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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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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More on Mariamne’s ‘Bookplate’

by The Curious Scribbler

Following last week’s blog I have had a most informative communication from Tom Lloyd, renowned bibliophile and Wales Herald of Arms.  His comments raise questions: for whom and for what purpose was this embellished crest engraved?

The ‘bookplate’ in Mariamne’s book

Tom writes:

One must not get too excited about small bits of paper……. but this is
potentially very interesting. I have seen another copy of this highly
decorative engraved coat of arms before, not stuck into a book and cut very
close around the engraved arms, so that it did not look like a bookplate.
And indeed the fact it does not have an engraved name under it begs the
question of what is it.

It has always struck Welsh bibliophiles as odd that Thomas Johnes never had
a bookplate for himself, even though his father, who was by no means so
famously studious, did. But this charming engraving in Mariamne’s book does
not look like a typical bookplate, certainly even less like a man’s one with
such a profusion of floral decoration, and of course with no owner’s name
engraved beneath.

So my first conclusion is that this is an engraving made after a drawing
sketched by Mariamne herself, very probably as a gift for her father. As
emphasised in “Peacocks in Paradise”, she was a brilliant botanist, and her
beautifully even copper-plate signature reveals a highly trained hand. It is
definitely not a bookplate made for Mariamne herself, since women did not
bear crests above their arms and as an unmarried daughter, her coat of arms
would have been shown within a lozenge (a diamond shape) not on a shield.

Bookplates were also engraved on small rectangles of copper only a little
larger than the engraved image, so that one can often see impressed in the
paper the edge of the copper plate, which I cannot see in your photo. So I
think that this engraving was engraved onto a larger copper sheet with this
copy of the resulting print cut down to fit inside this book.

Being a remarkable and wonderful escapee from the great fire of 1807, we
cannot know what other helpful evidence has been lost, but this is the first
time I have ever seen this engraving stuck in a book, acting as a bookplate.
It is a most beautiful design and meticulously engraved (no doubt in London)
but its original intended purpose must remain unknown. It was not used in
anything published at the Hafod Press.

I have spent years looking for a book from Hafod (as opposed to printed there), but the nearest was to see one that had belonged to Thomas’s brother – expensive and of no interest.”

So what a coup for the Ceredigion County Archive and indeed the donor of this little book of forgettable plays!  The arms are  those of Thomas Johnes, but now we know that, being set in  a shield  rather than a lozenge, it is a masculine symbol, notwithstanding the abundant swags of flowers.  The crest is also a masculine symbol, depicting crossed battleaxes in saltire proper, (a diagonal cross), but what is that cheeky chough doing standing on them?

The Johnes coat of arms, with embellishments, perhaps by a feminine hand?

Perhaps another book with this this device glued into it may one day come to light.

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Mariamne Johnes’ bookplate

by The Curious Scribbler

Helen Palmer at the Ceredigion County Archive has drawn to my attention a new acquisition, a little white calf-bound volume which once belonged to Hafod’s famous daughter Mariamne Johnes.  Pasted inside the front cover is a handsome bookplate and, apparently in her own hand, her signature Mariamne Johnes 1801.  She turned seventeen that year.

Mariamne’s bookplate

The shield at the centre of the bookplate shows the Johnes arms, which are described as “argent a chevron sable between three revens proper, within a bordure gules bezantee”.  The floriferous drapes around it are perhaps embellishments for a ladies collection.

Title page Theatre de M. de Florian. 1786

The small calf-bound volume

The seventeen year old Mariamne in addition to her botanical accomplishments which fuelled her friendship and correspondence with Sir James Edward Smith, was being trained in the appropriate skills of a young gentlewoman: watercolour painting, languages and music.  The only known portrait of her is an ink and wash sketch, dated 1804, by George Cumberland.  It depicts her standing and presumably singing for her Italian music teacher Signor Viganoni. It is nice to imagine her reading and perhaps rehearsing her french pronunciation with this little book.

This little volume, Theatre de M.de Florian contains three short plays, and I spent the afternoon perusing the first, which was entitled  Jeannot et Colin, Comedie en Troi Actes en Prose. First performance 14 November 1780.    It evokes a time when gentlefolk might themselves put on a little performance in the drawing room.  The cast consists five principals, and a couple of servants, the bailiff and the valet.  As comedies go it was neither racy nor particularly funny, but it explores the sedate themes of class, wealth and marriage.

Up from the country, the Auvergne, come bourgeois Colin and his sister Colette, wishing to renew acquaintance with their former friend Jeannot, who had been Colette’s sweetheart until he and his mother departed that region.  Now living in Paris, Jeannot is  a free-spending Marquis, and his mother the Marquise has plans to marry him to the Comptesse de Orville.  Colin and Colette’s arrival at their door promotes some unease, and subterfuge, mediated by the Jeeves-like valet, to prevent a meeting.

Of course they do meet, and Jeannot’s love is immediately rekindled for the modest and lovely Colette.  By Act II he explains his predicament “ I am the unhappiest of men, I depend upon my mother, my fortune is her achievement, I owe her everything, I owe her the sacrifice of my happiness”.  He must marry at his mother’s direction.

Fortunately in Act III it turns out that thanks to a lawsuit Jeannot and his mum are about to lose all their money, and their friends no longer wish to know them.  Nor does the Comptesse de Orville, who hasn’t found Jeannot very agreeable at dinner. So true love triumphs and it turns out that Colin can reunite the Marquise with her country property in the Auvergne, and Colin, to boot, is a successful manufacturer who can pay a fine dowry for his sister.

It is a curiousity of Mariamne’s life that despite her father’s conspicuous wealth and status, there is no surviving evidence of any suitors. We do know from Thomas Johnes’ letters that Mariamne suffered bouts of severe ill health from the age of ten: fevers, rashes, tumours and a curvature of the spine for which she was for a while fitted with a back brace.  But for much of the last ten years of her life  ( she died at 27)  she seems to have been in reasonable physical health, walked long distances, and visited Bath Bristol and London with her parents.  Possibly small romantic volumes such as this one served as the Mills and Boon of the day.

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Pine martens at Hafod

by The Curious Scribbler

Iolo Williams addresses the Vincent Wildlife Trust’s guests in the Hafod car park

About eighty people gathered yesterday in the car park beside Hafod Church to witness the unveiling,  by Wales’ premier TV naturalist Iolo Williams, of a curious sculpture. Its designation plaque, as a memorial to Rob Strachan  ‘an inspirational naturalist and conservationist’ might make one wonder whether it would not be more appropriately placed inside the churchyard wall.  However it has perhaps a wider purpose, for it was installed by the Vincent Wildlife Trust whose project is the reintroduction of pine martens into NRW ( National Resources Wales, fomerly the Forestry Commission) woodlands in Wales.  A pine marten and two kits are represented on the sculpture by Grace Young Monaghan.  It is carved from an oak trunk sourced from the estate, though puzzlingly the trunk has been adzed to resemble no British tree. Call me a pedant, but I find this jarring.  Four oak leaves are represented, like a label on the trunk, but why is its bark represented with horizontal rather than vertical fissures?  Has it been attacked by a giant beaver?

Pine marten sculpture in Hafod car park

Project Officer Dave Bavin , his dog, and Iolo Williams pose beside the sculpture

The effigy may serve though to alert visitors to the estate to the slim possibility of glimpsing one of these elegant mustelids in the woods.  In the last two Septembers 39 Scottish pine martens have been trapped, driven by air-conditioned van from Scotland, and penned and then released at Hafod.  Although most of the first batch of introductions in 2015 dispersed or died, one female from this group has produced kits at Hafod, conceived and born this year, and several of last September’s shipment, who will have arrived pregnant, have successfully produced young  this spring.  Most have spurned the man-made box dens provided for them near the release sites, and have instead sought out dens of their own choosing.

Martens are solitary and occupy large territories, so I wondered how the researchers on the project keep tabs upon the animals. I learned that the privacy of these pioneer pine martens is considerably compromised.  First of all, each immigrant is DNA profiled by a lab in Ireland before release.  Fitted out wearing radio collars their presence can be monitored by a volunteer sitting in their car on the forest drives or strolling the woods with a receiver like a TV aerial.  Thus the approximate location can be determined without need of a visual sighting.  Some of the first batch of Hafod-released animals were disinclined to remain and were  found far, far away.  One female eventually settled near Abergele!  Recently, the Vincent Wildlife Trust has also had success with GPS transmitters which can provide researchers with accurate location from much further away.

The martens are also monitored by motion sensitive cameras in the woods.  Now it might seem one would have to wait a long time to see a marten stroll by, but the odds are considerably enhanced by putting out bait.  Martens proved particularly partial to jam sandwiches and peanut butter, and will return regularly to a bait site in front of the camera in order to check whether it has been replenished.  One mother’s successful breeding was revealed when she led her kits into camera range to join the feast.  The same inducements work well to lure the martens into traps so that their health can be monitored, or, before the battery runs out, their collars can be removed or replaced.

DNA technology given further insights.  A fresh scat ( droppings) can reveal the DNA profile of the perpetrator.  Since all the introduced martens have been profiled, a poo sample can even reveal the parentage of a new kit.  For long, the analysis of droppings has been a valuable tool in discovering the dietary preferences of mammals.  To this, modern mammologists can now add the identity and geneaology of the marten who dealt it!

Just the sort of tree hole to appeal to a pine marten

I was impressed by the youth and enthusiasm of the Vincent Wildlife Trust researchers and volunteers who gathered for this celebration.  But even for them, equipped with 21st century tracking technology, the best sightings of these elusive animals are probably those from the daylight and night-vision remote cameras. Some of the highlights of camera trap photography can be found among Vincent Wildlife Trust uploads on vimeo.  Scat is a little easier to find, because martens typically deposit it in prominent positions, on paths or on an eminence like a tree stump.

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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

For directions and details on Facebook click here .

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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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