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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A visit to Dismaland

Mostly I write about Wales, but, so thrilled was I to have secured sought-after tickets for what has been described as the arts event of the season, Banksy’s pop up exhibition at Weston Super Mare,that I will stretch a point.  On 27 August I was hunched over my computer, poised for the 10am commencement of sale of timed tickets for the following week.  And at 10-02 am I secured my chance to visit.  In less than an hour all the tickets were sold out.  Four of us, ( and, at no cost, an under-two) were on our way.

Weston Super Mare looks out over the Bristol Channel towards distant Wales, over a huge beach of excellent sand, and jutting out into this beach is a rectangular enclosure, formerly The Tropicana, a lido with swimming pool, first developed in 1937.  Since 2000 this has been a derelict site, its future insecure.  Like many other British beach resorts ( Rhyl in North Wales also comes to mind) the hoards of holiday-makers of the mid 20th century have largely deserted it.  A paramedic told us that her clients largely fall into three categories, the denizens of care homes in the handsome Victorian stone-built seaside villas, the overdose-prone unemployed, and the drug dealers indulging in turf wars over their customers.  Weston has certainly seen better days.

But for five weeks this August and September the lido has acquired a new purpose, as huge queues of visitors wait patiently to enter through the 1930’s facade of the entrance, which is remarkably architecturally similar to Aberyswyth’s neo-Georgian concrete block railway station of the same era.  Were both commissioned by the Great Western Railway?

By Chris Sampson (http://www.flickr.com/photos/lodekka/5646346212/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tropicana, Weston Super Mare in 2011 By Chris Sampson (http://www.flickr.com/photos/lodekka/5646346212/)

Gloomy-faced attendants in pink high visibility jackets marked DISMAL hector the new arrivals.  “What are you smiling for?  This is Dismaland.”  One stared out the baby and asked her ‘Have you been drinking?’

“Ya” she replied.

A stern gaze shifted to her mother.” She says she’s been drinking…” said Dismal.  And reluctantly she let us through.

This theme of gentle abuse generated a remarkable ambience of cheer among the visitors.  Inside there was the opportunity to buy a big black balloon labelled “I am an imbecile.  Many did.

Dismaland balloon vendor

Dismaland balloon vendor

The lido is now dominated by Cinderella’s Castle, shabbily constructed with a scaffolding frame, part derelict, a huge structure which, until recently, locals were hoodwinked into believing was a film set.  Nearby was a one of those plastic playground tree playhouses you used to find in Happy Eater car parks, its swings gone, and its doorways closed by breeze blocks.  Rafts of that pernicious weed, water hyacinth floated across the water.  An abandoned doll and and a trashed supermarket trolley lay in the moat.

Cinderella's castle, and a strangely squiffy Little Mermaid

Cinderella’s castle, and a strangely squiffy Little Mermaid

We queued to enter the dark interior, were photographed smiling happily, and then turned a corner in pitch darkness to find ourselves confronted by Cinderella’s fatal coach crash, illuminated only by the flashes from the paparazzi.  Two blue birds hover over her, untying her sash.  On exiting there was a purchase opportunity, our photograph, in a fine gift card mount, in which our images were cunningly superimposed on the scene as the first rubberneckers grinning idiotically at the disaster.

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Cinderella’s fatal prang

Advertising, business and politicians all take a punishing within these walls.  There was a tent devoted to political placards and slogans, on card, fabric, and beautiful silk screen printed headscarves, another to the sale of a range of anarchist and left wing literature.  On the flank of the castle a huge painted  billboard showing a smug David Cameron being peeled and scrumpled off the wall.  By the children’s sandpit with its aged plastic toys stood a Pocket Money Loans booth which always held a queue of adults eager to inspect the cleverly realistic  posters and offers within. The mini golf didn’t give your ball back, and was set in a landscape of crude oil and a Murco petrol pump.  The closer you looked, the more you saw.

More than 50 artists have contributed to this remarkable pastiche, and paintings, sculptures, and installations were to be found in a large ugly shed along one side.  Here death intermittently cavorted on a bumper car to the accompaniment of cheerful lights and music, and a Damien Hirst installation  held a beach ball, hovering on an upward air current over a bed of upturned knife blades.   I sometimes  rant against the pretentious interpretive paragraphs which many galleries make their artists provide beside their pictures.  Here were many art works, puzzling and thought provoking, offered with no explanation whatsoever.  The effect is far more fascinating as a result.

There was a potting shelf of real big brand ready meals boxes on each of which stood a plant pot in which a disc of the card taken from the box had been fitted to represent the soil layer. It seems all ready-meal photographers including a sprig of parsley or some other herb which you are unlikely to detect in the actual product.  The artist had painstakingly cut out, and folded upwards the token sprig on every piece of card, to give the impression of an array of eager plantlets. A thought-provoking take on the auricula theatre concept.

The sprigs on the packages of ready meals gain a life of their own..

The sprigs on the packages of ready meals gain a life of their own..

At the end of this hall was a huge table top tableau of a dystopian city scene, illuminated only be streetlights and the blue flashing lights of innumerable emergency vehicles.  Jimmy Cauty’s Aftermath Dislocation showed innumerable tiny figures, fire police and ambulance, engaged with every crisis.  I could have lingered for much longer had not the Dismal attendants harangued us to keep moving.  I have since googled him, and find that for £450- to £3000 I could own a tiny piece of similar mayhem, cleverly captioned and encased in an oversized, upturned jam jar.  Something unusual for Christmas perhaps?

Part of Jimmy Cauty's dystopian cityscape

Part of Jimmy Cauty’s dystopian cityscape

Emerging onto the light we found the carousel,  a proper traditional galloping horses ride which the youngest member of our party was keen to ride.  There was, however, as with everything at Dismaland, a twist.  One of the pretty horses hung from a hook,  and beneath it sat a blood speckled slaughterman with a big knife and a pile of cartons marked LASAGNE.  The horsemeat scandal had been pushed to the back of our minds.  Until now.

Carousel at Dismaland 1

Carousel at Dismaland 1

Carousel at Dismaland 2

Carousel at Dismaland 2

Migrants however is the present media topic, and here too there was a dark interpretation.  On a pool next to the carousel one could pay £1 to drive, by remote control, the rubber dinghies packed with migrants, or a gunboat, beneath the white cliffs of Dover.  Drowned bodies bobbed in the water, and the lights from the carousel reflected, like blood, on the dark water.

A Gunboat harries the huddled masses at Dismaland

A Gunboat harries the huddled masses at Dismaland

What did the youngest member find most remarkable about this attraction, a theme park “not suitable for children”?  The prize must go to one of a series of nightmare cakes with human teeth in the tent devoted to the Sleep of Reason.

P1080890sAnd the scariest? That was undoubtedly the old lady attacked by seagulls, on a park bench.  Our young companion is too young to have read the recent accounts of herring gulls killing small dogs and a tortoise, but she did NOT wish to sit beside it. The dismal attendant looked on with admirable detachment.

Not a reassuring place to sit

Not a reassuring place to sit

Dismaland was thronged with people interacting with the artworks, watching the foul mouthed Punch and Judy by Julie Burchill, just sitting in the deckchairs admiring the vista of decay or pondering the posters.  It made an excellent day out.

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Street Art in Bristol, Upfest 2015

by The Curious Scribbler

The first street art I ever saw was in Iowa City in 1975.  On the blank end of a large flat faced-building I was confronted by a huge idealized version of the landscape through which we had travelled all day: endless plains of corn, ruler-straight roads, clapboard farmhouses and barns, and above it an enormous sky.  And in that painted sky sickle-winged nighthawks circled like giant swifts.  There was a joyous mimicry about this urban picture, for in real life, the evening sky was rent with the weird screams of real nighthawks hurtling  overhead.  In a bookshop in the same city  I found a book of photographs by Diane Arbus and bought it on the spot.  Everyone has heard of Diane Arbus since those days, but in both these discoveries Iowa City in the mid seventies delivered a first for me.

I was reminded of both themes when visiting Bedminster in south Bristol last week.  Much about the street scenes would make a Diane Arbus composition:  the distinctive style of its slightly scruffy inhabitants, the peeling stucco, the buddleia sprouting from gutters and chimney pots, the crushing dismalness of a high street devoted to a signage war between  the most downmarket of shops.

North Street Bedminster .  Despite the grim shopfronts some optimist has painted the street furniture cheerful colours like a toysshop

North Street Bedminster . Despite the grim shopfronts some optimist has painted the street furniture in  cheerful colours like a toyshop.

And yet there were thrills and surprises at every turn, for the Upfest Street Art Festival had co-ordinated the embellishment of Bedminster through the efforts of mural artists from Bristol, Britain, and all over the world.  Should the ambulanceman in the picture above spin upon his heel he would look up at a very different scene, of a glistening rain-drenched city street, dominated by an exotic blue-tinged oriental lady.P1080730webYou need to venture up side roads to find all the exhibits.  Here is a house embellished by one of the founding artists of Upfest, whose moniker is My Dog Sighs.  This peculiar stick man crops up several times on boards and buildings, and can also be purchased on art card at the Upfest Gallery, embellished with choice of apposite sayings I wish I’d said myself.

P1080733webOn the next side street was a red squirrel: sniffing at a hoard of paint spray can tops, the detritus of artworks such as this.  The composition is interrupted by the door and window of this small shop, and oddly decorated by the opportunistic buddleia sprouting out of the sill.

P1080735web P1080736webThe Steam Crane, a  pub by the roundabout, provided many more obstacles to a  smooth canvas, for it is  an Edwardian frontage of dressed stone, timberwork-and-brick, dormer windows and chimneys.  Hard to believe that such a dominating form could be camouflaged by a maritime harbour scene of 200 years ago, yet you have to stop and study to comprehend the picture.  Harder still to imagine the labour of correctly superimposing the picture on this complex shape, working close up, over a weekend, from a scaffold or cherry picker.

P1080726webThere are also bill boards and shop windows mingling with the with regular advertisements on the street.  The minions poster has perhaps attracted new and opinionated graffiti,  but then what do I know of the opinions of the artist ‘Angus’?P1080738web P1080737webNext up was the psychedelic mackaw taking flight on the flank of The Masonic public house.  It’s anyone’s guess whether the tattoo parlour with the Star Wars title is part of the exhibit – this kind of artwork abounds in Bristol.

P1080739webThere was a cluster of creativity in the vicinity of the Tobacco Factory further up the hill, and here came together  a most Arbus-esque scene, a commentary on health, both of the individual and of the planet.  Are we marching towards our doom?

P1080743webThe image of the tree, last oxygenator of the planet,  was crafted with glued-on moss for the foliage, while above, an oily hand by a different artist dripped realistically to the ground.P1080746web P1080745webNearby was a representation of our earth exploding from within, painted by the invisible hand  ‘Manu Invisible’  from Italy, and further down the road on an up and over garage door three harbingers of death wait on a park bench under the stars of the European Union.   A politically aware lot, around here..

P1080748web P1080765webThe mood though varies, with a more positive note struck by the the jigsaw piece of an eye, the urban fox and the head of a tiger.  Businesses offering a wall to paint often get a complementary theme; the independent bakery decorated with ‘The best thing since sliced bread’ and the butcher with an exhortation ( by Shaun the Sheep, another Bristol alumnus) to eat more beef!

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P1080756web P1080753web P1080751webP1080776webAs a final excursion we went off North Street to The Climbing Centre on Winterstoke Road. Two images adorn its side wall, but perhaps the most memorable is the girl in climbing gear( with her teddy bear), who dangles from the tower, cutting away with a box cutter the fixing wires for the commercial Vauxhall poster below.

P1080792webWe’ve got plenty of dilapidated buildings and ugly walls in Aberystwyth too, but apart from the long lived and now rather shabby mural on the end of of Y Lolfa’s building in Talybont, they have been put to precious little use.  In Bedminster the murals are only guaranteed a life of one or perhaps two years, for the next Upfest will re-paint these walls to make way for new works.

For a glimse of some of the previous images from Upfest 2013 visit http://www.seatbeltguitar.com/30-jaw-dropping-pieces-of-bristol-street-art

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Storm on the promenade

The much anticipated storm of 27th October passed Aberystwyth with scarcely a  ruffling.  It had been vaunted as the greatest since 1987 and Michael Fish’s famous pronouncement that some woman was entirely deluded in her belief that a hurricane was on its way.  In the event, the storm took a more southerly course and while trees were blown down and four lives lost elsewhere its impact on Aber was non-existent.

Not so last Saturday evening when the still leafy apple trees behind my house creaked and roared with the gale and the last bramleys thundered unceremoniously to the ground. I was relieved to find no trees uprooted the following morning.

The direction of the wind drove great seas across the bay at Aberystwyth, focussing their force especially at the northern end on the promenade.  An occasional but exhilarating sight is the explosive force of great waves sending a sheet of spray right over the terraces houses from the Marine Hotel to Alexandra Hall.  Some years ago I photographed such a scene on a sunny wintery morning.  This time the height of the storm and tide came after dark.

But daylight revealed considerable damage to the promenade opposite the Marine Hotel with the white iron railings uprooted, still attached to their huge anchoring stones  and twisted in the air.  Where the edge stones of the promenade were displaced the sea made short work decorative sets and small paving slabs with which the prom has been refurbished in recent years.  As the waves deposited a slew of gravel across the road they sucked back to the beach, taking the pointing, and whatever substrate secured these small paviors with them.

Sets and paving slabs lifted by the waves where the edge of the prom has been washed away

Cleanup commenced on Monday morning with the combined efforts of men with barrows and road sweepers large and small successively clearing a passage for cars.  The handsome dragon seats all remained firmly anchored in place, but several appear to stand now not on paving but on a shingle beach, pockmarked by the tread of passers-by.

Several inches of shingle covered the promenade and road

Road sweeper outside the Marine Hotel

 

The smaller sweeper whisks away the remaining pebbles

The Victorian blue and white timber and glass shelter is the most northerly building on the promenade, rashly placed, it would seem, on a projecting semicircular drum of masonry above the beach.  But it has passed through the tempest unscathed.  It seems that it is the lower parts of the prom which have failed to break the waves’ force and have proved the most vulnerable in this storm.

Passers-by survey the damage south of the timber shelter, which escaped unscathed

 

 

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Bring in the bulldozer!

By The Curious Scribbler

There is a smallholding for sale not far from Aberystwyth near Lledrod.  With customary overstatement the local agent, Jim Raw Rees begins their particulars “Rarely does such an opportunity come to the market..”     The price has been reduced to £150,000 for 12 acres, a bungalow and outbuildings.

But what buildings!  If there is something that Ceredigion has excelled at in the 20th century it is mean rural dwellings.  Set on a south facing slope is a small red brick bungalow of repellent appearance, not that old, just small and ugly, but with planning permission to become less so.  Paul White, who has devoted much of his life to photographing ruins in Wales, both grand mansions and modest farms and outbuildings has been along to take these evocative photos in black and white.   He suggests it looks like a railway cottage escaped from its natural habitat.

The derelict red brick bungalow at Lluest Newydd, near Lledrod
Copyright Paul White

Blocking the view, or more poetically  “in the eye of the sun” to quote Raw Rees, is a range of even stranger out-buildings – part masonry, part corrugated iron.   Why those three tall doorways and above each the domestic style upstairs window? Why does the roof sit directly upon these windows?  Is this one of those abortive self-build projects which ran into despair?

If the whole site were razed to the ground the south facing hillside would warm the cockles of a horse or goat owner, or make a happy field for a great assortment of poultry.  And today far more attractive modern vernacular buildings are being put up for more enlightened owners.

Paul’s pictures distil what is ugliest about Lluest Newydd.  It has a place in history, but let us hope is soon loses its present foothold on the hillside.  According to Zoopla it has received 500 hits in the last month.  Surely salvation, notwithstanding our almost incessant rain, is in sight?

Outbuilding at Lluest Newydd

Outbuilding at Lluest Newydd

 

Pictures copyright Paul White see http://www.welshruins.co.uk

 

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November Wedding

by The Curious Scribbler

My daughter was married last Saturday in the 18th century mirrored Music Room of nearby Nanteos mansion.  Welsh weather can be relied upon to be unreliable, but the showery day brought great clarity to the air and rich tones to the oaks and beeches of the Regency parkland beyond.   Her flowers were a blaze of burnt orange and burgundy.  Raids with the secauteurs to kind friends’ gardens  provided dark red hydrangeas, ice plant (Sedum spectabile),  Garrya elliptica, and the last few surviving  deep purple dahlias to complement commercial flowers in the floral arrangements.  The hedgerows yielded deep red hawthorn berries, sculptural ivy flowers and orange rose hips.

The bride and groom outside Nanteos

The bride and groom outside Nanteos

After dark the party moved on for dinner at the Conrah Hotel at Chancery.    For the table centrepieces we grew our own pumpkins, removed their tops and filled them with dahlias, chrysanthemums, ivy and autumn berries.  Warm white LED fairylights hung in swags around the walls, and when the music started they could be switched to twinkling mode around the dancers.

Pumpkin table centrepieces filled with flowers

Pumpkin table centrepieces filled with flowers

I wrote one of the readings for the ceremony, which was conducted with just the right mixture of solemnity and joy by the Registrar Melda Grantham.  While I hesitate to place myself with the other chosen authors, Mark Twain and Roger McGough, I reproduce it here.  I was immensely flattered that several guests felt it would come in handy at their own sons’ and daughters’ future nuptials.

On Marriage

A marriage starts with vows exchanged
And hatted, suited guests all ranged
To witness you, the gilded pair
Who shortly will descend the stair
With gleaming rings as tokens of
Your freshly burnished vows of love.

To reach this point you’ve both used skill
Negotiating good and ill
Establishing a shared existence
Through compromise and calm persistence.
A complex mixture – Life is varied –
Won’t be simpler now you’re married.

But we wish you all those things
Symbolised by giving rings.
Mutual comfort, never lonely
House or Hovel – warm and homely
Worthwhile jobs and cheerful babies
Dogs, and cats, and chickens maybe?
Holidays in sunny places
Kindly wrinkles on your faces
As the passing years progress
May you want for less and less.

Counsel often comes amiss
Proffered by parents at times like this.
But with the privilege of my station
I offer just one observation:

Happy is not a continuous state
It comes in small parcels and sometimes you wait
Through bad times and sad times or moments of strife.
Keep the happy bits coming
The whole of your life!

©The Curious Scribbler

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