26 February 2019

Barry : Roman remains

It’s only taken me 3½ years of living in Wales to discover that the nearby town of Barry has Roman remains – how did I miss that? Okay, they’re not particularly spectacular remains – though the sea views are pretty spectacular – and they’ve been hemmed in on three sides by modern housing, but any construction that endures for around 1700 years is amazing in my book, and that’s certainly a lot longer than the modern buildings around it will last.

When the Romans invaded Britain in AD43, south-east Wales was the land of the Silures, a fierce warrior tribe that managed to resist Roman domination until around AD75. The Vale of Glamorgan, on the edge of which sits the town of Barry, was rich agricultural land so it’s no surprise the area attracted the Romans. A signboard at the Barry site explains the local context:

The Vale of Glamorgan seems to have been a moderately prosperous area. The route of one of the major Roman roads, between the forts at Cardiff and Loughor, is still preserved in the line of the modern A48 running through Cowbridge, which seems to have been a large village or small town replacing some sort of military installation in the early second century. The Vale itself seems to have been mainly agricultural and it is quite likely that many of the present field systems go back to Roman times. A large number of farmsteads, all Romanised to a greater or lesser degree, are known in the Barry area. In addition villas are known at Llandough, Llantwit Major and Ely.

Lacking any historical records about the Barry building, archaeologists have estimated, from coins found at the site, that it probably dates from the late third or early fourth century, and it also seems likely that the building’s construction was never finished. These details are from another of the signboards:

When it was excavated it was found that some of the walls had collapsed directly over the builders’ levels, suggesting that building work had been abandoned before it was completed.
No expense seems to have been spared on materials, as it had walls in the local Lias limestone and a roof of ceramic tiles, rather than the sandstone slates which were commonly used in the Vale. The sides of the main doorways were made with alternating courses of limestone and tile and the thresholds seem also to have been of tile. In addition chips of fine white limestone, possibly from the Bath area, were found during excavation, suggesting that the building may have been embellished with carved stone.

Although only the lower parts of the walls and their foundations survive, the plan of the building is clear. It has 21 rooms (if you count the two corridors), all grouped around a large central courtyard, and there seem to have been two entrances, one through room O (which currently remains only as a cellar – there would have been a room above it), the other through room G (see plan below – apologies for the blurry nature of this: the signboards at the site are not in good repair).

The reconstruction drawing (also taken from a signboard) is, of course, very speculative, partly because construction was not complete and also because so little of what was finished has survived. As there is no evidence of the under-floor heating systems often found in domestic Roman buildings of this size, it is unlikely to have been a villa. Rather, its close proximity to the sea and to Barry’s harbour probably mean the building would have had some naval or trading function. The Cardiff Museum website speculates that ‘it might have been a mansio or an inn for government officials, but it could have been part of a more intricate system of defence, possibly involving other fortifications at Neath and Loughor’.    

If you’re in the area, this site is definitely worth a visit, and you can then speculate for yourself as to its original purpose … and enjoy the magnificent views over the Bristol Channel!

23 February 2019

Barry Island sign

I’m a sucker for a good sign and this one, alongside the main road link to Barry Island, is a cracker!

Until the 1890s, Barry Island really was an island, with access restricted to Shanks’s pony at low tide and a ride on a ferry when the water levels got too high. In the 1880s, docks had been built at Barry to export Wales’s coal to the world and, to help expedite those exports, in 1896, a railway link was constructed via a long causeway. Barry Island has ever after been firmly attached to the mainland.

These days, Barry Island – Ynys Barri, in Welsh – is known not for its docks and exports but rather for its family friendly fairground-type attractions, fish and chip shops, amusement arcades, its apparently thrilling rides – the quintessential British seaside resort. The sign, then, is the perfect pictorial advertisement for the pleasures of an island visit.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to discover anything about the sign itself so can’t credit the artist or maker. It’s wonderfully done – the expression on the man’s face, the boot that is his catch, the fish lurking under the waves, the complete relaxation of the woman’s posture, the skinny face-masked kid clinging to the side of the boat (or is it a bath tub?), and, of course, the ubiquitous gull. It always makes me smile, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a better place sign.

20 February 2019

Penarth : the only spire in town

The church spire I can see from my window, the spire that acts as a landmark for me to find my way home when I’m out walking, the spire of Trinity Methodist Church is, in fact, the only spire on any of Penarth’s churches.

I don’t usually set much store by anything I find on Wikipedia, but I was interested to note in the entry on Penarth that it says this is ‘the only spire left in town’ [my emphasis], which implies some of the other churches did once have spires.

I have read, on their Friends website, that there were plans during the Second World War to demolish the 90-foot tower of St Augustine’s Church so the prominent landmark couldn’t be used by German bombers to home in on Cardiff docks. And perhaps that information gives a pointer as to why other church spires might not have survived but Trinity’s has. As Trinity Church sits at a much lower elevation, it is much less obvious in the landscape, at least from the air, and any enemy navigators could more easily use St Augustine’s position as their target.

Whatever the reasons, it’s a lovely spire and, along with the rest of the church and the adjoining hall, is Grade II listed. The British Listed Buildings website describes it as an ‘impressive spire in C19 version of Perpendicular Style’ [the church was built in 1901] and the ‘Pinnacled tower has buttresses and parapet with quatrefoil decoration; three stages surmounted by broach spire with lucarnes [the dormer-type windows]; iron weathervane.’ And a very nice weathervane it is, too, of a Rooster, as is commonly found on many church spires.

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!