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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts from April 2021

Buildings in the landscape

Or, a trip to a museum

Only the other day, I wrote about heading out to visit a castle now that outdoor tourist attractions in Wales are starting to open up again. And now, along comes another post about it! This isn’t going to become a blog purely about days out I’ve taken, honest.

For the past few years, we’ve gone every spring to the museum at St Fagans, just west of Cardiff. If you’re from South Wales you will undoubtedly know of it, but I was always surprised, when we lived only just over the water in Bristol, how many English people don’t. Sain Ffagan Amgueddfa Werin Cymru, or St Fagans National Museum of History,* is a museum of Welsh buildings and Welsh life on a grand scale. It was founded back in the 1940s, modelled on the Skansen museum in Stockholm: the grounds of an aristocratic stately home, St Fagans Castle, were slowly filled with exemplars of vernacular Welsh architecture, dismantled and re-erected.

The museum also has indoor galleries, in a huge 1960s-era brutalist building which—after a full refurbishment a few years ago—is a gorgeous example of the period with a wonderfully light and airy atrium space. Naturally, none of that is open at the moment. Nor are the interiors of the historic (or replica) buildings themselves. However, given that visitor numbers are being carefully limited, this does mean that we had a great opportunity to explore the grounds in detail. I should have brought my Proper Camera, because normally you don’t get to take photos with nobody else about quite as easily.

Rhyd-Y-Car Terrace

Rhyd-Y-Car Terrace

This is Rhyd-Y-Car Terrace, one of the museum’s highlights, showing the changes in a typical urban terrace over two hundred years. If nothing else, when you can go inside, it gives parents the opportunity to say “look, this is what houses looked like when I was small,” as their children gaze at a 1970s microwave, an early VCR and a model of a plate of fish fingers. The buildings themselves came from Merthyr Tydfil; railway nerds might remember that Rhyd-Y-Car Junction was the point where the Brecon & Merthyr Railway met the Great Western Railway just outside Merthyr station.

The gardens outside the terrace are similarly reconstructed and appropriate to the period of each cottage, with vegetable plots and outside toilets gaining sheds, pigeon lofts and air raid shelters, before being replaced with grass and a greenhouse.

Rhyd-Y-Car Terrace

You might remember, back in the mists of time a few paragraphs ago, I said that we always tend to go to St Fagans every spring. The reason for that is: being a museum of Welsh life, it has its own sheep farm—with added geese, ducks, cows and porkers too—and every year lambing season turns into a bit of an event, complete nowadays with the lambing sheds being broadcast online on the museum’s “LambCam”. By April though lambing season is pretty much over: we could see the lambs in the fields, but not many were left indoors. Still, this one seemed happy to see us.

Sheep

Other signs of spring were everywhere too: the ground carpeted with primroses and celandines, bluebells starting to appear in the woods, and the daffodils still in strong flower. I watched this bee flying round, scratching under grass and leaves apparently trying to dig a hole, before giving up and trying another spot.

Bee

I think she’s a queen buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), possibly looking for somewhere to start her nest.

* Translation note: the Welsh name doesn’t mean “Museum of History”, but it could mean “Welsh Folk Museum” or “Welsh People’s Museum”. The Welsh name has stayed the same over the years whilst the English one has changed a few times: road signs off the motorway direct you to the “Museum of Welsh Life”.

We now resume your regular programming

I'll explain the pun later

With travel now allowed within Wales, and places starting to open up, we can now go out and visit castles and suchlike again. Cadw, the Welsh historic monuments service, are starting to open up a number of their sites to carefully-controlled numbers of prebooked visitors at sites where it’s feasible. You can’t see the fantastic Victorian Gothic interiors of Castell Coch, but you can go and visit many of the famous castle ruins of Wales, the most famous being the “Edwardian subjugation” castles of the North. Caernarfon or Conwy are a bit far for a day trip from here, though. Instead, we set out for somewhere a bit more local, and walked through the complex arched gateways of Castell Rhaglan, Raglan Castle.

Castle Gateway

Raglan covers a large area but is rather unusual in that its keep is a moated hexagonal tower outside the main castle bailey, with a high-level bridge linking the two—in fact, in the Tudor period, it might even have been a bi-level bridge. The various levels and arches give you fantasically complex views that are almost like the works of Piranesi.

Raglan Castle

Raglan Castle

Raglan was still a sumptuous residence all through the Tudor period, right up until the Civil War. In the Stuart period, it even had a fountain powered by some form of steam engine, which must have predated the machines of Papin or of Savery. The upshot of this today is that, compared to the castles of North Wales I mentioned earlier, it has parts of rather more modern construction. There are substantial chunks rebuilt in brick, for example; finely-detailed stone carvings; and rooms with large rectangular windows. Nevertheless, it is still a ruin: in the Civil War its aristocratic owners naturally supported the King’s side, and as a result the castle surrendered to General Fairfax in the summer of 1646. The castle was made uninhabitable, and sadly, its library destroyed. It still today has no roof to speak of, few floors, and many stone stairs leading nowhere.

Raglan Castle

Raglan Castle

Raglan Castle

Raglan Castle

In the Tudor and Stuart periods the castle was surrounded by several terraces of formal gardens, which also no longer survive. Indeed, even if the castle had survived the Civil War, the gardens would no doubt have been lost to changes in aristocratic taste in any case; very few Tudor houses have had their original gardens survive continuously. The castle today is surrounded by the rough, rounded-off and grassed-over remains of the terraces, scattered with picnic benches, and with a shed and a Nissen hut tucked away in a discreet corner. Nevertheless, you can still look out from the castle across the rolling farmland that surrounds it, over to the Blorenge and the Sugar Loaf on the horizon.

Every castle needs a shed

Looking towards the Sugar Loaf

I must go back again some time with the Proper Camera, to take a photo which shows the Sugar Loaf as clearly as it stands out to the naked eye. Moreover, if the Sugar Loaf disappeared from sight, as it did when we were there, you know it’s time to seek shelter before the weather reaches you.

Incidentally, if you read the subtitle at the top of this post, you might still be wondering where the pun is. It’s not a very good one, but it is a bilingual one. My Welsh vocabulary is slowly improving; and all day, I had the same thought going around in my head, that if I was commissioning shows at a Welsh TV station I’d have one every day called “The Raglan Programme”, just because its title would be Y Rhaglen Rhaglan. I’ve done better, I have to admit.

Ar lan y môr

And more than once, too

As it was Easter weekend, we took a couple of trips out. “To the beach!” shouted The Child Who Likes Fairies, so to the beach it was.

Firstly, on Friday, to Aberogwyr or Ogmore-By-Sea, a small seaside village at the mouth of the Afon Ogwyr (River Ogmore). it has a rocky shore of cliffs maybe only ten or fifteen feet high, with many paths and gulleys down through them to the pebbly beach. There isn’t much in the way of sand, especially as we arrived at high tide.

On the slipway

The rocks are interesting, though, with smoothly-eroded limestones overlain by a strange array of breccias. At their lowest are rocks consisting of an amalgam of limestone pebbles, as if a beach or riverbank from a few million years ago had been frozen exactly as it was. Above them are huge, rough black slabs looking for all the world like pieces of modern concrete or tarmac. If you told me that back in the Triassic, dinosaurs had worked out the basics of civil engineering, I’d now believe you.

Interesting rocks

Interesting rocks

Ogmore-by-Sea is at the eastern side of the mouth of the River Ogmore. “Can we go to that beach over there?” said The Child Who Likes Animals, pointing to the far bank of the river. Over there, is Merthyr Mawr Warren, a vast area of sand dunes stretching from the western riverbank to the town of Porthcawl, with a long, broad stretch of sandy beach, Traeth yr Afon, facing on to the sea. So, today, we went to Merthyr Mawr.

At Ogmore-By-Sea, you can park your car at the top of the cliffs and amble down onto the shingle in a matter of seconds. Merthyr Mawr is a bit more of an expedition. The car park itself is by Candleston Castle, a ruined fortified manor that is about a mile or so from the sea. It’s an interesting place in itself, though.

Candleston Castle

Walking the mile through the dunes to the beach itself is quite the exercise. Merthyr Mawr Warren has the highest dunes in Britain, the second highest in Europe. Because the paths through the dunes are frequently disturbed, they tend to be the areas with the softest sand. It becomes something of a slog, and you lose sight of all the wonder in the landscape, the unique flora and fauna that goes towards making it a very special place. Nevertheless, we managed to stop and watch huge numbers of solitary bees of some kind, going in and out of their burrows.

Walking through the dunes is also very disorientating; you start to wonder where you are, whether you are trapped and going around in circles. Nevertheless, if you pay attention to the details, you can begin to see how the dunes vary. Further from the shore, they are more stable, the sand is darker in colour, and there are entire bushes and trees holding the dunes together. Towards the sea, the largest plants are clumps of marram, and the sand has ever more fragments of shell in it. Eventually, breaching the final crest, you slide down onto the beach.

Merthyr Mawr Warren

Traeth yr Afon is a very different prospect to the other side of the river. Open, windy, relatively deserted. Horses and riders gallop along through the firm sand at the shoreline. There is no coffee van, no lifeguard’s tower, no car park. Just the wind blowing fine sand along the surface, and the constant roar of the breaking waves.

Traeth yr Afon

Beach horses

Windblown sand

Which beach is better? That’s a matter of personal choice—and of your mood on any given day. Walking through the amazing dunes, allegedly so sandy and un-British they were used as a filming location for Lawrence of Arabia, is certainly hard work, compared with a beach that’s practically in a village. Walking along a deserted, windswept sandy shore, though, is generally just much more my taste. On the other hand, broad flat windswept dunes don’t also have fossil beds to go hunting in (for that, in the Vale of Glamorgan, you really want the beaches a few miles further east). There are always choices; it’s not a competition. We had two very different days out this weekend, but both were to amazing places.

Unexpected

I deliberately didn't post this yesterday in case you thought it was an April Fool

Talking about trains: regular readers will be aware that occasionally over the past few months I’ve been banging on about the Brecon & Merthyr Railway, a curious little Welsh concern that until 1922 operated two stretches of railway line. One from Brecon to Merthyr—actually, to Deri, a small village between Dowlais and Bargoed—and the other from Rhymney to Newport. The latter was originally built as a horse-drawn tramroad in the mid-1820s and its southernmost few miles are the last part of the Brecon & Merthyr Railway still in use, now just as a freight branch to serve Machen Quarry. In included probably the oldest viaduct on the railway network, which I’ll write more about another day. Occasionally someone proposes reopening it to passengers, together with the disused line from Machen to Caerphilly, but nothing ever happens about this.

I say “still in use” but the Machen Quarry line is very much only still in use in the hypothetical sense; trains along it are few and far between. Because of this, I was slightly surprised to drive past Rhiwderin station the other day and see a train, stopped, in the disused railway station.

Why was there a train standing still in Rhiwderin station, when it closed getting on for seventy years ago? Well, first, a bit of explanation. The level crossing at Rhiwderin is of the “locally monitored” type. That’s to say, it works automatically. There are signals for the trains, which normally (when the crossing is open to road traffic) flash red. As a train approaches, it hits a switch to operate the crossing. The lights flash, the barriers come down, and the flashing red train signal changes to flashing white. What do I suspect happened? Well, when I drove past, the barriers were most definitely up. Presumably, the first train in many months had hit the switch to operate the crossing, nothing happened, so the train had stopped at the flashing red signal until someone could come along to make sure everything was properly safe.

The Plain People Of The Internet: But surely now, if you have a train on a crossing, nobody is going to drive themselves into the side of the thing are they? It’s bloody huge, is what I’m saying.

Really, you would be surprised. It is certainly not unheard of, for a car to drive into the side of a train that was already blocking the road. Not wanting to risk that happening, is entirely understandable. The interesting thing here is that this train was on its return trip, heading away from the quarry towards Stoke Gifford marshalling yard (or, for non-train people, the sidings next to Bristol Parkway station). Heading up to the quarry, the level crossing must have worked as designed; then on the way back, nothing happened. If I was a rarely-used level crossing myself, I could definitely understand.

I was half-tempted to pull the car over, get the camera out and start taking photos of this train stopped in a station that closed over sixty years ago. There was already a guy leaning over the fence by the level crossing, though, watching the world go by and watching the train very much not going by. Another random (me) turning up with a camera was, no doubt, the last thing the people trying to get stuff moving again actually wanted. Still, I’ll have to keep an eye on the timetables now in case trains start to appear regularly on the stub of the Brecon & Merthyr again, just in case I will have chance next time to pop out with the camera as they pass.