Tractor Tales from Wales
The beautiful and unspoilt hill farm Gelli Newydd, commanding a grand position on a steep hillside on the edge of the Conwy Valley. This house is about 150 years of age, but within the farmyard are the remains of a much older dwelling.
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.
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).
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.
Aneurin has happy memories of the threshing days of his childhood in the 1940s. He talks about the huge camaraderie with neighboring farmers who’d come to Gelli Newydd to help, and in turn Aneurin’s family would go to their farms to help when the threshing machine came to them. In those days a gang of agricultural contractors would travel from farm to farm with their threshing machine. Most of the labor, however, was provided by the farmers and their neighbors, and of course, the farmer’s wife would lay on a hearty spread for all of the workers.
The heavily sloping fields at Gelli Newydd meant that some of the corn had to be cut with hand scythes, as the terrain was too steep for either the horse or the little gray Fergie. In October the threshing machine would make its way up the steep lane to Gelli Newydd, hauled up by a pair of Standard Fordson tractors, one of which would then power the threshing machine. “I loved the threshing day,” says Aneurin. “It meant I had a day off school, and it was a very exciting day, you know. Six neighboring farmers would all be here helping, and we had a lot of laughs. It was hard work, but we had fun too, and we all helped one another.”
Sheep shearing was another event that brought farmers together to help one another. The annual shearing of the sheep, done at the time with hand shears (or gwellau in Welsh), took place in the open, with groups of people shearing together, talking, laughing and sometimes singing as they worked. It was a case of “all hands to the deck.” Even children would have their work, whether it be wrapping the wool or operating the sheep pen gate. At the time it was the custom to wash the sheep before they were sheared. The flocks were taken down to the river in the valley below and given a good soaking. After the shearing, the wool was sent to the local woolen mill, just half a mile away.
Today, on large modern farms, where one man operates a machine that does the work of several people, the work might indeed be safer, quicker and less back-breaking, but a lot of the fun and camaraderie that could be had through communal work has surely been lost.
Listening to Aneurin’s memories, it’s difficult not to view the past through rose-tinted spectacles. It is sad that the sense of a community “pulling together” isn’t as strong as it used to be, back when we all depended on the help of our neighbors. But what is also regrettable is the fact that so many of the small local industries, like the little foundry at Llanrwst that made the waterwheel at Gelli, have been lost with the passage of time. FC