Idyll and Industry at the National Library

by The Curious Scribbler,

The leading exhibit in the Gregynog Gallery is undoubtedly the Canaletto, loaned out for the summer under an initiative to share the National Gallery’s collections with those of us in far flung corners of the UK.

The Stone Mason’s Yard by Canaletto

The Stonemason’s Yard was painted in about 1725 and donated to the National Gallery by Sir Thomas Beaumont a hundred years later.  It depicts an early morning scene in  a lesser square the Campo San Vidal.  The rising sun casts long shadows across the scene and, as the accompanying caption describes, there is much human activity going on.  There are gondolas and gondoliers on the Grand Canal, and women attending two lines of washing  in the middle distance. The foreground shows women engaged in traditional activities – housework, spinning and childcare.  At centre are the stone carving activities, a man with a mallet  and chisel is carving a large block of limestone, while another with his back to us is splitting stone into pavier slabs. But the third stone mason on the right of the picture is the one who caught my attention, for here, working on the interior of a huge freshly carved basin or well head is undoubtedly a burly woman.  It is unexpected to find a woman mason, but it appears that Canaletto painted what he saw.  Surprisingly  she is not mentioned in the caption.

The lady stonemason

The rest of the exhibition is spread out to either side,  Turn right for ‘Idyll’  scenes of rural Welsh landscape in paintings in the collections of the National Library, or turn left for ‘Industry’, –  iron works, mines and quarries depicted over two centuries.  Adjoining the industrial views are also a few abstracts, so abstract that only the initiated would know that they are about Wales.  I’ve learnt a useful expression –  ” deeply personal response”  is a good description for baffling representations of named locations!

Among the more representational works, are pictures by Turner, Ibbotson, Richard Wilson, Thomas Jones of Pencerrig, David Cox and other well-known artists.   For locals like me it was interesting to see a 1955 painting of Hafod by Joyce Fitzwilliams of Cilgwn, Newcastle Emlyn. The house is party roofless and viewed I think from the path up towards Pendre cottage.  Demolition of the Italianate wing added by Henry de Hoghton has already begun.

Joyce Fitzwilliams’ Hafod 1955

Also of local interest was a painting by  World War I Belgian refugee Valerius de Saedeleer of the land dipping down to the sea, probably near of Llanrhystud.

Valerius de Saedeleer Coastal landscape near Aberystwyth painted during WWI

Turning to the industrial side  there are some powerful images such as Miners returning from Work by Archie Rhys Griffiths, a depression-era painting which nonetheless evokes the grandeur of toil.  Many of the more  recent industrial views  are more grim or dismal in tone.

Archie Rhys Griffiths 1932 Miners returning from work

But my eye was caught by a work by Penry Williams, thought to depict the Dowlais Iron works. Like the Canaletto, the scene is bright and lucid, with long shadows cast across a foreground of great activity.  The bare grassy uplands gleam in the background with neat fields and scattered farmhouses on the slopes, while lurking in full view is the industrial behemoth.  Four tall chimneys, five flaming beacons, long sheds with with rows of chimneys each emitting a gleam of fire and puffs of white smoke.  Everything is neat and new and sharply designed.  The tall chimneys have ornamental tiers, and a huge sphere on a stone pedestal indicates an owner of wealth and  discernment.  Doubtless many men worked perspiring in the heat of these sheds, but the only humans we see are two top hatted gentlemen on horseback and a gardener with his wheelbarrow, meticulously edging a broad graveled path through the immaculate garden which adjoins the works.

Penry Williams’ evocation of industrial glory in the early 19th century

There came a time when industrialists moved away from their factories to unspoilt rural locations, sometimes donating their former parks to the people, but in the early 19th century one can sense the excitement of new industry bringing huge rewards to the iron masters, and new jobs to the rural poor.  Penry Williams came from a modest family of stonemasons in Merthyr Tydfil.  Without the patronage of the newly enriched iron masters he would never have studied at the Royal Academy or  settled in Rome to pursue a career painting Italian scenes for young gentlemen on the Grand Tour.

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Curating Nature

by The Curious Scribbler

The School of Art has selected gardens and gardening as the theme of this year’s long running summer exhibition.  The exhibition forms a part of the undergraduate course in which students act as curators – selecting the works, mounting, framing and displaying them in the gallery.  For this they sifted through the substantial collections belonging to the School of Art, bringing various long-unseen artworks into the light. The result is an intriguing collection on the general theme, including paintings, etchings, prints,photographs, decoupage and even ceramics spanning a time frame of 150 years. There is also a cabinet to explore.

Each drawer in this cabinet was compiled by an individual student. Here the page is open at Phallus impudicus,  the Stinkhorn fungus.

My eye was first caught by two exquisite botanical illustrations by Mildred Eldridge, wife of the poet R.S.Thomas.  The first is of Sanguisorba canadensis growing in 1959 at Eglwysfach, possibly in their garden, or in the collections of Mr Mappin at Ynyshir Hall.

Sanguinaria canadensis by Mildred Eldridge

A second painting dated 1960 shows the delicate pastel shades of a bicoloured Camellia japonica.  Mildred’s illustrations appeared in several books in the 1940s and others were published as art cards by Medici Society.

Camellia japonica by Mildred Eldridge

 

I was also arrested by a powerful winter scene by Belgian artist Maurice Langaskens, showing a man with secateurs mounting a ladder to prune a tree, dark birds whirling overhead.  He spent much of the first world war in captivity in Germany.  How did this picture find its way to Aberystwyth?  Was he perhaps a friend of our better-known Belgian refugee Valerius de Sadeleer, who spent those years living at Tyn Lon, Rhydyfein, painting local landscape scenes?

An etching by Maurice Langaskens

This rummage through the archive makes serendipitous connections.  Who knew that George Cruikshank had a cartoonist great nephew whose wood engraving in the magazine The Leisure Hour pokes fun at the Aesthetic Movement of the late 19th century?  The tiny print shows the industrial production of serried rows of sunflowers, along with people, bees, gnats and savoy cabbages.

Woodcut by Cruikshank’s great nephew Cruikshank Jnr

Sunflowers get a grittier treatment in a lithograph by kitchen sink realist John Bratby from the 1960s.

Sunflowers II by John Bratby

Several more recent artists in the collection have close ties with Aberystwyth and I was pleased to see two of Jenny Fell’s calendar linocuts from 1989 on the walls.  I am an early investor in Jenny’s work, four other months have adorned my kitchen walls since 1991.  Hung here is October ( a bonfire) and April ( Violets and Primroses).  The captioning has a very modern slant:  burning autumn leaves now brings a homily about carbon dioxide and global warming.

 

October by Jenny Fell

Works by Art School staff are also to be found.  Prof John Harvey’s small spikey drawing evokes the steep hill and neat gardens  of Elysian Grove while Prof Catrin Webster’s huge colourful canvas dominates the room.

Elysian Grove by John Harvey

The very same evening I was at the Arts Centre for the launch of John Hedley’s exhibition in the upstairs gallery.  John paints and burnishes slices of tree trunk, many of them from Bodnant or from Anthony Tavernor’s amazing garden at Plas Cadnant on Anglesey.  When at his alternative home in Crete ancient olive boles provide his canvasses. The designs develop in the studio, suggested to him by the grain and form of the pieces of timber.  The combined rich colours and metallic finishes of copper and gold leaf are bright and vibrant.  We read a lot about mental health and well-being in relation to nature these days.  This exhibition though has no subtext, it is just unapologetically cheerful.

Trees trunks felled by Storm Arwen are canvasses for John Hedley

 

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Kidney Vetch on Constitution Hill

by The Curious Scribbler,

Blue sky, blue sea and green Alexandra hall encased in scaffolding.

Today’s  brilliant May sunshine is so welcome after the humid mist of the last few days and the months of rain which preceded it.   Dare we hope that we are to be rewarded with a lovely summer?  My excursion along the Prom took me to the foot of Constitution HIll, where a small path zig zags up towards the bridge over the funicular railway.  The winter storms have removed quite a bit of this path above the shore and a new footway is beginning to be eroded on the slope above the missing bits.  Just now though, it passes a sea of pale yellow. The dominant plant here is the Kidney vetch Anthyllis vulneraria. 

Footpath up the hill

Perhaps the grey days have diminished my recall but I don’t remember ever seeing it look so lovely.  Later in the season the slope will be bright with pink and white valerian, which I remember well, but just now it is the Kidney Vetch and bright patches of clear white Sea Campion Silene uniflora which catch the attention.   I looked both flowers up Arthur Chater’s magnificent Flora of Cardiganshire, and was interested to note that he comments that flowering of Kidney Vetch varies greatly from year to year.  Surely this horrid winter must have been just the tonic it required.

Kidey Vetch and Sea Campion

 

The distribution map for the occurrence  of Kidney Vetch forms an almost uninterrupted  black line along the coast of Ceredigon, and indeed he comments that it is almost always found within 100 yards of the sea.  What a contrast with its bed fellow the Sea Campion,which ventures far inland, flowering blithely on the toxic spoil heaps of the old lead and silver mines,and on the shingle of the Rheidol  and Ystwyth rivers.  Plants which flourish where others fail to thrive sometimes attract superstition, and it has some odd alternative names.  Dead Man’s Bells or Witches Thimbles.  There is a folk tradition that if picked it brings death.  As a child I enjoyed popping the bladder-like calyces as if they were tine balloons and I’m still living!

Kidney Vetch by contrast has the folk seal of approval, used by medieval herbalists to relieve swelling and heal wounds, and to treat problems of the stomach and the kidney. One can also eat it apparently, both the young leaves and the small pea like pods,  but I hope it will be left for everyone to enjoy.

The double-headed flowers of Kidney Vetch

 

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A Gigantic Puffball

by The Curious Scribbler

I like to think I am quite observant but yesterday I discovered to my chagrin that I had been walking my dog regularly past the largest puffball fungus I have ever seen.   To give it its proper name   Calvatia  gigantea must have emerged as a huge white blob in the depths of a bed of nettles late last summer. It would have been somewhat obscured by the growth around it until the nettles died back in winter. If I noticed it  at all I suppose I must have dismissed it as a pale boulder lying on the surface of the field.

Then yesterday, after rain, my attention was attracted by a big irregular brown object, beaded with raindrops and with a fragment broken away at one side.  Too big to be a poo of any known animal, but with a strangely smooth internal texture.  I poked it with a stick, expecting it to be hard.  Instead is proved to be extremely soft and light, and rolled away at a touch.

This fruiting body or gleba contains literally trillions of spores, ready to be released into the wind.  It grows from the underground mycelia with a narrow neck which eventually breaks allowing it to roll around like an oversized football.  I found the patch of bare earth nearby where it has until recently sat, like a large stone, inhibiting the grass roots underneath.  It is cleverly designed by nature to stay dry so that the spores can blow away.  The fungus is so water repellent that the rain stands in tight globular droplets on the surface. The leathery skin which formerly contained it has peeled away except on the lower surface.

Water droplets bead the upper surface of the giant puffball

The under surface of the puffball

Far lighter than a loaf of bread and as soft as a sponge we lifted it and turned it over to admire its form.  Tapping any part of it with a stick released clouds of spores into the air.

Calvatia gigantea releases millions of spores into the air

This remarkable fungus would have been edible if I had spotted it in summer when it was firm and white.  Now mature and brown it has no culinary use, but I have read that the mature spongy material used to be sliced into layers and used for wound dressing, especially for veterinary purposes.  It was valued for its  styptic effect, stopping bleeding and encouraging coagulation.  This 18 inch monster would dress quite a few wounds.

I found a second much small puffball still in situ nearby.  The thin leathery skin had only just started to peel away from the upper surface to reveal spore tissue beaded in water.  Where the skin is intact, the water just runs off it like a gaberdine.

A much smaller giant puffball still mainly covered with its waterproof skin

Surprisingly little is known about giant puffballs.  They occur rarely and unexpectedly and even where they have been found another may not be seen for many years.  It is thought that they perhaps take their nutrients symbiotically from the grasses or other plants,  rather than saprophytically from rotting wood.  They are not found amongst trees. The underground network to produce this huge growth must be substantial. We know very little about these fungal networks.

The excitement of finding my gigantic puffball is matched by another winter mystery, the Crystal brain fungus or star jelly I wrote about last year.  A number of local people have posted pictures of this material recently.  We may be exploring space, but we still do not know exactly what these gelatinous masses are and whether they come from fungi, meteor showers or vomited frogs.

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Will your storage heaters work in April?

by The Curious Scribbler 

I seldom use my website for rants about consumer issues but today I am moved to share my concerns on a matter which may affect many of my local readers if they heat their homes with storage heaters.

If you use the  Economy 7 tariff you may still have a meter which uses a radio tele switch to tell the system when to charge up your storage heaters with off peak electricity.  A separate circuit delivers off peak electricity to the storage heaters and hot water cylinder.  It probably turns on at around midnight and turns off at 7am.  It may be a large black box beside the meter labelled RTS.

Radio teleswitch - WikipediaOr the switch mechanism may be in a white meter such as mine which is labelled Radio Telemeter series K.

 

Radio telemeter help | Electricians Forums | Electrical Safety Advice | Talk Electrician Forum

With some models you hear a loud click when the switch operates. Very soon this system will cease to operate because the BBC long wave radio frequency will be switched off.  The OFGEM website reads thus:

If you have an electricity meter that uses Radio Teleswitch (RTS) technology

The BBC radio service that supports RTS meters is being phased out and is planned to end 31 March 2024. If you have an electricity meter which switches between peak and off-peak tariff rates, such as an Economy 7 or 10 tariff, or it automatically turns on your heating or hot water, you may have a meter that uses Radio Teleswitch (RTS) technology. Read about the changes and how they affect households in the Radio Teleswitch electricity meters: consumer guidance.

So if I do nothing the storage heaters will cease to work on April fools Day.

Scottish Power, they of the impenetrably unhelpful customer service, are eager to install a Smart Meter (indeed the government target demands that they do so within a year or so)  but because of the location of my property, where there is no phone signal, a Smart meter will not communicate with the Smart Metering Wide Area Network  ( SM-WAN).  Scottish Power knows this.   And as OFGEM succinctly puts it

Areas where smart meter signals do not work

Smart meters need a signal to work. The signal comes from the Smart Metering Wide Area Network (SM-WAN). This is a national network that connects smart meters and energy suppliers. Your electricity supplier will tell you if your home can connect to the network and if not what your options are for replacing your existing meter.

Scottish Power does not appear to offer options.  They simply want to install a Smart Meter, perhaps in hope that one day the signal will be improved.

Of course where Smart Meters do work it is possible to receive differently priced electricity by time of day, even without a separate storage heater circuit, so not everyone will be affected.  But I suspect there are a lot of radio teleswitches out in rural Ceredigion and in older flats which will not have been upgraded before the deadline, and some which may never be able operate their storage heaters again.

OFGEM writes

We are monitoring the progress of suppliers and have asked them for updates on their work to replace and upgrade all RTS meters. They must make sure that their customers have a suitable electricity meter installed and that their service is not disrupted.

I live in hope but am seriously worried.   I can find no reliable source of advice.  Meter installers are mysterious subcontractors who cannot be contacted except by your supplier.  I guess a lot of people will wake up to a cold and expensive April.

 

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Picking out a Christmas Tree

by The Curious Scribbler

Saturday was a perfect day for a seasonal tradition – selecting a Christmas Tree.  At Cambrian Trees in  Ysbyty Ystwyth the frost lay white on the ground, the sky was blue, and kites soured overhead.  A heron flew heavily over the valley while small birds wren, robin and dunnock appeared fleetingly amongst the trees.    Calling first at the office, where wreathes and ready cut trees are available in abundance we instead were issued with a label with our name on it and set loose to interrogate the thousands of trees on four sloping fields on the valley side.   Once tagged, our chosen tree will remain on its roots until we wish to collect it, – in our case very close to Christmas when most of the trees in the retail trade will have been cut for many weeks and become far more prone to dropping their needles.

Over the years we’ve sought our tree in various small plantations; up the Rheidol Valley at Cwm Rheidol, near the crematorium at Clarach, and south near Talgarreg.  One year our chosen tree even came with an installed blackbird’s nest for extra authenticity.  But the plantations were often overgrown and difficult. At Cambrian Trees they have things set up for keen tree-selectors like myself.  The walks between the trees are wide and mown, the trees comfortably spaced and the encroaching brambles which can shade out and distort the lower boughs are regularly controlled by strimming.  They even prune their trees where the shape could be improved on – a skillful task since conifers can can suddenly produce multiple leaders where they have been cut or damaged.

My chosen tree is one of these Nordmann firs

Even so the process of choosing a tree can be a long one.  Height is just one consideration.  Adjoining trees may be skinny or broad, and they may have widely spaced whorls of branches or be  densely bushy.   Symmetry of the top-most branches is very variable,  so I inspect my prospective tree from every side, mentally festooning the branches with baubles and balancing Xmas parcels among the lower boughs.

There is also the choice of species to consider. Firm favourite with many customers is the Nordmann fir, but there are others beckoning the purchaser.  The Frazer fir has slightly shorter bright green needles silver on the underside, and its narrow form suits smaller  spaces.  The Noble fir has softer and greyer needles  and is particularly favoured for wreath making.  Here and there in Field No 1 we came across Korean firs,  which cone freely while still small.  For decoration with snow or tinsel these trees would be stunning, the brown cones substitute for shiny baubles, and the tips of every twig are ornamented with a trio of bright white buds.

Korean fir hardly needs decorating

One could go off piste with the soft plumy foliage of a lodgepole pine, or settle for the traditional green of an old -fashioned  Norway Spruce, perfect for an outdoor tree but thirsty and demanding in a heated room.  There are  also some Siberian Spruce, which I am told hold their needles far longer that the Norway.

A very bushy Norway Spruce

A Lodgepole pine

This is the best-kept of the tree-fields I have visited over the years and  Jane introduced me to some of the workers, now resting in the adjoining barn.  Shropshire sheep have teddy-bear faces and neat sideways pointing ears.  Welsh mountain sheep would be unwelcome since they will devour the lower branches of the conifers, but these discriminating grazers leave the trees alone and keep the grass down.  Perhaps Shropshire sheep could have a future as domestic lawnmowers too.

Shropshire sheep

When I choose to collect my tree  Adam or Andy will  set off on the quad bike with a chainsaw to collect it.  That way there will be barely a needle on the carpet when twelfth night comes around.

Andy cuts and collects the trees.

Great quantities of Christmas trees leave Cambrian Trees to be sold far and wide, but there is a special  welcome for us locals and our families lucky enough to be able to visit in person. I will also be buying one of Jane’s wreaths to hang on my front door.

Tree netting allows them to fit in the car.

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Bridal gowns at Eglwysfach

by The Curious Scribbler,

I called in at St Michael’s Eglwysfach this afternoon to view their latest exhibition – of historic and recent Bridal and Baptismal Gowns.  The exhibits are provided by people who are local to the area, some who were born in the parish, others who migrated from elsewhere bringing their memorabilia with them.   First impressions are of an airy whitewashed church interior with simple dark brown box pews.  Each pew gives access to a wooden mannequin clothed in wedding gown, and a short description of the gown, its wearer and its day of glory.   Curated by Lynda Thomas, the exhibition casts fascinating light on not just the fluctuations of fashion but on the social history of the last century or so.  Accompanying material include wedding photographs and the wearer’s memories.  It is much more personal than just an exhibition of gowns.

 

St Michael’s Eglwsfach adorned with wedding gowns

 

 

The oldest gown on display went up the aisle in 1928 fashionably exposing  Sue Billingsley’s grandmother’s ankles.  Muriel Mary Richards made the dress herself in fine silk velvet with appliqued velvet flowers and embroidery and beads.  She must have been a talented seamstress.  Possibly age has discoloured it.  In the accompanying photograph is looks to be white.

The oldest gown worn in 1928 in West Bridgford, Nottingham

Next in antiquity was a heavy figured satin gown with long fitted sleeves and a broad divided collar.  Alison Swanson’s auntie wore it to her wedding at St Matthew’s Church, Borth in 1957.   A prestigious dress from Roecliff and Chapman of Grosvenor Street, London, couturiers to Princess Grace Kelly.   Eleven years later Alison wore it to her own wedding at the same church.  Flanking this mighty dress are those of her two daughters-in-law who were married this century.  The contemporary take on the formal white dress involves bare arms and shoulders which would have surprised the great aunt.  The other bride wore a pretty informal floral gown.

Alison Swanson married in 1968 wearing her auntie’s vintage 1957 gown. Her two daughters in laws’ dresses on either side.

Had Alison been buying anew, she might instead have considered a statuesque flowing  dress like the one worn by Mary Andrews when she married Keith Fletcher at St Bride’s Church, Cwmdauddwr Rhayader.  From Marshall and Snelgrove’s grand London store, it was of floaty rayon georgette fabric suspended from a  bodice and sleeves of Guipure lace with pearl droplets.  The groom must have had to take care not to tread on her train.

1967 gown with a long train from up-market department store Marshall and Snelgrove

Another mother and daughter trio was provided by Celia Boorman whose wedding to Russell Davies took place in 1972 at St Petroc’s Church, South Brent, in Devon.  Graduate students at Oxford at the time, they were on their way to buy tyres for his Mini when she spotted this flamboyant dress in a shop window in Cowley.

Celia Boorman married in 1972 in this flamboyant dress, her daughters’ dresses are on either side .

Her daughter Imogen married at Gregynog Hall in 2014 wearing another white bare shouldered  dress, while in 2018 daughter Tamsin had two wedding outfits, one for her wedding at St Michael’s Eglwysfach and the other for her Hindu wedding in Bradford. The sari is displayed like a tent behind the mannequin.

Sheila Cuthbert wore a pale blue Laura Ashley ‘Prairie’ dress when she married Mervyn Lloyd in Wombourne Registry Office in 1979.  Sleeves were long and necks were high in the 1970s.  It put me in mind of a similar dress I wore to my wedding in 1973.  My mother-in-law forbade a white wedding because she knew we had already shared a tent!  These were dresses which could come out on other occasions: Sheila wore hers at a Millenium party.

A blue Laura Ashley gown for Sheila Cuthbert and Mervyn Lloyd’s registry office wedding in 1979

Lynda Warren was married twice in the 1980s, both times wearing a hat.  Her second wedding, to Barry Thomas, was in a Registry Office and a chic Mothercare maternity gown.  It was touch and go whether the nuptuals would precede the baby.

Two 1980s gowns worn by Lynda Warren

The collection of baptismal gowns is less varied that the bridal ones, and also older, with several Victorian or Edwardian gowns which have attended numerous  family christenings.  The main fashion trend seems to have been that they have got a little shorter over the decades.  They are displayed in the enclosure around the font alongside  glowering images of RS Thomas.

Baptism Gowns displayed  around the font

Many families have carefully preserved their baptismal gowns, but Joy Neal must be congratulated on also  retaining the box.

Trouseaux and layettes from Steinmann & Co of Piccadilly

The Exhibition is open till the end of the month 10am-4pm with the option of tea and cake for a modest £2.00 a head.  Donations support local charities   Hospice at Home   ( HAHAV) and Riding for the Disabled (RDA).  I reccommend it.

 

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Needed – A conservation saviour for Tanycastell land

by The Curious Scribbler

Barely had I returned from the walk around Pendinas when the news emerged of the imminent sale of the magnificent meadow and marshland which abuts Tanybwlch beach.  For long this land had belonged to farmer Lewis Jones of Ynyshir and Tanycastell farms,  – a man with an unenviable reputation for livestock neglect – and limited enthusiasm for SSSIs.  Following his death a couple of years ago the most coastal part of Tanycastell farm has now been put on the market with estate agents Aled Ellis.

The area for sale is the stony barrier spit and three coastal fields south of the river Ystwyth and the steeply sloping meadow which clothes Alltwen cliff.  According to the particulars the 153 acres has a guide price of £1.4 million,  an average of £9150 an acre.   This seems a substantial sum.  Seventy seven acres is described as level pasture but the particulars omit to mention that part of it floods regularly and it is reverting below Tanybwlch mansion to salt marsh.  With rising sea levels it was already  resolved twenty years ago that the Tanyblwch flats cannot be protected from the sea.  A further  63 acres of Alltwen is described as sheepwalk.   This  perhaps overstates the case, for the land ownership extends to high tide mark so almost 1/3 of the Alltwen land area is cliff and tumbled former quarry inhospitable even to a mountain goat!

I worry deeply that this high price is not unconnected with the final words in the particulars:    The land will also be of interest to investors, statutory bodies and conservationists in additional to those who wish to develop a commercial enterprise (subject to planning) on the Southern fringes of Aberystwyth.

By a miracle Tanybwlch land has escaped a number of commercial enterprises. The previous owner was Col. Lewis Pugh who bought it in hope of installing Aberystwyth airport there, and on failing to secure the necessary investment sold it in the 1960s to Lewis Jones.    Some 35 years ago  I was one of the objectors who fought off the proposal to install a sewage maceration plant which would mince Aberystwyth’s sewage and discharge it, still rich in microbes, a little further out to sea. ( Thankfully a state of the art  treatment plant was instead built on the Rheidol Industrial estate, and our sea is the better for it).

But what commercial horrors might now threaten this beautiful piece of land?  We must hope that our planning authority would be equal to the task of fending off development.   This is a piece of land which richly deserves a conservationist owner.  The Alltwen and Traeth Tanybwlch SSSI  (Site of Special Scientific Interest) represents the rare and specialist coastal flora of the shingle beach.  Sea holly, sea sandwort, restharrow and horned poppy are among the most conspicuous of an elite flora and Ray’s knotgrass one of the rarest. The sheepwalk above is one of the finest locations for waxcaps and the remarkable Devil’s Fingers  fungi in the county.  Wheatear and rock pipit nest on the stony shore, and choughs, peregrines and  ravens frequent the cliffs.

As climate changes it is becoming even more diverse.  With rising seas and fiercer storms the south west corner at the foot of Alltwen now forms a shallow lagoon for long periods of the winter, and the pool is visited by teal, widgeon, mallard, redshank, curlew, lapwing, heron, little egret and migrating geese.  The vegetation is already changing to saltmarsh, and if the land drains were blocked, a marsh as important as the Dyfi will soon develop.  One day the shingle spit may be entirely breached and the river Ystwyth may resume an earlier course towards the sea.

Flooding of Tanybwlch flats after Storm Dennis in 2020

The sea deposited loads of sand over the shingle bar and into the fields February 2022

All this nature and beauty on the very doorstep of Aberystwyth is a magnificent asset and with a more specific designation could bring yet more visitors to the town.  Lying between Pendinas, the finest hillfort in the county and the wooded slopes of the original Aberystwyth Castle, and skirted by the Welsh Coastal Path,  these fields are an incomparably important part of the scenery and must be protected.    A conservation saviour is urgently required.

Alltwen cliff   May 2020.  In autumn and winter the slope is rich with fungi

Scenes like this one during Storm Dennis  in February 2020 will much reduce its viability as farmland

The permanent lagoon which tries to form each winter  would  further enhance the area. 

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A walk round Pendinas

by The Curious Scribbler

I was one of thirty people who joined Beca Davies, Project Community Outreach Officer for the Pendinas Hillfort Archaeology Project, on a relaxed evening stroll around the lower slopes of Pendinas yesterday evening.

We met at the gate in Parc Dinas, traversed the middle path across the flank of the hill and returned on the lower path past the horse field and across the former rubbish dump.  Stopping at intervals along the route Beca  and Richard Suggett contributed their knowledge and further insights emerged from the group.

The Wellington monument, which stands within the iron age hill fort, was the brainchild of William Eardley Richardes of Bryneithin.  Richard Suggett reminded us that public subscription had been limited and  as a result the proposed equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington was never placed on top of the gun barrel column.  This is perhaps not surprising in view of the fact that it was not constructed until 1856, forty years after the  battle of Waterloo!  William E Richardes had, as a young officer, served in the army of occupation after the victory, but this was a monument stimulated by the death of the Duke of Wellington aged 83 in 1852.  Possibly local interest in him had considerably waned by this time. More significantly the monument was sited such as to form a splendid eyecatcher when viewed from William’s home at Bryneithin!   Today it would be considered very poor taste to erect a modern monument on top of such an important ancient site!

We looked out, across the Tanybwlch flats and its palimpsest of the trotting races etched on the grass, towards the tree-fringed hill top which is the site of the original Aberystwyth castle.  This was Gilbert de Clare’s ring and bailey castle with a wooden stockade, built in about 1110 AD and repeatedly fought over by the Welsh and the Norman invaders.  Llywelyn Fawr took it back in 1221 and later built a stronger fortification on the stony headland to the north.   In 1277 after more than 150 years of skirmishing Edward I massive stone castle was built there, north of the mouth of the Rheidol but the name was never changed.  Perhaps to the King and his strategists In London the geographic niceties of Aberrheidol Castle seemed unimportant.  Prof Fred Long brought us a similar story from the 1940s.  Two war time radar stations were to be built in Ceredigion, one at Llanrhystud and one at Tanybwlch.  The Tanybwlch site was soon deemed unsuitable, probably because of the risk of flooding.  So the radar station was installed on Constitution Hill instead,  but was always known in the army documentation as Tanybwlch!

Our outward path then led us past the foundations of a two storey farmhouse which stood beside a natural spring adjoining the path.  Beca showed us a black and white photograph  where the farm was occupied and the farmer stands surrounded by chickens outside his front door.  A barn stood at right angles to the house.  The image is thought to have been made around 1930.

I’ve since looked out a much earlier picture, in the collections of the National Library of Wales. Drawing Volume  56  contains  twenty two North Ceredigion scenes  described as the work of  ‘Welsh Primitive’  c.1830-1853 .  Pendinas seems a little taller lumpier than it looks today and the foreground shows fishermen apparently below a weir on the river.  But the divisions of the fields on the slope, the farmhouse, and the track we walked along seem accurately represented.  The monument is depicted on the top, so the picture cannot be before 1856.

The primitive painter’s view of Pendinas ( NLW Vol 56)

The fishermen’s costumes may give further indication of the date.

Another view entitled  Pendinas and the River Ystwyth shows the farm on the hill and  a rider fording the river near a watermill below the south slopes.  Here too the monument is shown.

Pendinas and the river Ystwyth ( NLW Vol 56)

We learnt about the common lizards and slow worms which are numerous on the Pendinas.  Chloe Griffith’s Nature of our Village project has led to a much wider understanding of the importance of the site.  The spring is home to palmate newts.  This water source was presumably also important to the iron age inhabitants, for without it they would have had  to carry water all the way up from the river Ystwyth at sea level.

A third picture in the volume is captioned  Tanycastell Bridge Perhaps it was painted a few years earlier, for the monument is not to be seen.

The bridge at Tanycastell ( NLW Vol 56)

One of the Welsh cobs at Spencer’s sheds entered into the spirit of the evening by trying to nibble Beca’s backpack. Frustrated in this endeavour it rhythmically and noisily kicked a big galvanised box until we all moved on.

The return journey was on a less historic path which was created after the old town rubbish dump had been covered with soil and re-vegetated in the 1990s.  Willow scrub, gorse, brambles and nettles form an impenetrable undergrowth.  Here the path cuts down through the reclaimed ground and fragments of bottles and polythene appear at the surface where they have been excavated by the rabbits, foxes and badgers whose paths run through the brambles and bushes.

In the 1980s I remember when the wire fences on the Tanybwlch flats were festooned with tattered polythene bags whipped away from the dump by the wind.   We should be proud that Pendinas now looks almost as pristine as it did in these old paintings.

Pendinas in May 2020. The middle path traces the historic route across the flank of Pendinas

 

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Artists at Hafod

by The Curious Scribbler

Hafod has an illustrious history of landscape artists.  In 1798 J.W. Turner painted the original house glowing in sunshine beneath an exaggerated mountain wreathed in cloud.  J. ‘Warwick’ Smith painted a series of views which were later published as handsome aquatints in A Tour to Hafod by J.E. Smith, in 1810.   Many of these images are familiar to  us as postcards  – especially The Peiran Falls in spate, gushing either side of the central outcrop, the Cascade Cavern approached in those days by a three gentlefolk and a dog who have just crossed a long lost rustic bridge, the meadow with resting cows by the river.    Rarer but equally choice are the elegant views baked onto  Derby Porcelain to create the Hafod dinner service for Thomas Johnes in 1787.

Items from this service occasionally appear on the antiques market.  The largest collection of about twenty  pieces is on display  at the the national Museum in Cardiff.

A plate from the Hafod service

The following centuries have seen many further artists’ contributions,  ranging through  talented 19th century tourists and at perhaps the lowest point in its history, the 20th century artist John Piper.  His scratchy impressionistic views of the Ystwyth Gorge gave The Hafod Trust the only clear basis on which to reconstruct the  dilapidated pillars of the Gothic Arcade above the river.

In the last five years two new artists have been annually introduced to Hafod courtesy of a residency offered through the Royal Drawing School.  The successful applicants, all graduates of the School,  live for two weeks in the holiday cottage Pwll Pendre, and explore, paint and draw on the estate.   This afternoon I went to meet this year’s two artists Yiwei Xu and Iona Roberts at an exhibition of their work in their temporary studio in the Hafod Stables.   Tacked to the wall were paintings and sketches inspired at Hafod, some finished, others to be worked up into finished pieces when they return home. Both had perspectives on some of the same views.

Yiwei Xu ( left) and Iona Roberts ( right) Artists in residence at Hafod 2023

Yiwei was deeply impressed with the beauty and wilderness of Hafod and concentrated colorfully on the busy matrices of branches and tree trunks and rock.   She told me she  had never previously been so far from the urban experience.  She had painted in London parks  but was greatly delighted with the lone Sequiodendron gigantea which stands near the walled kitchen garden, placing it centrally in one of her larger pictures. Another view showed the Gothic Arcade perched above the gorge.

Yiwei Zu’s picture wall

 

Three of Yiwei Xu colourful views of Hafod

The Sequoidendron appeared in Iona’s pictures too, with the mountains delicately delineated behind. The Gothic Arcade also  loomed indistinctly amongst dappled black and white foliage further dappled by  actual raindrops falling on the paper while she worked.  Intricate fine brushwork characterized many of her sketches and I was particularly taken with two black and white views taken from the bastion on the drive which overlooks the Ystwyth and lead the eye upward to the bald mountain to the east.  She had also done  colourful oil paintings of Hafod church and Pwll Pendre cottage in a busy landcape. Iona  currently teaches at the Glasgow School of Art, and will be doing another residency in the autumn at Dumfries House in Ayrshire.

Ioan Roberts’ picture wall

Two views up the Ystwyth at Hafod by Iona Roberts

The residency was begun six years ago by the Hafod Trust.  The new guardians of Hafod, the National Trust, intend to continue the tradition and it is hoped that in due course an exhibition of  contemporary artists’ work on Hafod will be put together, and the Royal Drawing School artists will be among the exhibitors.

 

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