Rooks in the ash trees, St. Bride’s Castle, Pembrokeshire
Rooks in the ash trees, St. Bride’s Castle, Pembrokeshire
And surely a query worth contemplating. For instance, how would we get on without all our high-techery and labour-saving homes? Or fare without the daily multiple-choice comestibles. Or the mass entertainment streams. Or the means to travel where and when we want and in great comfort. Or the shopping opportunities by land, air and internet. Would we think it a life worth living without plumbing and waste management systems? Would we feel ourselves utterly impoverished? Could we even survive as our ancestors survived over tens of thousands of years?
Of course by the time we in Britain reached the era of technological development that archaeologists call the Iron Age (c. 800 BCE to 43 CE and the Roman invasion), the manner of existence is at least broadly recognisable to us. People lived in farmsteads and fortified villages and belonged to regional tribal groups ruled by individual chiefs (men or women). These people were horse-riding, chariot-driving warriors as well as farmers. They also had specialist metal workers, potters, and weavers. They built hillforts on a monumental scale (e.g. Maiden Castle, Danebury, Old Oswestry). Some were inhabited. Some were not. Some were elaborations of earlier earthworks begun in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Their exact purpose is often unclear – tribal prestige, defence, seasonal market and ritual gathering places. All of these.
Some things we do know about Britain’s Iron Age people – they were prosperous farming folk employing improved methods of agriculture (iron-tipped ploughs and new strains of barley and wheat; they cultivated peas, flax, beans; they raised pigs, sheep and cattle). The great numbers of Iron Age sites suggest that the population was on the rise. Nor in Britain were they isolated islanders. They traded with continental Europe, exporting (in particular) grain, hunting dogs and rain-repellent woollen capes, possibly also slaves, and importing wine in return. At least three to four hundred years before the Romans arrived, Greek, Phoenician and Carthaginian traders were coming to Britain for Cornish tin.
The southern British tribes had their own coinage. Iron Age smiths worked in gold as well as iron and created torques, brooches and bracelets of unsurpassed beauty as well as magnificently wrought swords and shields. Many that have survived appear to have been votive offerings, placed in lakes and rivers. Roman historians write of druidic cults and of human sacrifice and other deemed dark Celtic practices.
The photos here were taken at Castell Henllys, a promontory fort in the uplands between Newport and Cardigan. Excavations have been continuing on this small hillfort site since the 1980s, and for the last twenty years it has served as a training ground for York University archaeology students. The reconstructions are based on the excavations and occupy parts of the site where there is no archaeology. The outlines of the original excavated homes of these Iron Age Celts are marked with posts. When we were there some primary school children were using them to weave willow panels – the basis of Iron Age wattle and daub house wall construction. (Seen in the distance in the next photo; also the reconstructed fort gateway).
The main frame of the houses (20-30 feet in diameter) comprises some pretty heavy duty posts, the roof thatched with grasses laid on cross laths. There is no chimney, but the smoke from the central cooking hearth would have risen through the rafters and helped to seal the thatch. It would have been pretty fumy, but also draughty too with a wide gated entrance.
As you can see, the houses were spacious inside, probably catering for one family unit while the settlement as a whole would be made up of extended family members. The primary school children were having a fine time learning domestic skills.
Iron Age cookery lesson.
Artist’s impression: Castell Henllys in around 300 BCE
The fortifications around the houses certainly suggest their inhabitants were well prepared for marauding invaders. Archaeologists uncovered an unusual feature in the outermost line of defence – a ‘cheveaux-de-frise’ – a formation of embedded rocks placed to stop chariots in their tracks, and within sling-shot range. And to go with it, a large hoard of slingshots was also discovered, placed in readiness behind the rampart. Both finds are more commonly known from European and Irish sites.
And what happened here after the Romans invaded? It seems the people adapted. Just north of the hillfort there are remains of a Romano-British farmstead. Life goes on then, but not always as we expect it to.
copyright 2019 Tish Farrell
Mist, mountain, dune grass, sand – with a touch more abstraction it might have the makings of a seaside Rothko. Artworks apart though, it wasn’t a very promising start to our short break in Newport. A Monday morning feeling made manifest by land, sky and sea.
But there again if you have taken the trouble to get yourself to the beach in the face of unpromising conditions, and have the trusty little camera to hand, there’s usually something to spot. So I had a happy half hour scrambling around in misty sand dunes. And the camera enjoyed itself too, taking some of the below on its own mysterious potluck settings. Carpe diem and all that.
* Latin tag: ‘seize the day’
Making the most of things: the last swim of summer. Doesn’t it make you want to rush in too – if only for a paddle?
It was an extraordinary find, so tucked away. For a couple of days we’d been reading the signs to Kiln Odyn, but the message had not been sinking in. And then it did. And off we went – a short walk from the Castle Inn where we were staying, and up a little alley beside the old Memorial Hall and there it was: the best surviving medieval pottery kiln in the United Kingdom.
Stranger still was the story of its discovery. In 1921 the people of Newport began work on the building of a Memorial Hall in remembrance of community members who had died in the Great War. In the midst of digging the foundations, builders uncovered two medieval kilns. The National Museum of Wales was alerted. Its director, Dr. Mortimer Wheeler, so-called ‘father of British archaeology, was swift to ensure the site was preserved. This included having the National Museum put up the £20 he said was needed to adapt the building plans and so keep the archaeological site intact within the new Hall’s basement. A trap door would provide access to the remains..
And so it remained for nearly a century until 2016 when the community decided the Memorial Hall facilities were badly in need of an update. There followed a scheme of creative refurbishment and a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which meant the kilns, by now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, could also be re-excavated, conserved and put on permanent view. All it took was the installation of a very big window in the side of the building and some heavy-duty spotlights.
Also added were some very thoughtful outdoor information panels designed by students of Carmarthen College. Their artwork brings medieval Newport to life. We meet the master potter and his family and see how they might have lived and worked.
We’re also told what a busy market town Newport would have been during the lifetime of the kilns (c1470-1530); not only a port exporting goods, which may well have included the jars and jugs from the pottery, but also a stopping place on the pilgrims’ route to St. David’s in south Pembrokeshire. And in 1485 we are also told there was a very particular event: Henry Tudor passed by the town, and what a sight that would have been – an army 2,000 strong, marching on to Bosworth to win the English crown and found a new royal dynasty. One of the panels further conjectures that the potter’s son might have gone off to join the army, escaping the hard work of digging, potting and firing for the thrill of battle and adventures in foreign parts.
Kiln Odyn produced high quality domestic wares of the day: cooking pots and pitchers, alembics for lotions and potions, ridge roof tiles for high status buildings. The work, from digging the clay to selling the pots would have involved the whole family, skills passed down the generations. The Lord Marcher, who owned all the lands, took his cut of the potter’s profits instead of charging him rent.
Credit: artwork by the students of Carmarthen College.
From yesterday’s communing with seals to today’s ‘sealing the knot’ – Pembrokeshire’s beaches certainly provided us with plenty of interest. It was our last afternoon and we had been lounging for an hour or so on Newport Sands, soaking up the last of the Indian Summer sunshine, an activity we rarely go in for, when the urge to have a seaside ice cream came upon us. As we headed for the cafe behind the beach, we bumped into this couple who had just got married. They and their dog were going down to the sea to make their wedding film. It made us a smile and smile and we wished them our very best good luck wishes.
*marriage lines another term for a marriage certificate – Collins English Dictionary
It was hard to tear myself away from Tregwynt Mill; unexpected burst of hot September sun or no, there was a strong inclination to curl up among Welsh tweed quilts and cushions on the showroom bed. To distract myself from wool-lust I suggested we walked down to the sea. It’s not far, I tell Graham, he who too often suspects me of total map-reader-error. I was surprised when he agreed.
We followed the course of the stream that had once powered several mills in the valley. The lane was bosky, enclaves of deep and mossy shade, then sudden sprinkles of sunlight through sycamore, ash and alder. There were old walls, built in the local style of vertically laid stones wherein strap ferns and pennywort had found a root-hold.
After about half a mile we found the sign to the coastal path, and almost at once, there we were, looking down on Abermawr beach. The cove itself was sparse in humanity, and we found out why when we got down there. The pebbles were so heaped up and huge they were almost impossible to walk over. Most people were passing by, following the cliff trail that crossed at the back of the cove. We perched on some rounded rocks and tried to locate the source of the strange barking calls to seaward. And then we saw it. And it saw us. And in between sunning its face, it watched me taking its photo. Nor was it alone. Its partner (parent perhaps) was somewhere out in the bay, doubtless doing some fishing, but whenever it returned to the cove it did not seem keen to show much of itself.
And so a chance walk proved to be one of life’s blissful moments, a piece of happenstance that won’t be forgotten, sitting by a blue sea, under blue sky, dreamy warmth, blue coastline of Llyn Peninsula barely there on the sea-line, and now and then meeting the eye of a sun-bathing seal.
Once it was said the hauls of herring landed at Fishguard were so great that the fields of West Wales were spread with the excess catch. And if this sounds balmy, decomposing fish would make a good (if environmentally expensive and pretty maloderous) fertiliser. When I read this I then remembered that the farmers of the great Inca Empire of Peru were said to do a similar thing. Before planting their maize seed, they dibbed a hole and dropped a fish in first to feed the growing plant. I’m assuming it wasn’t a fresh one that could otherwise have been eaten.
The sculpture (maker not credited) sits beside the harbour in Lower Fishguard and commemorates the town’s rich herring days. The trade was already established by the 900s CE when the Vikings, who spent a lot of time raiding Wales and Ireland, left off pillaging for a bit of fish buying. These rapacious sea-raiders called the little inlet Fiskigarðr and this, according to the town web page, means ‘fish catching enclosure’ in Old Norse. The name Fiscard in fact hung on for centuries after the Vikings were long gone, and only Anglicised at the end of the 19th century. The Welsh name is of course quite different, and probably these days more geographically useful. Abergwaun means the mouth of the Gwaun River.
The herring industry scaled reached industrial heights in the late 18th century. Fifty Fishguard coastal vessels were bringing in catches that were sold in Ireland and the English ports of Bristol and Liverpool. Oats were the other main export, the crop doubtless well fish-nourished on the fields of the West Wales hinterland. It now becomes clear why the town’s shipping was targeted by the American privateer Black Prince in 1779 (see previous post). It looked like the town would be good for £1000 ransom fee. But then looks can be deceptive.
We’d only popped into Fishguard library for a map of the town so we could begin our explorations, and this is what we found: a magnificent creation of crewel-work that can surely hold its own alongside the Bayeux Tapestry which inspired it.
Both works tell of invasions of Great Britain by French forces, but whereas one is an 11th century account of ‘conquest successful’ (and probably everyone who knows a bit of British history will know about 1066 and William the Conqueror), the other marks a bicentennial commemoration of the last invasion of mainland Britain – a two-day shambles in February 1797, when 1400 soldiers of the French Revolutionary Government were put ashore near Fishguard with orders to conquer.
It seems the soldiers were not of the highest calibre militarily speaking. Only 600 were regulars, the rest were apparently ex-convicts recently released from gaol, and all were under the somewhat elderly command of an Irish-American colonel, one William Tate. Things went wrong from the start. Bad weather prevented French ships from landing the troops at their intended objective near Bristol, and instead they retreated into Cardigan Bay. And when the force was finally landed, and their ships sailed off, abandoning them, many of the soldiers ran amok, looking for food, raiding farmhouses and were quickly beyond control.
On the Welsh side there was also much pandemonium as the local gentry were charged to raise an army. Lots of summoning and gathering hither and thither, an inexperienced young gent initially put in charge of defending militia and making a hash of it. Meanwhile Jemima Nicholas (Jemima Fawr or ‘the great’ as she was later a known), wife of the local cobbler, set forth with a pitchfork, rounded up 12 Frenchmen and marched them into Fishguard where she locked them in the church before resuming her hunt.
In the end Lord Cawdor, commanding British militias gathered from across Pembrokeshire, won the day, though a tale has it that the French only accepted unconditional surrender because they mistook the Welsh women come to watch as the gathering of a large British army. The women were wearing their traditional tall black hats and red shawls.
As you can see, the tapestry is a delight. Every inch of it brimming with humour and finely executed detail, and all of it using much the same stitch work found in medieval embroidery. The designer, Elizabeth Cramp, also followed a similar lay-out to the Bayeux Tapestry. At 53 cm wide it is a similar depth, although its 30 metre length makes it less than half that of the Bayeux version. It anyway took 77 local people four years to complete and now belongs to a local charitable trust: Fishguard Invasion Centre Trust Ltd. A veritable tour de force.
It was also very difficult to photograph, what with the spotlights and reflections. And I’m sorry I missed catching Jemima Fawr with her pitchfork. But if you go to the link HERE you can spot her in the middle of the header photo and learn more about the making of the tapestry and the names of all those diligent workers who so skilfully applied their needles and threads.
copyright 2019 Tish Farrell
Line Squares #3 Join Becky with her October Squares challenge; the only rule: your header photo (showing lines however you see them) in square format.
It was decided. We would have a sun-downer supper at Parrog Quay, sitting in the old seaside shelter above the little estuary. Behind us the Mountain of Angels, Mynydd Carn Ingli, already shadowy, to the west the rounded promontory of Dinas Head (Pen Dinas) backlit by sunset, the little row of stalwart, old sea salt dwellings along the quay, before us the mud flats and their moored small boats where the last of the light still lingered here and there, and curve of the Nevern with a lone canoeist heading out to sea, the still, wide expanse of Cardigan Bay beyond.
We’d gathered provisions in a delicatessen in Fishguard – runny Brie cheese, fat olives stuffed with garlic, some Welsh cheesy crackers that looked like waffles, black grapes and a few slices of salami. There was a bottle of French organic wine brought from home (grand merci Virgile Joly), and I’d also thought to bring my large wool Indian wrap in case we grew shivery later. The day had been warm but already the nights were saying autumn.
And then we sat and we watched, and watched and watched, until the light was gone.
copyright 2019 Tish Farrell