GAMBOling along.


I don’t actually know if the name Gambo derives from the action of gamboling along, the OED gives the definition of ‘to gambol’ as ‘caper’ or ‘frisk’.  It may well be that the movement of the said two wheel cart whilst being propelled along bumpy tracks by horse power, did indeed appear, to the poor ‘person-in-charge’, as something of a frisky caper.  Whatever the origin, the name for this ubiquitous long cart is certainly known throughout most of Wales, the border areas and in parts of western and northern England.

The origin of the cart is most probably continental, likely of Gaullish descent and possibly Roman or Norman.  The Welsh Laws of Hywel Dda (Early Medieval) mentions a car but alas no description of it is made.  The term ‘long cart’ is widely used throughout the medieval period and as such a cart existed in the central European and Mediterranean olive and wine growing lands, it seems very possible that the origins lie thereabouts.

The cart is a simple construction of two main chassis rails – in Wales traditionally of European Larch (the favoured ‘local’ timber for such elements of carts) which extend beyond the bed to become the shafts. A centre rail runs between the fore and aft cross bearers. These four cross-timbers, normally of oak, are mortised into the main rails and an underslung wooden axle (with steel stub axles on early twentieth century made items) and two traditional wheels of ash felloes, oak spokes and elm hub with either, on early examples, iron strakes or steel tyres.  Boards of larch are affixed to the bed – there is a variation in how these boards are fixed depending on the geographical location – long-boarded in mid and south Wales, cross boarded elsewhere.   Four corner posts and gates to protect the load from the wheels complete the vehicle.

The gambo was common is upland areas where it’s simplicity of manufacture made it a cheap and versatile vehicle.  Its narrow body and well balanced design made it gentle on the horse and gave it the ability to fit through the commonly standard six foot (later eight foot) gateway of hill fields.  The cart was used for transporting loose hay and corn which was often loaded to a scary height.  The load was then roped for transportation back to the farm yard.  It was the most commonly encountered farm cart for many centuries.

My own example came from the Wye valley near Builth Wells and is typical of the Breconshire gambo.  It spent its life on two farms but under one ownership.  Firstly at Ysciog in Abernant (which today is on the main north-south trunk road, the A470) and then at Aberduhonnu which is on the same modern road but several miles closer to Builth and was in fact one of the model farms which the Glanusk estate built in the mid nineteenth century.

I have been given several gambos over the years but most of them proved too far gone to be worth restoring.  In particular, the wheels suffer badly if left standing in the manure of barns or the damp earthen floors of many farm cart sheds.  So too the main body will get attacked by the dreaded ‘worm’ if the paint-work is not maintained.  Most eighteenth and nineteenth century carts as well as those manufactured up to the early fifties in the twentieth century were painted with a lead based paint which is exceptional at preserving the underlying wood. This is especially true with the European Larch which hardens as if it were oak as it ages. I was fortunate to have been given three pint tins of pink lead wood primer and this is what the gambo is mainly painted with.  The red oxide is a plant based Scandinavian oxide which is long lasting and allows the timber to breathe.  This is used on the hard wood elements – with the exception of the oak spokes but that was merely an aesthetic decision.  Many such carts were finished in a more traditional blue and red lead powder pigment mixed with linseed oil.

Prior to the common availability of the gambo and often used together with it, a simple sled known as the drag car or car llusg in Welsh, was in use throughout the upland areas. At the time I acquired my Standard Fordson tractor from Church farm in Beguildy (see my earlier post titled “Where has thou’ bin’ …) I was given two exceptionally rare pieces of agricultural history, one of which was a car llusg.  Alas it was in an extremely poor condition and has since deteriorated further but will provide me with a good base to make a replica.

The simple sled was probably one of the first methods that man invented to move heavy or bulky objects – those that his back could not accommodate ! To this day it remains in use in many countries especially those who land remains snow bound for much of the year.  However, there was a natural evolution once the wheel became commonly available.

In Wales the evolution of the sled, over many centuries, resulted in another of the horse drawn vehicles in my collection.  This particular type was uniquely found in a small geographic area of the central borderlands.  The counties of Radnorshire and western Shropshire kept secret a very unusual cart.

The Radnor Wheelcar was a very useful implement in the steep sided valleys of the Radnorshire hills.  It took the sled and added large wooden wheels which were overslung the chassis rails.  At around 14 feet in length and 3 feet in diameter it was ideal for carrying large heavy loads.  The idea was based around its low centre of gravity which lessened the danger of tipping.  With a horse in trace chains the cart had a tendency, when empty, to ‘bounce’ along and more worryingly, to sway from side to side as it progressed (this was in part due to the motion of the horse).  When passing through gateways it seemed as if the nose of the vehicle was attempting to ‘smell’ the posts.  This gave rise to one of its ‘nick-names’, ‘smellpost’.  As with the gambo four corner posts and gates over the wheels kept the load in place.  But the really clever design feature was the ability of the cart to morph from a wheeled vehicle to a sled.  By chaining the wheels to prevent them turning and the load pressing the nose down onto the runners the cart could be slowly dragged down steep fields and tracks.  The wheels on my particular vehicle and indeed on every pre-WW2 example, were shod with strakes, cords of iron nailed to the felloes.  Post war examples tended to have steel tyres shrunken onto the rim.  At four feet diameter the wheels are large; spokes of oak and felloes of ash with a large elm hub, the wheels run on a wooden axle with an iron collar in the hub.

Once tractors started to appear on upland farms, a simple triangular tow hitch was attached to the fore-end of the chassis rails to allow fixing and towing.  That seemed to cure the ‘smellpost’ tendency and of course, braking was taken over by the tractor hence removing the need to chain the wheels.  To my knowledge only three wheelcars have survived, all of them are the product of a wheelwright shop at Gravel Arch, near Llanbister in Radnorshire.   In addition to my own example one resides in the Museum of Wales’ St Fagans and the other in the fine collection at the Victorian Farm of Acton Scott in Shropshire.

There are several other ‘carts’ in my collection which I will describe in a later post.


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