Fear and Awe at Hafod

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

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

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

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

Pont Newydd collapsed in the 1980s.                                  copyright Jennie Macve

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

Olly Davey crossing Pont Newydd on a mountain bike

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

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

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

The new footbridge under construction at Pont Newydd

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

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

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Some puzzling pictures of Hafod

by the Curious Scribbler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Penglais campus the destruction continues

by The Curious Scribbler

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

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

Recently uprooted border at the Penglais campus

The border on 7 October before its destruction

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Formerly a bank clothed in prostrate and low growing cotoneaster?

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

Crude pruning of a group of mature shrubs

Border on the corner between  Biology and Physics on 7 October

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

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

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

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

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

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

The corner between Biology and the the Sports Centre

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

Heterophylly in an Australian acacia

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

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

The future gardening style for the Aberystwyth University campus

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

 

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The romance of dereliction

By The Curious Scribbler

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

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

Pengraig Draw, now a lavishly renewed holiday cottage

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

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

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

Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

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

Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

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

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

In the derelict Hafod mansion Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

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

 

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

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

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

Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

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

 

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

In the Hafod cellars 2006

In the Hafod cellars 2006

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

 

 

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New Tricks in an Old Pembrokeshire Garden

by The Curious Scribbler

Last September I visited an intriguing garden at Treffgarne Hall, near Wolf’s Castle. Here stands a large plain two-storey country house built in 1824 and virtually unaltered by its subsequent owners.  It stands on the Landsker line: the division between Norman and Welsh Pembrokeshire, on a windswept hilltop.

 

The south frontage of Treffgarne Hall, unchanged since 1824

The south frontage of Treffgarne Hall, unchanged since 1824

The south facing house looks right out to distant refinery stacks at the coast at Milford Haven 16 miles away.  By the 1960s its fortunes were shabby, with rotten floors and an overgrown garden.  The land, the farm, the outbuildings were serially sold off, until just the house and four acres remained, an unsuccessful country hotel.  This was bought in 2003 by Martin and Jackie Batty and a transformation began.

The walled garden on the hilltop had been embellished by the former owners to contain a hard tennis court in the farthest third, which looks sadly decrepit today.  The rest was, in 2003 a blank canvas of weeds.  But when I passed through the stone garden doorway west of the house I seemed to step into a Chelsea show garden. I found an immaculate formal space of slate paving, parallel rills and four symmetrically planted paulownias, flanked by huge oak pergolas trailed with Clematis armandii.  The design was created with advice from the Julian and Isabel Bannerman,  the designers who used to garden Hanham Court near Bristol.

Within the old walled kitchen garden is a remarkable formal garden

It feels highly improbable to step from rural Pembrokeshire into such a space.  Martin Batty described how it reflects his enthusiasm for exotic and tender plants.   His plantings in 2003 included tender South African Proteas, Leucodendron argenteum (the silver tree) , Mexican cactus and giant echiums.  The first  few years were encouraging, but many were lost in the severe winters of 2009 and 2010.  The Echiums have come back from seed, and many other of his barely frost-hardy plants have flourished.  We saw many Southern hemisphere plants,  Bailey’s Purple Wattle from Australia, which flowers here in February, the Rice paper plant Tetrapanax papyrifer, and the frothy foliage of Melianthus major.

The Rice Paper Plant Tetrapanax papyrifer

A curiousity was the weird saw-like leaves of Pseudopanax ferox. The lower leaves of this columnar plant are hard and rigid, higher up the plant they will grow soft and untoothed.  Apparently this heterophylly evolved to protect the leaves from the attentions of the now extinct Moas of New Zealand.

Pseudopanax ferox

There were other unfamiliar plants: the blue dangling bells of Iochroma grandiflora from Peru, the floppy green fans of leaves of Iris confusa ‘ Martin Rix’ and a Muehlenbeckia (maidenhair vine)  not scrabbling uncontrolled through native trees as we saw it on Herm Island two years ago, but disciplined into a neat tight green mound. There was even a Norfolk Island Pine, Araucaria heterophylla – more familiar in Canary Island and Florida tourist developments.  I wonder how it will fare when it rears its head above the protective wall.

Iochroma grandiflora

The rest of the garden is less startling, with lawns and borders, a broad terrace on the south side of the house, and a nice array of low-growing foliage plants in a gravel garden outside the walled garden. However the Battys have enlivened these grounds with some interesting uses of wood.  There is an inviting summerhouse, and what appear to be a pair of elaborate Palladian ashlar gateposts on the drive.

A quiet drive through conventional gateposts? Hardly:

Closer inspection shows them to be carved of timber.  Panels are inscribed as mileposts:  Doncaster 350 miles;  Japan 4000 miles, which reflect the origins of the owners.  Pausing between these posts one reads the enigmatic inscription THE RUINS OF TIME BUILD MANSIONS IN ETERNITY.

Treffgarne timber gateposts. Doncaster 350 miles, Japan 5000miles

There is also a totem pole, a stack of four animals carved out of the trunk of a former beech tree and erected as a focal point west of the house.  Another, multi-trunked dead beech has been carved in situ in the likeness of a four headed dragon.

Carved in situ, a multi-trunked dead beech

Here nature has embellished the chiselled scaly necks with bracket fungus and elegant frills of turkey tail fungus.  This colonisation is also the harbinger of the sculpture’s destruction.  But for a few years before the inevitable collapse, art and nature are most harmoniously combined.  Gardeners go to so much trouble for such fleeting returns.

The bracket fungus Pseudotrametes gibbosa favours beech trees

Turkey tail. (Coriolus versicolor)is now properly known as Trametes vesicolor and apparently the source of a potent anti tumour drug.

The garden is open on certain days under the National Garden Scheme.   See the Yellow book and the free regional pamphlets which will soon appear.

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

by The Curious Scribbler

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

An Epitaph on a Robin Redbreast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this Mariamne, mourning a robin?

Is this really Mariamne, mourning her pet  robin?

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

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

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

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

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

The urn in the National Library of Wales 2016

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

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The Gothic Arcade at Hafod

by the Curious Scribbler

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

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, under restoration

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, under restoration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, almost complete

The Gothic arcade, Hafod, almost complete, May 2016

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

Gothic arcade 2 viewssm

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

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On Myths and Misinformation at Nanteos

by The Curious Scribbler

Nanteos Mansion, seat of the Powells

Nanteos Mansion, seat of the Powells

I’ve been re reading Juliette Woods article ” Nibbling Pilgrims and the Nanteos Cup: A Cardiganshire Legend” which was published in  Nanteos – A Welsh house and its Families, Ed. Gerald Morgan (2001). In it the author carefully enumerates the written and the oral record to compare it with the fully fledged early 20th century legend of the Nanteos Cup.  At its most florid, this damaged fragment of a wooden drinking vessel is believed to be the Holy Grail, brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea, cherished by the monks at Glastonbury, some of whom, at the dissolution of their monastery, fled with it to Strata Florida Abbey in Cardiganshire, from whence it passed into the hands of the Stedman Family of that community, and thus, by marriage to the Powells of Nanteos. In modern tradition the cup has spectacular healing powers, and its last custodian at Nanteos, Margaret Powell discretely massaged its reputation with testimonials from the healed. The cup is also sometimes alleged to be fashioned out of a fragment of the true cross – though this would not fit with the Holy Grail story in which Joseph of Arimathea caught Christ’s blood in the cup at the crucifixion.

Juliette Woods gives a lot of attention to the common mechanisms by which such local legends are invented and augmented over time, but in essence her conclusions are that there is no written evidence  of its importance and apparent healing powers until the mid 19th Century, and no indication of the Grail story until the early 20th.  The cup first came under public scrutiny in 1878 when George Powell, a keen aesthete and antiquarian, allowed it to be exhibited to The Cambrian Archaeological Association at Lampeter.  There was no allegation about the Holy Grail back then.  It and another wooden vessel owned by Thomas Thomas of Lampeter were described as “supposed to possess curative powers”.  The newly-fledged “Cambrians” as this genteel antiquarian society were generally known, were on a mission to ferret out antiquities from gentry homes and churches.

But the power of a good legend is in its ability to grow and mutate. Margaret Powell, who as a widow ruled Nanteos from 1930-1952 upheld the Grail myth, but with delicate discretion, refusing to allow the allegation to be associated with her name in print.  Journalists, travel-guide authors and religiously-inclined scholars soon put in their pennyworth, and the Nanteos Cup gained followers. The Revd Lionel Smithett Lewis, Vicar of Glastonbury in 1938-1940 was one such enthusiast, fired up by A.E. Waite’s book Hidden Church of the Holy Grail (1909) which linked the grail to early Celtic  Christianity.  Smithett Lewis  corresponded with Mrs Powell, and embellished the myth with the ‘discovery’ of a cupboard at Ozleworth Church, used by the Glastonbury monks  to house the grail overnight when benighted too far from their abbey.  Smithett Lewis wanted the Grail to be housed in a splendid reliquary  at Glastonbury.  Mrs Powell evidently did not co-operate and the correspondence ceased.

By the 1960’s the old mansion was in the hands of its first non-hereditary owner, Liverpool dealer Geoffrey Bliss, and the original cup had been transferred to a bank vault in the care of the Mrs Powell’s relative and inheritor, Mrs Mirylees.  I visited Nanteos during the Bliss family occupancy,  the house had been sold complete with most of its furnishings and portraits and despite the actual holes in the roof of one wing, it was open to the public as a stately home.  And by then there was a facsimile holy grail to be seen in a lighted glass-fronted cabinet in the anteroom to the Library on the west end of the house.  This may indeed have been the one said to have been made by a local craftsman to enable Mrs Powell to reduce wear upon the original unless its curative powers were actually required.

The ‘real’ cup meanwhile has gone from strength to strength. Throughout the 1990s you could send to America for a prayer cloth or tissue impregnated with water which has been poured from it.  Presumably, as  with homeopathy, this church in Seattle  would allege that the greater the dilution, the more powerful the effect it would have.   More recently, impregnated cloths  were available from The Rt Reverend Bishop Sean Manchester,  author of several non-fiction books, including “The Highgate Vampire”; “The Vampire Hunter’s Handbook”; “Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know”; “From Satan To Christ”; and “The Grail Church.” However the supply dried up in 2014 when the cup was apparently stolen from the home of an elderly woman in Weston-under-Penyard, in Herefordshire.

Last year there was a further flurry of notoriety when the Grail had a spot on BBC’s Crimewatch.  Muddying the history further, some news accounts showed an old photo of the missing object, ( though this was possibly a photo of Mrs Powell’s  facsimile rather than the original) while others included illustrations from the Indiana Jones film starring Harrison Ford!

The Nanteos Cup, an ancient Holy Grail relic that has been recovered after thieves stole the wooden chalice from a woman using it for its healing powers.

The Nanteos cup, or perhaps its 20th century facsimile featured in recent coverage of its loss

In June 2015 it was revealed that the cup had been returned but that no charges were being pressed. The police photo of the object they recovered closely resembles the 1888 sketch in Archaeologia Cambrensis and the  early photos of the cup which are housed at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales rather than the picture above.  I have recently heard that its new home is to be in the National Library of Wales.

Nanteos Cup

The police photo of the recovered object looks more like the original Nanteos cup

Meanwhile new convolutions constantly develop.  At Nanteos, which is now a smart  country house hotel, there is a new garden feature in the old shrubbery adjoining the walled garden.  A labyrinth by eco-mystic woodcraftman  Bob Shaw leads on a contemplative circuit to a central sculpture which represents the Nanteos Cup, borne on a tapering plinth. The four sides of the plinth sides depict the mansion, Strata Florida, Glastonbury Tor and the Nanteos cup. Just to keep the legend alive.

sculpture in the labyrinth representing the Nanteos cup

The Sculpture by Ed Harrison at the centre of the new labyrinth at Nanteos

And Bob, who is a skilled craftsman working with traditional tools has also fashioned yet another Nanteos Cup, out of an ancient piece of timber he extracted from the Mawddach estuary.  That will fox the carbon daters, as they strive to determine which cup is which!   The wood could well be older than the true cross itself.  Bob tells me that the hotel management are only too happy to keep his handiwork in their safe, and show it to favoured guests.

Then there is a further development, in the form of a historical novel, The Shadow of Nanteos, by Jane Blank published this year by Y Lolfa.  Now I know this is fiction, but for many readers the distinction becomes blurred.   Peacocks in Paradise, by Elisabeth Inglis Jones, which dramatises the life of Thomas Johnes of Hafod, is often perceived today as a purely biographical work.  I found The Shadow of Nanteos unnerving myself because in it the very real Revd William Powell (1705-1780) who inherited on his brother Thomas’ death in 1752 is equipped with his historically correct wife, Elizabeth Owen.   The book opens as he takes possession of Nanteos, his ancestral home.  There however the resemblance ends: poor Elizabeth and William are supplied with quite different children, and a gothic storyline involving illegitimacy, adultery, leadmining, otter hunting, the death of their son, and finally the death of Elizabeth on the Nanteos kitchen table during a cesarean section to save the offspring of her steamy relationship with the bailiff.  Ah me!  What those Georgians got up to!  But to return to the cup, –  here all the components of the early 20th century fiction have been thoughtfully re-packaged to the mid 18th Century.  Fictional Elizabeth invites round the local gentry wives and daughters, the Pryses of Gogerddan,  the Lisburnes of Trawscoed and the Johnes of Hafod and they expound the whole story:  Glastonbury, Joseph of Arimathea, Strata Florida, the Steadmans,  the true cross, the Holy Grail and the nibbling pilgrims who bit pieces off the rim.  ( The author must surely have read Juliet Wood’s painstaking work).  Later in the book, driven to grief at the death of her eldest son, Elizabeth resorts to some very questionable frotteurism with the grail itself.

Nanteos seems a particular magnet for the wild assertion!  There are already a number of popular but questionable ghost stories associated with it and suggestible readers of Jane Blank’s work may soon find themselves sensing Elizabeth Powell eviscerated on the kitchen table.  And there is a steady increase in the historic characters which are claimed among its house guests.  Local historians have long been enraged by the early 20th century myth, first promulgated in a tourist guide to Aberystwyth, that Wagner stayed at Nanteos and wrote Parsifal there. There is no closer connection than that the aesthetically inclined George Powell ( 1842-1882) was an admirer of his, and planned a journey to Munich with his friend Algernon Swinburne, the poet, to witness the Ring Cycle.   Algernon Swinburne and George also shared an interest in flagellation and the works of the Marquis de Sade.  But that connection scarcely justifies the current naming of one of Nanteos’ rooms as ‘The Marquis de Sade room’, nor the recent assertion that Robert Browning stayed there too!

The hotel website  http://www.nanteos.com/news_detail.php?ID=51  reads as follows: Culture is all-pervasive at Nanteos Mansion with associations with leading European figures such as the composer Wagner and the poet Browning. It’s an easy concept to grasp, they are famous cultural figures and they both stayed at the Mansion while touring the country.

But they didn’t.  Though hotel guests will enjoy believing that they did.

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The first Ginkgo bound for Australia

by The Curious Scribbler

I have been reading the transcript ship’s log written by  a distant relative of my husband, a navy captain named Lieutenant  Edward Riou.  In 1789 this gentleman was given command of the naval frigate HMS Guardian, a fifth rate frigate built to carry some 250 men and 44 big guns.  But his voyage was not a military one:  immediately before his command, the ship had been returned to dock in 1787  and refitted as a transport ship, to carry stores and convicts to the newly established penal colony at Port Jackson, now Sydney, Australia.  Founded with the arrival of the first convicts in 1788 the colony was little more than a tented village set in sandy scrub.  Nothing edible was growing there, and all supplies must therefore be brought in by ship until such time as agriculture could be established.  The navy was charged with delivering every possible necessity, and more convicts, both male and female in the following months.

Riou’s journey was not a success.  On leaving the Cape of Good Hope he met with a gigantic iceberg in the South Atlantic and later on Christmas Eve collided with it in the fog.  In the ensuing disorder on Christmas Day the boats were launched and some of the crew disembarked on a launch.  Others drowned in the attempt.  The capacity of the boats was nowhere near sufficient for the entire crew and the 25 convicts.  Riou and  60 men and a 10 year old girl remained on board the severely leaking and rudderless ship and after an extraordinary eight weeks at sea, pumping and baling constantly with the lower deck filled with water, they limped into Table Bay, Capetown. The ship proved to be irretrievably damaged, and most of the contents rotted or destroyed.   Only a quantity of salt pork, salt beef and the convicts and their superintendents were eventually transported by other ships to their Australian destination.  Not till the summer of 1791 did Riou and the last of his crew make their way home.

A fascinating detail of the account is the lists of goods, food and livestock which was packed aboard the Guardian for the use of the nascent colony in Australia.  In London no less a figure than Sir Joseph Banks involved himself in the design and construction of a greenhouse on the deck of the Guardian, to accommodate 100 large plant pots on shelves, and fertilizer, mulch and all necessities for the use of the ship’s gardener, James Smith.  He itemized his charges as follows:

Artichokes 2, Horseradish, Sorrel 2, Balm 2, Sage, Aloe, Mint 2, Tea Tree 2, Chives 2, Tarragon 2, Camomile, Hyssop, Marjorum, Tansy, Penny Royal, Rumbullion Gooseberry, Greengage Gooseberry, Red Dutch Currant, White Dutch Currant, Filberts, Raspberries 2, Large Blue Fig 2, Large White Fig 2, Almond 2, Mulberry 2, Walnuts 2, Pomegranate, Ginkgo biloba, Roman nectarine 2, Red Magdalen Peach 2, Royal George Peach 2, Newington Peach , Brussels Apricot, Cherry 3, Morello Cherry 2, Early May Cherry, Orange Tree, Lemon Tree, Shadock, Royal Muscadine Vine, Syrian Vine, Muscat of Alexander Vine, White Fronteniac Vine, Gibraltar Vine, Black Hamburgh Vine, Claret Vine, St peter’s Vine, White Muscadine Vine, Black Fronteniac Vine, Blue Morecils Vine, Black Sweetwater Vine, Red Fronteniac Vine, Burgundy Vine, White Sweetwater vine, Grisley Fronteniac Vine, Black Orlean Vine, Uruge nectarine, Italian Nectarine, Brugner Nectarine, Nonesuch apple 2, Dutch Codlin apple 2.  93 pots under my care.

Most of this list is of herbs, fruits and vines which could form the basis of productive farming in the colony.  The superintendents and the convicts had themselves been selected for those with some agricultural experience or skills which could be put to use.  Banks clearly envisioned a Mediterranean style settlement of vineyards and orchards in sunny Australia.  But there is one remarkable exception  –  The Ginkgo biloba.

A look around the eighteenth century mansions of Britain is enough to demonstrate the social significance at the time of this newly-discovered Chinese tree.  Kew Gardens has one known to have been planted in 1762, Blaise Castle House ( built 1796) in Bristol has a huge one adjoining the mansion and the picturesque dairy by John Nash. Ashton Court, another wealthy Bristol merchant’s estate, has three.

The ornamental Dairy (1806) adjoining Blaise Castle House. and a large Ginkgo to the left in view

Nanteos mansion here in Ceredigion boasts a group of three of which one is the largest in our county, standing in the pleasure ground adjoining the mansion and screening the garden wall.   Significant houses have at least one of these exotica placed as specimens close to the house.  Towards the end of his career ‘Capability’ Brown routinely included a Ginkgo,  a Cedar of Lebanon, and perhaps an Oriental Plane or a purple beech in plantings viewed from the mansion.

It is reasonable to conclude then that the Ginkgo was destined to complement the Governor’s residence at Port Jackson, though this was probably little more than a shed at that time. It ended its days cast overboard from HMS Guardian along with the cattle, sheep, horses and pigs taken on board at the Cape.  Governor A Phillip of the new colony reported to the Admiralty that in the absence of the expected supplies much of the colony’s small stock of livestock had to be slaughtered for food, and that the convicts, on half rations, were too enfeebled to make much headway with building the store houses and accommodation. With 1000 convicts shortly to be dispatched to his jurisdiction, the loss of  the ginkgo was probably the least of his worries.

 

Source:  HMS Guardian and the Island of Ice  compiled and annotated by Rod Dickson.  Hesperian Press 2012

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Allt-y-bela: An old house with a new garden

I ventured south to Monmouthshire recently to visit a garden near Usk, in the tiny rural hamlet of Llangwm Uchaf.  Reaching, in anticipation, for my Pevsner guide to Monmouthshire (published 2000) I was not encouraged.  The old medieval farmhouse is described as ” now miserably derelict” its “towering three storey parlour block of 1599 and its crown of lozenge shaped stacks in the last last stages of collapse”.  But for a line drawing detail of a medieval door head, there were, understandably, no pictures.

So there was little to prepare one for the scene which suddenly unfolds at the end of a narrow and diminishing country lane.  The first clue came when the hedgerow gave way to a geometric, three tiered  topiary beech and beyond it a topiary dome of hawthorn.   The sight line along the curving road led the eye to some further pathside trimming, small domes of copper beech and green on the left.  Then Allt-y-bela was  revealed.

Allt-y-bela, Monmouthshire

Allt-y-bela, Monmouthshire

The owner explained the amazing change of fortune for the house since the millennium.  Terribly derelict, its principal rooms serving as a shelter for cattle, this amazing house had been brought low by the provision of its 16th century owner and  builder, Roger Edwards, landowner and founder of the Usk Grammar School.  In his will he left his house and land as an endowment for the school, and over the centuries the huge building became less and less useful to the tenant farmers, while the land remained a source of income for the school for around 400 years.  Originally close to the road from Usk to Chepstow, Allt-y-bela had once been something of a hub.  Now the route bypassed this tranquil spot, and but for the intervention of the Spitalfields Trust it would have completed its collapse.  They bought the house and a little land around it, and  for seven years conservation experts and SPAB scholars painstakingly restored it to its historical best, a II* listed building.  At least there were few layers of alteration and improvement to be stripped away.  It was then for sale, a pristine restoration standing on an apron of builder’s gravel and surrounded by grass. What better purchaser could there be than a renowned garden designer?

Arn Maynard is remembered for his RHS Gold for the Laurent Perrier Bicentenary Garden in 2012 and has an extensive garden design practice.  Here he had a blank palette and has created a modern garden which in part evokes the styles of the house’s history.

Bringing in large ready trimmed topiary trees from Holland, and sculpting the land with diggers and drystone wallers has enabled him to present his vision of Allt-y-bela, as a pearl set upon a cushion of green.  As so often in rural settings, one of the challenges is to integrate a garden into the wider setting, and this is achieved by allowing the mown and lawned garden to expand into wildflower meadows, rich in ox eye daisies, orchids, ragged robin, campion and yellow rattle. It is difficult to believe that such a sense of permanence has been achieved in just seven years, but then his Laurent Perrier show garden featuring a huge pear tree and pleached fences was created (with a lot of pre-planning) in just 17 days.

An assortment of geometrically layered and domed trees frame the approach to the house, and a simple concentric labyrinth of copper beach leads one to an urn, and out again.  There are also choice trees like Magnolia and the service tree which are spared the shears.

Arn Maynard expounds his vision for the copper beech labyrinth

Arn Maynard expounds his vision for the copper beech labyrinth

 

The spiral of copper beech leads to a central urn, and then out again along a parallel arc.

The spiral of copper beech leads to a central urn, and then out again along a parallel arc.

 

At the back of the house, the land has been gently shaped into a terraced lawn, while close to the house a criss-cross stitching of clipped box creates intimate compartments for old fashioned flowers, and a lattice of hedgerow poles creates a trellis up the walls.

The rear of Alt-y-bela

The rear of Alt-y-bela

Further beyond the lawn is an exquisite vegetable garden, with pear arches overhead, and stepover cordoned apples such as were not dreamt of in the 16th century.  There are fruitful gooseberries, currants and raspberries, alpine strawberries, broad beans and peas.

Arn Maynard's exquisite vegetable garden

Arn Maynard’s exquisite vegetable garden

 

The house had a separate stone built kitchen and granary facing the front facade, and these and all other outbuildings have also been carefully restored.  It is on this side that the land art is particularly striking: the trickling natural stream has been canalised between immaculate dry stone walls to curve around behind the granary.  Further low drystone walls contour the slope above to create an outdoor auditorium, looking down to a small stage of lawn trapped between the stream and the building.  The first performance held here was The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The canalised stream and amphitheatre were built last year

The canalised stream and amphitheatre were built last year

 

P1070121smThere is more to describe:-  the tall screen of pleached crab apples in front of the house, the wandering bantams in their timber house, the auricula theatre and the stately Bengal tomcat.  No medieval home was as exquisitely elegant as this, but if it had been, Roger Edwards would have been proud.

 

 

 

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