The Elvis Rock

by The Curious Scribbler

Following my recent much-read blog about the vandalism and prompt repainting of the Cofiwch Dryweryn wall near Llanrhystud several readers contributed comments on the familiar Elvis rock just over the Ceredigion border on the A44 at Eisteddfa Gurig which the unknown vandals appeared to be copying.

The Elvis rock at Eisteddfa Gurig

This too, is a reinstated version of a modified graffiti message. Originally painted on the rock in 1962 it represented electioneering support for Islwyn Ffoulkes Ellis, the Plaid Cymru candidate in a by-election.   This being the legal name  bestowed upon him at birth in 1924 it was necessarily spelled thus on the electioneering literature and the hoardings.  But he was not a successful candidate and is much better known as the Lampeter University academic and prominent Welsh author Islwyn Ffowc Elis.

This historic detail solves a problem which has long perplexed me:  How do you find the space to amend Elis to Elvis?

The original ‘Elvis’ has also been destroyed in the interim and has been repainted on a freshly cut face of rock. Now it sports an expansive V wider than the rest of the lettering, as my picture shows.

According to Gwylim writing last month in Ein Gwlad, the original artists of the original ‘Ellis’ were the late film director John Hefin and David Meredith, former Head of Press and PR at HTV and S4C. The original author of Cofiwch Dryweryn was the late Professor Mike ( later spelled Meic) Stevens. What a talented and scholarly lot these graffiti writers became!   Did they already consider themselves men of letters in their nationalist-slogan writing days?

 

 

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Cofiwch Dryweryn

by The Curious Scribbler.

I learnt on the Welsh News on Sunday that the graffiti on the wall beside to A487 just north of Llanrhystud has been vandalised once again, so I took a detour there today.  Imagine my surprise to find that the new daubing  ‘Elvis’ and a heart has already disappeared, to be replaced by the original message.  It has become quite a tourist attraction.  As I pulled into the adjoining layby I found another pilgrim like myself already bent on photography!

Passers by are stopping to admire the freshly repainted wall.

A quick search of Facebook reveals that a newly formed group styling themselves Welsh Independence Memes for Angry Welsh Teens lost no time in obliterating the substitution, toiling through the night to reinstate the old message.

The self appointed custodians of Welsh history

How much more satisfactory than a ponderous debate with the Authorities as to how and with whose money the restitution should be made! It is evocative of the original creation of the memorial, by a young Welsh Nationalist student at Aberystwyth University in the 1960s.  It is a less known fact that that original young artist was one Meic Stevens, who died recently, having risen to the heights of Professor of Welsh Writing in English at The University of Glamorgan, a prolific author and Editor of The New Companion to Welsh Literature!

Meic’s artwork was prompted by the flooding of the village of Capel Celyn to create the Tryweryn Reservoir in 1965.  I can think of no better aide-memoir than a little snippet of British Film Institute video  which records the last event at Capel Curig School and the last wedding, in 1963 at its chapel, while the earthmovers create a great scar in the background. Everyone in their best clothes, the ladies in their hats and heels, little girls  in their summer dresses, boys in in their blazers and ties.  It evokes a distant past.

As the years passed the wall crumbled at one end, and the H disappeared entirely.  One could still draw in and post a letter there, though that opportunity has gone today.

An earlier morph of the graffiti

It was touched up from time to time but it is in the present century that there have been successive attacks on the roadside memorial.  In 2010 it was partially painted over to display an blobby ambiguous tag.  In 2013 MP Mark Williams posed in front if it wearing an expression of grim concern.  The perpetrators thought the obliterated letter W and the smiley face an amusing joke.

MP Mark Williams condemned the new graffiti in 2013

 

The wall was repainted in 2013 with the original message.

The next addition was at least more politically relevant  ” Remember Aberfan was appended and this remained for several years.

More recently the lettering was redone, in green rather than the original white, perhaps to emphasize the Welsh colours.Last weekend’s morph was perhaps the least creative.  The new daub seems superfluous – we already have the well known Elvis rock at Eisteddfa Gurig.  A second ‘Elvis’ lacks the historical relevance of the first, which was a corruption of the electioneering notice for Councillor Elis. One wonders exactly what the author of thinking of.

The Cofiwch Dryweryn wall as it appeared on 1 of February 2019, but was promptly obliterated.

The dynamism of the repainting team, slaving by lamplight on a very chilly night is heartening.  Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader and MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd Liz Saville Roberts has joined the fray with a worthy statement:

The Cofiwch Dryweryn Memorial is a symbolic and poignant reminder of why Welsh land; Welsh culture & Welsh communities cannot be allowed to be so drastically undervalued ever again’

Only in Wales could a piece of Banksy artwork be subject to such publicly-funded protection whilst an unrivalled marker of our nation’s political struggle for self-determination is left open to asinine damage.’

‘The Welsh Government must now act, acknowledge the history of the nation it purports to serve and afford this emblem the recognition and protection it rightly deserves.’ 

But is physical protection really the way forward?  The immediate independent action  to repaint the memorial is surely far more dynamic history than is putting up a fence!  Though I suppose a video camera could reveal, to the embarrassment of many,  the full range of activities to which a roadside layby can be put.

 

 

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Halkyn Marble

by the Curious Scribbler

In November, when writing about Snowdrop marble, I planned to return to another beautiful and distinctive Welsh stone – Halkyn marble from the Carboniferous limestone of North Wales.  I am grateful to Andrew Haycock of the Welsh Stone Forum for introducing me to this pretty stone.

Halkyn marble font in St Mary the Virgin Church ,  Halkyn.

This stone was recognised for its ornamental potential in the early nineteenth century, when the Marble quarry  first appears in the will of John Salisbury in 1837.  It qualities are amply displayed at Halkyn church, a spectacularly lavish Victorian church built by the First Duke of Westminster in 1877.  At that time the Duke was employing Chester architect John Douglas to extend Halkyn Castle in the Elizabethan style and, finding the existing parish church to be somewhat shabby and, worse still, interfering with the view from the castle, he demolished it entirely and built a new one, also by John Douglas, on a nearby site.  As is often the case with such vanity projects, the unattractive old memorials of the former church were not transferred, except for a Latin-inscribed slab to a former rector, Peter Roberts and  an unexplained but damaged alabaster effigy which hints at an important memorial now lost.

Peter Roberts, Rector, died 1819 must have been fun at dinner ! “In conversation suavis, facetus, hilaris”  – suave, facetious and hilarious  – or at the very least,    ‘Sweet, witty and cheerful’

The master mason who built the new church out of local Gwespyr sandstone was also the owner of the marble quarry at Pant-y-Pwll Dwr, five miles away.  He lost no opportunity to showcase its qualities in the church interior. Four handsome pillars of Halkyn marble separate the nave from the north aisle, the pulpit stands upon a plinth of the stone, and the barrier between nave and chancel is topped with this polished stone.  Typically available in slabs up to 18 inches thick, the massive font is carved from three layers of this particularly impressive rock, with a stem of black marble, probably also of local origin.

Interior of St Mary the Virgin, Halkyn

Interior stonework in Halkyn Marble

The appeal of this stone comes from the fossils within the grey matrix.  These are the stems of sea lilies – crinoids – which were an abundant form of sessile echinoderm, relatives of sea urchin and starfish.  Cut across they look like beads, cut obliquely whole stems are visible.  At a lesser frequency are large bivalved seashells, – productids – which generally look like curved C-shapes in section.

Pillar formed of blocks of Halkyn marble

Large slabs of Halkyn marble  also went to the Duke of Westminster’s Victorian Eaton Hall which was a gothic turretted monstrosity built to a design by Alfred Waterhouse in the 1880s and demolished  eighty years later.

Eaton Hall in 1907 a photograph by John Steggall                                                                                Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1339190

Halkyn marble may well have found its way to other properties of the Grosvenor estate.

The original quarry is long gone, subsumed into a huge Cemex quarry just south of the A55 North Wales Expressway, where these abundant  fossils are ground up to make  road-stone. Adjoining the modern quarry one can still find smaller outcrops in which the crinoid stems are eroded by the weather to stand proud of the surface.

Halkyn marble weathers out to expose the crinoid stems

the disused quarry at Bryn Blewog, just across the road from Pant-y-Pwll Dwr the giant Cemtex quarry.

When dry and unpolished the stone just looks grey, raindrops expose some hint of its potential beauty. It is heartening to know that Gwyn Davies stonemason of nearby Rhes-y-cae was able to obtain 100 tons of quality beds of Halkyn marble from the Cemex quarry, so it is still possible to commission a fireplace or stone slabs to ornament a modern project, or to restore a historic one.  A new piece was used in 2011 to mark the end at Chepstow, of the Wales Coast path.

Image result for chepstow wales coastal path

Slab of unpolished Halkyn marble (left) and of Pennant Sandstone (right) mark the end of the Wales Coastal path at Chepstow. copyright BBC News in Pictures

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To fell or not to fell?

by The Curious Scribbler

There is a good deal of consternation around the Council’s decision to fell trees on Cambridge Terrace so I went between the rain showers to investigate this quiet corner of Aberystwyth.  It is not a road but a footpath really, which sets off along the back of the houses on Queen’s Road, just after the dejected former catholic church, and runs along below the bowling greens  as far as the North Road Clinic.  Here the path swerves uphill to approach North Road.

The thirty-three Monterey Cypresses

The specifications sounded alarming:  33 Monterey Cypresses and 5 White  Poplars are for the chop, and I have heard parallels being drawn with the disgraceful sacrifice of street trees which has caused so much anguish in Sheffield.  So I was relieved to find that the 33 Monterey Cypresses are basically just an outgrown hedge.  These are not trees which like being crowded, and which when used as a hedge must be cut meticulously every year because unlike Yew they do not sprout again from old wood.  The hedge has obviously escaped the council’s care many years ago, and the result is spindly misshapen trees, which have very little visual appeal.  I think their loss is justified. Far fewer trees widely spaced could be allowed to reach the same height here but they would be far more shapely.

The poplars form a twiggy skyline when seen from North Road over the rope maze, and I understand at least one resident has objected to their invasive roots affecting his garden.

View from North Road, the poplars reach above the Holm Oaks on Cambridge Terrace.

But when I walked along this pretty path behind Queens Road I was struck by the other planting here.  There are a couple of gnarled and contorted Wych Elms ( Ulmus scabra ‘Camperdownii’) , and some small crab apple trees, but the secluded  character of  this byway is defined by the many substantial Holm oaks on either side.  This evergreen oak is a delightful town tree, most appropriate for a Victorian setting, and I am relieved to see that these will all be retained.   Already the poplars are overshadowing and their branches inter-meshing with the Holm oaks. Irrespective of the root issue, this is just too many trees in a confined space,  so I cannot oppose their loss.

looking north along Cambridge Terrace

In considering the suitability of the Holm Oak I am reminded of the landmark tree outside Plas Antaron which marks the entry to Penparcau.  This is the same tree that stood there in the 1860s and appears in a sketch in one of W.T.R. Powell of Nanteos’ famous scrap books, and records  his and his friends’ drunken return there one evening.  About 15 years ago I remember  that tree surgeons lopped off its  spreading crown, first on the road side one year, and once this re-sprouted, on the other side two years later.  It looked pretty brutal at the time but the crown re- grew to create the handsome bushy tree we see today.

The Holm oak outside Plas Antaron, Penparcau

The Cambridge Terrace Holm Oaks have the same potential, and already screen the houses from  sight from North Road.  They will flourish without the crowded competition and are a well mannered tree well suited to this location. Hedgehogs have been seen on Cambridge Terrace and probably thrive there not just on the insects and earthworms but  on the nutritious fallen acorns from these trees.

If and when the somewhat dreary rope maze is replaced by a more conspicuous or noisy recreational facility there will still be this calm canopy of dark green forming a backdrop to the former second bowling green.

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Snowdrop Marble

by The Curious Scribbler

A few years ago I was lucky to view the interior of one of the finest houses on the Tenby seafront, no 1 Lexden Terrace, a Grade II* listed building which was, at the time, the home of Mrs Marion Hutton.

Six house make up Lexden Terrace, overlooking the sands at Tenby. No 1 is at the right.

The five storey house was a treasure trove of antiques and objets collected in her lifetime, but my particular attention was drawn to a fire surround, made of polished black stone ornamented with white fossils.  This and much else of the interior dates back to the 1840s when sea captain John Rees of Tenby, enriched by his trading activities in the Chinese Opium Wars, built not one but five handsome houses set on an outcrop above Castle Sands.  Number 1 was his home, while numbers 2-5 were then, as they are today, upmarket holiday lets.

1 Lexden Terrace, Tenby: Snowdrop Marble fire surround.  The brachiopod shells sliced in section look a little like snowdrop blooms.

The stone probably came from the Pwll Quarry, just inland from Pendine.  Leslie Baker Jones ( Trans Carms. Antiquarian Soc. 1971)  has written about the monumental mason, Tom Morris of Pendine, who lived  1804 -1886, and whose career with Messrs Rogers, Marble Masons of Tenby involved the manufacture of funeral slabs, mantelpieces, tables and other domestic adornments. Morris felt Pwll Quarry yielded the best Snowdrop Marble, as it was called, though there were other nearby sources exploited in the 19th century, at Carew Newton to the the west and at Llanddarog and Llangynderyn, to the north east of Kidwelly.

A detail of the over mantel. Where the internal structure of the brachiopod is cut through showing the forked spondylium, the resemblance to a snowdrop bloom is strongest.

This distinctive stone occurs only locally and is of Carboniferous age, and was variously marketed as Black and White marble, Snowdrop marble, and as Welsh Black ( the last perhaps describing layers less rich in the distinctive fossils).  In St Mary’s Church, Tenby we found examples on grave slabs going back as far as 1788.

In the great outdoors it has fared less well, for the acidity in the rain has destroyed the polish, such that the fossils are only clearly visible when wet. At Manordeifi Church, Llechryd it is easy to overlook a massive inscribed slab, cramped in a vertical setting within a sheltering arch of masonry.  Shelter has done it little good, but close inspection shows the speckled appearance to be due to the mass of “snowdrops” or rather brachiopods in the stone.

 

Grave memorial in Snowdrop marble at Manordeifi Church

Another grave, at St Florence, Pembrokeshire was once highly ornamental, but its richly fossiliferous appearance and colour contrast are lost without the polish.

A detail of a gravestone at St Florence, Pembs, in snowdrop marble

And at St Mary’s Church, Kidwelly we found another example, in a memorial set into the church wall, showing the characteristic scattering of shells.

St Mary’s Church, Kidwelly a grave slab in snowdrop marble set in the church wall

These slabs, when new and highly polished must have stood out in the graveyards much as  the impermeable Indian black granite memorials do today among the less showy slate and stone.  Only indoors can snowdrop marble survive the ravages of time.  As a material for a modern worktop Snowdrop Marble would be beautiful, but it would be vulnerable to etching by lemon juice or vinegar in the kitchen.  Nonetheless it is a pity that  this distinctive Welsh stone is no longer produced for ornamental purposes.

 

Coming next:  Halkyn Marble, another distinctive Welsh marble from the north!

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Aberystwyth Campus a lost cause

by the Curious Scribbler

Graduation is past, the students are gone for the summer, so the Aberystwyth University Estates Department is once again ramping up their programme of landscape destruction.  Last summer saw the disappearance of several important  shrub plantings including the long stretch below the Hugh Owen Library.  We have had plenty of time to savour the results of that.  Brambles and weeds now flourish in the optimistically spread  bark mulch on the slope, the so-called-wildflower planting has been strimmed down to its brown dead stems, and in the present hot summer, the grass and new turf has, understandably, taken on the appearance of the savannah.  There is a particular irony in the observation that while we ordinary folk stopped mowing our lawns six weeks ago because they weren’t growing, the University’s contractors’ machines have passed repeatedly over the ground during those weeks, kicking up clouds of dust and barely a blade of grass.  That is what happens when you put your lawn mowing out to contract in Shrewsbury.  Specialists contractors cannot be redeployed to do something useful, as in-house staff could have been.  They were employed to mow lawns.

The new appearance of the border below the Hugh Owen Library

The mature plantings of deep rooted shrubs hold up better in the drought.  The welcome shade is enlivened by the diversity of tone and texture.  You could look across a parched lawn to the dense glossy green of holly, cotoneaster, and escallonia, the sculptural leaves of viburnum or choisya, the dusty grey-green mounds of Olearia about to burst into flower, the dark feathers of low growing juniper.

Or you could.  A new outbreak of needless destruction is taking place around the presently unoccupied halls of Cwrt Mawr and Rosser.  As I approached the Cwrt Mawr Hub I was astounded to find the tightly pruned bushy heads of an entire hedge of hollies lying scattered on the ground.  The trees, each with trunks about six inches in diameter, have been sawn off above ground.  It had been a blameless hedge, less than chest high and well tended, and it screened a long plastic bike shelter.

Holly hedge adjoining the path to Cwrt Mawr Hub

Strolling further among the buildings of Cwrt Mawr, things get worse.  Some destruction may have been necessary due to work upon a water main, but the damage is far worse than that.  There is clearly a philosophy here.  Where a border formerly stood, there shall be just one tree, denuded as far as possible of its lower branches. 

Cwrt Mawr

Around Rosser I found more borders had just been destroyed.  The sad mounds of destroyed shrubs lay inn heaps beside the stumps.  Here, not yet wilted, were the boughs of evergreen choisya, olearias about to bloom, azaleas in tight bud with next spring’s blooms, cotoneasters, purple and green leaved berberis. In one border the designated survivor is a Eucalyptus, in another it is a sorbus.  In the furthest border there are no designated survivors.  The penitentary style of the buildings has a new brutality.

Cwrt Mawr.  The  heap on the left is of azalea, pieris and juniper.

Trefloyne A,  –  a great heap of Olearia and Choysia lies around a pollarded tree

This bed was planted with olearias, Choisya ternata and Eucryphia nymansensis

Huge daisy bushes, about to bloom, cut off at the ground

Rosser –   Another harmless border destroyed to enhance the view?

It is no secret that the Estates Department’s decision-makers have no horticultural  or landscape design qualifications.  It is they, and external contractors appointed by them who are wreaking this havoc. How they imagine it will make Rosser and Cwrt Mawr more attractive to students and their parents I have no idea.

It is depressing to write so dismal a piece. I close with another picture taken today, of the cul-de-sac leading to Penbryn 7  Here we see the towering glory of mature olearias cotoneasters and berberis clothing a steep bank, immaculate and maintenance-free.  It is for this sort of quality that Cadw awarded the campus a II* listing twenty-five years ago How long, though, will it survive an administration intent on destroying heritage?

The approach to Penbryn 7, glorious planting interrupted only by the ubiquitous new parking notices.

 

 

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Grave Graffiti

by the Curious Scribbler

Following my last blog, a reader  who goes on excursions with the Church Monuments Society has drawn my attention to another, much grander, chest tomb ornamented with footprints.

This is in East Yorkshire, in the 13th century church of St Nicholas, Hornsea.  Here the chest tomb of  Anthony St Quintin, a divine, who died in 1430, is densely ornamented with shoe outlines.  They were even easier to carve than those in Anna Maria Hughes’s slate slab, for this grand tomb is made of alabaster.

Interpretation in the church suggests that these are Puritan footprints, and that the shoe shapes are consistent with the time of Charles II.  Such an explanation does not help us with the footprints on the grave of a Welsh girl who died in 1777.

The alabaster tomb of Anthony St Quintin in St Nicholas, Church, Hornsea

 

Two other readers have mentioned not footprints but hand-prints in Wales. On a raised grave by the church door in Dolgellau are lots of children’s handprints of varying sizes, while there are life-size handprints around the top of the front boundary wall of the Quarry Hospital in Llanberis, Gwynedd.  There may be several different stories behind these marks by which ordinary people left traces of their identity.

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Footprints on her grave

At the east end of Llanychaiarn Church is a rank of five chest tombs, to members of the Hughes family of Aberllolwyn and of Morfa, in the Parish of Llanychaiarn,  ( Morfa Bychan as we now know it) The five slate stabs adjoin one another like tabletops. Together they tell the story of a couple of generations.  But the right hand slab is remarkable for a rare piece of naive artwork, the meaning of which intrigues me.

Graves of members of the Hughes family of Aberlllolwyn and Morva at the east end of Llanychaiarn Church

The slab reads ‘ Here lies the interred body of Anna Maria Hughes, second daughter of John and Elizabeth Hughes of Morfa, who departed this life the 24th of March 1777 in the 16th year of her life’.  Her epitaph reads:

Adieu blest maid, Return again to Dust,
The’ Almighty bids to him submit we must
These little Rites a Stone, a Verse receive
Tis all a parent, all a friend can give.

Hers was the first of the five burials. Next to her are the graves of her mother Elizabeth Hughes, her father John Hughes of Morva, her sister Elinor ( 1764-1845) and her uncle Erasmus Hughes, her mother’s brother.  It was Erasmus who occupied Aberllolwyn and died there, a bachelor aged 73  in 1803.  As his epitaph points out he spent his life much preoccupied with the hereafter.

His life was spent in meditation on the Holy Scriptures and resigned in the hope of Resurrection to immortal Glory through the Merits of his Redeemer whoom( sic) he steadfastly trusted.

What is remarkable is that in addition to the copperplate verse engraved on Anna Maria’s slab is a remarkable bit of graffiti, the outline of not one, but two footprints, in neat square-toed shoes.  The individual square headed nails securing the heel are each carefully inscribed. The positioning of the two footprints is informal, contrasting with the neat symmetry of the ornament and inscriptions.  I don’t believe they were done in the mason’s yard.

Footprint on the grave of Anna Maria Hughes who died in 1777

A second and different footprint at the foot of the grave

Who carved them upon young Anna Maria’s grave?  And why? or when?

The other day I came across a very similar footprint, drawn on paper, in 1824. This was an example of a forensic drawing of footmarks at a crime scene:

A paper cut made in 1842 of left footprints in a turnip field at Sanquhar, Dumfries and Galloway

The shoe seems of a very similar style.  What were shoes like in 1777?  or was this carving added 50 years after her death?

I would love to hear of any other examples of footprint graffiti similar to this.

The full text of the other four graves is as follows:

1. Sacred to the Memory of Erasmus Hughes late of Aberllolwyn Esq., who died 13 March 1803 aged 73 years. His inscription reads: His life was spent in meditation on the Holy Scriptures and resigned in the hope of Resurrection to immortal Glory through the Merits of his Redeemer whoom( sic) he steadfastly trusted.

2. Sacred to the Memory of Elinor Hughes, daughter of John Hughes Esquire late of Morfa in the Parish of Llanychaiarn who departed this life 28th of January 1845 aged 81 years

3. Underneath lie the remains of John Hughes Esq late of Morfa second son of John Hughes Esq of Hendrevelen who exchanged this life for a Blessed Eternity the 27th day of October1806 in the 80th Year of his age.  His epitaph reads:

Just upright merciful in all thy ways
In Christian meekness spending here thy days
Sweet sleep in Jesus thou dost now enjoy
Partaking happiness without alloy


4. Underneath lie the remains of Elizabeth second daughter of Thomas Hughes Esq late of Aberllolwne and wife of John Hughes Esq, of Morva both of this Parish who resigned her Soul to the Almighty giver the 12th day of November 1807 in the 71st year of her life.   Her epitaph reads:

Adieu and long adieu thou ever dear
Thou best of Parents and thou Friend sincere
May thy survivors imitate thy worth
And live to God as thou didst while on earth

They are an evocative series of memorials:  Erasmus Hughes was the only son of Thomas Hughes and Elizabeth Lloyd.   One of his sisters Mary, married Edward Hughes of Dyffryn-gwyn, Merioneth and another, Elizabeth, married John Hughes of Morva.  On Erasmus’ death the Aberllolwyn estate passed first to his sister Mary Hughes,  and then to his niece Elizabeth Jane, another of John and Elizabeth Hughes’  daughters.  It is noteworthy that all these Hugheses seem to have married men already bearing the name Hughes.

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The Sunny side of Castle Hill

Viewed from the parkland on which the Llanilar Show is held, Castle Hill presents a severe, even forbidding facade, just as it has for 200 years.  At first it was a plain three storey, five bay box with coach house to the west.  In the mid 19th century it gained an Italianate servant’s wing and bell tower.

A mid 19th century photograph of Castle Hill

The only noticeable modification in the last hundred years is the stone stairwell, built in the 1960s onto the east end of the main block to provide access to the top flat as a separate dwelling.  In 1982 I dwelt in that flat, and for the years we lived there we never ventured into the garden on the south side of the house. The very elderly Mrs Myfanwy Louisa Loxdale lived in the ground floor rooms, attended by her daughter Myrtle, and the garden was strictly out of bounds.

So it was a great treat to see it for the first time this year, on an excursion with the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust.  For the south face of the house presents an elegant and cheerful visage, its windows framed in iron trellises, and the entire front ornamented with the elegant tracery of a long cast iron pergola.

Castle Hill, the south face of the mansion

Intricate tracery of the Castle Hill pergola

Castle Hill appears to have been built on a virgin site in 1777 by sheep magnate John Williams.  Where he lived previously I do not know, but probably further south, his father had been tenant of Strata Florida, and his uncle owned lands at Tregaron.   It is speculated that he built at Llanilar because  his land here was contiguous with that of the Parrys of Llidiardau.  Llidiardau was an important house, home of Thomas Parry the Deputy lieutenant of Cardiganshire.  John Williams’s sister Elisabeth was Mrs Parry.

John died in 1806, leaving his estate in trust for his son, John Nathaniel, a young child, and substantial provision ( £540 a year) for his widow.  As a result the house was available for rent during John Nathaniel’s minority.  Thomas Johnes of Hafod apparently leased it in 1806, for Jennie Macve has found a deed of 24 February 1806, in which Thomas Johnes, ‘late of Hafod, now of Castle Hill’, leased out his own home, Hafod to a Lady Rodney.  It must have been a short lease, for the Johnes family were in residence at Hafod when the house burned in 1807.  Thereafter they lived at Castle Hill for three years while rebuilding of their ruined mansion took place.  It seems to have been a happy time for Mariamne Johnes, who could socialise with the three unmarried Parry girls, Elisabetha, Sarah and Penelope, and many letters survive from the period.  Mariamne  wrote wryly that her father was less content for he ” takes no pleasure in any situation which does not actually belong to him, which appears to me to be singular, for to me any place that is beautiful affords me the same delight as if I had an actual concern in it”.

John Nathaniel Williams grew up to occupy Castle Hill and married Sarah Elizabeth Loxdale of Shrewsbury, but died in 1832, before her, and without issue.  When the tithe map and survey was drawn up in 1845 the landed proprietor was the widow Sarah Elizabeth Williams.  This document indicates the gracious style of Castle Hill, probably from his father’s time onwards.    The schedule designates the area south of the house (659) as ‘ Flower Garden’.

The tithe schedule: 659 Flower Garden, 660 Waste Ground, 661 Kitchen Garden

The  5 inch to the mile Ordnance survey of 1888 marks the area in stippled grey, indicative of a parkland feature, and shows within it a glazed conservatory or glasshouse backing against the wall of the back drive.

Today it is an undulating area, mainly of lawn, which slopes from the east down towards the house.  A venerable wisteria clothes the pergola, and a sundial stands in the middle of the floor of the former glasshouse, the corners of which are still ornamented with sandstone balls on pedestals.  It is not hard to reconstruct in the mind’s eye this gentleman’s garden, with intricate island beds of bright flowers dotted in the scythed lawn (lawnmowers were yet to be invented) and the collection of exotic tender plants in the conservatory overlooking the beds.

A design for late Georgian flower garden at Dolwilym in Carmarthenshire

 

Since Peter Loxdale’s death in 2017 the estate and farm will pass to his nephew, and at present the occupiers are  Peter’s brother Patrick and his wife Susan, who have taken on the huge task of reviving the old house.  Like so many other stone houses it was clad in cement render in the early 20th century, in the mistaken belief, prevalent at the time, that an impervious outer layer would make the house less damp.  Today it is recognized that traditional lime mortar is a far better covering, since it allows the house to breathe.  Replacing the render on the south side, and reinstating blocked and demolished chimneys are among the structural projects in the offing.  The top floor, (once our flat) is to be re-integrated into the house, and so the removal of the 1960’s stair wing is even a possibility. Susan is also turning her hand to the garden.

Across the road from the present entrance to Castle Hill is the walled kitchen garden, degraded at one side because part of the wall was demolished to provide building stone for the 1960s wing.  For much of the past decades it has grown weed trees and brambles, while tenants of the peripheral parts of Castle Hill have made forlorn efforts at gardening the centre.  For the first year, Susan has brought much of the garden back into cultivation.  It too was probably once grander than it now appears.  The tithe and OS map show the south facing north end of the garden to have been of a curving outline, with the land behind it designated “waste ground”.  Though no trace remains at the surface this suggests a brick lined fruit wall, perhaps with glazing  or rolling screens to protect plums, pears or nectarines from the frost.  The gentry houses of Llanerchaeron and Nanteos had such fruit walls, and so did some of the ‘second division’ estates, like Blaenpant.   Castle Hill may be seen as a modestly sized, but very classy new-build of its day.  Samuel Rush Meyrick in 1810 remarked upon John Williams’ planting  of “forest trees and firs to a very large amount”.  His son, or daughter in law probably added the 19th century exotic trees, a fine tulip tree and a cedar of Lebanon.

A huge tulip tree stands at the division between the front and rear approaches to the house

 

 

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Two special journeys on the Vale of Rheidol Railway

by The Curious Scribbler

I was privileged to travel free on the Vale of Rheidol Railway not once but twice in the month of June.

The first was on a Wedding Special on 2nd June.  Aberystwyth born Claire Lewis married Nick Lee in a charming secular ceremony at Nantyronnen station.  The groom and guests got on the train at Aberystwyth.  We all alighted at Nantyronnen to sit on hay bales, serenaded by a string quartet.  The bride arrived for the ceremony by vintage car and the couple and their guests  re-boarded the train for Devil’s Bridge,  sipping prosecco.  They then made their way to Mrs Johnes’ Garden at Hafod for the reception in a large marquee.

The string quartet awaits the bridal party

The train about to depart after the ceremony

Wedding marquee at Hafod

The railway is spick and span these days, a far cry from its racketty image back in the days of British Rail.  The shining brass work, the uniformed staff, and colourful station gardens make it an outstanding venue.  One or two of the London guests made a rapid bid to change carriages after the odd smut of soot wafted into the open carriage behind the engine, but this all added to the authenticity of the experience.

I had had a small part in the station garden display.  The preceding weekend I helped in the volunteer effort to replant the five great troughs on Nantyronnen Station  with colourful summer bedding, ready for the big day, and every other journey of the summer.

My second free ride came on 11 of June, as guest of the railway itself.  This special journey marked a number of recent milestones: the launch of the first of four carriages which allow disabled access, the restoration of a former weighbridge building at Devil’s Bridge, and the opening, within it, of an information display about the Pine Martin Reintroduction Project led by the Vincent Wildlife Trust. CEO Rob Gambrill, the man behind the railway’s phenomenal success, welcomed us all,  and at every station stop he roamed the platform chatting with guests and railway staff.  A man with a magnificent train set!

Rob Gambrill and railway staff at Aberffrwd station

As I have recorded on this blog, I was (many years ago when British Rail owned the railway) a passenger on the train which derailed spectacularly between Aberffrwd and Nantyronnen in 1986.  It was an early outing of the ill-fated Vista Coach which seated visitors stadium-style facing the view.  Pulled at the rear of the train on the return journey it tipped over on its face, bringing the train to a juddering halt.  It was a pleasing co-incidence to learn from the driver that the immaculately fitted open carriage on which I was travelling was none other than the Vista Coach, now re-designed with traditional seating.  There were no such crises on this journey.

Another reversion was that of our engine, Llewelyn, which until recently burnt oil, but now burns great chunks of anthracite.  The stoker, in true period style, was in contrast to the dapper guard, quite  black with coal dust. Standing at the station we could watch him shovelling coal into the furnace of the engine.  Those motes of soot  tormenting the wedding guests had real Thomas the Tank Engine authenticity.

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