A perfect day for Pendinas

By The Curious Scribbler

It is hard to remember last week’s grey shrieking storm.  Yesterday I walked up Pendinas in balmy sunshine, and a gentle breeze.  The sea looked as blue as the Mediterranean and the recently turbulent ocean is now calm and translucent – one can see the dark shadows of clouds upon the water, but also the shaded blotches of underwater outcrops of rock under the sea.  Looking over towards Alltwen, the black cattle were all grazing on the flat land.  Some mornings they are spread right up the hillside above the woods which enfold Tanybwlch mansion.  There is a grandeur in seeing the cattle spread out  like wild things in this huge landscape, not penned in a modest field of monocultural grass.  The flats are no longer the scene of the trotting races, but viewed from Pendinas one can still see the ghost of the grass track, subtly darker, perhaps better fertilized, than the rest of the meadow.

Alltwen and the Tanybwlch flats viewed from Pendinas

The climb is a prolonged one, even from the ‘easy’ access at the top of Cae Job in Penparcau.  Families toiled up the path to the iron age hillfort, topped with Victorian arrogance by the chimney-like monument to Wellington’s victory at Waterloo.

The path up from Cae Job

At least that is what it ostensible is.  Personally I think of it more as a monument to a local gentleman, William Eardley Richardes of Bryneithin Hall who built it in 1856 and invited subscriptions from the town.  It is no coincidence how grandly it adorns the landscape as viewed from the windows of his mansion to the south.  The victory at Waterloo was in 1815, and I would have thought that by 1856 national fervour for a monument would have somewhat abated.  Richardes himself had been in the army of occupation after Waterloo, and was moved to re-name the five fields around his house  General, Governor, Captain, Lieutenant, and Major!  They appear thus on the tithe survey of 1848.

The wellington memorial on Pendinas

There were quite a few people at the top, typically facing in all different directions!  The 360 degree panorama laid out before us has no weak point.  Take your pick for views of the harbour and the sea and the distant Lleyn Peninsula, Penglais Hill punctuated by the Hospital, the National Library and University of Aberystwyth, or Penparcau spread out around its green-roofed 20th century primary school.

I first sat on the seaward side, where the bracken and gorse given way to heather and coarse grass. A wren fidgeted around a dead tree stump below me, and the honey bees came in waves, sometimes there were none, then quite suddenly thirty or more were working their way through the flowers beside me,  then disappearing back to the hive.  This is a great spot for looking down on flying birds:  red kite, herring gulls, soaring the thermals, crows  sculling steadily across the fields.  Four speed boats came south into my view leaving white trails of wake.  When they gingerly slowed to creep into Aberystwyth harbour at low tide I could see underwater the bar which partly occludes the harbour mouth.

Aberystwyth Castle just visible from Pendinas

Speedboats approach Aberystwyth Harbour

It may be a Bank Holiday during a pandemic but there is space and beauty for all to enjoy.  Looking down, one could see around twenty cars parked at Tanybwlch beach now that the concrete barriers have been cleared away.  There has always been more than enough space for social distancing on that beach, and I am glad to see these unnecessary restrictions have been removed.

Penglais Hill, Aberystwyth, viewed from Pendinas

Penparcau, viewed from Pendinas

The view south from Pendinas

The Ystwyth enters the harbour at Penyranchor

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Tanybwlch – A Historic Video

by The Curious Scribbler

Day 67 of lockdown – the days have become a bit of a blur.  Like a soothing nature programme, the past two months have been generally beautiful, with startlingly clear skies, lovely wildflowers, continuous birdsong.  Too continuous even, I sometimes wish that the monotonous chiffchaffs would give it a rest.

My walks start from my front door, and lead me to Tanybwlch beach, Pendinas, Penparcau and Llanfarian along the footpaths and cycle paths.  I am so fortunate to have such an amazing landscape within easy reach.    Today I found a newly posted video on You Tube  named Aberystwyth in the SKY Tan Y Bwlch which gave me great delight.  Here  is a tranquil 4 minutes of a birds-eye view of my entire domain, shot during lockdown on one of the many still days when the sea barely sucks at the shore, the sun blazes down, and people, so few and far between, are visible here and there.  There are no cars in the Tanybwlch car park (a consequence of the concrete roadblock erected in late March), no contrails in the sky.  We may look back with nostalgia on this creepily empty scene when normal life is resumed.

I am pleased that the photographer has briefly included a child and a dog, (presumably his or her own) enjoying the shore.  Children have been out and about far too little during lockdown.   Joggers and cyclists have made the most of their freedoms, but to spy a child has been a rare sight on my walks.  Hopefully today’s announcement will empower more families to take their children out on our beaches.

At the very end of the film is the briefest glimpse of a huge new graffito on the concrete barrage where the Ystwyth turns northwards.  The brutalist blue capitals contrast with the human depicted on the left, a figure more typical of the ethos of the beach.

A screen grab from the video

It would be very visible from the sea: were anyone out there to view it.

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Life on Lockdown

by The Curious Scribbler

My dog and I have enjoyed some splendid walks in the last two weeks, happily all within my authorized orbit, accessible from my own front door.

The spring has been heartbreakingly beautiful and every day brings new delights.  A fortnight ago, the first chiff chaff appeared at Tanybwlch and within days the landscape became alive with them, belting out their monotonous song from tree tops and gorse bushes everywhere I walk.  The wheatears are back in the stones below Alltwen, and stonechats and dunnocks everywhere in the scrub on the flanks of Pendinas.  Woodpeckers drum in the alder trees by the cycle path and on several days there were no less than 35 choughs probing the sloping meadow on the foot on Pendidnas.  I’ve seen kestrel, buzzard and kite overhead and a heron stalking the incipient salt marsh behind Tanybwlch beach. Today I also noticed that two Canada geese have taken up residence in the small pond below Tanybwlch mansion, and look as if they are planning on goslings.  This pond has an island which will protect them from foxes.  It is a historic feature in the landscape, formerly a public watering point on Tanybwlch flats, immortalized in old maps and a watercolour from the early 19th century.

The watering hole below Tanybwlch mansion, now home to a pair of Canada Geese

The wildflowers are equally delightful, carpets of wood anemones in shady patches on the drive, celandines in the roadside banks opening their reflective golden petals in the sun, and a great  drift of primroses on the bank facing the sea near where Lord Ystwyth built his tea cottage at the foot of Alltwen.

Only very occasionally does a jet aeroplane cross the blue vault of the sky, where formerly four of five could be seen simultaneously on any clear day.  At night the consequences are obvious, the stars sharper and brighter, and venus gleaming like an unexpected streetlight over the hill. These are, as people often say to one another,  strange times, but they are not short of natural beauty.

Also strange are the consequences of ‘social distancing’, the regime to which we must all strictly adhere and which has been interpreted fiercely since the new law was hastily put in place.  First, I noticed that people became less inclined to the usual pleasantries, least they be thought to be socializing.  Dog walkers usually say good day to one another, but now other walkers often pass silently, and on a few occasions even turn around to avoid passing me.  Many familiar faces don’t seem to come along these paths at all, perhaps because they formerly drove to commence their walk.  Tanybwlch beach has always been a prime spot for dog walkers but it is now rare to see more than a couple of dogs on the whole length of the strand.

Their place has been taken by cyclists and runners, many clad in bright bespoke costumes signifying their virtuous activity.  Never before has there been such a succession of fit young men pounding along the strand and doing  stretches, squats and press ups near the primrose patch, before pounding back towards the town.  More worryingly though where are all the children?  One day I saw a mother with her three children and a dog walking beside the Ystwyth, and another day I spied a father and his two small daughters with bikes on the cycle path.  These though were rare sightings: far less than one might expect to see when all children are at home.

I do wonder whether we have gone too far with the virtue-signalling around reasons to be out of doors.  Today the police posted a picture of South Beach, Aberysytwyth on Facebook. Taken at 2.20pm it was completely deserted,  not a lone walker, not a dog, nobody at all.  The post congratulates the people of Aberystwyth  on not being there. This, apparently, is how our open spaces should look. Not social distancing but total absence is required.

Heddlu DPPolice photo posted on Facebook

I’m glad I don’t live in the town.  The promenade and the beaches are good places to walk and get some fresh air.  Doing so, once a day, is not in fact a crime, yet possibly those who most need a walk and a breath of air now feel intimidated to do so.



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Revisiting the hillfort at Castle Hill, Llanilar

by The Curious Scribbler

My first home in Wales, thirty years ago, was in Castle Hill, Llanilar, a trim Georgian mansion built in 1777 by John Williams. It is today still occupied by the Loxdale family: direct descendants of  the brother of Shrewsbury heiress Sarah Elisabeth Loxdale, who married John Nathaniel Williams, the son.

In the mid 1980s we occupied the top flat, which comprised the entire third-floor of the old Georgian house, in which a central staircase opened onto a large landing giving onto four  equally huge rooms.  An ambitious adaptation in the 1960s had added an external wing containing only a staircase, which gave separate access to our floor. Once upstairs we enjoyed a giant sitting room and an equal sized bedroom overlooking the garden, while the other two rooms had been divided to create dining and kitchen in one and a second bedroom plus access corridor in the other. I have always remembered the original latch fittings on the four doors onto the landing.  Each was designed to allow a guest to unlock their door to the servant on the landing, without the inconvenience of getting out of bed.  The furniture was antique and the whole ambiance would now be called shabby chic. The old oak floors undulated underfoot, and at night, mice could be heard scrunching behind the skirting boards.  The only serious disadvantage was for my tall husband, because the four original doorways were lower than 6 feet whereas the newly formed doors were standard sized.  It was a slow learning curve to duck between the hall and the sitting room while progressing normally from sitting room to dining room and kitchen.
We lived here when our first daughter was born and for almost 3 years afterwards. Often on fine days, with my baby in a carrier, I would stroll up the hill past the farm, climb a gate and head off up to the hill top from which Castle Hill takes its name. Truly it was the top of the world up there, views spreading panoramically in every direction so that even the distant mountains appeared on the level with my vantage point.  The ground was grazed by a young cattle and sheep, tussocky with with patches of gorse and bracken and the silence (except when shattered by low-flying jet) was immense.  I never met anyone else up there (there is no public right-of-way) yet it never felt lonely – a place with great resonance of the past.

Recently I revisited Castle Hill with the Ceredigion Historical Society under the expert leadership of Toby Driver from the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments. As we stood once again on this hilltop earthwork, Toby took us through the history of the fertile Ystwyth valley.  The Welsh landscape is so easily dismissed as empty.  Instead it is better imagined teeming with life and human activity ever since Neolithic times.  Pollen sampling has revealed that the wildwood is long gone, active deforestation was well underway by the late Iron Age and  by the early Roman period  the woodland cover was probably similar to that we see today.

Other recent archaeological advances include the discovery a few years ago of the substantial Roman villa between Abermagwr and Trawscoed, which is a few miles up the Ystwyth Valley. The Romans had a camp at Trawscoed, but they  did not merely march through Wales subjugating the Celts. They settled and farmed here bringing costly artefacts such as glass and pottery from other parts of their Empire.
Toby explained the many phases of occupation of the Pen y Castell hillfort. Earliest is a curving earthwork revealed by aerial laser scanning, which probably represents a Bronze Age hillfort.  This was superseded around 400 BC by a substantial ( 1.7 hectare) Iron Age hill fort with a gateway approach on the south eastern side.  Its ramparts surmounted by a timber palisade it would have been an intimidating structure to approach from below.  Protecting a village of round huts and grain stores, this would have been just one among the many fortified hilltops marking the Iron Age communities of the region. A larger community has left its distinctive footprint on Pendinas, where the Ystwyth reaches the sea.
We gathered within the ramparts on the southern side of the Pen y Castell summit.


Seated on the ramparts of the hillfort, looking northwest to Llanilar

Puzzlingly, the other half of the overall summit is inaccessible due to a deep cut trench or cutting running east-west.  Scholars have puzzled over this feature throughout the 20th century. Some believe that a medieval motte and bailey was superimposed on the site around 1242.  If so it was a Welsh one, unlike the Norman castle first built at Tanycastell, Rhydyfelin which gave its name to Abersywtwyth.  The northern part may then have been the location of the keep, approached by a bridge across the chasm. Others suggest the trench was a created by post medieval quarrying to supply local building needs.

Much more archaeology is needed to tease out the history. The most recent finding here has been traces of a trapeziodal enclosure on the slope below the fort which is interpreted as another Romano-British farmstead, perhaps a tenant of the Roman villa at Aberamagwr.

The hillfort commands a view eastward up the valley to Trawscoed

The hillfort commands a view eastward up the valley to Trawscoed

Gathered in the sunshine with bluebells at our feet we all enjoyed that very special sense of place, and the realisation that this is not ‘Wild Wales’, but instead extremely tame Wales, a scene of homes and villages supported by pastoral and arable activity for more than 5000 years.  The parade of wind turbines on the skyline is perhaps deplorable, but can also be seen as just another symptom of fifty centuries of human exploitation of the landscape.

Wind turbines on the skyline of Mynydd Bach, six miles to the south

Wind turbines on the skyline of Mynydd Bach, six miles to the south

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