Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The long way round

We had to take our car for its first MoT last week, and went the most delightful scenic route both ways, up over the mynydd. It was raining on the way out so I couldn't take photos of the beautiful Saanan valley, but I made my husband stop on the way back over Llanybydder mynydd for a photo session. I spotted this small standing stone beside the road and yelled, "Stop!"

Below: As you can see, it was quite diddy, but perhaps there is more hidden beneath the peat and tussock grass . . .

On the very top of Llanybydder Mountain, you can see the steeply banked trackways of old farmsteads, against the backdrop of mile upon mile of Forestry Commission pines. This is Brechfa Forest. They have one stage of the World (Car) Rally Championships here each year.

And when the logging company has been in . . .

The shabby little Village Hall, c. 1920ish I would think.

The little church of Llanfihangle-Rhos-y-Corn.

Inside it is a very plain and simple place of worship.

What a pretty pulpit with its sunflower motif.

There was a lovely maze put in the adjacent field, and as I walked around it, in reflection, I began to understand mazes - you couldn't cut corners or step across, you had to keep on to the end, nose to the grindstone, so to speak, in quiet contemplation . . .

J.J. with a date of 1869.

I wonder who M.E. was? I have a feeling they were in memory of children.
Looking back in the direction of home. Our valley begins with the last swell of hill.

A 'modernized' cottage snuggled down in the valley below.

The road is just ever so slightly zig-zag! The bend after this almost disappears up its own . . . You get the picture?!

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Archaeology - the 67 foot tall menhir . . .

I found my birthday present this week (early!) It was going to be something gardening-orientated, then my darling husband dragged me into the excellent 2nd hand book shop in Llandeilo and my fate was sealed, as I came out with Julian Cope's The Megalithic European, which I had seen in Ottakers when it first came out, but at £35 was out of my budget then. Here it was remaindered and only £20, so it didn't hurt so much!

Of course, I wish I had seen The Modern Antiquarian now - especially as the cheapest price I can source it at is £50 plus p&p. Ah well, I shall pray that it turns up at a car boot sale as I shall fight for it!

Every evening I pick this wonderful book up, read a bit more, look through the gazeteer - which is AMAZING. Menhirs and burial chambers from across Europe. I have visited many archaeological sites in Britain, from Aberdeenshire down to Devon, and of course, here in Wales, and also in Ireland. I would love to go to Britanny though, to the concentration of fabulous monuments at Carnac. The amazing stone rows at Kermario which remind me so strongly of the little echoes of them which survive on Dartmoor (Merrivale and Drizzlecomb), and the wonderful jewel in the crown that is Gavr'inis, with its richly-carved stones, reminiscent (slightly) of those at Newgrange in Ireland, which I have seen in the flesh. I can remember doing an essay on the artwork on this at Uni and my conclusion (then) was that it was associated with the coming of agriculture. I'd like to revisit the topic now . . .

And the 67 foot menhir? That would be the Grand Menhir Brise. Weighing in at 300 tons, and sadly broken on the ground in several gigantic pieces, there is no evidence that this ever stood - though it would need to have been buried in the ground roughly a third of its length. The fact that it exists at all, broken or no, says a lot about the society which brought it to that place. There are other massive menhirs amongst this concentration of truly superb archaeology. The Table de Marchands and Er Grah, less than 100 metres away, have sections of yet another huge menhir as their capstones - this menhir probably stood on the site of Er Grah according to Julian Copes and a third section of this standing stone is incorporated into the tomb at Gavr'inis. One might speculate that the reason for doing this can be one of several - veneration for the previous monument, although it would appear that its ritual use had changed over time, causing the menhir to be incorporated in the new burial megaliths; deliberate destruction - perhaps following the introduction of different religious beliefs, or just sheer practicality - menhir falls over, breaks, and a lot of man hours saved having to quarry and move stone from elsewhere.

This amazing monolith was somehow moved over 2 and a half miles from its native quarry. This was 6000 years ago and whoever was in control of causing this concentration of prehistoric building, was a very powerful leader indeed.

Photographs courtesty of contributors to Creative Commons Search.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Castell Coch Part II

The cowman (!) Next Door once took his girlfriend to Castell Coch for an afternoon out. He reported back that it was "very small" and "nothing special" and a waste of money . . . The old saying about casting pearls before swine springs to mind!

I have to go out now so will return later and add more information beneath the pictures. Enjoy!

The truly magnificent fireplace in the Banquetting Hall.

The Drawing Room walls are painted with scenes from Aesop's Fables. These were executed following Burges' death in 1881 and typical of the Aesthetic movement design then employed when the Master's guiding hand was gone. If you double-click on this you will see that the monkey left, has wonderful Victorian whiskers, and that there is a little frog in the middle with a quack medicine bottle!

The fireplace with the figures of the Three Fates above it, designed by William Burges and executed (carved) by Thomas Nicholls.

Painted panels surrounded us, with detailed botanical studies.

Foxgloves and other wild flowers painted in the panelling.

A close up of the detailed wall painting in the Drawing Room. This is JUST up my street - LOVE it. Hollyhocks are US!

A corner of Lord Bute's bedroom. The bed was based on a design by Viollet-de-Duc and was made from copper-plated cast iron railing held together by elaborately knotted ropework. The feet splay out in a very Moorish design and I wish I'd taken a photo of them now!

Wouldn't you jut LOVE a bed like this? The mattress looked good and lumpy but is in fact a feather mattress and having once slept in a feather bed, I can vouch for it being the best night's sleep I ever had. The mattress hugged you to it. I love the Crystal balls about the bed and wonder if she woke up feeling wonderfully mentally attuned the next day . . . This too is a copy of a supposed 14th C design illustrated by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, who was a central figure in the Gothic Revival period in France.

The archways around the room show the Moorish influence which Burges took to his heart in his interiors at Castell Coch and Cardiff Castle. His travels to Sicily and Constantinople had a strong influence on his future designs. I would like to add that there are elements of Celtic design too, as recourse to any of Romilly Allen's notes and books on Celtic knotwork designs on early Christian monuments would show.

Now THIS is what I CALL a washstand! isn't it superb? It was designed after Burges' death by J S Chapple and dated 1891. The castle towers hide lead-lined cisterns for hot and cold water.

One of the pair of Moorish-influenced chairs which are based on earlier designs by Burges.

The incredible vaulted dome ceiling in Lady Bute's bedroom. Burges was no stranger to designing domed ceilings like this, as he had designed one for the chancel of Studley Royal church in Yorkshire and he had made miniature domes for his scheme of decoration at St Paul's Cathedral and for a chapel at Penylan in Cardiff.

Detail on one of the carved capitals at the base of the vaulting. Each one around the room shws different birds and animals.

This is just small section of the vaulted ceiling in Lady Bute's bedroom. I cannot imagine how long it took to paint all this incredible detail but the more you look at it, the more wonderful it obviously is. Incidentally, Lord Bute disapproved of the monkeys in the panels - makes me wonder what his take was on Darwin's theories? The interlacing vines and backgrounds for the other panels re influenced by and allude to the Sleeping Beauty (fairy tale turns into Lady Bute one assumes!)

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Thinking . . .

There will be more photos from Castell Coch tomorrow, but right now I am shattered from all the gardening I've been doing the past 10 days or so - especially the mattocking I have been doing in the paddock.

I sat down on the bank in the paddock this afternoon, when the sun was out, and having just dug up some round pebbles (possibly Iron Age ammunition), glass (Victorian or later), tile (possibly earlier), glazed tile (1950s fireplace) and a burned stone (any period), I got to thinking about the people who lived here in late Medieval and Tudor times - I would need to be digging deeper for traces of THEM! I wondered where the original house was and whether the 'great hall' was in front of where I was sitting at that moment or buried inside our present house, which has 1718 over the door, but that is just modifications to the architecture as we have an external wall a couple of feet thick in the middle of the house. We have found two parallell lines of foundation stones on the line of our present driveway.

I imagined the Bardic poet Lewis Glyn Cothi arriving on a sensible cob, and settling down by the fire to compare genealogy with his host and write praise poetry (he is recorded as being a great friend of the influential family living here then.) I imagined the excitement when one of the sons here was given a position as Esquire to the body of Henry VII. I imagined the other sons - or even their father - riding into Carmarthen in search of entertainment when country life got tedious. Perhaps their father had a mistress there who he visited when he was supposedly on official business and he would ride into town like Yuri in Dr Zhivago, visiting Lara.

I wondered what it was like here when Carmarthen Castle surrendered to Glyndwr in his rebellion, and when local Dryslwyn was so badly damaged by his forces in 1403 that it ceased to be of any importance and the townsfolk of its hilltop village would have been killed or at least displaced. Were the beacons flaring along the line of command up the Towy Valley, from Carmarthen to Dryslwyn, to Dinefwr, to mighty Carreg Cennen on its limestone crag? Did our family rally to the call to arms?

I am glad that we don't have to fight local battles or defend ourselves against all-comers, but every time I find a round pebble, I think of the defended Iron Age enclosure in the field next door to ours, and wonder, was it a slingshot? And does that burnt stone come from a Medieval hearth?

Monday, 23 March 2009

Castell Coch Part I

Castell Coch is a Gothic Revival castle near Cardiff and it was owned and restored by the fabulously-rich John Patrick Crichton-Stewart, Third Marquess of Bute and his skilled architect, William Burges. Burges was a somewhat eccentric character, greatly influenced by the work of Augustin Pugin (who designed the interior for the Houses of Parliament and a wonderfully talented man). Lord Bute's wealth came from his inherited portfolio of land holdings in Scotland, England and Wales, which included the land and mineral rights of the coalfields beneath the Welsh valleys, and most of Cardiff, including the Dock area . . . The astute marriages of 3 generations of his family left him the richest man in the world. Lord Bute loved nothing better than a project - and the Medieval ruins of Castell Coch overlooking the Taff gorge, once the stronghold of Gilbert de Clare - proved to be an excellent project indeed.

Work began in 1875, but sadly Burges died in 1881 so never saw the finished castle. It is similar in the interior to the fabulous Cardiff Castle which Lord Bute and 'Billy' Burges also restored previously, only not quite so 'over the top' and it is incredible to think that for such a wonderful and impressive building, there are only 'his and hers' bedrooms and NO guest bedrooms at all! In fact, it was only really lived in by the widowed Lady Bute whilst the titles and estates were being passed into her keeping following her husband's death.

The approach to the castle.

This aspect in particular, is very like Cardiff Castle, with the covered walkway.

A quiet corner of the kitchen.

The dresser was absolutely massive.

A splendid range and huge table.

Lord Bute's many-windowed bedroom.

The hip bath, which would have been placed in front of the fire before being filled, and his elegant wash stand.

This unusual cupboard, like the other furniture in the castle, was made in the Bute workshops.

More tomorrow . . .

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Who am I?

I've just been over to Nita's friendly blog and she has taken the Typealyzer test, which looked a bit of fun, so I entered both my blogs, and came up the same person on each . . . Apparently I am . . .

"The entertaining and friendly type. They are especially attuned to pleasure and beauty and like to fill their surroundings with soft fabrics, bright colors and sweet smells. They live in the present moment and don´t like to plan ahead - they are always in risk of exhausting themselves.
The enjoy work that makes them able to help other people in a concrete and visible way. They tend to avoid conflicts and rarely initiate confrontation - qualities that can make it hard for them in management positions. "

That does sound rather like me. . .


Tomorrow, the first post about our visit to Castell Coch . . . At the top is a photo taken today, hoping I will tempt you back . . .

Friday, 20 March 2009

Curiouser and curiouser

I have been trying to do some research on symbolism shown on the Norman gravestones at St Michael's church the other day. Easier said than done, as there is little to make comparison with. The figure(s) on the horse(s) above remind me of a particular Pictish image, but though I have searched my dissertation (on that subject), several of my collection of books on Insular Art, and various other publications I cannot find the image I am remembering. There are two horses - either that or the sculptor couldn't count as there are three hind legs . . . There also appear to be two heads on the figure, and one figure appears to be face on to the viewer. The nearest comparison I can make is with the viewer-facing (female) rider on the Hilton of Cadboll Pictish stone. She is on a larger equine though, probably riding side-saddle and although she has another horse behind hers, it is completely mirroring the outline of her horse. The weathering on the St Michael's stone hides the original intention and design, though even allowing for the cracking at the top of the piece, I believe there are two heads, not one, and the nearer rider could be jumping sideways off his horse, arms outstretched (an early Franki Dettori perhaps . . .) or possibly they are fighting - so you are seeing the BACK of the nearer figure, wielding (right-handed) his sword and the other is right-handedly fighting back? Dunno for sure . . .

This is a very unusual pre-historical spiral symbolism to appear on a Norman burial. In "The Celtic Christian Sites of the central and southern Marches" (Sarah & John Zaluckyj), they illustrate carved stone at Llangammarch Wells, which is set into the church wall and dated to between the 7th and 9th centuries. It is the remains of a pillar stone decorated with a wheel cross (top) and below a "gingerbread-man" type figure (!) with annulets (rings) around it and a full three ring spiral starting as the prehistoric examples on say, Newgrange in Ireland.

The same sculptor is believed to have been responsible for stone carvings now built into the east wall of the porch at Llanafan Fawr, near Builth Wells, and only a few miles from Llangammarch. There are also spirals found at Moylgrove in Pembrokeshire and Tregaron in Cardiganshire, and it is suggested that there may be stylistic links with Ireland on carvings accompanying the spirals and attributed to the same sculptor. So, links with Ireland; an enduring motif or belief which hints at a belt-and-braces approach to Christianity, even a thousand years on, or just a foible of the Normans?

Thelma - I'd love your take on this.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Kipling poem

This is quite my favourite church - at Capel-y-Ffin near Hay-on-Wye and it seemed to fit the image I had in mind for Eddi's church . . .

I've just looked this up (see comments from most recent post) and here's the poem in full:

Poetry by Rudyard Kipling - Eddi's Service

Eddi, priest of St. Wilfrid
In his chapel at Manhood End,
Ordered a midnight service
For such as cared to attend.

But the Saxons were keeping Christmas,
And the night was stormy as well.
Nobody came to service,
Though Eddi rang the bell.

"'Wicked weather for walking,"
Said Eddi of Manhood End.
"But I must go on with the service
For such as care to attend."

The altar-lamps were lighted, --
An old marsh-donkey came,
Bold as a guest invited,
And stared at the guttering flame.

The storm beat on at the windows,
The water splashed on the floor,
And a wet, yoke-weary bullock
Pushed in through the open door.

"How do I know what is greatest,
How do I know what is least?
That is My Father's business,"
Said Eddi, Wilfrid's priest.

"But -- three are gathered together --
Listen to me and attend.
I bring good news, my brethren!"
Said Eddi of Manhood End.

And he told the Ox of a Manger
And a Stall in Bethlehem,
And he spoke to the Ass of a Rider,
That rode to Jerusalem.

They steamed and dripped in the chancel,
They listened and never stirred,
While, just as though they were Bishops,
Eddi preached them The World,

Till the gale blew off on the marshes
And the windows showed the day,
And the Ox and the Ass together
Wheeled and clattered away.

And when the Saxons mocked him,
Said Eddi of Manhood End,
"I dare not shut His chapel
On such as care to attend."

Note: (A.D. 687)

Back tomorrow with the results of some research . . .

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Spring Sunshine and links with the Normans - part I, the church of St Michael

Today, map and Sian Rees' "Dyfed" in hand, my husband and I had a morning out to discover the ancient church of St Michael near Llansteffan. We had gone in search of it before, but forgotten our map, and been unable to find it. As it was, there are two ruined churches close to one another and I had been convinced it was the other we were looking for!

It was just above the marshes where the Afon Cwywn flows into the Taf and as magical a place as you could wish to be on a sunny spring morning. We followed the directions and parked outside the farmhouse of Trefenty - and WHAT a farmhouse, a double pile, enormous and towering over the excellent farm buildings, and with a beautiful garden and vast newly-dug pond. The ruins of what may have been an earlier farmhouse in a state of great distress, mouldered next door.

We followed directions and our map and made our way through the farmyard, our arrival broadcast by two collies and a one-eyed Jack Russell who escorted us across the fields to the ruined Norman church. The view across the sunlit marshes and sparkling river was superb. The ruined church - one wall entirely fallen down - sat amongst snowdrops, celendines and several yew trees. A long-abandoned horse-drawn hay tedder rusted away by the wall.

The church was originally probably founded by the Norman lords of the nearby 12th C motte and bailey castle, nearer the house. There are 6 burials dating from this period and probably associated with the original Norman Lords f the Manor, but legend has it that these were "pilgrim's graves" and the church a "pilgrim church" although Major Francis Jones stated that there were no such references prior to 1860. The church has been long abandoned and a new one built in a spot more convenient for parishoners. Francis Jones noted that:

"During the later period few worshippers came to the church of Llanfihangel, mainly because of remoteness, particularly during wintry weather. On one occasion, the congregation consisting of only the vicar, and pious old Mr. Evans of Llandeilo (his own church being then in disrepair), who always attended accompanied by a faithful sheep-dog to whom he was devoted, the vicar is said to have introduced into the prayers this extempore distich-

O Dduw, maddeu i ni ein tri
Ifans Llandeilo a finne a'r ci,

which I have ventured to translate as

O Lord, may forgiveness for us three be found
Evans Llandeilo, myself, and the hound."

There is also a wonderful prophecy that should the graveyard ever be neglected, then the parish would be visited by a plague of snakes! This, however, seems not to have ever been fulfilled. . .

There is a nearby abandoned church (that of Llandeilo, which is the one I nearly took us to by mistake, as that is also ruinous) which is also on the edge of the marshes, and abandoned for the same reasons as St Michael's, because it was at the very southern tip of its parish.

Of the pilgrim graves, I will write more tomorrow. However, the occupants of the farm had a curious custom:

In the Antiquities of Laugharne (1880) Mary Curtis has this to say about "the farmhouse called Treventy which occupies the site of a monastery. I visited this house which is large and substantially built, the walls enormously thick, bearing marks of great age ... I have been told that the dairy only is part of it [monastry]; that the kitchen before it was altered was a curious place. It is divided into two, and appears more ancient than the rest of the house. There was a while ago in front of the house, a passage with a roof to it, along which funerals had a right to pass to the church; out of it they have formed two rooms. At the back of the house I observed some walls looking very old. About ten minutes' walk from this farm, on the St. Clears side of it, is a small cottage very ancient, the walls exceedingly thick; it is called 'Treventy Gate'." She adds this about Trefenty mansion — "Opposite the front of the house, the river way, are earth works; here tradition says a battle was fought" — this is the castell of which I have spoken earlier.

Reference to the funeral practice is contained also in D. E. Jenkins's Life of the Rev. Thomas Charles, B.A., of Bala, published in 1908. He wrote, "Another custom of the parish is the old passage in the farmhouse of Treventy . . . . Funerals weddings, and the ordinary congregation had to pass through on their way to Church, and each individual had to present his (or her) name to the tenant of Treventy on passing through. There was no public way passing the Church, and the owner of the Manor of Oysterlowe Grange had no desire to forfeit his right and allow the public to claim a right of way; and this, probably was an ingenious contrivance whereby each person might be kept conscious of the private ownership of the path down to the Church. Even the horses and their litter had to pass with the body through the limits fixed by the old thick walls and the white-wash". In 1841 the path to the church is shown well eastwards of the house and outbuildings, and in all likelihood the custom had been discontinued before that time.

* * *

Perhaps most beguiling of all, is the local memory concerning an unconventional circumstance attending cheese-making at Trefenty. About the years 1860-64, Mr. Plowden permitted a shepherd to keep two cows on the demesne. Their milk enabled him to make cheese which he sold to augment his scanty wages. As he could not afford to buy a cheese-press (peis) the enterprising fellow went to the deserted churchyard and took a few of the fallen headstones, and with deftness and ingenuity fashioned the necessary article, which despite its homely construction proved thoroughly efficient. Farmhouse cheeses in those days were large and circular, often well over a foot, even two feet, in diameter, as delicious to the taste as nutritious for the system. Now, one of the stones used by the adroit shepherd bore the inscription "In memory of David Thomas", and those words came out clearly etched on the cheeses. He carried them to St. Clears and was not long before he attracted customers, one of whom having read the inscription on his purchase, observed "You have resurrected this cheese from Llanfihangel churchyard!" This caused much mirth, and thereafter the succulent produce of Trefenty became known throughout the district as "the Resurrection Cheese" — caws yr Atgyfodiad.

Many thanks to the Carmarthenshire Historian website,


where the article by Major Francis Jones was shown.

This tiny stone was between two others, so is presumed to be that of a child.

One of the female gravestones.

If you look carefully, you should see two animals on either side of her arms (for it is a female burial). I think they could be beloved dogs.

A fuller view of the same stone, showing the lattice pattern on the bottom of the stone.

This huge sword denotes the masculine grave and is similar to hogsback graves often found further north.

This is rather broken now, which is a shame.

The other hogsback, again decorated with a massive sword.