A new era for Strata Florida

by The Curious Scribbler

Strata Florida Abbey

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayers at the putative Holy Well
Copyright Tom Hutter

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

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Pine martens at Hafod

by The Curious Scribbler

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

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

Pine marten sculpture in Hafod car park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ballooning at Crystal Palace, 1872

by The Curious Scribbler

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

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

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

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

AFTER MANY DAYS

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

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

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

xxxxxxx

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

 

 

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Country house jumble sale at Brynmerheryn

by The Curious Scribbler

Some remarkable people turn up in Ceredigion from the wider world.  Two such were Nicholas Luard and his wife Elisabeth, who came to Brynmerheryn, an oddly handsome house set in some 100 acres high above Tregaron Bog.   The house already had an eccentric history as the home of Monica Rawlins, friend and former student of the artist Augustus John, who bought it in the 1940s.

Brynmerheryn, Ystrad Meurig

Brynmerheryn, Ystrad Meurig

Nicholas Luard was a notable figure in the irreverent 1960s,  a new Cambridge graduate,  founder of Private Eye, and co-owner with Peter Cook of The Establishment Club in Soho, which launched the careers of so many distinguished members of Beyond the Fringe.  His subsequent career as writer, aspirant politician, philanderer, entrepreneur and alcoholic was more glamorous  than remunerative, and throughout all its permutations was shored up by the indefatigable industry of his wife Elisabeth, cookery writer, novelist, botanical illustrator,  and mother of his four children.  Her 2008 book, My Life as a Wife, gives a spirited account of these vicissitudes, never tarnished by a trace of the fashionable self pity of so many modern memoires.

It was Nicholas’ charm and charisma which eventually brought them to Wales in 1992, when he was left Brynmerheryn in Monica Rawlins’ will.  Understandably eyebrows were raised locally at this bequest, for Monica was not, as is often said, his godmother, but the godmother of another Elizabeth, a girlfriend of his undergraduate days, who had taken him to visit her.  With a talent for people, Nicholas kept in touch with Monica during the following 40 years, and no doubt she felt that the house deserved them. Monica herself was a distinctive character, whose diaries, much preoccupied with eugenics in her goose farming activities and with visits from her nephew,  were recently adapted by Bethan Roberts for the Radio 4 drama Writing the Century: The View from the Windows. Monica’s voice though, seems to have had a more plaintive tone.  Elisabeth Luard rises gutsily to every challenge.

The latest is to leave Brynmerheryn and its accumulated memories.  Nicholas died in 2004, and she is now leaving for a much smaller home in London, nearer to her children, and to the media opportunities her foodie expertise still commands.

Elisabeth Luard amongst her possessions

Elisabeth Luard amongst some of  her possessions

Winter sitting room

Winter sitting room

On Saturday 22 April there will be a sort of jumble sale at Brynmerheryn,  to disperse the accumulations of Luard and Rawlins aquisitions over the past century and more. Elisabeth writes “It ranges from elegant clothing from the 1890’s through crockery from Syston Park near Bath where Monica grew up, woodcut blocks, linen, Welsh blankets, patchwork and items from the house including artists’ materials and children’s books from the 1900’s right through to my own wardrobe from the 1960’s and  pots, pans, crockery and glassware that I can’t take with me to my new abode.” 

There may even be a few bits of Hafod mansion, (for in Monica’s day almost everyone of note in the area  got a souvenir or two as the old mansion was stripped).  I do recollect a rather battered ornate gilded pelmet board above one window, and two massive carved oak consoles ( tall corbels) incongruous with the rest of the decor,  but these of course are fixtures and fittings and will doubtless go to the new owners, who I hope will relish the layers of character of their new home.

Carved and gilded pelmet board, possibly originally made for Hafod

Carved and gilded pelmet board, possibly originally made for Hafod

Massive carved consoles support a modern archway in the hall

Massive carved consoles support a modern archway in the hall

I shall be sorry not to be there, but am already committed to the Ceredigion Local History Forum, whose spring meeting on  Mansions & their Estates in Ceredigion occurs on the same day.

I'm sure there will be some nice flowerpots and things

I’m sure there will be some nice flowerpots and things

For directions and details on Facebook click here .

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The romance of dereliction

By The Curious Scribbler

Derelict buildings are invariably poignant, but particularly so when they retain the traces of domestic life, a palimpsest of their past occupants.

When I first moved to Wales and explored my neighbourhood I happened upon an isolated farm, Pengraig Draw up a stony track near the coast.  At some time,  years before, the entire end of the farmhouse had collapsed outwards, and there it stood, like a dolls house open to the elements.  The upstairs bedroom was still furnished with bed, chest of drawers and a old chaise longue, but the collapsed stairs and dangerously sloping floor prevented access.   The scene was reminiscent of  wartime bomb damage in the immediacy with which the the disaster must have occurred. It remain in this condition for many years, the furniture weathered by the rain.  Only quite recently was the old house rescued and renovated.  The end wall is now rebuilt and it is a tidy holiday letting property with a conservatory extension, and even a hot tub in the garden.  The romance of dereliction is but a memory.

Pengraig Draw, now a lavishly renewed holiday cottage

Pengraig Draw, now a lavishly renewed holiday cottage.  The end wall in this view lay collapsed for many years in the 1980s. http://www.aberystwythholidaycottages.co.uk/pengraig-draw-farmhouse/

A far more celebrated ruin is that of Thomas Johnes’ Hafod,  which was eventually dynamited by the Forestry Commission in 1957.  In fairness to the apparent vandalism of destroying an architectural gem,  it was, by this time in a sadly neglected state.  The last owner to live there, master builder and timber merchant W.G. Tarrant had died suddenly on Aberystwyth railway station in 1942 and  subsequent owners, also timber merchants did not live there, but stripped out everything of value for salvage sale.  There are bits and pieces of Hafod in houses and cottages all around the neighbourhood, purchased or scavenged in the last days of the house.

It is evocative then, to see photographs taken in 1957 by Edwin Smith, shortly before, or during,  the destruction of the house,  which are in the RIBA collections. The large and never-occupied Italianate wing built in the late 1840s by Anthony Salvin for the then owner Henry de Hoghton, is already a pile of rubble.

Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod, viewed from the southeast, partially demolished in 1957.  The Italianate wing is already destroyed.                                                                       Photo: Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod, the facade of the house built by Thomas Baldwin of Bath for Thomas Johnes  in 1788. Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Most poignant of all is a view of the interior showing the ravages of pre-demolition  salvage. A handsome fireplace has been prised from the chimney breast, the Georgian door and door frame have been ripped out, some wooden shutters are propped across the doorway.  Yet above the former fireplace still hangs a large  oil painting of a landscape in a lavish gilt frame. The huge rip in the canvas explains its insignificance at this time. Though it would be romantic to think otherwise, the picture almost certainly was not a piece of Johnes’s property, more probably it was one of the fixtures belonging to the last serious owner, T.J. Waddingham who died age 98 in 1938.   But one still shudders to see it, not decently tidied away before the final destruction was commenced, but hanging on the wall as a reproach for all the misfortune which befell the house.

In the derelict Hafod mansion Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

In the derelict Hafod mansion, a damaged oil painting still hangs on the wall in 1957               Photo Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

 

Also in the collection are pictures of the architectural splendours now lost, including a detail of the domed roof the ante room to the side of the Octagon library, now ruptured  to the sky.

A view through the roof of the octagon library. Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod.  A view through the roof of the ante room adjoining octagon library.                                                                    Photo:       Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod. The garden terrace had been long neglected by 1957                                            Photo:Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

 

The decaying steps leading from the former lawn, the broken windows and rubble of plaster on the floor are perhaps the best evidence that by 1957 Hafod was indeed very far gone.  Today the rubble is overgrown by trees.  Only the cellar remains, with a crust of broken wine bottles scattered below the wine racks, and a slew of rubble blocking the cellar steps.  A few years ago it was briefly possible to walk along these damp subterranean corridors, but the only inhabitants are bats and the makeshift entrance is barred by a sturdy gate to prevent risk to unwary explorers.

In the Hafod cellars 2006

In the Hafod cellars 2006

In the case of Pengraig Draw, the past has been totally obliterated by modernity.  At Hafod it remains hauntingly present.

 

 

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New Tricks in an Old Pembrokeshire Garden

by The Curious Scribbler

Last September I visited an intriguing garden at Treffgarne Hall, near Wolf’s Castle. Here stands a large plain two-storey country house built in 1824 and virtually unaltered by its subsequent owners.  It stands on the Landsker line: the division between Norman and Welsh Pembrokeshire, on a windswept hilltop.

 

The south frontage of Treffgarne Hall, unchanged since 1824

The south frontage of Treffgarne Hall, unchanged since 1824

The south facing house looks right out to distant refinery stacks at the coast at Milford Haven 16 miles away.  By the 1960s its fortunes were shabby, with rotten floors and an overgrown garden.  The land, the farm, the outbuildings were serially sold off, until just the house and four acres remained, an unsuccessful country hotel.  This was bought in 2003 by Martin and Jackie Batty and a transformation began.

The walled garden on the hilltop had been embellished by the former owners to contain a hard tennis court in the farthest third, which looks sadly decrepit today.  The rest was, in 2003 a blank canvas of weeds.  But when I passed through the stone garden doorway west of the house I seemed to step into a Chelsea show garden. I found an immaculate formal space of slate paving, parallel rills and four symmetrically planted paulownias, flanked by huge oak pergolas trailed with Clematis armandii.  The design was created with advice from the Julian and Isabel Bannerman,  the designers who used to garden Hanham Court near Bristol.

Within the old walled kitchen garden is a remarkable formal garden

Within the old walled kitchen garden is a remarkable formal garden

It feels highly improbable to step from rural Pembrokeshire into such a space.  Martin Batty described how it reflects his enthusiasm for exotic and tender plants.   His plantings in 2003 included tender South African Proteas, Leucodendron argenteum (the silver tree) , Mexican cactus and giant echiums.  The first  few years were encouraging, but many were lost in the severe winters of 2009 and 2010.  The Echiums have come back from seed, and many other of his barely frost-hardy plants have flourished.  We saw many Southern hemisphere plants,  Bailey’s Purple Wattle from Australia, which flowers here in February, the Rice paper plant Tetrapanax papyrifer, and the frothy foliage of Melianthus major.

he Rice Paper Plant Tetrapanax papyrifer

The Rice Paper Plant Tetrapanax papyrifer

A curiousity was the weird saw-like leaves of Pseudopanax ferox. The lower leaves of this columnar plant are hard and rigid, higher up the plant they will grow soft and untoothed.  Apparently this heterophylly evolved to protect the leaves from the attentions of the now extinct Moas of New Zealand.

Pseudopanax ferox

Pseudopanax ferox

There were other unfamiliar plants: the blue dangling bells of Iochroma grandiflora from Peru, the floppy green fans of leaves of Iris confusa ‘ Martin Rix’ and a Muehlenbeckia (maidenhair vine)  not scrabbling uncontrolled through native trees as we saw it on Herm Island two years ago, but disciplined into a neat tight green mound. There was even a Norfolk Island Pine, Araucaria heterophylla – more familiar in Canary Island and Florida tourist developments.  I wonder how it will fare when it rears its head above the protective wall.

Iochroma grandiflora

Iochroma grandiflora

The rest of the garden is less startling, with lawns and borders, a broad terrace on the south side of the house, and a nice array of low-growing foliage plants in a gravel garden outside the walled garden. However the Battys have enlivened these grounds with some interesting uses of wood.  There is an inviting summerhouse, and what appear to be a pair of elaborate Palladian ashlar gateposts on the drive.

A quiet drive through conventional gateposts? Hardly:

A quiet drive through conventional gateposts? Hardly:

Closer inspection shows them to be carved of timber.  Panels are inscribed as mileposts:  Doncaster 350 miles;  Japan 4000 miles, which reflect the origins of the owners.  Pausing between these posts one reads the enigmatic inscription THE RUINS OF TIME BUILD MANSIONS IN ETERNITY.

timber gateposts. Doncaster 350 miles, Japan 5000miles

Treffgarne Timber gateposts. Doncaster 350 miles, Japan 5000miles

There is also a totem pole, a stack of four animals carved out of the trunk of a former beech tree and erected as a focal point west of the house.  Another, multi-trunked dead beech has been carved in situ in the likeness of a four headed dragon.

Carved in situ, a multi-trunked dead beech

Carved in situ, a multi-trunked dead beech

Here nature has embellished the chiselled scaly necks with bracket fungus and elegant frills of turkey tail fungus.  This colonisation is also the harbinger of the sculpture’s destruction.  But for a few years before the inevitable collapse, art and nature are most harmoniously combined.  Gardeners go to so much trouble for such fleeting returns.

The bracket fungus Pseudotrametes gibbosa favours beech trees

The bracket fungus Pseudotrametes gibbosa favours beech trees

Turkey tail. Coriolus versicolor

Turkey tail. (Coriolus versicolor)is now properly known as Trametes vesicolor and apparently the source of a potent anti tumour drug.

P1100119

The garden is open on certain days under the National Garden Scheme.   See the Yellow book and the free regional pamphlets which will soon appear.

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Ransome’s Artificial Stone at The Old College, Aberystwth

by The Curious Scribbler

The professional geologists who joined Dr Tim Palmer for his tour of the building materials of the Old College last month were to be seen, pondering, with hand-lenses, on the grand stair which leads off from the entrance lobby on the landward side of the Old College.  What, they debated, was the strangely uniform textured stone of which the cylindrical pillars are constructed?  In a sedimentary rock geologists look for traces of fossils, (there were none),  for bedding,  which represents the layers in which the sediment was laid down, for variations in grain size of the rock.  Part way up the stairs a pillar seemed to contain two largish clasts: lumps of material apparently contained within the stone, but insufficiently different from the matrix to resemble anything familiar to their experience.   We knew, because it had been found in the archive, that Seddon used Ransome’s Artificial Stone in the building, but for which parts, the records did not reveal.

A prolonged online search through Building News,  a weekly trade journal of the 19th century, has provided and illustrated the answer.  In the issue for 14 April 1871 a short article  reported that JP Seddon was to address the Institute of Architects the following Monday on the subject of the Old College and other buildings he had created in or near Aberystwyth  ( Abermad and Victoria Terrace spring to mind).

The Principal Staircase of the University College at Aberystwyth. Building News April 14 1871

The Principal Staircase of the University College at Aberystwyth. Building News April 14 1871

The grand staircase is shown and the accompanying article reads ” The plan of the staircase, as may be sufficiently seen from our view of it, is complex. The first flight leading from the main corridor, which is curved, is a straight one.  Then from the landing a few circular steps wind round each supporting column of the vaulting, and thence another straight flight on each side leads to the corridor on the first floor.  The shafts of the columns are all of Ransome’s patent stone, and the capitals and vaulting are of Bath stone”.  It was these shafts, and the eight-faced plinths beneath them, over which the geologists had been pondering.

Ransome’s Artificial Stone was quite a new product at the time the Old College ( then The Castle Hotel) was being constructed to the design of architect JP Seddon in 1865. It is described in an account of a meeting of the British Association of Science and Art in 1862.  At this meeting Professor Ansted MA, FRS, read a paper on artificial stones describing terracotta, cements and siliceous stone, and the properties and disadvantages of each.  Mr Ransome  was present to stage a demonstration of his technique.

According to the account, sand, limestone or clay was mixed into a paste with liquid sodium silicate, which had been obtained by digesting flints in alkaline solution in an industrial pressure cooker.  The paste could be pressed into a mould and then dipped into a solution of calcium chloride.  Within a few minutes the pasty mass had hardened to stone and could be passed around the room.  Large blocks weighing as much as two tons could be made by this method,  and the material could already be seen in use in new facades of the Metropolitan railway in London.

Ransome’s patent stone was also used for making moulded shaped stones such as gravestones and grindstones for sharpening knives.  It fell from use towards the end of the 19th century and Ransome’s son moved to America and became better known for concrete based materials and a patent horizontal rotary mixer.

Returning to the Old College, it seems there are other likely items of Ransome’s Artificial Stone, such as the distinctive stone fireplace hoods at either end of the Seddon room.  Again lacking in any obvious geological structures, these uniform textured stones interlock with one another and were moulded rather that tooled by a stonemason into their complementary shapes.  Utilizing different colours of sand in the mix allowed the production of alternate dark and light shades in the fireplace arch. The ornamental columns on either side are of real stone, Lizard serpentine, from Cornwall.

Fireplace hood, believed to be of Ransome's artificial stone, in the Seddon Room

Fireplace hood, believed to be of Ransome’s Artificial Stone, in the Seddon Room

The odd looking clasts noted by the geologists inspecting stones in the staircase are now understandable, being  consistent with their origin as distinct lumps within an imperfectly mixed  paste rather than formed by  a process of natural deposition.

The last word in this blog should go to the The Building News of April 14 1871, at which time the newly formed University College was soon to open in their recently acquired and unfinished building.

” We trust that the Committee will resolve upon finishing the work in the same spirit as that in which it was begun, and not spoil it by injudicious economy; for having purchased it for so much less than it cost, as they have done, a certain moral responsibility is attached to the bargain.”

I am not sure that “moral reponsibility” is a useful phrase to use in the current lottery bid to restore and revive this innovative building,  but the intervening years have certainly seen underfunding, and the definitely injudicious application of thick layers of paint to some of the Ransome’s stone columns.

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Jesse Rust mosaics in Aberystwyth

by The Curious Scribbler

Last week I attended a Cadw Open Day at the Old College, where Dr Tim Palmer gave a lecture on the the building stones of which this Grade I Listed building is made.  The Old College has  suffered various set backs in its life:  the bankruptcy of its first owner, a devastating fire in the Chemistry department, the reconstruction of its south and middle sections, and the slow ravages of the erosive salt-laden winds.  We learned how new phases and different architects brought in different materials, so that the Old College now boasts at least nine different sources of stone.

Historically the most interesting work is that of J.P. Seddon, designer of the building destined to become Thomas Savin’s grand railway terminus hotel.  He used Cefn sandstone from Ruabon for the walling and  Box Ground stone from Bath for the carved window dressings and details.  Keen to achieve a vibrant range of colours he used Hanham Blue from Bristol for the exterior pillars which flank windows on the seaward side, and ornamental marbles from Devon and Cornwall for interior pillars in the Dining Room and Bar ( now the Seddon Room). The intricate gothic main staircase proves to be made largely of a long forgotten composite: Ransome’s Artificial Stone, which betrays its man -made origins only by its remarkably uniform texture.  Externally, when completing the upper storey of the building to the University College’s more parsimonious requirements, Seddon used dark concrete blocks, interspersed with diagonal bands of pale Dundry stone.

The rather austere central block by Ferguson uses a different stone, Grinshill sandstone from near Shrewsbury, while 20th century restorations brought in a sandstone from Durham, which is weathering as severely as the Bath stone which it replaced.

When rebuilding the southern wing of the College  as the Science Wing in 1887, Seddon commissioned his former pupil C.F.A.Voysey to design the distinctive triptych mosaic which still adorns the curved end of the building, looming over the crazy golf and the castle.  It depicts pure science being respectfully presented with the fruits of applied science ( a train and a ship) by two acolytes.  Seddon recorded in 1898  that some months after the mosaic was installed, the college authorities objected to  Voysey’s religious symbolism in the central panel, which ‘suggested a conflict between science and dogma’. Seddon was obliged to alter the finished mosaic, such that Science now sits on an unadorned wall.

The tryptych on the South wing Copyright Dr Tom Holt, UA

The tryptych on the South Wing, Old College Aberystwyth
Copyright Dr Tom Holt, Aberystwyth Univeristy

But the actual manufacturer of the mosaic is not generally known.  Tim Palmer drew our attention to another of J.P. Seddon’s commissions in Aberystwyth, the restoration of the ancient church of St Padarn, in Llanbadarn Fawr in 1878.  Visitors  “in the know” can peel back the red carpet in the crossing to reveal the extensive mosaic floor, in which geometric designs of tiny 1/2 inch tesserae frame regularly placed encaustic tiles depicting saints and angels.  Adjoining the red marble steps to the chancel, the mosaics take more fluid naturalistic designs of leaves and flowers.

Mosaic floor by Jesse Rust, St Padarn's Church, Llanbadarn

Mosaic floor by Jesse Rust, St Padarn’s Church, Llanbadarn

An encaustic tile depicting an angel, wet in mosaic floor

Encaustic picture tiles depicting a saint offering his crown, set in mosaic floor, St Padarn’s Church

The church records held at the Ceredigion Archive  show that these mosaics were the work of Jesse Rust of Battersea, who used recycled glass and ceramic pigments to create a rainbow range of tiles and tesserae.  The actual designs were assembled in the workshop, with the upper face stabilised on glued paper, which was stripped away to reveal the picture once the sections were stuck in place on the church floor.

Tim Palmer drew our attention to the strong likelihood that Voysey’s mosaic on the Old College was also manufactured by Jesse Rust of Battersea.  Juxtaposing the colourful image of Science  with the design sample held by the Victoria and Albert Museum, showed a very good correspondence with the palette of colours his firm offered.

Jesse Rust samples in V &A set beside CFA Voysey's triptych

Jesse Rust samples in V &A ( left) set beside CFA Voysey’s triptych, Aberystwyth

A bit of reading around the topic shows the prominence of Rust’s elaborately decorative mosaics in the late 19th to early 20th century.    There is a  Listed Grade II astrological mosaic by Jesse Rust at the foot of the Marble staircase in the Hotel Russell, (built 1898) in Russell Square, London, and another  at the old London, Edinburgh and Glasgow Insurance Company offices at 194 Euston Road.

The Mosaic by Jesse Rust at the foot of the marble staircase in the Hotel Russell

The Mosaic by Jesse Rust at the foot of the Pyrenean marble staircase in the Hotel Russell

There is a very colourful floor, with flowers, animals and bees,  recently restored in the foyer of Battersea Old Town Hall and a  World War I memorial floor in John Nash’s circular church All Souls, Langham Place.

Other Jesse Rust work was more functional and by the early 20th century his glass tiles were particularly favoured for lavatories.  Fine examples survive in the painstakingly restored  Sanitary Court at Peckham Rye station. http://www.benedictolooney.co.uk/peckham-rye-station-north-wing-sanitary-courts/

The Sanitary Court, Peckham Rye Station

The Sanitary Court, Peckham Rye Station

A report in the Times 16 June 1904 shows that he provided the floors for its 150 bathrooms and lavatories, and the floor-to-ceiling tiling in the refrigeration rooms in the Savoy Hotel.

Prior to the rebuilding of the Old College Science wing in 1887 there are a number of instances of Seddon and Rust working together.  In 1875 Rust supplied J.P. Seddon with mosaics for a new Victorian Gothic church at Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire which he designed in contrasting shades of red, blue and white brick.  Jesse Rust supplied a particularly jolly mosaic font in the interior, and even a blue mosaic clock face on the church tower.

Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire, designed by JP Seddon

Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire, designed by JP Seddon

Clock face mosaic by Jesse Rust, at Ayot St Peter

Clock face mosaic by Jesse Rust, at Ayot St Peter

The Llanbadarn Church floor dates from 1878.   Seddon also did work designing stained glass for Rust, and he designed the front facade of his Battersea premises.

Many of Rust’s functional mosaic floors have probably been cleared away and replaced, for with the passage of time individual tesserae become detached and come away with the sweepings, leaving flaws in the design and dirt traps in the floor.  Llanbadarn Church needs substantial grants to return the mosaic to its former glory, and then dispense with the protective carpet.   But it is pleasing to believe that the Old College building  boasts  probably the most westerly Jesse Rust mosaic. Further research may even reveal the invoice in the University archives.

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BT Fibre Broadband Nightmare

By The Curious Scribbler

Why haven’t I posted a single interesting blog in the last eight weeks?

Well it has quite a lot to do with the arrival, on the pole opposite my house, of a lovely green box, what BT call a Cabinet, bringing fibre optic cable from the exchange.

The Cabinet outside my house attached to an optic fibre line

The Cabinet outside my house attached to an optic fibre line

Having endured years of download speeds of 1 MBPS  I was excited.  I placed an order for BT Infinity broadband.  I even bought a Smart TV.

Engineers came and connected  the cabinet to a new optic fibre cable joined  to  a box on the outside of my house.  Another engineer came and attached it to a pretty Openreach router which he installed inside the house.  One little problem, a light showed red, indicating no connection to the exchange.

My OpenReach modem. Three pretty lights but no action

My OpenReach modem. Three pretty lights but no action

After 3 weeks the red light went green, and spirits soared. The helpful Openreach engineer came back and confirmed it was now working.  But it needed an activation code.  All I needed to do now was get it activated.

I have spent much of the last 10 weeks trying to get it activated.  BT Faults thinks I have copper wire slow broadband which works.  BT billing is charging me for installation of the fibre and the new expensive contract which they are not providing. BT Orders won’t let me cancel and re-order because the order is “Pending”.  All routes lead eventually to the FTTP team ( Fibre to the Premises) who can only be spoken to after you’ve listened to 150 repeats of the “We are very busy at the moment, your call will be answered as soon as possible” messageOften , after an hour or two the line goes dead, unanswered.

I’ve spent 19 hours on the phone to various departments.  I’ve been promised connection dates and callbacks which are never delivered.

And don’t underestimate the mind draining effect of the repetitive BT musak after an hour or two.

Today I took to Twitter to protest.  You’ll find the strand on @BTCare if you tweet.  I don’t know if BT has any skilled engineers or decisionmakers, but they obviously have a roomful of young people called Ash, Stephen, ClaireC, Alana, Kevin, and Pete, highly trained in emitting pointless platitudes in 140 characters.

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

by The Curious Scribbler

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

An Epitaph on a Robin Redbreast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this Mariamne, mourning a robin?

Is this really Mariamne, mourning her pet  robin?

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

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

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

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

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

The urn in the National Library of Wales 2016

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

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