And Dream of Sheep

i

Dai stands alone, surrounded by empty fields. He’s going to be the last of the Crug Llwyd men to examine the damage winter storms have wreaked on the dry-stone-walls which define the farm. At his feet is a splattering of mudstones, waiting for his hands to place them back into the collapsed section of wall.

There’s a gap wide enough for the quad bike to clamber through, though the looped sentinels of barbed wire would rip a man’s flesh to smithereens. He should tackle the wire before he tries to fix the wall.

These walls were built to lay claim to the hill-side, and to enclose the Welsh Mountain flock. Generations of Crug Llwyd men have clung to these slopes, believing that within the farm’s walls is where they belonged, believing that the land would always be theirs. The sheep never fully accepted the situation, a few always found the means to escape the wall’s confinement, their compact genes holding on to the memory of days before walls.

Even so, the flock’s genetic make-up had altered over the years, bulked-out by a string of imported rams. The changes started with the coming of the railways. John Evans Crug Llwyd, Dai’s great-great-grandfather, was the first to forego the use of the ancient drover pathways and export his spring lambs, via the new railway lines, to the Shrewsbury sheep sales. He used the profit to buy a champion black-faced Shropshire ram, to increase the market weight of, therefore the profit from, future lambs. Dafydd Crug Llwyd, Dai’s grandfather and namesake, added to the bulk with a no-nonsense Border Leicester, and Ifan Crug Llwyd, Dai’s father, injected Texel genes into the flock, to satisfy the modern predilection for lean carcasses and long loins.

Despite the addition of foreign blood, the flock retained the essential resilience of the little Welsh sheep, which are able to survive, all but the harshest of winters, out on the bare hillside.

Survive, that is, until Dai broke the line. He sold the entire flock at the April sales. Fly, his dad’s Welsh Border Collie, now redundant, has retired to the East End of London. In-between rounding up her imaginary flock on the hill-less expanses of Victoria Park, she sleeps and dreams of sheep.

ii

It’s May already. Dai shudders as a gust of wind, carrying the sting of winter, rushes across the hillside. But down in the valley, khaki patches have appeared amid the green fields, made by the 1st silage cuts of the year. A clear signal that summer is on its way.

It’s too late to sell the farm this spring again.

Dai’s eyes wander beyond the valley, to the rough horizontal line, which separates the fertiliser green fields from the jaded greens and faded purples of the moorland; his gaze takes in the posse of 21st Century giant windmills, whose sharp white features imprint themselves on the landscape, like matchstick-men chalked onto a priceless painting. He feels the inevitability of change. Even the moor’s conifer cap, which has been there all his life, is only a 20th century forestry plantation.

Behind the evergreen crown, between the earth and the sky, the blue silhouette of the Black Mountain sits on the horizon.

The weather changes. A blanket of mist comes down to cover the entire scene. It’s time to turn back to the business of the wall.

iii

Bracing himself to the task ahead, Dai picks up one of the dislodged stones. The weight of it makes his knees buckle. As he struggles to straighten himself, he slips on some sheep droppings, hidden in a clump of couch grass. He drops the stone — the unburdening of the heavy load hurtles his body forward — making him stumble over the loose stones and fall in a heap on the ground.

Leaning against the wall, he assesses the damage. His ankle is throbbing and there’s a gash on his arm, spilling blood into the wall’s crevices.

iv

Instead of messing about, Dai’s ancestors would have concentrated on the work. All he has to do is mend a small section. They cleared the open hillside and shaped the entire farm with their bare hands.

Crug Llwyd came into being with the gathering of the stones, which were placed into convenient piles for the task of building the dry-stone-wall enclosure. Clearing the land was back-breaking work. Once the surface was free of stones, they ploughed the thin soil. More stones appeared, like dragon’s teeth sown by an implacable enemy, determined to break their spirit. But they persevered and the only terminal damage was to the plough-shares, which had to be replaced on a fairly regular basis. After the clearing, the construction began. Every stone was weighed, by the eye of the builder, before it was selected and put firmly in its place.

*

A cross section reveals the wall’s structure. There are two rows, with smaller stones used to fill in the gap. Within each layer, large stones span the two rows, binding the separate sections firmly together. On the top layer, coping stones cover the width of the wall, to create a unified whole. White quartz-studded stones have been placed randomly along the wall, adding light relief to the silt-forged mudstones.

*

The building work continued until a grid of dry-stone-walls transformed the open hillside into half a dozen fields. Each field with its own character: the gentle sloping Cae y Cerrig Gwynion;[1] Cae Ffynnon Las[2], whose water supply has never been known to fail; Cae Pishin Nesa Draw[3] next to Cae Pishin Nesa Yma[4], both with slopes so severe that it takes an expert to drive a tractor down either one of them, only by following the line of most resistance can you safely negotiate their treacherous inclines; and, to remind the world that this was once a sheep farm, there’s Cae Lloc[5] and Cae Defaid[6].

It doesn’t matter how well built the wall, over the long years, small sections have succumbed to weather and to the damage created by countless sheep who, year after year, have pressed against the wall for shelter or, scrambled over it to look for sweeter grass on the other side or, they may have be searching for the open hill-side which existed within the herd’s collective memory.

Each generation of Crug Llwyd men has left its mark on the walls. If you look carefully — you can see where the repairs have been carried out — only discernible because the slow growing mosses and lichens on the replaced stones have different patterns from the original wall.

v

Before he even tries to re-tackle the wall, his eyes draw him to the repair-work on the section beside the stone gatepost. As he limps forwards, the sun burns through the mist and its rays pierce the quartz studded white-stone by the gate. The dazzling light transports Dai’s thoughts to the day he stood here, watching his father, who was taking far too long on the job.

vi

I wish he’d hurry up; mamgu’ll have tea on the table. All he can say is:

Stop pestering me’.

Stop fussing over that white stone I say!

Dysga peth amynedd wir. Nawr, edrych yn fanwl. Rhyw ddiwrnod ti fydd yn gorfod riparo’r hen wal ‘ma. Dyna ni, wedi bennu.’ [7]

At last! He puts the tools in the back of the van. I go and sit in the front. Dadi starts the engine, smiles and says:

‘Rhod hi’n gêr de.’[8]

I do, and we’re off.

vii

A cloud crosses the sun and the image fades. Dai is left standing alone, cradling the white stone in his arms. Keeping hold of it, he struggles back to the damaged section of wall. He inspects the barbed wire and unravels a tuft of wool from its grasp, holds the wool to his nose and takes a deep draught of the brown-green earth scent of sheep. It fills him with the knowledge of what he must do.

He removes the wire cutters from the quad bike’s tool box, replaces them with the white stone. It fits perfectly.

Grasping the cutters with a new sense of determination, he snaps the first rusty strand, which springs back and rips his jeans. He perseveres, removing loop after loop. The final strand stubbornly clings to the damaged wall, secured by rubble and the creeping roots of the couch grass. One final pull releases the barbed wire, it rebounds, and its barbs rip through his jeans, this time, tearing his thigh too. There’s blood everywhere.

With a final surge, he throws the wire cutters against the wall, climbs onto the quad bike, starts the engine, puts the bike into gear, and releases the clutch; the bike jumps forward and scrambles through the wall. Without any hesitation, Dai Crug Llwyd opens the throttle and flies down the hill.

[1] the field of the white stones

[2] the field of the blue spring

[3] the field of the next bit over

[4] the field of the nearest bit to here

[5] the field of the sheep fold

[6] the sheep field

[7] ‘Look carefully and for goodness sake, learn some patience; one day you’ll have to repair these old walls. There, finished.’

[8] ‘Put her in gear then’

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