In the ten years I have been writing Letter from Aberystwyth I have prided myself upon being both succinct and factually accurate.
It was therefore a surprise to find Letter from Aberystwyth, with a startlingly similar font, appearing in the online news service Nation Cymru on the 6 November.
An article published in Nation Cymru
This proved to be an article in which the author Shara Atashi shared a variety of thoughts stimulated, or perhaps stunted, by the rigours of cold water swimming at Aberystwyth. Consider the following extract about the scenery viewed from the sea at South Beach:
Behind that there are a few pyramidal green hills, and upon one of them is Pen Dinas, an Iron Age Celtic hillfort, and on it a column with no monument.
The monument, built in the 1850s, carries the name of Wellington, but his statue was never installed. Visitors to the area are likely to wonder why.
Wales is full of mysteries, which remain unsolved to remain mysteries. I never tried to find out why the Wellington Monument is without Wellington’s statue. I just thought that a monument with no statue on it feels just right, especially when it is situated upon an Iron Age Celtic hillfort.
If a single person’s lack of knowledge and disinclination to find out about their subject constitutes a mystery then the bar for Welsh Mysteries is set extremely low!
The author has also refrained from consulting a bird book :
When I watch a heron standing there with its wings open wide in the sun, I wonder whether it is troubled by the wind tousling its feathers. They seem to be boasting when they dive for more than a minute and resurface with a big fish in the beak.
and she conjures a puzzling image of her early morning swims at North Beach
I swim here North Beach early mornings, when it is quiet and I can enjoy the horizon while following my thoughts. The scene is never the same.
Sometimes I am surrounded by a group of sea gulls and their juniors rocking on the surface of the water. They look like little boats. Sometimes there are a few herons fishing around me.
There can be no doubt that these herons are in fact cormorants!
I do hope that none of my readers have attributed this article to me.
I don’t often settle scores via my blog, but here is a tale to curl your hair.
I’m in the process of renovating a small house, which is being rewired. Lacking any form of heating and having just one live socket it understandably uses very little electricity. With great difficulty I convinced Scottish Power of this situation, and agreed to a direct debit of £14.54 /month to cover the standing charge and negligible usage.
Today I thought I would confirm the situation by submitting a further meter reading, showing that in the last 6 weeks I had used 3KWH of electricity.
As soon as I submitted the reading, this notice popped up! Increasing my bill to £191.44.
Something wrong here.. So I went to Direct Debit Manager which enables me to set my own payment. I planned to revert to the original sum.
It wasn’t that easy because this is what happened:
But I tried and tried and eventually I got to the right page, and set about amending the Direct Debit. Interestingly here they wanted not £191.44 but £171.00. Still pretty exorbitant for using no electricity. So I tried to set my own payment.
Read the bottom line! I am allowed to revert to the old payment. But there is one tiny problem: the penalty will be an immediate one-off payment of £2,659.82!!
Deeply puzzled I took a look at the panel displayed if you click on “View your payments breakdown”
Beyond astounding. This panel tells me that my next payment review takes place in April 2024. However, according to Scottish Power paragraph 2, this is only 5 months away! What calendar are they on? Would you trust a direct debit to a company which doesn’t know what year they are in? And increased your bill thirteen fold because you used three kilowatts of electricity?
I’ve since received an email, telling me that they are going to take not the recommended £171 but the far nicer £191.44 which appeared in the first pop-up. Seems dates and figures are pretty labile in the Scottish Power computers. My account balance is already £47 in credit, which would cover almost three months in a house with no electricity.
Complain you suggest? The chance would be a fine thing! The system allows you to communicate online with bots or listen to a couple of hours of canned musak and then speak to an operative trained to resemble a robot. I already have one unresolved complaint with Scottish Power running since early August. I have 31 days before they start helping themselves to my £191.44. I am going to need it.
Today was a fine day, sandwiched between the wind and rain of earlier in the week and yet another front anticipated tomorrow. I spent it weeding in Mrs Johnes’ Garden at Hafod. The garden is now ten years old, a transformation from its appearance in May 2011 when the sitka spruce plantation had been recently cleared and the circular path and lawn were reinstated along historic lines. The very first shrubs were planted in June 2012.
Mrs Johnes’ Garden 12 May 2011
2012 New beginnings in this once-famous Georgian Flower Garden
The breakthrough for this ambitious project came as a result of the diplomatic skills of Peter White, then Director of the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments Wales, who persuaded the Forestry Commission to reroute the forestry road which some 60 years previously had been driven through the abandoned garden.
Today the scene is very different, with a rich tapestry of shrubs, trees, and perennials overflowing the circular border. The plants have been scrupulously limited to those which would have been available to Mrs Johnes when she created her garden in the 1780s.
Autumn in Mrs Johnes’ garden, 29 September 2022
Small jewels lurk in these borders, such as the clumps of white autumn crocuses which are a magnet for bees, solitary wasps and butterfies all attracted by their nectar. I photographed a Wall ( Pararge megera) on the crocuses, and a Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) on the nearby Evening Primroses.
A Wall butterfly helps itself the the nectar of the Colchicums
The task for the weeder here is to remove the creeping buttercups from amongst the carpet of wild strawberries. In winter the strawberries are dormant while the buttercups seize the opportunity to enlarge and spread over the winter months, punching gaps in the tapestry.
Small Copper butterfly on an Evening Primrose
Many of the new must-have flowers offered to gardeners two hundred years ago came from the eastern states of the USA, and some have been selected for this garden. Delightful autumn blooms include the bright gold Rudbeckia hirta, and fluffy cushion flowers of White Snakeroot ( Ageratina altissima) which is very attractive to hoverflies.
Another particular favourite of mine is the Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) which has strikingly sinister black berries on magenta stems. These are powerfully poisonous berries, and all parts of the plant contain the toxin so consumption should be avoided. Pokeweed tea was used in traditional north American medicine as a purgative and emetic. Various pokeweed extracts and preparations are listed by alternative practitioners and credited with a staggering range of speculative applications in medicine, see verywellhealth.com
However the site acknowledges that few of the therapeutic claims for the treatment of conditions ranging through tonsillitis, mumps, AIDS, skin conditions and certain cancers have been verified by science, so it is much wiser to simply admire the plant. I do notice that in spring the new shoots are very susceptible to slug damage, while later in the year the molluscs steer clear, presumably because the toxin intensifies over time.
A greater hazard to the weeder are the thorny briar roses which, at this time of year, are adorned with brilliant hips. When I was at school I was made to learn and recite Oberon’s speech in Midsummer Nights Dream.
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine: There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
It sounds delightful, but the Sweetbriar Rose or Eglantine which droops hazardously over the border has the sharpest, thinnest incurved claw-like thorns in the business, which will shred the skin of the unwary and tangle in their clothes.
The ferociously thorny Eglantine Rose
The North American species Rosa virginiana is equally spiny but at least these are straight thorns which release you when you draw back! Its hips are rounder and paler, covered in fine, easily dislodged hairs.
The Prairie Rose, Rosa virginiana
Mrs Johnes Garden was restored by the Hafod Trust, which pioneered the rescue of this important Picturesque landscape. This Trust will shortly be disbanded as the Hafod Estate is now in the care of the National Trust. It is hoped that the tradition of National Trust volunteering will soon lead to a larger team of volunteer weeders who which will keep the garden under control.
Last Saturday I attended the Gorsgoch Agricultural Show and Llanwenog Young Farmers’ Club event in my role as Judge of the Flowers in the Produce Tent.
It is a delight that most local shows have revived after two empty years caused by the Covid pandemic. This was the first time I have visited this particular Show, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. The event was held on a windy hilltop at Glwydwern farm, and I found my way there, thanks to the satnav, by narrow and twisting lanes beyond Cribyn. It was an idyllic scene with two horse rings, sheeplines and a large traditional Fedwen marquee packed with produce.
The Vegetable classes at Gorsgoch Show
The spread in the Produce tent was impressive, and I was glad I did not have to face the challenge offered to Cookery judge – no less than 28 bara briths were awaiting her inspection, and fourteen competent men had entered a fruit loaf in the class limited to their gender. The seventeen other open classes were all well represented. The only difference from the shows of old is that now, thanks to health and safety considerations, all the edible entries, once judged, are enclosed in clear polythene bags to keep the flies off. There were even closed refrigerated cabinets in which the very ambitious cheesecakes were displayed. A few confused bees wavered around the tent. The demonstration hive had proved to be leaky and had been sent home, leaving the escapees behind.
Twenty eight Bara Brith at the Gorsgoch Show
A rare little Rhodoxis at Gorsgoch Show
The Flowers were not quite as numerous as the cakes, and it seems that none of the serious competitive dahlia growers had attended. But the range of plants in the class of pot-grown and outdoor planters revealed some discriminating gardeners. New and exciting cultivars find their way to Gorsgoch gardeners. A charming Rhodoxis ( a cerise-flowered hybrid of Rhodohypoxis and Hypoxis parvula) vied for attention with some fine fuchsias.
In the outdoor pots I awarded the Best Exhibit rosette to a perfect dome of Bidens ferulifolia ‘Blazing Glory’ overhanging an immaculate trailing yellow Calibrachoa. There must be some very beautifully appointed gardens and patios in the area.
Bidens Blazing Glory and Calibrachoa at Gorsgoch Show
One of the vases of garden flowers was particularly striking as it featured species with deep purple blooms: buddleia, penstemon and verbena, and some unusual fern foliage.
I was charmed by this deep purple collection of Garden flowers at Gorsgoch Show
This spirit of innovation had also spread to the vegetables. Among the pairs of cucumbers were two perfectly matched, sparsely hairy, pale yellow yellow globes. I noted the judge had cut one open to convince the spectators that these unfamiliar vegetables were, nonetheless, real cucumbers!
After completing my duties I roamed the tent enjoying the handicrafts. It seems many people in South Ceredigion are expert patchwork seamstresses, and the quilts, cushions and table runners took up a great length of the tables.
Just some of the handicrafts at Gorsgoch Show
Perhaps because of the Young Farmers’s involvement there were also well supported competitions classes for 18 and under, and 19-26 year age groups embracing cookery, handicrafts and photography. In many shows these sort of classes are popular with younger ages, but interest peters out after primary school.
Outside the tent, judges were busy with a dog show and two horse rings. In one ring there were beautiful Welsh cobs, and mountain ponies with their colt of filly, while immaculate riding horses and ponies were cantered around the judge in the other. Burly men wrestled with uncooperative sheep led upon thin white rope halters, and vintage tractors set off on a procession along the adjoining roads. This deeply agricultural area contains many skillful farmers, growers and crafters as well has historians and scholars. The display from Coed Fardre Nursery, Talgarreg embraced geneaology, antique tools, scale-models of the many English and Welsh regional varieties of five-barred gate, and 150 different knots all tied in yellow rope! I am told a book is forthcoming.
It is very clear from from the competition in children’s art from Duffryn Cledlyn and Talgarreg Primary Schools that in this part of the world the pupils in Years 3 and 4 know exactly what farm animals look like! I suspect they also know their vegetables – for it is a long way from Talgarreg to the nearest McDonald’s or KFC.
Eight and nine year-old art ‘ The Show” at Gorsgoch Show
When I got to know Kay Humphreys she was a tiny elderly lady living at the far end of the long low row of ancient cottages in the shade of a huge acacia tree at Pontllolwyn in Llanfarian. There was just one chair for guests which could be reached with difficulty, for she lived a frugal life hemmed in by huge sloping stacks of weekly magazines, the Spectator, the New Statesman, The Week. The cottage was very much unimproved, cluttered with the memorabilia of her long life.
Loves in her life included the big house, Aberllolwyn, (which had formerly belonged to her clergyman uncles Tom and Griff Humphreys, and which she always felt was really hers), and cats. A rector’s daughter herself, she delighted in tormenting vicars with theological questions on the subject of cats’ souls, and whether she would meet her favourite cats in heaven. One of these favourites was our cat, Kevin, a handsome un-neutered tabby tom who in the 1990s often attended the services at Llanychaiarn Church, where she was a worshiper. On Sundays when Kevin failed to put in an appearance, Kay would often appear at our door, imperiously asking ” Where is Kevin?” Kevin became a beneficiary of her will – a legacy which he did not collect because he predeceased her.
In 2004 she endowed her own memorial bench outside the church. Ever practical, she donated it while she could have the use of it, and on a chilly April morning, eighteen years ago today, a party of relatives and villagers assembled around her as the Revd Hywel Jones dedicated the bench.
The dedication of the Bench on 3 April 2005
Kathleen Humphreys on her bench, with cousin Mary Ellis and niece Cathy McGregor
By this time in her life Kathleen Humphreys was best remembered for her long-running column in The Cambrian News, ” Kay’s Corner” a weekly opinion piece, which drew on a wide knowledge of folklore, gardening, theology and her own strong ideas. She had always been a writer, and now, as I assemble her archive and diaries for donation to the National Library of Wales, one gets an insight into a remarkable woman. She was born in 1916 into a clergy family and grew up at Llangan Rectory near Bridgend. Her sixteen-year-old diary reveals a girl on the brink of adulthood, aware of male eyes upon her, and already sure that the life of a married woman is not for her. Aged nineteen she was working in London, going to auditions, and working for Central Editing ( would this be the BBC?). Her London diaries from the war years unfortunately do not survive.
Her big literary break came in 1959 when she published Days and Moments Quickly Flying under the pen name of Perry Madoc. It is significant to remember how many women in the early 20th century adopted male cognomens to increase their chance of being taken seriously. The manuscript had been first submitted under the name of “Pen Severn”. Perry Madoc was published by Collins both here and in America and was very favourably reviewed in The Spectator, and compared with Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. Its knowing portrayal of homosexual school teachers and vulnerable schoolboys would have perhaps been expected of a male author.
Kathleen Humphreys’ 1960s diaries reveal a woman who felt her career blighted by the influential Literary Advisor to Collins, Milton Waldeman. There is more than a suggestion that his rejection of her next manuscript was influenced by her rejection of his sexual advances. She was no longer resident in London, having moved to Pontllolwyn to be near her uncles. Two other novels survive in manuscript: The Ink Blot ( which was rejected by Collins and by Gollancz 1960) and The Coal Scuttle Triptych ( rejected by Heinnemann 1961). A later novel The Washerwoman of Sevigny was rejected by Hutchinson in 1989. It may have been a disadvantage that she was no longer a face on the London scene, but she was certainly publishing articles and short stories in Punch, in John O’London’s Weekly and in Argosy. From the 1960s she was also a regular contributor to The Cambrian News.
All her life, Kathleen Humphreys needed to earn a living to supplement her income as a writer, and did a number of jobs in Aberystwyth. Her Pontllolwyn diaries span fifty years 1953 to 2004, and record the experiences of her daily round. Her accounts include Rosemary Christie, mother of the actress Julie Christie and mistress of Douglas Hague of the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments, the Jervis family of Bryneithin, the geologist Nancy Kirk, Prof and Mrs Parrott, the Thomsons of Glanpaith, the Roberts of Crugiau, the Mirylees at Nanteos, the Condrys and the Chaters as well as many local neighbours. She was active in the CPRW, the Cardiganshire Horticultural Society, the Ceredigion Antiquarians, and in art and pottery classes. She never owned a car, and travelled everywhere on foot or by bus, chatting to all she met and often expressing her delight in the scenery, the wildflowers and the weather.
Her handwriting is hard to decipher, but the diaries are surely a treasure trove of local life, as well as a signpost to a huge output of published writing hidden away in old newspapers and magazines. I end with a small sample which I have transcribed, the diary entry for 18 July 1959.
Last night I wandered up to Aberllolwyn like a ghost, jumping down over the wall from the woods, now overgrown, and the back all high weeds smothering the wallflowers and sweet williams I had in the old basins and the flowers against the wall! It was exactly like a dream in the dusk with all silent and deserted. I felt so desolate and so acutely homesick I cried bitterly and rained down curses on Uncle Griff and his smug wife and their smug house and on Providence for losing me my home and my little cat. In two months I have only seen him once, briefly, and then he looked scared, thin and ill.
In vain I called him, and I sat on Uncle Tom’s seat in the field in despair. On one last impulse I went down along the bottom of the orchard to the farm and there coming through the entrance to the Dingle from the farm was a glimmer and red and white. My darling Ginger! And in the trim, fat as butter and coat very sleek. How pleased he was to see me, Kissing and rubbing my face with his nose.
By this time it was pitch dark, and warm, and I resolved to spend the night with him on the hay stack. I climbed up a very steep ladder, Ginger clinging on and purring. We settled down. At first it was very cosy with heat rising from the rick but presently my temperature dropped and I got chilly. I tried to arrange these angular blocks andfetched an old raincoat of Dai’s from below. Ginger bore it all very well and when I was too fidgety stationed himself near, so I could hear him purring gently.
Later there was a terrific row below and footsteps. We were rather alarmed, me especially, but peeping over the top I saw it was Dai and Mrs Hughes with a torch. What were they doing? Extraordinary noises of clanging zinc. They were arranging the fallen zinc sheet from the garden wall before the calf shed to keep the geese in. And I had nearly settled in there with Ginger for the night! Why put the geese there?
The haystack very humid. At daybreak Ginger and I went down through the Dingle to the cottage and into bed. It is wonderful to have that warm lump once again snuggled up on the bed covers and his purring and sonnerations. At 2.30 I took him up to thefarm and asked Mrs Hughes to give him milk in the cowshed, which she does, the part behind the stalls where the dogs can’t reach. There are several tins of catfood in the farm piling up because no-one has seen Ginger for days and days.
Kathleen Anne Humphreys, Perry Madoc or Kathleen Hatling ( as she was published in Argosy 1944) deserves to be disambiguated and rediscovered.
Saturday’s spring sunshine led me out to tidy up the winter garden. Already rising proudly from the ground are the Sweet Coltsfoot Petasites frigidus palmatus, whose big star-shaped leaves will later shade out all the competition. It is an invasive plant from the arctic and cool temperate Europe, and a bit of a mixed blessing, but its confident sentinels of March flowers thrusting up before even the primroses have got under way is a harbinger of luscious foliage to come.
Petasites frigidus palmatus ( Sweet Coltsfoot) is erupting in the orchard. So invasive, but such pretty golf balls before the leaves emerge
Also performing spectacularly are my Oriental Hellebores … so many different forms are now to be found at Farmyard Nurseries in Llandysul. Cross-bred in Carmarthenshire the new varieties range from white through yellow and green to pink, purple, and almost black, and from frothy double petalled to the wide welcoming stamens and nectaries of the simple five petalled flowers.
It was these latter flowers which attracted my first bumblebee of the season, a hard-to-miss bee with ginger thorax, black abdomen and white tail. This was not a bee of my childhood. Bombus hypnorum is known by the common name of Tree Bumblebee, or New Garden Bumblebee: for it is just that: not until 2001 was one recorded in Wiltshire, and that was probably among the newest arrivals from the continent. The migration was a resounding success and within the next ten years the bee had spread throughout England and Wales. In 2017 it appeared in Ireland too.
Tree Bumblebee ( Wikimedia Commons)
This bee is now reckoned amongst our commonest eight species. My bee was a queen and will soon be setting up home in a tree hole, a nest box or perhaps a compost heap, or my loft, where she will rear her first first small daughters over the following five weeks. Later there will be larger better-nourished workers, and finally drones and queens. In a season she might rear as many as 300- 400 bees. But her sons are fated to have only a fortnight’s independent life, zooming around looking to mate, and it is only the daughter queens, fertilized in autumn,who will survive the winter to emerge in March 2022.
After a week marked by terrible rain and wind, Thursday’s watery sunshine illuminated an unusually optimistic scene on the Penglais campus.
Readers of this blog will remember the widespread dismay five years ago when the heavy equipment moved in and uprooted the iconic shrub borders adjoining the main drive into the campus. Planted in the 1970s to complement the newly completed Hugh Owen building, this varied drift of perennial and deciduous foliage was one of the features which had led to the grading of the campus grounds as of national importance in the Cadw Register of Historic Parks and Gardens in 2002.
The original planting of the bank below the Hugh Owen Building as it appeared in 2003
For the last four years the area has presented a stark appearance of grass and bark, relieved only by a few scrawny trees which had been spared. Few of these had lasting potential, they included sycamore, ash, Italian alder and goat willow, hardy weed trees which had opportunistically seeded in among the ornamental plantings.
The Hugh Owen bank was denuded of its shrubs in 2017
When the chainsaws and diggers reappeared a couple of weeks ago and these trees were removed in a sea of mud some passers-by wondered if worse was yet to come. But over the last two days a transformation has been wrought by a swarm of grounds staff in high-visibility jackets. Almost 2000 shrubs have been planted, in swathes of contrasting foliage textures.
All hands to the planting, which was done by the University’s team of grounds staff
New planting continued on Friday on the bank below the Hugh Owen building
The planting design by Dr Peter Wootton Beard references the border which preceded it, using many of the same or similar species to those selected by former curator Basil Fox when the building was new. Other newcomers have also been selected. As with the original design, the layout provides swathes of contrasting evergreens and areas of deciduous shrubs which form dark patches in winter. Flowers, berries and scent have not been neglected, so the tapestry will change as the seasons progress. In the next few years mulching and aftercare will be necessary, but the shrubs will fill out to create dense low-maintenance ground cover which should be good for the next fifty year.
Afternoon sunshine on Friday catches the scheme nearing completion.
I am told that last year alone required no less that fourteen rounds of grass-cutting on this bank, much of which is challengingly steep for machinery. The next few years will require mulching and aftercare, but as the shrubs fill out they will create a low maintenance continuous cover which should be good for the next fifty years and more.
It is good to see some long-term investment in the appearance of the Penglais Campus. Aberystwyth is the only Welsh university to have been awarded a Grade II* Cadw listing, for what is described as ‘one of the most important modern landscaping schemes in Wales’.
I’ve written about at least seven storms in the lifetime of this blog, but here we go again! Storm Barra has devastated the prom, and perhaps most evocative has been a video posted on Facebook by Clare Jonsson. Viewed from an upstairs window overlooking the area in front of the Marine Hotel we see huge waves breaking over the parked cars which bleat plaintively at each blow, their alarm lights flashing as they are inexorably shunted across the road and deposited at the inland side. One shudders for the owners, who presumably overlooked the weather forecasts on Tuesday afternoon.
Cars scattered by the sea, photographed on Wednesday morning. Posted on Facebook by Aberystwyth Town Centre and Justin Carroll
Many people’s thoughts turned to the homeless man who customarily sleeps on the landward side of the Victorian shelter on the prom. Apparently a kindly neighbour Kash Smith took him into her flat and rescued some, but not all of his possessions. Other items including his mattress could be seen on the bench in a turmoil of backwash while daylight shows that the southern end of the shelter has been broken through, its long bench stranded on the paving.
Posted on Facebook by Aberystwyth Town Centre and Justin Carroll
The shelter, which is a Cadw listed structure, was meticulously restored in 2014 after the January storm ripped it apart and a huge hole, remnant of the earlier bathhouse on the site, opened up beneath it. It survived Storm Frank in 2015 and Storm Ophelia in 2017 , Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis in 2020 and the many lesser storms which brought loads of sand up onto the prom. But last night’s damage is far more reminiscent of the storm of 3 January 2014. Big sill stones at the edge of the prom have been lifted up and slid across the paving, and large tracts of smaller slabs behind them have been lifted away. Flower beds have been demolished. Once again a big clear up will be needed.
Posted on Facebook by Aberystwyth Town Centre and Justin Carroll
Photo by Anthony Elvy
Posted on Facebook by Aberystwyth Town Centre and Justin Carroll
I have yet to visit my other favourite haunt, Tanybwlch Beach, to see what changes have been wrought by Storm Barra. The huge retaining wall on the river side of the car park has been dangling dangerously since Storm Ciara hit on 9 February 2020, creating a great void behind it which has been roughly covered with fencing material, but growing larger ever since.
The hole which opened up during Storm Ciara and has been growing ever since
And each year recently the sea has managed to breach over the shingle bank towards the southern end and flood the low lying fields below the mansion. As sea levels rise this area of farmland, former site of the Aberystwyth Show and once the prospective Aberystwyth Airport is likely to revert to permanent marshland.
The sea poured over the Tanybwlch shingle strand during Storm Dennis
Storm Dennis flooded the Tanybwlch flats 16 February 2020
A year ago today I posted a short blog about my researches on Justina Jeffreys, the Jamaican-born woman of colour who was adopted and reared near Tywyn and became a prominent member of north Ceredigion society in the early 19th century as wife of George Jeffreys at Glandyfi castle.
Glandyfi castle sketched by Francis Wood in 1838
It has been a particularly gratifying post, leading to much correspondence and the identification of at least six present day descendants of Justina or her brother Charles McMurdo Leslie. I have been writing up the story in much greater detail for next year’s issue of the history journal, Ceredigion.
I note that Wales has led the UK nations in making Black History a mandatory part of the national curriculum. Among the early black Welsh to be enjoying renewed attention is John Ystumllyn, the 18th century black gardener, from north Wales. Two weeks ago, to mark Black History Month, a pretty repeat-flowering yellow rose was launched by Harkness Roses in his honour.
The John Ystumllyn Rose
For many years school children have been taught about Mary Seacole, who nursed in the Crimean war, and was the daughter of Lieutenant James Grant, a Scottish army officer, and a free mixed-race Jamaican woman. Our curriculum could instead have more local resonance, if focused instead on Justina Jeffreys, some eighteen years older than Mary, and the daughter of another Scottish officer, Captain Charles McMurdo and a free ‘mulatto’ woman, Susan Leslie.
Justina was brought up at Bodtalog as the only child of McMurdo’s brother officer, Edward Scott and his Welsh wife Louisa, and is believed to have been a muse to the young poet and author Thomas Love Peacock.
Bodtalog, near Tywyn
It wold be wonderful to discover a portrait of this talented young woman. She died in 1869, so it is also possible that somewhere there is a carte de visite, depicting her in her sixties. Although carte de visites were often collected in albums, the photos were very seldom labelled, so it will be a very happy chance if an image of her is ever identified.
There has been quite a lot of publicity this summer about Carreg Llwyd, ( Google ‘Mark Bourne Wales’ for a selection: the Daily Mail, the BBC, Wales Online, and even The Times ran articles this summer).
The story concerns the extraordinary scale models built by writer and chicken farmer Mark Bourne, who died about ten years ago. Some will remember his many contributions to the Cambrian News and Country Quest. His remote garden on a terraced slope near Corris has become dilapidated and overgrown and The Little Italy Trust has recently been set up to preserve it. Jonathan Fell, gardener and conservator showed me round.
A medley of Italian buildings climb the mountainside
Looking up from the adjoining footpath one sees an amazing medley of model buildings, their facades facing westward, marching up the slope, fading away into the dense conifers above. Nearest to the house is a signature piece, The Duomo in Florence, just four feet tall and neatly labelled with an inscribed slate slab reading Santa Maria del Fiore. Nearby, ascending from the top of the boundary wall are the Spanish Steps from Rome. These and every other garden feature have been fashioned out of concrete, often impregnated with pigments to mimic the warm tones of southern Europe. There are palazzos, churches and towers, mostly palladian and always clearly labelled, often like a guide book with architect and date, which you approach by a labyrinth of concrete paths and steps. Interspersed are a number of breeze-block and corrugated-iron stores and workshops in which the creative process took place. Timber moulds and formers were built to imprint the decorations, and reclaimed objects, chickenwire, hub caps, dustbins, bottles, washing machine drums and bedsteads often form the basis of these three dimensional structures.
Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence
It is certainly true that about thirty of the models are of famous Italian buildings, and that Mark Bourne and his wife Muriel holidayed regularly in Italy, taking photos and making drawings which were then copied in concrete at home in Wales. It rains a lot in the mountains, and no doubt when the concrete would not set he had plenty of time to inscribe the calligraphy on the slate plaques which adorn each piece. But there is much more than Italy represented here. Rather, it seems that while Mark Bourne might have written an article, or I a blog on a subject which caught our interest, he instead committed it to concrete.
Randomly perched among the models, and all labelled, are the Brick Kiln at Amlwch, Anglesey, the Nash Lodge at Attingham Park, Boyana Church at Sofia, Bulgaria, and the worlds longest brick bridge, the Goltzsch Viaduct which takes trains from Mylau to Netzschkau in Germany.
‘World’s largest brick bridge. 26,000,000 bricks’. Jonathan Fell surveys the garden.
A model of York Minster and accompanying plaque marks the accession of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury. Another plaque list the names, ages and occupations of the occupants of Carreg Llwyd as recorded in the 1841 and 1851 censuses. When Mark Bourne wanted to remember something, he did not make a note, he made a model.
People gave him stuff which he incorporated into the garden. Pieces of architecture, concrete urns and figures, and Victorian bricks. One friend, John Oliphant, gave him an entire brick collection, and many of these are built into a wall visible from the passing footpath, set on their sides to display the lettering on the bricks. Farther up the same path Mark mounted a concrete geological relief map of north Wales into the wall.
A small part of the John Oliphant Brick Collection
Someone else gave him a bit of artificial stone salvaged from the cargo of the Primrose Hill, a vessel which foundered with great loss of life, on South Stack, Anglesey in 1900. A complex slate memorial records the story.
And somehow he became the owner of a great many tiny bricks. They are built into small didactic walls demonstrating different bricklayers’ patterns. Where else can one find labelled examples of Flemish Bond, Stretcher Bond, English Bond, Header Bond and Garden Wall Bond?
Exemplars of five types of brick wall ( and an old bedstead)
Carreg Llwyd is certainly unique, a monument to one man’s creativity, but what is its future? Its tourist potential is limited. It is up a steep footpath away from the nearest road and there is nowhere to park within a mile. Once one arrives it is perilous, for the paths, the terraces and some of the buildings are beginning to collapse, ( the Leaning Tower of Pisa is already just a memory.)
Some structures have already collapsed and others are at risk.
Concrete formed upon corroding metal has a limited life, and the whole project though impressive is crudely executed. It is magical to stand among the crumbling ruins, overreached by rhododendrons, briars and sapling trees, scraping away the moss to read more of Mark’s explanatory calligraphy on slate. One can also see where once there were vegetable beds, roses, cats’ graves, a little lawn and water channels flowing through the grounds. But this very personal space was built by hand (and prodigious amounts of cement), by one poor but passionate amateur, who was still adding to his oeuvre at the age of eighty. There is no place or access for the machines which might repair its inherent faults. To achieve maintenance would require the services of a full-time hermit.
A former flower garden among the ruins
Every space within the plot has been adorned with models
A vertiginous view of turrets and workshops from above
This is the ultimate secret garden – most people who come across it by chance feel it is their personal discovery. Even were it fully repaired and made safe it could take only a tiny number of visitors at any time. Its plight perhaps bears comparison with Derek Jarman’s shingle garden created around a modest shack in the shadow of the nuclear power station at Dungeness, Kent. Last year it was announced that the crowdfunding led by the Arts Council had raised £3.5 million to preserve it, and that artist residencies and very limited visiting opportunities will follow.
But Derek Jarman was a famous film director (and gardener) with many influential showbiz and artist friends. Mark Bourne, throughout his lifetime, was a very private man.