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

Share Button

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.

Share Button

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.

Share Button

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.

Share Button

Mariamne Johnes’ bookplate

by The Curious Scribbler

Helen Palmer at the Ceredigion County Archive has drawn to my attention a new acquisition, a little white calf-bound volume which once belonged to Hafod’s famous daughter Mariamne Johnes.  Pasted inside the front cover is a handsome bookplate and, apparently in her own hand, her signature Mariamne Johnes 1801.  She turned seventeen that year.

Mariamne’s bookplate

The shield at the centre of the bookplate shows the Johnes arms, which are described as “argent a chevron sable between three revens proper, within a bordure gules bezantee”.  The floriferous drapes around it are perhaps embellishments for a ladies collection.

Title page Theatre de M. de Florian. 1786

The small calf-bound volume

The seventeen year old Mariamne in addition to her botanical accomplishments which fuelled her friendship and correspondence with Sir James Edward Smith, was being trained in the appropriate skills of a young gentlewoman: watercolour painting, languages and music.  The only known portrait of her is an ink and wash sketch, dated 1804, by George Cumberland.  It depicts her standing and presumably singing for her Italian music teacher Signor Viganoni. It is nice to imagine her reading and perhaps rehearsing her french pronunciation with this little book.

This little volume, Theatre de M.de Florian contains three short plays, and I spent the afternoon perusing the first, which was entitled  Jeannot et Colin, Comedie en Troi Actes en Prose. First performance 14 November 1780.    It evokes a time when gentlefolk might themselves put on a little performance in the drawing room.  The cast consists five principals, and a couple of servants, the bailiff and the valet.  As comedies go it was neither racy nor particularly funny, but it explores the sedate themes of class, wealth and marriage.

Up from the country, the Auvergne, come bourgeois Colin and his sister Colette, wishing to renew acquaintance with their former friend Jeannot, who had been Colette’s sweetheart until he and his mother departed that region.  Now living in Paris, Jeannot is  a free-spending Marquis, and his mother the Marquise has plans to marry him to the Comptesse de Orville.  Colin and Colette’s arrival at their door promotes some unease, and subterfuge, mediated by the Jeeves-like valet, to prevent a meeting.

Of course they do meet, and Jeannot’s love is immediately rekindled for the modest and lovely Colette.  By Act II he explains his predicament “ I am the unhappiest of men, I depend upon my mother, my fortune is her achievement, I owe her everything, I owe her the sacrifice of my happiness”.  He must marry at his mother’s direction.

Fortunately in Act III it turns out that thanks to a lawsuit Jeannot and his mum are about to lose all their money, and their friends no longer wish to know them.  Nor does the Comptesse de Orville, who hasn’t found Jeannot very agreeable at dinner. So true love triumphs and it turns out that Colin can reunite the Marquise with her country property in the Auvergne, and Colin, to boot, is a successful manufacturer who can pay a fine dowry for his sister.

It is a curiousity of Mariamne’s life that despite her father’s conspicuous wealth and status, there is no surviving evidence of any suitors. We do know from Thomas Johnes’ letters that Mariamne suffered bouts of severe ill health from the age of ten: fevers, rashes, tumours and a curvature of the spine for which she was for a while fitted with a back brace.  But for much of the last ten years of her life  ( she died at 27)  she seems to have been in reasonable physical health, walked long distances, and visited Bath Bristol and London with her parents.  Possibly small romantic volumes such as this one served as the Mills and Boon of the day.

Share Button

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.

Share Button

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 .

Share Button

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.

 

 

Share Button

Ransome’s Artificial Stone at The Old College, Aberystwth

by The Curious Scribbler

The professional geologists who joined Dr Tim Palmer for his tour of the building materials of the Old College last month were to be seen, pondering, with hand-lenses, on the grand stair which leads off from the entrance lobby on the landward side of the Old College.  What, they debated, was the strangely uniform textured stone of which the cylindrical pillars are constructed?  In a sedimentary rock geologists look for traces of fossils, (there were none),  for bedding,  which represents the layers in which the sediment was laid down, for variations in grain size of the rock.  Part way up the stairs a pillar seemed to contain two largish clasts: lumps of material apparently contained within the stone, but insufficiently different from the matrix to resemble anything familiar to their experience.   We knew, because it had been found in the archive, that Seddon used Ransome’s Artificial Stone in the building, but for which parts, the records did not reveal.

A prolonged online search through Building News,  a weekly trade journal of the 19th century, has provided and illustrated the answer.  In the issue for 14 April 1871 a short article  reported that JP Seddon was to address the Institute of Architects the following Monday on the subject of the Old College and other buildings he had created in or near Aberystwyth  ( Abermad and Victoria Terrace spring to mind).

The Principal Staircase of the University College at Aberystwyth. Building News April 14 1871

The Principal Staircase of the University College at Aberystwyth. Building News April 14 1871

The grand staircase is shown and the accompanying article reads ” The plan of the staircase, as may be sufficiently seen from our view of it, is complex. The first flight leading from the main corridor, which is curved, is a straight one.  Then from the landing a few circular steps wind round each supporting column of the vaulting, and thence another straight flight on each side leads to the corridor on the first floor.  The shafts of the columns are all of Ransome’s patent stone, and the capitals and vaulting are of Bath stone”.  It was these shafts, and the eight-faced plinths beneath them, over which the geologists had been pondering.

Ransome’s Artificial Stone was quite a new product at the time the Old College ( then The Castle Hotel) was being constructed to the design of architect JP Seddon in 1865. It is described in an account of a meeting of the British Association of Science and Art in 1862.  At this meeting Professor Ansted MA, FRS, read a paper on artificial stones describing terracotta, cements and siliceous stone, and the properties and disadvantages of each.  Mr Ransome  was present to stage a demonstration of his technique.

According to the account, sand, limestone or clay was mixed into a paste with liquid sodium silicate, which had been obtained by digesting flints in alkaline solution in an industrial pressure cooker.  The paste could be pressed into a mould and then dipped into a solution of calcium chloride.  Within a few minutes the pasty mass had hardened to stone and could be passed around the room.  Large blocks weighing as much as two tons could be made by this method,  and the material could already be seen in use in new facades of the Metropolitan railway in London.

Ransome’s patent stone was also used for making moulded shaped stones such as gravestones and grindstones for sharpening knives.  It fell from use towards the end of the 19th century and Ransome’s son moved to America and became better known for concrete based materials and a patent horizontal rotary mixer.

Returning to the Old College, it seems there are other likely items of Ransome’s Artificial Stone, such as the distinctive stone fireplace hoods at either end of the Seddon room.  Again lacking in any obvious geological structures, these uniform textured stones interlock with one another and were moulded rather that tooled by a stonemason into their complementary shapes.  Utilizing different colours of sand in the mix allowed the production of alternate dark and light shades in the fireplace arch. The ornamental columns on either side are of real stone, Lizard serpentine, from Cornwall.

Fireplace hood, believed to be of Ransome's artificial stone, in the Seddon Room

Fireplace hood, believed to be of Ransome’s Artificial Stone, in the Seddon Room

The odd looking clasts noted by the geologists inspecting stones in the staircase are now understandable, being  consistent with their origin as distinct lumps within an imperfectly mixed  paste rather than formed by  a process of natural deposition.

The last word in this blog should go to the The Building News of April 14 1871, at which time the newly formed University College was soon to open in their recently acquired and unfinished building.

” We trust that the Committee will resolve upon finishing the work in the same spirit as that in which it was begun, and not spoil it by injudicious economy; for having purchased it for so much less than it cost, as they have done, a certain moral responsibility is attached to the bargain.”

I am not sure that “moral reponsibility” is a useful phrase to use in the current lottery bid to restore and revive this innovative building,  but the intervening years have certainly seen underfunding, and the definitely injudicious application of thick layers of paint to some of the Ransome’s stone columns.

Share Button

Jesse Rust mosaics in Aberystwyth

by The Curious Scribbler

Last week I attended a Cadw Open Day at the Old College, where Dr Tim Palmer gave a lecture on the the building stones of which this Grade I Listed building is made.  The Old College has  suffered various set backs in its life:  the bankruptcy of its first owner, a devastating fire in the Chemistry department, the reconstruction of its south and middle sections, and the slow ravages of the erosive salt-laden winds.  We learned how new phases and different architects brought in different materials, so that the Old College now boasts at least nine different sources of stone.

Historically the most interesting work is that of J.P. Seddon, designer of the building destined to become Thomas Savin’s grand railway terminus hotel.  He used Cefn sandstone from Ruabon for the walling and  Box Ground stone from Bath for the carved window dressings and details.  Keen to achieve a vibrant range of colours he used Hanham Blue from Bristol for the exterior pillars which flank windows on the seaward side, and ornamental marbles from Devon and Cornwall for interior pillars in the Dining Room and Bar ( now the Seddon Room). The intricate gothic main staircase proves to be made largely of a long forgotten composite: Ransome’s Artificial Stone, which betrays its man -made origins only by its remarkably uniform texture.  Externally, when completing the upper storey of the building to the University College’s more parsimonious requirements, Seddon used dark concrete blocks, interspersed with diagonal bands of pale Dundry stone.

The rather austere central block by Ferguson uses a different stone, Grinshill sandstone from near Shrewsbury, while 20th century restorations brought in a sandstone from Durham, which is weathering as severely as the Bath stone which it replaced.

When rebuilding the southern wing of the College  as the Science Wing in 1887, Seddon commissioned his former pupil C.F.A.Voysey to design the distinctive triptych mosaic which still adorns the curved end of the building, looming over the crazy golf and the castle.  It depicts pure science being respectfully presented with the fruits of applied science ( a train and a ship) by two acolytes.  Seddon recorded in 1898  that some months after the mosaic was installed, the college authorities objected to  Voysey’s religious symbolism in the central panel, which ‘suggested a conflict between science and dogma’. Seddon was obliged to alter the finished mosaic, such that Science now sits on an unadorned wall.

The tryptych on the South wing Copyright Dr Tom Holt, UA

The tryptych on the South Wing, Old College Aberystwyth
Copyright Dr Tom Holt, Aberystwyth Univeristy

But the actual manufacturer of the mosaic is not generally known.  Tim Palmer drew our attention to another of J.P. Seddon’s commissions in Aberystwyth, the restoration of the ancient church of St Padarn, in Llanbadarn Fawr in 1878.  Visitors  “in the know” can peel back the red carpet in the crossing to reveal the extensive mosaic floor, in which geometric designs of tiny 1/2 inch tesserae frame regularly placed encaustic tiles depicting saints and angels.  Adjoining the red marble steps to the chancel, the mosaics take more fluid naturalistic designs of leaves and flowers.

Mosaic floor by Jesse Rust, St Padarn's Church, Llanbadarn

Mosaic floor by Jesse Rust, St Padarn’s Church, Llanbadarn

An encaustic tile depicting an angel, wet in mosaic floor

Encaustic picture tiles depicting a saint offering his crown, set in mosaic floor, St Padarn’s Church

The church records held at the Ceredigion Archive  show that these mosaics were the work of Jesse Rust of Battersea, who used recycled glass and ceramic pigments to create a rainbow range of tiles and tesserae.  The actual designs were assembled in the workshop, with the upper face stabilised on glued paper, which was stripped away to reveal the picture once the sections were stuck in place on the church floor.

Tim Palmer drew our attention to the strong likelihood that Voysey’s mosaic on the Old College was also manufactured by Jesse Rust of Battersea.  Juxtaposing the colourful image of Science  with the design sample held by the Victoria and Albert Museum, showed a very good correspondence with the palette of colours his firm offered.

Jesse Rust samples in V &A set beside CFA Voysey's triptych

Jesse Rust samples in V &A ( left) set beside CFA Voysey’s triptych, Aberystwyth

A bit of reading around the topic shows the prominence of Rust’s elaborately decorative mosaics in the late 19th to early 20th century.    There is a  Listed Grade II astrological mosaic by Jesse Rust at the foot of the Marble staircase in the Hotel Russell, (built 1898) in Russell Square, London, and another  at the old London, Edinburgh and Glasgow Insurance Company offices at 194 Euston Road.

The Mosaic by Jesse Rust at the foot of the marble staircase in the Hotel Russell

The Mosaic by Jesse Rust at the foot of the Pyrenean marble staircase in the Hotel Russell

There is a very colourful floor, with flowers, animals and bees,  recently restored in the foyer of Battersea Old Town Hall and a  World War I memorial floor in John Nash’s circular church All Souls, Langham Place.

Other Jesse Rust work was more functional and by the early 20th century his glass tiles were particularly favoured for lavatories.  Fine examples survive in the painstakingly restored  Sanitary Court at Peckham Rye station. http://www.benedictolooney.co.uk/peckham-rye-station-north-wing-sanitary-courts/

The Sanitary Court, Peckham Rye Station

The Sanitary Court, Peckham Rye Station

A report in the Times 16 June 1904 shows that he provided the floors for its 150 bathrooms and lavatories, and the floor-to-ceiling tiling in the refrigeration rooms in the Savoy Hotel.

Prior to the rebuilding of the Old College Science wing in 1887 there are a number of instances of Seddon and Rust working together.  In 1875 Rust supplied J.P. Seddon with mosaics for a new Victorian Gothic church at Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire which he designed in contrasting shades of red, blue and white brick.  Jesse Rust supplied a particularly jolly mosaic font in the interior, and even a blue mosaic clock face on the church tower.

Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire, designed by JP Seddon

Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire, designed by JP Seddon

Clock face mosaic by Jesse Rust, at Ayot St Peter

Clock face mosaic by Jesse Rust, at Ayot St Peter

The Llanbadarn Church floor dates from 1878.   Seddon also did work designing stained glass for Rust, and he designed the front facade of his Battersea premises.

Many of Rust’s functional mosaic floors have probably been cleared away and replaced, for with the passage of time individual tesserae become detached and come away with the sweepings, leaving flaws in the design and dirt traps in the floor.  Llanbadarn Church needs substantial grants to return the mosaic to its former glory, and then dispense with the protective carpet.   But it is pleasing to believe that the Old College building  boasts  probably the most westerly Jesse Rust mosaic. Further research may even reveal the invoice in the University archives.

Share Button