Country house jumble sale at Brynmerheryn

by The Curious Scribbler

Some remarkable people turn up in Ceredigion from the wider world.  Two such were Nicholas Luard and his wife Elisabeth, who came to Brynmerheryn, an oddly handsome house set in some 100 acres high above Tregaron Bog.   The house already had an eccentric history as the home of Monica Rawlins, friend and former student of the artist Augustus John, who bought it in the 1940s.

Brynmerheryn, Ystrad Meurig

Brynmerheryn, Ystrad Meurig

Nicholas Luard was a notable figure in the irreverent 1960s,  a new Cambridge graduate,  founder of Private Eye, and co-owner with Peter Cook of The Establishment Club in Soho, which launched the careers of so many distinguished members of Beyond the Fringe.  His subsequent career as writer, aspirant politician, philanderer, entrepreneur and alcoholic was more glamorous  than remunerative, and throughout all its permutations was shored up by the indefatigable industry of his wife Elisabeth, cookery writer, novelist, botanical illustrator,  and mother of his four children.  Her 2008 book, My Life as a Wife, gives a spirited account of these vicissitudes, never tarnished by a trace of the fashionable self pity of so many modern memoires.

It was Nicholas’ charm and charisma which eventually brought them to Wales in 1992, when he was left Brynmerheryn in Monica Rawlins’ will.  Understandably eyebrows were raised locally at this bequest, for Monica was not, as is often said, his godmother, but the godmother of another Elizabeth, a girlfriend of his undergraduate days, who had taken him to visit her.  With a talent for people, Nicholas kept in touch with Monica during the following 40 years, and no doubt she felt that the house deserved them. Monica herself was a distinctive character, whose diaries, much preoccupied with eugenics in her goose farming activities and with visits from her nephew,  were recently adapted by Bethan Roberts for the Radio 4 drama Writing the Century: The View from the Windows. Monica’s voice though, seems to have had a more plaintive tone.  Elisabeth Luard rises gutsily to every challenge.

The latest is to leave Brynmerheryn and its accumulated memories.  Nicholas died in 2004, and she is now leaving for a much smaller home in London, nearer to her children, and to the media opportunities her foodie expertise still commands.

Elisabeth Luard amongst her possessions

Elisabeth Luard amongst some of  her possessions

Winter sitting room

Winter sitting room

On Saturday 22 April there will be a sort of jumble sale at Brynmerheryn,  to disperse the accumulations of Luard and Rawlins aquisitions over the past century and more. Elisabeth writes “It ranges from elegant clothing from the 1890’s through crockery from Syston Park near Bath where Monica grew up, woodcut blocks, linen, Welsh blankets, patchwork and items from the house including artists’ materials and children’s books from the 1900’s right through to my own wardrobe from the 1960’s and  pots, pans, crockery and glassware that I can’t take with me to my new abode.” 

There may even be a few bits of Hafod mansion, (for in Monica’s day almost everyone of note in the area  got a souvenir or two as the old mansion was stripped).  I do recollect a rather battered ornate gilded pelmet board above one window, and two massive carved oak consoles ( tall corbels) incongruous with the rest of the decor,  but these of course are fixtures and fittings and will doubtless go to the new owners, who I hope will relish the layers of character of their new home.

Carved and gilded pelmet board, possibly originally made for Hafod

Carved and gilded pelmet board, possibly originally made for Hafod

Massive carved consoles support a modern archway in the hall

Massive carved consoles support a modern archway in the hall

I shall be sorry not to be there, but am already committed to the Ceredigion Local History Forum, whose spring meeting on  Mansions & their Estates in Ceredigion occurs on the same day.

I'm sure there will be some nice flowerpots and things

I’m sure there will be some nice flowerpots and things

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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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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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Dracunculus a gothick arum

In April I was in Western Crete in the company of a group of botanical enthusiasts. One of the most truly memorable plants, ( not rare, but spectacular) was Dracunculus vulgaris var. creticus The Dragon Arum. I photographed it repeatedly in the scrubby roadside on the Akrotiri peninsula.  As with meeting a group of giraffes on safari, each individual you see seems more unique and and exquisite than the last.

The spectacular spathe of the Dragon Arum

The spectacular spathe of the Dragon Arum

We were all of us equally enthused, exploring among the scrub on the stoney slopes, brandishing i-phones, tablets and cameras, getting in close to verify the alleged powerful and disgusting odour of the flower.

Ruth Griffiths verifies the odour

Ruth Griffiths verifies the odour

John Corfield seeks the Dragon Arum

John Corfield seeks the Dragon Arum

 

Andrew Agnew spotted the first Dracunculus

Andrew Agnew spotted our first Dracunculus

The stem is thick, fleshy, pale, and sinisterly mottled in purple blotches, and rises up to a metre from the poor earth.  The luxuriant leaves are deeply cut into leaflets and mottled in white, while the chocolate-purple coloured spadix extends from the silky purple enfolding spathe.    Certainly a plant which evokes a sense of drama  –  a Little Shop of Horrors sort of plant.

A month later I was viewing a selection of botanical volumes in the Roderic Bowen Library at Lampeter.  And here, blazing out from the page of a magnificent folio sized volume published in 1799 was my newest favourite flower!  The book was The Temple of Flora by Robert John Thornton  a ‘coffee table’ book for the gentlemen returned from the Grand Tour of Europe.  The bloom, exquisitely rendered in glowing colour, is framed against the eruption of Vesuvius for added drama.

Illustration in Thornton's Temple of Flora ( 1799) by kind permission of: Roderic Bowen Library and Archives  University of Wales Trinity Saint David by kind permission of: Roderic Bowen Library and Archives  University of Wales Trinity Saint David by kind permission of: Roderic Bowen Library and Archives  University of Wales Trinity Saint David by kind permission of: Roderic Bowen Library and Archives  University of Wales Trinity Saint David

Illustration in Thornton’s Temple of Flora ( 1799)
by kind permission of:
Roderic Bowen Library and Archives
University of Wales Trinity Saint David 

And the text tends even further towards the gothick than our own impressions.  After some well-selected phrases  ” a horrid spear of darkest jet”  … “a noisome vapour infecting the ambient air”… the author turns to the poetic works of Frances Arabella Rowden to do full justice to the malign possibilities of Dracunculus:

 

by kind permission of: Roderic Bowen Library and Archives  University of Wales Trinity Saint David

by kind permission of:
Roderic Bowen Library and Archives, University of Wales Trinity Saint David

 

Arums are generally poisinous, but the theatrical appeal of this plant has perhaps led to some over-exaggeration.  Dioscorides instead was obviously taken by the sexual connotations of the plant’s appearance for he recorded that “being drunk with wine, it stirs up the vehement desires to  coniunction”.  Not quite so fatal then,  and we don’t really know whether the desires were fanned by the arum or the wine!

I understand that Thornton’s book, in which the 28 colour plates, employing the finest artists and reprographic techniques, bankrupted him as the wealthy clients whom he expected to buy his book suffered financial setbacks through the Napoleonic wars.  It is very tempting to imagine a copy of this book spread open in Thomas Johnes’  octagon library at Hafod, and to picture him and Jane Johnes ogling the illustrations  and sending for a Dracunculus, and perhaps an insectivorous Sarracenia and a night-flowering Cereus (both also illustrated) to grow in their Nash conservatory.  Johnes very possibly did have a copy of The Temple of Flora, but it would have gone up in flames in the disastrous fire of 1807, and there is no record of just what his library contained.  It is thanks to the London Welshman, Thomas Phillips, East Indian Company Surgeon, that The Founder’s Library at Lampeter received a copy of this, and many other rare books in the mid 19th century.

The book, and many others may be seen, by appointment at the Roderic Bowen Library http://www.uwtsd.ac.uk/rbla/

There is an online exhibition listing the botanical volumes in the collection.http://www.uwtsd.ac.uk/rbla/online-exhibitions/from-herbals-to-floras

Poring over the  exhibition by kind permission of: Roderic Bowen Library and Archives  University of Wales Trinity Saint David

Poring over the exhibition by kind permission of:
Roderic Bowen Library and Archives, University of Wales Trinity Saint David

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Deeds and Dessert plates of Hafod

by The Curious Scribbler

Last week Jennie Macve addressed the Aberystwyth Bibliographical Group on the subject of Hafod.  Her lecture, entitled Deeds and Dinner Plates – Some Primary Sources, introduced the audience to a variety of lesser-known resources which throw light on Hafod’s past.   Deeds dating right back to Thomas Johnes’s ownership came to light a few years ago, most unexpectedly, in a solicitors’ office in Leeds, and are now in the care of the Ceredigion County Archive.  Other sources include sketches, pictures, and photographs, which trickle in from all sorts of serendipitous sources, – Ebay produced one of a pair of glass plate stereo photographs which shows the Italianate wing added by Sir Henry De Hoghton, from the perspective of the present back drive leading to the estate office in the stables.   Another collector has a Victorian souvenir Prattware plate, on which a well-known steel engraving of Hafod circa 1850 is reproduced.

A steel engraving by Newman and Co shows Hafod after 1850 with the Italianate wing to the left

The same image reproduced on an earthenware Prattware plate depicting Hafod c 1875

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A much earlier and more sophisticated source is the Hafod Service, a dessert service commissioned from the Derby Pottery in 1788.  Thomas Johnes had it made as a gift for the then Lord Chancellor Lord Thurlow.  We can only speculate as to what favour or preferment Thomas Johnes was hoping for in return.  It consisted of 45 pieces, two dozen plates and assorted bowls and dishes, each decorated with a view of Hafod.  The pictures were painted in colour by the artists at the factory working from the sketches and paintings by artist Thomas Jones of Pencerrig and other contemporary images. The originals are for the most past lost, consumed, perhaps, in the great fire at Hafod in 1807, so these valuable collectors’ plates are a vital historic resource.

As the immaculately decorated plates turn up, in museums or other collections they throw light on previously unknown views from the late 18th century.  Seventeen items from the service are in the National Museum at Cardiff, and another ten are known in other museums or collections.  The most recent to come to light, in a provincial auction house last year, seems to show a scene on the river upstream from Pontrhydygroes. Two particularly useful dishes show the lodges at either end of the approaches to the house, both of which were subsequently demolished by the Duke of Newcastle to make way for 19th century structures.   These original lodges were built to signal the diversion of the public road, (which formerly ran past Hafod) to its present route (the B4574) along a sinuous lane past Cae Meirch.  Archways over the old road down the valley clearly signalled that this was now private property.

A Derby dessert dish, dated 1788 depicts the lodge and arch at the eastern approach to the estate

It is interesting to reflect that in the last decades of the eighteenth century landowners in Ceredigion were all busily diverting roads in order to improve their properties.  We see the same pattern at Nanteos and at Llanerchaeron where the owners, all influential men, each purchased the old road past their mansion from the Trustees of the Turnpike Trusts on which they served, and thus ensured that the common drovers no longer passed their doors. Designed lodge houses served to emphasise the entrances to what was now private land. Estate improvement also often involved relocating the odd tenant farm to improve the flow of the landscape of the demesne.  Some of the old maps reveal that Johnes too, though in many ways an enlightened landlord, removed farms and cottages which he considered inharmonious in the view.

The gentle watercolours and sketches of two hundred years ago are charmingly familiar, so similar to the views which can be seen today.  But as Jennie pointed out, too many of us forget that the historic footpaths through the picturesque landscape have been hard won, through the last twenty years of restoration.  Before the present concerted efforts by The Hafod Trust in partnership with the Forestry Commission these paths were impassable, blocked and in places broken by fallen trees, eroded by hillside torrents where culverts had become blocked, or entirely obliterated by landslip. When a path is clear of obstruction we take it for granted,   and imagine it was always thus.  Hafod is in fact a fine example of unobtrusive restoration.

Walkers can pass without hindrance along the Gentleman’s walk today

Estate Manager Dave Newnham checks a recently completed stretch of path

 

A recently restored landslip on the spur path to the Cascade cavern

Hafod is open to the public at all times. For more information see www.hafod.org/

Aberystwyth Bibiographical Group see http://users.aber.ac.uk/das/texts/aberbibgr1.htm

 

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A portrait of Elizabeth Inglis Jones

by The Curious Scribbler

The guest of honour at the recent opening of Mrs Johnes’  garden at Hafod was new supporter, Giles Inglis Jones, a great nephew of the author Elizabeth Inglis Jones,  whose  account of Hafod did so much to resurrect the memory of Thomas Johnes when Hafod was at its nadir of destruction.

Giles Inglis Jones, assisted by his daughter, reads an extract from Richard Payne Knight's poem The Landscape a didactic poem (1794)  in praise of the Picturesque to the guests of the Hafod Trust.

Giles Inglis Jones, assisted by his daughter, reads an extract from Richard Payne Knight’s poem The Landscape a didactic poem (1794) in praise of the Picturesque to the guests of the Hafod Trust.

 

Inglis Jones’ book, Peacocks in Paradise, published by Faber in 1950, was a fictionalised biography of the Johnes family  which drew heavily upon the large collection of personal letters between Johnes and his friend Sir James Edward Smith which she discovered at the Linnean Society.  These letters have been among the most valued resources for subsequent historians and some are reproduced in Richard Moore Colyer’s A Land of Pure Delight ( Gomer 1992).

Miss Inglis Jones was approaching fifty when she turned her hand to this, the first of her biographies, and later went on to write well researched accounts of the lives of other notables,  Maria Edgeworth (1959) and Augustus Smith of Tresco Abbey in the Scilly Isles (1969).  However her debut novel in 1929 was far steamier fiction, which roused in equal parts the admiration and the indignation of the readers of Cardiganshire.  I have just finished reading Starved Fields with very considerable enjoyment  and even a little surprise that such insight and earthy sentiments should flow from the pen of an innocent young woman of good family.

Starved Fields  deals with the families of two Cardiganshire Squires, the baronet Sir Uryan Williams, squire of the crumbling eighteenth century mansion Bryn, and farming landowner Owen Morgan of Lluest his relative and neighbour.  Just as one cannot read Wuthering Heights without realising that the author had a close understanding of alcoholism, depression and mental illness, it is hard to believe that Inglis Jones’ pageant of male and female drunkenness, incompatible marriage, illegitimacy and adultery was not informed by close observation of her neighbours or even family.

Giles Inglis Jones has loaned to the Hafod Trust an oil painting of his great aunt as a young woman, painted by the New Zealand portrait artist Cecil Jameson.  She is a pretty girl with a short 1920’s bob of hair, wearing a simple shift and a necklace of amber beads.  She was brought up at the south Cardiganshire mansion of Derry Ormond though I have heard it said that she and her brother considered their childhood deeply unhappy and shed few tears at the eventual demolition of their family home.

The portrait of Elizabeth Inglis Jones by Cecil Jameson

The portrait of Elizabeth Inglis Jones by Cecil Jameson

The men she depicts in her first novel tend to be spineless, inconsistent characters, at best charming but wet, and at worst drunken and entirely selfish.   Perhaps that is why she never married.  The strands of her story all paint entirely believable characters, but only one for whom the author shows real compassion.  This is her heroine, Gaynor, daughter of the baronet, who ends up balancing the role of adulterous mistress and farm manager to her feckless first love, Owen Morgan, with that of dutiful daughter to her enfeebled and alcoholic parents.

Also loaned from Giles Inglis Jones’ deceased great aunt’s possessions came a number of deeds and notebooks some of which I have been perusing. One contains a transcription of 21 letter received in 1929 as a result of the publication of Starved Fields. While all the writers congratulated her on her work, readers struggled with such depravity set in the Cardiganshire of the 1890s.  The Principal of St David’s, Lampeter, Canon Maurice Jones  wrote     “Where you have gone wrong,  if I may venture to say so,  is in setting your period a century late.  I cannot believe that the life you describe is true of Cardiganshire only 30 years ago, whereas the book gives a fairly clear and honest description of life in many parts of Wales in the 18th Century  …. I’m afraid you will not be popular with the “county” after your remorseless revelations of what life can have been like in Cardiganshire at any period in its history”.     Mrs Perrin ( author of 21 novels ) declared “What you must cultivate if you want a wide public is more restraint  –  your construction and technique are good but remember too much realism isn’t art”.

Miss Mary Lewis of Trefilan tempered her congratulations with a rebuke “Now there are aspects of Starved Fields I don’t like my dear Elizabeth, but I’m not going to enlarge on what is a matter of taste except to say that Society in Cardiganshire during the Nineties wasn’t really at all what your book implies – You weren’t born then, but I was (unfortunately) grown up and going about in those days so I know .  The Spectator’s reviewer took the view that the novel could only have been written by a man.

On the basis of these letters, it seems that actually the gentry were less offended than the middle classes.  A letter from her cousin, Wilmot Vaughan of Trawscoed  states “I do think you have got the Welsh country people to a T, let alone strange, weird drunken squires who one has known in the flesh.”

Lady Lloyd of Bronwydd  was simply thrilled.  “ What an amazing child you are!  I must congratulate you on your wonderful book, not a nice character in it!!  But your perspectives are quite an astonishment and it is terribly true and interesting and I own to simply screaming over it until Marteine  got quite angry, but he couldn’t put it down!! “  More prosaically she added “ I expect your mother is very proud of you, I should be. Will you dare go back to Derry [Ormond]?”

I don’t know whether Elizabeth did return home, but certainly by 1937 she was a permanent resident in London.  I believe that the remoteness of their homes and the relative poverty of even the premier families in Cardiganshire made it very difficult for many gentry girls from West Wales to secure suitable husbands.  Elisabeth certainly made her escape into London and literature, and by her middle years had started mining the historic record rather than her own life for what are now her better known books.

Her pretty portrait will soon be presiding over new nuptials in the Hafod Estate Office  which is now a venue for civil marriage ceremonies.  Inoffensive young woman that she appears, her clear gaze should make brides closely inspect their motives, and keep new husbands on the straight and narrow!

The critical gaze of the young Elizabeth Inglis Jones

The critical gaze of the young Elizabeth Inglis Jones

 

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The Coade stone Heads at Hafod

by The Curious Scribbler

In its heyday the arched doorways through the drystone wall of Mrs Johnes’s garden at Hafod  were each embellished on the garden side with rusticated dressings with a keystone  depicting a stone head: a mischievious male face – a Satyr, and a gentle female visage, – a Nymph.  These must have looked down upon Mrs Johnes, her  guests and  her gardeners as they passed out of the garden, towards the Peirian Cascade  or along the Lady’s Walk beside the river Ystwyth.

The Western garden arch as viewed from outside is of local stone

As the garden reached its nadir of dereliction after the demolition of the mansion, and the driving of a forestry road through the garden walls, someone ‘rescued’ these keystones, and for many years they resided in the private collection of Margaret Evans, parts of whose hoard of costume, artefacts and memorabilia used to be displayed in the Railway station building in Aberystwyth.  Many fragments of masonry from Hafod migrated during these years, some to nearby garden features and rockeries, others to the hands of descendents of former owners and tenants of the Estate.

Original Coade Stone Heads

The original Coade stones heads, now in the Ceredigion Museum

 

But Hafod, even at its most neglected, retained its fascination for those who knew it.  One of the earliest projects generated by local enthusiasts, the Friends of Hafod,  led to the repair and repointing of the damaged arches.  Margaret Evans remained fierce custodian of the keystones so the restoration involved the insertion of a pair of modern moulded concrete heads in place of the missing originals.  The heads were male and female faces, and the garden, still lost in the forestry plantation, became known locally as the  Adam and Eve garden.

Another Hafod enthusiast persuaded Margaret Evans to allow casts to be made of the original heads in her collection, and a replica pair were made. The interest of the originals is considerable for they are made of a ceramic artificial stone, “ Coade Stone” invented and marketed by Miss Eleanor Coade and dated 1793. Much of the ornamentation of London’s Georgian buildings and many well known statues are of Coade stone, a marvellously durable material little weathered by the passing years.  Mrs Coade called her invention ‘Lithodypyra’ literally meaning twice-fired stone.  It was a very skilled process to get the firing temperatures prolonged and correct in the kilns of the day.  A fine example of Coade stone ornamentation is at Belmont House,  Mrs Coade’s country home at Lyme Regis where nymph keystones  adorn the ground floor windows.

Belmont House, Eleanor Coade’s country house in Lyme Regis is elaborately ornamented with her patent Coade Stone

The Coade stone heads had suffered a good deal from their time in the neglected garden and the nymph in particular had lost a substantial portion of her chin.  The casting process gave the opportunity to do some facial reconstruction and the handsome facsimile casts, fashioned in a modern resin, are crisper and more perfect than the originals.  They were held in the collections of the Friends of Hafod.

The decades rolled on and both Mrs Evans’ collection and the Friends of Hafod collection found their way eventually to the custody of the Ceredigion Museum.  Almost an embarrassment of riches, for the Museum thus held  both the original and the facsimile heads.  It has been a happy co-incidence that the serious restoration of Mrs Johnes’s garden has allowed the installation of the high quality facsimiles in the place of the original keystones.  The many visitors who passed through the gates last weekend entered beneath the gaze of the very characters which once looked down on Mrs Johnes.

The facsimile heads now installed in Mrs Johnes’s Garden

 

Refreshed with the facsimile Nymph, the Western exit from Mrs Johnes’ garden

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Hafod – A garden in the wilderness

by The Curious Scribbler

Few scenes could be more unexpected than the appearance of a marquee in a manicured garden in the middle of a forestry estate in upland Ceredigion.  Even more improbable, perhaps, is that on 2 June the sun should blaze in a cloudless sky, while the midges were banished by a gently cooling breeze.  Converging from the local community and from far flung corners of Wales were some 150 guests assembled for a traditional Welsh tea and to celebrate the restoration and re-planting of Mrs Johnes’ Georgian flower garden.

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Guests arriving for the opening of the restored Mrs Johnes’s Flower garden

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A Victorian-style afternoon tea was enjoyed by 150 guests

The location was Hafod Uchtryd, the pioneering Picturesque landscape created by Thomas Johnes in the late 18th Century in the then barren landscape of the Upper Ystwyth valley 15 miles inland from Aberystwyth.  His story has been told many times: how he settled here with his second wife Jane Johnes and steadily poured his massive wealth from other properties into creating his personal Xanadu, a Gothic house by the architects Thomas Baldwin and John Nash, a model farm, huge plantations of oak, beech and larch, miles of carefully graded walking paths leading the visitor through the landscape of gnarled trees, pools, cascades and rock cut tunnels and viewpoints.  All the aesthetic cognoscenti came to visit Hafod and like other great houses the gardener could, for a consideration be persuaded to allow a visit to the gardens and the long conservatory before pointing his charges off onto one of the two circuit walks: the Lady’s Walk which took in the Church, and the more strenuous Gentleman’s Walk on the contours of the southern flank of the valley.

Johnes and his wife had one child, Mariamne, something of a child prodigy with a great flair for botany and a crippling infirmity which caused her to be at times encased in a gigantic metal spinal brace.   Notwithstanding this, she had her own private garden, an alpine garden perched on a crag east of the house, while her mother had a flower garden near the carriage drive out of sight of the house.  As early as 1788 Jane Johnes was writing to her brother “this place is in higher beauty than ever I saw it, my flower garden full of flowers”.  Among the many records by 19th century tourists I offer a quotation from B.H. Malkin (The Scenery, Antiquities and Bibliography of South Wales published 1804) “A gaudy flower garden, with its wreathing and fragrant plats bordered by shaven turf, with a smooth gravel walk carried around, is dropped, like an ornamental gem among wild and towering rocks, in the very heart of boundless woods. The spot contains about two acres, swelling gently to meet the sunbeams, and teeming with every variety of shrub and flower”.

 

Hafod has had a chequered history since those glory days, and by the mid 20th century the landscape was being planted with serried ranks of conifers, its gardens long forgotten and the great mansion stripped of its fixtures and reduced to rubble with dynamite.  Many British country houses met a similar fate in those years.  The circular wall of Mrs Johnes garden was breached by a forestry road, and its interior became a plantation of Sitka Spruce. When I first saw the garden it was through one of the two arched doorways to the garden, wreathed in brambles and dwarfed by the gloom of the densely planted 40 year old trees.   It seems inconceivable that in the last six years the road has been moved outside the original perimeter, the trees felled, and their stumps plucked from the soil by a giant yellow machine shaking the soil off the roots like a human hand weeding groundsel!

 

Uprooting the tree stumps in Mrs Johnes’s Garden in March 2009

The wall was rebuilt, the cleared ground graded, and the path reinstated close to its original route. In 2012 we saw the first planting, of carefully selected shrubs and herbaceous plants which would have been available to Jane Johnes in 1788.  Several contemporary commentators called it an American Garden, and a number of gentry gardeners, some of them Jane’s friends and correspondents were creating American gardens at this time.  The new planting, designed by landscape architect Ros Laidlaw, reproduces the American flavour of the time, with shrubs, chiefly from the eastern seaboard of North America which were known to have been introduced to British gardens in the 18th century.

Leucothoe fontanasiana ( Fetter Bush) was introduced in 1765 from the USA

Calycanthus floridus ( Carolina Allspice)  was introduced in 1726 from the USA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a proud day for the Hafod Trust, which over the past twenty years has co-ordinated a partnership with the Forestry Commission to reinstate the ten miles of paths, the bridges, the viewpoints and the gardens.  Grant aid for Mrs Johnes’ Garden has come from the Cefn Croes Wind Farm Community Trust, The Finnis Scott Foundation, Tidy Towns Wales and many individual donors.  In future you could hold an afternoon tea party or a champagne reception in this tranquil enclosure.  You could even get married in the picturesque little church, Eglwys Newydd, just up the streamside footpath, or in the Hafod Stables meeting room, which is now licensed for civil ceremonies.

The mansion is unlikely ever to rise from its ruins, but the modern visitor with a taste for solitude, silence and starlight can spend a short or long break in the heart of the estate in the comfortably furnished Hawthorn Cottage ( Pwll Pendre) which overlooks a pool on the meadow between the mansion site and Mariamne’s garden.

Hawthorn Cottage ( Pwll Pendre) at Hafod is a furnished holiday cottage

For more about the Hafod Estate  visit www.hafod.org

 

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