To fell or not to fell?

by The Curious Scribbler

There is a good deal of consternation around the Council’s decision to fell trees on Cambridge Terrace so I went between the rain showers to investigate this quiet corner of Aberystwyth.  It is not a road but a footpath really, which sets off along the back of the houses on Queen’s Road, just after the dejected former catholic church, and runs along below the bowling greens  as far as the North Road Clinic.  Here the path swerves uphill to approach North Road.

The thirty-three Monterey Cypresses

The specifications sounded alarming:  33 Monterey Cypresses and 5 White  Poplars are for the chop, and I have heard parallels being drawn with the disgraceful sacrifice of street trees which has caused so much anguish in Sheffield.  So I was relieved to find that the 33 Monterey Cypresses are basically just an outgrown hedge.  These are not trees which like being crowded, and which when used as a hedge must be cut meticulously every year because unlike Yew they do not sprout again from old wood.  The hedge has obviously escaped the council’s care many years ago, and the result is spindly misshapen trees, which have very little visual appeal.  I think their loss is justified. Far fewer trees widely spaced could be allowed to reach the same height here but they would be far more shapely.

The poplars form a twiggy skyline when seen from North Road over the rope maze, and I understand at least one resident has objected to their invasive roots affecting his garden.

View from North Road, the poplars reach above the Holm Oaks on Cambridge Terrace.

But when I walked along this pretty path behind Queens Road I was struck by the other planting here.  There are a couple of gnarled and contorted Wych Elms ( Ulmus scabra ‘Camperdownii’) , and some small crab apple trees, but the secluded  character of  this byway is defined by the many substantial Holm oaks on either side.  This evergreen oak is a delightful town tree, most appropriate for a Victorian setting, and I am relieved to see that these will all be retained.   Already the poplars are overshadowing and their branches inter-meshing with the Holm oaks. Irrespective of the root issue, this is just too many trees in a confined space,  so I cannot oppose their loss.

looking north along Cambridge Terrace

In considering the suitability of the Holm Oak I am reminded of the landmark tree outside Plas Antaron which marks the entry to Penparcau.  This is the same tree that stood there in the 1860s and appears in a sketch in one of W.T.R. Powell of Nanteos’ famous scrap books, and records  his and his friends’ drunken return there one evening.  About 15 years ago I remember  that tree surgeons lopped off its  spreading crown, first on the road side one year, and once this re-sprouted, on the other side two years later.  It looked pretty brutal at the time but the crown re- grew to create the handsome bushy tree we see today.

The Holm oak outside Plas Antaron, Penparcau

The Cambridge Terrace Holm Oaks have the same potential, and already screen the houses from  sight from North Road.  They will flourish without the crowded competition and are a well mannered tree well suited to this location. Hedgehogs have been seen on Cambridge Terrace and probably thrive there not just on the insects and earthworms but  on the nutritious fallen acorns from these trees.

If and when the somewhat dreary rope maze is replaced by a more conspicuous or noisy recreational facility there will still be this calm canopy of dark green forming a backdrop to the former second bowling green.

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Marble lost at sea near Barmouth

by The Curious Scribbler

Few of the throngs of elderly dog owners in the cafes of Barmouth take time out to examine the Millennium sculpture on the quay,  and those who do may merely observe that it is a work by local sculptor Frank Cocksey, entitled The Last Haul.  It shows three human figures, in different period costumes, together pulling together on a thick rope.  They lie backwards like the contestants in a  tug of war,  and while they are obviously freshly carved in white marble, the un-carved plinth below looks grey and pitted and could be mistaken for some kind of concrete.

Barmouth  Millennium sculpture – The Last Haul by Frank Cocksey

In fact the entire block is of white Carrara marble from Italy, the material so beloved of Michelangelo and figurative sculptors ever since.  For around 300 years it lay on the seabed some 30 feet down and a few miles off the beautiful shore between Barmouth and Harlech.  It was one of 42 blocks found on the sea bed, neatly shaped and ranging in size from 13 inch cubes to great blocks like this one, 9ft x 3ft x 2.5ft in dimensions.  All were extensively bored by marine creatures.

The wreck was first discovered in 1978 and excavated by the Cae Nest group of archaeological scuba divers.  Nothing of the wooden ship remained, but the cargo lies as it was loaded amidships, and other finds include 25 cast iron cannons, a bronze bell dated 1677 and coins from 10 countries among which french coins predominate.  They also found navigational dividers, pewter plate and fine cutlery, a dental plate, a seal, remains of pistols and a rapier.  Opinion is divided as to the nationality of the vessel.  The Barmouth plaque states it was a 700 ton Genoese galleon, the Coflein entry suggests, on the basis of the coins, and the French pewter, that it may have been a French trader.  What is of little doubt is that it was a well-armed vessel, carrying a valuable cargo, and that it went down after 1702 ( the youngest coin) and probably around 1709.

Who in North Wales had sent for such a cargo?  The graveyard at Llanaber Church might provide a clue, for it is surprisingly rich in white marble memorials dating as far back as the mid 18th century, though I haven’t noticed any as old as the presumed wreck.  Could these pieces have been destined for an enterprising monumental mason?

The graveyard at Llanaber Church is rich in 18th and 19th century gravestones of white marble

There is a popular alternative theory: that this was a ship blown off course, missing the English Channel and forced up past Cornwall into the Irish sea where it eventually foundered.  The first decade of the 18th century saw Sir Christopher Wren rebuilding St Paul’s cathedral, a project requiring a great deal of Carrara marble.

Marble is a limestone, easily excavated by the sea creatures which secrete acid to dissolve their homes as the blocks lay under the sea.   The large round-ended holes were made by molluscs, the smaller interlaced hollows are the homes of sponges, while polychaete worms  bored several centimetres into the rock.  As Frank Cocksey carved away the eroded blocks he has exposed fresh white marble. In places the worms have penetrated even deeper than his carving, as is shown on the leg of the youngest seaman.

Bivalve, sponge and worm borings in the end of the large block of Carrara marble bear witness to its 300 years under the sea.

Marine worm borings puncture the 21st century sculpture ” The Last Haul” by Frank Cocksey

It has been suggested there was at least one survivor from the wreck, Juan Benedictus whose death is recorded in the Llanendwyn Parish Register in 1730, and tradition has it  that timbers and artifacts from the wreck found their way to Corsygeddol Hall.  Seafaring in the 18th century was a risky business and many ships must have foundered on this coast.  We will never know exactly what happened.

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Penglais Campus – the new Vision?

by the Curious Scribbler,

The second great loss to campus biodiversity last autumn was the grubbing out of a long shrub border which ran from Student Welcome Centre to the Llandinam building.  Three trees: two Phillyreas and a Griselinia were spared,but the rest of the hydrangeas, olearias, escallonias and fuchsias were scraped away leaving the sea of mud.  The scene was recorded in November see http://www.letterfromaberystwyth.co.uk/penglais-campus-the-destruction-continues/

The justification allegedly was Health and Safety –  the installation of railings at the top of the drop at the back of the border, a drop which at the Llandinam end was a mere 18 inches, but at the the other end about twelve feet.

New turf replaces the mixed borders on Aberystwyth Campus

 

Last week I revisited to see the completed works.  The border has now been replaced by a stunningly green sward of new turf.   This green desert monoculture looks a bit unexpected doesn’t it?  Gardeners know that this bright green turf will soon lose its lustre in the shade of evergreen trees.   Ecologists know that while a species-diverse grassy meadow is an asset, new uniform turf is little more desirable than astroturf. The tragedy is that this expensive form of re-instatement  is only the briefest of fixes, a decision which would only have been taken (and was) by Estates Department staff totally unqualified and unversed in horticulture.  The fear is that, chagrined at the consequences, those same decision-makers will then cut down the remaining trees to save the new grass!

A student petition was sent to the Estates Department in November.  In part the letter read

“large patches of green space and hedges have been cleared and replaced with either woodchip or grass…. this poses large uncertainties with regard to the future of biodiversity on campus and our cherished EcoCampus Gold Award.  .. As students we are very proud of our campus and want to work with the University to make it an even greener space…”

I don’t believe this was the kind of greening that they had in mind.

As for their health and safety, the new railings are just two horizontal rails, of the sort that many a drunk student has vaulted over for fun.  Where the drop was protected by a hedge of shrubs it was far less accessible.  The foreground view through to the IBERS building is now just a mish-mash of different generations of fence, and a paved path  to nowhere.

Looking through to the IBERS green roof, we now see a forest of railings and a path going nowhere

At the same time a new self-congratulatory PR poster aimed at students has appeared in University buildings.

The students may have asked ‘more plants’ but they are not getting them – unless we count the individual seedlings of grass!  They aren’t getting ‘more greenery’ either.

Did the students  specifically ask for hanging baskets?  ( the ones who signed the petition I saw certainly did not). And did they ask for them to be spread randomly around the grounds?  Playing spot-the-hanging-bracket might become a new student activity.  A lone bracket has been affixed to the elegant timber facade of the IBERS building.  Another sticks out adjoining the steps to the Arts Centre and Students Union.  Yet another is screwed high on the wall at the entrance to Geography and Earth Sciences.

An odd location for a lone hanging basket

While a hanging basket gives a quick fix to a suburban patio a large landscape need a far more considered approach and on a practical level, watering these floral displays is going to be quite a challenge.  We have seen other phases of expensive and impractical gimmickry come and go.  The IBERS green wall, for example, has been quite rightly cleared away, for it soon looked like an abandoned garden-centre sales area on end!

The new IBERS building on the campus sported, until 2017 a most deplorable ‘green wall’

One of the current public enthusiasms,  quite rightly, is Bee Friendly Landscapes, I believe that Aber students have already formed a bee-friendly group.  Woodchip, monocultures of turf and the occasional hanging basket are not bee-friendly.  That extensive  bank of flowering cotoneasters below the Hugh Owen Building most certainly was!

There is no landscape expertise guiding the recent changes on campus.  Buildings Maintenance, Health and Safety, Disability Access, Controlled Parking and other pressures all chip away at the carefully designed plantings which earned Aberystwyth University its Cadw Grade II* listing.  Soon there may be very little left to justify that accolade.

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First Swallow

By The Curious Scribbler

Two hours ago the Met office tweeted ( appropriately since bird life was their topic!) “Cold conditions have so far delayed the return of most swallows from Africa. With the prospect of a southerly flow this weekend, many people will see their first swallow of Spring.”

https://twitter.com/metoffice/status/984385642925707265?s=03

Ceredigion swallows however are back already.  My first arrived on Monday and sat on the electricity wire chirruping occasionally and waiting for its mate. By Wednesday  morning there was a pair, chittering away excitedly, and they are now checking the flight paths to their traditional home above the back door.  When I looked out this morning there was a squirrel dangling precariously upsidedown from a hawthorn twig, gobbling down  may buds.  The swallows took a dim view, and bombed it until it retreated into the crown of the tree.

The Met Office tweet stimulated responses – swallows have also been seen earlier in the week  by tweeters in Dorset, Devon, Doncaster, and Moray, East Scotland. My neighbour over the hill has also got his swallows, though usually, he says, they arrive on 22 April, his birthday.

So perhaps the swallows know best and are less intimidated by our chilly spring than we are.  Just a month ago the uplands were frozen,  road access from the east impassable for several days.

The lake at Nant-yr-arian, 3 March 2018

The A44 ten miles from Aberystwyth

But now the magnolias are in bloom, blackthorn buds bursting and the swallows are returned.  Things are looking up.

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Plaiting Polytrichum or stacking logs

by The Curious Scribbler

The quest for the perfect Christmas tree took me south this year, to a secluded valley between Talgarreg and Pontsian to  select my tree on the root.  Here we roamed the field and eventually chose a beautifully columnar dense-foliaged fir, which has fulfilled its promise, barely dropping a needle during nineteen days indoors without water.  This is the promise of a fir rather than a Norway spruce, but when the trees have been cut some weeks earlier even an expensive fir can be disappointing.

The trees were growing on a north-facing valley side, surrounded by a particularly thick carpet of Polytrichum commune, the Common Hair Moss.  This is the deep cushiony moss which is not sphagnum.  It is a stiffer drier moss which does not hold copious amounts of water and would be of no use for wound dressing ( think First World War!) or hanging baskets.  Its long stems are thin and wiry, as much as 14 inches long, brown at the base, and green with narrow leaves at the upper end.  Its medieval uses included stuffing mattresses or making twine and woven baskets.

Strands of Polytricum commune

I set about the latter task with the handful I had brought home and found that it plaited into a long and serviceable string.  So pleased was I with the result that this year the mistletoe has been tied up with my hairy polytrichum twine  rather than the usual ribbon or string.

Polytrichum twine hangs up my mistletoe

There is the potential for a home industry here.  Cleverer hands than mine could make all sorts of woven novelties with this free raw material. And there are many people with artistic and craft skills in this county.

Another outstanding ornamental use of natural resources may be seen by anyone who pauses and looks right on the Llanilar to Trawgoed road. Gary Taylor has given full reign to his creativity in building his woodpiles.  Personally I have always felt pretty satisfied when my woodpile is just neatly stacked with all the cut ends facing outwards, but here is a man whose woodpile is inlaid with the Tree of Life!  His other woodpile sports a Welsh dragon.  Each outline is traced in stained split logs, set in the face of the traditional stack.

The Tree of Life at Llidiardau. Log pile 2017, Lolly Stalbow and Gary Taylor

Welsh Dragon

Will he have the heart to demolish these huge artworks to heat the hearth?  I suspect this may be a wrench.  But knowing Gary and his immaculate large garden, he probably has another everyday log pile round the back!

And for those who don’t know their mosses: two pictures are below:

Sphagnum Moss

Polytrichum commune

A bit like those pairs of photos they publish in Private Eye?

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Pine martens at Hafod

by The Curious Scribbler

Iolo Williams addresses the Vincent Wildlife Trust’s guests in the Hafod car park

About eighty people gathered yesterday in the car park beside Hafod Church to witness the unveiling,  by Wales’ premier TV naturalist Iolo Williams, of a curious sculpture. Its designation plaque, as a memorial to Rob Strachan  ‘an inspirational naturalist and conservationist’ might make one wonder whether it would not be more appropriately placed inside the churchyard wall.  However it has perhaps a wider purpose, for it was installed by the Vincent Wildlife Trust whose project is the reintroduction of pine martens into NRW ( National Resources Wales, fomerly the Forestry Commission) woodlands in Wales.  A pine marten and two kits are represented on the sculpture by Grace Young Monaghan.  It is carved from an oak trunk sourced from the estate, though puzzlingly the trunk has been adzed to resemble no British tree. Call me a pedant, but I find this jarring.  Four oak leaves are represented, like a label on the trunk, but why is its bark represented with horizontal rather than vertical fissures?  Has it been attacked by a giant beaver?

Pine marten sculpture in Hafod car park

Project Officer Dave Bavin , his dog, and Iolo Williams pose beside the sculpture

The effigy may serve though to alert visitors to the estate to the slim possibility of glimpsing one of these elegant mustelids in the woods.  In the last two Septembers 39 Scottish pine martens have been trapped, driven by air-conditioned van from Scotland, and penned and then released at Hafod.  Although most of the first batch of introductions in 2015 dispersed or died, one female from this group has produced kits at Hafod, conceived and born this year, and several of last September’s shipment, who will have arrived pregnant, have successfully produced young  this spring.  Most have spurned the man-made box dens provided for them near the release sites, and have instead sought out dens of their own choosing.

Martens are solitary and occupy large territories, so I wondered how the researchers on the project keep tabs upon the animals. I learned that the privacy of these pioneer pine martens is considerably compromised.  First of all, each immigrant is DNA profiled by a lab in Ireland before release.  Fitted out wearing radio collars their presence can be monitored by a volunteer sitting in their car on the forest drives or strolling the woods with a receiver like a TV aerial.  Thus the approximate location can be determined without need of a visual sighting.  Some of the first batch of Hafod-released animals were disinclined to remain and were  found far, far away.  One female eventually settled near Abergele!  Recently, the Vincent Wildlife Trust has also had success with GPS transmitters which can provide researchers with accurate location from much further away.

The martens are also monitored by motion sensitive cameras in the woods.  Now it might seem one would have to wait a long time to see a marten stroll by, but the odds are considerably enhanced by putting out bait.  Martens proved particularly partial to jam sandwiches and peanut butter, and will return regularly to a bait site in front of the camera in order to check whether it has been replenished.  One mother’s successful breeding was revealed when she led her kits into camera range to join the feast.  The same inducements work well to lure the martens into traps so that their health can be monitored, or, before the battery runs out, their collars can be removed or replaced.

DNA technology given further insights.  A fresh scat ( droppings) can reveal the DNA profile of the perpetrator.  Since all the introduced martens have been profiled, a poo sample can even reveal the parentage of a new kit.  For long, the analysis of droppings has been a valuable tool in discovering the dietary preferences of mammals.  To this, modern mammologists can now add the identity and geneaology of the marten who dealt it!

Just the sort of tree hole to appeal to a pine marten

I was impressed by the youth and enthusiasm of the Vincent Wildlife Trust researchers and volunteers who gathered for this celebration.  But even for them, equipped with 21st century tracking technology, the best sightings of these elusive animals are probably those from the daylight and night-vision remote cameras. Some of the highlights of camera trap photography can be found among Vincent Wildlife Trust uploads on vimeo.  Scat is a little easier to find, because martens typically deposit it in prominent positions, on paths or on an eminence like a tree stump.

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New Tricks in an Old Pembrokeshire Garden

by The Curious Scribbler

Last September I visited an intriguing garden at Treffgarne Hall, near Wolf’s Castle. Here stands a large plain two-storey country house built in 1824 and virtually unaltered by its subsequent owners.  It stands on the Landsker line: the division between Norman and Welsh Pembrokeshire, on a windswept hilltop.

 

The south frontage of Treffgarne Hall, unchanged since 1824

The south frontage of Treffgarne Hall, unchanged since 1824

The south facing house looks right out to distant refinery stacks at the coast at Milford Haven 16 miles away.  By the 1960s its fortunes were shabby, with rotten floors and an overgrown garden.  The land, the farm, the outbuildings were serially sold off, until just the house and four acres remained, an unsuccessful country hotel.  This was bought in 2003 by Martin and Jackie Batty and a transformation began.

The walled garden on the hilltop had been embellished by the former owners to contain a hard tennis court in the farthest third, which looks sadly decrepit today.  The rest was, in 2003 a blank canvas of weeds.  But when I passed through the stone garden doorway west of the house I seemed to step into a Chelsea show garden. I found an immaculate formal space of slate paving, parallel rills and four symmetrically planted paulownias, flanked by huge oak pergolas trailed with Clematis armandii.  The design was created with advice from the Julian and Isabel Bannerman,  the designers who used to garden Hanham Court near Bristol.

Within the old walled kitchen garden is a remarkable formal garden

It feels highly improbable to step from rural Pembrokeshire into such a space.  Martin Batty described how it reflects his enthusiasm for exotic and tender plants.   His plantings in 2003 included tender South African Proteas, Leucodendron argenteum (the silver tree) , Mexican cactus and giant echiums.  The first  few years were encouraging, but many were lost in the severe winters of 2009 and 2010.  The Echiums have come back from seed, and many other of his barely frost-hardy plants have flourished.  We saw many Southern hemisphere plants,  Bailey’s Purple Wattle from Australia, which flowers here in February, the Rice paper plant Tetrapanax papyrifer, and the frothy foliage of Melianthus major.

The Rice Paper Plant Tetrapanax papyrifer

A curiousity was the weird saw-like leaves of Pseudopanax ferox. The lower leaves of this columnar plant are hard and rigid, higher up the plant they will grow soft and untoothed.  Apparently this heterophylly evolved to protect the leaves from the attentions of the now extinct Moas of New Zealand.

Pseudopanax ferox

There were other unfamiliar plants: the blue dangling bells of Iochroma grandiflora from Peru, the floppy green fans of leaves of Iris confusa ‘ Martin Rix’ and a Muehlenbeckia (maidenhair vine)  not scrabbling uncontrolled through native trees as we saw it on Herm Island two years ago, but disciplined into a neat tight green mound. There was even a Norfolk Island Pine, Araucaria heterophylla – more familiar in Canary Island and Florida tourist developments.  I wonder how it will fare when it rears its head above the protective wall.

Iochroma grandiflora

The rest of the garden is less startling, with lawns and borders, a broad terrace on the south side of the house, and a nice array of low-growing foliage plants in a gravel garden outside the walled garden. However the Battys have enlivened these grounds with some interesting uses of wood.  There is an inviting summerhouse, and what appear to be a pair of elaborate Palladian ashlar gateposts on the drive.

A quiet drive through conventional gateposts? Hardly:

Closer inspection shows them to be carved of timber.  Panels are inscribed as mileposts:  Doncaster 350 miles;  Japan 4000 miles, which reflect the origins of the owners.  Pausing between these posts one reads the enigmatic inscription THE RUINS OF TIME BUILD MANSIONS IN ETERNITY.

Treffgarne timber gateposts. Doncaster 350 miles, Japan 5000miles

There is also a totem pole, a stack of four animals carved out of the trunk of a former beech tree and erected as a focal point west of the house.  Another, multi-trunked dead beech has been carved in situ in the likeness of a four headed dragon.

Carved in situ, a multi-trunked dead beech

Here nature has embellished the chiselled scaly necks with bracket fungus and elegant frills of turkey tail fungus.  This colonisation is also the harbinger of the sculpture’s destruction.  But for a few years before the inevitable collapse, art and nature are most harmoniously combined.  Gardeners go to so much trouble for such fleeting returns.

The bracket fungus Pseudotrametes gibbosa favours beech trees

Turkey tail. (Coriolus versicolor)is now properly known as Trametes vesicolor and apparently the source of a potent anti tumour drug.

The garden is open on certain days under the National Garden Scheme.   See the Yellow book and the free regional pamphlets which will soon appear.

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Amazing Model Mushrooms

Various objets trouves accumulate on my kitchen windowsill, cheek by jowl with the hybrid Dendrobium orchids and some ceramic acorn squashes which I fashioned myself.  There is a piece of lava from Lanzarote, some crystals from the Cantabrians, an ammonite in polished section, and some choice beach pebbles from Tanybwlch.   And the latest addition to the medley are two exquisite  waxcap fungi, Hygrocybe persistens.

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

 

Odd you may think.  It has been mild this winter, but even so.. This little gleaming mushroom of sheep grazed pastures and and un-improved ancient lawns is a feature of balmy summer and autumn, not the rain-soaked pastures of today.   And the explanation is that these Hygrocybe were gathered, not in the field but by a discriminating shopper following the Totterdown Front Room Arts Trail in South Bristol  last year.  They reached west Wales in Christmas wrapping paper.

The artist Jason Lynton must be a man with an obsession, working quietly away to create perfect replicas of the entire canon of British fungi.  His home displayed cases of these amazing sculptures, and shelves of photographic reference books on his subjects.  He works in Sculpey polymer clay. I found this useful explanation in a tutorial on a site called The Bluebottle Tree.com

‘Polymer clay is a type of modelling clay that doesn’t dry in the air and instead is cured by baking in an oven, typically between 230°F (110°C) and 300°F (150°C).  Polymer clay is made from powdered polyvinyl chloride (PVC), plasticizer, binders, fillers, colors, and lubricants. When baked, the PVC particles soften and dissolve into the plasticizer, creating a solid fused mass of plastic. The longer you bake polymer clay, the more complete the fusion will be and the stronger the result.’ I find that Fimo is another brand of polymer clay, made in Germany by Staedtler and was the more familiar name for the product when my children were young.  Sculpey is the American equivalent.

So my extraordinarily realistic waxcaps are replicated in hard and resistant baked plastic! The texture is impossible to discern without touching, the details so authentic down to the delicate gills, the occasional split in the caps, even the crumbs of dark soil apparently clinging to the stem where they were lifted, as if it were yesterday, from the ground. I am told Jason Lynton has one of his fungi on public display, (possibly at Kew?) , but for the most part he is industriously working his way through the mushrooms of Britain, even perfecting the ways to reproduce the wet drops of  ‘milk’ exuded on the gills of the Milk Cap.  A quiet dedication which I find most admirable.

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

I can find posters and prints by Jason Lynton on the web, http://www.artflakes.com/en/shop/jason-lynton  but nothing about his fungi.  His business card gives an email: m331969@yahoo.com

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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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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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