Freedom to Roam

by The Curious Scribbler

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

Teifi Marshes. A view from the hide

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

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

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

Teifi Marshes. A new boardwalk

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

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

 

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Knight errant?

by the Curious Scribbler

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

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

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

His book – my text!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Telephotos at Tanybwlch

by The Curious Scribbler

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

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

Female Bullfinch by Karen Leah

Male Bullfinch by Karen Leah

Goldfinch captures a spider, 4 January  by John Ibbotson

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

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

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

A Siskin takes a bath at Rhydyfelin by Karen Leah

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John Corfield, gardener and thespian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In Germany with Count Constantin von Brandenstein

 

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

In field gear in the Pyrenees

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

Botanizing in Crete 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Elizabeth Treasure
Vice-Chancellor

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Justina Jeffreys – Black History

By The Curious Scribbler

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

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

Glandyfi castle sketched by Francis Wood in 1838

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glandfi Castle sale particulars in Country Life 2020

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

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Black History: John Ystumllyn and Scipio Kennedy

by The Curious Scribbler

I recently visited the tiny rural church of St Cynhaearn, which stands within a circular graveyard in the middle of nowhere between Porthmadog and Criccieth.  Worshipers must have walked to it from Pentrefelin and from isolated farms but when you stand at the church there is not a single house in view.  Little wonder then that it is now in the care of the Friends of Friendless Churches.   Fortunate for this lonely church and fortunate also for me, because since Covid the active churches have been strangely unwilling to leave their doors open. Friends of Friendless churches are the exception: they remain open all the time.

St Cynhaearn, Ynyschaearn

One objective was to see the grave of one of Wales’ early black inhabitants, John Ystumllyn, (1740-1786) who lies buried in the graveyard.   His stone was soon located to the left of the path, propped against one of the many 19th century slate chest tombs.  It seemed startlingly new-looking, clear even of encrusting lichen, but I suppose this is because it has recently been re-cut.

John Ystumllyn’s grave at St Cynhaearn

As I looked around it was clear that the eighteenth century memorials were carved on a locally sourced pale stone, quite different from the dark grey Penrhyn slates produced in the 19th century.  The old local stones are not deeply incised and for the most part are barely legible.  John’s fame perhaps justifies the facelift to the gravestone, but some of the romance has been lost with the restoration.

An unrestored eighteenth century gravestone in St Cynhaearn Church

Recut gravestone of John Ystumllwyn at St Cynhaearn’s Church

John’s life story was published in a welsh pamphlet by local bard Alltud Eifion of Tremadoc in 1888 and can be read in translation by Tom Morris 1971.  The story is retold by Andrew Green in his blog Gwallter in 2017.  According to an oral history originating from John himself, he was a child  trying to catch a moorhen by a woodland stream when he was captured by white men who took him away to their yacht.  His mother ran after them yelling in protest.  It seems highly unlikely to me that he was ever a slave in the West Indies.  He was simply captured in his native land to supply the fashion for a black servant in  the grand houses of 18th century Britain.  Such a trophy is best caught young to be trained for his new life.  The account goes on to say that, on being added to the household of Ellis Wynne of Ystumllyn, he had no language and communicate only in howls and screams.

Ystumllyn, seat of the Wynnes in 1794 by John Ingleby

More likely he had no language that could be understood by his captors, for he seems to have been an intelligent boy.  Alltud Eifion wrote: They had considerable difficulty for a long time in domesticating him, and he was not allowed to go out; but after some efforts by the ladies, he learnt both languages, and he learnt to write; then he was placed in the garden to learn horticulture, which he did more or less perfectly, as he was very ingenious. 

 

 

In keeping with the status which their slave boy conferred, the family had his portrait painted and he is shown as a handsome young man.  The local girls certainly thought so, and are said to have competed for the favours of the exotic gardener.  One such was Margaret Gruffydd, another servant in the household who later moved to a job near Dolgellau.   Having run away to get married to her, John lost his post at Ystumllyn but the two were clearly employable: living at Ynysgain Fawr they produced two sons and five daughters, but eventually moved back to work for the Wynnes at Ystumllyn.   He died quite young, suffering from jaundice, aged 46.  The pamphlet identifies the marriages of several of his daughters, who may well have descendants today.  One son, named Richard, grew to adulthood and became Lord Newborough’s Huntsman at the Glynllifion estate.  He is remembered as a ‘tall, calm man, who wore a Top Hat, Velvet Coat with a high white collar around his throat’. He had a family and lived to the age of 92.

The story has close parallels with that of one of my great great great great great great grandfathers, Scipio Kennedy.  He too was a child captured in Africa,  and he was brought to Scotland by a sea captain, as a gift for his daughter.   This was some fifty years before John’s experience. Captain Andrew Douglas of Mains was not a captain in the transatlantic slave trade, but a naval officer, commander of a 60 gun warship which accompanied a convoy to Jamaica in 1702 and returned in 1704.   He bought the young boy in Jamaica aged about seven and brought him back to his home.

Culzean Castle. Rober Adam and the building of Culzean. About Scotland

Culzean in Scipio’s time

Three years later, when the captain’s daughter married John Kennedy, eldest son of Sir Archibald Kennedy of Culzean castle, Scipio was part of her dowry, and took the surname of Kennedy.  In 1710, Sir John and his wife inherited Culzean castle, where Scipio was to spend his adult life.

 

 

Much is known about Scipio, (he has his own entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and a wikipedia page – he is Ayrshire’s first known black inhabitant).  Sir John and Lady Jean invested ‘in his clothing maintenance and education’ and by his mid twenties he was a Christian, could read and write, and worked at Culzean.  As a Christian he was now deemed a free man and  in 1725 he signed a nineteen year contract to continue his employment with Sir John.  This may well have included gardening, for Sir John was exceptionally keen on horticulture.

Like John Ystumllyn, Scipio was popular with the local girls, and in 1727 was severely reprimanded by the Kirk for fornication with another estate servant, Margaret Gray, who bore his child. They married in 1728, and had seven more children.  The multi-talented Scipio served as butler in the Castle, and coordinated in his master’s extensive smuggling activities.  He and his wife also wove and sold cotton and linen goods. In 1744 Sir Thomas Kennedy succeeded his father and built a substantial stone house for Scipio on a large plot in the grounds of the castle, the site of which has recently been excavated by the National Trust. Scipio was now smuggler, weaver and cook at the castle.

Exploring Culzean Castle: The Life of… | National Trust for Scotland

Estate survey showing Scipio’s house and land at Culzean (Image National Trust for Scotland)

Scipio and Margaret’s eldest son Douglas continued in the family’s service and became the body servant of Sir John’s son Thomas Kennedy, accompanying him on his many European tours.    Scipio lived to the age of 80 and is buried in Kirkoswald churchyard and a stone was erected in his memory by his son Douglas, who is also buried there.

Monument to Scipio Kennedy in Kirkoswald churchyard, erected by his son Douglas.

The National Trust at Culzean has issued a long series of blogs which agonize from today’s perspective as to the unknowable questions:  Was Scipio oppressed?  Was he unhappy?   Did manumission significantly improve his life?   Scipio’s manumission document rehearses his life story, in which he represents himself as very fortunate: ‘for as much as in my infancy I was bought and redeemed by Captain Douglas .. and was in a certaine way of being in perpetual servitude in the West Indies had it not been my happiness to fall into his hands purchased by his money with whom I remained for three years or thereabouts.  At which time I was presented to Sir John and his lady …’

It was a lifelong commitment and when Lady Jean died in 1751, she left ‘to Scipio Kennedy my old servant, the sum of ten pounds sterling’ –  which was the same sum she had earmarked for each of her grandchildren.

Scipio  Kennedy and John Ystumllyn seem to have made a considerable success of their rudely transplanted lives.

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A perfect day for Pendinas

By The Curious Scribbler

It is hard to remember last week’s grey shrieking storm.  Yesterday I walked up Pendinas in balmy sunshine, and a gentle breeze.  The sea looked as blue as the Mediterranean and the recently turbulent ocean is now calm and translucent – one can see the dark shadows of clouds upon the water, but also the shaded blotches of underwater outcrops of rock under the sea.  Looking over towards Alltwen, the black cattle were all grazing on the flat land.  Some mornings they are spread right up the hillside above the woods which enfold Tanybwlch mansion.  There is a grandeur in seeing the cattle spread out  like wild things in this huge landscape, not penned in a modest field of monocultural grass.  The flats are no longer the scene of the trotting races, but viewed from Pendinas one can still see the ghost of the grass track, subtly darker, perhaps better fertilized, than the rest of the meadow.

Alltwen and the Tanybwlch flats viewed from Pendinas

The climb is a prolonged one, even from the ‘easy’ access at the top of Cae Job in Penparcau.  Families toiled up the path to the iron age hillfort, topped with Victorian arrogance by the chimney-like monument to Wellington’s victory at Waterloo.

The path up from Cae Job

At least that is what it ostensible is.  Personally I think of it more as a monument to a local gentleman, William Eardley Richardes of Bryneithin Hall who built it in 1856 and invited subscriptions from the town.  It is no coincidence how grandly it adorns the landscape as viewed from the windows of his mansion to the south.  The victory at Waterloo was in 1815, and I would have thought that by 1856 national fervour for a monument would have somewhat abated.  Richardes himself had been in the army of occupation after Waterloo, and was moved to re-name the five fields around his house  General, Governor, Captain, Lieutenant, and Major!  They appear thus on the tithe survey of 1848.

The wellington memorial on Pendinas

There were quite a few people at the top, typically facing in all different directions!  The 360 degree panorama laid out before us has no weak point.  Take your pick for views of the harbour and the sea and the distant Lleyn Peninsula, Penglais Hill punctuated by the Hospital, the National Library and University of Aberystwyth, or Penparcau spread out around its green-roofed 20th century primary school.

I first sat on the seaward side, where the bracken and gorse given way to heather and coarse grass. A wren fidgeted around a dead tree stump below me, and the honey bees came in waves, sometimes there were none, then quite suddenly thirty or more were working their way through the flowers beside me,  then disappearing back to the hive.  This is a great spot for looking down on flying birds:  red kite, herring gulls, soaring the thermals, crows  sculling steadily across the fields.  Four speed boats came south into my view leaving white trails of wake.  When they gingerly slowed to creep into Aberystwyth harbour at low tide I could see underwater the bar which partly occludes the harbour mouth.

Aberystwyth Castle just visible from Pendinas

Speedboats approach Aberystwyth Harbour

It may be a Bank Holiday during a pandemic but there is space and beauty for all to enjoy.  Looking down, one could see around twenty cars parked at Tanybwlch beach now that the concrete barriers have been cleared away.  There has always been more than enough space for social distancing on that beach, and I am glad to see these unnecessary restrictions have been removed.

Penglais Hill, Aberystwyth, viewed from Pendinas

Penparcau, viewed from Pendinas

The view south from Pendinas

The Ystwyth enters the harbour at Penyranchor

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I love a storm!

by The Curious Scribbler

Rain last night has further swollen the rivers, and now we have wind! Exhilarating buffeting winds from the west, gusting almost hard enough to knock you over!  60 miles an hour or so I’m told.  So my place of choice is Tanybwlch, where the Ystwyth debouches into the sea.  It is murky and brown with fresh run off, and further swollen in the tidal reach because the tide is obstructing its outward flow.

High seas back up the Ystwyth river

Mist from the breakers hangs over the Tanycastell fields and the riverside path is flooded in parts.

The concrete jetty largely protects the harbour mouth, though the swell still forms regular brown rollers creeping along its leeward side.

The stone jetty protects the harbour from the south westerlies but some waves roll in

But to position yourself on the windward side on the top of the shore provides an endless spectacle, as waves break in curious explosive shapes over the green and white harbour marker, sometimes obscuring it from view, and the backwash forms swirling wave patterns in the angle between the beach and the shore.  It is easy to see how the huge stones at this end of the beach get their smooth contours.  The sea acts like a giant pebble-polishing device.

Waves breaking over the stone jetty

The town is a little tamer than Tanybwlch, but still dramatic.  At 4pm the clouds were so dark that the streetlights on the prom were glimmering into light.

The Promenade takes a battering

Unwary promenaders could get splashed by the waves curling up against the sea wall and showering spray and small pieces of gravel.  As the waves pull back the perfect profile of the sandy beach is briefly exposed.

Sand is smoothed out as the big waves flow back into the sea

The full force of the open sea is greatest at Alexandra Hall but this was a summer storm, not one of the ferocious winter ones which sometimes hurl stones at the windows of that forbidding building.  The door was open and without barricades.  Students will soon be moving in again. There were a few walkers kicking the bar, and beyond it the small piece of sandy beach below Constitution Hill was white with blown sea foam.

The north end of the beach

I came home to wash the sea salt out of my hair, much invigorated by the wind and waves.

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Covid instruction fatigue

by the Curious Scribbler

I went into Argos today to collect a purchase made online.  The store was perfectly empty of customers, and a young woman at the door directed me to a young man at  the right hand end of the counter.  Separating him from me was a broad no man’s land of diagonally placed yellow tape on the floor,  a no go zone reaching six feet from the counter.  Standing obediently outside this forbidden zone I began to state my business.  But this was not good enough.  I was instructed to move to the left  and stand with my feet upon the two footprints in a red box before my order number could be processed!  I then progressed to a second red box marked with two footprints  order to receive my order. Am I alone in suffering from instruction fatigue?

At Westonbury Water Gardens, near Presteigne last week, I and my companions obediently followed the one way system around the garden.  It was disappointing that the eccentric water-powered cuckoo clock has been disabled for the pandemic.   But we were  really nonplussed by the instructions at the approach to the toilets.  On a table outside we found instructions to use hand sanitizer and don the provided blue nitrile gloves before entering, then to discard the gloves in the bin provided on leaving.  Once inside, one was faced with a dilemma:  wash the gloves, or remove the gloves and wash the hands?  And there being no hot air hand driers to blow virus particles around the room, how to refit the gloves upon wet hands? In the end I came away with washed hands and the gloves  –  which may come in handy some time.

At Lower Brockhampton Park, we had to pay online for timed entry to the National Trust  grounds and arrive in our half hour slot, or not at all.  While this laudably limited the number of people in the outdoor setting, and understandably denied access to the house, we also found that many of the paths leading to attractive features had been roped off, and found ourselves instead on a muddy track leading nowhere interesting. Could we not have been trusted to socially distance ourselves out of doors?

In Llanidloes Church I had hoped to view the 13th Century arcade rescued from from Cwmhir Abbey after the Dissolution  and was encouraged by the sight of an open church door.  Sadly we found just the porch was open, adorned with origami doves  and a plethora of notices!

The church seems to be taking an especially discouraging approach to re-opening, in spite of Welsh government permission to do so.  Other than when services are scheduled it is rare indeed for a random church visitor to find another person already present in an average parish church.  Surely one admonitory notice and a bottle of hand sanitiser would suffice here?

These small but baffling restrictions are disruptive.  I am minded to only to frequent places where there is absolutely no one to tell me how to behave.  In this respect a weekend outing to Clywedog Reservoir ticked all the boxes!  First we parked at the Bryntail Lead Mine car park below the 100 foot dam.   Respectfully passing a few  other tourists, we walked across the footbridge, and passed through a metal gate to visit the ruined mine buildings.

Bryntail lead and barytes mine works

The only admonishment came from that wonderful cast iron Cadw warning which displays people falling over around a variety of obstacles, overhead or underfoot.  (Should the central picture be re-interpreted as a warning to avoid a person with a headache and a  sneeze?)

The Cadw warning sign is an artwork in its own right

Climbing a path from the mine ruins we rose through dunnock-infested bracken and gorse to above dam level and were rewarded with the sight of cormorants wheeling on straight wings high overhead.  They look extraordinarily prehistoric circling on high, instead of flapping industriously over the sea as one usually sees them.

Clywedog reservoir

Later we drove along the western side of the reservoir, and picnicked on the grass.  At the head of the reservoir we stopped to view the Clywedog ospreys’ breeding tree and the two fledged youngsters perching grumpily in nearby conifers.  No adult brought them fish.  Later, we read that a Clywedog osprey had chosen to take that day off  to visit their colleagues on the Dyfi Estuary.

The return to Aberystwyth via the mountain road  to Machynlleth was uplifting, with another pause to gaze down the spectacular river-cut gorge at Dylife to the U shaped valley beyond.  The Cambrian mountains were sculpted by the last ice age.  They may be lower than Snowdonia, but they offer space and tranquillity and a reassuring absence of rules.  I think we passed three cars on the way.

The Dylife Gorge

 

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The Palaeontologists of Llandrindod Wells

by The Curious Scribbler

The most remarkable people conceal themselves in the Welsh hills.  Today’s exhibit are Cambridge-educated palaeontologists Joe Botting and Lucy Muir whose home is in Llandrindod Wells.  As independent researchers they work all over the world, currently  in China, the Czech Republic and Morocco and are among the foremost experts on Cambrian fossil communities  – animals which lived at least 500 million years ago.

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It was the Ordovician rocks of central Wales which brought them to Llandrindod Wells, and their research is putting their home town on the map.  To the untrained eye the local stone look pretty unexciting, grey and shaley, and there is absolutely no chance of spotting a dinosaur bone or a nice big ammonite for the mantelpiece.  Most amateurs would be proud enough to find a fossil trilobite, a segmented arthropod of a kind which became extinct 300 million years ago. This creature had a rigid carapace which formed a mould in the sediment and was thus more readily preserved as a fossil.

A trilobite from Llandrinod Wells    (Ogyginus corndensis)

But very close inspection in the right places has revealed an unguessed-at variety of tiny fossils whose soft bodies are preserved as little more that smears between the layers of flaking grey rock.

A tiny starfish just 2mm across.

A palaeoscolecid worm with  microscopically armoured skin that is exquisitely beautiful under high magnification.

An as yet unnamed creature which has tentacles

Joe and Lucy’s discoveries present a picture of an ocean teaming with life 450 million years ago.  Hours and hours of collecting, inspecting shards of rock for any tell tale sign of a fossil must be followed by days of microscopic study, to identify and photograph these tiny traces.  Important publications will follow.  It is for this reason that they have launched a crowdfunding page  to buy a high quality binocular microscope and digital camera set-up to be installed at their home in Llandrindod Wells.

Life is precarious for independent researchers: Joe busks in the summer and Lucy does part time editing to support their modest life needs.  They welcome amateur enthusiasts and have already been pivotal in launching at least one Penglais pupil on his geological career.  In Llandrindod, they run a local amateur fossil group, provide public talks and workshops, visit local primary schools, and run field trips. They are involved in the community orchard, the repair shop, and the Transition Towns Group.  As they say “We even offer our personal space, time and equipment to anyone who has need of it, simply to encourage a love of the natural sciences.”

At the Sign of the Trilobite

The high quality photo microscope would be installed at their premises and will be of equal benefit to other scientists, especially in fields such as  botany, insects, or archaeology, who will be able to use it  free by appointment.  Donations in the first week of the appeal have exceeded £5000 but there is more to go for a first rate piece of kit.  Go to their web page and read all about it!

https://www.gofundme.com/f/a-microscope-for-amateur-science-in-wales

 

 

 

 

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