Saturday 19 December 2015

29 The Brangwyn Panels

29. The Brangwyn Panels – 19 December 2015 (photo: three panels)

During the past fifty years the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority was sited in Morriston, the Welsh Maritime and Industrial Museum moved from Bute Street, Cardiff, to Swansea Marina, and the Wales National Swimming Pool relocated from Cardiff’s Empire Pool to near Singleton Hospital.  But before acquiring any of these, Swansea gained a fine asset by accommodating the British Empire Panels, better known as the Brangwyn Panels.

In the 1930s two acres of Victoria Park were taken for the site for a new Guildhall, to replace the Somerset Place building that is now the Dylan Thomas Centre.  That building had been erected in 1825-29, enlarged in 1848 and again later; but as early as 1907 it was evident that a larger building was needed for the additional responsibilities of local government.  The First World War and other matters delayed commencement, so the foundation stone of a new Guildhall was laid in May 1932.  As with building Cefn Coed Hospital, Tir John Power Station and the Mains Drainage Scheme, the government’s unemployment relief scheme facilitated the construction of Swansea’s new Guildhall.

While construction, which included an Assembly Hall on the southern side, was underway, news emerged that the trustees of Lord Iveagh were offering the British Empire Panels, painted by Sir Frank Brangwyn, to any corporation deemed able to house and display them worthily.  Councillor Leslie Hefferman viewed them, and on his return from London urged his colleagues to declare Swansea’s interest.

In 1924 the businessman and philanthropist Edward Guinness, Lord Iveagh, had offered to meet the cost of a mural painting to be placed in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster, to commemorate peers killed in the First World War.  Frank Brangwyn, who had been apprenticed to William Morris, was a member of the Royal Academy, and who had served as an official First World War artist, was chosen for this commission.  His home in Sussex contained large enough studios for the scale of projects he undertook.  Having begun by producing large panels of war scenes (which can be seen in the National Museum of Wales), he set these aside to enhance the somewhat gloomy Royal Gallery with ‘decorative painting representing various dominions and parts of the British Empire’.  He wished to show a world of beauty and abundance, drawing on his wide travels and his studies of animals in London Zoo.

But Brangwyn’s main supporter Lord Iveagh died in 1927, and the Royal Commission on Fine Art insisted that the five panels then completed be displayed in the Royal Gallery: previously it was understood that only the entire completed set would be displayed.  Sadly the reception to the five panels was unfavourable – the members of the Commission felt that the work was unsuitable for where it was to be displayed.

After years of working on this huge undertaking Brangwyn was bitterly disappointed, but he completed the sixteen panels, which were displayed at the 1933 Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia.  He considered the British Empire Panels, which took him seven years, to be his magnum opus.

Cardiff, where Brangwyn had lived, was among the municipalities interested in housing the panels, though since the ceiling height of the Assembly Hall under construction could be raised to accommodate them, it was to Swansea that the panels went, to what was named the Brangwyn Hall.  The Guildhall was opened in October 1934 by the Duke of Kent, youngest son of King George V, and Brangwyn generously presented many related drawings and studies to Swansea, some of which are displayed in the corridors of the Guildhall. 
The Brangwyn Hall seats around 1,200 people, and was Wales’s only large, purpose-built concert hall until St David's Hall opened in Cardiff.  Meanwhile the British Empire panels, deemed too colourful and lively for the House of Lords, can be appreciated by concert-goers and visitors alike in Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall.  

Saturday 12 December 2015

28 The Bush Hotel

28. The Bush Hotel (photos: The Bush [2], Dylan and Leon Atkin) - 12 December 2015

The 1851 Swansea Guide describes one prominent building as follows: ‘This old-established house, in High-street, is kept by Mr and Mrs Sayer, who from its convenient position, its commodious stabling, and superior entertainment, continue to maintain its wonted reputation’.  Those proprietors have been long gone, as more recently has the establishment itself, notwithstanding being a Grade II listed building.  Like such well-known pubs as the No 10 in Union Street, the Three Lamps in Temple Street, and the Antelope in Mumbles, the Bush Hotel is no more.

The Bush used to stand on the east side of High Street; it was a Georgian building with a porch and a railed balcony, supported by cast-iron columns.  Such was the importance of this hostelry that Swansea historian W.H. Jones of the Royal Institution of South Wales brought out a booklet about it in 1915.  A notable visitor after the Civil War was Oliver Cromwell, described as ‘Lorde of this Towne’ when he first came to Swansea in May 1648. 

In the course of visiting Swansea in August 1802 Admiral Lord Nelson, along with Lord William and Lady Hamilton, dined at the Bush.  The Portreeve gave a banquet at which both Nelson and Sir William were awarded the freedom of the town.

In the early nineteenth century landlord William Jones added a ballroom where Grand Dances were held, especially during Race Week on Crymlyn Burrows, and the Bush became an important meeting place. 

Sir John Morris chaired the meeting at the Bush in July 1804 that facilitated the building of the Mumbles Railway.  Initially a mineral line, three years later it began carrying fare-paying passengers to a regular timetable – so becoming the oldest passenger railway in the world. 

In 1905 the Bush Hotel was acquired by Mr and Mrs D.J. Thomas, and was patronised at times by a Grammar School teacher of the same name and initials – the father of Dylan Thomas.

During the Second World War, when three consecutive nights of aerial bombardment during February 1941 exhausted water supplies, draught beer was used to combat fires from the incendiary bombs; so the building survived - unlike the Thee Lamps. 

After Dylan Thomas had moved from Swansea, he stayed at the Bush on occasions when visiting the town.  Jeff Towns’ fine book ‘Dylan Thomas: The Pubs’ reproduces two telegrams sent by Dylan from Laugharne to composer Dr Daniel Jones, then living at 22 Rosehill Terrace.  The second one in October 1953 asks ‘Can you meet Bush 1.30 today on my way to America – Dylan.’  This was before Dylan took the train to London for his fateful fourth visit to North America, for the New York performances of Under Milk Wood.  So the Bush became the final Swansea pub patronised by Dylan Thomas; among those who joined him that afternoon along with Dan Jones were fellow poet Vernon Watkins and Rev. Leon Atkin, the unconventional minister of St Paul’s Congregational Church in St Helen’s Road.

The terracotta-coloured Bush Hotel had a brief resurgence in the early years of the twenty-first century as ‘Swansea’s premier Gay Destination’.  But then it stood empty for some years, and during this time of neglect it suffered from severe weather damage and vandalism.  An inspection in 2013 by structural engineers and Swansea Council's building control surveyor concluded that the building was a dangerous structure, and ordered its demolition.  The owners of the site, Coastal Housing, claim that some aspects of the hostelry will be retained in what is erected in its place. 
Certainly such aspects as the seventeenth century visit of the future Lord Protector, the meeting that led to the first passenger-carrying railway in the world, and the departure of the town’s most famous poet, all merit some form of retention. 

Saturday 5 December 2015

27 Bacon Hole and Minchin Hole

 27. Bacon Hole and Minchin Hole (photo: Red Lady of Paviland) - 5 December 2015

Climate change is nothing new: several millennia ago the area now occupied by the Bristol Channel was a vast plain containing immense herds of game, which explains the variety of animal bones found in the limestone caves of peninsular Gower’s south coast.  The famous Red Lady of Paviland, which is the earliest human skeleton found in the British Isles, dates from that time before the sea swept in.

The entrances to Gower’s many bone caves are 20ft to 30ft above the present sea level at high tide.  Pennard cliffs, which were given to the National Trust in 1954, contain two of particular note that are designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest - Bacon Hole and Minchin Hole. 

Bacon Hole is just west of Hunts Bay and east of the National Trust car park, and can be approached from above.  Bones of giant ox, bison, reindeer, wolf and hyena have been found there, and been deposited in Swansea Museum and the National Museum of Wales.  The larger animals would not have got inside the cave, but their carcasses would have been dragged there by wolves and hyena.

In 1912 ten dark red horizontal and parallel bands at about one metre high were discovered on a cave wall and it was hoped this might be an example of early man’s cave drawing, as in the cave art in France and Spain.  Two experts were called in - AbbĂ© Henri Breuil from Paris and William Sollas, Professor of Geology at the University of Oxford.  The markings seemed authentic, and an iron gate was placed just inside Bacon Hole to prevent damage to the markings.  When the two professors had visited, the conditions had been especially dry but over time the markings were seen to change shape, and it seemed that they were caused by the seepage of minerals within rather than by any human activity.  By 1914 much of the gate could be removed.  Such items as an Iron Age bowl and a Dark Age bronze brooch were recovered from Bacon Hole, whose name might be from a large stalactite near the entrance which resembles a flitch of bacon, or perhaps the name was suggested by the red ochre on the walls.  Over 300 pounds of bones have been recovered.

Nearby Minchin Hole (sometimes rendered Mitchin Hole) is Gower’s largest cave, and is best approached going from the car park straight down to Foxhole Bay, with a short scramble eastward over the rocks.  The cave floor of stalagmite and breccia slopes up steeply.  In the 1850s the first excavator was Colonel Edward Wood, who lived at Stouthall from 1842 until his death in 1876, along with the Scottish naturalist and palaeontologist Dr Hugh Falconer.  Subsequently there have been thorough post-war excavations which have yielded immense finds.  Bones of reindeer, wolf, hyena, bison and even lion bones have been found there, along with remains of soft-nosed rhinoceros.  Roman pottery has been recovered, 750 shards of pottery, and coins from Roman times spanning three centuries through to one from the time of Edward III, in over 100 tons of cave deposits that have been examined. 

Minchin Hole may have been occupied during the late third and the early fifth century, during Roman times and the Dark Ages, for traces of hearths indicate human occupation, along with the pottery and various utensils.
During the campaign for female enfranchisement, Miss Emily Phipps, headmistress of Swansea’s Municipal Girls’ School, spent the night of the 1911 census with some female companions in a cave in Pennard.  She reasoned that since women were denied the vote they should not be included in the census return.  We do not know precisely which cave was used, but for ease of access and comparative comfort one hopes that it was Bacon Hole where she stayed until daybreak.