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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Snowdrop Marble

by The Curious Scribbler

A few years ago I was lucky to view the interior of one of the finest houses on the Tenby seafront, no 1 Lexden Terrace, a Grade II* listed building which was, at the time, the home of Mrs Marion Hutton.

Six house make up Lexden Terrace, overlooking the sands at Tenby. No 1 is at the right.

The five storey house was a treasure trove of antiques and objets collected in her lifetime, but my particular attention was drawn to a fire surround, made of polished black stone ornamented with white fossils.  This and much else of the interior dates back to the 1840s when sea captain John Rees of Tenby, enriched by his trading activities in the Chinese Opium Wars, built not one but five handsome houses set on an outcrop above Castle Sands.  Number 1 was his home, while numbers 2-5 were then, as they are today, upmarket holiday lets.

1 Lexden Terrace, Tenby: Snowdrop Marble fire surround.  The brachiopod shells sliced in section look a little like snowdrop blooms.

The stone probably came from the Pwll Quarry, just inland from Pendine.  Leslie Baker Jones ( Trans Carms. Antiquarian Soc. 1971)  has written about the monumental mason, Tom Morris of Pendine, who lived  1804 -1886, and whose career with Messrs Rogers, Marble Masons of Tenby involved the manufacture of funeral slabs, mantelpieces, tables and other domestic adornments. Morris felt Pwll Quarry yielded the best Snowdrop Marble, as it was called, though there were other nearby sources exploited in the 19th century, at Carew Newton to the the west and at Llanddarog and Llangynderyn, to the north east of Kidwelly.

A detail of the over mantel. Where the internal structure of the brachiopod is cut through showing the forked spondylium, the resemblance to a snowdrop bloom is strongest.

This distinctive stone occurs only locally and is of Carboniferous age, and was variously marketed as Black and White marble, Snowdrop marble, and as Welsh Black ( the last perhaps describing layers less rich in the distinctive fossils).  In St Mary’s Church, Tenby we found examples on grave slabs going back as far as 1788.

In the great outdoors it has fared less well, for the acidity in the rain has destroyed the polish, such that the fossils are only clearly visible when wet. At Manordeifi Church, Llechryd it is easy to overlook a massive inscribed slab, cramped in a vertical setting within a sheltering arch of masonry.  Shelter has done it little good, but close inspection shows the speckled appearance to be due to the mass of “snowdrops” or rather brachiopods in the stone.

 

Grave memorial in Snowdrop marble at Manordeifi Church

Another grave, at St Florence, Pembrokeshire was once highly ornamental, but its richly fossiliferous appearance and colour contrast are lost without the polish.

A detail of a gravestone at St Florence, Pembs, in snowdrop marble

And at St Mary’s Church, Kidwelly we found another example, in a memorial set into the church wall, showing the characteristic scattering of shells.

St Mary’s Church, Kidwelly a grave slab in snowdrop marble set in the church wall

These slabs, when new and highly polished must have stood out in the graveyards much as  the impermeable Indian black granite memorials do today among the less showy slate and stone.  Only indoors can snowdrop marble survive the ravages of time.  As a material for a modern worktop Snowdrop Marble would be beautiful, but it would be vulnerable to etching by lemon juice or vinegar in the kitchen.  Nonetheless it is a pity that  this distinctive Welsh stone is no longer produced for ornamental purposes.

 

Coming next:  Halkyn Marble, another distinctive Welsh marble from the north!

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