EDITORIAL: INTRODUCTION TO PENCAMBRIA NUMBER 38 Summer 2018
Well, here we are sweltering through another blisteringly hot summer and for those of you who enjoy it, I don’t begrudge you the pleasure as it so rarely occurs. However, for those of us with less or no tendency to leathering, I shall breathe a sigh of relief when it is all over.
Earlier this year saw the death of Lady Shirley Hooson. Llanidloes born and bred, the spirit of the town ran through her veins with her blood. Her devotion to Llanidloes led her to spend as much of her life as she could in promoting its welfare. Her public life is well documented elsewhere so this issue carries a personal profile and tribute to her from friends and family members who knew her informally as well as formally, and reveals a woman of great strength, integrity, warmth and friendliness, cultured as well as down-to-earth, as much at home on the streets of Llani as in the great halls of state, full of interest in people and passionate about Llanidloes.
In March this year Mary Oldham gave a fascinating talk to the Llandinam History Group about the private lives of the Davies sisters of Gregynog. Helen Edwards summarised this talk for an article in the Llandinam Listener and she has very kindly allowed us to include it in this issue of PenCambria.
With all the consternation this year regarding changes in the British High Street, Gaynor Waters has remembered how shopping used to be in Llanidloes in the 1950s. The establishments may have changed hands several times over the years but the layout of the town is still the same and any empty windows tend to fill up again relatively quickly.
Aberystwyth has also seen enormous changes in the past twenty years or so is and Lawrence Johnson takes a jaunty pub crawl around the town, visiting the original chat rooms. Therese Smout, a new and very welcome addition to our team of researchers, shows what gems can be gleaned from a letter found behind some old lathe and plaster during renovations to a house. Farming practices remained the same for centuries until the introduction of modern machinery and the demand for increased production during the wars of the 20th century. Brian Poole, together with Ivor Davies of Alltyffynnon, Aberhafesb takes us through these changes with a look at some traditional farming techniques and the introduction of the tractor.
Wales is full of prehistoric megaliths especially in the Preseli area of south west Wales, and a veritable culture has grown up around them. Thirty years ago Chris Barber and John Williams published a book called The Ancient Stones of Wales giving a concise overview of everything that was known at the time about these great phenomena from their physical composition to the legends surrounding them and providing a gazetteer with the locations of all those known in Wales. Chris Barber has updated this book and taking it as her guide Chris Barrett has written a fascinating article on this feature of our landscape and our history. Chris has been very busy for us this month. As well as working on the megaliths, she has reviewed two very interesting, lavishly illustrated books about Shropshire and the Mid Wales borders by Ellis Peters, creator of Brother Cadfael, the Welsh medieval detective monk cloistered (in theory) in Shrewsbury Abbey. The first, Strongholds and Sanctuaries, is co-written with architect and writer Roy Morgan; the second, Cadfael Country” is co-authored by renowned photographer Rob Talbot and author, TV director and producer Robin Whiteman. She reports on the Montgomeryshire Genealogical Society visit to the workhouse at Llanfyllin earlier this year and finally, she has come up with a new, regular and very entertaining feature for you all – The PenCambria Quiz, a list of 10 questions, the answers to which can all be found somewhere in this magazine.
Coming a bit further forward in time following my tale of how I came to mid Wales I am now letting you into the secrets, well, some of the secrets of how I got on in my first months here.
We have two letters regarding family history and research, and two laments: one for missing swallows by Reginald Massey, the other on a farm sale by Bruce Mawdesley.
Mid Wales Arts celebrates its 10th Anniversary in September and it is interesting to see how this unique feature of the cultural landscape of Mid Wales has developed and thrived. The RCAHMW has a new website to explore and a new book exploring 10,000 years – yes, 10,000 years of Welsh Maritime History.
Shirley Hooson, Lady of Llanidloes, an informal tribute compiled by Gay Robert
Gwen and Daisy at Home and Abroad Helen Edwards
Llanidloes Shops of a Bygone Time Gaynor Waters
Chat Rooms Lawrence Johnson
New Book: Iolo’s Revenge
The Lost Letter Therese Smout
Farming in Montgomeryshire in the 1930s Brian Poole with Ivor Davies
Megaliths for Beginners Dr. Chris Barrett
First Months in Tylwch and Llanidloes Gay Roberts
Farm Sale Bruce Mawdesley
Where Have All the Swallows Gone? Reginald Massey
The Bright Field of Mid Wales Arts Gay Roberts
The PenCambria Quiz
CHAT ROOMS by Lawrence Johnson
“Negatory ……I’m burning rubber in Clocktown……heading for the Big A.”
Sounds like ancient history now. Does anyone remember the CB radio craze? It was certainly popular in Mid Wales in the late seventies before fading and being wiped out by the mobile phone revolution. In case you are struggling here is a translation: “No…… I’m driving through Machynlleth, heading for Aberystwyth.”
I remember having to stifle a giggle in the back of that car as the US-type jargon was filtered awkwardly through a Welsh accent. However, every time I visit Aber – and it is a favourite trip of mine, especially by train – I am aware that by Mid Wales standards it is very much a case of bright lights, big city. Sometimes I get off at Borth and head over the cliffs to come down Constitution Hill. (Can it really be true that this name simply derives from the belief that regular walks up and down were good for your constitution?) Alternatively, from the station I can cross the Rheidol and climb up to Pen Dinas, with its summit ringed by Iron Age earthworks and crowned by an 1852 memorial to the Duke of Wellington. Sometimes I prefer to track the Ystwyth round to Plas Tan y Bwlch and across the shingle back to the harbour. Much of this walk overlooks the site of the trotting racecourse and reveals the new line of the Ystwyth, diverted in the 18th century with huge boulders and a deep trench to take it to the Rheidol and the sea. This engineering had the bonus of creating the beach of Tan y Bwlch. There are also paths and fine views from Penrallt, the field paths by the golf course and near the woods above Clarach.
While I am not particularly strong on self-analysis, I have long suspected that much of this, admittedly healthy, exercise is driven by guilt. Whatever business I have to transact in Aber, I cannot deny that the real pleasure in the trip lies in the pub crawl that covers the town. This has various routes depending on factors such as where I actually arrive but the ingredients are usually the same. The walking prevents excess and salves my wretched conscience. Over the recent past my starting point has been in one of two pubs. On the outskirts of town on the road out towards Penparcau is a new one, The Starling Cloud. This takes its name from the greatest free show in Mid Wales, when thousands of the birds swoop down in gloriously creative patterns to roost at dusk under the pier. The visitwales website estimates 50,000 birds locally yet the starling is on the Red List of threatened species. The flock or murmuration, a mainly silent process until they have settled under the pier, is believed to be a defence against predators, safety in numbers. This roost with water below provides even greater security. Try late October, early November, advise photographers and you can see some of the splendid images by putting Aberystwyth starlings into a search engine. As the birds swoop, hesitate and come and go the spectacle is gloriously prolonged.
From the new pub I can cross the railway and walk through the park to Northgate, home of Andy’s Records. Independent record stores and bookshops have had to fight to survive but my visits have always brought dividends. Andy’s knowledge of and enthusiasm for music, allied to his ability to get hold of the obscure and difficult mean I cannot avoid a visit. Siop y Pethe, then Ink and Ystwyth Books at the top of the town are favourites too.
Over Penrallt, past the Welsh Books Council and down to the seafront to the Glengower the end point of my other trek across the cliffs. In November 2017 it was so unseasonably warm you could sit outside. On most trips, however there has been evidence of storms and wind battering, traces of sand and shingle. The Atlantic gales that destroyed beaches on the Dingle and Ring of Kerry had retained enough power in their flight across the Irish Sea to wreck the bandstand and scour the promenade. Clearing up has become a regular chore for the council.
The Glengower at lunch town is popular with tourists and diners but the space to the rear indicates a student presence. Aber is one of many towns and cities whose economy is based in good measure on the student pound. Student numbers range from 9,000-10,000 out of a population of around 16,000 including Comins Coch and Llanbadarn Fawr. Reaction to this has been mixed. In the days of the old licensing laws, pubs had to close in the afternoon, normally from 2.30 to 5.30 pm. Market days were the exception and Aber’s was Monday. Opposite the station, a stern notice outside the Cambrian Hotel read: No students served on Mondays.
Things change. The last time I went in, the walls and ceiling were festooned with adverts for cocktails and the bar stocked with fruit ciders and coloured vodkas. It is probably gin these days. No pub can afford to turn the young away for long. Right in the centre of town the renamed pubs, the Varsity and the Scholar reflect this. I derive a secret and perverse pleasure from putting the average age up by walking in. It would not be fair or accurate to suggest that these pubs, or the Castle Hotel down by the harbour, are exclusively student dens. Aber has faced criticism in the past for not sorting its identity out – neither seaside resort nor university town – but this seems nonsensical to me. It is the mixture of people that makes it, a coexistence that, for the most part, works. This dual identity is not new. Ward Lock’s 1933-4 Guide to Aberystwyth often reads like an advertisement, saying that the town “has been called the Brighton of Wales” and “is the most important watering place on Cardigan Bay”. It goes on to compare its winter climate with that of Bournemouth but gives prominence to the University as well at a time when student numbers were about 700. Wynford Vaughan Thomas got it right in the Shell Guide To Wales when he described Aberystwyth as “a fascinating amalgam”.
Further along the front, turn in to Pier Street. To reassure those who may be disappointed by the idea that pubs have become somewhat sanitised and lost their edge, in the Pier pub I once witnessed a minor brawl between two of the oldest combatants I can recall. The dispute revolved around whether the cousin of one was or was not a local footballer of some repute. The climax of the contretemps went after this fashion:
Elderly Combatant A, leaning casually on bar: X had a good few games for Aber
Even More Elderly Combatant B, perched precariously on bar stool: Never
E.C.A: He did, boy, loads of times
E.C.B: Never played for Aberystwyth Town, never
E.C.A: You’ve no****** idea
E.C.B: Anyway, he was a f****** w*****!
As may be readily imagined this precipitated a delightful geriatric scuffle until broken up by a friend of mine and the grinning landlord who interposed themselves between the parties but only after a delay sufficient to provide a brief cabaret for the onlookers. Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un – eat your hearts out! The Pier was always good for small scale incidents. Another accident prone pal of mine once opened a bag of salted peanuts with so much force and so little finesse that 80% of the contents exploded across the length and length of the room. On returning two months later, I was informed by the put-upon landlord that he was still finding peanuts all over the pub, most notably behind the clock when he had taken it down for its annual clean. I have no hesitation in awarding the prize for the best notice seen in an Aberystwyth pub. This goes to the Nag’s Head c. 1980 for:
MYSTERY TRIP TO DEVIL’S BRIDGE : BRING BOTTLES
In Last Tango In Aberystwyth and The Unbearable Lightness Of Being In Aberystwyth Malcolm Pryce has re-imagined the town as the haunt of crooks, gangsters and a druidic mafia. In reality Aber has often been much closer to the stereotypical image of the laced and corseted chapel town. Monty Python’s Life Of Brian was banned there in 1979. By a wonderful turn of events, Sue Jones-Davies, who played Judith Iscariot in the film, became Mayor of Aberystwyth and presided over a charity screening event that included Michael Palin and Terry Jones in 2009. It achieved another kind of fame in 2009 when a plague of ladybirds descended. Kids with ice cream cones covered with the pests made the national dailies. Apparently they could bite.
To enter a pub can open up new worlds. This may surprise those people who look with disapproval at big screens, fruit machines and juke boxes. Moreover, most pubs are just as vulnerable as the rest of the universe to the curse of the mobile phone, ipad, tablet and laptop. A press report of February 2018 had three students of Dundee creating the “Sociometer”, a device that shows how many people in a pub are using mobile phones.
I am usually guilty of burying my head in a newspaper. All these are conversation killers. Nevertheless, anyone familiar with the Crown in Llanidloes, Ty Brith in Carno, the Red Lion in Machynlleth, the Druid in Goginan or the Ship and Castle in Aber will know that there is still life in the body. Many years ago the Royal Oak in Rhayader had a clutch of regulars who held a Saturday morning “parliament” where the world was put to rights.
Two recent Aberystwyth experiences underline this, both from December 2017. When I walked into the Inn On The Pier it was empty and the bar untended. After a few minutes a young woman emerged from the back to serve. She had red hair and a few words persuaded me that she was probably Irish. Not so – from the Isle of Man and what’s more a Manx speaker. She spoke a few words to me in what I had sadly assumed to be a dead language. So too did Unesco’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, pronouncing it “extinct” in 2009. However it now says “critically endangered” with 1800 speakers or 2% of the island’s population of 88,000. Although the last native speaker died in 1974, the work of the Manx Language Society (1899) and Language Unit (1992) has obviously borne some fruit. The Wikipedia page on Manx is detailed and provides comparisons with other Celtic tongues. I have some form with Celtic languages. The first pub I visited in Cornwall, The Queens in Botallack, near St.Just, provided me, within one hour, of my first experience of Cornish, another language I never expected to hear. Internet scouring shows just 300-400 speakers out of a population of 536,000. UNESCO have upgraded it from “extinct” to “critically endangered” but it has no official status despite some encouragement from the county council. On brief exposure, I can say that neither Manx nor Cornish has the throaty quality of Welsh. Having seen more than one grave of “the last native Cornish speaker” I realise that this term needs more thought and research. Dictionary definitions leave room for doubt. Cambridge says “spoken since a baby” while Collins goes for “someone who has spoken it as a first language rather than learning it as a foreign tongue”. I suppose both Manx and Cornish may have died as spoken languages at some point only to be revived in some establishments and households and then passed on to children.
Less than two hours later I was the first customer in Welsh-speaking Yr Hen Llew Du at the top of the town. This time the young woman who had both let me in and served me had blonde hair and once again drawing on my trusty reserve of stereotypes, I guessed from eastern Europe. Wrong – by quite a few miles. She was Ladin and as a bonus averred that she was one of only 10,000 speakers of that tongue. Cursory research may indicate a figure as high as 31,000, mainly in three provinces of northern Italy. Ladin is recognised as a minority language in 54 municipalities with speakers forming 4.5% of the population of South Tyrol and 3.5% of Trentino. It was originally a Vulgar Latin tongue. Again, basic websites such as Wikipedia are extensive and footnoted.
Further – a couple of years ago, on a train back from Aber to Caersws, I had sat opposite a mother and small son and become intrigued at their conversation. It emerged that they were talking in Afrikaans and she was at pains to say how proud she was to speak it and how determined to do her bit to keep it alive. There is an argument about whether this language is endangered in South Africa and Namibia but with 7.2 million native speakers, 13.5% of the population, it is certainly a long way from the level of the Celtic tongues.
It might be wrong to depict Aberystwyth as a melting pot of languages and cultures but the student influx and tourism have added to the Welsh/English mix. Walk along the promenade at certain times of the year and you will see flags of minority nations, cultures and tongues like Catalonia flying in the westerly breezes.
A while back I was in a student pub in Manchester. A single occupant at a nearby table was hailed by a newcomer who came over and sat down. “I haven’t seen you in ages, how are you?” Brief pleasantries then – silence. Both men were at their phones. I looked round at the other tables. More silence, more phones. People in the room – yet not in it. A new world. Facebook, Instagram and smartphones lack appeal but I do like chatrooms – as long as they are real world. No PC or mouse required, just the opening of a pub door. You can listen or talk and listen. Of course there is a risk of trolls or bores (I am not the former but must have been the latter more than I care to admit) but there is always a short walk and another place. I don’t need to unfriend or press delete and clearing the head on Aber seafront is preferable to logging off. The mix of people in the town adds to the fun. My email was once interrupted with a message inviting me to join with people similar to me in exchanging emails. I forget its name, probably because of the horror I felt. Hell is other people? No – hell is other people like me! Out in the pub world you never know what lies through the chatroom door.