Some puzzling pictures of Hafod

by the Curious Scribbler

Scholars of Hafod are always pleased when a new image of this lost house comes to light. The latest to do so is a painting by the celebrated artist John Piper, who is well known for other sketches on the estate such as what appears to be the only pictoral representation of the Gothic arcade which overlooks the chain bridge over the Ystwyth Gorge.  The new picture has been found in plain sight, hanging on the wall in St Cross College, Oxford.  The college has kindly allowed me to reproduce it here.

The Dead Tree, Hafod.  A watercolour of Hafod mansion by John Piper, now hanging in St Cross College Oxford

The caption on the mount reads ” The Dead Tree, Hafod”    I have spent much time puzzling over the picture.  Assuming it to be reasonably representational, the view is taken from a direction rarely seen in Hafod pictures.  ( Most images view the mansion from the parkland to the south east.)  Here the artist is apparently standing on the slope to the north east of the house.  Only from there would the Italianate campanile appear behind and to the right of the Octagon library.

There is an early 20th century photograph taken from the south west, on the other side of the valley which shows a similar juxtaposition from the opposite side.  But this enhances the confusion, for a broad two storey wing reaches out to the west of the campanile.  Viewed as Piper saw it, that wing just isn’t there.  Had it been demolished at the time of Piper’s sketch?

Hafod mansion from across the valley to the south.  Postcard by D.J. Davies, Lampeter.                        ( Peter Davis Collection)

No apparently not.  I am assured that Piper did not revisit after his sketching at Hafod in 1939, and that demolition did not commence until 1949 when the interior was stripped of all assets and the new Italianate wing was the first part to be pulled down. It must be assumed that Piper decided not to paint any of the structure to the right of the campanile.

Another relatively recent discovery is the earliest known picture of Hafod, a sketch made in the 1780s when Johnes’ dream was just taking shape.  This view from the east shows the new gothic styled  house by Thomas Baldwin of Bath welded onto the old tall-chimneyed farmhouse of the Herberts of Dolgors.  This picture, unnamed, had long languished in the archives of Cardiff University until it was spotted and identified by then graduate student and architectural historian Mark Baker.

The first known picture of Thomas Johnes’ Hafod. A Sketch by S Walker, circa 1780.            ( Cardiff University Archive)

The south east face of the Baldwin house with the three gothic windows above a  conservatory with gothic pavilions  can still be seen at the right hand end of the house in a steel engraving of around 1850, but this end is now dwarfed by the subsequent additions by the Duke of Newcastle and then Henry de Hoghton.  By these improvements they created the huge sprawling house which proved unviable for survival in the 20th century.

Steel engraving by Newman & Co, of around 1850.  Successive additions have grown to the left of Johnes’ original house.

What use would Hafod mansion be put to if it survived today?  It is hard to imagine, for Ceredigion remains far off the beaten track for flourishing stately homes.  Of our other big landed estates, Trawscoed mansion remains languishing in search of a new owner, and is increasingly spoiled by divided ownership, Plas Gogerddan survives as an embarrassment to the University beside the huge modern IBERS offices and greenhouses on the former walled garden, and only Nanteos, after much investment, is now making its living as a country house hotel.

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Penglais campus the destruction continues

by The Curious Scribbler

Early last month I lamented the loss of the shrub planting below the Hugh Owen building.  Never have I had so many readers, 1600 within 24 hours of posting, and the cries of anguish echoed far and wide.  But the destruction continues.  Gardening, according to the Aberystwyth Estates Department, is an activity best performed with a mechanical digger.

In the last two weeks whole shrub borders have scraped from the ground.  Adjoining the Student Welcome Centre were three trees, two phyllyrea and a griselinia, and a border of hydrangea, fuchsia, escallonia and evergreen olearia species.  Now only the trees remain. The border has been grubbed out entirely.   Viewed  from the Llandinam concourse there is little to see now, but an unkempt lawn with a circular bed containing a dead tree, and, beyond it, a large green painted metal box.

Recently uprooted border at the Penglais campus

The border on 7 October before its destruction

 

The border needed some weeding and maintenance it is true,  but it formed a handsome screen at the top of a concrete retaining wall outside the Llandinam building concourse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where the steps lead down towards the Cledwyn building, a broad swathe of  ground hugging cotoneaster and vinca on either side of the descent was badly invaded by brambles.  A gardener might have dug these out, or cut them and poisoned the stumps.   Instead a few hours with a digger have obliterated the lot, and the bramble roots will be the first to recover in the broken earth.

Formerly a bank clothed in prostrate and low growing cotoneaster?

Further down, the iconic view of the terracotta-coloured end of the Physical Sciences building is framed by some freshly mangled trees, chopped off at some 8 feet above ground.

Crude pruning of a group of mature shrubs

Border on the corner between  Biology and Physics on 7 October

A distorted, one-sided Myrtle, Luma apiculata reaching over to the left  (one of many seedlings on the campus), echoes the space formerly occupied by a large cotoneaster and a purple berberis beside it. This was all looking quite tidy as a group at the beginning of the month, though it adjoined a building site. Now the designed planting has been hacked away, and the accidental incomer has been preserved. It was the same below the Hugh Owen, where randomly spared trees include self seeded willow and ash.

There is some fine planting further up the slope on the terrace leading to the Physics entrance.  I wonder whether that will survive.

The triangular bed at the west end of the Biology building used to contain big evergreen daisy bushes Olearia avicenniifolia.  This tender New Zealand species first came to Tresco in the Scilly islands in 1914 and according to the RHS Plantfinder is available at just one nursery  in the UK today.   It’s gone.  But we get  a marvellously unimpeded view of the connecting glass corridor which seems function principally as a box store.

One of the uglier features of the Biology building is exposed to view

Adjoining the end of the building was a Crinodendron hookerianum, the Chilean Lantern Tree, approaching its mature height of 20 feet.  This slow-growing narrow tree dangles fleshy crimson flowers about an inch long from summer till autumn.  It has had its top cut off, though an adjoining dead tree cloaked in ivy has been spared.

Continuing down the road between the Sports building and Biological Sciences, the corner has been cleared to display a few stumps and a manhole cover. The metre-wide strip adjoining the road was cleared back a year ago and has been seeded with teasels and foxgloves which will look quite pretty next spring.  Not for long though.  Foxgloves are biennial, so the current crop will die next summer, and dock and creeping buttercup will take their place.  Soon we can call this teasel corner.

The corner between Biology and the the Sports Centre

There are shrubs on the campus so choice and rare that one would be hard pressed to find them anywhere else.  As a random illustration I include a picture of one of the  Australia acacias planted against the  Biology building.  It displays most elegant heterophylly.  The long leathery Mistletoe-like leaves are born on the same stems as the feathery new growth.  ( Students generally learn about heterophylly by studying water crowfoot.  How much more magnificent in a tree!)

Heterophylly in an Australian acacia

The hackers and diggers may be there soon too, destroying more botanical heritage.  There is also a Hoheria sexstylosa nearby, a rare Berberis and another rare daisy bush  Olearia rotundifolia flourishing far from its native habitat the southern alps of South Island, New Zealand. The list could go on.  But no-one making the decisions about the contractors’ actions seems to know or care about plants.  I doubt any future planting will be more than commonplace.

My final picture is of one of the recently completed works. An extensive border was removed  and bark chippings laid to frame these unattractive pipes and utility sheds beside an arterial path to the Student Welcome Centre.

The future gardening style for the Aberystwyth University campus

The is not the style for which the gardens were listed Grade II* by Cadw just fifteen years ago.

 

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The Llandygwydd Font

It is easy to overlook Llandygwydd, a cluster of Victorian cottages on a minor road off the A484 east of Llechryd in the Teifi valley.   Its graveyard contains members of some significant local families from the nearby gentry houses of Blaenpant, Penylan, Noyadd Trefawr and Stradmore.  But of the church there is now little trace except for its font, wreathed in brambles and standing incongruously in the open air.  This is of itself surprising.  Fonts are a bit of a problem for the church – it is generally unacceptable to re-use them as garden ornaments, and strictly speaking even the fragments of a broken font should be preserved within the church.  Thus it is more usual to see superfluous and disused fonts from demolished churches sitting in the porch of an extant church in the neighbourhood.

The font at Llandygwydd stands out of doors on the footprint of the nineteenth century church

The church which until 2000 gave it shelter was a Victorian one, built to a design by the high church architect RJ Withers, in 1856-7.  Its fortunes, from construction to demolition have been recorded in detail by Gwynfor Rees in the journal Ceredigion Vol. XIV, no 4, 2004.    The local gentry, especially the Webley Parrys of Noyadd Trefawr and the Brigstockes of Blaenpant were staunchly Anglican at a time when  Nonconformism was growing among the local people, and it was felt important that the  existing parish church,(a humble structure built in 1804 to replace a late medieval one on the same site), should be replaced by a structure of Victorian splendour, commensurate with the fashionable style of the neighbouring recently-enlarged mansions. It is recorded that the little ‘calling bell’ dedicated to St Peter, and the font, both of 15th Century origin, were incorporated into the new church. Most uncharacteristically for these parts, it was to boast a tower on the south side, surmounted by a tall timber steeple.

Over the following  years the gentry families vied in endowing stained glass windows, an ornate reredos, a Caen stone and granite pulpit, and installed commemorative plaques recording their largesse.  The church was said to have some of the finest stained glass in the county.  In 1891 five new bells donated by the Webley Parry family of Noyadd Trefawr and  Maria Brigstocke of Blaenpant in commemoration of the marriage of her niece joined the old bell from the former church.

Maria Brigstocke stands in the centre behind the five new bells. On the left side of the picture is the old bell dedicated to St Peter, from the original medieval church. see  Ceredigion Archive

Sadly this impressive church had been built at ‘an extraordinarily cheap rate’ and proved structurally unsound, the timber  steeple warped and bent, and the tower, set on insufficient foundations, cracked alarmingly.  Within  twenty years it was deemed unsafe to ring the bells lest masonry fall from the edifice, and a survey by church architects Caroe and Passmore in 1913 predicted that the bent spire might collapse onto the chancel at any time.  That year the spire was removed, and the tower strengthened, but to no avail. In 1978, after several structural reports, the bells were sold to the foundry which produced them and in 1980 the entire tower was taken down.

The church was de-consecrated and demolished in 2000, leaving its foundations and some mature yew trees among the graves. In situ inside what was once the south door, stands the font.

It might be speculated that at the time of demolition the Llandygwydd font was perceived as mid-Victorian, of no great historic importance and therefore allowed to stand as a landmark in the footprint of the church.  But closer inspection reveals this to be far from the truth.  This is a large medieval font carved out of Dundry stone from near Bristol, a source of good carve-able stone which was worked out by the sixteenth century.  It is in the perpendicular style, with an octagonal base and bowl carved with a repeating four-leaved relief.  But Mr Withers and his masons have embellished it.  They sliced it into three horizontal layers and re-assembled them like a club sandwich with a narrow layer of oolitic limestone from Painswick  between each.  At the same time they repaired, as is common in old fonts, the various damages to the rim and stem with inset pieces of Painswick stone, quite different from the original Dundry.  Resplendently reassembled and about four inches taller, it would have had a fashionably polychromatic appearance, with the yellow-brown Dundry stone layered sandwich style with white oolite.

A later repair to the rim of the font

Today, forlorn and exposed to the weather, the newer courses of Painswick stone are badly weathered, and some of the inset repairs are falling out.  Chunks are crumbling away from the Dundry stone stem.  Moss and lichen colonize the surfaces, but as a further reminder of its antiquity, the close observer will find two daisy wheel patterns (a common medieval graffiti) lightly engraved upon the bowl.

The layers of Paiswick stone have weathered away to leave deep grooves.  To the left of the four leaf carving are two daisy wheel compass-scored devices on the medieval stone

I am intrigued at these devices.  The expert belief is that they are symbols to ward off witches or the devil.  They are very commonly found on fonts and the doorway arch or porch of ancient churches, though they may be found in more remote parts of the building too.  The six petal form is easy to scratch with a compass or perhaps a pair of shears.  You just score a circle, and then with one point on the circumference draw an arc within the circle  till it touches the circumference again.  Then move the point to the  intersection of  arc and circle and repeat.  Soon six neat petals are inscribed within the circle.

The daisy wheel design

They are lightly scratched, not typical of serious masons’ work and anyone could have done them.  I do wonder though whether the evidence for their role in repelling witches is a modern over-interpretation of past behaviour.

Equipped with a geometry set we all used to draw this device on our schoolbooks, because we could, and because without any great skill we could produce perfect symmetry.  When bored we often coloured them in too.  Will future historians conclude that 20th century schoolchildren all worked to repel the forces of evil during geometry lessons?  The scholarly name for these devices  on medieval structures is apotropaic graffiti.    But for me and my schoolfriends the same images were meaningless, but very satisfying,  doodles.

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Storm Ophelia

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. The stone jetty north of Tanybwlch beach

by The Curious Scribbler

There are few more invigorating spots than Tanybwlch beach during a powerful storm.  There is the rattling cascade of huge pebbles sucked back and hurled again against the shore, the huge grey brown rollers trailing spume, and the explosive crash of the waves against the concrete jetty which protects the harbour from the south.

At high tide yesterday, at 5.30pm Ophelia was at its height, and  the huge waves broke relentlessly along its length, an unbroken sheet of foamy water flowing across the jetty and cascading into relative calm on the other side.  Even more spectacular was the backwash where a huge wave rebounding from the jetty side would travel southward until it collided with the next huge roller coming in.  Then an explosion of disordered water flies high into the grey sky.

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Water streams over the stone jetty

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Waves collide as they rebound from the stone jetty

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Another wave rebounds against a new one

Meanwhile high tide held back the outflow of the Ystwyth, ( which is tidal until the corner where Nanny Goats Walk sets off inland) and the water backed up to flood the grass and  lower path along the riverside.  Standing on the Pen-yr-anchor bridge  the gale hit one with ferocious force, coming directly along the overflowing river, rippled to wavelets by the wind.

Storm Ophelia. The Ystwyth river backs up at high tide

Further south along the curving storm beach the waves rush up, loaded with sand and pebbles, and pour over into the Ystwyth river behind it.  Little wonder that the Tanybwlch flats have not been earmarked for further sea defences by the Environment Agency (now NRW).  At the foot of Alltwen the pasture is returning, not for the first time, to salt marsh and standing water.

There were a dozen or more of us, and several dogs on the top of the strand, teetering in the gusts and watching, filming or photographing the scene.  The green and white pillar on the end regularly disappeared from view.  Incautious cars could be seen driving out onto the wooden jetty on the far side of the harbour,  spray suddenly engulfing them, and a small blue and white motor boat, tethered to the jetty listed and slowly sank under the onslaught.

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Waves break over the stone jetty

I then went to the main Aberystwyth promenade, where the full force of the south wind was less, but the waves crashed satisfyingly on the sea wall, sending a sheet of sand and water over the prom.  Spectacular explosions of spray engulfed the public shelter on Bath rocks,  which was only recently restored after an even more severe pummeling by Storm Frank  in 2014.

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Spray engulfs the Victorian Shelter

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth, water streams over the prom

Further north the waves shot directly skyward in front of Alexandra Hall.  I have seen them burst higher in other storms, but there is a little buttress on the promenade near there which always attracts the dare devils waiting to run back from a soaking from the even more exceptional wave.

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Taking selfies in the storm

It was a bit of a party atmosphere all along the prom, as people walked, dodged the overflowing waves and took photos on their phones.   A person in a motility scooter bowled gaily along the prom with a following wind behind it.  I would have been a bit fearful in so light a vehicle with the wind resistance of its hood.  These are the circumstances when buggies and prams readily escape their owners.

If there is one species entirely unimpressed by the 70mph gusts it is the starling.  Autumn is setting in and the big traditional roost is filling up under the Pier.  Without any apparent difficulty the flocks cruised in at dusk, jinking in perfect synchrony to form strands and ovoids in the sky before diving down to roost on the ironwork under the deck.  They came in smaller groups  of one to two hundred birds, and perhaps dived to safety sooner than on a calm evening.  But while few gulls flew in the wild winds, these little birds carried on as if the evening was entirely unremarkable.

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Huge waves approach  north beach

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What has become of the Penglais campus?

by the Curious Scribbler

It seems to be a little known fact that the Penglais campus, in conjunction with the adjoining sites of the Llanbadarn campus and the National Library of Wales are listed Grade II* in the Cadw Register of Landscapes, Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in Wales.  This is praise indeed, this grading makes it one of the three most important gardens in Ceredigion, and one of the very few 20th century landscapes deemed of national importance.  The listing was published in 2003.  The inspector summarizes it thus:

The landscaping of the University of Aberystwyth campuses, particularly the earlier Penglais campus is of exceptional historic interest as one of the most important modern landscaping schemes in wales. The sophisticated layout, including the landscaping, is sensitive to the character of the site, and the planting, which is unusually choice and varied both enhances the buildings and helps to integrate the the sites.  Several densely packed pages describe the grounds and their plantings in detail, and the steep bank below the Hugh Owen library gains especial praise.

It was indeed justified, and I have dug out a photo from 2003 which shows the clean lines of the modern building embraced by a swathe of shrubs, hebes, fuchsias and the ground-hugging Cotoneaster microphyllus clothing the steep banks. (The red flowered shrub was Embothrium coccineum, the Chilean Firebush, a connoisseur’s tree, frost hardy and fussy about its soil, cleverly planted by knowledgeable gardeners).

The Hugh Owen building, Penglais Campus, Aberystwyth with original planting in 2003

All gone now!  Last month contract gardeners with a caterpillar digger were hard at work and today’s view is of turf, bark and a few retained trees, some of them self-seeded ash.

The Hugh Owen Building, Penglais Campus, Aberystwyth in 2017

There have been maintenance problems at the campus in the last decade, and regular visitors have noted the vigorous incursions of brambles, sycamores and ash trees, self seeded amongst the shrubs.  Back in the 1990s when I sometimes visited head gardener John Corfield in his potting shed I would find up to nine gardeners, who together tended the Penglais campus and the mansion gardens and botanical order beds on the other side of the road.  Today his successor, gardener Paul Evans is responsible for three campuses, Penglais, Llanbadarn and Gogerddan with a team half the size!  Little wonder that the brambles got away..

Bit by bit the character of  Aberystwyth’s distinctive campus is being whittled away, while new 21st century innovations have been introduced with no provision for aftercare.  The new IBERS building next to the Edward Llwyd is a case in point.  Its landscape architect included a green wall, a complicated beech maze and a sedum roof.  The green wall died and has been cleared away, and the maze was never pruned and became an interlocking thicket of beech trees.  The roof gets rare maintenance by contract gardeners, because none of the grounds staff have received training for working of roof tops.

The beech maze beside the new IBERS building on the Penglais campus

And the agenda of Biodiversity and Native Species has led to a tendency to ignore the merits of a garden which brings together beautiful non-native plants from all over the world.  For some odd reason ecologists seem to assume that only native species are agreeable to bees.  How wrong!  Recent research at the National Botanic Garden of Wales analysing the DNA fingerprint of pollen in the pouches of honey bees showed that two of the top six favourites are the despised sycamore and the invasive Himalayan Balsam!

The 1960-1970s planting of the campus was supervised by botanists and involved the trialing of species and hybrids suited to windswept maritime situations from every continent.  Many still survive in gardens around Aberystwyth.  But is the campus on a trajectory to turf, bark and the utility planting of an average supermarket carpark?

And what about the street furniture?  Back in 2003 it seems that students found their way around without notice boards or banners telling them how happy and lucky they were, and motorists kept left and slow without constant reminders.  Certainly the elegance of the first picture is in stark contrast to the tired building in the second, grey with age but  cleaner at the base where the shrubs formerly embraced it.

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More on Mariamne’s ‘Bookplate’

by The Curious Scribbler

Following last week’s blog I have had a most informative communication from Tom Lloyd, renowned bibliophile and Wales Herald of Arms.  His comments raise questions: for whom and for what purpose was this embellished crest engraved?

The ‘bookplate’ in Mariamne’s book

Tom writes:

One must not get too excited about small bits of paper……. but this is
potentially very interesting. I have seen another copy of this highly
decorative engraved coat of arms before, not stuck into a book and cut very
close around the engraved arms, so that it did not look like a bookplate.
And indeed the fact it does not have an engraved name under it begs the
question of what is it.

It has always struck Welsh bibliophiles as odd that Thomas Johnes never had
a bookplate for himself, even though his father, who was by no means so
famously studious, did. But this charming engraving in Mariamne’s book does
not look like a typical bookplate, certainly even less like a man’s one with
such a profusion of floral decoration, and of course with no owner’s name
engraved beneath.

So my first conclusion is that this is an engraving made after a drawing
sketched by Mariamne herself, very probably as a gift for her father. As
emphasised in “Peacocks in Paradise”, she was a brilliant botanist, and her
beautifully even copper-plate signature reveals a highly trained hand. It is
definitely not a bookplate made for Mariamne herself, since women did not
bear crests above their arms and as an unmarried daughter, her coat of arms
would have been shown within a lozenge (a diamond shape) not on a shield.

Bookplates were also engraved on small rectangles of copper only a little
larger than the engraved image, so that one can often see impressed in the
paper the edge of the copper plate, which I cannot see in your photo. So I
think that this engraving was engraved onto a larger copper sheet with this
copy of the resulting print cut down to fit inside this book.

Being a remarkable and wonderful escapee from the great fire of 1807, we
cannot know what other helpful evidence has been lost, but this is the first
time I have ever seen this engraving stuck in a book, acting as a bookplate.
It is a most beautiful design and meticulously engraved (no doubt in London)
but its original intended purpose must remain unknown. It was not used in
anything published at the Hafod Press.

I have spent years looking for a book from Hafod (as opposed to printed there), but the nearest was to see one that had belonged to Thomas’s brother – expensive and of no interest.”

So what a coup for the Ceredigion County Archive and indeed the donor of this little book of forgettable plays!  The arms are  those of Thomas Johnes, but now we know that, being set in  a shield  rather than a lozenge, it is a masculine symbol, notwithstanding the abundant swags of flowers.  The crest is also a masculine symbol, depicting crossed battleaxes in saltire proper, (a diagonal cross), but what is that cheeky chough doing standing on them?

The Johnes coat of arms, with embellishments, perhaps by a feminine hand?

Perhaps another book with this this device glued into it may one day come to light.

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Mariamne Johnes’ bookplate

by The Curious Scribbler

Helen Palmer at the Ceredigion County Archive has drawn to my attention a new acquisition, a little white calf-bound volume which once belonged to Hafod’s famous daughter Mariamne Johnes.  Pasted inside the front cover is a handsome bookplate and, apparently in her own hand, her signature Mariamne Johnes 1801.  She turned seventeen that year.

Mariamne’s bookplate

The shield at the centre of the bookplate shows the Johnes arms, which are described as “argent a chevron sable between three revens proper, within a bordure gules bezantee”.  The floriferous drapes around it are perhaps embellishments for a ladies collection.

Title page Theatre de M. de Florian. 1786

The small calf-bound volume

The seventeen year old Mariamne in addition to her botanical accomplishments which fuelled her friendship and correspondence with Sir James Edward Smith, was being trained in the appropriate skills of a young gentlewoman: watercolour painting, languages and music.  The only known portrait of her is an ink and wash sketch, dated 1804, by George Cumberland.  It depicts her standing and presumably singing for her Italian music teacher Signor Viganoni. It is nice to imagine her reading and perhaps rehearsing her french pronunciation with this little book.

This little volume, Theatre de M.de Florian contains three short plays, and I spent the afternoon perusing the first, which was entitled  Jeannot et Colin, Comedie en Troi Actes en Prose. First performance 14 November 1780.    It evokes a time when gentlefolk might themselves put on a little performance in the drawing room.  The cast consists five principals, and a couple of servants, the bailiff and the valet.  As comedies go it was neither racy nor particularly funny, but it explores the sedate themes of class, wealth and marriage.

Up from the country, the Auvergne, come bourgeois Colin and his sister Colette, wishing to renew acquaintance with their former friend Jeannot, who had been Colette’s sweetheart until he and his mother departed that region.  Now living in Paris, Jeannot is  a free-spending Marquis, and his mother the Marquise has plans to marry him to the Comptesse de Orville.  Colin and Colette’s arrival at their door promotes some unease, and subterfuge, mediated by the Jeeves-like valet, to prevent a meeting.

Of course they do meet, and Jeannot’s love is immediately rekindled for the modest and lovely Colette.  By Act II he explains his predicament “ I am the unhappiest of men, I depend upon my mother, my fortune is her achievement, I owe her everything, I owe her the sacrifice of my happiness”.  He must marry at his mother’s direction.

Fortunately in Act III it turns out that thanks to a lawsuit Jeannot and his mum are about to lose all their money, and their friends no longer wish to know them.  Nor does the Comptesse de Orville, who hasn’t found Jeannot very agreeable at dinner. So true love triumphs and it turns out that Colin can reunite the Marquise with her country property in the Auvergne, and Colin, to boot, is a successful manufacturer who can pay a fine dowry for his sister.

It is a curiousity of Mariamne’s life that despite her father’s conspicuous wealth and status, there is no surviving evidence of any suitors. We do know from Thomas Johnes’ letters that Mariamne suffered bouts of severe ill health from the age of ten: fevers, rashes, tumours and a curvature of the spine for which she was for a while fitted with a back brace.  But for much of the last ten years of her life  ( she died at 27)  she seems to have been in reasonable physical health, walked long distances, and visited Bath Bristol and London with her parents.  Possibly small romantic volumes such as this one served as the Mills and Boon of the day.

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A new era for Strata Florida

by The Curious Scribbler

Strata Florida Abbey

The west door,Strata Florida Abbey copyright John Ball http:                                 //www.jlb2011.co.uk/walespic/archive/990502.htm

 

Strata Florida, at the end of the side road out of Pontrhydfendigaid is possibly one of the least-visited Cadw sites in Wales.

On a normal day, one or two  visitors may be seen passing under the remaining arched romanesque west doorway of the Cistercian abbey church, and perhaps pausing to read the huge memorial slab reminding of us of the traditional belief  that the 14th century poet Dafydd ap Gwilim was buried here under a great yew tree in the graveyard.  Others come  to the adjoining parish church in search of a more recent grave marking the burial in 1756 of a severed leg, and part of the thigh, of  Henry Hughes, who was a cooper by trade.  What accident with an axe, or perhaps a great metal hoop led to this misadventure?  I have read that it was survivable and that the rest of this man was laid to rest in America.  Come the resurrection he would have believed in, his leg and the rest of his body would presumably be reunited over the Atlantic.

This weekend though were two most extraordinary days, in which the field was thronged with vehicles, tents and a marquee, and bands of enthusiasts of all ages gathered in the church for lectures or for tours of the abbey site, the adjoining  farm buildings and the wider landscape.  Just an echo perhaps of the daily bustle of the 12th century when Strata Florida Abbey controlled vast tracts of land, productive of farm produce, timber and minerals.  The event marked the launch of the Strata Florida Project, a concept which has been a twinkle in the eye of Professor David Austin for a couple of decades but now seems set to burst upon the world.

On Saturday morning he was surrounded by a densely packed throng of umbrellas as he explained the importance of the site.  Size alone of the excavated ground plan  shows that it had been a huge monastery, larger indeed than the famed Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire. Professor Austin explained the basis to believe that the abbey church was erected on a preexisting Christian site, and how the ambiguous structure in the centre of the nave floor, which is not quite correctly aligned with the axis of the church, is interpreted as a holy well incorporated, perhaps to honour older beliefs,  when the Cistercians set up a new house in this part of Wales.  The abbey enjoyed the patronage of the Welsh prince Lord Rhys of Deheubarth, and there are clues in the sources of the carved building stones, and in the celtic motifs on the west doorway that local Welsh tradition was not entirely subjugated by the incomers.

On Sunday a lecture by Prof Dafydd Johnston revealed a sense of the grandeur of these medieval buildings, and of the hospitality they offered.  The peripatetic poets of the day wrote praise poems to their hosts, abbots and fine landed  gentlemen, listing their assets, their buildings, farmlands, gardens, wives, offspring, fine food and general generosity.  The picture emerges of soaring oak beams on stone arches, stained glass windows,  a gleaming white tower, and lead so abundant it is described as encasing the church like armour.  These poets were quite literally singing for their supper, and may have exaggerated, but they are a good historical source, perhaps far better than the more introspective utterances of poets today.  In the early 15th century the abbey (which probably did supported Glyndwr’s rebellion) took severe punishment from the English army, who stabled their horses in the Abbey Church.  Abbot Rhys ap Dafydd  is praised for repairing the handsome refectory, and his successor Abbot Morgan for the beauty of the place.

We all know that Henry VIII brought the abbeys, quite literally, crashing down.  The lucky recipients of this redistributed land and buildings were often given  just a year to effectively destroy the monastic structures, perhaps adapting some parts of it for domestic use. Gentry houses thus emerged amongst the ruins.  At Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire which I visited last week, the nave became  a long gallery, the core of a new gentry residence.  Here the great church was largely demolished and cleared away, built into walls and vernacular buildings for miles around, while the refectory became the basis of the 18th century farmhouse Mynachlog Fawr ( or the Stedman House) as it appears in the Buck print of Strata Florida in 1742, and still stands today.

Mynachlog Fawr  2011.   copyright Paul White
http://www.welshruins.co.uk/photo8244988.html

That farm has a story of its own, the last 150 years in the ownership of the Arch family of farmers.  Charles Arch, a cherubic octogenarian known to millions as  the announcer voice of the Royal Welsh Show treated a packed church to an elegaic description of his childhood growing up at the farm, and how as errand boy for his mother he would run the one and a half miles to the village, or be hauled from his bed at night by the local doctor to act as gate-opener for a house call to  distant cottages up the gated road across their land.  Most of the audience felt the tears well up as he described how as a young man he realised that the farm could not support three families and elected to seek his living elsewhere.  ” The day I sold the pony, and did away with my dogs – was the saddest day of my life”.  His brother’s family still farm the land, and since the 1970s have occupied a comfortable bungalow not far behind the old house.  With extraordinary patience the Arch family have waited and waited for Strata Florida Project to gain momentum and purchase the old family home and its farm buildings.

Richard Suggett illustrated the importance of this fine old building, barely touched by electricity or indoor plumbing, and with many period features of the 1720s.  There is a paneled parlour on one side of the front door and farm kitchen on the other, in which Charles recollects the bacon hanging from the ceiling and as many as 25 neighbours dining on Friday nights.  The parlour still has its buffet cupboard next to the fireplace (an antecedent of the china display cabinet) an  acanthus frieze painted on the ceiling above the coving, and a frightful didactic overmantle painting on wood above the fireplace.  It depicts youth choosing between the paths of virtue and vice:  the former rather staid and dull, the latter really nasty.  Charles found it chilling as a child.

The Strata Florida Project aspires to restore and interpret all these layers of history and the wider landscape it inhabits.  It reaches out to incorporate into the story every possible Welsh icon:  The Nanteos cup: claimed to have arrived there via Strata Florida Abbey, the White Book of Rhydderch:  possibly transcribed in the scriptorium of Strata Florida,  poet Dafydd ap Gwilim: putatively educated by the monks of Strata Florida.  This quiet backwater may soon become  a hub of historical and modern Welsh culture.

Sunday closed with a procession from the parish church to the putative holy well in the abbey nave led by Father Brian O’Malley, a former Cistercian monk who had yesterday enlightened us with an account of the daily routine of  Cistercian prayer.

Father Brian O’Malley leads the procession.
Photo copyright Tom Hutter

And displayed for the day in the adjoining ruined chantry chapel was the Nanteos Cup, on loan to its former home, courtesy of Mrs Mirylees the last inheritor of the Nanteos estate, who was also present with her daughter.  For those with a spiritual bent it was an evocative day.

Prayers at the putative Holy Well
Copyright Tom Hutter

For the rest there was costumed historic re-enactment, archery, pole lathe wood-turning, refreshments, stalls and much besides.

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Pine martens at Hafod

by The Curious Scribbler

Iolo Williams addresses the Vincent Wildlife Trust’s guests in the Hafod car park

About eighty people gathered yesterday in the car park beside Hafod Church to witness the unveiling,  by Wales’ premier TV naturalist Iolo Williams, of a curious sculpture. Its designation plaque, as a memorial to Rob Strachan  ‘an inspirational naturalist and conservationist’ might make one wonder whether it would not be more appropriately placed inside the churchyard wall.  However it has perhaps a wider purpose, for it was installed by the Vincent Wildlife Trust whose project is the reintroduction of pine martens into NRW ( National Resources Wales, fomerly the Forestry Commission) woodlands in Wales.  A pine marten and two kits are represented on the sculpture by Grace Young Monaghan.  It is carved from an oak trunk sourced from the estate, though puzzlingly the trunk has been adzed to resemble no British tree. Call me a pedant, but I find this jarring.  Four oak leaves are represented, like a label on the trunk, but why is its bark represented with horizontal rather than vertical fissures?  Has it been attacked by a giant beaver?

Pine marten sculpture in Hafod car park

Project Officer Dave Bavin , his dog, and Iolo Williams pose beside the sculpture

The effigy may serve though to alert visitors to the estate to the slim possibility of glimpsing one of these elegant mustelids in the woods.  In the last two Septembers 39 Scottish pine martens have been trapped, driven by air-conditioned van from Scotland, and penned and then released at Hafod.  Although most of the first batch of introductions in 2015 dispersed or died, one female from this group has produced kits at Hafod, conceived and born this year, and several of last September’s shipment, who will have arrived pregnant, have successfully produced young  this spring.  Most have spurned the man-made box dens provided for them near the release sites, and have instead sought out dens of their own choosing.

Martens are solitary and occupy large territories, so I wondered how the researchers on the project keep tabs upon the animals. I learned that the privacy of these pioneer pine martens is considerably compromised.  First of all, each immigrant is DNA profiled by a lab in Ireland before release.  Fitted out wearing radio collars their presence can be monitored by a volunteer sitting in their car on the forest drives or strolling the woods with a receiver like a TV aerial.  Thus the approximate location can be determined without need of a visual sighting.  Some of the first batch of Hafod-released animals were disinclined to remain and were  found far, far away.  One female eventually settled near Abergele!  Recently, the Vincent Wildlife Trust has also had success with GPS transmitters which can provide researchers with accurate location from much further away.

The martens are also monitored by motion sensitive cameras in the woods.  Now it might seem one would have to wait a long time to see a marten stroll by, but the odds are considerably enhanced by putting out bait.  Martens proved particularly partial to jam sandwiches and peanut butter, and will return regularly to a bait site in front of the camera in order to check whether it has been replenished.  One mother’s successful breeding was revealed when she led her kits into camera range to join the feast.  The same inducements work well to lure the martens into traps so that their health can be monitored, or, before the battery runs out, their collars can be removed or replaced.

DNA technology given further insights.  A fresh scat ( droppings) can reveal the DNA profile of the perpetrator.  Since all the introduced martens have been profiled, a poo sample can even reveal the parentage of a new kit.  For long, the analysis of droppings has been a valuable tool in discovering the dietary preferences of mammals.  To this, modern mammologists can now add the identity and geneaology of the marten who dealt it!

Just the sort of tree hole to appeal to a pine marten

I was impressed by the youth and enthusiasm of the Vincent Wildlife Trust researchers and volunteers who gathered for this celebration.  But even for them, equipped with 21st century tracking technology, the best sightings of these elusive animals are probably those from the daylight and night-vision remote cameras. Some of the highlights of camera trap photography can be found among Vincent Wildlife Trust uploads on vimeo.  Scat is a little easier to find, because martens typically deposit it in prominent positions, on paths or on an eminence like a tree stump.

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Ballooning at Crystal Palace, 1872

by The Curious Scribbler

Long before the days of instant messaging the Victorian family might keep its dispersed members entertained by producing a journal to which its members contributed choice memories, sketches, verse, and family news.   One such family were the Palmers, a tribe of 19th Century printers, teachers and clergymen  one of whom, George Josiah Palmer is remembered as the Founder of the Church Times.  At the beginning of the 20th century the Palmer family journal “The Pilgrim” was laboriously typed, bound and circulated by post around ten or more family members.  It appeared intermittently between 1901 and 1907.

'The Pilgrim' a family journal produced by the Palmer family in 1901-1907

‘The Pilgrim’ a family journal produced by the Palmer family in 1901-1907

A stirring reminiscence was provided by Carey Linnell Palmer, and published in two installments in Volume 1 No 5 and Volume 2 No 1.   It must be acknowledged that the  account of the two young men’s adventures at Crystal Palace (George aged 26 and Carey aged 17) may have been embroidered a little in hindsight, for the story reproduced here was written by Carey Linnell Palmer in 1902, thirty years after the alleged events. However since the target audience included family members who had been present in the Palmer home at 6 Percy Circus, Clerkenwell on the fateful day in 1872, I incline to the view that it is probably not entirely a work of fiction.  I reproduce it here for the edification of today’s balloonists.

AFTER MANY DAYS

It was a steaming hot day in the August if 1872 and a holiday.  The house at Percy Circus as was its wont, looking uninviting, and the back garden didn’t offer much in the way of a jaunt.  George, who was always keen on engines and trains, voted we should spend our pocket money going up and down the underground.  “Well”, said I, “that’s pretty good fun, but I think it’s possible to go one better. How about the Captive Balloon at the Palace?  It’s only a bob a head, & a jolly tough rope, and heaps of other things to see besides.”  Dear George didn’t often use slang, but this time he said he was ‘All there’, and with the help of the train we soon arrived at Sydenham and its great glasshouse.  No side shows tempted us: we shouldered our way through the holiday crowds to the filling ground to find the men in charge blowing up the monster balloon for its trial trip.  “My aunt”, said George, – a very favourite expression of his, “but what do you feel like now?”  By this time the unwieldy creature was swaying backwards and forwards overhead, straining at the ropes that held her, and the car looking the frailest place of safety under the circumstances.  “ Oh well it’ll be alright when we are once down again” said I, “in for a penny, you know, and we shall get a good view, see Kings Cross perhaps, and all the places we’re used to” but my heart was sinking.  “ Now gentlemen!” shouted the proprietor through a fog horn “ Jump in and we take the money on board, – no vittles or drink allowed, as we shall be back in half an hour!”.  But the people wanted a lot of coaxing and unaccountably hung back.  The man caught sight of our faces, upon which a fearful joy and expectancy was painted, and started again to harangue. “Here are two to start with” he shouted and almost bundled us in.  The people grinned, but didn’t follow us, and sooner than lose any more time, and mentally meaning to give us a short journey, he and the man jumped onto the car gave orders for the ropes to release her and away we went.  But at the moment of mounting, to our dismay, one of these men with incredible swiftness swarmed down the side of the car and dropped to the ground, and we shot up.  “What is the meaning of this?” cried George and we weren’t left long in finding out.  The man’s face was white with rage.  A jeering shout was sent up, and looking overboard we discovered that the captive rope was severed, and with its end trailing beneath us the balloon was rising with ever increasing velocity towards cloudland and the sky beyond.  We were thunderstruck and turned to the ‘Captain’ for explanation or help of some sort.  But to absolutely no purpose.  He was dazed with fright – or something stronger, and muttering something about “His mate Bill” and that “he’d be even with him yet,” he sank in a speechless heap on the floor of the car and there remained. We looked at each other in amazement.  The minutes went by without either of us speaking, but at last, with as equable heads and hearts as we could manage we proceeded to take in the situation.  Up above us the great swaying canvas was shouldering the wind, the breeze singing through its cords, as the car cleft its path through the sunlight and blue sky that lay about us.  Below was the kindly earth and safety, the vanishing Palace and its thousands shining through the simmering haze of heat.  The practical problem emerged. “Chance it”, said I, and taking a pendent cord in our hands we pulled for all we were worth.  Out with a hissing and roaring rushed the gas and we descended – too quickly indeed for our breathing powers.  We held her up and looked over to see if any bearings were available.  Yes, there towards the south west was a town, Croydon we thought, and knew enough not to come down amidst bricks and mortar: so having let the valve go, we looked about for ballast.  Nothing to be had.  The only thing we found was some bread and butter and cold tea.  We weren’t too upset to appropriate this, and without any scruple, but there was nothing to throw out.  Luckily the wind kept us moving south west, and at a safe height.  On we went, the first feeling of not unnatural alarm giving way to a certain fearful joy at our extraordinary venture.  We could see people gesticulating at us, trains running about like little white tailed rabbits, houses and buildings looking all too funny from our standpoint, and the immense sweep of landscape all round us.  “Well” said George at last, “how long is this to last, think you? And what will they do at home? We must get out of this somehow.”  “ I’m agreeable”, was my reply “so long as we don’t land in the sea”.  “Oh stow your jokes”, said George “and say what we’d better do with this snoring hulk”, and he prodded the ‘Captain’ with his foot.  He only grunted.  If we could only have got from him his story, and why his partner had played such a wicked trick it would have been something.  Presently we could see the houses thinning and the country becoming more open, and at no very great distance some farm buildings.

“Here goes”, said George, “I’ve got a good idea”: and with that he set to work to haul in the captive rope.  I joined him hand over hand.  “ Now then, let the gas go and tie this old fellow up”, said he.  And that’s exactly what we did do.  All unresisting the ‘Captain’ let us coil  that rope round him from head to foot, making it fast about his middle.  The wind dropped, the gas escaped, and we descended gently for a farmyard.  Coming within hailing distance, the shouts of labourers reached us, and making an arch of our hands, we trumpeted “ Hullo there, where are we?”  Back came the ready answer: “Why, you’re in a ballune, bor!”.  Which wasn’t exactly what we wanted but it served to make them merry.  “Well, catch then” shouted George.  And using all our strength we hoisted the ‘Captain up to the edge of the car and slowly payed him over.  That did it, down, down he went till within a yard or two of safety, all the yokels expectant, – when the balloon gave a lurch, our muscles relaxed, and bang he went into a pond among some ducks.  “That will wake him” said George.  There were plenty of willing hands about us now. The ‘Captain’ was a fine makeweight; the rope was laid hold of, and when within sight of twenty yards, we didn’t wait for a second venture, – no we didn’t, we swarmed down that rope quicker than usual and then for the first time critically took in the dimensions of that balloon.  We explained matters to the open-mouthed farmer, saw to the deflation of our airship, and having sent a line to the Palace authorities as to where they would find the man and his charge, railed it home.

“Well” said George, that evening at supper, “ Carey and I are jolly hungry I can tell you, but Charlie, I’ll tell you a story afterwards.”  “ Oh bother!” was Charlotte’s reply, looking up from a Miss Young.  “You’ve said that so often: you’ve only learnt some more poetry and want me to hear you.”  “No, no” said I, “ It’s not poetry this time, – you listen.”  …..She listened, and in the waning hours, when “night’s candles were burning out” and the casement was a glimmering pane, Aunt Charlotte was still listening, but Uncle Fred (the youngest at home then) who began well, had to be carried to bed at half time.  He hears the story now, perhaps for the first time, after many days.

xxxxxxx

Carey Linnell Palmer became a master printer at 23 Jesus Lane, Cambridge.  His brother George went on to be a clergyman and Doctor of Music. The ten year old ‘Uncle Fred’ who fell asleep during the narrative, succeeded his father and elder brother to become the proprietor of the Church Times.

 

 

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