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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The Elvis Rock

by The Curious Scribbler

Following my recent much-read blog about the vandalism and prompt repainting of the Cofiwch Dryweryn wall near Llanrhystud several readers contributed comments on the familiar Elvis rock just over the Ceredigion border on the A44 at Eisteddfa Gurig which the unknown vandals appeared to be copying.

The Elvis rock at Eisteddfa Gurig

This too, is a reinstated version of a modified graffiti message. Originally painted on the rock in 1962 it represented electioneering support for Islwyn Ffoulkes Ellis, the Plaid Cymru candidate in a by-election.   This being the legal name  bestowed upon him at birth in 1924 it was necessarily spelled thus on the electioneering literature and the hoardings.  But he was not a successful candidate and is much better known as the Lampeter University academic and prominent Welsh author Islwyn Ffowc Elis.

This historic detail solves a problem which has long perplexed me:  How do you find the space to amend Elis to Elvis?

The original ‘Elvis’ has also been destroyed in the interim and has been repainted on a freshly cut face of rock. Now it sports an expansive V wider than the rest of the lettering, as my picture shows.

According to Gwylim writing last month in Ein Gwlad, the original artists of the original ‘Ellis’ were the late film director John Hefin and David Meredith, former Head of Press and PR at HTV and S4C. The original author of Cofiwch Dryweryn was the late Professor Mike ( later spelled Meic) Stevens. What a talented and scholarly lot these graffiti writers became!   Did they already consider themselves men of letters in their nationalist-slogan writing days?

 

 

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Footprints on her grave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A second and different footprint at the foot of the grave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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The Sunny side of Castle Hill

Viewed from the parkland on which the Llanilar Show is held, Castle Hill presents a severe, even forbidding facade, just as it has for 200 years.  At first it was a plain three storey, five bay box with coach house to the west.  In the mid 19th century it gained an Italianate servant’s wing and bell tower.

A mid 19th century photograph of Castle Hill

The only noticeable modification in the last hundred years is the stone stairwell, built in the 1960s onto the east end of the main block to provide access to the top flat as a separate dwelling.  In 1982 I dwelt in that flat, and for the years we lived there we never ventured into the garden on the south side of the house. The very elderly Mrs Myfanwy Louisa Loxdale lived in the ground floor rooms, attended by her daughter Myrtle, and the garden was strictly out of bounds.

So it was a great treat to see it for the first time this year, on an excursion with the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust.  For the south face of the house presents an elegant and cheerful visage, its windows framed in iron trellises, and the entire front ornamented with the elegant tracery of a long cast iron pergola.

Castle Hill, the south face of the mansion

Intricate tracery of the Castle Hill pergola

Castle Hill appears to have been built on a virgin site in 1777 by sheep magnate John Williams.  Where he lived previously I do not know, but probably further south, his father had been tenant of Strata Florida, and his uncle owned lands at Tregaron.   It is speculated that he built at Llanilar because  his land here was contiguous with that of the Parrys of Llidiardau.  Llidiardau was an important house, home of Thomas Parry the Deputy lieutenant of Cardiganshire.  John Williams’s sister Elisabeth was Mrs Parry.

John died in 1806, leaving his estate in trust for his son, John Nathaniel, a young child, and substantial provision ( £540 a year) for his widow.  As a result the house was available for rent during John Nathaniel’s minority.  Thomas Johnes of Hafod apparently leased it in 1806, for Jennie Macve has found a deed of 24 February 1806, in which Thomas Johnes, ‘late of Hafod, now of Castle Hill’, leased out his own home, Hafod to a Lady Rodney.  It must have been a short lease, for the Johnes family were in residence at Hafod when the house burned in 1807.  Thereafter they lived at Castle Hill for three years while rebuilding of their ruined mansion took place.  It seems to have been a happy time for Mariamne Johnes, who could socialise with the three unmarried Parry girls, Elisabetha, Sarah and Penelope, and many letters survive from the period.  Mariamne  wrote wryly that her father was less content for he ” takes no pleasure in any situation which does not actually belong to him, which appears to me to be singular, for to me any place that is beautiful affords me the same delight as if I had an actual concern in it”.

John Nathaniel Williams grew up to occupy Castle Hill and married Sarah Elizabeth Loxdale of Shrewsbury, but died in 1832, before her, and without issue.  When the tithe map and survey was drawn up in 1845 the landed proprietor was the widow Sarah Elizabeth Williams.  This document indicates the gracious style of Castle Hill, probably from his father’s time onwards.    The schedule designates the area south of the house (659) as ‘ Flower Garden’.

The tithe schedule: 659 Flower Garden, 660 Waste Ground, 661 Kitchen Garden

The  5 inch to the mile Ordnance survey of 1888 marks the area in stippled grey, indicative of a parkland feature, and shows within it a glazed conservatory or glasshouse backing against the wall of the back drive.

Today it is an undulating area, mainly of lawn, which slopes from the east down towards the house.  A venerable wisteria clothes the pergola, and a sundial stands in the middle of the floor of the former glasshouse, the corners of which are still ornamented with sandstone balls on pedestals.  It is not hard to reconstruct in the mind’s eye this gentleman’s garden, with intricate island beds of bright flowers dotted in the scythed lawn (lawnmowers were yet to be invented) and the collection of exotic tender plants in the conservatory overlooking the beds.

A design for late Georgian flower garden at Dolwilym in Carmarthenshire

 

Since Peter Loxdale’s death in 2017 the estate and farm will pass to his nephew, and at present the occupiers are  Peter’s brother Patrick and his wife Susan, who have taken on the huge task of reviving the old house.  Like so many other stone houses it was clad in cement render in the early 20th century, in the mistaken belief, prevalent at the time, that an impervious outer layer would make the house less damp.  Today it is recognized that traditional lime mortar is a far better covering, since it allows the house to breathe.  Replacing the render on the south side, and reinstating blocked and demolished chimneys are among the structural projects in the offing.  The top floor, (once our flat) is to be re-integrated into the house, and so the removal of the 1960’s stair wing is even a possibility. Susan is also turning her hand to the garden.

Across the road from the present entrance to Castle Hill is the walled kitchen garden, degraded at one side because part of the wall was demolished to provide building stone for the 1960s wing.  For much of the past decades it has grown weed trees and brambles, while tenants of the peripheral parts of Castle Hill have made forlorn efforts at gardening the centre.  For the first year, Susan has brought much of the garden back into cultivation.  It too was probably once grander than it now appears.  The tithe and OS map show the south facing north end of the garden to have been of a curving outline, with the land behind it designated “waste ground”.  Though no trace remains at the surface this suggests a brick lined fruit wall, perhaps with glazing  or rolling screens to protect plums, pears or nectarines from the frost.  The gentry houses of Llanerchaeron and Nanteos had such fruit walls, and so did some of the ‘second division’ estates, like Blaenpant.   Castle Hill may be seen as a modestly sized, but very classy new-build of its day.  Samuel Rush Meyrick in 1810 remarked upon John Williams’ planting  of “forest trees and firs to a very large amount”.  His son, or daughter in law probably added the 19th century exotic trees, a fine tulip tree and a cedar of Lebanon.

A huge tulip tree stands at the division between the front and rear approaches to the house

 

 

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Exploring Llanrhystud

This year the Ceredigion Historical Society visited Llanrhystud, on that glorious Saturday when so many were indoors watching Megan and Harry’s nuptials or the FA Cup final.

It is a quiet spot, in which the much-enlarged Victorian church  sits immediately beside the Baptist chapel.  We visited both.  The former is an early work by church architect R.K. Penson and is notable for its stone spire.  Spires are almost unknown in this county but where they do occur they are more usually built of timber and slate.  (There was formerly a tall narrow timber spire on Llandygwydd church, which warped so badly it was taken down in 1913 after just 56 years, the whole church being demolished in 2000). From my childhood I remember recognizing Chesterfield from the train by its warped and twisted spire, malformed as its timbers aged and shrank.  No chance of warping with Llanrhystud’s  chunky construction.

When the rebuild was completed in 1854 the old memorials were swept away.  Most touching of the new ones is the fine white marble wall memorial to Mary Anne wife of John Hughes of Allt-lwyd and daughter of Alban TJ Gwynne of Monachty, who died in childbirth aged just 22 in 1833.  Her child, a daughter lived only eight days beyond her, a reminder of the harsh obstetric hazards of the times.

The group then set off down the coast to visit the lime kilns.  It is hard to imagine the hive of industry at this spot 150 years ago.  The beach at low tide shows the remnants of timber jetties, trackways and stone constructions where the boats came in to unload their cargoes of limestone and coal.  Four massive stone kilns stand just above the beach now largely hidden in a thicket of sloe and may.  We learnt that the different limestones have different uses:  that from the Pembrokeshire  makes good agricultural lime, while that from the Glamorgan coast ( often specified by local architects as Aberthaw Lime) makes a strong cement. Most of the kilns have three corbelled apertures or draw holes, allowing the draught to be adjusted in the light of wind conditions.

The Llanrhystud lime kilns, now overgrown with sloe and may

One of the Llanrhystud lime kilns with draw holes on three sides

remnants of a dry stone harbour on the beach below the Llanrhystud lime kilns

Our final visit was to Felin Ganol watermill not far from the ford across the Wyre.  In the early 20th Century this was still a hive of industry, the waterpower  driving millstones to grind locally-produced corn, and also generating electricity and driving carpenters’ machinery in the loft.  By the 1970s it was sold to new owners who preserved the historic interior and planted a fine Ginkgo in the formerly utilitarian back garden.  It fell to enthusiasts Andrew and Anne Parry, who arrived 12 years ago to actually get it working once more.

The restored leat now fills the millpond above the house, and at the tug of a lever we watched the wheel creak, grumble and slowly come to life.  Then a gentle steady chugging sound fills the buildings as we watched the great cogged wheels transfer the energy to the two spindles which drive two pairs of millstones, and to the sieve which separates the grindings into white flour, semolina ( a coarser grind) and bran.

Felin Ganol, the waterwheel starts to turn.

Felin Ganol, the mill pond supplies the head of water to run the mill for several hours

The products of milling have paid for the restoration, and Anne, whose background at IBERS explains her thorough knowledge of grain, has sourced heritage strains of wheat oats and rye varieties to mill.   I came away with a kilo bag of semolina flour, a fine grain which feels like very soft sand between the fingers.  At £2.50 its not cheap, but it brought a nutty flavour to my homemade quiche and made me realize how anodyne plain white steel-milled flour is as an ingredient.

Felin Ganol, the loft beside the mill pond houses carpentry benches and a rat proof grain store

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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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Some puzzling pictures of Hafod

by the Curious Scribbler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Llandygwydd Font

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A later repair to the rim of the font

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

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

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

The daisy wheel design

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

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

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More on Mariamne’s ‘Bookplate’

by The Curious Scribbler

Following last week’s blog I have had a most informative communication from Tom Lloyd, renowned bibliophile and Wales Herald of Arms.  His comments raise questions: for whom and for what purpose was this embellished crest engraved?

The ‘bookplate’ in Mariamne’s book

Tom writes:

One must not get too excited about small bits of paper……. but this is
potentially very interesting. I have seen another copy of this highly
decorative engraved coat of arms before, not stuck into a book and cut very
close around the engraved arms, so that it did not look like a bookplate.
And indeed the fact it does not have an engraved name under it begs the
question of what is it.

It has always struck Welsh bibliophiles as odd that Thomas Johnes never had
a bookplate for himself, even though his father, who was by no means so
famously studious, did. But this charming engraving in Mariamne’s book does
not look like a typical bookplate, certainly even less like a man’s one with
such a profusion of floral decoration, and of course with no owner’s name
engraved beneath.

So my first conclusion is that this is an engraving made after a drawing
sketched by Mariamne herself, very probably as a gift for her father. As
emphasised in “Peacocks in Paradise”, she was a brilliant botanist, and her
beautifully even copper-plate signature reveals a highly trained hand. It is
definitely not a bookplate made for Mariamne herself, since women did not
bear crests above their arms and as an unmarried daughter, her coat of arms
would have been shown within a lozenge (a diamond shape) not on a shield.

Bookplates were also engraved on small rectangles of copper only a little
larger than the engraved image, so that one can often see impressed in the
paper the edge of the copper plate, which I cannot see in your photo. So I
think that this engraving was engraved onto a larger copper sheet with this
copy of the resulting print cut down to fit inside this book.

Being a remarkable and wonderful escapee from the great fire of 1807, we
cannot know what other helpful evidence has been lost, but this is the first
time I have ever seen this engraving stuck in a book, acting as a bookplate.
It is a most beautiful design and meticulously engraved (no doubt in London)
but its original intended purpose must remain unknown. It was not used in
anything published at the Hafod Press.

I have spent years looking for a book from Hafod (as opposed to printed there), but the nearest was to see one that had belonged to Thomas’s brother – expensive and of no interest.”

So what a coup for the Ceredigion County Archive and indeed the donor of this little book of forgettable plays!  The arms are  those of Thomas Johnes, but now we know that, being set in  a shield  rather than a lozenge, it is a masculine symbol, notwithstanding the abundant swags of flowers.  The crest is also a masculine symbol, depicting crossed battleaxes in saltire proper, (a diagonal cross), but what is that cheeky chough doing standing on them?

The Johnes coat of arms, with embellishments, perhaps by a feminine hand?

Perhaps another book with this this device glued into it may one day come to light.

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