Tag Archives: Welsh humour

The Amman Valley Bubble

(Professor Crafty d’Og’s article on the the scandal of the Amman & Gwendraeth Valley Chutney Enterprise, with a surprising link to the settlement of Welsh Patagonia)

The Amman Valley Bubble (The Chutney that never was)

Chutneys are always today considered to be an introduction from the great Indian sub-continent – they were indeed being imported from there in large quantities by the early nineteenth century, any gaps in the ships being filled up with leaf tea.  This lack of a local chutney was largely due to the great difficulty in reaching the Welsh chutney seams which, at over 200 feet, were too deep to safely reach with existing technology[1] .  British chutneys had long been extracted from the small bell-pits of the south-east of England but this had been of the Piccalilli variety[2].  Though Kent chutney was popular, it was not universally so.  The demand for chutneys led to their import from the far east (even further east than East Anglia), but because of the long sea journeys that involved[3], there was a desire for a home-grown chutney, so to speak.  There had been some Welsh chutney mining during the late eighteenth century as the beds of mango of the Amman valley had been exploited due to their closeness to the surface.  It’s popularity and scarcity led to its early demise, and the trade was blighted by the Amman Valley Bubble scandal of the 1820’s. 

The scandal (in reality, a tremendous fraud) began when rumours of a great find of an easily accessible hot chutney (supposedly a chilli one) spread like hot butter across Wales.  Almost immediately a company emerged, the Amman and Gwendraeth Valley Chutney Enterprise, who proposed to exploit the outcrop (so near the surface, they said, that it was dripping into a local stream).  They issued shares in this rich chutney seam, the price of which rocketed as everyone wanted a slice of the chutney pie (excuse the mixed metaphors).  The company bought a stretch of the foothills of the Black Mountain (paid for in shares) and had even started clearing trees and scrub for a tramroad that was to take the chutney in wagons to the coast.  The day before the ground was due to be broken to open a tunnel for a drift mine, the samples of chutney that had gone to be assayed in Cardiff were discovered to be merely a jam mixed with peppers[4].  The telegraph lines went berserk as messages flew back from Cardiff about the worthless so-called chutney.  Customs officers sped to the site and arrived in Glanamman only to find the mine buildings abandoned.  The owners had taken all their money from the bank in Ammanford (still then known as Cross Inn) that morning and had fled. 

There followed a desperate chase across Carmarthenshire, horse-borne customs officers racing after two stage coaches of Amman and Gwendraeth Valley Chutney Enterprise “managers”. They nearly caught up with them at Llandybie but were held up by a drover taking sheep to Llandeilo market.  The ship (called ‘The Golden Duck’) with the fraudsters on board was just leaving Kidwelly docks as the customs men arrived at the waterside, only to watch them sailing into the sunset with the shareholders money.  The shares which so many people had bought were worth absolutely nothing.  As can be imagined, the reputation of the Amman Valley chutney industry was tainted for many years and held up its development, to the great advantage of the Jam and Marmalade magnates who bought up huge parts of the valley for next to nothing[5]

It is alleged that the ship with the fraudsters on board landed in South America, and that it was one of them that sold land rights in the Chubut Valley in Patagonia to fellow Welshmen who arrived later in the century in search of a better life[6].  They had been told by this fraudster that not only was the land rich with honey, but with jam and marmalade too.  Another of these fraudsters (he preferred to be called an entrepreneur) tried to establish a trade taking Welsh emigres to Patagonia, then filling the ship up with lamas to take back to Wales.  It was only partly successful.

It would not be until the 1850’s when new technology and the fading of the scandal into distant memory allowed for the expansion of the Amman Valley chutney industry, with the problems inherent in that.

[1] There had been some attempts to make 200 feet long ladders, notably by David Thomas, known as “Dai the Saw”, but there were problems finding trees tall enough, and then the difficulty in 2 men walking a 200 foot ladder along the turnpike roads without encountering the odd speeding wayward carriage (“Engineering and Carpentry of the South Wales Valleys”, E.V. Jones; Swanseashire University Press, 1986, p 28-35

[2] Notably round Sevenoaks, named after a “Stephen Nokes” who founded the village in the early 1250’s to provide housing and processing space for the 12 bell pits around the area (, “The Kent Jamboree”, Professor H. Higgins, Kent Free Press, 1953, p 15-64

[3] The introduction of the Chutney Cutter (much like their cousin the Tea Cutter) was not for another half a century.  This would have cut the journey time drastically, and was another of the causes of the later slump in Welsh chutney production. “Money, Power and Preserves; The Growth of the Amman Valley Chutney Lords”, J.C. Thomas, Carmarthenshire Historian, XXVII, July 1958

[4] See “The Cambrian Daily”, 14 July 1828,  Swansea, for a front page article on the discovery, as well as testimony of residents of Glanamman, and of Kidwelly who saw the later flight of the fraudsters.

[5] “Money, Power and Preserves; The Growth of the Amman Valley Chutney Lords”, J.C. Thomas, Carmarthenshire Historian, XXVII, July 1958

[6] Evan Meredith, an émigré from Merthyr Tydful, wrote in his memoirs of meeting a “very nice man, if a bit swarthy, of our own old country and tongue” at a bar in Buenos Aires who told him about the wonderful lush grass, and flowing streams of Patagonia that reminded him of his native Carmarthenshire.  He had also spoken about being able to put your hands in the soil and pull out handfuls of fresh marmalade, that needed very little processing. Naturally Evan took him at his word and bought the deeds to 20 acres of what turned out to be pampas.  Fine for cattle but not for preserves. “From Porth to Puerto Madryn; My Life in Patagonia”, translated by D.C. Jones, Carmarthenshire Historian, XXXIX, August 1967

The Jam & Marmalade Industry in Swanseashire

An extract from a treatise by Professor CD Crafty-D’Og on the famous mining industry of the Swanseashire Valley and its environs, including the Chutney workings of the Amman Valley.

The story of South Wales is one that revolves around its mineral wealth; naturally everyone thinks of the coal, iron ore and even, to a lesser extent, silver and gold.  The rich seams of coal on which the industrial revolution was built are only matched by the equally thick beds of the pre-cambrian preserves, which outcrop across the area, most notably around Swanseashire.  Everyone has heard about the treacle mines of Lancashire on which the Eccles cake industry was built but just as important are the seams of jam found in the hills around Crafty Dog Towers.  The history of jam, chutney and marmalade extraction in the county of Swanseashire is believed to go back many centuries. 

In the 1870’s the skeleton of what was thought to be a female from the stone age was found in a cave on the Gower peninsula.  This “Red Lady of Paviland” was coloured in what was thought to be red ochre.  This has now been corrected; the skeleton was indeed from the neolithic period, but was a young man and the colouring was a red preserve, believed to be either strawberry or redcurrant jam.  The strawberry jam seam that outcrops west of Swansea (the famous three feet sweet deposit) made many landowners rich in the middle ages; whereas the Cotswolds had sheep and wool, medieval Swansea had strawberry jam and preserves.  In fact, it has been suggested that the main reason that the Romans came to Britain was to tap into the jam and marmalade deposits they had heard legends of.  Professor Theophilus Jones[1] has postulated in his book on Greek and Roman folk tales that the Golden Fleece was not one full of gold dust but of a yellow marmalade, probably lemon and lime. 

Where the jam came to the surface there, inevitably, was a share cropper scrabbling for a living from a preserve mine, digging out small quantities of jam or, if it was the 2ft Bleddyn seam, marmalade.  These small jam-mine owners made money but it wasn’t easy selling their products in small wooden jars which were hand-carved in cottages across Swanseashire.  During the middle ages more enterprising (or possibly gullible) marmalade producers worked with the cottage industries that produced flannel and wool and made small lined bags to put their product in (due to a few obvious design issues these soggy bags never really caught on).  In the 1750’s the Swanseashire potteries started making ceramic pots and at the same time a number of mine owners consolidated their businesses by buying out their smaller competitors.  With this industrial revolution (or “Jamolution” as writers on Industrial South Wales have called it[2]) some of these jam owners became jam magnates.  The Swansea Canal was built not only to move coal down the valley to the docks but also long barges of preserves, which initially went round Britain but later, the world.   Nelson fought the Battle of Trafalgar after a breakfast of Swanseashire Lime Marmalade on toast, and it has been recorded that Napoleon Bonaparte was partial to Swanseashire plum jam on his croissants[3].  It was General Picton who on the Waterloo Campaign introduced Sir Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, to the wonders of Swanseashire preserves[4]

As the price of Swanseashire pottery rocketed due to the popularity of Swansea porcelain it created another crisis in the South Wales preserves business – the pottery jars were just no longer available.   The woollen industry smelled money and dusted out the patterns of the soggy pre-industrial marmalade bags, but another entrepreneur in the English midlands came forward with the first glass jam jar.  The Welsh woollen industry switched back to socks and blankets and the glassworks around Stourbridge boomed.

Chutneys are always considered to be an introduction from the great Indian sub-continent, and they were being imported from there in large quantities by the early nineteenth century.  This lack of a local chutney was largely due to the difficulty in reaching the Welsh chutney seams which were too deep to reach with existing technology.  British chutneys had long been extracted from the small bell-pits of the south-east of England but this had been of the Picallilly variety.  Though it was popular, it was not universally so.  There had been some Welsh chutney during the late eighteenth century as the beds of mango of the Amman valley had been exploited due to their closeness to the surface.  It’s popularity and scarcity led to its early demise, as the trade never really recovered from the Amman Valley Bubble scandal of the 1790’s. 

Amongst rumours of a great find of an easily accessible hot chutney (supposedly a chilli one) a fake company sold shares in this rich chutney seam.  The company bought a stretch of the Black Mountain and had even started clearing trees and scrub for a tramroad to take the chutney in wagons to the coast.  Just as the ground was due to be broken to open up a tunnel for a drift mine, the samples that had gone to be tested were discovered to be a jam mixed with peppers.  Customs officers sped to the site and arrived only to find the mine abandoned.  There followed a desperate chase across Carmarthenshire, horse-borne customs officers racing after two stage coaches of Amman Valley Chutney Company “managers”. The ship with the fraudsters on was just leaving Kidwelly docks as the customs men arrived at the waterside, only to watch them sailing into the sunset with the shareholders money.  The shares which so many people had bought were worth absolutely nothing, a scandal which stunted the Welsh chutney mining industry for many years[5]

Borrowing from technology derived from coal mining in the 1850s a pioneering engineer sank a deep mine into a legendary seam of mixed mango and red onion chutneys.  Far cheaper than importing Chutney from India, it made it available for the first time to the working man.  This was the making of the upper Amman valley; the number of workers from West Wales (3000), South West England (2000), and Ireland (3,000) working in the deep chutney mines that mushroomed across the area meant that the small village of Afonamman that had been a farm of 8 people in 1750, grew to 250 in 1810 and 14,0000 by 1875, nearly all employed in chutney mining.  The town of Afonamman boomed, with over 12 chutney mines along the hill on both sides of the River Amman.  The large number of miners, and their families, had money to spend and so emerged the many public houses and places of ill-repute where lonely miners would exchange money, or a pocketful of rough-uncut chutney for a strong drink or a stronger woman.  The Wild-west of the Amman Valley was a dangerous place until the local police force bravely opened three police stations to try and establish a modicum of law and order.  In the wilder parts of the hills were bands of ne’er do wells, known as Shrub Rangers, some of whom have gone down in history.  Dai Kelly[6], Beefy Casserole, the Sundown Kid, and the “Hole-in-the-Dry-Stone-Wall Gang”.  Just as famous was the argument over two buckets of Spiced Tomato Chutney that led to the shootout that killed 6 of the outlaws and 3 of the police, the Gunfight at the Not-So-Bad Sheep Farm.  They were dangerous times, until the ‘Revival’ of the 1860’s, which brought Methodism and God to the area; there may have been sixty pubs, but by then there were also 60 chapels and 60 Wesleyan, Calvinistic Methodist, Baptist and Welsh-Independent ministers.  As the first preachers spoke fire and brimstone from their pulpits the last of the Shrub Rangers melted into the mists of time.

In Swanseashire the jams and marmalades made many rich, and in the neighbouring Amman Valley the chutney mines also created great wealth[7].  The world cried out for the preserves of South Wales, especially so after the secret was found for exporting Welsh chutneys and preserves to the hotter climates of the world.  There had been a request by the British Government to find a way of producing preserves that could withstand the long boat journey to the far-flung parts of the world still painted pink on the map (which we now know as The Commonwealth).  This is how the first batches of “India Pale Mango Chutney” came about, varieties that South Wales sent to India rather like coals to Newcastle.

The Swanseashire Preserves were so important to the morale of troops in the South African Wars (the 24th Foot, based at Brecon who later became the South Wales Borderers were particularly fond of Peach & Ginger Jam[8]) and pots of Swansea Strawberry and Raspberry Jams with Queen Victoria’s face on were some of the first items smuggled in to break the Siege of Ladysmith. Even in the muddy, wet trenches of the Western Front in World War 1 the Welsh soldiers were consoled by pots of Swanseashire Marmalades and Amman Valley Chutneys, wrapped in thick flannel scarves to keep the soldiers warm. 

The great depression of the 1920’s and 30’s hammered the area economically and socially; it led to the closure of the coal mines and the neighbouring preserves mines, the laying off of countless colliers and preserves diggers.  Numerous of the smaller companies never reopened, and others staggered on, yet in decline only to fizzle out in the 1960’s.  Today if you walk along the hillsides you will see the remains of buildings and mine workings once bustling with life.  Where Orange Marmalade emerged by the tramload, bracken and bramble grows, where raw jam was processed in the washery, sheep now graze (and the occasional lama[9]).  After World War 2, cheap imports, and the availability of even cheaper artificial preserves made from fruit and vegetables virtually killed off Jam and Marmalade mining, and even the once thriving Chutney business shrank to merely a trickle.  Today there are only one or two small mines who literally extract a few buckets of raw product by hand, and process the conserve in cottages, rather like they did in the pre-industrial era.  If you venture into local craft shops and markets you may be lucky enough to buy a jar or two of hand-dug and cooked preserve’s, fresh from the hillsides of Swanseashire.  Beware any pale imitations!

[1] In the earliest tales the fleece is referred to as being Golden and Unctuous, and later translations from the Ancient Greek are wrong in thinking this means Gold and Heavy. T.J. Jones, “Honey & Fruit Spreads in the Ancient World”, Morriston University Press, 1979

[2] Higgins & Smith, “South Wales in the 18th Century; Jam, Marmalade and Revolution”, Thrumble Books, London, 1968.

[3] P. Lafayette, “The Diaries of Napoleon Bonaparte; Volume 2 – Breakfasts that Conquered Europe”, Librarie d’Evreux, 1956.

[4] Picton was offering the Duke a sandwich when he had his leg blown off, leading to the famous exchange; “I seem to have lost my orange marmalade on toast”, to which the Duke replied, “Indeed you did sir.  I suppose I will have to have cheese.”

[5] The boat was one of the first to arrive in Chile, where the fleeing fraudsters became some of the earliest settlers in Patagonia, hiding from the long-arm of the Customs & Excise.  Higgins & Smith, “South Wales in the 18th Century; Jam, Marmalade and Revolution”, Thrumble Books, London, 1968, p 235-7.

[6] Dai Kelly was allegedly a (very) distant relative of the Australian Ned Kelly.  He is known for his holding up the mail coach outside Pontamman, where he wore an enamelled chamber-pot on his head, and a very thick flannel vest which he believed made him bulletproof.  There were two flaws in his plan; the flannel was grade 3 and not thick enough (especially without a woollen under-vest), and he had forgotten to drill holes in the chamber pot so he could not see very well – only his feet.  Challenged by the local police constable (Evan Evans, known as Evans the Law), he turned to flee and fell over a parked sheep.  He only served 18 months hard-labour in Ponty Prison, due to the Judge, Justice Hugh Andcray, saying that he had made him laugh more than he had in years.  Kelly ended his days running a pub in the Orkneys. Crispin O’Dowd, “Wild Wales and the Kelly Gang”, Pembrokeshire Free Press, 1985.

[7] Of all the millionaires in Wales in the 1890’s, 1/3 were from the Amman Valley and had a finger or two in the Chutney and Preserves industry. “Money, Power and Preserves; The Growth of the Amman Valley Chutney Lords”, J.C. Thomas, Carmarthenshire Historian, XXVII, July 1958.

[8] At Rorke’s Drift in 1879, contrary to previous reports, it was wooden jam crates that were used to build the redoubt and firing steps that sheltered the soldiers from the Zulu’s toward the end of the battle. “The Washing of the Jam Spoons”, Thrumble Books, London, 1964. P. 154-170 gives a full account of the battle, including the breakfast order of the leaders of the British soldiers.  JRM Chard, Royal Engineers, preferred a Lime Marmalade, though Bromhead was a traditional Peach & Ginger jam eater.  Both preferred toast to army biscuits.

[9] Llewelyn Proudfoot-Rees sold his Marmalade rights to a London company in 1952 and bought four llamas from a travelling zoo.  He hoped to establish a knitting factory but it never came to fruition.  Now small herds of these South American ungulates can be seen in the local hills wandering across the Welsh pampas.

The Christmas Season at Crafty Dog Towers

The often strange traditions at our country house in the Welsh countryside.

The Christmas Season at Crafty Dog Gardens

At our traditional old country house we have a number of old seasonal traditions that we follow closely.  Christmas, or Yule as some of the old folk still call it round here, is just full of old doings, such as the Christmas Log, toasting in Christmas morning, and welcoming in the New Year.  We even keep up the ritual of the Mari Lwyd – of which, more later!

Waiting for Grout to bring us the keys of the Summer House

            As the sun rises on the first of December, Mr Grout, the Head Gardener, takes the large 4 wheeled barrow up to the woods where with his erstwhile assistant, Pendle the Gardener’s Lad, they fell a small conifer (about 12 feet or so) and transport it back to the house.  Mrs Grainger the Housekeeper has prepared the entrance hall, and as soon as the tree arrives, Mrs Crafty Dog and I welcome it into the house.  Everyone present has a tot of something warming (Lady Penelope usually had warm milk), then we sing a carol as the tree is placed into its pot in the centre of the entrance hall.  The staff always expect me to say a few words, we have another tot of comfort and are then ushered out of the room as Mrs Grainger and the house staff, under the guidance of Higgins the Butler (who acts in Lady Penelope’s stead this year) they dress the tree.  By now after a couple of warming drinks Mrs Crafty Dog and I retire to the parlour to read the papers and have a morning snooze.   

            We have stopped putting real candles on the tree after the incident a few years ago when the last Gardener’s Lad (who was no improvement on the current one!) fell asleep under the tree and woke up terrified that he had had a stroke as he had lost all movement in his legs and in his kerfuffle he nearly knocked the tree over but also damaged a number of the wrapped presents.  It turned out that as he slept the warm wax had dripped onto his overalls and solidified round his legs, hence he couldn’t stand properly, and thus we now have a tree candle ban. And a new Gardener’s Lad (the former one left for another more stately home – with glowing references, no pun intended).

            The new electrical light bulb contraptions are rather nice, if a little heavy on the electricity (I’ve no idea where Higgins got these light bulbs from).  Being a green estate we just turn on another generator on the water wheel in the meadows which is sufficient to keep them going, and run the staff’s electric blankets in their rooms up  in the eaves (it does get cold up on the fourth floor).  As soon as the tree is properly dressed (and Mrs Crafty Dog and I with it), Grout fires off a maroon from the front door step which is the signal for Pendle to pull the lever that runs water through the wheel and pushes the other lever across that switches the current to the tree.  I know it’s a bit archaic as a means of signalling but there’s no mobile coverage beyond the vegetable garden.  Once lit up, we all gather again around the tree, to sing another couple of carols, have a few more toddy’s then toddle off in all directions to do whatever it is that the staff do.  We’re never that sure, but as long as nothing gets broken, everyone gets fed and the sun comes up the next day then all’s well.  Mrs Crafty Dog and I usually stagger to the parlour to try and find the newspapers we were sleeping under earlier, awaiting a pot of dark, strong coffee to revive us before we’re called to lunch.

            This is pretty much the shape of our days over Christmas (not Christmas Day itself), apart from the arrival of the tree that is (or we’d end up with a hall full of trees – it’d be like Narnia!).  Lunch is normally something filling but not too heavy.  Cook does like to have dumplings with everything (we are sure that post Brexit she has snaffled the entire European suet mountain) but even she can’t serve dumplings with Christmas Cake.  Yes, even the cake is an ancient Crafty Dog Towers one, made to a recipe that dates back to our celebrated eighteenth century Cook, Mrs Beetrum.  Some of the more out-dated ingredients have been changed (where can one get real mincemeat made with Dodo these days?) and we don’t use Old Navy rum (Admiral Fortescue Crafty-Dog was rather partial, if a bit too partial, judging by the way he behaved at the Battle of the Nile.[1]  The Crafty Dog Christmas cake is always made in May and every month Cook soaks (she say’s sozzles) the cake in Beetroot Gin (Grout’s own favourite), which results in rather a strong cake, full of body and beta-carotene, and highly flammable[2].  Indeed, it has to be cut and served outdoors.  Far away from a naked flame.  Lady Penelope wasn’t too keen on Cook making it as she wasn’t allowed dried fruit, the cake made her eyes water, and I think if she had still been with us it’s a tradition she might have ended. 

As for the Christmas Pudding, this too is an ancient Crafty Dog Towers tradition said to date back to the days of Major Lord Humphrey Crafty-Dog.   He was rather an unfortunate chap, having taken the wrong side in the English (and Welsh) Civil War.  He was a great favourite of Charles I, and had the role of Keeper of the Royal Hat Box, which of course seemed a bit pointless after Charles I lost his head.  They were dark days, and it is said that young Prince Charles hid in the water-closet in one of the towers from Cromwell’s soldiers.  We even get the occasional visitor who wants to see this hiding place, and they marvel how he fitted in the cistern. We then have to explain that the toilets were a bit bigger in those days and a standard Twyfords would be far too small for a monarch, if even a tiny one. 

It was Major Humphrey who held Crafty-Dog Towers when it was besieged by a Parliamentarian army led by Cromwell, who was assisted by Colonel Peregrine Crafty-Dog, Humphrey’s younger brother who took the side of Parliament during the war.  It was Peregrine who caught Lord Humphrey trying to escape down a secret passageway from the Chapel out into the lower meadows (under the sundial).  The tunnel is said to still exist though despite Pendle and Grout searching we can find no signs of it.   Humphrey was taken to London and suffered the same fate as Charles I.  He is now one of the ghosts of Crafty Dog Towers, and wanders where the east wing used to stand before being demolished by Cromwell and Sir Peregrine to make the towers less of a military structure.  Peregrine succeeded to the title in place of his brother.  Yes, Sir Humphrey now haunts the visitor’s car park, around the recycling bins, searching for that tunnel to escape down. Or maybe he’s still searching for his head?  Sometimes he’s seen with it, sometimes not. Anyway, less of the spirits, back to the pudding.  

Christmas Pudding used to be a spiced plum and dried fruit pudding affair, which it still is to some extent.  Once again there is a large (some would say inordinately so) amount of alcohol in which the dried fruit is soaked, but instead of the minced meat of the seventeenth century we use a fine fruit mincemeat.  Then there is the florin. Sir Humphrey began the custom of adding a silver florin to the pudding, and whosoever found it would have a week’s leave and transport paid for them to go home and return.  Not an issue when staff came from the next village or so, but it became a problem in the last century when Cuthbert St. John Crafty-Dog liked to hire governess’s for his children from France or Germany.  Rents on the estate’s cottages had to go up just to pay for the tradition, which meant it wasn’t popular.  Cook today substitutes a florin with a £2 coin, and we are very careful when chewing since the accident when Cook swallowed it and it took four of us to wrestle her to the floor and administer the Heimlich manoeuvre.  And even then it shot across the room and nearly killed the Under Footman – it missed his left ear by a few inches.  Hit him straight between the eyes and knocked him clean out.

            After lunch, if we have survived lunch, and it’s dry, we take a tour of the grounds, albeit the ones nearer the house, so we can retreat to the warm if required.  The greenhouses are looking good at the moment as Grout is growing lovely orchids, heated by his spirit stove. It’s a remarkable contraption, all gleaming copper pipes, fed by a large copper tank.  It has a bit of a leak it would appear, so Grout keeps an old gin bottle under it to collect the drips.  I have suggested I get the local plumber to sort it out but he keeps insisting that it’s no bother.  What a considerate chap old Grout is.    He even keeps a supply of empty bottles in case the leak gets too severe.  Considerate, and thoughtful. 

If the weather over Christmas is really good then we may ask Higgins to arrange for one of the staff to drive us out in the charabanc.  But not Cook.  Definitely NOT cook.  NEVER AGAIN!  Mrs Crafty Dog and I still wake at night remembering her taking us around the lanes of West Wales in the Rolls, at break-neck speed, down lanes so narrow the door handles touched the hedges on both sides (and places where the hedges were actually stone walls) and often there was grass growing down the centre of the road too.  She considers the use of the brake pedal a sign of weakness, and I don’t think she used the gear stick much – fourth gear was sufficient.  Admittedly, there was absolutely no damage to the outside of the vehicle, and inside there were only the dents our finger nails had made in the leather of the door handles.  Though there was that tractor that drove through a hedge to avoid us (who knew a Massey Ferguson could go so fast?), and the three hikers who climbed (or rather flew) up a six-foot-bank to get out of her way too.  I am so glad that we have a sliding glass screen between us and the driver as I should imagine her language was somewhat ripe.  I was going to call her in to the parlour for a dressing down but neither Mrs CD nor I were brave enough.  We just drew a line under the whole matter.

As for that Pendle – he was a bit quiet in the weeks leading up to Christmas or rather, he was keeping a low profile.  Old Grout and I were convinced he’s up to something, and Grout suspected its one of his money-making schemes which he has now and again.  Like when he tried knitting socks out of old baling twine.  They looked nice, and he sold some at the local market, but they did tend to chafe a bit and if you ran in them the friction gave the socks somewhat of a tendency to ignite.

Oddments of wood and twigs have disappeared from the woodstore, and someone has been rummaging in the staff Christmas decorations box.  There has been a slight smell of fish-glue from the lower potting shed when Mrs Crafty Dog and I went past yesterday and the sign on the door read, “KEeP OwT – Crafftsmun at WerK” (a craftsman but evidently no word-smith!).  We did try the door but it was firmly locked from the inside and despite us asking what was going on there was no reply, apart from the sound of sawing and hammering and the odd swear word.  I think it sounded like Pendle but Mrs Crafty Dog didn’t concur so we left the swearing carpenter to it.

Then one morning we were wakened by a scream from Cook as she flung open the kitchen shutters.  There on the patio, glaring back at her with sparkly eyes and a bright red bauble nose was a seven foot high wooden reindeer.  We all rushed down to see what had scared her.  We couldn’t believe our eyes.  Pendle stood next to his creation, beaming as brightly as the beastie’s red nose.  Grout was astonished, as were we, and even Cook was when we’d calmed her down with a mug of beef tea laced with green-house gin.  Pendle explained that he had got the plans off the intraweb and had originally intended to make them for Christmas, selling them at the local Christmas market.  However, he had totally exhausted his supply of timber and Christmas decorations as he had not realised how big the reindeer was actually going to be.  Grout asked to see the plans that the boy had printed off.  He scoured them, and then held them up beside the gargantuan statue. 

“Aha!” he said, having understood what had caused the problem.  “What scale did you use?”

“1 cm to 1 metre,” he replied.

“Its 1 inch to 1 foot,” Grout confirmed. 

Pendle looked crestfallen when he realised the enormity of his mathematical hiccup – enormity being the operative word.

Still, I suggested we move it to the end of the drive in front of the main door to the house and cover it with Christmas lights.  We did that in the afternoon and it took six sets of lamps.  Grout has set another small generator to run off the water wheel just to keep the Mighty Reindeer lit over the Yuletide period.  Mrs Crafty Dog reckons they can see it from space – like the Great Wall of China.

Later that week with Grout’s assistance he made this more manageable reindeer with some of the wood left over from Goliath.

People ask me how old Crafty Dog Towers actually is.  On the far end of the croquet lawn is a small mound of earth; it is the base of a motte and bailey castle built by one of the local Welsh lords, possibly one of our distant ancestors.  The first Crafty d’Og was Geoffrey who first appears in the 1300’s after the fall of the last Welsh Princes.  It is said that he married one of the Welsh noble families or maybe was one of the Welsh lords who’d reinvented himself.  He built the first stone castle – or a tower house really – which he named after himself Crafty d’Og tower.   His ancestors despite siding with Owain Glyndwr survived and even built a proper fortified manor house with towers at each corner and a moat.  The thick stone walls were punched full of nice big windows in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when the family lived a more relaxed lifestyle, and then during the English Civil War the Parliamentary forces knocked it about a bit and we lost most of the battlements and towers.  When Dafydd Jones (Inigo’s cousin) came to see Major Cuthbert Crafty-Dog in the 1690’s to redesign the house he had pretty much of a blank canvas.  He kept parts of the ancient house deep inside the east and west wings.

We laugh when people occasionally ask us whether we live in a castle – of course not!  It can’t be a castle if it hasn’t any battlements!  The gardens were redesigned by Cedric Crafty-Dog in the 1890’s when he tried to apply some of Gertrude Jekyll’s ideas.  We have kept the walled garden with its orangery and greenhouses, and 3 compost heaps (well, Grout has to have somewhere to grow his exotic plants). 

Mrs Crafty Dog and I waiting for the Christmas tree

The croquet lawn was where in the past the local yeomanry used to practice their drill.  They were quite a famous regiment – the 1st Crafty Dog Foot and Lancer.  Why lancer?  This was because General James “Mad-Dog” Crafty-Dog liked the idea of a brigade of lancers but they could only find one in the old armoury in the East wing so it was a Foot and Lance regiment (just as well, as they only had one horse anyway). They were very different times, and the regiment fought in the zulu wars (fought is a bit of an exaggeration as they got lost on their way to Rorke’s Drift and spent six weeks in a large hotel outside Port Elizabeth until they were thrown out for running up a huge drinks bill), then the Boer War, and finally the regiment went to France in 1915.  Under Colonel Mervyn Crafty-Dog, VC, MC, DSO and Order of the Golden Teaspoon, they fought at the Somme, and Paschendaale.  The regiment was wound up after WW I and the banners now hang forlornly in the Great Hall.  Mrs Grainger hates them as once a year we have to get a set of long ladders and a trapeze in order for her to be able to give the banners a shake and a dust. 

The Great Hall – that’s a bit of a misnomer as its not that grand these days.  The hammer-beam roof sags a bit (more of a mallet-beam!), and when there’s a sou’wester the wind blows the rain through some loose stone setts which makes a puddle on the flagstone floor below.  There was a bit of a fuss last year when the tatty old vase we used to collect the drips in turned out to be something Chinese from the twelfth century.  It got broken during the annual Boxing Day staff vs family football game last year when Mrs Crafty Dog sliced her penalty kick and the ball careered of a Carravaggio on the wall and hit the vase clean over.  Smashed it to bits.  It took Higgins, Grainger and six tubes of copydex to stick it back together.  As Lady Penelope said, thank Dog we handn’t smashed a new one!  The game is another old tradition, a mixture of soccer/rugby/lacrosse, shinty and highland wrestling and is usually played on the croquet lawn but in wet weather we play the game in the Great Hall.  The football sticks we use must be over a hundred years old, made of very hard bog oak but  surprisingly light.  The ball is made from the bladder of a small mountain goat (well, not these days but it was in times past).  Outside, the goal is an elm tree on one end of the pitch, and the gate post to the paddock on the other end, and the ball has to touch it, by stick, kick, or touch, scoring 4, 3 or 1 point.  When played indoors, the goal is the newel post to the main stair at one end of the hall, and the left-hand of the door to the downstairs privy on the other.  The hazards are of course different indoors to outdoors; we don’t often get sheep in the hall, and outside we’ve never got the ball stuck in a chandelier.  Back when the estate had loads of staff it was up to 20 per side but due to cutbacks since the 1950’s its usually 4 or 5 per side.  We had Higgins on our team last year, with Pendle and me up front and Mrs Crafty Dog in goal.   Well, we think it was her, under the cricket pads, elbow pads, shoulder pads, face mask and helmet (like some sort of over-cautious Hannibal Lector!).  Last year, like this year, the game was held indoor, with Lady Penelope as referee.  It was a 4 – all draw.  In spite of Pendle being incredibly fast for a gangly bean-pole, and very handy with his stick, the sight of Cook growling away in their goal was somewhat off-putting.  Lady Penelope did ensure that Cook didn’t have her false teeth in as that would have proved a bridge too far (hah – dental joke there!).  Higgins was accused of tripping Grout up when he was nearly at our goal (tripping not allowed) but fortunately he had followed that up with a full body-smash and a half-Nelson (which is within the rules).  That missed goal gave us the draw which we thought was fair (though Cook didn’t speak to us until the end of January).  Kick off is after Boxing Day lunch, with after-match refreshments in the scullery and infirmary as required. (This year’s match  had to be called off after the Great Hall floor was deemed to be unplayable – Mrs Grainger slid in some of Cook’s spilt custard and she nearly took out the Christmas Tree.  To be honest, we were most relieved and all retired to the lounge for drinks, canapés and carols).

In many parts of Wales there was the New Year’s Eve custom of the Mari Lwyd, where a sort of hobby horse (a man covered with a white sheet and holding a horse’s skull decorated with ribbons and bells) would go from door to door, singing little songs or rhymes that had to be answered by the householder behind their closed door, or sometimes they were riddles.  If they won the exchange they were allowed inside with their entourage for drinks and treats.  This custom dates back many centuries and is probably pagan in origin, from the murky mists of our Celtic ancestry.  As you can imagine, when this was revived here at Crafty Dog Towers in the 1960’s there were a few changes; there were no horses in the stables here by the 1960’s, and they couldn’t find a horse’s skull for the Mari Lwyd.  The (then) Butler, who happened to be the present Higgins’ uncle, had a brainwave.  Back in the 1890’s, Major Cuthbert Crafty-Dog had been in the Sudan with Lord Kitchener in the relief of Khartoum, where he had served with a branch of the colonial camel corps.  He got rather attached to his camel, Florence (he said she had such beautiful eyes, and those eyelashes…..) and he brought her back here after the war, and she lived out the rest of her days with the horses and park cattle in the lower meadow.   She passed away at the age of 42, and the now rather elderly Major Cuthbert had her immortalised, so for the next 50 years she stood in the entrance hall terrifying the post man or any unwary visitors.  Mind you, the taxidermist in the village was no great shakes, and because of him poor Florence appeared to be cross-eyed and knock-knee’d.   By 1960 her stuffing was falling out, her hump collapsing and she was generally the worse for wear.  She was retired to the stables when the hallway was redecorated but due to the great snow of 63, when the stable roof collapsed poor Florence’s figure was damaged beyond repair.  The stables were demolished a couple of years later, just at the time the then Lady Crafty Dog was intent on reviving the Mari Lwyd.  When the builders were clearing the rubble, they found a perfectly preserved skull of a very large horse with buck-teeth, which turned out to be Florence!  Since then, every year Florence grins her huge toothy grin as she goes from door to door round the cottages, scaring, singing or riddling the staff on the estate, finishing at the front door of the Towers, the very same hallway where she stood guard for over half a century.  When she arrives at our door, we forego the songs and riddles and instead offer her a bowl of dried dates – which were her favourite food in life!  We are sure that Florence and Major Cuthbert would approve!

We are now clearing away (the staff that is, not us!)  the Yuletide and New Year decorations, all boxed up and off to the attic for another year.  A section of the tree has been kept to burn as next year’s Yule log, and the rest will be shredded and composted as part of the continuous circle of life.  Grout and Pendle have been seen heading towards the potting shed (I could hear the bottles rattling in the wheelbarrow), Cook and her kitchen maid are trying to find another way of serving up goose to make it interesting, and Mrs Grainger is whipping the hoover round the Great Hall as Higgins polishes up his nick-nacks.  Just like the supermarkets, they are already talking about Easter!

[1] He was up on deck waving round his cutlass and despite Nelson warning him he could take someone’s eye out – and that’s why Nelson had an eye patch

[2] During World War 2, in order to divert enemy bombers away from Swansea after the Blitz, one of the cakes was placed in the hills towards Brecon and was lit by a very long taper.  The Luftwaffe reckoned they could see it from the French coast!  It saved many lives though the diverted bombers did upset quite a few angry sheep.  They even sent a stiff memo to German High Command.