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.

15 January 2019

Tondu : mileposts old and new

Last week, I found this wonderful contrast between mileposts old and new when I walked down the woodland trail from Parc Slip Nature to Tondu railway station.

Almost at the bottom of the trail, at the junction of the turn in to the Tondu Heritage Park, I found this once bright, now rather grubby modern post. It’s one of the markers for the National Cycle Network, route number four.

A thousand of these cast-iron markers were installed to celebrate the turn of the millennium and to mark the creation of the National Cycle Network. They come in four different types: the ‘Fossil tree’ design by John Mills, ‘The Cockerel’ by Iain McColl, ‘Tracks’ by David Dudgeon and the one pictured here, the ‘Rowe type’ by Andrew Rowe.

However, I doubt many cyclists use this route, particularly as the long boardwalk, further up the hill towards Parc Slip, has several broken boards and could potentially be rather dangerous for anyone cycling over it, as it also could for walkers who aren’t watching carefully where they’re going.

At the bottom of the path, where it meets the main road, and I turned right to walk around the roads to reach the railway station, I almost immediately found this much older milepost. Sadly, this is also looking rather neglected and obviously hasn’t had a clean or a lick of paint in many years.

You can see that this milepost gives the distance to the railway station as 3¼ miles but that’s certainly not the distance to the Tondu station – it must be less than a kilometre and that by a rather higgledy-piggledy route. I presume the post was installed prior to that particular station being built and I’m not sure which station the distance refers to.

I’ve written about these mileposts before, after finding several still surviving in the streets of Cardiff (you can see and read about those mileposts in this blog from November 2015). Let’s hope both these mileposts in Tondu get some of the care and attention they require and deserve before their condition deteriorates any further.

12 January 2019

Lavernock : the Marconi connection

'Are you ready?' The world's first radio transmission over sea took place on 13 May 1897 over the Bristol Channel from the island of Flatholm to Lavernock, a little hamlet not far from where I live in south Wales.

I first discovered this somewhat surprising fact when I read the little plaque on the old stone wall that surrounds the Church of St Lawrence in Lavernock. It reads:

1897      1947
Near this spot
the first radio messages
were exchanged across water
Guglielmo Marconi
George Kemp
between Lavernock & Flat Holm 11th May,
Lavernock & Brean Down 18th May 1897

Erected by the Rotary Club of Cardiff 1947

The plaque was erected to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this world-changing event, and also helped me understand why the large caravan park that now occupies much of the land at Lavernock Point is called the Marconi Holiday Village.

Not far from the church, as you head east along the coastal path towards Penarth, there is a small stone construction, sitting tower-like right on the edge of the cliff, looking out over the six kilometres to the island of Flat Holm (now usually written as one word, Flatholm) and, like many before me, I rather fancifully thought that this tower was where Marconi had sat to send his miraculous message.

Of course, it was not. I have yet to discover much about that old building, which now has a high fence around it to try to restrict access (there is a well-worn path around the end of the fence!) but I did find one reference to it online, dated January 2013, which mentioned that the interior, though derelict, contained ‘Penstock control panels and pumps, possibly for excess water or sewage’. 

His talent unappreciated in his native Italy, Guglielmo Marconi moved to Britain in 1896 to try to find a more receptive audience and support for his experiments in the use of wireless. His ideas generated interest from the British postal authorities and it was they who witnessed his success, after some initial failures, at Lavernock. 

(This image of Marconi is in the public domain; it is from the Time Life archive and bears the caption ‘Electrical engineer/inventor Guglielmo Marconi as a young man’. The photo was taken in 1896, the year before Marconi relocated to Britain.)

Here’s a report of what actually happened with those wireless experiments, extracted from the Evening Express newspaper, dated 15 May 1897:

The postal authorities of the country have evidently faith in the possibilities of the Marconi system of telegraphing without wires, and the Italian inventor (M. Marconi) has reason to feel proud of the success of the demonstrations, so far as they have yet been carried out. M Marconi, as was reported the other day, successfully carried out on Salisbury Plain a series of experiments with a couple of balloons attached by wires to the ground. For several days he has been engaged in conducting experiments at Lavernock Point, near Cardiff, in testing the effective working of his system of telegraphing without wires between the mainland and the Flat Holm, and the trials have been witnessed by Mr. Preece, engineer-in-chief of the General Post Office; Mr. Gavey (late of Cardiff), now second engineer in London; Mr. Fardo, Cardiff postmaster, and other officials of the department. For the purposes of the experiments, Mr Williams (of the engineering department, Cardiff) fixed upon Lavernock Point a pole 120 feet high, with a zinc cylinder at the summit, 5ft. 6in. by 4ft., insulated from the Flat Holm and Brean Down. The experiments on Tuesday were not so successful as might have been desired, but on Wednesday and Thursday the results were most satisfactory. On Friday afternoon there was a semi-public demonstration, when the system was explained in miniature, a transmitter facing a receiver at a distance of some twenty yards.

From those humble beginnings at Lavernock, Marconi went on to develop more fully his system for long-distance radio transmissions, he invented the radio, and, in 1909, jointly with Karl Ferdinand Braun, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy.

06 January 2019

Cosmeston : the dovecote

Cosmeston Lakes Country Park has a long history but not as a country park. The earliest known owners of this land were the French de Costentin family, who came to Wales in the wake of the Norman Conquest in the 11th century AD, and later, after the property had been passed to new owners, a small medieval community developed around what may have been quite a grand manor house. The buildings of that community have been reconstructed, on top of the original, excavated foundations, and now form the Cosmeston Medieval Village visitor attraction.

Parts of the land now included in the country park were once farmed to provide food for the lord of the manor and his family, and the remains have been discovered of an orchard area, fishponds and this medieval dovecote.

These days we don’t usually associate doves with food but, in medieval times, doves were regularly eaten, and their by-products were also useful: their manure helped fertilise the gardens and feathers could be used in bedding. According to the National Trust website, the idea of constructing small towers to house doves dates from the Norman period and, between 1066 and the seventeenth century, only the aristocracy were permitted to keep these lovely birds.

It seems the dovecotes were viewed as status symbols: they were often placed in prominent positions as a way of advertising the status of the lord of the manor and of impressing both visitors and passing travellers. Though little now remains of the dovecote at Cosmeston, it would once have been very visible in the landscape, sitting as it does half way up a small hill in a field to the west of the medieval village. (The remains of the dovecote are in the centre of the photograph below.)

Apparently, the area once had a protective fence around it but that has long since disappeared and, as you can see in my photos, the stones are now almost covered by weeds, wildflowers and bramble. Luckily, a photograph of the dovecote when it was first excavated can be seen on the Vale of Glamorgan website, and, even now, with a little creative thinking, it’s possible to look at the stones and imagine what it must have been like in times gone by.