The Palaeontologists of Llandrindod Wells

by The Curious Scribbler

The most remarkable people conceal themselves in the Welsh hills.  Today’s exhibit are Cambridge-educated palaeontologists Joe Botting and Lucy Muir whose home is in Llandrindod Wells.  As independent researchers they work all over the world, currently  in China, the Czech Republic and Morocco and are among the foremost experts on Cambrian fossil communities  – animals which lived at least 500 million years ago.

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It was the Ordovician rocks of central Wales which brought them to Llandrindod Wells, and their research is putting their home town on the map.  To the untrained eye the local stone look pretty unexciting, grey and shaley, and there is absolutely no chance of spotting a dinosaur bone or a nice big ammonite for the mantelpiece.  Most amateurs would be proud enough to find a fossil trilobite, a segmented arthropod of a kind which became extinct 300 million years ago. This creature had a rigid carapace which formed a mould in the sediment and was thus more readily preserved as a fossil.

A trilobite from Llandrinod Wells    (Ogyginus corndensis)

But very close inspection in the right places has revealed an unguessed-at variety of tiny fossils whose soft bodies are preserved as little more that smears between the layers of flaking grey rock.

A tiny starfish just 2mm across.

A palaeoscolecid worm with  microscopically armoured skin that is exquisitely beautiful under high magnification.

An as yet unnamed creature which has tentacles

Joe and Lucy’s discoveries present a picture of an ocean teaming with life 450 million years ago.  Hours and hours of collecting, inspecting shards of rock for any tell tale sign of a fossil must be followed by days of microscopic study, to identify and photograph these tiny traces.  Important publications will follow.  It is for this reason that they have launched a crowdfunding page  to buy a high quality binocular microscope and digital camera set-up to be installed at their home in Llandrindod Wells.

Life is precarious for independent researchers: Joe busks in the summer and Lucy does part time editing to support their modest life needs.  They welcome amateur enthusiasts and have already been pivotal in launching at least one Penglais pupil on his geological career.  In Llandrindod, they run a local amateur fossil group, provide public talks and workshops, visit local primary schools, and run field trips. They are involved in the community orchard, the repair shop, and the Transition Towns Group.  As they say “We even offer our personal space, time and equipment to anyone who has need of it, simply to encourage a love of the natural sciences.”

At the Sign of the Trilobite

The high quality photo microscope would be installed at their premises and will be of equal benefit to other scientists, especially in fields such as  botany, insects, or archaeology, who will be able to use it  free by appointment.  Donations in the first week of the appeal have exceeded £5000 but there is more to go for a first rate piece of kit.  Go to their web page and read all about it!

https://www.gofundme.com/f/a-microscope-for-amateur-science-in-wales

 

 

 

 

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Life on Lockdown

by The Curious Scribbler

My dog and I have enjoyed some splendid walks in the last two weeks, happily all within my authorized orbit, accessible from my own front door.

The spring has been heartbreakingly beautiful and every day brings new delights.  A fortnight ago, the first chiff chaff appeared at Tanybwlch and within days the landscape became alive with them, belting out their monotonous song from tree tops and gorse bushes everywhere I walk.  The wheatears are back in the stones below Alltwen, and stonechats and dunnocks everywhere in the scrub on the flanks of Pendinas.  Woodpeckers drum in the alder trees by the cycle path and on several days there were no less than 35 choughs probing the sloping meadow on the foot on Pendidnas.  I’ve seen kestrel, buzzard and kite overhead and a heron stalking the incipient salt marsh behind Tanybwlch beach. Today I also noticed that two Canada geese have taken up residence in the small pond below Tanybwlch mansion, and look as if they are planning on goslings.  This pond has an island which will protect them from foxes.  It is a historic feature in the landscape, formerly a public watering point on Tanybwlch flats, immortalized in old maps and a watercolour from the early 19th century.

The watering hole below Tanybwlch mansion, now home to a pair of Canada Geese

The wildflowers are equally delightful, carpets of wood anemones in shady patches on the drive, celandines in the roadside banks opening their reflective golden petals in the sun, and a great  drift of primroses on the bank facing the sea near where Lord Ystwyth built his tea cottage at the foot of Alltwen.

Only very occasionally does a jet aeroplane cross the blue vault of the sky, where formerly four of five could be seen simultaneously on any clear day.  At night the consequences are obvious, the stars sharper and brighter, and venus gleaming like an unexpected streetlight over the hill. These are, as people often say to one another,  strange times, but they are not short of natural beauty.

Also strange are the consequences of ‘social distancing’, the regime to which we must all strictly adhere and which has been interpreted fiercely since the new law was hastily put in place.  First, I noticed that people became less inclined to the usual pleasantries, least they be thought to be socializing.  Dog walkers usually say good day to one another, but now other walkers often pass silently, and on a few occasions even turn around to avoid passing me.  Many familiar faces don’t seem to come along these paths at all, perhaps because they formerly drove to commence their walk.  Tanybwlch beach has always been a prime spot for dog walkers but it is now rare to see more than a couple of dogs on the whole length of the strand.

Their place has been taken by cyclists and runners, many clad in bright bespoke costumes signifying their virtuous activity.  Never before has there been such a succession of fit young men pounding along the strand and doing  stretches, squats and press ups near the primrose patch, before pounding back towards the town.  More worryingly though where are all the children?  One day I saw a mother with her three children and a dog walking beside the Ystwyth, and another day I spied a father and his two small daughters with bikes on the cycle path.  These though were rare sightings: far less than one might expect to see when all children are at home.

I do wonder whether we have gone too far with the virtue-signalling around reasons to be out of doors.  Today the police posted a picture of South Beach, Aberysytwyth on Facebook. Taken at 2.20pm it was completely deserted,  not a lone walker, not a dog, nobody at all.  The post congratulates the people of Aberystwyth  on not being there. This, apparently, is how our open spaces should look. Not social distancing but total absence is required.

Heddlu DPPolice photo posted on Facebook

I’m glad I don’t live in the town.  The promenade and the beaches are good places to walk and get some fresh air.  Doing so, once a day, is not in fact a crime, yet possibly those who most need a walk and a breath of air now feel intimidated to do so.

 

 

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By the Wind Sailors on Tanybwlch beach

by The Curious Scribbler

Velella velella on Tanybwlch beach

I walked Tanybwlch beach today in search of velellas, having noticed Chloe Griffith’s post on Facebook last night.  Velella velella, or By the Wind Sailor is an oceanic ‘jellyfish’, but not your usual jellyfish:  instead it belongs to a class called the Hydrozoans, and is a colonial animal made up of several different types of polyps doing different jobs (feeding, defence, or reproduction) .  Under a transparent float hang many tiny stinging polyps, which catch the plankton of the open ocean.  The diagonally placed sail projecting above the water should ensure that the float moves across the wind, and the velellas remain at sea.  It is a unique species,  there is just one kind, and they circulate in all world’s warm or temperate oceans.

Stranded By the Wind Sailors amongst the wrack

I found them, amongst the rolls of wrack and kelp on the lower strand line, but how tiny they were!  Every one I found was just two centimeters long, shorter than a single joint of my finger. Velellas can be 7 cm long, and I have seen them this size in the open ocean, bobbing past at sea.  Our stranding of velellas are mere babies, and judging by the uniformity all started life from the same hatching. Drying in the winter sunshine they look and feel to the touch like fragments of stiff cellophane, with a hint of blue around the underside.

Velella velella on Tanybwlch beach

Velella velella on Tanybwlch beach, showing the projecting sail to catch the wind

It was a lovely morning, and I noted that my friend the dragon log has moved once more along the beach, and, after a period on its side and looking less dragon-like has again righted itself with head aloft.  It remains a pleasure, as I remarked last autumn, to note how very few items of domestic plastic rubbish are to be found among the driftwood and seaweed.

Wrack and kelp on Tanybwlch beach

There is though, a still abundant category of man-made waste,  and that is plastic rope and string.  What is it about fishermen and little bits of string?  Especially common are short pieces about 6 inches in length of green or blue plastic string with frayed cut ends.  In a short distance one can gather a pocketful, either here or at Borth or Ynyslas.

Velella velella on Tanybwlch beach

There must be an explanation.  Do fishermen tie closed their lobster pots and cut the string each time they open them? If this is the explanation why cannot they use biodegradable hemp which would decay after its single use rather than surviving in the ocean, breaking into tinier pieces for ever, and clogging the stomachs of filter feeding marine life?  Or they could take their pieces of string home and put them in the bin?

Our West Wales beaches are far closer to pristine than they were 20 years ago.  If we can identify the reason for the remaining offenders perhaps a small change in behaviour would do the trick.

 

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Dragon on the move

by the Curious Scribbler

The Tanybwlch Dragon has moved several hundred yards along the beach during last Saturday’s high seas.  Once again it has beached itself gazing out to sea, its lower jaw a little more abraded, but its eager expression is now almost as convincing from the left flank as from the right.

Right cheek

Left cheek

Seas have been breaking over the stony strand which separates the beach from the low lying Tanybwlch flats, the location of summer trotting races, and formerly, of the Aberystwyth Show.   Once more a huge pool has formed below Alltwen, beloved of gulls and waders.

The brackish pool on Tanybwlch flats

Over the years there have been a number of efforts to drain this area and return it to pasture, but this seems to be a losing battle and each winter the lake forms again, and as it drains away rushes prosper at the expense of grass.  It is highly likely that we will see the day when the sea breaks through the pebble bar and our walks along this wild beach will be curtailed part way along.

The Dragon has migrated along Tanybwlch beach

The strand line was not as free from human debris as when I commented two weeks ago, but as with the comments from my reader about the Gower, fragments of netting and other fisherman’s waste were far more abundant than household plastic.  The white lumps on the strand line were not polystyrene but cuttlefish bone, and the fluffy froth just natural sea spume.

Cuttlefish on the strandline at Tanybwlch beach

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Frying the field bindweed

by The Curious Scribbler

The convolvulus family includes several choice and garden-worthy species, such as the silver-foliaged shrub  Convolvulus cneorum, and the sky blue Convolvulus mauritanicus of the hanging basket, but it also includes the gardener’s foe Calystegia sepium, the field bindweed.  Who has not engaged in an unending struggle with this plant!

Emerging from the ground as the frosts have passed its fine tendrils twist their way up the young stems of our newest seedlings or the woody stems of established shrubs.  Romping to the top, the new growth soon expands to form a heavy leafy mass which all too soon entirely swamps the substrate.  We pluck it, unwind it, dig up the white wandering roots and still it comes, for the brittle roots go deep and readily break when removed.  A tiny half inch of root will soon sprout a new plant, initially an innocent miniature tendril, but left unnoticed soon expanding to its gorgon like best.

Field Bindweed Calystegia sepium smothering a hedge

Field Bindweed Calystegia sepium

In hedgerows it is unassailable, and by this time of year may largely cover the hedge beneath.  But it redeems itself in the wild by the beauty of its flowers, great luminous white trumpet blooms opening freshly every day.  As a flower it puts Morning Glory in the shade, and would be much prized if only like Morning Glory it discreetly died each winter.  Instead, the roots burrow onward and a fresh supply of seeds ensure its rapid  introduction far and wide.

Field Bindweed Calystegia sepium

The very best gardens suffer from Bindweed.  I recently heard a talk by Debs Goodenough, Royal Gardener at Highgrove for the Prince of Wales, who was addressing the AGM of the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust. The Prince is conscientiously organic, so chemicals are not in the arsenal.  It was fascinating to learn that in the last few years they have been trialling a new method of  attack – by electrocution!   5000 volts is applied to the stem.  It is satisfying, she said, to see a puff of smoke emerge from the ground.

I’ve just been watching a YouTube film by the company Rootwave introducing the Rootwave Pro.  Rather than crouching with a widger the gardener strolls around with an electrocution wand attached to a small generator,  poking it into selected dandelions, hogweed, thistles and so on.  As the publicity puts it – the plants boil from the inside, die and return their goodness to the soil.  This is new technology and Debs was not yet ready to vouch for its effectiveness.  I do wonder whether, with the long roots of bindweed said to penetrate as much as 20 feet into the ground, the boiling plant near the surface will leave a healthy root fragment  deep below, capable of sprouting a new plant to re-invade.

I wonder also how the 5000 volt affects the nearby soil invertebrates, there must be a fair number of worms which, if not cooked, get the fright of their lives. I’m feeling rather respectful of worms just now having spent an hour watching the progress of a mole through the surface of a meadow.  Excavating with its powerful claws under the root mat of the grass the mole generates audible scrunching vibrations as it creates a run just below the surface.  And don’t the worms know!  In its immediate vicinity I watched worms of all sizes hurriedly emerging onto the surface of the grass and hastening 10 centimetres or more across the surface in braod daylight before disappearing once more below ground.  I don’t suppose that evolution has equipped worms with a similar sixth sense when the approach of the Rootwave operator is nigh.

It is good to know that HRH is experimenting with the latest in organic techniques.  We also learnt that his magnificent delphiniums receive their slug protection through garlands of seaweed mulched around each plant, and that he is keen to obtain  disabled hedgehogs from hedgehog hospitals.  A fully able hedgehog requires a substantial range and the breeding opportunities which that affords.  A troupe of disabled yet hungry hedgehogs could just hang around the Highgrove borders eating their fill of slugs and snails.

 

 

 

 

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Veteran tree in danger at Hafod

by The Curious Scribbler

There is much disquiet at Hafod at the impending loss of another of its veteran beech trees, one which stands beside the little stone bridge on the drive just below the spur path up to the Bedford Monument and Mariamne’s Garden.

The veteran beech tree stands below the drive through the Hafod Estate

This is probably the tallest of Hafod’s surviving ancient beech trees, drawn upwards  in a fairly sheltered position in the lea of the steeply rising hillside.  It is also one the best known, because only two of the big beeches are easily visible from the road through the estate.

Unfortunately it drew attention to itself last September by dropping a large branch, which fell harmlessly into the stream valley below.   As a result, a much earlier bough loss became visible to the passer by and was noticed by Jim Ralph the NRW Local Area  Manager responsible for Hafod.   Higher up the tree, well above the recently-lost branch, an old tear is visible which is flanked by the curved buttresses of wound-healing wood on either side.  I would guess this injury is several decades old.

The veteran beech below Mariamne’s garden

However its potential to shed further branches came to mind, and when Health and Safety collides with Conservation the the latter is seldom the winner.  Expert opinion of an arboriculturist identified the tree as a ‘moderate’ threat, further branch fall could occur, the branch could fall onto the road, there could be a passerby on that road at the moment when it falls.  The recommendation was that it should be felled to a tall stump.

Hafod residents are so upset at the prospect of loosing this lovely tree that a few weeks ago a petition was launched on Change.org which has already attracted more than 200 signatories.  I attended a meeting recently at which an articulate group expressed their views to NRW.  Tellingly, all were willing to see the road closed through the estate if such a course of action would save the tree by reducing public access to its vicinity.

In a wide ranging discussion it was asserted by the residents and confirmed by Dave Newnham, the Hafod Estate Manager, that a greater risk of being struck by a falling tree is posed by the large Douglas firs and other conifers adjoining the road and paths on Hafod. The Local Area Manager did not disagree with this opinion, but explained that the conifers are not subject to similar levels of inspection and risk assessment.  As anyone who has walked through a conifer plantation after a storm knows, perfectly healthy trees may blow over, their root plate lifted clean out of the ground.  Which trees may fall is unpredictable, so the crop is not inspected.  Wind-blow is an accepted risk.

It seems that the collapse of a piece off a veteran tree cannot be an accepted risk in terms of NRW management,  so any veteran beech faces a similar fate.  Just such a scenario was played out at Hafod ten years ago when the then Forestry Commission Local Manager’s eye fell upon a beautiful tree in a group below Pant Melyn, not far from the footpath to the Cascade Cavern, (locally known as the Robber’s cave).

The hollow beech at Pant Melyn, Hafod, in 2009

The tree was huge and  healthy, but had at its base a hollow trunk into which it was possible for a small person to squeeze. A specialist report employing sonic tomography confirmed the obvious, that the tree was hollow on one side, and despite an inconclusive debate as to the relative strength of a rod and a cylinder of wood, the tree was duly felled to a high stump.  The Hafod Trust argued passionately for its retention, but to no avail. The case for its destruction was enhanced by the fact that the route to the Cavern Cascade is a public footpath, and families often paused to rest and enjoy that very tree.

The hollow beech at Cae Melyn, Hafod, in 2009 was deemed unsafe, and was cut down

There are  probably a score of  other fine beeches, dating from Thomas Johnes’s time on the Hafod Estate, and fortunately most of them are further from a road.  For the time being this is their salvation, for NRW are unlikely to send out specialist arboriculturalists to inspect them all.  But if they did, probably none would be given a clean bill of health for the 21st century.

Current interpretation by NRW of the risk of litigation appears to be that the further from the car park you are when felled by a tree, the less responsible they, (the landowner), are likely to be considered!  Across the UK about 4 people per year are killed by a falling tree, a minute contribution to overall human mortality.  But for this reason, the veteran trees which draw people to Hafod will all be, sooner or later, at risk.

A change of policy at a high level would be needed to overturn the current thinking. The petition to National Resources Wales  is at https://www.change.org/p/nastural-resource-wales-to-support-local-veteran-trees-of-hafod

 

 

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Magnificent trees at Gelli Aur

by the Curious Scribbler

Gelli Aur (or Golden Grove) is an important mansion and estate situated in the Towy valley not far from Aberglasney but much less visited.  Its fortunes in the last half-century have been rocky, and increasingly dispiriting.  The second world war took its toll, when the house was occupied by the US Air Force and temporary buildings mushroomed on the lawned terraces. The following peace saw it occupied for almost 50 years by  the Carmarthen Agricultural College (Coleg Sir Gar) while 60 acres of the grounds became a Country Park.  Then more recently the College moved to modern premises and the estate was sold.  The last ten years or so has seen a succession of owners of which the most publicised was the aspiration to develop it as a convalescent home for soldiers.  However the failure of this and various inappropriate development bids left the house a severely dilapidated wreck, stripped of its roof lead and run through with wet and dry rot, and even the Country Park closed to visitors.

So it is a delight to find its fortunes have finally turned the corner, thanks to a philanthropic backer and a newly formed preservation trust.  Last Autumn public access was restored  to the arboretum and a newly built tea room provides excellent lunches and teas.  It is a big largely glass building overlooking the wooded landscape below, and is even well equipped with family board games should the weather be too wet to venture outside.  I found Frances Jones Davies ( formerly editor of Wales’ glossy magazine Cambria)  running the cafe and expounding the ongoing developments for the house.

It is not perhaps the prettiest of Regency mansions.  The ancient seat of the Vaughans was down in the valley and was demolished  by Lord Cawdor when he built the present house.  Styled a Hunting Lodge it was built 1827-32 by Wyatville on  the slopes above the deerpark. It acted as an alternative to the principal Cawdor seat at Stackpole in Pembrokeshire.

To frame the setting of the new house, the land rising behind it was formed into a series of broad grassy terraces, and an arboretum was begun by the head gardener William Hill in the 1860s among some existing native beeches and oaks.

Golden Grove mansion viewed from the terraces above

Things have thrived in this rich damp valley.  Last week  horticultural expert Ivor Stokes led a group of enthusiasts from the Ceredigion WHGT ( Welsh Historic Gardens Trust) around the arboretum. Among the huge beeches and oaks there are exotic firs, pines, spruces, thujas, redwoods and cypresses drawn up to prodigious heights.

A Lawson’s Cypress, given time and space becomes a magnificent tree

A huge multi-stemmed Monterey Pine at Gelli Aur

The undergrowth includes a fine variety of rhododendrons and azaleas, some of them  cultivars now rare or lost. We marvelled at a particularly vigorous Fern leaved Beech, and a huge Magnolia tripetala still sporting one or two spring flowers.

A champion Magnolia tripetala ( native to the Eastern USA)

Magnolia tripetala flower

It it were not for the rain I would have taken many more photographs and made copious notes.

An unexpected treat was to be granted access to the 10 acre walled garden, now in separate ownership which adjoins the site of the old mansion.  This is truly large, so huge that it even contains a small lake! ( most walled gardens are little more than one acre in extent).

Golden Grove. The old walled garden contains a small lake

And at the margin of this garden is a truly spectacular tree, remnant of the Vaughan glory days.  It is a towering double-trunked tulip tree, more than 29 feet in circumference.  A whole ecosystem lives upon it, with massive vines of ivy, and seedling rhododendron, ferns and mosses nestled in the crevices of its bark.  Tulip trees Liriodendron tulipifera first came to Britain in Stuart times and this may well be one of the first to arrive.

Ivor Stokes at the foot of the Tulip Tree at Golden Grove

 

The champion Tulip Tree, Liriodendron tulipifera at Gelli Aur

Gelli Aur mansion is undergoing restoration and will in time be open to the public an art gallery and cultural centre.  In the meantime it may be possible for small groups to arrange a visit to the house.

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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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