Cutting Turf on the Traeth Bach Talsarnau

Cutting Turf on the Estuary at Talsarnau 1953 - 1962

Turf Cutting on the Estuary at Talsarnau

Those who are familiar with Talsarnau know that most of the village is situated at the bottom of a steep hill. The main street and many other buildings including the school, the village hall and others have been built on land which is almost at sea level and to protect the locality the sea wall was built in the nineteenth century.

About half a mile from the village Afon Dwyryd winds its path passing Ynys Gifftan and Portmeirion on its journey towards the sea through the estuary known as Traeth Bach. When the tide has ebbed, an extensive piece of land lies between the sea wall and the river, most of which is covered in grass. This land provides lush, green pasture and has been fenced off by local farmers. It is well known that the meat from the animals that have been grazing here is of an excellent quality and unique in its taste.

Years ago, beyond the fenced area, on Crown Land, an industry was set up which in its own way put the name of Talsarnau on the map, so to speak. A small industry that Bob Owen, Croesor would have loved to include in his book about small local industries – “Y Diwydiannau Coll” (The Lost Industries). It was not to be however, since The Turf Cutting industry came to be after Bob Owen published his book. The life-span of this small industry was short lived – between 1953 and 1962 but was important in its own way during that period. The company that established itself on the estuary was that of Maxwell M. Heart – London Ltd., from Reading in Berkshire, - a company originally from Edinburgh in Scotland.

During the period between 1953 and 1962 there appeared to be great demand for turf of good quality for football fields, tennis courts and bowling greens. The turf on the Talsarnau Estuary was of the right quality and the business was established. During this period turf was supplied to build various facilities like bowling greens in places such as Worthing, Alder Marston, Chester Le Street, Durham; the Hoover Factory at Merthyr Tudfil; turf for Wandsworth Cemetery, tennis courts at Wimbledon and the nursery of the Wembley Football Stadium and many other places in England.

During this fairly brief period of around ten years, a number of people worked there. The ‘foreman’ was a man called Albert Jackson who lived at The Cottage on the main street in Talsarnau. One who worked throughout the period and who kindly presented this information was Derwyn Evans who now lives at Llandecwyn, about two miles from Talsarnau and who has many memories of this period. The names of others who worked on the estuary were Wil R. Tanygrisiau; Ben Bowen; Ifan Hughes, Yr Ynys; Gwynogryn Evans – Derwyn’s brother; Arwyn Williams – Ali Butch; Bili Thomas, Cilfor; Emrys Stryd Gefn and Gwynfor Lloyd, Cwm Cynfal. In order to transport the turf to distant places throughout England and Wales many lorries were used. The names of some of the drivers include David John Williams, Porthmadog; Jack Morris, Porthmadog; Harri Jones, Blaenau Ffestiniog; Twm Harlech, Blaenau Ffestiniog and Robin Tudur Hughes who worked for T Glyn Williams’ lorries and Williams Brothers, Queensferry – lorries that carried 16 tons of turf in each load. Between them they must have carried thousands of tons of turf from the estuary at Talsarnau.

Derwyn using the cutting tool.

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In order to obtain the turf from the estuary, the work had to be well organised. The lorries when called for would cross the railway line near the local station, cross the sea wall and park at the top end of the beach where loading would take place. Crossing the railway line meant that Dic Hughes, the station master would open and close the gate for each journey. From the top of the beach, what looked like a narrow gauge railway track had been laid. Two wagons were used on the track to bring the turf to the loading area. The track which was about ¾ of a mile long was used to facilitate the transporting from the cutting area to the loading bay.

During the evenings after the men had left after a day’s work, the wagons were used for another purpose. The children from the village would wander down to the beach and would have tremendous fun pushing the wagons and riding in them backwards and forwards along the track. It appears that this was far more fun than spending their time in the playing field! By all accounts the workers would find the wagons exactly where they were left the previous evening having been returned by the children and nobody would be much the wiser that they had been moved at all.

Stacking the turf ready to be moved

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As to the actual work of cutting the turf, there was a specific work pattern. Each turf had to be 1 foot by 1foot and 2 inches thick. In order to achieve this, two pieces of wood 6 feet long would be used with markings for every foot. These would be placed at each end of the cutting area. A piece of string would connect the two pieces of wood so as to mark the width of each turf, running backwards and forwards. Metal spikes would hold the string at the end of each run. The string would be an aid to ensure that each turf was cut to the correct measurement. The whole procedure would then have to be repeated at right angles to the first cut ensuring pieces of turf 1 foot by 1 foot. After the cutting, the turf would be carried by wheelbarrows to the wagon on the track. After several trips with the wheelbarrow, the wagon would then have to be pushed manually to the top of the beach to the loading bay for the lorries. Each wagonload would carry 25square yards of turf each one measuring exactly 1 foot square. It is interesting to note that a bowling green measures 1,600 square yards. It was therefore necessary to make 64 journeys with the wagon to complete one bowling green – that is some cutting and carrying!

Using the adapted Ffyrgi Bach to load the wagon with turf.

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As time went by, a horse and cart was used instead of the wheelbarrows (which belonged to John Hughes, Barcdy) to carry the turf from the cutting areas to the wagons, and then later on a tractor was used. This was a Ferguson tractor (Ffyrgi Bach) which had six wheels – the back wheels being linked to the middle wheels by tracks – pretty much the same idea as a military tank. The front wheels were used to steer. This machine could work in wet, slippery conditions without any problems.

The working day was from 7.30a.m. until 5.00p.m. The working day in these conditions could not be the same as any other industry because of the effects of the tides. One week of every month had high tides which meant that the usual tasks could not be completed. All the work had to be organised taking into account the state of the tides. This meant that the management and workers had an understanding about their work timetable.

The period for cutting the turf was from September through until May. This incurred the use of the two pieces of wood, the spikes and the string to mark out the correct dimensions. The cutting tool was specially made to cut to a depth of two inches. It had a long arm with two cross bars. The highest cross bar was so placed so that the weight of the body of the user could be behind it (see first photo). The lower bar was conveniently placed so that the tool could be grasped by both hands. At the bottom of the long handle a disc was placed in such a way that it would cut the turf to a depth of 2 inches exactly when pushed along the ground in line with the pieces of string. Having cut the length and breadth of the marked area, a special spade was used. It had a flat head and a very sharp pointed front which acted as a blade. When the cutting of the turf was completed, they were then carried to the wagons. Each full wagon load weighed a ton. The wagon was then pushed manually to the top of the beach and unloaded in the lorry bay. The arrangement was to ensure a lorry load of turf was available before contact was made with the transporters to pick up their load.

Pushing the 1 ton of turf to the top of the beach was no easy task

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200 square yards of turf weighed 8 tons and on average the workers managed to cut and move 24 tons every week. The cost of providing turf for one bowling green was then £8,000.

From May onwards, during the summer months, other tasks needed to be completed. The proposed cutting areas would need fertilizers such as Fisons 31. The “Starweed” a pink flower that is commonly present on the estuary these days, would have to be weeded out. These areas would also need mowing prior to being cut. This was done with hand mowers and pushing was the order of the day. No use was made then of either electric or petrol driven mowers. During this period also, the track was extended to new cutting areas and maintenance was carried out. It appears that there was a lot of activity on the estuary throughout the year.

During this period, Huw Williams and his wife lived on Ynys Gifftan and quite often Mrs Williams would have to visit the village to pick up her groceries. On her return journey she would have two heavy bags of groceries more often than not. On some such occassions she would receive a lift in one of the empty wagons returning to the cutting areas. Having reached this spot, she would only have a short distance remaining to walk with her heavy bags.

The work came to an end in 1962. By that time rolls of turf had become popular. This meant that the laying of bowling greens became much easier and less costly. Moving rolls of turf using their cutting system was not a consideration and therefore the hive of activity down on the estuary at Talsarnau came to an end. Jac, Bwlch y Fedwen, Penrhyndeudraeth was asked to dismantle and remove all the track and everything else. Today, there is very little evidence there to remind us of what was once a small but thriving industry.

Mr Derwyn Evans 2008

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Mr Derwyn Evans wishes to show his appreciation to Dafydd Fôn Roberts for obtaining copies of photographs from The National Museum of Wales showing various aspects of the work during that period. We would also wish to thank Derwyn for conveying this information to us. It could have been very easy to sit back and this part of our local history would have been lost forever. Because of Derwyn’s conscience, this will not happen and we will always be indebted to him. The implements and the photographs can be seen at the Community Hall at Talsarnau in a permanent display.