Vintage Waterwheel Farm: Gelli Newydd

Tractor Tales from Wales

| December 2009

Aneurin Hughes and his wife, Gladys, live on a glorious and largely unaltered 150-year-old hill farm called Gelli Newydd within the Snowdonia National Park.

When I say “hill farm,” I don’t just mean that this farm is in an upland position: I mean it literally is perched on the edge of a steep hillside, towering above the patchwork of oak-dotted fields in the Conwy Valley.

A working waterwheel

What makes Gelli Newydd such a special place is not just the fantastic panoramic view it offers, but also the fact that it boasts a beautiful working overshot waterwheel. With a footpath passing by their farmyard, Aneurin and Gladys frequently find walkers and sightseers drawn to the waterwheel. Many stop to photograph it. Waterwheels might have been purely practical pieces of machinery to the engineers and farmers of yesteryear, but to the nostalgia hunters of today they hold a certain romance and charm.

The cast iron waterwheel at Gelli Newydd today isn’t the farm’s original waterwheel. That one, sadly, entirely built of wood, rotted away long ago. This waterwheel was bought second-hand in pieces from a nearby farm dispersal sale in the 1940s. Aneurin can just recall the new wheel arriving, and his father and grandfather restoring and re-assembling it. The waterwheel was made locally, for on the wheel is printed the name of a foundry in Llanrwst, just a couple of miles away from Gelli Newydd. Not only is this waterwheel a testament to the times when we simply harnessed whatever power we had around us, but it is also a reminder of a time when small industries – like the one that made this waterwheel – thrived in every corner of the country.

Back in the old days every farm had a mixture of animals, including at least one milking cow, and pretty much everyone made their own butter. Powering the butter churn was one of the many jobs done by this waterwheel. Over the years it has also powered a saw bench, a machine that chopped swedes (rutabaga) for the pigs, a chaff-cutter and a corn crusher.

Some 50 years after Aneurin’s father and grandfather restored it, the waterwheel was in need of a major renovation. This time it was Aneurin’s responsibility, and with the help of local enthusiast Griff Griffiths, he had it restored once again. The metalwork (being cast iron) was absolutely fine, but the wood is not as durable and must be replaced every few decades.

Aneurin, a keen local historian, frequently gives demonstrations of the wheel in action. The original machines that the waterwheel first powered have long since rotted away, but the couple has collected others, including a corn crusher (Gladys uses flour from the crusher to make bread).

Hillside workhorse

If the waterwheel is part of the history of this little farm, then so is a tractor. Aneurin’s father bought a little gray Ferguson tractor second-hand in 1958 for £180 (about $500 U.S.) Even its receipt is a little piece of history, as it shows that the garage in Llanrwst (“Birmingham Garage”) where the tractor was bought was in fact a Ferguson dealership. The garage still exists today, but as an accident repair business; no tractor dealerships remain in the little market town of Llanrwst.

The tractor was used for general farm duties like ploughing and bringing the hay in, which can’t have been easy on the sloping fields at Gelli Newydd. Many of the fields were cut with a scythe, as they were inaccessible by a tractor, and the hay was brought down to the house by use of a sledge. Despite the sloping land, Aneurin doesn’t recall any accidents with vehicles in the fields. “We just knew to be careful,” he says. An extremely steep lane leads to the valley below, and at one point on the hill there is a hairpin bend. Aneurin remembers one icy day when his father “took off” on the tractor, landing down in the woods below the road. Both man and tractor were unharmed and suffered nothing more than the indignity of having to get someone to haul out the tractor.

Aneurin has recently restored this little heirloom of a tractor, because it was in rather a sorry state, having stood unused for almost 20 years. He well remembers the days when horses were used on the farm. At one time though, the family bought an old American Willys jeep. They used it as a car and on the land for all sorts of jobs, including carting hay into the barn. “You could go to steeper places with that old jeep than you could with the tractor,” Aneurin recalls.