Fear and Awe at Hafod

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.

The decaying Pont Newydd, Hafod, in the 1960s.                         copyright Hafod Trust

Pont Newydd collapsed in the 1980s.                                  copyright Jennie Macve

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.

Olly Davey crossing Pont Newydd on a mountain bike

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.

The new footbridge under construction at Pont Newydd

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.

The the footbridge span at Pont Newydd, Hafod                                     Copyright Jez Young

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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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A new era for Strata Florida

by The Curious Scribbler

Strata Florida Abbey

The west door,Strata Florida Abbey copyright John Ball http:                                 //www.jlb2011.co.uk/walespic/archive/990502.htm

 

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.

Mynachlog Fawr  2011.   copyright Paul White
http://www.welshruins.co.uk/photo8244988.html

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.

Father Brian O’Malley leads the procession.
Photo copyright Tom Hutter

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.

Prayers at the putative Holy Well
Copyright Tom Hutter

For the rest there was costumed historic re-enactment, archery, pole lathe wood-turning, refreshments, stalls and much besides.

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Country house jumble sale at Brynmerheryn

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.

Brynmerheryn, Ystrad Meurig

Brynmerheryn, Ystrad Meurig

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.

Elisabeth Luard amongst her possessions

Elisabeth Luard amongst some of  her possessions

Winter sitting room

Winter sitting room

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.

Carved and gilded pelmet board, possibly originally made for Hafod

Carved and gilded pelmet board, possibly originally made for Hafod

Massive carved consoles support a modern archway in the hall

Massive carved consoles support a modern archway in the hall

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.

I'm sure there will be some nice flowerpots and things

I’m sure there will be some nice flowerpots and things

For directions and details on Facebook click here .

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The romance of dereliction

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.

Pengraig Draw, now a lavishly renewed holiday cottage

Pengraig Draw, now a lavishly renewed holiday cottage.  The end wall in this view lay collapsed for many years in the 1980s. http://www.aberystwythholidaycottages.co.uk/pengraig-draw-farmhouse/

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.

Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod, viewed from the southeast, partially demolished in 1957.  The Italianate wing is already destroyed.                                                                       Photo: Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod, the facade of the house built by Thomas Baldwin of Bath for Thomas Johnes  in 1788. Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

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.

In the derelict Hafod mansion Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

In the derelict Hafod mansion, a damaged oil painting still hangs on the wall in 1957               Photo Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

 

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.

A view through the roof of the octagon library. Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod.  A view through the roof of the ante room adjoining octagon library.                                                                    Photo:       Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod. The garden terrace had been long neglected by 1957                                            Photo:Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

 

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 Hafod cellars 2006

In the Hafod cellars 2006

In the case of Pengraig Draw, the past has been totally obliterated by modernity.  At Hafod it remains hauntingly present.

 

 

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On Myths and Misinformation at Nanteos

by The Curious Scribbler

Nanteos Mansion, seat of the Powells

Nanteos Mansion, seat of the Powells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nanteos Cup

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

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

sculpture in the labyrinth representing the Nanteos cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Triplets at Upton Castle and Quads at Ysbyty Cynfryn

There is a small upland church in the middle of nowhere near Devil’s Bridge. It is called Ysbyty Cynfryn. Its extreme antiquity is suggested by the huge standing stones which rear here and there within the structure of the circular churchyard wall. Its yews are also of considerable age. They are spreading English yews, not the upright fastigate Irish yews so popular since the early 19th century.

Ysbyty Cynfryn church

Ysbyty Cynfryn church

Graves of Isaac Hughes and his six children

Graves of Isaac Hughes and his six children

Possibly it is best known for the grave of four quadruplets born to Margaret Hughes in a cottage called Nant Syddion on 17 February 1856. Poor woman, it is hard to imagine her suffering. Three of her four babies died within three days of birth, the fourth, a boy, after a week.  The brief lives of Margaret, Elizabeth, Catherine and Isaac are recorded on a single gravestone. In March there were further deaths: her son Hugh aged 5 died on 1 March, her husband Isaac, aged 32  on 6th March, and her daughter Hannah ( aged 3) on 10th March.  These later deaths are believed to be as a result of infectious disease – un-referenced histories attribute them to various epidemic diseases: Typhoid, Typhus, Cholera,  Smallpox and Influenza.

Cobbling on the grave distinguish the adult grave from the infants to the right

Cobbling on the grave distinguish the adult grave from the infants to the right

Multiple births seldom survived at this time. Nowadays treatments are available to improve the function of immature lungs and tubes can be inserted for artificial feeding. In the 19th century a baby who couldn’t suckle simply wouldn’t live, and it looks as if this was the fate of Margaret Hughes’ four babies.

But rarely, multiple births could be successful, and I found the memorial to one such in the tiny private chapel of Upton Castle on the upper reaches of Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire.

The chapel at Upton Castle

The 13C chapel at Upton Castle

Upton Castle and its chapel date from the 13th century.  The property was sold in 1774 by its ancestral family the Malefants, (who  later, by inheritance, became the Bowens). It was purchased by Captain John Tasker a member of the nouveau riche  whose huge fortune derived from service to the East India Company in Bombay. On Tasker’s death in 1800 his niece Maria Margaretta Woods inherited Upton Castle. She lived locally with her husband Revd Edward Woods (who was rector of Nash 1796-1801) and their two daughters. Revd Woods barely appreciated his luck, for he died aged just 43 in 1801 and in 1803 the wealthy young widow was married again, to another clergyman Revd William Evans then aged 41. It is hard to imagine her stress when on 11 October 1803 not one, but three young Evanses were born: William Paynter Evans, John Tasker Evans, and Richard Davies Jones Evans.  The event is commemorated in a plaque in the chapel.

The triplets born at Upton castle

The triplets born at Upton castle

Maria lived to see her three sons grow to manhood, she died aged 47 in 1822, her triplets now aged 18.

In documents following the death of William Evans in 1838 we can find Revd William Paynter Evans, a clerk in holy orders, dwelling at Upton Castle along with his half sister Mary Sophia Woods a spinster ( and heiress through her mother). William Paynter Evans was married, but lacked surviving issue ( his infant daughter died at 7 months of age, and his wife Catherine Margaretta in 1844). * [Actually I learn they also did have a son, Charles Tasker Evans, who lived to adulthood, married, but had no children.  See comments from Elizabeth Ann Roberts  below].  However, when Revd William Paynter Evans died in 1853 his estate passed to his next brother. Both brothers had both  become medical doctors and it was the second  brother John Tasker Evans (1803-1895) who next inherited, and passed Upton to his son Vice Admiral Richard Evans, (1840-1927)  who eventually sold the Upton estate. Clearly their precarious start in life did not hold the three brothers back, living as they did to the ages of 49, 92 and 59 respectively.

On either side of the medieval tomb of Maliphant are the memorial to the Evans triplets, and to the eldest, W.P. Evans and his wife.

On either side of the medieval tomb of William  Malifant are the memorial to the Evans triplets, and to the eldest, William Paynter Evans and his wife.

Unlike the four babies at Ysbyty Cynfryn these triplets were born to a wealthy family with land. It is likely that the Evanses would have been able to co-opt a healthy estate servant with a baby of her own to assist with the feeding, and this may well have been the key to their survival. Indeed the use of wet nurses by Welsh gentry families was widespread. At another Ceredigion mansion, Gogerddan, the reminiscences  of Florrie Hamer,  (1903-1994) recorded how a recently-delivered mother from the cottages would be checked out by the doctor and then sent up to the big house to feed a new baby. Sometimes the mother would have to abandon her own child to family and cow’s milk in order to accompany the Pryses of Gogerddan to London, to nourish their baby instead.

Florrie wrote in one of her scrapbooks of the birth of Florence Mary Pryse, sixth child or Sir Pryse Pryse of Gogerddan in 1869:

“My grandmother Elizabeth Hamer went into the nursery at Gogerddan to breast feed the baby and my father was handed to his grandparents to be brought up on cows milk. 

It was the custom in those days for healthy young mothers among the tenants to do this, after a medical examination by old Dr Gilbertson, provided the tenant’s baby and the Pryse baby were born within a few weeks of each other.  Children were brought up in this way for the first 18 months to two years of their lives.  During this time when the family went to London my grandmother went too.  This happen three times during the 18 months my grandmother was in the nursery, and when she took the baby out in the Park, Old John Sudds, valet, followed a few yards behind carrying his usual stout stick.” 

Florence Mary Pryse grew up to be Mrs Loxdale of Castle Hill, Llanilar:  the relationship was never forgotten, and when Liza Hamer died in 1925 Florence Mary Loxdale sent a wreath and card addressed “to my Dear Foster Mother”.

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The Nanteos Racehorses

William Edward Powell was one of the more colourful squires of Nanteos.  Born in  1788 the eldest son of Thomas Powell, his father had died when he was just nine years old.  After a bruising childhood educated at Westminster School and domiciled largely in London with his mother and younger siblings, he rapidly setting about making his mark on attaining his majority  on 16 February 1809. The young Captain in the Royal Horse Guards held a lavish coming of age party at Nanteos at which his mother and sisters were perforce absent, exiled by debt to Dublin.  In the preceding months he had been living it up in Bath, and sending for game from his estate to feed his guests. Gossip had already linked him to a beautiful young lady – one of a numerous family – and the Nanteos Agent Hugh Hughes recorded the rumour that Powell would be married by 16th February and that the Birthday would be also a wedding visit.

Within the year he had reclaimed management of the Nanteos estate, commissioned the valuation of the Nanteos plate   (1757 ounces of silver valued at £527.6s 10d) and  commissioned a handsome survey of the many Powell properties in Aberystwyth.  Demands on the estate included his mother’s substantial unpaid debts, amounting to £5,500  and the likely dowry requirements of his sister Elizabeth who would be owed £5000 at marriage or on attaining the age of 21. None of this deterred him from an early marriage, on 4 October 1810 to Laura Phelp, who was probably the sweetheart with whom his name had been linked the previous year. In the same year Laura’s brother Edward sought the hand of Powell’s sister Ellen Elizabeth, thus creating a second link between the impecunious Phelp family of Leicestershire, and the financially embarrassed Powells. They were married in 1811.

Recently come to light through the researches of a descendant of the animal artist Thomas Weaver are some letters from Powell’s father-in-law, Mr James Phelp to the artist.  On 29 July 1812 James Phelp wrote:

“I suppose you have heard that Captn Phelp is married to Miss Powell, a sister of his brother-in-law, a nice, sensible, agreeable young woman, and one I hope and trust will have a proper influence over him”

Reporting on his three unmarried daughters, Julia, Octavia and Fanny, he continued:  “Powell has taken the majority of Cardiganshire and is now with Fanny  at Lochrea Ireland. Julia and Octavia are at present on a visit near Bath. They were not at the Cardiff races which ended about ten days since and was numerously attended, although the sport was not good owing to the goodness of Powell’s horses, Banker and Ad Libitum. They won everything and are expected to do the Principality. I wish at the time we were at Hunters –  you could have contrived to have paid us a visit there as you was to have painted them and Prospero who is the finest horse I think in England if not in Europe”.

Nothing I have found in the Nanteos archive mentions Powell’s racehorses Banker and and Ad Libitum so we may speculate as to whether Powell’s investment in racing was prolonged or a success.  The tone of this letter implies that his horses were in fact too good for the Cardiff races, and so the betting was unexciting.  Prospero  may also have been Powell’s horse, or alternatively another horse which James Phelp greatly admired and wished his friend and protegee Weaver to paint.   I hope that a racing historian may eventually throw light upon these names.

William Edward Powell in costume of Lord Lieutenant of Cardiganshire

William Edward Powell in costume of Lord Lieutenant of Cardiganshire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is certain is that while Powell pursued the enthusiasms of a young gentleman of his class, his financial situation was extremely perilous, and remained so.  In February 1810 he had also received the nomination for High Sheriff of Cardiganshire, a post obliging the holder to entertain in lavish  fashion.  Powell’s lawyer was so alarmed at the prospect that he advised Powell to obtain notes from his physician and apothecary in support of his inability to do business of any kind.  Powell did not heed this advice and continued to duck and dive through the following years, neglecting his wife Laura, supporting a mistress, and consorting in the Prince Regent’s entourage in London.   In 1822 Laura died, and the next year Powell narrowly avoided bankruptcy, only by the sale of unentailed land in Montgomeryshire.

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Rutelli’s naked lady at Aberystwyth

by The Curious Scribbler

There have been several developments in the story of ‘Humanity emerging from the Horrors of War’,  the somewhat unexpected sculpture at the foot of Aberystwyth’s war memorial. ( search ‘Rutelli’ in earlier blogs to follow the story).  Through internet searches I had located an apparently identical sculpture, in Rome, which, according to Marco Demmelbauer, the restorer who had worked on her some twenty years ago, was called Verità esce dai rovi ( Truth emerges from the bushes).

Recently I had a message from Rome-based historian Nicholas Stanley Price who went in search of her at Via delle Quattro Fontane 18.  He reported instead that she is now to be found at Via delle Quattro Fontane 15,  next door to the Palazzo Barberini, home of the National Gallery of Art.   She is indoors now, in a hallway, and the context of the pictures reveal that rather than being a precise duplicate, Truth is half the size of Aberystwyth’s lusty Humanity.  Moreover there are some discernible differences, especially in the twiggy foliage from which the figure emerges.

Truth emerging from the Bushes, in the hallway of Via Quattro Fontane 18

Truth emerging from the Bushes, in the hallway of Via Quattro Fontane 15, Rome Photo Nicholas Stanley Price

 

 

 

Rutelli Truth emerging from the bushes 3

Truth emerging from the bushes. Rome. Photo by Nicholas Stanley Price

Now I have another correspondent, Alan Wynne Davies, who is off to Rome shortly to have a look at her.  I hope he may be able to throw light on that sculpture’s history.  I believe she was taken for restoration from an outdoor situation in the courtyard of a block of flats at No 15.  It would be nice to find out when she was actually commissioned, and whether the design follows or pre-dates the Aberystwyth nude which records show was being cast in Rome in April 1922 and shipped by Thomas Cook to Liverpool in  October 1922.

And in a separate strand, I was given the chance to follow up on a recurrent urban legend: that the Aberystwyth sculpture was modelled upon the wife of the proprietor of Ernie’s Fish bar in this town! The trail led to Nora James of Trefechan, a handsome elderly lady who is a local matriarch and daughter of the alleged model.  Mrs James’ mother  Maria Pelizza was married in Italy to Ernest Carpanini, an Italian who had worked in the restaurant and ice cream business in South Wales before the first world war.  Moving first to Llanelli, the young bride found herself by 1922 in Aberystwyth where her husband Ernest and his partner Joe Chiappa opened a chipshop called ‘Ernie’s’ by the town clock.  Maria spoke very little English and mainly worked in the kitchen, but both she, and the massive sculpture on the memorial were new to town, beautiful and Italian. Thus, I believe, the myth was born, perhaps as a tease by the customers.

Nora recollects that her mother always dismissed the allegation, and no member of the family supported the outrageous suggestion that she had ever modelled in the nude.  However the the myth was accommodated with the vague suggestion that someone “had got hold of a photo of her face” and that this likeness was reproduced.  More prosaically I think that the likeness was a coincidence born of the Italian features of Maria Pelizza and the Italian model in Rome.

Nora James, daughter of Maria Carpanini the alleged model for the Aberystwyth war memorial

Nora James, daughter of Maria Carpanini the alleged model for the Aberystwyth war memorial

Ernesto and Maria Carpanini founded an extensive Welsh family and most of  their grandchildren work in or around Aberystwyth.  It is a sad note that Nora recollects that her father, who was on account of his nationality interned on the Isle of Man for the entire second world war, returned home a shadow of his former self in 1945 and never fully regained his former spirits.

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Abraham Cooper RA

by The Curious Scribbler

Regular readers of this blog will know that I like a nice tabby cat.  So it is no surprise that I am charmed by this picture (below) of a cat, painted in 1817 by a largely self taught artist Abraham Cooper.  It is a small painting, less than 7 inches square which is in the collections of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.  The neatly in-turned paws, the sedate posture of watchful repose, the loving detail of the long guard hairs fringing the ears – this is a picture by someone who closely observes his cat.

A small oil painting by Abraham Cooper 1817 ( Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

Abraham Cooper was the subject of a recent lecture to the Aberystwyth Bibliographical Group by Mary Burdett Jones.  He was born in 1787 the son of a London tobacconist, received a limited education, and commenced his working life aged 13 working in the equestrian circus Astley’s Amphitheatre, a venue which features in Dicken’s Old Curiosity Shop, and in Hard Times. The equestrian theatre was dangerous work, and by 1810 he was instead working as  a groom for Henry Meux, proprietor of a successful Brewery, and later Sir Henry Meux, 1st Baronet. It was at around this time that Cooper obtained a manual on the subject and taught himself to paint.  An early canvas was his portrait of one of his employer’s horses, which so pleased Henry Meux  that he bought it and encouraged the young man’s new career.  As a result Cooper then received some training in the studio of sporting painter Benjamin Marshall, and began to produce pictures which were reproduced as engravings in The Sporting Magazine. In 1812 the first of many paintings by Cooper was exhibited at The Royal Academy.

Like the cat, other surviving early works by Cooper faithfully describe the scenes a groom would encounter:  race horses, working horses, an old pony and dogs.

‘Scrub’ a shooting pony aged 30, and two Clumber Spaniels by Abraham Cooper 1815. ( National Trust)

The Day Family and their horses. Abraham Cooper 1838 (The Tate)

But as Mary pointed out, the future lay in the burgeoning reproduction industry of the 19th century as magazines and books increasingly published fine engravings copied from artists’ works. Cooper became adept at the imaginative scenes required by the publishers, his horse and dog expertise and background in theatre making him the ideal illustrator.  In 1828 Sir Walter Scott wrote the ballad The Death of Keeldar to accompany this picture by Cooper. It was published in ‘The Gem’  an annual publication for 1829.

The Death of Keeldar, depicted in The Gem, 1829

This ballad is one of the many workings of the traditional lament by which, by accident, or through a misunderstanding, a man kills his favourite dog.  A famous Welsh example of this genre is the death of Gelert, slaughtered by his master Llewellyn the Great in the mistaken belief that the dog has killed his child.

Cooper also diversified from straightforward horse portraiture into fantasy and historic battle scenes, for which he must have had to research the costumes but could rely on his extensive knowledge of the horse for depicting the fighting melee.

Oliver Cromwell leading his cavalry into battle. Abraham Cooper 1860 ( The Chequers Trust)

While relatively few people owned an original work, engravings of his pictures penetrated the national consciousness through magazines, books and printed plates designed to be framed and hung in middle class homes.  Those pictures which were engraved on wood may have no original, because in the 1840s it was common to paint directly onto the woodblock and thus destroy the picture in the process of engraving it.

Cooper’s commercial art took him far from that contented tabby cat and he is much better known for the image of Tam O Shanter escaping the scantily clad witch ( the Cutty Sark) by riding his heroic mare, Maggie over water.  Robert Burns’ poem was first published in 1791, and this picture was exhibited in 1813.  It is an image which, combining horsemanship with a saucy wench has been copied, engraved and reproduced ever since!

Tam O Shanter by Abraham Cooper 1813  ( Private Collection)

And why did the speaker chose Abraham Cooper as her subject?  Because he is one of her sixteen great great great grandfathers, and we live at a time when pulling together the threads of the past has never been easier.

 

The Aberystwyth Bibliographical Group:

http://users.aber.ac.uk/das/texts/aberbibgr1.htm

 

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