On Myths and Misinformation at Nanteos

by The Curious Scribbler

Nanteos Mansion, seat of the Powells

Nanteos Mansion, seat of the Powells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nanteos Cup

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

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

sculpture in the labyrinth representing the Nanteos cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Building the Old College

by The Curious Scribbler

An old photograph showing the building of The Castle Hotel, now the Old College, Aberystwyth, recently came to my attention.

The Old College Aberystwyth 1864

The Old College Aberystwyth 1864                      Copyright William Michael Clarke

MichaeI Statham, an indefatigable quester among archives, found it in the archive held by William Michael Clarke a civil engineer and the fifth generation descendent of the Llandaff mason who worked on Thomas Savin’s short-lived Castle Hotel at Aberystwyth.

I am told that Edward Clarke mason/sculptor was active 1835 to 1878.  He was followed in the business by William Clarke (active 1871 – 1915 mason/sculptor)  then Thomas Guy Clarke (active c1900 – 1942 quantity surveyor and designer) then another William Clarke (builder) and now William Michael Clarke (civil engineer) who is the last in line – the firm will cease to exist when he retires.The archive also contains photos dating from Edward Clarke’s time  of  Llandaff cathedral and of Ettington Park, Warwickshire.   Clarke worked with Llandaff architect John Pritchard on both, and J.P.  Seddon was, at the time Prichard’s partner.
I find that the Aberystwyth photo is already well known, an identical copy existing in Aberystwyth University Archive and reproduced in a recent pamphlet Yr Hen Goleg/The Old College by Elgan Philip Davies (Gomer 2011).  In it Davies writes that the haste with which the building was being constructed, by 500 men directed by the architect J.P. Seddon, meant that form of the port cochere or carriage porch  was the result of builder’s initiative as there were no plans available when they commenced work.  J.R. Webster, in his book Old College Aberystwyth (University of Wales Press 1995) however states that the unusual  triangular footprint of the porch was adapted by Seddon, whose initial plan was to more or less reproduce the four square porch he had built at Ettington Park.  In either case, Clarke and Seddon had common experience of the Ettington build,and there was doubtless scope for creativity by Edward Clarke. The existence of this old photo in his archive perhaps reflects the pride which all took in this ornate entrance.

Close scrutiny of the picture reveals the precarious nature of the timber scaffolding of the day and the presence of at least three gentlemen whose clothing depicts their higher status.  It is pleasing to guess that the two top hatted gentlemen on the upper and lower platforms might have been J.P. Seddon the architect and Thomas Savin the entrepreneur who bankrolled the hotel.  But there is another figure, a decidedly dandified young man in pale trousers and waistcoat, balancing on a single pole to the right hand side of the picture.  Who I wonder was he?

Could this be Thmas Salvin?

Could this be Thomas Savin?

Could this be Edward Clarke?

Could this be J.P. Seddon?

And who is this elegant young man?

And who is this elegant young man?

The Castle Hotel opened for business in June 1865 still unfinished, and closed a year later due to insolvency.  It was then acquired for £10,000 in 1867 to house the University College of Wales.  Today it is somewhat forlorn, the University staff occupants have largely fled, relocated to the main campus on the hill and ambitious proposals are being discussed for its future refurbishment and use.  But its massive ornate bulk is one of the defining features of the town and for many, a symbol of the pioneering beginning of University education in Wales.

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Triplets at Upton Castle and Quads at Ysbyty Cynfryn

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

Ysbyty Cynfryn church

Ysbyty Cynfryn church

Graves of Isaac Hughes and his six children

Graves of Isaac Hughes and his six children

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

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

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

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

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

The chapel at Upton Castle

The 13C chapel at Upton Castle

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

The triplets born at Upton castle

The triplets born at Upton castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dracunculus a gothick arum

In April I was in Western Crete in the company of a group of botanical enthusiasts. One of the most truly memorable plants, ( not rare, but spectacular) was Dracunculus vulgaris var. creticus The Dragon Arum. I photographed it repeatedly in the scrubby roadside on the Akrotiri peninsula.  As with meeting a group of giraffes on safari, each individual you see seems more unique and and exquisite than the last.

The spectacular spathe of the Dragon Arum

We were all of us equally enthused, exploring among the scrub on the stoney slopes, brandishing i-phones, tablets and cameras, getting in close to verify the alleged powerful and disgusting odour of the flower.

John Corfield seeks the Dragon Arum

Ruth Griffiths verifies the odour

 

Andrew Agnew spotted our first Dracunculus

The stem is thick, fleshy, pale, and sinisterly mottled in purple blotches, and rises up to a metre from the poor earth.  The luxuriant leaves are deeply cut into leaflets and mottled in white, while the chocolate-purple coloured spadix extends from the silky purple enfolding spathe.    Certainly a plant which evokes a sense of drama  –  a Little Shop of Horrors sort of plant.

A month later I was viewing a selection of botanical volumes in the Roderic Bowen Library at Lampeter.  And here, blazing out from the page of a magnificent folio sized volume published in 1799 was my newest favourite flower!  The book was The Temple of Flora by Robert John Thornton  a ‘coffee table’ book for the gentlemen returned from the Grand Tour of Europe.  The bloom, exquisitely rendered in glowing colour, is framed against the eruption of Vesuvius for added drama.

Illustration in Thornton’s Temple of Flora ( 1799)
by kind permission of:
Roderic Bowen Library and Archives
University of Wales Trinity Saint David

And the text tends even further towards the gothick than our own impressions.  After some well-selected phrases  ” a horrid spear of darkest jet”  … “a noisome vapour infecting the ambient air”… the author turns to the poetic works of Frances Arabella Rowden to do full justice to the malign possibilities of Dracunculus:

 

by kind permission of: Roderic Bowen Library and Archives University of Wales Trinity Saint David

by kind permission of:
Roderic Bowen Library and Archives, University of Wales Trinity Saint David

 

Arums are generally poisinous, but the theatrical appeal of this plant has perhaps led to some over-exaggeration.  Dioscorides instead was obviously taken by the sexual connotations of the plant’s appearance for he recorded that “being drunk with wine, it stirs up the vehement desires to  coniunction”.  Not quite so fatal then,  and we don’t really know whether the desires were fanned by the arum or the wine!

I understand that Thornton’s book, in which the 28 colour plates, employing the finest artists and reprographic techniques, bankrupted him as the wealthy clients whom he expected to buy his book suffered financial setbacks through the Napoleonic wars.  It is very tempting to imagine a copy of this book spread open in Thomas Johnes’  octagon library at Hafod, and to picture him and Jane Johnes ogling the illustrations  and sending for a Dracunculus, and perhaps an insectivorous Sarracenia and a night-flowering Cereus (both also illustrated) to grow in their Nash conservatory.  Johnes very possibly did have a copy of The Temple of Flora, but it would have gone up in flames in the disastrous fire of 1807, and there is no record of just what his library contained.  It is thanks to the London Welshman, Thomas Phillips, East Indian Company Surgeon, that The Founder’s Library at Lampeter received a copy of this, and many other rare books in the mid 19th century.

The book, and many others may be seen, by appointment at the Roderic Bowen Library http://www.uwtsd.ac.uk/rbla/

There is an online exhibition listing the botanical volumes in the collection.http://www.uwtsd.ac.uk/rbla/online-exhibitions/from-herbals-to-floras

Poring over the exhibition by kind permission of:
Roderic Bowen Library and Archives, University of Wales Trinity Saint David

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The Nanteos Racehorses

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Edward Powell in costume of Lord Lieutenant of Cardiganshire

William Edward Powell in costume of Lord Lieutenant of Cardiganshire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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A walk at Borth

by The Curious Scribbler

There has always been something reassuringly bleak about Borth.   A treeless ribbon of buildings along either side of a road built along the storm beach.  Some of the cuter buildings are one storey cottages,  fashioned out of rounded beach boulders and roofed in slate, homes of long departed fishermen and mariners.  Then there is the surge of late nineteenth and early 20th century buildings, more suburban in style, detached and terraced houses of two or even three storeys dwarfing the original inhabitants of the bar.  These houses all face inwards onto the road, but the seaward rears of those on the western side are were always battened down come autumn with variously makeshift shutters and boarding designed to keep out the winter storms.  For winter storms regularly lash Borth, bursting over the seaward houses and showering beach pebbles through the gaps onto the road.

And that is why Borth has recently been undergoing drastic alterations,  new sea defences involving great berms of boulders out in the sea, and a huge unsightly reshaping of the foreshore adjoining the southern part of the village.  On summer days a decade ago one could walk through a gap between the houses and immediately emerge onto a natural strand of big rounded beach stones, then descend to a truly wonderful vast sandy beach, punctuated by aging wooden groynes, and lapped by an endless sequence of lazy small rollers lapping on the shore.  We would buy pizzas and eat them on the stones on a summer evening, and then go in for a last dip swimming and bodyboarding before heading home.

But last week it was not a day for swimming, and the second phase of the new sea defences was well under way.  Huge yellow diggers on caterpilllar tracks articulated their giant scoops in the shore and Volvo dumper lorries roared back and forth along the once pristine sands.  The groins were being plucked out by  another machine, like toothpicks from the sand.  A pile of stones destined for another berm reared high as houses, dwarfing the municipal loo nearby.  The shore was entirely churned and dominated by the machines, digging out the peat and clay below the intertidal zone and transporting the excess material up to big waste piles by the promenade.

Diggers parked by the Public Conveniences on Borth sea front.  A huge stone pile awaits its final location on the lower shore.

Diggers parked by the Public Conveniences on Borth sea front. A huge stone pile awaits its final location on the lower shore.

Diggers and dumper lorries at Borth.

Diggers and dumper lorries at Borth.

Clay and peat dug out from the lower shore at Borth.

Clay and peat dug out from the lower shore at Borth.

 

I returned on the Sunday, when the site was quiet.  Inside the security fencing on the upper shore were caches of materials and site waste:  excavated clay and peat, old Victorian  pilings with armoured metal points,  and quarried boulders trucked in from Pembrokeshire. But there was another category of waste : piles of tree stumps, their roots frayed and yellow where they have been torn from the ground, their  bark still scaly and intact though waterlogged.

Ancient tree stumps for the submerged forest, dug out during the storm defence work at Borth.

Ancient tree stumps from the submerged forest, dug out during the storm defence work at Borth.

 

 

Lumps of excavated clay  laced with roots descending from what was once the surface of the forest floor.

Lumps of excavated clay laced with roots descending from what was once the surface of the forest floor.

The trees have come out of the grey clay in the intertidal zone, and are 6000-10000 years old remnants like the more familiar ‘fossil forest’ which gets exposed at low tide on this beach when the sands shift.  They look much fresher that those, perhaps because they have been entombed in sediment rather than smoothed and battered by the waves.  The giant diggers unearthed them when preparing platforms for the new berms on the lower shore.

They are piled up in tangled heaps now, each with a survey label attached, and destined to go off to Lampeter University for carbon dating and other tests.  The old legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod has never seemed more convincing. Judging by the scaley bark, many of these trees appear to have been pine trees, which formed a forest west of Borth when sea levels were lower. And they all look much of an age, and as if some catastrophe resulted in their preservation.

This ancient tree looks like a pine, formerly growing west of Borth village.

This ancient tree looks like a pine, which formerly grew west of Borth village.

 

Was it really a gradual rise of sea level which killed them?  If so, would they not have died standing, and rotted and weathered over the years?  Or was there  a sudden breach of a shingle bar which formerly marked the coastal margin further out to the west, and swiftly brought about their burial in sediment?   If that is the case it’s not a far cry from the old legend of the drunk Welsh prince Seithenyn, who one night forgot to close the sluice gates to the kingdom as the tide rose.

 

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Rutelli’s naked lady at Aberystwyth

by The Curious Scribbler

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Rutelli Truth emerging from the bushes 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nobody wants the Queen’s Hotel

by the Curious Scribbler

I mentioned in my last blog the cutting-edge luxury of the former Queen’s Hotel on the northern end of the promenade.  Opened on the newly extended promenade in 1866 its grand bedrooms offered hot and cold running water, – both fresh and salt –  allowing the guests to enjoy the advantages of sea immersion in the comfort and privacy of their rooms.  It was an extravagantly fashionable building, blending the traditional grey local stone with imported sandstone window dressings, and topped off with a frenchified mansard roof pierced by attic dormers.  The building rises from a basement to four storeys, even a fifth storey at the corner tower, and the observant passerby can find ornamental assemblages of minerals set in panels in the stonework beneath the ground floor windows on three sides of the building. It was designed by the London architects C.F. Hayward and H.D. Davies.

The Queens Hotel, forlorn and for sale

The Queen’s Hotel, forlorn and for sale

The Queen's Hotel and former Council Offices, Aberystwyth

The Queen’s Hotel and former Council Offices,
Aberystwyth

The business was not very successful and sold by its proprietor in 1877.  However it continued as a hotel and in 1910 an advertising pamphlet emphasized the ‘package deals’ of train fare and accommodation, which could be purchased from Great Western Railway stations in low season.   The particulars of a Contents Sales in 1914 show that it was then richly furnished with lots of high Victorian mahogany furniture, jardinieres and bronze marble-topped tables.  It remained in service as a hotel with 100 bedrooms and a dining room seating 180 until requisitioned in World War II.  In 1950 a five day sale disposed of the entire contents of the hotel and nearby stabling.    The empty building was acquired for ‘Swyddfa’r Sir’ the County Offices, and  in the past decades it has housed many departments including the Police Station, the Registry Office, and the Ceredigion County Archive.  One by one these functions have moved away, the first two to purpose-built palaces on St Brieuc Avenue, the County Archive to a restored and renewed Town Hall.  Empty and forlorn for the last couple of years, the Queen’s had a brief starring role as a location for the TV drama Hinterland.  A case of art imitating life:  the old building was cast as the Police Station!

After 18 months on the market for £1 million the building has attracted no buyers, and will be auctioned in London by Allsop’s on 18 September.  Startlingly at a time when £275,000 is the price for a one-roomed house with bed shelf in Islington, a mere £250,000 is the guide price for this gigantic Victorian hulk on our seafront!  The stately old building is Lot 171 amongst a national assortment of 285 frankly rather ordinary houses and flats.     It is, at least, expected to raise more money than Lot 236, a bankrupt guest house in Rhyl.   Aberystwyth waits anxiously to learn who the next owner will be.

For more on the Queen’s Hotel see Helen Palmer’s informative blog on https://archifdyceredigionarchives.wordpress.com/2014/09/05/memories-lost-and-found-swyddfar-sir-and-ceredigion-archives/

 

A geological panel below a window on the Queen's Hotel

A geological panel below a window on the Queen’s Hotel

A geological panel below a window on the Queen's Hotel

Another geological panel below a window on the Queen’s Hotel

A geological panel below a window on the Queen's Hotel

A third geological panel below a window on the Queen’s Hotel

 

 

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Aberystwyth’s Bathrock Shelter resurrected

 

Pristine and restored, the Bathrocks shelter

Pristine and restored, the Bathrock shelter on a chilly afternoon, 21 August 2014

Back in its rightful place, after the terrible drubbing during the storm of 3-6 January,  is the neo-Georgian shelter on the Aberystwyth Promenade.  It was publicly reopened last Saturday with the mayor, the Chairman of the County Council, the MP and other dignitaries in attendance.  It is salutory to remember that the Cadw listing recently bestowed on the building probably saved its life.  There were until three years ago two such shelters on the promenade, the smaller of which was demolished and removed in January 2011.  The surviving Bathrock Shelter was listed Grade II shortly afterwards.

The name of the shelter ‘Bathrock’ alludes to a former building in this position:  Dr Rice William’s Marine Baths which were built in 1810.  At the time they were the most northerly feature on the sea front, a two storey building providing Aberystwyth’s visitors with the curative benefits of sea water served in a variety of ways in a situation of complete privacy.  Each private room provided a bath ‘six feet long and two and a half wide, lined with Dutch tile, which being much less porous than marble, is more effectually cleansed from all impurities to which they are liable’.  Baths could be taken cold or hot, and in the form of a plunge bath, a vapour bath or a shower.  Boilers heated the water, and the visitors could be further assured that the water was drawn along cast iron pipes reaching far out into the bay.  The spectre of inshore pollution from other bathers, or the donkeys pulling bathing huts, could thereby be avoided.

The baths eventually closed in 1892.  Bathing was still in vogue but  by this time for those requiring an indoor experience, there was a new bath house on Bath Street, which instead boasted the Chalybeate waters of a nearby spring, while at the Queen’s Hotel on the promenade the guests enjoyed taps dispensing, hot water, cold water and sea water into their baths.  The promenade was being extended in a northerly direction, and the remains of the old marine baths were incorporated into it,  roughly filled, it seems, with rubble from the demolition.  In 1924 a new shelter, glazed down its spine and providing seating facing in each direction, was erected on the curved prominence above bath rocks.

The remains of the old bath house was unexpectedly revealed to view when the winter storm tore away the stone facing of the promenade.  The sea soon excavated a hole through which the rubble fill was sucked away exposing a sea cave beneath the shelter.  It was a man-made cave, with walls, partitions and even a fireplace.  As the concrete pad on which the shelter stands collapsed into the void, the building flexed, twisted and subsided into the hole.   Police stood by to prevent incautious exploration, and in the following weeks the damaged structure was dismantled and stored pending restoration.

By January 7th 2014 the Bathrock Shelter was subsiding into the hole below

On January 7th 2014 the Bathrock Shelter was subsiding into the hole below

The Hole which opened under the Bathrock Shelter on 4 January 2014

The Hole which opened under the Bathrock Shelter on 4 January 2014

 

The partitions of the rooms of the old bathhouse could be clearly seen.

The partitions of the rooms of the old bathhouse could be clearly seen.

The shelter is the last item in a programme of repair of the promenade which was in the main completed before the season began at Easter.  In the blazing days of July, when temperatures often exceeded those in Spain, and the sea temperature reached a balmy 17C the old timbers of the restored and replaced shelter was await their first coat of paint.

On 6 July 2014  the shelter was back, but  yet to be painted.

On 6 July 2014 the shelter was back, but yet to be painted.

Now the weather has turned grey and cold, and in the coming winter it will be particularly appreciated as a windbreak on the bracing seafront.

Necessary shelter on a chilly afternoon.  21 August 2014

Necessary shelter on a chilly afternoon. 21 August 2014

 

 

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New gardens on the Rheidol Railway

by The Curious Scribbler

For the first time in 28 years, I travelled with members of my family on the Vale of Rheidol Railway, which puffs its way sedately from Aberystwyth to Devil’s Bridge, laden with tourists. My previous journey was described in this blog on February 10 2014. http://www.letterfromaberystwyth.co.uk/historic-derailment-on-the-devils-bridge-railway/  It had been abruptly curtailed on the return journey by its derailment near Nantyronen.

On this year’s journey ours was a special, stopping train, which halted at every station along the route. The passengers, members of the Cardiganshire Horticultural Society and the Ceredigion Welsh Historic Gardens Trust were bent on visiting the latest developments, – newly planted railway gardens at each of the stations and halts along the line.

Inspecting the trough at Capel Bangor station

The whole operation has prospered under the charitable trust which bought the railway from British Rail twenty five years ago. There is a substantial new engine shed with brick built gable ends near the station at Aberystwyth, and an attractive private car park dedicated only to Rheidol Railway travellers. At every halt the station buildings have been smartly restored and painted in the railway livery of cream and brown. At Aberffrwd one can play at stationmaster with the old telephone and ticket shelves in the corrugated iron and pitch pine building. At other halts a newly installed but tastefully gothic corrugated iron shelter protects waiting passengers from the elements. The latest initiative has been to create gardens such as might have been tended by proud stationmasters along the route. These have been planted and tended by local volunteers.

At Capel Bangor we alighted near a raised bed margined by railway sleepers planted with Victorian formality. French marigolds in yellow and orange framed taller plantings of pink cistus and the statuesque Bishop of Llandaff dahlia. The line divides to serve both platforms here, and they are adorned with stout barrels. I particularly liked the one containing a standard bay tree underplanted with brilliant red geraniums which echoed the signage on the picket fence beyond.

Capel Bangor Station

Tub on Capel Bangor Station

At Nantyronen the French marigolds were to be found again, but this time in long raised troughs along the platform and interplanted with verbenas and other bedding plants.

Nantyronen Station

Nantyronen

Troughs at Nantryonen

At Aberffrwd a more ambitious border between the platform and the fence was planted with perennials, Canterbury bells, peonies, astrantia, Erisymum ‘Bowles Mauve’ and Japanese Anemones.

Here the volunteers were distraught, on the eve of the station’s official re-opening by Tourism and Transport Minister Edwina Hart, to find that many of the flowering stems had been snipped off some 10inches above the ground. Close inspection revealed rabbits to be the culprits, apparently reaching up to nibble off the flower stems and eat the flowers.   Hasty replanting with colourful osteospermums filled in for some of the losses. Rabbit repulsion in a rural area remains a challenging goal.

Inspecting the border at Aberffrwd

Rabbit damage

Less toothsome to rabbits and very much in keeping with the landscape is the slope on the side facing the platform, which has been planted as a sedum bed, in which the name of the station is spelt out in white painted river stones.

Sedum border at Aberffrwd

The line divides again here, and it was nice to watch the downward train exchange batons with our driver and continue on its way.

Trains pass the baton at Aberffrwd

We paused at The Rheidol Falls stop, to see the azalea planting and a clematis montana which will soon gallop exuberantly along the fence.

Fire buckets at Devil’s Bridge

We dismounted at Devil’s Bridge to find four red fire buckets planted with gaudy gazanias. After a lavish lunch at the Two Hoots Cafe we rattled back down to Aberystwyth with just a pause at Rhiwfron, the other high altitude stop. Here the visitor looks out northward across the valley to the cream and gold spoil tips of mining on the other side. A hundred years has not diminished its mineral toxicity, and only a few trees have gained foothold on these slopes.

Spoil tips viewed from Rhiwfron Halt

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