Llysnini - Pure Magic By Russell Thomas
My parents, Vic and Mabel Thomas, took over the tenancy of Llysnini from Jonnie and Lizzie Rees in August 1957. The farm was owned by Dr. Richard Jenkins, an eminent anaesthetist at a Cardiff hospital, whose family roots were in Felindre. As a young medical student at the time, he had been one of the first on the scene to treat the prisoners at the Belsen concentration camp when it was liberated by British forces at the end of the Second World War in April 1945.
I was ten and my brother Alun was just under two when we moved to Llysnini. It was a magical experience for me. Walking into the old farmhouse for the first time was like stepping out of a time machine into a bygone age.
The living room was enormous, dominated by the glorious inglenook fireplace. The firewell, behind its iron bars, was surrounded on both sides and at the back by an iron shelf which rested on a solid brick base. The shelf was about three foot wide all around and always glistened with the black lead which was used to polish it.
There was an inbuilt oven to the left of the fireplace, heated by a funnel which channelled the hot air to its base from the back of the grate. An inbuilt cistern on the right provided hot water, again from the heat of the fire, with a lid on top for filling it up and a tap at its base for drawing the water down.
The chimney itself was so wide that when we looked up we could see the moon through it. A great party piece to show visitors. We cleaned it by tying large branches of holly together and dragging them down the chimney to dislodge the soot.
The shelf around the grate was big enough to hold stacks of logs chopped from fallen trees in the woods on the farm, which gave excellent heat in the winter.
The iron shelf around the fire itself must have been added in the 1930’s or 1940’s, because Willie Walters, the coal merchant from Pontlliw who delivered our coal, told us that he remembered sitting with the family on chairs around and behind the grate on cold winter nights, before the shelf and its brick base was built.There was an iron bar running horizontally above the fireplace, with a chain hanging from it to hold a massive iron kettle.
A staunch oak beam acted as a lintel to support the wall above the fireplace. It almost caused a serious problem one night when it was set alight by the leaping flames of a particularly roaring fire, and it took an emergency visit from the local fire brigade to put it out.
I understand that there had once been a ‘gwely cwpwrdd’ built into the wall to the right of the fireplace – a compartment with a small bed hidden snugly behind cupboard doors, though the space was being used for storage by the time we got to Llysnini.
To the far left of the fireplace there was a solid stone staircase leading to the bedrooms above the living room. The narrow stairs were hemmed in between stone walls on both sides, with a low headroom and roughly hewn steps which wound around to the right as they rose. These had been the stairs which had served the original farmhouse, when it was just a living room with two bedrooms above it. The two bedrooms above the more modern addition to the house were served by a separate set of creaking wooden stairs.
The fireplace itself was set off by a magnificent brass fender, and brass handled pokers for riddling the fire, - you could literally see your face in the fender after it had been given a going over with brasso.
The living room was so big that it could hold a lot of furniture. The most notable items were two oak ‘sgiws’ (settles) on each side of the fireplace. One was very high backed, and was the most popular of the two because it blocked out any cold draughts! Both settles had deep storage boxes below the seats. They were functional and eye catching, but not very comfortable.
The living room floor was covered in large stone slabs, smooth but quite wonky in places, and worn down by the generations of farmers and their families who’d trodden them over decades if not centuries.
The walls of the house were almost a metre thick. The wooden framed windows in the living room had a number of small panes, did not open, and had window seats below them.
The living room ceiling was supported by a massive oak beam, hewn from a single tree and black with age, which ran from wall to wall along the length of the room. The wood was so hard that it was virtually impossible to get a nail or a screw into it. Smaller beams ran off the main beam at right angles, and those beams were full of dark iron hooks which were used to hang sides of bacon, ropes of Breton onions, bunches of herbs and other odds and ends.
There was a narrow kitchen with a Rayburn cooker off the living room, at the back of the house, which is where we cooked and ate most of our family meals. There was a scullery leading off one end of the kitchen, and a pantry on the other. The pantry had wide stone slabs for holding food, with plenty of storage space underneath, and was marvellously cool even in the hottest of summers. The slabs were used to cure sides of bacon, and as a result the plaster on the pantry walls was always crumbling because the salt used in the curing process had worked its way into the walls.
We relied on calor gas for our lighting downstairs in our early years in Llysnini, collecting fresh cylinders when we needed them from Brisco Williams’ depot in Penllergaer. We relied on oil lamps and candles for our lighting upstairs, and I did most of my homework by candlelight in my bedroom. We did have electricity installed when I was in my third or fourth year in Pontardawe Grammar. We bought a small black and white TV set almost immediately, and I remember my school friends urging me excitedly to persuade my parents to buy the Radio Times so we could see which programmes were being broadcast each day. Not that there was much choice given that the BBC and ITV were the only two channels available in those days.
My father, Alun and I particularly enjoyed the rugby and boxing on the television. My father had done a bit of boxing around the farms in his youth, and knew some professional boxers personally. In his time as a dairyman on a farm in Newport he had worked alongside the then thirteen year old Dick Richardson and his mother when they helped out with potato picking and other seasonal work on the farm. Richardson went on to become the European Heavyweight Boxing Champion, and I had the priviledge of meeting him when my father introduced me to him at a boxing tournament in Coney Beach, Porthcawl. My father also introduced me to Brian Curvis, the Swansea boxer who became British Welterweight Champion and also fought Emile Griffith, unsuccessfully, for the World Championship. Curvis shook hands with me before putting a hand firmly on my head and ruffling my hair, and as we walked away my father said to me that not everyone could say that they were still standing after Brian Curvis’ fist had connected with their head !
We didn’t have a bathroom or inside toilet in Llysnini for a long time after moving in. We relied on the washup in the scullery for washing from day to day, and on a long sink tub in front of the fire in the living room for a weekly bath every Saturday night. My brother Alun and I would always argue over who should bath first because the water was often cold by the time the second person came to use it. The toilet was situated in the garden – quite a posh one, brick built with a slate roof! There was a porcelain chamber pot under every bed for emergencies at night.
The four upstairs bedrooms were small but cosy, and two of them had fireplaces in them, though we ourselves never used them for that purpose.
Llysnini was already connected to a mains water supply when we moved there, but the well which had originally served the house was still in place in one corner of the garden.
There was the usual variety of farm buildings outside, with a cowshed that tied twenty cows, a barn, pigsty, haybarn, implement sheds and sheds for young calves. The house and buildings were kept in immaculate condition, with the outside walls being given a fresh coat of limewash almost every year, and the paintwork on the doors and window frames standing out in bright red against the whiteness of the walls.
There was a large cast iron boiler outside the back door, with a firepit underneath it, for boiling pig swill. There was a pretty little duckpond on the left hand side of the lane just before reaching the house, though we did loose geese and ducks to foxes from time to time.
The hedges along the farm lane and around the garden were covered in swathes of daffodils every spring, and by Lily of the Valley. The garden had a productive orchard, and very attractive lilac trees and a Golden Chain tree. Bunches of lilac were often brought into the living room so we could enjoy their lovely aroma, but my mother wouldn’t allow any Golden Chain flowers into the house because that was considered to bring bad luck. We harvested elder flowers and berries from trees which grew on the edge of the farmyard, which enabled us to brew bottlefuls of elder flower and elderberry wine every autumn. Mushrooms were plentiful in the lower fields in their season, best picked at sunrise, and the mature blackberry bushes in the big meadow in front of the house kept us in more blackberry tarts than we could eat.
The fields were typical of those on family farms in the 1950’s, mostly quite small with wide hedges which were ideal for birds and wildlife, which also enjoyed the benefit of the large blocks of woodland on the farm. Searching for birds’ nests was one of the joys of my youth. I particularly remember lots of green woodpeckers in the woods.
The land below the farmhouse had been the site of a private coalmine at one time, and the low but substantial coaltips were still there when we got to Llysnini in 1957. Hywel Walters from Pontlliw told me recently that his father, a local coal merchant, had begun in business by collecting coal from the mine with his cart, pulled by a pair of horses as two were needed to cope with the weight of the loads of coal. A farmworker with us in Llysnini, Harry Williams from Gorseinon, had a narrow escape one day when the front of the Ferguson tractor he was driving fell into the mouth of one of the old mineshafts near the coaltips. There were clearly a lot of coal reserves left, which led to an opencast mine being opened up in the 1960’s in the fields overlooking the farmhouse, which produced 93,000 tons of coal.
The opencast workings created difficulties for the farming operation by depriving us of large areas of productive land. The opencast site also deprived us of sleep, as the massive - and noisy - cranes often worked under floodlights during the night.
The M4 motorway which came through in 1977 created further problems by splitting Llysnini in two, and permanently depriving the farm of a lot of good land. Some of the motorway construction engineers, working hard for very long hours, used to boost their energy levels in the summer by barbecuing big meat feasts on the edge of our fields alongside the motorway. They weren’t very pleased on one occasion when a dog belonging to my father’s friend, Peter James from Penllergaer, crept quietly up to their picnic site and ran off with the sausages which they were about to cook on their BBQ. The motorway claimed the homes of some of our neighbours, just below the Morgan Rees garage, where cottages had to be demolished to make way for the road. The Mathias family and their son Graham, who lived in the cottages that were demolished , were excellent gardeners and kept us supplied with vegetables. We paid them back with loads of cattle manure for their garden. The Mathias’ had got to know Haille Sellassie, who would go on to be the Emperor of Ethiopia, when he lived at the Penllergaer Estate for a short time while he was in exile in Britain in the late 1930’s.
Though we lived outside the village, life in Llysnini was never isolated. In addition to the friendship of our immediate neighbours, and regular visits from family and friends, we had the company of those who helped with the farm work, and often ‘lived in’. We also saw a stream of people who called on business or to provide services. The milk tanker collected our milk every morning, and the drivers were a good source of news of what was happening on other farms, as were the lorry drivers who delivered catttle food and other farm supplies. Colin the Baker gave us all the Penllergaer news when he called with bread twice a week. Vernon Higgins the butcher called with our meat every Saturday, and Mel Petherick from Felindre brought us vegetables – and news from Felindre. Malcolm Black, a clothier from Swansea, called to sell working clothes. Malcolm had inherited the business from his father, who had gained his first customers by trecking from farm to farm carrying his wares in a backpack on his shoulders. Glyn Thomas the Fergies (so called because he sold Ferguson tractors) called regularly to take orders for implements and spare parts. Mr. Miles and Leighton Jones, from companies called Silcox Foods or Bibby, I can’t remember which, called to sell cattle food. Willie Walters from Pontlliw and his son Hywel delivered coal. Dr. Dorian Davies, the local GP, called a couple of times a year to collect cattle manure for his garden. My father never took payment, but then again we never had to wait for an appointment at the surgery! In fact, my father would never go near the surgery if he could avoid it, and I have a vivid memory of him sitting on the milkstand at the side of the A48 at the end of the farm lane one day, with his shirt open to his waist while Dr. Dorian examined his chest with his stethoscope! Gareth Thomas, the Minister of Peniel Chapel in Pontliw was a great friend who called regularly, and often rolled up his sleeves to help with the haymaking and other jobs. Vets called to treat the cattle. I watched Brian Lewis from Ammanford perform an operation to remove wire from a cow’s stomach while, properly anaesthetised, she stood awake and on her feet in an open field. David Evans the vet was a popular caller, particularly at the time his brother Trevor played rugby for Wales. Trevor Davies the plumber from Pontlliw came by most winters to repair burst water pipes. We were never lonely.
I admire the work that the staff and volunteers at Llysnini do these days to care for the animals at the Centre, and to develop the farmland for the benefit of the community and for the protection of the environment. I have to admit, though, to be immensely saddened by the decision of the RSPCA centrally to demolish the five hundred year old farmhouse which was such an iconic part of the history of the area. I’m just grateful that my family and I were able to enjoy the romance of living in that historic home for so many years. Llysnini – at least as it used to be – pure magic.