The Hafod Trust has recently completed the restoration of the Gothic Arcade, a three arched eyecatcher which frames the view where Thomas Johnes’ Chain Bridge spans the narrow gorge on the upper Ystwyth.
The Gothic arcade, Hafod, under restoration
The arcade was something of a puzzle, being represented on the ground by the remnants of four basal pillars, only one of which reached high enough to show the first springer stone of the former arch. For almost a decade it has been enrobed in blue plastic awaiting a decision on its conservation. A earlier attempt at stabilising the stone pillars with lime mortar had failed to prevent further deterioration. The ruin was listed among the built features of Hafod, with Ancient Monument status, so Cadw had to authorise any changes to be made.
In 2010 The Gothic arcade pillars were conserved under blue plastic.
There is tantalisingly little evidence as to exactly what the Gothic Arcade looked like, or when it was built. It was awarded this name by John Piper, in 1939, who was there to photograph the architectural remains of Hafod as part of a tour of threatened buildings, and who also sketched and painted in the grounds. There are three versions of this artwork, “Looking down the Ystwyth Gorge, Hafod” which show it as a three arched rather spindly structure, on the edge of the gorge, but no aspect of his picture is precisely representational.
John Piper 1939. Looking down the Ystwyth Gorge. ( Private Collection)
Exhaustive appeals have so far not revealed a single box brownie photograph of the structure, though many people are likely to have passed or picnicked there in the 1950s. Worse still, the accounts by visitors in Johnes’ time, even Cumberland in his AnAttempt to Describe Hafod, failed to mention it. The only possible exception is an unclear account by the Revd H.T. Payne, Archdeacon of Carmarthen, who in about 1815 alluded to a “rude arch of stone“. But a literal reading of his description would place his arch on the opposite bank, or even identify it as the Rustic Alcove near the Peiran Cascade.
It remains uncertain whether this eye catcher was part of Thomas Johnes’s Picturesque design at all. (Though we do know that he built a rustic arch commemorating George III over the approach road from Devil’s Bridge). Until further evidence crops up it must be conceded that it could date from the ownership of The Duke of Newcastle, or even that of John Waddingham in the late 19th century, or his son, TJ Waddingham in the early 20th.
The restoration was led by the overall shape as indicated by Piper’s sketch, and the shape dictated by the remaining fragments. It was built with locally sourced, undressed stones by Abbey Masonry and Restoration, Llanelli.
The Gothic arcade, Hafod, almost complete, May 2016
Piper composed his view from upstream of the Gothic Arcade. He speculated, on the basis of the House’s history, that its gothic style might be the work of John Nash. The compilation below shows the restoration in the context of his drawing.
The Gothic Arcade represents the penultimate item on the Hafod Trust’s current restoration objectives. Still under development is the plan to put a flat timber span across the bridge abutments of Pont Newydd, the old carriage drive which crossed the Peiran just above the famous falls.
I’ve been re reading Juliette Woods article ” Nibbling Pilgrims and the Nanteos Cup: A Cardiganshire Legend” which was published in Nanteos – A Welsh house and its Families, Ed. Gerald Morgan (2001). In it the author carefully enumerates the written and the oral record to compare it with the fully fledged early 20th century legend of the Nanteos Cup. At its most florid, this damaged fragment of a wooden drinking vessel is believed to be the Holy Grail, brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea, cherished by the monks at Glastonbury, some of whom, at the dissolution of their monastery, fled with it to Strata Florida Abbey in Cardiganshire, from whence it passed into the hands of the Stedman Family of that community, and thus, by marriage to the Powells of Nanteos. In modern tradition the cup has spectacular healing powers, and its last custodian at Nanteos, Margaret Powell discretely massaged its reputation with testimonials from the healed. The cup is also sometimes alleged to be fashioned out of a fragment of the true cross – though this would not fit with the Holy Grail story in which Joseph of Arimathea caught Christ’s blood in the cup at the crucifixion.
Juliette Woods gives a lot of attention to the common mechanisms by which such local legends are invented and augmented over time, but in essence her conclusions are that there is no written evidence of its importance and apparent healing powers until the mid 19th Century, and no indication of the Grail story until the early 20th. The cup first came under public scrutiny in 1878 when George Powell, a keen aesthete and antiquarian, allowed it to be exhibited to The Cambrian Archaeological Association at Lampeter. There was no allegation about the Holy Grail back then. It and another wooden vessel owned by Thomas Thomas of Lampeter were described as “supposed to possess curative powers”. The newly-fledged “Cambrians” as this genteel antiquarian society were generally known, were on a mission to ferret out antiquities from gentry homes and churches.
But the power of a good legend is in its ability to grow and mutate. Margaret Powell, who as a widow ruled Nanteos from 1930-1952 upheld the Grail myth, but with delicate discretion, refusing to allow the allegation to be associated with her name in print. Journalists, travel-guide authors and religiously-inclined scholars soon put in their pennyworth, and the Nanteos Cup gained followers. The Revd Lionel Smithett Lewis, Vicar of Glastonbury in 1938-1940 was one such enthusiast, fired up by A.E. Waite’s book Hidden Church of the Holy Grail (1909) which linked the grail to early Celtic Christianity. Smithett Lewis corresponded with Mrs Powell, and embellished the myth with the ‘discovery’ of a cupboard at Ozleworth Church, used by the Glastonbury monks to house the grail overnight when benighted too far from their abbey. Smithett Lewis wanted the Grail to be housed in a splendid reliquary at Glastonbury. Mrs Powell evidently did not co-operate and the correspondence ceased.
By the 1960’s the old mansion was in the hands of its first non-hereditary owner, Liverpool dealer Geoffrey Bliss, and the original cup had been transferred to a bank vault in the care of the Mrs Powell’s relative and inheritor, Mrs Mirylees. I visited Nanteos during the Bliss family occupancy, the house had been sold complete with most of its furnishings and portraits and despite the actual holes in the roof of one wing, it was open to the public as a stately home. And by then there was a facsimile holy grail to be seen in a lighted glass-fronted cabinet in the anteroom to the Library on the west end of the house. This may indeed have been the one said to have been made by a local craftsman to enable Mrs Powell to reduce wear upon the original unless its curative powers were actually required.
The ‘real’ cup meanwhile has gone from strength to strength. Throughout the 1990s you could send to America for a prayer cloth or tissue impregnated with water which has been poured from it. Presumably, as with homeopathy, this church in Seattle would allege that the greater the dilution, the more powerful the effect it would have. More recently, impregnated cloths were available from The Rt Reverend Bishop Sean Manchester, author of several non-fiction books, including “The Highgate Vampire”; “The Vampire Hunter’s Handbook”; “Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know”; “From Satan To Christ”; and “The Grail Church.” However the supply dried up in 2014 when the cup was apparently stolen from the home of an elderly woman in Weston-under-Penyard, in Herefordshire.
Last year there was a further flurry of notoriety when the Grail had a spot on BBC’s Crimewatch. Muddying the history further, some news accounts showed an old photo of the missing object, ( though this was possibly a photo of Mrs Powell’s facsimile rather than the original) while others included illustrations from the Indiana Jones film starring Harrison Ford!
The Nanteos cup, or perhaps its 20th century facsimile featured in recent coverage of its loss
In June 2015 it was revealed that the cup had been returned but that no charges were being pressed. The police photo of the object they recovered closely resembles the 1888 sketch in Archaeologia Cambrensis and the early photos of the cup which are housed at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales rather than the picture above. I have recently heard that its new home is to be in the National Library of Wales.
The police photo of the recovered object looks more like the original Nanteos cup
Meanwhile new convolutions constantly develop. At Nanteos, which is now a smart country house hotel, there is a new garden feature in the old shrubbery adjoining the walled garden. A labyrinth by eco-mystic woodcraftman Bob Shaw leads on a contemplative circuit to a central sculpture which represents the Nanteos Cup, borne on a tapering plinth. The four sides of the plinth sides depict the mansion, Strata Florida, Glastonbury Tor and the Nanteos cup. Just to keep the legend alive.
The Sculpture by Ed Harrison at the centre of the new labyrinth at Nanteos
And Bob, who is a skilled craftsman working with traditional tools has also fashioned yet another Nanteos Cup, out of an ancient piece of timber he extracted from the Mawddach estuary. That will fox the carbon daters, as they strive to determine which cup is which! The wood could well be older than the true cross itself. Bob tells me that the hotel management are only too happy to keep his handiwork in their safe, and show it to favoured guests.
Then there is a further development, in the form of a historical novel, The Shadow of Nanteos, by Jane Blank published this year by Y Lolfa. Now I know this is fiction, but for many readers the distinction becomes blurred. Peacocks in Paradise, by Elisabeth Inglis Jones, which dramatises the life of Thomas Johnes of Hafod, is often perceived today as a purely biographical work. I found The Shadow of Nanteos unnerving myself because in it the very real Revd William Powell (1705-1780) who inherited on his brother Thomas’ death in 1752 is equipped with his historically correct wife, Elizabeth Owen. The book opens as he takes possession of Nanteos, his ancestral home. There however the resemblance ends: poor Elizabeth and William are supplied with quite different children, and a gothic storyline involving illegitimacy, adultery, leadmining, otter hunting, the death of their son, and finally the death of Elizabeth on the Nanteos kitchen table during a cesarean section to save the offspring of her steamy relationship with the bailiff. Ah me! What those Georgians got up to! But to return to the cup, – here all the components of the early 20th century fiction have been thoughtfully re-packaged to the mid 18th Century. Fictional Elizabeth invites round the local gentry wives and daughters, the Pryses of Gogerddan, the Lisburnes of Trawscoed and the Johnes of Hafod and they expound the whole story: Glastonbury, Joseph of Arimathea, Strata Florida, the Steadmans, the true cross, the Holy Grail and the nibbling pilgrims who bit pieces off the rim. ( The author must surely have read Juliet Wood’s painstaking work). Later in the book, driven to grief at the death of her eldest son, Elizabeth resorts to some very questionable frotteurism with the grail itself.
Nanteos seems a particular magnet for the wild assertion! There are already a number of popular but questionable ghost stories associated with it and suggestible readers of Jane Blank’s work may soon find themselves sensing Elizabeth Powell eviscerated on the kitchen table. And there is a steady increase in the historic characters which are claimed among its house guests. Local historians have long been enraged by the early 20th century myth, first promulgated in a tourist guide to Aberystwyth, that Wagner stayed at Nanteos and wrote Parsifal there. There is no closer connection than that the aesthetically inclined George Powell ( 1842-1882) was an admirer of his, and planned a journey to Munich with his friend Algernon Swinburne, the poet, to witness the Ring Cycle. Algernon Swinburne and George also shared an interest in flagellation and the works of the Marquis de Sade. But that connection scarcely justifies the current naming of one of Nanteos’ rooms as ‘The Marquis de Sade room’, nor the recent assertion that Robert Browning stayed there too!
The hotel website http://www.nanteos.com/news_detail.php?ID=51 reads as follows: Culture is all-pervasive at Nanteos Mansion with associations with leading European figures such as the composer Wagner and the poet Browning. It’s an easy concept to grasp, they are famous cultural figures and they both stayed at the Mansion while touring the country.
But they didn’t. Though hotel guests will enjoy believing that they did.
In April I was in Western Crete in the company of a group of botanical enthusiasts. One of the most truly memorable plants, ( not rare, but spectacular) was Dracunculus vulgaris var. creticus The Dragon Arum. I photographed it repeatedly in the scrubby roadside on the Akrotiri peninsula. As with meeting a group of giraffes on safari, each individual you see seems more unique and and exquisite than the last.
The spectacular spathe of the Dragon Arum
We were all of us equally enthused, exploring among the scrub on the stoney slopes, brandishing i-phones, tablets and cameras, getting in close to verify the alleged powerful and disgusting odour of the flower.
John Corfield seeks the Dragon Arum
Ruth Griffiths verifies the odour
Andrew Agnew spotted our first Dracunculus
The stem is thick, fleshy, pale, and sinisterly mottled in purple blotches, and rises up to a metre from the poor earth. The luxuriant leaves are deeply cut into leaflets and mottled in white, while the chocolate-purple coloured spadix extends from the silky purple enfolding spathe. Certainly a plant which evokes a sense of drama – a Little Shop of Horrors sort of plant.
A month later I was viewing a selection of botanical volumes in the Roderic Bowen Library at Lampeter. And here, blazing out from the page of a magnificent folio sized volume published in 1799 was my newest favourite flower! The book was The Temple of Flora by Robert John Thornton a ‘coffee table’ book for the gentlemen returned from the Grand Tour of Europe. The bloom, exquisitely rendered in glowing colour, is framed against the eruption of Vesuvius for added drama.
Illustration in Thornton’s Temple of Flora ( 1799) by kind permission of: Roderic Bowen Library and Archives University of Wales Trinity Saint David
And the text tends even further towards the gothick than our own impressions. After some well-selected phrases ” a horrid spear of darkest jet” … “a noisome vapour infecting the ambient air”… the author turns to the poetic works of Frances Arabella Rowden to do full justice to the malign possibilities of Dracunculus:
by kind permission of: Roderic Bowen Library and Archives, University of Wales Trinity Saint David
Arums are generally poisinous, but the theatrical appeal of this plant has perhaps led to some over-exaggeration. Dioscorides instead was obviously taken by the sexual connotations of the plant’s appearance for he recorded that “being drunk with wine, it stirs up the vehement desires to coniunction”. Not quite so fatal then, and we don’t really know whether the desires were fanned by the arum or the wine!
I understand that Thornton’s book, in which the 28 colour plates, employing the finest artists and reprographic techniques, bankrupted him as the wealthy clients whom he expected to buy his book suffered financial setbacks through the Napoleonic wars. It is very tempting to imagine a copy of this book spread open in Thomas Johnes’ octagon library at Hafod, and to picture him and Jane Johnes ogling the illustrations and sending for a Dracunculus, and perhaps an insectivorous Sarracenia and a night-flowering Cereus (both also illustrated) to grow in their Nash conservatory. Johnes very possibly did have a copy of The Temple of Flora, but it would have gone up in flames in the disastrous fire of 1807, and there is no record of just what his library contained. It is thanks to the London Welshman, Thomas Phillips, East Indian Company Surgeon, that The Founder’s Library at Lampeter received a copy of this, and many other rare books in the mid 19th century.
Last week Jennie Macve addressed the Aberystwyth Bibliographical Group on the subject of Hafod. Her lecture, entitled Deeds and Dinner Plates – Some Primary Sources, introduced the audience to a variety of lesser-known resources which throw light on Hafod’s past. Deeds dating right back to Thomas Johnes’s ownership came to light a few years ago, most unexpectedly, in a solicitors’ office in Leeds, and are now in the care of the Ceredigion County Archive. Other sources include sketches, pictures, and photographs, which trickle in from all sorts of serendipitous sources, – Ebay produced one of a pair of glass plate stereo photographs which shows the Italianate wing added by Sir Henry De Hoghton, from the perspective of the present back drive leading to the estate office in the stables. Another collector has a Victorian souvenir Prattware plate, on which a well-known steel engraving of Hafod circa 1850 is reproduced.
A steel engraving by Newman and Co shows Hafod after 1850 with the Italianate wing to the left
The same image reproduced on an earthenware Prattware plate depicting Hafod c 1875
A much earlier and more sophisticated source is the Hafod Service, a dessert service commissioned from the Derby Pottery in 1788. Thomas Johnes had it made as a gift for the then Lord Chancellor Lord Thurlow. We can only speculate as to what favour or preferment Thomas Johnes was hoping for in return. It consisted of 45 pieces, two dozen plates and assorted bowls and dishes, each decorated with a view of Hafod. The pictures were painted in colour by the artists at the factory working from the sketches and paintings by artist Thomas Jones of Pencerrig and other contemporary images. The originals are for the most past lost, consumed, perhaps, in the great fire at Hafod in 1807, so these valuable collectors’ plates are a vital historic resource.
As the immaculately decorated plates turn up, in museums or other collections they throw light on previously unknown views from the late 18th century. Seventeen items from the service are in the National Museum at Cardiff, and another ten are known in other museums or collections. The most recent to come to light, in a provincial auction house last year, seems to show a scene on the river upstream from Pontrhydygroes. Two particularly useful dishes show the lodges at either end of the approaches to the house, both of which were subsequently demolished by the Duke of Newcastle to make way for 19th century structures. These original lodges were built to signal the diversion of the public road, (which formerly ran past Hafod) to its present route (the B4574) along a sinuous lane past Cae Meirch. Archways over the old road down the valley clearly signalled that this was now private property.
A Derby dessert dish, dated 1788 depicts the lodge and arch at the eastern approach to the estate
It is interesting to reflect that in the last decades of the eighteenth century landowners in Ceredigion were all busily diverting roads in order to improve their properties. We see the same pattern at Nanteos and at Llanerchaeron where the owners, all influential men, each purchased the old road past their mansion from the Trustees of the Turnpike Trusts on which they served, and thus ensured that the common drovers no longer passed their doors. Designed lodge houses served to emphasise the entrances to what was now private land. Estate improvement also often involved relocating the odd tenant farm to improve the flow of the landscape of the demesne. Some of the old maps reveal that Johnes too, though in many ways an enlightened landlord, removed farms and cottages which he considered inharmonious in the view.
The gentle watercolours and sketches of two hundred years ago are charmingly familiar, so similar to the views which can be seen today. But as Jennie pointed out, too many of us forget that the historic footpaths through the picturesque landscape have been hard won, through the last twenty years of restoration. Before the present concerted efforts by The Hafod Trust in partnership with the Forestry Commission these paths were impassable, blocked and in places broken by fallen trees, eroded by hillside torrents where culverts had become blocked, or entirely obliterated by landslip. When a path is clear of obstruction we take it for granted, and imagine it was always thus. Hafod is in fact a fine example of unobtrusive restoration.
Walkers can pass without hindrance along the Gentleman’s walk today
Estate Manager Dave Newnham checks a recently completed stretch of path
A recently restored landslip on the spur path to the Cascade cavern
Hafod is open to the public at all times. For more information see www.hafod.org/
Aberystwyth Bibiographical Group see http://users.aber.ac.uk/das/texts/aberbibgr1.htm
Few scenes could be more unexpected than the appearance of a marquee in a manicured garden in the middle of a forestry estate in upland Ceredigion. Even more improbable, perhaps, is that on 2 June the sun should blaze in a cloudless sky, while the midges were banished by a gently cooling breeze. Converging from the local community and from far flung corners of Wales were some 150 guests assembled for a traditional Welsh tea and to celebrate the restoration and re-planting of Mrs Johnes’ Georgian flower garden.
Guests arriving for the opening of the restored Mrs Johnes’s Flower garden
A Victorian-style afternoon tea was enjoyed by 150 guests
The location was Hafod Uchtryd, the pioneering Picturesque landscape created by Thomas Johnes in the late 18th Century in the then barren landscape of the Upper Ystwyth valley 15 miles inland from Aberystwyth. His story has been told many times: how he settled here with his second wife Jane Johnes and steadily poured his massive wealth from other properties into creating his personal Xanadu, a Gothic house by the architects Thomas Baldwin and John Nash, a model farm, huge plantations of oak, beech and larch, miles of carefully graded walking paths leading the visitor through the landscape of gnarled trees, pools, cascades and rock cut tunnels and viewpoints. All the aesthetic cognoscenti came to visit Hafod and like other great houses the gardener could, for a consideration be persuaded to allow a visit to the gardens and the long conservatory before pointing his charges off onto one of the two circuit walks: the Lady’s Walk which took in the Church, and the more strenuous Gentleman’s Walk on the contours of the southern flank of the valley.
Johnes and his wife had one child, Mariamne, something of a child prodigy with a great flair for botany and a crippling infirmity which caused her to be at times encased in a gigantic metal spinal brace. Notwithstanding this, she had her own private garden, an alpine garden perched on a crag east of the house, while her mother had a flower garden near the carriage drive out of sight of the house. As early as 1788 Jane Johnes was writing to her brother “this place is in higher beauty than ever I saw it, my flower garden full of flowers”. Among the many records by 19th century tourists I offer a quotation from B.H. Malkin (The Scenery, Antiquities and Bibliography of South Wales published 1804) “A gaudy flower garden, with its wreathing and fragrant plats bordered by shaven turf, with a smooth gravel walk carried around, is dropped, like an ornamental gem among wild and towering rocks, in the very heart of boundless woods. The spot contains about two acres, swelling gently to meet the sunbeams, and teeming with every variety of shrub and flower”.
Hafod has had a chequered history since those glory days, and by the mid 20th century the landscape was being planted with serried ranks of conifers, its gardens long forgotten and the great mansion stripped of its fixtures and reduced to rubble with dynamite. Many British country houses met a similar fate in those years. The circular wall of Mrs Johnes garden was breached by a forestry road, and its interior became a plantation of Sitka Spruce. When I first saw the garden it was through one of the two arched doorways to the garden, wreathed in brambles and dwarfed by the gloom of the densely planted 40 year old trees. It seems inconceivable that in the last six years the road has been moved outside the original perimeter, the trees felled, and their stumps plucked from the soil by a giant yellow machine shaking the soil off the roots like a human hand weeding groundsel!
Uprooting the tree stumps in Mrs Johnes’s Garden in March 2009
The wall was rebuilt, the cleared ground graded, and the path reinstated close to its original route. In 2012 we saw the first planting, of carefully selected shrubs and herbaceous plants which would have been available to Jane Johnes in 1788. Several contemporary commentators called it an American Garden, and a number of gentry gardeners, some of them Jane’s friends and correspondents were creating American gardens at this time. The new planting, designed by landscape architect Ros Laidlaw, reproduces the American flavour of the time, with shrubs, chiefly from the eastern seaboard of North America which were known to have been introduced to British gardens in the 18th century.
Leucothoe fontanasiana ( Fetter Bush) was introduced in 1765 from the USA
Calycanthus floridus ( Carolina Allspice) was introduced in 1726 from the USA
It was a proud day for the Hafod Trust, which over the past twenty years has co-ordinated a partnership with the Forestry Commission to reinstate the ten miles of paths, the bridges, the viewpoints and the gardens. Grant aid for Mrs Johnes’ Garden has come from the Cefn Croes Wind Farm Community Trust, The Finnis Scott Foundation, Tidy Towns Wales and many individual donors. In future you could hold an afternoon tea party or a champagne reception in this tranquil enclosure. You could even get married in the picturesque little church, Eglwys Newydd, just up the streamside footpath, or in the Hafod Stables meeting room, which is now licensed for civil ceremonies.
The mansion is unlikely ever to rise from its ruins, but the modern visitor with a taste for solitude, silence and starlight can spend a short or long break in the heart of the estate in the comfortably furnished Hawthorn Cottage ( Pwll Pendre) which overlooks a pool on the meadow between the mansion site and Mariamne’s garden.
Hawthorn Cottage ( Pwll Pendre) at Hafod is a furnished holiday cottage