| I cannot claim authorship of the piece reproduced here, though I did contribute to its composition under the pen of Peter Wootton Beard. It recently appeared as a tribute from the Vice Chancellor, Elizabeth Treasure, in the inboxes of all university staff. John Corfield was ubiquitous in Aberystwyth, some knew him best for his work at the exceptionally fine gardens of the Penglais campus, others for the panache with which he received bucket loads of wallpaper paste down the trousers in the Wardens’ pantomimes. I reproduce the tribute here in full, but have augmented it with a number of photographs charting his life.
It is with a heavy heart that I share the news with you that our former Head Gardener John Corfield passed away peacefully on 15th August 2020. He will be hugely missed.
John was born shortly after his parents moved from Montgomeryshire to Tan-y-Castell farm, Llanfarian in 1933, where his father became the tenant farmer of the Tan-y-Bwlch estate. After a terrible flood in 1964, the family were forced to leave the farm and moved to Marian House, Llanfarian.
John subsequently joined the University staff under the newly appointed Curator of the Botany Gardens and College Grounds, Basil Fox, and under the direction of Prof. Philip Wareing, then Head of Botany shortly thereafter. The team were responsible for taxonomic order beds adjoining Plas Penglais, the provision of plants for the undergraduate practical classes and research programmes, as well as the management of small-scale field experiments for the Botany and Agricultural Botany departments of University College Wales. Their role expanded to include the planting of the new Penglais Campus.
The campus rapidly expanded over the next twenty years and between them, John and Basil were responsible for introducing a wide range of plants that are perfectly suited to the exposed coastal conditions.
John became Head Gardener in 1983, amply filling the rather large shoes vacated by his predecessor, Basil Fox. The gardens were highly praised by Arthur Hellyer in the 1970s and were awarded a Grade II listing in the Cadw Register of Landscapes, Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in Wales in 2002. The listing describes them as ‘One of the most important modern landscaping schemes in Wales’.
John worked with the renowned landscape designer Brenda Colvin overseeing the planting between Pantycelyn and the main campus and was instrumental in bringing her vision to fruition. It is perhaps a little known fact that we work in such a special landscape, but I’m sure we all appreciate the beautiful surroundings that greet us when we come in to work, and we have John to thank for much of that. The current grounds team, under the management of Jeff Saycell, are working hard to restore elements of the original landscape and to protect John’s legacy.
John became a formidable botanist; whose breadth of knowledge and interests were honed on his many botanical excursions with friends and colleagues to locations such as Greece, Crete, and the Pyrenees. On such occasions he demonstrated his considerable skill with languages, regularly surprising people with his ability to get about comfortably in Greek, Turkish, German and others.
His expertise was often called upon for the student trips organised by the Botany department to the Picos de Europa mountain range in Cantabria, Northern Spain. His colleagues at the time describe John as a ‘magnet’ for students during these 8-10 day trips under canvas, due to his vast botanical knowledge, patience and warmth of personality.
Maintaining academic standards in this environment required considerable ingenuity, and John was a great source of strength – making camp furniture, mentoring projects and monitoring student submissions. He was able to form a connection with anyone and everyone he met and inspired a generation of botany students. He wrote to his friend and former colleague Andrew Agnew just eight days before his passing to reminisce about how much he enjoyed the trips to the Picos de Europa, a memory that Andrew was pleased to share. He was also often called upon to share his passion through talks and practical advice to the local community.
He was a founder member of the Cardiganshire Horticultural Society, formed in 1968, and following Basil Fox’s death in 1983, became the second President of the society, a post he filled until its 50th anniversary in 2018. Today the society has over 150 members, a tribute to the energy and warmth that John brought to every meeting.
So many members of the society have plants given by John in their gardens, and he was well known for his generosity that would lead him to lovingly raise seedlings at his home, with the express purpose of bringing joy to those who would subsequently receive them as an impromptu gift.
He had just told me that he was growing a Koelreuteria paniculata (Golden Rain Tree) for me at the time of his passing, and I can think of no better way to remember him. Prof. Mike Hayward remarked that a cyclamen grown for him by John came into flower on the day of his passing, a lasting gift that so many of his friends will be able to enjoy for years to come.
John was also a keen thespian and a founder member of the relaunched ‘Wardens Amateur Dramatic Society’. He was involved with nearly every show since the early 1980s as, variously, stage management, performer & front of house. He was also involved in many productions by Showtime Singers.
A private funeral took place at John’s green burial on 27th August, where only a small number could be present due to Covid-19 restrictions. We hope to celebrate John’s life in fitting style in due course within the Horticultural Society, and I will circulate details of any subsequent event for staff/former colleagues who may wish to attend nearer the time.
We also hope that a memorial tree for John will soon be planted on the campus, details of which will be shared in due course.
Thanks to John’s friends, family and former colleagues for their help in preparing this tribute: Tom Corfield, Matthew Piper, Dr Andrew Agnew, Pat Causton, Margaret Howells, Prof. Mike Hayward, Dr Caroline Palmer, Dr Edwina Ellis, and Penny David.
My thanks to Dr Peter Wootton-Beard for his working in preparing this wonderful piece in memory of John Corfield.
Professor Elizabeth Treasure
by The Curious Scribbler
It can be a mistake to write about something one knows very little about. Today I make an exception, having attended a fascinating Historical Society lecture by Ioan Lord, a Ceredigion-born young man who is studying the mining history of mid Wales.
We learnt that the hilly country of mid Wales is littered with ore-bearing lodes, cracks in the rock of varying lengths and sizes all running more or less northeast – southwest across the landscape. For more than 4000 years these have been exploited by miners. Bronze age workings extracted the copper which along with Cornish tin would be made into bronze, Romans extracted lead, the Society of Mines Royal exploited the silver which was for a time formed into coin at Sir John Middleton’s mint at Aberystwyth castle. In the18th and 19th century a proliferation of mining companies extracted lead, copper and zinc on a massive scale. This was the era for which we have the best historical record, photographs, newspapers and mining journals reveal the ambition and the highfalutin names of these speculative ventures, suggesting riches such were to be found around the world.
The ‘Welsh Potosi’ Lead and Copper mine was named after the highly productive mines of Bolivia. ‘Welsh Broken Hill’ Mine echoes Australia, at Ponterwd we find the ‘California of Wales’, while Moelfre Wheal Fortune reminds us of the tin industry of Cornwall and the many miners who migrated to Wales at this time.
The industry was gruelling and life expectancy was poor, but the mines nontheless paid handsomely in their day. There are local families today such as the Raws of Cwmystwyth who trace their ancestry to Cornishman James Raw, Mine Captain of the Cwmystwyth mine in 1850. Ioan cited records showing that the Oliver family of Cwmystwyth were taking home £200 a month in 1810.
By 1930 there was no more mining and the workings lay abandoned. Ioan and fellow enthusiasts are exploring this forgotten frontier, equipped with lights and modern caving equipment they find their way into the old shafts and adits, stepping into spaces last visited more than two hundred years ago. From time to time, on Facebook’s You know you’re from Aberystwyth when you… I have watched their videos as they squeeze along narrow adits ( tunnels) or abseil down vertical shafts. They find abandoned wooden ladders, barrows, tools, shoes belonging to the miners, abandoned as it were yesterday.
This is more than sightseeing: their mines research is clarifying much about the history of mid Wales. In the 17th century people tended to call all old mine workings ‘ Roman Mines’ but modern discoveries which can be carbon dated such as wooden tools or charcoal on smelting floors have now confirmed Roman mining at Penpompren, and Cwmystwyth. An exciting discovery, lying in a 19th Century adit was a wooden spade, typically Roman in style, which has been carbon dated to 4BC-71AD. It had presumably been washed in there from the old workings. Hammer stones, probably from Llanrhystud beach bear witness to Bronze age workings at Copa Hill, Cwmystwyth.
On another occasion, when exploring the 18th century working which was Thomas Powell of Nanteos’ Great Adit at Bwlchgwyn they came upon a stone marker neatly engraved TP 1742. Other sources tell us that Thomas Powell was in vigorous conflict with Sir Hugh Myddleton and the Society of Mines Royal which had claimed mining rights for the Crown. Ioan’s survey indeed confirms that Powell’s mine and his marker stone encroached well into Royal Mines territory!
The multi talented Ioan Lord, is currently working on a PhD at Cardiff but has also been a familiar face operating the Rheidol Valley steam trains. His very handsomely produced book on the mines of Cwm Rheidol and Ystumtuen was published last year by the Rheidol Railway and can be bought at their shop.
Ioan Lord is one of the Directors of the Cambrian Mines Trust which was incorporated as a Company in 2012 with the objective of preservation and restoration of mining remains. Particularly challenging in today’s risk-averse climate will be their objective to re-open underground workings for the public benefit. In the meantime I do enjoy the videos, without risk of either hitting my head or obliterating, with my 21st century feet, the ancient footprints of miners and even horses preserved in the mud of the adits.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Viewed from the parkland on which the Llanilar Show is held, Castle Hill presents a severe, even forbidding facade, just as it has for 200 years. At first it was a plain three storey, five bay box with coach house to the west. In the mid 19th century it gained an Italianate servant’s wing and bell tower.
The only noticeable modification in the last hundred years is the stone stairwell, built in the 1960s onto the east end of the main block to provide access to the top flat as a separate dwelling. In 1982 I dwelt in that flat, and for the years we lived there we never ventured into the garden on the south side of the house. The very elderly Mrs Myfanwy Louisa Loxdale lived in the ground floor rooms, attended by her daughter Myrtle, and the garden was strictly out of bounds.
So it was a great treat to see it for the first time this year, on an excursion with the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust. For the south face of the house presents an elegant and cheerful visage, its windows framed in iron trellises, and the entire front ornamented with the elegant tracery of a long cast iron pergola.
Castle Hill appears to have been built on a virgin site in 1777 by sheep magnate John Williams. Where he lived previously I do not know, but probably further south, his father had been tenant of Strata Florida, and his uncle owned lands at Tregaron. It is speculated that he built at Llanilar because his land here was contiguous with that of the Parrys of Llidiardau. Llidiardau was an important house, home of Thomas Parry the Deputy lieutenant of Cardiganshire. John Williams’s sister Elisabeth was Mrs Parry.
John died in 1806, leaving his estate in trust for his son, John Nathaniel, a young child, and substantial provision ( £540 a year) for his widow. As a result the house was available for rent during John Nathaniel’s minority. Thomas Johnes of Hafod apparently leased it in 1806, for Jennie Macve has found a deed of 24 February 1806, in which Thomas Johnes, ‘late of Hafod, now of Castle Hill’, leased out his own home, Hafod to a Lady Rodney. It must have been a short lease, for the Johnes family were in residence at Hafod when the house burned in 1807. Thereafter they lived at Castle Hill for three years while rebuilding of their ruined mansion took place. It seems to have been a happy time for Mariamne Johnes, who could socialise with the three unmarried Parry girls, Elisabetha, Sarah and Penelope, and many letters survive from the period. Mariamne wrote wryly that her father was less content for he ” takes no pleasure in any situation which does not actually belong to him, which appears to me to be singular, for to me any place that is beautiful affords me the same delight as if I had an actual concern in it”.
John Nathaniel Williams grew up to occupy Castle Hill and married Sarah Elizabeth Loxdale of Shrewsbury, but died in 1832, before her, and without issue. When the tithe map and survey was drawn up in 1845 the landed proprietor was the widow Sarah Elizabeth Williams. This document indicates the gracious style of Castle Hill, probably from his father’s time onwards. The schedule designates the area south of the house (659) as ‘ Flower Garden’.
The 5 inch to the mile Ordnance survey of 1888 marks the area in stippled grey, indicative of a parkland feature, and shows within it a glazed conservatory or glasshouse backing against the wall of the back drive.
Today it is an undulating area, mainly of lawn, which slopes from the east down towards the house. A venerable wisteria clothes the pergola, and a sundial stands in the middle of the floor of the former glasshouse, the corners of which are still ornamented with sandstone balls on pedestals. It is not hard to reconstruct in the mind’s eye this gentleman’s garden, with intricate island beds of bright flowers dotted in the scythed lawn (lawnmowers were yet to be invented) and the collection of exotic tender plants in the conservatory overlooking the beds.
Since Peter Loxdale’s death in 2017 the estate and farm will pass to his nephew, and at present the occupiers are Peter’s brother Patrick and his wife Susan, who have taken on the huge task of reviving the old house. Like so many other stone houses it was clad in cement render in the early 20th century, in the mistaken belief, prevalent at the time, that an impervious outer layer would make the house less damp. Today it is recognized that traditional lime mortar is a far better covering, since it allows the house to breathe. Replacing the render on the south side, and reinstating blocked and demolished chimneys are among the structural projects in the offing. The top floor, (once our flat) is to be re-integrated into the house, and so the removal of the 1960’s stair wing is even a possibility. Susan is also turning her hand to the garden.
Across the road from the present entrance to Castle Hill is the walled kitchen garden, degraded at one side because part of the wall was demolished to provide building stone for the 1960s wing. For much of the past decades it has grown weed trees and brambles, while tenants of the peripheral parts of Castle Hill have made forlorn efforts at gardening the centre. For the first year, Susan has brought much of the garden back into cultivation. It too was probably once grander than it now appears. The tithe and OS map show the south facing north end of the garden to have been of a curving outline, with the land behind it designated “waste ground”. Though no trace remains at the surface this suggests a brick lined fruit wall, perhaps with glazing or rolling screens to protect plums, pears or nectarines from the frost. The gentry houses of Llanerchaeron and Nanteos had such fruit walls, and so did some of the ‘second division’ estates, like Blaenpant. Castle Hill may be seen as a modestly sized, but very classy new-build of its day. Samuel Rush Meyrick in 1810 remarked upon John Williams’ planting of “forest trees and firs to a very large amount”. His son, or daughter in law probably added the 19th century exotic trees, a fine tulip tree and a cedar of Lebanon.
This year the Ceredigion Historical Society visited Llanrhystud, on that glorious Saturday when so many were indoors watching Megan and Harry’s nuptials or the FA Cup final.
It is a quiet spot, in which the much-enlarged Victorian church sits immediately beside the Baptist chapel. We visited both. The former is an early work by church architect R.K. Penson and is notable for its stone spire. Spires are almost unknown in this county but where they do occur they are more usually built of timber and slate. (There was formerly a tall narrow timber spire on Llandygwydd church, which warped so badly it was taken down in 1913 after just 56 years, the whole church being demolished in 2000). From my childhood I remember recognizing Chesterfield from the train by its warped and twisted spire, malformed as its timbers aged and shrank. No chance of warping with Llanrhystud’s chunky construction.
When the rebuild was completed in 1854 the old memorials were swept away. Most touching of the new ones is the fine white marble wall memorial to Mary Anne wife of John Hughes of Allt-lwyd and daughter of Alban TJ Gwynne of Monachty, who died in childbirth aged just 22 in 1833. Her child, a daughter lived only eight days beyond her, a reminder of the harsh obstetric hazards of the times.
The group then set off down the coast to visit the lime kilns. It is hard to imagine the hive of industry at this spot 150 years ago. The beach at low tide shows the remnants of timber jetties, trackways and stone constructions where the boats came in to unload their cargoes of limestone and coal. Four massive stone kilns stand just above the beach now largely hidden in a thicket of sloe and may. We learnt that the different limestones have different uses: that from the Pembrokeshire makes good agricultural lime, while that from the Glamorgan coast ( often specified by local architects as Aberthaw Lime) makes a strong cement. Most of the kilns have three corbelled apertures or draw holes, allowing the draught to be adjusted in the light of wind conditions.
Our final visit was to Felin Ganol watermill not far from the ford across the Wyre. In the early 20th Century this was still a hive of industry, the waterpower driving millstones to grind locally-produced corn, and also generating electricity and driving carpenters’ machinery in the loft. By the 1970s it was sold to new owners who preserved the historic interior and planted a fine Ginkgo in the formerly utilitarian back garden. It fell to enthusiasts Andrew and Anne Parry, who arrived 12 years ago to actually get it working once more.
The restored leat now fills the millpond above the house, and at the tug of a lever we watched the wheel creak, grumble and slowly come to life. Then a gentle steady chugging sound fills the buildings as we watched the great cogged wheels transfer the energy to the two spindles which drive two pairs of millstones, and to the sieve which separates the grindings into white flour, semolina ( a coarser grind) and bran.
The products of milling have paid for the restoration, and Anne, whose background at IBERS explains her thorough knowledge of grain, has sourced heritage strains of wheat oats and rye varieties to mill. I came away with a kilo bag of semolina flour, a fine grain which feels like very soft sand between the fingers. At £2.50 its not cheap, but it brought a nutty flavour to my homemade quiche and made me realize how anodyne plain white steel-milled flour is as an ingredient.
The concept of the Picturesque was to stir deep feelings in the visitor. His or her emotions should be stirred not only by the beautiful but by the sublime. A therapeutic shot of terror, engendered by a dizzy drop, a roaring cascade, or a dark rock-cut tunnel or cave were among the elements of a satisfactory Picturesque Landscape. Thomas Johnes of Hafod did his best to supply these scary elements, most notably with the precipitous narrow contoured path of the Gentleman’s walk to the south of the river, and the cascade cavern where the visitor passes, crouching, into almost total darkness in a rock tunnel before turning a slight corner and being confronted with a roaring waterfall blocking his path.
Other elements were smooth, gentle and naturalistic. Such was the Alpine Meadow by the river side, and the careful gradients of the Lady’s Walk through the woods. Equal smoothness of contour defines the old carriage drive which brought the visitor from London past Cwmystwyth and across a stone bridge over the Nant Peiran. We tend to forget that the early roadmaps, the Britannia and Ogilvy atlases (strip maps similar in concept to the bespoke navigation of a modern sat nav) provide annotated routes of which the very first in the collection takes the traveller from London to Aberystwyth, passing close by the Hafod estate.
It is this old bridge, broken and impassible for many decades which is the latest object of careful re-instatement by The Hafod Trust. The wooden span was collapsed by the 1980s and as the stream tore away the fallen timbers there remained the tall abutments of the bridge, adjoined by two handsome beech trees framing an alarming chasm. Many a dog has hastened enthusiastically along the old carriage drive to pull up suddenly at the very edge. The new bridge span is of timber, echoing the 19th century remains, but much narrower, its purpose to provide access for walkers and for the more intrepid wheelchair user. Completed in November by TTS Wales of Tregaron, it already blends quietly into the scenery.
But there is a recent history equally worthy of recall, perhaps especially in the light of Hafod’s heritage of the sublime. Little could be more awesome than to fly over this unprotected chasm on a bicycle! The photographic evidence is out there on the internet and can be reproduced here.
This dizzyingly dangerous feat recorded in colour was at least preceded by trial jumps with a safety net rigged across the gap. The rider was local boy Olly Davey, still living and still hurtling down mountains on bikes. You grow up at Hafod – you make your own entertainment!
The adrenaline rush for the rider or spectator is surely the very essence of the sublime experience. Young men have always been fascinated by the possibilities of leaping chasms. I was brought up in Yorkshire where the best known legend concerned the Strid on the river Wharfe, where a 12th century youth, the Boy of Egremont, accustomed to leaping a pinch point on the gorge, failed to let his hound off the lead causing both to fall to their deaths. Many a chasm has a similar oral tradition.
Health and Safety considerations have led the long jump to be confined to more prosaic environments these days. Indeed even the reconstruction of the bridge involved a quantity of scaffolding which would have astounded the former bridge builders.
I am indebted to Jez Young, (who worked on the new bridge and recorded the details of progress on the building work in an excellent blog on Facebook), for drawing these historic images to light. They are, rightly, part of the history of Hafod. We shall not see such a feat here again.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
by The Curious Scribbler
Strata Florida, at the end of the side road out of Pontrhydfendigaid is possibly one of the least-visited Cadw sites in Wales.
On a normal day, one or two visitors may be seen passing under the remaining arched romanesque west doorway of the Cistercian abbey church, and perhaps pausing to read the huge memorial slab reminding of us of the traditional belief that the 14th century poet Dafydd ap Gwilim was buried here under a great yew tree in the graveyard. Others come to the adjoining parish church in search of a more recent grave marking the burial in 1756 of a severed leg, and part of the thigh, of Henry Hughes, who was a cooper by trade. What accident with an axe, or perhaps a great metal hoop led to this misadventure? I have read that it was survivable and that the rest of this man was laid to rest in America. Come the resurrection he would have believed in, his leg and the rest of his body would presumably be reunited over the Atlantic.
This weekend though were two most extraordinary days, in which the field was thronged with vehicles, tents and a marquee, and bands of enthusiasts of all ages gathered in the church for lectures or for tours of the abbey site, the adjoining farm buildings and the wider landscape. Just an echo perhaps of the daily bustle of the 12th century when Strata Florida Abbey controlled vast tracts of land, productive of farm produce, timber and minerals. The event marked the launch of the Strata Florida Project, a concept which has been a twinkle in the eye of Professor David Austin for a couple of decades but now seems set to burst upon the world.
On Saturday morning he was surrounded by a densely packed throng of umbrellas as he explained the importance of the site. Size alone of the excavated ground plan shows that it had been a huge monastery, larger indeed than the famed Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire. Professor Austin explained the basis to believe that the abbey church was erected on a preexisting Christian site, and how the ambiguous structure in the centre of the nave floor, which is not quite correctly aligned with the axis of the church, is interpreted as a holy well incorporated, perhaps to honour older beliefs, when the Cistercians set up a new house in this part of Wales. The abbey enjoyed the patronage of the Welsh prince Lord Rhys of Deheubarth, and there are clues in the sources of the carved building stones, and in the celtic motifs on the west doorway that local Welsh tradition was not entirely subjugated by the incomers.
On Sunday a lecture by Prof Dafydd Johnston revealed a sense of the grandeur of these medieval buildings, and of the hospitality they offered. The peripatetic poets of the day wrote praise poems to their hosts, abbots and fine landed gentlemen, listing their assets, their buildings, farmlands, gardens, wives, offspring, fine food and general generosity. The picture emerges of soaring oak beams on stone arches, stained glass windows, a gleaming white tower, and lead so abundant it is described as encasing the church like armour. These poets were quite literally singing for their supper, and may have exaggerated, but they are a good historical source, perhaps far better than the more introspective utterances of poets today. In the early 15th century the abbey (which probably did supported Glyndwr’s rebellion) took severe punishment from the English army, who stabled their horses in the Abbey Church. Abbot Rhys ap Dafydd is praised for repairing the handsome refectory, and his successor Abbot Morgan for the beauty of the place.
We all know that Henry VIII brought the abbeys, quite literally, crashing down. The lucky recipients of this redistributed land and buildings were often given just a year to effectively destroy the monastic structures, perhaps adapting some parts of it for domestic use. Gentry houses thus emerged amongst the ruins. At Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire which I visited last week, the nave became a long gallery, the core of a new gentry residence. Here the great church was largely demolished and cleared away, built into walls and vernacular buildings for miles around, while the refectory became the basis of the 18th century farmhouse Mynachlog Fawr ( or the Stedman House) as it appears in the Buck print of Strata Florida in 1742, and still stands today.
That farm has a story of its own, the last 150 years in the ownership of the Arch family of farmers. Charles Arch, a cherubic octogenarian known to millions as the announcer voice of the Royal Welsh Show treated a packed church to an elegaic description of his childhood growing up at the farm, and how as errand boy for his mother he would run the one and a half miles to the village, or be hauled from his bed at night by the local doctor to act as gate-opener for a house call to distant cottages up the gated road across their land. Most of the audience felt the tears well up as he described how as a young man he realised that the farm could not support three families and elected to seek his living elsewhere. ” The day I sold the pony, and did away with my dogs – was the saddest day of my life”. His brother’s family still farm the land, and since the 1970s have occupied a comfortable bungalow not far behind the old house. With extraordinary patience the Arch family have waited and waited for Strata Florida Project to gain momentum and purchase the old family home and its farm buildings.
Richard Suggett illustrated the importance of this fine old building, barely touched by electricity or indoor plumbing, and with many period features of the 1720s. There is a paneled parlour on one side of the front door and farm kitchen on the other, in which Charles recollects the bacon hanging from the ceiling and as many as 25 neighbours dining on Friday nights. The parlour still has its buffet cupboard next to the fireplace (an antecedent of the china display cabinet) an acanthus frieze painted on the ceiling above the coving, and a frightful didactic overmantle painting on wood above the fireplace. It depicts youth choosing between the paths of virtue and vice: the former rather staid and dull, the latter really nasty. Charles found it chilling as a child.
The Strata Florida Project aspires to restore and interpret all these layers of history and the wider landscape it inhabits. It reaches out to incorporate into the story every possible Welsh icon: The Nanteos cup: claimed to have arrived there via Strata Florida Abbey, the White Book of Rhydderch: possibly transcribed in the scriptorium of Strata Florida, poet Dafydd ap Gwilim: putatively educated by the monks of Strata Florida. This quiet backwater may soon become a hub of historical and modern Welsh culture.
Sunday closed with a procession from the parish church to the putative holy well in the abbey nave led by Father Brian O’Malley, a former Cistercian monk who had yesterday enlightened us with an account of the daily routine of Cistercian prayer.
And displayed for the day in the adjoining ruined chantry chapel was the Nanteos Cup, on loan to its former home, courtesy of Mrs Mirylees the last inheritor of the Nanteos estate, who was also present with her daughter. For those with a spiritual bent it was an evocative day.
For the rest there was costumed historic re-enactment, archery, pole lathe wood-turning, refreshments, stalls and much besides.
by The Curious Scribbler
Some remarkable people turn up in Ceredigion from the wider world. Two such were Nicholas Luard and his wife Elisabeth, who came to Brynmerheryn, an oddly handsome house set in some 100 acres high above Tregaron Bog. The house already had an eccentric history as the home of Monica Rawlins, friend and former student of the artist Augustus John, who bought it in the 1940s.
Nicholas Luard was a notable figure in the irreverent 1960s, a new Cambridge graduate, founder of Private Eye, and co-owner with Peter Cook of The Establishment Club in Soho, which launched the careers of so many distinguished members of Beyond the Fringe. His subsequent career as writer, aspirant politician, philanderer, entrepreneur and alcoholic was more glamorous than remunerative, and throughout all its permutations was shored up by the indefatigable industry of his wife Elisabeth, cookery writer, novelist, botanical illustrator, and mother of his four children. Her 2008 book, My Life as a Wife, gives a spirited account of these vicissitudes, never tarnished by a trace of the fashionable self pity of so many modern memoires.
It was Nicholas’ charm and charisma which eventually brought them to Wales in 1992, when he was left Brynmerheryn in Monica Rawlins’ will. Understandably eyebrows were raised locally at this bequest, for Monica was not, as is often said, his godmother, but the godmother of another Elizabeth, a girlfriend of his undergraduate days, who had taken him to visit her. With a talent for people, Nicholas kept in touch with Monica during the following 40 years, and no doubt she felt that the house deserved them. Monica herself was a distinctive character, whose diaries, much preoccupied with eugenics in her goose farming activities and with visits from her nephew, were recently adapted by Bethan Roberts for the Radio 4 drama Writing the Century: The View from the Windows. Monica’s voice though, seems to have had a more plaintive tone. Elisabeth Luard rises gutsily to every challenge.
The latest is to leave Brynmerheryn and its accumulated memories. Nicholas died in 2004, and she is now leaving for a much smaller home in London, nearer to her children, and to the media opportunities her foodie expertise still commands.
On Saturday 22 April there will be a sort of jumble sale at Brynmerheryn, to disperse the accumulations of Luard and Rawlins aquisitions over the past century and more. Elisabeth writes “It ranges from elegant clothing from the 1890’s through crockery from Syston Park near Bath where Monica grew up, woodcut blocks, linen, Welsh blankets, patchwork and items from the house including artists’ materials and children’s books from the 1900’s right through to my own wardrobe from the 1960’s and pots, pans, crockery and glassware that I can’t take with me to my new abode.”
There may even be a few bits of Hafod mansion, (for in Monica’s day almost everyone of note in the area got a souvenir or two as the old mansion was stripped). I do recollect a rather battered ornate gilded pelmet board above one window, and two massive carved oak consoles ( tall corbels) incongruous with the rest of the decor, but these of course are fixtures and fittings and will doubtless go to the new owners, who I hope will relish the layers of character of their new home.
I shall be sorry not to be there, but am already committed to the Ceredigion Local History Forum, whose spring meeting on Mansions & their Estates in Ceredigion occurs on the same day.
By The Curious Scribbler
Derelict buildings are invariably poignant, but particularly so when they retain the traces of domestic life, a palimpsest of their past occupants.
When I first moved to Wales and explored my neighbourhood I happened upon an isolated farm, Pengraig Draw up a stony track near the coast. At some time, years before, the entire end of the farmhouse had collapsed outwards, and there it stood, like a dolls house open to the elements. The upstairs bedroom was still furnished with bed, chest of drawers and a old chaise longue, but the collapsed stairs and dangerously sloping floor prevented access. The scene was reminiscent of wartime bomb damage in the immediacy with which the the disaster must have occurred. It remain in this condition for many years, the furniture weathered by the rain. Only quite recently was the old house rescued and renovated. The end wall is now rebuilt and it is a tidy holiday letting property with a conservatory extension, and even a hot tub in the garden. The romance of dereliction is but a memory.
A far more celebrated ruin is that of Thomas Johnes’ Hafod, which was eventually dynamited by the Forestry Commission in 1957. In fairness to the apparent vandalism of destroying an architectural gem, it was, by this time in a sadly neglected state. The last owner to live there, master builder and timber merchant W.G. Tarrant had died suddenly on Aberystwyth railway station in 1942 and subsequent owners, also timber merchants did not live there, but stripped out everything of value for salvage sale. There are bits and pieces of Hafod in houses and cottages all around the neighbourhood, purchased or scavenged in the last days of the house.
It is evocative then, to see photographs taken in 1957 by Edwin Smith, shortly before, or during, the destruction of the house, which are in the RIBA collections. The large and never-occupied Italianate wing built in the late 1840s by Anthony Salvin for the then owner Henry de Hoghton, is already a pile of rubble.
Most poignant of all is a view of the interior showing the ravages of pre-demolition salvage. A handsome fireplace has been prised from the chimney breast, the Georgian door and door frame have been ripped out, some wooden shutters are propped across the doorway. Yet above the former fireplace still hangs a large oil painting of a landscape in a lavish gilt frame. The huge rip in the canvas explains its insignificance at this time. Though it would be romantic to think otherwise, the picture almost certainly was not a piece of Johnes’s property, more probably it was one of the fixtures belonging to the last serious owner, T.J. Waddingham who died age 98 in 1938. But one still shudders to see it, not decently tidied away before the final destruction was commenced, but hanging on the wall as a reproach for all the misfortune which befell the house.
Also in the collection are pictures of the architectural splendours now lost, including a detail of the domed roof the ante room to the side of the Octagon library, now ruptured to the sky.
The decaying steps leading from the former lawn, the broken windows and rubble of plaster on the floor are perhaps the best evidence that by 1957 Hafod was indeed very far gone. Today the rubble is overgrown by trees. Only the cellar remains, with a crust of broken wine bottles scattered below the wine racks, and a slew of rubble blocking the cellar steps. A few years ago it was briefly possible to walk along these damp subterranean corridors, but the only inhabitants are bats and the makeshift entrance is barred by a sturdy gate to prevent risk to unwary explorers.
In the case of Pengraig Draw, the past has been totally obliterated by modernity. At Hafod it remains hauntingly present.