17 February 2019

Penarth : Joseph Parry

Today is the 116th anniversary of the death of renowned Welsh composer, Dr Joseph Parry (1841 – 1903). Now, I will freely admit that I’d never heard of Joseph Parry before I moved to Wales, and it was only the sight of his newly cleaned and restored, gleaming white marble gravestone in St Augustine’s churchyard in Penarth that led me to wonder who he was.

Yr Herald Cymraeg, 24 February 1903
Then, a few days after spotting his grave, I was reading a book a friend gave me a couple of years back, called The Cardiff Book of Days (Mike Hall, The History Press, Stroud, 2011), and found an entry about Parry in there. To enlighten the non-Welsh amongst you, here’s a brief summary from that book:

… composer of the famous song ‘Myfanwy’. Born in Merthyr Tydfil … worked in a mine as a child … emigrated with his family to Danville, Pennsylvania, where he worked in an iron mill ... began to compose music and he was awarded the Bardic title ‘Pencerdd America’ when he was inducted into the Gorsedd at the 1865 Aberystwyth Eisteddfod. A public subscription fund enabled him to study at the Royal Academy of Music and in 1874 he became Professor of Music at Aberystwyth University. He later became Head of Music at the new University College, Cardiff ... he composed many hymn tunes, including ‘Aberystwyth’ and the Welsh language opera, Blodwyn.…

His music was obviously much adored by the Welsh people, as was the man himself to judge by newspaper reports before and after his death. Several papers included almost daily reports of his final illness – this from the Evening Express, 14 February 1903:

We regret to state that the condition of Dr. Joseph Parry has taken a serious turn for the worse during the last twenty-four hours. Dr. Parry has occasionally suffered from a. long-standing complaint, and a week ago his condition was such that Dr. Hibbert, the family physician, deemed it necessary to call in Dr. Lynn Thomas to perform an operation. This was successful, and a speedy recovery was expected. On Friday, however, Dr. Parry's condition took a turn for the worse. There was a diminution of fever, and the temperature went down to 99, but the pulsation went up, and Dr. Hibbert considered this a bad sign. All the family are in attendance, with the exception of Mr. Mendelssohn Parry, who is in America. At three o'clock this morning we learned that Dr. Parry's condition had not materially changed since Friday evening. At 4.15 this morning the condition of Dr. Parry was reported to be unchanged. Morphia was administered at midnight, and since then at intervals the doctor has regained consciousness, and recognised those around his bedside At five o'clock he rallied, and somewhat improved in condition.

When he died a few days later, there seems to have been a national outpouring of grief. The Evening Express again, this time dated 18 February 1903:

Weekly Mail, 21 February 1903
With sincere regret we chronicle the death of the gifted musician and genial patriot Dr. Joseph Parry. Wherever there is a Welshman, it matters not in what corner of the world, the news will be received with a sense of personal loss. It is all the more sad because comparatively unexpected. Only a few weeks ago the doctor was in his accustomed health, and no one who saw him then would have imagined that the King of Terrors was so soon to lay his icy hand upon that vigorous and stalwart frame. Dr. Parry had lived his long and active life almost without an illness, and it often happens in such cases that a serious complaint ends fatally. Dr. Parry was a hard worker, a multifarious composer, a skilful instructor, a true friend, a delightful companion, and a Welshman to his finger tips. He had brilliant abilities, and the little boy who sweated before the puddling furnace lived to gain high distinctions, to enjoy all the honours the Eisteddfod could bestow, and to write music that will never die as long as a Welshman lives. His was a remarkable career, and one that will “fire the hearts of new endeavourers” amongst his countrymen for generations to come.

Weekly Mail, 28 February 1903

If you want to pay homage to this great Welshman, Joseph Parry’s grave is easy to find on the south side of St Augustine’s churchyard – the white marble stands out amongst the sea of grey headstones. The monument is impressive and topped, appropriately enough, by a lyre. According to the Friends of St Augustine’s website, where you can read more about Parry’s life and achievements, two of the instrument’s seven strings ‘are broken to represent the fact that two of his sons perished before him’.

08 February 2019

Lavernock : the old fort

When you walk along the Wales Coastal Path between Barry and Penarth, the route takes you past this old fort at Lavernock, now enclosed in a nature reserve, known in Welsh as Trwyn Larog and maintained by The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales.

The buildings we see today date from the Second World War but this place has been a fort since at least the mid-19th century, when the 1860 Royal Commission recommended the building of a fort to guard against invasion by the French.

During World War II the threat was mostly airborne so this concrete anti-aircraft battery was built, one of a series of defences along the Bristol Channel. The signboard at the site explains:

There were four 3.7” anti-aircraft guns arranged in a clover-leaf pattern with a lighter, 40mm Bofors gun nearby. There were also a command post, a magazine and a workshop. The crews slept in huts which have now vanished. Many similar batteries were built during the war, but few remain.

The site is unusual because two of the gun pits (1 & 2) had steel doors to allow the guns to be lowered to engage shipping. Pits 3 & 4 have earth banks but no concrete walls, and no separate magazine.

The numbered maps (above and left) show the positions of the various gun pits and, as you can see, there is another concrete building (5) at the southern end of the reserve. 

The signboard explains ‘this was a searchlight position for a shore battery, protecting the Bristol Channel from enemy ships. This shore battery now lies under the chalets’ of the St Mary’s Well Bay Caravan Park.

These days this structure often provides protection against bad weather for birders sea-watching and observing the annual bird migrations.

The whole site is now protected as a Scheduled (not so) Ancient Monument – the Ancient Monuments website provides more detailed information – but, sadly, that has not stopped graffiti artists from defacing the concrete with their tags. It is also not unusual in the summer months to encounter scantily clad elderly males lolling about in the sun on the rooftops here – you have been warned!

27 January 2019

Old Cogan : St Peter’s Church

St Peter’s Church is the oldest building in greater Penarth (though the area around the church and neighbouring farm is now called Old Cogan). Unfortunately, I haven’t been inside the old building – it was closed for renovation and conservation for a couple of years and is now only open for a single Sunday service once a month.

According to the signboard outside the entrance, the issue of conserving the church came to a head – or perhaps that should be a bottom – ‘when the organist fell through the floor in 2015’. ‘Water seeping in through raised soil levels on the north side of the church had rotted the wooden floor. Gutters were failing and the lack of ventilation in the building had resulted in serious damp problems.’

The photograph above was taken in April 2017, prior to the commencement of the conservation work, and you can see how high the soil level is at the back of the church (on the right in the image). This has now been dug out and a drainage system installed to try to keep water away from the stonework.

The church’s website gives some information about its history:
There is evidence of Roman remains which show that the area has been populated for at least 2000 years. It is probable that it was the Romans who first brought Christianity to Cogan. The energetic Celtic saints of the fifth and sixth centuries, however, gave the Christian mission a new lease of life. Among the second wave of Celtic Saints were Dewi, Gildas, Samson and Dochau. It was Dochau who established a monastery at Llandochau (LLandough). A community, linked to Llandochau was established at Cogan, it is not clear when or indeed whether a building was erected at this time. If so, it would have been of wattle and daub. A later version may have been built of wood.

When the Normans arrived and took this area from the Welsh kings, Lord Fitzhammon granted lands to knights who would supply him with military strength and serve on the local comitatus – in essence, the County Court. One of these knights established a fortified manor at Cogan – and built a church which was consecrated to St Peter. The new building may have been on the site of an older place of worship. The church was, at the beginning, linked to the Benedictine Monastery at Tewkesbury. Later, however, it became part of the Parish of Leckwith, Llandough and Cogan.

It is thought that the earliest parts of the current church building date from at least the 12th century. The herringbone pattern, made from small slabs of Lias limestone, was popular in both Celtic and Saxon communities. There have been many changes to the original building over the centuries: the nave was extended and a porch added to the building in the 16th century, and, though the church fell into disrepair in the 18th century and had become a ruin used to shelter cattle, it was renovated at the end of the 19th century when this area was under the control of the 3rd Marquis of Bute.

In the churchyard, in front of the porch, lies a big old lump of stone. This is the base that once supported a large stone cross. The base dates from the 15th century but the church authorities believe ‘the cross itself may have been far far older and could have dated back to the Celtic church era. The cross could well have been destroyed by Cromwell’s soldiers after the Battle of St Fagans. This was standard practice.’

Also in the churchyard are some magnificent Yew trees that look ancient and may well have been planted in pre-Christian days. The website explains that
One of the trees is a ‘bleeding yew’. Red sap runs from the trunk. This is a strange phenomenon explained over the years in many different ways. Some believe that Jesus Christ was crucified on a cross made from yew and that some trees will bleed forever. One local legend says that the tree will bleed until the Normans leave Wales and King Morgan’s family are back on the throne. That could be a bit tricky.

There was once a medieval village around St Peter’s and Old Cogan farm ... but that’s a story for another day.