Ben Moon blogs about his volunteering experience in Wales, where he and a team of international volunteers helped restore an historic farm stable and host the annual ‘living history week’, when the site becomes an active 16th century working farm for visiting schools.
Off the beaten track in south-east Wales, hidden in the woods between the Roman town of Caerleon and the prehistoric standing stones that look out from Gray Hill across the Severn estuary, lies Bullace Hill, a complete 16th century farm village painstakingly re-built using traditional methods and materials since the mid-1980s by a group of passionate history enthusiasts. This year, 13 SCI volunteers from Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Finland, USA, South Korea and the UK travelled back through time to help local volunteers build a roof on the farm stables and host the annual ‘living history week’, when the site becomes an active 16th century working farm for visiting schools.
Greeted by beautiful British early summer weather (persistent heavy rain) volunteers had to quickly come to terms with Tudor living conditions – no running water, no electricity, just the farm house to shelter in and open-fireplace to huddle around – and a heavy duty task at hand in building a stable roof from green oak and sandstone.
After delivery of a few extra coats, wellies and blankets, the team were quickly mobilised to shift heavy timbers and start building. The more experienced carpenters of the group got to work on building the wooden roof frame, whilst others carved wooden pegs, sorted and drilled holes into the sandstone tiles, attended to the farm gardens, helped prepare food, and lent their muscle every time beams, rafters, perlins and other large heavy things needed to be shifted and raised.
Certainly a challenge to test the toughest of groups, the volunteers bravely battled through seven days of construction and wet-weather camping (taking advantage of the occasional gracing of sunshine to explore the beautiful surrounding countryside) to be rewarded with a trip forward a few decades to a weekend of English Civil War re-enactment in Chippenham. After an evening of ale, mead, berry wine and regimental choir practice, volunteers were kitted up in appropriate garb and, in the full SCI tradition of peace and intercultural understanding, handed out helmets and 15 foot long pikes, drilled in 17th century military tactics and sent out to battle.
With limited time in the UK, most surviving volunteers opted to travel in the middle week of the project, and make the most of some of the more modern facilities available away from the camp. Two hardy volunteers kept their costumes on, re-winded time again and helped turn the site into a full working farm, demonstrating life in the English countryside in 1599 to visiting school parties. Most others (admittedly not all – the conditions of the project were a shock to most!) returned five days later for a final week of carpentry and drilling and shifting of the sandstone tiles onto the stable roof.
Unfortunately, the return of wet weather and the loss of a few local carpenters during the project meant we ultimately had to leave the roof two-thirds tiled, but given the sweat and tears put into it – I think that’s something for all to be proud of.
Far from the easiest or most comfortable of SCI projects, this is probably one for the real historical enthusiasts – but certainly presents quite a unique insight and experience and a real hands-on challenge for keen yeomen and labourers.