Poetry of the Mawddach: 1887


Canon HD Rawnsley 


The river failed as if a wizard’s wand

Had smote it; where dark Idris mirrored lay,

 Behind his woody skirts and range of grey,

 Was unreflecting waste and wrinkled sand;

 No life, no light, but here and there a band

 Of hyacinthine blue, that stole away,

 Like to a guilty thing, toward the bay,

 And left the boats heeled helpless on the strand.

 Then from the central sea a whisper came,

 The salt white water swam as smooth as oil,

 Swept o’er the shoals of sun and flickering gold.

 Other, but inconceivably the same,

 Incessant, but without a sign of toil,

 Renewing all, the generous tide was rolled.

Sonnets Round the Coast

Gordon Brudenell

All the many Marians who knew him were saddened to hear of the recent death of Gordon Brudenell, the kind, witty and naturally laid back QM Year Master and teacher of Physics. I have particular cause to remember him with joy and thanks.

Not only did Gordon successfully coach me through the only Physics examination I ever passed (it was my O Level) but was in command when he took a Third Year class to Farchynys in November 1968 for what was my first visit.

When I was preparing Marians on the Mawddach I asked a number of members of staff to share their memories of the place. What follows below is Gordon’s unique contribution. It is so true to his voice and many of things he notes come to mind when I remember that cold, rainy first trip to the Mawddach on my thirteenth birthday.

Thanks for taking me there, Gordon.

Gordon Brudenell with Christiane Swain

Dear Paul

Some ramblings about a wonderful place!

·       Blackness – see Night sky

·       Breath-taking first view of estuary on approach

·       Call to meals ‘ARUP!’ (by Ken Yates) or something like it, sometimes accompanied by beating a large saucepan lid. It certainly got results and there always followed a mad scramble from dorm and day-room, to join the queue at the serving hatch.

·       Chores – on the duty rota. The favourite ‘End of Visit’ chore was, of course, cleaning the toilets!

·       Dingbats. A legend about vampire bats at Farchynys and told to ‘Fusties’ by prefects as the set off on a torch-lit nighttime walk on the headland. The legend was reinforced by the bat cave and by finding bats in dorm sinks etc.

·       Duty Rota. Drawn up at the start of the visit showing a list of the various chores to be done and the group/s (chosen at random) assigned to the job. It was posted on the dayroom noticeboard.

·       Fire Practice. Always held on each visit. Sometimes, if noise had carried on in the dorm for too long, it was held after they were settling down to sleep. They then had to assemble outside in pyjamas. 

·       Flooding. The drive sometimes got cut-off by flooding from the Mawddach. This did not usually last for long, but if it did supplies could be obtained on foot by walking down past the farm. 

·       Girls at Farchynys. In later years girls joined in the 6th Form and came on field courses. They slept in the larger staff bedroom and used the staff bathroom. As numbers increased, a better solution was needed.

·       Glow-worms – an amazing sight seen lining the driveway sometimes. The creatures were however very disappointing when examined in the lab.

·       Halfway House pub – nothing needs to be added!

·       Ken’s Deerstalker hat, stick, ever-ready-camera & wellies. Easy to spot.

·       Late nights working in Lab.

·       Leftovers. In the early days the wonderful ladies in the QM kitchens would provide us with any leftover food in large aluminium containers – main course, sweet (especially that perennial favourite – chocolate concrete). These made a welcome contribution to the food budget. Health and Safety regulations eventually put a stop to this.

·       Let Hair Down  – a real ‘getting to know you’ place pupils /staff (two way traffic) in totally different light.

·       Listening to Mahler after late night/early morning end to laboratory session on Biology field trips.

·       M is for Mai – Mai the Milk. We could not have managed without her for those many years! Not only did she supply us with crate(s) of milk ready for our arrival, but also if we ran short during a Field Course etc. She also cleaned the Coach House after each visit. She was a fount of knowledge about the area and knew most of the QM staff very well. They were always welcome for a cosy chat in front of a warm fire.

·       Maybugs. It was often very hot in the lab on summer Field Trips and all the windows were open. As it got dark, the tremendous clattering and painful impact of these large heavy beetles (cockchafers) was most unwelcome.

·       Minibus. The first minibus had slatted wooden seats at the side. Aptly named the ‘Puke Wagon’. For some years they were COMMER vehicles bought from Goodfellows. These were always rebadged by QM wags as ‘ROMMEC’

·       Mudflats (see ‘Suckering’)

·       Night sky. Total blackness with no ‘City Light pollution’ – just made for stargazing

·       Orienteering.  Poor map readers, usual error was to turn the map upside down or to follow route with the river or other landmark on the wrong side of the path!

·       Porridge – theYates test – for porridge to be ready the stirring spoon must stand upright unaided! One slice or two?  

·       Quadwats. Ken could not pronounce ‘r’ and he told students to mark out half-metre ‘quadwats’ for plant identification. He was affectionately teased about this difficulty and given ‘exercises’ to say e.g., River Ribble. He greatly enjoyed the fun.

·       Rhododendron culling – excellent fuel for staffroom fire

·       Round-the-Table Tennis, usual table tennis rules or Hit and Run around the table to join opposite queue, strictly no table tennis  bats allowed but anything else is OK (books, saucepan lids etc.)

·       Staff Room log fires – marvellous.

·       Suckering pupils on salt marsh mudflats. During the session on the estuary mudflats, ken would leave me with the rest of the Biology group and stride off ostensibly to find the best place to dig for ‘inhabitants’. Eventually he would signal to us to follow only for us to find ourselves in up to 40 cm of soft mud making it impossible to walk and pulling wellies off. The subsequent wallowing was photographed by Ken who always had his camera at the ready. The dig was eventually completed and specimens collected. Showers and a bit of laundry work quickly sorted out any mess.

·       Tranquillity, silence, superb relaxation after the day’s activities.

·       Washing-up and spud bashing for 20. This was on the duty rota and was a real culture-shock for many. Perhaps a change was noted later by parents?

·       Water supply. Initially there was no mains water, and the viability of any visit depended a report on the level of water in the hillside tank at the end of the previous visit (with any update from Mai).

·       Welshpool – ‘Obligatory’ stop for tuck & supplies

·       Y is for Yates – Ken Yates. The Laird of Farchynys – that’s for sure! He spent as much time as he could there. He was in his element – truly relaxed and extremely happy. Field Trips (Biology and Geology), First-Year weeks, Year weekends – whatever he could go on, he was there! I accompanied him on very many of these visits. He was always superb company and pupils of all ages had a great time. He liked to spend Christmas there, walking, reading listening to his extensive classical music collection.

·     Thanks for taking us  -always nice to hear at the end of a visit.

Best wishes with the project

Gordon Brudenell

29 April 2016

Dinner at Bontddu Hall Hotel, 1985

The Waltons splurge in the Hall’s 40th great year

One of the few benefits of the Lockdown confinement has been the opportunity to rediscover the mountains of material lurking in cupboards and storage boxes and to begin a modest little meander through the sedimentary material found therein. Like this 1985 flyer in mint condition from The Bontddu Hall Hotel which promises terrific Dinner Specials such as Baked Leg of Lamb with honey and Halibut en Papilotte, available to be washed down with wines supplied by George Duboeuf and Dienhard of Koblenz. Sadly, I can’t now remember what we ate, but I know I left with a couple of bonus bottles of Clos de Vougeot, bin ends on sale from the Cellar that night and which severely dented what was left of my annual bonus from The Creative Business.

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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


from the bigview_Fotor

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


On this day in October, 1867

“Would you like the bridge fried or boiled, Sir?”


“When Benjamin Piercy built the viaduct in 1867, there was a man over at Barmouth who promised that if they ever finished it, he would eat the first train to come over. The morning it was due, a table was laid outside Barmouth Station with a starched white cloth and best silver and as the train approached, the chairman of the railway turned to this fellow and said, ‘Here it comes now, do you want it fried or boiled, sir?’ ”

Quoted in Stopping Train Britain by Alexander Frater, 1983