21 December 2016

Cardiff does Christmas

I won’t actually be in Cardiff for Christmas as I’m off to Cornwall with a friend for a week but here’s a little of what I’ve been seeing in the lead up to the big day ...

Winter Wonderland takes over the green in front of City Hall. With its Giant Wheel, an artificial ice-skating rink, rides for young and old, and lots of eateries, it’s a favourite place for folks to relax after their hectic bouts of Christmas shopping.

And speaking of shopping ... the huge St David’s Mall and all the shops in the streets round about are sparkling with decorations and geared up to sell you everything you never wanted at the best possible prices. An Advent-calendar-type countdown of specials seems particularly popular this year.

Haven’t seen much of Santa but he’s probably been hiding away in his various grottos.

Not a lot of snowmen either and not a snow flurry in sight.

Lots of people adorn their front doors with wreaths that look very pretty. You can glimpse trees twinkling away indoors as well, but I thought photos of those might be a bit intrusive.

Speaking of trees, though ... here are mine (a beautiful driftwood tree made for me by a wonderful friend), theirs (in one of the malls) and ours (the much discussed and criticised Cardiff Council tree – don’t even get me started on that story!).

The city looks lovely in the early evenings (it gets dark now around 4pm) when the street decorations light up. This photo also shows some of the Christmas market stalls that line one of the streets.

More city lights ...

Saving the best till last ... Despite ‘that tree’ Cardiff Castle does look lovely, mostly because of the deer grazing on the front lawn. I presume they are meant to be reindeer though none have antlers and one of the special things about reindeer is that, as well as the males, most of the females also grow antlers. Still, these gorgeous beasties are most definitely my favourites! 

18 December 2016

Christmas Nutcrackers

I don’t know about you but the Christmas nutcracker soldiers freak me out more than a little! 

When I see them, and particularly when I’m standing close to the life-size (and larger!) versions, I keep thinking I’m in an episode of Doctor Who and the soldiers are alien beings that will suddenly come to life and try to take over the earth.

Presumably it’s the large teeth-bared mouth and generally fierce expression that gives me these fanciful ideas. Of course, the mouth of the smaller versions would once have been a functioning nutcracker, so it had to be large enough to fit the nuts, and, according to the German traditions from which this particular form of nutcracker is derived, these characters were intentionally created to look fierce. They were gifted

as keepsakes to bring good luck to your family and protect your home. The legend says that a nutcracker represents power and strength and serves like a trusty watch dog guarding your family from evil spirits and danger. A fierce protector, the nutcracker bares its teeth to the evil spirits and serves as the traditional messenger of good luck and goodwill.

My vivid imagining of the nutcrackers coming to life is, I’m sure, also prompted but the various versions of the Nutcracker story, both E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816 tale of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and the version by Alexander Dumas which, when set to Tchaikovsky’s superb composition, became The Nutcracker ballet, a perennial Christmas favourite.

These days many of the life-size statues you see decorating shops, restaurants and Santa’s Grottos at Christmas time have lost their fearsome grimace and it’s not clear whether they’re still meant to be representations of the soldiers, knights and kings that featured in the nutcracker stories, or whether the image has been conflated with that of The Little Drummer Boy, or whether they’re something else altogether. 

11 December 2016

Edward VIII pillar box

Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David Windsor was King for less than a year, from 20 January 1936 till his abdication on 11 December that same year. It should come as no surprise then that items that carry the Edward VIII name, insignia, portrait (like coinage) or emblem are few and far between. So, I was rather pleased to get a photo of this pillar box carrying the royal cipher of Edward VIII, one of only two known to exist in Wales.

According to a list I found online, there are around 170 known Edward VIII pillar boxes, most of which are in England. Apparently, more still exist that were manufactured and put in place during Edward VIII’s short reign but their doors were changed to display the cipher of George VI after Edward’s abdication. Images of some of the other extant Edward VIII pillar boxes can be found on Wikimedia here,  

I am not alone in having a fascination for such things: the Humbugshouse blog has a great post with lots of photo of many of the English boxes, and there is even a Letter Box Study Group, whose aims are ‘to encourage research, preservation, restoration and awareness of letter boxes and the definitive description and documentation of their types and locations.’  

For pillar box aficionados, I have blogged previously about some of the other pillar boxes I’ve found, and my local Edward VIII pillar box can be found in Heol Don, in the Cardiff suburb of Whitchurch. Its importance is obviously well recognised as the fence of the house behind it has been altered to accommodate it.

21 November 2016

‘Dedicated Naturalist’: Shackleton’s Penguin

Though the Explore Your Archive event at National Museum Cardiff last Saturday was about the Wonder Women of Wales (like our dedicated naturalist Dr Mary Gillham), the thing that initially attracted the attention of passers-by to our stand was this penguin. And it was every inch the star attraction.

It’s a King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicusthat was presented to the museum by renowned Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton

Standing around 90cms tall, the King penguin is a most impressive bird and proved taller than many of the small children who admired it standing proudly in its glass case. 

As the chart below, from Mary Gillham’s book Instructions to Young Ornithologists: IV Sea Birds (Museum Press, 1963) shows, the King is second only in size to the Emperor. 

Strictly speaking, it’s not actually an Antarctic penguin as it prefers slightly warmer climes and it breeds on the sub-Antarctic islands that are dotted around the globe below New Zealand and Australia, Africa and South America.

The Nimrod, Photographs of the Nimrod Expedition (1907-09) to the Antarctic, led by Ernest Shackleton; image dated 1908; source: Archive of Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research. This image is in the Public Domain.
The penguin was collected on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1908-09 Nimrod expedition. In its archives the museum still has a letter about Shackleton’s gift of this penguin, sent to The Director of the National Museum of Wales on 17 March 1910 from the British Antarctic Expedition 1907 HQ in London and signed by Shackleton:

Dear Sir,
In reply to your letter of yesterday’s date, I beg to say that I have much pleasure in presenting a King Penguin to the National Museum for the Principality of Wales. I have instructed Messrs Rowland Ward, Piccadilly, London, to send one on to you.

Rowland Ward Limited was a well-regarded firm of taxidermists that processed many of the dead creatures that made their way back to Britain from world explorations of the Victorian era and later, and the company also specialised in game-hunting trophies and in manufacturing bizarre items made from animal off-cuts, like zebra-hoof inkwells. Perhaps surprisingly, the firm is still trading, though is now based in South Africa.

From left: Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams, on their return to the Nimrod from their Antarctic explorations; Photographs of the Nimrod Expedition (1907-09) to the Antarctic, led by Ernest Shackleton; image dated 1908; source: Archive of Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research. This image is in the Public Domain.

Have you worked out yet why we had Shackleton’s penguin alongside our stand at the Wonder Women event? Well, Shackleton and his crew aboard the
Nimrod returned to Britain via the sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island, one of the places where King penguins live and breed, so it’s highly likely this penguin was collected during that stopover. And Mary Gillham was one of the first four women ever to enter the Antarctic region, spending a month on Macquarie Island over Christmas 1959 – New Year 1960. As well as studying Macquarie’s flora, Mary conducted scientific research into the island’s bird life including, of course, King penguins.

The Mary Gillham Archive Project will be blogging about Mary’s Antarctic adventures in December so keep an eye on the project website for those posts. And you can read more about this and the other penguins in the National Museum Cardiff’s collection here.

19 November 2016

‘Dedicated Naturalist’: The story behind the story

Today marks the beginning of Explore Your Archive, a campaign co-ordinated jointly by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association that ‘aims to showcase the unique potential of archives to excite people, bring communities together, and tell amazing stories’.

From my volunteer work on the ‘Dedicated Naturalist’ Project, helping to decipher and digitise, record and publicise the life’s work of naturalist extraordinaire, Dr Mary Gillham, I know from personal experience how exciting it is to read diaries about everyday life in my native New Zealand in the 1950s and how our work with Mary’s archives is revealing the amazing stories of her adventurous life.

So, to celebrate the start of Explore Your Archive, here’s my story of Mary’s story behind the newspaper story.

This newspaper article about Mary appeared in Britain’s Daily Mail on Friday 22 November 1957.

Dr Mary spends a fuming week-end
An English woman botanist returned to Tauranga today from a week-end spent in one of the world’s loneliest spots – a fuming island-volcano.
She is Dr. Mary Gillham, whose parents live at Ealing, W. She left England a year ago to study the effects of salt spray and seabirds on the plant life of the world’s islands.
She accompanied 19 Maoris to White Island, the crater of a volcanic mountain rising from deep water 27 miles from the coast.
The Maoris go there once a year to collect mutton birds (sooty terns), a native delicacy.

In her New Zealand diary, Mary records her meeting with the reporter:

Wednesday 20 November 1957
The boat nosed in, without tying up, heaving clumsily, and I leapt the gap while the pilot handed the luggage aboard. And so once more to Tauranga where the sub editor of the ‘Bay of Plenty Times’ awaited me on the wharf but missed me, coming instead to the Masonic Hotel at breakfast time next a.m. He had, however, been forestalled by his editor, Lachi McDonald, 20 years on the staff of the Daily Mail and their Far East war correspondent. The chappy came in and interviewed me at length just as I was finishing a session with Ken Fraser in the Masonic Lounge. It seemed that my adventures were front page news as (a) landings were only effected on White Island 4-6 times a year and (b) the Motiti Maoris were very conservative and seldom received a pakeha in their midst.

This additional note has been written in the diary at a later date:

McDonald cabled Daily Mail, London with my story and on 21 November my parents were visited for a photo. They gave me and the tuataras, and on 22nd I hit the British headlines and it seemed my acquaintances throughout G.B. buzzed with interest. Particularly topical as there were 2 BBC broadcasts on White Island that same week. Upshot: Letter from F. Muller, Fleet St publishers, saying they would publish a book of my travels if I cared to write on my return!!

As it turned out, the book, A Naturalist in New Zealand, was not published until 1966 and then by Museum Press in London, with a co-edition by Reed Books in New Zealand. Mary was on her way to becoming famous!

For the full story about the Mary Gillham Archive Project, check out our website, and follow our progress on Facebook and on Twitter.

03 November 2016

Cardiff art: More places to sit

Way back in March, I showed you the Beastie Benches, a series of nine terracotta benches, sculpted by artist Gwen Heeney who got her inspiration from by the mythical creatures in Dylan Thomas’s poem ‘The Ballad of the Long Legged Bait’.

Here is another set of Henney’s wondrous carved brick benches. The simplest of the three (below left) is the Mussel Bench, which pulls together a series of mussel shells to form a bench, but one much more comfortable than the real mussel shells could ever be. I have to say I don’t quite see the shells here but perhaps I should’ve looked more closely at the other side of the bench instead of just sitting on it.

Sitting cheek by jowl with the Mussel Bench is Rhiannon Seating, which is also the collective name for this group of benches located in Barquentine Place, near Cardiff Bay. Rhiannon, which translates as ‘Great Queen’, is a central figure in Welsh mythology, in the stories related in the Mabinogian. She personifies the ancient concept of the Earth Goddess or Earth Mother.

What amazes me with this artwork is the fluidity Heeney has achieved with a material that is, basically, a pile of rectangular, sharp-edged building blocks. Rhiannon looks completely relaxed, enjoying a comfortable snooze in the sun. And those feet! If you tickle them, will the sleeping giantess awaken?

The third bench that completes this 1999 trilogy is Sleeping Partner, a mystical male figure who is also sleeping away his days. It almost seems a shame to sit on him in case he too awakens from his peaceful slumber.

This second terracotta artwork is also for sitting on but it has an entirely different feel to Gwen Heeney’s work. Dating from 1993, designed by Nina Edge and created by ceramicist David Mackie, West Close Square can be found in Cardiff’s inner city suburb of Butetown. It is a multi-cultural community, whose many and varied ethnic roots are reflected in the decoration of the ceramic panels that surround the central circular piece.


  In an article entitled ‘Pass the Parcel: Art, Agency, Culture and Community’, Nina Edge tells the wonderful story of how this piece came into being through the enthusiasm of a group of creative women from the Butetown community where she was then living:

As far as they were concerned, they had a neighbourhood artist -- like they had a hairdresser, a cook and a singer. They had no interest in approaching other artists. So the administration bent to the gentle insistence of the young women, who in turn knew and pursued the aims of their wider community.
The result is West Close Square, an artwork that has transformed a vacant lot on a council estate into a space where the local people can come together ‘to show off, sit, play, chew ghat, smoke weed and meet’.

30 October 2016

Grave matters: Stone birds

I learnt a new word recently, the Welsh word ‘mynwenta’, which translates roughly as ‘graveyarding’. It’s something I seem to spend a lot of my time doing, exploring my local cemetery, for the history and stories of its deceased, for the art and architecture of its monuments, for the wealth of its wildlife and the flourish of its flora.

Today’s post looks at birds in the cemetery – not the birds that fly overhead, perch on the crosses, hunt for worms in the grass or build nests in the trees but rather the birds that adorn the headstones and grave monuments – the stone birds.

Though some of these birds appear on headstones purely for their aesthetic value, chances are they also have a symbolic meaning as the Victorians were more than a little obsessed with symbolism. 

Birds that are depicted with outstretched wings, as if in flight, may represent souls, winging their way to heaven. Flying birds have also been interpreted as the messengers of God.

The most common bird found on grave monuments in Victorian cemeteries is the dove, that universal symbol of peace, in this case the everlasting peace of death. For Christians it is a biblical reference to Genesis 8:8 and the dove that was sent out from the ark by Noah to find land after the flood. Though it returned empty beaked the first time, it returned the second time with an olive leaf to show that trees had appeared above the flood waters as they receded, and many of the headstone doves are depicted with leaves in their beaks.

Though I found no examples in my local cemetery, other birds can be found on headstones and each has its own meaning. The eagle symbolises a career in the military and stands for courage and bravery; the owl has long been associated with wisdom so can appear on the headstones of scholars and those known for their wisdom and studious character; and the rooster, in Christianity, symbolises the Resurrection (hence the roosters commonly seen on the weathervanes of churches).

One rather intriguing headstone I found has a lovely carved relief of a swan, with outstretched wings, feeding one of two cygnets at its feet. The symbol appears in the centre of a Celtic cross and I have read in Celtic myth that ‘when inhabitants of the Otherworld required passage to the physical land of life ... they would take the shape of the swan’. 

However, this grave is amongst those in the Catholic section of the cemetery and very closely aligned with those of local bishops and priests so perhaps here the swan is more symbolic of a priest ministering to his flock. 

It may also be a reference to the ‘Seven swans a-swimming’ from the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ song, which I only recently learnt was, in fact, a rhyme created as a catechism for Catholics unable to practise their faith openly in Britain between 1558 and 1829. The swans in the song apparently represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, serving, teaching, exhortation, contribution, leadership, and mercy.  

I also came across a rather delightful headstone inscription referring to our feathered friends: ‘May the birds sing their song on high in your loving praises.’ I rather like the idea of a chorus of birds singing when someone dies, a final serenade to the deceased – much more appealing that some of the songs people choose to play at funerals. 

23 October 2016

Cardiff’s historic drinking fountains

Given the number of blogs I post about pubs and their signs, you might be forgiven for thinking I’m a bit of a lush but you would be wrong. And just to prove I do sometimes think about other types of liquid than those containing alcohol, today’s post is about water, or, rather, the places where Cardiffians used to be able to drink good quality, free water in public.

Nowadays, drinking or water fountains are typically bland circular stainless-steel creations that resemble shiny bird baths and have taps that either squirt you in the face due to their excessive water pressure or have so little pressure that you almost have to suck the water from the tap, something no hygiene-mindful person would want to do. But, in Victorian times, drinking fountains, though performing the necessary public service of providing clean drinking water to an ever-increasing and thirsty population, were often quite grand and artistic creations.

The earliest drinking fountain I’ve located in Cardiff was not quite so grand, though it was certainly built to last. It dates from 1860, the very early days of the drinking fountain movement in Britain (the first fountain in London was erected in April 1859, in the wall of St Sepulchre’s churchyard in Snow Hill, according to The Welshman newspaper, 1 April 1859). Cardiff’s fountain was originally built into a wall of the Town Hall in St Mary’s Street but was moved when that building was demolished. It now sits in the wall of a bridge over part of the old Glamorgan Canal, and I doubt many of the passers-by even notice it.

The inscription at the top reads: ‘Jesus said unto her, whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again; but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him, shall never thirst. John IV.19.14’, and the lower inscription acknowledges that the fountain was donated to the city by William Alexander, Mayor of Cardiff in 1859-60.

The next drinking fountain wins the prize for the most colourful and extravagant decoration. It sits in a wonderful old building that was originally the Free Library but is currently home to the Cardiff Story museum, amongst other things. 

The fountain is ceramic, made by Burmantoffs Pottery in Leeds, in green, brown and buff-coloured faience, with wonderful low-relief female figures flanking the water spout itself. 

The entire corridor in which it’s located is lined with majolica, with printed and painted tiles depicting the time of day and the seasons, the barrel-vaulted ceiling is clad in faience, and the floor is covered with patent mosaic tiles. The whole is a model of flamboyance!

From the ostentatious to the practical; the stone fountain in Llandaff Fields is another that was built to last, and it has certainly outlasted the old tree that was growing behind it when it was first built. The Evening Express of 8 May 1901 reported on its beginnings:

By the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. H. M. Thompson, of Llandaff, there was on Monday fixed beneath the old elm tree in Llandaff Fields a substantially-built ornamental fountain, which will, doubtless, be regarded as a boon by the frequenters of this resort. It is of red Forest stone, of simple, yet effective, design, and is the work of Mr. Clarke, sculptor, &c. of Llandaff. The water has been laid on, and the fountain is now ready for use.

These days the fountain looks rather forlorn, an abandoned relic of another time, and seems often to be in danger of being knocked over by the over-zealous drivers of the lawn-mowing machinery.

The final two drinking fountains date from the early 1900s, the one in Victoria Park from 1908 and the other, in Grange Park, from 1909. There were others in this same design scattered about Cardiff but they have long since disappeared. The fountains were designed by Macfarlanes of Glasgow and made by the Saracen Foundry in Possilpark, Glasgow, a company then considered the most prolific architectural iron foundry in the world. Similar fountain canopies can be seen around Britain (there is one on display in the Grand Hall of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh).

The Cardiff drinking fountains were gifted to the city by the family of Mr Moses Samuel, a well known local watchmaker and jeweller, who passed away in June 1894, in his memory and in memory of other members of the Samuel family.

On 7 August 1908, the Evening Express reported on the unveiling of the Victoria Park Fountain:

Councillor John Chappell, J.P., and the members of the parks committee were present at Victoria. Park, Canton, Cardiff, on Thursday evening, for the purpose of dedicating to the use of the public a drinking fountain, presented to the city by Mr. Isaac Samuel, J.P. There were also present Miss Lena Samuel, Mr. Gertrude Samuel (London), Mr. Percy Samuel, Mr. Isaac Samuel, Mr. M. Lewis, president of the Hebrew congregation; Mr. L. Joseph, and other friends of the family. Mr. Chappell formally accepted the fountain on behalf of the citizens, and spoke very highly of the qualities possessed by the late Mr. Samuel. Mr. Isaac Samuel, in replying, said that he and his brothers were only too pleased to establish a connecting link between their father and the city of Cardiff. The ceremony, which was witnessed by a huge crowd, concluded with votes of thanks to the donor and chairman.

The following month, on 19 September 1908, the Cardiff Times reported the unveiling of a fountain in The Hayes, in central Cardiff, and noted that

Drinking fountains had already been erected in Roath Park to the memory of Mr and Mrs Samuel, parents of the present donors; in Victoria Park, to the memory of Mr Lewin Samuel, and in North-road, to Mr Louis Samuel, and it is intended to erect two more, one in Splott Park and the other in Roath recreation ground, to commemorate the late Mr Arthur Samuel and Mrs Joseph.

I found no mention of the drinking fountain in Grange Park so it’s possible it is one of the ones mentioned above and was later relocated to its present position, where it makes a handsome addition to the structures in the park, in particular the grand old band rotunda.

18 October 2016

Cardiff: pubs and their signs 2

Fancy a drink? How about a pub crawl? Just to check out the signs and their buildings, of course. No imbibing!

Poet’s Corner, Roath
It was brought home to me recently how behind I am with my posts on this blog when I discovered that this pub, the Poet’s Corner in City Road, Roath, has closed down since I took these photographs back in September last year. Built in the late 1800s and known by a series of names, including The Ruperra Arms, PC’s Food and Drink Factory and Tut’n’Shive – who thinks up these names? – last orders were called for the final time in December 2015. Word at the bar is that old pubs like this are being targeted by property developers keen to grab a prime piece of inner city real estate, knock down the heritage buildings, and build cheap and soul-less concrete blocks in their places, though it also seems there are just too many pubs and not enough punters these days – or maybe that should be too many pubs and not enough poets!

Pen and Wig, Cathays
In contrast to the Poet’s Corner, the Pen and Wig, no more than a mile away, seems to be thriving. I’m sure it benefits from being closer to the city centre, very close to City Hall, the National Museum, Cardiff University and the Crown Court, and, as you might guess from its name, the area is awash with legal professionals. This pub also boasts a large rear garden area and a reputation for good food, including Sunday roasts, a combination sure to bring in the customers. 

The building was previously occupied by an ophthalmologist and only converted to a public house in 1994. The pub sign may be modern but is stylish and has a traditional feel.

Robin Hood, Canton
As far as I’m aware there is no actual association between this pub and the legendary Nottinghamshire outlaw and, in fact, there are pubs throughout Britain called ‘Robin Hood’ for no other reason than the fact that the owner liked the name. Apparently, this particular Robin Hood was built as recently as 1901 and its main claim to fame is that it used to be owned by Charlotte Church’s parents – this is where the Welsh singer-songwriter-actress-television presenter began her career in singing. With such a handsome Robin hanging outside to inspire her, I'm a little surprised she didn't adopt the stage name Maid Marian!

The pub sits in a nice tree-lined suburban street and I imagine it’s rather pleasant sitting outside sipping on a cold one on a hot summer’s day. (For the dubious, yes, we do actually have hot summer’s days in Cardiff!) 

The Heath, Cathays
I pass the Heath often, as it occupies a corner adjacent to Cathays Cemetery and is on one of my regular walking routes to Bute Park and the River Taff, yet I’ve never crossed its doorstep. It’s known as a working man’s pub, though I imagine it also attracts its fair share of the medical students and staff from Heath Hospital, just down the road. 

The Heath was built in 1899 but has been altered and extended since its original construction, though I understand it still retains some traces of its original interior decoration, with plaster reliefs of national symbols and a coat of arms high up on the walls. 

I particularly like the Heath’s pub sign, which has a rather eerie look with its solitary caped woman and sinister black bird.