Mariamne’s Urn – Chained to the wall by the disabled toilet.

by The Curious Scribbler

I chanced recently upon on Mariamne’s Urn at its latest location in the National Library of Wales.  It stands in a passage adjoining the door to the disabled toilet, secured by substantial metal chains through its amphora handles, but devoid of any labelling whatever to explain its signifiicance.

It is a large white marble funerary urn standing upon a square plinth.  Two hundred years ago it graced Mariamne Johnes’ private pensile garden on an outcrop above the Ystwyth at Hafod.  This garden was, according to Thomas Johnes’ correspondence,  created for Mariamne by his friend the Scottish agriculturalist Dr Robert Anderson in 1796, when his daughter would have been aged just twelve.  In  a letter of some hyperbole he then wrote to Sir James Edward Smith “The pensile gardens of Semiramis will be a farce to it, and it will equally surprise you as it has done me. I am very well satisfied with my Gardener, and trust everything will go on well.” 

The young Mariamne showed a precocious enthusiasm for botany and corresponded with leading botanist Sir James Edward Smith.  Her private garden became a showcase for shrubs and alpine plants, although there must have been periods during her adolescent illnesses when she could scarcely have visited it herself.   She died, aged 27 in 1811. The urn, a work by celebrated sculptor Thomas Banks, is generally believed to have been created in 1802.  Banks had made other sculptures for Thomas Johnes: Thetis dipping the infant Achilles into the Styx, busts of Jane and Mariamne, a fireplace for the mansion.  He was  at Hafod as Johnes’ guest  in September 1803, when Johnes recorded that he was now disabled in one arm by a paralytic stroke. On the face of the urn is a bas relief depicting a limp maiden mourning beside the body of an equally limp and rather more dishevelled small bird, dead on a small pedestal.

 

The RObin Urn by Thomas Banks, in a corridor in the National Library of Wales

The Robin Urn by Thomas Banks, in a corridor in the National Library of Wales

On the plinth is a three verse poem by Samuel Rogers, – I have transcribed the verses with original capitalisation, from the plinth itself.

An Epitaph on a Robin Redbreast

Tread lightly here, for here tis said
When piping Winds are hush’d around
A small Note wakes from Underground
Where now his tiny Bones are laid

No more in lone and leafless Groves
With ruffled Wing and faded Breast
His friendless homeless Spirit roves;
Gone to the World where birds are blest

Where never Cat glides o’er the Green
Nor Schoolboys giant Form is seen
But Love and Joy and smiling  Spring
Inspire their little Souls to sing.

It has been customary to imagine that this sentimental outpouring was dedicated to a particular pet robin, and Mariamne’s attachment to it.  This has been claimed in Elisabeth Inglis Jones’ book Peacocks in Paradise.  But on reflection, and in the light of a perusal of the other, now seldom-read works of this once well-known poet and arbiter of taste, I believe it to be  a more generic sentimental verse.  Samuel Rogers’ first long poem in two parts, The Pleasure of Memory published in 1792, shows a sentimental  preoccupation with the romantically remembered past,  the village green and a lonely robin. I quote few couplets:

Twighlight’s soft dews steal o’er the village green
With magic tints to harmonise the scene

Or strewed with crumbs yon root inwoven seat
To lure the redbreast from his lone retreat..

…Childhood’s lov’d group revisits every scene
The tangled wood walk and the tufted green.

Certainly there are few gardens less likely than Mariamne’s remote crag to be troubled by  either schoolboys or cats!

Is this Mariamne, mourning a robin?

Is this really Mariamne, mourning her pet  robin?

Rogers has not enjoyed lasting fame as a poet, but he was a major force in the literary social life of London in the early nineteenth century.  He published and republished his poems in many editions between 1792 and 1834, with engravings of pictures  by Thomas Stothard and by W.M.Turner.  He was clearly very proud of his early works, for both The Pleasure of Memory, and The  Epitaph on a Robin Redbreast appear in editions from 1810 to 1834.  In both these editions a footnote to the Epitaph states “Inscribed on an urn in the flower garden at Hafod”.   I suggest that Rogers did not visit Hafod, and was unaware of the distinction between Mrs Johnes’ publicly acclaimed flower garden, and Mariamne’s private garden.  However Elisabeth Inglis Jones, writing in 1950, evidently recollected the urn in Mariamne’s garden, where she described it as  “overgrown with moss and ivy, almost lost among encroaching trees and bushes, it was still standing where [Banks] placed it one morning that September of 1803, nearly a century and a half later”.

In the 20th century the fortunes of Hafod were in serious decline, culminating in the demolition of the house, with dynamite in 1958.  The urn was purchased at auction by a relative of Jane Johnes, Major Herbert Lloyd Johnes of Dolaucothi and given into the care of the National Library.   It was sited in 1948 as a garden ornament in the  beautifully maintained rockery garden on the slope adjoining the caretaker’s cottage, marking the point where the footpath down to Llanbadarn and Caergog Terrace leaves the library drive.   I am indebted to Dr Stephen Briggs for a copy of a photo of it in this location, in 1976.

The urn in the garden of the national Library of Wales, c. 1976. Courtesy of Dr Stephen Briggs

The urn in the garden of the National Library of Wales, c. 1976. Courtesy of Dr Stephen Briggs.

A valuable piece, fears were expressed about the risk of theft or vandalism, and in the 1980s the urn was moved indoors, to a prestigious location on the first floor outside the Council Chamber.  That is where I first saw it.   But times change, and about 15 years ago it was moved into an atrium area of the extended library book-stacks. Here it  was  accessible only to library staff and was lost to general view.   Perhaps its significance also became lost to common memory.   Now shackled in the very antithesis of romantic chains, the urn, and an equally unattributed but rather attractive tapering marble plinth  are tucked away, like fugitives, within recesses beyond a subterranean doorway.  Only disabled members of the public and those seeking baby-changing facilities are likely to encounter it on a visit, and  they will receive no clue as to its significance.

The urn in the National Library of Wales 2016

Mariamne’s  urn is now in a corridor leading to the disabled toilets  in the National Library of Wales (2016)

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The Gothic Arcade at Hafod

by the Curious Scribbler

The Hafod Trust has recently completed the restoration of the Gothic Arcade, a three arched eyecatcher which frames the view where Thomas Johnes’ Chain Bridge spans the narrow gorge  on the upper Ystwyth.

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, under restoration

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, under restoration

The arcade was something of a puzzle, being represented on the ground by the remnants of four basal pillars, only one of which reached high enough to show the first springer stone of the former arch.  For almost a decade it has been enrobed in blue plastic awaiting a decision on its conservation.  A earlier attempt at stabilising the stone pillars with lime mortar had failed to prevent further deterioration.  The ruin was listed among the built features of Hafod, with Ancient Monument status, so Cadw  had to authorise any changes to be made.

In 2010 The Gothic arcade pillars were conserved under blue plastic.

In 2010 The Gothic arcade pillars were conserved under blue plastic.

There is tantalisingly little evidence as to exactly what the Gothic Arcade looked like, or when it was built.  It was awarded this name by John Piper, in 1939, who was there to photograph the architectural remains of Hafod as part of a tour of threatened buildings, and who also sketched and painted in the grounds. There are three versions of this artwork, “Looking down the Ystwyth Gorge, Hafod”  which show it as a three arched rather spindly structure, on the edge of the gorge, but no aspect of his picture is precisely representational.

John Piper 1939.  Looking down the Upper Ystwyth Gorge. ( Private Collection)

John Piper 1939. Looking down the Ystwyth Gorge. ( Private Collection)

Exhaustive appeals have so far not revealed a single box brownie photograph of the structure, though many people are likely to have passed or picnicked there in the 1950s. Worse still, the accounts by visitors in Johnes’ time, even Cumberland in his An Attempt to Describe Hafod, failed to mention it.  The only possible exception is an unclear account by the Revd H.T. Payne, Archdeacon of Carmarthen, who in about 1815 alluded to a “rude arch of stone“.  But a literal reading of his description would place his arch on the opposite bank, or even identify it as the Rustic Alcove near the Peiran Cascade.

It remains uncertain whether this eye catcher was part of Thomas Johnes’s Picturesque design at all.  (Though we do know that he  built a rustic  arch commemorating George III over the approach road from Devil’s Bridge).  Until further evidence crops up it must be conceded that it could date from the ownership of The Duke of Newcastle, or even that of John Waddingham in the late 19th century, or his son, TJ Waddingham in the early 20th.

The restoration was led by the overall shape as indicated by Piper’s sketch, and the shape dictated by the remaining fragments. It was built with locally sourced, undressed stones by Abbey Masonry and Restoration, Llanelli.

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, almost complete

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, almost complete, May 2016

Piper composed his view from upstream of the Gothic Arcade.  He speculated, on the basis of the House’s history,  that its gothic style might be the work of John Nash.  The compilation below shows the restoration in the context of his drawing.

Gothic arcade 2 viewssm

The Gothic Arcade represents the penultimate item on the Hafod Trust’s current restoration objectives.  Still under development is the plan to put a flat timber span across the bridge abutments of Pont Newydd, the old carriage drive which crossed the Peiran just above the famous falls.

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Cannon Balls at the Castle

by The Curious Scribbler

The other day  I had the pleasure of handling two cannon balls, retrieved some thirty years ago from the archaeological excavations of Aberystwyth’s now rather fragmentary English castle.  The castle occupies a splendid site on the headland south of the town, but is quite difficult for the unaided amateur to comprehend.  Compared to magnificent structures like Harlech Castle and Caernarfon it is in a poor way.  This I learned is largely due to its comprehensive demolition after the Parliamentarians had routed the Royalists in 1644.  The walls were systematically destroyed by charges of gunpowder carefully placed, and large chunks of well-mortared masonry walls still lie well displaced from their original location, where they have been thrown by the force of the blast.  From 1637 the castle had been the location of the royal mint, making coins with silver from the local mines.  It also housed a great store of gunpowder for industrial use in the mines, and this is probably why the demolition, organised in 1649 by Lieutenant Colonel Dawkins and Captain Barbour, was exceedingly thorough!

Huge chunks of the inner wall displaced by demolition in 1649

Huge chunks of the inner wall fell far from the wall line when the castle was demolished with gunpowder  in 1649

The cannon balls are of stone, and were being examined for identification by a geologist. One is of limestone from Dundry near Bristol, and the other of a dense greeny-grey sandstone which could be from Somerset or South Wales.  The surface is crudely tooled and pitted and to the casual glance they look strangely like a pair of seriously decayed Galia melons. They are heavy, 5½lb and 6½lb respectively, and just under 6 inches diameter.  One has scarring on its side which could have been a result of its violent impact on the castle.

Two stone cannon balls excavated in 1977 at Aberytwyth Castle

Two stone cannon balls which were among the finds  excavated at Aberystwyth Castle under the direction of David Browne of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments Wales.

A search of images of similar cannon balls on the internet indicates that this is quite an ancient technology.  Stone cannon balls such as these were in use as early as the 13th century, and are found in association with Muslim and Christian castles in Europe and Asia.   (The Chinese had invented gunpowder in the 9th century and knowledge of gunpowder spread throughout the Old World as a result of the Mongol conquests of the 13th century. Cannon technology then became widespread). Stone cannon balls were employed in 1415 at Agincourt to deadly effect,  they could bounce lethally through ranks of infantrymen.  But the cannon could also explode killing the operators.

I found some marvellous contemporary  illustrations on a forum www.vikingsword.com devoted to ethnographic arms and armour.  They show how these imperfectly shaped cannonballs were fired from a cannon which was not cylindrical like the later models, but widening towards the mouth, such that the projectiles could be be imperfect spheres, and of somewhat varying sizes.  Gunpowder was dropped in first, then packing material, and then the cannon ball, which was firmed into position with wedges of poplar wood, to create as tight a seal as possible. The seal could also be made with wet mud, but this needed to be allowed to dry before the cannon could be fired.

Illuminated manuscript describinghow to fire a cannon

The contributor  an enthusiast named ‘Matchlock’ is now deceased, so he will hopefully not mind me re-using his images.  He also reproduces a detail from an Italian fresco of 1340, in which the loaded cannon is shortly to be ignited.

Detail from an Italian Fresco 1340.

An American  correspondent on the same thread,‘Kronkew’  added his own synopsis from an account of a siege at Soissons, which took place during Henry V’s campaign leading up to the battle of Agincourt  in  October  1415.  The account shows that the English cannon was clearly a dangerous weapon to operate.

The French were besieging Soissons, an English defended city nominally under the rule of a French faction, the Burgundians, that sided with the English, defended by some English archers, and some mercenary gunners. it described them placing a gun in a tower overlooking the French camp.

Meanwhile the French were getting off a rapid fire from their siege cannon, a whopping three rounds per day, they had to wait for the wet clay and straw mix wadding to dry before they could fire.

Anyhow, the English cannon, described as made from forged and welded bars of iron re-enforced by hoops of iron, was apparently in a fairly rusted and pitted condition, having been stored in the basement without much care. It was ‘twice as long as a bow-stave’ and ‘hooped like an ale pot’, resting on a wooden carriage.

They mentioned it was tapered (much like the illustration) because the stone balls were of inconsistent diameter, the taper allowing the ball to get to a place where it fits, assisted by the wadding of soft loam. The gunners loaded the wadding, they waited the requisite time for the wadding to dry out before the stone ball was inserted, and wedged it in place with small wooden wedges to keep the stone ball from falling out if the rear was elevated & to ensure it was held tight against the wadding and powder charge.

The cannon was considered a demon due to its sulphurous breath on firing, so a priest was brought up to it to bless it with holy water and, to ensure no devilry ensued, he stayed. The senior gunner then primed the cannon with a stripped goose quill filled with powder, fired the cannon with a long taper, it promptly blew up, killing the crew and the priest. The city fell when one of the English lords sold out to the French and opened the gates.

The Aberystwyth cannonballs may be assumed to be of a very similar date.  CJ Spurgeon in his article Aberystwyth Castle and Borough to 1649, records the varied fortunes of the castle which withstood assaults from the Welsh in 1287 and 1295.  In 1404 after a prolonged siege Owen Glyndwr took the castle and there signed his famous treaty with Charles VI of France.   The following year Prince Henry ( later Henry V) is recorded to have brought cannon from Bristol and, in ( according to Spurgeon) one of the earliest records of their use, he recaptured the castle in 1408.  It is particularly satisfactory that the limestone cannon ball can be identified to  come from Dundry, near Bristol, where the stone for many medieval buildings was also sourced.  It was probably carved locally and brought to Aberystwyth along with Henry’s cannons.

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The Old College once more

by The Curious Scribbler

In November I wrote about the Old College, Aberystwyth, and an early photograph showing the construction of the main hotel entrance on King Street in 1864.  Now further researches in the archive of the Clarkes of Llandaff  by Mike Statham have brought a further early picture to light, and this one, I think, may be less well known.

Old College under construction.  Copyright  William Michael Clarke

Old College under construction 1864-5. Copyright William Michael Clarke

The view is from the shore and shows the sea wall still under construction and topped by builders’ sheds.  Wooden scaffolds cover the entire facade, and the progress of the build seems to have been from south to north.  Immediately beside the old Nash dwelling  Castle House, (just visible at the right of this picture) we see the oval front of Seddon’s large seaward facing bar, which is now known as the Seddon Room.  Above it on the first floor, and approached, by gentlemen only, up a separate stair, were the smoking room which overlooked Laura Place and the billiard room overlooking the sea.  In this picture, the billiard room construction looks almost compete, its roof pierced by three small dormers, and topped by a glazed rectangular ceiling light looking very much like a huge wardian case.  These details are true to Savin and Seddon’s original ambitious design for the hotel. The Billiard room was 48 feet by 24 feet and was to accommodate three full sized billiard tables and many spectators.

Further north the build looks confusing.  Two gables have been competed in line with Seddon’s original plans, but the third, taller gable appears partly constructed, and the distinctive ornamental hexagonal chimney beside it seems not yet to have been built.  There seems instead to be a hole in the roof where it will later stand.

To the north end, the first floor of the building has only reached the tops of its gothic arched windows, and so it seems to have remained for many years.  It was incomplete at the time of the bankruptcy of the hotel and remained so during the first phase of Seddon’s alterations to the building for  College use.

The fire in the Chemistry lab, on 9 July 1885 which extended to gut the whole of the north wing, is recorded in a photograph after the disaster. The grand billiard room roof is gone, as are the three gables of roof adjoining it.  On the left we see that the build at the north end has still, after 20 years, not progressed above the first floor, and remains a shell, just as it appeared in 1865.

Old College after the fire of 1885

Old College after the fire of 1885. Reproduced in The Old College, by Elgan Philip Davies, Gomer, 2011

The repairs and rebuilding of the College after the fire were directed by Seddon but saw many economies and alterations in the roofscape. In 1894 a different architect Charles J Ferguson, with far less gothic leanings, was employed by the college, and was responsible for the much plainer central block, and for the solid and very slightly Queen Anne-style Alexandra Hall at the far end of the promenade.  The resulting apppearance of the Old College in the early 20th century is seen below, in an illustration in one of the many volumes of Photographic Albums of Aberystwyth and District which were produced annually by The Cambrian News, to meet tourist demand.

Old College in early 20th century.  Cambrian News Album 60 Photographs of Aberystwyth

Old College in early 20th century. Cambrian News Album 60 Photographs of Aberystwyth & District

 

 

 

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Amazing Model Mushrooms

Various objets trouves accumulate on my kitchen windowsill, cheek by jowl with the hybrid Dendrobium orchids and some ceramic acorn squashes which I fashioned myself.  There is a piece of lava from Lanzarote, some crystals from the Cantabrians, an ammonite in polished section, and some choice beach pebbles from Tanybwlch.   And the latest addition to the medley are two exquisite  waxcap fungi, Hygrocybe persistens.

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

 

Odd you may think.  It has been mild this winter, but even so.. This little gleaming mushroom of sheep grazed pastures and and un-improved ancient lawns is a feature of balmy summer and autumn, not the rain-soaked pastures of today.   And the explanation is that these Hygrocybe were gathered, not in the field but by a discriminating shopper following the Totterdown Front Room Arts Trail in South Bristol  last year.  They reached west Wales in Christmas wrapping paper.

The artist Jason Lynton must be a man with an obsession, working quietly away to create perfect replicas of the entire canon of British fungi.  His home displayed cases of these amazing sculptures, and shelves of photographic reference books on his subjects.  He works in Sculpey polymer clay. I found this useful explanation in a tutorial on a site called The Bluebottle Tree.com

‘Polymer clay is a type of modelling clay that doesn’t dry in the air and instead is cured by baking in an oven, typically between 230°F (110°C) and 300°F (150°C).  Polymer clay is made from powdered polyvinyl chloride (PVC), plasticizer, binders, fillers, colors, and lubricants. When baked, the PVC particles soften and dissolve into the plasticizer, creating a solid fused mass of plastic. The longer you bake polymer clay, the more complete the fusion will be and the stronger the result.’ I find that Fimo is another brand of polymer clay, made in Germany by Staedtler and was the more familiar name for the product when my children were young.  Sculpey is the American equivalent.

So my extraordinarily realistic waxcaps are replicated in hard and resistant baked plastic! The texture is impossible to discern without touching, the details so authentic down to the delicate gills, the occasional split in the caps, even the crumbs of dark soil apparently clinging to the stem where they were lifted, as if it were yesterday, from the ground. I am told Jason Lynton has one of his fungi on public display, (possibly at Kew?) , but for the most part he is industriously working his way through the mushrooms of Britain, even perfecting the ways to reproduce the wet drops of  ‘milk’ exuded on the gills of the Milk Cap.  A quiet dedication which I find most admirable.

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

I can find posters and prints by Jason Lynton on the web, http://www.artflakes.com/en/shop/jason-lynton  but nothing about his fungi.  His business card gives an email: m331969@yahoo.com

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Storm Frank

Not a lot of time for blogging during a family Christmas, but I managed to get almost all the guests out of the house at high tide this morning to enjoy the spectacle of Storm Frank.  Not as destructive as the un-named storm which devastated the prom two years ago, but impressive none the less.

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The Aberystwyth seafront on 30 December 2015

Huge waves break on the bath rocks

Huge waves break on the bath rocks

The Aberytswyth seafront on 30 December 2015

The Aberystwyth seafront on 30 December 2015

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We also went to the harbour, where great bursts of water shot up into the air, and flooded across the breakwater.

Aberystwyth harbour

Aberystwyth harbour

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Lastly to my favourite haunt, Tanybwlch beach,  where the suction of the huge waves grinds and stacks up the dark cobbles on the strand.  Water broke over the whole length of the jetty and streaming in an unbroken sheet over its surface.

Tanybwlch beach pounded by Storm Frank

Tanybwlch beach pounded by Storm Frank

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So unlike the idyllic waves of Christmas Day.

Tanybwlch beach on Christmas day

Tanybwlch beach on Christmas day

 

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On Myths and Misinformation at Nanteos

by The Curious Scribbler

Nanteos Mansion, seat of the Powells

Nanteos Mansion, seat of the Powells

I’ve been re reading Juliette Woods article ” Nibbling Pilgrims and the Nanteos Cup: A Cardiganshire Legend” which was published in  Nanteos – A Welsh house and its Families, Ed. Gerald Morgan (2001). In it the author carefully enumerates the written and the oral record to compare it with the fully fledged early 20th century legend of the Nanteos Cup.  At its most florid, this damaged fragment of a wooden drinking vessel is believed to be the Holy Grail, brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea, cherished by the monks at Glastonbury, some of whom, at the dissolution of their monastery, fled with it to Strata Florida Abbey in Cardiganshire, from whence it passed into the hands of the Stedman Family of that community, and thus, by marriage to the Powells of Nanteos. In modern tradition the cup has spectacular healing powers, and its last custodian at Nanteos, Margaret Powell discretely massaged its reputation with testimonials from the healed. The cup is also sometimes alleged to be fashioned out of a fragment of the true cross – though this would not fit with the Holy Grail story in which Joseph of Arimathea caught Christ’s blood in the cup at the crucifixion.

Juliette Woods gives a lot of attention to the common mechanisms by which such local legends are invented and augmented over time, but in essence her conclusions are that there is no written evidence  of its importance and apparent healing powers until the mid 19th Century, and no indication of the Grail story until the early 20th.  The cup first came under public scrutiny in 1878 when George Powell, a keen aesthete and antiquarian, allowed it to be exhibited to The Cambrian Archaeological Association at Lampeter.  There was no allegation about the Holy Grail back then.  It and another wooden vessel owned by Thomas Thomas of Lampeter were described as “supposed to possess curative powers”.  The newly-fledged “Cambrians” as this genteel antiquarian society were generally known, were on a mission to ferret out antiquities from gentry homes and churches.

But the power of a good legend is in its ability to grow and mutate. Margaret Powell, who as a widow ruled Nanteos from 1930-1952 upheld the Grail myth, but with delicate discretion, refusing to allow the allegation to be associated with her name in print.  Journalists, travel-guide authors and religiously-inclined scholars soon put in their pennyworth, and the Nanteos Cup gained followers. The Revd Lionel Smithett Lewis, Vicar of Glastonbury in 1938-1940 was one such enthusiast, fired up by A.E. Waite’s book Hidden Church of the Holy Grail (1909) which linked the grail to early Celtic  Christianity.  Smithett Lewis  corresponded with Mrs Powell, and embellished the myth with the ‘discovery’ of a cupboard at Ozleworth Church, used by the Glastonbury monks  to house the grail overnight when benighted too far from their abbey.  Smithett Lewis wanted the Grail to be housed in a splendid reliquary  at Glastonbury.  Mrs Powell evidently did not co-operate and the correspondence ceased.

By the 1960’s the old mansion was in the hands of its first non-hereditary owner, Liverpool dealer Geoffrey Bliss, and the original cup had been transferred to a bank vault in the care of the Mrs Powell’s relative and inheritor, Mrs Mirylees.  I visited Nanteos during the Bliss family occupancy,  the house had been sold complete with most of its furnishings and portraits and despite the actual holes in the roof of one wing, it was open to the public as a stately home.  And by then there was a facsimile holy grail to be seen in a lighted glass-fronted cabinet in the anteroom to the Library on the west end of the house.  This may indeed have been the one said to have been made by a local craftsman to enable Mrs Powell to reduce wear upon the original unless its curative powers were actually required.

The ‘real’ cup meanwhile has gone from strength to strength. Throughout the 1990s you could send to America for a prayer cloth or tissue impregnated with water which has been poured from it.  Presumably, as  with homeopathy, this church in Seattle  would allege that the greater the dilution, the more powerful the effect it would have.   More recently, impregnated cloths  were available from The Rt Reverend Bishop Sean Manchester,  author of several non-fiction books, including “The Highgate Vampire”; “The Vampire Hunter’s Handbook”; “Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know”; “From Satan To Christ”; and “The Grail Church.” However the supply dried up in 2014 when the cup was apparently stolen from the home of an elderly woman in Weston-under-Penyard, in Herefordshire.

Last year there was a further flurry of notoriety when the Grail had a spot on BBC’s Crimewatch.  Muddying the history further, some news accounts showed an old photo of the missing object, ( though this was possibly a photo of Mrs Powell’s  facsimile rather than the original) while others included illustrations from the Indiana Jones film starring Harrison Ford!

The Nanteos Cup, an ancient Holy Grail relic that has been recovered after thieves stole the wooden chalice from a woman using it for its healing powers.

The Nanteos cup, or perhaps its 20th century facsimile featured in recent coverage of its loss

In June 2015 it was revealed that the cup had been returned but that no charges were being pressed. The police photo of the object they recovered closely resembles the 1888 sketch in Archaeologia Cambrensis and the  early photos of the cup which are housed at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales rather than the picture above.  I have recently heard that its new home is to be in the National Library of Wales.

Nanteos Cup

The police photo of the recovered object looks more like the original Nanteos cup

Meanwhile new convolutions constantly develop.  At Nanteos, which is now a smart  country house hotel, there is a new garden feature in the old shrubbery adjoining the walled garden.  A labyrinth by eco-mystic woodcraftman  Bob Shaw leads on a contemplative circuit to a central sculpture which represents the Nanteos Cup, borne on a tapering plinth. The four sides of the plinth sides depict the mansion, Strata Florida, Glastonbury Tor and the Nanteos cup. Just to keep the legend alive.

sculpture in the labyrinth representing the Nanteos cup

The Sculpture by Ed Harrison at the centre of the new labyrinth at Nanteos

And Bob, who is a skilled craftsman working with traditional tools has also fashioned yet another Nanteos Cup, out of an ancient piece of timber he extracted from the Mawddach estuary.  That will fox the carbon daters, as they strive to determine which cup is which!   The wood could well be older than the true cross itself.  Bob tells me that the hotel management are only too happy to keep his handiwork in their safe, and show it to favoured guests.

Then there is a further development, in the form of a historical novel, The Shadow of Nanteos, by Jane Blank published this year by Y Lolfa.  Now I know this is fiction, but for many readers the distinction becomes blurred.   Peacocks in Paradise, by Elisabeth Inglis Jones, which dramatises the life of Thomas Johnes of Hafod, is often perceived today as a purely biographical work.  I found The Shadow of Nanteos unnerving myself because in it the very real Revd William Powell (1705-1780) who inherited on his brother Thomas’ death in 1752 is equipped with his historically correct wife, Elizabeth Owen.   The book opens as he takes possession of Nanteos, his ancestral home.  There however the resemblance ends: poor Elizabeth and William are supplied with quite different children, and a gothic storyline involving illegitimacy, adultery, leadmining, otter hunting, the death of their son, and finally the death of Elizabeth on the Nanteos kitchen table during a cesarean section to save the offspring of her steamy relationship with the bailiff.  Ah me!  What those Georgians got up to!  But to return to the cup, –  here all the components of the early 20th century fiction have been thoughtfully re-packaged to the mid 18th Century.  Fictional Elizabeth invites round the local gentry wives and daughters, the Pryses of Gogerddan,  the Lisburnes of Trawscoed and the Johnes of Hafod and they expound the whole story:  Glastonbury, Joseph of Arimathea, Strata Florida, the Steadmans,  the true cross, the Holy Grail and the nibbling pilgrims who bit pieces off the rim.  ( The author must surely have read Juliet Wood’s painstaking work).  Later in the book, driven to grief at the death of her eldest son, Elizabeth resorts to some very questionable frotteurism with the grail itself.

Nanteos seems a particular magnet for the wild assertion!  There are already a number of popular but questionable ghost stories associated with it and suggestible readers of Jane Blank’s work may soon find themselves sensing Elizabeth Powell eviscerated on the kitchen table.  And there is a steady increase in the historic characters which are claimed among its house guests.  Local historians have long been enraged by the early 20th century myth, first promulgated in a tourist guide to Aberystwyth, that Wagner stayed at Nanteos and wrote Parsifal there. There is no closer connection than that the aesthetically inclined George Powell ( 1842-1882) was an admirer of his, and planned a journey to Munich with his friend Algernon Swinburne, the poet, to witness the Ring Cycle.   Algernon Swinburne and George also shared an interest in flagellation and the works of the Marquis de Sade.  But that connection scarcely justifies the current naming of one of Nanteos’ rooms as ‘The Marquis de Sade room’, nor the recent assertion that Robert Browning stayed there too!

The hotel website  http://www.nanteos.com/news_detail.php?ID=51  reads as follows: Culture is all-pervasive at Nanteos Mansion with associations with leading European figures such as the composer Wagner and the poet Browning. It’s an easy concept to grasp, they are famous cultural figures and they both stayed at the Mansion while touring the country.

But they didn’t.  Though hotel guests will enjoy believing that they did.

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Building the Old College

by The Curious Scribbler

An old photograph showing the building of The Castle Hotel, now the Old College, Aberystwyth, recently came to my attention.

The Old College Aberystwyth 1864

The Old College Aberystwyth 1864                      Copyright William Michael Clarke

MichaeI Statham, an indefatigable quester among archives, found it in the archive held by William Michael Clarke a civil engineer and the fifth generation descendent of the Llandaff mason who worked on Thomas Savin’s short-lived Castle Hotel at Aberystwyth.

I am told that Edward Clarke mason/sculptor was active 1835 to 1878.  He was followed in the business by William Clarke (active 1871 – 1915 mason/sculptor)  then Thomas Guy Clarke (active c1900 – 1942 quantity surveyor and designer) then another William Clarke (builder) and now William Michael Clarke (civil engineer) who is the last in line – the firm will cease to exist when he retires.The archive also contains photos dating from Edward Clarke’s time  of  Llandaff cathedral and of Ettington Park, Warwickshire.   Clarke worked with Llandaff architect John Pritchard on both, and J.P.  Seddon was, at the time Prichard’s partner.
I find that the Aberystwyth photo is already well known, an identical copy existing in Aberystwyth University Archive and reproduced in a recent pamphlet Yr Hen Goleg/The Old College by Elgan Philip Davies (Gomer 2011).  In it Davies writes that the haste with which the building was being constructed, by 500 men directed by the architect J.P. Seddon, meant that form of the port cochere or carriage porch  was the result of builder’s initiative as there were no plans available when they commenced work.  J.R. Webster, in his book Old College Aberystwyth (University of Wales Press 1995) however states that the unusual  triangular footprint of the porch was adapted by Seddon, whose initial plan was to more or less reproduce the four square porch he had built at Ettington Park.  In either case, Clarke and Seddon had common experience of the Ettington build,and there was doubtless scope for creativity by Edward Clarke. The existence of this old photo in his archive perhaps reflects the pride which all took in this ornate entrance.

Close scrutiny of the picture reveals the precarious nature of the timber scaffolding of the day and the presence of at least three gentlemen whose clothing depicts their higher status.  It is pleasing to guess that the two top hatted gentlemen on the upper and lower platforms might have been J.P. Seddon the architect and Thomas Savin the entrepreneur who bankrolled the hotel.  But there is another figure, a decidedly dandified young man in pale trousers and waistcoat, balancing on a single pole to the right hand side of the picture.  Who I wonder was he?

Could this be Thmas Salvin?

Could this be Thomas Savin?

Could this be Edward Clarke?

Could this be J.P. Seddon?

And who is this elegant young man?

And who is this elegant young man?

The Castle Hotel opened for business in June 1865 still unfinished, and closed a year later due to insolvency.  It was then acquired for £10,000 in 1867 to house the University College of Wales.  Today it is somewhat forlorn, the University staff occupants have largely fled, relocated to the main campus on the hill and ambitious proposals are being discussed for its future refurbishment and use.  But its massive ornate bulk is one of the defining features of the town and for many, a symbol of the pioneering beginning of University education in Wales.

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Goodbye Bertha

by The Curious Scribbler

Bertha has appeared twice in my occasional blogs about the pets. ( 21 November 2012 and 15 December 2013  – The Joy of Cats 1 and 2). Boris and Bertha were sibling tabby kittens who entered the family in 2012. They joined a hall of tabby fame: Tomcat, Kevin, Sharon and Darren, Dolores who have cohabited with us over the years. They grew from kittenhood to maturity and remained friends with each other. Often they would curl up together for some quality sleep on my bed.

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Bertha ( left) and Boris ( right) often chose to sleep together

When they had to go to the Cottage Cattery at Llangwyryfon they would share a two-cat pen, a lavish pad with their own beds, scratching posts and every amenity. Boris would from time to time hold Bertha firmly down and groom her face and ears, but Bertha was no pushover, she would soon send him on his way if he was annoying her.

Three years old, they showed different personalities. Boris is in some ways cowardly ( he runs from the room if one sneezes loudly) but would initiate blithe chasing games with the dog, in which they would charge at full pelt around the house. He would always present his rear for dog inspection and rub up affectionately against him. Bertha was extraordinarily tolerant of babies, and would lie purring as small hands rummaged her fur like an old coat. Boris would swiftly depart at such treatment.

So it was a bolt from the blue to step out my back door last week to feed the chickens and find Bertha, dead and stiff just outside. She didn’t ever go far from the house, and her dead body showed no sign of trauma whatever. So astounded was I that I took her for a post-mortem, and the vet could find no cause of death either. We were left with some lame hypotheses – had she had a blow to the head causing brain injury? It is the time of year when Bramley apples crash suddenly from the tall trees. Or was there dire significance in the sudden attack of frantic whirling and biting herself which she had shown for a minute of total craziness the night before she died?

Bertha aged 3 years, unexpectedly deceased.

Bertha aged 3 years, unexpectedly deceased.

We shall never know, but I buried her under the fir and the horse chestnut where she joins Homer the previous Lhasa Apso, and Sharon, sister of Darren, who was cut down by a car in 1997.

Bertha's grave

Bertha’s grave

Boris and Otto have been unmoved by the death. Indeed Boris if anything is even more affectionate. He has brought in an enhanced supply of mice and voles, he still flirts with the dog, and is even more inclined to join us on the sofa of an evening.

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Triplets at Upton Castle and Quads at Ysbyty Cynfryn

There is a small upland church in the middle of nowhere near Devil’s Bridge. It is called Ysbyty Cynfryn. Its extreme antiquity is suggested by the huge standing stones which rear here and there within the structure of the circular churchyard wall. Its yews are also of considerable age. They are spreading English yews, not the upright fastigate Irish yews so popular since the early 19th century.

Ysbyty Cynfryn church

Ysbyty Cynfryn church

Graves of Isaac Hughes and his six children

Graves of Isaac Hughes and his six children

Possibly it is best known for the grave of four quadruplets born to Margaret Hughes in a cottage called Nant Syddion on 17 February 1856. Poor woman, it is hard to imagine her suffering. Three of her four babies died within three days of birth, the fourth, a boy, after a week.  The brief lives of Margaret, Elizabeth, Catherine and Isaac are recorded on a single gravestone. In March there were further deaths: her son Hugh aged 5 died on 1 March, her husband Isaac, aged 32  on 6th March, and her daughter Hannah ( aged 3) on 10th March.  These later deaths are believed to be as a result of infectious disease – un-referenced histories attribute them to various epidemic diseases: Typhoid, Typhus, Cholera,  Smallpox and Influenza.

Cobbling on the grave distinguish the adult grave from the infants to the right

Cobbling on the grave distinguish the adult grave from the infants to the right

Multiple births seldom survived at this time. Nowadays treatments are available to improve the function of immature lungs and tubes can be inserted for artificial feeding. In the 19th century a baby who couldn’t suckle simply wouldn’t live, and it looks as if this was the fate of Margaret Hughes’ four babies.

But rarely, multiple births could be successful, and I found the memorial to one such in the tiny private chapel of Upton Castle on the upper reaches of Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire.

The chapel at Upton Castle

The 13C chapel at Upton Castle

Upton Castle and its chapel date from the 13th century.  The property was sold in 1774 by its ancestral family the Malefants, (who  later, by inheritance, became the Bowens). It was purchased by Captain John Tasker a member of the nouveau riche  whose huge fortune derived from service to the East India Company in Bombay. On Tasker’s death in 1800 his niece Maria Margaretta Woods inherited Upton Castle. She lived locally with her husband Revd Edward Woods (who was rector of Nash 1796-1801) and their two daughters. Revd Woods barely appreciated his luck, for he died aged just 43 in 1801 and in 1803 the wealthy young widow was married again, to another clergyman Revd William Evans then aged 41. It is hard to imagine her stress when on 11 October 1803 not one, but three young Evanses were born: William Paynter Evans, John Tasker Evans, and Richard Davies Jones Evans.  The event is commemorated in a plaque in the chapel.

The triplets born at Upton castle

The triplets born at Upton castle

Maria lived to see her three sons grow to manhood, she died aged 47 in 1822, her triplets now aged 18.

In documents following the death of William Evans in 1838 we can find Revd William Paynter Evans, a clerk in holy orders, dwelling at Upton Castle along with his half sister Mary Sophia Woods a spinster ( and heiress through her mother). William Paynter Evans was married, but lacked surviving issue ( his infant daughter died at 7 months of age, and his wife Catherine Margaretta in 1844). * [Actually I learn they also did have a son, Charles Tasker Evans, who lived to adulthood, married, but had no children.  See comments from Elizabeth Ann Roberts  below].  However, when Revd William Paynter Evans died in 1853 his estate passed to his next brother. Both brothers had both  become medical doctors and it was the second  brother John Tasker Evans (1803-1895) who next inherited, and passed Upton to his son Vice Admiral Richard Evans, (1840-1927)  who eventually sold the Upton estate. Clearly their precarious start in life did not hold the three brothers back, living as they did to the ages of 49, 92 and 59 respectively.

On either side of the medieval tomb of Maliphant are the memorial to the Evans triplets, and to the eldest, W.P. Evans and his wife.

On either side of the medieval tomb of William  Malifant are the memorial to the Evans triplets, and to the eldest, William Paynter Evans and his wife.

Unlike the four babies at Ysbyty Cynfryn these triplets were born to a wealthy family with land. It is likely that the Evanses would have been able to co-opt a healthy estate servant with a baby of her own to assist with the feeding, and this may well have been the key to their survival. Indeed the use of wet nurses by Welsh gentry families was widespread. At another Ceredigion mansion, Gogerddan, the reminiscences  of Florrie Hamer,  (1903-1994) recorded how a recently-delivered mother from the cottages would be checked out by the doctor and then sent up to the big house to feed a new baby. Sometimes the mother would have to abandon her own child to family and cow’s milk in order to accompany the Pryses of Gogerddan to London, to nourish their baby instead.

Florrie wrote in one of her scrapbooks of the birth of Florence Mary Pryse, sixth child or Sir Pryse Pryse of Gogerddan in 1869:

“My grandmother Elizabeth Hamer went into the nursery at Gogerddan to breast feed the baby and my father was handed to his grandparents to be brought up on cows milk. 

It was the custom in those days for healthy young mothers among the tenants to do this, after a medical examination by old Dr Gilbertson, provided the tenant’s baby and the Pryse baby were born within a few weeks of each other.  Children were brought up in this way for the first 18 months to two years of their lives.  During this time when the family went to London my grandmother went too.  This happen three times during the 18 months my grandmother was in the nursery, and when she took the baby out in the Park, Old John Sudds, valet, followed a few yards behind carrying his usual stout stick.” 

Florence Mary Pryse grew up to be Mrs Loxdale of Castle Hill, Llanilar:  the relationship was never forgotten, and when Liza Hamer died in 1925 Florence Mary Loxdale sent a wreath and card addressed “to my Dear Foster Mother”.

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