| I cannot claim authorship of the piece reproduced here, though I did contribute to its composition under the pen of Peter Wootton Beard. It recently appeared as a tribute from the Vice Chancellor, Elizabeth Treasure, in the inboxes of all university staff. John Corfield was ubiquitous in Aberystwyth, some knew him best for his work at the exceptionally fine gardens of the Penglais campus, others for the panache with which he received bucket loads of wallpaper paste down the trousers in the Wardens’ pantomimes. I reproduce the tribute here in full, but have augmented it with a number of photographs charting his life.
It is with a heavy heart that I share the news with you that our former Head Gardener John Corfield passed away peacefully on 15th August 2020. He will be hugely missed.
John was born shortly after his parents moved from Montgomeryshire to Tan-y-Castell farm, Llanfarian in 1933, where his father became the tenant farmer of the Tan-y-Bwlch estate. After a terrible flood in 1964, the family were forced to leave the farm and moved to Marian House, Llanfarian.
John subsequently joined the University staff under the newly appointed Curator of the Botany Gardens and College Grounds, Basil Fox, and under the direction of Prof. Philip Wareing, then Head of Botany shortly thereafter. The team were responsible for taxonomic order beds adjoining Plas Penglais, the provision of plants for the undergraduate practical classes and research programmes, as well as the management of small-scale field experiments for the Botany and Agricultural Botany departments of University College Wales. Their role expanded to include the planting of the new Penglais Campus.
The campus rapidly expanded over the next twenty years and between them, John and Basil were responsible for introducing a wide range of plants that are perfectly suited to the exposed coastal conditions.
John became Head Gardener in 1983, amply filling the rather large shoes vacated by his predecessor, Basil Fox. The gardens were highly praised by Arthur Hellyer in the 1970s and were awarded a Grade II listing in the Cadw Register of Landscapes, Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in Wales in 2002. The listing describes them as ‘One of the most important modern landscaping schemes in Wales’.
John worked with the renowned landscape designer Brenda Colvin overseeing the planting between Pantycelyn and the main campus and was instrumental in bringing her vision to fruition. It is perhaps a little known fact that we work in such a special landscape, but I’m sure we all appreciate the beautiful surroundings that greet us when we come in to work, and we have John to thank for much of that. The current grounds team, under the management of Jeff Saycell, are working hard to restore elements of the original landscape and to protect John’s legacy.
John became a formidable botanist; whose breadth of knowledge and interests were honed on his many botanical excursions with friends and colleagues to locations such as Greece, Crete, and the Pyrenees. On such occasions he demonstrated his considerable skill with languages, regularly surprising people with his ability to get about comfortably in Greek, Turkish, German and others.
His expertise was often called upon for the student trips organised by the Botany department to the Picos de Europa mountain range in Cantabria, Northern Spain. His colleagues at the time describe John as a ‘magnet’ for students during these 8-10 day trips under canvas, due to his vast botanical knowledge, patience and warmth of personality.
Maintaining academic standards in this environment required considerable ingenuity, and John was a great source of strength – making camp furniture, mentoring projects and monitoring student submissions. He was able to form a connection with anyone and everyone he met and inspired a generation of botany students. He wrote to his friend and former colleague Andrew Agnew just eight days before his passing to reminisce about how much he enjoyed the trips to the Picos de Europa, a memory that Andrew was pleased to share. He was also often called upon to share his passion through talks and practical advice to the local community.
He was a founder member of the Cardiganshire Horticultural Society, formed in 1968, and following Basil Fox’s death in 1983, became the second President of the society, a post he filled until its 50th anniversary in 2018. Today the society has over 150 members, a tribute to the energy and warmth that John brought to every meeting.
So many members of the society have plants given by John in their gardens, and he was well known for his generosity that would lead him to lovingly raise seedlings at his home, with the express purpose of bringing joy to those who would subsequently receive them as an impromptu gift.
He had just told me that he was growing a Koelreuteria paniculata (Golden Rain Tree) for me at the time of his passing, and I can think of no better way to remember him. Prof. Mike Hayward remarked that a cyclamen grown for him by John came into flower on the day of his passing, a lasting gift that so many of his friends will be able to enjoy for years to come.
John was also a keen thespian and a founder member of the relaunched ‘Wardens Amateur Dramatic Society’. He was involved with nearly every show since the early 1980s as, variously, stage management, performer & front of house. He was also involved in many productions by Showtime Singers.
A private funeral took place at John’s green burial on 27th August, where only a small number could be present due to Covid-19 restrictions. We hope to celebrate John’s life in fitting style in due course within the Horticultural Society, and I will circulate details of any subsequent event for staff/former colleagues who may wish to attend nearer the time.
We also hope that a memorial tree for John will soon be planted on the campus, details of which will be shared in due course.
Thanks to John’s friends, family and former colleagues for their help in preparing this tribute: Tom Corfield, Matthew Piper, Dr Andrew Agnew, Pat Causton, Margaret Howells, Prof. Mike Hayward, Dr Caroline Palmer, Dr Edwina Ellis, and Penny David.
My thanks to Dr Peter Wootton-Beard for his working in preparing this wonderful piece in memory of John Corfield.
Professor Elizabeth Treasure
I googled the Penglais Campus today and found a link to its Investing in the Future campaign of refurbishment. The first line reads “Penglais Campus has benefitted from extensive refurbishment over the last year. Keep checking this section for more developments in the near future.” But when I clicked on it this is all I found.Embarrassing is indeed a good word for what has been done to the campus in the last two years!
People are still reeling from the conversion of the main entrance from this:
to a gulag with weed trees in the foreground, and vistas of bark and turf.
Other major losses to the important Cadw II* listed plantings have been described in this blog over the last 18 months. Its historic character is being steadily and unnecessarily whittled away. Another loss has just occurred in association with the car park which occupies a space between Computer Sciences and Physical Sciences and is being radically reconstructed.
The Sweet Chestnut which stood out so handsomely against the red wall of the Physics Building has been cut down. It adjoined the car park, but was not in it. The stump stands, outside the contractors’ area today. Once again the decisions about “Improvement” are being carried out without attention to the landscape significance of the site.
Plantings were created by thoughtful horticulturalists to complement this architecturally striking building. On the other side there is a fine border and a birch, ( safe but for how much longer?). This view was formerly framed by a lawn on which happy students were often photographed for University brochures. Was it really necessary to sacrifice so much of it for the giant lettering on the huge turning area which serves the users of two disabled parking spaces?
I took a visitor around the campus on Saturday, and across the road from this she spied the entrance to Biological Sciences. Could those really be PLASTIC PLANTS?
” I’ve seen enough” she exclaimed, “take me away from here!”
Perhaps the people in Biology are doing irony. The creation of the campus plantings in the 1960s and 1970s was closely influenced by the expertise of successive professors of Botany working with well-qualified designers and gardeners. Today, the academic staff have no influence upon their environment, and the University has no Conservation Management Plan, presumably because conservation of a 20th century landscape is not their priority. Indeed it was recently announced that the care of the garden landscape of the campus has been devolved from the Estates Department to the general manager of the Sports Centre.
Contrast this with the University of Bristol which is custodian of eight historic gardens including a 2009 Centenary Garden, all expertly cared for. Aberystwyth could shine for its exceptional 20th century landscape. It is an opportunity lost.
by the Curious Scribbler
Graduation is past, the students are gone for the summer, so the Aberystwyth University Estates Department is once again ramping up their programme of landscape destruction. Last summer saw the disappearance of several important shrub plantings including the long stretch below the Hugh Owen Library. We have had plenty of time to savour the results of that. Brambles and weeds now flourish in the optimistically spread bark mulch on the slope, the so-called-wildflower planting has been strimmed down to its brown dead stems, and in the present hot summer, the grass and new turf has, understandably, taken on the appearance of the savannah. There is a particular irony in the observation that while we ordinary folk stopped mowing our lawns six weeks ago because they weren’t growing, the University’s contractors’ machines have passed repeatedly over the ground during those weeks, kicking up clouds of dust and barely a blade of grass. That is what happens when you put your lawn mowing out to contract in Shrewsbury. Specialists contractors cannot be redeployed to do something useful, as in-house staff could have been. They were employed to mow lawns.
The mature plantings of deep rooted shrubs hold up better in the drought. The welcome shade is enlivened by the diversity of tone and texture. You could look across a parched lawn to the dense glossy green of holly, cotoneaster, and escallonia, the sculptural leaves of viburnum or choisya, the dusty grey-green mounds of Olearia about to burst into flower, the dark feathers of low growing juniper.
Or you could. A new outbreak of needless destruction is taking place around the presently unoccupied halls of Cwrt Mawr and Rosser. As I approached the Cwrt Mawr Hub I was astounded to find the tightly pruned bushy heads of an entire hedge of hollies lying scattered on the ground. The trees, each with trunks about six inches in diameter, have been sawn off above ground. It had been a blameless hedge, less than chest high and well tended, and it screened a long plastic bike shelter.
Strolling further among the buildings of Cwrt Mawr, things get worse. Some destruction may have been necessary due to work upon a water main, but the damage is far worse than that. There is clearly a philosophy here. Where a border formerly stood, there shall be just one tree, denuded as far as possible of its lower branches.
Around Rosser I found more borders had just been destroyed. The sad mounds of destroyed shrubs lay inn heaps beside the stumps. Here, not yet wilted, were the boughs of evergreen choisya, olearias about to bloom, azaleas in tight bud with next spring’s blooms, cotoneasters, purple and green leaved berberis. In one border the designated survivor is a Eucalyptus, in another it is a sorbus. In the furthest border there are no designated survivors. The penitentary style of the buildings has a new brutality.
It is no secret that the Estates Department’s decision-makers have no horticultural or landscape design qualifications. It is they, and external contractors appointed by them who are wreaking this havoc. How they imagine it will make Rosser and Cwrt Mawr more attractive to students and their parents I have no idea.
It is depressing to write so dismal a piece. I close with another picture taken today, of the cul-de-sac leading to Penbryn 7 Here we see the towering glory of mature olearias cotoneasters and berberis clothing a steep bank, immaculate and maintenance-free. It is for this sort of quality that Cadw awarded the campus a II* listing twenty-five years ago How long, though, will it survive an administration intent on destroying heritage?
by the Curious Scribbler,
The second great loss to campus biodiversity last autumn was the grubbing out of a long shrub border which ran from Student Welcome Centre to the Llandinam building. Three trees: two Phillyreas and a Griselinia were spared,but the rest of the hydrangeas, olearias, escallonias and fuchsias were scraped away leaving the sea of mud. The scene was recorded in November see http://www.letterfromaberystwyth.co.uk/penglais-campus-the-destruction-continues/
The justification allegedly was Health and Safety – the installation of railings at the top of the drop at the back of the border, a drop which at the Llandinam end was a mere 18 inches, but at the the other end about twelve feet.
Last week I revisited to see the completed works. The border has now been replaced by a stunningly green sward of new turf. This green desert monoculture looks a bit unexpected doesn’t it? Gardeners know that this bright green turf will soon lose its lustre in the shade of evergreen trees. Ecologists know that while a species-diverse grassy meadow is an asset, new uniform turf is little more desirable than astroturf. The tragedy is that this expensive form of re-instatement is only the briefest of fixes, a decision which would only have been taken (and was) by Estates Department staff totally unqualified and unversed in horticulture. The fear is that, chagrined at the consequences, those same decision-makers will then cut down the remaining trees to save the new grass!
A student petition was sent to the Estates Department in November. In part the letter read
“large patches of green space and hedges have been cleared and replaced with either woodchip or grass…. this poses large uncertainties with regard to the future of biodiversity on campus and our cherished EcoCampus Gold Award. .. As students we are very proud of our campus and want to work with the University to make it an even greener space…”
I don’t believe this was the kind of greening that they had in mind.
As for their health and safety, the new railings are just two horizontal rails, of the sort that many a drunk student has vaulted over for fun. Where the drop was protected by a hedge of shrubs it was far less accessible. The foreground view through to the IBERS building is now just a mish-mash of different generations of fence, and a paved path to nowhere.
At the same time a new self-congratulatory PR poster aimed at students has appeared in University buildings.
The students may have asked ‘more plants’ but they are not getting them – unless we count the individual seedlings of grass! They aren’t getting ‘more greenery’ either.
Did the students specifically ask for hanging baskets? ( the ones who signed the petition I saw certainly did not). And did they ask for them to be spread randomly around the grounds? Playing spot-the-hanging-bracket might become a new student activity. A lone bracket has been affixed to the elegant timber facade of the IBERS building. Another sticks out adjoining the steps to the Arts Centre and Students Union. Yet another is screwed high on the wall at the entrance to Geography and Earth Sciences.
While a hanging basket gives a quick fix to a suburban patio a large landscape need a far more considered approach and on a practical level, watering these floral displays is going to be quite a challenge. We have seen other phases of expensive and impractical gimmickry come and go. The IBERS green wall, for example, has been quite rightly cleared away, for it soon looked like an abandoned garden-centre sales area on end!
One of the current public enthusiasms, quite rightly, is Bee Friendly Landscapes, I believe that Aber students have already formed a bee-friendly group. Woodchip, monocultures of turf and the occasional hanging basket are not bee-friendly. That extensive bank of flowering cotoneasters below the Hugh Owen Building most certainly was!
There is no landscape expertise guiding the recent changes on campus. Buildings Maintenance, Health and Safety, Disability Access, Controlled Parking and other pressures all chip away at the carefully designed plantings which earned Aberystwyth University its Cadw Grade II* listing. Soon there may be very little left to justify that accolade.
by the Curious Scribbler.
The diggers are out again. You will find them at the corner of Penglais Hill and Waun Fawr where tall pines and dense undergrowth filled the corner space which screens Cwrt Mawr from the road. They are having a lovely time.
It seems that the objective is to create a clear view through the boles of the pines to the Student Village opposite. And of course to enhance the non stop drone of vehicles climbing the hill.
A vast area of churned mud has been created, with heavy machinery compacting and scraping away at the waterlogged soil covering the shallow roots of the big pines. The pines are important as home to a rookery, and the undergrowth which was formerly a haven for various wildlife is all scraped up into piles beneath the trees.
Thus a woodland understorey has been destroyed, and we must assume will be followed by a sprinkling of the only herbage favoured by the present administration – a monoculture of grass.
Now there are those who like things ‘tidy’. And in their brick bungalow with a tarred parking space and a sheet of mown grass there are many exemplars of this style of gardening in Ceredigion. That is a personal choice. But Aberystwyth University is not a three-bed bungalow, and its denizens include leading ecologists, foresters, plant scientists, ornithologists, mammologists, entomologists, social geographers. Many of them care deeply about the campus. Back in earlier times the appearance of the campus reflected the commitment of its many and highly respected academics. Believe it or not Penglais Campus featured in 1980 in Arthur Hellyer’s book Gardens of Genius as an exemplar of coastal gardening, alongside Tresco and Inverewe! Many influential names are still remembered, Professors Lily Newton, Professor P.F. Wareing, Curator Basil Fox (formerly of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh), head gardeners John Corfield and Joy Harris.
Today’s academics are no less enthusiastic about the campus and it was encouraging to learn in November that several representatives from IBERS and from the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust had been co-opted onto a new advisory committee which would oversee a new Conservation Management Plan for the campus.
Unfortunately I understand that commenting on current work such as this does not fall within the remit of this committee, the work is viewed by the University as “maintenance”. There have been a series of such scorched-earth maintenance activities in the last few months. Today I also revisited the vast cleared bank below the Hugh Owen Building. Here roots and and stones project from an unmow-able re-seeded slope, and nearer the path is the scruffy tangle of the last years’ wildflower planting, in which plantain and ox eye daisy now predominate.
Nearer the entrance the new laid turf is yellowing as a result the incautious administration of weedkiller to the bark mulch adjoining it.
It is important to recollect what we have lost, and to hastily rediscover the expertise to create a low maintenance beautiful garden on a slope. As the Estates Department is already discovering, the new look is far from pristine, and will get a lot worse before, if ever, it gets better.
by The Curious Scribbler
Early last month I lamented the loss of the shrub planting below the Hugh Owen building. Never have I had so many readers, 1600 within 24 hours of posting, and the cries of anguish echoed far and wide. But the destruction continues. Gardening, according to the Aberystwyth Estates Department, is an activity best performed with a mechanical digger.
In the last two weeks whole shrub borders have scraped from the ground. Adjoining the Student Welcome Centre were three trees, two phyllyrea and a griselinia, and a border of hydrangea, fuchsia, escallonia and evergreen olearia species. Now only the trees remain. The border has been grubbed out entirely. Viewed from the Llandinam concourse there is little to see now, but an unkempt lawn with a circular bed containing a dead tree, and, beyond it, a large green painted metal box.
The border needed some weeding and maintenance it is true, but it formed a handsome screen at the top of a concrete retaining wall outside the Llandinam building concourse.
Where the steps lead down towards the Cledwyn building, a broad swathe of ground hugging cotoneaster and vinca on either side of the descent was badly invaded by brambles. A gardener might have dug these out, or cut them and poisoned the stumps. Instead a few hours with a digger have obliterated the lot, and the bramble roots will be the first to recover in the broken earth.
Further down, the iconic view of the terracotta-coloured end of the Physical Sciences building is framed by some freshly mangled trees, chopped off at some 8 feet above ground.
A distorted, one-sided Myrtle, Luma apiculata reaching over to the left (one of many seedlings on the campus), echoes the space formerly occupied by a large cotoneaster and a purple berberis beside it. This was all looking quite tidy as a group at the beginning of the month, though it adjoined a building site. Now the designed planting has been hacked away, and the accidental incomer has been preserved. It was the same below the Hugh Owen, where randomly spared trees include self seeded willow and ash.
There is some fine planting further up the slope on the terrace leading to the Physics entrance. I wonder whether that will survive.
The triangular bed at the west end of the Biology building used to contain big evergreen daisy bushes Olearia avicenniifolia. This tender New Zealand species first came to Tresco in the Scilly islands in 1914 and according to the RHS Plantfinder is available at just one nursery in the UK today. It’s gone. But we get a marvellously unimpeded view of the connecting glass corridor which seems function principally as a box store.
Adjoining the end of the building was a Crinodendron hookerianum, the Chilean Lantern Tree, approaching its mature height of 20 feet. This slow-growing narrow tree dangles fleshy crimson flowers about an inch long from summer till autumn. It has had its top cut off, though an adjoining dead tree cloaked in ivy has been spared.
Continuing down the road between the Sports building and Biological Sciences, the corner has been cleared to display a few stumps and a manhole cover. The metre-wide strip adjoining the road was cleared back a year ago and has been seeded with teasels and foxgloves which will look quite pretty next spring. Not for long though. Foxgloves are biennial, so the current crop will die next summer, and dock and creeping buttercup will take their place. Soon we can call this teasel corner.
There are shrubs on the campus so choice and rare that one would be hard pressed to find them anywhere else. As a random illustration I include a picture of one of the Australia acacias planted against the Biology building. It displays most elegant heterophylly. The long leathery Mistletoe-like leaves are born on the same stems as the feathery new growth. ( Students generally learn about heterophylly by studying water crowfoot. How much more magnificent in a tree!)
The hackers and diggers may be there soon too, destroying more botanical heritage. There is also a Hoheria sexstylosa nearby, a rare Berberis and another rare daisy bush Olearia rotundifolia flourishing far from its native habitat the southern alps of South Island, New Zealand. The list could go on. But no-one making the decisions about the contractors’ actions seems to know or care about plants. I doubt any future planting will be more than commonplace.
My final picture is of one of the recently completed works. An extensive border was removed and bark chippings laid to frame these unattractive pipes and utility sheds beside an arterial path to the Student Welcome Centre.
The is not the style for which the gardens were listed Grade II* by Cadw just fifteen years ago.
by the Curious Scribbler
It seems to be a little known fact that the Penglais campus, in conjunction with the adjoining sites of the Llanbadarn campus and the National Library of Wales are listed Grade II* in the Cadw Register of Landscapes, Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in Wales. This is praise indeed, this grading makes it one of the three most important gardens in Ceredigion, and one of the very few 20th century landscapes deemed of national importance. The listing was published in 2003. The inspector summarizes it thus:
The landscaping of the University of Aberystwyth campuses, particularly the earlier Penglais campus is of exceptional historic interest as one of the most important modern landscaping schemes in wales. The sophisticated layout, including the landscaping, is sensitive to the character of the site, and the planting, which is unusually choice and varied both enhances the buildings and helps to integrate the the sites. Several densely packed pages describe the grounds and their plantings in detail, and the steep bank below the Hugh Owen library gains especial praise.
It was indeed justified, and I have dug out a photo from 2003 which shows the clean lines of the modern building embraced by a swathe of shrubs, hebes, fuchsias and the ground-hugging Cotoneaster microphyllus clothing the steep banks. (The red flowered shrub was Embothrium coccineum, the Chilean Firebush, a connoisseur’s tree, frost hardy and fussy about its soil, cleverly planted by knowledgeable gardeners).
All gone now! Last month contract gardeners with a caterpillar digger were hard at work and today’s view is of turf, bark and a few retained trees, some of them self-seeded ash.
There have been maintenance problems at the campus in the last decade, and regular visitors have noted the vigorous incursions of brambles, sycamores and ash trees, self seeded amongst the shrubs. Back in the 1990s when I sometimes visited head gardener John Corfield in his potting shed I would find up to nine gardeners, who together tended the Penglais campus and the mansion gardens and botanical order beds on the other side of the road. Today his successor, gardener Paul Evans is responsible for three campuses, Penglais, Llanbadarn and Gogerddan with a team half the size! Little wonder that the brambles got away..
Bit by bit the character of Aberystwyth’s distinctive campus is being whittled away, while new 21st century innovations have been introduced with no provision for aftercare. The new IBERS building next to the Edward Llwyd is a case in point. Its landscape architect included a green wall, a complicated beech maze and a sedum roof. The green wall died and has been cleared away, and the maze was never pruned and became an interlocking thicket of beech trees. The roof gets rare maintenance by contract gardeners, because none of the grounds staff have received training for working of roof tops.
And the agenda of Biodiversity and Native Species has led to a tendency to ignore the merits of a garden which brings together beautiful non-native plants from all over the world. For some odd reason ecologists seem to assume that only native species are agreeable to bees. How wrong! Recent research at the National Botanic Garden of Wales analysing the DNA fingerprint of pollen in the pouches of honey bees showed that two of the top six favourites are the despised sycamore and the invasive Himalayan Balsam!
The 1960-1970s planting of the campus was supervised by botanists and involved the trialing of species and hybrids suited to windswept maritime situations from every continent. Many still survive in gardens around Aberystwyth. But is the campus on a trajectory to turf, bark and the utility planting of an average supermarket carpark?
And what about the street furniture? Back in 2003 it seems that students found their way around without notice boards or banners telling them how happy and lucky they were, and motorists kept left and slow without constant reminders. Certainly the elegance of the first picture is in stark contrast to the tired building in the second, grey with age but cleaner at the base where the shrubs formerly embraced it.