A Wonderful Relief Map of The Mawddach made by N.T. Sanders of Caersws

This wonderful artefact was displayed originally at the Lion in Dolgellau and for years at the George III at Penmaenpool. I am delighted to have saved it for the nation! It faithfully represents the land as surveyed in the 1/25,000 Ordnance series and has inspired many an adventure around this incomparable estuary.

The George III’s Note on the Map:

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The Power of Place: A Seasonal Story

 We met on a copper-sunned afternoon in early October – and only because I managed to avoid the mayhem which closed the Shrewsbury ring road. I had soon reached the long hill at Dinas Mawddwy, cruised past Cadair at Cross Foxes and arrived at the Finches in time for a cup of tea and a stroll on the headland. I was planning to meet friends in Barmouth later for supper and a chat about the new campaign to save the bridge.

It had been unusually dry for days and the path outside The Coach House which led upwards to the headland’s peak was clear and easy. I headed instinctively to what my school grandly called the Gazebo. In reality, it was more an uncovered semi-circle of stones perched precipitously at the summit on the edge of the cliff. But with a commanding view to the southern shoreline of the estuary, it made a perfect spot for a picnic or even more atmospherically, a reading of gothic tales by candlelight as the English department had been known to organise. It was no surprise that the Gazebo was one of everybody’s favourite places at Farchynys, my school’s adventure centre in an old coach house on the Mawddach estuary in Snowdonia.

I sat and scanned the long, sharp edge of Tyrau Mawr directly opposite and then looking down below, enjoyed the sand art: the constantly changing patterns left by retreating tides. Apart from a group of redwings feeding on rowan berries before heading off, there was an intense silence here: it was the perfect antidote to the noise of Brexit London which I had left behind.

I took some photos with my phone and then took the other path downwards and noticed storm damaged trees lying forlorn and waiting their appointment with the Warden’s chainsaw. Through a more vigorous tree’s accommodating branches I could see The Clock House, the iconic building positioned right on the water at Coes Faen, a few steps from the bridge. Soon I was heading down the path through overgrown bushes towards the Boathouse and the beach.

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Technically out of bounds, the Boathouse was just too tempting an opportunity not to relive my youthful memories. Energised by the walk, I was humming enthusiastically along the headland path when I spotted a

figure on the beach sitting quietly near the slipway, head turned towards the sea. It was a woman of about forty, with strawberry blonde hair worn up in a French pleat. She was wearing a long summer dress. As I approached her, I saw she was holding something across her lap. She remained perfectly still, staring at the beach towards the bridge. The stillness was a little unsettling.

“Lovely afternoon!” I paused. “Everything well?” I added with deliberate fragmentary vagueness.

Her ornately embroidered dress was the colour of corn and the item sitting across her lap, I realised, was actually a drawing board on which a picture was taped down. She remained impassive for several more seconds before she turned towards me.

“Forgive me, I was captivated by this landscape. The viaduct somehow has improved what Nature already gifted to us.” Scattered around her on the sand, I could now see a painter’s impedimenta: a wooden box of tubes, brushes in various sizes and shapes, a square palette, rags and jars of water.

“I’ve always been fascinated by how special places can evoke emotion,” I replied.

“That’s why I am here,” and she pointed to her picture which consisted of a big wash of flax yellow laid across her pencil sketch of the estuary.

“Perhaps I should break the ice?”, I said, “I’m Paul Walton and I’ve just driven up from Oxford.” She gave a small puff and a smile.

“What a small world, then” she said, and began to tidy her clutter.

“I’m sorry, I mustn’t disturb your concentration,” I suggested, perhaps a little after the event.

“I think I’m finished for today; the light and warmth are going, and my next wash will not dry in time.” She placed her canvass into a pouch and turned to me: “I’m Amelia. Amelia Reid, and my sister’s husband was a Latin scholar at Christ Church. Are you staying at Farchynys Hall? I’ve met the new people there and I should tell you that they are happy to let me loose on their headland to paint.”

I laughed and folded up her stool.

“No actually, I am staying at the Farmhouse with the Finches. And you?”

“Across the way at Plas Caerdeon. With my sister and brother-in-law. My brother-in- law has been working at St Philips’s over the summer and I’ve been lucky enough to stay with him and my sister. We all like to paint in watercolour and this summer has provided many opportunities.”

She had now packed all her gear into an elegant wicker basket and placed its goatskin strap on her shoulder. “The sun is fading fast now, and I should be on my way back. It was good to meet you. Enjoy the rest of the afternoon!”

We heard the pic pic of a woodpecker.

“I have to get back too, Amelia, perhaps I could walk with you?”,

and we walked back through the meadow towards Farchynys. When we reached the drive, we said our goodbyes.

Later that evening before I left for dinner in Barmouth, I was enjoying a glass of beer with Dennis in the Farmhouse, and as was his custom with his B&B guests, he asked what I’d been up to. I told him of my encounter with Amelia Reid, the lady of the boathouse, our conversation about painting and the church at Caerdeon where her sister and brother were working for the summer.

“She sounds something straight out of Millais, my dear boy, and interesting to hear about St Philips’s too. Have you ever been there? It’s built in the Basque style and while it’s certainly non-standard C of E or W, it’s certainly worth a visit – if you can find it.”

“I’ve never been, Dennis, and in fact, until today, I hadn’t even heard about it.”

“Well how about a walk there tomorrow after breakfast? It may be closed, it often seems to be, but we can burn off some of the Farchynys calories in making the attempt and we may learn more about your new friends at Caerdeon.”

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The following morning, after one Margaret’s epic Full Welsh feasts, Dennis and I set off down the road and then up the path into the forest like Hobbits marching into the Misty Mountains. The lane corkscrewed several times and after what seemed like a couple of miles, I spotted a Lychgate and behind it, a big rectangular building with plain rectangular windows. We went up to the entrance.

“Lucky boy, it’s open,” said Dennis, and I went inside whilst he took a look outside.

Inside, it was definitely lighter than other more ancient Welsh churches I’d visited, but it felt damp, didn’t smell like it was in regular use and there was no sign of any people or works in progress. At the crossing on the nave I noticed there was a large metal wheel with a rope connected to the four bells above me in the open belfry – an ingenious device which probably made bell ringing possible by one person. It appeared to be in working order. I was now thinking this was indeed a real curiosity of a building, half-way up a mountain on a dangerously steep incline.

“Paul,” a voice came from behind me in the porch, “I think you ought to come and look at what I’ve found.”

I followed Dennis outside and watched as he manoeuvred carefully down the overgrown slope of the graveyard. I followed.

“See what’s written on this? How’s your Latin, dear boy?”

We were looking down at a weathered memorial stone, half sunk into the slope.

            Amelia Reid, sister of Louisa, taken from this world October 5th, 1868.

                            Non hodie Quod heri.

 

 I murmured a translation: “I am not today what I was yesterday,”

 

 

Author’s Notes:

  1. St Philip’s Church also known as Caerdeon Chapel is indeed situated off a steep lane in a dramatically sloping churchyard not far from the Farchynys Coach house.
  2. Built in 1862, three years before the opening of Barmouth Viaduct, it had a somewhat controversial early history. It was built by the Rev William Edward Jelf, a Classics Tutor at Christ Church. He conducted services for his Oxford students in English rather than the official Welsh and thus fell foul of the local Church of Wales big-wig, the Rector of Llanaber. Matters were resolved in Jelf’s favour by The Court of Arches.
  3. The Church was designed by Jelf’s Oxford friend, the Rev John Louis Petit who was descended from a Huguenot family which had settled in Lichfield. He was also a one-man campaign against the overuse of neo-gothic Church design. Petit travelled widely exploring Mediterranean and eastern ecclesiastical styles and painted many watercolours. As did his wife, Louisa and her unmarried sister, Amelia Reid.
  4. I did take one major liberty in the story: whilst John Louis Petit died in 1868, apparently from a chill caught while sketching, Amelia lived to a fine old age and became with her sister’s sister-in-law, Maria Jelf, leading lights of the Ipswich Fine Art club. Amelia last exhibited in 1896.
  5. Maria Jelf’s painting of St Philip’s, the Mawddach and Cadair is below (Courtesy of Somerset and Wood Fine Art)
  6. My friends at The Circle of Petit (www.revpetit.com) have also made available for sharing two other pictures in watercolour which can be found below. One is a splendid view of St Philip’s, the other, a powerful study of the estuary from Rhuddallt.

 

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There’s more at: www.flotandjet.com

 

First Night, November 3rd, 1968

It is fifty years to the day since I first saw the Mawddach glinting in the late Autumn sun. Our trusty blue Commer minibus, complete with transversal bench seating had successfully navigated the pass at Dinas Mawddwy and the hair-pin riffs of Fiddler’s Elbow, and with the aluminium catering trays of Mrs Watkins’ fried fish and baked-bean-splattered mash still skidding around our feet, had come to a temporary stop in Bontddu to pick up the milk. Shortly afterwards, we had arrived at the majestic but dangerously uneven main drive to Farchynys.

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I hadn’t been lucky enough to visit during my first year at Queen Mary’s, but aged 12 and accelerated into the Alpha stream, I was one of a party of third formers visiting the Coach House under the charge of George Brudenell, our easy going Year Master and his Physics Department chum, the ever-wry Ernie Watson. One of them pointed out the two granite and slate buildings perched half hidden and forbidding on the hill to our left of the Dolgellau to Barmouth road. Then, with assorted bumps and skids-on-gravel, the minibus had made it up the drive, passed the rhododendrons of the Hall and stopped outside the Coach House.

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No sooner had the front door been unlocked then I experienced the Coach House’s unique aroma: a mélange of damp, overcooked vegetable and burned carbon. As the more experienced hands raced upstairs to secure the best bunk positions in the dorm, others were pushing refectory tables together to make one giant table tennis court, while an enterprising Prefect was opening up the weekend tuck-shop, packed for travel in a large biscuit tin. This contained the Kit Kats, Mars Bars and Wagon Wheels necessary to maintain morale over the coming hours.

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The darkness came, and for boys from an industrial town, this was a darkness absolute and rare -the kind that torches and fireworks are made for. But for now, it was time for supper and the return of the fried fish, mash and baked beans which like us had made it all the way from Sutton Road in Walsall.

It was later that evening, after the group had done the washing-up that I made the first strategic error of my Marian career. I casually let it be known that in the morning we should check the post-box as there might be something for me as it was my birthday. The possibility of receiving some extra spending money had clouded my better judgement and I soon discovered that sharing this piece of information was not conducive to either a peaceful or an undisturbed night’s sleep in the dorm.  It was an unforgettable first night at Farchynys.

 

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Minibuses : Ancient and Modern

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A brand new minibus  being handed over to Richard Langton, the Head  by Andrew Donaldson and Seema Sikka of the Queen Mary’s Association who raised £22000 to fund it and rather splendid it is too. A far cry from the from the first minibus of early days of Farchynys as this extract form the book illustrates:

From the very first meeting of the QMGS Welsh Centre Management Committee in April 1963, transport was on the agenda. “Possible options to be explored for transferring parties to the Mawddach included by train, by hired bus or by school transport.” Fairly immediately it became clear that a minibus was the only feasible option and looking into the capital cost of hiring, buying and insuring one became a key task of the Committee. After test drives of three alternative models, a Commer 14-seater with slatted seats became the favoured choice and was purchased for £836 3s 6d. Thus, did White-Knuckle Coachways come into existence.

  As a valuable new asset, a standing order was passed that “no boy in the school would be allowed to drive except in the event of absolute emergency”. That didn’t stop boys playing with the letters of the Minibus and rebranding it as a Rommec. QM has owned many minibuses over fifty years and the White-Knuckle Coachways rides have become a defining part of the experience.

 

 

July 2nd, 1554 and All That

I am by now well accustomed to being asked questions prompted by the title of my book. “What exactly is the Mawddach? this is usually said in a brittle Anglo-Saxon fashion that makes it sound like a dark territory of Middle Earth rather than beautiful estuary in Merioneth, and so provides me with a perfect opportunity to deliver a short Welsh lesson followed by a quiz.

I am also frequently asked “What is a Marian?”, often with an equally puzzled expression. When I have explained that it is not a typographical error for Martian, but the name given to past and present students of Queen Mary’s Grammar School, I then have to explain that this Queen Mary, is not Mary, Queen of Scots, but in fact her cousin, Mary Tudor, our first queen regnant; and I soon find myself slipping into that familiar narrative by referring to her as ‘that Bloody Mary’, who burned all the Protestants at the stake and lost Calais – not a brilliant backstory, perhaps, for the Founder of our school.

But especially in July, when we celebrate our foundation, I think it’s time to cut Mary some slack and to loudly  declaimVivatRegina! Incidentally, our school wasn’t her only foundation. In the educational ruins of the English Brexit from the Catholic Church, Mary also founded schools in Clitheroe, Leominster, Boston, Ripon and Basingstoke.

It was on Mary’s way to Winchester to marry Phillip, the Habsburg Prince of Spain, that two Walsall brothers, George and Nicholas Hawe, along with two other well-positioned notables with reputations at court, petitioned the Queen to let them build a school to fill the gap left by the destruction of local Chantry chapels. The result, was the granting on July 2ndof the Letters Patent which laid down a school“be created and established for the teaching, erudition and instruction of boys and youths…. which shall be called The Free Grammar School of Queen Mary at Walsall.”

So, was this the reputational high point of the only British monarch we call after a family name rather than a regnal number? David Fink, in his magisterial history of the school draws on Venetian ambassadorial dispatches to imagine a marvellous scene at the moment of signature and then adds:

“With the rest of Mary’s life, a Marian is in something of a quandary, not to say dilemma. He must be truthful and not gloss over distressing facts; at the same time, his gratitude must lead him to a favourable interpretation wherever possible.”

Sixty years after David Fink wrote these words, the dilemma has been made much easier to resolve by the fruits of recent scholarship.  Three strong academic biographies and Eamon Duffy’s Fires of Faithhave paved the way for a significant reappraisal of Mary and her reign. Duffy’s book includes a forensic re-examination of Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, the famous account of the Protestant Martyrs, which through the centuries has caused the Marian regime so much reputational damage: much of which, today, we might well label as “fake news.”

Mary, far from being the inept and hopeless religious fundamentalist, appears for today’s scholars to be confident and decisive, full of courage as well as conviction, and possessing great political nous. She was also for a Tudor – and despite mistreatment by a quite appalling father – very likeable – she was generous to friends, fond of fine clothes (my favourite portrait is the 1544 by Master John), and apparently, addicted to gambling with cards and dice.

Mary’s personal motto was Veritas Temporis Filia– Truth is the daughter of time – which seems incredibly appropriate for a queen we are only now beginning to understand. Thanks for founding us, Mary, and starting all our journeys to the Mawddach.

 

Vivat Regina Maria! Floreat Reginae Schola Mariae!

 

July 2nd, 2018