Having gone to bed relatively early, we awoke refreshed to a beautiful snow-covered day on Saturday morning, ready for another adventure. Knowing we’d be on the move for most of the day, we headed down to the Novotel’s breakfast buffet, which is much higher quality and greater selection than the type of “continental breakfast” one finds in US hotels: there’s cereal, fruit, juices, pastries and fresh breads, plus hot items including all of the makings of a Full English. It’s quite a good deal.
After our meal we walked to the train station, which was easy to find now that we had started to get our bearings around Cardiff and the sun was shining. We took the train down to Abergavenny, the closest rail stop to Usk, then hopped into a taxi for the second leg of our trip. Farmlands set along rolling hills sparked in the sunlight and I was reminded very much of home.
The taxi driver didn’t know exactly where the farmer’s market took place, but we knew that it was set up “across from the prison,” so easy enough to find. We arrived to find a few shoppers milling about outside, and immediately noticed some of the vendors, selling whole game birds, fresh fish, and locally brewed beer. Inside we found yarn, cheeses, local wine, handmade chocolates, vegetables, and in the middle of the market, our friend James from Trealy Farm with a crowd sampling his traditional charcuterie: cured sausages and air-dried ham. James seemed to be the most popular stall in the market. We said hi briefly but didn’t want to get in the way of commerce, so stepped aside for a cup of hot tea.
After the warmup, I decided to check out the two yarn vendors there, while Rick browsed some of the other booths. I couldn’t decide which yarns to buy and went to look for Rick, who had left the building. Then I remembered the beer vendor setup outside. Sure enough Rick was there talking with the brewer of Untapped Brewing Company who was interested in the popularity of the homebrew scene back in the States. He had a nice selection of different styles available, and we selected a stout and a porter. Then, after securing our purchases in James’ booth, we decided to check out the local castle.
Usk Castle is a ruins dating from 1170 CE, but still functions as a residence! To reach the site we crossed through the village passing small shops and quaint houses, and saying hello to people in the street. As we came to the castle grounds we had to walk up dirt drive, and met a young man who smiled and greeted us. At first we thought he might be a castle caretaker or a guide, but as we crested the little hill we found that he was there selling Christmas trees, and apparently had thought we might be customers.
We didn’t see any other grounds staff and asked if we could tour the castle on our own. The young man seemed to think it would be alright, so we clambered up some terraced gardens and made our way into the keep, which was still well intact. We then circled around the walls and eventually found a gate leading into the main courtyard. A small signpost on the gate warned that there were sheep grazing in the castle and asked visitors to close the gate behind them, which we did. As we entered, we found some geese to our right and another signpost explaining that they were on sentry duty and warning us to stay clear — knowing geese to be quite territorial, we also heeded these instructions.
We didn’t see the sheep at first, but immediately noticed the view beyond the walls and towers of the castle. In a corner of the grounds we spotted some stairs leading up to the top of a wall. I had some trepidation about walking on a ruin but the wall had been reinforced with steel bars and there was a handrail, so Rick forged ahead and I eventually followed. The views of the mountains and the village were incredible! At the other end of the wall was another tower, and Rick found sheep droppings on the stairs. He descended the tower and eventually ended up back in the courtyard below my position on the wall. I had him take my picture, and then we switched and I took his. Finally, we spotted two sheep on the other side of the courtyard, eating shrubs and reaching up to nibble on some evergreen trees. They were nonchalant about our presence so we took a few pictures as we made our way around the circular courtyard to check out more of the view.
We stayed in the castle as long as we could, enjoying the quiet, the snow, the views, the sound of sheep munching gently. Eventually it was time to return to the market, so we headed back down the hill, passing one of the castle manager’s buildings on our way to the road. He had some dressed pheasants hanging on a line outside the door, strung next to tools, coats, boots.
Arriving back at the market, we found many of the vendors clearing up. After James finished with his last customer, we started helping him organize his wares and pack up the truck. Apparently it hadn’t been as much of a sale day as he’d hoped, so there was more meat to pack. We sorted, organized, and began stacking bins and baskets of sausages and dried hams. Through careful planning and puzzling we eventually managed to stack every last piece in the van and squeeze in after it. James then drove us back to the farm.
Trealy Farm is situated on the side of a hill in Monmouthshire, and as we approached the road curved so that we could see most of the property from a distance. After a few minutes we turned onto a snowy dirt road which was fortunately flat as the meat van didn’t have much traction. We passed a neighboring dairy farm and eventually parked at the bottom of the drive. Since it was cold out, James elected to leave the meat in the van, and we unpacked just the essentials — James’ cell phone charger, the cash box, a tray of veggies and a box of desserts traded at the market — and carried them up to the house. Ruth joined us, and we were invited in for tea and a warm-up by the massive hearth in the living room.
Once warm, Ruth suggested a walk to see the land and the animals up close. I was feeling a little tired and feverish but didn’t want to miss out. Fortunately there were extra wellies since our shoes were already wet and we were about to head out into damp snow. Bundled again, the four of us set out along with Ruth’s new sheep dog, Sid. We made our way through a series of pastures, each one fenced and bordered by hedgerows. The views across the sparkling valley were spectacular!
In each pasture there was a different group of animals. First there was a flock of sheep with a few different breeds including Manx. Next we made our way over to a herd of boer goats and met the friendliest buck I’ve ever seen. He loved getting scratches from James. We moved through this pasture into the next, which held some Welsh Mountain sheep, the primary breed that Ruth raises both at Trealy Farm and her family farm in northern Wales.
This particular group consisted of ewe lambs that had been selected for breeding. Because they were young, Ruth had been using them as a practice group for her dog Sid to work. Apparently young dogs like Sid have to build up their sheep-herding confidence, so practicing on a group of nervous young sheep is preferable to a group of stubborn matron ewes who might not respond as easily. Ruth was happy to give us a demonstration of Sid’s abilities as she had only had him at the farm for a couple of weeks. Sid did an excellent job – first gathering the flock and bringing them to Ruth, then moving them to the other side of the pasture. At one point the flock broke into two groups, but Sid was patient and eventually got them back together and into the correct spot. It was the first time that Rick and I had seen a sheep dog work outside of a staged demonstration and it was very impressive to watch.
By this time dusk was rolling in, so we began making our way back to the main barns. We saw some kids that were being kept under shelter for warmth, along with a couple of beef cattle. Then James wanted to show us his wooly pigs, a rare breed that he uses for the charcuterie business. Unfortunately the pigs were reluctant to come over when James called, and weren’t enticed even by grain, so we climbed the fence and went over to the pigs. It was dark out, but you could see how hairy these pigs were. They also were smaller than the commercial breeds we were accustomed to seeing. I was a little wary as they snuffled my boots (pigs do bite!) but stuck around long enough to feel their thick, wiry coats.
We retired once again to the living room hearth to warm up, and were invited to stay for dinner. James cooked while Rick and I got to spend a little more time with Ruth. Of course Rick had met both of them when he visited in 2001, but I wanted to learn more about Ruth’s connection with sheep. Turns out her family has been in the farming business for generations, and much of that time has been with sheep. She told us that her father had passed away the previous year and left her a large farm with 2,000 head of sheep in northern Wales, which she hired someone to manage. Rick and I half-joked when we volunteered to help manage the farm. We talked breeds and shepherding for a while, and I mentioned that knitting had become a trendy hobby in the US. It was very interesting to note the similarities between the breeds that I’d seen at Trealy farm and those that I was more familiar with in the states. The Manx reminded me of the Navajo-Churro sheep that Rick and I raise, and the Welsh Mountain were small, like Shetlands.
All this time amazing smells were wafting in from the kitchen, and Ruth traded places at one point to finish the roasted vegetables. We then sat down to an amazing meal of a French-style cassoulet with a new type of salt-cured sausage that James had been experimenting with for the business, plus fresh cabbage and potatoes from the market. There was a side of roast turnips and more potatoes with herbs. The meal was amazing! After dinner we talked about the local- organic- and slow-food movements and compared progress in Europe and the US. James had attended a Slow Food North America meeting and was impressed at the innovative marketing and products that some US producers were using to sell their products. We talked about the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model of direct sales from farmer to customer, the farm-to-plate initiative in Vermont, slaughterhouse and meat inspection regulations and our friend Walter Jeffries who is building his own meat processing facility on a micro-scale. James and Ruth seemed pleased as we were to find others who shared an interest in local, sustainable farming and were more engaged with their efforts than the average city visitors.
As the conversation drifted into beer-making, James broke out a selection of desserts that he’d also scored at the market, including French tarts, cheesecake, and other delights. Rick discussed the homebrew movement in Vermont and the renewed interest in being able to grow hops and grains locally for small and hobby beer production. It was a wonderfully engaging and relaxing evening and we were reluctant to leave, but knew we had to get motivated before we missed the last train back to Cardiff. Before we left Ruth gave us a Welsh Christmas card.
James, Rick and I bundled into the farm’s ATV and headed down the drive. At the bottom, James retrieved a couple of packages of meats for us to try, then we got into the family car and James drove us to the train station. Trying to read the schedule was a bit confusing but with the help of another passenger we confirmed that a train headed to Cardiff would be along in a few minutes. It was about 10:00 pm and a few more passengers arrived on the platform, all of them dressed up for a night out in the big city. Rick and I couldn’t purchase tickets via the kiosk without chip-and-pin credit cards, so we boarded the train planning to pay cash for our journey. We rode along and kept expecting a conductor to pass through, but arrived at our stop without seeing one. We then tried to purchase an exit fare but the office was closed. Seeing that the exit gates were open, we figured we had made our best effort to pay for the journey and walked back to our hotel, full of awesome food and memories.