27/06/2020: Ash dieback is a pain in the arse

[I wrote the following exactly one year before the previous post on this blog, and entered it into a competition I saw posted by a Welsh NGO on Twitter. I was one of several winners (I don’t know how many). I got a hundred pounds for it I think. They said in September 2020 that they were looking into publishing the winners in a book, but that was the last I heard of it. So I am publishing it here for posterity.]

For a few months now, my coccyx has ached every time I sit down. It’s a minor complaint, but a persistent one. And I know I only have myself to blame.

About one month into lockdown I decided to measure all the trees in our garden. To measure each, note its species and precise location, and to use an aggregated species-specific formula to estimate its age.

Why? Well, the weather was good, if that counts as a reason. And my two primary-school-aged daughters were getting bored of sitting at the dining table practising long-division and learning about Iron Age Pembrokeshire. Of course they would soon get bored of measuring trees too: a month into lockdown and the novelty of home-schooling was fast fading; they missed talking to people their own age.

“You’re lucky,” I told them. “Most children don’t have two and a half acres of wet woodland and a disused woollen mill to explore. Let alone a medieval church right next door. Imagine if you were locked down in a flat with no garden.”

This chastisement did little to allay their boredom. And I wasn’t entirely convinced by my own argument: much of the garden is impassably colonized by brambles, the disused woollen mill is quite dangerous, and the medieval church has been shut due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Besides, I distinctly remembered my mother telling me when I was their age that I had to eat my stew/baked potato/egg curry because there were children starving in Africa. I couldn’t see the causal relation; and I’d soon learnt not to suggest we put the food in an envelope and post it to them.

There are 670 trees in my garden. I know this for two reasons. The first is that I have arbitrarily decided that any woody plant whose principal stem measures at least 10cm in circumference at breast height qualifies as a tree. The second is that I have measured 670 of these plants in the 2.5 acres of wet woodland around our house in Mynachlogddu, on the east bank of Afon Wern in the Preseli region of north Pembrokeshire.

We’ve been here three years as of this summer. I’m 37, and it’s the first place I’ve really felt at home since my family left Anglesey for South England when I was 14. Maybe that’s why I started measuring the trees? I’m not sure though: for the five years before we moved to Mynachlogddu we lived just 15 minutes’ drive southwest, on the outskirts of the parish of Walton East, near Llys-y-Fran reservoir. There was a European ash tree by our garden gate, and for five years I neither knew nor cared what it was – let alone measured it.

“Not sure what that it actually,” I remember telling our gardener. “Think it’s a sycamore.”

“It’s an ash actually,” he said.

“Oh, really?”

I looked at it again, but it hadn’t changed shape, or gathered any greater significance. At the time this information meant nothing to me.

“There’s a lot of dieback round here already,” he said. “But this one looks good.”

I barely registered the dieback comment at the time.

I know a lot more about ash trees now. I know the Welsh word for ash is “onnen”. I know that ash seeds are called “keys” or, colloquially, “helicopters”. I know that ash leaves are small and compound, tending to come seven, nine, or eleven to the stem – with one at the end, and the rest growing opposite one another. I know that in springtime, as the greening gathers pace in the woodland, it feels like the ash leaves will never arrive, but that eventually they always do – that their leaves are the last to arrive, and first to leave. I know too that Yggsdrasill, the “world tree” in Norse mythology, is thought by some scholars to be an ash, and by others to be a yew. I know that I am liable to confuse rowan trees for ash, unless I see their leaves up close and note the comparatively serrated edges of the rowan’s leaves. I know that rowan is (presumably due to this similarity to ash) often referred to as “mountain ash”. I know that the hard, pale wood of the ash tree is, unlike most other trees, good for burning almost immediately after being felled, sawn, and split. I know, thanks to just this minute looking at Wikipedia, that Bruce Springsteen’s Telecaster guitar, pictured on the black-and-white album cover of Born to Run, was made (at least partly) of ash.

And I know that the first ash tree I felled here, to make room in the canopy for our solitary mature oak tree to thrive, had a thick seam of intensely musty-smelling mahogany up its middle. After some research online I decided this must be heart rot.

And I know that this spring, when I surveyed the trees in our garden, I found that 173 of them (including the surviving coppice stool of the one I felled) are European ash trees. Numerically, they make up the majority of trees in our little patch of woodland: over a quarter of our trees are ash trees.

And I know that a lot of our ash trees have ash dieback.

But that only tells part of the story. Of those 173, 62 are large or very large according to my classification system – meaning they measure at least one metre around, at about five feet from the ground. (Mixing my metric and imperial, as usual: the British Curse.) Our ash trees’ closest “competitor” in terms of sheer numbers is hazel (of which there are about 156): but hazel is an understory tree, with an average biomass vastly inferior to the average ash tree. Of the 17 other species here which have graduated beyond sapling size, only sycamore (at 96) comes close to comparing with ash in terms of its ecological significance and the visual impact on our local environment. Sycamores – like rosemary, chickens, and aqueducts – are believed to have arrived in Britain along with the Romans, about two thousand years ago. Ashes, by comparison, are believed to have been here at least ten thousand years: they colonized this land before the formation of the Channel, and thus before Britain can be said to have existed as a geographical entity distinct from Eurasia.

I tell my children this while I am measuring “Wishbone Ash”, a tree I suspect to be among the biggest, and oldest, in our garden. They’re not interested: at this time the information means nothing to them. (Wishbone Ash, incidentally, was named for its shape – not after the 1970s hard rock band.)

Measuring a large ash tree growing directly out of our rocky riverbank proves to be rather difficult; and for the second time in as many weeks, I fall into the river, Afon Wern, soaking my socks, shoes, shorts and underpants. The children enjoy this part of the afternoon lesson much more than any other.

Last time I fell off the trunk of a dead or dying willow, which serves as a bridge (albeit, it turns out, not a very good one) between our land and the marginal wilderness of a farmer’s field on the opposite bank in the neighbouring parish of Llangolman. My floating ribs to the right of my stomach would ache for a month after that. But this second fall, from Wishbone Ash, would bruise my coccyx – a niggling tail-bone pain which is likely to last much longer. I am too old to be falling in rivers, I tell myself: but the evidence says otherwise Wishbone Ash measures 226cm. This makes it about 129 years old. You might not think it was that old to look at it; but I’ve done my sums, made allowances for the local environment and (micro)climate, and even had the opportunity to compare my previous estimates for this species with a count of the rings inside a younger tree I felled last year, and thus to hone my formula. If my estimate is accurate, Wishbone Ash was probably an ash key in about 1891. By the time it was a foliate, sprightly sapling on the east bank of the rocky, rushy Afon Wern, the now-derelict power-loom factory that still stands on the lawn below our house had not yet been built. The older fulling (or “tucking”) mill that used to stand on the other side of the leat – and which we assume was powered by the same four-metre-diameter iron wheel – was then standing, but is now some fifty years gone.

The small dry stone walls I put up to demark the flowerbeds during the first month of lockdown are undoubtedly composed of the rubble left when the old mill was pulled down. From where the old mill used to be, I look up to the broken window of the “new” mill (which used to be called “the factory” by the locals): beneath it stands its rusted wheel, long lifted from its axis, which hasn’t turned since before my mother was born. The long-dead local blacksmith who made it put his name and address on it: D Davies, Penrallt. Another few decades of wear might render these letters unreadable, like much of the graffiti scrawled in the crumbling limewash on the ground floor of the building’s interior. Towering over the far gable end of the derelict mill is a centenarian ash tree whose bare branch tips are showing the telltale early signs of dieback.

Either everything here is a memento mori or I have reached the season of my life where my death seems nearer than my birth. Having kids will do that to you. Falling into rivers will do that to you. And studying history will do that to you. In the three years we’ve lived here – the three years before I decided to embark on my epic tree-survey – I have immersed myself in local history. Not just local history, in fact: domestic history. The history of this house, and this land.

I could tell you all sorts of things about this place and its past:

• That the previous owner but one was a retired Dutch naval captain who once escaped from Colditz; but, alas, not for sure whether the old foghorn I found in a thorn bush was reclaimed from his decommissioned frigate.

• That the mill-owner and farmer in 1839 when the Rebecca Riots were sweeping across Wales was called John John, and that I’ve seen a religiously themed embroidery that his daughter Hannah made here as a child, framed on the wall in the home of the retired headteacher of our daughters’ school; but not, alas, whether John John was present alongside Twm Carnabwth of this same parish when Twm donned women’s clothes and stormed the tollgate at Efailwen.

An embroidery by Hannah John, 1853.

• And, going futher back still, that in 1291AD Pope Nicholas IV wanted to raise money for the Fourth Crusade, so he ordered King Edward I to compile a forensic audit of church-owned land in England and Wales – and that for this reason we know that in 1291 there were four mills in the parish of Mynachlogddu: “three mills for grinding and one fulling mill.” But, alas, not for sure whether that fulling mill was the same fulling mill that was on this site centuries later; and whose successor, the power-loom factory, continued running until the 1950s, and whose long-rusted iron wheel is still visible from my shed window as I type these words.

There’s a lot we know, and much more that we don’t, about the human history of this place. But little of what I’ve read has given much – if any – indication of the non-human history. Unanswerable questions niggle like the pain in my coccyx. Never mind the mills: how many trees were here in 1291 when Pope Nicholas IV audited the parish? Were sycamores, having only had 1300 years to make inroads, less prevalent then? And were there more mature oak trees along Afon Wern in 1841 when John John donned his wife’s smock to go and burn down a tollgate in Efailwen (or not, as the case may have been)? Did the Dutch man who spent his retirement here in the ’70s and ’80s plant all those elms that are thriving up by the boundary with St Dogmael’s church, which he attended? (Maybe as some sort of perceived penance for the Dutch elm disease that was then decimating the British countryside?)

Perhaps I have created this great database of trees, and published the results in a blog-post on my rarely visited website, to simply say I was here, and so were these trees: we, however briefly and irrelevantly, existed. Maybe nobody cares now – and maybe that doesn’t matter – but maybe one day, a hundred years hence, somebody will wonder how many ash trees were here before dieback swept through. Maybe, hopefully, they’ll want to know approximately how old is that wishbone-shaped ash tree that miraculously survived the epidemic of the early 2000s. Maybe, hopefully not, they’ll want to know how the derelict woollen mill, or even the actual house we live in, was destroyed in the great storm of, e.g. 2021.

You see, there are rather a lot of iffy-looking ash trees around the back of our house; and one or two by the mill. And the pain in my backside caused by falling in the river while measuring trees would be nothing compared with that which could be brought about by a storm felling a dieback-weakened ash tree hanging over our spare room.

I am meant to be doing a tree-surgery course next week.

(In fact, I was meant to be doing it in April, but: Covid.)

The Dutch elm disease epidemic of the 1970s changed the landscape of Britain, especially southern England, beyond recognition – or so we are often told by those who are old enough to remember the grandeur of “English” Elms in the Sussex countryside. I don’t doubt it. And Elms had been around a long time: since the Romans, in fact.

Ash dieback could be much worse. Ash trees have been here longer than the Channel, and there are more of them than there were elms. Here in Wales, ashes are one of the most (if not the most) common woodland trees we have.

The Woodland Trust have the following to say on the subject:


“Ash dieback will kill up to 95% of ash trees across the UK. At a cost of billions, the effects will be staggering. It will change the landscape forever and threaten many species which rely on ash.”

Not to downplay the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has caused hardships and tragedies on an unprecedented scale for many of the people of Wales, the UK, and the rest of the world. But in fifty years time, ash dieback could conceivably have left a bigger impact on our world than Covid.

What can I do? I’m not sure. There are many things I’d like to do; some more likely than others, and some more relevant than others. I’d like to grow more of my own food. We’ve got a bit of fruit and some herbs, but I’d like to grow some vegetables next year. I’d like to have a bit more control over our bramble-maze of a garden – but without changing its character too much. I’d like some footpaths around the garden, and to make the small part of the garden which is designated access land, properly accessible – and worth accessing. I’d like to reinstate the public footpath which runs through our garden, but for which there is no signpost. (This place is beautiful and I’d like more people to be able to see it and enjoy it.) I’d like that footpath to go somewhere, like it did prior to the 1900s, when it met a footbridge over the Eastern Cleddau river, instead of a taut barbed-wire fence. I’d like to collaborate with landowners further down to extend the path into the neighbouring county, so I, and others, could feasibly walk from here to the nearest shop – even though it’s only a short drive. I’d like to convert some of our dilapidated outbuildings into holiday accommodation, to augment the income I get from writing. I’d like writing jobs that don’t require me to needlessly travel to faraway places like London for meetings which are not always kept by the people who arranged them. I’d like to get a government loan for a brand new water wheel that generates enough electricity for two homes, as I’m given to understand our site could support; to get the water that thunders down our leat from Foel Cwmcerwyn and Gors Fawr harnessed for human needs again, like it was for hundreds of years until the 1950s – probably since as long ago as 1291, and maybe even longer. I’d like to cut down all the diseased ash trees that have been allowed to grow up around the roof of the mill, and those looming threateningly behind our (only partially renovated) 18th-century farmhouse. I’d like to protect those ash trees that have a chance of surviving the onslaught of dieback – especially some of the older ones, who have been here much longer than I have, and could well be here long after I’m dead. And I’d like to plant trees to grow and fill the gaps which will be left in the canopy if 95% of our 173 ash trees succumb to dieback. And I’d plant ash, if possible. Maybe oak. Beech. Sweet chestnut. Birch. In fact, I’d like to know which trees to plant in order to help mitigate the ongoing environmental destruction our species is wreaking on the planet. (I mean, I know fiddling with 2.5 acres that’s already mostly woodland isn’t going to make much of a difference, but you’ve got to work with what you’ve got, right?) I’d like my daughters to feel like this place is their home, and to have the option, should they want to, to live and work here as adults. And I’d like them to love it as much as I do, even if they don’t feel the need to know the exact measurements of all of the trees.

For now though, I guess I’ll wear a mask when I go to the supermarket and wait for my “chainsaw maintenance and tree-felling” course to start. Keep reading the kids history books, even if they think they’re boring. Keep insisting to them that it’s very important to know which shaped leaf came from which tree – even though I didn’t know or care as recently as 3 years ago. Finish my shed so I’ve got somewhere to write. Get more writing jobs – ideally not ones that require me to go to London. Tread softly. Try not to leave smoking ruins in my wake. Live well, die happy. Here, hopefully.

I planted a yew tree outside my shed window last year. My wife bought it for me as a birthday present. I’ve named it Memento Mary. If it’s still there when I die, even if I live to a hundred, it’ll still be an infant.

A Velky, Cwmisaf, Mynachlogddu, 27/06/2020

27/06/2021: Wy’r Ddraig / The Dragon’s Egg

Almost two years after the first great unveiling of Landskerian public art, the second instalment in the Landskerian art trail in Mynachlogddu, Pembrokeshire, was completed on Sunday 27 June, 2021, and unveiled (via the internet) as: “Wy’r Ddraig / The Dragon’s Egg”:

The artist Alexander Velky, having just finished painting the sculpture.

“Wy’r Ddrgaig / The Dragon’s Egg” is a conglomerate standing-stone constructed using locally sourced nuggets of quartz, sand, cement, and water. It was constructed gradually over the course of a year by layering the quartz and mortar from the bottom up, keeping the nuggets in place using wooden or stone supports where necessary, and patching up here and there with extra quartz to achieve a more rounded shape where deemed appropriate. The mortar was finished in a variety of hues due to inexactitude of mixing, and thus it was decided to paint it all in black bitumen, thus also offsetting the brightness of the quartz. Finally, for display purposes, a small base of broken slate encircles the bottom of the egg, and is filled with pea gravel.

Since moving to Mynachlogddu in 2017 I had been gradually piling up any quartzes I found in our garden in front of the house, with a view to doing something with them eventually. Quartz is abundant locally and it can be something of a status-symbol in rural north Pembrokeshire villages for farmhouses, cottages, or even chapels, to incorporate ostentatious displays of quartz nuggets along their boundary walls. The more quartz, the more prosperous the owner, one assumes. There are even one or two solid quartz megaliths to be found dotted around West Wales (usually as gateposts or built into the ends of walls) and I have read a presumably fictional account of a whole cottage being constructed of quartz somewhere in Llangolman. There are one or two huge chunks of quartz in the vicinity of Landskeria which I’d have liked to have used in this sculpture, but they were too big to move on my own.

I had the idea to form a sort of egg shape with the quartz before I got going, and the name of the sculpture was thus there from the start. I’ve toyed with alternative names along the way, as the shape of the thing veered from ovular to suggesting a pear, or a teardrop, or eventually – as more than one person has already suggested – a poo. It turns out that making an egg shape out of quartz isn’t as easy as it doesn’t look. But I think I got distracted from the purity of the egg shape early on by the desire to extend the structure to form a point at the top: thus to incorporate one small nugget of rose quartz I found on the moor five years ago. Most of the quartz in the sculpture is of a yellowy-orange hue, which is the commonest in the vicinity. One or two bits are pinkish, like rice-pudding with jam mixed in. There are also a few unusual ruddy/irony parts, which might not even be quartz at all. But that one little lump of rose quartz is a foreign element – more translucent, and undoubtedly shop-bought before it was lost or abandoned at the place I found it.

So… the shape of the “egg” was modified as it went along to result in something more akin to a conventional (even cartoonish) bronze-age megalith: a sort of middling standing-stone or a cow’s rubbing-post. One is remined by the shape of the menhirs (“meini hirion” in Welsh) that Obelix the Gaul used to carry around in the Asterix comics. But if we were being literal, any kind of reptile egg would probably be smooth and white, more round than ovular, and much smaller than this. (Indeed, how big are dragons?) What’s more, the dragon on the Welsh flag has six limbs – four legs and two wings – suggesting a biological anomaly that doesn’t occur anywhere in the vertebrate kingdom as far as I’m aware. Thus the anatomical improbability of the legendary creature, as commonly depicted, can perhaps allow for a fantastical representation extending to its reproductive vessels.

“Wy’r Ddraig / The Dragon’s Egg”, photographed on the day of its unveiling: Sunday, 27 June, 2021.

I love quartz. My wife hates quartz. As a result there were negotiations about what might be done with the quartz I was collecting, and where in the garden that thing might be allowed to be done. I doubled down on the former. But while I had suggested constructing the quartz sculpture in the middle of our lawn (at the centre of the stone circle I erected last year and have yet to write about on here) my wife was insistent that this would produce an unacceptable impediment to the already-difficult job of mowing that area. So I would be allowed to pursue my project in another location, ideally far from the road, the house, the car-park, and the aforementioned lawn. I compromised and decided to erect the sculpture alongside the public-footpath which extends through the length of our land, in-between two of my sheds. This way my wife couldn’t see it out of any of our windows; but it would be easily accessible by anybody who might want to look at it.

The sculpture was always intended to be primarily an aesthetic exercise. But just as I wanted it to be of its physical environment, I felt it ought to be able to speak to its cultural and intellectual context as well. What with the upsurge of national independence movements in the smaller UK countries during my lifetime, and the excitement spreading among Welsh nationalists in the wake of the Scottish referendum and the advent of the “Yes Cymru” movement, the theme of resurgent Welsh nationalism was the obvious metaphor to draw inspiration from for this piece. Metaphorically, the dragon serves as a dormant beast ready to burst forth at any time and exact its revenge for the crimes committed against its kind. Literally, of course, the egg is not an egg and thus contains no dragon. It mostly contains quartz and mortar, although there is some ordinary rock within to fill the spaces; and its structural secret is that it is held upright into a concrete base by a long metal-and-wood shaft that was formerly a small part of the machinery of the disused woollen mill in our garden. You could use this as a further metaphor to suggest that Welsh independence must have industry at it’s heart, if you like. But I wouldn’t bother.

While I will continue to refer to the thing as “The Dragon’s Egg” (or using the Welsh equivalent) I think the destiny of this piece, as with many other aesthetically polarizing interpretative public sculptures, is probably to invite alternative names from those who do not deem the official one adequate. In that way, if in no other, I hope it encourages creativity and inquiry among its audience, and thus does what I consider to be its job as art.

In the event of Wales achieving full independence and statehood during my lifetime, I promise I will make a gift of The Dragon’s Egg to the first head of the newly independent Welsh state. However, they will have to come to Landskeria and collect the sculpture in person; and while recognition of the independence of Landskeria is not a necessary condition for the acceptance of the gift, the acceptance of the gift and the collection of it will in fact be interpreted by Landskeria as a recognition of Landskerian independence from the Welsh state.

A Velky, 2021.

The egg, as seen in its location between two sheds, from in front of the old mill building across our lawn.

Tapping sycamores for syrup

The kids aren’t keen on posting a diary entry this month. Fury is back at school and Sybil, a bit miffed, is still here and has to wait till next week. Since the pandemic was announced they’ve had the best (or worst?) part of a year of home-school, with all its ups and downs. I’ve enjoyed it, mostly; but I’ve been conscious that they’re being starved of peer contact, professional teaching, and Welsh – no matter how much I try to talk to them in the latter, to “level up” my teaching methods, or to act like an eight-year-old.

It’s about a year since my last diary post. I wrote another one – about tree-measuring and lockdown etc. – in autumn; but I entered that into a competition and it won £100. Weirdly, that seemed to be the end of that, and it hasn’t actually been published anywhere, even though the money was received and is by now long gone…

What have I actually done in the last year then? Not much. Taught kids. Built a wardrobe. Published another book no one wants. Another ring if you cut me in half.

For now then, I thought I’d do a post about our second annual attempt at sycamore-tapping.

Sycamore tapping?

Last year we successfully extracted a few thimbles full of sap.

Yes. Sycamore tapping. The process of drilling into the trunks of Acer pseudoplatanus to extract the rising sap. Apparently you can drink it; or make beer, wine, or syrup from it. This can be done to various trees in early spring. But sycamore (US: sycamore maple) is the best candidate in Landskeria; since we have no other species of Acer, and, perhaps more surprisingly, no birches.

Last year, by way of a science class, the girls and I tapped a couple of trees at the end of March when they were mid-leaf, and we managed a trickle from one or two before plugging the holes and giving up. It was a warm March, and by the time we got around to it the frosts were a distant memory.

A rigid pipe. This year we used long hoses, which are better.

On our second attempt, this year, (minus Fury, who is already back at school) we decided to start promptly after what looked likely to be the last frost of the season. They say frozen nights and warm days herald the rising of the sap.

I was somehow under the impression the last frost was the optimum time? Oddly specific; I don’t know where I got that from, or why I thought a tree would know exactly when it had felt the last frost of the season. Perhaps the second-to-last (or third-) is a better bet anyway? It’s probably best to ask the trees…

Here in West Wales, early March is usually a good bet; though I’ve read that late March is the time in other areas of the UK where frost lingers longer; hence last year’s misadventure. Seasons don’t come and go by calendars, as any farmer will tell you. (At least, not by the numbers and words on them.)

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Equipment.

So on Monday 8 March we ventured out first thing, boots crunching in the soil, and drilled a few small holes in the trunks of two trees, about three feet up. And…

Nothing! Not a drop of sap. It didn’t occur to me to wait until the ground had actually had a chance to thaw (the temperature was still close to zero at 7am); so when we walked by one of the trees just before lunch and it had a steady trickle of sap darkening its bole, I kicked myself (metaphorically) and ran off back to the house to get my hoses and demijohns…

Equipment:

  • One cordless drill with a full battery (or a spare if you’re low) and a flat wood drill bit about 12–15mm diameter (i.e. the size of your hose/tube, or slightly smaller).
  • A length of rubber hose (one per container). Last year I used a rigid plastic tube, which was hard to seal around, and not very long. The hoses I have now are a sawn-off length of plastic garden hose, a grey washing-machine hose, and… another hose of some kind, which is a bit small and whose origin remains a mystery. As long as they are flexible (and clean!) they should do the job.
  • A demijohn or a large plastic container. Whatever it is, it needs to be able to hold a good few litres, and to be able to sit still and not fall over as it fills up with sap. If you’re going to leave it overnight during a freeze (which I haven’t tried) you need to allow for the possibility that the contents will also freeze, and expand. And if you want enough sap to make syrup you’ll need at least a few of these on the go for a few days.
  • Finally, the bit nobody told me about, if you want to stop half your sap leaking away down the trunk – use something to seal around the hole and thus to encourage as much liquid as possible to go into your pipe. Last year I wrapped cling film around and wedged that in, which was okay-ish. This year I sealed around the hose entry point on the bark with… lard. And it worked a treat! (And Frida, our papillon, was only too happy to lick my fingers clean.)

Process:

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Sybil getting into the spirit of things.

Wait for the buds of the sycamores to look like they’re beginning to go green (which tends to happen as late winter weather starts fading into lengthening days, and frosty mornings give way to sunny afternoons); ideal conditions are supposed to be frozen ground at night and temperatures rising considerably in the day.

Venture out with your kit (and some helpers!) to find some suitable trees. About a metre in circumference at breast height should be a sufficiently mature specimen. If you’re not sure whether it’s a sycamore, check leaf litter; but really, you’ll want to have seen sycamore leaves on it last summer. Trees out in the open are said to have more sap, but we don’t have any of those as our whole garden is semi-woodland. Whatever: they still need water and nutrients, so they still need sap!

If you make a small incision with the spiky bit of the drill, and conditions are right, a bead of sap ought to appear within a few minutes. If it does, drill in about an inch and a half at a slightly inclined angle to encourage the liquid to emerge (and to make angling your hose into your collection vessel easier). Find a secure place for your bottle or demijohn that’s within reach, and plug the hole with one end of the hose while placing the other in the vessel. Once a steady drip has begun in the bottom of the vessel, secure your extraction point on the tree with lard, or whatever else you’re using.

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Our first 4 litres of sycamore sap!

Results:

We’ve done this a couple of times now. First day (yesterday) we left two trees tapped between 11am and 6pm, and got just under 4 litres of sap: 2 from each. It tasted good (well, almost entirely like water, but certainly drinkable); but that much sap won’t get you much syrup. Barely 100mls as it turns out! So today we’re tapping again. Three (different) trees, which have been yielding sap since 7am. We’ll check them at 6pm (they were doing fine at 1pm), and if they’re less than half-full we might leave them for the night. You’re supposed to be able to get four or five litres of sap from a sycamore without really harming it. But apparently you shouldn’t use the same tree every year, as it could stunt its growth or make it generally vulnerable to disease and pests, etc. The extraction holes could also allow fungus to get into the tree and cause damage to the crucial outer layers of sapwood; so to lessen the chances of this happening it’s important to plug the holes once you’ve finished extracting – ideally with a hardwood dowel or peg; but a bit of cork or a not-too-rotten stick might also suffice. You don’t want to be introducing dirt and fungus into the wound; that’s the main thing. So make sure it’s clean! But you probably shouldn’t seal it with anything unnaturally impermeable either (eg silicone/plastic) as this could trap undesirable entities within the seal.

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The pathetic, but delicious, yield from our first 4 litres of sap.

None of the trees we tapped last year reacted noticeably badly to their experience. They all went to leaf and carried on producing new growth. But then, we did tap late, and got very little sap. I’ll be intrigued to see how this year’s more successful tapping affects the development of the trees through the spring and summer seasons.

Last year’s holes had no trouble healing either; but the incisions do leave scars, and the ingress into the sapwood won’t recommend the lumber from the sycamore (at such time as it falls, or is cut down) to your local carpenter.

We’re still at the early stages of this experiment, but it’s already apparent that we can get a good three or four litres of sap from a decent-size sycamore in our garden. It’s also clear that it’ll take at least five (probably more) sycamores to render a single bottle of syrup! Our first taste tests were encouraging: it’s certainly as good as any shop-bought maple syrup as far as I can tell; and slightly different in flavour. But it’s also abundantly clear why you don’t see a whole lot of sycamore syrup on supermarket shelves. This is labour-intensive. You have to boil away a lot of water to get syrup. Open a window!

Our 18 “tappable” sycamore trees. I.e. those with trunks of 100cm circumference or more. Estimated ages: 57–143

We’ve enjoyed it this time. If we can get a bottle (or two?) a year without devastating the local sycamore population, I expect this might become an annual ritual: like our wild-garlic pesto month, our blackberry jam weekend, and, of course, the annual St Dogmael’s Day goat-massacre.

Last year’s cadastral survey revealed that we have 18 “large” or “very large” sycamores here, with numerous medium ones on the way to maturity too. They don’t live forever; at least three of the bigger specimens here have split trunks, showing where the trees are being gradually hollowed out by aggressive fungus. This isn’t necessarily a death-knell, mind you; those with the split trunks still comprise a considerable proportion of the Landskerian canopy, come summer, and they can live on for decades like this as the heartwood rots but the sapwood continues to grow and expand.

I’ll keep an eye on them. Maybe the leaves of those we tap will be a bit smaller this year? But I’m optimistic for their ability to endure it; they seem hardy enough…

A Velky: ringing in spring, but late for Pancake Day, 2021.

UPDATE: we got 2 bottles! So about 500ml from 25l taken from 8 trees. (Big Barbie, Black Knight, Caveman, Chewie, Cuckoo, Gravedigger, Pennywise, and Sentinel). This is what it looked like:

Delicious Landskerian sycamore syrup.

And it tasted great. Not exactly like maple; more like butterscotch, and definitely better than our usual Aldi maple syrup (no offence, Aldi). Next up: the wild garlic pesto. Which I will not blog about.

Promise.

A Velky.

A blog about our pet dogs

Frida (by Sybil, aged 9)

Pixie and Frida

We have two pet dogs. One of them is called Frida. Frida loves to play in the snow. She likes to chase her tail. And run about in the garden. Frida doesn’t like having a bath, but she does like running on the beach. Frida likes to play with her grumpy sister, Pixie. Frida is a Papillon, which means “butterfly” in French; because her ears look like butterfly wings. She doesn’t like playing with puppies, because they annoy her. The puppy she knows is my nana’s dog called Lulu. (She’s a Jack Russel.)

Frida doesn’t like going on a walk with a lead on; but she has to, because there are signs. Frida HATES people touching her paws. If you touch her paws she will jump about and try to lick you. Frida also does not like loud noises; because of her big ears, it makes it so she hears things much louder than us. Frida doesn’t like it when we’re eating dinner and she hasn’t had her dinner yet. She jumps up at your legs, and it’s very annoying. My favourite thing about Frida is how cute, fluffy and jumpy she is. And how excited she is. But at night she lies down on the chair and goes to sleep.

Pixie (by Fury, aged 7)

A poem about Pixie which I wrote last week for home-school

Our other pet dog is called Pixie. The grumpy one we mentioned earlier. She guards mummy’s stuff (e.g. slippers). She’s a Pomeranian and she’s always on the sofa (like I’ve said in my poem). Anyway, Pixie is identical to a baby seal. She likes tummy rubs, and she plays ball, but doesn’t give it back. She guards it under her own chin. And she goes mad when she hears her name. (Only when Mummy does it.) And also she is identical to a cat. Pomeranians are famous for their cuteness, and Pixie too is sweet. She will bark with a single knock on the door. She stands up on the back of the chair and barks at the top of her voice.

She hates mostly everyone except for Nana and her family (I said this in my poem too!) And whenever you touch her she will lick you, unless you’re a stranger, then she will nip you.

Sybil and Fury Velky, February 1 2021

PS, this is my poem about a seal (Sybil)

2020/2021

Since we’re in lockdown, I’m home-schooling again. This morning we’ve been looking at calendars and how, and why, we sort time into years, months, days, etc. As part of this exercise I’ve encouraged the girls to try to remember the events of last year and to look ahead to the coming year: to think about what happened in 2020, what stands out for them, what they enjoyed, and didn’t; and what their hopes and fears are for the year ahead. These pieces will constitute their first (but I hope not their last) direct contributions to this blog. Although I will be typing up this blog-post today, I am doing so under direction from them, as they dictate from the notes they made in this morning’s class. – A.V.

The Landskerian symbol

Fury (7):

“Last year Daddy got the Landskerian symbol. The Landskerian symbol is a symbol of Landskeria. It looks like a circle with four half circles around the edges, and lines through the middle. Daddy found it in the ashes of a bonfire. It was in the middle of a bit of an old drawer knob. We made a country that has been around for about six years. The symbol is going to be on Daddy’s crown, and maybe on the new flag (if we get one). Last year I got a Beanie Boo from McDonald’s. I hate Coronavirus. It made me angry.

“This year I want to make new recipes for Landskeria. I hate Covid-19. I want to get another dog. I want for it to snow in winter, in our garden. This year I would also like for us to breed chickens and dogs and maybe hogs, because I want there to be Landskerian breeds of animals.”

Sybil (9):

Displaying 20210105_113523.jpg
Sybil’s notes.

“I hate lockdown a lot. Lockdown was boring because I didn’t get to see my friends, and eventually I got sick of home-school. I also hated lockdown because I couldn’t go shopping with Mummy or Daddy. Last year I managed to learn to read big books in English. I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It’s my favourite Harry Potter book. Mummy read me all of them before, but I decided to read that one again. I went to a wedding in 2020 – at the start, before lockdown. Auntie Megan’s wedding. I also went to my first ever funeral. It was Haggis’s funeral. It was interesting because it was my first ever funeral. I ate cheese pasties. I felt sorry for Lili, my friend.

Facts About the Hungarian Puli: The Mop Dog | Puli dog, Puli dog breed,  Hungarian puli
This is a mop-dog.

“This year, my New Year’s resolution is to learn French, because when I’m older I want to live in Paris with my best friend Anna and a big Samoyed called Pompom and a black cat called Shadow. I hope this year we will get another dog; a mop-dog called Moppy. I’m worried that lockdown might continue this year which means I will not be able to go on my sleep-over school trip, like last year when our trip to Llangrannog was cancelled. Goodbye. Hwyl fawr. Au revoir. Merci.”

Landskerian Cadastral Survey 2020

In April I decided to make a record of every tree in our 2.5-acre garden (in southwestern Mynachlogddu, Pembrokeshire, Wales) noting its species and measuring it. Partly so I would know what I had by way of wood for construction and heating etc. Partly so that I had a good idea of which trees were at risk of falling and possibly causing damage to buildings. But mostly so that in years to come I (or anyone else that might be interested) would be able to know exactly how the land had changed from what it used to be; rather than relying on fallible memory or hopeful deduction.

What I would give to know exactly what trees were here 100 years ago! Which of those now mature were saplings then; which great trees have been expunged from the landscape by storms, diseases, beetles, etc. Unfortunately for me no detailed mapping of the land exists in these terms; just the ordnance survey maps which appear from the mid 1800s, then the map on the registered title (naturally more concerned with buildings than trees) dating from about 1960. People did not have the time in the past to measure trees for the benefit of people in the future.

The database of trees is viewable online here. In terms of what constitutes a “tree”, I have generously allowed anything which measured 10cm or more in circumference of its main trunk (or stem!) to qualify. These have then been sorted into small trees (from 10–50cm around) medium trees (501–100cm) large trees (100–200cm) and very large trees (or “VLTs”, anything over 200cm). On the database I have also noted a number of (under-10cm-circumference) saplings I was especially interested in; either because they are rare by local standards, or otherwise because they interested me enough that I wanted to follow their progress.

Of 670 trees surveyed, the total number of trees in each group is as follows:

Small: 429
Medium: 135
Large: 97
VLT: 9

The species noted showed some clusters of particular groups in some areas (e.g. elm and blackthorn up by the churchyard) with some others (e.g. ash, hazel, sycamore and hawthorn) relatively common throughout. The numbers of surveyed trees were as follows, in descending order of prevalence:

Ash: 173
Hazel: 156
Sycamore: 96
Elm (Atinian): 59
Willow (Sallow): 51
Hawthorn: 49
Blackthorn: 29
Holly: 16
Rowan: 11
Scots pine: 9
Elder: 9
Willow (Osier): 7
Alder: 6
Apple: 2
Norway spruce*: 2
Oak (Sessile): 1
Horse chestnut: 1
Privet: 1
Wild cherry: 1

* Alas, I’ve yet to be able to satisfactorily confirm what these two evergreens are, so this is a guess; all I know is they’re not scots pines.

As far as what’s absent: everything else, I suppose. But native trees absent (now native, as opposed to true native) include: Alder buckthorn, Aspen, Beech (though there is one promising sapling), Birch (of any kind), Box, Purging Buckthorn, Bird Cherry, Dogwood (though suspected saplings have been noted north of the bridge), Wych Elm, Guelder Rose, Hornbeam, Juniper, Lime (of any kind), Field maple, Plymouh pear, Black poplar, Spindle, Whitebeam, Arran whitebeam, Rock whitebeam, Wild service (though I suspect these don’t exist, as I have never seen one), Willows of the crack, white, or bay variety, and, finally, Yew (though I have planted one sapling, and it’s doing well).

I don’t know how to rate the biodiversity of our few acres. It seems pretty good to me. I was surprised by how few oak and beech there were; though this is not atypical for the area. Of course one always wants what one doesn’t have. I might be tempted to plant some birch or aspen; or indeed sweet chestnut, which though not native would surely thrive in out temperate wet woodland. The issue there is that there is so little land here not already well-shaded by mature or semi-mature trees. With ash-dieback moving through the area, and a sizeable proportion of our large ash trees in danger of succumbing, and likely to have to be felled or to fall without assistance, it may be that the canopy around Cwmisaf will thin, and that more room will be made for other trees. Left to its own devices, it seems very likely that the land would allow sycamores to dominate. Some two thousand years after their introduction, sycamores are very much on the up in the area; they seed and propagate easily, requiring no help from anybody else. And while some of our biggest and most characterful trees are sycamores, I don’t relish the notion of a hostile takeover by these very shady, fast-growing, orange-barked newbies. So I might do my bit to (perhaps unnaturally) encourage a bit more by way of oak, beech, chestnuts etc.

I am new to trees, mind you, and open to suggestions for how best to manage this bit of woodland. Judging by the saplings seeding beneath the understory it would seem that the days of ash are unlikely to be numbered (unless all these youngsters carry dieback, or a susceptibility to it, in their young bodies); so sycamore, ash, hawthorn, hazel, elder, blackthorn and holly might all have bright futures here. Elm seems to be thriving too, though whether any of it will reach the great heights so many of these trees managed before the mid-twentieth-century DED epidemic I couldn’t say. The increased presence of jays seems to have led to a gradual increase in oak saplings, which makes me optimistic. Rowan is far better represented among the saplings than it is by mature trees. There are no pine saplings that I know of, and the “wet” trees (alder and willow) seem to be completely absent from the deep understory. Either their young folk are incognito, or they are being muscled out by the ashes and sycamores of this world.

What follow now is detailed scans of the survey maps, region-by-region, coupled with a brief description of some of my favourite trees in the area:

Part 1, Dogmael Island South: “The Pines”

All of the evergreens on this island section are imposing and impressive. I suppose the “green ring” of 8 scots pines and 2 unidentified sprucey type trees were planted in the earl-to-mid 20th century to shore up the island (and the bridge that straddles it) against erosion by Afon Wern. The biggest and best of the trees is named Magnus Barelegs, and I estimate it to be just over 100 years old. Realistically, perhaps, the others, mostly estimated to be around 75-80, might well have been planted at exactly the same time; so perhaps the likely age is somewhere in the middle?

At this juncture I should say that the method for calculating (well, estimating) the age of trees has been averaged out based on recommendations on numerous reputable dendrological websites. I’ve been able to cross-reference my predictions with the actual counting of rings on several felled specimens from different species (notably ash, hawthorn and hazel) which results have then been used to modify my formulae to the following:

Landskerian tree age calculator

Circumference in cm / growth factor:

Horse chestnut: 2
Pine/spruce: 2
Alder: 1.75
Ash: 1.75
Elder: 1.75
Hazel: 1.75
Rowan: 1.75
Sycamore: 1.75
Elm: 1.5
Wild cherry: 1.5
Willow: 1.5
Beech: 1.25
Blackthorn: 1.25
Hawthorn: 1.25
Holly: 1.25
Oak: 1.25
Yew 1

To conclude this first part, after that digression, I would like to say that our (just about) large wild cherry tree is very beautiful when blooming in spring, but it is too tall for me to know if it produces edible cherries in summer.

Part 2, South Landskeria: “The Long Bog” & “The Floodland”

I do not believe any tree in the long bog to be a centenarian. And while the riverbank here, as in the Floodland, is shored up mostly by mature ash trees, the character tree of the territory for me is W06, the sprawling (yet still partly upright) sallow, whose trunk split in a storm a year ago. This has been dubbed Fallapart Freddy. Sadly, the garden’s biggest hawthorn, at the north of the territory, fared even worse under the weight of summer rain last year and collapsed entirely. I sawed it all up and left the stump, so it is now known as Stumpy Steve; and while its fate remains uncertain, it is producing plenty of new shoots, so may well go on to live a long and fulfilling life as a coppice stool, following its 80-ish years as a tree.

The Floodland has a couple of ashes which look to be just over 100 years old. One of these has recently been fitted with a swing on a generously thick horizontal branch overhanging the river. Sybil dubbed it “Swingy” as a result. Just next door is what my tape-measure dictates to be the biggest ash in Landskeria, called Wishbone Ash, due to its shape. (I’m unfamiliar with the band of the same name.) Wishbone is a VLT of about 129 years, and thus about 100 years younger than our house. It looks relatively healthy, diebackwise, compared to its near neighbours; but it’s unlikely due to its numerous V-shaped trunk divergences to ever make a truly grand age, even if it weathers the latest tree-plague. Against the prfessional advice of the Woodland Trust, I killed some incredibly thick (about 30cm c.) ivy that was growing up it, to try and reduce the amount of immediate competition for nutrients and water, and (hopefully) thereby improve its chances of short-term survival.


Part 3, Dogmael Island North: “The Pipe”

There is one sycamore that theoretically qualifies as a VLT, although it is relatively squat for an estimated centenarian. It’s called Big Barbie due to the swallowed barbed wire in its side. (Little Barbie is on the southern part of the island, on the other side of the road bridge.)

I may have overmeasured, as it’s thick with ivy and moss, etc. But it is big; it’s stature is however somewhat curtailed by the imposing evergreens to the sun-side; it gets most of its energy in the afternoon and evening. The ashes in this area are particularly sickly looking, but an abundance of rowan seedlings and what (after much investigation) I suspect to be dogwood show promise for a good understory if I can be bothered to continue clearing the thickest areas of brambles.


Part 4, West Landskeria: “The Boulders”, “The Chase”, “The Brambles” & “The Bend”

There is one likely centenarian to the south of this area: the Gravedigger sycamore, so called because its mighty roots and split trunk abut the little ring of Red Rocks many people presume to be some kind of neolithic tomb. It has swallowed some chickenwire at some point in the past.

There are other ashes and alders which border on being “old”, including one of the procession of mature alders which line the suspected former overflow channel for the leat (now a stream in winter and a series of small isolated pools in summer). This one is called Boggy B, but the only other two named trees in the area, both in the small territory of The Boulders, in the northernmost section, are by far the biggest characters.

The first is Landskeria’s only oak tree, a sessile of about 192, formerly believed to be the oldest living thing in the garden. It’s been (re-)named Gospel Oak due to its position on the border of the parish (Mynachlogddu) and the tradition of such trees being used as part of bounds-beating processions as places to stop and read from the gospels. I’m not sure if this is an entirely appropriate name as I’ve no idea if such a tradition was prevalent here, and it’s not by the bridge; but it’ll do for now.

The second of the two is Landskeria’s only designated “ancient tree” and ancient only because it’s an alder, and by comparison to others of its species. I might be wrong (as is always the case) but the huge girth of the very lower part of this tree, compared with the complete lack of very thick trunks extending up to its canopy, indicates to me that it was coppiced for many years of its midlife, and has thus only survived for as long as (I think) it has due to the artificial life-lengthening this practice can lend to a tree. The rough measurement I made has it at just under 4 metres around; not huge for an oak or a beech, but unusual for an alder, and easily the largest tree, by base circumference, in our locality. I estimate its age as 223, which would make it rare for an alder, and the oldest tree in our garden by a long way – almost exactly as old as our house. It’s called Hen Hyll (or Old Ugly in English), due to its entirely gnarled, noduled and pitted bark at the base (much-loved by tree bumblebees who are often to be found crawling in and out); its ugliness in conventional aesthetic terms makes it extremely beautiful in my eyes, of course. It may well die in my lifetime, and while it would be sad to see it happen I’ve no doubt that its mass of woody tissue would continue to be a home for all manner of plants, animals, fungi, etc. just as it is now for many years after the event. I would love to know, if its past is as I suspect it, when it was last coppiced, and by whom.



Part 5, The Sheds: “The Drive”, “Sheds North” & “Sheds South”

There are lots of large trees in this stretch of land, mostly ash, and many looking rather sorry for themselves. Several of them need to be removed or pollarded (at least) as a matter of some urgency.

The biggest two (both roughly centenarians) are the Cowshed Ash and the Factory Ash, named for their almost alarming proximity to their respective buildings.

Both ought to be cut down if the buildings are to be developed (which is the plan); the preference would be to pollard them, but ash dieback might render our own opinions in this matter moot.


Part 6, Cwmisaf: “The House”, “The Lawn” & “The Holloway”

Two centenarian sycamores on the riverbank by the Holloway dominate the airspace above the Lawn: one is called Suave Stanley due to its louche and rebellious attitude; the other is called Captain Caveman, because it has a split trunk where it hangs over the river, resembling a little cave.

Most of the ash trees in this territory will need to be pollarded or culled to avoid damaging the house.

The riverbank might then support some new trees to be planted as understory.



Part 7, The Common: “The Neck”, “The Sluices”, “The Holt”, “The Finger” & Scimitar Island

Though rich with many trees, this convoluted inter-river spit of land is sufficiently wild and scrubby that few are particularly notable in their effect on the overall landscape; with the possible exception of the big willow on the extra-Landskerian territory of Scimitar Island (named for its shape, somewhat like a nicked blade) which tree is in turn named for the island it grows on as Saladin Sallow. It is just over a metre in circumference and doubtfully close to 100, but nonetheless notably large for a local willow, especially while remaining in an upright attitude.

None of the other big ashes or sycamores are especially noteworthy. There is one lone horse chestnut sapling; presumably having ended up there from one of the mature trees up by Llandre Isaf, perhaps with the help of a bird or a beast.


Part 8, The Quarry

Numerous large ash trees line the border of the quarry where the boundary with the neighbouring land lies; but many large ashes also loom from the quarry over the house, somewhat worryingly.

Few of these show advanced signs of dieback, but none looks like it will be here in 100 years’ time.

The only tree here to pre-date the remaining disused woollen mill (or “factory”, which is said to have been built from stone quarried onsite) is Chewy, the big sycamore (named for the old electrical wire its split base is seen to be “chewing”) 2 metres + in circumference and up to about 135 years old. It’s just possible that this sycamore watched, as a sapling, wagons full of stone being carted down toward the leat by the old tucking mill to be dressed and mortared into the new walls of the new powerloom factory.


Part 9, High Mire

No VLTs in this territory, though it does contain an unusually large Hazel (somewhat leaning, but otherwise more-or-less “tree-shaped”, unusually for the species), a few big ash trees in varying states of health, some small to medium elms, and one “notable” tree, albeit not a centenarian, in the shape of Aughiska the sallow. The name is from the band “From The Bogs of Aughiska” simply because it’s growing in a bog.

There is also one lone scots pine, just over the bank from its friends. Who knows whether they share enough root space to be part of the same fungal network? I doubt it.


Part 10, The Hazelwood

This broad area contains fewer hazels than its name suggests, and more elms. Three of the four notable trees (each a different species) are located on the boundary and thus not necessarily owned by us (inasmuch as one can own a tree).

Pennywise is the VLT sycamore growing next to a drain (hence the name) where the neighbours’ overflow from a disused lane flows into a drainage channel toward our leat during heavy rainfall. Bank Ash is a big (not quite VLT) centenarian ash tree at the border of our land, the neighbours’ and the churchyard; St Elmo, along the same boundary with the church, is Landskeria’s largest elm tree – just over a metre around, though doubtfully 100 years old; finally, Bug Club Willow is a sprawling sallow dominating the damp southern region of the territory – about a metre in girth, and maybe 70 years old, it’s named for the “secret” club my daughters formed, which meets (though seemingly very rarely) in the shaded area beneath its inner branches.

Thus ends the 2020 Landskerian Cadastral Survey. Until I survey and add the trees of the Forbidden Island. Then it really ends.

A Velky, 19/06/2020

31/03/2020: Lockdown log

I have found neither the time nor the incentive to publish a conventional diary entry here for the better part of a year, and found when I began collating research on an old house in the parish last week that I hadn’t done that either for six months (and that my subscription to the necessary genealogy website had thus expired). I doubt I’ll return to the former any time soon, due to there being so many more things to do about the place than hours left in the day in which to record what has and hasn’t been done; but I plan to return to the latter when I have money to renew my subscription, as I’ve paid visits to a few abandoned houses since September and would like to report my findings. What follows is a brief snapshot of our current situation which I put together for a local newsletter which was looking to fill pages. I have no idea if they will use it, but here it is anyway:

Kids exploring Pantau-Duon

Like many people, I’ve found my usual routines interrupted this spring. The ongoing threat of an unforeseen global pandemic has quite suddenly reduced life and society to their essentials. Schools are closed to all but the children of “key workers”; “non-essential” shops have been ordered to cease trading; and even those of us showing no symptoms have been ordered to remain indoors to help prevent the spread of the virus, and to try to reduce the very real risk to others.

The jarring halt in so much human activity has not, of course, extended to the turning of the seasons, nor to the cycles of nature. Birds are building nests, buds are unfurling into leaves and flowers, and glorious sunlight is reaching places where shadows have slept uninterrupted for many months. Those of us with ready access to outdoor space, either privately owned or otherwise unlikely to be found thronging with people, are even more acutely aware of our privilege than usual.

And since the manner in which I generate my income is not deemed essential to society (a point on which I happen to agree) I have the double-blessing this spring of being given the opportunity to share the season of rebirth with my young daughters: they are dismayed to discover that in addition to being their father, I am now their teacher. Fortunately, we are not completely confined to the classroom: lockdowns notwithstanding, there is ample opportunity to enjoy spring in Mynachlogddu without any serious risk of coming within 2 metres (or sometimes, so it seems, 2 miles) of another human being. So I have been re-introducing my 6- and 8-year-old children to the joys of tramping around fields looking for standing stones, burial-chambers, and the ruins of old farmhouses.

Just a stone’s throw from the mountain road that runs from Bethel chapel to Pentre Galar is the site of Pantau-Duon; one of an alarming number of abandoned farmhouses in this area, whose name translates roughly as “Dark Hollows” – or, more ominously and perhaps less likely, “Black Depressions”. Though I knew the location from an old OS map, and some of the previous inhabitants from the censuses, I had assumed there was nothing left of it; so I’m sure you can appreciate that upon seeing the towering grey walls appearing from among the brambles we felt like Howard Carter uncovering the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Collecting information about these old farmhouses has become a hobby of mine; one of many which the children, and my wife, are understandably somewhat dubious about. Nowadays I pinpoint my targets in advance. But it occurred to me several days later that this had not always been the case; indeed, I was reminded of the origin of this particular pursuit as I sat eating a boiled egg in the churchyard of the (currently closed) St Dogmael’s church in Mynachlogddu, where my children and I were conducting a biodiversity survey (AKA “a bug hunt”) to pass the afternoon. I was idly removing some lichen from the lettering of a gravestone when I noticed the word I was revealing was unusual, for a Welsh word, in including the letter K. It was “Danperky”. Danperky (probably “Dan-Perci” in modern Welsh orthography) was a labourer’s cottage on the land of Dyffryn Ffilbro, adjoining Gors Fawr common, not a mile northwest of our church. The house has been empty for a century and a half, and there’s little left now but the remnant stones of a cottage garden wall, among close-cropped grass, blackthorn bushes, and sheep skulls.

William John’s gravestone

We can’t know exactly how long ago the house was built, but census records tell us that Edward and Ann John, both born in the late 18th century, lived in Danperci between 1841 and 1861. They named their children William and Mary; the latter was still living there in ’61, the last time the house appears as inhabited on a census record. William had left by ’51, to pursue his own life somewhere nearby, I had assumed – though I was unable to trace him. And where William was in 1851 may forever remain a mystery; but by 1852 it transpires, at the age of just 23, he was dead. That’s what the gravestone was telling me; and might have told me any other time I’d visited the churchyard, if I’d cared to ask it.

I wouldn’t say this came as a surprise as such. It would have been far more surprising to discover that William John was alive and well, and about to celebrate his 191st birthday. But names mysteriously disappearing from census records is one thing; being confronted with the cold hard reality of life’s limits is another. And a tragedy 170 years distant, befalling complete strangers whose descendants, even, are unknown to me, is still a tragedy. I make a note to remember this when I am next told by the BBC how many people have died of Coronavirus in Italy today. It was Joseph Stalin who allegedly said “if only one man dies … that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” There is an unpleasant truth to this, but I like to juxtapose it with John Donne’s thoughts on the matter: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

We may feel slightly less involved in mankind than usual this spring. But we remain a part of the greater whole for the duration of our time on Earth, however long we may be lucky enough to have. Part of mankind, but also part of the universe, existence, creation – whatever you want to call it: the tragedy, yes, but the comedy, the history, and the mystery too.

A Velky, Mynachlogddu, 30 March, 2020

Cwmcerwyn, Mynachlogddu

Spelling variants: Coomkerwyn, Cwm Carun, Cwmcerwn, Cwm Cerwyn, Cwmcerwn, Kombe Kerwn, Komberwin

Approximate English translations: Tub/Tun Valley

Ruins at Cwmcerwyn, September 2019. Foel Cwmcerwyn is just to the left of the tree.

I’ve written a bit about Cwmcerwyn before in relation to the painted rock that was the catalyst for this project. Cwmcerwyn was a prominent farmhouse on the eastern slopes of Pembrokeshire’s highest peak; often called Preseli Top in the past, nowadays always called Foel Cwmcerwyn. The word “foel” is mutated from “moel” meaning “bald” but is also a common word in these parts for a bare or treeless summit (see also: Foel Drygarn, Foel Feddau, Foel Dyrch). Cerwyn has numerous related meanings, and while George Owen commented that the presence of many whiskey-distilling Irish folk in the valley in the late 16th century might have rendered the meaning of “cerwyn” as a whiskey-still appropriate, it seems likelier that the bowl- or tub-like shape of the valley was the inspiration for its name; though whether the valley or the farmhouse had the name first, we will likely never know.

Cwmcerwyn on the 1819 OS map on the east bank of Afon Wern, south of Foel Fedw (Feddau). Trefrap (right) survives as Cwm Garw.

This house has more history (at least more available history) than most in the area. There follows some detail from a book I took notes from in the county library. I was too stupid to take down the name of the book, but it was something like “Old Houses of Pembrokeshire” [edit: thanks to the comment below, I’ve been reminded that it was Francis Jones’s ‘Historic Houses of Pembrokeshire and their Families.’], and listed them by parish; in Mynachlogddu were Cwmcerwyn, Dyffryn Ffilbro, Pentre/Pant Ithel and Dol[a]emaen. Clynsaithman (Glynsaithmaen), Cwmcerwyn’s neighbour across Afon Wern in Llangolman parish, was also listed. I’ll note the name and author next time I’m in Haverfordwest.

Cwmcerwyn, was, according to the book, “Marked on Rees’s 14th century map” of the area, and mentioned in deeds of 1344 in relation to its ownership by St Dogmael’s Abbey. It was leased to David ap Rhys ap Owen on 12 October 1535, and later (along with most of the land in the area) assigned to John Bradshaw and his heirs “at an annual rent of 10 shillings”. Toward the end of the 17th century, the farmhouse becomes the home of Griffith Morris, “gentleman” son of Griffith Morris of Clynsaethmaen. He was “a baptist and a member of Rhydwilym chapel” located some way away, just outside the southern border of Llangolman parish. (It would be a while yet before Bethel chapel was built in Mynachlogddu). In 1693 Griffith, son of Griffith, married Elizabeth, daughter of Griffith Howel of Rushacre, Narberth. After this, they went to live in Cwmcerwyn. He died between 1732 and 1734. His son (of the same name) livd at “Cwmkerwyn Isha”. No house of this name survived to the 19th century records I’ve read; but perhaps it was an earlier name for one of the other houses in the valley: Cwmgarw, Bwlch Giten, Waun Clun Coch, Iethen or Tynewydd.

Cwmcerwyn in 1844.

In 1786 “James Bowen Esq” owned “Cwm Carun” with one John Griffith as his tenant. On 5 April 1817, Daniel Owen of Cwmcerwyn was baptized, and on 30 January 1833 he was ordained Baptist minister of Pope Hill, South of Haverfordwest. Cwmcerwyn later became part of the Cwmgloyn estate (I don’t know the exact dates for this period). In 1909 it was described as a farm of 296 acres, rented by Morris Thomas, and was up for sale.

The above skips forward beyond where my non-cartographical records normally begin (i.e. 1841, with the first census), so I’ll now rewind back to that first rich snapshot of life in the northwest corner of Mynachlogddu parish. In 1841, James Llwelin, 40, was farming at “Cwmcerwn” with his wife Mary, 40, daughters Ann (16) Elizabeth (8) and Sara (4), and sons John (14) Thomas (12) and William (1). James was not there ten years later, however. In 1844 (at the time of the tithe maps) he was listed as the occupier of the land, with Morris Morris, Griffith Morris and Morris
Williams as joint owners. The account in ‘O’r Witwg i’r Wern’ mentions an eldest son called Charles, a sailor, who died in 1843 at 21 years old and was buried in the grounds of Capel Bethel.

But James Llewhellin (spelled slightly differently from the above) wrote his last will and testament on 22 May, 1848, aged 47:

“…to my beloved wife Mary Llewhellin [I give] all that I do now possess as long as she do continue a widow, but should she again marry, my aforesaid is to give to each of my seven children the sum of twelve pounds on or before her second marriage. … my wife and my son Thomas Llewhellin to be joint executors.”

The witnesses to this were David Thomas of Llangolman and Daniel Phillip of (the neighbouring farmhouse) Cwmgarw. James Llewhellin died later that year. In 1849, Anne Llewhellyn married either a John Thomas or a Thomas Jones – but can’t be traced in the region thereafter.

One of many ash trees now growing on the site.

By 1851 Mary Llewhellin (born in Camrose, we learn) is “widow”, “farmer” and “head” of the house at Cwmcerwyn. Her remaining children are John (23), Thomas (21) and Elizabeth (16), all born in “Notton” (probably Nolton?); Sarah (13), born in Roch; William (11), born in Henry’s Moat (they gradually seen to be getting nearer!) and finally Frances (8), born in “Monachlogddu”. There’s also a William Owen, 15 living with them; a “farm servant” originally from Llanglydwen.

It’s noted in ‘O’r Witwg i’r Wern’ that English was probably the “language of the hearth” for the Llewellyns, as evidenced by James having been made a church warden within two years of moving to Cwmcerwyn. The majority of mostly Welsh-speaking Mynachlogddu had by now swapped the Anglican St Dogmael’s church for the “ty-cwrdd” Baptist meeting house at Bethel. The family were also, unusually for the time and place, literate, being able to sign their names on marriage certificates.

By 1861 Elizabeth is gone, and, if married, untraceable in the wider area (to 10 miles). Mary is a (still-not-remarried) farmer of 220 acres, employing two boys. Sarah, William and Frances are still living at Cwmcerwyn too, and three servants are also listed: John Edward (19, from Mynachlogddu), Dan Evans (16, from Henry’s Moat) and Anne Jones (a “house maid”, 14, from Morvil).

Mary and James’s eldest son, John Llewhellyn (now 33), is a farmer of 33 acres at Plasdwbl (Mynachlogddu), employing one labourer and one boy, and he’s married to Sarah (27, from Llangolman) and also providing a roof for Caleb Edwards of Llanglydwen, one of his servants, who is listed as a “cartman”. Their next eldest son Thomas (32) is a little (but not much) farther afield at Pengraig in Cilymaenllwyd, Carmarthenshire. He’s a farmer of 80 acres, married to Mary (37, from Mynachlogddu) with three children, Anne (7), Rachel (4) and James (2, named after his grandfather?), and a “stepson”, presumably Mary’s child, John Davis (10). They have two male servants, Caleb Edward (21) and Daniel Thomas (14), and one dairy maid, Sarah Jinkins (18). John Davis was born in Mynachlogddu, so one would suppose his place and situation of birth might be easily traceable on the previous census; but one would suppose wrong, in this case, it turns out. There’s a Mary David (30) at “Blue Page”* in Mynachlogddu, who is married, but whose husband isn’t in the house; indeed, she’s living with her mother-in-law and three of the latter’s grandchildren (presumably but not necessarily these are her children). But (in addition to the 2-3 year discrepancy in her age, which does sometimes happen in censuses) this Mary was born in Llangolman, whereas Thomas’s wife Mary is listed as born in Mynachlogddu.

A barn or a secondary domestic building at Cwmcerwyn?

By 1871, William (31) is head of the house at Cwmcerwyn. His mother (now 70) is still there, and never took another husband. Perhaps her late husband’s stipulation as to the massive payout to the children was enough to put her off; or perhaps she never met another suitable man. Either way, at first glance that legal stipulation might have seemed to be made in order to dissuade her from remarrying, but it’s as likely (perhaps much more likely) to have been made to dissuade a man of no means from marrying Mary for her money, and leaving the children with no inheritence. So, anyway: William, the third eldest son, becomes the new farmer at the house. His wife Mariah (of Meline parish) is 24, and they already have three sons: James (3, named after his grandfather), Evan (2), and John (1), and according to an account by one of their descendents in the local history book ‘O’r Witwg i’r Wern’, they were to have ten. There are also two servants living with them: David Bowen (18), and John Williams (16).

Sarah Llewhellin has, I think, married John John of “Lanisaf” (or Llainisaf?) in the same parish, and become Sarah John. If this is indeed her, she has two children: Thomas (1), and William (0). Frances (now 28) seems to have become Frances Morgans of Llanllogin Llanycefn. If this is indeed her (and the birthplaces match up), she has married Edward Morgans (25, farmer and butcher), and has three children: Margaret (4), Mary (1), and James Llewelyn (5); the latter presumably arrived before she met (or married?) her new husband. He is listed as “son” to the “head”, but whatever his origin, he is the third known namesake of James Llewhelyn among his grandchildren.

Cwmcerwyn and its neighbours in 1888.

By 1881 William (now 41) is a farmer of 280 acres. Mariah, his wife, has by now birthed five more children: Mary (9), Thomas (7), Catherine (5), William (3) and Benjamin (1). James (13) and John (11) are still there too. Evan is not, and neither is William’s mother; the latter at least we can be pretty sure is now dead. In addition to the eight resident family members, there are two farm servants (“indoor”): David Davies (26) and Job Owen (17); and two “general” servants: Mary and Sarah Davies, both 16.

The 1891 census returns Evan to the household (maybe he was in a cupboard last time, or something). The other present children are Catherine (15), William (13), Thomas (12), Benjamin (11), Ann (9) and David Devonald (2). Sarah Griffiths (18) is the sole resident servant. James Llewellyn (now 23) has set himself up as a farmer at Portispant in Llangolman (with just one dairy maid, Mary Griffiths), and his younger brother John is at Wernddu in Meline, with a wife (Mary, 24), a baby daughter called Mary L, two servants (David Nicholas, 18, and Margaretta Thomas, 15) and a nurse, Mary Havard, 53.

Yvonne Evans, a descendant of the Llewellyns writing in ‘O’r Witwg i’r Wern’, informs us that William and Mariah moved to Newton near Rudbaxton (central Pembrokeshire) in 1894. And that (quoting the English translation!) “their eldest son, James, emigrated to the United States … [and] Evan went to Australia.” Other children of theirs went to America (and returned), moved to Northampton, moved to Trefdraeth (Newport, Pembs). This was at the time when the Parish was no longer able to sustain the number of inhabitants it had swelled to; and it has never reach the heights of population it enjoyed (or suffered) then to the present day.

Cwmcerwyn: a few little squares on the OS map.

In 1901, another Mynachlogddu family has moved in: David Harries (possibly originally from Capelbach, by Cwmgarw) is now the head of Cwmcerwyn, alongside his wife Anne. They have three children: Daniel (5), Lizzie (2), Morris (5 months), and a servant (16) called William Phillips. By the last (currently available) census in 1911, The Harrieses are still resident, with their three children and two new ones: Martha Ann (8), and William Albert (5). Since siblings Martha and Albert are said by Yvonne to have been the farmhouse’s final residents in the 1930s, I assume these were the latter two.

Cwmcerwyn is rare, among these lost houses, in having had only two families resident in the period of increased and freely available historical resources. (I.e. 1841-1911.) It is rarer still in having records (scant, but records nonetheless) that go back at least half a century beyond this. Had it survived to the modern day it would be a listed building; but as it is, it’s a ruin.

It’s a home for trees now.

Cwmcerwyn is not on a public footpath. When I asked for permission from the farmers who now own the land to visit the ruins, they told me (having said I could go up there) “there’s nothing there now though”. Had they known that I’d recently visited the “remains” of Clawdd Ddu and Llech, they’d have been able to appreciate that the ruins of Cwmcerwyn would be alike to Machu Picchu in my eyes! Not only are the firm footings of several buildings still visible among the mature trees and scattered farm equipment, but the atmosphere of the place remains distinctly homely: the lane, which crosses over several fords, scattered on either side with fallen megaliths; the half-collapsed footbridge over Afon Wern; the stone walls, the nuggets of quartz; the patchwork of surrounding fields, carved out of the gorse and heather on the marshy, sloping mountainside; and the majestic presence of Foel Cwmcerwyn and Foel Feddau towering over it all. It’s a place of great beauty, and no small amount of sadness for those who still have a fondness for witnessing humankind’s often sympathetic historical relationship with the natural world.

There’s a poem in ‘O’r Witwg i’r Wern’, written by Martha Harries, one of the last residents of Cwmcerwyn. I won’t reproduce the whole thing here, for fear of playing fast and loose with copyright; but the last stanza speaks of both the uniquely tragic fate of Cwmcerwyn, and, in the final line at least, the sadness that is common to all of these lost homes:

“Awyrenna gyda’u bomiau,
Milwyr hefyd gyda hwy,
Amser rhyfel a’r ymarfer,
Nid yw’r cartref yno mwy.”

from ‘Cwm Cerwyn’ by Martha Ann Harries

Rough “poetic” (as opposed to literal) translation:

Bombers flew in with explosives,
A time of manoeuvres, and war,
And soldiers following orders,
No home’s there anymore.

A Velky, around midnight on the first morning of October 2019.

A photograph of the farmhouse before it was bombed by Allied planes in World War Two.

* Blue Page, like the similarly named Orange Page, is a sometimes-mentioned but as-yet-not-identified Mynachlogddu mystery cottage, whose whereabouts I hope to get on to at a later date in this project. One or the other I suppose to have been an alternative name for “Gors Fach” on the common.

Iet-Y-Llech, Llech, Llechisaf, & Byhwp, Mynachlogddu

Spelling variants: Ietllech / Iet Llech / Yetllech / Yet Llech; Llech Isaf / Llechisaf / Llech Isha / Llechisha; By Hwp / By Hoop / Byhoop

Approximate English translations: Gate-[to]-the-Cromlech, Cromlech, Lower Cromlech, [I have no idea whatsoever].

Llech y Gwyddon: Mynachlogddu’s only Cromlech, I think. Collapsed beneath a fence.

“Llech” literally means “slate”, but can also in certain contexts denote a slab of stone or a boulder. In these house names it can be safely assumed to refer in shorthand to the adjacent cromlech, Llech-Y-Gwyddon. Let’s divert briefly into etymology.

Llech circled(?) on the 1818 OS map. “Lleth[e]r” is, confusingly the farm to the immediate left.

“Llech” forms the latter part of the word “crom[-]lech” which word dates back at the very least to the 1500s and is the common Welsh word for a megalithic chambered tomb with a capstone; “crom” meaning bowed or arched. In English, “cromlech” was the go-to word in past centuries, but nowadays “dolmen” is perhaps more frequently used. Dolmen is thought to be from Breton (the “dol part” denoting a table or a flat board); but etymologists like to argue about this, and the Irish “dolmain” is also very close. Either way, the “men” or “main” part of the word must surely mean “stone” and is also present in the words menhir/maenhir, meaning “longstone” (literally, “stonelong” due to grammatical differences between Welsh and English). Compare also the name of the ancient Mynachlogddu farmhouse “Dolaumaen” which means “stone meadows” or “meadows of stone” and supposedly refers to a pair of standing stones on its land; this could as easily once have been “dolmaen” and referred to the cromlech itself, or (since it’s a bit far, and the known cromlech is closer to the ancient farm of Blaencleddau) perhaps it referred to another cromlech which is no longer there.

There are various traditions relating to cromlechs in the region, and they tend to be common across other regions where similar monuments are found. Often, they are said to be lairs or tombs for fearsome or magical creatures: wolves, hounds, witches, ogres, giantesses, heroes, or devils. The “Llech” that appears in the names of two (or possibly three) historical cottages just beyond Waun Cleddau in northeast Mynachlogddu is derived from the nearby (collapsed) burial chamber whose earliest known name is Llech y Gwyddon. A “gwyddon” can be a number of things, but is most likely an ogress or a witch: some mythical or supernatural female. As a side-note, there’s a Llech y Drybedd near Moylgrove, which is an intact three-legged Cromlech, and there’s a Llech y Lladron (robbers’ rock) in Brecon. Better cultural comparisons for this might be the “Tomba dei Giganti” of Sardinia, or the nearby Gwal-y-Filiast, meaning “Lair of the greyhound bitch”.

This modern OS map shows Llech-Y-Gwyddon (the yellow spot) as well as the likely sites of Iet-Y-Llech (north circle) and Llech (south). Llechisaf might have been on the eastern side of the bridleway, opposite Iet-Y-Llech? Note three additional old homesteads on Waun Cleddau. These were, from left to right, Pwll-Y-Crychydd (Heron’s Pool), Pant-Y-Glocsen (Clog Hollow) and Pantau Duon (Black Hollows).

While today Mynachlogddu’s sole known cromlech invites little attention, for centuries past it would have been an important landmark, as well as a focal point for stories and superstitions. The 1888 OS map indicates that Iet-Y-Llech was situated on the opposite side of the field to the ruined cromlech, so we can deduce (or, frankly, guess) that “Llech” was on the plot to the south. The 1819 map suggests that Llech predated Iet, and this would explain the name of the latter. While “Iet” can sometimes denote a toll-gate, in this case it may well have simply meant that the newer of the two houses was situated precisely by the gate to the field where the cromlech lay. The sole 1841 census entry for a house called “Llech Isha” (Lower Llech) complicates matters slightly; but if this house fell out of use 170+ years ago, we could reasonably expect to see even less evidence of it on our maps than the other two. It might have been in the small plot opposite Iet-y-Llech, but it’s hard to say.

2 cottages recorded on the 1850 tithe map: both “occupied” by Daniel Griffiths, Blaencleddau.

The geographical relationship between “Uchaf” and “Isaf” farms isn’t wholly reliably either north-to-south or uphill-to-downhill. Perhaps it’s more usually that the “isaf” or “isha” is subservient to or of less importance than the “uchaf” or “ucha”? In 1841 we have no “Llech Uchaf” but can assume that “Llech” itself is the one that “Llech Isha” is “isha” to. Had it lasted longer, perhaps “Llech” would have been referred to in later life as “Llech Ucha”. It’s closer to the parent farm of Blaencleddau, but no farther uphill, nor farther north; in fact, the opposite in both cases.

There is a will drawn up for a widow called Martha Morris who lived at Llech, dating to 1828, digitized in the National Library of Wales archive. In it she says:

“My two sons James and David shall retain all the goods and moneys they owe me, as their own property for ever … after paying all my legal and funeral expenses, [my money is] to be divided into four equal shares … one fourth … to my daughter Ann Morris… [the rest to my other four children: Stephen, Martha, Mary, and Rachel].”

None of these children are traceable in the parish from the start-date of the censuses (1841), so we can assume none of them took over her tenancy.

And so, to the censuses. The first year is often the most difficult, and 1841 is no exception here. David John, 60, a mason, is living in “Yetllech” with Ann John, 15, who may well have been his daughter; but no such detail is forthcoming from the first census. Ann Rees, also 60, and a woman of independent means, is living in Llech with (daughters?) Sarah (30) and Elizabeth (20) Rees. The former, but not the latter, is listed as a servant. The complicating factor is the existence of the aforementioned “Llech Isha”, never to be seen again, in which lives James Thomas, 61, an agricultural labourer (presumably at Blaencleddau) with wife Sarah (40), and and children David (7) and Sarah (3). By 1851 this family (minus David) are living in “Byhoop” and we learn, due to the added detail of the ’51 census, that David senior was born in Ceredigion. Since I have no more idea where Byhoop is or was than where Llech Isha is or was (less even) we could perhaps assume it’s the same cottage, renamed? E T Lewis mentions a “By Hwp” as one of the many Mynachlogddu mystery cottages, but offers no explanation for the words (which make no sense to me in English or Welsh) nor clues as to the location.

The supposed former site of Llech cottage, as it appeared on a September morning in 2019.

As for Llech and Iet in ’51: “Yetllech” is now home to Sophia Evans, an agricultural labourer’s wife, and her children Thomas (3) and Mary (0). Sophia’s husband is oddly not present; perhaps living onsite at the farm he’s working at? (i.e. not Blaencleddau; somewhere farther?) It’s an unusual situation, and one that led me down a merry path of false impressions, whereby I became briefly convinced that this Sophia Evans was the same Sophia Evans listed in Llanboidy in ’41, and later in ’71 and ’81, and that she’d run away from home to be with someone who then ran away from her. Given that we’re working with such a small amount of information it can be all too tempting to fill in the gaps with the imagination; or rather, to let the imagination run wild. I could have just skipped forward to ’61 for a clearer impression of the real sequence of events. But we’ll get there in a minute. Firstly, Llech in ’51 is still home to Ann Rees, “Widow of labourer”, 75, and one of her daughters, Elizabeth, now 30, who remains unmarried.

In 1861 we learn that Sophia has died, leaving her 35-year old agricultural-labourer widower William Evans in Iet-Y-Llech to care for their children Mary (10), David (8), Hana (5) and William (2). I haven’t bothered paying for access to all the legal documents, as the website I use is positively extortionate; but there is an indication that Sophia Evans was buried in 1861, some time before the census was taken. Incidentally, there is at the same time a 13-year-old boy called Thomas Evans (born in Mynachlogddu) working as a servant in Penlan, Whitechurch, Ceredigion, and I suspect he was their eldest, and probably hadn’t been out the house long. Llech is now home to Morris Williams, 31, agricultural labourer, born in the parish, and Margaret Williams, 31, born in neighbouring Llanfyrnach, and their children John (3) and Ann (1). None of these are traceable on any other census.

Iet-Y-Llech (top); Llech might be to the south. Llech Isha might be to the right? OS 1888.

By 1871 William Beynon, farm labourer, 64 is at Iet-Y-Llech with his wife Mary (60) who is also a labourer. Names are entered for Llech for the last time (indeed, it doesn’t appear on the 1888 OS map, so I’ve had to guess its location). Those names are as follows. William Stephen, 35, Carpenter, born in Llanfyrnach. Martha Stephen, 33, his wife, from Capel Castellan. Anne, 9, scholar; James, 6, scholar; Margaret, 4; Martha and Mary, both 2. All of the children were born in the parish, and quite probably in the cottage itself. the family were in “Iet Fronlas” near Foel Drygarn in ’61 (i.e. at the last census) where they had an infant son called David who must have died in the interim, and also la 10-year old called Mary Stephen who one would presume to be their daughter, but for the fact that she is listed as “nurse” which apparently indicates she was someone else’s child who they were raising, probably for a fee. William Stephen is unusually easy to trace on the censuses, so we know he was from a big family, and that his father David Stephen (probably the namesake of his ill-fated first son) taught him his trade, alongside an older brother called John. We also know that by 1881 he is a “master carpenter” living in Castellan with wife Martha, and children Phoebe (9), Hannah (7), Rachel (3) and David (a new one, 1). The lack of Margaret, Martha or Mary might immediately seem ominous, but we cannot know for sure if they were dead, working away or simply living with someone else. Though the first two are untraceable in the vicinity (certainly up to 20 miles), Mary, it transpires, has gone to live with her grandparents David and Margaret in Llanfyrnach, and is now a twelve-year-old “scholar”.

That last paragraph was long. Do you still remember the Beynons? Maybe not. But they’re still at Iet-Y-Llech in 1881. She’s Mary, 70, and he’s William, 80, and after many years as a labourer he is now a farmer of 10 acres, which feels like a massive achievement. They’re both gone by 1891, but their daughter Ann, 37, single, a farmer, is the sole resident. Ann was 7 in ’61 (nice when the maths works out!) and living with her parents in Llwyn Piod on the other side of the parish. (At that time a 96-year old alms woman called Lettice Michael was boarding with them. We can safely assume she is dead by this point.) 20 years ago, Ann was a general servant to a farmer in Blaen Nevern, Castellan; 10 years ago Ann was a maid at Caermeini Isaf. However much she enjoyed her time at Iet-Y-Llech, the census does not reveal; but we do know that by 1911, Annie (as she’s now known) is a 57-year-old servant to an 82-year-old widower called Howell Rees at a place called Neuadd in Blaenffos.

We can assume unless evidence to the contrary is discovered that the two (or three) cottages around the collapsed cromlech on the eastern side of the Crymych road in northeast Mynachlogddu fell into ruin at this point. Today, several little rectangles of dry stone wall remain, with twisted trees sprouting from each. Sheep, horses, and cattle graze peacefully in the marshy surrounding fields and barely a trace of human life is noticeable but for the distant buzz of a tractor or whirr of a passing car.

A Velky, September, 2019.

The former location of Iet-Y-Llech. A window might afford one a view of the ruined cromlech.

Clawdd-Du & Penbanc, Mynachlogddu

Spelling variants: Clawdd Du / Clawdu; Pen Banc / Pen Bank / Penbank

Approximate English translations: Black-Hedge & Banktop

The alleged site of Clawdd-Du: a wall remains, and piles of stones. Pictured March 2019.

I first came across Clawdd-du, like many of the forgotten homes of the parish, on the 1888 OS map on the wonderful National Library of Scotland website.

1888: Clawdd-Du is there, but not Penbanc.

The site is at the north central edge of the parish, in the shadow of Carn Menyn; on the border of the marshy common land, to the north, and the enclosed fields associated with Caermeini Isaf and Tycwta, to the south. A branch of Afon Tewgyll forms this border, and the brook babbles westward, downhill right by the gate that takes hikers up to see the famous Preseli bluestones.

1819: neither Clawdd-Du nor Penbanc visible.

Unlike with many of the older houses in the parish, we can be pretty sure of the dates both before and after the existence of Clawdd-Du: it does not appear to be marked on the early 1819-34 OS map, and it does not feature on the 1901 census. So it doesn’t seem that Clawdd-Du lived to see its hundredth birthday.

Clawdd-Du circled; Penbanc just below?

But the history of this farmhouse is complicated somewhat by a nearby associated house called Penbanc: hence the doubled-up title of this entry. Clawdd-Du is conveniently situated immediately adjacent to the public footpath on a bridleway which was once a trans-Preseli footpath and/or droving route. The modern OS map shows two clustered little field enclosures one after the other between Carmeini Isaf and the common, so even though just one farmhouse was named on the 1888 map, I had a feeling the site just south of Clawdd-du was also once a homestead, and the censuses seem to indicate as much.

Before I trudge through the somewhat complex and busy decades accounted for by the census, it’s also worth noting the nearby Pant y Cadno farmhouse (to the southwest on the above-featured modern OS map, and on the tithe map to the right). This is also no longer in existence, though it survived for slightly longer than either of the subjects of this post. (It will get its own entry, don’t worry.)

The above tithe entry for Clawdd-du lists its parcel of land as a “Cottage & Garden” occupied by “Daniel Rees”; as is usually the case with labourer’s houses, the occupier of the farm they work on is listed here, and Mr Rees was the head of Carnmenyn/Caermeini Isaf, with one David Rees (quite possibly a relative) in occupation at nearby Tycwta. Although Penbanc (or a second labourer’s cottage) was on the censuses at this time, it does not appear on the tithe map.

So: 1841 is the first census, and “Clawdu” is home to Moris Moris and his wife Phebe (both 35) and 5 children: Daniel, Evan, Mary, William, and an as-yet-unnamed week-old baby (aaaw!). All were born in Pembrokeshire. As a quick side-note, there is a Catherine Moris, 20, living at Pant y Cadno with Philip and Catherine Thomas and their young son Caleb. She is listed as “independent”, indicating that she looked after herself financially. She might have been a relative of the Clawdd-Du Morises; it’s even mathematically possible (though unlikely) she was a very early child. But I don’t know.

By 1851 Moris Moris is dead and Phebe Morris has an extra R in her surname (but no O in her given name). She’s also aged 15 years in the past 10; but this does sometimes happen on censuses. She is a “pauper”. Her adult son Thomas Morris, 26, is living with her, and is also listed as a widow (?) and an agricultural labourer. The only other remaining children are William Morris (with a slight discrepancy in his age, but not enough to prevent him being the same person) and Morris Morris, 9; possibly the unnamed week-old baby from 1841, possibly a later child.

The confusion arises from the fact that the Morrises are now living in “Penbank”, and that “Clawdu” is occupied by a 30-year-old agricultural labourer from Capel Castellan called John Lewis, and his family: wife Mary (35), daughters Hannah (9) and Mary (3), son David (6), and finally Sarah Ludwig, Mary’s 78-year-old mother who is a “pauper”.

That probably doesn’t sound too confusing? Well, thanks to whoever collected the census details in 1861, it gets a little harder to follow; because this time we have a Clawdu 1 and a Clawdu 2, but no Penbanc. Clawdu 1 (possibly Penbanc?) is still(?) home to Phebe Morris. She lives with just one other person: Morris Morris: but a Morris Morris who is 10 (not 19 or 20) and is listed as her grandson, not her son. She had a fair few children, so it’s not unlikely one of them named a child after their dad and that the child’s grandmother was for one reason or another tasked with his upbringing. We don’t see any Morris Morrises again in Mynachlogddu, so this is the last time we see this chap. As for Phebe’s other kids… they’re pretty hard to trace too (given that I’m not spending hours and hours on each individual, that is). In 1851 there was a Mynachlogddu-born Mary Morris working as a housemaid to Elizabeth Davies, an 87 year old farmer in Pantebach, Llanfyrnach. This might have been one of Phebe’s. Meanwhile back in 1861 there’s an unmarried carter in Clynmain, Whitechurch, Ceredigion (not Pembrokeshire) called William Morris. And there’s a Dan Morris (32) who’s head of a farm called Pantyryn, in nearby Llanfyrnach. But none of them are in Clawdu 1.

And neither are they in Clawdu 2, which is still home to the Lewises: John (41), labourer, wife Mary (45), daughter Mary (13), sons William (9) and Thomas (6). So they had at least 5 children born in at least 4 different places, and are thus pretty difficult to follow around; but fortunately for me, I’m interested in the houses primarily, and only the people secondarily.

So I can just skip forward to 1871 when Phebe Morris is still living in Penbanc (or living in Penbanc again, after it was briefly renamed Clawdu 1). She’s a 69-year-old widow living up a rather large hill on her own. At least it’s a nice hill. Dan Morris and William Morris are both heads of houses in the wider area (or at least people with the same name and approximate birth years to them are) but it’s hard to tell how many of her family are still in the area; certainly none of them are under her roof. Her neighbours have changed too. Clawdu is now home to 56-year-old Mary Thomas, a farmer (note: not a labourer) of 10 acres, and her 11-year-old “scholar” nephew, John. I hope they got on. Mary and Phebe, I mean; but I can happily extend the sentiment to everyone in the locality out of sheer goodwill.

By 1881, Penbanc was unoccupied and Phebe, the locality’s longest-serving (known) resident, was finally dead or fled. Clawdd Du (spelled like that for the first time) was now home to Caleb John and family, and Mary Thomas had come down the mountain to Penybont (in what is now the “village” of Mynachlogddu) to retire.

Now, Caleb has an interesting trajectory. Born high up on the western slopes of Talfyydd in Bwlch Giten into the big family of Thomas and Elizabeth John, by 1861 they were all barely half a mile south in PentryIthel (Pantithel); by 1871 they’d moved to Tycwta in East Central Mynachlogddu (yes, that’s a well-used term, what of it?) and only two sons remained in the house. Caleb took a wife (Martha, 30 in 1881) up to Clawdd-Du and they had a 3-month old daughter called Elizabeth at the time of their first census as a family. But this was not to be a new chapter in Clawdd-Du’s history: oh, no; merely a footnote. By 1891 they’d moved to the slopes of Foel Dyrch at Bwlch Stop (nowadays called Dolau Isaf and/or the Preseli Mohair Centre, I think) and they had an additional son. By 1901 they’d moved back to the Crymych road to live in Glanrhyd, and they were still there in 1911. So Caleb John lived in just about every bit of Mynachlogddu in his life, except the bit I live in. (I won’t take it personally).

In 1891 Clawdd-Du is occupied by John and Mary Hughes. He’s a 75-year-old farmer and butcher from Clydey. She’s 49 and also a butcher, but from Castellan (now part of Boncath I think). By 1901 the couple had shifted a mile(ish) east to Carngoy and Clawdd-Du, alas, is no longer listed as occupied on the census.

So that’s that. in 120-ish years the sites of these houses have been reduced to almost nothing by way of visible traces of human habitation. I’m not even sure I’ve got them the right way around, but if we can rely on the 1888 OS map, then we can probably assume the place to the south was Penbanc; but it’s also possible it was merely a shed or sheepfold, and that the two cottages adjoined each other on the border of the common. I suspect further detail on these two will be hard to come by, but the site is easily accessible, and the imagination can fill in at least some of the gaps.

A Velky, September, 2019.

The site of Penbanc, just to the south of Clawdd-Du? Or is it the other way around?