A New Bee on the Hellebores

by The Curious Scribbler

Saturday’s spring sunshine led me out to tidy up the winter garden.   Already rising proudly from the ground are the Sweet Coltsfoot Petasites frigidus palmatus, whose big star-shaped  leaves will later shade out all the competition.  It is an invasive plant from the arctic and cool temperate Europe, and a bit of  a mixed blessing, but its confident sentinels of March flowers thrusting up before even the primroses have got under way is a harbinger of luscious foliage to come.

Petasites frigidus palmatus ( Sweet Coltsfoot) is erupting in the orchard. So invasive, but such pretty golf balls before the leaves emerge

Also performing spectacularly are my Oriental Hellebores … so many different forms are now to be found at Farmyard Nurseries in Llandysul.   Cross-bred in Carmarthenshire the new varieties range from white through yellow and green to pink, purple, and almost black, and from frothy double petalled to the wide welcoming stamens and nectaries of the simple five petalled flowers.

It was these latter flowers which attracted my first bumblebee of the season, a hard-to-miss bee with ginger thorax, black abdomen and white tail.  This was not a bee of my childhood.  Bombus hypnorum is known by the common name of Tree Bumblebee, or New Garden Bumblebee: for it is just that: not until 2001 was one recorded in Wiltshire, and that was probably among the newest arrivals from the continent.  The migration was a resounding success and within the next ten years the bee had spread throughout England and Wales.  In 2017 it appeared in Ireland too.

Tree Bumblebee ( Wikimedia Commons)

This bee is now reckoned amongst our commonest eight species.  My bee was a queen and will soon be setting up home in a tree hole, a nest box or perhaps a compost heap, or my loft, where she will rear her first first small daughters over the following five weeks.  Later there will be larger better-nourished workers, and finally drones and queens.  In a season she might rear as many as 300- 400 bees.   But her sons are fated to have only a fortnight’s independent life, zooming around looking to mate, and  it is only the daughter queens, fertilized in autumn,who will survive the winter to emerge in March 2022.

 

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Ambitious new planting on the Penglais campus

by The Curious Scribbler

After a week marked by terrible rain and wind,  Thursday’s watery sunshine illuminated an unusually optimistic scene on the  Penglais campus.

Readers of this blog will remember the widespread dismay five years ago when the heavy equipment moved in and uprooted the iconic shrub borders adjoining the main drive into the campus.  Planted in the 1970s to complement the newly completed Hugh Owen building, this varied drift of perennial and deciduous foliage was one of the features which had led to the grading of the campus grounds as of national importance in the Cadw Register of Historic Parks and Gardens in 2002.

The original planting of the bank below the Hugh Owen Building as it appeared in 2003

For the last four years the area has presented a stark appearance of grass and bark, relieved only by a few scrawny trees which had been spared.  Few of these had lasting potential, they included sycamore, ash, Italian alder and goat willow, hardy weed trees which had opportunistically seeded in among the ornamental plantings.

The Hugh Owen bank was denuded of its shrubs in 2017

When the chainsaws and diggers reappeared a couple of weeks ago and  these trees were removed in a sea of mud some passers-by wondered if worse was yet to come.   But over the last two days a  transformation has been wrought by a  swarm of grounds staff in high-visibility jackets.   Almost 2000 shrubs have been planted,  in swathes of contrasting foliage textures.

All hands to the planting, which was done by the University’s team of grounds staff

 

New planting continued on Friday on the bank below the Hugh Owen building

The planting design by Dr Peter Wootton Beard references the border which preceded it, using many of the same or similar species to those selected by former curator Basil Fox when the building was new.   Other newcomers have also been selected.  As with the original design, the layout provides swathes of contrasting evergreens  and areas of deciduous  shrubs which form dark patches in winter.  Flowers, berries and scent have not been neglected, so the tapestry will change as the seasons progress. In the next few years mulching and aftercare will be necessary, but the shrubs will fill out to create dense low-maintenance ground cover which should be good for the next fifty year.

Afternoon sunshine on Friday catches the scheme nearing completion.

I am told that last year alone required no less that fourteen rounds of grass-cutting on this bank, much of which is challengingly steep for machinery.  The next few years will require mulching and aftercare, but as the shrubs fill out they will create a low maintenance continuous cover which should be good for the next fifty years and more.

It is good to see some long-term investment in the appearance of the Penglais Campus.  Aberystwyth is the only Welsh university  to have been awarded a Grade II* Cadw listing, for what is described as ‘one of the most important modern landscaping schemes in Wales’.

 

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A Garden of Concrete Memories

by The Curious Scribbler

There has been quite a lot of publicity this summer about Carreg Llwyd, ( Google ‘Mark Bourne Wales’ for a selection: the Daily Mail, the BBC, Wales Online, and even The Times ran articles this summer).

The story concerns the extraordinary scale models built by writer and chicken farmer Mark Bourne, who died about ten years ago.  Some will remember his many contributions to the Cambrian News and Country Quest.  His remote garden on a terraced slope near Corris has become dilapidated and overgrown and The Little Italy Trust has recently been set up  to preserve it.  Jonathan Fell, gardener and conservator showed me round.

A medley of Italian buildings climb the mountainside

Looking up from the adjoining footpath one sees an amazing medley of model buildings, their facades facing westward, marching up the slope, fading away into the dense conifers above.  Nearest to the house is a signature piece, The Duomo in Florence, just four feet tall and neatly labelled with an inscribed slate slab reading Santa Maria del Fiore.  Nearby, ascending from the top of the boundary wall are the Spanish Steps from Rome.    These and every other garden feature have been fashioned out of concrete, often impregnated with pigments to mimic the warm tones of southern Europe. There are palazzos, churches and towers, mostly palladian and always clearly labelled, often like a guide book with architect and date, which you approach by a labyrinth of concrete paths and steps. Interspersed are a number of breeze-block and corrugated-iron stores and workshops in which the creative process took place.  Timber moulds and formers were built to imprint the decorations, and reclaimed objects, chickenwire, hub caps, dustbins, bottles, washing machine drums and bedsteads often form the basis of these three dimensional structures.

Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence

It is certainly true that about thirty of the models are of famous Italian  buildings, and that Mark Bourne and his wife Muriel holidayed regularly in Italy, taking photos and making drawings which were then copied in concrete at home in Wales.  It rains a lot in the mountains, and no doubt when the concrete would not set he had plenty of time to inscribe the calligraphy on the slate plaques which adorn each piece.  But there is much more than Italy represented here.  Rather, it seems that while Mark Bourne might have written an article, or I a blog on a subject which caught our interest, he instead committed it to concrete.

Randomly perched among the models, and all labelled, are the Brick Kiln at Amlwch, Anglesey, the Nash Lodge at Attingham Park, Boyana Church at Sofia, Bulgaria, and the worlds longest brick bridge, the Goltzsch Viaduct which takes trains from Mylau to Netzschkau in Germany.

‘World’s largest brick bridge. 26,000,000 bricks’.  Jonathan Fell surveys the garden.

A model of York Minster and accompanying plaque marks the accession of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury.  Another plaque list the names, ages and occupations of the occupants of Carreg Llwyd as recorded in the 1841 and 1851 censuses.  When Mark Bourne wanted to remember something, he did not make a note, he made a model.

People gave him stuff which he incorporated into the garden.  Pieces of architecture, concrete urns and figures, and Victorian bricks.  One friend, John Oliphant, gave him an entire brick collection, and many of these are built into a wall visible from the passing footpath, set on their sides to display the lettering on the bricks.  Farther up the same path Mark mounted a concrete geological relief map of north Wales into the wall.

A small part of the John Oliphant Brick Collection

Someone else gave him a bit of artificial stone salvaged from the cargo of the Primrose Hill, a vessel which foundered with great loss of life, on South Stack, Anglesey in 1900.  A complex slate memorial records the story.

And somehow he became the owner of a great many tiny bricks.  They are built into small didactic walls demonstrating different bricklayers’ patterns.  Where else can one find labelled examples of  Flemish Bond,  Stretcher Bond, English Bond, Header Bond and Garden Wall Bond?

Exemplars of five types of brick wall ( and an old bedstead)

Carreg Llwyd is certainly unique, a monument to one man’s creativity, but what is its future?  Its tourist potential is limited. It is up a steep footpath away from the nearest road and there is nowhere to park within a mile.  Once one arrives it is perilous, for the paths, the terraces and some of the buildings are beginning to collapse, ( the Leaning Tower of Pisa is already just a memory.)

Some structures have already collapsed and others are at risk.

Concrete formed upon corroding metal has a limited life, and the whole project though impressive  is crudely executed.  It is magical to stand among the crumbling ruins, overreached by rhododendrons, briars and sapling trees, scraping away the moss to read more of Mark’s explanatory calligraphy on slate. One can also see where once there were vegetable beds, roses, cats’ graves,  a little lawn and water channels flowing through the grounds. But this very personal space was built by hand (and  prodigious amounts of cement), by one poor but passionate amateur, who was still adding to his oeuvre at the age of eighty.   There is no place or access for the machines which might repair its inherent faults.  To achieve maintenance would require the services of a full-time hermit.

A former flower garden among the ruins

Every space within the plot has been adorned with models

A vertiginous view of turrets and workshops from above

This is the ultimate secret garden – most people who come across it by chance feel it is their personal discovery.  Even were it fully repaired and made safe it could take only a tiny number of visitors at any time.  Its plight perhaps bears comparison with Derek Jarman’s shingle garden created around a modest shack in the shadow of the nuclear power station at Dungeness, Kent.  Last year it was announced that the crowdfunding led by the Arts Council had raised £3.5 million to preserve it, and that artist residencies and very limited visiting opportunities will follow.

But Derek Jarman was a famous film director (and gardener)  with many influential showbiz and artist friends.  Mark Bourne, throughout his lifetime, was a very private man.

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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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