The Llandygwydd Font

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A later repair to the rim of the font

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

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

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

The daisy wheel design

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

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

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A new era for Strata Florida

by The Curious Scribbler

Strata Florida Abbey

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

 

Strata Florida, at the end of the side road out of Pontrhydfendigaid is possibly one of the least-visited Cadw sites in Wales.

On a normal day, one or two  visitors may be seen passing under the remaining arched romanesque west doorway of the Cistercian abbey church, and perhaps pausing to read the huge memorial slab reminding of us of the traditional belief  that the 14th century poet Dafydd ap Gwilim was buried here under a great yew tree in the graveyard.  Others come  to the adjoining parish church in search of a more recent grave marking the burial in 1756 of a severed leg, and part of the thigh, of  Henry Hughes, who was a cooper by trade.  What accident with an axe, or perhaps a great metal hoop led to this misadventure?  I have read that it was survivable and that the rest of this man was laid to rest in America.  Come the resurrection he would have believed in, his leg and the rest of his body would presumably be reunited over the Atlantic.

This weekend though were two most extraordinary days, in which the field was thronged with vehicles, tents and a marquee, and bands of enthusiasts of all ages gathered in the church for lectures or for tours of the abbey site, the adjoining  farm buildings and the wider landscape.  Just an echo perhaps of the daily bustle of the 12th century when Strata Florida Abbey controlled vast tracts of land, productive of farm produce, timber and minerals.  The event marked the launch of the Strata Florida Project, a concept which has been a twinkle in the eye of Professor David Austin for a couple of decades but now seems set to burst upon the world.

On Saturday morning he was surrounded by a densely packed throng of umbrellas as he explained the importance of the site.  Size alone of the excavated ground plan  shows that it had been a huge monastery, larger indeed than the famed Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire. Professor Austin explained the basis to believe that the abbey church was erected on a preexisting Christian site, and how the ambiguous structure in the centre of the nave floor, which is not quite correctly aligned with the axis of the church, is interpreted as a holy well incorporated, perhaps to honour older beliefs,  when the Cistercians set up a new house in this part of Wales.  The abbey enjoyed the patronage of the Welsh prince Lord Rhys of Deheubarth, and there are clues in the sources of the carved building stones, and in the celtic motifs on the west doorway that local Welsh tradition was not entirely subjugated by the incomers.

On Sunday a lecture by Prof Dafydd Johnston revealed a sense of the grandeur of these medieval buildings, and of the hospitality they offered.  The peripatetic poets of the day wrote praise poems to their hosts, abbots and fine landed  gentlemen, listing their assets, their buildings, farmlands, gardens, wives, offspring, fine food and general generosity.  The picture emerges of soaring oak beams on stone arches, stained glass windows,  a gleaming white tower, and lead so abundant it is described as encasing the church like armour.  These poets were quite literally singing for their supper, and may have exaggerated, but they are a good historical source, perhaps far better than the more introspective utterances of poets today.  In the early 15th century the abbey (which probably did supported Glyndwr’s rebellion) took severe punishment from the English army, who stabled their horses in the Abbey Church.  Abbot Rhys ap Dafydd  is praised for repairing the handsome refectory, and his successor Abbot Morgan for the beauty of the place.

We all know that Henry VIII brought the abbeys, quite literally, crashing down.  The lucky recipients of this redistributed land and buildings were often given  just a year to effectively destroy the monastic structures, perhaps adapting some parts of it for domestic use. Gentry houses thus emerged amongst the ruins.  At Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire which I visited last week, the nave became  a long gallery, the core of a new gentry residence.  Here the great church was largely demolished and cleared away, built into walls and vernacular buildings for miles around, while the refectory became the basis of the 18th century farmhouse Mynachlog Fawr ( or the Stedman House) as it appears in the Buck print of Strata Florida in 1742, and still stands today.

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

That farm has a story of its own, the last 150 years in the ownership of the Arch family of farmers.  Charles Arch, a cherubic octogenarian known to millions as  the announcer voice of the Royal Welsh Show treated a packed church to an elegaic description of his childhood growing up at the farm, and how as errand boy for his mother he would run the one and a half miles to the village, or be hauled from his bed at night by the local doctor to act as gate-opener for a house call to  distant cottages up the gated road across their land.  Most of the audience felt the tears well up as he described how as a young man he realised that the farm could not support three families and elected to seek his living elsewhere.  ” The day I sold the pony, and did away with my dogs – was the saddest day of my life”.  His brother’s family still farm the land, and since the 1970s have occupied a comfortable bungalow not far behind the old house.  With extraordinary patience the Arch family have waited and waited for Strata Florida Project to gain momentum and purchase the old family home and its farm buildings.

Richard Suggett illustrated the importance of this fine old building, barely touched by electricity or indoor plumbing, and with many period features of the 1720s.  There is a paneled parlour on one side of the front door and farm kitchen on the other, in which Charles recollects the bacon hanging from the ceiling and as many as 25 neighbours dining on Friday nights.  The parlour still has its buffet cupboard next to the fireplace (an antecedent of the china display cabinet) an  acanthus frieze painted on the ceiling above the coving, and a frightful didactic overmantle painting on wood above the fireplace.  It depicts youth choosing between the paths of virtue and vice:  the former rather staid and dull, the latter really nasty.  Charles found it chilling as a child.

The Strata Florida Project aspires to restore and interpret all these layers of history and the wider landscape it inhabits.  It reaches out to incorporate into the story every possible Welsh icon:  The Nanteos cup: claimed to have arrived there via Strata Florida Abbey, the White Book of Rhydderch:  possibly transcribed in the scriptorium of Strata Florida,  poet Dafydd ap Gwilim: putatively educated by the monks of Strata Florida.  This quiet backwater may soon become  a hub of historical and modern Welsh culture.

Sunday closed with a procession from the parish church to the putative holy well in the abbey nave led by Father Brian O’Malley, a former Cistercian monk who had yesterday enlightened us with an account of the daily routine of  Cistercian prayer.

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

And displayed for the day in the adjoining ruined chantry chapel was the Nanteos Cup, on loan to its former home, courtesy of Mrs Mirylees the last inheritor of the Nanteos estate, who was also present with her daughter.  For those with a spiritual bent it was an evocative day.

Prayers at the putative Holy Well
Copyright Tom Hutter

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

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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.

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Storm Frank

Not a lot of time for blogging during a family Christmas, but I managed to get almost all the guests out of the house at high tide this morning to enjoy the spectacle of Storm Frank.  Not as destructive as the un-named storm which devastated the prom two years ago, but impressive none the less.

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The Aberystwyth seafront on 30 December 2015

Huge waves break on the bath rocks

Huge waves break on the bath rocks

The Aberytswyth seafront on 30 December 2015

The Aberystwyth seafront on 30 December 2015

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We also went to the harbour, where great bursts of water shot up into the air, and flooded across the breakwater.

Aberystwyth harbour

Aberystwyth harbour

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Lastly to my favourite haunt, Tanybwlch beach,  where the suction of the huge waves grinds and stacks up the dark cobbles on the strand.  Water broke over the whole length of the jetty and streaming in an unbroken sheet over its surface.

Tanybwlch beach pounded by Storm Frank

Tanybwlch beach pounded by Storm Frank

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So unlike the idyllic waves of Christmas Day.

Tanybwlch beach on Christmas day

Tanybwlch beach on Christmas day

 

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Two Thomas Weavers of the 19th century

by The Curious Scribbler

In my last entry I reflected upon the phenomenon whereby volunteer organisations seem to be prone to particularly vicious in-fighting.

Seeking respite from the present I found myself in the library looking for evidence of the long-deceased animal painter, Thomas Weaver 1774–1843. Weaver painted handsome four square portraits of  sheep and cattle with tiny heads and a sturdy leg at each corner.   Unpublished correspondence also shows that Col Phelp of Coston, the father of Laura Powell of Nanteos, would have liked to get Weaver, who lived at Shrewsbury, to paint his daughters.  I did not find any evidence that he actually did so, but, through one of those plausible false alarms I found myself reading the obituary of another gentleman of the same name, a certain Thomas Weaver who died in 1852,  who appears in a bound collection of published sermons on microfilm at the National Library of Wales.  This Thomas Weaver, who was buried at Shrewsbury had served as a clergyman for 53 years.

Much of the sermon was to, 21st century readers, almost intelligible, drawing upon references to very obscure aspects of the old testament, and with a fine rolling oratorial style which made it even more difficult to follow.

However when we got to the biographical part it was far more illuminating.

He obtained his ministerial education at Hoxton College in London: and upon receiving a cordial invitation from the church assembling in this place he settled among them as their pastor in the year 1798: not, however, till after some hesitation about such a step, arising from the depressed nature of the congregation, and the somewhat repulsive aspect, spiritually viewed, of some of its members.  His decision seems to have been made under the advice of a ministerial friend, who, in reference to some of those who were least attractive to him, quaintly and quietly said ” Death will soon help you there”.

His ministry, commenced under such disadvantageous circumstances, proved, by the blessing of God, successful.

Did the funeral congregation allow themselves an approving chuckle at this ‘quaint and quiet counsel’? We seem to be far more reluctant, these days, to publicly count our future blessings in the form of the anticipated death of those of whom we disapprove. How, after all, could the Revd Thomas Weaver be confident that the population of Hoxton would not be swelled by an  equal number younger and healthier, yet equally spiritually repulsive individuals,  perhaps even the spawn of his old adversaries?

Judged with hindsight, it seems to me that to leave posterity with a really nice portrait of a foursquare cow is probably a more enduring form of immortality than ministering to the residents of Hoxton.

A Brindled shorthorn cow bred at Calke.  1831 Thomas Weaver, artist

A brindled shorthorn cow bred at Calke.
1831 Thomas Weaver, artist.    National Trust.

 

 

 

 

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Prohibition on Play at St Marcella’s

by The Curious Scribbler

Here is a handsome notice which stands at the entrance to St Marcella’s (Llanfarchell) Parish Church on the outskirts of Denbigh.  So what is so wrong with play?  Any sort of play?  Indeed what is wrong with enjoyment on consecrated ground?

Forbidding sign in St Marcella’s Churchyard, Denbigh exhorts: DO NO HARM. DO NOT PLUCK THE FLOWERS. DO NOT ALLOW ANYONE TO PLAY

 

St Marcella’s Parish Church, also known as Whitchurch or Eglwys Wen is just east of the fortified town of Denbigh

 

It is well worth overlooking this bleak notice to penetrate this, the grandest of Denbighshire’s medieval churches.  Inside its double nave are reminders of Elizabethan exuberance and of the wealthy and fecund family whose tendrils extend to Cardiganshire, to London and to Chirk Castle. Here is a monumental brass plaque portraying Richard Myddlelton ( who died in 1575) along with his wife and their seven fashionably dressed daughters and nine sons. They are of interest to Cardiganshire historians because one of these sons, Hugh Myddleton was the first great exploiter of the Cardiganshire Mines through leases granted to him in 1617 by James I. Sir Hugh Myddleton had attracted the King’s patronage through an extraordinary civil engineering project, the construction of ‘The New River’ a 38 miles canal cum aqueduct which brought clean water into London from springs at Chadwell and Amwell through Stoke Newington and Hackney to Clerkenwell. Sir Hugh leased Lodge Park, the Gogerddan hunting lodge from Sir John Pryse, and died there in 1631.

One of Hugh Myddleton’s daughters, Hester,  became wife of Sir Richard Pryse of Gogerddan, who was made 1st Baronet in 1641. (Also see letterfromaberystwyth May 14, 2013)

Another Myddleton woman, Jane, had married the powerful Sir John Salusbury and they are commemorated after his death in 1578 by a magnificent painted alabaster tomb celebrating their fecundity.  On one side of the box-shaped tomb are nine sons, eight in armour and one a cleric, while the other side shows four daughters: two fine ladies in ruffs and two swaddled, to indicate their death in infancy.

Alabaster tomb of Sir John Salusbury and his wife Jane

The four daughters of Sir John and Lady Jane Salusbury, two represented as grown women, two swaddled.

The life-size figures lying on the top of the tomb are meticulously represented.  Sir John in armour is equipped with sword on the right, and gloves and helmet at his feet. The hunting knife at his left is complete with a miniature knife and fork set nestled in its scabbard a sort of Elizabethan Swiss army knife!  His wife in her high ruffed dress lies like a doll, the soles of her feet neatly framed by the ruffles of her voluminous petticoats.

Lady Salusbury’s feet

 

Two very disreputable fat little male nudes support the crest in the panel at her feet.  I’d like to know more about what these figures represent.  They look very playful ( and not at all holy)  to me. Perhaps someone among my readers can throw more light upon these ugly little men.

At the foot of the tomb, the family crest is supported by two fat frolicking hominids

 

More images may be found at  http://medieval-wales.com/site_31_denbigh.php

 

 

 

 

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Judging at a local Show

by The Curious Scribbler

Before the show opens, stewards calculate the number of points scored by winning contestants at the Llanfarian Show

 

The Vegetables occupy a separate tent

This is a part of the world where, bucking the trend, the Village Horticultural Show is alive and well, as it has been for most of the last century.  It is an extraordinary co-operative effort which unites communities.  Everyone has a vital part to play: Committee, competitors, judges, spectators.  For just two hours or so a thousand or more exhibits are collected under a marquee or village hall roof, and then, tea taken,  the prizes distributed, and old friendships renewed, the whole is dispersed once again leaving no imprint other than the carefully assembled list of winners in the following week’s paper.

I judged the Flowers at Llanfarian Show last Saturday.

It is a heavy responsibility.  For me the morning began at 11-30am when I presented myself at the primary school to join eleven other specialist judges, many accompanied by their husbands or wives.  We sat on the miniature pupils’ chairs and consumed ham salad with hard boiled egg, coleslaw, beetroot and pickles and thiny sliced brown bread, trifle and strong tea.  Conversation was sporadic and a little tense. Judges are mainly recruited from a little farther away, so they know each other less well than the Stewards, all locals who, having presided over the staging of the competitors’ entries, congregate on a separate table for their meal at noon.    Judges are also tense at their impending responsibility, some are faced with ranking the merits of widely diverse objects, ( Any item in Applique,  An Item of Pottery) others with judging the quality of a slew of extremely similar cakes, jams or flowers.  Entries must be rigorously as per schedule – woe betide the judge who fails to notice that an extra bloom found its way into the class for six sweet peas, or who allows a Decorative dahlia to insinuate itself amongst the entries in the Waterlily dahlia class!

The Floral Art judge has perhaps most to fear.  Tradition demands that she produce a written critique of each exhibit, which is propped up for all the public to read during the afternoon.  These critiques are traditionally encouraging in tone, but nonetheless must expose weaknesses in order that basis for winning entries is generally understood.  And the first prize may not go to the arrangement most pleasing to the untutored eye, but to the one most interpretative of the arrangement’s set title. Little wonder that we judges scurry home before the competitors stream in at 2-30pm.

Many locals enter just a few classes with their home grown produce, for the fun of the chance of a prize, but there are also the titans of the show bench who compete at a local show almost every weekend of the summer season, and whose targets are the cups.  Special Cups for most points in a class may be won outright through three consecutive wins ( or five spread over time).  The big names in local showing have display shelves at home crammed with trophies, some on one year placement, many others  won outright, their gleaming sides inscribed with the names of the annual winners of their past.  Other cups are Perpetual Cups, returned every season to their awarding show.

The Cups, some are awarded annually, others can be one outright for repeated winners.

One such competitor is Buddug Evans, whose carefully managed garden yields roses, gladioli, geraniums, african marigolds, spray chrysanthemums, petunias, pansies, sweet peas, asters, dahlias and potted plants just as the show schedule demands.  It is among the dahlias that competition is particularly hot.  Half the length of the hall is devoted to competition in seven distinct subgroups of dahlias, glorious matched trios of strong straight blooms staged in the tall green metal vases which professionals favour.  There were up to eight good entries in each of the dahlia classes, so she did not go unchallenged by other skilled growers.  Beating Buddug in any contested category has become a target in itself. For total points she was the clear winner.

The Flower Section, dominated by seven classes of dahlias and three of chrysanthemums

At the end of awarding thirty Firsts, Seconds and Thirds in 30 Classes it fell to me to select the Best Exhibit from among the Firsts.  Often this falls to trio of dahlias or to a gigantic single chrysantheum bloom the size of a newborn baby’s head.  But this year, among the entries in Class 60, ‘Vase of Garden Flowers from Own Garden’ nestled an outstanding fanned display of huge creamy gladiolus spikes, the smaller gladiolus ‘Dancing Queen’ with red blotched throats, creamy decorative dahlias, pure white ball dahlias, spray chrysanthemums and huge white snapdragons.  Judging is done while the competitors’ cards are concealed, so it was the final revelation to turn over the label and find this blaze of perfection, and worthy winner of the Best Exhibit Perpetual Cup was the work of another veteran competitor Gwyn Williams.

Best Exhibit – Gwyn Williams’ garden flowers

I left as Councillor Rowland Jones of Llanilar arrived to open the Show, and the public, including Ceredigion MP Mark Williams and his family arrived to scrutinise the tables.  I passed the winning exhibit in Class 126 Best Misshapen Vegetable where it lay outside the tent.  If winner, farmer Ieuan Jones plans a long flight or coach journey, it seems he has grown the ideal marrow!

The winner in ” Misshapen Vegetable” was Ieuan Jones

 

 

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Remembering Mabel Pakenham Walsh

 

by The Curious Scribbler

A banner commemorating Mabel Pakenham Walsh
Photo by Keith Morris

 

Mabel Pakenham Walsh has  been part of the Aberystwyth scenery since the 1980s.

She was always to be seen, around the town or crossing the road near her home in Llanbadarn Village.  I remember her walking with sticks, effortfully and painfully slow, and then some years later, after her hip replacements, whizzing around the town with a wheeled shopper-cum-walking frame, her legs powering away like Sonic the Hedgehog. As part of her health regime she swam regularly, and I remember the surprise I felt on first seeing the contrast between her ruddy weathered face and the youthfully smooth white skin of her body.

It was beautiful skin and others must have admired it.  There is at least one nude portrait of her which I have seen displayed in the National Library Wales.

For Mabel was both an artist and an artist’s model. There are three of her oil paintings in the collections of the National Library of Wales, two self portraits in her thirties, and a head and shoulders of a saturnine man, identified as  J. Warburton. In their collections she has also deposited several boxes of letters from the 1960s to the 1980s which include correspondence with many arts organisations, and with friends and artists including Martin Leman, Maeve Peake, Lord Snowdon, the writer Tom Stoppard, and the wife of the then Archbishop of York,  Jean Coggan.

She was a prolific woodcarver, gardener, and proper eccentric. The photographer Homer Sykes recorded the thirty-eight year old Mabel, then resident in Sussex carving one of a series of ornamented toilet seats.

Mabel Pakenham-Walsh, Artist, woodcarver and painter in 1975, carving one of her wooden toilet seats.

She was not rich, but she had original artworks in her home and she was often strikingly dressed.  I remember startling hats, and a complicated tweed skirt and jacket, fashioned of many fragments of material cleverly joined, but with the raw edges  protruding at the seams.  She wore such costumes with great panache.

I got to know her through the gardening club, the rather grandly named Cardiganshire Horticultural Society.  Her last lover ( husband?) had also been a member of the CHS, Peter Hague, a loquacious compulsive hoarder whose home up in the hills near Ystrad Meurig was, by his own estimation a graveyard for every piece of rusted machinery he could acquire, and intended, one day, to fix.  When I knew him she had moved out to the relative comfort of her terraced house on Heol y Llan, not far from the vet’s in Llanbadarn.  He was a gentle man, a compulsive talker, who fed himself largely out of tins. He was known to those with deeper roots than mine as the brother of the formidable Douglas Hague of the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments.

Some 15 years ago a remarkable sculpture appeared in one of ancient apple trees which protrude above the wall shielding the backs of these gardens from the widened Llanbadarn Road.  It was a huge wooden spider’s web made of twigs, with a realistic rubber spider at its centre. From a passing car or bus it looked very striking.  It was in quest of this landmark in the days when I wrote a column for the local paper, The Cambrian News, that I eventually found my way to the front door of Archnoa on Heol y Llan. . A house whose windowsill assemblage of rocks, shells and objets trouve suggested eccentricity within. I was not disappointed.

So I am saddened to learn that Mabel, aged 76 has died.  With the panache which characterised her life, her friends and relatives ( she told me she had a houseful of kin in Ireland) assembled round an impromptu blaze on Aberystwyth’s North Beach, and, as the sun went down, her cremated remains and flowers were scattered in the sea at dusk.

Friends of Mabel Pakenham Walsh gather in the firelight on North Beach, Aberystwyth

Photographer Keith Morris attended the occasion and the complete set of pictures may be viewed on his Facebook page.  A touching detail he records is the rustic picture frame placed beside the disposable red plastic cremation  urn.  It displays the words : Well behaved women rarely make history.

The sun goes down on the celebration

Mabel’s remains and mementoes on 30 August 2013

 

 

 

For more pictures of the young Mabel Pakenham Walsh search photoshelter for ‘Mabel’ at http://homersykes.photoshelter.com/

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Cunning techniques to sell a superfluous church?

by The Curious Scribbler

Walking along Queen’s Road these days one finds a strangely discordant sight, the 19th century Catholic Church, St Winefride’s, has suddenly found itself encased in security fencing and strident site warning signs.  Which is odd because the building is pleasing to look upon, with well tended lawns and a pretty Presbytery House, occupied until just a few months ago, which is framed in roses and hydrangeas.  It has always made an uplifting scene in this Conservation Area of Aberystwyth, the only building which is well set back, providing a green oasis of lawn.

Intimidating security fences have appeared around St Winefride’s Church

But all is not well in this idyllic spot, for the Catholic Bishop of Menevia is set upon dispensing with this church, much to the dismay of many of the parishioners, for whom it is of personal and cultural  importance. That very lawn is perhaps the key to its undoing, for the site of house, church and garden would accommodate a lucrative development of flats – (what is described in the application as a ‘Quality Mixed Residential Development’).  The Bishop plans to bring in the wrecking ball and demolish the lot.

The Presbytery and its pretty garden will be neglected until demolition can be secured.

The Council Planning Department however opposes the demolition of much-loved buildings in a Conservation Area, and the legislation suggests that before this course of action can be considered the owner must put the building up for sale to establish whether an alternative use can be found. And so it is shortly to be put up with a local Agent.  Now, while most people trying to sell a slightly shabby but charming building would try to emphasise its best points, it seems the Church has other ideas.  The security fencing is an eyesore, and erected as it is upon the lawn, the garden will soon be overgrown and ugly too.  The best outcome from the Bishop’s point of view would be to demonstrate that no buyer will match their price, and then re-apply for demolition.

The parishioners meanwhile have not been idling.  The Save St Winefride’s campaign has funded surveyors to consider the realistic costs of repairing a sound but somewhat elderly building, and have drawn up plans to renovate the buildings and build an additional Church Hall upon the site.  This design is unpretentious, sympathetic, and has been granted Planning Permission by the County Council.  The whole project would cost £1.2 million, far less than the £2.7 million estimated by the Bishop’s architects for their impossibly expensive version of the job.

Capture

So why not accept the wishes of the congregation?  The Bishop has an alternative plan, first promoted in 2008, centred upon a little-known ruin two miles from the town centre in the suburb of Penparcau.  Here is another Church, the far more neglected Welsh Martyrs.  A brutalist concrete structure from 1968, it has been closed for many years.  Few people have even noticed it, for it is down a side road near the Tollgate public house.  The new Pevsner described is as “an interesting design, let down by poor finish and detail”. The Bishop wants to pull that down too, and with more justification.

The derelict church of Welsh Martyrs, Penparcau. Photographed by Paul White, http://www.welshruins.co.uk/photo14087508.html#photo

The derelict church of Welsh Martyrs, Penparcau. Photographed by Paul White, http://www.welshruins.co.uk/photo14087508.html#photo

 

You could, alternatively, put a block of flats here, but Penparcau is not as sought-after as the town centre, the site is less valuable, and the profits would doubtless be less.  Instead, the vision is that Catholic worshippers from the town will take one of the rare Sunday buses out to Penparcau and walk down to a newly-built modernist building on the Welsh Martyrs site. It is hard to imagine that this will be a popular choice with worshippers.  University students, who include many foreign Catholics will have a yet more daunting journey from their halls of residence on the opposing hill.  Townsfolk who have been hatched, matched and dispatched at Queen’s Road for generations would like to go on doing so.

The repercussions continue from a well organised parishioner and community action group which has become more active and vociferous as it has found its views to be ignored by the Church.  There have been representations to the Vatican, consultations on Canon Law, opposing teams of surveyors and valuers, a sit-in in the church, an offer of resignation from the Board of Trustees by the incumbent priest.  The Diocese of Menevia, though, is a vast catholic administrative region – stretching right down to Swansea.  Angry Aberystwyth must seem very insignificant to a property-developer Bishop.

For much more detail visit http://savestwinefrides.co.uk/home.html which gives links to a Dropbox bulging with damning evidence of manipulation behind the scenes.

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A portrait of Elizabeth Inglis Jones

by The Curious Scribbler

The guest of honour at the recent opening of Mrs Johnes’  garden at Hafod was new supporter, Giles Inglis Jones, a great nephew of the author Elizabeth Inglis Jones,  whose  account of Hafod did so much to resurrect the memory of Thomas Johnes when Hafod was at its nadir of destruction.

Giles Inglis Jones, assisted by his daughter, reads an extract from Richard Payne Knight's poem The Landscape a didactic poem (1794)  in praise of the Picturesque to the guests of the Hafod Trust.

Giles Inglis Jones, assisted by his daughter, reads an extract from Richard Payne Knight’s poem The Landscape a didactic poem (1794) in praise of the Picturesque to the guests of the Hafod Trust.

 

Inglis Jones’ book, Peacocks in Paradise, published by Faber in 1950, was a fictionalised biography of the Johnes family  which drew heavily upon the large collection of personal letters between Johnes and his friend Sir James Edward Smith which she discovered at the Linnean Society.  These letters have been among the most valued resources for subsequent historians and some are reproduced in Richard Moore Colyer’s A Land of Pure Delight ( Gomer 1992).

Miss Inglis Jones was approaching fifty when she turned her hand to this, the first of her biographies, and later went on to write well researched accounts of the lives of other notables,  Maria Edgeworth (1959) and Augustus Smith of Tresco Abbey in the Scilly Isles (1969).  However her debut novel in 1929 was far steamier fiction, which roused in equal parts the admiration and the indignation of the readers of Cardiganshire.  I have just finished reading Starved Fields with very considerable enjoyment  and even a little surprise that such insight and earthy sentiments should flow from the pen of an innocent young woman of good family.

Starved Fields  deals with the families of two Cardiganshire Squires, the baronet Sir Uryan Williams, squire of the crumbling eighteenth century mansion Bryn, and farming landowner Owen Morgan of Lluest his relative and neighbour.  Just as one cannot read Wuthering Heights without realising that the author had a close understanding of alcoholism, depression and mental illness, it is hard to believe that Inglis Jones’ pageant of male and female drunkenness, incompatible marriage, illegitimacy and adultery was not informed by close observation of her neighbours or even family.

Giles Inglis Jones has loaned to the Hafod Trust an oil painting of his great aunt as a young woman, painted by the New Zealand portrait artist Cecil Jameson.  She is a pretty girl with a short 1920’s bob of hair, wearing a simple shift and a necklace of amber beads.  She was brought up at the south Cardiganshire mansion of Derry Ormond though I have heard it said that she and her brother considered their childhood deeply unhappy and shed few tears at the eventual demolition of their family home.

The portrait of Elizabeth Inglis Jones by Cecil Jameson

The portrait of Elizabeth Inglis Jones by Cecil Jameson

The men she depicts in her first novel tend to be spineless, inconsistent characters, at best charming but wet, and at worst drunken and entirely selfish.   Perhaps that is why she never married.  The strands of her story all paint entirely believable characters, but only one for whom the author shows real compassion.  This is her heroine, Gaynor, daughter of the baronet, who ends up balancing the role of adulterous mistress and farm manager to her feckless first love, Owen Morgan, with that of dutiful daughter to her enfeebled and alcoholic parents.

Also loaned from Giles Inglis Jones’ deceased great aunt’s possessions came a number of deeds and notebooks some of which I have been perusing. One contains a transcription of 21 letter received in 1929 as a result of the publication of Starved Fields. While all the writers congratulated her on her work, readers struggled with such depravity set in the Cardiganshire of the 1890s.  The Principal of St David’s, Lampeter, Canon Maurice Jones  wrote     “Where you have gone wrong,  if I may venture to say so,  is in setting your period a century late.  I cannot believe that the life you describe is true of Cardiganshire only 30 years ago, whereas the book gives a fairly clear and honest description of life in many parts of Wales in the 18th Century  …. I’m afraid you will not be popular with the “county” after your remorseless revelations of what life can have been like in Cardiganshire at any period in its history”.     Mrs Perrin ( author of 21 novels ) declared “What you must cultivate if you want a wide public is more restraint  –  your construction and technique are good but remember too much realism isn’t art”.

Miss Mary Lewis of Trefilan tempered her congratulations with a rebuke “Now there are aspects of Starved Fields I don’t like my dear Elizabeth, but I’m not going to enlarge on what is a matter of taste except to say that Society in Cardiganshire during the Nineties wasn’t really at all what your book implies – You weren’t born then, but I was (unfortunately) grown up and going about in those days so I know .  The Spectator’s reviewer took the view that the novel could only have been written by a man.

On the basis of these letters, it seems that actually the gentry were less offended than the middle classes.  A letter from her cousin, Wilmot Vaughan of Trawscoed  states “I do think you have got the Welsh country people to a T, let alone strange, weird drunken squires who one has known in the flesh.”

Lady Lloyd of Bronwydd  was simply thrilled.  “ What an amazing child you are!  I must congratulate you on your wonderful book, not a nice character in it!!  But your perspectives are quite an astonishment and it is terribly true and interesting and I own to simply screaming over it until Marteine  got quite angry, but he couldn’t put it down!! “  More prosaically she added “ I expect your mother is very proud of you, I should be. Will you dare go back to Derry [Ormond]?”

I don’t know whether Elizabeth did return home, but certainly by 1937 she was a permanent resident in London.  I believe that the remoteness of their homes and the relative poverty of even the premier families in Cardiganshire made it very difficult for many gentry girls from West Wales to secure suitable husbands.  Elisabeth certainly made her escape into London and literature, and by her middle years had started mining the historic record rather than her own life for what are now her better known books.

Her pretty portrait will soon be presiding over new nuptials in the Hafod Estate Office  which is now a venue for civil marriage ceremonies.  Inoffensive young woman that she appears, her clear gaze should make brides closely inspect their motives, and keep new husbands on the straight and narrow!

The critical gaze of the young Elizabeth Inglis Jones

The critical gaze of the young Elizabeth Inglis Jones

 

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