Josephine Roberts fires up her Massey Ferguson 35 for a jaunt around her neighborhood.
The best thing about being out and about on a tractor is that you can’t hear the phone ring, so no one can distract you. The second best thing about being on a tractor is that you move along at the perfect pace for seeing your surroundings. Just slowing down to 15 mph, which is still pretty fast by human standards, allows you to look around. It also makes you realize how much drivers miss as they race by.
As a horse rider I’m also aware that speeding motorists can be deadly, and as someone who enjoys the quiet pace of rural life, I find it infuriating when bad-mannered drivers fail to show consideration for pedestrians, animals and other road users. So for me, driving my tractor is like returning to a quieter era, an era when 15 mph was quite adequate, and back to a time when cars were open-topped and you had to don a warm hat and a pair of gloves before you could take to the road.
As a mother to two young children, it’s a real treat to be able to get out of the house and do something that’s just for me, something that doesn’t involve cleaning, cooking or folding clothes. Most women I know also like a bit of “me time,” but for them that usually involves shopping or going to a spa. However, I’d rather be galloping over the hills on my lovely American Quarter Horse or chugging around the lanes on my little red tractor.
There’s something about being on an old tractor that brings out the singer in me, and I’m rather partial to singing old American tunes as I go. “Rose of Alabama” is my latest song, which I belt out at full volume whilst driving the tractor. Most likely you’ll never meet me, so I could lie at this point and say that I have a voice like an angel, because we Welsh people are renowned for our beautiful singing voices. But I’m going to come clean and say I’ve a voice more like an intoxicated sparrow than an angel. Most of the time here in the countryside there’s no one around to hear me, and if there is, well, that’s just tough.
From the emails I receive, it seems many of you are curious about what sort of place it is that I live in. In this column I’ll take you on a whistle-stop tour of my part of the Conwy Valley, via tractor of course, because that’s the best way to see the place in my opinion.
We’ll start by going to the tractor shed where my two steeds live, and I have to say that, compared to horses, they are a doddle (easy) to keep. Compared to many hobbies, vintage tractors are quite affordable and low maintenance. Those who’ve spent thousands of dollars on old tractors and those who undertake painstakingly thorough restorations may raise their eyebrows at such a statement, but for me it’s true. Neither of my tractors is particularly rare or expensive, though it’s fair to say that I acquired them before the vintage tractor movement took off and prices began to rise. But even today you can buy an old tractor for £1,000 (about $1,500), or less if you are lucky and don’t mind a bit of work, and you can have a real lot of fun with a tractor like that. After a few years, if you’ve had enough, you can always sell it and be pretty guaranteed to get your money back, if not more.
For the purposes of fuel economy and comfort, the Massey Ferguson 35 is my steed of choice for jaunts out. The David Brown runs on petrol (gasoline) and TVO (tractor vaporising oil), which is no longer commercially available here in the UK, so it has to be made up of a mixture of petrol and paraffin (or kerosene) or petrol and diesel (gas oil). There are many different “recipes” for TVO replacement, and everyone swears that his own is the best. All TVO tractors have two tanks: They start up on petrol; once warm they are switched over to TVO. This makes them slightly more high maintenance than diesel tractors, and slightly more expensive to run too, so it makes sense to use the diesel-powered Massey for trips out. Although the David Brown is the cooler looking of the two, the Massey is smoother, quieter and less tiring to drive. And we all know that looks aren’t everything, don’t we?
I live almost on the top of what is really a small mountain, a hill that is the start of the foothills of some much larger mountains, amongst which is Snowdon, the highest in both Wales and England. This means that there are steep, twisty little roads up here, and tractors can be deadly going down steep hills if you don’t know what you are doing. A couple of miles from my house there’s a little wooden cross on the bank of a steep, narrow road marking the spot where a young lad was killed a few years back. His tractor took off on the hill and went over a bank and down a drop. It serves as a stark reminder that just because tractors are slow moving, it doesn’t follow that they are safe.
As we descend the hill in low gear toward the small market town of Llanrwst (about 2 miles away), the lane drops down through a wood flanked by mossy banks, overhanging branches and babbling streams. There is a cottage halfway down; from there you can see the view unfold before you. Below are the relatively big fields of the valley floor and the town itself, and there’s the Conwy River, like a silver snake curving its way down along the valley, out to join the sea at Conwy Harbour some 10 miles beyond. My side of the valley is woody, hilly and rocky, with just a few grassy fields like an oasis among the trees, but the opposite side of the valley is made up of rolling fields and a landscape that is altogether more open.
Surrounded by fields, Llanrwst is an ancient town that sprung up around the river crossing point, and it is a place full of history. It is thought to date to the fifth or sixth century, but it really began to grow in the 13th century. Like many small towns, its heyday has to some extent passed. At one time it was home to a wide variety of shops that sold everything one could ever need. It had a tannery, two churches, several chapels and a foundry and was famous for its clock, harp and boat makers.
A great deal of that diversity has been lost, but compared to some places Llanrwst hasn’t fared too badly. There are still schools here, and there’s one operational church, two chapels and a railway, plus a variety of businesses. Shop numbers have dwindled, largely the result of the motorcar, which served to take people away to shop in bigger places, places that have big supermarkets like our versions of Walmart.
You can still get your boots mended in Llanrwst, and you can see your doctor, shop for paint, screws, and cement. You can get a haircut, buy your weekly groceries, pop to the bank, and even buy a book and sit and read it while you have a coffee in one of the many cafes. So it’s still a useful sort of place. In terms of architecture Llanrwst is no oil painting. There are several nice buildings, but there are also some really quite ugly buildings. Despite its history it is a functional sort of a place rather than a picturesque tourist town, and I think I prefer it that way, because for all its lack of airs and graces it is a place that feels real, rather than manufactured.
For a small town of just over 3,000, Llanrwst has a lot of pubs. From a quick look at the businesses in this small town centre, one might conclude that the people here like to drink beer, eat meat and have their hair cut regularly. Ring a bell? If so it wouldn’t be the first time that this place has been compared to a “Wild West” town, especially on the night of the annual local agricultural show when all of the young and lively from both the town and the surrounding rural catchment area are out on the town, strutting their stuff.
The most attractive part of Llanrwst is without doubt the bridge. Built in 1636, the bridge is said to have been designed by Inigo Jones, a hugely significant architect of the time. The three-arch, humpback stone bridge is known as Pont Fawr in Welsh (or Big Bridge in English). This is quite a misnomer really, as by modern standards it isn’t a large bridge at all, but back in its day it must have seemed like a vast, imposing structure, and centuries later the name continues to be used.
Two cars can’t pass on this bridge, so if you come head to head, one must back down in reverse. The locals know that the first to the top is safe, and whoever is part way up must back down (unless you are towing a trailer, that is: then of course the person without the trailer reverses, as does everyone queuing behind him or her).
This system works fine for locals, but every so often an outsider comes along and refuses point-blank to reverse. It has to be said that some people are awful at reversing, and these people often deal with their lack of skill by aggressively refusing to try, and without thinking to get out and politely explain that they can’t reverse. Sometimes there’s a stalemate and the cars simply sit there waiting until someone gives in, and just occasionally the irate drivers get out of their cars and sometimes there’s an altercation, and a crowd of amused spectators gathers ... it’s just one of those funny little things about Llanrwst!
Across from the bridge is a cottage that serves as a cafe nowadays: It and the bridge have to be the most photographed parts of Llanrwst. This cafe, known as Ty Hwnt i’r Bont, is covered in a creeper (vine) that changes color through the seasons. When it is in the green, the place looks like a green monster sitting beside the river. When it rains heavily and all the roaring little streams descending from the hillsides join the swollen river and force it to break its banks, a good part of the valley floor (and the cafe) can end up under several feet of floodwater. The cafe owners know this will happen, so in the winter they move all of the furniture upstairs.
Several times a year it is impossible to get straight to Llanrwst by car from where I live, as the road that crosses the valley will be under water. The floods usually recede after a day or two, and in any case it is always possible to get there by taking an 8-mile detour. This is a beautiful area, without doubt, but we certainly get more than our fair share of rain.
Leaving Llanrwst, I’ll take you back up the hill and home the long way, which means that we pass the old mining area of Nant Bwlch yr Haearn. (Welsh place names are famously difficult to pronounce for those who aren’t fluent.) Much of this area belongs to the Forestry Commission and is planted with conifers. There is evidence of mining everywhere. Although trees hide many of the clues, it is still possible to see chimneys, buildings and entrances to mine shafts from the road. Mostly lead and some zinc were mined here; a small amount of slate was also quarried, but it was not of very good quality. The lead mining started in about 1850 and continued for at least half a century, though evidence suggests that mining had gone on in a small way here for centuries before that.
These days, Nant Bwlch yr Haearn is primarily a ghost town covered over with a commercially grown forest. Once a place of industry, it is now home to just a handful of houses and visited by walkers and tourists who enjoy the mountain views, the forest walks and the lakes. One of the lakes nearest to my home is Geirionydd. It is beautiful on a frosty winter morning, and that’s the time that I like to see it best, when I have it all to myself.
Near to the lake, and about half a mile from my home, is a monument marking the dwelling place (and some say the birthplace) of the Welsh bard Taliesyn. Taliesyn was a renowned sixth century bard known to have sung at the courts of several Celtic kings. Much of his work survives to this day, though it is by no means a light bedtime read, even if you are fluent in Welsh. The story of Taliesyn goes so far back in time that, like the story of King Arthur, it has become shrouded in the mists of myth and legend.
Almost home and we pass my brother’s field, the “church field” we call it in our family, as you need to walk through this field to get to Llanrhychwyn church. This church is said to be the oldest in Wales and is known to have been used for worship by Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd and ruler of most of Wales) in the early 13th century. Llanrhychwyn church is an incredibly simple building, almost barn-like, and I love its simplicity. To me, a church that’s dripping with gold is somehow not what it’s supposed to be about. There’s a real sense of history here in the silence, and one can’t help but think of the ancient Welsh princes who worshipped here some 800 years ago.
It really is just as well that Llanrhychwyn church isn’t dripping with gold, because the door is always left unlocked. It’s lovely that it can be left open like that for people to wander in and out, but I suppose that’s what I like about this community: We are an honest bunch of people, if a little peculiar at times. But more about that another time! FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.