Rich and poor

Two hundred years ago, on the 3rd of June, 1818, my 5 x great grandmother, Gwen, died in a ty-unnos near Strata Florida, Cardiganshire. Her husband, Rees, died a month later. They were in their fifties. One month later, their oldest son Thomas died aged 30 leaving a wife and two small children. This blog post is written on 4th June, 2018, and dedicated to them. They survived extraordinary times only to die under tragic circumstances. Theirs is a poignant tale which amply demonstrates how callous, political decisions can wreak havoc in the lives of ordinary, hardworking people.

Rees was born on a remote farmstead called Hafodeidos and took over this tenant farm from his father, Thomas, when he married Gwen. The last of their children to be born at Hafodeidos was in 1797 because by 1802 they had been dispossessed of this farm and their next and last child was born in a ty-unnos in the first of many of these ‘houses-built-in-a-night’ on nearby common land. Rees was the first to build a ty-unnos on this squatter’s settlement where upwards of twenty such dwellings were eventually built. His son, Hugh, my 4 x grandfather, would also build a ty-unnos here when he married his wife, Mary, in 1811. Hugh and Mary raised nine children here.

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According to R.U.Sayce, long moonlit winter’s nights were the favoured times for building ty-unnos. So, on such a winter’s night, Rees and Gwen and their friends would have laid rough stonework foundations and a chimney end, and a framework on this interwoven with stout laths, covered with clay, and smeared with lime-plaster. Timber for the framework came from local woods. Thatch for the roof would have been gathered beforehand. The door and window would have been made in advance, ready to put in place. All materials would have been hidden nearby prior to building. At dawn, the fire was lit and the curl of smoke from the chimney meant the building was complete. The amount of land around the house was determined by the distance the occupant could throw an axe.

The original ty-unnos would have been a flimsy dwelling and was quickly replaced by a more permanent stone-built dwelling over subsequent months. It is the remains of these stone-built dwellings which survive at this squatter’s settlement.

In Radnorshire, they were called ‘Morning Surprise’ – a very apt name as it would have been a great surprise to any passer-by to see a house standing where there was none the day before!

At the time when Rees and Gwen were forced to leave Hafodeidos and live on common land, land agents had begun to take a tougher line with tenants and made in-roads into reducing the length of leases. Custom had long been that leases lasted for 3 generations, i.e. father, son, grandson or father, widow, son. To gain more control over farming practices, agents sought fixed terms. Twenty-one-year leases became more normal but what the landowners and agents were aiming for and eventually succeeded in achieving was for annual renewal.

According to W.J. Lewis, rents per acre rose dramatically in this period during the Napoleonic wars. In Strata Florida, land which had been let for 5 shillings per acre in 1790 had risen to 45 shillings per acre by 1815, while prices fetched for the cattle, horses and pigs the farmers reared fell to between a half and a quarter of the previous years. Great quantities of imported grain and American flour drove prices down further. The years between 1795 and 1802 were also marked by a series of very poor harvests.

Ty-unnos squatters were often referred to by wealthy landowners as ‘the scum of the earth’. Yet, it was these large estate owners who were by far the greatest encroachers and grabbers of the commons, moors and waste lands owned by the Crown, increasing their estates by pushing back the boundary lines and enclosing previously unenclosed lands. But the wealthy were also the lawmakers, able to bring in laws which legitimised the enclosures of common land while outlawing the poor for doing the same. In the words of Alfred Russell Wallace, it was “legalised robbery of the poor for the aggrandisement of the rich who are the lawmakers”.

The disparaging view of the squatters held by the landed gentry is challenged by a study carried out by Jemma Bezant and Kevin Grant. Speaking of the settlement which Rees and Gwen began, they say this squatter settlement went on to prosper into the later 19th century with a total of about 20 dwellings on the site. Originally, they had been one or two-celled, stone-built cottages but by the late 19th century many had acquired brick lined windows, proper chimneys and staircases leading to a second storey. The ‘squatters’ were said to be well-educated, some described as scholars and collectively they had constructed a Calvinist Methodist Chapel to administer to the whole community. The chapel, too, is derelict now, though it shows signs of an abandoned restoration.

And so it was that the poorest in society were demonised and blamed for their predicament, even while it was political decisions which created the circumstances of their poverty and kept them poor, while the wealthiest in society were made ever richer. History repeats itself with alarming banality.

I am immensely proud of these remarkable ancestors who were so resourceful amid times of great hardship. Simon Fairlie, in his Short History of Enclosure in Britain, explains how the poor were able to survive off their rough patch of common land. Here is an extract from his article:

A poor cow providing a gallon of milk per day in season brought in half the equivalent of a labourer’s annual wage and geese at Otmoor could bring in the equivalent of a full time wage. Commoners sheep were smaller, but hardier, easier to lamb and with higher quality wool, just like present day Shetlands, which are described by their breed society as “primitive and unimproved”. An acre of gorse — derided as worthless scrub by advocates of improved pasture — was worth 45s 6d as fuel for bakers or lime kilns at a time when labourers’ wages were a shilling a day. On top of that, the scrub or marsh yielded innumerable other goods, including reed for thatch, rushes for light, firewood, peat, sand, plastering material, herbs, medicines, nuts and berries.

In 1820, William Cobbett wrote the following; “Those who are so eager for the new inclosure, seem to argue as if the wasteland in its present state produced nothing at all. But is this the fact? Can anyone point out a single inch of it which does not produce something and the produce of which is made use of? It goes to the feeding of sheep, of cows of all descriptions . . . and it helps to rear, in health and vigour, numerous families of the children of the labourers, which children, were it not for these wastes, must be crammed into the stinking suburbs of towns?”

Women, too, were able to derive extra income for their families from the commons -from carrying loads of peat from the moors to sell at the coast, to gathering wool shed by sheep on the mountain wastes. I can testify there is certainly no shortage of peat on this common land as I had to walk through half a mile of peat-bog to get to the settlement. It is slowly reclaiming the small parcels of land which were once cultivated here.

Rees and Gwen survived by hard work and making the best they could in times of great adversity. They would have been entirely dependent for food from whatever they could grow and provide for themselves from the small parcel of land they cultivated around their ty-unnos, while making some income from casual summer labour on nearby farms or from the selling of peat and gorse gleaned from the common.

Having survived in this way for over sixteen years, they were to be finally defeated following events which occurred on the other side of the world, in a place they would have known nothing about.

In 1815, there was a massive eruption of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia. The following summer of 1816, there was a ‘volcanic winter’ dubbed ‘the summer that never was’ and it preceded widespread famine across Europe. In Wales, it was said to have caused terrible suffering for hill farmers and dwellers. By 1817, another summer of poor weather, many of the poor were wandering around the Cardiganshire countryside begging food and work at the houses of gentry.

On 7th June that year, a David Williams of Bronmeurig was moved to write of the distress of the hungry poor. Bronmeurig is only a couple of miles north west of the settelement. He stated;

‘ …the imagination cannot conceive the prevalent distress – none but those who witness it can conceive its extent and its intensity…The farmer cannot employ the labourer because he has neither Corn, Money nor Credit to give as recompense for work done….the whole of the labouring population is out of employment and have been these last six months…The poor are attempting to prolong life by swallowing barley meal with water – boiling nettles etc – and scores in the agonies of famine have declared to me this last week that they have not made a meal for two days together….hundreds have therefore been in the constant habit of begging from door to door….I fear half the labouring poor will perish as things are, before next harvest in this neighbourhood…I have witnessed scenes of distress and wailing and lamentation and ungovernable ebullitions of rage prompted by the severest suffering…that my memory will bear the impression wherever I go and as long as I live.’

To add insult to injury, the Black Act of 1723 was still in force. This most vicious Act against the poor was brought in by Walpole. It made the poaching of wild game a hanging offence in Britain and was in response to gangs of poachers who blackened their faces to avoid detection – hence the name. Thus, it became as great a crime to kill a wild rabbit for food as it was to commit murder. To add to the injustice, the landowning gentry were granted license to hunt wild animals for sport, while a hungry man desperate to feed his family could be hung for killing a rabbit, even if it crossed his garden.

Rees and Gwen and their children would have suffered unimaginable hardship and hunger. In the summer of 1818, within weeks of each other, Rees and Gwen Jones and their son, Thomas, died at the squatter’s settlement. Causes of death were not recorded in the parish registers but were most likely to have been the succumbing to disease precipitated by weakness due to the preceding famine.

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The little river which runs below the settlement. 

Rees and Gwen’s son Hugh, my 4 x grandfather, and his wife Mary, survived these terrible times and my 3 x grandfather Rees was born at the squatter’s settlement in 1820. Hugh and Mary moved to Brynbedw in the parish of Tirabad in the 1830’s. Hugh was a shepherd and Mary was a healer of some renown. Their son, my 3 x grandfather Rees, worked in Abergwesyn as a shepherd. Here he met and fell in love with Mary Jenkins of Penybont Uchaf. Their children, including my 2 x grandfather, Hugh, were born at Blaengwenol. Their daughter, Mary, was the grandmother of the Anglo-Welsh poet, Harri Jones. I have no doubt that the writing gene has come from this side of my family and is one for which I shall be forever grateful.

In the 1870’s, Rees and Mary moved to Llanerchyrfa along the stunningly beautiful Abergwesyn pass on the mountain road between Abergwesyn and Tregaron. Mary died here, and their two youngest daughters died here, aged just 23 and 28.

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Two hundred years on, I wanted to pay my respects and visit the squatter’s settlement where these ancestors lived and died. It was quite an adventure to find this place and very moving to finally stand within the remains of where they lived and died.

dig

Jenny Lloyd is the Welsh author of The Megan Jones trilogy; historical novels set in early 19th century, rural Wales.

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You can read about the books or purchase them by clicking on the links below.

Leap the Wild Water: http://ow.ly/jEoi302jXkd

The Calling of the Raven: http://ow.ly/4uRO302jXmd

Anywhere the Wind Blows: http://ow.ly/73tq302Ov71

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Finding magic and legend in a sleepy Welsh village.

WP_20140522_12_21_17_ProMyddfai is little more than a cluster of pastel-coloured cottages encircling a church. Yet, in the 11th and 12th centuries it was a centre for healing, inhabited by the Physicians of Myddfai, renowned across Wales. The remedies of these herbalists were recorded in the Red Book of Hergest; one of the most important medieval manuscripts written in the Welsh language.

 

WP_20140522_12_00_59_ProBeyond the little village, a lane takes you up to the mountain of Myddfai. This is where the physicians gathered the herbs and flowers used in their remedies.  Beyond Myddfai is the Black Mountain range and the mountain lake of Llyn y Fan Fach.

The first physician of Myddfai was named Rhiwallon. He was court physician to Rhys Gryg, Lord of Dinefwr Castle, about 1200AD. Rhiwallon was awarded land at Myddfai and he treated the poor for free. He passed on his knowledge to his descendants who carried on his work for over 500 years. Legend has it that Rhiwallon was the oldest of three sons born to ‘The Lady of the Lake’ who is said to have appeared at Llyn y Fan Fach, pictured above. The tale of The Lady of the Lake is one of those recorded in the Mabinogion.

According to the legend, a farmer once saw a beautiful woman sitting on a rock in Llyn-y-Fan Fach. After three refusals, she agreed to marry him so long as he promised to treat her well. But should he strike her three times without cause, she told him, she would return to the lake. The farmer then took her to live with him in Myddfai .

The lady had mystical powers of prediction and cried at her first son’s christening because she saw he would be harmed by the sun. Mystified by his wife’s tears, the farmer tapped her once to bring her to her senses. Soon after, she cried at a wedding because she saw the bridegroom was going to die soon. Her husband now tapped her for crying at a wedding. When she laughed at the bridegroom’s funeral because his suffering was over, the farmer tapped her again and the lady sped back to the lake. The heartbroken farmer was left to raise their three sons, alone.

The sons inherited their mother’s magical knowledge and powers. The Lady of the Lake reappeared to Rhiwallon upon Myddfai mountain and told him it was his mission to relieve mankind from misery and pain. She gave him a bag of medicinal remedies and instructed him on how to use them. So began the long line of the Physcians of Myddfai.

Incidentally, as we walked along the lane, I spotted two herbs growing in the hedgerow.

WP_20140522_12_19_14_ProOne was Comfrey (left) and the other was Yellow Archangel WP_20140522_12_12_14_Pro__highres

I like to think that these plants, too, may be descended from a long line of those picked by the famed Physicians.

Did you know the remedies have been published? Available here; http://ow.ly/xb1Gp

Jenny Lloyd is the Welsh author of The Megan Jones trilogy, historical suspense novels set in early, 19th century, rural Wales.

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You can read about the books and purchase them by clicking on the links below.

Leap the Wild Water: http://ow.ly/jEoi302jXkd

The Calling of the Raven: http://ow.ly/4uRO302jXmd

Anywhere the Wind Blows: http://ow.ly/i1sy302jXXK

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Weird and wonderful superstitions.

Even though you may not think of yourself as superstitious, the chances are that you will have told someone you will keep your fingers crossed for them, or you may have used the phrase ‘touch wood’ or ‘knock on wood’.

Most superstitions go so far back in human history it is difficult to be certain of their origins. Touching or knocking on wood is said to originate from the times when people believed that spirits inhabited trees and knocking on the bark of a tree was said to invoke the help of the spirits living there. Crossing your fingers to invoke good luck is thought to originate in early Christianity and the sign of the cross.

Though a few superstitions, like these, are still in common usage, most have fallen by the wayside including some of the more bizarre listed below.

Ass-riddling; A superstitious custom practiced in the north of England upon the eve of St.Mark, when ashes are sifted or riddled on the hearth. It is believed that if any of the family shall die within the following year, the shoe of the fated individual will leave an impression on the ashes.

Divination by apple-pips; To ascertain whether her pretended lovers really loved her or not, the maiden takes an apple-pip, and naming one of her followers, puts the pip into the fire; if it cracks in bursting from the heat, it is a proof of love. If it is consumed without noise, there is no real regard in that person towards her. (Davy’s M.S.)

Divination by flowers;

The campion flower was also called Batchelor’s Buttons after the ancient custom amongst country fellows to carry the flowers of this plant in their pockets, to divine whether they would succeed with their sweethearts. Hence arose the phrase ‘to wear batchelor’s buttons’ meant to be unmarried.

Divination by Bible;

One old superstition was to use a bible and key for the purposes of divination, and is described in the Athenian Oracle, as follows;

A Bible having a key fastened in the middle, and being held between the two forefingers of two persons, will turn round after some words said; as, if one desires to find out a thief, a certain verse taken out of a psalm is to be repeated, and those who are suspected nominated, and if they are guilty, the book and key will turn, else not. At the turn of the twentieth century, this was still practiced in Lancashire by young women who wanted to divine who their future husbands would be.

Blessing-the-fire-out is described thus in Moor’s Suffolk M.S;

“An operation performed generally, I believe always, by a female. She wets her forefinger with spittle, and moves it in a circular slow manner over and round the part that may have been scalded or burnt, at the same time muttering inaudibly a suitable incantation or blessing, in the mysteries of which I am not initiated. This I have often seen done, and have, indeed, not unfrequently experienced the benefits, be they what they may, of the process.”

Blind-days referred to the first three days of March which were formerly considered so unlucky that no farmer would sow seed at this time.

The following was a charm against sciatica, then known as bone-shave;

The patient must lie on his back on the bank of a river or brook of water, with a straight staff by his side, between him and the water, and must have the foregoing words repeated over him.

Bone-shave right,

Bone-shave straight,

As the water runs by the stave,

Good for the bone-shave.

In Wales, a corpse-candle was a not uncommon sight. This dancing light, seen hovering close to someone’s home at night, would portend that a person was about to die there. Corpse-candles get a special mention in Anywhere the Wind Blows.

Jenny Lloyd is the Welsh author of The Megan Jones trilogy; historical suspense novels set in early, 19th century, rural Wales.

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You can read about the books or purchase them by clicking on the links below.

Leap the Wild Water: http://ow.ly/jEoi302jXkd

The Calling of the Raven: http://ow.ly/4uRO302jXmd

Anywhere the Wind Blows: http://ow.ly/i1sy302jXXK

You can also follow the author:

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I’ve been called some things in my time but never any of these.

As is sadly still the case today, it has always been the way that women who go against society’s norms will find themselves the subject of some derogatory terms. The following lend us a window into the acceptable standards of female behavior in bygone days.

A Bartholomew-baby was a gaudy doll, such as were sold at fairs. It is referred to in Poor Robin, 1740, thus;

‘By the eighth house you may know to an inch, how many moths will eat an alderman’s gown; by it also, and the help of the bill of mortality, a man may know how many people die in London every week; it also tells farmers what manner of wife they should chuse, not one trickt up with ribbands and knots, like a Bartholomew-baby; for such a one will prove a holiday wife, all play and no work.’

A woman who dressed so gaudily may have found herself the subject of bibble-babble (idle gossip) and seems to have been generally frowned upon.  If she were profligate, she would have been called a Baudy-Basket. In Mrs Behu, City Heiress, 1628, the word betawder was used, meaning to dress gaudily; ‘Go, get ye home, and trick and betawder yourself up like a right city lady,’ the woman was told.

If a woman’s hair or head-dress was loose and disordered, or decorated with vulgar finery, she would be called a blouse.

If an adulteress, she’d be referred to as a bed-swerver; a bed-suster, if she was the concubine of a married man; and should her bed-fellow be a dull, heavy fellow, he would be called a bed-presser.

If a woman addicted herself to study or author-ship, she was called a blue-stocking.

A woman vicious by nature was deemed a boggler and if a woman was thought to be a common strumpet, she was named a buttock.

If she lived in the 1500’s she may have worn a bongrace to protect her complexion. This was a border attached to a bonnet or hat. Cotgrave, 1600’s, speaks of it as outmoded apparel; ‘Cornette, a fashion of shadow, or bongrace, used in old time, and at this day by some old women.’

The bon-grace is also mentioned in The Pardoner and the Frere, 1533; ‘Her bongrace, which she ware with her French hode, when she went oute always, for some sonne burnynge.’

If a woman was the wife of a common vagrant, she was a bitch, whereas a bitch-daughter was an alternative word for night-mare.

Being the Bawdy-Basket that I am, methinks I shall dare to go and betawder myself like a buttock for a spending spree in town. I shall surely invite some bibble-babble but hope not to meet any bogglers and bitches along the way lest I should suffer a bitch-daughter during the night!

The above examples were selected and compiled from the Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English compiled by Thomas Wright, M.A., F.S.A. 1904.

Jenny Lloyd is the Welsh author of The Megan Jones trilogy; historical suspense novels set in early, 19th century, rural Wales.

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You can read about the books or purchase them by clicking on the links below.

Leap the Wild Water: http://ow.ly/jEoi302jXkd

The Calling of the Raven: http://ow.ly/4uRO302jXmd

Anywhere the Wind Blows: http://ow.ly/73tq302Ov71

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The healing power of nature.

In my novel, Leap the Wild Water, there is a market-place scene where Megan is introduced to an elderly woman called Martha. Martha is a healer, selling the potions she has made. She embarrasses Megan when offering her a small bottle of Heartsease essence for mending broken hearts.

Martha has a sixth sense for the underlying cause of Megan’s unhappiness. It was this intuitive sixth-sense which set people like Martha apart from others. From ancient times, knowledge of healing herbs was passed down orally through the generations. Ordinary people had a wealth of knowledge about how to treat common ailments which afflicted them or their families.  Women like Martha were consulted when usual treatments were ineffective and more intuitive or specialist knowledge was required.

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When researching my family history I discovered that my great-great-great grandmother, Mary Jones, nee Morgan, was a herbalist of some renown. Born in 1796, near Strata Florida Abbey (picture above)she moved to Breconshire, Wales in 1838. It was said that people came from all over the county and beyond for her cures, travelling many miles on foot or horseback. Though no written or oral record survives of the remedies she used, they were likely to have been her own unique combinations of plants which were commonly used to treat ailments at that time.

I suppose it must be from this ancestor that I have inherited my love of wildflowers and fascination with their past usage. Personally, I believe that just to walk among nature’s bounty is healing in itself. Walking the Welsh mountains and vales has provided great comfort to me when I have needed it.

Below I have listed a few of the plants which were widely used;

  • The bilberries which grow in profusion on the slopes of Welsh mountains were used to treat eye problems. Their efficacy has been borne out in more recent times when British pilots in WW2 were given supplies of bilberry jam to aid their night time vision.
  • COLTSFOOT
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  • Pictured above growing in an old quarry, Coltsfoot flower tea was an old remedy for coughs. Also, the shredded leaves were smoked in a pipe to ease a bad cough.
  • Dandelion was used to treat diseases of the liver and kidneys. I remember as a child being told that if you picked dandelion flowers you would wet the bed. This was a corruption of the truth as dandelion was originally used to cure bed-wetting in children.
  • The flowers and berries of Elder were used to treat colds and fevers.
  • FEVERFEW
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  • The aptly named Feverfew, above, was used to treat fevers and is also known to be an effective remedy for migraines.
  • The use of Mugwort can be traced back to pagan times. Mugwort placed under the pillow at night was deemed to produce prophetic dreams. It was also worn as an amulet to ward off evil. The famed physicians of Myddfai, in 13th century Wales, recommended hanging it in the house to ward off flies and fleas. Burning Mugwort inside the house was said to ward off bad spirits.
  • Nettle was an ancient remedy for gout.
  • Plantain leaves were used as a poultice for wounds.
  • RED POPPY
  • red poppy
  • Pictured above, another remedy offered by the 13th century physicians of Myddfai was an infusion of boiled red poppy seed-heads to aid sleep.
  • The appropriately named Self-heal was used to staunch bleeding and treat wounds.
  • The effectiveness of St John’s Wort for the treatment of depression has been proven, like many other old remedies, by modern day science.
  • An infusion of Wild rose petals was a popular and effective remedy for a broken heart, as was the Heartsease mentioned above.
  • WOOD BETONY
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  • Wood Betony, above, was a common cure for those plagued by nightmares and insomnia.
  • YARROW
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  • Yarrow was valued for its properties of divination.
  • LUNGWORT
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Herbalists like my ancestor were also guided by the Doctrine of Signatures in divining which plants to use. According to this ancient wisdom, each and every medicinal plant carries a ‘signature’ which donates its proper usage. For example, the spotted leaves of the lungwort plant (pictured above) were said to resemble the insides of lungs, and walnuts were used to treat diseases of the brain due to their strong resemblance to the lobes of the brain. Here is a link to an article on the Doctrine of Signatures on Wikipedia. http://ow.ly/kgFRp   Please do not try remedies at home without verifying their safe usage!

Jenny Lloyd is the Welsh author of The Megan Jones trilogy; historical suspense novels set in early, 19th century, rural Wales.

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You can read about the books or purchase them by clicking on the links below.

Leap the Wild Water: http://ow.ly/jEoi302jXkd

The Calling of the Raven: http://ow.ly/4uRO302jXmd

Anywhere the Wind Blows: http://ow.ly/73tq302Ov71

You can also follow the author:

Twitter; https://twitter.com/jennyoldhouse

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