Cofiwch Dryweryn

by The Curious Scribbler.

I learnt on the Welsh News on Sunday that the graffiti on the wall beside to A487 just north of Llanrhystud has been vandalised once again, so I took a detour there today.  Imagine my surprise to find that the new daubing  ‘Elvis’ and a heart has already disappeared, to be replaced by the original message.  It has become quite a tourist attraction.  As I pulled into the adjoining layby I found another pilgrim like myself already bent on photography!

Passers by are stopping to admire the freshly repainted wall.

A quick search of Facebook reveals that a newly formed group styling themselves Welsh Independence Memes for Angry Welsh Teens lost no time in obliterating the substitution, toiling through the night to reinstate the old message.

The self appointed custodians on Welsh history

How much more satisfactory than a ponderous debate with the Authorities as to how and with whose money the restitution should be made! It is evocative of the original creation of the memorial, by a young Welsh Nationalist student at Aberystwyth University in the 1960s.  It is a less known fact that that original young artist was one Meic Stevens, who died recently, having risen to the heights of Professor of Welsh Writing in English at The University of Glamorgan, a prolific author and Editor of The New Companion to Welsh Literature!

Meic’s artwork was prompted by the flooding of the village of Capel Celyn to create the Tryweryn Reservoir in 1965.  I can think of no better aide-memoir than a little snippet of British Film Institute video  which records the last event at Capel Curig School and the last wedding, in 1963 at its chapel, while the earthmovers create a great scar in the background. Everyone in their best clothes, the ladies in their hats and heels, little girls  in their summer dresses, boys in in their blazers and ties.  It evokes a distant past.

As the years passed the wall crumbled at one end, and the H disappeared entirely.  One could still draw in and post a letter there, though that opportunity has gone today.

An earlier morph of the graffiti

It was touched up from time to time but it is in the present century that there have been successive attacks on the roadside memorial.  In 2010 it was partially painted over to display an blobby ambiguous tag.  In 2013 MP Mark Williams posed in front if it wearing an expression of grim concern.  The perpetrators thought the obliterated letter W and the smiley face an amusing joke.

MP Mark Williams condemned the new graffiti in 2013

 

The wall was repainted in 2013 with the original message.

The next addition was at least more politically relevant  ” Remember Aberfan was appended and this remained for several years.

More recently the lettering was redone, in green rather than the original white, perhaps to emphasize the Welsh colours.Last weekend’s morph was perhaps the least creative.  The new daub seems superfluous – we already have the well known Elvis rock at Eisteddfa Gurig.  A second ‘Elvis’ lacks the historical relevance of the first, which was a corruption of the electioneering notice for Councillor Elis. One wonders exactly what the author of thinking of.

The Cofiwch Dryweryn wall as it appeared on 1 of February 2019, but was promptly obliterated.

The dynamism of the repainting team, slaving by lamplight on a very chilly night is heartening.  Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader and MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd Liz Saville Roberts has joined the fray with a worthy statement:

The Cofiwch Dryweryn Memorial is a symbolic and poignant reminder of why Welsh land; Welsh culture & Welsh communities cannot be allowed to be so drastically undervalued ever again’

Only in Wales could a piece of Banksy artwork be subject to such publicly-funded protection whilst an unrivalled marker of our nation’s political struggle for self-determination is left open to asinine damage.’

‘The Welsh Government must now act, acknowledge the history of the nation it purports to serve and afford this emblem the recognition and protection it rightly deserves.’ 

But is physical protection really the way forward?  The immediate independent action  to repaint the memorial is surely far more dynamic history than is putting up a fence!  Though I suppose a video camera could reveal, to the embarrassment of many,  the full range of activities to which a roadside layby can be put.

 

 

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Halkyn Marble

by the Curious Scribbler

In November, when writing about Snowdrop marble, I planned to return to another beautiful and distinctive Welsh stone – Halkyn marble from the Carboniferous limestone of North Wales.  I am grateful to Andrew Haycock of the Welsh Stone Forum for introducing me to this pretty stone.

Halkyn marble font in St Mary the Virgin Church ,  Halkyn.

This stone was recognised for its ornamental potential in the early nineteenth century, when the Marble quarry  first appears in the will of John Salisbury in 1837.  It qualities are amply displayed at Halkyn church, a spectacularly lavish Victorian church built by the First Duke of Westminster in 1877.  At that time the Duke was employing Chester architect John Douglas to extend Halkyn Castle in the Elizabethan style and, finding the existing parish church to be somewhat shabby and, worse still, interfering with the view from the castle, he demolished it entirely and built a new one, also by John Douglas, on a nearby site.  As is often the case with such vanity projects, the unattractive old memorials of the former church were not transferred, except for a Latin-inscribed slab to a former rector, Peter Roberts and  an unexplained but damaged alabaster effigy which hints at an important memorial now lost.

Peter Roberts, Rector, died 1819 must have been fun at dinner ! “In conversation suavis, facetus, hilaris”  – suave, facetious and hilarious  – or at the very least,    ‘Sweet, witty and cheerful’

The master mason who built the new church out of local Gwespyr sandstone was also the owner of the marble quarry at Pant-y-Pwll Dwr, five miles away.  He lost no opportunity to showcase its qualities in the church interior. Four handsome pillars of Halkyn marble separate the nave from the north aisle, the pulpit stands upon a plinth of the stone, and the barrier between nave and chancel is topped with this polished stone.  Typically available in slabs up to 18 inches thick, the massive font is carved from three layers of this particularly impressive rock, with a stem of black marble, probably also of local origin.

Interior of St Mary the Virgin, Halkyn

Interior stonework in Halkyn Marble

The appeal of this stone comes from the fossils within the grey matrix.  These are the stems of sea lilies – crinoids – which were an abundant form of sessile echinoderm, relatives of sea urchin and starfish.  Cut across they look like beads, cut obliquely whole stems are visible.  At a lesser frequency are large bivalved seashells, – productids – which generally look like curved C-shapes in section.

Pillar formed of blocks of Halkyn marble

Large slabs of Halkyn marble  also went to the Duke of Westminster’s Victorian Eaton Hall which was a gothic turretted monstrosity built to a design by Alfred Waterhouse in the 1880s and demolished  eighty years later.

Eaton Hall in 1907 a photograph by John Steggall                                                                                Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1339190

Halkyn marble may well have found its way to other properties of the Grosvenor estate.

The original quarry is long gone, subsumed into a huge Cemex quarry just south of the A55 North Wales Expressway, where these abundant  fossils are ground up to make  road-stone. Adjoining the modern quarry one can still find smaller outcrops in which the crinoid stems are eroded by the weather to stand proud of the surface.

Halkyn marble weathers out to expose the crinoid stems

the disused quarry at Bryn Blewog, just across the road from Pant-y-Pwll Dwr the giant Cemtex quarry.

When dry and unpolished the stone just looks grey, raindrops expose some hint of its potential beauty. It is heartening to know that Gwyn Davies stonemason of nearby Rhes-y-cae was able to obtain 100 tons of quality beds of Halkyn marble from the Cemex quarry, so it is still possible to commission a fireplace or stone slabs to ornament a modern project, or to restore a historic one.  A new piece was used in 2011 to mark the end at Chepstow, of the Wales Coast path.

Image result for chepstow wales coastal path

Slab of unpolished Halkyn marble (left) and of Pennant Sandstone (right) mark the end of the Wales Coastal path at Chepstow. copyright BBC News in Pictures

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Snowdrop Marble

by The Curious Scribbler

A few years ago I was lucky to view the interior of one of the finest houses on the Tenby seafront, no 1 Lexden Terrace, a Grade II* listed building which was, at the time, the home of Mrs Marion Hutton.

Six house make up Lexden Terrace, overlooking the sands at Tenby. No 1 is at the right.

The five storey house was a treasure trove of antiques and objets collected in her lifetime, but my particular attention was drawn to a fire surround, made of polished black stone ornamented with white fossils.  This and much else of the interior dates back to the 1840s when sea captain John Rees of Tenby, enriched by his trading activities in the Chinese Opium Wars, built not one but five handsome houses set on an outcrop above Castle Sands.  Number 1 was his home, while numbers 2-5 were then, as they are today, upmarket holiday lets.

1 Lexden Terrace, Tenby: Snowdrop Marble fire surround.  The brachiopod shells sliced in section look a little like snowdrop blooms.

The stone probably came from the Pwll Quarry, just inland from Pendine.  Leslie Baker Jones ( Trans Carms. Antiquarian Soc. 1971)  has written about the monumental mason, Tom Morris of Pendine, who lived  1804 -1886, and whose career with Messrs Rogers, Marble Masons of Tenby involved the manufacture of funeral slabs, mantelpieces, tables and other domestic adornments. Morris felt Pwll Quarry yielded the best Snowdrop Marble, as it was called, though there were other nearby sources exploited in the 19th century, at Carew Newton to the the west and at Llanddarog and Llangynderyn, to the north east of Kidwelly.

A detail of the over mantel. Where the internal structure of the brachiopod is cut through showing the forked spondylium, the resemblance to a snowdrop bloom is strongest.

This distinctive stone occurs only locally and is of Carboniferous age, and was variously marketed as Black and White marble, Snowdrop marble, and as Welsh Black ( the last perhaps describing layers less rich in the distinctive fossils).  In St Mary’s Church, Tenby we found examples on grave slabs going back as far as 1788.

In the great outdoors it has fared less well, for the acidity in the rain has destroyed the polish, such that the fossils are only clearly visible when wet. At Manordeifi Church, Llechryd it is easy to overlook a massive inscribed slab, cramped in a vertical setting within a sheltering arch of masonry.  Shelter has done it little good, but close inspection shows the speckled appearance to be due to the mass of “snowdrops” or rather brachiopods in the stone.

 

Grave memorial in Snowdrop marble at Manordeifi Church

Another grave, at St Florence, Pembrokeshire was once highly ornamental, but its richly fossiliferous appearance and colour contrast are lost without the polish.

A detail of a gravestone at St Florence, Pembs, in snowdrop marble

And at St Mary’s Church, Kidwelly we found another example, in a memorial set into the church wall, showing the characteristic scattering of shells.

St Mary’s Church, Kidwelly a grave slab in snowdrop marble set in the church wall

These slabs, when new and highly polished must have stood out in the graveyards much as  the impermeable Indian black granite memorials do today among the less showy slate and stone.  Only indoors can snowdrop marble survive the ravages of time.  As a material for a modern worktop Snowdrop Marble would be beautiful, but it would be vulnerable to etching by lemon juice or vinegar in the kitchen.  Nonetheless it is a pity that  this distinctive Welsh stone is no longer produced for ornamental purposes.

 

Coming next:  Halkyn Marble, another distinctive Welsh marble from the north!

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Grave Graffiti

by the Curious Scribbler

Following my last blog, a reader  who goes on excursions with the Church Monuments Society has drawn my attention to another, much grander, chest tomb ornamented with footprints.

This is in East Yorkshire, in the 13th century church of St Nicholas, Hornsea.  Here the chest tomb of  Anthony St Quintin, a divine, who died in 1430, is densely ornamented with shoe outlines.  They were even easier to carve than those in Anna Maria Hughes’s slate slab, for this grand tomb is made of alabaster.

Interpretation in the church suggests that these are Puritan footprints, and that the shoe shapes are consistent with the time of Charles II.  Such an explanation does not help us with the footprints on the grave of a Welsh girl who died in 1777.

The alabaster tomb of Anthony St Quintin in St Nicholas, Church, Hornsea

 

Two other readers have mentioned not footprints but hand-prints in Wales. On a raised grave by the church door in Dolgellau are lots of children’s handprints of varying sizes, while there are life-size handprints around the top of the front boundary wall of the Quarry Hospital in Llanberis, Gwynedd.  There may be several different stories behind these marks by which ordinary people left traces of their identity.

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Footprints on her grave

At the east end of Llanychaiarn Church is a rank of five chest tombs, to members of the Hughes family of Aberllolwyn and of Morfa, in the Parish of Llanychaiarn,  ( Morfa Bychan as we now know it) The five slate stabs adjoin one another like tabletops. Together they tell the story of a couple of generations.  But the right hand slab is remarkable for a rare piece of naive artwork, the meaning of which intrigues me.

Graves of members of the Hughes family of Aberlllolwyn and Morva at the east end of Llanychaiarn Church

The slab reads ‘ Here lies the interred body of Anna Maria Hughes, second daughter of John and Elizabeth Hughes of Morfa, who departed this life the 24th of March 1777 in the 16th year of her life’.  Her epitaph reads:

Adieu blest maid, Return again to Dust,
The’ Almighty bids to him submit we must
These little Rites a Stone, a Verse receive
Tis all a parent, all a friend can give.

Hers was the first of the five burials. Next to her are the graves of her mother Elizabeth Hughes, her father John Hughes of Morva, her sister Elinor ( 1764-1845) and her uncle Erasmus Hughes, her mother’s brother.  It was Erasmus who occupied Aberllolwyn and died there, a bachelor aged 73  in 1803.  As his epitaph points out he spent his life much preoccupied with the hereafter.

His life was spent in meditation on the Holy Scriptures and resigned in the hope of Resurrection to immortal Glory through the Merits of his Redeemer whoom( sic) he steadfastly trusted.

What is remarkable is that in addition to the copperplate verse engraved on Anna Maria’s slab is a remarkable bit of graffiti, the outline of not one, but two footprints, in neat square-toed shoes.  The individual square headed nails securing the heel are each carefully inscribed. The positioning of the two footprints is informal, contrasting with the neat symmetry of the ornament and inscriptions.  I don’t believe they were done in the mason’s yard.

Footprint on the grave of Anna Maria Hughes who died in 1777

A second and different footprint at the foot of the grave

Who carved them upon young Anna Maria’s grave?  And why? or when?

The other day I came across a very similar footprint, drawn on paper, in 1824. This was an example of a forensic drawing of footmarks at a crime scene:

A paper cut made in 1842 of left footprints in a turnip field at Sanquhar, Dumfries and Galloway

The shoe seems of a very similar style.  What were shoes like in 1777?  or was this carving added 50 years after her death?

I would love to hear of any other examples of footprint graffiti similar to this.

The full text of the other four graves is as follows:

1. Sacred to the Memory of Erasmus Hughes late of Aberllolwyn Esq., who died 13 March 1803 aged 73 years. His inscription reads: His life was spent in meditation on the Holy Scriptures and resigned in the hope of Resurrection to immortal Glory through the Merits of his Redeemer whoom( sic) he steadfastly trusted.

2. Sacred to the Memory of Elinor Hughes, daughter of John Hughes Esquire late of Morfa in the Parish of Llanychaiarn who departed this life 28th of January 1845 aged 81 years

3. Underneath lie the remains of John Hughes Esq late of Morfa second son of John Hughes Esq of Hendrevelen who exchanged this life for a Blessed Eternity the 27th day of October1806 in the 80th Year of his age.  His epitaph reads:

Just upright merciful in all thy ways
In Christian meekness spending here thy days
Sweet sleep in Jesus thou dost now enjoy
Partaking happiness without alloy


4. Underneath lie the remains of Elizabeth second daughter of Thomas Hughes Esq late of Aberllolwne and wife of John Hughes Esq, of Morva both of this Parish who resigned her Soul to the Almighty giver the 12th day of November 1807 in the 71st year of her life.   Her epitaph reads:

Adieu and long adieu thou ever dear
Thou best of Parents and thou Friend sincere
May thy survivors imitate thy worth
And live to God as thou didst while on earth

They are an evocative series of memorials:  Erasmus Hughes was the only son of Thomas Hughes and Elizabeth Lloyd.   One of his sisters Mary, married Edward Hughes of Dyffryn-gwyn, Merioneth and another, Elizabeth, married John Hughes of Morva.  On Erasmus’ death the Aberllolwyn estate passed first to his sister Mary Hughes,  and then to his niece Elizabeth Jane, another of John and Elizabeth Hughes’  daughters.  It is noteworthy that all these Hugheses seem to have married men already bearing the name Hughes.

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Marble lost at sea near Barmouth

by The Curious Scribbler

Few of the throngs of elderly dog owners in the cafes of Barmouth take time out to examine the Millennium sculpture on the quay,  and those who do may merely observe that it is a work by local sculptor Frank Cocksey, entitled The Last Haul.  It shows three human figures, in different period costumes, together pulling together on a thick rope.  They lie backwards like the contestants in a  tug of war,  and while they are obviously freshly carved in white marble, the un-carved plinth below looks grey and pitted and could be mistaken for some kind of concrete.

Barmouth  Millennium sculpture – The Last Haul by Frank Cocksey

In fact the entire block is of white Carrara marble from Italy, the material so beloved of Michelangelo and figurative sculptors ever since.  For around 300 years it lay on the seabed some 30 feet down and a few miles off the beautiful shore between Barmouth and Harlech.  It was one of 42 blocks found on the sea bed, neatly shaped and ranging in size from 13 inch cubes to great blocks like this one, 9ft x 3ft x 2.5ft in dimensions.  All were extensively bored by marine creatures.

The wreck was first discovered in 1978 and excavated by the Cae Nest group of archaeological scuba divers.  Nothing of the wooden ship remained, but the cargo lies as it was loaded amidships, and other finds include 25 cast iron cannons, a bronze bell dated 1677 and coins from 10 countries among which french coins predominate.  They also found navigational dividers, pewter plate and fine cutlery, a dental plate, a seal, remains of pistols and a rapier.  Opinion is divided as to the nationality of the vessel.  The Barmouth plaque states it was a 700 ton Genoese galleon, the Coflein entry suggests, on the basis of the coins, and the French pewter, that it may have been a French trader.  What is of little doubt is that it was a well-armed vessel, carrying a valuable cargo, and that it went down after 1702 ( the youngest coin) and probably around 1709.

Who in North Wales had sent for such a cargo?  The graveyard at Llanaber Church might provide a clue, for it is surprisingly rich in white marble memorials dating as far back as the mid 18th century, though I haven’t noticed any as old as the presumed wreck.  Could these pieces have been destined for an enterprising monumental mason?

The graveyard at Llanaber Church is rich in 18th and 19th century gravestones of white marble

There is a popular alternative theory: that this was a ship blown off course, missing the English Channel and forced up past Cornwall into the Irish sea where it eventually foundered.  The first decade of the 18th century saw Sir Christopher Wren rebuilding St Paul’s cathedral, a project requiring a great deal of Carrara marble.

Marble is a limestone, easily excavated by the sea creatures which secrete acid to dissolve their homes as the blocks lay under the sea.   The large round-ended holes were made by molluscs, the smaller interlaced hollows are the homes of sponges, while polychaete worms  bored several centimetres into the rock.  As Frank Cocksey carved away the eroded blocks he has exposed fresh white marble. In places the worms have penetrated even deeper than his carving, as is shown on the leg of the youngest seaman.

Bivalve, sponge and worm borings in the end of the large block of Carrara marble bear witness to its 300 years under the sea.

Marine worm borings puncture the 21st century sculpture ” The Last Haul” by Frank Cocksey

It has been suggested there was at least one survivor from the wreck, Juan Benedictus whose death is recorded in the Llanendwyn Parish Register in 1730, and tradition has it  that timbers and artifacts from the wreck found their way to Corsygeddol Hall.  Seafaring in the 18th century was a risky business and many ships must have foundered on this coast.  We will never know exactly what happened.

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Plaiting Polytrichum or stacking logs

by The Curious Scribbler

The quest for the perfect Christmas tree took me south this year, to a secluded valley between Talgarreg and Pontsian to  select my tree on the root.  Here we roamed the field and eventually chose a beautifully columnar dense-foliaged fir, which has fulfilled its promise, barely dropping a needle during nineteen days indoors without water.  This is the promise of a fir rather than a Norway spruce, but when the trees have been cut some weeks earlier even an expensive fir can be disappointing.

The trees were growing on a north-facing valley side, surrounded by a particularly thick carpet of Polytrichum commune, the Common Hair Moss.  This is the deep cushiony moss which is not sphagnum.  It is a stiffer drier moss which does not hold copious amounts of water and would be of no use for wound dressing ( think First World War!) or hanging baskets.  Its long stems are thin and wiry, as much as 14 inches long, brown at the base, and green with narrow leaves at the upper end.  Its medieval uses included stuffing mattresses or making twine and woven baskets.

Strands of Polytricum commune

I set about the latter task with the handful I had brought home and found that it plaited into a long and serviceable string.  So pleased was I with the result that this year the mistletoe has been tied up with my hairy polytrichum twine  rather than the usual ribbon or string.

Polytrichum twine hangs up my mistletoe

There is the potential for a home industry here.  Cleverer hands than mine could make all sorts of woven novelties with this free raw material. And there are many people with artistic and craft skills in this county.

Another outstanding ornamental use of natural resources may be seen by anyone who pauses and looks right on the Llanilar to Trawgoed road. Gary Taylor has given full reign to his creativity in building his woodpiles.  Personally I have always felt pretty satisfied when my woodpile is just neatly stacked with all the cut ends facing outwards, but here is a man whose woodpile is inlaid with the Tree of Life!  His other woodpile sports a Welsh dragon.  Each outline is traced in stained split logs, set in the face of the traditional stack.

The Tree of Life at Llidiardau. Log pile 2017, Lolly Stalbow and Gary Taylor

Welsh Dragon

Will he have the heart to demolish these huge artworks to heat the hearth?  I suspect this may be a wrench.  But knowing Gary and his immaculate large garden, he probably has another everyday log pile round the back!

And for those who don’t know their mosses: two pictures are below:

Sphagnum Moss

Polytrichum commune

A bit like those pairs of photos they publish in Private Eye?

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Some puzzling pictures of Hafod

by the Curious Scribbler

Scholars of Hafod are always pleased when a new image of this lost house comes to light. The latest to do so is a painting by the celebrated artist John Piper, who is well known for other sketches on the estate such as what appears to be the only pictoral representation of the Gothic arcade which overlooks the chain bridge over the Ystwyth Gorge.  The new picture has been found in plain sight, hanging on the wall in St Cross College, Oxford.  The college has kindly allowed me to reproduce it here.

The Dead Tree, Hafod.  A watercolour of Hafod mansion by John Piper, now hanging in St Cross College Oxford

The caption on the mount reads ” The Dead Tree, Hafod”    I have spent much time puzzling over the picture.  Assuming it to be reasonably representational, the view is taken from a direction rarely seen in Hafod pictures.  ( Most images view the mansion from the parkland to the south east.)  Here the artist is apparently standing on the slope to the north east of the house.  Only from there would the Italianate campanile appear behind and to the right of the Octagon library.

There is an early 20th century photograph taken from the south west, on the other side of the valley which shows a similar juxtaposition from the opposite side.  But this enhances the confusion, for a broad two storey wing reaches out to the west of the campanile.  Viewed as Piper saw it, that wing just isn’t there.  Had it been demolished at the time of Piper’s sketch?

Hafod mansion from across the valley to the south.  Postcard by D.J. Davies, Lampeter.                        ( Peter Davis Collection)

No apparently not.  I am assured that Piper did not revisit after his sketching at Hafod in 1939, and that demolition did not commence until 1949 when the interior was stripped of all assets and the new Italianate wing was the first part to be pulled down. It must be assumed that Piper decided not to paint any of the structure to the right of the campanile.

Another relatively recent discovery is the earliest known picture of Hafod, a sketch made in the 1780s when Johnes’ dream was just taking shape.  This view from the east shows the new gothic styled  house by Thomas Baldwin of Bath welded onto the old tall-chimneyed farmhouse of the Herberts of Dolgors.  This picture, unnamed, had long languished in the archives of Cardiff University until it was spotted and identified by then graduate student and architectural historian Mark Baker.

The first known picture of Thomas Johnes’ Hafod. A Sketch by S Walker, circa 1780.            ( Cardiff University Archive)

The south east face of the Baldwin house with the three gothic windows above a  conservatory with gothic pavilions  can still be seen at the right hand end of the house in a steel engraving of around 1850, but this end is now dwarfed by the subsequent additions by the Duke of Newcastle and then Henry de Hoghton.  By these improvements they created the huge sprawling house which proved unviable for survival in the 20th century.

Steel engraving by Newman & Co, of around 1850.  Successive additions have grown to the left of Johnes’ original house.

What use would Hafod mansion be put to if it survived today?  It is hard to imagine, for Ceredigion remains far off the beaten track for flourishing stately homes.  Of our other big landed estates, Trawscoed mansion remains languishing in search of a new owner, and is increasingly spoiled by divided ownership, Plas Gogerddan survives as an embarrassment to the University beside the huge modern IBERS offices and greenhouses on the former walled garden, and only Nanteos, after much investment, is now making its living as a country house hotel.

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The Llandygwydd Font

It is easy to overlook Llandygwydd, a cluster of Victorian cottages on a minor road off the A484 east of Llechryd in the Teifi valley.   Its graveyard contains members of some significant local families from the nearby gentry houses of Blaenpant, Penylan, Noyadd Trefawr and Stradmore.  But of the church there is now little trace except for its font, wreathed in brambles and standing incongruously in the open air.  This is of itself surprising.  Fonts are a bit of a problem for the church – it is generally unacceptable to re-use them as garden ornaments, and strictly speaking even the fragments of a broken font should be preserved within the church.  Thus it is more usual to see superfluous and disused fonts from demolished churches sitting in the porch of an extant church in the neighbourhood.

The font at Llandygwydd stands out of doors on the footprint of the nineteenth century church

The church which until 2000 gave it shelter was a Victorian one, built to a design by the high church architect RJ Withers, in 1856-7.  Its fortunes, from construction to demolition have been recorded in detail by Gwynfor Rees in the journal Ceredigion Vol. XIV, no 4, 2004.    The local gentry, especially the Webley Parrys of Noyadd Trefawr and the Brigstockes of Blaenpant were staunchly Anglican at a time when  Nonconformism was growing among the local people, and it was felt important that the  existing parish church,(a humble structure built in 1804 to replace a late medieval one on the same site), should be replaced by a structure of Victorian splendour, commensurate with the fashionable style of the neighbouring recently-enlarged mansions. It is recorded that the little ‘calling bell’ dedicated to St Peter, and the font, both of 15th Century origin, were incorporated into the new church. Most uncharacteristically for these parts, it was to boast a tower on the south side, surmounted by a tall timber steeple.

Over the following  years the gentry families vied in endowing stained glass windows, an ornate reredos, a Caen stone and granite pulpit, and installed commemorative plaques recording their largesse.  The church was said to have some of the finest stained glass in the county.  In 1891 five new bells donated by the Webley Parry family of Noyadd Trefawr and  Maria Brigstocke of Blaenpant in commemoration of the marriage of her niece joined the old bell from the former church.

Maria Brigstocke stands in the centre behind the five new bells. On the left side of the picture is the old bell dedicated to St Peter, from the original medieval church. see  Ceredigion Archive

Sadly this impressive church had been built at ‘an extraordinarily cheap rate’ and proved structurally unsound, the timber  steeple warped and bent, and the tower, set on insufficient foundations, cracked alarmingly.  Within  twenty years it was deemed unsafe to ring the bells lest masonry fall from the edifice, and a survey by church architects Caroe and Passmore in 1913 predicted that the bent spire might collapse onto the chancel at any time.  That year the spire was removed, and the tower strengthened, but to no avail. In 1978, after several structural reports, the bells were sold to the foundry which produced them and in 1980 the entire tower was taken down.

The church was de-consecrated and demolished in 2000, leaving its foundations and some mature yew trees among the graves. In situ inside what was once the south door, stands the font.

It might be speculated that at the time of demolition the Llandygwydd font was perceived as mid-Victorian, of no great historic importance and therefore allowed to stand as a landmark in the footprint of the church.  But closer inspection reveals this to be far from the truth.  This is a large medieval font carved out of Dundry stone from near Bristol, a source of good carve-able stone which was worked out by the sixteenth century.  It is in the perpendicular style, with an octagonal base and bowl carved with a repeating four-leaved relief.  But Mr Withers and his masons have embellished it.  They sliced it into three horizontal layers and re-assembled them like a club sandwich with a narrow layer of oolitic limestone from Painswick  between each.  At the same time they repaired, as is common in old fonts, the various damages to the rim and stem with inset pieces of Painswick stone, quite different from the original Dundry.  Resplendently reassembled and about four inches taller, it would have had a fashionably polychromatic appearance, with the yellow-brown Dundry stone layered sandwich style with white oolite.

A later repair to the rim of the font

Today, forlorn and exposed to the weather, the newer courses of Painswick stone are badly weathered, and some of the inset repairs are falling out.  Chunks are crumbling away from the Dundry stone stem.  Moss and lichen colonize the surfaces, but as a further reminder of its antiquity, the close observer will find two daisy wheel patterns (a common medieval graffiti) lightly engraved upon the bowl.

The layers of Paiswick stone have weathered away to leave deep grooves.  To the left of the four leaf carving are two daisy wheel compass-scored devices on the medieval stone

I am intrigued at these devices.  The expert belief is that they are symbols to ward off witches or the devil.  They are very commonly found on fonts and the doorway arch or porch of ancient churches, though they may be found in more remote parts of the building too.  The six petal form is easy to scratch with a compass or perhaps a pair of shears.  You just score a circle, and then with one point on the circumference draw an arc within the circle  till it touches the circumference again.  Then move the point to the  intersection of  arc and circle and repeat.  Soon six neat petals are inscribed within the circle.

The daisy wheel design

They are lightly scratched, not typical of serious masons’ work and anyone could have done them.  I do wonder though whether the evidence for their role in repelling witches is a modern over-interpretation of past behaviour.

Equipped with a geometry set we all used to draw this device on our schoolbooks, because we could, and because without any great skill we could produce perfect symmetry.  When bored we often coloured them in too.  Will future historians conclude that 20th century schoolchildren all worked to repel the forces of evil during geometry lessons?  The scholarly name for these devices  on medieval structures is apotropaic graffiti.    But for me and my schoolfriends the same images were meaningless, but very satisfying,  doodles.

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What has become of the Penglais campus?

by the Curious Scribbler

It seems to be a little known fact that the Penglais campus, in conjunction with the adjoining sites of the Llanbadarn campus and the National Library of Wales are listed Grade II* in the Cadw Register of Landscapes, Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in Wales.  This is praise indeed, this grading makes it one of the three most important gardens in Ceredigion, and one of the very few 20th century landscapes deemed of national importance.  The listing was published in 2003.  The inspector summarizes it thus:

The landscaping of the University of Aberystwyth campuses, particularly the earlier Penglais campus is of exceptional historic interest as one of the most important modern landscaping schemes in wales. The sophisticated layout, including the landscaping, is sensitive to the character of the site, and the planting, which is unusually choice and varied both enhances the buildings and helps to integrate the the sites.  Several densely packed pages describe the grounds and their plantings in detail, and the steep bank below the Hugh Owen library gains especial praise.

It was indeed justified, and I have dug out a photo from 2003 which shows the clean lines of the modern building embraced by a swathe of shrubs, hebes, fuchsias and the ground-hugging Cotoneaster microphyllus clothing the steep banks. (The red flowered shrub was Embothrium coccineum, the Chilean Firebush, a connoisseur’s tree, frost hardy and fussy about its soil, cleverly planted by knowledgeable gardeners).

The Hugh Owen building, Penglais Campus, Aberystwyth with original planting in 2003

All gone now!  Last month contract gardeners with a caterpillar digger were hard at work and today’s view is of turf, bark and a few retained trees, some of them self-seeded ash.

The Hugh Owen Building, Penglais Campus, Aberystwyth in 2017

There have been maintenance problems at the campus in the last decade, and regular visitors have noted the vigorous incursions of brambles, sycamores and ash trees, self seeded amongst the shrubs.  Back in the 1990s when I sometimes visited head gardener John Corfield in his potting shed I would find up to nine gardeners, who together tended the Penglais campus and the mansion gardens and botanical order beds on the other side of the road.  Today his successor, gardener Paul Evans is responsible for three campuses, Penglais, Llanbadarn and Gogerddan with a team half the size!  Little wonder that the brambles got away..

Bit by bit the character of  Aberystwyth’s distinctive campus is being whittled away, while new 21st century innovations have been introduced with no provision for aftercare.  The new IBERS building next to the Edward Llwyd is a case in point.  Its landscape architect included a green wall, a complicated beech maze and a sedum roof.  The green wall died and has been cleared away, and the maze was never pruned and became an interlocking thicket of beech trees.  The roof gets rare maintenance by contract gardeners, because none of the grounds staff have received training for working of roof tops.

The beech maze beside the new IBERS building on the Penglais campus

And the agenda of Biodiversity and Native Species has led to a tendency to ignore the merits of a garden which brings together beautiful non-native plants from all over the world.  For some odd reason ecologists seem to assume that only native species are agreeable to bees.  How wrong!  Recent research at the National Botanic Garden of Wales analysing the DNA fingerprint of pollen in the pouches of honey bees showed that two of the top six favourites are the despised sycamore and the invasive Himalayan Balsam!

The 1960-1970s planting of the campus was supervised by botanists and involved the trialing of species and hybrids suited to windswept maritime situations from every continent.  Many still survive in gardens around Aberystwyth.  But is the campus on a trajectory to turf, bark and the utility planting of an average supermarket carpark?

And what about the street furniture?  Back in 2003 it seems that students found their way around without notice boards or banners telling them how happy and lucky they were, and motorists kept left and slow without constant reminders.  Certainly the elegance of the first picture is in stark contrast to the tired building in the second, grey with age but  cleaner at the base where the shrubs formerly embraced it.

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