Refurbish a Remote Derelict Cottage in Wales
Fixing up a derelict cottage on no money, no husband, and three happy toddlers to look after may seem daunting at first. Yet no end of hard work or hardship can take away the benefits of a wild country lifestyle.
Distant from city noise and pollution, the derelict cottage is situated in the Swansea Valley. The incredible, ever-changing views reach from the sea at the South side to the snow covered peaks of the famous Brecon Beacons.
Elwin, a local "builder" odd job man used to look after the place for the previous owners many years ago. Now that I had moved in, Elwin came up to the cottage (which he called ‘the farm’) where he kept some chickens and a pregnant cat. It seemed I had bought the house inclusive of Elwin who loved to get away from his sick wife and five boisterous sons for some peace and quiet. I found out later, that Elwin also slaughtered any unmarked sheep he found on the commons to feed his extended family.
A local Welshman called Elwin had known the previous owner and was a frequent visitor to the cottage. Elwin lived in the village of Pontardarwe a good hour’s walk straight across the descending hills. He was just a little shorter than I with red hair curled up into a sausage on top of his head. With his belly from here to eternity and friendly disposition, Elwin looked like a character from a Charles Dickens book. He became my devoted anonymous admirer and muscle man.
The Rough Track
The dirt track leading down to the house was too rough for any normal car to drive down, let alone to come back up. With heavy rains the bottom part of the track turned into a torrent. Even the four-wheel drive could not skid up so I usually left the car halfway up on the hairpin bend and we walked down, (and up) carrying Kirsty in the baby pouch, Tomi (2) on my hip and Miko, the big boy of 4, walking with Jack the dog beside us.
Living in the Present
It was a nice walk, except when there was a lot of shopping to carry, then I sometimes had to make two or three trips but time was my own in the middle of no-where and the natural surroundings and pleasant sounds amplified the existence of living in the present. At the hairpin bend we would rest and admire the view.
During one of those resting spells, sitting on the grass at the hairpin bend, Tomi was investigating his new surroundings, so very different from what he was used to: a terraced house in Kilburn with a narrow fifty-foot garden fenced in on both sides. The nearest thing to nature Tomi had ever seen was the playground in Queen’s Park.
A Disapointing Discovery
Tomi walked around now and sat down on a fresh tuft of grass, concentrating, examining something new he’d seen, something seemingly very interesting. Looking at him I realised what had captured his young mind. Some dry rabbit droppings were glistening brightly in the sunshine. Tomi looked very pleased with himself. He picked one up, looked at me smiling and said, ‘marty?’
Luckily I just managed to grab the piece of rabbit poo off him before he put it into his mouth. Who could blame him? Until then a glistening little round object had always been a candy, a sweet, a chocolate Smarty. Tomi was mighty disappointed to lose his ‘sweet’ as I explained that it was not a sweet, that it was rabbit shit, dirty. Sorry Tomi.
On another occasion while we were enjoying the views from the hairpin bend Tomi saw a real live horse for the first time. He pointed at the animal with great admiration and shouted out:
” BIG Goggy!”
“That’s not a dog, it’s a horse, you stupid!” his four year old brother replied.
“He is not stupid, he is just younger than you.” I reprimanded.
Past the Bend
The top half of the track, past the bend, was not as steep and in slightly better condition but it was also covered in loose stones and potholes. Elwin had put in some effort at improving the track by having hardcore shingles and rubble delivered.
The Welsh Cottage
A Better Solution?
I also put all the ashes and bits of burned coal saved from the stove into the holes at the bottom of the track, but as soon as the stuff was put down, the rain washed it all away and it would disintegrate down the hill. There had to be a better solution. Word had gone round that the public road across the top of the hill was going to be renewed and that the old tarmac, which had to be scraped off with heating machines, could be had for free.
In mid winter, when the beautiful Welsh hills were covered in snow, we walked up as far as the hairpin bend and got into the Land-rover. I drove up the bumpy road with the kids singing “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain” in the back as usual.
When we got to the top we were faced with a huge white snow-covered heap of dried up tarmac splayed out two meters high across the track. It was now impossible for any vehicle to get in or out. We could not reverse, so had to walk. Well, the children were usually running and rolling down the bracken, back all the way down to the house where I phoned Elwin.
‘What’s that huge heap of tarmac doing across the drive? I can’t get out!’
‘Oh Ai, t’as arrived all reddy all rite Suzie?’
‘Yes, it sure has. We should have been there to spread it while it was still soft, but it’s a bit late now.’
‘Oh Ai! Suzie, They should ‘ve rang you to tell you when they were going to dump it! Never you mind Suzie, I’ll comap in a minit. I’ll bring a shovel ‘n all. Meet ya apta top, rite?’
Do you prefer living in the city or in the country-side?
I explained the situation as best I could to the children, gave the boys a child spade each to “help”, and we all climbed up the hill again. When we finally got to the top, catching our breath, Elwin was already busy trying to spread out the stuff. The black tarmac was looking mean in contrast to the virgin whiteness of the less permanent snow. We shoveled and shoveled to no avail, the giant mound of dried up tarmac could not be budged. From then on, the Land-rover had to drive around the lump and gradually it created yet another bend in the winding old dirt track, which remained as bumpy as ever and eventually damaged the suspension of the car and broke its half shaft.
Back to the City
Despite such ‘snags’, once I got the taste for primitive, no conveniences, outdoor life I wished we could have stayed living in rural Wales, in the remote countryside, forever. But without the children's father who was working in London it could not last. So when I was offered a prestigious job as a choreologist for the Paris Opera Ballet, I packed my things, the kids and Jack the dog, and we returned to the insanity of city life.
Competition, dressing smart, bathing every day and having clean fingernails was not really my life style any more. The dream was over. Reluctantly I moved back to the city for work, career, fame and fortune but I never relinquished the happiness and strength I once found living in rural Wales.
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