The Second Master’s Passion for Locos

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“I’m not sure how many Marians know that David Fink, the school’s biographer, history teacher and Second Master was also a devoted railway enthusiast. A small group of us who visited the recently purchased Farchynys found out quickly enough when we went on a visit in early January 1965. We were a small party of geography students on a mini field trip to Mid Wales.

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The accommodation was pretty basic I remember, and the weather was bleak and sleeting. David Fink thought he would cheer us up and took us to the refreshment room at Machynlleth, to indulge his passion for Great Western Manor class steam locomotives and to get us some hot food, the best buffet steak and kidney pies in Wales. A real treat.  We saw the Cambrian Line locos firing up in the yard, then it was off to Bala Junction, scheduled for closure on 4th January, but retrieved for a few more weeks.

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We felt we were pioneers at Farchynys. Happy days, never to be repeated”

Nick Sanders QM 1958-65

The Hidden Basque Church of Southern Snowdonia

St Philip’s, Caerdeon launches a campaign to raise £120,000

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“Hiding in the mountains between Barmouth and Bontddu is a church of extraordinary individuality and importance.”

These are the opening words of the latest Director’s Report of Friends of Friendless Churches who with the The Petit Society  have been steadfast champions of this wonderful church that was closed in 2014.

Described variously as of rustic Mediterranean, Alpine or Basque influence, it sits curiously against the Cambrian backdrop of southern Snowdonia.

Bill Tilman, the famous explorer, rang the highly unusual bells here using a large wheel on the North side of the church, and Mrs Mai Clarke (Mai the Milk), one of The Coach House’s greatest friends now rests at the bottom of the steeply sloping churchyard with her husband Desmond.

St Philip’s was also a special favourite of John Anderson’s, Second Master and C.O. of the Combined Cadet Force who always made it up the hill- whatever the weather- to worship on Easter Sunday.

The church was originally a private chapel belonging to The Revd. W.E. Jelf who asked John Louis Petit, an old Oxford friend, to design it. Philip Modiano, the leading light of the Petit Society has just published a superbly illustrated guide to the man who was a one-man campaign against the Neo-Gothic which dominated so much of mid-nineteenth century ecclesiastical architecture.

The Friends of Friendless Churches have been approached about taking St Philip’s into  their care: “It comes with a large repair bill that we shall have to  raise: over £120,000 is needed to make this building watertight and safe.”

For more information or to get involved in the campaign, please do visit these websites:

Friends of Friendless Churches

Petit’s Tour of Old Staffordshire – The Book

 

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Polymathic Cake for The Mawddach’s Best Critic

There is no better walk than from Barmouth to Dolgellau, than Dolgellau to Barmouth!

One of the most quotable judgements on the beauty of the Mawddach estuary was made by John Ruskin, the eminent Victorian critic and polymath who was born exactly two hundred years ago today.

In his lifetime, his thought leading provocations won him the admiration of Gandhi, Proust and Tolstoy, but today, two centuries after his birth, we are also appreciating the brilliance of his foresight, the diversity of his creative instincts, and the strength of his commitment in putting into practice his ideas about the environment, work and society.

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The Guild of St. George, which today we might describe as a not-for-profit organisation, was created by Ruskin to challenge the excesses of Victorian capitalism and the obsessive pursuit of money. With the simple aim of creating a more thoughtful society, The Guild attracted many followers, including one of Barmouth’s greatest philanthropists, Mrs Fanny Talbot who of course gifted Dinas Oleu to the National Trust.

Ruskin described Fanny “as a motherly, bright, black-eyed woman of fifty with a nice married son who is a superb chess player. She herself is a very good one, and it’s her greatest indulgence to have a written game with me. She’s an excellent nurse, and curious beyond any magpie that ever was….”

In 1872, Mrs Talbot gifted twelve cottages on Barmouth Rock to Ruskin’s Guild, and one of the first tenants was Auguste Guyard, known locally as the Frenchman. Guyard shared Ruskin’s views about sustainable communities and had himself tried to create a commune modele in France.

In the Guild’s rulebook for tenants can be found the standing instruction that on the Master’s birthday, cake was to be eaten, and so 200 years after his birth, we will be wishing him happy returns of the day and eating some appropriately polymathical cake, but our celebratory Mawddach walk from Barmouth to Dolgellau will have to await our return to the Rock.

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.

 

 

Steven Parkes (QM 1961-7) remembers one of the first weekends at The Coach House

Farchynys had been officially opened in 1963, when I was in my Third Year – but not being a particularly outdoorsy-adventurish type, I had resisted all invitations to take part in any of the weekend activities that were on offer there.I had steadfastly avoided it, mainly on the grounds that going on an early-morning, arduous, cross-country assault course on a Welsh mountainside held very little appeal to my more artistic and stay-at-home nature!
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         I had now reached my Fifth Year, however, and it was beginning to be noticed on high that there were still some boys who had never been to Farchynys yet!
As it was an extra-curricular activity (just like Saturday-morning rugby matches that I had steadfastly refused to attend), it couldn’t be made compulsory – but it was still becoming awkward and embarrassing when we were all asked “Who hasn’t been to Farchynys yet?”   
         Some of the masters were actively trying to encourage new visitors by expounding on the different themes to some of the forthcoming weekends.  Apparently, they weren’t all of an arduous, cross-country nature – there were some CCF weekends (I was in the RAF Section) and then, I noticed, there was a History one coming up, where we would be taken to visit a couple of ruined castles in the area.   That sounded almost pleasant!
I bit the bullet and put my name down for the History weekend that was coming up, along with three of my good mates.
        Two weeks later we were heading off, in the school minibus, along with a group of my pals and accompanied by Mr. Leach, a History Master, and the American ‘Doc’ Nunes (pronounced ‘New-niss’) – who I seem to remember taught English rather than History, though I could be wrong – and their wives.    Having their wives there was nice – it gave us the rare opportunity to see these Masters in a more human light with their other halves, plus, it was good to have that extra feminine touch to an otherwise male-dominated weekend!
        We arrived there at 7.00pm.   I imagine that we would’ve had something to eat at that time of day – everybody mucked-in helping in the large, newly-built kitchen.   Part of the discipline there, it appeared, was that we were required to assist the main cooks (usually, the Masters’ wives) in preparing the food.
       This was something quite alien and new to me – I’d only ever learned how to cook an omelette at home – but it was also very interesting too.   My main memory of working in that kitchen was being shown by Mrs. Nunes how to gradually feed a big bunch of dried spaghetti sticks into a large saucepan of boiling water, watching them soften and curve round the sides of the pot as they went further and further in.
       My diary says we went for a ramble in the evening and then I managed to grab a single bed!   I don’t know if that means some lads had to share double beds, or if it meant bunks?   I can’t remember after all this time, but I feel pretty sure it would’ve been bunks.   We were all in a dormitory, of course, though I can’t remember if it was big enough to take all of us lads together, or if there were two dorms.  The two members of staff and their respective wives must’ve had a double room each.
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       I do remember, when we were washing and doing our morning ablutions, how amazingly soft the water was there! The tap water in Walsall was notoriously hard and full of dissolved lime scale, but there, it was a pure as could be – so much so, that it brought me out in a kind of allergic rash!  The skin of my fingers came up in lots of little lumps.   No discolouration, nor any redness, but just all these little lumps that were quite itchy, too!
 Steve QM Profile Pic 1961[1]On Saturday, we were taken to visit Harlech Castle and then Caernarvon Castle, which I thought was great!   I’d always enjoyed visiting old castles when I’d been younger.   The nearest one at home was, of course, Dudley Castle, in the grounds of the Zoo, though there wasn’t much left of that!
         Walking round these castles was far, far better than straggling along on a tough cross-country hike, or climbing to the top of nearby Cadair Idris, as a lot of the other weekend parties had to do!   If I had to come to Farchynys, this was the way to do it – oh yes!   It was more like being on a family holiday!
           Mr. Leach was an alright sort of bloke, though I have to say he was one of those masters who didn’t particularly stand out in my memory.   ‘Doc’ Nunes, on the other hand, was an extremely memorable character – the sort you never forget, actually!
For a start, he was an American – and that was unusual enough at a traditional, English Grammar School like ours.   I would say that he and Mr. Leach were probably of a similar age… I can only take a rough guess and say… probably… late twenties to early thirties, perhaps?   He had neat, black hair and – unusually for those times – wore a short, neat beard, so that was two things that made him stand out straightaway:  beard and American accent. He also had a highly developed sense of humour, I recall.
On that Saturday evening, a few of us went into Barmouth for a bit of free time.  We were, no doubt, given a lift into there by one or other of the Masters.   A couple of the lads went off chasing some local girls – to no avail, I might add – and then we all met up again later on and bought ourselves a few bottles of beer, to secretly take back with us, and we also got ourselves some chips. ‘Doc’ came to pick us up in the minibus about 10.30 and he went mad to see we’d all got ourselves packets of chips!
       “Where’s my chips I want some chips!” he declared in his inimitable accent, before going off to the chip shop himself to get himself a portion, once we were installed safely in the minibus. He then sat with us and scoffed them all himself before he began the journey back to Farchynys.
       “Don’t tell my wife!” he cautioned everybody.   He was a real card, that one!
That night, we secretly drank our contraband beer in our dormitory, while sitting in bed.   I suppose – if we had to do it – that was probably the safest possible time and place to do it in – just before we lay down in bed!   I’ve never been a beer-drinker, apart from those early, teenaged experiments.   I simply found I didn’t like it – nor the feeling of intoxication it always produced.   I know I’m an oddity in that – but there it is. 
I still don’t regard myself as teetotal, I will have the very rare odd tipple now and then, but I still don’t like it very much and it doesn’t particularly like me, either.
I don’t remember coming home the next day (Sunday).   My diary just says:  “Came back this afternoon.  Left at 2.00, got back to school 7.00.”
And that was all I wrote about my one and only trip to Farchynys.
It had been a very good and (in some ways) memorable experience, but I was far too lazy by nature to ever want to do it again.