Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Springwatch 2012 in the Vale of Ffestiniog

I had seen the mother squirrel carrying nesting materials up the tree but what was it bringing down? In its mouth was a fluffy ball of baby squirrel. I watched it hop along and then up a tree covered with dense ivy, presumably providing greater protection from predators than the Scots Pine it was vacating.  What was the threat? Crows nest in the same tree but they’ve been neighbours for a long time. Maybe it was the buzzard that had been flying not far above the tree. 

The ospreys have been back for a few weeks and the RSPB hide at Pont Croesor is open once more. There is spectacular footage of the Maentwrog osprey diving for fish on Iolo’s Wild Wales, a DVD box set which is being released on 9th April. The bird makes several dives before it succeeds, re-positions the fish mid flight to be more aero dynamic and flaps past visitors to Portmeirion at eye level; oblivious to the spectacle of nature. 

The Welsh government’s decision not to cull badgers has been welcomed by the local badger community but they are a bit concerned about the prospect of vaccination.     

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Another turn of the wheel

Melin Pant yr Ynn, the Mill in the Ash Hollow. Clinging to the rocks beneath Blaenau’s slate quarries with a huge water wheel on its side, this mill began its working life in about 1845. Now in the 21st century it retains much of the character and spirit of those Victorian times captured by Falcon Hildred, industrial designer, renovator, artist and resident owner. 

Falcon grew up in war torn Coventry and has abiding memories of the drab, colourless, depressed townscape following the devastating blitz. All investment and manpower was naturally directed to the front line. It was not until 1951, and the Festival of Britain, that Falcon appreciated the full extent of how drab and decrepit everywhere had become, as the nation attempted a revival through the promotion of better quality design in the redevelopment of its towns and cities. Suddenly there was colour, gleaming glass and excitement as the old made way for the new.

But as is the way with big plans, things were not always for the better. Some of the decrepit buildings were priceless gems that should have been restored and the replacements were anything but good design. Using his skill as a designer and artist, and in between his job with a firm of architects, Falcon set about recording these buildings before they disappeared – accurate on-site drawings bringing out the essence of their character, as opposed to a photographic snapshot.

As time went by the new buildings seemed to get worse, the treatment of the past was ever more brutal and thoughtless. The ‘swinging sixties’, great in many ways, but a decade of the swinging demolition ball. Time was running out fast so Falcon switched from part time recording of these treasures to full time, giving up the security of being an employee and making ends meet through freelance assignments.

It was during this time that he came across Blaenau Ffestiniog, such an intriguing name on a map, with contour features and inclines everywhere, that Falcon came here for his holiday. In 1968 he bought Melin Pant yr Ynn and has made this the base for his work ever since.

Most likely the mill (melin) was built about 1844 for the pioneering Diffwys Quarry and by 1846 it had been equipped with the massive wheel and driveshafts to run saw tables and planing machines. Not for the manufacture of slates but massive slabs. A description by a quarryman from 1858 reads: the quarry has “heaps of flags or slabs for sawing purposes, varying in sizes from four to twenty four feet long” …. “without either joint, spar or ribbon in any of them, and perfectly free from sulphur. Such blocks as these make the most splendid and costly tomb stones, chimney pieces &c.” Probably snooker tables too!

For about twenty years these huge slabs were transported down from the quarry for sawing and planing using the power of the mountain stream. Apart from circular saws there was also a ‘sand saw’ and records show frequent deliveries of sand shipped up river ‘18 Jan 1858 Robert Richards boatage of 4 Tons sand for Saw mill - 6 shillings.’ But water gave way to steam and the quarry invested in on-site, steam driven mills, removing the machines closer to the raw material, much more efficient albeit needing fossil fuel. 

In 1866 the mill was used as a cold and draughty school for seven years and around about 1881 was taken over by Jacob and Zadrach Jones as a woollen mill operated in conjunction with the fulling mill (Melin Moelwyn) at Tanygrisiau. Spinning and weaving of the wool was done at Pant yr Ynn before being taken down the road for ‘fulling’ or finishing. And this continued all the way to 1964 when both mills stopped working.

Nowadays Pant yr Ynn is once again in good condition, with a working wheel, waterproof roof and a permanent exhibition of artefacts and drawings celebrating our industrial past. Visitors are welcomed throughout the summer months to walk around, and enjoy Falcon’s industrial art, not in the sterile atmosphere of a gallery, but within the space of a mill that has seen real toil and sweat. Not a Lowry in the Tate but Falcon in Blaenau – the ultimate setting in industrial landscape.

The ground floor is where Falcon does his work and the drawing room is certainly no lounge. The workshop is meticulous and functional. Exhibition areas are well presented, there is a feel of stepping back in time. Upstairs is for living. With an industrial scale dormer window the length of the room and a pot-bellied stove keeping you warm as the light floods in and you soak up the perfectly profiled view of the Moelwyns. Inspiration comes racing over the horizon.

Standing back from the window is the kitchen and dining area, simple, functional and tasteful. Not a pot jammed full of cooking implements but an array of cooking tools as in a well ordered shed. As for the cooker, it’s simplicity and elegance itself, bought second hand forty years ago and going strong ….. there’s not much that could go wrong with it. A perfect industrial design.

I asked Falcon what his favourite memory was and he looked back to his old diary for an autumn day in the millennium year and read out the entry:

Waterfall in full spate.
Mill wheel gently turning.
Smoke rising from the chimney.
The Moelwyns emerging from cloud.
Autumn colours.
Rain-washed landscape
sparkling in the sun
Blaenau and the mill truly at their best

For the moment the mill is where you will find Falcon but his collection of over 600 original drawings and watercolours are being taken into the care of The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales. The collection has been catalogued, and high-quality digital images will be available online through Coflein (the Royal Commission's online database), and People's Collection Wales websites. Time for another turn of the wheel.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

And did those feet, in ancient times .....

Sensory garden at Plas Tan y Bwlch
... walk upon Snowdonia’s magnificent landscapes. Modern transport tends to whisk you along too fast to appreciate your surroundings and most of the roads are low down. By contrast the ancient trackways of Snowdonia (Eryri) rise up from the valleys and coast to traverse the high ground, through rocky or boggy terrain unsuitable for farm ‘improvement’. Apart from the occasional reservoir or conifer plantation these old routes are untouched and travelling here is like walking through a living museum rich in reminders of the way we lived.

Hic iacit Cantiorix!
You can walk past the standing stones of bronze age ancestors, along 'roads' where Roman legionnaires marched or bone-shaking coaches carried passengers to and from ships to Ireland. Journeying where drovers ushered their livestock hundreds of miles to market or where smugglers evaded taxes on salt or brandy, following in the footsteps of pilgrims, miners and shepherds. Up here our past is highly visible and preserved. 

But where to start? How about the Plas Tan y Bwlch Ancient Trackways of Snowdonia course? Four days of guided walking complete with five nights of accommodation at a stately mansion in the Vale of Ffestiniog, with breakfast, packed lunch, evening meal and after dinner talk included. All this for less than £425.  

Course starts 20th May 2012. If you fancy it, get in touch with the organisers at Plas Tan y Bwlch. I did it a couple of years ago and loved it. Here are some of my memories:

Monday, 12 March 2012

Blaenau 30 Campbell 30

This year is the 30th anniversary of the Ffestiniog Railway re-opening all the way to Blaenau and there will be a series of special events from 5th to 7th May. It is also the 30th anniversary of the death of Colonel Campbell who rescued Plas y Dduallt from dereliction and did much to help the railway.

The house has recently been tree ring dated to reveal that the oldest timbers were chopped down in the winter of 1559 / 1560. Much research has gone into the history and is summarised in a five page document which can be accessed here.

The appendix at the back of the Ffestiniog Railway Act of 1832 shows the property being owned by the trustees of the late William Lloyd and by the time of The Tithe Act of 1842 it is owned by the Rt Rev Lord Robert Ponsonby Tottenham from Wicklow. It remained in the Tottenham family for three generations before being auctioned in 1920 at The Queens Hotel, Blaenau Ffestiniog, when it was bought for the Tan y Bwlch estate.

If anyone has any information on the Tottenhams and why they came here I would be very grateful to hear from you. Were they railway or mining investors?


Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Wild goats in the Vale of Ffestiniog

We don't have many wild goats in the Vale but we have one more than we did this time last week. Here's a short clip of the new kid running to keep up with mum:

There's another gang of six that spend most of their time in the woods beneath the railway line and, whilst one looks very pregnant, no kids yet. The ones with the chunky horns are the billies.