years were so happy - if incredibly busy, as I was proof of the old saying: "New house, new baby" and our middle daughter joined us at Christmas the year we arrived.  I also started a business . . . and we had 5 horses stabled at one point.  I must have been mad . . .

Wednesday 18 July 2012

How we came to be in Wales (5) - To Thine Own Self Be True

"To thine own self be true" is a saying I came across many years ago and it seemed such an apt one to me.  I've already mentioned, that reading Monica Edwards' Punchbowl Farm books "programmed" me for life with regards to the sort of house I wanted to live in - and ideally, the sort of life I would like to lead.

Other country books also influenced me.  I read all of Derek Tangye's books about life at Minack in Cornwall, where he and his wife Jeannie forsook their high-flying lives and lived very basically in a tiny rented cottage with small cliff-top fields where they grew early daffodils and flowers, kept donkeys and wrote memorably of their cats.  How I longed to emulate them.

In the 1975, The Good Life was first shown on British television (reruns are still being shown on Sky and yes, I still watch them, even though I know them off by heart!)  It gripped me - and thousands of others - with a wave of enthusiasm for stepping off the hamster wheel of life and living that way although it was another 15 years before I got the chance to even try it.  The following year John Seymour's Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency appeared on the bookshelves and has been in my possession ever since.  I was by no means a gardener, fair weather or otherwise, and was living in a flat in central Southampton then, but I had the dreams, even though to my then-husband I was an alien creature . . .  No wonder we divorced.

I continued to buy any cookery books which had "country" or "farmhouse" in the title.  I still do . . .

In the late 1970s I pounced on a copy of Elizabeth West's "Hovel in the Hills" where she told of moving to a tiny "Hafod" in North Wales and their struggle to live off the land.  It was followed by "Garden in the Hills" and "Kitchen in the Hills", although I have to say the latter gives recipes which show how close to the bread line they were living.  Frugality at its limits I think.  Once again, I read them again and again and they are still on my bookshelves.

In the 1980s I moved to Dorset and met my husband.  I listened avidly to Jeanine McMullen''s "A Small Country Living" every Saturday on Radio 4, and bought all her books and read them over and over.  I found myself looking speculatively at goats in the village, and wishing I could learn to milk.  (Sadly, the goat dream never came to fruition.)  Sadly, she died in February 2010, aged 74, still living in her beloved cottage near to Llyn-y-Fan-Fach.

Just a few of my earlier cook books which I refer to regularly.  Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's "River Cottage" programmes, beliefs about animal-welfare and  publications have always inspired me.

Over the years I have always believed in the same things, trodden the same path, occasionally wavered - baking bread regularly when the children were smaller was a bit hit and miss and based on hours in the day, and pretty well abandoned completely between 1996 and 1999 when I was doing my Archaeology degree - but I have always cooked from scratch, baked my own cakes, mainly made my own bread, grown my own soft fruit and some vegetables (more in earlier years than now), made wine, jam, chutney, preserves etc.  That is "me".  What you see is what you get.  I don't have hidden agendas and I am too honest for my own good and not very good at saying no, which means I get taken advantage of sometimes, but hey-ho, that's life.

Thereby, you have some of the reasoning behind "why we moved to Wales."  I knew from the beginning that total Self-sufficiency was beyond me, as I am the gardener here - my husband is not interested one JOT - and he has the sensible head on him (my heart usually rules my head!)  But I am practical, and self-reliant - we both are - and the life-style we chose to lead has suited us both.  It has been, truly, a Good Life that we have led, one way and another.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

How we came to be in Wales (4)

A very poor photo of the Cothi in spate.  I think you get the general idea . . .

I can still recall our last night in our old house in Dorset, left with just a mattress and bedding to sleep on, a cot for little T, breakfast and a kettle.  Scary.  We were going to live in what was basically another country, as although we hadn't realized it at the time, Welsh was the primary language spoken in Carmarthenshire.

The journey seemed to take forever.  There was none of this "Collect the key from the agent at X o'clock" - we just picked up the key from the Farmer at his house.  We were there sooner than the two removal vans - neither of which could fit across the narrow bridge over the river, and one of which promptly broke down on the spot at the thought of it!  That was still there the next morning, when it finally got fixed and brought in another way.

Needless to say, dusk falls early in March, and so we found ourselves unloading furniture and belongings in the dark.  Only the barest basics were sorted that first night - T's cot put up (in the little room where I type this) and our bed in the larger of the two front bedrooms, next door.  At some time in the past, someone had put up a shelf on the wall in this bedroom, using 6 inch nails and not much else.  There was a carrier bag on it.  We were beyond noticing the niceties by this point and fell into bed, exhausted.  In the wee small hours I was woken by the sound of a carrier bag rustling.  Well, more than rustling, something was making quite a racket.  Somehow a mouse had scaled the wall into the carrier bag (or perhaps it had set up home there) and was doing a Jane Fonda style workout.  My husband finally lobbed a shoe at the wall and silence descended again.

Next morning, husband and daughter fed, I set off up the hill to give my old dog Tara a walk.  I can still remember reaching the top and looking at the view across the Cothi valley, towards Black Mountain.  It quite took my breath away - and still lifts my spirits today.

So we set about getting the essentials sorted.  We had a Rodent problem in our new house.  One night that first week I was sat in the very green bath in the very green bathroom and a mouse came out of a hole in the wall and began a wash and brush up.  If it was aware of me, it wasn't the least bit bothered - talk about bold as brass!  Oh, and those baked bean tin lids on the skirting boards?  That was to stop the rats coming out into the room!!!  Sadly, all the cats we had in Dorset had died on the main road in front of the house. I might add, all these cats came unbidden to us (much as they do here in fact) - I would never have chosen to have cats on such a busy road.

So we went on a visit to one of the many rescue centres in our area, Ty Agored Animal Sanctuary near Cribyn.  We picked out a - very pregnant - black tortoiseshell queen that we called Blackberry. The Sanctuary said that they would rehome the kittens for us, and subsequently did so.  Whilst we were there, looking at cats and trying to make up our minds, we were aware of a very loud purring from a box which turned out to be coming from a small scruffy hairy black and white cat.  "Oh that's Grandma" one of the helpers said, laughingly, and later told us she had been with them a week or so and because she wasn't a pretty - or young - cat they expected to have her forever.  Instead, she came home with us, and with Blackberry.

Above, Blackberry and below, dear old Tatty.

 One of the first things we did in the house was to reinstate the bricked-in fireplace in the kitchen.  We always call it an inglenook, although really it isn't wide enough.  Anyway, it took a lot of work digging it out and finding a replacement bressamer beam.  Sorry that the photo below is on its side, but my computer is playing silly b's this morning and I can't get Finepix to move to the photos I was unable to scan and had to photograph, in order to turn it the right way up.  That was it being excavated anyway.

Anyway, this was a year or so on from moving in, and I know that because Blackberry's gorgeous big ginger son, Bumble, is curled up in front of it.  The Hergom stove was multi-fuel then and we burned anthracite and big logs in it, to run the central heating, but boy, did it gobble up wood and my husband found he was forever cutting up logs for it.  After a few years we had it converted to oil (it seemed like a good idea at the time . . .)

What we HADN'T realized until we got here was that the weather was quite a bit different to Dorset.  There was a bit more rain for starters . . .

This is the lane in front of our house, and what happens when it rains so hard that the run-off from the fields turns it into a fast-flowing stream . . .

Sorry about the glare from the window in these, but I think you can get the gist.  Below is the river far right, with the run-off water a foot or more deep, hurtling into the river at the bottom of the hill.

Below - this is flooding further downstream at Pontargothi.

Yes.  We were beginning to find that life here was quite . . . different!

Sunday 15 July 2012

How we came to be in Wales (3) UPDATED

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 catslide 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 reroof, 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 . . .

Saturday 14 July 2012

How we came to be in Wales (2)

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 I think - 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  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 . . .

How we came to be in Wales . . . (1)

As I was reading my long-desired book "The Unsought Farm" (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, 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 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 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.  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".  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 offered 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, though 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 many.  Then it happened.  We turned a page and a photo of an old shabby white farmhouse LEAPT off the page at us.  It had land - 5 1/2 acres - and outbuildings.  The rooms sounded HUGE.  It had potential.  We contacted the estate agent one September day and arranged to go and view it . . .

Friday 13 July 2012

Give us this day our daily bread . . .

(The new header, by the way, is a photo taken a few years back at Powis Castle.  The gardens there are amazing.  I reluctantly changed the previous roses photo from Haddon Hall as it was cheering me up so much, but I may return to a similar one shortly.  Watch this space.)

I don't make my own bread all the time - recently, whilst I've been poorly, it has been "boughten" bread, but good quality loaves.  Rhonda, over on the Down to Earth blogspot has recently posted about her 5 minute bread recipe.  I have made this in the past too, and it makes an absolutely cracking loaf - SO tasty.  It makes you think that this concept of bread making is a new one.  But no. . .  One of the books I got in Hay-on-Wye this week, mentions a similar "wet-dough" method:

3 lbs of whole wheat flour
2 oz yeast
1 tablespoonful of molasses, treacle, honey or brown sugar
warm water or milk-and-water, about a quart

Put the flour in a warm basin and add the salt.  Mix the yeast to a cream with a little warm water or milk.  Add this to the flour, with the sweetening; stir with a wooden spoon, adding warm liquid till the dough is of the consistency of cake mixture; wetter than ordinary dough.  Fill bread tins about two-thirds full and leave to rise in a warm place until the dough is almost level with the tops of the tins.  Bake in a moderate oven for 3/4 of an hour and take from the tins to col on a rack.  Do not cut for at least 24 hours: this bread improves with keeping and remains good for a week.

Taken from:  The Unsought Farm by Monica Edwards.

I am going to try that this week and will report back, with photos.

And here is a bit on bread making taken from Edward Thomas' biography of Richard Jefferies:

"They still baked a batch of bread occasionally, but not all that was required.  Cicely superintended the baking, passing the barm through a sieve with a wisp of clean hay in it.  The hay takes off any sourness, and insures it being perfectly sweet. She knew when the oven was hot enough by the guage-brick: this particular brick, as the heat increased, became spotted with white, and when it had turned quite white, the oven was ready.  The wood embers were raked out with the scraper, and the malkin, being wetted, cleaned out the ashes.  Thee looks like a gurt malkin' is a common term of reproach among the poor folk - meaning a bunch of rags on the end of a stick.  We went out to look at the oven; and then Mrs Luckett made me taste her black-currant gin, which was very good. (Note to self: I just HAVE to try making this!!!  I've been picking blackcurrants from the garden this week.  Recipe HERE).  Presently we went into the orchard to look at the first apple-tree out in bloom. While there a magpie flew across the meadow, and as I watched it, Mrs Luckett advised me to turn my back and not to look too long in that direction.  'For,' said she, 'one magpie is good luck, but two mean sorrow; and if you should see three - goodness! - something awful might happen.' "

This book is an absolute joy, and I now have to look out for books of Richard Jefferies in my travels . . .

Thursday 12 July 2012

A day out in Hay-on-Wye

 We had to go to Brecon this week to get some more Earthborn clay paint for the interior walls here (it allows the walls to breath).  As we had to go that far, and as I had been confined to barracks for so long with this wretched chest infection, we decided to carry on to Hay-on-Wye.  This will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog . . . it is always our default setting for a day out, and it is SUCH a lovely town to visit, books apart.

It was just a quiet stroll around the town, visiting our favourite shops.  We started off at the Sandwich Cellar in Backfold, with my husband's favourite brunch of a bacon roll - proper bacon, thick stuff, not that awful pumped-full-of-water rubbish.  This is where we always start our day off in Hay and can recommend the food and the ambience.

Our stroll was leisurely, and involved my sitting down wherever possible as my legs are still aching from side-effects of the Steroids.  I'm alright as long as I don't sit/stand/walk for too long at a stretch.  Bending murdered my knees though and wouldn't you know, looking at books involves a lot of bending!

My husband found a great book on the Isle of Man.  His g.grandfather came over to the mainland in Victorian times but the Manx roots go back forever, so he's always on the look-out to add to his Manx book collection.  This one has lots of folklore in.

As it happens, I struck EXTEMELY lucky for the books this time.  Several of them had obviously been just waiting for my hand to come along and take them off the shelf. . .  Needless to say, Edward Thomas is still an important interest to me, both the man and his works.  I was fortunate enough to find a book in each category.  I had been looking for Edward Thomas' publications, and found his biography of Richard Jefferies in Booths.  A little the worse for wear, with its foxing, but I was happy with it.

This biography about him came from the Poetry bookshop, which I always look in too.  I am looking forward to settling down with that later on.

THEN, also in Booths, and below the Richard Jefferies biography, was THIS gem.  I have been looking for this for YEARS and wanted it SO much, but it was such a price on Abebooks , Amazon etc (£30 - £40 cheapest) I couldn't afford it.  This copy was just £5 and I snatched it up SO quickly, you wouldn't believe.  Both those books must have been simply keeping company, waiting for me to come along.


To anyone who didn't grow up reading Monica Edwards' wonderful childrens' books, it might be hard to fathom the attraction of this one, but I always felt that somewhere like Punchbowl Farm was where I belonged, and it actually imprinted me into the sort of house I always wanted . . . which is why I ended up in a falling-down Welsh farmhouse all those years ago. Punchbowl Farm has beams, inglenooks and character - just like this house.  I am delighted to find that some of her animal characters in the books were truly her animals in real-life and I am about to sit down and read this book from cover to cover.

Finally, I chose these two food/cookery books.  The first, because I intend to lose 2 stone in weight.  There, I've written it down, so there's no getting away with it.  I am too heavy and it is doing my asthma no good, nor anything else for that matter.  There are some gorgeous recipes in it and I will try and share them on here as I make them.  I am going to aim at a largely vegetarian diet in future, as that has been proven to help asthmatics.  I am really enjoying trying out new recipes and enjoying cooking again (my menfolk like plain and boring food which is, let's face it, plain, boring and repetitive to cook!)

The Immunity Boosters book is an essential too, as I want to boost my immune system (much-weakened at present) to fight any infections in future.  For £2 it seemed like a good investment to me.

So far today we had to go into Llandeilo as my husband had an optician's appointment, and I found a big vegetarian cookery book in one of the charity shops, and two long skirts which I hope will fit me.  I am going to pick more gooseberries and the blackcurrants, so I have soft fruit in the freezer for puddings and to mix in with yoghurt.  Then I am going to read about yoghurt-making again and get the ingredients when we shop on Saturday.  I have gotten too far away from my chosen pathway in recent years, and it is time to get back on the straight and narrow again - self-reliant and as home-made as possible.