Swansea the Riverside Town

Gerald Gabb has sent me the following information about his magnum opus – the completion of his 3-volume history of Swansea.

The 1840 view above by Alexander Rolfe (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery) decorates the slipcase of my new book, “Swansea the Riverside Town”, which has been 12 years in the making.

It will be launched on Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th May between 10 and 4.00 at Swansea Museum – full details here.

book details


If that date does not suit, there are –


Further launches at Sketty, Newton, Bishopston, Reynoldston, Mumbles, the Central Library and in Swansea Market


As well as talks and events in the National Waterfront and Swansea Museum, and at Clydach, Fforestfach, Glynneath, Gowerton, Killay, Llansamlet, Loughor, Morriston, Neath, Penlan, Pontarddulais, St.Thomas and Trallwn, at which the book will be available.

Dates, times and venues are given below – just scroll right down.


It’s an expensive book, so anybody coming to have a look at it, or only to hear the talk and have a chat is sincerely welcomed. All talks are planned as being interesting in themselves – they are not just adverts.


You can also get in touch via g.gabb@ntlworld.com or 01792/613262. In that way you can arrange delivery of a copy, or call in to see one at 38 Woodland Avenue, West Cross SA3 5LY.

                                                                                                                       Keep going down !

Or try a shop:     Swansea Museum (open Tues-Sunday, 10-4.30)

Cover to Cover, Newton Rd., Mumbles

Waterstones, Oxford Street, Swansea

Norton Stores (opposite the Beaufort)

or further afield at College Street Books, Ammanford or Seaways Bookshop in Fishguard.


Pre-publication talks

Saturday 13th April 2.30 RISW lecture, Swansea Museum


Wednesday 17th April 3.00 SKETTY LIBRARY


Thursday 25th April 2.00 TOWNHILL LIBRARY


Saturday 27th April 11.00 HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION, National Waterfront Museum


Talks & events at which the book MAY be available

Saturday 4th May PENNARD LIBRARY 10.30


Tuesday 7th May OXFAM BOOKSHOP, Castle Street 7 for 7.30


Wednesday 8th May 7.00 OYSTERMOUTH LIBRARY please ring, email or call in for a ticket: 368380  judy.knight@swansea.gov.uk 


Saturday 11th May Local & Family History Fair, NATIONAL WATERFRONT MUSEUM, 10-4.00

with talk at 11.30


Wednesday 15th May PENLAN LIBRARY 10.00


Formal Launch

Saturday/Sunday 18th/19th May  SWANSEA MUSEUM, 10-4.00 both days

On Saturday, Prys Morgan (11.30) & Peter Stead (2.30) have kindly agreed to speak.

The author will give presentations at 11.00
on Sunday. The book will be available throughout both days.


Follow-up launch sessions

Thursday 30th May 10.30-12.30 ST.PAUL’S PARISH CENTRE, Delabeche Rd, Sketty,

                                                                         talk at 11.00 (ample parking)


Saturday 1st June 9.30-4.00 SWANSEA MARKET table in the centre, chat but no lecture


Saturday 8th June 10-1.00 NEWTON VILLAGE HALL, by St.Peter’s Church, talk at 11.00


Thursday 13th June 7.00 Tabernacle Chapel Hall, Chapel Street, Mumbles – a COVER to COVER  BOOKSHOP event – please book: sales@cover-to-cover.co.uk, 01792/366363 or at the shop


Saturday 29th June  ST TEILO’S PARISH HALL, Bishopston 10.30-12.30 talk at 11.00


Saturday 20th July 2.00 SWANSEA CENTRAL LIBRARY Discovery Room, upper floor


Friday 26th July Reynoldston Village Hall 6.45-8.30 talk at 7.20


Saturday 27th July, 10.00: Swansea History walk led by Gerald Gabb, beginning and ending at Swansea Museum – roughly 2 hours, level throughout. Tea & coffee available at the museum on return. For further details contact John Steevens, john@steevens.co.uk or 01792/643791 ALL WELCOME (Royal Institution of South Wales event)



Other talks & events where the book will be available

Monday 3rd June FFORESTFACH LIBRARY 10.30


Wednesday 5th June 2.00 circular Swansea History walk led by Gerald Gabb, – about 2 hours, level, meet at Swansea Museum (a Gower Walking Festival event, places limited, book at info@gowerwalkingfestival.uk or on 07340/672963)


Friday 7th June U3A Family History group 10-12  members only


Tuesday 11th June 10-12.00  Swansea Eastside Historical Society,

Community Room, St.Thomas Community Primary School


Tuesday 11th June 7.00 GOWERTON LIBRARY


Friday 28th June 2.00  KILLAY LIBRARY


Wednesday 3rd July 2.30 LLANSAMLET LIBRARY


Saturday 6th July 2.00-3.00 PONTARDDULAIS LIBRARY


Friday 20th September 7.00 CLYDACH HISTORICAL SOCIETY, Clydach Community Centre


Saturday 28th September RISW/HA History Day in the museums 10-4.00


Friday 11th October 2.30 LLANSAMLET HISTORICAL SOCIETY Trallwn Community Centre


Thursday 17th October 8.00 OYSTERMOUTH HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION Ostreme Centre


Saturday October 26th RISW Local History Bookfair, Swansea Museum 10-4.00


Wednesday 6th November 7.00 GLYNNEATH HISTORICAL SOCIETY Glynneath Training Centre


Thursday 7th November 2.30 LLWCHWR HISTORICAL SOCIETY the Institute, Lime St., Gorseinon


Tuesday 12th November 7.30  KENFIG SOCIETY Pyle Parish Hall


Monday 18th November 7.00 NEATH ANTIQUARIAN SOCIETY the Old Town Hall


Tuesday 3rd December 2.00 MORRISTON LIBRARY


…….and probably a summer talk at the Glynn Vivian, details to follow



SHOPS  try Swansea Museum, open 10-4.30 Tuesday to Sunday

or Cover to Cover, Newton Road Mumbles, and Waterstones in Oxford Street all of whom have been very supportive. Norton Stores (formerly Ian Boyd’s) will have copies, as will College Street Books, Ammanford and Seaways Bookshop in Fishguard. Waterstones in Oxford Street and the National Waterfront Museum may also be stockists.



At the time of writing it is hoped that a card reader may be in use, but, to be safe, please bring cash, or, that old fashioned item, a cheque-book.



Pontypool – not quite what you expect of a Valleys town

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Excellent MA field trip to Pontypool, led by Steve.

For the full description, go to http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/welshstoneforum/newsletter/ and click on newsletter 7.

Meanwhile, here are some photos: at the Gorsedd stones


heading intrepidly past the cows


to the Folly tower (actually a rebuild – the original was such a key landmark that it had to be demolished during WWII)


Back in the centre of town – how many listed buildings can you count?


The famous pop factory is lithology heaven, a crazy quilt of scraps of stone left over from other buildings


and the old Quaker meeting house and burial yard clearly ought to be listed (but isn’t)


all in all a pretty good day.

If the past is a foreign country, should you get its geography right?

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Hilary Mantel says that if you want to write historical novels and you include facts you should make sure that those facts are right. Jim Crace, whose novel Harvest has made it to the Booker longlist, thinks otherwise:

‘I’m not interested in that at all. I don’t want facts, I want to make things up and to dig deep into traditional storytelling to produce a tale that illustrates the subject matter I care about.’ (from an interview in the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/aug/16/jim-crace-interview )

Mantel also says we should not apply modern priorities to the people of the past – something some serious historians could usefully pay attention to. But here again Crace disagrees:

‘I’m not interested in anything else but foisting those sensibilities and writing books that concern the 21st-century. None of this is a critique of what Mantel does so perfectly. It is just to illustrate that for me it is a whole different ball game.’

I haven’t read Harvest (and let’s be honest I’m unlikely to). Apparently it’s set in an unnamed English village, an indeterminate number of centuries ago, at the moment when peasant farmers were forced off the land to make room for sheep. The narrative mentions post-horses and plague is a threat. A surveyor draws maps. We seem to be in the seventeenth century.

Crace was inspired by noticing for the first time some fields around Watford Gap:  ‘I noticed that the surrounding fields were full of ridge and furrow. As a Midlander and a big walker I’d always loved ridge and furrow fields, the plough-marked land as it was when it was enclosed. It is the landscape giving you a story of lives that ended with the arrival of sheep.’

The problem is that it probably wasn’t like that at all: the whole business of depopulation and enclosure is much more complex and very few villages were removed to make room for sheep. Crace’s ridge and furrow could have survived until the eighteenth or even the early nineteenth century, when enclosure of common land took place to facilitate commercial farming. You’d have to go to the County Record Office, look at estate papers and enclosure awards … and that might spoil the whole story.

So does it matter? It’s clearly a powerful and well-written book. Crace’s other concern was the parallels between his story and the eviction of indigenous people by soya barons in south America, and he uses his historical narrative for a powerful modern critique.

But should we call it a historical novel when he clearly isn’t at all concerned with history?

These issues are trending on Twitter with the broadcasting of the final episode of The White Queen. Of course, we didn’t expect them to get the Welsh contribution to Bosworth right. Too much to hope for. But apparently they didn’t get the Stanley contribution either – and my friend Philip Beddows (of Teulu Elystan Glodrydd – tweets as @Fferllys) spotted one of Henry Tudur’s men in Richard III’s colours and carrying the badge of the white boar. Now, this could have been a radical new insight into battlefield tactics – but it’s much more likely to have been a mix-up in the wardrobe pantechnicon. Badges and colours were specifically supposed to have prevented that sort of confusion!

Rise up Women who Weren’t Born Yesterday (again)

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Does my 30 seconds of fame on Countryfile qualify me to speak about the problems of academic women in the media?

Of course, if you are a female academic of a Certain Age, you aren’t cutting it in the media these days if you aren’t getting at least a dozen abusive tweets a day … what is it with these guys? Are they threatening to rape us because we are so gorgeous that they are helpless with lust – OK, that can’t be it – so they are threatening us with rape as a punishment for being uppity, mouthy women who have the nerve to get paid for being on the telly. So sex with them is going to be so nasty that the mere threat of it will have us slinking off to clean behind the fridge. Are they really saying their technique is so bad that their embraces are the stuff of our worst nightmares?

And that’s not the only problem we face – and some of them are worth a bit more thought. ‘Blimey’, a colleague said about my Countryfile appearance, ‘sneeze and you missed it … a 10 minute interview cut down to 30 seconds, if that, with a jokey anecdote about medieval monks getting p*ssed (snigger, snigger)’. It seems we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. If we try to be accessible we are accused of trivialising but if we go for the difficult stuff we are elitist. (I was called elitist once, by a  man at the Heritage Lottery Fund. It still rankles.)

I suppose I can claim to be able to speak about these issues. I’ve been doing bits and pieces in the media for about 20 years now, ever since the first flurry of coverage of our Penrhys pilgrimage project. News interviews, several appearances with Trevor Fishlock and a whole radio series with him. Three television programmes with Huw Edwards off of the news, though I have yet to meet him; a programme with Iolo Williams – didn’t actually meet him either; but I did met Robert Beckford, Eddie Butler and Mal Pope, and I’m at the end of this one with Terry Jones http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhFEvbuBXMU .

And my hair is grey and I don’t wear makeup, never mind Botox. I haven’t yet made it to the dizzy heights of my own series, but you never know.

All these programmes have involved some sense of compromise. Academics tend to think in 1-hour lectures and 20-minute conference papers. We want to be able to say ‘On the one hand this … on the other hand that … what we really need is at least 5 more years’ research and a big conference’. Instead of which you have 2 minutes to make your point, you spend most of the afternoon walking up and down a hill while the camera crew faffs around with the big jib, and your brilliant insights get cut in favour of a few jokey references to medieval beer drinking.

So is it worth it? Well, of course, it does impress the management. You can write learned papers until your hand drops off, but when I was in Towns of Wales with Eddie Butler I had pro-vice chancellors queuing up to tell me how great it was. And it is actually fun. I have colleagues who pretend to be blasé and bored by it all, but there is something very satisfying in being treated as an expert. It’s a balancing act  – you get more time to make serious points in programmes like The Real Patron Saints, but you get more people  actually looking at you on Countryfile. And ultimately this is what we owe to the people who pay our wages. If we can’t communicate with the widest possible audience, we probably haven’t understood our subject properly ourselves.

Mind you, I still think this one http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhFEvbuBXMU  goes too far. It’s not so much the fake costumes and the fact that the medieval pilgrims are singing a 17th century hymn to a tune collected in the early 20th century by Vaughan Williams. It’s the assumption that pilgrims are all about fake medieeval recreation. Apparently you can’t be a pilgrim in hi-tec boots and Goretex: you have to dress up in a robe and sing strange songs.

More about pilgrimage next week – time we finalised arrangements for this autumn’s trek to Penrhys … monastic robes optional!

Inhabiting the past

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Off to the National History Museum at St Fagans, ostensibly  to talk about the Welsh background to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. My plan was to challenge some traditional ideas about Cromwell and the Acts of Union and to look at the family and career of his colleague in Wolsey’s household, Robert ap Rhys of Ysbyty Ifan (more on him at http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/welsh-history-month-ysbyty-ifan-2045988 ). But the group I was talking to was much more interested in the question of why we read historical fiction and on the relationship between novel and history.

I had to admit that I don’t read much historical fiction – it’s difficult when you keep spotting the mistakes. Mind you, I’ve never encountered anything as bad as the romantic novel set in early 19th century India (probably best not to name the author) in which a colleague of mine from the British Library found six major errors on page 1. I find historical detective fiction easier to cope with, but even there you can have problems. I had to give up on the Shardlake novels after two of them had major inaccuracies that actually affected the plot and took you off in quite the wrong direction. Should this matter in a work of fiction – well, yes, if it affects the credibility of the plot, I think it does.

But as a sixteenth-century historian I then had to say that I found Wolf Hall very good. I can’t fault Hilary Mantel on her research. I don’t see the late medieval church the way she does, though – or does she? We see it through Cromwell’s eyes, and it is part of her skill as a novelist that she persuades you into his viewpoint. In Wolf Hall, too, she is trying to build sympathy for Cromwell and his ideals, so that when he has to do much nastier things in Bring Up the Bodies we are carried along with his ultimate vision.

There’s an interesting podcast with Hilary Mantel herself talking about all this at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/audio/2012/dec/21/hilary-mantel-wolf-hall-podcast . She does say that she wasn’t trying to rehabilitate Cromwell, but that she relished his company.

We went on to look at the church, where the texts on the walls are nearly finished. This gives another slant again on the late medieval church – the depth and richness of spiritual life for the ordinary parishioner. The liturgical reconstruction project we did there a couple of years ago was relevant to one of the key problems in writing historical fiction. Unless you are writing a very post-modernist novel, you can’t have gaps – and there are so many gaps in our historical knowledge. Often they are in the details of everyday life, the things that are so commonplace they never get recorded. We have the same problems in understanding medieval religion, and this was one of the things the Experience of Worship project was designed to help with. We know that the celebration of the Mass needed an incense boat, holy water sprinkler, jug and basin for the priest’s hand-washing, pax, etc, etc – but what exactly did you do with them, and where did you put them when you weren’t using them? And we know that the priest had helpers – but for a chantry mass in a small parish church, how many helpers, and how would they be dressed, and what would they actually be doing? All these things are part of the texture of everyday lives – so somehow the historical novelist has to fill in that cross-hatching because the historians can’t commit themselves.

Heritagising dissent

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Michael Heseltine – flak jacket wearer, Tory leadership challenger, hero of the Westland Helicopter affair – seems to be turning into a sort of Dear Old Man. My university has just given him an honorary doctorate. When I got over gritting my teeth and rambling on about the dear old days at Greenham Common *wholefamilyyawn* I started to think about what is happening at Greenham now.

A little while ago, we went down to Basingstoke for a family get-together. To get from south Wales to Basingstoke you now go round that famous Newbury bypass, so I hadn’t really realised where I was …  then the woods started to look a bit familiar … then we came out of the trees and there was Yellow Gate. Where we did circle dancing in the road, got dragged away and flung into vans, where we tried to stop them throwing our quilts and our knitting into the muncher … and now it’s all clean and tidy and they have planted a nice little peace garden. We won, the missiles went away – so why did I feel vaguely disappointed? Would it have been better if, instead of a pretty little garden, the struggle was commemorated by a couple of tatty benders, a cooking fire and a latrine pit that really needed re-digging?

How can we commemorate dissent without sanitising it? It’s very much in our minds at the moment because of the struggle over the Newport Chartist mural. Paul Flynn has made the very good point that it was never meant to last, and it would cost more to remove, conserve and reinstate it than it would to commission a new piece of artwork. Nevertheless, its loss has obviously touched a raw nerve in a community which is also being threatened with the loss of museum and art gallery provision. But the Newport Chartist mural itself sanitised the story of protest – the banner saying ‘Votes for all men’ was conveniently obscured so that we didn’t have to remember that the Chartists had nothing to say about votes for women.

Did the Suffragettes feel the same sense of deflation when they looked back at that glad confident morning in November 1918, when the Parliamentary vote was restored to women? How would they feel about the way we commemorate their struggle, with plaques and exhibitions of banners?


St Teilo’s Church – the writing on the wall

Another lovely afternoon, this time at the National History Museum in St Fagan’s watching the conservators paint the texts under the re-created wall paintings. Their experience must be something like that of the original painters: they are painting texts mainly in Latin, in black-letter script. It’s not so much writing as paintings of words. There are decisions to be made about abbreviation marks, and occasional mistakes. The dynamic must be very similar to that in a medieval parish when texts had to be chosen and written out, then painted and (presumably) checked by the priest.


This whole business of text in wall paintings is very odd. We were surprised by the amount of writing we found on the walls of St Teilo’s. There were captions – ‘Ecce Homo’ above the Bound Christ, ‘Sancta Trinitas’ under the Trinity – but perhaps more significant was a series of prayers which could guide worshippers round the church. The Image of Pity had what looks like the famous late medieval prayer ‘Jesu mercy, Lady help’ (interesting that this one was in English) and a fragment of a litany, ‘A dent …’, possibly ‘A dentibus mortis’ or ‘A dentibus infernis’ … from the teeth of death, good Lord deliver us. Under the north-west window was something we have interpreted as ‘Jesu Christe deus et homo da nobis pacem’ – ‘Jesus Christ, God and man, give us peace’. This sequence has now been fleshed out with quotations from familiar Bible passages and bits of the Easter services to accompany the paintings which tell the story of the Crucifixion.


But why would a medieval congregation have spent time and money on painting texts on its church walls when hardly any of them could read? Of course, even if you couldn’t read, writing was Important – it told you that what you were looking at was significant. It could even have magic powers. Badges with fake writing on them, charms in strange garbled words on scraps of paper – these all suggest writing had power.

But there is more to it than that. Some of the writing was probably recognizable, even if you couldn’t read it all. The A and M of Ave Maria, the J of Jesu Mercy: people learned to identify these and to respond to them. And the efforts they went to suggest that writing had meaning for them, even if they couldn’t ‘read’ it as we would use the word. They knew it could be read, it could be read to them, they could learn what it meant. We identify the pictures by their captions; they recognized the text from the pictures.

Of course, all this is a huge challenge for the Museum to explain. Few of their visitors will be familiar with the Latin liturgy, or even with the Bible stories on the walls. They do not want to over-interpret: it’s important that visitors experience the building for themselves. But how do you explain a medieval church to a modern audience?

Why are they pouring water on that man’s head?
Why are those men kissing?
Why is that lady showing her breasts?

The Llanilltud Fawr (Llantwit Major) Galilee Project – nearly there!

If heritage trails test the breadth of your historical knowledge, historical recreations test the depth – you find out what you don’t know about your own research field.

Today’s fun job was a meeting in the National Museum in Cardiff with Mark Redknap and Chris Jones-Jenkins to finalise some reconstruction drawings of the early medieval monastery and the late medieval Galilee chapel at Llanilltud in the Vale of Glamorgan.

The Galilee Project has been an amazingly ambitious and imaginative project to rehouse a collection of early medieval carved stones – the iconic ‘Celtic’ crosses of early Wales with their interlace panels and inscriptions in insular script. The crosses and pillars have been found in the area around the church. Many of them record burials of the local rulers from the second half of the first millennium, making the early medieval monastery at  Llanilltud a sort of Westminster Abbey of early Wales. They are currently in the west  end of the parish church, built by the Normans and their successors on the site of the monastery. Some of us liked that setting, where the stones mingled with display boards of Sunday School work, processional banners and other ecclesiastical impedimenta, but  it has to be said that it was difficult to see them properly. This is always going to be an issue in church heritage, and it’s thrown into sharper relief by the importance of this particular collection of stones. One the one hand, they articulate the memory of the worshipping community and they should be in the church not in the arid environment of a museum. On the other hand, in the church they are in the way of other activities and the other activities are in the way of them.

No easy answers – though in this case it’s made a bit easier because the stones were not originally inside the church: they have been moved there for safe keeping, so they can more easily be moved again.

The church is big enough, two churches, really, end to end. But in the later middle ages it was even bigger. One of the local families built a western extension, a Galilee chapel, which was used as a family chantry. There a priest said Mass for the souls of the family and (as a concession to Christian charity) all Christian souls.

Chantries were abolished at the Reformation and the Galilee chapel fell into disuse. Then a few years ago it came into its own again as a solution to the problem of the early stones. It is being rebuilt and redesigned as an exhibition centre, which will also provide much-needed toilet facilities. You can see what has been going on at http://www.illtudsgalileechapel.org.uk/ .

As part of this project, Chris Jones-Jenkins has been commissioned to provide two reconstruction drawings. One is to show the early medieval monastery with the stones in situ. The other is to show the Galilee chapel as it would have looked in use in the late fifteenth century.

Of course, the big problem is that we don’t actually know what the monastery was like. We have a very hazy description in a twelfth-century life of St Illtud, which is about as much use as a Victorian description of the Hampton Court of Henry VIII. Archaeological exploration under the church and in the graveyard is clearly not a possibility, so we have to go by sites which have been explored – which almost by definition are the less important ones, the ones that didn’t become parish churches. We don’t know exactly where the crosses were, we don’t even know the function of the carved pillars, and we have no idea at all what the surrounding landscape was like.

So why are we doing it – well, it seems important to give our best guess as to what the original setting of the stones might have been. And with Mark Redknap on board, it’s a highly educated guess.

Turning to the later medieval chapel should be easier … but even here there are huge gaps in our knowledge. We assume that a chantry mass would have involved just one priest – but he would have needed helpers, and who would they have been, and how would they have been dressed? We know the equipment needed for the celebration of the Mass would have included a holy water container and sprinkler, an incense boat, a pax, a dish of blessed bread, as well as the chalice, paten and cruet  – but where would all these have been placed when they were not actually being used? How many candles on the altar? How would the walls be decorated … what statues … what about the altar cloth … the vestments … It’s all like the St Teilo’s Project, but without even as much information as we had for that.

The work of the Experience of Worship project at Bangor (which I helped with) gives us some of the answers (see http://www.bangor.ac.uk/music/AHRC/ – and the full web site should be live any day soon), but we don’t want to do a straight copy of St Teilo’s.  The one thing I’m happy about is the tomb carvings which will be shown on the floor – I can do tomb carvings!

Sir Henry Sidney and the Three Bears

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Heritage footpath projects are full of traps for the unwary. Footpaths tend to slice across time, so you need a huge range of historical expertise. Then you need to be able to summarise all that knowledge in a few words for people who just want to walk. Designing the actual route is a balancing act – you need plenty of interest but it has to work as a walk. There’s no point in including your favourite site if there is no public access, or if you can only get to it along a mile of busy main road.

Having said all that, trails with a historical interest are a great way of introducing people to the history of an area, and all the research suggests that they are also a good way of encouraging people to take gentle exercise.


Cardiff City Council has recently been putting some trails in the woods above my house. The woods round Castell Coch do get quite busy and have a lot of special interest stuff. I walk my neighbour’s dog up there most days (the famous Cara the pilgrim dog – seen here  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-18532279 enlivening  this toe-curlingly embarrassing sequence of fake pilgrims at Caerphilly).

While they were filming Merlin we regularly met gangs of men dressed in chain mail, usually smoking rollups and drinking coffee out of styrofoam cups.  The actual castle sequences in Merlin were mainly filmed at Pierrefonds, north-east of Paris. Location-spotter hobbyists spent a lot of time trying to identify locations for the countryside sequences in the area round Pierrefonds but in fact most of them were filmed near Castell Coch. The woods have also been used for Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Who and Torchwood, and most recently the woods and the castle featured in Da Vinci’s Demons.

All this has of course become part of the heritage of the area, but there is more conventional history as well. Cardiff Walking for Health and Outdoor Cardiff have homed in on this with some themed trails on the history of iron-making in the area and the Victorian rebuilding of the castle.

ImageSomehow they got in touch with me and asked me to advise – which since I know very little about industrial archaeology, and even less about the Victorians, was a bit of a challenge. I did manage, though, to point them in the direction of the early industrial history of the area – which since it involved a poet, a love story and the most spectacular of the iron mines in the woods, seems to have suited their needs.

It all goes back to Sir Henry Sidney, father of the poet Sir Philip. The family came from Penshurst in the Weald of Kent. Sir Henry was one of Edward VI’s childhood companions, a courtier of Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I, and an early pioneer of the iron industry. He was involved in introducing the new smelting methods of the blast furnace, using water power to drive a bellows which enabled very high temperatures in the furnace. Iron ore, charcoal and limestone were fed in at the top of the furnace and molten metal was tapped off at the bottom. Sir Henry’s problem was that this enabled you to smelt much larger quantities of iron – so you needed a lot more charcoal. Wood is in theory a renewable resource, but he was felling trees in Kent faster than they could regenerate. In 1559 he became Lord President of the Council in the Marches of Wales, and it was in Wales that he found all the resources he needed. In the lower Taff valley there were steep hills with fast-flowing streams for water power, miles and miles of unused woodland, limestone and iron ore in plenty. Better still, the iron ore was haematite – not narrow veins of ironstone, difficult to extract, but huge post-volcanic globules which could easily be quarried. The hematite mines under the Garth mountain carved out huge chambers like cathedrals. In the woods above Tongwynlais the ore was nearer the surface and they could dig down for it, creating caves like the ‘Three Bears’ Cave’ and the Blue Pool.

This is where the love story comes in. To establish his family as landowners in south Wales, Sir Henry married his younger son Robert to a local heiress, Barbara Gamage. Barbara’s  father John Gamage was lord of Coety, near Bridgend, and she was his only child. When John died in 1584, Barbara was 25, which was very old for a woman of her class to be unmarried. She had a number of suitors but Sir Henry had more clout than any of them, and ‘persuaded’ her guardians to marry her to Robert. It was an unpromising beginning to the relationship, but surprisingly the ill-matched couple fell deeply in love. They had thirteen children – there’s a lovely painting of her with six of them at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gheeraerts_Barbara_Gamage_with_Six_Children.jpg . Her local influence provided Robert with the county seat for Glamorgan in the parliaments of 1584-5 and 1593, and her estates helped to restore the Sidneys’ over-stretched finances. When Sir Philip died at Zutphen, Robert inherited the family estates. He and Barbara never came back to Wales, but their industrial interests in the woods above Cardiff were an important part of their wealth.


Explaining all that on an interpretation panel is a huge challenge, but Cardiff ‘s footpaths team have done their best. You can access the walks leaflets at http://www.cardiff.gov.uk/content.asp?nav=2868,4407,5442,6305&parent_directory_id=2865&id=13121 – click on Fforest Fawr.

There was a bit of a hiccup with the waymarking. The wording on the arrows for the Sir Henry Trail was clearly borrowed from the leaflet, so it read ‘Sir Henry Trail … Mae Llwybr Syr Henri’ . The problem is that in Welsh the verb comes at the beginning of the sentence, so what you have here is ‘Sir Henry Trail …  The Sir Henry Trail is’ . I didn’t notice it, but my daughter speaks fluent Welsh and it niggled her no end. I mentioned it a couple of times when I saw the footpaths people in the woods, and to my daughter’s delight they have now corrected it.


The next footpath project is a trail round the early medieval stones in Merthyr Mawr and Laleston.  One day I may even get back to my own Cistercian Way project, a round-Wales trail which keeps getting interrupted by the day job. Perhaps when I retire …

Cardiff’s Martyr’s Memorial

posted in: Heritage (General) | 3


The Heritage Tortoise … prowling round the heritage of Wales and the wider world, strolling through the undergrowth, peering up at stone carvings, eating the odd dandelion leaf …

Mary Beard has been tweeting about Cambridge,s Martyr’s Memorial, which is rather anomalously placed on a park bench (http://timesonline.typepad.com/dons_life/2013/06/the-cambridge-martyrs-memorial.html). Cardiff has its own Martyr’s Memorial, placed even more idiosyncratically on the wall of the gents’ formal suits department in James Howell’s department store. I wouldn’t think that 99% of the men who go there to get suited and booted for weddings and funerals know who it commemorates, still less why he died such a painful death.

So who was Rawlins White? According to Foxe’s Acts and Monuments  (better known as the Book of Martyrs), he was a simple Cardiff fisherman. He heard the Bible being read and preached in Cardiff, probably in the late 1540s or early 1550s, during the reign of Edward VI. Feeling that he was too old to learn this newfangled business of reading, he sent his little son to school instead, and the boy read the Bible to his father in the evenings while they were mending their nets. Though he could not read, White learned much of the Bible by heart and became a preacher himself.

But then in 1553 Edward died and his Catholic sister Mary came to power. Rawlins White was arrested, questioned and eventually burned at the stake. Foxe’s account describes him sending a message to his wife asking her to send him his best shirt to be burned in, though victims at the stake were usually stripped. The full story is online.

Martyrdom should be simple and clear – but  like so many martyrdom stories, this one is more complex than it appears. If you read between the lines of Foxe’s account, it’s clear that Rawlins White was the leader of a group of radical Protestants. He was arrested at the very beginning of Mary’s reign, at the same time as those much more high-profile martyrs Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley. And he was not executed for another two years, so he was dealt with by due process of law – Mary and her advisers were more interested in high-visibility recantations than in creating martyrs.

Then there’s the role in all this of the local bishop, Anthony Kitchin. He has had a bad press, not all of it deserved. He became bishop of Llandaff in 1545, when he was already in his 60s, and served under Henry, Edward, Elizabeth and Mary. This suggests a degree of flexibility not usually found in the Reformation period. But I have a soft spot for him, and I can see his point. Opposing government policy in those days didn’t leave you with a spell on the back benches: instead, it could lead to a slow, painful and sticky death. And what good would it do his diocese if he was removed and replaced by an extremist from one side or another? So he dug his heels in and tried to blunt the impact of some of the more dramatic changes. Reading between the lines again, we can see that he even tried to save Rawlins White, keeping him under very lax house arrest in the episcopal palace at Mathern and even encouraging him to escape.

Foxe’s story also mentions White’s associates, who were allowed to visit him in prison and encourage him. None of them were arrested or punished.

White was burned in the south part of the tiny borough of Cardiff. When the town expanded in the nineteenth century a chapel was built near the spot and a memorial plaque was put on the chapel wall. The James Howell store bought the chapel in order to expand but preserved the wall and its plaque.

Wales also has a memorial in Carmarthen to another Marian martyr, Robert Ferrar, bishop of St David’s, who seems to have fallen victim to a stitch-up by the Cathedral chapter (now, what does that remind me of …) but as far as I know there is no memorial to the third Protestant martyr, another Cardiff man, Thomas Capper. He was burned in 1542, during Henry VIII’s reign, possibly for challenging the idea that God was really present in the Mass.