A Dragon on Tanybwlch beach

By The Curious Scribbler

There is a new arrival on Tanybwlch beach, remarkably in the shape of a dragon, looking out to sea.

Dragon’s head likeness

A large tree trunk, felicitously worn by the abrasive boulders has beached itself high on the shore near the south end of the beach during a recent storm, and presented itself to best advantage in this weekend’s winter sunshine.

Tree trunk at Tanybwlch beach

Walking the strand line, I was also impressed by the scarcity of plastic waste.  I wonder whether this is entirely down to the dedicated beach cleaners who regularly patrol our beaches, or whether, (dare one hope?) the rate at which rubbish is discarded into the Irish sea is at last diminishing.

I used to beach clean here regularly a decade ago when we recorded all the items for the Marine Conservation Society records. In those days one did not go far to fill a sack with single-use plastic and hard plastic crates and bits of rope.  Yesterday there were a few bottle tops and fragments of plastic amongst the dried wrack, but the waste was predominantly what it should be: biodegradable seaweed and sticks washed down the rivers in the recent rains.

Driftwood on the strandline

How much easier on the eye than a strandline of coloured waste.  Aberstwyth Beach Buddies and Surfers against Sewage are to be congratulated for their action and campaigning, but so too is everyone who now chooses not to chuck their rubbish into the sea in the first place!  I remember standing on a cross channel ferry in the 1970s and watching aghast as a kitchen hand emerged on the deck below and tipped all the ferry’s catering packaging off the stern to bob away in our wake.  I have no doubt he was following orders. Fifty years later the public all have camera phones and I don’t think many companies would risk being observed.

Driftwood on the strandline at Tanybwlch beach

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Underground in mid Wales

by The Curious Scribbler

It can be a mistake to write about something one knows very little about.  Today I make an exception, having  attended a fascinating Historical Society lecture by Ioan Lord, a Ceredigion-born young man who is studying the mining history of mid Wales.

We learnt that the hilly country of mid Wales is littered with ore-bearing lodes, cracks in the rock of varying lengths and sizes all running more or less northeast – southwest across the landscape. For more than 4000 years these have been exploited by miners. Bronze age workings extracted the copper which along with Cornish tin would be made into bronze, Romans extracted lead, the Society of Mines Royal exploited the silver which was for a time formed into coin at Sir John Middleton’s mint at Aberystwyth castle. In the18th and 19th century a proliferation of mining companies extracted lead, copper and zinc on a massive scale.  This was the era for which we have the best historical record, photographs, newspapers and mining journals reveal the ambition and the highfalutin names of these speculative ventures, suggesting riches such were to be found around the world.

Miners Cwmystwyth in 1911

The ‘Welsh Potosi’ Lead and Copper mine was named after the highly productive mines of Bolivia. ‘Welsh Broken Hill’ Mine echoes Australia,  at Ponterwd we find the ‘California of Wales’, while Moelfre Wheal Fortune reminds us of the tin industry of Cornwall and the many miners who migrated to Wales at this time.

The industry was gruelling and life expectancy was poor, but the mines nontheless paid handsomely in their day.  There are local families today such as the Raws of Cwmystwyth who trace their ancestry to Cornishman James Raw, Mine Captain of the Cwmystwyth mine in 1850.  Ioan cited records showing that the Oliver family of Cwmystwyth were taking home £200 a month in 1810.

By 1930 there was no more mining and the workings lay abandoned.  Ioan and fellow enthusiasts are exploring this forgotten frontier, equipped with lights and modern caving equipment they find their way into the old shafts and adits, stepping into spaces last visited more than  two hundred years ago.  From time to time, on Facebook’s You know you’re from Aberystwyth when you… I have watched their videos as they squeeze along narrow adits ( tunnels) or abseil down vertical shafts.  They find abandoned wooden ladders, barrows, tools, shoes belonging to the miners, abandoned as it were yesterday.

This is more than sightseeing: their mines research is clarifying much about the history of mid Wales.   In the 17th century people tended to call all old mine workings ‘ Roman Mines’ but modern discoveries which can be carbon dated such as wooden tools  or charcoal on smelting floors have now confirmed Roman mining at Penpompren, and Cwmystwyth.  An exciting discovery, lying in a 19th Century adit was a wooden spade, typically Roman in style, which has been carbon dated to 4BC-71AD.  It had presumably been washed in there from the old workings. Hammer stones, probably from Llanrhystud beach bear witness to Bronze age workings at Copa Hill, Cwmystwyth.

On another occasion, when exploring the 18th century working which was Thomas Powell of Nanteos’ Great Adit at Bwlchgwyn they came upon a stone marker neatly engraved TP 1742.   Other sources tell us that Thomas Powell was in vigorous conflict with Sir Hugh Myddleton and  the Society of Mines Royal which had claimed mining rights for the Crown.  Ioan’s survey indeed confirms that Powell’s mine and his marker stone encroached well into Royal Mines territory!

The multi talented Ioan Lord, is currently working on a PhD at Cardiff but has also been a familiar face operating the Rheidol Valley steam trains. His very handsomely produced book on the mines of Cwm Rheidol and Ystumtuen was published last year by the Rheidol Railway and can be bought at their shop.

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Ioan Lord is one of the Directors of the Cambrian Mines Trust which was incorporated as a Company in 2012 with the objective of preservation and restoration of mining remains.  Particularly challenging in today’s risk-averse climate will be their objective to re-open underground workings for the public benefit.  In the meantime I do enjoy the videos, without risk of either hitting my head or obliterating, with my 21st century feet, the  ancient footprints of miners and even horses preserved in the mud of the adits.

 

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A blot on the landscape

by The Curious Scribbler,

I was astounded yesterday to see the new building on the Plas Morolwg site which overlooks the harbour at Aberystwyth.  Plonked like a giant brick on the skyline is a building of unsurpassed ordinariness.  A box designed  to contain seven residential flats rises four storeys high, a positive beacon to philistine development.  What were our Councillors and Planning Department thinking of?

The new Residential Block on Penyrangor

Penyrangor is a charming small road by which one approaches Tanybwlch beach and is flanked by squat bungalows and houses of early 20th century design.  Newer development behind this rank was somewhat controversial when the railway cutting was filled in and built over, but all  are two storey in height and designed with at least some respect for their position at the foot of beautiful Pendinas.  This monstrous cube is totally out of scale with its neighbourhood, perched on the top of rising ground above the road, and totally dominating the  other developments of flats around the harbour, let alone the regular housing.

The new block viewed from the harbour

Not long ago I looked at the Planning proposal to demolish and replace Bay View, one of the small houses on Penyrangor, a 1930s cottage which started its life as a tea house tucked into the small  quarry on the left as you approach the sea.  Reading the applicant’s proposal made one feel that landscape protection is alive and well. The report alluded to the Special Landscape Area in which it is set, and presented a sensitive design for a modern energy-efficient, two-storey building which respected the setting and would be tucked in such that the low pitched roof would not break the skyline above the sheltering rock face.

The site of Bay View, the old cottage now cleared away

No such considerations seem to have influenced the Wales and West Housing Association.  Indeed I’ve just been looking at their planning application and found two remarkably unhelpful projections of how the development will look.

The bird’s eye view hardly helps in predicting how we land-born humans will perceive the relative heights of the buildings around this development.

Meanwhile a Side Section elevation shows the ghosts of the adjoining houses looming tall behind the new block.  I have no idea where one would have to stand to see this perspective!  Indeed I suspect there is there is no such possibility.  My photo shows the same houses to be half the height of the block in the foreground.

The New Residential apartment block at Plas Morolwg, by Wales and West Housing Association

It seems a great pity that such misleading schematic drawings have, I presume, allowed the impact of this building to be overlooked until it is too late and the frame is up.  Its eventual appearance, it seems, will be  that of a block escaped from Penparcau, with similar glass fronted balconies, but some render and wood-effect cladding on the exterior.

The former Plas Morolwg was widely-known locally as ‘Colditz’ on account of its forbidding exterior, and its later claim to fame was as the setting for the lowest and most disagreeable characters in the TV show Hinterland.  The opportunity to replace it with something reflecting better on Aberystwyth has been avoided.

A view from the harbour.  Nothing else breaks the skyline as this does.

 

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Up the tower at Gelli Aur

by The Curious Scribbler

It seems to be my destiny to visit Gelli Aur ( Golden Grove) in the rain. Last week was my third visit in many years, and once again it poured.  Which was a pity because one of the anticipated high points was expected to be the view over the Tywyi Valley from the windows, or better still the roof.    Dryslwn Castle and Paxton’s tower lie to the west,  while Dynefwr Castle  should be visible to the north east,    Instead the distant views were lost in the mist.

Golden Grove mansion roof light above the main stairwell

 

Nonetheless it was a fascinating visit, for a small group of us were taken around the house, which was built 1826-34 for John Frederick Campbell, Lord Cawdor, to a design by Wyatville. Not his principal residence, ( which was Stackpole in Pembrokeshire)  but a summer retreat,  staffed all year round by as many as 55 house servants, but on full performance only for a few weeks of summer.  The proportions of the house reflect this, the grand rooms approached from the port cochère at the east end of the house  are not that numerous, while stretching away to the west is an extensive two-storey range  of servants’ rooms, and the stable courtyard  beyond that.  Unusually, the house faces north.. but this is the side with the long views, and north-facing was perhaps not such bad news during a hot summer.

Golden Grove mansion, the principal rooms are in the eastern end below the clock tower

After a disastrous decade of neglect and destruction the house and 100 acres of park now belongs to a Preservation Trust which has ambitious plans to create an art gallery and cultural centre there. One initiative already under way is the restoration of the clock which adorns the clock tower of the main house. New replica clock faces have already been prepared and a specialist clock restorer has been commissioned, one who is also working on Big Ben.

The Barwise Clock at Golden Grove

The clock is by Barwise of St Martin’s Lane, London, Chronometer, Watch and Clockmaker to His Majesty and the Royal Family, and dated 1832.  It stands in a large glazed cupboard with pulleys and levers reaching out in several directions.  I don’t pretend to understand exactly how it works, but it was clear to see the winding mechanism of three drums, round which ran the cables attached to three huge weights descending through neatly formed hatches in the floor of the tower.  A man with a crank handle would have had to regularly wind the clock, bringing the three big weights back up to the level of the clock.  This mechanism drove two clock faces on opposing sides of the tower, and three handsome bells which are attached to the outer wall of the clock tower.  ( I wonder what melody you can play on just three bells?  Probably the largest of the  three struck the hour.)

Golden Grove, one of the three weights driving the clock mechanism

The tower rises at the junction between the principal bedrooms and the servants’ wing, and the bells hang above the large glazed lantern which lights the grand stairs.  When operating, this handsome clock must have been more than audible to the grand occupants of the house.

The three bells on the tower. Golden Grove

The firm of Barwise existed from 1790 to 1855, and enjoyed greatest fame in the 1820s, it seems to have been best known for its pocket watches, long case and bracket clocks.  In an article on Barwise in the Antiquarian Horological Society journal we get just one glimpse of a clock similar to that at Golden Grove.  A correspondent to The Times 26 September 1855, described the scene after the Battle of the Great Redan, an engagement during siege of Sebastopol.    He wrote ” The Great Redan was next visited.  Such a scene of wreck and ruin! all the houses behind it a mass of broken stones – a clock turret, with shot right through the clock – a pagoda in ruins – another clock tower, with all the clocks destroyed save the dial, with the words Barwise London thereon“.

Golden Grove’s clock has lasted considerably better than that one. Perhaps some others are hidden away in English church towers:  there is at least one, at Clayworth St Peter, Notts, but that is a much more modest affair.

One regulator dial of the Barwise clock at Gelli Aur

Gelli Aur. The second regulator dials in the Barwise clock bears the date

The Barwise Clock at Golden Grove ( Gelli Aur)

 

 

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Frying the field bindweed

by The Curious Scribbler

The convolvulus family includes several choice and garden-worthy species, such as the silver-foliaged shrub  Convolvulus cneorum, and the sky blue Convolvulus mauritanicus of the hanging basket, but it also includes the gardener’s foe Calystegia sepium, the field bindweed.  Who has not engaged in an unending struggle with this plant!

Emerging from the ground as the frosts have passed its fine tendrils twist their way up the young stems of our newest seedlings or the woody stems of established shrubs.  Romping to the top, the new growth soon expands to form a heavy leafy mass which all too soon entirely swamps the substrate.  We pluck it, unwind it, dig up the white wandering roots and still it comes, for the brittle roots go deep and readily break when removed.  A tiny half inch of root will soon sprout a new plant, initially an innocent miniature tendril, but left unnoticed soon expanding to its gorgon like best.

Field Bindweed Calystegia sepium smothering a hedge

Field Bindweed Calystegia sepium

In hedgerows it is unassailable, and by this time of year may largely cover the hedge beneath.  But it redeems itself in the wild by the beauty of its flowers, great luminous white trumpet blooms opening freshly every day.  As a flower it puts Morning Glory in the shade, and would be much prized if only like Morning Glory it discreetly died each winter.  Instead, the roots burrow onward and a fresh supply of seeds ensure its rapid  introduction far and wide.

Field Bindweed Calystegia sepium

The very best gardens suffer from Bindweed.  I recently heard a talk by Debs Goodenough, Royal Gardener at Highgrove for the Prince of Wales, who was addressing the AGM of the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust. The Prince is conscientiously organic, so chemicals are not in the arsenal.  It was fascinating to learn that in the last few years they have been trialling a new method of  attack – by electrocution!   5000 volts is applied to the stem.  It is satisfying, she said, to see a puff of smoke emerge from the ground.

I’ve just been watching a YouTube film by the company Rootwave introducing the Rootwave Pro.  Rather than crouching with a widger the gardener strolls around with an electrocution wand attached to a small generator,  poking it into selected dandelions, hogweed, thistles and so on.  As the publicity puts it – the plants boil from the inside, die and return their goodness to the soil.  This is new technology and Debs was not yet ready to vouch for its effectiveness.  I do wonder whether, with the long roots of bindweed said to penetrate as much as 20 feet into the ground, the boiling plant near the surface will leave a healthy root fragment  deep below, capable of sprouting a new plant to re-invade.

I wonder also how the 5000 volt affects the nearby soil invertebrates, there must be a fair number of worms which, if not cooked, get the fright of their lives. I’m feeling rather respectful of worms just now having spent an hour watching the progress of a mole through the surface of a meadow.  Excavating with its powerful claws under the root mat of the grass the mole generates audible scrunching vibrations as it creates a run just below the surface.  And don’t the worms know!  In its immediate vicinity I watched worms of all sizes hurriedly emerging onto the surface of the grass and hastening 10 centimetres or more across the surface in braod daylight before disappearing once more below ground.  I don’t suppose that evolution has equipped worms with a similar sixth sense when the approach of the Rootwave operator is nigh.

It is good to know that HRH is experimenting with the latest in organic techniques.  We also learnt that his magnificent delphiniums receive their slug protection through garlands of seaweed mulched around each plant, and that he is keen to obtain  disabled hedgehogs from hedgehog hospitals.  A fully able hedgehog requires a substantial range and the breeding opportunities which that affords.  A troupe of disabled yet hungry hedgehogs could just hang around the Highgrove borders eating their fill of slugs and snails.

 

 

 

 

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Veteran tree in danger at Hafod

by The Curious Scribbler

There is much disquiet at Hafod at the impending loss of another of its veteran beech trees, one which stands beside the little stone bridge on the drive just below the spur path up to the Bedford Monument and Mariamne’s Garden.

The veteran beech tree stands below the drive through the Hafod Estate

This is probably the tallest of Hafod’s surviving ancient beech trees, drawn upwards  in a fairly sheltered position in the lea of the steeply rising hillside.  It is also one the best known, because only two of the big beeches are easily visible from the road through the estate.

Unfortunately it drew attention to itself last September by dropping a large branch, which fell harmlessly into the stream valley below.   As a result, a much earlier bough loss became visible to the passer by and was noticed by Jim Ralph the NRW Local Area  Manager responsible for Hafod.   Higher up the tree, well above the recently-lost branch, an old tear is visible which is flanked by the curved buttresses of wound-healing wood on either side.  I would guess this injury is several decades old.

The veteran beech below Mariamne’s garden

However its potential to shed further branches came to mind, and when Health and Safety collides with Conservation the the latter is seldom the winner.  Expert opinion of an arboriculturist identified the tree as a ‘moderate’ threat, further branch fall could occur, the branch could fall onto the road, there could be a passerby on that road at the moment when it falls.  The recommendation was that it should be felled to a tall stump.

Hafod residents are so upset at the prospect of loosing this lovely tree that a few weeks ago a petition was launched on Change.org which has already attracted more than 200 signatories.  I attended a meeting recently at which an articulate group expressed their views to NRW.  Tellingly, all were willing to see the road closed through the estate if such a course of action would save the tree by reducing public access to its vicinity.

In a wide ranging discussion it was asserted by the residents and confirmed by Dave Newnham, the Hafod Estate Manager, that a greater risk of being struck by a falling tree is posed by the large Douglas firs and other conifers adjoining the road and paths on Hafod. The Local Area Manager did not disagree with this opinion, but explained that the conifers are not subject to similar levels of inspection and risk assessment.  As anyone who has walked through a conifer plantation after a storm knows, perfectly healthy trees may blow over, their root plate lifted clean out of the ground.  Which trees may fall is unpredictable, so the crop is not inspected.  Wind-blow is an accepted risk.

It seems that the collapse of a piece off a veteran tree cannot be an accepted risk in terms of NRW management,  so any veteran beech faces a similar fate.  Just such a scenario was played out at Hafod ten years ago when the then Forestry Commission Local Manager’s eye fell upon a beautiful tree in a group below Pant Melyn, not far from the footpath to the Cascade Cavern, (locally known as the Robber’s cave).

The hollow beech at Pant Melyn, Hafod, in 2009

The tree was huge and  healthy, but had at its base a hollow trunk into which it was possible for a small person to squeeze. A specialist report employing sonic tomography confirmed the obvious, that the tree was hollow on one side, and despite an inconclusive debate as to the relative strength of a rod and a cylinder of wood, the tree was duly felled to a high stump.  The Hafod Trust argued passionately for its retention, but to no avail. The case for its destruction was enhanced by the fact that the route to the Cavern Cascade is a public footpath, and families often paused to rest and enjoy that very tree.

The hollow beech at Cae Melyn, Hafod, in 2009 was deemed unsafe, and was cut down

There are  probably a score of  other fine beeches, dating from Thomas Johnes’s time on the Hafod Estate, and fortunately most of them are further from a road.  For the time being this is their salvation, for NRW are unlikely to send out specialist arboriculturalists to inspect them all.  But if they did, probably none would be given a clean bill of health for the 21st century.

Current interpretation by NRW of the risk of litigation appears to be that the further from the car park you are when felled by a tree, the less responsible they, (the landowner), are likely to be considered!  Across the UK about 4 people per year are killed by a falling tree, a minute contribution to overall human mortality.  But for this reason, the veteran trees which draw people to Hafod will all be, sooner or later, at risk.

A change of policy at a high level would be needed to overturn the current thinking. The petition to National Resources Wales  is at https://www.change.org/p/nastural-resource-wales-to-support-local-veteran-trees-of-hafod

 

 

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A farm wedding in July

By the Curious Scribbler

Seven years ago I began this blog with an account of the flowers we arranged for my elder daughter’s wedding in November. Raiding my own and friends’ gardens then  provided a floral range not readily accessible through florists.   I built on this experience last month when my younger daughter married, in a barn wedding in Herefordshire.  This was no stately venue but a real working barn, in which the groom’s family house their beef cattle and hay in winter, and what the bride wanted was lots of fairy lights and flowers!

In keeping with the setting we avoided the new and shiny.  Between the two families we collected up three pairs of aged milk churns, seven leaking galvanised buckets, and sundry large Victorian earthenware storage pots, and some large jam jars.  For the table centrepieces we used amateur clay pots we had thrown ourselves.

Warren Farm, Brockhampton also sells flowers at the farm gate, and we were up soon after dawn to roam the cutting field, and came back with bucket loads of summer flowers: achillea, Ammi majus, delphinium, larkspur, lupin, scabious, clarkia, nigella, astrantia,  helichrysum, cornflower, gypsophila, lavender, hydrangea, many shades of cosmos.  Farmer James Hawkins margins his fields with generous plantings of wild carrot, borage and Phacelia tanacetifolia  for wildlife and insects, and brought great buckets of these for the big arrangements.  The old pigsties became our workspace for the day.

For the milk churns we used teasels and white echinops to provide the structure of the arrangements and created three pairs of varying formality.  To flank the bride and groom were the most formal arrangements while those framing the farm entrance were perhaps the most evocative, billowing with carrot and phacelia from the fields.

From my garden I brought the teasels, variegated tall true bulrushes (Scirpus lacustris albescens) from my pond, male fern, pink fairy rose, and fruiting guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) to drape over the edges of the pots.  Ivy was foraged locally from the woods.

The farm-grown Achillea was a particular delight for the big arrangements, for it grows more than two feet tall with great plates of flowers in romantic summer  shades of pink, cream and burgundy.

Achillea millefolium

The bouquets for bride and bridesmaids were made of traditional wildflowers like honeysuckle and hardhead, along with lady’s mantle, astrantia and sweet peas. All the material for bouquets and buttonholes were picked on the farm, and tied by talented members of the families.  The professional photos are as yet under wraps, but  here is a taster from a guest.

With flowers like these it was impossible to go wrong!

 

 

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Mrs Johnes’ Garden at Hafod

by The Curious Scribbler

In the summer of 1788 Jane Johnes wrote to her brother John Johnes of Dolaucothi describing her garden at Hafod  as ” in high beauty” and “full of flowers”.  Two hundred and thirty years is a long time ago, and for much of the recent hundred there was nothing to boast about at Hafod.  So it is pleasing this summer to be able once more to echo those words, as the  borders fill out with recently replanted herbaceous perennials and a glut of multi-headed foxgloves.

Foxgloves in the borders in Mrs Johnes’ garden Hafod

The restoration began with the removal of the sitka spruce plantation 10 year ago and the shrubs around the perimeter are now up to 7 years’ established.  Recently, pride of place has been held by the scented Philadelphus, the gleaming white blooms of Rosa x alba Semi Plena, and the arching briars of Shailer’s White Moss Rose.

Rosa x alba Semi Plena

Rosa Shailer’s White Moss

The Hafod Trust  received donations towards the planting of the garden from the Finnis Scott Foundation, and from the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust.   With the final planting phase and a lavish application of rich organic mulch in the autumn of last year the garden has now turned a corner, and is developing the frothy abundance of a proper garden.  The foxgloves are natives which, finding themselves in such a rich environment, sent up as many as half a dozen flower spikes from every plant.  The two or three welsh poppies planted two years ago now have spawned a host of seedlings, while patches of Doronicum, Chelone, Lysimachia, Veronicastrum and  Elecampane jockey for position amongst the shrubs.

The Cardiganshire Horticultural Society visited at the end of June and despite persistent rain enjoyed a number of short talks about the garden.

The Cardiganshire Horticultual Society visits Mrs Johnes’ Flower Garden, Hafod

Historian Jennie Macve described its place in Garden History.   In 1787 Johnes visited Rev W. Gilpin and told him that his chief guide in laying out his grounds at Hafod had been Rev William Mason’s lengthy poetic work, ‘The English Garden’.   In volume four of this work, Mason (who laid out the garden at Nuneham Courtney in Oxfordshire) gives his prescription for his then innovative style of flower garden, with its circuit gravel walk, its flower beds cut out of shaven turf forming winding grass paths between, its thickets of shrubs and colourful flowers. Visitors to Hafod described the garden lying, like a jewel in the wilderness, glimpsed briefly from the wooded heights of Gentleman’s Walk on the south bank of the Ystwyth, or appearing suddenly to the walker approaching on the gentler Lady’s Walk.

Jennie also revealed that although the Coade stone heads of a Nymph and a Satyr which form the keystones of the two garden entrances bear the date 1793 it is unclear when they were installed there.  The door arches as seen today were heavily restored in the 1980s when the garden was derelict and the original Coade stone heads had already found their way into Margaret Evans’s Collection, which now resides in the Ceredigion Museum.  The heads in the garden today are perfect replicas in resin.  Oddly, none of the contemporary descriptions mention these arches, or the stone heads.  It is even possible  that these elaborate doorways were installed by a later owner, perhaps the Duke of Northumberland, using second-hand Coade stone ornament. We just do not know.

The original Coade Stone heads, now in the Ceredigion Museum

She also viewed with caution the designation as an ‘American Garden’.  Only one contemporary visitor who left a written record describes the presence of American plants.  What is clear though is that Jane Johnes was a keen plantswoman,  the Johneses employed able gardeners, and that they corresponded about plants with their friends Sir Robert Liston and his wife, who cultivated an acclaimed American Garden at their home in Edinburgh.  Plants enthusiasts, then as now, invariably seek out and exchange rare plants new to horticulture.  Just as the Wollemi pine and the tree fern Dicksonia antarctica have become the must-have plants of today, Jane and the Listons would have sought to obtain the new.  In the late eighteenth century much of the new was being imported by plant collectors working the eastern seaboard of the USA.  Very few plants had yet been imported from the far east, and the many exotic Chinese and Japanese garden plants so familiar today were quite unknown.

Landscape architect Ros Laidlaw was also present to explain how she had selected the plants for Mrs Johnes’ garden entirely from species and cultivars known to be available to British gardeners in the eighteenth century.  This was quite a challenging task, for some, such as the fragrant North American shrub Comptonia asplenifolia have fallen from popular use and no longer appear in nurserymen’s lists, whilst for many other plants, improved hybrid versions have now largely replaced the original species.  The roses I alluded to at the beginning are named cultivar Old Roses with an established history,  the fragrant Philadelphus coronarius has open yellow-centred single flowers, quite like a Eucryphia bloom, rather than the familiar double flowers of modern garden cultivars.

The modern restoration does not attempt to reproduce the layout of the original garden which would have had many brilliant island beds, probably geometrically arranged and cut out of the shaven turf.  Such a  garden would be extremely labour-intensive to care for, and is best enjoyed by small groups of people strolling through the sinuous paths inspecting the plantings.  In its present form the garden offers historical authenticity in the path layout and the selection of species in the perimeter border, while the central lawn has made possible events such as the phenomenally successful Foxglove Fair which in early May saw as many as 2000 visitors enjoying food, shopping and entertainment under a brilliant and cloudless sky.

Crowds descended on the Foxglove Fair in 12 May

Doronicum pardalianches

The garden is principally maintained by the Hafod Estate manager Dave Newnham and his assistant Simon Boussetta.  There are also regular Volunteer Weeding Days, the next of which will be on Friday 19 July and Friday 23 August.  Garden maintenance is vital and more loyal volunteers are always needed.  Volunteers bring their preferred weeding tools, and are rewarded with tea and coffee and a keen sense of achievement!  They have been very enjoyable days.

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Magnificent trees at Gelli Aur

by the Curious Scribbler

Gelli Aur (or Golden Grove) is an important mansion and estate situated in the Towy valley not far from Aberglasney but much less visited.  Its fortunes in the last half-century have been rocky, and increasingly dispiriting.  The second world war took its toll, when the house was occupied by the US Air Force and temporary buildings mushroomed on the lawned terraces. The following peace saw it occupied for almost 50 years by  the Carmarthen Agricultural College (Coleg Sir Gar) while 60 acres of the grounds became a Country Park.  Then more recently the College moved to modern premises and the estate was sold.  The last ten years or so has seen a succession of owners of which the most publicised was the aspiration to develop it as a convalescent home for soldiers.  However the failure of this and various inappropriate development bids left the house a severely dilapidated wreck, stripped of its roof lead and run through with wet and dry rot, and even the Country Park closed to visitors.

So it is a delight to find its fortunes have finally turned the corner, thanks to a philanthropic backer and a newly formed preservation trust.  Last Autumn public access was restored  to the arboretum and a newly built tea room provides excellent lunches and teas.  It is a big largely glass building overlooking the wooded landscape below, and is even well equipped with family board games should the weather be too wet to venture outside.  I found Frances Jones Davies ( formerly editor of Wales’ glossy magazine Cambria)  running the cafe and expounding the ongoing developments for the house.

It is not perhaps the prettiest of Regency mansions.  The ancient seat of the Vaughans was down in the valley and was demolished  by Lord Cawdor when he built the present house.  Styled a Hunting Lodge it was built 1827-32 by Wyatville on  the slopes above the deerpark. It acted as an alternative to the principal Cawdor seat at Stackpole in Pembrokeshire.

To frame the setting of the new house, the land rising behind it was formed into a series of broad grassy terraces, and an arboretum was begun by the head gardener William Hill in the 1860s among some existing native beeches and oaks.

Golden Grove mansion viewed from the terraces above

Things have thrived in this rich damp valley.  Last week  horticultural expert Ivor Stokes led a group of enthusiasts from the Ceredigion WHGT ( Welsh Historic Gardens Trust) around the arboretum. Among the huge beeches and oaks there are exotic firs, pines, spruces, thujas, redwoods and cypresses drawn up to prodigious heights.

A Lawson’s Cypress, given time and space becomes a magnificent tree

A huge multi-stemmed Monterey Pine at Gelli Aur

The undergrowth includes a fine variety of rhododendrons and azaleas, some of them  cultivars now rare or lost. We marvelled at a particularly vigorous Fern leaved Beech, and a huge Magnolia tripetala still sporting one or two spring flowers.

A champion Magnolia tripetala ( native to the Eastern USA)

Magnolia tripetala flower

It it were not for the rain I would have taken many more photographs and made copious notes.

An unexpected treat was to be granted access to the 10 acre walled garden, now in separate ownership which adjoins the site of the old mansion.  This is truly large, so huge that it even contains a small lake! ( most walled gardens are little more than one acre in extent).

Golden Grove. The old walled garden contains a small lake

And at the margin of this garden is a truly spectacular tree, remnant of the Vaughan glory days.  It is a towering double-trunked tulip tree, more than 29 feet in circumference.  A whole ecosystem lives upon it, with massive vines of ivy, and seedling rhododendron, ferns and mosses nestled in the crevices of its bark.  Tulip trees Liriodendron tulipifera first came to Britain in Stuart times and this may well be one of the first to arrive.

Ivor Stokes at the foot of the Tulip Tree at Golden Grove

 

The champion Tulip Tree, Liriodendron tulipifera at Gelli Aur

Gelli Aur mansion is undergoing restoration and will in time be open to the public an art gallery and cultural centre.  In the meantime it may be possible for small groups to arrange a visit to the house.

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The Foxglove Fair at Hafod

by the Curious Scribbler

The Foxglove Fair at Hafod

Hafod has come along way from its derelict state in 1994.  The walks and bridges are all now restored and it is prized by many people for its its quiet tranquillity, its vistas and waterfalls and the three walled gardens at its core.

This coming weekend that tranquillity will be, for some hours, interrupted by an event much anticipated in the community.  A large marquee has blossomed in Mrs Johnes’ Flower Garden, and on Saturday  evening it will host Music in the Marquee, a ticketed event at which food and drink will be available along with  entertainment by two local bands, the Hornettes and The Hicksters.

The Hornettes and The Hicksters

On Sunday the Foxglove Fair runs from 10.30 to 6pm.  There will be 40 outdoor stands selling crafts, plants, food and drink, while more stands devoted to sales and local organizations will be in the marquee.  Throughout the day a programme of music in the marquee will be provided by local schools and choirs and the Aberystwyth Silver Band.

It is right and proper in my view that a garden should be not merely beautiful but useful, a place of sociability and fun.  Mrs Johnes’ garden, which occupies a low lying area by a bend in the Ystwyth river, has proved its merits before, notably at a lavish wedding reception held there by Nick and Claire Lee in 2018.

Wedding marquee at Hafod

For this weekend’s events the initiative came from the tourism body Pentir Pumlumon and the Cefn Croes Windfarm Trust and has been choreographed by Tourism Development Officer Tanya Friswell and Hafod Estate Manager Dave Newnham.

I hope visitors will take time to stroll round the garden, planted, as an echo of its former splendour, with plants which were available to gardeners in the garden’s heyday in the late 18th century.  Some contemporary  visitors described Mrs Johnes’ Garden as an American Garden.  At this time fashionable recent introductions were chiefly from the eastern side of the USA.  The rich variety of Japanese and Chinese flowers and shrubs familiar in gardens today had yet to be discovered.

Just ten years ago this garden was barely discernable, swamped by a mature plantation of sitka spruce.  Huge earthmovers and diggers extracted the stumps, lifting and shaking them of earth as the weeder shakes a groundsel.

In 2009 the sitka spruce plantation was removed and the garden restoration began

The  forest road was re-routed round the margin of the old garden, and the dry stone walls repaired and topped with moss.

In Mrs Johnes’ day the lawn would have been ornamented with many island beds brilliant with flowers.  It is well described by B.H. Malkin (The Scenery, Antiquities and Bibliography of South Wales published 1804) “A gaudy flower garden, with its wreathing and fragrant plats bordered by shaven turf, with a smooth gravel walk carried around, is dropped, like an ornamental gem among wild and towering rocks, in the very heart of boundless woods. The spot contains about two acres, swelling gently to meet the sunbeams, and teeming with every variety of shrub and flower”.

The modern restoration has the original circular gravel path but the ornamental borders are confined to the perimeter of the garden.  Those fragrant, gaudy plats would require a great deal of gardeners’ time, especially when the ‘shaven turf’ was all mowed by scythe.  The present arrangement still requires regular effort by garden volunteers, but also allows Hafod to welcome the occasional big event, and play a full part in the community.  I intend to be there.

August 2018 Volunteers spread extra mulch on the border

The garden volunteers meet on Fridays: this year weeding dates are planned for 31 May, 28 June, 19 July, 23 August, 3 October.  More volunteers are always welcome, and will find tea and biscuits and a warm welcome in the garden from 10 am till 4pm.

 

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