Out and about with The Welsh Stone Forum


Last Saturday was not a day many people willingly ventured out.  It was the third of three days on which a blisteringly cold wind from the Russian steppes seared its way across Ceredigion, and although unlike north and east  Wales we had no snow, the chill factor made the eyes water and the marrow shrink.   Setting out from our home we soon encountered our first obstacle a massive ash tree, fallen and pivoted on the hedge bank to block the road.  When leafless trees fall it is a high wind indeed.

Ash tree felled by high wind on 22 March

Notwithstanding this, a small group of specialists converged from all over Wales to explore the building stones of south Ceredigion. Our topic for the day was a locally occurring Ordovician sandstone, one form of which, Pwntan stone, has already been mentioned in this blog, as the stone from which Tremain Church is built.

First we met at Tan y Groes.  Here the main road is constricted by sandstone buildings on either side of the road, and speeding traffic roars through the gap.  There is a Calvinistic Methodist chapel on the south side of the road with adjoining vestry building.  Recently modified for residential use, the gable end facade has been recently cleaned by sandblasting.  So many different styles of ornamental tooling can be seen.  The main construction blocks have been pecked and pock marked with many short chisel blows.  The edges of narrow ornamental dressings are transversely grooved, across the shorter axis of each stone.  The voussoirs of the window arches are similarly ornamented and where large stone are used, a false division has been carved, to create the appearance of two or even three smaller voussoirs instead of a single block.  The building was commenced in 1849 a year after the completion of nearby Tremain.  It is not known whether it is by the same mason, but it is certainly work by a meticulous craftsman.  The characteristic interlocking stones of Tremain are not here however.  Perhaps Calvinism is better represented by uncompromisingly coursed blocks.  Other buildings in the village are yet plainer, built of rubbly blocks of sandstone.  The chapel buildings could only have been created with hand-sawn stone.

Tooled masonry in Pwntan stone shows several decorative styles

The Calvinistic methodist chapel at Tanygroes, Ceredigion, built 1849

St Michael’s Tremain has already been described.  It is the perfect habitat for the creamy white crustose lichen Ochrolechia parella.  On the west end the lichen is so extensive that the building is almost white.  The toxicity of lead to lichens is nicely illustrated by the two strips of stonework below the lancet windows.  When rain drives against the leaded windows and runs down to trickle off the sill it poisons the lichens and the stonework remains clean.

Ochrolechia parella, a crustose lichen cannot grow where lead leaches off the windows of the church

St Michael’s Church, Tremain, the west end almost white with lichen covering the brown sandstone

No such problems exist for the lichens in the churchyard at St Michael’s Penbryn.  Here is a charming long low whitewashed church set in a circular graveyard on a hill above the sea.  Here many of the 18th century stones are completely white with lichen, but remarkably the  inscriptions can still be discerned because the lichen follows the carved indentations beneath.  The stones have a characteristic shape curved at the top with square shoulders beneath.  There are several grander  graves  in which the same round topped, shouldered shape is formed in cut blocks of pwntan stone framing an inscribed slab of slate or sandstone.  They date from 1780-1820 and stand like theatrical doorways on the sloping plot.  At first sight you might think them whitewashed, so extensive is the lichen cover.

One of about 30 small gravestone at St Michael’s Church Penbryn. carved Pwntan stone is a perfect substrate for the lichen Ochrolechia parella

One of several grand headstones framed in Pwntan stone, at St Michael’s Church Penbryn

St Michael’s Church, Penbryn is a medieval church, with later restoration. Characteristic round topped, shouldered gravestones date from the late 18th century

There are various places east of the main A487 where sandstone was formerly extracted but most are long neglected and overgrown. The group then went on to visit Gwarallt quarry, Bwlchyfadfa near Talgarreg where farmer Iwan Evans  has had the initiative to re-open the quarry which supplied high quality sandstone in the 19th century.  In a trade magazine of the 1880s it was vaunted as stronger, and cheaper, than Portland stone.   The stables at nearby Alltyrodin mansion were certainly built from Gwarallt stone, but whether it was exported over a larger area is lost to history.

In the quarry one can see the thick beds of sandstone dipping down at 45° to the field above.  Big blocky stones are quarried from the face and can be cut for paving slabs or shaped for modern stone building or restoration work. Some beds are too thick, yielding several-ton chunks too large for the saws on site. There are some monstrous blocks waiting by the road to catch the eye of a sculptor.  Pwntan stone holds the sharp detail of its carving for hundreds of years.  It would be a good choice for a new work of art.

Welsh Stone Forum examine the extracted sandstone at Gwarallt Quarry, Bwlchyfadfa

Iwan Evans with a freshly sawn sandstone paving slab from his quarry at Gwarallt


Visit The Welsh Stone Forum   http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/cy/364/




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The remarkable mason of Tremain

by The Curious Scribbler

It is very easy to overlook St Michael’s Church, Tremain.  Tremain is a parish spread on either side the main road, a little north of Cardigan.  There is no distinct village, just an erratic scatter of houses, and the church is out of sight, just off the main road to the south side, on a single track lane with high banks and no parking.  Even to turn around having found it involves a muddy drive to the point where a concrete track leads on into a farmyard.

The church of St Michael’s, Tremain

Little wonder then that the diocese eventually concluded that St Michael’s Tremain was superfluous to requirements.

This though is not to say it is without merit and it is tremendous news that thanks to the representations of local and national experts the church has been adopted by that estimable charity, The Friends of Friendless Churches, and the scaffolding has already gone up in anticipation of its restoration.

St Michael’s is a replacement church, built on an ancient site in 1846-8, and its architect was the famous Welsh bard John Jones ‘Talhaiarn’.  The architectural style is ‘ecclesiologically correct’  (which I believe means conforming to the architectural rules devised by The Cambridge Camden Society), the decor is extremely plain with plastered walls and ceiling  in an open rafter roof. There is a schoolroom vestry on one side of the nave fitted out with child-sized pews.  But the most remarkable feature of the church is its masonry.  Built of the local sandstone, Pwntan stone, the blocks have been each carefully shaped to create an intricate fit with their neighbours.  So close is the fit that mortar looks to have been almost superfluous, and rather than being a structure of coursed blocks, the whole external surface of the church resembles a complex jigsaw puzzle in which no two pieces are even similar.

Ths side of the porch, Tremain Church

St Michael’s Church, Tremain.
Stonework is meticulously formed to interlock.

A single stone in the wall

A single stone shaped to interlack with its neighbours

John Jones, a joiner’s son, was born in 1810 and at the age of 15 he was apprenticed to an architect named Ward, who was superintending the building of Pool Park, Ruthin for Lord Bagot.   By 1843 he worked for the ecclesiastical architects Scott and Moffatt of London, and in 1851 he left them to work for Sir Joseph Paxton as a superintendent of the building of the Crystal Palace, and of a mansion for Baron Meyer de Rothschild near Menton, France.  But there is no evidence that in any of these projects was the masonry fitted together in the obsessionally eccentric way it was built at Tremain.

The identity of the Tremain mason is unknown, and if it were a personal whim of his it is not a building style he seems to have employed in other buildings locally.  Oddly, the best echo of this construction is in the work of 13th to 15th century Inca masons in Peru! Here too, blocks were individually fitted together, with neat edges and corners to complement the adjoining stones.  Often Inca building involved massive stones in defensive walls, on a far larger scale than in the church.

A similar masonry style was adopted by the Inca builders of Cuzco in Peru

John Jones’ other, and more celebrated, life was as a poet.  Under the name ‘Talhaiarn’ he published a number of volumes in Welsh between 1849 and 1869, when he died by his own hand.  According to Welsh Biography Online ‘his fame rests mainly on his songs and light verse, often satirical.’  There is presently no clue as to the inspiration for the unique stonework of this small Welsh Church.  It is an architectural curiosity of the first order.

http://www.friendsoffriendlesschurches.org.uk   The Friends own twenty architecturally and historically important churches in Wales, where their restoration is funded by Cadw and the Church in Wales.

The local expert on Tremain church is Brenda Howells: e mail:  brenda@owlscote.com



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