A walk at Borth

by The Curious Scribbler

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

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

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

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

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

Diggers and dumper lorries at Borth.

Diggers and dumper lorries at Borth.

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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New gardens on the Rheidol Railway

by The Curious Scribbler

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

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

Inspecting the trough at Capel Bangor station

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

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

Capel Bangor Station

Tub on Capel Bangor Station

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

Nantyronen Station


Troughs at Nantryonen

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

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

Inspecting the border at Aberffrwd

Rabbit damage

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

Sedum border at Aberffrwd

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

Trains pass the baton at Aberffrwd

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

Fire buckets at Devil’s Bridge

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

Spoil tips viewed from Rhiwfron Halt

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Kicking a Badger

by The Curious Scribbler

Last week I was out in my pyjamas at one o’clock in the morning kicking a badger in the ribs.  Which may surprise you since I am in general a tolerant animal lover.

The story begins at about 11-30pm when my guests, recently retired to bed, complained of extremely odd sounds from the quiet lane below their window.  Not, they thought, a cat fight, but a worrying assortment of groans, barks and guttural mumblings.  A car had drawn up and then driven on.  Our family dog had barked within the house.  And the strange sounds continued.

Armed with a torch I went out to investigate.  All was silent, but as I approached the entrance to a field gate I saw a great ball of fluffed out brownish fur.  As I approached it, a sleek young stripey-headed badger detached itself from beside it, and slipped under the field gate to run up the field.  The lump of fur though scarcely moved.  It seemed to scrabble forward with its front feet but the hindquarters dragged on the ground and after a few inches it lay still.  I considered the scene for some time, guessing that the injured badger had perhaps been struck by a car.  It was certainly in shock and shivering.

Reporting back to the family, I described the scene and suggested that the large motionless badger would shortly die of its injuries.  Both the practicalities and the ethics of mercy killing a badger seemed daunting, so we went to bed.

But it did not die quietly.  Soon the grunting and groaning resumed and I rose once more, arming myself with a clump hammer, and thinking that if the badger still lay paralysed and groaning I could perhaps knock it on the head and put it out of its misery.  I went quietly down the road with a torch. The sleek young badger was back, sitting companionably with its back leaned against the older animal , and 50 yards down the road by the light of the only streetlight I saw another young badger running towards me.

As I approached the gateway, companion badger again squeezed under the gate and ran up the hill, but this time old badger was on its four feet, moving around a little.  It seemed a bit dazed but showed  no obvious injury other than some blood around its nose.  Perhaps, I concluded, it was making a recovery.  The clump hammer was stood down and I went to bed once more.

Noise abatement was not achieved.  If anything the gutteral squawks and groans increased and at One a.m. came the sound of a heavy body or bodies colliding with our dustbin.  It rattled back and forth, just failing to fall over.

So up I got once more, dragging on jeans and jumper and running down the road.  And there, beneath the streetlight some 25 yards from where my injured badger had been sheltering was it and a young assailant, locked together and snarling, rolling and dragging one another too and fro in the middle of the road.  Doubtless it was they who had almost toppled the dustbin.  So on the principle of siding with the under badger, I kicked the young attacker in the ribs and chased him 100 yards down the road.  My guests lay in bed transfixed by my yells of  ” Bugger off!  You’re making too much noise.”

Returning, I expected to find injured old badger, released and lying exhausted in the road.  But no, his walking ability had clearly returned and I found him stubbornly back at the field gate where I had first found him. Unlike his slighter young associate he did not seem minded to squeeze under the gate, so I climbed upon it, released the farmer’s wire, and opening it wide over the sodden earth, I poked my badger with a stick until it reluctantly went through into the field.  It trudged off alongside the hedgerow, and I went to bed.

I sat up reading websites about badger social behaviour.  Was our field gateway at the margin of two territories?  Was the companionable badger one of its social group, sitting up against him to share fragrance from his rear scent glands.  Was young badger in the road a warrior from the adjoining tribe down the way?

It’s hard to tell.  But at least the young fighting badger did not return after my blandishments, and the old badger was nowhere to be seen dead in the hedgerow the following day.

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The National Plant Phenomics Centre at Gogerddan

by The Curious Scribbler

Plants, mainly grasses, have been being selected and improved at Aberystwyth for almost a hundred years.  Modern experimental oat breeding, for example, began here in 1919 along with experiments designed to improve the properties of forage grasses for sheep and cattle.  In those bygone days the research organisation was called the Welsh Plant Breeding Station (WPBS) and it was directed from 1919 to1942 by George Stapledon, who was duly knighted for his endeavours towards achieving what we now call ‘Sustainability and Food Security’.  In those days it was called ‘Autarky’.  In the Seventies we called it ‘Self-Sufficiency’.  (In any case, all these terms mean producing more, with less dependence on imports and political alliances).

I recently saw some charming photos of the early days of plant breeding at Aberystwyth.  Airy greenhouses contained bevies of women in pretty dresses, meticulously stripping the male parts (the anthers) from oats or other grasses and pollinating the stigmas with paintbrushes loaded with the chosen pollen.  Over the years the Welsh Plant Breeding Station grew in size and importance, moving in 1953 to the Gogerddan estate, of one of the former great mansions of Ceredigion, at Penrhyncoch.  The Queen came to open the new establishment.  The former walled garden of the estate soon disappeared under a complex of modern buildings. 


Traditional experimental plots trialling many varieties of rye-grass at IBERS, Gogerddan


 In the 1990s after various mergers WPBS renamed itself the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) and then to the bewilderment of many, mutated once more, by merger with Rural and Biological Sciences at Aberystwyth University into IBERS (The Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences).  Many still know it by its older acronymns, especially the large local workforce who since its inception found employment in its  glasshouses, fields and experimental plots. Today IGER oats account for 65% of the oats planted in Britain and IGER varieties of rye-grass are contentedly masticated all over the world.  IGER turf has been developed for the particular needs of different sporting venues, and even to grow on vertical surfaces to enrobe green sculptures.

Meanwhile the sophistication of genetic engineering moved on from the days of girls in pretty dresses and now involves the scrutiny not just of new hybrids but of individual genes. And to mark the twenty-first century IBERS has a startling new toy, The National Plant Phenomics Centre, one of the most advanced experimental greenhouses in the world.    

In the National Plant Phenomics Centre glasshouse, plants leave the artificial sunlight for a visit to the measuring chambers.


Here in a giant brightly lit glasshouse, plants reside in identical individual pots, moving gently around the huge space on whirring, clicking conveyor belts.  Each pot contains a microchip which identifies its programmed needs. Each plant may have been designated for a personalised regime of water, fertiliser, pesticide.  And each plant is daily monitored.  As its progresses along the conveyor belt it pauses, turns to the left and passes into a chamber like a lift, whereupon the automatic doors close it from view. Inside it is rotated and photographed from four sides and above so that a computer programme can compute its precise enlargement since yesterday’s visit to the chamber.  In another chamber it may be lifted out of its pot to measure the root growth under infra red light, or measured for fluorescence.  Then the doors open and the belt moves on.  Then there is a breathless pause.  The plant pot stands upon a scale by which its weight indicates the amount of water it has lost or used since last it visited this point.  The pause continues, the computer deliberates, and then according to its needs and the experimental programme, a downward angled gun delivers a precisely measured bolt of water to the roots.  There is a further click and the patient moves on, to be followed by another and then another.  There is a remarkable sense of suspense in watching a series of identical plants passing the weigh station, some to be rewarded with a drink of water, others assessed, measured and sent on their way thirsty.


This lucky plant receives a squirt of water before returning to the bench


The multi-million pound National Plant Phenomics Centre opened very recently. It is a magnificent piece of sci-fi, with all the man-appeal of a train set.  Quietly clicking and whirring belts drive continual motion, not a human in sight.  Watch the You Tube animation here.


It looks as if fewer local jobs will arise from the National Plant Phenomic Centre than from the old techniques of watering cans and trial plots, for it is all controlled by computer from a single work station.  In the animation you will find that the sole operative of the laboratory computer terminal looks suspiciously like superheroine Lara Croft.  The film is accompanied by a mind numbingly repetitive electronic music sound track.  Only in this respect does the animation exceed reality.


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Bilberries in the hills

by The Curious Scribbler

Ripe Bilberries ( Vaccinium myrtillus)

August is a rich foraging time and we recently took a break from mushrooming to make a second visit to our favoured Bilberry spot in the Cambrian uplands.

Bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus) are the much smaller and tarter wild relative of the supermarket Blueberry  (V. corymbosum) a cultivated form of the wild North American species.  When I was a child, blueberries were unknown in British shops and so bilberry picking was a seasonal tradition, the whole family crouched in the heather and scrub, fingers purpling as we picked off the berries, squishing the overripe ones as we picked. It is a tedious task, as few berries are as much as a centimetre in diameter, and while the largest, ripest ones tumble far too easily through one’s fingers, the slightly less ripe ones cling firmly to the bush.  Unless there is a strong breeze, a horde of buzzing flies soon circle around the picker, and horseflies converge from great distances upon a likely blood meal.

But the outcome was a cascade of small spherical fruit baked with sugar and perhaps some apple in a pie topped with shortcrust pastry.  We liked to compare tongues after a bilberry pie, for the purple pigment stains the skin, and a tongue would remain blue for at least a day after the meal. Once you have had a bilberry pie, blueberries will always seem watery and insipid –  a pale imitation of these mountain fruits.

Finding a good Bilberry spot is a matter of luck and close observation.  At best the shrubs grow as loose bushes about 18 inches tall, but often their growth has been accompanied by regrown oak woodland, and they do not fruit freely in the shade.  On sunny hillsides they grow densely with heather (Calluna vulgaris) and form a low growing carpet of green and purple.  Grazing and hill fires both hold back the size of the bushes and the fruit may be smaller and sparser.  Most of the best spots are probably on forestry land where there has been little or no recent grazing but the trees are few.

A sunny hillside of bilberry and heather

Our two man-hours of picking yielded two and a half pounds of fruit which will freeze from fresh into perfect little black spheres of shot.  Neither flavour nor texture is diminished by the freezing process and I will later layer them with bramley apple and sugar in a generous pie.  If half the health benefits attributed to the milder blueberries apply to these wild fruit then we are also protecting ourselves from the ravages of senility, stroke, heart attack  and macular degeneration of the eyes.  And of course the physical exertion of climbing the hill will have also been very good for us!


Bilberries ready for the kitchen

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Too busy picking mushrooms

by The Curious Scribbler

My blogging regularity has diminished recently, so what is my excuse?  Well part of it is the pleasure of foraging to fill the freezer.

Lines of mushrooms press up through the new grass.

Real wild field mushrooms have suddenly burst forth in our field.  They are the most unpredictable of crops.  In 2011 we picked half a carrier bag-full every few days for several months starting in late May.  By contrast last year’s rainy and vile summer yielded not a single one.  And throughout the baking hot days of June and July this year, the hay crop grew up, was harvested, and the new grass began springing from the roots. There was not a mushroom to be seen.

And then this week, after several refreshing bouts of rain the mushrooms are emerging, gleaming white chains of domes pushing up through the grass and herbs.  They form distinct colonies, reflecting the spread of the mycelium below the ground, and in many cases the colonies have spread out into partial ‘fairy rings’: large  arcs of emerging mushrooms in grass which is growing slightly richer and greener than the rest.  Walking across the rising ground one can pick out these darker green strands of meadow, and on closer approach, find the mushrooms sheltering within them.

Darker green grass marks the margin where two separate sets of mycelia meet and the fruiting bodies emerge.

When we bought our field some twenty years ago it grew a deep hay meadow of coarse grasses, cocksfoot and timothy which one waded through with difficulty before the cut.  The farmer in those days would apply chemical fertilizer each year to promote the hay, and graze the field with winter sheep.  There were few wild flowers and no mushrooms.

Field Mushrooms


Under our management there is no chemical fertilizer, just a traditional sprinkle of farmyard manure after the sheep and lambs have grazed it bare in spring.  And over the years the tall grasses have disappeared, and a species-rich meadow has re-established itself.  The hay crop looks pretty substantial when rolled up in big bales, but even at harvesting the vegetation is now little more than ankle deep, low enough that a strolling free range chicken can look out over the grass heads on alert for the fox.  It is a richly flowery mix with vetches, daisies, clover, plantain and other herbs. A gourmet diet for sheep, which, as is well known, much prefer a mixed and varied forage.

Most of the mushrooms, I trim and wipe free of grass and gently bag them up for the freezer.  A frozen mushroom obviously loses its firm texture for mushrooms on toast, but so does a mushroom which has been slowly stewed.  All through the winter I add frozen field mushrooms to richly winey coq au vin or boeuf bourguinon, layer them in meat pies or add them to soup.  The commercial mushroom is a pale tasteless echo of the real thing.  These mushrooms pack a punch of flavour.

A half hour stroll yields a brimming basket of mushrooms.

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A medieval deer park and Bushell’s Well

by the Curious Scribbler

Not far up the road from Gwynfryn,  birthplace of our forgotten author Dorothea Jones is an area of wooded, rising ground overlooking the Dyfi estuary.  In Dora’s day it would have been predominantly scrubby oak woodland,  – the Sessile oak, Quercus petraea which clothes the Cardiganshire hills.  At its feet, the low lying land towards the estuary was pasture, for in the early 19th century much of the salt marsh had been drained by a system of dykes and embankments. Today the surviving salt marsh habitat is best seen in the ribbon of land cut off by the railway line which snakes northwards from Aberystwyth to Machynlleth, and through mid Wales to Shrewsbury and the wider world.

This high ground woodland had long been part of the lands of the Pryses of Gogerddan and was known as Parc Bodvage, later Lodge Park.  In 1637 a lease of Park Bodvage granted  by Richard Pryse of Gogerddan reserved to himself and his heirs “the pasture of three horses, nags geldings or mares at all times during the said terme within the said parke, and common of pasture for his and their deare [deer] within the said parke, with free access egresse and regresse thereunto to hunt course chase or kill the same at his or their pleasure…”  By the 19th century the deer were gone, but the Pryses remained indefatigable sportsmen and their game books in the National Library of Wales list the yield of the hunt.  In addition to foxes, otters and pine marten, rabbits and hares, the woodland and the marshes yielded pheasant, partridge, geese and duck in season, snipe, woodcock and even the odd corn crake.  In the 20th century, the family fortunes became extinct, and the estate broke up.  The Forestry Commission soon enrobed the high ground in conifers and the dwelling at the centre, which by 1800 had become a substantial gentleman’s residence was sold off with less than half its garden.  The pasture land became separate holdings with its former tenant farms.

It is through this divided patchwork of history that a group of Welsh Historic Gardens Trust  enthusiasts sought, last week, to unravel the traces of the original land-use, for Lodge Park is thought to have been the only medieval deerpark in the county. Like the many better known parks in England it is a lozenge shaped area of woodland grazing, around 100 acres in size, which had at its centre a lodge, a building used by the parkers in managing the deer and possibly as a place of refreshment when deer hunting became less of a larder activity and more of a gentleman’s sport.  Like other parks it retains on parts of its circumference the characteristic ditch and bank construction, which would originally have been topped by a palisade.  The ditch is on the inner side of the park, while the outer side of the bank is constructed of carefully placed vertical stones set into the earth bank, quite unlike the traditional herringbone arrangement of diagonal stones seen reinforcing field banks throughout the county.

Vertically placed stones hold back the bank and ditch boundary of the deer park

Vertically placed stones hold back the bank and ditch boundary of the deer park


The park wall construction is distinctive

Some interesting people occupied the enlarged parker’s lodge in the 17th century.  This was the time of great mineral exploitation in the area and much of the British coinage of the time comes from Cardiganshire silver, minted at the Tower of London, and later at Aberystwyth Mint.  The leases of mining rights were granted by the Crown, first the Hugh Myddleton of Chirk Castle (1620-31), and later to Thomas Bushell (1637-42) and both men leased the house at Lodge Park from the Pryse landowners.  It must have been galling for the Pryses of Gogerddan to receive only their rent, while riches in lead and silver were extracted on behalf of the king.  Eventually Sir Carbery Pryse, 4th baronet, was influential in bringing to the statute book the Mines Royal Act of 1693.  Thereafter Cardiganshire experienced its own “gold rush” as landowners could exploit and profit from their lead and silver mines themselves. One of the great legends of the county is Sir Carbery’s ride, virtually non-stop and at a gallop from London to Gogerddan to bring the news home and commence the exploitation of his lands. Mining villages sprang up to meet the demand and a great influx of Cornish migrants brought their expertise from the tin mines of home.

Another legend perhaps arises from the hasty disappearance from Wales, during the Civil War, of the royalist mining engineer, Thomas Bushell.  Later he made peace with Oliver Cromwell, and also mined in England for the protectorate and for Charles II.  But his name remains linked in local folklore with a rock cut spring on the north flank of Lodge Park, “Bushell’s Well”.  Considering the number of mines which Bushell opened, driving adits into the hills and retrieving others from flooding, this seems a very slight structure to bear his name.  But in Bushell’s Well, the oral history goes, Bushell drowned a woman, variously a maid servant or his wife.   It is a tidy drinking place, cut into the living rock in the manner of a mine entrance, the clear water pooled by an 18 inch lip of rock at the entrance to the recess.  No one could drown in such a well unless they were held down in the water.


The shallow drinking pool in which Bushell is alleged to have drowned a woman


The well is rock cut in the manner of a mining adit and probably dates from the mid 17th


Join the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust http://www.whgt.org.uk/




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Otter Hunting on Cors Fochno

by The Curious Scribbler

It is difficult to engage with the mindset of the past, but my recent reading of The Otter’s Story by Dorothea Jones has given me a some fascinating insights on a now distasteful topic.  It is otter hunting, a pursuit which was not fully abandoned in rural Cardiganshire until the mid 20th century.  There are nice, cultured people alive today who will admit to having taken part in otter hunts in their youth.   Otters heads – the mask – turn up mounted in country houses and salerooms and their paws still surface as Victorian jewellery.   Not too long ago otter hunting was an accepted part of rural life and most people do not readily question what is normal in the society in which they grow up.

The cover of The Otter’s Story Etc by Gwynfryn
Published in London in 1880

The Otter’s Story was published in 1880 by Dorothea Jones, sister of the Bishop of St David’s, and author of a campaigning tract dedicated to the reform of British workhouses.  She was by then aged 52, an established author of articles in The Monthly packet of Evening Readings for Members of the English Church, and of two books.  Her pen name was Gwynfryn. She is an adept writer, well able to conjure up the beauty of a day or the drama of a scene in prose. It is perhaps the more shocking then, that from such an unimpeachable middle-class Victorian should come such a piece of writing.  Prose which is by turns cosy, lyrical, bloodthirsty and sexually charged.

If you want to understand what previous generations got out of pursuing a small cute fish-eating mustelid this is a remarkably good place to begin.  It can be read online via Open Library http://openlibrary.org/      (search for The Otter’s Story, Jacobs Story),  or on Nigel Callaghan’s estimable local site  http://www.lloffion.org.uk/newdocs/the_otters_story/intro/display

She starts her account with several narratives about tame, pet otters.  Just as Gavin Maxwell made clear in Ring of Bright Water 80 years later, they make engaging pets.  The story potters along with captured otter cubs suckled by a domestic cat, otters reared with dogs, and grown otters catching fish for their masters.  You are in little doubt, the author likes otters.

But  the introductory pages have left a clue, like the pre-credit sequence to whet your appetite in the movies.  The scene was opened upon a glorious early May morning on Cors Fochno ( Borth Bog) “with the hedgerows greening over and sparkling with dewdrops in the level sunshine”, the dark river “blue in the shadow, silver in the sun” flowing off the mountains.  At the end of her anecdotes of captive otters, she rejoins this scene: to introduce the gathering of the hunt, the red and blue clad huntsmen some on horseback, the seething mass of excited hounds, and the hunt followers, “Welsh farmers in their old blue or grey coats, a rabble of wild hill boys awed by the novel sight of their betters” and two gaily clad village girls, one a smouldering Celtic beauty, the other, plain.

I won’t linger of on the details except to say that it is as sexist and gory as an episode of the popular historical fantasy drama Game of Thrones.  There is agony, blood, demoniacal screams and lots of whipped dogs. “How could hunting be hunting without lashing of hounds and cries of pain from writhing creatures, round whom the sharp whipcord is cut with all the force of a thick lash and a strong man’s arm, roused to passion by excitement?”  Men are men –standing tall and strong, violent, striding, shouting, digging out the otters holt to capture the cubs within.  Women are egging them on – there is a moment when the she-otter and her cubs might have been spared and the hunt called off early.  The master hesitates, and the pretty girl, like a spectator at a gladiatorial fight, seals the animals’ fate by her strident encouragement.

There is plenty of graphic death. In an early skirmish we meet the huntsman’s own terrier, Vermin,  who “with his large soft eyes looking up through his long hair might have sat for the begging dog in Landseer’s portrait”.  Vermin is unfortunately mistaken by the hounds for an otter, as he emerges from a hole in the bank into the water. He is torn to shreds before the men can rescue him, and his body is casually discarded.  The dog otter is caught and killed, “screaming in an excruciating minor key”, soon afterwards.

The female otter escapes upstream with hounds in pursuit while some of the men set to work to dig out her young.  One is mortally injured by the spade, two captured in a sack, one escapes to starve alone in the river. Gallant Mrs Otter comes back down stream where she is eventually speared on the two pronged pitchfork which otter hunters carry for this purpose.  Even then in her desperation she twists and turns and prises her impaled body off the tines and drops back into the water, to be eventually grabbed by the hounds. It is an unsparing account of gore and death.

At the end of this celebratory tale the female otter hangs skinned from a tree and the master of the hunt bestows one of its severed pads upon the pretty Welsh girl.  She colours prettily – “no charm, no jewelled gage-d’amour, could hold her with a sweeter spell than did just then that flabby, webbed, and mutilated foot”.  But the man, on the point of making his move, has second thoughts.  She is a bit too eager, “strangely hard…also she had been too conspicuous that day”, and he turns away.  The final words of this psychodrama are four italic ones. “The otter was avenged”.

It would be nice to imagine that this was a pro-otter polemic – a wake-up call for people so unthinkingly cruel.  But it was not written as such.  The messages it carries are about the beauty and excitement of an otter hunt on a beautiful day and about the heady excitement of a testosterone-fired mob of men crazed by the hunt.  There is only one lesson.  The forward hussy does not get her man, and that is natural justice.



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Lady Author Lost

 By the Curious Scribbler

I’ve been reading the work of a long-forgotten lady writer: Dorothea Jones of Gwynfryn.

I was led to her by the author Herbert M Vaughan  of Llangoedmor, who, in his round-up of eccentric Welsh Gentlemen ( The South Wales Squires, published 1926) included a throwaway remark in his chapter on Literary Squires.  “ At no great distance, on high ground that overlooks the great  marsh of Borth,  is Gwynfryn, the home and estate of Bishop Basil Jones of whose services to literature I have spoken elsewhere. The Bishop’s sister Miss Dora Jones was also a writer. There used to be a charming volume called Friends in Fur and Feather, which used to delight us in childhood with its accounts of the birds which haunted the swamps around Borth.  But I have never come across this book it later life —- Ils vont sous la neige d’antan”.

A postcard, pre 1910 showing Gwynfryn Hall, which stands above Borth bog and was built c. 1814

Today there is nothing easier than finding long-forgotten volumes lost in the snows of yesteryear.  In seconds, Google Books brought up the goods, an attractively bound volume in royal blue cloth ornamented with gold tooled  leaves and flowers and red squirrels on its cover.  I enjoy reading old books in the page view format, – except for the smell, everything of the material book can be enjoyed.

Published in 1869 it contains nine stories and a steel engraved illustration for each.  Taken together they blend a delight in nature, pets, and the Welsh countryside along with a fervent approval for fox hunting and cubbing ( even if the victim has been  a pet fox,  being torn apart by hounds is represented as  the most noble way to die).

We know that red squirrels were formerly widespread in Ceredigion and in the first story a baby red squirrel is reared as a pet, takes up residence on the cornice in the drawing room, and eventually returns to the wild.

An illustration from ‘Friends in Fur and Feather’. The pet red squirrel helps himself to rhubarb tablets

In another two horrid boys have stolen two buzzard chicks from their nest on Borth bog and are feeding them on mashed potato.  Our author rescues them and reared them on the abundant meat from fallen stock available to a gentry naturalist. “of suicidal mutton, drowned sheep, fished out of bog drains, they had plenty.”   A quite gentle story about a young blackbird explains its Welsh name pig-felyn.  Nothing to do with pigs, she tells her English readers, but the Welsh  name for yellow beak.  Unfortunately a cat gets the blackbird, much as last year a nestful of cute warbler chicks starring in Springwatch on the very same bog fell victim to a black cat.

What is fascinatingly dated about the stories is their strong flavour that all is right with the world.  In childhood her dog is bitten by an adder, becomes ill,  and is later euthanized by one of the servants:  “I was afraid to ask, for the sack and the bowstring had been familiar institutions amongst our pets of late”.  In another story a donkey is tormented by three young gentlemen on horseback wielding their riding whips and chasing it across country.  The fallen donkey’s injury is regretted, for it was a charming and reliable animal but somehow the young men, who do not provide their names, escape without undue censure.  A story on the newly opened home for lost and starving dogs in London (the early RSPCA) remarks cheerfully that unattractive stray dogs unlikely to be re-homed  will be happier to have their lives terminated  “ then they have to take prussic acid and their poor little troubles are over. ”

‘Homeless’    an illustration from ‘Friends in Fur and Feather’

Another dog story glorifies the military campaign of Bob, a middle sized mongrel, with Her Majesty’s Scots  Fusilier Guards in the Crimean war.  Having escaped all injury during the two year campaign he was knocked down in the London streets when marching with his regiment, and subsequently  stuffed and displayed in the United Services Museum at Whitehall.

‘Bob’ of Her Majesty’s Scots Fusilier Guards. ( a likeness taken after he was stuffed)
An illustration from ‘Friends in Fur and Feather’.

Friends in Fur and Feather was clearly a bracing if sentimental read for Victorian children like Herbert Vaughan and in 1883 a slimmer and un-illustrated edition of eight of the stories was published by George Bell and Son of London in the Bell’s Reading Book Series for schools.

The true identity of the author, ‘Gwynfryn’  is in danger of being lost to sight.

The copy I had read on Google Books was stamped ‘Bodleian libraries’, so I sought it through the Bodleian electronic catalogue.  My indignation was aroused to find that the book has been attributed to the output of an American nature writer, Olive Thorne Miller, (1831-1918)  who included amongst her output a book called ‘Little Folks in Feather and Fur and Others in Neither’ which was published in 1880. Miller, though, was an urban New Yorker, not a Welsh woman and could not have written these stories.

I am in correspondence with the Bodleian to reclaim Gwynfryn for Wales!

Dorothea Jones can, with a little effort still be traced.  She was born one of twin girls on 18 March 1828 at Gwynfryn to William Tilsley Jones and his wife Christiana.  Already in the household was an older brother, William Basil Tickell Jones who was later to become Bishop of St Davids.  He was the only child of an earlier marriage to Jane Tickell of Cheltenham.  In the following ten years six further children were born to Christiana but it must have been a harrowing time: between 1835 and 1838 five children died, including Dorothea’s twin Christiana, and her nearest sister Josephine.  Perhaps such a  childhood  fosters a robust attitude to death.

Dorothea Jones is one of the few women to have been awarded her own entry in the Dictionary of Eminent Welshmen by T.R. Roberts published in 1908.  In it there is a reference to another of her books, which is described due to a misprint as “The Other’s Story”.  It took a bit more searching to find this, but the result was gratifying, as I at last came across “The Otter’s story” by ‘The Author of ‘Friends in Fur and Feather’, ‘Sick and in Prison’ Etc., Etc.’.  It was published in 1880 in London, also with a pretty blue and gold tooled cover, and is dedicated in print  ‘Affectionately  and gratefully inscribed by the writer to her  brother William Basil, Bishop of St David’s’. This too is in the Bodleian and attributed to Olive Thorne Miller!

The cover of The Otter’s Story Etc, by the Author of ‘Friends in Fur and Feather’
Published in London in 1880

The National Library of Wales also has a number of copies of Friends in Fur and Feather, but  simply catalogues them under the pen name of Gwynfryn.

There are other traces of lost history to be gleaned from these old story books; the identity of their first owners.  A nice 1869 copy in the National Library of Wales is inscribed as a gift to Louisa Frances Best on December 7th 1869 and was given with Arvie’s Best Love.  A reading-book version from 1883 was the property of Florence Richards, while another 1869 copy in the New York Public Library was given to Jennie Ryder, Xmas Gift from the SS of the Chapel of St Christopher, Thomas Sill, New York, to mark the Feast of the Holy Innocents in 1870.

As family history enthusiasts search the past for their relatives on the web, it is not impossible that Louisa, Florence and Jennie may one day be spotted by their kin, led to this website by the re-publication of their names.

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Out and about with The Welsh Stone Forum


Last Saturday was not a day many people willingly ventured out.  It was the third of three days on which a blisteringly cold wind from the Russian steppes seared its way across Ceredigion, and although unlike north and east  Wales we had no snow, the chill factor made the eyes water and the marrow shrink.   Setting out from our home we soon encountered our first obstacle a massive ash tree, fallen and pivoted on the hedge bank to block the road.  When leafless trees fall it is a high wind indeed.

Ash tree felled by high wind on 22 March

Notwithstanding this, a small group of specialists converged from all over Wales to explore the building stones of south Ceredigion. Our topic for the day was a locally occurring Ordovician sandstone, one form of which, Pwntan stone, has already been mentioned in this blog, as the stone from which Tremain Church is built.

First we met at Tan y Groes.  Here the main road is constricted by sandstone buildings on either side of the road, and speeding traffic roars through the gap.  There is a Calvinistic Methodist chapel on the south side of the road with adjoining vestry building.  Recently modified for residential use, the gable end facade has been recently cleaned by sandblasting.  So many different styles of ornamental tooling can be seen.  The main construction blocks have been pecked and pock marked with many short chisel blows.  The edges of narrow ornamental dressings are transversely grooved, across the shorter axis of each stone.  The voussoirs of the window arches are similarly ornamented and where large stone are used, a false division has been carved, to create the appearance of two or even three smaller voussoirs instead of a single block.  The building was commenced in 1849 a year after the completion of nearby Tremain.  It is not known whether it is by the same mason, but it is certainly work by a meticulous craftsman.  The characteristic interlocking stones of Tremain are not here however.  Perhaps Calvinism is better represented by uncompromisingly coursed blocks.  Other buildings in the village are yet plainer, built of rubbly blocks of sandstone.  The chapel buildings could only have been created with hand-sawn stone.

Tooled masonry in Pwntan stone shows several decorative styles

The Calvinistic methodist chapel at Tanygroes, Ceredigion, built 1849

St Michael’s Tremain has already been described.  It is the perfect habitat for the creamy white crustose lichen Ochrolechia parella.  On the west end the lichen is so extensive that the building is almost white.  The toxicity of lead to lichens is nicely illustrated by the two strips of stonework below the lancet windows.  When rain drives against the leaded windows and runs down to trickle off the sill it poisons the lichens and the stonework remains clean.

Ochrolechia parella, a crustose lichen cannot grow where lead leaches off the windows of the church

St Michael’s Church, Tremain, the west end almost white with lichen covering the brown sandstone

No such problems exist for the lichens in the churchyard at St Michael’s Penbryn.  Here is a charming long low whitewashed church set in a circular graveyard on a hill above the sea.  Here many of the 18th century stones are completely white with lichen, but remarkably the  inscriptions can still be discerned because the lichen follows the carved indentations beneath.  The stones have a characteristic shape curved at the top with square shoulders beneath.  There are several grander  graves  in which the same round topped, shouldered shape is formed in cut blocks of pwntan stone framing an inscribed slab of slate or sandstone.  They date from 1780-1820 and stand like theatrical doorways on the sloping plot.  At first sight you might think them whitewashed, so extensive is the lichen cover.

One of about 30 small gravestone at St Michael’s Church Penbryn. carved Pwntan stone is a perfect substrate for the lichen Ochrolechia parella

One of several grand headstones framed in Pwntan stone, at St Michael’s Church Penbryn

St Michael’s Church, Penbryn is a medieval church, with later restoration. Characteristic round topped, shouldered gravestones date from the late 18th century

There are various places east of the main A487 where sandstone was formerly extracted but most are long neglected and overgrown. The group then went on to visit Gwarallt quarry, Bwlchyfadfa near Talgarreg where farmer Iwan Evans  has had the initiative to re-open the quarry which supplied high quality sandstone in the 19th century.  In a trade magazine of the 1880s it was vaunted as stronger, and cheaper, than Portland stone.   The stables at nearby Alltyrodin mansion were certainly built from Gwarallt stone, but whether it was exported over a larger area is lost to history.

In the quarry one can see the thick beds of sandstone dipping down at 45° to the field above.  Big blocky stones are quarried from the face and can be cut for paving slabs or shaped for modern stone building or restoration work. Some beds are too thick, yielding several-ton chunks too large for the saws on site. There are some monstrous blocks waiting by the road to catch the eye of a sculptor.  Pwntan stone holds the sharp detail of its carving for hundreds of years.  It would be a good choice for a new work of art.

Welsh Stone Forum examine the extracted sandstone at Gwarallt Quarry, Bwlchyfadfa

Iwan Evans with a freshly sawn sandstone paving slab from his quarry at Gwarallt


Visit The Welsh Stone Forum   http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/cy/364/




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