Penarth to Barry – Cliffs, dinosaurs, wireless and coal.

The guidebook for the Wales Coast Path claims the total length is 896 miles. Quite a distance in anyone’s book, and probably one we won’t manage in it’s entirety, but Aunty and I are plugging away with determination. Early September is always a good time for a walk, especially if it’s not raining. This stretch of our undertaking was a fairly long walk from Penarth to Barry, a total of 12.6 miles (20.3km), and for once we were organised and took the train from home to Penarth. After passing through Cardiff it was all new train territory for us, passing through the litany of stations I’d heard over the station announcer’s tannoy for years: Grange Town, Coban, Dingle Road and finally Penarth. From the station is was down hill all the way to see the pier. And who can’t resist a walk to the end of a pier in the sunshine.

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Looking towards Cardiff Docks from Penarth Pier
This gentle seaside town was created the rich who had made their money from coal, where they built large houses overlooking the Bristol Channel, clinging to the steep hill side plunging down to the shore. It feels different to Cardiff, and is far enough by road and train to be different, but when you stand on the promenade you can almost touch Cardiff Bay and the Barrage just around the corner. A short walk under the cliffs at low tide and within 5 minutes you can be standing on the Barrage.

Old Penarth Photo
Penarth Pier cica 1900
Like many aspiring Victorian seaside towns Penarth has a pier. But unlike many other towns today, this pier is in good nick. Standing proud from the shore out into the Bristol Channel, it makes a fine spectacle in the sun. So much so that in 2014 it was voted Pier of the Year by the National Piers Society (it never ceases to amaze me that these sort of organisations exist). The pier was opened in 1898 after an earlier failed attempt when the contractors were bankrupted. It was intended as a landing stage for regular ferry boats to accommodate increasing number of visitors from Cardiff. Up until then the ferry boats were hauled up onto the beach. Originally it was primarily a wooden pier for the pleasure cruise ships, but in 1907 a small wooden concert hall was built on the end. During World War One, it was used as a base for mine sweepers, which over the years damaged the landing stage. The insurance payment form the MoD didn’t cover the cost of repair and eventually after a period of decline the pier was sold to Penarth Borough Council in 1929. Just after this the Art Deco pavilion was completed – in concrete so it wouldn’t burn down!

Penarth Pier
Penarth Pier – It was early and the pier was empty.
Even though the Pier looks in good condition today, there has been excitement in it’s history. In 1931 the wooden theatre caught fire, eventually burning itself out after three days. £3157 later the pier was rebuilt. Then in 1947 the SS Port Royal Park hit the pier during a gale cause a fair amount of damage, which took 3 years to repair. It was hit again in 1966 by the pleasure steamer PS Bristol Queen causing £25000 of damage. The last pleasure cruise from the pier was in 1982. A serious restoration project started in 1994, and the pier was opened again to the public in 1998. Through grants by the National Lottery we can again walk out over the sea – a job well done I think.

Penarth Pier from beach
Penarth Pier today.
The sea was mill pond smooth, a sight not often encountered on the Severn Estuary. From the pier it was a pleasant walk along the seafront up the hill and along the cliff tops towards Lavernock point. As soon as we left Penarth proper there were few people abroad and we had the path to ourselves. The sun was shining, it was warm and a fantastic walk. The hedgerows this year are full of fruit, and present a real picture against the blue skies.

Flatholm & Steepholm
Flatholm and Steepholm seen from Penarth.
A surprise along the way included stumbling across St Lawrence Church at Lavernock. The early history of the church is a little uncertain, but it’s thought to be a 12th century parish church. Like many small churches St Lawrence didn’t escape ‘improvement’ during by the Victorians. Little used today, except for a small number of services throughout the year, it appears to be isolated today with only a couple of houses nearby.

Lavernock Church
St Lawrence Church, Lavernock.
But Lavernock has other surprises in store. Least of which is it’s part in the history of wireless communication. Marconi and his assistants from the Post Office used Lavernock to transmit the first wireless communication transmission across water. On 13 May 1897 the first “Hello. Hello.” Was sent over the airways from Lavernock Point to Flatholm Island.  Kemp, a Cardiff man and a Post Office engineer who assisted Marconi, recorded the following in his diary.

Flatholm
Flatholm Island – the site of the first wireless transmission over water.
Mr Marconi’s apparatus was set up on the cliff at Lavernock Point, which is about twenty yards above sea-level. Here we erected a pole, 30 yards (27 m) high, on the top of which was a cylindrical cap of zinc, 2 yards (1.8 m) long and 1-yard (0.91 m) diameter.

Connected with this cap was an insulated copper wire leading to one side of the detector, the other side of which was connected to a wire led down the cliff and dipping into the sea. At Flat Holm Mr Preece’s apparatus was arranged, the Ruhmkorff coil also giving 20-inch (510 mm) sparks from an eight-cell battery.

On the 10th May experiments on Mr Preece’s electro-magnetic transmission method were repeated, and with perfect success.

The next few days were eventful ones in the history of Mr Marconi. On the 11th and 12th his experiments were unsatisfactory — worse still, they were failures — and the fate of his new system trembled in the balance.

An inspiration saved it. On the 13th May the apparatus was carried down to the beach at the foot of the cliff, and connected by another 20 yards (18 m) of wire to the pole above, thus making an aerial height of 50 yards (46 m) in all. Result, The instruments which for two days failed to record anything intelligible, now rang out the signals clear and unmistakable, and all by the addition of a few yards of wire!”

Sully Island
Sully Island peaking around the headland. This is a tidal island and currently has the highest number of Lifeboat call outs to rescue people caught out by the tide.
But this small piece of land butting out into the Severn Estuary has another secrets up it’s sleeve. In 1870 a gun battery was positioned here to protect the approach to the docks at Bristol and Cardiff. There is little to see today, but the remains of the coastal defences from the Second World War are still clearly visible along the edge of the Nature Reserve that now occupies the site. It would be too easy spend the day here, but we still had a long way to go. But not before I’d spent a few minutes watching a local game of cricket played next to the path.

Cricket Match Sully
The young bowler here took a catch directly from the batsman from this ball.
Aunty wanted to make a small detour to revisit one of our other Welsh 100 sites – the dinosaur footprints at The Bendricks (https://paulchallinor.com/2015/03/15/palaeontologists-for-the-day-but-dont-give-up-the-day-job/). The last time we came here the weather was cold and overcast. Then we had a challenge to find them, and it wasn’t much easier this time either. But they’re still there, despite someone having dug up a few and sold them in the USA. These are the footprints of some of the earliest dinosaurs in the world. At this time, 220 million years ago, dinosaurs had not long evolved from other crocodile-like reptiles and these ancestral animals were still present. They were soon to become extinct and leave the dinosaurs to dominate the land during the following Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods. Some of the footprints exposed here probably belong to some of these dinosaur ancestors.

Dinosaur Footprint
Guess which one is the dinosaur.
The next stage of the walk was a little unpleasant, and involved a 3 mile walk along a bury main road around the large chemical plant on the edge of Barry. One puzzling area caught my eye. There is a nature reserve on part of the old chemical works, but apparently there are dangerous things in there. So much so it warrants a keep out sign.

Chemical plant nature reserve
A chemical plant, a nature reserve and a “hazardous area” sign. I’ve seen those films where dangerous animals are breed from chemical experiments.
Eventually we arrived at Barry Docks. In 1871 Barry was just an ordinary village on the coast with a population of just 100 people. But how things change. By 1909 about 8,000 women and 10,000 men were employed in the docks alone. By 1913, Barry had out grown Cardiff as the premier coal exporting docks, and are even claimed to have been the busiest coal port in the world, exporting 11.05 million long tons (11,230,000 t; 12,380,000 short tons) at it’s peak.

Barry Dock Offices
Barry Docks Office stands on a prominent position overlooking the docks.
The docks were conceived by a group of local mine owners determined to break the hedgemony of Cardiff on coal exports and boy did they succeed. Today all that industry has vanished, leaving only empty pier and mooring points. The warehouses have been replaced by flats and housing developments. I’ll have to leave Barry a little short on words are there is so much to say. But perhaps we’ll return and have a wonder around here in the future.

Barry 170902

 

 

 

Paxton’s Tower – Egos and Money

High on a hill over looking the Cwm Towy and the meandering Afon Towy stands an improbable memorial to ego and money. A huge gothic tower glowers down on all below it. It’s not old by UK standards and was built by William Paxton in 1795. This is the same Paxton who lived at Middleton Hall, now the site of the National Botanic Garden of Wales. Now Paxton wasn’t a local man, but a Scotsman who had amassed a fortune in India. He joined the navy as a young man, but quickly realised he could make more money working with the East India Company. After a few years he became Master of the Calcutta Mint, and as they say the rest is history. In 1785 he returned to the UK very rich and determined to become a country gentleman, purchased Middleton Hall, then a run down estate. He built a new country house, designed by Samuel Cockerell.

Paxton Tower from Middleton Hall – now the National Botanic Gardens Wales

Now having money, a nice house and garden wasn’t enough for this ambitious man. He also wanted recognition of his own perceived importance. The local nobles apparently didn’t accept him, maybe because of their own snobbery of new money, but maybe also be due to the fact he may not have been a very pleasant man. Especially in his dealings with the locals. So Paxton decided that politics would be the best way to win hearts and minds. Before the days of universal suffrage, being elected was subject to who could ‘buy’ the most votes. He became Mayor of Carmarthen and was knighted. During this time as Mayor, Paxton entertained Admiral Lord Nelson who was visiting the town. But this was never going to be enough for him.


A bigger stage was needed, and so he stood for Parliament. In 1802 his campaign started, bribes included buy beer for voters and including a number of promises, the prime one of an intent to build and pay for a bridge over the Afon Towy. He wasnt elected, possibly because of rumour spread by one of his opponents claiming he was insolvent. It then seems he decided to sulk, and spent the bridge money on an ego project. Cockerell was commissioned to build a tower, to dominate and stand proud on the hill near to Middleton Hall. Cockerell originally designed a gothic tower, reminiscent of Paxtons Barth place of Edinburgh.

Paxton's Tower 170827
The tower is a huge 3 sided statement of money and power. The entrances are large enough to allow carriages driven up from Middleton Hall to pass through so that the pampered passengers could alight in the dry, then climb the stairs to the grand dining room. Originally the rooms were marble clad, and stained glass windows celebrated Nelsons victories over the French. It’s not possible to climb up the tower now and the windows are long gone leaving the tower with an unloved and forlorn feeling when you are standing underneath it. However that doesn’t detract from the fabulous views across the Towy and beyond. From there its’ possible to see three castles, Carreg Cennen, Dryslwyn and Dyserth. It’s claimed that you can see 7 counties from here, but I think this relates to the old counties of Wales.

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Eventually Paxton was successful in being elected to Parliament. Did he build the promised bridge? Did he heck!

Come into the garden Maud – Welsh 100 No 54

The National Botanic Garden opened to visitors back in the year 2000. Aunty and I have visited here a couple of times now over the years and the gardens have developed a great deal in that time. Based on a Regency country house and garden there are new, old and unusual sights wherever you look. These include the worlds largest single span greenhouse, traditional walled gardens and a national nature reserve. 


The gardens are based upon the original house built in Llanarthne by the Middleton family sometime around 1650. The Middleton made their riches through the East India Company. The estate was sold in 1789 to William Paxton, who also made much of his wealth from the East India Company. Paxton commissioned a new hall from Samuel Pepys Cockerall, and gardens from Samuel Lapidge, apprentice and successor to Capability Brown. After Paxton death in 1824 the Estate is bought by Edward Adams, but falls into disrepair when family fortunes wane. Unfortunately the main house burnt down in 1931, before the estate was divided into 7 starter farm units for lease. 


The work on restoring the gardens is impressive. The main walled gardens create microclimates where fruit and flowers can be shown off to the best advantage. The servants quarters and stables provide conference, lecture and visitor facilities ensuring the buildings have been rescued. 


But the main WOW factor comes from the huge single span greenhouse that provides a fantastic display of plants from around the world. These are arranged in regional displays, allowing us to gawp at the beutiful flowers from California sitting next to from from Australia. A display not to be forgotten in a hurry.


Now just a few photographs of the flowers and gardens to whet your appetite and encourage you to visits yourselves.







Cors Caron

Strata Florida MapOn our way back from our day at the Tregaron Races and tour around Strata Florida we passed Cors Caron. Now I’ve been wanting to visit here for years, but few were never on the area. This time we were in the right area, but it was early evening so this was only a very quick visit. But we saw enough to want to come back again. Cors Caron is a nature reserve just off the main road between Tregaron and Pontrhydfendigaid. This isn’t just any reserve. Covering an area of some 2,000 acres, the reserve is made up of three raised bogs built up from deep layers of peat that have taken around 12,000 years to form.

Cors Caron 170827

Normally I get very wet when wandering around bogs, as I have a tendency to step in the wrong place, needing up to my knees in wet stuff. However, because of a network of boardwalks it’s possible to access the wild areas and the centre of the bogs. This gives you access to the beasties that you’d never normally see, except with a lot of effort, swearing and grunting as you fight your way through the morass.

Cors Caron 170827

Running in and around the reserve is the River Teifi. This gives the area whole new habitat supporting  interesting species of fish, otters and aquatic plants. No otters today though. This is a must place to revisit. I can’t wait.

Black Darter 170826
Black Darter – Sympetrum danae

Strata Florida

Strata Florida MapThe isolation of Mid-Wales today can sometimes be misleading, and shouldn’t be used to judge the past. The villages may seem to be empty and a long way from each other, but when they were established the countryside population would have been very different from today. Without the modern machinery we take for granted today, farming the land would have required a high workforce. Scattered throughout the high seemingly empty landscape of Wales are a number of Abbeys. Now just skeletons in the landscape, but once rich in both financial and spiritual terms, and in control of huge expanses of land. Strata Florida Abbey was no exception, and is perhaps considered as the archetypical Welsh Abbey. The opportunity to visit was too good to miss on our visit to the Tregaron Races.

Strata Florida  170826

It is thought, but not certain, that the Abbey was founded in 1164 by Robert fitz Stephen, constable of Cardigan Castle, as a daughter house of Whitland. It was the Cistercians of both Whitland and Strata Florida that tried to take control of Talley Abbey to the south. Even at this early time the family history of the Normans in Wales were complicated. Robert was part Norman, but his mother was Nest, daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr [1]. However, Strata Florida was not to remain long in Robert’s patronage, in the following year Rhys ap Gruffudd, lord of Deheubarth, overran Ceredigion and took it from the Normans. Lord Rhys was an able politician and soldier, consolidating his influence and power over Dehuebarth in the following years. So much so that he became an ally of the English Kings, and was allowed to rule without too much interference or threat. In 1184, Rhys extended the abbey’s endowment so that the core estate came to comprise some 80,000 acres. A huge area which proved to be the foundation for riches based upon sheep farming. Many of Lord Rhys’ dynasty were buried here, though Rhys himself was interred at Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff.

Strata Florida  170826

Under the patronage of Deheubarth Strata Florida’s influence as a religious and political centre increased. It was in Strata Florida that one of the most important primary sources of Welsh history was written, the Brut y Tywysogyon.  This close connection with Welsh politics led to suspicions on the part of the English that Strata Florida was not to be trusted. In 1212 King John ordered the destruction of the abbey, which he claimed ‘harbours our enemies’ – fortunately, his orders seem not to have been carried out but it seems that the bribe the Abbey had to pay to escape destruction was large [1]. The political connections of the monks spread further than the rulers of south Wales. In 1238 the abbey was the venue for a particularly significant meeting called by the ruler of Gwynedd, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth. It was here that he made the other Welsh leaders acknowledge his son Dafydd as his rightful successor.

Strata Florida  170826

But the relative prosperity didn’t last. Despite it’s isolation, Strata Florida couldn’t escape the continuing wars between the Welsh and the English [1]. In 1294 the Abbey was destroyed by English troops during a Welsh revolt, although Edward I denied that he had ordered this. But intrigue and politics can also be internal, and we forget the money that can be gained from being in charge of a rich Abbey. Around 1385, John ap Rhys, abbot of the daughter house of Aberconwy (Maenan) wanted control of Strata Florida and entered the abbey with armed men and seized the common seal of the abbey, and other property. During the war with Owain Glyndwr the English seized the Abbey and garrisoned it against the Welsh. It was eventually returned to the Cistercian Order. But even then, things weren’t squeaky clean. A monk was accused of counterfeiting coin in 1534. The decline in fortune continued and by 1535 the Abbey was valued £118 7s 3d – well below the £200 mark needed for a religious house to remain open. In February 1539 it was suppressed by Henry VIII.

Strata Florida  170826

The skeleton of the Abbey now provides an echo only of past glories. But in an area of beauty as it bounds under the rising hill sides behind. The relatively modern church next door was built around 1700. Mind you it’s only in the UK you can claim a church that is 400 years old to be modern! The church yard seems to be too large for such a sparsely populated area, but this used to be a lead mining area, though there is precious little evidence to be seen in the countryside. It is said that Dafydd ap Gwilym (1315-50) spent some time at Strata Florida, and is buried under the yew tree in the church yard. Dafydd was chiefly a love poet and some 150 of his poems survive.

Strata Florida  170826

Lastly, what about the name Strata Florida? Doesn’t sound very Welsh does it? It is in fact is a Latinisation of the Welsh Ystrad Fflur; “Valley of Flowers”. The Welsh word ystrad is synonymous with “strath” and “dale”, while fflur (“flower”) is also the name of the nearby river. So there you have it. I think I prefer Ystrad Fflur.

A Day At The Races – Welsh 100 No 53

Strata Florida Map
You have to love Wales! There are so many unexpected things to do and see in such a small country. Aunty and I went racing at the weekend. Not your normal racing mind. This was racing with a difference, but chariot racing. Well Trotting to be accurate. Not quite Celts hollering and screaming, but still exciting. Was it at a big race course, with a large spectator stand? No it was in a field in the middle of the most sparsely populated counties in Wales, with the nearest village about 5 miles away, and the nearest town 10 miles away (neither of which   could boast more than 1000 souls living there). This made it even more exciting.

Tregaron Races 170826

All the expected aspects of racing were there, horses, riders, bookies, a drinks tent, food outlets – well a burger van, and an ice cream van. And the field was full, with plenty of people milling around, eating, drinking and betting, loosing money and generally having fun. The weather helped of course – the sun was shining and the hills gave it all a fantastic feel.

 

Tregaron Races 170826

Now Aunty and I know nothing about horses, other than they are big and smelly (well that’s my take on them anyway. We know even less about racing, and less than nothing about trotting. It seems its a highly technical sport, with the horses having to run in a specific manner. But I’m afraid you’ll have to look for explanations elsewhere if you’re interested, as it’s all too complicated for a man who can barely run in a straight line, let alone ride a horse.

IMG_6551

So the first point of business was to buy the race card. This turns out not to be a card, but a book. 20 minutes later we had deciphered the abbreviations, names of the horses and drivers, and were ready to make a guess on which one would win. Serious study was required and we both made our choices for the first three races. Karen came out as the winner, with 2 third paces and a winner.

Tregaron Races 170826

None of my horse were placed. So a change in strategy was required. The studying of past form was abandoned, and I went for names that I liked and the colours of the riders. this worked in the next few races I picked a winner and had two second places. Now don’t think we were rolling in the money after this – both winers were the favourites and so at odds of 2 to 1 and 5 to 2, millionaires we were not. In total we managed to pick three winners, but one of them was disqualified for galloping and not trotting. We may not be able to retire and buy the yacht yet, but it was fun.

Tregaron Races 170826

Talley Abbey – Bankruptcy and Battles

Hidden away in the Cothi Valley are the ruins of an abbey, but this one has a slightly Talley Mapdifferent history to any of the other monasteries in Wales. Talley Abbey was founded by the White Canons, the Premonstratensians. I have to admit that I’ve never heard of this order before, but I’ll try not to feel inadequate though, but this was the only site on Wales that this order occupied, though there were a number of monasteries in England. The Premonstratensians were influenced by the Cistercian order and even adopted their white habit. But they follow the activities of the Augustinians in that they are not monks but Canons Regular, and their work often involves preaching and the exercising of pastoral ministry, frequently serving in parishes close to their abbeys or priories (1).

Talley Abbey 170826
The abbey was originally founded by founded by Rhys ap Gruffydd in or about 1185, and he in turn may have been influenced by Ranulf de Glanvil (2) in his political desire to ‘keep on the good side’ of the English. Something he was good at. Even though the Abbey was sited in a rural and isolated spot, not all peace in the vale and Talley Abbey had a turbulent history. Early in its history the canons had to defend themselves against the ambitions of the nearby Cistercian abbeys of Strata Florida and Whitland. Sometime between 1193 and 1202, Peter the Abbot of Whitland sought to take over the abbey by appropriating its estates and tempting the canons away from Talley (2). Whitland almost succeeded, but not quite and after an expensive battle the White Canons returned to Talley. But they never really recovered financially. Despite continued endowments from the Princes of Deheubarth after Lord Rhys’ death, it seems that the close association between the Abbey, it’s Welsh canons and the Princes may not have been in it’s best interests. Especially after Edward I’s successful campaign in subduing Wales in the 1370’s. Money always seemed to be short, and there is a hint that this was partly due to misappropriation of funds by the canons, but the original ambitious plans to build a large church had to scaled down. On at least 3 occasions during it’s lifetime the Abbey was taken in Royal Custody due to debts (2,3). But they couldn’t have all been bad, Iorwerth, abbot of Talley, was elevated to the see of St David’s in 1215 and continued in office until his death in 1229. He was buried in St David’s Cathedral where his tomb effigy can still be seen. Or maybe he was a more successful political worker than the others.
Talley Abbey 170826
During Owain Glyndwr’s war of independence, or rebellion depending upon which side you were, the Abbey’s close association with the Welsh cause didn’t do it any good. Around 1410 the war trundled into the quiet valley and the Abbey was ‘despoiled, burned and nearly destroyed’ by the English. Almost 10 years after the war ended, one of the canons Mathew ap Llewelyn Du was still being sought for treason against the crown (2,3). Despite the suppressive English rule, rebellion was seen at all levels of the community.

Talley Abbey 170826

Financial solvency continued to be a challenge. In 1536 the Valor Ecclesiasticus  estimated Abbey to have an income of only £135 (3). This put it firmly in the minor league and 1 year later in 1536 the Abbey was suppressed and duly dissolved as part of Henry VIII’s argument with the Catholic Church. The valley is remote today, and off the main roads, but that does not detract from the beauty of the site. There is not much left today, and after the dissolution the locals mined the abbey to build their houses.Next to the Abbey is a small church, dedicated to St. Michael. This was rebuilt in 1773, having fallen into decay, principally using stones from the ruins of the ancient abbey. It is unusual for Welsh Churches, and is strongly of a Grecian style (4).

Talley Abbey 170826

Today it stands out proudly with its whitewashed walls, and ordered graveyard on the shores of two small lakes. The Welsh name for Talley is Talyllychau, meaning ‘head of the lakes’. In between the lakes is a narrow bar, and the English built a Motte and Bailey Castle onlåy. Now the old castle and the lakes form a nature reserve.

References

  1. Premonstratensians. Wikipaedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Premonstratensians. (accessed 29-Aug-2017).
  2. Rees, S. (1992) A Guide to Ancient and Historic Dyfed. HMSO:London.
  3. Burton, J. (2015) Abbeys and Priories of Medieval Wales. University of Wales Press. Kindle Edition.
  4. Talley. Genuki.  http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/wal/CMN/Talley. (accessed 29-Aug-2017)

 

Brecon Jazz Festival – Welsh 100 No 52

Brecon town nestles in the shadow of the iconic Pen-y-Fan, the highest point in South Wales. The Welsh name is Aberhonddu, and is the meeting point of the rivers Honddu and Usk. Now it’s not a large town by many standard with a population of just over 8000 worthy souls. But it is an old town, and like many old towns it is full of surprises. Recognising it’s strategic position the Romans built a fort near here. Then the Normans followed almost a 1000 years later and continued to dominate the area with a castle.

Not only does it have history, a fantastic view of the Brecon Beacons, a canal but also a cathedral. One thing we do. well in Wales is having Hugh cathedrals in small towns hidden from the world. But we weren’t here for teh history this time but to sample Brecon Jazz Festival. This has been a long time coming, as we’ve been saying for the past 25 plus years “We must go the the festival this year”, but never made it. We stayed just outside Brecon, and the walk along the canal into the town set the scene well.


Now I do have a small confession to make. We were too tight to pay the almost £100 for the festival tickets themselves, especially as we are not big fans of jazz. Yes, I know it may be a difficult to thing for some to confess, but at least I do have a couple of Miles Davis albums, including A Kind of Blue (which I do like). The festival started in 1984 when Jed Williams, owner of The Four Bars Inn organised a series of gigs. George Melly, who had a house close by, performed on the first weekend. After that it took off big time, and many of the biggest names have played in this small, out of the way town. And despite funding challenges a couple of years ago in the depression it continues to attract large audiences.


So, if we didn’t attend the main festival what did we do? Well, the whole town is given over to music for the weekend, and there is a whole fringe element going on. There is a main stage in the centre of  the town where jazz ensembles share the stage with local choirs. But more importantly all the pubs have a full program of groups and solo artists to singing everything from folk, rock, pop and wells as jazz. A perfect excuse for visitin a few drinking houses. I like that idea!

The pubs weren’t the only places where you could hear and feel the vibe. Around every corner you’d come across another surprise.


Not to be outdone the cathedral choir were also sing their hearts out, though this was a practice for a formal service performance.


But outside in the priory gardens the jazz performances continued. It was difficult to avoid music, but why would you. The eclectic mix meant that it would be difficult not to find something you’d like.


I like Breacon as a town, and there is always something that surprises me around one of the corners. The small group of houses, just below the cathedral, seems to have been left behind in time almost.


And of course, we have to remember that Brecon is a country town, surrounded by rich farmland. Therefore is obligatory to have a tractor driving down the street. Not only one but two.


If you ever have the chance, visit Brecon, but try to do it during the Festival weekend. We be going back to the festival.

A day at the seaside – Llansteffan

The weekend weather was glorious, a cloudless sky, temperatures in the mid 20s. What else could we do except spend the day at the seaside? And there are fewer beaches better than that at Llansteffan. And there’s a castle, what else could we need? There have been people living at LLansteffan for 1000s of years. The present castle, well what’s left of it at least, was built on the the site of a bivallate Iron Age promontory fort towering over the River Tywi. The original castle made use of the older earthwork ditches. In many ways this is a perfect place for a castle, with an approach only possible from the landward side, there other three sides protected. by steep slopes and cliffs.

Llansteffan 170619
Llansteffan Castle from the sea shore

The first Norman castle was built sometime in the 1100s. The date is uncertain as there are no written records that detail it’s construction. The secluded beach soon became a shipping haven and a borough grew up in the shadow of the castle. It was captured in 1146 by the grandsons of Rhys ap Tewdwr (d1093), the last prince of South West Wales. They managed to defend it from an attempt by the Normans to recapture it, but then abandoned the castle. The castle was then granted to the de Camille family, but was again attacked and taken by Lord Rhys in 1189  (one of the earlier successful attackers in 1146). Then again in 1215 Llewelyn Fawr attacked. Each time the castle was restored to the de Camille family who repaired and improved the castle. But obviously not well enough, as in 1257 Rhys Fechan, Lord Rhys’s grandson, attacked the castle. It seems to be a family tradition.

Llansteffan 170619
The extent of the original stone castle finished at the tower to the left, but the castle of the main ward was extended to the line of the main gate house seen on the right.

 

The castle was attacked for the last time in 1405-6 by Owain Glyndwr. It eventually reverted back to the crown, and was possessed for a while by Jasper Tudor, Henry IV’s uncle. But over the years the castle was neglected and fell into ruin. By the 18th century, the structure had survived as a part of a private farm. But don’t let the fact that it is a ruin put you off from climbing up the steep hill to visit. The nearest carpark is either on the sea shore or in the town itself, but the 3/4 mile walk is worth it. And because it requires a little effort you are likely to find the place deserted and all to yourself.

Llansteffan 170619
Looking up the River Tawe from the castle walls. Who can resist a view like that?
Llanstephan Castle by Moonlight, with a Kiln in the Foreground 1795-6 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Llansteffan Castle by Moonlight, with a Kiln in the Foreground” Joseph Turner c.1795

 

For a while Llansteffan remained a small village, dependent upon fishing and cockles, but the the advent of Romanticism in the early 18th century, the village had a new lease of life. With a fantasic scenery, a ruined castle, and easy access by ferry, Llansteffan began to attract antiquaries and artists. Turner may be one of the most prominent.

As fashion for sea-bathing spread throughout Wales along with the advent of trains to Ferryside on the opposite bank of the Tawe, the number of visitors increased. Ferry boats would meet the trains at Ferryside, bringing them across the river to the wide sandy beach. Summer visitors increased further with miners holidays in August. Entertainment was provided by concerts, eisteddfodau and dances. The highlight of the holiday was the Mock Mayor ceremony, held in the woodland known as the Sticks, where a platform was erected and basic seating provided.

Llansteffan 170619
Now that’s a beach!
IMG_5994
Inn at the Sticks

The village is charming, though the shops have almost all gone now, not surprising today. The village Pound, once used to house stray animals is now a gallery, there’s still a village store that doubles as the post office and restaurant. But if you fancy lunch you could follow us into the  ‘Inn at the Sticks”, go on you know you’re hungry.

 

 

Ferryside 170619
Llansteffan from Ferryside. No ferry today, but there are plans to reinstate it during the peak season.

Castell Dolbadarn

After climbing mountains with Paul S during our holiday recently in North Wales it was time for something a little more relaxing.  And what better place to visit than a welsh castle, and we have a lot to choose from here in Wales. Castle Dolbadarn stands proud on a small hill overlooking Llyn Padarn and Llyn Peris, but the whole area is dominated now by the remains of one of the largest slate mines in Wales. But this just add to the overall ambiance of the place. The severe juxtaposition of the beauty of Llanberis, nestling under the shadow of Snowdon with the severrity of the industrial exploitation of natural resources and the romantic mystery of castles (although they were built for real reasons of defence and violence) is striking. This tripartite conflict of concepts makes this place important. Add to this that it was built by Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, one the hero’s Wales makes it a place to visit.Dolbadarn Castkle 170508

Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, Prince of Gwynedd, had spent a great deal of his reign in  consolidating his control not only over North Wales, but also of the rest of Wales. As if this was not enough Llewelyn was also in conflict with both King John and King Henry III of England. Once he had united most of Wales under his rule and resisted pressure from England there was a need to strengthen the defences and Castell Dolbadarn was an integral part of this effort to consolidate and protect his lands. Dolbadarn, along with similar castles at Dolwyddelen and Castell-y-Bere protected the main land access points into the stronghold of Gwynedd. Built sometime before 1230, Dolbadarn protected the Llanberis Pass, control access into Snowdonia and the valuable livestock pasture of the valleys below. Llewelyn’s ability to build a series of castles was an outward sign of security of his tenure and growing wealth. Building stone castles were expensive undertakings, and required not only money but skills and manpower to do so.

Dolbadarn Castkle 170508

Dolbadarn was built over a period with different design features, and the tower or main keep is a rare example of a multi-storey round tower built by a Welsh Prince and uniquely it has been fitted with a portcullis. Documentation relating to the building of Dolbadarn is no longer available, if it ever was. Therefore architectural historians are not sure about the sequence of building. But it has been suggested that the keep may have been the last addition to the castle. As well as series of external walls and buildings there are two further ‘towers’, but these were much lower in height compared with the main keep. Another quirk within the castle design is the complex stairway within the keep in which the spiral reverses direction at the halfway point. Compared with the castles built by the English, it is not as large, robust or impressive, and even though it would not have survived a prolonged and determined siege, Dolbarn would still have presented a barrier to anyone entering the pass.

Dolbadarn Castkle 170508

The Welsh were able to hold out against their much stronger and more populous neighbours in England for a considerable time following the invasion in 1066 by Norman the Conquerer. They were helped by multiple civil wars, power struggles and wars with the French over this time. Wales was also a small and poor country and didn’t really represent a major threat to the English Kings. Perhaps would should also remember that the concept of Nationhood as we understand today didn’t really exist then. The King did not “own” the country as such, and all the barons ruled their own areas on behalf of the King. To a certain extent this view was also replicated in Wales, and the Welsh Princes were allowed to rule, but only if they acknowledged the stronger English King as overlord. Throughout this time the Welsh sided with various Barons in the disputes with either the king or other neighbours. Likewise the English allied themselves with the Welsh princes when they fought amongst themselves to gain control. It was all about gaining more land and power. Either by battle or by alliances arranged through marriage. Llewelyn was married to King John’s illegitimate daughter, Joan. And two of their children were likewise married to powerful Marcher lords on the Welsh-English border.

Dolbadarn Castkle 170508

However, the unification of Was under Llewelyn was shorted lived. After his death in 1240 Wales was broken up into the smaller kingdoms of previous years. The Welsh inheritance laws prevented the passing of all titles and power to a single heir, and areas were divided amongst his sons, with Llewelyn ap Gruffudd controlling Gwynedd. Henry III took advantage of this weekend state and at the Treaty of Woodstock (1247) stripped Gwynedd of control of all lands to the east of Conwy. By 1255 though, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (the Last) had defeated his opponents and at the Treaty of Montgomery (1267) was recognised by English and Welsh alike as overlord of Wales. During this period he imprisoned his elder brother, Owain ap Gruffudd, in Dolbadarn Castle; he would spend nearly 20 years incarcerated there living in the top floor of the Keep.

Dolbadarn Castkle 170508
Weeks holiday with Paul Swain

Llywelyn ap Gruffudd came into conflict with Edward I in 1276 after the Welsh Prince failed to perform homage on multiple occasions. The English King invaded the following year and overran the eastern portion of the Principality although Dolbadarn itself, in the central heart of Snowdonia, was far removed from this conflict and saw little action. Nevertheless Llywelyn was defeated and in the Treaty of Aberconwy (1277) accepted the permanent loss of all lands east of the River Conwy. He was also required to release Owain ap Gruffudd from Dolbadarn Castle.

Dolbadarn Castkle 170508

The Second War of Welsh Independence started in 1282 initiated by Dafydd ap Gruffudd, Llewelyn’s younger brother. The Prince had little choice but to support this folly and this time Edward I was determined to conqueror Wales in its entirety. Llywelyn was killed in December 1282 at the Battle of Orewin Bridge whilst Dafydd fled first to Dolwyddelen then onto Castle y Beer and finally to Dolbadarn Castle. One by one the English took these strongholds and Dafydd was eventually captured on 21 June 1283. He was taken to Rhuddlan and subsequent hanged, drawn and quartered at Shrewsbury.

 

Following the conquest of 1283, Dolbadarn Castle was plundered for building materials in support of the construction of Caernarfon. Nevertheless it remained the administrative centre for the Royal manor with some repairs being made in the early fourteenth century and the east building was added at this time. The castle may have been reactivated and used as a prison during the 1400 rebellion led by Owain Glyndŵr for it has been suggested that Lord Grey, captured at Ruthin Castle, was held at the site. Little is known about the castle after this but the external stone stairway was added no later than the mid-eighteenth century by which time Dolbadarn had become a picturesque ruin, and was soon to be painted by Turner.