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Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Stones of Trefelin: a parable

The stones were always there -- or, to be more precise, since the Devensian glacial episode, about 20,000 years ago.  Our house is built in the middle of an extensive undulating zone of morainic hummocks which I refer to as the Cilgwyn moraine, close to the eastern end of the Gwaun Valley.  The moraine is full of boulders and smaller rocks of all shapes and sizes (mostly derived from within a mile or two), but there are some outcrops of local rhyolite as well, particularly along the banks of the river.

The first house, which I call Medieval Trefelin, was probably built in the 1400's, since it is first recorded in the ancient documents in 1532.  It was very small -- probably more like a hovel, with walls a metre thick made with locally collected boulders and rock rubble.  Those walls are embedded within the southern part of the modern house.   Like many of the labourer's cottages of this time, there were probably no internal walls, and there was probably only one storey.  Why was it built here, on the south-facing valley side close to a ford across the river?  Shelter would have been a prime locational factor, but maybe a few stony fields would have provided a living for a smallholder's family.  Maybe the property was owned by the Barony of Cemais and occupied by a tenant who was a labourer on the estate.  We don't know the date at which the property passed from being leasehold to freehold.

Victorian Trefelin -- the facade built by S Howells in 1879.  He was clearly a man with pretensions and cash available -- shaping dolerite blocks is incredibly difficult and time-consuming, since it is much harder than granite.

The next house we know about is Victorian Trefelin, dated to 1879, when somebody called S Howells built the main house as we see it today.  He was not a member of the gentry, but he must have been a yeoman farmer or a merchant with pretensions, because the new house had 6 or 7 rooms on two storeys.  Also, Howells excavated into the hillside and built one gable end right against the slope.  But the most impressive thing is the use of stone.  It's all local dolerite, probably collected from the morainic debris in the adjacent fields -- but it's all shaped and dressed very beautifully, showing that this was a man who had resources and pretensions of grandeur.

Random stone facing on the wall of Trefelin Fawr,  dated 1979. Dolerite, quartz blocks, and volcanic ash blocks are incorporated, but the foxy brown stone is rhyolite from Sychpant -- attractive in colour, and often with nice rectangular shapes and tidy corners.

The next house is Trefelin Fawr, which is where we come in.  We bought the property in 1976, and immediately started to convert it from a small rectangular house to an L-shaped larger dwelling.  The extension which we built was faced with whatever local stone we could pick up in the garden and fields, but mostly with rhyolite from the Sychpant farm quarry, about 2 miles away.  Why from there?  Because our builder had a nephew who lived there, and because that rhyolite has a wonderful colour when fresh and another wonderful colour when weathered.  Also, it breaks naturally into rectangular blocks.  Also, it cost us nothing -- apart from the heavy labour involved in sorting out the rubble in the quarry, selecting the stones we wanted, and carting them back to Trefelin.  And why did we want to put natural stone facing onto the extension?  Partly for aesthetic reasons.  Partly because we knew this would enhance the value of the property in the longer term.  And partly because, in its infinite wisdom, the Pembs Coast National Park has decided that stone facing is "vernacular" and has always tended to give planning consents for stone-faced extensions and refusals for everything else.  Economics, sociology, culture and politics all come into play.......

Trefelin Fach, built in 1982 and faced with really random stone mostly collected from the garden.  Most of these stones would have been rejected out of hand by any self-respecting builder, but because I did the work myself there was a certain amount of bloody-mindedness involved!  And time was not an issue.  Cost WAS an issue....

The final episode involves Trefelin Fach, the smaller building across the yard, which we built for business purposes as a replacement for a very unattractive concrete block, flat-roofed double garage which was there when we arrived in 1976.  Again, we obtained planning consent for this building on the basis that it was attractively designed and also that it would be stone faced.  But by the time we built this one, we had run out of cash, and I had to do a lot of the work myself, including the slating and the stone facing.  To minimise cost and effort, I decided to use stones collected from the garden and fields almost exclusively, since that would help to clear the land and also give a "folksy" look to the stone walls of the building.  This is truly random stone walling -- very few of the stones have flat faces and rectangular shapes, and the building process was very slow because I had to use a lot of concrete and cement padding and filling, and go upwards at a rate which avoided the collapse of new sections under their own weight.  Visitors to my wife's candle workshop often comment on the building's "hobbit-like" appearance!  So what were the factors here?  Politics and planning issues, yes.  Aesthetics, yes.  Economics and financial constraints, yes.  And a certain amount of bloody-mindedness and determination to "do it my way" -- even if the stone walls in this building ended up looking rather different from the walls of Victorian Trefelin and Trefelin Fawr.

End of parable.  Read into it what you will.  But for me, the history of this house shows that the resources (in this case, stones suitable for building purposes) have always been there -- at least during the period of settlement over the past 500 years or so -- and that the manner in which those resources are used depends upon a highly complex mix of economic, political, social, cultural and even psychological factors, with some resources (eg rhyolite blocks) being used at certain times and other materials (eg dolerite boulders) being used at others.  That was always the way, and always will be......

As far as I know, there have never been any religious or spiritual reasons for any of the decisions made with regard to the building of Trefelin.  But maybe there is something spiritual involved in turning a house into a home?


Constantinos Ragazas said...


Loved your parable! The houses are beautiful! And the message is clear!

Thanks for sharing …


chris johnson said...

Delightful tale. Lovely home.

Our neolithic forebears may have thought differently. Chris Scarre wrote an interesting paper in 2009, "Stones with character: animism, agency, and megalithic monuments".

I find it difficult to believe that the Stonehenge builders were NOT animists - most early cultures were. Stones might have been imbued with a soul and a personality and associations with a locality. Scarre agrees that stones are almost always local in origin but points out that some selection in some cases has been made from local outcrops which possibly might have had different meanings and different "costs".

A practical modern spirit would likely collect all stones from the closest source but an animist might not. The number of sources for the bluestones in the hills of Pembrokeshire does not decide the argument for glacial transport.

Constantinos Ragazas said...


you write, “I find it difficult to believe that the Stonehenge builders were NOT animists”

There are no wits-ends 'true believers' wont go to justify their improbable beliefs!