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  The border has now been replaced by a stunningly green sward of new turf.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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Diggers and despair on the Penglais Campus

by the Curious Scribbler.

The diggers are out again.  You will find them at the corner of Penglais Hill and Waun Fawr where tall pines and dense undergrowth filled the corner space which screens Cwrt Mawr from the road.  They are having a lovely time.

Ground clearance by JCB

Trees, some fallen and others not, have been removed

It seems that the objective is to create a clear view through the boles of the pines to the Student Village opposite.  And of course to enhance the non stop drone of vehicles climbing the hill.

The road skirting Cwrt Mawr on the campus

A vast area of churned mud has been created, with heavy machinery compacting and scraping away at the waterlogged soil covering the shallow roots of the big pines.  The pines are important as  home to a rookery, and the undergrowth which was formerly a haven for various wildlife is all scraped up into piles beneath the trees.

Topsoil scraped up amongst the trees

A sea of mud

The view from the layby on Penglais Hill

Thus a woodland understorey has been destroyed, and we must assume will be followed by a sprinkling of the only herbage favoured by the present administration – a monoculture of grass.

Now there are those who like things ‘tidy’.  And in their brick bungalow with a tarred parking space and a  sheet of mown grass there are many exemplars of this style of gardening in Ceredigion.  That is a personal choice. But Aberystwyth University is not a three-bed bungalow, and its denizens include leading ecologists, foresters, plant scientists, ornithologists, mammologists, entomologists, social geographers.  Many of them care deeply about the campus.  Back in earlier times the appearance of the campus reflected the commitment of its many and highly respected academics.  Believe it or not Penglais Campus featured in 1980 in Arthur Hellyer’s book Gardens of Genius  as an exemplar of coastal gardening, alongside Tresco and Inverewe!  Many influential names are still remembered,  Professors Lily Newton, Professor P.F. Wareing, Curator Basil Fox (formerly of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh), head gardeners John Corfield and Joy Harris.

Today’s academics are no less enthusiastic about the campus and it was encouraging to learn in November that several representatives from IBERS and from the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust had been co-opted onto a new advisory committee which would oversee a new Conservation Management Plan for the campus.

Unfortunately I understand that commenting on current work such as this does not fall within the remit of this committee, the work is viewed by the University as “maintenance”.  There have been a series of such scorched-earth maintenance activities in the last few months.  Today I also revisited the vast cleared bank below the Hugh Owen Building.  Here roots and and stones project from an unmow-able re-seeded slope, and nearer the path is the scruffy tangle of the last years’ wildflower planting, in which plantain and ox eye daisy now predominate.

The re-seeded bank, and ‘wildflower planting’  below the Hugh Owen library

Nearer the entrance the new laid turf is yellowing as a result the incautious administration of weedkiller to the bark mulch adjoining it.

Below the Hugh Owen building.. new turf killed by weedkiller directed at the adjoining bark mulch

It is important to recollect what we have lost, and to hastily rediscover the expertise to create a low maintenance beautiful garden on a slope.  As the Estates Department is already discovering, the new look is far from pristine, and will get a lot worse before, if ever, it gets better.

The Hugh Owen building in its majestic setting in 2003

The new look created in October 2017 is proving hard to maintain, even under grass and bark.

 

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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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Fear and Awe at Hafod

The concept of the Picturesque was to stir deep feelings in the visitor.  His or her emotions should be stirred not only by the beautiful but by the sublime.  A therapeutic shot of terror, engendered by a dizzy drop, a roaring cascade, or a dark rock-cut tunnel or cave were among the elements of a satisfactory Picturesque Landscape.  Thomas Johnes of Hafod did his best to supply these scary elements, most notably with the precipitous narrow contoured path of the Gentleman’s walk to the south of the river, and the cascade cavern where the visitor passes, crouching, into almost total darkness in a rock tunnel before turning a slight corner and being confronted with a roaring waterfall blocking his path.

Other elements were smooth, gentle and naturalistic.  Such was the Alpine Meadow by the river side, and the careful gradients of the Lady’s Walk through the woods.  Equal smoothness of contour defines the old carriage drive which brought the visitor from London past Cwmystwyth and across a stone bridge over the Nant Peiran.  We tend to forget that the early roadmaps, the Britannia and Ogilvy atlases (strip maps similar in concept to the bespoke navigation of a modern  sat nav) provide annotated routes of which the very first in the collection takes the traveller from London to Aberystwyth, passing close by the Hafod estate.

It is this old bridge, broken and impassible for many decades which is the latest object of careful re-instatement by The Hafod Trust.  The wooden span was collapsed by the 1980s and as the stream tore away the fallen timbers there remained the tall abutments of the bridge, adjoined by two handsome beech trees framing an alarming chasm.  Many a dog has hastened enthusiastically along the old carriage drive to pull up suddenly at the very edge. The new bridge span is of timber, echoing the 19th century remains, but much narrower, its purpose to provide access for walkers and for the more intrepid wheelchair user. Completed in November by TTS Wales of Tregaron, it already blends quietly into the scenery.

The decaying Pont Newydd, Hafod, in the 1960s.                         copyright Hafod Trust

Pont Newydd collapsed in the 1980s.                                  copyright Jennie Macve

But there is a recent history equally worthy of recall, perhaps especially in the light of Hafod’s heritage of the sublime.  Little could be more awesome than to fly over this unprotected chasm on a bicycle!  The photographic evidence is out there on the internet and can be reproduced here.

Olly Davey crossing Pont Newydd on a mountain bike

This dizzyingly dangerous feat recorded in colour was at least preceded by trial jumps with a safety net rigged across the gap. The rider was local boy Olly Davey, still living and still hurtling down mountains on bikes.  You grow up at Hafod – you make your own entertainment!

The adrenaline rush for the rider or spectator is surely the very essence of the sublime experience.  Young men have always been fascinated by the possibilities of leaping chasms.   I was brought up in Yorkshire where the best known legend concerned the Strid on the river Wharfe, where a 12th century  youth, the Boy of Egremont, accustomed to leaping a pinch point on the gorge, failed to let his hound off the lead causing both to fall to their deaths.  Many a chasm has a similar oral tradition.

Health and Safety considerations have led the long jump to be confined to more prosaic environments these days.  Indeed even the reconstruction of the bridge involved a quantity of scaffolding which would have astounded the former bridge builders.

The new footbridge under construction at Pont Newydd

I am indebted to Jez Young, (who worked on the new bridge and recorded the details of progress on the  building work in an excellent blog on Facebook), for drawing these historic images to light.  They are, rightly, part of the history of Hafod.  We shall not see such a feat here again.

The the footbridge span at Pont Newydd, Hafod                                     Copyright Jez Young

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Some puzzling pictures of Hafod

by the Curious Scribbler

Scholars of Hafod are always pleased when a new image of this lost house comes to light. The latest to do so is a painting by the celebrated artist John Piper, who is well known for other sketches on the estate such as what appears to be the only pictoral representation of the Gothic arcade which overlooks the chain bridge over the Ystwyth Gorge.  The new picture has been found in plain sight, hanging on the wall in St Cross College, Oxford.  The college has kindly allowed me to reproduce it here.

The Dead Tree, Hafod.  A watercolour of Hafod mansion by John Piper, now hanging in St Cross College Oxford

The caption on the mount reads ” The Dead Tree, Hafod”    I have spent much time puzzling over the picture.  Assuming it to be reasonably representational, the view is taken from a direction rarely seen in Hafod pictures.  ( Most images view the mansion from the parkland to the south east.)  Here the artist is apparently standing on the slope to the north east of the house.  Only from there would the Italianate campanile appear behind and to the right of the Octagon library.

There is an early 20th century photograph taken from the south west, on the other side of the valley which shows a similar juxtaposition from the opposite side.  But this enhances the confusion, for a broad two storey wing reaches out to the west of the campanile.  Viewed as Piper saw it, that wing just isn’t there.  Had it been demolished at the time of Piper’s sketch?

Hafod mansion from across the valley to the south.  Postcard by D.J. Davies, Lampeter.                        ( Peter Davis Collection)

No apparently not.  I am assured that Piper did not revisit after his sketching at Hafod in 1939, and that demolition did not commence until 1949 when the interior was stripped of all assets and the new Italianate wing was the first part to be pulled down. It must be assumed that Piper decided not to paint any of the structure to the right of the campanile.

Another relatively recent discovery is the earliest known picture of Hafod, a sketch made in the 1780s when Johnes’ dream was just taking shape.  This view from the east shows the new gothic styled  house by Thomas Baldwin of Bath welded onto the old tall-chimneyed farmhouse of the Herberts of Dolgors.  This picture, unnamed, had long languished in the archives of Cardiff University until it was spotted and identified by then graduate student and architectural historian Mark Baker.

The first known picture of Thomas Johnes’ Hafod. A Sketch by S Walker, circa 1780.            ( Cardiff University Archive)

The south east face of the Baldwin house with the three gothic windows above a  conservatory with gothic pavilions  can still be seen at the right hand end of the house in a steel engraving of around 1850, but this end is now dwarfed by the subsequent additions by the Duke of Newcastle and then Henry de Hoghton.  By these improvements they created the huge sprawling house which proved unviable for survival in the 20th century.

Steel engraving by Newman & Co, of around 1850.  Successive additions have grown to the left of Johnes’ original house.

What use would Hafod mansion be put to if it survived today?  It is hard to imagine, for Ceredigion remains far off the beaten track for flourishing stately homes.  Of our other big landed estates, Trawscoed mansion remains languishing in search of a new owner, and is increasingly spoiled by divided ownership, Plas Gogerddan survives as an embarrassment to the University beside the huge modern IBERS offices and greenhouses on the former walled garden, and only Nanteos, after much investment, is now making its living as a country house hotel.

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Penglais campus the destruction continues

by The Curious Scribbler

Early last month I lamented the loss of the shrub planting below the Hugh Owen building.  Never have I had so many readers, 1600 within 24 hours of posting, and the cries of anguish echoed far and wide.  But the destruction continues.  Gardening, according to the Aberystwyth Estates Department, is an activity best performed with a mechanical digger.

In the last two weeks whole shrub borders have scraped from the ground.  Adjoining the Student Welcome Centre were three trees, two phyllyrea and a griselinia, and a border of hydrangea, fuchsia, escallonia and evergreen olearia species.  Now only the trees remain. The border has been grubbed out entirely.   Viewed  from the Llandinam concourse there is little to see now, but an unkempt lawn with a circular bed containing a dead tree, and, beyond it, a large green painted metal box.

Recently uprooted border at the Penglais campus

The border on 7 October before its destruction

 

The border needed some weeding and maintenance it is true,  but it formed a handsome screen at the top of a concrete retaining wall outside the Llandinam building concourse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where the steps lead down towards the Cledwyn building, a broad swathe of  ground hugging cotoneaster and vinca on either side of the descent was badly invaded by brambles.  A gardener might have dug these out, or cut them and poisoned the stumps.   Instead a few hours with a digger have obliterated the lot, and the bramble roots will be the first to recover in the broken earth.

Formerly a bank clothed in prostrate and low growing cotoneaster?

Further down, the iconic view of the terracotta-coloured end of the Physical Sciences building is framed by some freshly mangled trees, chopped off at some 8 feet above ground.

Crude pruning of a group of mature shrubs

Border on the corner between  Biology and Physics on 7 October

A distorted, one-sided Myrtle, Luma apiculata reaching over to the left  (one of many seedlings on the campus), echoes the space formerly occupied by a large cotoneaster and a purple berberis beside it. This was all looking quite tidy as a group at the beginning of the month, though it adjoined a building site. Now the designed planting has been hacked away, and the accidental incomer has been preserved. It was the same below the Hugh Owen, where randomly spared trees include self seeded willow and ash.

There is some fine planting further up the slope on the terrace leading to the Physics entrance.  I wonder whether that will survive.

The triangular bed at the west end of the Biology building used to contain big evergreen daisy bushes Olearia avicenniifolia.  This tender New Zealand species first came to Tresco in the Scilly islands in 1914 and according to the RHS Plantfinder is available at just one nursery  in the UK today.   It’s gone.  But we get  a marvellously unimpeded view of the connecting glass corridor which seems function principally as a box store.

One of the uglier features of the Biology building is exposed to view

Adjoining the end of the building was a Crinodendron hookerianum, the Chilean Lantern Tree, approaching its mature height of 20 feet.  This slow-growing narrow tree dangles fleshy crimson flowers about an inch long from summer till autumn.  It has had its top cut off, though an adjoining dead tree cloaked in ivy has been spared.

Continuing down the road between the Sports building and Biological Sciences, the corner has been cleared to display a few stumps and a manhole cover. The metre-wide strip adjoining the road was cleared back a year ago and has been seeded with teasels and foxgloves which will look quite pretty next spring.  Not for long though.  Foxgloves are biennial, so the current crop will die next summer, and dock and creeping buttercup will take their place.  Soon we can call this teasel corner.

The corner between Biology and the the Sports Centre

There are shrubs on the campus so choice and rare that one would be hard pressed to find them anywhere else.  As a random illustration I include a picture of one of the  Australia acacias planted against the  Biology building.  It displays most elegant heterophylly.  The long leathery Mistletoe-like leaves are born on the same stems as the feathery new growth.  ( Students generally learn about heterophylly by studying water crowfoot.  How much more magnificent in a tree!)

Heterophylly in an Australian acacia

The hackers and diggers may be there soon too, destroying more botanical heritage.  There is also a Hoheria sexstylosa nearby, a rare Berberis and another rare daisy bush  Olearia rotundifolia flourishing far from its native habitat the southern alps of South Island, New Zealand. The list could go on.  But no-one making the decisions about the contractors’ actions seems to know or care about plants.  I doubt any future planting will be more than commonplace.

My final picture is of one of the recently completed works. An extensive border was removed  and bark chippings laid to frame these unattractive pipes and utility sheds beside an arterial path to the Student Welcome Centre.

The future gardening style for the Aberystwyth University campus

The is not the style for which the gardens were listed Grade II* by Cadw just fifteen years ago.

 

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The romance of dereliction

By The Curious Scribbler

Derelict buildings are invariably poignant, but particularly so when they retain the traces of domestic life, a palimpsest of their past occupants.

When I first moved to Wales and explored my neighbourhood I happened upon an isolated farm, Pengraig Draw up a stony track near the coast.  At some time,  years before, the entire end of the farmhouse had collapsed outwards, and there it stood, like a dolls house open to the elements.  The upstairs bedroom was still furnished with bed, chest of drawers and a old chaise longue, but the collapsed stairs and dangerously sloping floor prevented access.   The scene was reminiscent of  wartime bomb damage in the immediacy with which the the disaster must have occurred. It remain in this condition for many years, the furniture weathered by the rain.  Only quite recently was the old house rescued and renovated.  The end wall is now rebuilt and it is a tidy holiday letting property with a conservatory extension, and even a hot tub in the garden.  The romance of dereliction is but a memory.

Pengraig Draw, now a lavishly renewed holiday cottage

Pengraig Draw, now a lavishly renewed holiday cottage.  The end wall in this view lay collapsed for many years in the 1980s. http://www.aberystwythholidaycottages.co.uk/pengraig-draw-farmhouse/

A far more celebrated ruin is that of Thomas Johnes’ Hafod,  which was eventually dynamited by the Forestry Commission in 1957.  In fairness to the apparent vandalism of destroying an architectural gem,  it was, by this time in a sadly neglected state.  The last owner to live there, master builder and timber merchant W.G. Tarrant had died suddenly on Aberystwyth railway station in 1942 and  subsequent owners, also timber merchants did not live there, but stripped out everything of value for salvage sale.  There are bits and pieces of Hafod in houses and cottages all around the neighbourhood, purchased or scavenged in the last days of the house.

It is evocative then, to see photographs taken in 1957 by Edwin Smith, shortly before, or during,  the destruction of the house,  which are in the RIBA collections. The large and never-occupied Italianate wing built in the late 1840s by Anthony Salvin for the then owner Henry de Hoghton, is already a pile of rubble.

Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod, viewed from the southeast, partially demolished in 1957.  The Italianate wing is already destroyed.                                                                       Photo: Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod, the facade of the house built by Thomas Baldwin of Bath for Thomas Johnes  in 1788. Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Most poignant of all is a view of the interior showing the ravages of pre-demolition  salvage. A handsome fireplace has been prised from the chimney breast, the Georgian door and door frame have been ripped out, some wooden shutters are propped across the doorway.  Yet above the former fireplace still hangs a large  oil painting of a landscape in a lavish gilt frame. The huge rip in the canvas explains its insignificance at this time. Though it would be romantic to think otherwise, the picture almost certainly was not a piece of Johnes’s property, more probably it was one of the fixtures belonging to the last serious owner, T.J. Waddingham who died age 98 in 1938.   But one still shudders to see it, not decently tidied away before the final destruction was commenced, but hanging on the wall as a reproach for all the misfortune which befell the house.

In the derelict Hafod mansion Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

In the derelict Hafod mansion, a damaged oil painting still hangs on the wall in 1957               Photo Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

 

Also in the collection are pictures of the architectural splendours now lost, including a detail of the domed roof the ante room to the side of the Octagon library, now ruptured  to the sky.

A view through the roof of the octagon library. Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod.  A view through the roof of the ante room adjoining octagon library.                                                                    Photo:       Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod. The garden terrace had been long neglected by 1957                                            Photo:Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

 

The decaying steps leading from the former lawn, the broken windows and rubble of plaster on the floor are perhaps the best evidence that by 1957 Hafod was indeed very far gone.  Today the rubble is overgrown by trees.  Only the cellar remains, with a crust of broken wine bottles scattered below the wine racks, and a slew of rubble blocking the cellar steps.  A few years ago it was briefly possible to walk along these damp subterranean corridors, but the only inhabitants are bats and the makeshift entrance is barred by a sturdy gate to prevent risk to unwary explorers.

In the Hafod cellars 2006

In the Hafod cellars 2006

In the case of Pengraig Draw, the past has been totally obliterated by modernity.  At Hafod it remains hauntingly present.

 

 

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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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Mariamne’s Urn – Chained to the wall by the disabled toilet.

by The Curious Scribbler

I chanced recently upon on Mariamne’s Urn at its latest location in the National Library of Wales.  It stands in a passage adjoining the door to the disabled toilet, secured by substantial metal chains through its amphora handles, but devoid of any labelling whatever to explain its signifiicance.

It is a large white marble funerary urn standing upon a square plinth.  Two hundred years ago it graced Mariamne Johnes’ private pensile garden on an outcrop above the Ystwyth at Hafod.  This garden was, according to Thomas Johnes’ correspondence,  created for Mariamne by his friend the Scottish agriculturalist Dr Robert Anderson in 1796, when his daughter would have been aged just twelve.  In  a letter of some hyperbole he then wrote to Sir James Edward Smith “The pensile gardens of Semiramis will be a farce to it, and it will equally surprise you as it has done me. I am very well satisfied with my Gardener, and trust everything will go on well.” 

The young Mariamne showed a precocious enthusiasm for botany and corresponded with leading botanist Sir James Edward Smith.  Her private garden became a showcase for shrubs and alpine plants, although there must have been periods during her adolescent illnesses when she could scarcely have visited it herself.   She died, aged 27 in 1811. The urn, a work by celebrated sculptor Thomas Banks, is generally believed to have been created in 1802.  Banks had made other sculptures for Thomas Johnes: Thetis dipping the infant Achilles into the Styx, busts of Jane and Mariamne, a fireplace for the mansion.  He was  at Hafod as Johnes’ guest  in September 1803, when Johnes recorded that he was now disabled in one arm by a paralytic stroke. On the face of the urn is a bas relief depicting a limp maiden mourning beside the body of an equally limp and rather more dishevelled small bird, dead on a small pedestal.

 

The RObin Urn by Thomas Banks, in a corridor in the National Library of Wales

The Robin Urn by Thomas Banks, in a corridor in the National Library of Wales

On the plinth is a three verse poem by Samuel Rogers, – I have transcribed the verses with original capitalisation, from the plinth itself.

An Epitaph on a Robin Redbreast

Tread lightly here, for here tis said
When piping Winds are hush’d around
A small Note wakes from Underground
Where now his tiny Bones are laid

No more in lone and leafless Groves
With ruffled Wing and faded Breast
His friendless homeless Spirit roves;
Gone to the World where birds are blest

Where never Cat glides o’er the Green
Nor Schoolboys giant Form is seen
But Love and Joy and smiling  Spring
Inspire their little Souls to sing.

It has been customary to imagine that this sentimental outpouring was dedicated to a particular pet robin, and Mariamne’s attachment to it.  This has been claimed in Elisabeth Inglis Jones’ book Peacocks in Paradise.  But on reflection, and in the light of a perusal of the other, now seldom-read works of this once well-known poet and arbiter of taste, I believe it to be  a more generic sentimental verse.  Samuel Rogers’ first long poem in two parts, The Pleasure of Memory published in 1792, shows a sentimental  preoccupation with the romantically remembered past,  the village green and a lonely robin. I quote few couplets:

Twighlight’s soft dews steal o’er the village green
With magic tints to harmonise the scene

Or strewed with crumbs yon root inwoven seat
To lure the redbreast from his lone retreat..

…Childhood’s lov’d group revisits every scene
The tangled wood walk and the tufted green.

Certainly there are few gardens less likely than Mariamne’s remote crag to be troubled by  either schoolboys or cats!

Is this Mariamne, mourning a robin?

Is this really Mariamne, mourning her pet  robin?

Rogers has not enjoyed lasting fame as a poet, but he was a major force in the literary social life of London in the early nineteenth century.  He published and republished his poems in many editions between 1792 and 1834, with engravings of pictures  by Thomas Stothard and by W.M.Turner.  He was clearly very proud of his early works, for both The Pleasure of Memory, and The  Epitaph on a Robin Redbreast appear in editions from 1810 to 1834.  In both these editions a footnote to the Epitaph states “Inscribed on an urn in the flower garden at Hafod”.   I suggest that Rogers did not visit Hafod, and was unaware of the distinction between Mrs Johnes’ publicly acclaimed flower garden, and Mariamne’s private garden.  However Elisabeth Inglis Jones, writing in 1950, evidently recollected the urn in Mariamne’s garden, where she described it as  “overgrown with moss and ivy, almost lost among encroaching trees and bushes, it was still standing where [Banks] placed it one morning that September of 1803, nearly a century and a half later”.

In the 20th century the fortunes of Hafod were in serious decline, culminating in the demolition of the house, with dynamite in 1958.  The urn was purchased at auction by a relative of Jane Johnes, Major Herbert Lloyd Johnes of Dolaucothi and given into the care of the National Library.   It was sited in 1948 as a garden ornament in the  beautifully maintained rockery garden on the slope adjoining the caretaker’s cottage, marking the point where the footpath down to Llanbadarn and Caergog Terrace leaves the library drive.   I am indebted to Dr Stephen Briggs for a copy of a photo of it in this location, in 1976.

The urn in the garden of the national Library of Wales, c. 1976. Courtesy of Dr Stephen Briggs

The urn in the garden of the National Library of Wales, c. 1976. Courtesy of Dr Stephen Briggs.

A valuable piece, fears were expressed about the risk of theft or vandalism, and in the 1980s the urn was moved indoors, to a prestigious location on the first floor outside the Council Chamber.  That is where I first saw it.   But times change, and about 15 years ago it was moved into an atrium area of the extended library book-stacks. Here it  was  accessible only to library staff and was lost to general view.   Perhaps its significance also became lost to common memory.   Now shackled in the very antithesis of romantic chains, the urn, and an equally unattributed but rather attractive tapering marble plinth  are tucked away, like fugitives, within recesses beyond a subterranean doorway.  Only disabled members of the public and those seeking baby-changing facilities are likely to encounter it on a visit, and  they will receive no clue as to its significance.

The urn in the National Library of Wales 2016

Mariamne’s  urn is now in a corridor leading to the disabled toilets  in the National Library of Wales (2016)

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The Gothic Arcade at Hafod

by the Curious Scribbler

The Hafod Trust has recently completed the restoration of the Gothic Arcade, a three arched eyecatcher which frames the view where Thomas Johnes’ Chain Bridge spans the narrow gorge  on the upper Ystwyth.

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, under restoration

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, under restoration

The arcade was something of a puzzle, being represented on the ground by the remnants of four basal pillars, only one of which reached high enough to show the first springer stone of the former arch.  For almost a decade it has been enrobed in blue plastic awaiting a decision on its conservation.  A earlier attempt at stabilising the stone pillars with lime mortar had failed to prevent further deterioration.  The ruin was listed among the built features of Hafod, with Ancient Monument status, so Cadw  had to authorise any changes to be made.

In 2010 The Gothic arcade pillars were conserved under blue plastic.

In 2010 The Gothic arcade pillars were conserved under blue plastic.

There is tantalisingly little evidence as to exactly what the Gothic Arcade looked like, or when it was built.  It was awarded this name by John Piper, in 1939, who was there to photograph the architectural remains of Hafod as part of a tour of threatened buildings, and who also sketched and painted in the grounds. There are three versions of this artwork, “Looking down the Ystwyth Gorge, Hafod”  which show it as a three arched rather spindly structure, on the edge of the gorge, but no aspect of his picture is precisely representational.

John Piper 1939.  Looking down the Upper Ystwyth Gorge. ( Private Collection)

John Piper 1939. Looking down the Ystwyth Gorge. ( Private Collection)

Exhaustive appeals have so far not revealed a single box brownie photograph of the structure, though many people are likely to have passed or picnicked there in the 1950s. Worse still, the accounts by visitors in Johnes’ time, even Cumberland in his An Attempt to Describe Hafod, failed to mention it.  The only possible exception is an unclear account by the Revd H.T. Payne, Archdeacon of Carmarthen, who in about 1815 alluded to a “rude arch of stone“.  But a literal reading of his description would place his arch on the opposite bank, or even identify it as the Rustic Alcove near the Peiran Cascade.

It remains uncertain whether this eye catcher was part of Thomas Johnes’s Picturesque design at all.  (Though we do know that he  built a rustic  arch commemorating George III over the approach road from Devil’s Bridge).  Until further evidence crops up it must be conceded that it could date from the ownership of The Duke of Newcastle, or even that of John Waddingham in the late 19th century, or his son, TJ Waddingham in the early 20th.

The restoration was led by the overall shape as indicated by Piper’s sketch, and the shape dictated by the remaining fragments. It was built with locally sourced, undressed stones by Abbey Masonry and Restoration, Llanelli.

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, almost complete

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, almost complete, May 2016

Piper composed his view from upstream of the Gothic Arcade.  He speculated, on the basis of the House’s history,  that its gothic style might be the work of John Nash.  The compilation below shows the restoration in the context of his drawing.

Gothic arcade 2 viewssm

The Gothic Arcade represents the penultimate item on the Hafod Trust’s current restoration objectives.  Still under development is the plan to put a flat timber span across the bridge abutments of Pont Newydd, the old carriage drive which crossed the Peiran just above the famous falls.

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