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

 

 

Share Button

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.

Share Button

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.

Share Button

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.

 

Share Button

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.

Share Button

To fell or not to fell?

by The Curious Scribbler

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

The thirty-three Monterey Cypresses

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

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

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

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

looking north along Cambridge Terrace

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

The Holm oak outside Plas Antaron, Penparcau

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

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

Share Button

Aberystwyth Campus a lost cause

by the Curious Scribbler

Graduation is past, the students are gone for the summer, so the Aberystwyth University Estates Department is once again ramping up their programme of landscape destruction.  Last summer saw the disappearance of several important  shrub plantings including the long stretch below the Hugh Owen Library.  We have had plenty of time to savour the results of that.  Brambles and weeds now flourish in the optimistically spread  bark mulch on the slope, the so-called-wildflower planting has been strimmed down to its brown dead stems, and in the present hot summer, the grass and new turf has, understandably, taken on the appearance of the savannah.  There is a particular irony in the observation that while we ordinary folk stopped mowing our lawns six weeks ago because they weren’t growing, the University’s contractors’ machines have passed repeatedly over the ground during those weeks, kicking up clouds of dust and barely a blade of grass.  That is what happens when you put your lawn mowing out to contract in Shrewsbury.  Specialists contractors cannot be redeployed to do something useful, as in-house staff could have been.  They were employed to mow lawns.

The new appearance of the border below the Hugh Owen Library

The mature plantings of deep rooted shrubs hold up better in the drought.  The welcome shade is enlivened by the diversity of tone and texture.  You could look across a parched lawn to the dense glossy green of holly, cotoneaster, and escallonia, the sculptural leaves of viburnum or choisya, the dusty grey-green mounds of Olearia about to burst into flower, the dark feathers of low growing juniper.

Or you could.  A new outbreak of needless destruction is taking place around the presently unoccupied halls of Cwrt Mawr and Rosser.  As I approached the Cwrt Mawr Hub I was astounded to find the tightly pruned bushy heads of an entire hedge of hollies lying scattered on the ground.  The trees, each with trunks about six inches in diameter, have been sawn off above ground.  It had been a blameless hedge, less than chest high and well tended, and it screened a long plastic bike shelter.

Holly hedge adjoining the path to Cwrt Mawr Hub

Strolling further among the buildings of Cwrt Mawr, things get worse.  Some destruction may have been necessary due to work upon a water main, but the damage is far worse than that.  There is clearly a philosophy here.  Where a border formerly stood, there shall be just one tree, denuded as far as possible of its lower branches. 

Cwrt Mawr

Around Rosser I found more borders had just been destroyed.  The sad mounds of destroyed shrubs lay inn heaps beside the stumps.  Here, not yet wilted, were the boughs of evergreen choisya, olearias about to bloom, azaleas in tight bud with next spring’s blooms, cotoneasters, purple and green leaved berberis. In one border the designated survivor is a Eucalyptus, in another it is a sorbus.  In the furthest border there are no designated survivors.  The penitentary style of the buildings has a new brutality.

Cwrt Mawr.  The  heap on the left is of azalea, pieris and juniper.

Trefloyne A,  –  a great heap of Olearia and Choysia lies around a pollarded tree

This bed was planted with olearias, Choisya ternata and Eucryphia nymansensis

Huge daisy bushes, about to bloom, cut off at the ground

Rosser –   Another harmless border destroyed to enhance the view?

It is no secret that the Estates Department’s decision-makers have no horticultural  or landscape design qualifications.  It is they, and external contractors appointed by them who are wreaking this havoc. How they imagine it will make Rosser and Cwrt Mawr more attractive to students and their parents I have no idea.

It is depressing to write so dismal a piece. I close with another picture taken today, of the cul-de-sac leading to Penbryn 7  Here we see the towering glory of mature olearias cotoneasters and berberis clothing a steep bank, immaculate and maintenance-free.  It is for this sort of quality that Cadw awarded the campus a II* listing twenty-five years ago How long, though, will it survive an administration intent on destroying heritage?

The approach to Penbryn 7, glorious planting interrupted only by the ubiquitous new parking notices.

 

 

Share Button

The Sunny side of Castle Hill

Viewed from the parkland on which the Llanilar Show is held, Castle Hill presents a severe, even forbidding facade, just as it has for 200 years.  At first it was a plain three storey, five bay box with coach house to the west.  In the mid 19th century it gained an Italianate servant’s wing and bell tower.

A mid 19th century photograph of Castle Hill

The only noticeable modification in the last hundred years is the stone stairwell, built in the 1960s onto the east end of the main block to provide access to the top flat as a separate dwelling.  In 1982 I dwelt in that flat, and for the years we lived there we never ventured into the garden on the south side of the house. The very elderly Mrs Myfanwy Louisa Loxdale lived in the ground floor rooms, attended by her daughter Myrtle, and the garden was strictly out of bounds.

So it was a great treat to see it for the first time this year, on an excursion with the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust.  For the south face of the house presents an elegant and cheerful visage, its windows framed in iron trellises, and the entire front ornamented with the elegant tracery of a long cast iron pergola.

Castle Hill, the south face of the mansion

Intricate tracery of the Castle Hill pergola

Castle Hill appears to have been built on a virgin site in 1777 by sheep magnate John Williams.  Where he lived previously I do not know, but probably further south, his father had been tenant of Strata Florida, and his uncle owned lands at Tregaron.   It is speculated that he built at Llanilar because  his land here was contiguous with that of the Parrys of Llidiardau.  Llidiardau was an important house, home of Thomas Parry the Deputy lieutenant of Cardiganshire.  John Williams’s sister Elisabeth was Mrs Parry.

John died in 1806, leaving his estate in trust for his son, John Nathaniel, a young child, and substantial provision ( £540 a year) for his widow.  As a result the house was available for rent during John Nathaniel’s minority.  Thomas Johnes of Hafod apparently leased it in 1806, for Jennie Macve has found a deed of 24 February 1806, in which Thomas Johnes, ‘late of Hafod, now of Castle Hill’, leased out his own home, Hafod to a Lady Rodney.  It must have been a short lease, for the Johnes family were in residence at Hafod when the house burned in 1807.  Thereafter they lived at Castle Hill for three years while rebuilding of their ruined mansion took place.  It seems to have been a happy time for Mariamne Johnes, who could socialise with the three unmarried Parry girls, Elisabetha, Sarah and Penelope, and many letters survive from the period.  Mariamne  wrote wryly that her father was less content for he ” takes no pleasure in any situation which does not actually belong to him, which appears to me to be singular, for to me any place that is beautiful affords me the same delight as if I had an actual concern in it”.

John Nathaniel Williams grew up to occupy Castle Hill and married Sarah Elizabeth Loxdale of Shrewsbury, but died in 1832, before her, and without issue.  When the tithe map and survey was drawn up in 1845 the landed proprietor was the widow Sarah Elizabeth Williams.  This document indicates the gracious style of Castle Hill, probably from his father’s time onwards.    The schedule designates the area south of the house (659) as ‘ Flower Garden’.

The tithe schedule: 659 Flower Garden, 660 Waste Ground, 661 Kitchen Garden

The  5 inch to the mile Ordnance survey of 1888 marks the area in stippled grey, indicative of a parkland feature, and shows within it a glazed conservatory or glasshouse backing against the wall of the back drive.

Today it is an undulating area, mainly of lawn, which slopes from the east down towards the house.  A venerable wisteria clothes the pergola, and a sundial stands in the middle of the floor of the former glasshouse, the corners of which are still ornamented with sandstone balls on pedestals.  It is not hard to reconstruct in the mind’s eye this gentleman’s garden, with intricate island beds of bright flowers dotted in the scythed lawn (lawnmowers were yet to be invented) and the collection of exotic tender plants in the conservatory overlooking the beds.

A design for late Georgian flower garden at Dolwilym in Carmarthenshire

 

Since Peter Loxdale’s death in 2017 the estate and farm will pass to his nephew, and at present the occupiers are  Peter’s brother Patrick and his wife Susan, who have taken on the huge task of reviving the old house.  Like so many other stone houses it was clad in cement render in the early 20th century, in the mistaken belief, prevalent at the time, that an impervious outer layer would make the house less damp.  Today it is recognized that traditional lime mortar is a far better covering, since it allows the house to breathe.  Replacing the render on the south side, and reinstating blocked and demolished chimneys are among the structural projects in the offing.  The top floor, (once our flat) is to be re-integrated into the house, and so the removal of the 1960’s stair wing is even a possibility. Susan is also turning her hand to the garden.

Across the road from the present entrance to Castle Hill is the walled kitchen garden, degraded at one side because part of the wall was demolished to provide building stone for the 1960s wing.  For much of the past decades it has grown weed trees and brambles, while tenants of the peripheral parts of Castle Hill have made forlorn efforts at gardening the centre.  For the first year, Susan has brought much of the garden back into cultivation.  It too was probably once grander than it now appears.  The tithe and OS map show the south facing north end of the garden to have been of a curving outline, with the land behind it designated “waste ground”.  Though no trace remains at the surface this suggests a brick lined fruit wall, perhaps with glazing  or rolling screens to protect plums, pears or nectarines from the frost.  The gentry houses of Llanerchaeron and Nanteos had such fruit walls, and so did some of the ‘second division’ estates, like Blaenpant.   Castle Hill may be seen as a modestly sized, but very classy new-build of its day.  Samuel Rush Meyrick in 1810 remarked upon John Williams’ planting  of “forest trees and firs to a very large amount”.  His son, or daughter in law probably added the 19th century exotic trees, a fine tulip tree and a cedar of Lebanon.

A huge tulip tree stands at the division between the front and rear approaches to the house

 

 

Share Button

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.

Share Button

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.

 

Share Button