Thursday, 20 December 2012

Worktown – The Drawings of Falcon Hildred

I’m biased: I like Falcon, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him in his home, of witnessing his uncluttered way of life and hearing him describe his hopes and disappointments. I also live next to Blaenau Ffestiniog, so any comments about his book (written by Peter Wakelin) are not wholly objective.

The book contains 200 of Falcon’s drawings, now in the hands of public bodies for posterity, and the bulk of them record the industrial heritage of Blaenau Ffestiniog, Falcon’s home for over forty years. 

In the course of the book I learnt a lot about his life: how he got the impressive name of Falcon; how he came to move from Grimsby to Coventry, to London and eventually to Blaenau Ffestiniog; his bold decision to give up job security to follow his calling. I loved the drawing he sent to his mother depicting the layout of his bedsit in Putney during the times when he designed, amongst other things, first class bars and cabins for cruise liners.

Within the book there are many favourite drawings for me including the series depicting Tŷ Uncorn, the one chimney house with four tiny cottages sharing a central chimney. Was this a pioneering attempt at central heating? I like knowing what it looks like inside as I walk past it near the police station.

The final chapter is written by Falcon and titled ‘My Working Process’. On the last page he talks about the drawings made in other industrial towns in which the buildings have long since been demolished or renovated. ....’After half a century of recording, I believe that Blaenau Ffestiniog and its landscape are the best and most complete surviving industrial landscape in Britain’ .... ‘I feel we should save one example of a nineteenth-century industrial town as a complete cultural and historic entity. So my final message is: if you like my pictures, then please take care of the subject that inspired them.’  

And so we should. As for the book, not only do I recommend it, I suggest you get three copies. One for cutting out and framing images on left hand pages, another for the right hand pages and the third for a good read.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Ffestiniog on the tube map

An old London underground railway carriage, built in 1892, was in use as a garden shed until recently renovated at the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railway’s workshops in Porthmadog. Spick and span after 15 months TLC, and twelve coats of varnish, the carriage will undergo trials at Loughborough before returning to London. In January 2013 it / she will be pulled by Metropolitan Railway steam locomotive No. 1 on a journey through the old Metropolitan Line tunnels of Paddington, Euston, King's Cross and Farringdon to Moorgate to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the world's first underground railway.


Sunday, 11 November 2012

Princess dragged out of Porthmadog pub

Don’t worry, it’s not Kate Middleton on a night out with the lads, but the world’s oldest, narrow gauge steam engine. She was delivered to the Ffestiniog Railway in 1863 and was retired from service in 1946 as the last working loco when the railway ran out of steam. For some years she sat on a plinth at Blaeanu Ffestiniog, a symbol of the epic reconstruction of the line. In the last 31 years she has been in the museum and latterly the expanded bar at harbour station.

On 10th November she was dragged out of her corner, having first been jacked up and then jacked across on a pair of metal sheets lubricated with Fairy Liquid. Shifting ten tonnes of loco within the confines of a pub is no easy task – the first ten metres took about three hours. With the help of a tractor with forklift she was eventually dumped onto the railway track and towed across The Cob for a bit of restoration.

Next year she will travel by road to Paddington where she will be on display for the six weeks beginning St David’s Day (1st March). Thereafter she has several other ambassadorial appearances to make including a beer festival at Olympia in conjunction with The Purple Moose Brewery

This is how she was dragged out and her corner in the pub taken by a steam (horse drawn) fire engine.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

River of Slate

Howard Bowcott invited me to his workshop to see the final touches to the giant jigsaw, the River of Slate. River  - because that’s how all the sediment gets washed down to create the mudstone which morphs into slate. River - because the Dwyryd was where the slate used to be boated out to the waiting ships.

This stunning work will soon be in the centre of town for people to walk on. What sacrilege! I hope they take off their shoes.

Here’s Howard busy with the slate:

Monday, 29 October 2012

Princess dragged out of Porthmadog pub

The world’s first narrow gauge steam engine Princess is to be pulled out of the pub at Porthmadog’s harbour station and taken to the workshops for a 150 year service. In the new year she will travel to Paddington where she will be on display for 6 weeks from St David’s Day. The back wall of the pub will be removed on Saturday 10th November but customers have been reassured it will be back to normal by 1pm with a replacement to look at while they drink their beer – a steam powered, horse drawn fire engine from Anglesey.

Pengwern Food, Casque Mark and Events

Lots of changes at Y Pengwern. The kitchens are now open serving great food at the weekends. Details of opening times and menus can be found on the Pengwern website. Bookings are now being taken for Christmas lunches. Groups and societies have been booking the ‘committee room’ for small meetings with refreshments. The Function Room is open for larger events and between this and the Dining Room the kitchen can cater for up to 80 people.

I always thought the bar was good but there’s now an independent hallmark of goodness – the Casque Mark was recently awarded by one of the 45 assessors who called in unannounced and sampled the various cask beers for temperature, aroma, appearance and taste. It’s one thing getting good beer from the brewery but the final step of getting it to the customers’ lips is equally important  and this is what the Casque Mark recognises. Da iawn! 

There has been a steady stream of events organised by Y Pengwern since it re-opened and one of those was last weekend’s nature walk led by Twm Elias from the pub to the Plas (Tan y Bwlch). Next events are Halloween and Fireworks. Publicising a programme of events can be a challenge but to make things easier we have installed an events listing page on the pub’s website. Organisers of events are going to be trained to use this system and pretty soon there will be a long list of things to choose from and put into your diary. Here is the events page.

Onwards and upwards. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Worktown: The Drawings of Falcon Hildred

This exhibition of Falcon’s work, who lives in Blaenau Ffestiniog, opened at the Coalbrookdale Gallery, Ironbridge Gorge Museum, on 5 October 2012 and will run until 30 April 2013. It is free to enter and will be open 10am-5pm, Monday-Friday. For further details, please call 01952 433424 or visit the Ironbridge website.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Searching for the Oldest Houses in Wales

With over 306,000 hits on the website in the last twelve months and more than a hundred members signing up since Easter the DATING OLD WELSH HOUSES GROUP is already making an impact in communities across north west Wales. “Our programme of events is very popular, with waiting lists for our guided visits to old houses and our Study Tour to St Fagans and Cosmeston Medieval village” says Margaret Dunn, Group Secretary. She has recently been made a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London for her work running the successful Dating Old Welsh Houses Project and will shortly be giving a lecture on the Project to that Society in London.

Margaret added “we are excited to announce that with our partners, the Royal Commission on Ancient & Historic Monuments of Wales, we will be publishing a book titled Discovering Historic Homes in North-West Wales.

The Project spent over £250,000, including the time given by around 200 volunteers, to date, record and research around eighty Tudor houses across the region. This was only possible with grant aid from around twenty five organisations led by the HLF. Over a hundred people attended the Annual Public Lecture held this year in Conwy.

Searching for the Oldest Houses in Wales” has been selected as the topic for the Annual Lectures of both the Caernarfonshire and Merioneth county history societies.
Richard Suggett, of the RCAHMW, will be the speaker giving an emphasis on local buildings on each occasion. The Merioneth Historical & Record Society AGM & Lecture will be held on 6th October at 2.00 p.m. in Llanelltyd Village Hall, and that for the Carnarfonshire Historical Society will be held on 20th October at 2.30 p.m. in the Council Chambers, Caernarfon. All are welcome. 

Margaret commented “Another development is the newly revised bilingual website:  which contains an increasing amount of information about the project and the Group”.   Anyone interested can join the Group via the website or contact Margaret on 01766 890550.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Festival No. 6

Bleary eyed festival goers were in good spirit on the morning of the third day. Down in The Village, the re-enactment of Checkmate, by The Six of One (Prisoner appreciation society), brought back distant memories for those of us who’d watched 1960s TV. Words like ‘groovy’ come to mind?

This was followed by Osadia, a colourful duo from Barcelona performing elaborate hair transformations to willing volunteers. 

Everyone seemed to be having a good time; posh people were staying at the hotels, others in camper vans but the majority were in tents. The mix of acts, which ranged from big name groups to folk singers, poets, artists and stand up comics, worked well – an eclectic cocktail that worked in a surreal setting.

For many people this was their first visit not only to Portmeirion but to Wales. They knew they were in Wales that Sunday evening when the Brythoniaid took to the stage and gave them a male voice choir rendition of a New Order number. This is what it sounded like in rehearsal:

Friday, 24 August 2012

Quarry Power

The weekend beginning 14th September will be a celebration of old quarry engines. Full details are on the event website including guided walks. Engines on display will include the trio of Hunslets which can be seen here pulling up a gravity train on The Ffestiniog earlier this year.  

Thursday, 23 August 2012

It's an elm!

20 to 25 million elms died of Dutch elm disease in the UK but don’t blame the Dutch, it was their scientist who identified it. Today it’s a rare sight to see an elm but you can find one on the drive down from Plas Tan y Bwlch towards The Oakeley Arms, on the right hand side, just after the turning to The Lodge.

The gardens are open to the public from 10am until 4pm and contain all sorts of trees. Oaks of course, giant limes, also the handkerchief tree and the tree of heaven. But for me the elm is the star – I wonder how it survived.

I'm told there are quite a few elms across the valley in Ceunant Llenerch.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Power of The Plas

It was one of the first houses in Wales to have electricity with a Gilkes turbine installed in 1905. This was used until 1928; presumably made redundant by the opening of the much larger Maentwrog hydro scheme which was big enough to power all of north Wales. Since then nuclear has been and (almost) gone and in a few months The Plas will be back to having its own hydro power generated by yet another Gilkes turbine.

Construction is fraught with conservation complication. Work on the turbine end, alongside the main road, can only be done in the summer months so as not to disturb bats. Trench work at the top end has to wait until the ecologist confirms ground nesting birds have fledged. The section through the orchard to the road has to avoid anthills. And then there are trenches beneath highly prized trees, such as the huge limes and the ‘Tree of Heaven’, which have to be hand dug to preserve the roots.

The scheme costs £420K and at current electricity prices is expected to have a ten year payback. Generating 100,000 Kw a year that’s enough for about fourteen normal households. 

Stori Traws

Stori Traws is a weekend conference, 16th to 18th November, celebrating the heritage of Trawsfynydd power station & electricity production in Eryri.

It's about the social as well as the technological impact of one of the largest industrial developments seen in North Wales during the last 50 years. It is an impressive story of innovation and engineering on a grand scale encompassing the three main phases of Trawsfynydd Power Station’s lifetime: construction, power production and decommissioning.

Footbridge, reactors and Stwlan

Now, as work on site is approaching its final stages, an imaginative programme is underway as part of the Trawsfynydd Heritage Strategy to safeguard this unique aspect of our industrial and social history by preserving documents, photographs, and the taped memories of former workers etc. for the future.

Nuclear power production though is only one part of the story of electricity generation in the area. Our conference timeline starts with the production and use of electric power in local quarries in the Victorian period, early hydro-electric schemes, establishing local supply networks, the National Grid, the advent of nuclear power, pump storage schemes and the recent revival in interest in micro-generation and concludes with a look to what the future might hold.

Interwoven with this story of technological revolution is the social and economic impact of such a large development as Trawsfynydd power station and the domestic transformation which followed the coming of power to people’s homes.

The conference begins at 7pm Friday 16th November with an open evening for the public; an exhibition of photos and a chance for former / present workers & their families to share memories. Followed by a presentation of ‘Stori Traws’ by Joanna Wright & Naomi Jones.

The weekend course costs £160 to £180 on a residential basis or £8 per session non-residential.

For further details contact Twm Elias at 01766 772600 or

Friday, 17 August 2012

Dragon's Back Race

200 miles and 45,000 feet of altitude starting at Conwy Castle on Monday 3rd September and finishing five days later at Carreg Cennen Castle near Llandeilo. 

 A hundred competitors from fourteen countries are expected to take part in the ultimate endurance race which was last run in 1992. Day two of the race will start with an ascent of Cnicht then Moelwyn Mawr, Moelwyn Bach, through the Vale of Ffestiniog and across the Rhinogydd. Faster runners are expected to complete each day in about eight hours whilst slower competitors will be out for over sixteen before making it to the overnight tents. The mind boggles and the price for all this ‘fun’ is a mere £500 per person.

Full details can be found at Dragon’s Back Race

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Fat Ladies in Blaenau bus shelter

Scaffolding down and the sculptures are looking great with the steps ready to go in. Completion date only about a month away. Here’s Howard Bowcott talking about the project and some of the fine detail regarding ‘fat ladies’ in the bus shelter:

Previous films about the progress of the sculptures can be seen through these links:

Monday, 13 August 2012

Art on the line

Howard Bowcott
It’s not unusual when friends come to stay to take a walk to the pub. But with it being so hot, and someone’s ankle playing up, we chose the easy option; a down train to Tan y Bwlch then an open carriage to Blaenau. Newspapers bought we admired the new sculptures. Howard, the artist, was experimenting with finishes to bring out the colour and texture of the slate. The Queen’s Hotel, newly painted and renamed Ty Orsaf, is looking smart and recruiting staff. Someone said the downhill biking above Llechwedd was sold out for the second weekend in a row. The times they are a changing. Back on the train, coasting down to Campbell’s Platform, with a bottle of Purple Moose ... so much more than a walk to the pub.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Onion rings in Ffestiniog

With sun shine and blue skies I raced through the shopping to be ready for friends staying the weekend. I called by the Purple Moose Brewery to find the shop had moved a door down the street - the old shop being turned into more brewing capacity. I bought some new to me bottles of Ysgawen, a summer beer made with elderflowers. Then to the butcher for Sunday’s salt marsh lamb and that evening’s steaks of black beef.  At the supermarket some meringues and whipping cream to go with freshly picked bilberries.

I blame the Ysgawen 
The scene was set. Friends arrived. News was exchanged over a cup of tea as peas were shelled from their pods. Lots more chatting over a couple of beers as I lit the logs in the Rayburn and prepared the steak supper. Inside the oven some skinny chips, big mushrooms and tomatoes with garlic and pepper. As an afterthought, and a quick rummage in the deep freeze, I threw in a few onion rings. Searing hot griddle pan et voilá, a local feast was on the table. 

There were compliments to the chef who modestly said it’s all down to the ingredients but apologised for the onion rings which hadn’t quite worked out. Then someone solved the mystery – these onion rings were made of squid. I blame the Ysgawen. 

Monday, 16 July 2012

Our silver studded blues

There’s only one colony of silver studded blues in Snowdonia and that’s at Hafod Garegog National Nature Reserve, between Porthmadog and Beddgelert. It’s one of only six sites in Wales and the only site in the UK on wet peatland, but this summer of wet weather could wipe it out.

They need the help of black ants. The females lay their eggs singly on stalks of heather where they detect suitable ant pheromones. Next spring the resultant larvae are either picked up by the ants or crawl into the nearest ants’ nest, where they enjoy a warm and humid environment, safely protected from predators, with the ants collecting protection money in the form of a sugary secretion. Larvae crawl out of the nest to feed on tender shoots of heather before pupating, sprouting blue wings (or brown if they are females) and flying off to mate. 

At Hafod Garegog they can usually be seen in July and the first half of August with individuals living for just a few days. Without warmth and sunshine they won’t mate and that would be a disaster from which they can’t recover. These butterflies are weak fliers so there is no chance of new blood flying in from another colony, such as the Great Orme. 

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Bodnant Welsh Food - food from the Vale of Ffestiniog

Business was brisk at Furnace Farm Shop, part of Bodnant Welsh Food, on its first Saturday. From the car park we followed the smell of baking bread. At the fruit and veg display I filled a brown paper bag with broad beans and placed them in a large wicker basket; much more pleasing than a plastic bag into a trolley.

The deli counter was temptation, full of new tastes to explore including cheeses from the on-site dairy. A few slices of air cured ham from Trealy Mon at £45 per kilo. Sausage rolls were more to our taste - watching a film later that night the last roll was sliced into wafer thin rondels and shared round.

Good to see Purple Moose beers on display and Cynan’s shiitake mushrooms (fresh and dried) from Nantmor.

Top marks to master butcher Ian Miles for the meat counter, his salt marsh lamb sourced from the Vale of Ffestiniog. Black beef even more local with just a fourteen mile round trip to the abattoir and back. We chose minted lamb henry for our supper with the broad beans and our own freshly dug new potatoes.

The setting is good. Across the farmyard, now courtyard, an ice cream parlour and a long thin cattle shed converted into a tea room. In a corner the National Bee Keeping Centre for Wales. Plenty to see and do. Upstairs is a posh restaurant and on the top floor a cookery school.

This is what it looked like just before the official opening:

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Our Angel of the North?

11th July 2012 and the crane was hoisting the final components on top of the sail shape, slate sculptures. Will this be our ‘Angel of the North’? 

Howard checks the alignment

The project is generating a lot of interest – while I was filming I got talking to a couple on their first visit in thirty years. They could not believe how much things had changed and said they would be back next year to see the sculptures unveiled from their scaffold.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Changing face of Blaenau Ffestiniog

The big crane was in the station car park today hoisting massive chunks of slate sculpture into position. Using block tackles the first piece was tilted to just the right angle then lowered through the scaffolding, around the concrete reinforcing rods and onto its plinth. Precision work. Larger pieces followed and the work is rising out of the ground. I'll be back in late July to see the final pieces go on top. Below is a film clip of this stage. Earlier stages of the project can be seen in The Workshop and at the Station Entrance.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Nightjars in the Vale of Ffestiniog

What does a nightjar sound like? If you want to find out, first of all you need to locate a male nightjar.  According to the RSPB there are just 4,606 of them in the UK between May and August. They sing at night and like heathland - which is not necessarily the easiest surface to walk over in the dark.  But the heath at Gwaith Powdwr has smooth pathways and a guide, Rob Booth, to take you to the right spot at the right time without scaring the birds away.

Rob will be leading a nightjar walk on Saturday 30th June and on Friday 6th July starting, presumably from the entrance to Gwaith Powdwr, at 8:30pm.  There is a charge of £2 for members of North Wales Wildlife Trust (NWWT) and £4 for non members. Please call Rob or the NWWT office on 01248 351541 if you would like to take part. 

If you can’t make it, turn off your lights, turn up the volume, close your eyes and listen to the film above. The birdsong and call is courtesy of BirdVoice which produces great products for people like me struggling to make sense of who is singing what.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Trail marathon at Coed y Brenin

There was only one way to find out if I could do a marathon and a new one on my doorstep at Coed y Brenin seemed the obvious choice. ‘Trail’ sounded so much more appealing than road; although at the time I did not realise trail would translate into 3,959 feet of altitude gain.

A strong breeze kept away the worst of the midges as the organisers outlined a revised course. Torrential rains had forced a new route to be marked at the last moment. Then it was into the starting funnel, ‘The Final Countdown’ blaring out of the speakers, and Iori, the wildlife ranger, started us with a blast from his twelve bore. 
For the first mile there was much shuffling of the pack as runners settled into their pace, conversations were struck up and there was a steady, easy going atmosphere as we ambled along. After an hour and six miles into the trail, front runners of the half marathon went pounding past on a thin, steeply downhill path laced with slippery tree roots – having started 30 minutes later than me they were obviously going twice as fast.   

What we lost in altitude into that deep gorge was regained by an exhausting haul up the other side. Once more on high ground we were able to take in distant views towards Cadair Idris but low cloud meant only a local would know that. At Tyn y Groes, friendly assistants handed out snacks and drinks at one of the many oases along the way. Beginning to feel a bit weary I chanced a gel, a pouch of instant energy, but I won’t be using them again.

Twelve miles in two hours’ my new friend from Edinburgh told me, reading off her high tech gadget. For her this was just a training run for a sixty four mile event around Mont Blanc. Much as I enjoyed her company I explained that I needed to drop down a gear and off she went. This was my black spot with legs feeling heavy. I was now at the furthest point I’d run before. If I could get through the next six miles I’d have a good chance.

The following stretch seemed to go upwards for ever and I wasn’t the only one walking the steep bits - and later on the not so steep bits. Four young women passed me chatting as they went. There was talk about the Champagne being on ice. One said she’d have some tonic with her first gin. Printed on the backs of their T shirts:
Never under estimate
the strength
of a woman

Don’t f@#k with
one who enjoys
running 26.2 miles

My heart sank as the route took us back down that deep gorge and up the other side but then it was steady running once more. My companion at this stage was a woman from Abergavenny, also doing her first marathon. Knee bandaged and pumped with pills after an early fall she was determined to reach the finish. Whilst I was looking forward to a hot bath, supper and a couple of beers in front of Euro 2012 she had the prospect of feeding four young children at their campsite.

Flapjacks and a few words of encouragement buoyed me up for the final stretch. After crossing a river one of the helpers said ‘well done, just over a mile to go’.  I think he meant just a mile of uphill, it was steep and a cruel sting in the tail. Then a steady half mile freewheeling down to the finish. A few minutes under six hours was not fast but I’d done it. The first person in the world to ever do a trail marathon in this body.

Many thanks to Trail Marathon Wales for organising the event in cooperation with Forestry Commission Wales – it was brilliant, friendly and atmospheric. Thanks also to all the marshals, volunteers and to South Snowdonia Mountain Rescue Team whose presence gave me a little bit of reassurance. My only criticism would be towards my fellow runners for dumping so much plastic along the way.
What next? Maybe the Dragon's Back Race in September?

Friday, 22 June 2012

Walking with Wolves

Monday 2nd July meet 12:45 for a 13:00 depart from Tan y Bwlch station on a guided walk into Coed y Bleiddiau, ‘forest of the wolves’, returning via the train leaving Dduallt at 15:30. Four hundred years ago wolves roamed this forest and legend has it that this is where the last wolf in Wales was slain.

In those days the land was owned by the Lloyds of Dduallt and their old house has recently been tree ring dated to 1559. In the census of 1841 there were 52 people living on their 600 acre farm; in the 2011 census there were only 5! Fortunately the land was acquired by the National Trust in the 1960s otherwise this beautiful oak woodland, managed by CCW, would be sitka spruce.

Huw Jenkins (that’s me) will lead this walk on behalf of the Snowdonia Society (Cwmdeithas Eryri). The route through the Maentwrog nature reserve stays close to the railway line but I’ve slashed an off-piste path through the bracken to show you some of my favourite bits.

The woods are full of birds singing away. I’m no bird expert but equipped with BirdVoice (a recent birthday present) we’ll see if together we can identify some of the many songs.

If you wish to join the walk the Snowdonia Society suggests you give them a donation of £2 if you are a member of the society and £5 if not. The one way ticket from Dduallt to Tan y Bwlch can be bought on the train and costs £2.40 or £2.20 for the over 60s. The Ffestiniog Railway have confirmed that the Tan y Bwlch café will be open.

We might see some goats but just in case we don’t, this is what they looked like a couple of weeks ago:

The Snowdonia Society is a registered charity working to protect, enhance and celebrate Snowdonia, its wildlife and heritage. The Society works with local communities, organisations and businesses to achieve this vision.

For full event details or to book a place contact Frances on 01286 685498 or email

Friday, 8 June 2012

Ffeathered Ffriends of the Ffestiniog

Birds and steam trains seem to get along well, probably bird watching and train spotting too. Here are three short films of birds nesting close to the line.

Nuthatches at Campbell’s Platform with the hole to their nest made narrow using mud set like concrete; this helps protect them from predators.

Woodpeckers (greater spotted) between Campbell’s and Coed y Bleiddiau; the cries of the chicks so close to the path was a real give away.

Pied flycatchers at Coed y Bleiddiau, which have travelled all the way from Africa, coinciding the hatching of their chicks with peak availability of a caterpillar which feeds on the young leaves of oak trees. 

Friday, 4 May 2012


Pont Briwet
It doesn’t sound right but, half way up the Vale of Ffestiniog, we’re on the Wales Coast Path! Further downstream is Pont (bridge) Briwet, but that doesn’t (yet) take walkers. It’s about to be rebuilt and maybe, in a few years time, there will be a footbridge. Another alternative is to wade across to Portmeirion at low tide but make sure you don’t step in the wrong part of the sands.

So, if you’ve made it half way up the Vale of Ffestiniog, why not go the whole hog? We’ve created this little eighteen mile diversion for your delight and delectation. The route takes you up to the ancient village of Llan Ffestiniog, with its community pub, then high up to the quarry which housed the National Gallery in WWII and down the other side of the valley where the last wolf in Wales was slain.

This is the Vale of Ffestiniog Way. You won’t believe how wonderful it is until you try it. 

MISS-interpretations of an Art Teacher

Portraits by schoolgirls in London from back in the 1980s are the subject of an exhibition titled MISS-interpretations of an Art Teacher.  The art teacher in question is local artist Eleanor Brooks, famously known as the creator of ‘Mrs Spinks’.  

As well as being the art teacher, who could not bring herself to throw away any of the pictures, she was also the model. There are some resemblances between the pictures but, as Eleanor says in the film below ..... ‘I can’t always recognise myself in their work but I can see the students ..... every portrait is half a self-portrait’.

The exhibition, by Eleanor Brooks and Sheelagh Stevens, is at Blaenau Ffestiniog library during normal library hours until 27th May 2012. 

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Gwaith Powdwr - family fun day 19th May 2012

Seventeen million grenades and other munitions were made at Cooke’s Explosives Ltd during WWII. Nowadays it’s an extensive nature reserve where the most lethal thing is an adder.

The site has a long history of explosives production starting from 1865 with gun cotton, then TNT and a range of ‘safety explosives’ for the mining industry. With the demise of British coal mining, the business was no longer economically viable and closed in 1995. Three years and six million pounds of decommissioning later, the site (Gwaith Powdwr) was donated by ICI to the North Wales Wildlife Trust.

On Saturday 19th May there will be a ‘fun day for all the family’ from 10:30am to 4pm including bushcraft, pond dipping, minibeast hunting and so on. This is a free event although donations are most welcome. Here's a recent film clip taken in the reserve:

It’s a brilliant place to explore, bringing together a mix of natural history and industrial history. It used to be the biggest employer in the area with a workforce of five hundred in the 1960s but today’s only employee is Rob, the warden, helped by a small army of volunteers.

A massive explosion occurred in 1915 (enemy sabotage?), totally destroying the facilities, and responsibility for the site was taken over by the Ministry of Munitions before being sold to Cooke’s in the 1920s.

A key feature of the 200-acre site is the partitioning into three valleys – in the wake of the big accident, production was distributed across the valleys to limit the risk of an explosion in one area spreading to the other.

One of these was called Klondyke Valley because the pipework required for producing nitro-glycerine resembled a gold-rush town. The plumbing has gone but one of the key buildings remains, the Settling Shed. Amongst other things this housed seven settling tanks in which residues of nitro-glycerine were removed from the water used to keep the explosives cool and stable.

When explosives are being mixed it is essential to keep them cool and the process involved piping in water from a nearby pond with an operator monitoring temperature dials and adjusting the flow of water accordingly. Probably not the most fulfilling work but exceedingly important. For his comfort he was provided with a stool but for his protection it had just one leg – if he fell asleep, it would not be for long! 

This is the most modern of the buildings dating back to 1988 when a huge blast destroyed the previous one, killing two of the employees, and shaking the buildings of Penrhyndeudraeth like an earthquake.

Ballistic pendulum
The footpath across the summit of the hill goes through the heather to the Pendulum Shed. Not some giant clock although people in the town could set their watches by it at 2 p.m. every weekday. Suspended from a steel frame is a two tonne ballistic pendulum (pendil balistig) with a pair of rails in front. A canon mounted on the rails was fired point blank at the pendulum. The force of the explosion would cause the canon to recoil on its tracks and the pendulum to swing – the degree to which it swung was the measure of how powerful the explosives were!

This part of the site is the area where nightjars breed and during early summer the footpath is closed to prevent disturbance. Guided walks are organised by Rob – it’s unusual to see these pre-historic looking birds, but the noise is unmissable, it sounds like the rumblings of a diesel engine.

Sandbag wall - great for nesting
Dotted around the site are several Explosives Sheds where products were wrapped and sealed in wax to protect them from the damp. The sheds have detachable roofs and are surrounded by thick safety walls made of sandbags so that in the event of an explosion, the force of the blast would go upwards and not sideways … adds a whole new dimension to ‘raising the roof’. Sparks were a hazard to avoid and to that end the floor was lined with lead and workers provided with rubber shoes and anti-static overalls.

Linking all these buildings and remote areas of the site is a network of tarmac and railway tracks. My first impression of the fading tarmac was that it was out of place in a reserve but on the other hand they make easy access for pushchairs, wheelchairs and mobility scooters. One of the railway tracks went through a tunnel which is now grilled off and makes a great hibernation roost for lesser horseshoe bats. Bats have also colonised the emergency shelters where workers would take refuge in the event of the alarm being sounded.

The final building in the explosives process is the Belfast Store where explosives were safely stored prior to shipment by rail or by ship. One of the many safety features of this building is the lightning conductor, an unlucky strike could set the whole thing off. Cooke’s had their own steamship called the Florence Cooke which started work in 1923 and during the war was used as an ammunition ship at Scapa Flow and took part in the Normandy landings.

Alas in 1959, the year after Mr Cooke retired and ICI took over, it was decided that road transport was more efficient and she was sold for scrap.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Mule Drivers from Rawalpindi in Llanfrothen and Nantmor

Seventy years ago, in the first week of April 1942, three trains arrived in Porthmadog from Y Fenni (Abergavenny), carrying almost a thousand men and officers and a thousand mules and horses. They were the three companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps mule transport. The muleteers were Muslims from Rawalpindi in India (now Pakistan), with a few English and Indian officers. They had come up through France in WW2 with the British Expeditionary Force and were known as the ‘Rice Corps’ – their motto ‘Heaven’s Light Our Guide’. 

At the start of the war the British Army realised they needed animal transport and India sent four companies by boat to Marseilles at short notice. Company 22 was captured by the Germans, companies 25, 29 and 32 were evacuated at Dunkirk and had to leave their animals behind.  First they were in Cornwall, then in Y Fenni and for three months in 1942 they were in Llanfrothen and Nantmor doing mountain warfare training. Company 32 was camped on the Gwernydd in Llanfrothen and companies 25 and 29 around Dolfriog in Nantmor. New mules were imported from the USA and horses for the officers were collected from here and there. From north Wales they went on to Scotland and in 1944 they were repatriated and went on to fight in Burma.

Edgar Parry Williams from Croesor, aged ten at the time, remembers them well. ‘We had never seen a coloured face before and we were very interested in these strange men in turbans. They didn’t speak much English and neither did we. They seemed very gentle and civilised and rather sad. They would come past, along the Roman Road, with strings of mules three abreast, taking an hour and a half to pass.’

William Morris Roberts and Annie Roberts of Ty Capel
Nantmor in the garden of Castle Cottage Penrhyndeudraeth
Dilys Rees’s (nee Jones) father farmed Dolfriog for Mr Priestley.  She remembers the Indians’ camp and the mules lined up, looking over a wall.  Her mother used to trade eggs for sultanas with the Indians, who also gave sultanas out to the children. Dilys remembers walking through the camp, quite unafraid, with a rice pudding her mother had made for a Mrs Wade who lived in the ‘Stablau’ at Dolfriog. The camp took up so much land that there was no land left to farm and Dilys’s family had to move to another farm. She remembers the 6am ‘call to prayer’ and the big prayer tent. A bugle was blown several times a day when the animals had to be fed and watered. The late Jos Williams of Gardd Llygad y Dydd in Nantmor who was 25 years old in 1942, remembered the beautiful horses the English officers rode. One of the Indians taught him how to ‘cold’ shoe a horse which he did like that for ever after.  Several people remember Malik Mohamed Khan, a highly intelligent man, an Indian officer (maybe a vet) who rode a white horse at the head of the troop.

‘Standings’ were built for the animals by local farmers before K Force (as the company was called) arrived.  The manure was carted away by the farmers whose land they were on and the food swill from the camps went to feed pigs in Tremadog. Every Sunday sheep were killed for the camps at the supply depot at Trawsfynydd. Local people remembered the ‘chapattis’ the Indians cooked. Marian Roberts, whose father was a baker in Penrhyndeudraeth, remembers her parents were friendly with some of the men and would invite them in. One day her parents were at the cinema and Marian, aged ten, and her aunt, aged twenty one, invited two of the men in for tea and gave them an egg each (eggs were scarce!). ‘There was a massive row when my parents got back from the cinema!’ said Marion ‘for inviting them in!’

 Indian vet paints child's throat! 
She also remembers once coming out of the cinema when it was pouring with rain. She and her friend walked home under the capes of two Indians (who always walked in single file) holding on to their waists! She still has the autograph of one of them ‘NOWAB KHAN 180697’, carefully printed and then written in his own Indian script. He was 19 years old. The men had been taught to write their name and number in case they were captured by the Germans. Nowab Khan said to Marian one day ‘You come India – I buy you silks’! Marian said children got on very well with the Indians, neither group could speak much English and that seemed to make a rapport between them.

John Griffith, Penrhyndeudraeth, who lived opposite the present garden centre in Tremadog in 1942, remembers going for walks with his mother and sister when he was about three and the Indians coming along the road with their mules pulling carts. The family had to get over a wall to be safe from the carts which had no brakes. Elspeth Parry, Penrhyndeudraeth, still has a photo of her grandparents William Morris Roberts and wife Annie (with dog) of Castle Cottage, Penrhyndeudraeth with one of the Indians.

Betty Evans, daughter of Hugh and Sarah Griffiths of Penrhyndeudraeth, said she suffered a lot as a child from tonsilitis – she remembers one of the Indian vets painting her throat to treat it! 

For the local children the Indians were of constant interest but not so for the local farmers. The mules and horses would ride through growing crops and hayfields and the mules would batter down walls. When the farmers complained they were told ‘There is a war on’. It is true that they did get compensation later on but had to build up the boundary walls again. Then over a couple of days in the middle of July 1942, after only three and a half months, the Indians were gone.  Edgar Parry Williams says ‘The valley seemed suddenly very quiet’. But the memories remain for many people.

Many thanks to everyone who told me their stories of the Indians. Giovanna Bloor, Cae Glas, Croesor. March 2012.

Paddy Ashdown's father, John, was an Indian Army officer in the 14th Punjab Regiment and the Indian Army Service Corps. During the retreat to Dunkirk in May 1940, John Ashdown ignored an order to abandon the Indian troops under his command, instead leading them to the port and on to one of the last ships to leave, without losing a single man. Although court martialled for disobeying orders, he was exonerated, and by the end of the War had risen to the rank of colonel. I think this story will be part of the new Channel 5 series War Hero in My Family - Paddy Ashdown is in episode 3 (15th May). 

Monday, 23 April 2012

Blaenau – a vegetarian’s oasis

John and Sandra stay in our cottage for four or five weeks each year, they love this part of Wales and make the most of every day, whatever the weather. Long walks combined with a ride on the Ffestiniog Railway and lunch at a local cafe.

A plate of golden veg at the end of the rainbow
We thought they came back just because of our lovely cottage, but one of the many reasons is the great selection of vegetarian meals. Unlike their home town, with a chain pub offering just one or two unexciting options, Blaenau provides choice and great taste.

One of their favourites is De Niros, run by Kevin and Sue. The specials blackboard usually contains six vegetarian dishes with recent favourites being: roasted vegetables in honey with rice, nut roast, brie and spinach crumble.

They also like Bridge Cafe where Gaile serves great food including vegetable lasagne and John’s favourite after a long walk, chips, cheese and baked beans.  Between De Niros and Bridge Cafe, tucked away above the main street, they have also enjoyed CellB – the old police station now converted to cafe and venue for events complete with lock-up cells.

Just a stop down the line is the Lakeside Cafe at Tanygrisiau. Lots of options here but a favourite is the all day vegetarian breakfast complete with vegetarian sausages and lots of mushrooms.

I had never realised Blaenau was such an oasis for vegetarians.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Oils Morris Ifans

A young slate worker in Ffestiniog aspired to be a doctor but, aged ten and one of a dozen children, he was obliged to work in the quarries to contribute to family finances. When there were problems at the quarry, and the men laid off, he used his savings and began his medical career in the 1880s. They say the original recipe came from a ‘vagabond’ who gave it to Morris in return for some act of kindness.

There were two main product lines – household oils for humans and oils for horses. In his day he was a pioneer in advertising through the medium of Welsh, which made him popular with the farmers, but he was also quite international. One of his promotional leaflets, targeting military buyers, tells the tale of a young soldier buying the oil at Cape Town on his way to fight the Boers. ‘The Riding Master of the Battery found it a most valuable preparation in war time for the ailments of horses, whether caused by the climate, the hard work, or the work of the enemy’.

It’s difficult to imagine the small village of Llan Ffestiniog having a ‘manufactory’ for the production of medicines but it was there, conveniently for mail order, next to the railway line between Bala and Blaenau, until not so long ago.  Morris died of tuberculosis in 1923 and the oils continued to be made up until 1980 when his youngest son Frank died. Members of the family say they still have the secret recipes but there are no plans to reintroduce them. This is a great shame as there are lots of people around who swear by it. It worked on anything. ‘Sore throat? Suck a sugar lump with a couple of drops of oil!’ 

Morris Evans’ Oils (Olew Morris Evans) didn’t make it quite as big as Elliman’s Embrocation which was manufactured in Slough from 1847 onwards by the James Elliman family. By 1911 the product was on sale in 42 countries. In the 1960’s Horlicks took over the product and they in turn were taken over by Beechams in 1970, now part of GSK (GlaxoSmithKline).

Bottle and packaging
According to the Slough Museum the three ingredients of Elliman’s Embrocation are eggs, turps and vinegar! Eggs were imported from Ireland by the million to the extent that the staff would spend six weeks just cracking them. As for the addition of turpentine this was especially dangerous and the process overseen by the fire brigade.

Like Morris Evans, James Elliman had two main product lines ‘Universal Embrocation’ for humans and ‘Royal Embrocation’ for animals. Apart from the names they were identical but tax was payable only on human medicines. 

The good news is that there is another product called Muscle Oil or Olew Gewynnau which is locally produced by descendants of the Bonesetters of Anglesey! Full details at