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An itinerant observer and thinker about life in general, sharing some moments of wandering and wonderment.

Friday, 29 June 2012


Today, although the weather was not as pleasant as yesterdays, I was able to return to the old Oakdale Colliery site, to photograph the memorial set up for all the miners who worked there. It is placed in the now verdant verge by the side of a very busy main road
 Designed by a local artist, Steve Welchman, it's base is constructed of different colours of stone, supporting three arcs to which a single pit winding wheel has been cut into thirds.
This was to commemorate the three separate shafts that were mined at the colliery. On a separate stone plinth to one side is a simple but evocative bi-lingual plaque, which reads, 
Oakdale was, in war time a significant colliery in that it was one of the main training centres for "The Bevin Boys". Ernest Bevin and others at the time, realised the importance of coal mining as regards it's contribution to the war effort. With so many recruited into the armed services, manpower in the mines was much needed. However it provided work not just for the local Welsh community but for those in other countries, displaced by the effect of wartime occupation. Research shows quite a list not only those recruited from other areas of The British Isles but also ... Russians, Ukranians, Slavs, Dutch and by no means least the Poles who proved to be hard working and highly respected miners. After the war had ended some of these "newcomers" happily stayed on and integrated into the area. The need for miners in the heyday of coal, changed communities across Wales in a similar way, even before the war and now apart from just a few working mines it is only memorials like this that remain as a visible reminder to mark the underground darkness of the past, when mole like men burrowed deep underground to provide our nation with fuel.
 I read somewhere that the eventual site covered an area of some 400 acres, quite a lot of which has been turned into new industrial estates, but much of it though levelled and regenerated with much planting and seeding (like the area we walked in yesterday) seems very much like wasted ground. Pleasant enough for those who walk or ride across it, but like so many ex-mining areas of Wales, it is now difficult to imagine how the landscape was so drastically different to today, unless of course one was living here at the time as were so many people I know. For them ... only photographs and vivid memories remain.
But to end on a brighter, more colourful note. There is one small plant that seems to thrive on this night dark ground and ... provides, not just brightness but also sweetness ...
The wild strawberry ... what a delicious treat to be found on an old mining site.

Thursday, 28 June 2012


Today, on the way back from a visit to the bank, we stopped of for a walk on a wide expanse of grassland. Now the above may look like a hayfield but is actually part of a vast area of reclamation where Oakdale Colliery used to be. It officially opened inn 1908.
In it's hey day, Oakdale employed over 2,250 men and produced over one million tons of coal per year. The original pit site was approximately 100 acre, with railways, dram roads and all the buildings associated with a busy working mine. It was the last deep mine to be worked in Gwent. In recent years it has become and I quote "a platform for industrial development" What that means, is open to the building of industrial estates, but sadly silica valley is not quite silicone valley! Those many acres cost over £10.000.000 to reclaim, with the whole area being levelled as flat as the Fens and like fenland it has it's loads or watery dykes where water flows and willow trees grow.
And also to my surprise and delight, orchids! Though quite which one, despite perusing my Francis Rose, "The Wildflower Key" I cannot quite identify. Notice the blackness in the background of this photo of an orchid >>>
all across this area are bare areas of coal shale.

And amazingly it is now ants >>> 
that are the miniature modern day miners raising their own tiny coal tips in amongst the grasses.
These tiny creatures are quite capable of shifting ounces of earth in a day and their larger cousins, the wood ants manage to build relatively vast mountains of pine needle mounds in the forest. One has to wonder what they feed on in this relatively poor quality landscape?
Some of the area is very waterlogged, not that the mad mutt minded splashing about as
 swallows swooped and dived low around him for an insect feast in the late afternoon sun.
<<< This golden dragonfly was not easy to photograph as it darted about amongst all the tall grasses. This is the best photo I could get of it, it may be a Darter, so if any one can identify it please let me know by posting a comment, the same goes for the orchid, my collection of books isn't always specific enough, (or I'm just not astute enough) Update ... the insect is a Broad Bodied Chaser. Thanks to a website, U.K. Safari. Check it out if you're interested in identifying U.K wildlife.
We've been coming here for a few years now and today it was great to see such a profusion of species of grasses and flowers re-carpeting the scarred acres with wildlife. I even saw a squirrel scampering over the ground. But other bright jewels of flowers are to be found.
As the years allow growth and as nature takes over, it is becoming a joy to walk here.
I also noticed some very small, but significant oak seedlings growing well,
at a guess by the name, there were once a lot of mature oak trees here.
Here's to the future maturation of this sadly scarred site.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012


A break in the weather today and a visit to St Illtyds Church, where over the last few weeks a lot of smartening up has been done. Several hundred years older than The Queen this old lady is having a Jubilee year treat. Several hands have been busy at work for weeks.

The rusting old iron gates have been given a brand new coat of black hammerite  paint and almost now, look too new. But beyond the gates, the paths have been beautifully strimmed, allowing visitors to walk around through the carefully kept conservation area, part of The Living Churchyards scheme. It is important that only native species are encouraged to grow here, providing a habitat that supports birds and insects alike. It's lovely of an evening to see our visiting swallows. swooping low over the high grasses and building up their reserves for the flight back to warmer climbs when winter hits here, which up here on the mountain, can be harsh.
Today, the only two exterior doors of the building were being treated with a dark oak weatherproof sealant. The older parts of the door bear the pen-knived initials of courting couples, some of whom, still live nearby. One almost wants new lovers to scratch their marks in the newer wood, so that the inserts more resemble the older panels of the door. And take note of the imperfect angles, a sign of slight subsidence and age but to think this old building has (only just) survived several hundreds of years. De-consecrated in 1957 and brought back to life as recently as 1990, this lovely old building has had a new lease of life and gives pleasure to many as a medieval site.
Even the small side door, no longer used, has had a brand new coat of protective sealant, though this side suffers less onslaught of weather than the western side. The two wooden benches too have been treated by willing hands, as many come here just to sit and rest, enjoying the peace and tranquillity of the churchyard. The oldest gravestone here is 1730 and some, barley readable now due to years of weathering are inscribed  in Welsh. Originally dedicated to Santes Helleth (Saint Helen) this wonderful medieval building is still loved and cared for and admired by visitors from all over the world. Long may future generations volunteer to keep her in good health.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012


Today started off looking promising ... but the sky had other ideas and just as we got out of the car to trog the dog ... the rain came drizzling miserably down ... yet again! But as usual there are things that brighten ones day and my eye caught a moment of brightness
 young sycamore wings that had fallen onto a shining, wet, lichened stone. 
The grasses by the roadside have grown so high, that the dog almost disappeared amongst them and came out looking as if he had been through a dogs version of a car wash, but his coat was all covered in seed heads.
As I have said before, look closely at grasses and you will see a wonderful range of delicate colours and when the breeze blows, the grasses feather and flow. It is such a shame that the hay fields are looking just right for a good crop. This time last year the farmers were cutting the first hay and sweet smelling it was too. This year, looking at the forecast ahead there are no consecutive days, to mow, let the hay dry, to turn it and then let it dry a little more before baling. If the weather carries on like this, whole acres of a valuable crop for winter fodder will be lost. Another hedgerow crop is also suffering, the elderflowers.
These creamy, frothy heads are ideal for making a light summer fizzy drink or ... for the more patient, a beautifully delicate white wine. I also freeze the flowers to add a subtle floral flavour to puddings and jams. But ... one needs a dry day to pick them at their best when the natural yeast in the flowers is at it's highest concentration.
Only yesterday, I noticed that many elder trees like this one
<<< have already lost their flowers and some of the heads don't seem to have had the chance of pollination to turn into berries, another useful addition to the autumnal larder. This year it seems that nearly everything is growing large and going over fast. With all this wet weather there is less chance of all the insects pollinating. We can only hope that the months ahead provide us with better harvests in farming and foraging. Fingers crossed.

Monday, 25 June 2012


At this time of year, when the weather warms up (usually earlier than this) just as we shed our winter layers, so do the sheep, not always as neatly as we do. They rub and scratch against any surface, leaving their tell-tale  remnants of wool all over the place. The problem is, that you need to shear dry sheep, otherwise the fleeces are too wet and ... as you are probably well aware, we haven't been blessed with too many dry days so far.
Some of the ewes are really starting to look shaggy. Bless them they've been through all the hassle of lambing. The young have neat tidy coats and I guess a bit like teenagers seem to be dressed to impress whilst their mams just look worn out with all the effort. Meanwhile the rams having had months of rest have been shorn and look smart.
But having had a few dry ish days one farmer has gathered the in-bye sheep for shearing.
Much bleating of sheep, so used to free roaming the nearby fields and another already shorn ram looks on seemingly bemused by all the fuss, after all he too has been shorn.
Note the clean lines left from the shearing. The young farmer that de-fleeced this ram is a winner of shearing competitions and has a mobile unit that keeps him and his friend very busy during the weeks of shearing around all the local farms. Busy times for all farmers.
However, this is mainly done for the sake of the animals health, though of course a by product of shearing is the fleece and is saleable. But ... when the farmers weigh in their wool sacks with the wool marketing board, they only get a nominal cheque at site of sale.
They then have to wait almost a whole year until all the wool has been graded and sorted to get the final payment and of course it all depends on the weight and quality of the wool. Weather permitting in a few weeks time, there will be a big gather of all the sheep off the commons. All the commoners will join in the gather and then split their sheep to be returned to their home farms. There they will be sheared and choices made as to which of their flock stay on to breed next years youngsters, and which will head to market, some for meat and some for breeding and carrying on the lines for the future on other farms. Meanwhile, at this time of year, our farmers are normally cutting their first hay crop ... 
the problem at the moment is that the old saying "Make hay while the sun shines" would be fine, we just don't have enough consecutive days of dry weather to cut and bale the hay. Too damp and it will rot and be useless for winter feed, meanwhile the shaggy sheep are also in need of shearing and need to have dry fleeces. Our farmers constantly have to juggle their priorities and what may seem an easy life from the outside, is fraught with difficulties. Most of our farmers struggle alone and with so much to do, it's a hard life!!

Sunday, 24 June 2012


Yesterday at the Sheepdog Trials, naturally the daft dog came too. He's good as gold and will just sit by my side watching the goings on with interest but has been trained not to chase sheep, despite being from working collie stock. He still got his exercise though, two young fans of his for the past few years, took him out on one of the fields and threw balls for him. He likes the two lads, as do I and they are interested in all sorts of things, including wanting to make their own sticks, so asked me to show them what to look for.
 Now the lanes in this area are narrow and high, barely room for two vehicles to pass.  In this photo >>>
the briar roses and elder trees grow up really high and there is also a good range of other trees too, holly, hazel, beech, ash and oak. Plenty of choice for potential sticks.

As it so happened  .... 
I had been up this stretch of lane already and had spotted a few likely candidates for a quick pruning and so it was we returned with a briar thumb-stick for the younger lad and a nice holly for the other, both promise me that by next year they will have done the necessary to turn them into properly made sticks, sanded down, treated etc. We shall see.
When I had explored earlier, as ever I had my constant companions with me, the dog and the camera and in just a short stretch of road there was a lot to be seen, looking closely.
Much of the old stone walls are barely visible due to years of growth. There is an abundance of mosses, ivy and in some areas of the lane where the hedges have been pruned the holly is thick and heavily scented at the moment with masses of honeysuckle 
<<< the first I have seen this year and such a lovely sight to see. But also growing in this hedgerow a rare sight for me ...
Climbing and entwining >>>
through the holly and honeysuckle a Field rose, not the normal delicate pink Dog Roses that I am so used to seeing and in this instance, not so delicately scented as the others. But with a background of the evergreen holly and nestled in with the sweet scented honeysuckle it was just a lovely moment to catch on camera. Another area of stone wall was bare apart from the remains of ivy stems ...
It just goes to show how tenacious this plant is, reaching out to make the most of every opportunity to explore all in it's surroundings. Often just started off with a seed that has passed through a birds digestive system, it becomes an invasive plant, often climbing high through trees or as in this case spreading horizontally along an old stone wall. Even when killed off, the stems remain and in years to come as these "tentacles" slowly disintegrate, the wall will have been made weaker and eventually collapse unless someone with stonewalling knowledge can rebuild these long established boundaries. Sadly stone walling is a dying art, but one I will return to in a later blog.
As I was taking photo's of this ivy invaded wall, a familiar song started behind me and as I turned, this normally shy bird, the wren, seemed to be fascinated  by what we were doing and paced back and forth along the gate top, not even scared off by the inquisitive dog in fact it almost seemed to be telling Ffin off either that or asking questions as to who we were!
But then another sight caught my eye ... the first rowan berries that I've seen this year. Immature and not yet bright red, it is still a reminder that although "summer" has officially just started, the harvest of autumnal fruits is not far way around the season's corner. The black berries are already starting to bloom and all too soon the autumnal larder will be getting stocked up. But, let us not wish the days away and hope for good, sunshine filled, dry days for shearing and hay making.

Saturday, 23 June 2012


Or to be more specific shepherds and sheep dogs and trials to see who is the best on the day. Our annual Islwyn event, as usual saw a good turn out of dogs and their owners despite the cloudy skies, but we were lucky in that for most of the day the weather behaved. Cool and overcast but in some ways better that than hot and dry. The trials started at 08.00 this morning and were still running when we had to leave at seven this evening with about ten left to run. It's been a long day but an interesting one and I loved seeing all the familiar faces and some new ones too. The whole event is run in order to raise money, for good causes, mostly hospice related. In the past money has been raised for Macmillan Nurses and this year a cheque of £1,000 was presented to Hospice of The Valleys. Much work goes on behind the scenes ... organising the event, selling raffle tickets and thanks to donations for the auction on the day and those who make, bake & cook for participants and onlookers alike, but it all goes to make an annual day out a good event to attend and today the rain, mostly stayed away ensuring us a fairly decent, but cloudy day.
Individual characters stand by and discuss all sorts of things, from the current weather to the chances of those competing, and also reminiscing about breeds of sheep and dogs in the years gone by. Old friends reminisce about the past and ponder the future of farming. Meanwhile dogs patiently await their turn in the field ...
and what of the sheep you may ask, I went up to the release area to have a look at them, all yearlings and a fairly mixed bunch of Welsh, Cheviot and with some signs of Texel but placid enough in the holding pens.

The red daubs mark them as yearlings but rain and rubbing close together had produced some interesting colour mixes! Released four at a time, the handlers from their starting point down the field could not see the pick up point (Nor could the judge) The dogs were meant to come in from behind at twelve-o-clock, though not all succeeded. Then on my return to the line, I watched from behind as the whole process started. A run out up-field to the pick up and then down through the middle gate. Left gate - right gate - split two and two and then the shed into the pen ... not always that easy ... on this occasion, the four ewes were not co-operating and the dog wasn't quick enough to react.
But, it was great to see young & old alike (both humans and dogs). An 82 year old shepherd got a great score. There were several female shepherds who scored well and a chance for young and inexperienced dogs  and handlers alike to have a go at the course. 62 entries in all. There were still competing when we left. And here's a sign on one of the many vehicles along the row, most holding three sometimes four dogs awaiting their turn.

Friday, 22 June 2012


Well, the title says it all really ... well almost.
Any of you remember these two? 
A sad, burnt out pair >>>
They appeared on March 31st in a post titled "A Stick Hunter". Where I had promised they would be travelling back with me and would appear again. Since then, they have been scrubbed up and getting used to Welsh life, which they like.
<<< Well they sure look happier now and you might wonder what it is they are chatting about, apart from the state of Welsh weather that is. You will find out in good time, but meanwhile the daft dog was enjoying the pleasures of ponds, in this case an artificial one. This is in the forest, where a few years ago the water course was dammed and a hydro-electric pumping station took the water right up the hillside to wash coal. In the days when the mines were working, only "large coal" was sold, the rest was tipped up on the top. Recently the need for coal meant that the tipped stuff was assayed, found to be good quality but had to be washed.
There used to be an old iron bridge here, when Ffin was just a young pup but it was removed for the pump house, which was fenced off, so Ffin could no longer swim here. Talking to a Forestry Commission guy today, a new bridge is scheduled here, so that the heavy forestry vehicles can have access to the other side of the valley and start felling again.
Meanwhile although not actually raining when we were out, the trees and tall undergrowth were dripping wet. Wild raspberries grow in profusion here ...
And ... with a good few days of sunshine they will ripen fast and become a free feast.
Now, in a film with Paul Newman in ... "Cool Hand Luke" he comes out with a famous line regarding a bet, he says ... "I can eat fifty eggs." Well today I ate over fifty strawberries, now obviously, I am not at Wimbledon and ... sadly there was no cream but I managed to gather my first handful of wild strawberries. Delicious!
Now, to get back to those ducks ...
they got taken out for a bit of an adventure today and were shown where two rivers meet. The Ebbw Fach and Ebbw Fawr (that's little and large in Welsh) and after the past days of rain the two were in full, white frothy flow. Even this mallard pair were not prepared to go for a swim and decided (wisely) to just watch the goings on from a safe place.
But for the two Fen migrants it was a rare chance to witness a sight they had never seen and ... they seemed to enjoy their adventure. To think just a couple of months ago they had been left in newspaper and badly burnt and now they are starring on Dafad the Daft's Blog. You never know, they may appear again, it's just a case of when ...