Five new swallows

By The Curious Scribbler

Every year we have swallows, who build their nest just outside the kitchen door where their poo piles up inconveniently on the mat, a hazard for the unwary.  Their arrival is nonetheless eagerly welcomed, and their breeding success a matter of note.  Last year there was a tragedy.  The whole clutch died, fully fledged in the nest.  I believe this was because of two days, 25 to 26 August, in which we were continuously buffetted by ferocious gales.   I was reminded of this only yesterday when a news item about climate change included a scene of huge waves battering the seafront below Alexandra Hall.

The Aberystwyth storm of 25 August 2020

The sea breaking over Aberystwyth Jetty on 25 August 2020

Neither swallows nor insects could fly in that howling gale and I think the chicks simply perished unfed.  We wondered whether they had flown before the storm, but a couple of weeks later I inspected the nest to find four dead swallows, their tails still a little on the short side, but otherwise perfect.  The parents hung around on the electricity wires for some days, but then departed.

This spring was also unusual.  During the early spell of warm, fine weather one or two swallows appeared, scoping the house, even indulging in occasional aerial squabbles, but nothing came of it and and the nest remained unused.  They knew best perhaps,  for  that fine spell brought on all the shrubs in the garden, only to be scorched off by frost a few weeks later. There followed a May marked by its coldness and wetness, – not good conditions for feeding young. They were wise to wait.

I had pretty much given up hope when, in June, a swallow appeared, and sat singing its burbling chirrup on the wire, and before long was joined by a mate.  They patched up the old nest, and devoted their spare time to intimidating the cats by their dive bombing.   At first the chicks were pretty quiet, just a whisper of begging when the adult birds returned with beaks full of tiny insects, but over three weeks their cries become a loud cacophony breaking out almost ever minute as the parents swooped in with food.  The droppings began to pile up on the mat beneath.

The hungry swallow provides an irresistible target for its harassed parent.

And on the 23 July they flew at dawn.  I woke to find them balancing precariously on the wire outside my window, and fluttering effortfully back to the roof.  By 10 am they were all back in their nest.

The exercise programme for a young swallow seems carefully calibrated by the parents.  For the rest of the day the feeding continued unabated, but the next morning the chicks were out again, for longer, tackling more demanding routes under the car post and lining up on different perches to beg for food. After a week they were out all day, and nowhere to be seen,  but would suddenly swoop down in mid afternoon, a twittering gang of five, and return to their nest on the beam, where their parents continued to feed them till dusk.

The five Swallow chicks return to the nest at bedtime

It is now day 9 since they first flew, and every evening we look out the back door to check that the five youngsters, still sporting their yellow flanges to their gape, are lined up for the night.  It wont be long now before they leave us, and I wonder whether their parents will fit in another brood before Africa beckons once more.  They sometimes do.

 

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An Invasive Alien in Ceredigion

by The Curious Scribbler

This pejorative title is still acceptable when applied to a foreign plant!  An alien species which has more than found its feet in Ceredigion is the Large Leaved Avens Geranium macrophyllum.

Geum macrophyllum at Black Covert, Ceredigion

It is bigger and brighter than our native Wood Avens, with lemon yellow flowers, and a dense cluster of bright green foliage. Once it gets started it seems to flower constantly from June to October.  The flowers ripen to form soft burrs of hooked seeds which when ripe are readily dislodged.  I would speculate that its spread is correlated with the ability with which these seeds attach themselves to human socks and dogs’ faces.

Geum macrophyllum seedhead

I remember first noticing this unfamiliar plant by the roadside at Black Covert.  Arthur Chater, in his massive Flora of Cardiganshire recorded it there, and rapidly spreading, in 2006.  It was already widely distributed on roadsides in the Llangwyrfon/ Lledrod/ Bronant area, where it was first recorded in 1993, though local recollection has it that it had been there since the 1950s. It is native to North America and North-east Asia, and it has also been recorded as a garden plant since the 19th century.   I wonder whether it was by accident or design that it made its way to Cardiganshire, one of its main strongholds in the British Isles at present.

Its potential to exclude other native plants is well illustrated by the progress it has made in the last ten years at Nant Yr Arian.  On the circular path round the lake from the visitor centre it is flourishing.  At this time of year mature plants are mainly seeding,  growing to more than two foot tall in favoured spots.

Geum macropyllum growing tall by the water’s edge, Nant yr Arian

But the secret of its success is that the plant loves being strimmed, and soon regrows  faster than the grass and starts flowering all over again.  I found it forming an almost unbroken border on either side of the path.

Strimming promotes new growth and a further flowering.

I wonder whether it deserves some selective control before it joins the ranks of Himalayan balsam and Japanese Knotweed, both aliens which are pretty, but now designated enemies by British ecologists.

Geum macrophyllum smothers the competition with its dense foliage, and is still flowering in late October.

 

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A new assault on Pen-yr-anchor

by The Curious Scribbler

Two years ago I was among many shocked by the appearance of the first residential block on the site where the ill-fated Plas Morolwg formerly stood. That build is now complete and the  massive and unattractive ramparts of Maes y Mor now tower above the road to Tanybwlch beach.

Many people felt that  planners displayed a distinct lack of aesthetic sense in approving this development overlooking our pretty harbour. Now, it seems that opportunist developers Ellis D&B Ltd have concluded that this part of Aberystwyth is a taste-free zone, and provides the perfect opportunity to cram in a yet taller tower block, this one to house six rather expensive apartments.

A montage of the end view of the proposed building, with Alltwen beyond.

I am always intrigued by the tricks of the planning application.  This building is described as six storey, which would already make it the tallest building in Aberystwyth, but if you look at the plans it actually has eight floors!  it is topped by an entirely unnecessary roofed ‘amenity area’, and, owing to the sloping site, the occupants would enter the building from Penyranchor on the second floor!  Most people would think it an eight storey development.

Another quirk is the ‘two bedroomed apartment’ description.  It is probably true that there is a need for more accommodation of this size.  However look at the floor plans! Most people would consider them three-bed flats.  The third ‘bedroom’ is designated an office! Two bathrooms seems quite lavish.

The timing of the application is understandable,  for the new structure will block the view out from balconies of the new Maes y Mor flats and would generate shrieks of objection from the 56 new owners, were they already installed.   There isn’t much about the visual impact in this application except for one elevation plan.  Look closely –  the proposed building gazes straight into the windows of Maes y Mor, and is level with its roof.

It will also tower oppressively above the established owners of the flats in Y Lanfa and St David’s Wharf.

Just room for a tower block? In the space between Y Lanfa, St David’s Wharf and the new residential block on the Plas Morolwg site.

The Ceredigion planning portal is filling up with letters of objection, many of them from the residents of Y Lanfa and St David’s Wharf.  It is intriguing that the residents hold 999 year leases to areas where they park, but which are included in the land subject to this development.  The Applicant states Certificate of Ownership – Certificate A – Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (Wales) Order 2012   I certify/the applicant certifies that on the day 21 days before the date of this application nobody except myself/the applicant was the owner (owner is a person with a freehold interest or leasehold interest with at least seven years left to run) of any part of the land or building to which the application relates.

It might be hoped that this alone would be grounds to refuse Planning Permission, but wider public opinion is very important.   I am told that the yellow planning notice (Application A210143 Residential development comprising 6×2-bedroom self-contained apartments) only appeared a few days before the closing date for comments, but that actually these can be submitted until 28 May.  The view towards Pendinas from across the harbour, and indeed the visual appearance of the balconied front of this development are entirely overlooked in the application.

Several commentators have also remarked on the cosmetic appearance on the plan of three green circles, representing trees to enhance this development.  This is an interesting idea, and I wonder very much what sort of trees they have in mind.  The garden of Windover on Penyranchor has a hedge of beech trees, approaching 80 years of age, wind burnt, sloping away from the westerlies, and not more than 15 feet tall after all these years. Valerian, Thrift and Sea Campion thrive on this thin soiled site.  Both trees and an eight storey apartment block would be aliens here.

Afterword:

I have just read the comments submitted by Neil Gale.on the Planning design and Access Statement.   This apparently reads:

7.11 “Considering any visual prominence the land is only able to be seen from locations to the west which are limited to the lower section of Aberystwyth Marina/ end of South Marine Terrace Road, neither of which constitute protected view points”

How far from the truth!  Mr Gale supplied a recent photo from the Castle Grounds:  An eight story apartment block springing up in the centre of this view would break the only unifying character of the developments here, which is that each building is, in relative propertion, long and low(ish).

The view of Maes y Mor from the Castle Grounds.  Photo: Neil Gale

 

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The fright of the Bumblebee

by The Curious Scribbler

I have spent the last two Tuesdays being trained in bumblebee identification, and I have to say it was challenging.  The course, provided by the West Wales Biodiversity Information Centre ( popularly known as WWBIC) aspired to render us confident in identifying the eight commonest species of bumblebee and our homework after the first session was to send in our photos of bees.

Popping outside to the Cotoneaster horizontalis I found several candidates: gingery brown bees, black bees with red on the tail, and black bees striped like bar codes in yellow with whitish, buff or peachy rear ends.  Confusing enough, they do not keep still for long, and photographing them proved challenging.  Often I found I’d caught a perfectly focused leaf, but the bee had just droned out of the picture.  Memorizing the stripe patterns is also demanding.  To the superficial glance, quite a few bees have one or two yellow bars across the body, but some have three.  In this case there are adjoining stripes on the back of the thorax and the front of the abdomen as in the large and attractive Garden Bumblebee.  But bumble bees are noted for their rounded appearance so that the ‘waist’ between thorax and abdomen is far from obvious!  And distinguishing between white and buff on the tail of flying bee is also quite subjective.

A Buff Tailed bumblebee

Claire Flynn, project officer for Skills for Bees Cymru guided us through this minefield and we learnt that there were in all 24 different species of bumbles recorded  in the UK, and with the differing appearances of queens, drones and worker bees this adds to the variety.  The Bumblebee Conservation Trust has produced some helpful guides to sorting them all out. There is also an online chart.

Then there is the distinction between Cuckoo Bumblebees and the regular sort.  The Cuckoos do just what you would expect, zooming around looking for bees nests in which to deposit their own eggs and get a  free bee-rearing service.  They are seen eating nectar from flowers but they do not have pollen baskets on their hind legs, for they have no need to carry pollen home.  If they would keep still for long enough one might see that they have hairy thighs, rather than the smooth patch on which their more industrious relations scrape off the pollen.  In class we were introduced to  six species of cuckoo bee, each of which tends to bear an uncanny resemblance to the species which it parasitizes.  I find this particularly remarkable.  Does their disguise aid their  entry to the nest?  The cuckoo bird has no such deception, foisting an entirely different looking chick upon credulous warbler parents.

In all I photographed four species of bumblebees on my cotoneaster, the most abundant being the carder bees, medium sized furry ginger jobs which might be deemed among the easiest to identify.

A Carder Bee on my cotoneaster

However the experts are in doubt.  One of my bee portraits might, just possibly, be not the Common Carder bee Bombus pascuorum but the rarer Brown Banded Carder bee Bombus humilis.

How to be sure?   Apparently I need to look out for black hairs amongst the bee fuzz. B. pascuorum has some black hairs on the abdomen while B. humilis only has a few black hairs in the armpits (wing bases really).  And if I can lay my hands on a male bee I could inspect his genital capsule for additional clues.

An Early Bumblebee worker, unlike the queens and drones has one yellow stripe not two!

The Red tailed Bumblebee seems easier to identify, though there is also a cuckoo bee and a carder bee with the same colouring!

It is hoped that with further practice we may submit useful records of the bees we see on the WWBIC website or via the LERC app on our phones.  Bee recorders are in short supply, and can provide vital information on the fortunes of our bumblebee populations.

Postscript:  Having sent in a number of additional pictures of my Carder bees they have now been accepted by the experts as definitely the rarer Brown Banded Carder Bee!

 

 

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New lights on the Promenade

by The Curious Scribbler

It is sad to see the removal of the curlicued streetlights which are such a characteristic of our lovely promenade.

Out with the Old

SWALEC are out in force today, with crane and cherry picker removing the tops of the street lights on the prom, lowering them gently to the ground and chopping them up with an angle grinder to be carried away. The poles are then capped with a new fitting.

In with the New

Of course I can understand the reason for doing so.  The new LED technology will illuminate the town for a fraction of the electricity cost and the planet will benefit from the reduced emissions.  But was it really impossible to find a design of lamp head more fitting for our Victorian town?  The new plate-like fitments are an undignified truncation upon the old poles.  And the vista of white globes leading  towards Constitution Hill will soon be a distant memory.

Old lighting on the Aberystwyth promenade

Shorter stemmed bifurcating globes of a less elaborate but similar style also flank the sea from the Pier to the Castle, and are an important part of a vista which so many people enjoy.  They may not be all that old, the metal plate on the lamp bases reads NJG 2001 but they do need a lick of paint.

The shorter lights on the south promenade

I do so hope that for these, at least, a less radical solution will be found,  and modern bulbs could somehow be inserted in the old globes, or a new but ornamental form of lamp be obtained.  With the renovations of the Old College,  an apotheosis of Victoriana, soon to become a gleaming public attraction it would be very sad to find the entire South Prom adorned with such utilitarian little slabs of lighting. In our heyday these lights used to support hanging baskets of flowers in the summer season.  As the post-covid world wakes up the delights of holidaying at home, perhaps these ornamental posts should be cherished and fully adorned once more.

The lamps used to also suspend hanging flower baskets

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Freedom to Roam

by The Curious Scribbler

Yesterday we went to the Teifi Marshes – because we could!   Although it is hard to fault Pendinas, Tanybwlch  and the cycle path for its birds and flowers, the freedom to travel lured us to the south of the county, to the Cilgerran Gorge and to the Welsh Wildlife  reserve which is bisected by the former railway line to Cardigan.  The golden reed beds and the hides are spread out to view below  the ring road, but approached from the visitor parking, the traffic is too far away to be audible.

Teifi Marshes. A view from the hide

I heard my first chiffchaff of the year in the alders beside the path.    The first of the three hides has regrettably been destroyed by arson during lockdown.  Only the charred timbers of the frame remain.  But the birds on  the pool it overlooked were remarkably unperturbed by passing visitors.  A little egret stood on its silly yellow feet occasionally snapping up  small morsels in the water.  A couple of dozen teal sculled around, already paired off and thinking about the spring.  The drakes are so  beautiful with the iridescent  green comma on their chestnut heads, and their immaculate grey speckled flanks.  The ducks are plain  coloured for camouflage on their nests, but flash the same metallic green from the speculum,  the secondary flight feathers on the wing.

At the second hide we watched a curlew patiently probing the mud beside the now empty tidal channel.   There was very little else  to see, until  a sudden treat, the unmistakable long-tailed form and grey barred body of the first cuckoo flying low over the marshes.  We didn’t hear it call.   Perhaps it is as yet a little too early to start seeking out reed bunting nests.

As we approached the third hide were suddenly buzzed by a squadron of sand martins,  a flock of forty or more birds hawking low over the reeds almost skimming our heads.   These too are fresh arrivals, feeding as a flock, not yet involving themselves in the serious business of egg laying.  And amongst them there was one ( or possibly two – so fast did they swirl above us) swallow.   We all know that one swallow does not make a summer.  But it is certainly a start.  And I read that someone saw one at Mwnt yeterday as well.

Teifi Marshes. A new boardwalk

I strongly applause the Wildlife Trust for the management of this reserve.  Clearly over the winter they have been very busy replacing decaying boardwalks to the hides, and both of these were airy and safe with the windows all opened wide.  Walkers and birdwatchers, and many families with children and dogs were out enjoying the open space.  A contrast with my other planned destination, Cilgerran Castle, an outdoor location which is equally cold and well ventilated, but which the National Trust has seen fit to keep firmly closed to visitors.

As I write this, I find that during my absence yesterday my own chiff-chaff has also returned, and is flicking around between the lawn and the shrubs outside my window. So there will soon be be its relentless song from the tops of nearby trees declaring summer.

 

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Knight errant?

by the Curious Scribbler

The long dark January has given me plenty of time to peruse one of last year’s purchases, that hefty doorstep of a book ” The Families of Gogerddan in Cardiganshire and Aberglasney in Carmarthenshire“.  It was launched last March at the National Library of Wales by its author, Sir David T R Lewis,and I handed over my £30 with enthusiasm for it is a subject of which I was eager to learn more.

Sir David Lewis is of Carmarthenshire farming stock whose elevation to the knightage in 2009 follows a glittering career in the law and a stint as Lord Mayor of the City of London in 2007.  Taken together in this book he has assembled a large body of information and a lot of pictures about an interesting family and their homes.

The book, however,  proved to be packed with surprises, the first of which was to find material from one of my blogs extensively reproduced without attribution on p217.  In my Letter from Aberystwyth of 7 October 2015 I wrote about Florrie Hamer, whose grandmother had acted as wet nurse to Sir Pryse Pryse’ wife in 1869.  It is funny how one can suddenly recognize one’s own words amongst those of another author. When I got out the highlighter pen I found a remarkable similarity!

His book – my text!

In 2013 I devoted a blog to the interpretation of the Anno Mundi dates upon the gate posts of Bwlchbychan and and the stables at Alltyrodin.  Perhaps we were working in parallel, but the account on p201 strongly suggests my blog was his (unacknowledged) source.

I am not the only historian to have noticed an uncanny resemblance to their own work.  It is ironic that the author’s copyright statement at the beginning of his book reads ‘permission is granted to quote inextensively and without photographs from the contents of this book provided attribution is made to the author with an appropriate footnote or source note’.

Soon I happened upon  a splendid howler: a panel about Nanteos on p 267 revealed that the eccentric George EJ Powell was ” Etonian, scholar and friend of Byron, Swinburne, Longfellow, Rossetti and Wagner“.  Powell, who lived from 1842-1882 certainly hung out with Swinburne, and  he corresponded with Longfellow in seeking approval for his early poetry, but Byron!  Byron died eighteen years before George was born, so this is clearly impossible.  I can only think that Sir David has been influenced by the recently-placed creative name plates on the doors of Nanteos mansion in its present  incarnation as a hotel.  They do have a Byron room, and a Marquis de Sade room, but this is not a good historical source for nineteenth century history.

The I came across a map in which the Dovey is labelled as reaching the sea at Aberystwyth and the Ystwyth at Aberdovey.

Lewis has assembled a large amount of information, some of it his own, and illustrated it lavishly with contemporary and historic photographs.  Many I recognize from the collections of the National Library of Wales, while others are new to me, and sourced from private individuals who have shared their property and are properly identified below the picture.  What is surprising is that the photos held in the National Library are rarely identified as such, and in many cases the quality of reproduction suggest they have been photocopied and reproduced from earlier publications, in which the source was properly acknowledged.   Such a shortcut presumably avoids the NLW reproduction fees.

Such failings of scholarly etiquette would not be surprising in a school project, but seem very cavalier on the part of an Honorary Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and a Member of Council of at least three Universities.  His publisher might be feeling rather embarrassed  .. but then, he is his own publisher.

 

 

 

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Telephotos at Tanybwlch

by The Curious Scribbler

Constrained as we are, many people are getting to know their immediate environment more intimately than before.  I have heard so many remark how they have discovered hitherto un-visited footpaths in their area, and noticed details previously overlooked.  Attention to wildlife, the flowers and fungi, the insects and the birds have brightened many people’s days during our several periods of lockdown. The traditional tally of wild flowers in bloom on New Year’s Day is one such obsession.  Bird photography is another.

On the cycle path from Rhydyfelin to Tanybwlch there has been a veritable outbreak of bird photography, and almost daily one or several walkers can be spotted, long lenses dangling, staring intently into the bushes beside the path.  Karen Leah, Steven Williams, Mark Shinton and John Ibbotson often post their bird portraits on Facebook, in the group dedicated to Ceredigion Birds and Wildlife.  Much patience, (as well as high quality equipment) is essential to catch that perfect shot of a bullfinch, its rosy breast tinted by the winter sun, or a tiny wren or a goldcrest flicking and feeding in the undergrowth.

Female Bullfinch by Karen Leah

Male Bullfinch by Karen Leah

Goldfinch captures a spider, 4 January  by John Ibbotson

The facebook group also alerts one to creatures one might have seen, but didn’t, like the three Whooper swans recently spotted on the lake at Nanteos.  Whoopers were  familiar winter visitors during my Yorkshire childhood, where great numbers arrived from Siberia every winter, to glide on reservoirs and the flooded fields adjoining the River Derwent.  We see them more seldom over here.

There were certain days in the later summer when the Ystwyth otter commanded a huge audience of admirers lined up on the Tanybwlch strand, their lenses trained on the wrack-clad rocks at the foot of Pendinas amongst which it was foraging for shore crabs.  While there is a special thrill in spotting an otter or a kingfisher on a solitary walk, these captured images remind me to keep vigilant watch for a sighting of my own.

I had less positive feelings at the picture of a polecat photographed recently on the decking of a home at Trefechan.  The last polecat we saw was in our garden seven years ago. It was curled up asleep in the egg box of  chicken hutch, and down below lay the headless bodies of my four new chickens. I understand that brain is full of choice nutrients.  I do hope the Trefechan polecat isn’t coming my way!

A Siskin takes a bath at Rhydyfelin by Karen Leah

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John Corfield, gardener and thespian

 I cannot claim authorship of the piece reproduced here, though I did contribute to its composition under the pen of Peter Wootton Beard.  It recently appeared as a tribute from the Vice Chancellor, Elizabeth Treasure, in the inboxes of all university staff.   John Corfield was ubiquitous in Aberystwyth, some knew him best for his work at the exceptionally fine gardens of the Penglais campus, others for the panache with which he received bucket loads of wallpaper paste down the trousers in the Wardens’ pantomimes.   I reproduce the tribute here in full, but have augmented it with a number of photographs charting his life.

It is with a heavy heart that I share the news with you that our former Head Gardener John Corfield passed away peacefully on 15th August 2020. He will be hugely missed. 

John was born shortly after his parents moved from Montgomeryshire to Tan-y-Castell farm, Llanfarian in 1933, where his father became the tenant farmer of the Tan-y-Bwlch estate. After a terrible flood in 1964, the family were forced to leave the farm and moved to Marian House, Llanfarian.

John Corfield.  Portrait by H.N. Davies of Aberystwyth 1934

The schoolboy John, in a photograph re styled as a pencil drawing

John subsequently joined the University staff under the newly appointed Curator of the Botany Gardens and College Grounds, Basil Fox, and under the direction of Prof. Philip Wareing, then Head of Botany shortly thereafter. The team were responsible for taxonomic order beds adjoining Plas Penglais, the provision of plants for the undergraduate practical classes and research programmes, as well as the management of small-scale field experiments for the Botany and Agricultural Botany departments of University College Wales. Their role expanded to include the planting of the new Penglais Campus.

The campus rapidly expanded over the next twenty years and between them, John and Basil were responsible for introducing a wide range of plants that are perfectly suited to the exposed coastal conditions.

John became Head Gardener in 1983, amply filling the rather large shoes vacated by his predecessor, Basil Fox. The gardens were highly praised by Arthur Hellyer in the 1970s and were awarded a Grade II listing in the Cadw Register of Landscapes, Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in Wales in 2002. The listing describes them as ‘One of the most important modern landscaping schemes in Wales’.

John worked with the renowned landscape designer Brenda Colvin overseeing the planting between Pantycelyn and the main campus and was instrumental in bringing her vision to fruition. It is perhaps a little known fact that we work in such a special landscape, but I’m sure we all appreciate the beautiful surroundings that greet us when we come in to work, and we have John to thank for much of that. The current grounds team, under the management of Jeff Saycell, are working hard to restore elements of the original landscape and to protect John’s legacy. 

John became a formidable botanist; whose breadth of knowledge and interests were honed on his many botanical excursions with friends and colleagues to locations such as Greece, Crete, and the Pyrenees. On such occasions he demonstrated his considerable skill with languages, regularly surprising people with his ability to get about comfortably in Greek, Turkish, German and others.

 

In Germany with Count Constantin von Brandenstein

 

His expertise was often called upon for the student trips organised by the Botany department to the Picos de Europa mountain range in Cantabria, Northern Spain. His colleagues at the time describe John as a ‘magnet’ for students during these 8-10 day trips under canvas, due to his vast botanical knowledge, patience and warmth of personality.

In field gear in the Pyrenees

Maintaining academic standards in this environment required considerable ingenuity, and John was a great source of strength – making camp furniture, mentoring projects and monitoring student submissions. He was able to form a connection with anyone and everyone he met and inspired a generation of botany students. He wrote to his friend and former colleague Andrew Agnew just eight days before his passing to reminisce about how much he enjoyed the trips to the Picos de Europa, a memory that Andrew was pleased to share. He was also often called upon to share his passion through talks and practical advice to the local community.

Botanizing in Crete 2015

He was a founder member of the Cardiganshire Horticultural Society, formed in 1968, and following Basil Fox’s death in 1983, became the second President of the society, a post he filled until its 50th anniversary in 2018. Today the society has over 150 members, a tribute to the energy and warmth that John brought to every meeting.

The Cardiganshire Horticultural Society turned 50 in 2018.  President John Corfield with Jan Eldridge and Kay Edwards who helped cut the cake.

So many members of the society have plants given by John in their gardens, and he was well known for his generosity that would lead him to lovingly raise seedlings at his home, with the express purpose of bringing joy to those who would subsequently receive them as an impromptu gift.

He had just told me that he was growing a Koelreuteria paniculata (Golden Rain Tree) for me at the time of his passing, and I can think of no better way to remember him. Prof. Mike Hayward remarked that a cyclamen grown for him by John came into flower on the day of his passing, a lasting gift that so many of his friends will be able to enjoy for years to come.

John was also a keen thespian and a founder member of the relaunched ‘Wardens Amateur Dramatic Society’. He was involved with nearly every show since the early 1980s as, variously, stage management, performer & front of house. He was also involved in many productions by Showtime Singers.

The Cardiganshire Horticultural Society celebrated their President’s 80th birthday in 2013

A private funeral took place at John’s green burial on 27th August, where only a small number could be present due to Covid-19 restrictions. We hope to celebrate John’s life in fitting style in due course within the Horticultural Society, and I will circulate details of any subsequent event for staff/former colleagues who may wish to attend nearer the time.

We also hope that a memorial tree for John will soon be planted on the campus, details of which will be shared in due course. 

Thanks to John’s friends, family and former colleagues for their help in preparing this tribute: Tom Corfield, Matthew Piper, Dr Andrew Agnew, Pat Causton, Margaret Howells, Prof. Mike Hayward, Dr Caroline Palmer, Dr Edwina Ellis, and Penny David.

My thanks to Dr Peter Wootton-Beard for his working in preparing this wonderful piece in memory of John Corfield.

Professor Elizabeth Treasure
Vice-Chancellor

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Justina Jeffreys – Black History

By The Curious Scribbler

During the ennui of lockdown I have been researching a little piece of Ceredigion’s black history.

My subject was Justina Jeffreys of Glandyfi castle, that eccentric Regency Gothic castle which perches above the (now straightened) Glandyfi Bends on the way to Machynlleth.  It was built in 1818 as the fashionable designer home of Shrewsbury born lawyer George Jeffreys and his new bride Justina Scott.  Justina had grown up at Bodtalog, a  small country house near Tywyn, as the child of the bookish intellectual Edward Scott and his wife, the widow Louisa de Saumaise.  It has long been believed that she was the model for Anthelia the heroine of Thomas Love Peacock’s first novel Melincourt. Anthelia is described as a highly rational young woman brought up and educated in solitude by a man of ‘great acquirements and of a retiring disposition’.

Glandyfi castle sketched by Francis Wood in 1838

But all was not as it seems, for Justina was not born a Scott.  She was born in Jamaica in 1787 the daughter of the premier army man then posted to the island, Captain Charles McMurdo of the 3rd East Kent Regiment “the Buffs”  and a young woman called Susan Leslie.   In the eighteenth century colonies bastardy was a very common phenomenon, on most pages of the parish birth records the children born in wedlock are the exception rather than the rule.  I cannot believe that the church actively approved of this situation but its clergy were diligent in recording the facts.  Fathers are normally named, and race and status was a matter of record.

So we know that Susan Leslie was a free mulatto, who underwent baptism in the Anglican church at the same time as her new daughter.  A mulatto is a specific term, it means she had one black parent, and given the social structure of the slave economy it is highly likely that that black parent was a woman and a slave.

Justina’s conception was more than a one night stand, for two years later her brother was born, also sired by Captain McMurdo, and named Charles McMurdo.

There might have been more illegitimate McMurdos were it not for the fact that Captain McMurdo’s posting in Jamaica came to an end, and he was sent off to Canada, where he eventually married a well connected young woman from a loyalist family, named Isabella Coffin and started a second family.  His first legitimate son was named Charles Alured McMurdo (the unusual second name being a nod to the Governor of Jamaica, Alured Clarke under whom McMurdo had served).

Susan Leslie remained in Jamaica, and must, I believe, have been a handsome and sought-after young woman.  She was soon the partner of a Scottish doctor, John Wright by whom she had two more sons.  She was, or in her lifetime became,  a woman of property for her will, written on a visit to London in 1801, distributes her land, buildings and slaves among her three sons, and names both the fathers as executors of the will.

It is touching that in the will she leaves to Justina her ‘apparel, trinkets and her silver spoons’.  In a subsequent codicil she rescinds these small gifts because her daughter has been amply provided for by McMurdo.  So how had McMurdo provided?

Justina had been removed from her mother and ‘adopted’ by Edward Scott, who during the Jamaica years had been Captain McMurdo’s junior officer, First Lieutenant  in the same regiment.  Edward, an impecunious younger son of an aristocratic Kent family had no children of his own, but when Justina was just three years old he had married, possibly for money, the wealthy widow Louisa, who happened to be the widow of his first cousin Count Louis de Saumaise. It was through Louisa, daughter of welshman Lewis Anwyl, that he winded up living comfortably as the squire of Bodtalog with Louisa and Justina.   I would speculate that when Justina was five or six years old she was shipped off to her new ‘uncle’.   She must have been quite young to have been so well educated and nurtured as a Welsh gentlewoman, but not so young that her brother Charles did not remember her.   While there is no evidence that the siblings met again, by the age of 20 Justina’s brother Charles McMurdo was in Limehouse, London founding a family of several generations of boat builders.  He and his descendants repeatedly named their daughters Justina.

Although Justina is named as Justina Scott in the marriage register her paternity was no secret, it was known to the Jeffreys family into which she married, and her birthplace, Jamaica, is recorded in the census.  Her high-status white father, McMurdo, would have been a matter of pride rather than shame, just as Mary Seacole, who we now venerate for her blackness, was openly proud of her Scottish military father. Justina’s story reminds me of other examples of the rapid social mobility of the mixed race offspring  English and Welsh gentlemen in the eighteenth century.  The purchaser in 1803 of the  Piercefield estate near Chepstow, for example, was Nathaniel Wells the Jamaican-born natural son of William Wells, his offspring by a house slave known as Juggy.  Nathaniel’s origins did not hold him back, he became the high sheriff of Monmouthshire.

George and Justina seem to have enjoyed a nice life in their pretty castle, and produced eight children all baptised at Eglwysfach church, where her old admirer Thomas Love Peacock also showed up to marry Jane Gryffydh in 1820.  Justina’s relationship with her adoptive parents also seems to have been good, two of her children bear the names Edward and Louisa, and when the very elderly Edward Scott eventually died aged 90 his estate, barring various legacies, was placed in trust for Justina for her lifetime.

Glandyfi castle first went on the market in 1906 when it was sold by two of Justina’s granddaughters.   Several lines of descent from George and Justina have been extinguished in later generations, but some persist in New Zealand and America, and have been known to turn up on holiday to visit the castle.  Today it is for sale once more for £2.85million.

Glandfi Castle sale particulars in Country Life 2020

The full story of my researches  have been accepted for publication in Ceredigion, the Journal of the Ceredigion Historical Society and will appear in 2022.

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