The Sunny side of Castle Hill

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

A mid 19th century photograph of Castle Hill

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

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

Castle Hill, the south face of the mansion

Intricate tracery of the Castle Hill pergola

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

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

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

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

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

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

A design for late Georgian flower garden at Dolwilym in Carmarthenshire

 

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

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

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

 

 

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Two special journeys on the Vale of Rheidol Railway

by The Curious Scribbler

I was privileged to travel free on the Vale of Rheidol Railway not once but twice in the month of June.

The first was on a Wedding Special on 2nd June.  Aberystwyth born Claire Lewis married Nick Lee in a charming secular ceremony at Nantyronnen station.  The groom and guests got on the train at Aberystwyth.  We all alighted at Nantyronnen to sit on hay bales, serenaded by a string quartet.  The bride arrived for the ceremony by vintage car and the couple and their guests  re-boarded the train for Devil’s Bridge,  sipping prosecco.  They then made their way to Mrs Johnes’ Garden at Hafod for the reception in a large marquee.

The string quartet awaits the bridal party

The train about to depart after the ceremony

Wedding marquee at Hafod

The railway is spick and span these days, a far cry from its racketty image back in the days of British Rail.  The shining brass work, the uniformed staff, and colourful station gardens make it an outstanding venue.  One or two of the London guests made a rapid bid to change carriages after the odd smut of soot wafted into the open carriage behind the engine, but this all added to the authenticity of the experience.

I had had a small part in the station garden display.  The preceding weekend I helped in the volunteer effort to replant the five great troughs on Nantyronnen Station  with colourful summer bedding, ready for the big day, and every other journey of the summer.

My second free ride came on 11 of June, as guest of the railway itself.  This special journey marked a number of recent milestones: the launch of the first of four carriages which allow disabled access, the restoration of a former weighbridge building at Devil’s Bridge, and the opening, within it, of an information display about the Pine Martin Reintroduction Project led by the Vincent Wildlife Trust. CEO Rob Gambrill, the man behind the railway’s phenomenal success, welcomed us all,  and at every station stop he roamed the platform chatting with guests and railway staff.  A man with a magnificent train set!

Rob Gambrill and railway staff at Aberffrwd station

As I have recorded on this blog, I was (many years ago when British Rail owned the railway) a passenger on the train which derailed spectacularly between Aberffrwd and Nantyronnen in 1986.  It was an early outing of the ill-fated Vista Coach which seated visitors stadium-style facing the view.  Pulled at the rear of the train on the return journey it tipped over on its face, bringing the train to a juddering halt.  It was a pleasing co-incidence to learn from the driver that the immaculately fitted open carriage on which I was travelling was none other than the Vista Coach, now re-designed with traditional seating.  There were no such crises on this journey.

Another reversion was that of our engine, Llewelyn, which until recently burnt oil, but now burns great chunks of anthracite.  The stoker, in true period style, was in contrast to the dapper guard, quite  black with coal dust. Standing at the station we could watch him shovelling coal into the furnace of the engine.  Those motes of soot  tormenting the wedding guests had real Thomas the Tank Engine authenticity.

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Marble lost at sea near Barmouth

by The Curious Scribbler

Few of the throngs of elderly dog owners in the cafes of Barmouth take time out to examine the Millennium sculpture on the quay,  and those who do may merely observe that it is a work by local sculptor Frank Cocksey, entitled The Last Haul.  It shows three human figures, in different period costumes, together pulling together on a thick rope.  They lie backwards like the contestants in a  tug of war,  and while they are obviously freshly carved in white marble, the un-carved plinth below looks grey and pitted and could be mistaken for some kind of concrete.

Barmouth  Millennium sculpture – The Last Haul by Frank Cocksey

In fact the entire block is of white Carrara marble from Italy, the material so beloved of Michelangelo and figurative sculptors ever since.  For around 300 years it lay on the seabed some 30 feet down and a few miles off the beautiful shore between Barmouth and Harlech.  It was one of 42 blocks found on the sea bed, neatly shaped and ranging in size from 13 inch cubes to great blocks like this one, 9ft x 3ft x 2.5ft in dimensions.  All were extensively bored by marine creatures.

The wreck was first discovered in 1978 and excavated by the Cae Nest group of archaeological scuba divers.  Nothing of the wooden ship remained, but the cargo lies as it was loaded amidships, and other finds include 25 cast iron cannons, a bronze bell dated 1677 and coins from 10 countries among which french coins predominate.  They also found navigational dividers, pewter plate and fine cutlery, a dental plate, a seal, remains of pistols and a rapier.  Opinion is divided as to the nationality of the vessel.  The Barmouth plaque states it was a 700 ton Genoese galleon, the Coflein entry suggests, on the basis of the coins, and the French pewter, that it may have been a French trader.  What is of little doubt is that it was a well-armed vessel, carrying a valuable cargo, and that it went down after 1702 ( the youngest coin) and probably around 1709.

Who in North Wales had sent for such a cargo?  The graveyard at Llanaber Church might provide a clue, for it is surprisingly rich in white marble memorials dating as far back as the mid 18th century, though I haven’t noticed any as old as the presumed wreck.  Could these pieces have been destined for an enterprising monumental mason?

The graveyard at Llanaber Church is rich in 18th and 19th century gravestones of white marble

There is a popular alternative theory: that this was a ship blown off course, missing the English Channel and forced up past Cornwall into the Irish sea where it eventually foundered.  The first decade of the 18th century saw Sir Christopher Wren rebuilding St Paul’s cathedral, a project requiring a great deal of Carrara marble.

Marble is a limestone, easily excavated by the sea creatures which secrete acid to dissolve their homes as the blocks lay under the sea.   The large round-ended holes were made by molluscs, the smaller interlaced hollows are the homes of sponges, while polychaete worms  bored several centimetres into the rock.  As Frank Cocksey carved away the eroded blocks he has exposed fresh white marble. In places the worms have penetrated even deeper than his carving, as is shown on the leg of the youngest seaman.

Bivalve, sponge and worm borings in the end of the large block of Carrara marble bear witness to its 300 years under the sea.

Marine worm borings puncture the 21st century sculpture ” The Last Haul” by Frank Cocksey

It has been suggested there was at least one survivor from the wreck, Juan Benedictus whose death is recorded in the Llanendwyn Parish Register in 1730, and tradition has it  that timbers and artifacts from the wreck found their way to Corsygeddol Hall.  Seafaring in the 18th century was a risky business and many ships must have foundered on this coast.  We will never know exactly what happened.

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Exploring Llanrhystud

This year the Ceredigion Historical Society visited Llanrhystud, on that glorious Saturday when so many were indoors watching Megan and Harry’s nuptials or the FA Cup final.

It is a quiet spot, in which the much-enlarged Victorian church  sits immediately beside the Baptist chapel.  We visited both.  The former is an early work by church architect R.K. Penson and is notable for its stone spire.  Spires are almost unknown in this county but where they do occur they are more usually built of timber and slate.  (There was formerly a tall narrow timber spire on Llandygwydd church, which warped so badly it was taken down in 1913 after just 56 years, the whole church being demolished in 2000). From my childhood I remember recognizing Chesterfield from the train by its warped and twisted spire, malformed as its timbers aged and shrank.  No chance of warping with Llanrhystud’s  chunky construction.

When the rebuild was completed in 1854 the old memorials were swept away.  Most touching of the new ones is the fine white marble wall memorial to Mary Anne wife of John Hughes of Allt-lwyd and daughter of Alban TJ Gwynne of Monachty, who died in childbirth aged just 22 in 1833.  Her child, a daughter lived only eight days beyond her, a reminder of the harsh obstetric hazards of the times.

The group then set off down the coast to visit the lime kilns.  It is hard to imagine the hive of industry at this spot 150 years ago.  The beach at low tide shows the remnants of timber jetties, trackways and stone constructions where the boats came in to unload their cargoes of limestone and coal.  Four massive stone kilns stand just above the beach now largely hidden in a thicket of sloe and may.  We learnt that the different limestones have different uses:  that from the Pembrokeshire  makes good agricultural lime, while that from the Glamorgan coast ( often specified by local architects as Aberthaw Lime) makes a strong cement. Most of the kilns have three corbelled apertures or draw holes, allowing the draught to be adjusted in the light of wind conditions.

The Llanrhystud lime kilns, now overgrown with sloe and may

One of the Llanrhystud lime kilns with draw holes on three sides

remnants of a dry stone harbour on the beach below the Llanrhystud lime kilns

Our final visit was to Felin Ganol watermill not far from the ford across the Wyre.  In the early 20th Century this was still a hive of industry, the waterpower  driving millstones to grind locally-produced corn, and also generating electricity and driving carpenters’ machinery in the loft.  By the 1970s it was sold to new owners who preserved the historic interior and planted a fine Ginkgo in the formerly utilitarian back garden.  It fell to enthusiasts Andrew and Anne Parry, who arrived 12 years ago to actually get it working once more.

The restored leat now fills the millpond above the house, and at the tug of a lever we watched the wheel creak, grumble and slowly come to life.  Then a gentle steady chugging sound fills the buildings as we watched the great cogged wheels transfer the energy to the two spindles which drive two pairs of millstones, and to the sieve which separates the grindings into white flour, semolina ( a coarser grind) and bran.

Felin Ganol, the waterwheel starts to turn.

Felin Ganol, the mill pond supplies the head of water to run the mill for several hours

The products of milling have paid for the restoration, and Anne, whose background at IBERS explains her thorough knowledge of grain, has sourced heritage strains of wheat oats and rye varieties to mill.   I came away with a kilo bag of semolina flour, a fine grain which feels like very soft sand between the fingers.  At £2.50 its not cheap, but it brought a nutty flavour to my homemade quiche and made me realize how anodyne plain white steel-milled flour is as an ingredient.

Felin Ganol, the loft beside the mill pond houses carpentry benches and a rat proof grain store

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Penglais Campus – the new Vision?

by the Curious Scribbler,

The second great loss to campus biodiversity last autumn was the grubbing out of a long shrub border which ran from Student Welcome Centre to the Llandinam building.  Three trees: two Phillyreas and a Griselinia were spared,but the rest of the hydrangeas, olearias, escallonias and fuchsias were scraped away leaving the sea of mud.  The scene was recorded in November see http://www.letterfromaberystwyth.co.uk/penglais-campus-the-destruction-continues/

The justification allegedly was Health and Safety –  the installation of railings at the top of the drop at the back of the border, a drop which at the Llandinam end was a mere 18 inches, but at the the other end about twelve feet.

New turf replaces the mixed borders on Aberystwyth Campus

 

Last week I revisited to see the completed works.  The border has now been replaced by a stunningly green sward of new turf.   This green desert monoculture looks a bit unexpected doesn’t it?  Gardeners know that this bright green turf will soon lose its lustre in the shade of evergreen trees.   Ecologists know that while a species-diverse grassy meadow is an asset, new uniform turf is little more desirable than astroturf. The tragedy is that this expensive form of re-instatement  is only the briefest of fixes, a decision which would only have been taken (and was) by Estates Department staff totally unqualified and unversed in horticulture.  The fear is that, chagrined at the consequences, those same decision-makers will then cut down the remaining trees to save the new grass!

A student petition was sent to the Estates Department in November.  In part the letter read

“large patches of green space and hedges have been cleared and replaced with either woodchip or grass…. this poses large uncertainties with regard to the future of biodiversity on campus and our cherished EcoCampus Gold Award.  .. As students we are very proud of our campus and want to work with the University to make it an even greener space…”

I don’t believe this was the kind of greening that they had in mind.

As for their health and safety, the new railings are just two horizontal rails, of the sort that many a drunk student has vaulted over for fun.  Where the drop was protected by a hedge of shrubs it was far less accessible.  The foreground view through to the IBERS building is now just a mish-mash of different generations of fence, and a paved path  to nowhere.

Looking through to the IBERS green roof, we now see a forest of railings and a path going nowhere

At the same time a new self-congratulatory PR poster aimed at students has appeared in University buildings.

The students may have asked ‘more plants’ but they are not getting them – unless we count the individual seedlings of grass!  They aren’t getting ‘more greenery’ either.

Did the students  specifically ask for hanging baskets?  ( the ones who signed the petition I saw certainly did not). And did they ask for them to be spread randomly around the grounds?  Playing spot-the-hanging-bracket might become a new student activity.  A lone bracket has been affixed to the elegant timber facade of the IBERS building.  Another sticks out adjoining the steps to the Arts Centre and Students Union.  Yet another is screwed high on the wall at the entrance to Geography and Earth Sciences.

An odd location for a lone hanging basket

While a hanging basket gives a quick fix to a suburban patio a large landscape need a far more considered approach and on a practical level, watering these floral displays is going to be quite a challenge.  We have seen other phases of expensive and impractical gimmickry come and go.  The IBERS green wall, for example, has been quite rightly cleared away, for it soon looked like an abandoned garden-centre sales area on end!

The new IBERS building on the campus sported, until 2017 a most deplorable ‘green wall’

One of the current public enthusiasms,  quite rightly, is Bee Friendly Landscapes, I believe that Aber students have already formed a bee-friendly group.  Woodchip, monocultures of turf and the occasional hanging basket are not bee-friendly.  That extensive  bank of flowering cotoneasters below the Hugh Owen Building most certainly was!

There is no landscape expertise guiding the recent changes on campus.  Buildings Maintenance, Health and Safety, Disability Access, Controlled Parking and other pressures all chip away at the carefully designed plantings which earned Aberystwyth University its Cadw Grade II* listing.  Soon there may be very little left to justify that accolade.

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First Swallow

By The Curious Scribbler

Two hours ago the Met office tweeted ( appropriately since bird life was their topic!) “Cold conditions have so far delayed the return of most swallows from Africa. With the prospect of a southerly flow this weekend, many people will see their first swallow of Spring.”

https://twitter.com/metoffice/status/984385642925707265?s=03

Ceredigion swallows however are back already.  My first arrived on Monday and sat on the electricity wire chirruping occasionally and waiting for its mate. By Wednesday  morning there was a pair, chittering away excitedly, and they are now checking the flight paths to their traditional home above the back door.  When I looked out this morning there was a squirrel dangling precariously upsidedown from a hawthorn twig, gobbling down  may buds.  The swallows took a dim view, and bombed it until it retreated into the crown of the tree.

The Met Office tweet stimulated responses – swallows have also been seen earlier in the week  by tweeters in Dorset, Devon, Doncaster, and Moray, East Scotland. My neighbour over the hill has also got his swallows, though usually, he says, they arrive on 22 April, his birthday.

So perhaps the swallows know best and are less intimidated by our chilly spring than we are.  Just a month ago the uplands were frozen,  road access from the east impassable for several days.

The lake at Nant-yr-arian, 3 March 2018

The A44 ten miles from Aberystwyth

But now the magnolias are in bloom, blackthorn buds bursting and the swallows are returned.  Things are looking up.

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Diggers and despair on the Penglais Campus

by the Curious Scribbler.

The diggers are out again.  You will find them at the corner of Penglais Hill and Waun Fawr where tall pines and dense undergrowth filled the corner space which screens Cwrt Mawr from the road.  They are having a lovely time.

Ground clearance by JCB

Trees, some fallen and others not, have been removed

It seems that the objective is to create a clear view through the boles of the pines to the Student Village opposite.  And of course to enhance the non stop drone of vehicles climbing the hill.

The road skirting Cwrt Mawr on the campus

A vast area of churned mud has been created, with heavy machinery compacting and scraping away at the waterlogged soil covering the shallow roots of the big pines.  The pines are important as  home to a rookery, and the undergrowth which was formerly a haven for various wildlife is all scraped up into piles beneath the trees.

Topsoil scraped up amongst the trees

A sea of mud

The view from the layby on Penglais Hill

Thus a woodland understorey has been destroyed, and we must assume will be followed by a sprinkling of the only herbage favoured by the present administration – a monoculture of grass.

Now there are those who like things ‘tidy’.  And in their brick bungalow with a tarred parking space and a  sheet of mown grass there are many exemplars of this style of gardening in Ceredigion.  That is a personal choice. But Aberystwyth University is not a three-bed bungalow, and its denizens include leading ecologists, foresters, plant scientists, ornithologists, mammologists, entomologists, social geographers.  Many of them care deeply about the campus.  Back in earlier times the appearance of the campus reflected the commitment of its many and highly respected academics.  Believe it or not Penglais Campus featured in 1980 in Arthur Hellyer’s book Gardens of Genius  as an exemplar of coastal gardening, alongside Tresco and Inverewe!  Many influential names are still remembered,  Professors Lily Newton, Professor P.F. Wareing, Curator Basil Fox (formerly of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh), head gardeners John Corfield and Joy Harris.

Today’s academics are no less enthusiastic about the campus and it was encouraging to learn in November that several representatives from IBERS and from the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust had been co-opted onto a new advisory committee which would oversee a new Conservation Management Plan for the campus.

Unfortunately I understand that commenting on current work such as this does not fall within the remit of this committee, the work is viewed by the University as “maintenance”.  There have been a series of such scorched-earth maintenance activities in the last few months.  Today I also revisited the vast cleared bank below the Hugh Owen Building.  Here roots and and stones project from an unmow-able re-seeded slope, and nearer the path is the scruffy tangle of the last years’ wildflower planting, in which plantain and ox eye daisy now predominate.

The re-seeded bank, and ‘wildflower planting’  below the Hugh Owen library

Nearer the entrance the new laid turf is yellowing as a result the incautious administration of weedkiller to the bark mulch adjoining it.

Below the Hugh Owen building.. new turf killed by weedkiller directed at the adjoining bark mulch

It is important to recollect what we have lost, and to hastily rediscover the expertise to create a low maintenance beautiful garden on a slope.  As the Estates Department is already discovering, the new look is far from pristine, and will get a lot worse before, if ever, it gets better.

The Hugh Owen building in its majestic setting in 2003

The new look created in October 2017 is proving hard to maintain, even under grass and bark.

 

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Plaiting Polytrichum or stacking logs

by The Curious Scribbler

The quest for the perfect Christmas tree took me south this year, to a secluded valley between Talgarreg and Pontsian to  select my tree on the root.  Here we roamed the field and eventually chose a beautifully columnar dense-foliaged fir, which has fulfilled its promise, barely dropping a needle during nineteen days indoors without water.  This is the promise of a fir rather than a Norway spruce, but when the trees have been cut some weeks earlier even an expensive fir can be disappointing.

The trees were growing on a north-facing valley side, surrounded by a particularly thick carpet of Polytrichum commune, the Common Hair Moss.  This is the deep cushiony moss which is not sphagnum.  It is a stiffer drier moss which does not hold copious amounts of water and would be of no use for wound dressing ( think First World War!) or hanging baskets.  Its long stems are thin and wiry, as much as 14 inches long, brown at the base, and green with narrow leaves at the upper end.  Its medieval uses included stuffing mattresses or making twine and woven baskets.

Strands of Polytricum commune

I set about the latter task with the handful I had brought home and found that it plaited into a long and serviceable string.  So pleased was I with the result that this year the mistletoe has been tied up with my hairy polytrichum twine  rather than the usual ribbon or string.

Polytrichum twine hangs up my mistletoe

There is the potential for a home industry here.  Cleverer hands than mine could make all sorts of woven novelties with this free raw material. And there are many people with artistic and craft skills in this county.

Another outstanding ornamental use of natural resources may be seen by anyone who pauses and looks right on the Llanilar to Trawgoed road. Gary Taylor has given full reign to his creativity in building his woodpiles.  Personally I have always felt pretty satisfied when my woodpile is just neatly stacked with all the cut ends facing outwards, but here is a man whose woodpile is inlaid with the Tree of Life!  His other woodpile sports a Welsh dragon.  Each outline is traced in stained split logs, set in the face of the traditional stack.

The Tree of Life at Llidiardau. Log pile 2017, Lolly Stalbow and Gary Taylor

Welsh Dragon

Will he have the heart to demolish these huge artworks to heat the hearth?  I suspect this may be a wrench.  But knowing Gary and his immaculate large garden, he probably has another everyday log pile round the back!

And for those who don’t know their mosses: two pictures are below:

Sphagnum Moss

Polytrichum commune

A bit like those pairs of photos they publish in Private Eye?

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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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