John Corfield, gardener and thespian

 I cannot claim authorship of the piece reproduced here, though I did contribute to its composition under the pen of Peter Wootton Beard.  It recently appeared as a tribute from the Vice Chancellor, Elizabeth Treasure, in the inboxes of all university staff.   John Corfield was ubiquitous in Aberystwyth, some knew him best for his work at the exceptionally fine gardens of the Penglais campus, others for the panache with which he received bucket loads of wallpaper paste down the trousers in the Wardens’ pantomimes.   I reproduce the tribute here in full, but have augmented it with a number of photographs charting his life.

It is with a heavy heart that I share the news with you that our former Head Gardener John Corfield passed away peacefully on 15th August 2020. He will be hugely missed. 

John was born shortly after his parents moved from Montgomeryshire to Tan-y-Castell farm, Llanfarian in 1933, where his father became the tenant farmer of the Tan-y-Bwlch estate. After a terrible flood in 1964, the family were forced to leave the farm and moved to Marian House, Llanfarian.

John Corfield.  Portrait by H.N. Davies of Aberystwyth 1934

The schoolboy John, in a photograph re styled as a pencil drawing

John subsequently joined the University staff under the newly appointed Curator of the Botany Gardens and College Grounds, Basil Fox, and under the direction of Prof. Philip Wareing, then Head of Botany shortly thereafter. The team were responsible for taxonomic order beds adjoining Plas Penglais, the provision of plants for the undergraduate practical classes and research programmes, as well as the management of small-scale field experiments for the Botany and Agricultural Botany departments of University College Wales. Their role expanded to include the planting of the new Penglais Campus.

The campus rapidly expanded over the next twenty years and between them, John and Basil were responsible for introducing a wide range of plants that are perfectly suited to the exposed coastal conditions.

John became Head Gardener in 1983, amply filling the rather large shoes vacated by his predecessor, Basil Fox. The gardens were highly praised by Arthur Hellyer in the 1970s and were awarded a Grade II listing in the Cadw Register of Landscapes, Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in Wales in 2002. The listing describes them as ‘One of the most important modern landscaping schemes in Wales’.

John worked with the renowned landscape designer Brenda Colvin overseeing the planting between Pantycelyn and the main campus and was instrumental in bringing her vision to fruition. It is perhaps a little known fact that we work in such a special landscape, but I’m sure we all appreciate the beautiful surroundings that greet us when we come in to work, and we have John to thank for much of that. The current grounds team, under the management of Jeff Saycell, are working hard to restore elements of the original landscape and to protect John’s legacy. 

John became a formidable botanist; whose breadth of knowledge and interests were honed on his many botanical excursions with friends and colleagues to locations such as Greece, Crete, and the Pyrenees. On such occasions he demonstrated his considerable skill with languages, regularly surprising people with his ability to get about comfortably in Greek, Turkish, German and others.

 

In Germany with Count Constantin von Brandenstein

 

His expertise was often called upon for the student trips organised by the Botany department to the Picos de Europa mountain range in Cantabria, Northern Spain. His colleagues at the time describe John as a ‘magnet’ for students during these 8-10 day trips under canvas, due to his vast botanical knowledge, patience and warmth of personality.

In field gear in the Pyrenees

Maintaining academic standards in this environment required considerable ingenuity, and John was a great source of strength – making camp furniture, mentoring projects and monitoring student submissions. He was able to form a connection with anyone and everyone he met and inspired a generation of botany students. He wrote to his friend and former colleague Andrew Agnew just eight days before his passing to reminisce about how much he enjoyed the trips to the Picos de Europa, a memory that Andrew was pleased to share. He was also often called upon to share his passion through talks and practical advice to the local community.

Botanizing in Crete 2015

He was a founder member of the Cardiganshire Horticultural Society, formed in 1968, and following Basil Fox’s death in 1983, became the second President of the society, a post he filled until its 50th anniversary in 2018. Today the society has over 150 members, a tribute to the energy and warmth that John brought to every meeting.

The Cardiganshire Horticultural Society turned 50 in 2018.  President John Corfield with Jan Eldridge and Kay Edwards who helped cut the cake.

So many members of the society have plants given by John in their gardens, and he was well known for his generosity that would lead him to lovingly raise seedlings at his home, with the express purpose of bringing joy to those who would subsequently receive them as an impromptu gift.

He had just told me that he was growing a Koelreuteria paniculata (Golden Rain Tree) for me at the time of his passing, and I can think of no better way to remember him. Prof. Mike Hayward remarked that a cyclamen grown for him by John came into flower on the day of his passing, a lasting gift that so many of his friends will be able to enjoy for years to come.

John was also a keen thespian and a founder member of the relaunched ‘Wardens Amateur Dramatic Society’. He was involved with nearly every show since the early 1980s as, variously, stage management, performer & front of house. He was also involved in many productions by Showtime Singers.

The Cardiganshire Horticultural Society celebrated their President’s 80th birthday in 2013

A private funeral took place at John’s green burial on 27th August, where only a small number could be present due to Covid-19 restrictions. We hope to celebrate John’s life in fitting style in due course within the Horticultural Society, and I will circulate details of any subsequent event for staff/former colleagues who may wish to attend nearer the time.

We also hope that a memorial tree for John will soon be planted on the campus, details of which will be shared in due course. 

Thanks to John’s friends, family and former colleagues for their help in preparing this tribute: Tom Corfield, Matthew Piper, Dr Andrew Agnew, Pat Causton, Margaret Howells, Prof. Mike Hayward, Dr Caroline Palmer, Dr Edwina Ellis, and Penny David.

My thanks to Dr Peter Wootton-Beard for his working in preparing this wonderful piece in memory of John Corfield.

Professor Elizabeth Treasure
Vice-Chancellor

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Justina Jeffreys – Black History

By The Curious Scribbler

During the ennui of lockdown I have been researching a little piece of Ceredigion’s black history.

My subject was Justina Jeffreys of Glandyfi castle, that eccentric Regency Gothic castle which perches above the (now straightened) Glandyfi Bends on the way to Machynlleth.  It was built in 1818 as the fashionable designer home of Shrewsbury born lawyer George Jeffreys and his new bride Justina Scott.  Justina had grown up at Bodtalog, a  small country house near Tywyn, as the child of the bookish intellectual Edward Scott and his wife, the widow Louisa de Saumaise.  It has long been believed that she was the model for Anthelia the heroine of Thomas Love Peacock’s first novel Melincourt. Anthelia is described as a highly rational young woman brought up and educated in solitude by a man of ‘great acquirements and of a retiring disposition’.

Glandyfi castle sketched by Francis Wood in 1838

But all was not as it seems, for Justina was not born a Scott.  She was born in Jamaica in 1787 the daughter of the premier army man then posted to the island, Captain Charles McMurdo of the 3rd East Kent Regiment “the Buffs”  and a young woman called Susan Leslie.   In the eighteenth century colonies bastardy was a very common phenomenon, on most pages of the parish birth records the children born in wedlock are the exception rather than the rule.  I cannot believe that the church actively approved of this situation but its clergy were diligent in recording the facts.  Fathers are normally named, and race and status was a matter of record.

So we know that Susan Leslie was a free mulatto, who underwent baptism in the Anglican church at the same time as her new daughter.  A mulatto is a specific term, it means she had one black parent, and given the social structure of the slave economy it is highly likely that that black parent was a woman and a slave.

Justina’s conception was more than a one night stand, for two years later her brother was born, also sired by Captain McMurdo, and named Charles McMurdo.

There might have been more illegitimate McMurdos were it not for the fact that Captain McMurdo’s posting in Jamaica came to an end, and he was sent off to Canada, where he eventually married a well connected young woman from a loyalist family, named Isabella Coffin and started a second family.  His first legitimate son was named Charles Alured McMurdo (the unusual second name being a nod to the Governor of Jamaica, Alured Clarke under whom McMurdo had served).

Susan Leslie remained in Jamaica, and must, I believe, have been a handsome and sought-after young woman.  She was soon the partner of a Scottish doctor, John Wright by whom she had two more sons.  She was, or in her lifetime became,  a woman of property for her will, written on a visit to London in 1801, distributes her land, buildings and slaves among her three sons, and names both the fathers as executors of the will.

It is touching that in the will she leaves to Justina her ‘apparel, trinkets and her silver spoons’.  In a subsequent codicil she rescinds these small gifts because her daughter has been amply provided for by McMurdo.  So how had McMurdo provided?

Justina had been removed from her mother and ‘adopted’ by Edward Scott, who during the Jamaica years had been Captain McMurdo’s junior officer, First Lieutenant  in the same regiment.  Edward, an impecunious younger son of an aristocratic Kent family had no children of his own, but when Justina was just three years old he had married, possibly for money, the wealthy widow Louisa, who happened to be the widow of his first cousin Count Louis de Saumaise. It was through Louisa, daughter of welshman Lewis Anwyl, that he winded up living comfortably as the squire of Bodtalog with Louisa and Justina.   I would speculate that when Justina was five or six years old she was shipped off to her new ‘uncle’.   She must have been quite young to have been so well educated and nurtured as a Welsh gentlewoman, but not so young that her brother Charles did not remember her.   While there is no evidence that the siblings met again, by the age of 20 Justina’s brother Charles McMurdo was in Limehouse, London founding a family of several generations of boat builders.  He and his descendants repeatedly named their daughters Justina.

Although Justina is named as Justina Scott in the marriage register her paternity was no secret, it was known to the Jeffreys family into which she married, and her birthplace, Jamaica, is recorded in the census.  Her high-status white father, McMurdo, would have been a matter of pride rather than shame, just as Mary Seacole, who we now venerate for her blackness, was openly proud of her Scottish military father. Justina’s story reminds me of other examples of the rapid social mobility of the mixed race offspring  English and Welsh gentlemen in the eighteenth century.  The purchaser in 1803 of the  Piercefield estate near Chepstow, for example, was Nathaniel Wells the Jamaican-born natural son of William Wells, his offspring by a house slave known as Juggy.  Nathaniel’s origins did not hold him back, he became the high sheriff of Monmouthshire.

George and Justina seem to have enjoyed a nice life in their pretty castle, and produced eight children all baptised at Eglwysfach church, where her old admirer Thomas Love Peacock also showed up to marry Jane Gryffydh in 1820.  Justina’s relationship with her adoptive parents also seems to have been good, two of her children bear the names Edward and Louisa, and when the very elderly Edward Scott eventually died aged 90 his estate, barring various legacies, was placed in trust for Justina for her lifetime.

Glandyfi castle first went on the market in 1906 when it was sold by two of Justina’s granddaughters.   Several lines of descent from George and Justina have been extinguished in later generations, but some persist in New Zealand and America, and have been known to turn up on holiday to visit the castle.  Today it is for sale once more for £2.85million.

Glandfi Castle sale particulars in Country Life 2020

The full story of my researches  have been accepted for publication in Ceredigion, the Journal of the Ceredigion Historical Society and will appear in 2022.

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Three thousand years of Archaeology

by The Curious Scribbler

I had an enjoyable day at the Morlan Centre in Aberystwyth on Saturday, at the Archaeology Day organized by the Dyfed Archaeological Trust.  The remit of archaeologists today stretches from the very ancient to the extremely recent,  and this was reflected in the range of talks.  The morning started with the archaeology of yesterday while by the afternoon we were taken back three thousand years to the beginning of the first millienium BC.

Alice Pyper had been having fun exploring the archaeology of Llyn y Fan Fach, the glacial lake which now supplies Llanelli with a clean water supply.  It was not always thus: the water system was built by conscientious objectors during the first world war.   Some thirty of them were compelled to live in two drafty huts  at 1200 feet above sea level to work on the project.  Field archaeology involved excavating and recording the footings of these huts. Documentary sources including newspapers and humorous sketches by the objectors fleshed out the story.  This workforce was of Englishmen who had already served time in prison for refusing to fight.  Michael Freeman pointed out that in Wales objectors were less harshly treated, and that most of the thirty conscientious objectors in Ceredigion were not imprisoned and were allowed to keep their jobs.

Also representing the very recent past is the built heritage of the 20th century.  Susan Fielding of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales treated us to photographs of a splendid succession of architectural gems or carbuncles, some listed, others already demolished.  The architects of the Percy Thomas Partnership ( familiar to us here for much of the Penglais Campus) kept cropping up, with Harlech College, Trinity Chapel at Sketty, and the soon-to-be-demolished Broadcasting House at Llandaff, all redolent of the 1960s.   The Prestatyn Holiday Camp ( 1935) and the Rhyl Sun Centre (1980) have both gone, both extravagant expressions of their times, and dear to many people’s holiday reminiscences.


Rhyl Sun Centre by Gillinson Barnett & Partners
Source:Architectural Press/Archive RIBA Collections

The Shire Hall in Mold, dubbed Britain’s leading ugliest building, and the Wrexham Police station are brutalist buildings which will perhaps not be mourned too much.  Still standing, and crying out for a role in a brooding  TV Drama is Ysgol Syr Thomas Jones at Amlwch – one of the very first 1950s comprehensive schools.

Less is sometimes more, and it was strangely gratifying to learn from Clwyd-Powys Archaeologist Paul Belford that we really don’t know whether Offa’s Dyke has a great deal to do with King Offa, when it was built, or quite what it was for!  Opportunities to excavate this world heritage site are few and far between, but one did arise from the actions of a Chirk man who bulldozed 50 yards of it in order to build a stable. ( His ignorance of its historic significance saved him from prosecution in 2014).  Perhaps this vibe for vandalism is in the air around Chirk.  Paul showed us a lidar image of the grounds of Chirk castle.  In the 17th century Landscape Architect William Emes flattened much more than 50 yards of it to create smooth parkland, and submerged a further length of it in an ornamental lake!

Low water levels in 2018 revealed Offa’s Dyke in the lake at Chirk Castle. Picture: The Shropshire Star

Two afternoon sessions concerned the days of the iron age hillfort, a period lasting from at least 1000 years BC.  Hillforts are scattered like measles across the whole of the map of Wales, and with techniques of  aerial photography and lidar more are still being discovered.  Either they are on hilltops with ridge fortifications all the way round, or they are promontory hill forts, situated on the edge of a cliff or at the confluence between two valleys such that fortifications are not needed at the steeper sides.  The archaeologists have been seeking evidence both within the enclosures, where  groups of round houses were situated, and outside them where burials, and farming actvities took place.  Ken Murphy rounded off the day with an account of the iron age chariot burial discovered last autumn in a field not far from a hillfort at an undisclosed location in west Pembrokeshire.  Being buried along with your two wheeled chariot and your horse requires a pretty extensive hole and this type of burial is well known from East Yorkshire. The chariot burial discovered at the evocatively named village of Wetwang, revealed the human skeleton curled  up between the wheels of his chariot, and the horse laid transversely at his head.  The limey soil chemistry in east Yorkshire does not dissolve the bones.

In the Welsh burial bronze fragments of the bit, bridle and horse ornaments testifies to the horse, and an iron sword to the warrior, but their bones are long dissolved.  The iron rims of the wheels and the imprint of the wooden chariot were found.  These items are undergoing conservation at the National Museum of Wales and will then be put on display.

Photo credit: Archaeologists exposing the wheels of the Pembrokeshire chariot.
 Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

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Up the tower at Gelli Aur

by The Curious Scribbler

It seems to be my destiny to visit Gelli Aur ( Golden Grove) in the rain. Last week was my third visit in many years, and once again it poured.  Which was a pity because one of the anticipated high points was expected to be the view over the Tywyi Valley from the windows, or better still the roof.    Dryslwn Castle and Paxton’s tower lie to the west,  while Dynefwr Castle  should be visible to the north east,    Instead the distant views were lost in the mist.

Golden Grove mansion roof light above the main stairwell

 

Nonetheless it was a fascinating visit, for a small group of us were taken around the house, which was built 1826-34 for John Frederick Campbell, Lord Cawdor, to a design by Wyatville. Not his principal residence, ( which was Stackpole in Pembrokeshire)  but a summer retreat,  staffed all year round by as many as 55 house servants, but on full performance only for a few weeks of summer.  The proportions of the house reflect this, the grand rooms approached from the port cochère at the east end of the house  are not that numerous, while stretching away to the west is an extensive two-storey range  of servants’ rooms, and the stable courtyard  beyond that.  Unusually, the house faces north.. but this is the side with the long views, and north-facing was perhaps not such bad news during a hot summer.

Golden Grove mansion, the principal rooms are in the eastern end below the clock tower

After a disastrous decade of neglect and destruction the house and 100 acres of park now belongs to a Preservation Trust which has ambitious plans to create an art gallery and cultural centre there. One initiative already under way is the restoration of the clock which adorns the clock tower of the main house. New replica clock faces have already been prepared and a specialist clock restorer has been commissioned, one who is also working on Big Ben.

The Barwise Clock at Golden Grove

The clock is by Barwise of St Martin’s Lane, London, Chronometer, Watch and Clockmaker to His Majesty and the Royal Family, and dated 1832.  It stands in a large glazed cupboard with pulleys and levers reaching out in several directions.  I don’t pretend to understand exactly how it works, but it was clear to see the winding mechanism of three drums, round which ran the cables attached to three huge weights descending through neatly formed hatches in the floor of the tower.  A man with a crank handle would have had to regularly wind the clock, bringing the three big weights back up to the level of the clock.  This mechanism drove two clock faces on opposing sides of the tower, and three handsome bells which are attached to the outer wall of the clock tower.  ( I wonder what melody you can play on just three bells?  Probably the largest of the  three struck the hour.)

Golden Grove, one of the three weights driving the clock mechanism

The tower rises at the junction between the principal bedrooms and the servants’ wing, and the bells hang above the large glazed lantern which lights the grand stairs.  When operating, this handsome clock must have been more than audible to the grand occupants of the house.

The three bells on the tower. Golden Grove

The firm of Barwise existed from 1790 to 1855, and enjoyed greatest fame in the 1820s, it seems to have been best known for its pocket watches, long case and bracket clocks.  In an article on Barwise in the Antiquarian Horological Society journal we get just one glimpse of a clock similar to that at Golden Grove.  A correspondent to The Times 26 September 1855, described the scene after the Battle of the Great Redan, an engagement during siege of Sebastopol.    He wrote ” The Great Redan was next visited.  Such a scene of wreck and ruin! all the houses behind it a mass of broken stones – a clock turret, with shot right through the clock – a pagoda in ruins – another clock tower, with all the clocks destroyed save the dial, with the words Barwise London thereon“.

Golden Grove’s clock has lasted considerably better than that one. Perhaps some others are hidden away in English church towers:  there is at least one, at Clayworth St Peter, Notts, but that is a much more modest affair.

One regulator dial of the Barwise clock at Gelli Aur

Gelli Aur. The second regulator dials in the Barwise clock bears the date

The Barwise Clock at Golden Grove ( Gelli Aur)

 

 

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Frying the field bindweed

by The Curious Scribbler

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

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

Field Bindweed Calystegia sepium smothering a hedge

Field Bindweed Calystegia sepium

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

Field Bindweed Calystegia sepium

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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Veteran tree in danger at Hafod

by The Curious Scribbler

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

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

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

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

The veteran beech below Mariamne’s garden

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

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

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

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

The hollow beech at Pant Melyn, Hafod, in 2009

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Mrs Johnes’ Garden at Hafod

by The Curious Scribbler

In the summer of 1788 Jane Johnes wrote to her brother John Johnes of Dolaucothi describing her garden at Hafod  as ” in high beauty” and “full of flowers”.  Two hundred and thirty years is a long time ago, and for much of the recent hundred there was nothing to boast about at Hafod.  So it is pleasing this summer to be able once more to echo those words, as the  borders fill out with recently replanted herbaceous perennials and a glut of multi-headed foxgloves.

Foxgloves in the borders in Mrs Johnes’ garden Hafod

The restoration began with the removal of the sitka spruce plantation 10 year ago and the shrubs around the perimeter are now up to 7 years’ established.  Recently, pride of place has been held by the scented Philadelphus, the gleaming white blooms of Rosa x alba Semi Plena, and the arching briars of Shailer’s White Moss Rose.

Rosa x alba Semi Plena

Rosa Shailer’s White Moss

The Hafod Trust  received donations towards the planting of the garden from the Finnis Scott Foundation, and from the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust.   With the final planting phase and a lavish application of rich organic mulch in the autumn of last year the garden has now turned a corner, and is developing the frothy abundance of a proper garden.  The foxgloves are natives which, finding themselves in such a rich environment, sent up as many as half a dozen flower spikes from every plant.  The two or three welsh poppies planted two years ago now have spawned a host of seedlings, while patches of Doronicum, Chelone, Lysimachia, Veronicastrum and  Elecampane jockey for position amongst the shrubs.

The Cardiganshire Horticultural Society visited at the end of June and despite persistent rain enjoyed a number of short talks about the garden.

The Cardiganshire Horticultual Society visits Mrs Johnes’ Flower Garden, Hafod

Historian Jennie Macve described its place in Garden History.   In 1787 Johnes visited Rev W. Gilpin and told him that his chief guide in laying out his grounds at Hafod had been Rev William Mason’s lengthy poetic work, ‘The English Garden’.   In volume four of this work, Mason (who laid out the garden at Nuneham Courtney in Oxfordshire) gives his prescription for his then innovative style of flower garden, with its circuit gravel walk, its flower beds cut out of shaven turf forming winding grass paths between, its thickets of shrubs and colourful flowers. Visitors to Hafod described the garden lying, like a jewel in the wilderness, glimpsed briefly from the wooded heights of Gentleman’s Walk on the south bank of the Ystwyth, or appearing suddenly to the walker approaching on the gentler Lady’s Walk.

Jennie also revealed that although the Coade stone heads of a Nymph and a Satyr which form the keystones of the two garden entrances bear the date 1793 it is unclear when they were installed there.  The door arches as seen today were heavily restored in the 1980s when the garden was derelict and the original Coade stone heads had already found their way into Margaret Evans’s Collection, which now resides in the Ceredigion Museum.  The heads in the garden today are perfect replicas in resin.  Oddly, none of the contemporary descriptions mention these arches, or the stone heads.  It is even possible  that these elaborate doorways were installed by a later owner, perhaps the Duke of Northumberland, using second-hand Coade stone ornament. We just do not know.

The original Coade Stone heads, now in the Ceredigion Museum

She also viewed with caution the designation as an ‘American Garden’.  Only one contemporary visitor who left a written record describes the presence of American plants.  What is clear though is that Jane Johnes was a keen plantswoman,  the Johneses employed able gardeners, and that they corresponded about plants with their friends Sir Robert Liston and his wife, who cultivated an acclaimed American Garden at their home in Edinburgh.  Plants enthusiasts, then as now, invariably seek out and exchange rare plants new to horticulture.  Just as the Wollemi pine and the tree fern Dicksonia antarctica have become the must-have plants of today, Jane and the Listons would have sought to obtain the new.  In the late eighteenth century much of the new was being imported by plant collectors working the eastern seaboard of the USA.  Very few plants had yet been imported from the far east, and the many exotic Chinese and Japanese garden plants so familiar today were quite unknown.

Landscape architect Ros Laidlaw was also present to explain how she had selected the plants for Mrs Johnes’ garden entirely from species and cultivars known to be available to British gardeners in the eighteenth century.  This was quite a challenging task, for some, such as the fragrant North American shrub Comptonia asplenifolia have fallen from popular use and no longer appear in nurserymen’s lists, whilst for many other plants, improved hybrid versions have now largely replaced the original species.  The roses I alluded to at the beginning are named cultivar Old Roses with an established history,  the fragrant Philadelphus coronarius has open yellow-centred single flowers, quite like a Eucryphia bloom, rather than the familiar double flowers of modern garden cultivars.

The modern restoration does not attempt to reproduce the layout of the original garden which would have had many brilliant island beds, probably geometrically arranged and cut out of the shaven turf.  Such a  garden would be extremely labour-intensive to care for, and is best enjoyed by small groups of people strolling through the sinuous paths inspecting the plantings.  In its present form the garden offers historical authenticity in the path layout and the selection of species in the perimeter border, while the central lawn has made possible events such as the phenomenally successful Foxglove Fair which in early May saw as many as 2000 visitors enjoying food, shopping and entertainment under a brilliant and cloudless sky.

Crowds descended on the Foxglove Fair in 12 May

Doronicum pardalianches

The garden is principally maintained by the Hafod Estate manager Dave Newnham and his assistant Simon Boussetta.  There are also regular Volunteer Weeding Days, the next of which will be on Friday 19 July and Friday 23 August.  Garden maintenance is vital and more loyal volunteers are always needed.  Volunteers bring their preferred weeding tools, and are rewarded with tea and coffee and a keen sense of achievement!  They have been very enjoyable days.

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Magnificent trees at Gelli Aur

by the Curious Scribbler

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

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

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

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

Golden Grove mansion viewed from the terraces above

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

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

A huge multi-stemmed Monterey Pine at Gelli Aur

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

A champion Magnolia tripetala ( native to the Eastern USA)

Magnolia tripetala flower

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

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

Golden Grove. The old walled garden contains a small lake

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

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

 

The champion Tulip Tree, Liriodendron tulipifera at Gelli Aur

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

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The Foxglove Fair at Hafod

by the Curious Scribbler

The Foxglove Fair at Hafod

Hafod has come along way from its derelict state in 1994.  The walks and bridges are all now restored and it is prized by many people for its its quiet tranquillity, its vistas and waterfalls and the three walled gardens at its core.

This coming weekend that tranquillity will be, for some hours, interrupted by an event much anticipated in the community.  A large marquee has blossomed in Mrs Johnes’ Flower Garden, and on Saturday  evening it will host Music in the Marquee, a ticketed event at which food and drink will be available along with  entertainment by two local bands, the Hornettes and The Hicksters.

The Hornettes and The Hicksters

On Sunday the Foxglove Fair runs from 10.30 to 6pm.  There will be 40 outdoor stands selling crafts, plants, food and drink, while more stands devoted to sales and local organizations will be in the marquee.  Throughout the day a programme of music in the marquee will be provided by local schools and choirs and the Aberystwyth Silver Band.

It is right and proper in my view that a garden should be not merely beautiful but useful, a place of sociability and fun.  Mrs Johnes’ garden, which occupies a low lying area by a bend in the Ystwyth river, has proved its merits before, notably at a lavish wedding reception held there by Nick and Claire Lee in 2018.

Wedding marquee at Hafod

For this weekend’s events the initiative came from the tourism body Pentir Pumlumon and the Cefn Croes Windfarm Trust and has been choreographed by Tourism Development Officer Tanya Friswell and Hafod Estate Manager Dave Newnham.

I hope visitors will take time to stroll round the garden, planted, as an echo of its former splendour, with plants which were available to gardeners in the garden’s heyday in the late 18th century.  Some contemporary  visitors described Mrs Johnes’ Garden as an American Garden.  At this time fashionable recent introductions were chiefly from the eastern side of the USA.  The rich variety of Japanese and Chinese flowers and shrubs familiar in gardens today had yet to be discovered.

Just ten years ago this garden was barely discernable, swamped by a mature plantation of sitka spruce.  Huge earthmovers and diggers extracted the stumps, lifting and shaking them of earth as the weeder shakes a groundsel.

In 2009 the sitka spruce plantation was removed and the garden restoration began

The  forest road was re-routed round the margin of the old garden, and the dry stone walls repaired and topped with moss.

In Mrs Johnes’ day the lawn would have been ornamented with many island beds brilliant with flowers.  It is well described by B.H. Malkin (The Scenery, Antiquities and Bibliography of South Wales published 1804) “A gaudy flower garden, with its wreathing and fragrant plats bordered by shaven turf, with a smooth gravel walk carried around, is dropped, like an ornamental gem among wild and towering rocks, in the very heart of boundless woods. The spot contains about two acres, swelling gently to meet the sunbeams, and teeming with every variety of shrub and flower”.

The modern restoration has the original circular gravel path but the ornamental borders are confined to the perimeter of the garden.  Those fragrant, gaudy plats would require a great deal of gardeners’ time, especially when the ‘shaven turf’ was all mowed by scythe.  The present arrangement still requires regular effort by garden volunteers, but also allows Hafod to welcome the occasional big event, and play a full part in the community.  I intend to be there.

August 2018 Volunteers spread extra mulch on the border

The garden volunteers meet on Fridays: this year weeding dates are planned for 31 May, 28 June, 19 July, 23 August, 3 October.  More volunteers are always welcome, and will find tea and biscuits and a warm welcome in the garden from 10 am till 4pm.

 

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Penglais Campus – a continuing embarrassment

I googled the Penglais Campus today and found a link to its Investing in the Future  campaign of refurbishment.  The first line reads “Penglais Campus has benefitted from extensive refurbishment over the last year. Keep checking this section for more developments in the near future.”  But when I clicked on it this is all I found.Embarrassing is indeed a good word for what has been done to the campus in the last two years!

People are still reeling from the conversion of the main entrance from this:

The Hugh Owen building, Penglais Campus, Aberystwyth with original planting in 2003

to a gulag with weed trees in the foreground, and vistas of  bark and turf.

The Hugh Owen bank today

Other major losses to the important  Cadw II* listed plantings have been described in this blog over the last 18 months.   Its historic character is being steadily and unnecessarily whittled away. Another loss has just occurred in association with the car park which occupies a space between Computer Sciences and Physical Sciences and is being radically reconstructed.

Refurbishment of the car park underway between Computer science and Physical sciences buildings.

The Sweet Chestnut which stood out so handsomely against the red wall of the Physics Building has been cut down.  It adjoined the car park, but was not in it.  The stump stands, outside the contractors’ area today.  Once again the decisions about “Improvement” are being carried out without attention to the landscape significance of the site.

The Sweet Chestnut ( left hand tree in picture) in October 2017.  In spring and summer the bright foliage gleamed against the plain red wall.

Plantings were created by thoughtful horticulturalists to complement this architecturally striking building.  On the other side there is a fine border and a birch, ( safe but for how much longer?).  This view was formerly framed by a lawn on which happy students were often photographed for University brochures.  Was it really necessary to sacrifice so much of it for the giant lettering on the huge turning area which  serves the users of two disabled parking spaces?

The other side of the Physics building

I took a visitor around the campus on Saturday, and across the road from this she spied the entrance to Biological Sciences. Could those really be PLASTIC PLANTS?

Plastic ferns flank the entrance to Biological Sciences

” I’ve seen enough” she exclaimed, “take me away from here!”

Perhaps the people in Biology are doing irony. The creation of the campus plantings in the 1960s and 1970s was closely influenced by the expertise of successive professors of Botany working with well-qualified designers and gardeners.  Today, the academic staff have no influence upon their  environment, and the University has no Conservation Management Plan, presumably because conservation of a 20th century landscape is not their priority.  Indeed it was recently announced that the care of the garden landscape of the campus has been devolved from the Estates Department to the general manager of the Sports Centre.

Contrast this with the University of Bristol which is custodian of eight historic gardens including a 2009 Centenary Garden, all expertly cared for.  Aberystwyth could shine for its exceptional 20th century landscape.  It is an opportunity lost.

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