17 April 2017

Caerleon: an alternative view

Caerleon may well have the best Roman ruins in Wales but that’s not all it has to offer. Here’s a small selection of the other local attractions that caught my eye.

First up, the lovely historic Church of St Cadoc that sits in the heart of the town, typically plonked by the early Christians right on top of important Roman ruins. Small parts of the church’s interior date from the 12th century – we weren’t able to see inside as the church was in use when we visited – and the 16th century tower is extant but most of the building was reconstructed in the 19th century. I particularly liked this ornate old lamp stand near the front door and the hinges on the old wooden side door.

The post and pillar boxes – always a favourite of mine – were a real mixed bag. Standing just outside the church yard was the finest Victorian pillar box I’ve ever seen, of such elegant design and very well maintained. Further down the main street, outside the small post office was a nice pillar box from the reign of George VI. But then, tucked away in a small side alley, was the saddest Victorian wall box I’ve ever seen, with paint peeling off it and partially obscured by scaffolding. The sign says it dates from c.1880 and had been ‘recovered from an old smithy in Llandeilo’. Such a shame it hasn’t been looked after.

Easily missed, on a side wall of a building in the main street, we discovered this intriguing sign. I’ll just copy here what’s written on it:
The Mynde Wall
Chartist Uprising
In the last quarter of the 21st century we have taken the Right to Vote for granted. This was not always so, and in 1839 after the failure of petitioning the Government of the day, the men of Britain and South Wales sought to change the system through marches and demonstration – this was known as The Chartist Uprising. John Jenkins the owner of Mynde House and Master of the Ponthir Tin Plate Works, concerned for his property, constructed the Mynde Wall in order to keep marauding demonstrators out. The wall in front of you is what remains of his efforts.

Down by the river side ... Caerleon sits on the western shores of the River Usk, a tidal river hence the colour of the water and those high muddy banks. The narrow old stone bridge you can see in the photo was built in the early 19th century. Though we couldn’t see any signs of it, a Roman harbour was discovered here during excavations in August 2011, and Caerleon continued to be a major river port until docks were built in Newport during the Victorian era.

Also down by the river side we found an interesting old stone tower, but there was nothing to explain its history. Turns out this may be all that remains of Caerleon Castle, which was built around 1219, though the British Listed Buildings website also mentions the possibility of it being a chain tower for controlling access to the upper river. I liked the silver knight standing guard on top.

Next, a couple of random bits of sculpture. Caerleon has some lovely old buildings, with beautiful pieces of architectural adornment like this carving of a head. And, down another side alley, where we found a cafe for tea and cake, there was also a sculpture garden full of bizarre artworks, large and small. It was very cluttered so I didn’t take many photos but I did rather like this bull’s head attached to one wall.

And lastly, to finish off this alternative look at Caerleon, I just had to include this shop sign because, well, I’m Annie and this blog is definitely one of the Vintage Annie variety!

16 April 2017

Roman Wales: Caerleon

Suggest a visit to Roman ruins and, before you can say Carpe diem, my shoes and jacket will be on, my camera in my backpack, and I’ll be waiting at the door! 

So, when my equally Romanophillic friend Jill came to visit, I didn’t take any persuading to spend a day looking around the Roman ruins at Caerleon (and nearby Caerwent, but that’s for another blog).

In Roman times, from around 75 to 300AD, Caerleon was known as Isca and was one of only three permanent legionary fortresses in Britain

In its heyday, it was home to over 5000 soldiers of Augustus’s Second Legion. 

Nowadays, it’s a small town that acts as a satellite commuter suburb for the city of Newport but it stills has some significant Roman ruins and so is an important tourist destination.

We started at the museum, which has an impressive collection of artefacts found during local excavations. Finds range from the expected pieces of military equipment and domestic goods to children’s teeth and a treasure trove of gemstones recovered from a drain in the bath house. There is even a recreation of a burial, with a model of the face of the deceased made using modern forensic techniques.

Next we visited the ruins of bath complex. Though only a small portion of the huge original complex remains, you could certainly get a feel for how big it must once have been, and the interpretation boards, displays and lighting were very well done. I was particularly impressed with the decorative drain cover and the sculpted stone head, the exact significance of which is not known.

Quite a large portion of the fortress wall remains so we walked alongside that to return to where the car was parked. Though much eroded and with the guard towers long since robbed of their stones by local house-builders, it was still possible to imagine how tall and impenetrable it would once have looked to enemy forces.

Sitting just outside the wall are the remains of the amphitheatre, one of 75 such structures in Britain and the best preserved. Wooden grandstands, erected on the base that we see today, would once have held up to 6000 people, watching military parades and bloody battles. Bizarrely, in medieval times, people thought this structure was the site of King Arthur’s legendary round table. It would have been an extremely large table!

Our last piece of Roman Caerleon was a very brief look at the remains of one of the barrack buildings – brief because, although we had successfully dodged the rain and hail showers thus far, another wintery blast forced us to beat a hasty retreat. Though the centurions enjoyed reasonably large rooms, the legionnaires’ quarters were small and spartan, with eight men sharing a very cramped space. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be a Roman soldier.

09 April 2017

Caerphilly: the Castle artworks

One thing I didn’t expect from my visit to Caerphilly Castle was the wonderful artworks on display here and there. I’m not talking about paintings by Monet or sculptures by Henry Moore – these are artworks that relate perfectly to their surroundings and help to tell the story of the castle and its history

The artworks were part of a £260,000 investment four years ago by CADW, the Welsh government’s historic environment service, and were intended to ‘increase public access, enjoyment and participation in Wales’s heritage’. I didn’t see the castle before these improvements were made, obviously, but I certainly think Caerphilly is one of the better castles I’ve seen, in terms of how it maintains the interest of its visitors, and explains the features and history of this amazing place.

These are four of the special features that caught my eye:

This giant wooden statue is hard to miss as it appears to hold up the castle’s leaning tower – that’s a 10-degree lean, apparently, which is even more than the famous Pisa tower. Created by sculptor John Merrill, the 20-foot-tall statue represents the 4th Marquess of Bute. His great-great-grandfather, John Stuart, acquired the ruined castle in 1776; his father John Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess, had the site surveyed and the great hall reroofed in the 1870s; and then along came the next John Crichton-Stuart, the 4th Marquess, who was responsible for restoring the dilapidated ruins of the castle between 1928 and 1939. Go the Butes!

When I was researching the sculptor, John Merrill, I found a fascinating series of photos of his progress on this artwork which you might also enjoy looking at – they're on his website here.    

Though you can’t see it in my photo, on top of the castle walls behind this stone-sculpted knight is a covered boardwalk (it’s probably got a technical castle-ish name but I don’t know it) where his enemies are housed, preparing to repel his attack by showering him with arrows and stones and the dreaded burning oil, so he’s hunkering down behind his shield to protect himself from that assault. It’s a cracking sculpture, don’t you think?

This knight in rusty armour gave me a shock, lurking as he does in a dark corner. I don’t know his story – maybe he’s just one of the many knights who served in the castle guard – but he’s a tall, dark and handsome fellow.

The King and the Queen

These four pieces were my favourites though, unfortunately, the light was very poor in their little round tower room so I wasn’t able to get good photos, particularly of the backs of their heads (which were also carved). Sculpted in 2013 by Rubin Eynon, the piece is entitled ‘Four Heads’ and, as a signboard indicated, they are ‘the villain, the king, his wife and her lover: A tale of power, greed, lust and violent death at the top of the medieval world’.

The Lover and the Villain

This dramatic piece of medieval history goes something like this:
The king was Edward II (1284-1327), a tyrant whose vicious rule and battles with his barons turned his kingdom against him. The villain was Hugh le Despenser (1286-1326), Lord of Glamorgan and owner of Caerphilly Castle. Hugh was a close friend of Edward’s, and aided and abetted the king’s tyranny. In 1325 Edward’s queen, Isabella (1295-1358) went to France, in theory to negotiate peaceful relations between her husband and her brother, the French king Charles IV but, in fact, she had other plans.

In France Isabella met up with Roger Mortimer (1287-1330), who had led a revolt against Edward II in 1322 and was the sworn enemy of Hugh le Despenser. Roger became Isabella’s lover and, together, they returned to England with an army and wrested control of England from the king. Both the king and the villain tried to escape Isabella’s clutches by fleeing to Wales but were soon caught.

Edward was forced to relinquish his crown to his 14-year-old son, Edward III, and died a few months later, probably murdered on Isabella’s orders. The villain Despenser met a rather more gruesome end: he was hung, drawn and quartered in Hereford on 24 November 1326.

But wait, there’s more. Initially, Isabella, with Roger Mortimer a very active co-ruler, ruled England as regent for Isabella’s young son but, in 1330, Edward III took back his authority, and Roger the lover, accused of over-stepping his authority and assuming royal power, was also hanged. Isabella was allowed to live on, in style but without the power she had once enjoyed, until she died a natural death in 1358.

Here endeth this lesson in English and Welsh history, and the tale of the villain, the king, his wife and her lover, and a brief look at some of the extras Caerphilly Castle has to offer. But there’s lots more to see and explore so, if you ever get the chance, do go and visit this magnificent place.

03 April 2017

Caerphilly: the Castle

Caerphilly has the distinction of being the largest castle in Wales (and the second largest in Britain) so you certainly get your money’s worth when you visit (particularly when the chap in the ticket office sees your grey hair and charges you the cheaper senior admission price even though you’re not actually that old!) (I am no longer insulted by such things, preferring instead to enjoy the benefits my aging brings!).

The Castle dominates the town but not in the way you would normally expect from a castle. It isn’t sited menacingly on a lofty hillock; instead it sits in a natural bowl surrounded by water, like a gigantic plug in a basin of water. I always expect castles to sit where they can defend access to a territory and forget that many were built to protect their people from attacking armies, which Caerphilly is certainly well equipped to do. (You can read more about why Caerphilly is a masterpiece of military architecture here.)  

Caerphilly Castle was built in the late 13th century by one of Henry III’s most powerful barons, Gilbert de Clare, to secure the surrounding area and prevent the Welsh leader Llywelyn the Last from adding the lowlands of south Wales to his kingdom – he already controlled much of the rest of Wales.

This castle is a truly impressive location to explore, with narrow winding stairways, guardrooms and grand halls, battlement walkways, a dramatic leaning tower, panoramic views, working examples of trebuchets, the ruins of a mill, huge wooden doors, and, sometimes, if you’re really lucky and your timing is right, there’s even a dragon! (My timing was wrong but I will be going back again soon!)

26 March 2017

Penarth: Drinking fountains

If you’re a regular to this blog, you’ll know that I’m a fan of drinking fountains and various things cast-iron so imagine my delight when I was walking past St Augustine’s Church, here in Penarth, recently and discovered it has a magnificent old drinking fountain built in to the south-western side of its stone boundary wall. And it’s a cracking fountain!

The church itself was built in 1865-66 but I haven’t been able to discover whether the drinking fountain was also installed around that time or whether it was a later addition. 

This cast-iron scallop-shell beauty was made in Glasgow at the Saracen Foundry, home to Walter MacFarlane & Co Ltd, Scotland’s most important manufacturer of ornamental ironwork.

MacFarlane’s had a catalogue of their cast-iron creations, which include this model, No. 17 Drinking Fountain. I have read that only four examples of this particular pattern still exist but I’m not sure if that’s true. 

It’s certainly a very ornate piece, with a splendid pair of griffins flanking the top arch, a graceful crane standing amongst reeds in the centre medallion, and what looks to me like a stylised peacock, its mouth/beak the tap for the water (but that may be my fertile imagination!).

Penarth also boasts a second old drinking fountain, though you might struggle to recognise it as such these days, as only a table-like pedestal remains. It’s located in Alexandra Park, very near an ornamental fountain and a group of bird cages housing budgies and canaries.

According to the Memorial Drinking Fountains blog (yes, there is someone who loves these artworks even more than I do!), this fountain was another of Walter MacFarlane’s designs, a number 7, and

The original structure was 5 feet 8 inches high, a single pedestal with four decorative columns and descending salamander relief that supported the decorated basin. A central urn with four projecting tendrils offered drinking cups suspended by chains. The terminal was a crane, a symbol of vigilance.

This drinking fountain was apparently purchased in 1911; it was certainly installed prior to 1915 as it can be seen in an old postcard of the park dated that year.

It seems Penarth may once have had more historic drinking fountains which have since been lost as I found this report in The Cardiff Times of 10 July 1886, p.8:

The usual monthly meeting was held on Monday evening, there being present Messrs Edwards (chairman), Forrest, Ingram, Pile, Bevan, Shepherd, Belcher, and Corbett. The Chairman reported that the seats, committee had arranged to place 36 seats in various parts of Penarth (such as the Esplanade, the Dingle, and Beach-hill), one set of ladies' retiring-rooms, two urinals, and two drinking fountains on the Esplanade, one drinking fountain near the police-station, and another near the Ship Hotel.

The Ship Hotel was demolished soon after the Second World War and, though I’ve walked the streets around the other locations named in the newspaper report, unfortunately I’ve found no evidence of those other old fountains. What I have found though is the modern equivalent.

The 21st-century version was installed with much fanfare in September 2013 in Belle Vue Park. The Penarth News blog reports that this modern American-made drinking fountain, ‘the first of its kind in Europe’ (!), was erected to celebrate the centenary of the park. Two councillors turned out, local residents dressed in period costume, and a time capsule was even planted beneath this new-fangled innovation.

It may provide ‘a vertical stream from which people can drink, a bottle filling facility which it’s hoped will encourage the re-use of plastic bottles and a special drinking bowl for dogs at the base’ but, personally, I think it’s ugly, and it’s certainly no match for the wonderful works of art that Walter MacFarlane & Co manufactured back in the good old days!

17 March 2017

Salisbury: pubs and their signs, 1

The lovely historic city of Salisbury seems as awash with public houses as it is with rivers – it sits at the confluence of no less than five – no wonder it was so foggy when I visited on a grey December day in 2016! Its public houses must number far more than five but I hadn’t time to explore more than a few streets in any direction from my hotel and the cathedral, and there were more than five in that small area alone. Here are just four that took my fancy.

The Cloisters
As I had just enjoyed a peaceful stroll around the large cloisters (the largest of any cathedral in Britain) at Salisbury’s magnificent cathedral, it was this pub’s lovely sign that initially caught my eye. The pub itself is in a Grade II-listed building, which the pub’s website says dates from around 1350AD but the British Listed buildings website, probably more accurately, dates to the 15th or 16th century, though it has had more recent modifications, with an early 1800s shop window on one side of the ground floor and a more modern shop front on the other. Given its cosy dimensions and advertised open fires, it sounds the perfect place for a winter warm up.

Queen’s Arms
This, too, is a Grade II-listed building, though the British Listed Buildings website reports it is a more recent 17th or 18th century construction, with 19th century alterations and a modern glazed shop window and door. The pub’s own website, however, says that, prior to becoming an inn, the building was ‘bequeathed to the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral in 1440’ and also that it was first licensed as an inn in 1558, the year Queen Elizabeth I took the throne, so it claims to ‘have the longest held continuous licence in the city of Salisbury’. Whatever the truth of the matter, I was particularly struck by the very literal interpretation of the ‘Queen’s Arms’ name on their sign and the thoroughly modern take on the queen, with a tat of a coat of arms on her arm.

The Wig and Quill
I was not able to discover anything about the history of The Wig and Quill, though it does appear to have a good reputation for a ‘Fantastic Sunday roast, warm fires, great seating and a good beer selection’. The bar features beamed ceilings and has open fires for winter warmth, plus there’s a sheltered courtyard garden in which to enjoy a cold drink in the warmer summer months.

I assume the name is a reference to the legal profession – perhaps solicitors and judges are frequent visitors, or it may be that the building previously housed offices of legal professionals, or perhaps there is a courthouse nearby.

The New Inn
Not one but two signs adorn the frontage of the New Inn – unfortunately, I didn’t get a good shot of the better, pictorial sign – but don’t you just love the badger symbol of Hall & Woodhouse, the brewery with which this pub is affiliated. 

And if this is the new inn, I wonder what the old one looked like, as this was a superb example of an old black-and-white building, all wonky angles and not a straight line in sight.

According to British Listed Buildings, this really is a historic building, with construction dating from around the 15th or 16th century, though it has seen a few changes since those early days. You can get a better look at the outside and some of the interiors on the pub’s website here

And what’s not to love about a pub that includes a photo of their cat in their photo gallery. Top marks, New Inn!

13 March 2017

Lavernock: Grave of James Richards

I was admiring all the lovely lichens when the epitaph on the grave of James Richards caught my eye during my recent visit to Lavernock’s Church of St Lawrence:

to the memory of
James Richards,
native of the town of Cardigan
who died at Cardiff Docks
on board the S.S. Crindau
Sep. 4th 1885 aged 46.
Be ye also ready for we know not
what moment we may be called to judgment.

I thought perhaps James had met with a shipboard accident but the truth was much more gruesome, as the Welsh newspapers were quick to document.

Here’s one of the more concise reports, from the Denbighshire Free Press 12 September 1885 p.2:

Lloyd's agent at Cardiff telegraphed: “The Crindau, steamer, of Newport, entered the Bute Dock, Cardiff, and was ordered out again next morning's tide, with one man dead from cholera, and four others sick."
It appears from medical examination that the fatal case of cholera that occurred on board the steamer Crindau, of Newport, from Barcelona, was Asiatic cholera. The following particulars have transpired: Four men were engaged to assist in loading the Crindau with coal for Cadiz. One of them named James Richards, from St. Dogmaels, was observed drinking from a cask of water under the fore bulkhead, which had been filled up at Barcelona. He shortly afterwards complained of griping pains and excessive diarrhoea, to relieve which the chief officer give him some cholera mixture. Richards, however, grew rapidly worse, and soon after nine o'clock was found dead in the latrine.
Dr. Laen and Dr. Paine, the port sanitary authorities, examined the body, and concurred in the opinion that the deceased had died of Asiatic cholera. Captain Pomeroy, the dock master, promptly had the Crindau towed out of dock to the quarantine station at the Flat Holms. The body of Richards was sewed up in a tarpauling [sic], weighted with iron, and sunk off Breaksea Point. Dr. Paine, after having the steamer disinfected, examined the crew and found them all in a good state of health.

We tend to forget these days how frightening diseases like cholera can be, how rapidly they kill and how quickly they can spread, especially in a busy port city like Cardiff then was. Cholera had struck Cardiff several times before, with devastating effect. The first great epidemic was in 1832, then it struck again in 1849 resulting in 396 deaths – that number may not seem large but we need to bear in mind that Cardiff’s population at the time of the 1841 census was only 10,079.

As G Penrhyn Jones noted, in his article ‘Cholera in Wales’ (National Library of Wales journal, vol.X/3, Summer 1958). Cardiff in 1849 was seriously overcrowded, with far too many people squeezed into poorly ventilated slum housing, with no proper drainage systems, and almost all drinking water was drawn from the Glamorganshire Canal or the river, into which filth and raw sewage were also deposited.

Cholera broke out in the city again in 1854, when 225 people died, and the disease struck once more in the summer of 1866, resulting in 76 deaths. No wonder the authorities were quick to act following James Richards’ death.

Unfortunately, his burial at sea was not the end of the story for James, as the South Wales Echo reported on 15 September 1885:

Inspector King, of the Penarth Constabulary, has had reported to him that a corpse has been discovered at Sully, cast up by the rising tide. From the appearance of the body, as described to the inspector, it had been encased in canvass, and wrapped up as if consigned to the deep after death on board ship. No detailed particulars are as yet to hand, but in the mean time there are the gravest suspicions that the corpse is that or the man James Richards, who died of cholera on board the Crindau. Our readers will remember that the corpse was taken to below the Breaksea Point in a ship's boat in tow of a tug, and after being properly weighted was cast overboard.

This further report by the South Wales Echo, on 17 September 1885, explains how James Richards came to be buried at the Church of St Lawrence in Lavernock:

The body of a seaman, supposed by some to be the body of the man Richards, who died from cholera on board the Crindau at Cardiff, and was buried in the Bristol Channel on the 5th inst., was, on Wednesday, interred at the churchyard, Lavernock, the service being performed by Rev W. Evans, vicar of Merthyrdovan. The body, still encased in a canvas bag, was enclosed in a coffin, and interred in the usual way. The pilots are of the opinion that from the set of the currents in the Bristol Channel, a body buried at Breaksea would be carried to the Somersetshire side of the channel, and something very unusual would be required to bring a body from Breaksea to the spot where it was found.

The death of James Richards was a tragedy but some good did come from the misfortune of Cardiff’s cholera victims. Penrhyn Jones writes that the epidemics ‘had the consequent virtue of stimulating the public conscience on matters of sanitary reform and the great improvement in the public health in the latter half of the nineteenth century can, in some measure, be attributed to the sobering and salutary lessons of that vicious disease’. Rest in peace, James Richards.