John Corfield, gardener and thespian

 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 Corfield.  Portrait by H.N. Davies of Aberystwyth 1934

The schoolboy John, in a photograph re styled as a pencil drawing

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.

 

In Germany with Count Constantin von Brandenstein

 

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.

In field gear in the Pyrenees

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.

Botanizing in Crete 2015

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.

The Cardiganshire Horticultural Society turned 50 in 2018.  President John Corfield with Jan Eldridge and Kay Edwards who helped cut the cake.

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.

The Cardiganshire Horticultural Society celebrated their President’s 80th birthday in 2013

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
Vice-Chancellor

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Justina Jeffreys – Black History

By The Curious Scribbler

During the ennui of lockdown I have been researching a little piece of Ceredigion’s black history.

My subject was Justina Jeffreys of Glandyfi castle, that eccentric Regency Gothic castle which perches above the (now straightened) Glandyfi Bends on the way to Machynlleth.  It was built in 1818 as the fashionable designer home of Shrewsbury born lawyer George Jeffreys and his new bride Justina Scott.  Justina had grown up at Bodtalog, a  small country house near Tywyn, as the child of the bookish intellectual Edward Scott and his wife, the widow Louisa de Saumaise.  It has long been believed that she was the model for Anthelia the heroine of Thomas Love Peacock’s first novel Melincourt. Anthelia is described as a highly rational young woman brought up and educated in solitude by a man of ‘great acquirements and of a retiring disposition’.

Glandyfi castle sketched by Francis Wood in 1838

But all was not as it seems, for Justina was not born a Scott.  She was born in Jamaica in 1787 the daughter of the premier army man then posted to the island, Captain Charles McMurdo of the 3rd East Kent Regiment “the Buffs”  and a young woman called Susan Leslie.   In the eighteenth century colonies bastardy was a very common phenomenon, on most pages of the parish birth records the children born in wedlock are the exception rather than the rule.  I cannot believe that the church actively approved of this situation but its clergy were diligent in recording the facts.  Fathers are normally named, and race and status was a matter of record.

So we know that Susan Leslie was a free mulatto, who underwent baptism in the Anglican church at the same time as her new daughter.  A mulatto is a specific term, it means she had one black parent, and given the social structure of the slave economy it is highly likely that that black parent was a woman and a slave.

Justina’s conception was more than a one night stand, for two years later her brother was born, also sired by Captain McMurdo, and named Charles McMurdo.

There might have been more illegitimate McMurdos were it not for the fact that Captain McMurdo’s posting in Jamaica came to an end, and he was sent off to Canada, where he eventually married a well connected young woman from a loyalist family, named Isabella Coffin and started a second family.  His first legitimate son was named Charles Alured McMurdo (the unusual second name being a nod to the Governor of Jamaica, Alured Clarke under whom McMurdo had served).

Susan Leslie remained in Jamaica, and must, I believe, have been a handsome and sought-after young woman.  She was soon the partner of a Scottish doctor, John Wright by whom she had two more sons.  She was, or in her lifetime became,  a woman of property for her will, written on a visit to London in 1801, distributes her land, buildings and slaves among her three sons, and names both the fathers as executors of the will.

It is touching that in the will she leaves to Justina her ‘apparel, trinkets and her silver spoons’.  In a subsequent codicil she rescinds these small gifts because her daughter has been amply provided for by McMurdo.  So how had McMurdo provided?

Justina had been removed from her mother and ‘adopted’ by Edward Scott, who during the Jamaica years had been Captain McMurdo’s junior officer, First Lieutenant  in the same regiment.  Edward, an impecunious younger son of an aristocratic Kent family had no children of his own, but when Justina was just three years old he had married, possibly for money, the wealthy widow Louisa, who happened to be the widow of his first cousin Count Louis de Saumaise. It was through Louisa, daughter of welshman Lewis Anwyl, that he winded up living comfortably as the squire of Bodtalog with Louisa and Justina.   I would speculate that when Justina was five or six years old she was shipped off to her new ‘uncle’.   She must have been quite young to have been so well educated and nurtured as a Welsh gentlewoman, but not so young that her brother Charles did not remember her.   While there is no evidence that the siblings met again, by the age of 20 Justina’s brother Charles McMurdo was in Limehouse, London founding a family of several generations of boat builders.  He and his descendants repeatedly named their daughters Justina.

Although Justina is named as Justina Scott in the marriage register her paternity was no secret, it was known to the Jeffreys family into which she married, and her birthplace, Jamaica, is recorded in the census.  Her high-status white father, McMurdo, would have been a matter of pride rather than shame, just as Mary Seacole, who we now venerate for her blackness, was openly proud of her Scottish military father. Justina’s story reminds me of other examples of the rapid social mobility of the mixed race offspring  English and Welsh gentlemen in the eighteenth century.  The purchaser in 1803 of the  Piercefield estate near Chepstow, for example, was Nathaniel Wells the Jamaican-born natural son of William Wells, his offspring by a house slave known as Juggy.  Nathaniel’s origins did not hold him back, he became the high sheriff of Monmouthshire.

George and Justina seem to have enjoyed a nice life in their pretty castle, and produced eight children all baptised at Eglwysfach church, where her old admirer Thomas Love Peacock also showed up to marry Jane Gryffydh in 1820.  Justina’s relationship with her adoptive parents also seems to have been good, two of her children bear the names Edward and Louisa, and when the very elderly Edward Scott eventually died aged 90 his estate, barring various legacies, was placed in trust for Justina for her lifetime.

Glandyfi castle first went on the market in 1906 when it was sold by two of Justina’s granddaughters.   Several lines of descent from George and Justina have been extinguished in later generations, but some persist in New Zealand and America, and have been known to turn up on holiday to visit the castle.  Today it is for sale once more for £2.85million.

Glandfi Castle sale particulars in Country Life 2020

The full story of my researches  have been accepted for publication in Ceredigion, the Journal of the Ceredigion Historical Society and will appear in 2022.

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A perfect day for Pendinas

By The Curious Scribbler

It is hard to remember last week’s grey shrieking storm.  Yesterday I walked up Pendinas in balmy sunshine, and a gentle breeze.  The sea looked as blue as the Mediterranean and the recently turbulent ocean is now calm and translucent – one can see the dark shadows of clouds upon the water, but also the shaded blotches of underwater outcrops of rock under the sea.  Looking over towards Alltwen, the black cattle were all grazing on the flat land.  Some mornings they are spread right up the hillside above the woods which enfold Tanybwlch mansion.  There is a grandeur in seeing the cattle spread out  like wild things in this huge landscape, not penned in a modest field of monocultural grass.  The flats are no longer the scene of the trotting races, but viewed from Pendinas one can still see the ghost of the grass track, subtly darker, perhaps better fertilized, than the rest of the meadow.

Alltwen and the Tanybwlch flats viewed from Pendinas

The climb is a prolonged one, even from the ‘easy’ access at the top of Cae Job in Penparcau.  Families toiled up the path to the iron age hillfort, topped with Victorian arrogance by the chimney-like monument to Wellington’s victory at Waterloo.

The path up from Cae Job

At least that is what it ostensible is.  Personally I think of it more as a monument to a local gentleman, William Eardley Richardes of Bryneithin Hall who built it in 1856 and invited subscriptions from the town.  It is no coincidence how grandly it adorns the landscape as viewed from the windows of his mansion to the south.  The victory at Waterloo was in 1815, and I would have thought that by 1856 national fervour for a monument would have somewhat abated.  Richardes himself had been in the army of occupation after Waterloo, and was moved to re-name the five fields around his house  General, Governor, Captain, Lieutenant, and Major!  They appear thus on the tithe survey of 1848.

The wellington memorial on Pendinas

There were quite a few people at the top, typically facing in all different directions!  The 360 degree panorama laid out before us has no weak point.  Take your pick for views of the harbour and the sea and the distant Lleyn Peninsula, Penglais Hill punctuated by the Hospital, the National Library and University of Aberystwyth, or Penparcau spread out around its green-roofed 20th century primary school.

I first sat on the seaward side, where the bracken and gorse given way to heather and coarse grass. A wren fidgeted around a dead tree stump below me, and the honey bees came in waves, sometimes there were none, then quite suddenly thirty or more were working their way through the flowers beside me,  then disappearing back to the hive.  This is a great spot for looking down on flying birds:  red kite, herring gulls, soaring the thermals, crows  sculling steadily across the fields.  Four speed boats came south into my view leaving white trails of wake.  When they gingerly slowed to creep into Aberystwyth harbour at low tide I could see underwater the bar which partly occludes the harbour mouth.

Aberystwyth Castle just visible from Pendinas

Speedboats approach Aberystwyth Harbour

It may be a Bank Holiday during a pandemic but there is space and beauty for all to enjoy.  Looking down, one could see around twenty cars parked at Tanybwlch beach now that the concrete barriers have been cleared away.  There has always been more than enough space for social distancing on that beach, and I am glad to see these unnecessary restrictions have been removed.

Penglais Hill, Aberystwyth, viewed from Pendinas

Penparcau, viewed from Pendinas

The view south from Pendinas

The Ystwyth enters the harbour at Penyranchor

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Footpath is open at Penparcau

By The Curious Scribbler

I am delighted to learn that I am in error, and that last week I quite needlessly climbed over a gate ( as described in yesterday’s blog).   The gate in question was on the footpath across the flank of Pendinas, which emerges at the Cae Job gate to Penparcau.

I had let myself through the gate on Felin y Mor and onto the seaward end of the path, by means of lifting the little latch on the gate with my gloved hand, in accordance with best practice.  At the Cae Job gate I failed to open it, and finding the latch immobilized with a cable tie, I believed it to be locked.  Several readers have today informed me that the cable tie in fact immobilized the catch in the open position!

I am grateful to learn this and hope others will not be discouraged from taking the path.  The purpose of the cable tie, I learn, was to allow the gate to open at a push (or a pull), without need to touch it.  I don’t know why it didn’t then swing open when I began to climb it, but the good news is that the path is not closed.  The route through the fragrant gorse, with its attendant stonechats, chiffchaffs, dunnocks, linnets and wrens is a delight.  Violets,  primroses and stitchwort flank the path, and a thirsty dog can pause at the well beside the ruined remains of the cottage which formerly stood on the long slope towards the sea.

‘The Welsh Primitive’ (active 1830-1853) painted the cottage beside the path, half way up Pendinas.                                                National Library of Wales, Drawing Volume 56.

I find that  a massive 1400 people read yesterday’s Letter from Aberystwyth, when it was flagged up in the You Know You’re from Aberystwyth When group on Facebook, and the comments there were many and varied. Some feel as I do, while others feel that I should stay home and shut up!  A disputed theme concerns the blocking of car parks such as that at Tanybwlch beach.  Last week, the Government clarified that it was acceptable to drive locally to access a suitable place to walk: the guidance being that one should not drive long distances to take a short walk.  It remains the case that at present many people feel intimidated to travel even a mile by car to enable them to walk safely in an agreeable open space.  I am indeed fortunate to have  all this landscape within walking distance from my home.

 

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Three thousand years of Archaeology

by The Curious Scribbler

I had an enjoyable day at the Morlan Centre in Aberystwyth on Saturday, at the Archaeology Day organized by the Dyfed Archaeological Trust.  The remit of archaeologists today stretches from the very ancient to the extremely recent,  and this was reflected in the range of talks.  The morning started with the archaeology of yesterday while by the afternoon we were taken back three thousand years to the beginning of the first millienium BC.

Alice Pyper had been having fun exploring the archaeology of Llyn y Fan Fach, the glacial lake which now supplies Llanelli with a clean water supply.  It was not always thus: the water system was built by conscientious objectors during the first world war.   Some thirty of them were compelled to live in two drafty huts  at 1200 feet above sea level to work on the project.  Field archaeology involved excavating and recording the footings of these huts. Documentary sources including newspapers and humorous sketches by the objectors fleshed out the story.  This workforce was of Englishmen who had already served time in prison for refusing to fight.  Michael Freeman pointed out that in Wales objectors were less harshly treated, and that most of the thirty conscientious objectors in Ceredigion were not imprisoned and were allowed to keep their jobs.

Also representing the very recent past is the built heritage of the 20th century.  Susan Fielding of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales treated us to photographs of a splendid succession of architectural gems or carbuncles, some listed, others already demolished.  The architects of the Percy Thomas Partnership ( familiar to us here for much of the Penglais Campus) kept cropping up, with Harlech College, Trinity Chapel at Sketty, and the soon-to-be-demolished Broadcasting House at Llandaff, all redolent of the 1960s.   The Prestatyn Holiday Camp ( 1935) and the Rhyl Sun Centre (1980) have both gone, both extravagant expressions of their times, and dear to many people’s holiday reminiscences.


Rhyl Sun Centre by Gillinson Barnett & Partners
Source:Architectural Press/Archive RIBA Collections

The Shire Hall in Mold, dubbed Britain’s leading ugliest building, and the Wrexham Police station are brutalist buildings which will perhaps not be mourned too much.  Still standing, and crying out for a role in a brooding  TV Drama is Ysgol Syr Thomas Jones at Amlwch – one of the very first 1950s comprehensive schools.

Less is sometimes more, and it was strangely gratifying to learn from Clwyd-Powys Archaeologist Paul Belford that we really don’t know whether Offa’s Dyke has a great deal to do with King Offa, when it was built, or quite what it was for!  Opportunities to excavate this world heritage site are few and far between, but one did arise from the actions of a Chirk man who bulldozed 50 yards of it in order to build a stable. ( His ignorance of its historic significance saved him from prosecution in 2014).  Perhaps this vibe for vandalism is in the air around Chirk.  Paul showed us a lidar image of the grounds of Chirk castle.  In the 17th century Landscape Architect William Emes flattened much more than 50 yards of it to create smooth parkland, and submerged a further length of it in an ornamental lake!

Low water levels in 2018 revealed Offa’s Dyke in the lake at Chirk Castle. Picture: The Shropshire Star

Two afternoon sessions concerned the days of the iron age hillfort, a period lasting from at least 1000 years BC.  Hillforts are scattered like measles across the whole of the map of Wales, and with techniques of  aerial photography and lidar more are still being discovered.  Either they are on hilltops with ridge fortifications all the way round, or they are promontory hill forts, situated on the edge of a cliff or at the confluence between two valleys such that fortifications are not needed at the steeper sides.  The archaeologists have been seeking evidence both within the enclosures, where  groups of round houses were situated, and outside them where burials, and farming actvities took place.  Ken Murphy rounded off the day with an account of the iron age chariot burial discovered last autumn in a field not far from a hillfort at an undisclosed location in west Pembrokeshire.  Being buried along with your two wheeled chariot and your horse requires a pretty extensive hole and this type of burial is well known from East Yorkshire. The chariot burial discovered at the evocatively named village of Wetwang, revealed the human skeleton curled  up between the wheels of his chariot, and the horse laid transversely at his head.  The limey soil chemistry in east Yorkshire does not dissolve the bones.

In the Welsh burial bronze fragments of the bit, bridle and horse ornaments testifies to the horse, and an iron sword to the warrior, but their bones are long dissolved.  The iron rims of the wheels and the imprint of the wooden chariot were found.  These items are undergoing conservation at the National Museum of Wales and will then be put on display.

Photo credit: Archaeologists exposing the wheels of the Pembrokeshire chariot.
 Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

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Dragon on the move

by the Curious Scribbler

The Tanybwlch Dragon has moved several hundred yards along the beach during last Saturday’s high seas.  Once again it has beached itself gazing out to sea, its lower jaw a little more abraded, but its eager expression is now almost as convincing from the left flank as from the right.

Right cheek

Left cheek

Seas have been breaking over the stony strand which separates the beach from the low lying Tanybwlch flats, the location of summer trotting races, and formerly, of the Aberystwyth Show.   Once more a huge pool has formed below Alltwen, beloved of gulls and waders.

The brackish pool on Tanybwlch flats

Over the years there have been a number of efforts to drain this area and return it to pasture, but this seems to be a losing battle and each winter the lake forms again, and as it drains away rushes prosper at the expense of grass.  It is highly likely that we will see the day when the sea breaks through the pebble bar and our walks along this wild beach will be curtailed part way along.

The Dragon has migrated along Tanybwlch beach

The strand line was not as free from human debris as when I commented two weeks ago, but as with the comments from my reader about the Gower, fragments of netting and other fisherman’s waste were far more abundant than household plastic.  The white lumps on the strand line were not polystyrene but cuttlefish bone, and the fluffy froth just natural sea spume.

Cuttlefish on the strandline at Tanybwlch beach

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Underground in mid Wales

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.

Miners Cwmystwyth in 1911

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.

https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/512OvlqLEuL._SX363_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

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.

 

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A blot on the landscape

by The Curious Scribbler,

I was astounded yesterday to see the new building on the Plas Morolwg site which overlooks the harbour at Aberystwyth.  Plonked like a giant brick on the skyline is a building of unsurpassed ordinariness.  A box designed  to contain seven residential flats rises four storeys high, a positive beacon to philistine development.  What were our Councillors and Planning Department thinking of?

The new Residential Block on Penyrangor

Penyrangor is a charming small road by which one approaches Tanybwlch beach and is flanked by squat bungalows and houses of early 20th century design.  Newer development behind this rank was somewhat controversial when the railway cutting was filled in and built over, but all  are two storey in height and designed with at least some respect for their position at the foot of beautiful Pendinas.  This monstrous cube is totally out of scale with its neighbourhood, perched on the top of rising ground above the road, and totally dominating the  other developments of flats around the harbour, let alone the regular housing.

The new block viewed from the harbour

Not long ago I looked at the Planning proposal to demolish and replace Bay View, one of the small houses on Penyrangor, a 1930s cottage which started its life as a tea house tucked into the small  quarry on the left as you approach the sea.  Reading the applicant’s proposal made one feel that landscape protection is alive and well. The report alluded to the Special Landscape Area in which it is set, and presented a sensitive design for a modern energy-efficient, two-storey building which respected the setting and would be tucked in such that the low pitched roof would not break the skyline above the sheltering rock face.

The site of Bay View, the old cottage now cleared away

No such considerations seem to have influenced the Wales and West Housing Association.  Indeed I’ve just been looking at their planning application and found two remarkably unhelpful projections of how the development will look.

The bird’s eye view hardly helps in predicting how we land-born humans will perceive the relative heights of the buildings around this development.

Meanwhile a Side Section elevation shows the ghosts of the adjoining houses looming tall behind the new block.  I have no idea where one would have to stand to see this perspective!  Indeed I suspect there is there is no such possibility.  My photo shows the same houses to be half the height of the block in the foreground.

The New Residential apartment block at Plas Morolwg, by Wales and West Housing Association

It seems a great pity that such misleading schematic drawings have, I presume, allowed the impact of this building to be overlooked until it is too late and the frame is up.  Its eventual appearance, it seems, will be  that of a block escaped from Penparcau, with similar glass fronted balconies, but some render and wood-effect cladding on the exterior.

The former Plas Morolwg was widely-known locally as ‘Colditz’ on account of its forbidding exterior, and its later claim to fame was as the setting for the lowest and most disagreeable characters in the TV show Hinterland.  The opportunity to replace it with something reflecting better on Aberystwyth has been avoided.

A view from the harbour.  Nothing else breaks the skyline as this does.

 

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Mrs Johnes’ Garden at Hafod

by The Curious Scribbler

In the summer of 1788 Jane Johnes wrote to her brother John Johnes of Dolaucothi describing her garden at Hafod  as ” in high beauty” and “full of flowers”.  Two hundred and thirty years is a long time ago, and for much of the recent hundred there was nothing to boast about at Hafod.  So it is pleasing this summer to be able once more to echo those words, as the  borders fill out with recently replanted herbaceous perennials and a glut of multi-headed foxgloves.

Foxgloves in the borders in Mrs Johnes’ garden Hafod

The restoration began with the removal of the sitka spruce plantation 10 year ago and the shrubs around the perimeter are now up to 7 years’ established.  Recently, pride of place has been held by the scented Philadelphus, the gleaming white blooms of Rosa x alba Semi Plena, and the arching briars of Shailer’s White Moss Rose.

Rosa x alba Semi Plena

Rosa Shailer’s White Moss

The Hafod Trust  received donations towards the planting of the garden from the Finnis Scott Foundation, and from the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust.   With the final planting phase and a lavish application of rich organic mulch in the autumn of last year the garden has now turned a corner, and is developing the frothy abundance of a proper garden.  The foxgloves are natives which, finding themselves in such a rich environment, sent up as many as half a dozen flower spikes from every plant.  The two or three welsh poppies planted two years ago now have spawned a host of seedlings, while patches of Doronicum, Chelone, Lysimachia, Veronicastrum and  Elecampane jockey for position amongst the shrubs.

The Cardiganshire Horticultural Society visited at the end of June and despite persistent rain enjoyed a number of short talks about the garden.

The Cardiganshire Horticultual Society visits Mrs Johnes’ Flower Garden, Hafod

Historian Jennie Macve described its place in Garden History.   In 1787 Johnes visited Rev W. Gilpin and told him that his chief guide in laying out his grounds at Hafod had been Rev William Mason’s lengthy poetic work, ‘The English Garden’.   In volume four of this work, Mason (who laid out the garden at Nuneham Courtney in Oxfordshire) gives his prescription for his then innovative style of flower garden, with its circuit gravel walk, its flower beds cut out of shaven turf forming winding grass paths between, its thickets of shrubs and colourful flowers. Visitors to Hafod described the garden lying, like a jewel in the wilderness, glimpsed briefly from the wooded heights of Gentleman’s Walk on the south bank of the Ystwyth, or appearing suddenly to the walker approaching on the gentler Lady’s Walk.

Jennie also revealed that although the Coade stone heads of a Nymph and a Satyr which form the keystones of the two garden entrances bear the date 1793 it is unclear when they were installed there.  The door arches as seen today were heavily restored in the 1980s when the garden was derelict and the original Coade stone heads had already found their way into Margaret Evans’s Collection, which now resides in the Ceredigion Museum.  The heads in the garden today are perfect replicas in resin.  Oddly, none of the contemporary descriptions mention these arches, or the stone heads.  It is even possible  that these elaborate doorways were installed by a later owner, perhaps the Duke of Northumberland, using second-hand Coade stone ornament. We just do not know.

The original Coade Stone heads, now in the Ceredigion Museum

She also viewed with caution the designation as an ‘American Garden’.  Only one contemporary visitor who left a written record describes the presence of American plants.  What is clear though is that Jane Johnes was a keen plantswoman,  the Johneses employed able gardeners, and that they corresponded about plants with their friends Sir Robert Liston and his wife, who cultivated an acclaimed American Garden at their home in Edinburgh.  Plants enthusiasts, then as now, invariably seek out and exchange rare plants new to horticulture.  Just as the Wollemi pine and the tree fern Dicksonia antarctica have become the must-have plants of today, Jane and the Listons would have sought to obtain the new.  In the late eighteenth century much of the new was being imported by plant collectors working the eastern seaboard of the USA.  Very few plants had yet been imported from the far east, and the many exotic Chinese and Japanese garden plants so familiar today were quite unknown.

Landscape architect Ros Laidlaw was also present to explain how she had selected the plants for Mrs Johnes’ garden entirely from species and cultivars known to be available to British gardeners in the eighteenth century.  This was quite a challenging task, for some, such as the fragrant North American shrub Comptonia asplenifolia have fallen from popular use and no longer appear in nurserymen’s lists, whilst for many other plants, improved hybrid versions have now largely replaced the original species.  The roses I alluded to at the beginning are named cultivar Old Roses with an established history,  the fragrant Philadelphus coronarius has open yellow-centred single flowers, quite like a Eucryphia bloom, rather than the familiar double flowers of modern garden cultivars.

The modern restoration does not attempt to reproduce the layout of the original garden which would have had many brilliant island beds, probably geometrically arranged and cut out of the shaven turf.  Such a  garden would be extremely labour-intensive to care for, and is best enjoyed by small groups of people strolling through the sinuous paths inspecting the plantings.  In its present form the garden offers historical authenticity in the path layout and the selection of species in the perimeter border, while the central lawn has made possible events such as the phenomenally successful Foxglove Fair which in early May saw as many as 2000 visitors enjoying food, shopping and entertainment under a brilliant and cloudless sky.

Crowds descended on the Foxglove Fair in 12 May

Doronicum pardalianches

The garden is principally maintained by the Hafod Estate manager Dave Newnham and his assistant Simon Boussetta.  There are also regular Volunteer Weeding Days, the next of which will be on Friday 19 July and Friday 23 August.  Garden maintenance is vital and more loyal volunteers are always needed.  Volunteers bring their preferred weeding tools, and are rewarded with tea and coffee and a keen sense of achievement!  They have been very enjoyable days.

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The Mosaic Restoration Company

By The Curious Scribbler

In 2016 I wrote about Aberystwyth’s two fine mosaics by Jesse Rust of Battersea, which respectively adorn the exterior of the Old College, and the floor  of Llanbadarn Church.  Both arose as a result of the influence of the architect J.P.Seddon, who worked on the restoration of St Padarn’s Church in 1878 and who designed the seafront hotel which was to become Old College.   When Seddon enlarged the building for the College the triptych panel, (which depicts Pure Science flanked by two acolytes bearing the fruits of applied science), was installed at the south end of the Science wing in 1887.

For many years the mosaic floor of the church has been partially covered with a red carpet, and pockmarked here and there with damage, missing tesserae, and a few poor quality repairs. That is until last Monday, when the Mosaic Restoration Company came to town.

Llanbadarn Church mosaic floor. holes before restoration

In just four days the team of four have wrought a massive change.  Specialist cleaning has revealed a palette of colours barely apparent before.  Down on their knees each worked on replacing the missing pieces of of the design.  Beside him was a set of tupperware boxes containing appropriately matched pieces of opaque glass.  The original glass was made, by recycling glass bottles, in Jesse Rust’s Battersea workshop.  Today the glass is sourced from Italy, where mosaic restoration is bigger business than it is here.

Repair in progress

Material for the glass tiles

Many of the swirling patterns contain flower designs, in which the replacement petals have to be clipped away to make a curved edge.

New  white tesserae cut to shape to replace the missing pieces

A crudely repaired curlicue before restoration

The same after restoration

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It takes close inspection to notice all the elaborate detail of the floor, the different shades and patterns within which the large squares of gold and red picture tiles are framed, and the edging details which make this extensive mosaic resemble a bespoke fitted carpet. The sets of four picture tiles set in circular frames are by Godwin of Lugwardine, a popular manufacturer of tiles on holy subjects.  The many different designs include the  Lamb of God, the four evangelist symbols, and sundry angels and kings.  Not a single one is broken, and the variety on the church floor far exceeds the collections of the British Museum!

The gleaming cleaned and restored floor.

The Church is to be congratulated for seeking out the funding and expertise which has brought this huge mosaic back to its full potential. I hope that the carpet will not return! The organist tells me that the acoustics, without it, are much improved so there is every reason to display the entire floor as the designer intended.

Four restorers from The Mosaic Restoration Company, at Llanbadarn Church last week

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