Out and about with The Welsh Stone Forum


Last Saturday was not a day many people willingly ventured out.  It was the third of three days on which a blisteringly cold wind from the Russian steppes seared its way across Ceredigion, and although unlike north and east  Wales we had no snow, the chill factor made the eyes water and the marrow shrink.   Setting out from our home we soon encountered our first obstacle a massive ash tree, fallen and pivoted on the hedge bank to block the road.  When leafless trees fall it is a high wind indeed.

Ash tree felled by high wind on 22 March

Notwithstanding this, a small group of specialists converged from all over Wales to explore the building stones of south Ceredigion. Our topic for the day was a locally occurring Ordovician sandstone, one form of which, Pwntan stone, has already been mentioned in this blog, as the stone from which Tremain Church is built.

First we met at Tan y Groes.  Here the main road is constricted by sandstone buildings on either side of the road, and speeding traffic roars through the gap.  There is a Calvinistic Methodist chapel on the south side of the road with adjoining vestry building.  Recently modified for residential use, the gable end facade has been recently cleaned by sandblasting.  So many different styles of ornamental tooling can be seen.  The main construction blocks have been pecked and pock marked with many short chisel blows.  The edges of narrow ornamental dressings are transversely grooved, across the shorter axis of each stone.  The voussoirs of the window arches are similarly ornamented and where large stone are used, a false division has been carved, to create the appearance of two or even three smaller voussoirs instead of a single block.  The building was commenced in 1849 a year after the completion of nearby Tremain.  It is not known whether it is by the same mason, but it is certainly work by a meticulous craftsman.  The characteristic interlocking stones of Tremain are not here however.  Perhaps Calvinism is better represented by uncompromisingly coursed blocks.  Other buildings in the village are yet plainer, built of rubbly blocks of sandstone.  The chapel buildings could only have been created with hand-sawn stone.

Tooled masonry in Pwntan stone shows several decorative styles

The Calvinistic methodist chapel at Tanygroes, Ceredigion, built 1849

St Michael’s Tremain has already been described.  It is the perfect habitat for the creamy white crustose lichen Ochrolechia parella.  On the west end the lichen is so extensive that the building is almost white.  The toxicity of lead to lichens is nicely illustrated by the two strips of stonework below the lancet windows.  When rain drives against the leaded windows and runs down to trickle off the sill it poisons the lichens and the stonework remains clean.

Ochrolechia parella, a crustose lichen cannot grow where lead leaches off the windows of the church

St Michael’s Church, Tremain, the west end almost white with lichen covering the brown sandstone

No such problems exist for the lichens in the churchyard at St Michael’s Penbryn.  Here is a charming long low whitewashed church set in a circular graveyard on a hill above the sea.  Here many of the 18th century stones are completely white with lichen, but remarkably the  inscriptions can still be discerned because the lichen follows the carved indentations beneath.  The stones have a characteristic shape curved at the top with square shoulders beneath.  There are several grander  graves  in which the same round topped, shouldered shape is formed in cut blocks of pwntan stone framing an inscribed slab of slate or sandstone.  They date from 1780-1820 and stand like theatrical doorways on the sloping plot.  At first sight you might think them whitewashed, so extensive is the lichen cover.

One of about 30 small gravestone at St Michael’s Church Penbryn. carved Pwntan stone is a perfect substrate for the lichen Ochrolechia parella

One of several grand headstones framed in Pwntan stone, at St Michael’s Church Penbryn

St Michael’s Church, Penbryn is a medieval church, with later restoration. Characteristic round topped, shouldered gravestones date from the late 18th century

There are various places east of the main A487 where sandstone was formerly extracted but most are long neglected and overgrown. The group then went on to visit Gwarallt quarry, Bwlchyfadfa near Talgarreg where farmer Iwan Evans  has had the initiative to re-open the quarry which supplied high quality sandstone in the 19th century.  In a trade magazine of the 1880s it was vaunted as stronger, and cheaper, than Portland stone.   The stables at nearby Alltyrodin mansion were certainly built from Gwarallt stone, but whether it was exported over a larger area is lost to history.

In the quarry one can see the thick beds of sandstone dipping down at 45° to the field above.  Big blocky stones are quarried from the face and can be cut for paving slabs or shaped for modern stone building or restoration work. Some beds are too thick, yielding several-ton chunks too large for the saws on site. There are some monstrous blocks waiting by the road to catch the eye of a sculptor.  Pwntan stone holds the sharp detail of its carving for hundreds of years.  It would be a good choice for a new work of art.

Welsh Stone Forum examine the extracted sandstone at Gwarallt Quarry, Bwlchyfadfa

Iwan Evans with a freshly sawn sandstone paving slab from his quarry at Gwarallt


Visit The Welsh Stone Forum   http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/cy/364/




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Hospital is no place for the old

I listened to Anne Clwyd MP on the radio the other day, describing the conditions of disinterest and neglect ( like a battery hen)  which marked her husband’s death in hospital in Cardiff.  In the wake of the Mid Staffordshire inquiry, she has been appointed to a government committee to advise on how NHS hospitals should handle complaints.

She has been inundated with correspondence from people from all over the UK whose relatives received little care or compassion on NHS wards. But perhaps most shocking is that while individuals regularly make the same observations, it is widely recognised  among professionals that hospital is no place for the old.

I was responsible for managing my nonagerarian mother’s care and experience in a nursing home in the last five years of her life. About 3 years ago she became severely dehydrated as the result of prolonged diarrhoea.  In need of rehydration the GP assigned her to hospital.

I say assigned because, although the distance was less than a mile it took four hours for her to be admitted.  Those four hours were spent in an ambulance on the tarmac outside A&E, parked alongside three other ambulances containing elderly non-urgent patients.  It was a a freezing cold, brilliantly sunny, January day.  Only two ambulances remained in service, I was told, to deal with emergencies in the entire county!

This part of the care was, however, very good to my mother.  While an IV saline drip cannot (for reasons of arcane regulation)  be provided in a nursing home, she was promptly attached to one in the ambulance.  The heating in the van was excellent, and for nearly four hours she lay quietly rehydrating, attended by the paramedic, the driver, a young care assistant from the care home and myself.  If only, after the four hours, she could have been taken back to her nursing home!

She was at last processed in A&E and eventually admitted to a ward within the target waiting time (not including the ambulance-blocking hours, which do not count towards the target).  It was there that the inadequacies of care became seriously apparent.  Placed in a side ward she was left alone for long periods and not provided with a call bell.  Anti nausea medicine prescribed by the doctor took more than seven hours to appear from the pharmacy.  Simple comforts like tea appeared seldom, ( certainly not on request) while meals were served during “protected mealtimes” when witnessing relatives were banished from the ward. Nursing staff were sullen and uncommunicative.

‘Is she eating anything?’ I asked at the nursing station on my daily visits.

‘Oh we’re very keen on food.’ was the evasive reply.

But evidence there was none.  Full plates were cleared away untouched.  Food and fluid  intake charts were not filled in.  Although quite able to stand my mother was manhandled with a hoist and wheelchair to visit her en suite loo.  No one sought to find out what her physical abilities were. In her own words, she felt she was handled like a piece of meat. Over a week she became more and more deeply miserable.On the sixth day, without explanation, or recording in the notes, she was put onto a glucose drip.  Perhaps they finally noticed she wasn’t eating anything?

Laundry is a reponsibility of the visiting relatives, and on each day I would be provided with a bag of dirties to take home.  Because the reason for her bowel problem remained undiagnosed she was receiving ” barrier nursing”.  How then did the bags I took home prove to contain other patients’ labelled clothing?  When I called to point this out the staff nurse told me that that the two owners of the nightdresses had died, and that I should throw these items away.  A little research proved this to untrue.  One of the ladies was back at my mother’s nursing home, and I eventually returned her freshly laundered nightdress!  I failed to trace the other. But it summed up the attitude on that ward.  Old women with a nursing home tag on their admission bracelet were not seen as individuals.  They were a generic nuisance.

Eventually I wrote a letter to the consultant ( whom I never saw) requesting that she be discharged, whether they knew what was wrong with her or not. I refused permission for invasive tests, which she would have experienced as nothing short of an assault.

In the course of that week I realised then that hospital is just too harsh an environment for a frail nonagenarian.  And that the quality of care is lowest for this category of patient. In her subsequent management I always pointed out to GPs responsible for her care that hospital was not an appropriate destination for the very old.  No one ever disagreed, or suggested that the benefits could outweigh the de-merits of hospital admission.





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More on Miölnir

by the Curious Scribbler

I ended my last blog wondering whether the poet Longfellow had acceded to George Powell’s somewhat histrionic request that he burn his poems the works of ‘Miölnir’ and trample the ashes into the ground.

The answer proved, in the digital age surprisingly easy to find.

From my computer I could access the Harvard library catalogue, Hollis, and typed in the author’s name Miölnir.  And there it was, Poems Miölnir [pseudo.] 2nd series published by J. Cox Aberystwyth 1861.  A second click opened the very book, online, in Google Books.  And on the title page I found the cramped dedication in George Powell’s handwriting:

George Powell’s dedication to Prof Longfellow on the title page of his book

H.W. Longfellow Esq., and Prof.  With the sincere respects of the author G Powell.

And on the second page of the volume is the bookplate marking the donation of the Longfellow Collection to Harvard College Library.

Bookplate from the Longfellow donation to Harvard Library

Gift of Miss Alice M  Longfellow, 20 Dec.1894

So Powell’s gift was not destroyed, joined the library of Longfellow, and was donated by his daughter to Harvard, where he taught.

Reeling from the public criticism in the Spectator, George, in a letter to Longfellow in 1862,  whittled down his poems in this volume to just eight which he felt possibly worthy of approval, and listed these in the letter which bewailed his treatment by the critics.  By his own reckoning his best poems were those on pages  41, 68, 95, 102, 107, 138, 140, 141

Another revelation from this piece of armchair research is that I was wrong to presume that the double volume of both Miölnir books was sent to Longfellow, or indeed to The Spectator.  Even the cover of Longfellow’s copy is reproduced online, and it is in the original cream binding lined and decorated in black and red.

The cover of Longfellow’s copy of Miolnir’s verses, Series II

The text is amended here and there for typographic errors which escaped the author’s attention in proof.  The amendments are in George’s hand.

So I must contradict my earlier post.  I now believe that Mr Chater’s copy is a unique one, bound for George some considerable time after his humiliation.  He, like, everyone else, had had the two separate books, one green, one cream,  and thus he had dedicated each of his own copies, lovingly, to himself.  It is these  which were later unbound and rebound together in green leather.

Arthur Chater’s copy of the volume by Miölnir

In the first series of poems were two pieces of comic verse which, by the time of the second series,  Powell had already repudiated in favour of his more aesthetic and gloomy style.  In the Epilogue to the second series, before he had suffered the ignominy of the Spectator review,  he wrote  ‘I have refrained in this volume from attempting any “comic strains”. They were in the last one, such a lamentable failure, were so forced and inexpressibly weak, that I shall take very good care in future – at any rate till my mind be more matured – not to let my pen compromise me so much’. Significantly these two poems have been unceremoniously ripped from this edition.

Personally I find comic verse easier to digest than works of tortured beauty and elevated sensitivity which are Powell’s predominant style.  I therefore reproduce, for the first time since 1860 one of George Powell’s youthful ‘betises’ as it appears in an undamaged copy of his first volume .

‘Agriculture by a Facetious Farmer’. A humorous verse in the first volume, which George was later to regret.

The pun never fails to entertain.

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The disappointments of George Powell of Nanteos, poet

I am startled by the brutality of reviewers writing for The Spectator in the 1860s.  I had been browsing in search of reaction to the publication of a volume of poems by George Powell, and  I soon discovered that the flavour of poetical criticism in 1861 – 1862 was stinging indeed.

In August 1861, for example, I found a long review of poems penned  by a clergyman.  “The Rev. John Graham has done a very foolish thing in ever devoting an hour from his time to writing verses. He has done an infinitely more foolish thing in venturing to print them. He ought never to write without burning all he writes as soon as it is written………..  We close Poems: Sacred, Didactic and Descriptive in bewilderment and dismay”.

Another new work, Athelstan, A Poem by Edward Moxon received similar derision “ Mr Tennyson may sleep secure. His laurels are still safe….. Whatever else he may be, the author of Athelstan is certainly not a poet, either by birth or manufacture”.

A review entitled Poetry Tearful and Tremulous discussed two new volumes: Cypress Leaves by WHCN (an Etonian) and Poems by Ingle Dew BA. “—we re-iterate our hope that these remarks may induce Mr Ingle Dew BA, and WHCN to feel heartily ashamed of their literary escapades and to attach for the future as little importance to the twitterings of their own emotions as those exceedingly few persons who will read their work are certain to attach to them.”

Aspirant poets must have retired to sob at such a drubbing.

George Powell, was amongst these poets.  The son and heir of Nanteos mansion he was, like WHCN, an Etonian and by 1861 an undergraduate at Brasenose College Oxford.  He had already published in 1860, at his own or more probably his father’s  expense,  a collection of five short stories which as far as I am aware never received critical attention.

George Powell first published a small volume of 31 poems, entitled Poems of Life and Death in 1860 under the pseudonym Miölnir.  His epilogue excuses any deficiencies in the light of his own youth and inexperience.  However he leads the reader to his cause:  “First attempts are in all cases, even those of great genius, defective to a certain extent. They should be regarded as, not perfect works, but a foreshadowing of perfect works or more perfect works: as exercises not as models, as footlights not as stars”.  He signs off as Miölnir, Brussels, December 3rd 1860, and before the year was out a slim book with a dark green embossed cover was printed for the author by J Cox of Pier Street, Aberystwyth.  Perhaps it was distributed as Christmas presents.

Nanteos, portrayed in Nicholas’ Annals and Antiquities of the Counties and County Families of Wales 1872

A  second volume was  soon under way, arranged in four parts with many personal dedications, most significantly part 3 to the poet Longfellow, whom he did not know, but admired from afar.  The final poem added only in press was an elegy to the Prince Consort who had died on the 14 December 1861.  The second volume was signed off on 20 December 1861, and appeared in a cream cloth binding.

There were also some copies in which both parts were bound as a single volume.  One such copy went to The Spectator, and another was posted with the compliments of the author, Miölnir, to the poet H.W. Longfellow at Cambridge, Boston, Massachusetts.


Longfellow’s home in Cambridge Massachusetts

A third of these combined volumes has found its way via the second hand trade into the hands of Mr Arthur Chater.

Arthur Chater’s copy of the volume by Miölnir

This is a puzzling volume, for on the title pages of both the first and the second series of poems is a dedication, “GEJ Powell with the best love of the Author, Miölnir”

Poems by Miölnir, the dedication at the beginning of the first volume

and “George EJ Powell with the best love of the Author”

The handwritten dedication from Miölnir to George Powell

A comparison of the handwriting with that of George Powell’s letters to Longfellow confirms that it is in the same hand.  George Powell, perhaps in order to be able to claim close acquaintance with his alter ego, was in effect sending himself his love!

On 1 March 1862 Powell must have opened The Spectator with keen anticipation.  He read as follows;

The premature mild spring weather is bringing out the minor poets, and ere long the cuckoo will be heard in the land. The most pretentious of verse makers is Mr W.C. Kent—- Though it may not be necessary that the driver of fat oxen should himself be fat, it is at least necessary that the writer of poetry should be something of a poet – which Mr Kent decidedly is not.  A more feeble, but at the same time a far more modest versifier is one who assumes the pseudonym of Miölnir.  Indeed his only merit is the negative one of self abasement, which he carries to the extreme point of simplicity.  He is evidently an amiable and ingenuous youth, whose naïveté and genuineness of character will command many friends, too staunch to be alienated by the meagreness of his poetic faculty.”

Powell  was obviously smarting when he wrote  again to Longfellow on 14 March 1862. “ I most unwisely sent it to The Spectator for review, a thing I ought never to have done with a work printed for private circulation”.  After a prolonged account of the review and its limitations he concluded  “ I will not trouble you with a long account of my petty woes, which I have quite recovered from” .

Clearly he had not recovered his composure at all and wrote another long letter to Longfellow in June. “ being compelled to leave Oxford by continued ill health,  and perpetual gloom and low spirits, the former induced, I believe, by the damp unwholesome air, and the latter by my insurmountable distaste for members of the College by whom I found myself surrounded – I wished for as complete a change as possible so came here [to Reykavik].

The following January George was back at Nanteos but the injury was still very much on his mind. “ Six or seven months have toned down wonderfully even my limited admiration for my own poems in so much that I now look with loathing upon that last volume…..  If I had only attended to Horace’s ‘Nonum prematur in annum’ I should have been spared the mortification of exposing the weakness and folly of my mental childhood.  May I entreat you to burn the volume of Miölnir’s poems and trample its ashes underfoot.”

It is not known whether Longfellow acted upon this entreaty by the humiliated poet, but clearly George could not bring himself to burn his own personal volume, so affectionately dedicated to himself.  He published no further poetry but found a new outlet for his writing as a translator of Icelandic sagas.


Footnote: Nonum(que)  prematur in annum  translates as Let it ( your first draft) be kept back from publication until the ninth year.

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