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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The Gothic Arcade at Hafod

by the Curious Scribbler

The Hafod Trust has recently completed the restoration of the Gothic Arcade, a three arched eyecatcher which frames the view where Thomas Johnes’ Chain Bridge spans the narrow gorge  on the upper Ystwyth.

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, under restoration

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, under restoration

The arcade was something of a puzzle, being represented on the ground by the remnants of four basal pillars, only one of which reached high enough to show the first springer stone of the former arch.  For almost a decade it has been enrobed in blue plastic awaiting a decision on its conservation.  A earlier attempt at stabilising the stone pillars with lime mortar had failed to prevent further deterioration.  The ruin was listed among the built features of Hafod, with Ancient Monument status, so Cadw  had to authorise any changes to be made.

In 2010 The Gothic arcade pillars were conserved under blue plastic.

In 2010 The Gothic arcade pillars were conserved under blue plastic.

There is tantalisingly little evidence as to exactly what the Gothic Arcade looked like, or when it was built.  It was awarded this name by John Piper, in 1939, who was there to photograph the architectural remains of Hafod as part of a tour of threatened buildings, and who also sketched and painted in the grounds. There are three versions of this artwork, “Looking down the Ystwyth Gorge, Hafod”  which show it as a three arched rather spindly structure, on the edge of the gorge, but no aspect of his picture is precisely representational.

John Piper 1939.  Looking down the Upper Ystwyth Gorge. ( Private Collection)

John Piper 1939. Looking down the Ystwyth Gorge. ( Private Collection)

Exhaustive appeals have so far not revealed a single box brownie photograph of the structure, though many people are likely to have passed or picnicked there in the 1950s. Worse still, the accounts by visitors in Johnes’ time, even Cumberland in his An Attempt to Describe Hafod, failed to mention it.  The only possible exception is an unclear account by the Revd H.T. Payne, Archdeacon of Carmarthen, who in about 1815 alluded to a “rude arch of stone“.  But a literal reading of his description would place his arch on the opposite bank, or even identify it as the Rustic Alcove near the Peiran Cascade.

It remains uncertain whether this eye catcher was part of Thomas Johnes’s Picturesque design at all.  (Though we do know that he  built a rustic  arch commemorating George III over the approach road from Devil’s Bridge).  Until further evidence crops up it must be conceded that it could date from the ownership of The Duke of Newcastle, or even that of John Waddingham in the late 19th century, or his son, TJ Waddingham in the early 20th.

The restoration was led by the overall shape as indicated by Piper’s sketch, and the shape dictated by the remaining fragments. It was built with locally sourced, undressed stones by Abbey Masonry and Restoration, Llanelli.

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, almost complete

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, almost complete, May 2016

Piper composed his view from upstream of the Gothic Arcade.  He speculated, on the basis of the House’s history,  that its gothic style might be the work of John Nash.  The compilation below shows the restoration in the context of his drawing.

Gothic arcade 2 viewssm

The Gothic Arcade represents the penultimate item on the Hafod Trust’s current restoration objectives.  Still under development is the plan to put a flat timber span across the bridge abutments of Pont Newydd, the old carriage drive which crossed the Peiran just above the famous falls.

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Cannon Balls at the Castle

by The Curious Scribbler

The other day  I had the pleasure of handling two cannon balls, retrieved some thirty years ago from the archaeological excavations of Aberystwyth’s now rather fragmentary English castle.  The castle occupies a splendid site on the headland south of the town, but is quite difficult for the unaided amateur to comprehend.  Compared to magnificent structures like Harlech Castle and Caernarfon it is in a poor way.  This I learned is largely due to its comprehensive demolition after the Parliamentarians had routed the Royalists in 1644.  The walls were systematically destroyed by charges of gunpowder carefully placed, and large chunks of well-mortared masonry walls still lie well displaced from their original location, where they have been thrown by the force of the blast.  From 1637 the castle had been the location of the royal mint, making coins with silver from the local mines.  It also housed a great store of gunpowder for industrial use in the mines, and this is probably why the demolition, organised in 1649 by Lieutenant Colonel Dawkins and Captain Barbour, was exceedingly thorough!

Huge chunks of the inner wall displaced by demolition in 1649

Huge chunks of the inner wall fell far from the wall line when the castle was demolished with gunpowder  in 1649

The cannon balls are of stone, and were being examined for identification by a geologist. One is of limestone from Dundry near Bristol, and the other of a dense greeny-grey sandstone which could be from Somerset or South Wales.  The surface is crudely tooled and pitted and to the casual glance they look strangely like a pair of seriously decayed Galia melons. They are heavy, 5½lb and 6½lb respectively, and just under 6 inches diameter.  One has scarring on its side which could have been a result of its violent impact on the castle.

Two stone cannon balls excavated in 1977 at Aberytwyth Castle

Two stone cannon balls which were among the finds  excavated at Aberystwyth Castle under the direction of David Browne of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments Wales.

A search of images of similar cannon balls on the internet indicates that this is quite an ancient technology.  Stone cannon balls such as these were in use as early as the 13th century, and are found in association with Muslim and Christian castles in Europe and Asia.   (The Chinese had invented gunpowder in the 9th century and knowledge of gunpowder spread throughout the Old World as a result of the Mongol conquests of the 13th century. Cannon technology then became widespread). Stone cannon balls were employed in 1415 at Agincourt to deadly effect,  they could bounce lethally through ranks of infantrymen.  But the cannon could also explode killing the operators.

I found some marvellous contemporary  illustrations on a forum www.vikingsword.com devoted to ethnographic arms and armour.  They show how these imperfectly shaped cannonballs were fired from a cannon which was not cylindrical like the later models, but widening towards the mouth, such that the projectiles could be be imperfect spheres, and of somewhat varying sizes.  Gunpowder was dropped in first, then packing material, and then the cannon ball, which was firmed into position with wedges of poplar wood, to create as tight a seal as possible. The seal could also be made with wet mud, but this needed to be allowed to dry before the cannon could be fired.

Illuminated manuscript describinghow to fire a cannon

The contributor  an enthusiast named ‘Matchlock’ is now deceased, so he will hopefully not mind me re-using his images.  He also reproduces a detail from an Italian fresco of 1340, in which the loaded cannon is shortly to be ignited.

Detail from an Italian Fresco 1340.

An American  correspondent on the same thread,‘Kronkew’  added his own synopsis from an account of a siege at Soissons, which took place during Henry V’s campaign leading up to the battle of Agincourt  in  October  1415.  The account shows that the English cannon was clearly a dangerous weapon to operate.

The French were besieging Soissons, an English defended city nominally under the rule of a French faction, the Burgundians, that sided with the English, defended by some English archers, and some mercenary gunners. it described them placing a gun in a tower overlooking the French camp.

Meanwhile the French were getting off a rapid fire from their siege cannon, a whopping three rounds per day, they had to wait for the wet clay and straw mix wadding to dry before they could fire.

Anyhow, the English cannon, described as made from forged and welded bars of iron re-enforced by hoops of iron, was apparently in a fairly rusted and pitted condition, having been stored in the basement without much care. It was ‘twice as long as a bow-stave’ and ‘hooped like an ale pot’, resting on a wooden carriage.

They mentioned it was tapered (much like the illustration) because the stone balls were of inconsistent diameter, the taper allowing the ball to get to a place where it fits, assisted by the wadding of soft loam. The gunners loaded the wadding, they waited the requisite time for the wadding to dry out before the stone ball was inserted, and wedged it in place with small wooden wedges to keep the stone ball from falling out if the rear was elevated & to ensure it was held tight against the wadding and powder charge.

The cannon was considered a demon due to its sulphurous breath on firing, so a priest was brought up to it to bless it with holy water and, to ensure no devilry ensued, he stayed. The senior gunner then primed the cannon with a stripped goose quill filled with powder, fired the cannon with a long taper, it promptly blew up, killing the crew and the priest. The city fell when one of the English lords sold out to the French and opened the gates.

The Aberystwyth cannonballs may be assumed to be of a very similar date.  CJ Spurgeon in his article Aberystwyth Castle and Borough to 1649, records the varied fortunes of the castle which withstood assaults from the Welsh in 1287 and 1295.  In 1404 after a prolonged siege Owen Glyndwr took the castle and there signed his famous treaty with Charles VI of France.   The following year Prince Henry ( later Henry V) is recorded to have brought cannon from Bristol and, in ( according to Spurgeon) one of the earliest records of their use, he recaptured the castle in 1408.  It is particularly satisfactory that the limestone cannon ball can be identified to  come from Dundry, near Bristol, where the stone for many medieval buildings was also sourced.  It was probably carved locally and brought to Aberystwyth along with Henry’s cannons.

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The Old College once more

by The Curious Scribbler

In November I wrote about the Old College, Aberystwyth, and an early photograph showing the construction of the main hotel entrance on King Street in 1864.  Now further researches in the archive of the Clarkes of Llandaff  by Mike Statham have brought a further early picture to light, and this one, I think, may be less well known.

Old College under construction.  Copyright  William Michael Clarke

Old College under construction 1864-5. Copyright William Michael Clarke

The view is from the shore and shows the sea wall still under construction and topped by builders’ sheds.  Wooden scaffolds cover the entire facade, and the progress of the build seems to have been from south to north.  Immediately beside the old Nash dwelling  Castle House, (just visible at the right of this picture) we see the oval front of Seddon’s large seaward facing bar, which is now known as the Seddon Room.  Above it on the first floor, and approached, by gentlemen only, up a separate stair, were the smoking room which overlooked Laura Place and the billiard room overlooking the sea.  In this picture, the billiard room construction looks almost compete, its roof pierced by three small dormers, and topped by a glazed rectangular ceiling light looking very much like a huge wardian case.  These details are true to Savin and Seddon’s original ambitious design for the hotel. The Billiard room was 48 feet by 24 feet and was to accommodate three full sized billiard tables and many spectators.

Further north the build looks confusing.  Two gables have been competed in line with Seddon’s original plans, but the third, taller gable appears partly constructed, and the distinctive ornamental hexagonal chimney beside it seems not yet to have been built.  There seems instead to be a hole in the roof where it will later stand.

To the north end, the first floor of the building has only reached the tops of its gothic arched windows, and so it seems to have remained for many years.  It was incomplete at the time of the bankruptcy of the hotel and remained so during the first phase of Seddon’s alterations to the building for  College use.

The fire in the Chemistry lab, on 9 July 1885 which extended to gut the whole of the north wing, is recorded in a photograph after the disaster. The grand billiard room roof is gone, as are the three gables of roof adjoining it.  On the left we see that the build at the north end has still, after 20 years, not progressed above the first floor, and remains a shell, just as it appeared in 1865.

Old College after the fire of 1885

Old College after the fire of 1885. Reproduced in The Old College, by Elgan Philip Davies, Gomer, 2011

The repairs and rebuilding of the College after the fire were directed by Seddon but saw many economies and alterations in the roofscape. In 1894 a different architect Charles J Ferguson, with far less gothic leanings, was employed by the college, and was responsible for the much plainer central block, and for the solid and very slightly Queen Anne-style Alexandra Hall at the far end of the promenade.  The resulting apppearance of the Old College in the early 20th century is seen below, in an illustration in one of the many volumes of Photographic Albums of Aberystwyth and District which were produced annually by The Cambrian News, to meet tourist demand.

Old College in early 20th century.  Cambrian News Album 60 Photographs of Aberystwyth

Old College in early 20th century. Cambrian News Album 60 Photographs of Aberystwyth & District

 

 

 

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Amazing Model Mushrooms

Various objets trouves accumulate on my kitchen windowsill, cheek by jowl with the hybrid Dendrobium orchids and some ceramic acorn squashes which I fashioned myself.  There is a piece of lava from Lanzarote, some crystals from the Cantabrians, an ammonite in polished section, and some choice beach pebbles from Tanybwlch.   And the latest addition to the medley are two exquisite  waxcap fungi, Hygrocybe persistens.

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

 

Odd you may think.  It has been mild this winter, but even so.. This little gleaming mushroom of sheep grazed pastures and and un-improved ancient lawns is a feature of balmy summer and autumn, not the rain-soaked pastures of today.   And the explanation is that these Hygrocybe were gathered, not in the field but by a discriminating shopper following the Totterdown Front Room Arts Trail in South Bristol  last year.  They reached west Wales in Christmas wrapping paper.

The artist Jason Lynton must be a man with an obsession, working quietly away to create perfect replicas of the entire canon of British fungi.  His home displayed cases of these amazing sculptures, and shelves of photographic reference books on his subjects.  He works in Sculpey polymer clay. I found this useful explanation in a tutorial on a site called The Bluebottle Tree.com

‘Polymer clay is a type of modelling clay that doesn’t dry in the air and instead is cured by baking in an oven, typically between 230°F (110°C) and 300°F (150°C).  Polymer clay is made from powdered polyvinyl chloride (PVC), plasticizer, binders, fillers, colors, and lubricants. When baked, the PVC particles soften and dissolve into the plasticizer, creating a solid fused mass of plastic. The longer you bake polymer clay, the more complete the fusion will be and the stronger the result.’ I find that Fimo is another brand of polymer clay, made in Germany by Staedtler and was the more familiar name for the product when my children were young.  Sculpey is the American equivalent.

So my extraordinarily realistic waxcaps are replicated in hard and resistant baked plastic! The texture is impossible to discern without touching, the details so authentic down to the delicate gills, the occasional split in the caps, even the crumbs of dark soil apparently clinging to the stem where they were lifted, as if it were yesterday, from the ground. I am told Jason Lynton has one of his fungi on public display, (possibly at Kew?) , but for the most part he is industriously working his way through the mushrooms of Britain, even perfecting the ways to reproduce the wet drops of  ‘milk’ exuded on the gills of the Milk Cap.  A quiet dedication which I find most admirable.

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

I can find posters and prints by Jason Lynton on the web, http://www.artflakes.com/en/shop/jason-lynton  but nothing about his fungi.  His business card gives an email: m331969@yahoo.com

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Storm Frank

Not a lot of time for blogging during a family Christmas, but I managed to get almost all the guests out of the house at high tide this morning to enjoy the spectacle of Storm Frank.  Not as destructive as the un-named storm which devastated the prom two years ago, but impressive none the less.

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The Aberystwyth seafront on 30 December 2015

Huge waves break on the bath rocks

Huge waves break on the bath rocks

The Aberytswyth seafront on 30 December 2015

The Aberystwyth seafront on 30 December 2015

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We also went to the harbour, where great bursts of water shot up into the air, and flooded across the breakwater.

Aberystwyth harbour

Aberystwyth harbour

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Lastly to my favourite haunt, Tanybwlch beach,  where the suction of the huge waves grinds and stacks up the dark cobbles on the strand.  Water broke over the whole length of the jetty and streaming in an unbroken sheet over its surface.

Tanybwlch beach pounded by Storm Frank

Tanybwlch beach pounded by Storm Frank

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So unlike the idyllic waves of Christmas Day.

Tanybwlch beach on Christmas day

Tanybwlch beach on Christmas day

 

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On Myths and Misinformation at Nanteos

by The Curious Scribbler

Nanteos Mansion, seat of the Powells

Nanteos Mansion, seat of the Powells

I’ve been re reading Juliette Woods article ” Nibbling Pilgrims and the Nanteos Cup: A Cardiganshire Legend” which was published in  Nanteos – A Welsh house and its Families, Ed. Gerald Morgan (2001). In it the author carefully enumerates the written and the oral record to compare it with the fully fledged early 20th century legend of the Nanteos Cup.  At its most florid, this damaged fragment of a wooden drinking vessel is believed to be the Holy Grail, brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea, cherished by the monks at Glastonbury, some of whom, at the dissolution of their monastery, fled with it to Strata Florida Abbey in Cardiganshire, from whence it passed into the hands of the Stedman Family of that community, and thus, by marriage to the Powells of Nanteos. In modern tradition the cup has spectacular healing powers, and its last custodian at Nanteos, Margaret Powell discretely massaged its reputation with testimonials from the healed. The cup is also sometimes alleged to be fashioned out of a fragment of the true cross – though this would not fit with the Holy Grail story in which Joseph of Arimathea caught Christ’s blood in the cup at the crucifixion.

Juliette Woods gives a lot of attention to the common mechanisms by which such local legends are invented and augmented over time, but in essence her conclusions are that there is no written evidence  of its importance and apparent healing powers until the mid 19th Century, and no indication of the Grail story until the early 20th.  The cup first came under public scrutiny in 1878 when George Powell, a keen aesthete and antiquarian, allowed it to be exhibited to The Cambrian Archaeological Association at Lampeter.  There was no allegation about the Holy Grail back then.  It and another wooden vessel owned by Thomas Thomas of Lampeter were described as “supposed to possess curative powers”.  The newly-fledged “Cambrians” as this genteel antiquarian society were generally known, were on a mission to ferret out antiquities from gentry homes and churches.

But the power of a good legend is in its ability to grow and mutate. Margaret Powell, who as a widow ruled Nanteos from 1930-1952 upheld the Grail myth, but with delicate discretion, refusing to allow the allegation to be associated with her name in print.  Journalists, travel-guide authors and religiously-inclined scholars soon put in their pennyworth, and the Nanteos Cup gained followers. The Revd Lionel Smithett Lewis, Vicar of Glastonbury in 1938-1940 was one such enthusiast, fired up by A.E. Waite’s book Hidden Church of the Holy Grail (1909) which linked the grail to early Celtic  Christianity.  Smithett Lewis  corresponded with Mrs Powell, and embellished the myth with the ‘discovery’ of a cupboard at Ozleworth Church, used by the Glastonbury monks  to house the grail overnight when benighted too far from their abbey.  Smithett Lewis wanted the Grail to be housed in a splendid reliquary  at Glastonbury.  Mrs Powell evidently did not co-operate and the correspondence ceased.

By the 1960’s the old mansion was in the hands of its first non-hereditary owner, Liverpool dealer Geoffrey Bliss, and the original cup had been transferred to a bank vault in the care of the Mrs Powell’s relative and inheritor, Mrs Mirylees.  I visited Nanteos during the Bliss family occupancy,  the house had been sold complete with most of its furnishings and portraits and despite the actual holes in the roof of one wing, it was open to the public as a stately home.  And by then there was a facsimile holy grail to be seen in a lighted glass-fronted cabinet in the anteroom to the Library on the west end of the house.  This may indeed have been the one said to have been made by a local craftsman to enable Mrs Powell to reduce wear upon the original unless its curative powers were actually required.

The ‘real’ cup meanwhile has gone from strength to strength. Throughout the 1990s you could send to America for a prayer cloth or tissue impregnated with water which has been poured from it.  Presumably, as  with homeopathy, this church in Seattle  would allege that the greater the dilution, the more powerful the effect it would have.   More recently, impregnated cloths  were available from The Rt Reverend Bishop Sean Manchester,  author of several non-fiction books, including “The Highgate Vampire”; “The Vampire Hunter’s Handbook”; “Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know”; “From Satan To Christ”; and “The Grail Church.” However the supply dried up in 2014 when the cup was apparently stolen from the home of an elderly woman in Weston-under-Penyard, in Herefordshire.

Last year there was a further flurry of notoriety when the Grail had a spot on BBC’s Crimewatch.  Muddying the history further, some news accounts showed an old photo of the missing object, ( though this was possibly a photo of Mrs Powell’s  facsimile rather than the original) while others included illustrations from the Indiana Jones film starring Harrison Ford!

The Nanteos Cup, an ancient Holy Grail relic that has been recovered after thieves stole the wooden chalice from a woman using it for its healing powers.

The Nanteos cup, or perhaps its 20th century facsimile featured in recent coverage of its loss

In June 2015 it was revealed that the cup had been returned but that no charges were being pressed. The police photo of the object they recovered closely resembles the 1888 sketch in Archaeologia Cambrensis and the  early photos of the cup which are housed at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales rather than the picture above.  I have recently heard that its new home is to be in the National Library of Wales.

Nanteos Cup

The police photo of the recovered object looks more like the original Nanteos cup

Meanwhile new convolutions constantly develop.  At Nanteos, which is now a smart  country house hotel, there is a new garden feature in the old shrubbery adjoining the walled garden.  A labyrinth by eco-mystic woodcraftman  Bob Shaw leads on a contemplative circuit to a central sculpture which represents the Nanteos Cup, borne on a tapering plinth. The four sides of the plinth sides depict the mansion, Strata Florida, Glastonbury Tor and the Nanteos cup. Just to keep the legend alive.

sculpture in the labyrinth representing the Nanteos cup

The Sculpture by Ed Harrison at the centre of the new labyrinth at Nanteos

And Bob, who is a skilled craftsman working with traditional tools has also fashioned yet another Nanteos Cup, out of an ancient piece of timber he extracted from the Mawddach estuary.  That will fox the carbon daters, as they strive to determine which cup is which!   The wood could well be older than the true cross itself.  Bob tells me that the hotel management are only too happy to keep his handiwork in their safe, and show it to favoured guests.

Then there is a further development, in the form of a historical novel, The Shadow of Nanteos, by Jane Blank published this year by Y Lolfa.  Now I know this is fiction, but for many readers the distinction becomes blurred.   Peacocks in Paradise, by Elisabeth Inglis Jones, which dramatises the life of Thomas Johnes of Hafod, is often perceived today as a purely biographical work.  I found The Shadow of Nanteos unnerving myself because in it the very real Revd William Powell (1705-1780) who inherited on his brother Thomas’ death in 1752 is equipped with his historically correct wife, Elizabeth Owen.   The book opens as he takes possession of Nanteos, his ancestral home.  There however the resemblance ends: poor Elizabeth and William are supplied with quite different children, and a gothic storyline involving illegitimacy, adultery, leadmining, otter hunting, the death of their son, and finally the death of Elizabeth on the Nanteos kitchen table during a cesarean section to save the offspring of her steamy relationship with the bailiff.  Ah me!  What those Georgians got up to!  But to return to the cup, –  here all the components of the early 20th century fiction have been thoughtfully re-packaged to the mid 18th Century.  Fictional Elizabeth invites round the local gentry wives and daughters, the Pryses of Gogerddan,  the Lisburnes of Trawscoed and the Johnes of Hafod and they expound the whole story:  Glastonbury, Joseph of Arimathea, Strata Florida, the Steadmans,  the true cross, the Holy Grail and the nibbling pilgrims who bit pieces off the rim.  ( The author must surely have read Juliet Wood’s painstaking work).  Later in the book, driven to grief at the death of her eldest son, Elizabeth resorts to some very questionable frotteurism with the grail itself.

Nanteos seems a particular magnet for the wild assertion!  There are already a number of popular but questionable ghost stories associated with it and suggestible readers of Jane Blank’s work may soon find themselves sensing Elizabeth Powell eviscerated on the kitchen table.  And there is a steady increase in the historic characters which are claimed among its house guests.  Local historians have long been enraged by the early 20th century myth, first promulgated in a tourist guide to Aberystwyth, that Wagner stayed at Nanteos and wrote Parsifal there. There is no closer connection than that the aesthetically inclined George Powell ( 1842-1882) was an admirer of his, and planned a journey to Munich with his friend Algernon Swinburne, the poet, to witness the Ring Cycle.   Algernon Swinburne and George also shared an interest in flagellation and the works of the Marquis de Sade.  But that connection scarcely justifies the current naming of one of Nanteos’ rooms as ‘The Marquis de Sade room’, nor the recent assertion that Robert Browning stayed there too!

The hotel website  http://www.nanteos.com/news_detail.php?ID=51  reads as follows: Culture is all-pervasive at Nanteos Mansion with associations with leading European figures such as the composer Wagner and the poet Browning. It’s an easy concept to grasp, they are famous cultural figures and they both stayed at the Mansion while touring the country.

But they didn’t.  Though hotel guests will enjoy believing that they did.

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