Saturday 29 October 2016

73 Weobley Castle

73 Weobley Castle

Castles in Gower that spring to mind might be Pennard, Oxwich or Penrice on the south of the peninsula, but there is one on the north side that overlooks the Burry estuary.  Between Llanrhidian and Landimore stands Weobley Castle, which was damaged during Glyndŵr’s attempt to attain Welsh independence, and later forfeit to the Crown after its owner was executed for treason. 

Like Oxwich, Weobley is more of a fortified manor house than a fortress, occupying a strong site with to the north a natural fall to the salt marshes and mud flats below.  The castle has a fine hall with a fireplace, private rooms and a sizeable guest chamber.  Much of it was built by the de la Bere family in the early 14th century, though it was thought that a thick-walled square tower (now only 2m high) at the south-west corner was earlier.  The simple gatehouse is on the west side, with traces of a late-mediaeval barn with walls over 1m thick east of the castle, and traces of an early limekiln.  South of the gateway is the so-called Cistern Turret, which may have contained a cistern for rainwater storage

Weobley Castle was owned at various times by the de la Bere family, Sir Rhys ap Thomas, the Herberts, the Mansels and the Talbots.  At the time of Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion, which began in 1400 and lasted 15 years, Sir John de la Bere was in residence.  His family had been stewards to William de Braose (also spelt Breos), the Lord of Gower.  Glyndŵr’s rebellion peaked around the time that his forces threatened Weobley.  Appeals to the Swansea Castle garrison for reinforcements were of no more avail than those from defenders of The Alamo, so Weobley fell to the rebels, with possibly John de la Bere himself being a casualty in 1403.  Though the castle was much damaged, it was subsequently repaired and inhabited again.

From the de la Bere family the castle passed to a major figure in Tudor times, Sir Rhys ap Thomas, a supporter of Henry Tudor at the battle of Bosworth.  He was knighted by a grateful Henry VII, who later made him a Knight of the Garter in 1505.   Sir Rhys governed much of West Wales from Carmarthen Castle, and managed in those turbulent times to serve later Henry VIII.  At Weobley he added the porch fronting the north range, where the windows are of Tudor design.  Sir Rhys transferred Weobley and his extensive estates to his son, who unfortunately pre-deceased him – a situation that the families of Kilvrough Manor and Penrice Castle would later encounter.  So when Sir Rhys died in 1525 his estates including Weobley Castle passed to his grandson Rhys ap Gruffydd, then aged about seventeen.  Six years later while Henry VIII was scheming to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn (of whom Rhys spoke disparagingly), riots and street fighting in Carmarthen led to him being charged with treason.  It was alleged that Rhys, who claimed descent from his namesake the 12th century Prince of Deheubarth, was plotting with James V of Scotland to become Prince of Wales.  Notwithstanding his late grandfather’s high standing, Rhys ap Gruffydd was found guilty, and executed in London in 1531.

By an Act of Attainder, Weobley and the other estates were forfeited to the Crown.  The castle was let, until in 1560 it was sold to William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke.  A century later a descendant sold Weobley to Sir Edward Mansel of Margam, from whose family it passed to the Talbots, until in 1911 Miss Emily Talbot gave Weobley Castle to the care of the then Ministry of Works (now Cadw).

Weobley may be the only castle remaining on the north coast of peninsular Gower, but its remoteness belies its links to important historical events.            

Saturday 22 October 2016

72 The Wreck of the 'Caesar', 1760

72 Pwll Du shipwreck - 22 October 2016 (photos: Pwll Du Bay, Daniel Day Lewis)

The James Fenimore Cooper novel “The Last of the Mohicans” might seem to have no relevance to Swansea and Gower.  Published in 1826, with subsequently a number of film and television adaptations, it concerns the British surrender in North America of Fort William Henry to the French under Montcalm.  That took place during the Seven Years War, which lasted from 1756 to 1763, and was conducted not only in the vicinity of those two countries, but also in North America and in India, where each nation sought to establish colonies.  After Fort William Henry’s garrison surrendered, many disarmed British soldiers and colonists were massacred by Huron Indians, allies of the French - just one of certain horrific events that took place in that same conflict in North America, in Gower, and in India.

From Pennard’s National Trust car park many pedestrians tend to turn right to walk along Westcliff, taking the cliff-top path leading to the superb view over Three Cliff Bay, where the beach below stretches across to Oxwich.  If however one continues from the car park on the road ahead called Eastcliff, passing on the right Hunt’s Bay, at the end the road becomes a rough path descending steeply to the hamlet of Pwll Du.  Its pebble-covered bay was the favourite of Pennard poet Vernon Watkins, and can also be approached from Bishopston or through the Bishopston Valley, where conditions are often muddy.

As Ordnance Survey maps indicate, the western part of the bay has a rocky area called “Caesar’s Hole”, named following a shipwreck in 1760.  On 28th November that year a merchantman called the “Caesar”, hired in Bristol as an Admiralty tender, sailed on a spring tide from Swansea to convey men to Plymouth to serve in the Navy.  At that time it was not uncommon for the Navy to scour rural communities around the coast to force labourers, farm workers and quarry men into the Navy.  Impressment by press gangs was a legal method for the government to force men into naval forces during times of war.  Until the Napoleonic wars ended, “eligible men of seafaring habits between the ages of 18 and 45 years” in seaside locations ran this risk, with hymn writer John Newton among victims of the pressgang.

C.D. Morgan’s 1862 “Wanderings in Gower” relates how a pressgang of twelve sailors under an officer had been thwarted in an attempt to impress John Voss of Nicholaston Hall and his neighbour John Smith before the “Caesar” sailed.  Stormy conditions in the Bristol Channel caused the vessel to turn back, though in poor visibility the pilot mistook Pwll Du Head for Mumbles Head - this was thirty years before Mumbles lighthouse was built.  The ship was holed on the rocks, now named Caesar’s Hole, and although the ship’s master, mate and some seamen escaped over the bowsprit and clambered up to High Pennard, they apparently neglected to raise the alarm.  

The next morning local people from Pennard, Bishopston and Pwll Du were aghast to find the wreck of the “Caesar”, and removed over sixty bodies.  Most of these were the impressed men, who had been kept below deck (and possibly manacled), and so had stood no chance of survival once the ship was holed.  Since many of these men had been impressed at Swansea, some may have been known to the local people.  

Sixty-eight bodies were buried below Pwll Du Head in the area marked on Ordnance Survey maps as Graves End, where a circle of limestone rocks, visible when the undergrowth dies back, marks the burial site.  
So in different parts of the world the Seven Years War included in South Wales pressed men being abandoned to their fate by seamen concerned only for themselves, in North America the massacre of disarmed members of a garrison who had departed from Fort William Henry, and in India … there was the Black Hole of Calcutta

Saturday 15 October 2016

71 Artist Alfred Janes

71 Alfred Janes (photos: Alfred Janes, pictures of Dylan Thomas, Vernon, Dan Jones)

The imminent re-opening of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery will enable visitors to view some still-life oil paintings of fruit and flowers, and portraits of certain of the ‘Kardomah Boys’ - such as composer Daniel Jones and poets Vernon Watkins and Dylan Thomas, painted by one of their number – all by Alfred Janes.

It was near the Kardomah café, which before the wartime bombing used to stand in Castle Street and where during the 1930s those emerging Swansea writers, artists and musicians would gather upstairs, that Alfred Janes was born, above his parents’ fruit and flower shop in Castle Square in 1911.  He attended Swansea Grammar School on Mount Pleasant hill, where English was taught by Dylan’s father D.J. Williams.  Janes went on to the Swansea School of Arts and Crafts in Alexandra Road, and as just a sixteen–year-old he exhibited at the National Eisteddfod in Treorchy in 1928.  At that time he was painting portraits and still-lifes, and was commissioned to paint a portrait of Swansea’s Mayor, Arthur Lovell; in 1931 his portrait of fellow artist Mervyn Levy won him a scholarship to study art at the Royal Academy Schools in London.  There Janes was influenced by studying the works of Picasso and modernist artists in commercial galleries, and began to experiment with abstract and semi-abstract forms.  Fascinated with the possibilities of different techniques and media, he constantly experimented with style and materials.

He first met Dylan Thomas in 1932 through their mutual friend composer Dan Jones, and two years later Janes and Thomas shared a flat with Mervyn Levy in Earls Court, London.  In 1936 he settled again in Swansea, teaching part-time at the School of Art and Crafts, and painting a series of still-life pictures.  That July he drove Dylan to Laugharne to visit Caitlin McNamara, on the occasion when Dylan got into a brawl with Augustus John outside a Carmarthen pub.

During the Second World War Janes served in the Pioneer Corps, being posted to Egypt, where he worked for two-and-a-half years in a prisoner-of-war camp.  There he learned Italian, befriending some of the Italian prisoners – friendships which continued long after the war.  While on leave in 1940 he married Mary Ross, who like Dylan had acted with Swansea Little Theatre, and they had a son and a daughter.  During those war years he did no painting, but produced a series of drawings of army colleagues. 

After the war he returned to Swansea to resume painting and teaching at the School of Art and Crafts, painting portraits of Vernon Watkins and Daniel Jones.  Janes took part in the 1949 BBC Radio programme “Swansea and the Arts”, recorded in the Grove in the Uplands, along with Dylan Thomas, Daniel Jones, Vernon Watkins and writer John Pritchard, with their photos featured on the cover of the “Radio Times”.  Four years later he and Mary settled at Nicholaston Hall in Gower, where he used the barn for his studio, and embarked on a series of experimental works using sand, various oils and hardboard.

In 1963 they moved to London when he accepted a teaching post at Croydon College of Art, living opposite the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the oldest public art gallery in the country, which had opened in 1817.  Alfred Janes died in 1999 and was buried in St Andrew’s churchyard, Penrice, with the centenary of his birth marked by an exhibition in Cardiff’s Oriel Kooywood Gallery in 2011.  He described himself as “a maker of pictures, rather than a painter”, and said "I concentrate on the craft, and if what comes out is art, that's a bonus.” 

Alfred Janes was a meticulous and painstaking artist, collections of whose work are in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, Newport Art Gallery, Swansea University, and the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, as well as in the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery.

Saturday 8 October 2016

70 Mumbles lighthouse

70 Mumbles Lighthouse – 8 October 2016 (photos: 3 of Mumbles lighthouse)

On the outer of the two small tidal islands off Mumbles Head stands peninsular Gower’s only functioning lighthouse, as Whiteford Point’s cast-iron lighthouse has been disused since 1933.  The 1791 Harbour Act empowered Swansea’s Harbour Trustees to construct a building to hold coal for lights to warn ships of the headland, with its reefs and shoals, and allowed dues to be levied on shipping to regroup the cost.  Since 1739 there had been a coal-burning light on Flatholm, so it was decided to have two coal braziers at Mumbles, to avoid any confusion with Flatholm, though using an oil-lamp was also considered. 

Plans were prepared for a 50ft-high tower, and building began in 1792, but the badly built tower collapsed that October.  The trustees then engaged Swansea architect William Jernegan, designer of Stouthall and Burrows Chapel (near the Museum), and later of Sketty Park House and the Assembly Rooms, and a fresh start was made.  He designed a 56ft-high octagonal stone tower 23ft wide, containing an inner octagonal tower 12ft wide, with an internal staircase occupying the space between.  Two coal-fired lights were sited one above the other.  Over the doorway a plaque has the year 1793 inscribed in Roman numerals, with “W. Jernegan Arch” (architect), though the lighthouse actually came into use on 1st May 1794.  A handrail, essential to modern ‘health and safety’ thinking, was later added alongside the internal staircase, which made hoisting up the coal difficult.  Mumbles was the last British coal-fired lighthouse to be built, for they were difficult to maintain in windy and rainy conditions, and columns of smoke could be confused with smoke from limekilns.  Britain’s last coal-fired lighthouse was replaced in 1823. 

The trustees in 1798 replaced the two coal braziers with a single oil-lit lantern on the upper floor, installing a cast-iron balcony made at Neath Abbey Foundry. 

A house was built for the lighthouse keeper to live with his family on the island, rather than in the village.  For three generations the keepers were Abraham Ace – grand-father, father and grandson all shared the same name and served for over seventy years.  The second Abraham Ace was keeper in 1883 when his daughters Miss Jessie Ace and Mrs Margaret Wright rescued a crew member of the lifeboat Wolverhampton and assisted survivors of a wrecked German ship.  The bravery of “The Women of Mumbles Head” is commemorated on a blue plaque by the entrance to Mumbles Pier.  When the third Abraham Ace retired in 1902 the post was taken over by Jasper Williams, after whom the mechanical foghorn which was installed on the lighthouse in 1908 was dubbed ‘Jasper’s baby’.  Many Mumbles residents remember in January 1994 when a freak flash of lightning had damaged the automatic warning system, causing the foghorn to boom out continuously until it could be repaired!  The last keeper was Charlie Cottle, who retired after the Mumbles light was automated in 1934. 

The lighthouse battery, a fortified position for heavy guns, was erected in 1860 to combat a French invasion, maintained by a sergeant and two Royal Artillery gunners.  Like others around the coast, this was dubbed one of ‘Palmerston’s follies’ since the invasion that the Prime Minister feared never materialised.  The houses for the lighthouse keeper and for soldiers guarding the battery were demolished in the 1960s.

An occulting mechanism, where the light was made to flash on and off, was fitted in 1905, and twenty years ago Mumbles Lighthouse was converted to solar powered operation.  Following a Royal Commission report, an Act of 1836 had empowered the Corporation of Trinity House, which had built its first lighthouse at Lowestoft in 1609, to buy out the remaining private lighthouses.  So today Mumbles Lighthouse is managed by Trinity House, which maintains both on the mainland and on rock sixty-five lighthouses, all of which have now been automated.         

Saturday 1 October 2016

69 Wind Street

69 Wind Street – 1 October 2016 (photos: Metropole Hotel, Star Theatre Wind Street)

It happened to part of Oxford Street, and to upper Princess Way, and to College Street (until the decision was reversed), and now it may happen to Wind Street.  But whether or not that street is permanently closed to traffic - which already happens on Friday and Saturday nights - Wind Street is arguably Swansea’s most historic and interesting street.  It used to be Swansea’s commercial hub, with banks, the Head Post Office and first class hotels.

Walking up Wind Street from the direction of Morgan’s hotel and Swansea Museum, on the right (north) side on the stone fascia above no. 27 are the words “Metropolitan Bank of England and Wales Limited”.  Banks proliferated, for next door where Revolution Bar is now was originally a branch of Bristol and West of England Bank, rebuilt of Portland stone 1910-12 when it became Lloyds.  For nearly twenty years it was managed by the father of Vernon Watkins, “Swansea’s other poet”.  A good friend of Dylan Thomas and a major poet in his own right, a biography is due out next year for the 50th anniversary of his death.

On the left (south) side of the street, no. 40 was the Star Theatre.  Also known as the New Theatre, its glory days were during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, before it became the Rialto cinema in 1931 and closed in 1968.  The George was demolished in the early 1900s to build the magnificent Metropole Hotel on nos 46 to 50, since the 1898 demolition of the Mackworth Arms Hotel at no. 10 had left Wind Street without a first class hotel.  The Metropole became a casualty of the February 1941 Blitz. 

Nos 51 and 52 are now Bambu, having been the NatWest Bank, and previously the Westminster before its 1970 merger with National Provincial, which had a branch across the road in nos 11 and 12.  A plaque on the wall of no. 53, a four-storey Georgian townhouse, states “Tho Williams (Surgeon) Buildings 1803”, in the days when a surgeon’s role encompassed the duties of barber-surgeon.

Next is Salubrious Passage, formerly known as Salubrious Place, a covered alleyway with six cast-iron pillars.  At no. 56 the No Sign Bar, mentioned in a 1690 document, can claim to be Swansea’s oldest pub, disguised in a Dylan Thomas short story “The Followers” as the wine vaults.  No. 58 was the offices of “The Cambrian”, the first English language newspaper in Wales, which began in 1804 on the other side of the street.  No 57 and 58 later became the London and Provincial Bank, then Barclays, and now J.D. Wetherspoon’s Bank Statement. 

Opposite at the corner with Green Dragon lane, the words ‘National Bank’ are no longer above the corner doorway of nos 8 and 9.  On the other side of Green Dragon Lane at no. 10 is Idols, the Jacobethan-style building faced with green Quarella sandstone with a classical cupola, opened in 1901 as the Head Post Office.  This was built on the site of the Mackworth Arms Hotel, the coaching inn visited by Lord Nelson in 1802, and scene of Fanny Imlay’s suicide, which prompted  the poet Shelley’s hurried visit in 1816.

The upper part of Wind Street along from nos 62 to 66 used to be divided by Island House which contained a group of shops.  After its demolition in 1879-80, Henry Hussey Vivian’s statue was unveiled there in 1886, before removal to Victoria Park to ease traffic flow.  The statue now stands in nearby St Mary’s Square.  Beyond the statue the section leading up to Swansea Castle was called Castle Square, though that name now refers to the area that was Castle Gardens.

Notwithstanding Wind Street’s recent reputation for the profusion of clubs and drinking establishments, it contains many buildings that Cadw deem of special architectural or historic interest.  Pedestrianised or not, this is a fascinating street of mediaeval Swansea.