Archaeology Podcast Network

My recent crowdfunding campaign has produced some interesting spin-offs, including this trans-Atlantic podcast in which I am interviewed by two colleagues in the United States. It was great fun to do – and I think that comes across quite well. Click and enjoy!

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Reaching New Readers

As part of the final run-in for The Way, The Truth and The Dead, I’ve done two guest blog posts about crowdfunding (and, yes, “crowdfunding” is now generally preferred to the more correct, if clumsier “crowd-funding”). Both have been aimed at an archaeological audience, as both the host blogs are quite specific about their targeted readers. Both my pieces approached the topic from a personal, historical perspective. The first stressed the potential of crowdfunding, whereas this, the second, is more general. It’s about seeing the past as an essential component of the present – and, by implication, the future. If we archaeologists have a problem, it’s that we’re too reluctant to throw aside our discipline’s self-imposed blinkers: sometimes over-focus can destroy the imagination. And that worries me increasingly. But see what you think. As before, click on the link.

Reaching New Readers

Sometime in the winter of 1990, I think it was after Christmas, I went to London for a meeting with the Commissioning Editor of the Publisher B.T. Batsford who had formed a partnership with English Heritage to launch a joint series of archaeology books. To my surprise they wanted me to write one about Flag Fen, our waterlogged Bronze Age site, on the Fen-edge of eastern Peterborough, which we had discovered nine years previously. Since then we had opened our excavations to the public and were currently welcoming over 20,000 paying visitors a year. And we tried to do the job properly. Glancing through an old leaflet from this time, I note that we were sponsored by some large corporations and were registered with the English Tourist Board as ‘A Quality Assured Visitor Attraction’, no less. But it was very hard work. Most members of the team worked six-day weeks and for about a decade we very rarely had a weekend off. That fact alone gave one’s life an interesting rhythm, which I still look back on with some nostalgia.

I find it hard to believe now, but I was very surprised by the new commission…

Now read on….

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Crowdfunding: freedom, frustration or fantasy?

Dear readers,
This is a piece I wrote for a leading archaeological blog, set up and run by an archaeologist with a made-in heaven name: Doug (pronounced ‘Dug”) Rocks-McQueen. And when I was starting out on excavations, one Steve McQueen, of The Great Escape fame was the role model of us young chaps. Far better, I think, than Indiana Jones.
Anyway, it would seem that crowdfunding is of growing interest to the world of archaeology, so I wrote the following piece with that in mind. I also discuss how my own development as a writer has coincided with the developing digital scene. And I do all this in just 2,383 words. Just click on the link:

Doug's Archaeology

Crowdfunding in archaeology is something I am interested in and have blogged about a couple of times (see Tracing Finds: A Case Study in Crowdfunding Archaeology, Are Crowdfunding Platforms Worth it?, Fairy Godmothers Do Exist- Crowdfunding Archaeology, You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger! The Money of Crowdfunding Archaeology and Heritage, Crowdfunding Archaeology- a view from the trenches, Crowdfunding Archaeology some Data, Finally!). I have also interviewed the DigVentures Crew for the CRM podcast.  I was lucky enough to have Francis Pryor volunteer to discuss some of his experiences with crowdfunding publications. Francis is currently in the process of crowdfunding a book- The Way, The Truth and The Dead. and he is 81% towards his goal- hint, hint, nudge, nudge. Without further delay Francis’ thoughts and experiences with crowdfunding:

Crowd-funding: freedom, frustration or fantasy?

It’s funny I should be writing a post on crowd-funding…

View original post 2,274 more words

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Time for the Final Push

My second Alan Cadbury mystery, The Way, The Truth and The Dead is now 73% funded and it’s time to launch the final push. MANY thanks to everyone who has subscribed: you’re all stars! And if it’s not too much trouble, can I ask you to forward this blog post to your friends – who knows, it may whet their appetites? And any web-based support (FaceBook, Twitter etc.) would be much appreciated. I’m determined to have this book funded before winter sets in. Of course if you haven’t yet subscribed, it’ll cost you £10 for the ebook or £24 for the hardback (incl. post and packing). There are also more expensive options ranging from a signed copy (£50) to an intimate evening with Alan Cadbury (ha-ha). Click here and a have a debit or credit card handy.

When authors publish extracts they are often taken from early on in the book, as I did previously, but this time I thought I’d find something further on, when the plot was starting to darken – and thicken. At the same time I wanted to dispel the common myth that archaeology is just about digging and finding things. It isn’t: most of a professional archaeologist’s time is spent on the phone, filling-in grant application forms, talking to specialists or writing reports. This extract, which starts a new Chapter, is based on many such conversations I’ve had with specialists. And like one or two I’ve had, it takes place early in the morning and Alan has a slight hang-over. Sounds familiar? Now read on…

Alan’s dream began to disintegrate. Bleating sheep were scattering as the scarlet fire-engine, all bells and sirens at full blast, hurtled towards them. He knew he was about to die. Horribly. He was gripped by panic; then slowly his brain woke up. It was the phone. The bloody phone. Last night he’d been too tired to turn it off. He reached out and picked it up.

His sleepy eyes wouldn’t focus on the screen.


He hoped it wouldn’t be from a call centre in India. He didn’t want to be rude to some student trying to earn a living.

‘Alan,’ the voice was half-familiar, ‘It’s Alan, here.’

Alan? Alan? For an instant his woolly brain thought he was going mad. Then sanity returned: it must be Dr. Alan Scott, the soil micromorphologist in Cambridge. Earlier in the week he’d watched while Dr. Scott hammered sample tins into the still fresh face of the trench section, directly over Grave 2. Alan (Cadbury) thought these in situ samples might throw light on when the grave had been dug, relative, that is, to the start of the later Roman alluvial episodes. In other words, he wasn‘t expecting the equivalent of a radiocarbon date, but it could provide them with a reliable approximate picture. Both Alans had long been great believers in the power of soil micromorphology.

It had taken Dr. Scott several days to prepare and grind-down the thin sections before he was able to examine them under the high powered microscope. But he was clearly delighted with the results.

‘I finished last night, but thought you wouldn’t welcome a call so late, as I know you’ve been quite busy these evenings.’

‘Yes, it’s been a bit frantic.’

‘And last night’s was good. We had it on in the Lab. The students cheered when the skull appeared. And that Tricia has won-over the blokes, big-time. You’d better watch it Alan, or she’ll up-stage you, unless you’re careful.’

‘I hope she does. I think she wants a career in TV, which is more than I do. But the samples?’

Small talk. He hated it.

‘Oh yes, the samples. Well, for once I think we took them from the right place and the sequence doesn’t seem to have been disturbed too much by post-depositional effects.’

‘Ah, that’s good. So not a lot of drying-out?’

‘No. So I think we’re deep enough down to be able to say some useful things.’


Alan’s sleepy mind had now fully woken-up. He wanted Dr. Scott to get to the point.

‘There’s a clear cut-line in the lower part of the alluvium’

‘Yes, when we were digging we could see a very faint change in colour, which lined-up well with the edge of Grave 2. Is that what you spotted in thin-section?’

‘It is, I’m certain of that. And the other thing that’s very clear are the separate episodes of flooding, which form a series of quite distinct varves, about half a millimetre thick.

This was music to Alan’s ears. He’d first learned about varves when studying the history of archaeology at Leicester. They were first identified in Scandinavian glacial lake-beds in the 19th Century. But soil scientist Alan hadn’t finished:

‘I couldn’t spot any obvious standstill or weathering horizons, so I must assume the flooding was a regular annual event. And you say the pottery dates the start of alluviation to the later third century?’

‘That’s right. Sometime shortly before AD 300.’

‘Well, in that case the grave-cut was made some 15 centimetres, say three centuries of flooding episodes, later. I’d guess sometime between AD 600 and 650 – certainly no later.’

‘And presumably flooding continued?’

‘Well, no. There’s a standstill horizon almost immediately after the cutting of the graves.’

‘Any idea how long that was?’

Dr. Scott took a deep breath.

‘That’s difficult to say. Maybe two or three centuries? Then flooding recommenced, but worse than before. This time the varves are at least twice as thick.’

‘Does that sound to you like they’d introduced flood-control measures? Maybe a cemetery wall, or improved local drainage?’

‘I’d go for the drainage,’ Dr Scott replied, ‘Walls tend to collapse, whereas drains were maintained.’

‘Yes,’ Alan was thinking aloud, ‘That certainly fits with the archaeological evidence. And we know the early monastic communities were keen to drain. It gave the Brothers something useful to do.’

That wasn’t quite fair, but what the hell. Alan felt elated. That call was just what he had wanted to hear.

Behind the scenes on a ‘live’ TV excavation.

Behind the scenes on a ‘live’ TV excavation.

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We’re Opening the Garden in 2016!

When you open your garden to the public it’s important to do it right, especially nowadays when people can be so litigious. So you must have all the appropriate insurances etc. in place. We open for charity and so we’re doing it through the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) – a wonderful organisation that raises money for charities, mostly to do with welfare and medicine (eg MacMillan Cancer Support). The NGS’s roots lie in the birth of ‘civilian’ (i.e. District) nursing, which began in 1859, and the NGS was set up in 1927 as a fund-raising idea. Volunteers were asked to charge ‘a shilling a head’ for admission to their gardens and four years later, in 1931, the up-market magazine Country Life produced for them a catalogue of open gardens, which was (and still is) known as The Yellow Book, because of its bright cover. And the idea soon caught on.

The NGS makes opening easier for people like us, by providing experience and practical advice, plus a package of posters and useful signs to the Car Park etc., and of course insurances. The Scheme is organised by county. So last week our garden was inspected by one of the Lincolnshire team whose job was to check that their high standards of horticultural proficiency were met; she also kept an eye out for potential health and safety problems, such as revolving knives, loose paving and flesh-eating toads. I’m glad to say that our garden passed this test. So we’ll be advertised in The Yellow Book for 2016. We haven’t fixed the precise date yet, but it’ll probably be a Sunday in later September.

We have actually opened the garden for the NGS on two occasions previously, in June 1999 and 2000. In those days we weren’t quite so busy and had the energy to cope with lambing in March, plus hay-making in June/July. June is the month when almost any garden is at its best and it’s the month when most of The Yellow Book gardens are open. ‘The July gap’ is infamous in gardening circles, as the first flush of roses has finished and the perennials and shrubs of high summer haven’t come into their own yet. July’s quieter, but then there’s another flourish of openings in August. Although our garden is at its most colourful in June – and Maisie’s collection of old roses is superb – many varieties have a second flowering in later September, which is when Asters come into bloom and grasses put up their showy seed-heads. There’s also a hint of colour in birches, yellow alder and field maples. The weather, too tends to be more predictable and less wet than June or August. Our last opening, on June 18th, 2000, was ruined by torrential rain, which actually left part of the main border under water! I think we managed to welcome about a dozen visitors that year.

After the debacle of 2000 we decided to put garden opening on hold and this coincided with Maisie doing a lot more commercial work with prehistoric wood (these were the years of rapid expansion prior to the bankers’ bubble of 2007/8), while I was writing books (Britain BC, Britain AD, Britain in the Middle Ages, and The Making of the British Landscape) and, of course, doing three mini-series of my own, plus dozens of Time Teams for Channel 4. But in the past three years things have calmed down, and although 2000 was a minor disaster, we did benefit from the business of opening to the public: it gave purpose, direction and discipline to our work in the garden. And we also got to know a number of new friends, some of whom had opened their gardens for the NGS, too. And of course the Open Day itself is rather like a big party and it’s great when old friends muck-in and help at the pay desk and in the tea room (or barn!). I remember our first opening, in 1999, put me very much in mind of one of our Open Days at our big excavations in Peterborough in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, with a full car park, plenty of adrenalin during the event, followed by lashings of food and drink around the barbeque.

If possible we like to have a few plants to sell to our visitors, especially if they’ve enjoyed them in the garden. For example, we use Euphorbia myrsinites, the blue or myrtle spurge, along the fringes of our better-drained beds in the front garden. This was where the builders (on our suggestion) tipped all their broken cement fragments, smashed tiles and bricks, not to mention lots of sand and gravel – and consequently it’s the only part of the garden that’s at all well-drained. And those are precisely the conditions favoured by myrtle spurge. So yesterday before we were hit by the forecast thunderstorms I nipped out and potted up seedlings that had sprouted around the edges of the gravel pull-in leading to our back door. I found 23 and potted them up – and with luck I should get a few more later in the autumn. What do you reckon: £2 a small pot and £3 for a larger one? That’ll appear very cheap next year.

Potted-up seedlings of Euphorbia myrsinites, the blue or myrtle spurge. When they go on sale on our Open Day in September 2016 (note: not 2015!) they’ll be twice the size.

Potted-up seedlings of Euphorbia myrsinites, the blue or myrtle spurge. When they go on sale on our Open Day in September 2016 (note: not 2015!) they’ll be twice the size.

Then a couple of days ago the rain started and I began to have doubts about the whole Opening idea. Maisie was away at the University in York, poring over ancient timbers. So I was alone with my anxiety. Just to reassure myself, I ran upstairs and took a picture of the garden; then I down-loaded it onto my main computer and peered at it critically on the large screen. Was the garden up to standard? Was it? I was far from certain. In an introspective, gloomy frame of mind I Tweeted it – and was astonished by the kind responses it received. Anyhow, you can judge for yourself, below. So I’m feeling a bit calmer now. And many thanks to my Twitter friends for those warm words. Tonight I’ll go to the Peterborough Beer Festival with a very old gardening friend whose palate, like mine, is unrivalled. To drown my sorrows? No, I no longer have any!

The view of our garden from an upstairs window, in late August, 2015.

The view of our garden from an upstairs window, in late August, 2015.

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Our North Wales Break, Part 2: Gardens (or Size Isn’t Everything)

A good holiday should make you think. I’ve never really been very set on the idea of using your holiday to ‘escape’ – but from what? From your normal daily life? If the answer to that is yes, then I’d suggest you should be looking for a more permanent answer. I also don’t take a holiday to see places and visit cultures that are completely different from the people and places I’m familiar with in my daily life. I did that when I was younger. These days I’m more interested in seeing things that are just a bit different. I suppose it’s all about subtlety. Put another way, on holiday I hope to discover new ways of looking at, and thinking about, life in general. To my mind, a good holiday should enrich your appreciation of the way you live for the rest of the year. It should give you new ideas and add a much-needed dash of enthusiasm when familiar surroundings and the tasks of the day seem a little tired, and a bit ordinary. This can work at two levels: at the general and the particular. So in this post I’m going to be thinking about some of the gardens we visited and how they might affect the way we manage our own garden at home. And I plan to do this mainly through pictures rather than words. Cue the first picture:

The double herbaceous border at Arley Hall, Cheshire.

The double herbaceous border at Arley Hall, Cheshire.

The double herbaceous border at Arley Hall, Cheshire, is one of the glories of the British country house garden. It is also one of the earliest, appearing on a garden plan of 1846. We had long planned to visit, but sadly Cheshire is a pig to reach from south Lincolnshire, especially when the roads are as crowded as they are these days. But it was well worth the effort. A team of about half-a-dozen gardeners refresh the borders every winter and make hazel frames for the taller plants, which are soon covered-up in the spring. It’s an extraordinary task to have to do every year, but it does allow for subtle changes and improvements. Certainly the borders at Arley had a life of their own and did not feel at all over-designed and somehow institutionalised, as do some of the borders in country house gardens run by big national institutions.

One side of our own mixed (shrubs and herbaceous perennials) double border.

One side of our own mixed (shrubs and herbaceous perennials) double border.

As we drove home I couldn’t help wondering whether our own herbaceous borders would look very drab when set alongside Arley. But when I got home and strolled round the garden the next day, I was quite encouraged by what I saw – and smelled. Although the scale of the two gardens was so very different the borders worked in their own, different ways. The Arley borders were more formal and far deeper than ours, but not being burdened by so much distinguished history, we allowed ourselves the luxury of mixing-in roses and other shrubs, such as Philadelphus which provided both height and scent. More to the point, a sprinkling of grasses and shrubs does cut down hugely on the dividing-up and splitting of herbaceous perennials in late autumn and winter. We’re also lucky, given our heavy fen silts, to be able to grow the Day Lily, Hemerocallis, and these don’t need constant division to rejuvenate. They really make the small border come alive in the late spring, right through to high summer.

Our small mixed border, with the Hemerocallis ‘Hornby Castle’.

Our small mixed border, with the Hemerocallis ‘Hornby Castle’.

The gardens at Bodnant, near Colwyn Bay, Conwy, are extraordinarily beautiful and varied. Laid out by the same family (plus a remarkable dynasty of gardeners) since 1874, the gardens exploit the dramatic rise-and-fall of the natural landscape, while at the same time including some remarkable set-pieces, such as rose terraces, pergolas and the wonderful use of both still and flowing water. It’s also a plantsman’s garden and contains a huge variety of unusual trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. Although we were there for a full day, we didn’t manage to see half the garden. Instead, we concentrated on the more formal areas closer to the house.

I don’t think any garden feature I have ever encountered has made such a big impression on me as the rose terraces and pergolas at Bodnant. The scent filled my head and the soft colours were warm and comforting. They never jarred nor clashed. Many of the roses were bred by David Austin whose new varieties known as English Roses have re-introduced scented flowers, with softer, more pastel colours. The flowers themselves stand-up to rain far better than old varieties which were often washed-out after a short shower. We grow several of his English varieties.

The ultimate in formal gardening: the lower rose terrace at Bodnant Gardens, Conwy.

The ultimate in formal gardening: the lower rose terrace at Bodnant Gardens, Conwy.

I often think the way gardens handle water is a good indication of their quality and Bodnant scored highly here. I particularly liked the formal-yet-informal Lily Pond with the house, itself no architectural jewel, sitting pleasingly in the background. It was impossible not to feel relaxed here.

The Lily Pond, with the Lily Terrace and Bodnant Hall in the background.

The Lily Pond, with the Lily Terrace and Bodnant Hall in the background.

I know it’s ridiculous to compare our amateur, run-on-a-shoestring garden with places like Bodnant and Arley, but any gardener worth his or her salt cannot visit another garden without drawing some inspiration for their own garden. And our visit to these two great gardens confirmed our belief that even a low-budget rural garden must have elements of formality to give it cohesion. With us it’s all about clipped hedges and a few garden structures, most of which are fairly home-made from stuff you can get at garden centres. I like to make shelters and suchlike from posts and trellis. On the whole I try to steer-clear of things that are ready-made. One exception is a superb wirework four-way dome, which was given to us by my brother Felix as a house-warming present some twenty years ago. Felix’s dome now sits in the small cottage-style front garden which we are at last trying to knock into shape. The trouble is, the soil was puddled and damaged when the house was being built, back in ’95, and we’re always having to remove broken roof tiles, bits of concrete and rubble. But I think at last we’ve got the ground into better heart. Anyhow, last winter Maisie had the idea of incorporating the wirework dome into a more formal central path, part gravel and part stepping-stones, which led up to a small urn. Here’s a view of that path taken from the gate that leads through to the Pond Garden (our pond is just a puddle compared with Bodnant!). But I’ll return to Felix’s dome shortly.

Formality Fen-style: the path through our front garden.

Formality Fen-style: the path through our front garden.

In my last blog post I featured the extraordinary Victorian pseudo-castle at Penrhyn, but I didn’t say that it’s surrounded by a remarkable garden of quite considerable charm – and well worth a visit. A particularly successful feature was a Fuchsia arch walk. Now arch walks are something of a speciality in British gardens and most often feature Laburnum (as at Arley, for instance) or sometimes Wisteria. But at Penrhyn they use Fuchsias. Admittedly their Fuchsia arches are a quarter the size of the giant Laburnum walk at Bodnant, but then the flowering season is very much longer (all summer and most of autumn). And besides, garden features don’t have to be big to be beautiful. Setting is important for such features and the Penrhyn arches were set alongside a superb bog garden which is currently being restored. I do hope the restoration (which slightly ominously will feature children’s dipping platforms) does not tame or suburbanise it too much. I loved the massive and very wild-looking Gunneras.

The Fuchsia arch walk at Penrhyn Castle, Bangor.

The Fuchsia arch walk at Penrhyn Castle, Bangor.

Sadly our ground is too wet for Laburnum, but we can grow Fuchsia very well and being quite close to The Wash we are spared the harshest winter frosts, unlike many other gardens in eastern England our Fuchsias are rarely cut to the ground. So last year Maisie started weaving Fuchsia stems into the wirework of Felix’s dome and rather to our surprise the effect worked and the Fuchsias looked very good alongside the Clematis texensis ‘Princess Diana’. Sustaining interest from summer into autumn is always a problem, so we plan to make greater use of trained Fuchsias in the future.

Hardy Fuchsias trained up a wirework arch dome in our front garden.

Hardy Fuchsias trained up a wirework arch dome in our front garden.

And finally… No holiday would ever be complete without a surprise, and ours came when we visited the National Trust property at Plas-yn-Rhiw on the southern shores of the Lleyn Peninsula. This charming Georgian (and earlier) farmhouse sits in a sheltered spot on the hillside overlooking the bay of Porth Neigwl, or Hell’s Mouth, which aptly describes the weather here in the stormy times of the year. In the last century Plas-yn-Rhiw was owned by three remarkable sisters of the Keating family, who restored the house which has become something of a time capsule of the ’50s and ‘60s. The sisters loved art and archaeology and I spotted two woodcuts by my great-aunt, Gwen Raverat (best known for her book Period Piece), and an excavation report on Coygan Camp by an old friend, Geoff Wainwright, published in 1967. I’m not sure he’ll be over-pleased to discover that he has become something of a museum piece. The youngest sister, Honora Keating, who owned Geoff’s book, also wrote an erudite, but very readable and fully illustrated account of the house and garden in 1957, which quite rightly has been reprinted ten times – the last in 2011, by the National Trust who still sell copies at a very reasonable £2.00. It’s worth ten times that.

The sisters also created a stunning garden. I hesitate to use the word, but it was a very feminine creation: intimate, warm and modest, but all done with superb panache and a profound understanding of plants. I’ve always loved it when gardeners ‘borrow’ views of the surrounding countryside and incorporate them into the garden. The landscaped park was frequently borrowed at Arley, for example. But at Plas-yn-Rhiw the view across a small terrace garden out across Hell’s Mouth was literally breath-taking. It proved that good gardening is indeed about art and inspiration; it is not just a craft. I will never forget that scene.

The view from the gardens at Plas-yn-Rhiw, on the southern Lleyn Peninsula, towards the coast at Porth Neigwl, or Hell’s Mouth.

The view from the gardens at Plas-yn-Rhiw, on the southern Lleyn Peninsula, towards the coast at Porth Neigwl, or Hell’s Mouth.

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Our North Wales Break, Part 1: Buildings (and sheep)

Maisie and I have decided that we’re not great ones for long holidays. We prefer to take three or four day breaks instead, and this year we decided to visit north Wales. Maisie was keen to see the well-known garden at Bodnant, while I wanted to photograph Caernarfon Castle (Gwynedd), with its famous striped masonry. And after having kept Lleyn sheep for over twenty years we both wanted to see these wonderful animals munching grass on their home turf, the Lleyn Peninsula.

The break was a great success. It rained a bit, but not as much as we feared (statistically Wales has vastly more rainfall than the Fens), and the sun shone. Our cottage, the gateway lodge of the ancestral home of the Armstrong-Jones family, and now a fine country house hotel, Plas Dinas, near Caernarfon, was very reasonably priced and extremely comfortable and well-appointed, as they say in the leaflets. Although it was close to a road, the traffic noise was minimal. We certainly plan to go back there in the future when we’ll give the fine dining at the main hotel, down the long wooded drive, a taste. Sadly, this time we were far too busy. And we’d also brought lots of fresh vegetables we’d grown ourselves. I’ll say a few words about the great gardens we visited in my next blog post; right now I’ll concentrate on buildings.

One of the pleasures of visiting great gardens is discovering unusual antiquities, sometimes concealed within them, often as picturesque ruins. But at Arley Hall in Cheshire, just across the English border, the surprise wasn’t concealed: it was right there at the main entrance. In fact it was a popular venue for weddings. So was it a church, a chapel, a temple even? No, it was none of these things. It was a seven-bay timber-framed cruck barn, built around 1470. The so-called crucks were huge curved vertical supports which stretched from just above the floor to the apex of the roof in a vast soaring curve. I never visit a cruck barn without feeling elated – and Arley’s was no exception – it must be a great place to get married.

The great cruck barn at Arley Hall, Cheshire.

The great cruck barn at Arley Hall, Cheshire.

The next building was the first one we visited in Wales: our cottage, the Gatekeeper’s Lodge at Plas Dinas on the southern approaches to Caernarfon. It wasn’t particularly spectacular, but I do like Arts and Crafts houses. Unlike so many modern houses, they’re always laid-out unpredictably, often with staircases where you’d least expect them. And this one was no exception. I don’t know what date it was built, but I’d guess it was quite late, but undoubtedly pre-1914. As we drove around we couldn’t help noticing that many of the rural buildings in that part of Wales were Victorian or Edwardian and they date to the period when monied and not-so-rich people wanted to live amidst spectacular scenery, but I’ll have more to say on this shortly.


The Gatekeepers Lodge, Plas Dinas, near Caernarfon.

The Gatekeepers Lodge, Plas Dinas, near Caernarfon.

The big attractions in this part of Wales have to be the great castles at Conwy and Caernarfon, built by King Edward I in the 1280s – a staggeringly long time ago. Both buildings were meant to be symbols of English power and both dominated walled towns which were in effect English boroughs. I discuss Conwy, especially the walled town, at some length in The Making of The British Landscape. Both castles were designed by Edward’s master mason – today we’d call him an architect – James of St. George, who was actually a Frenchman from Savoy and learnt his trade building castles in his homeland in the 1260s. Both Conwy and Caernarfon are now World Heritage Sites. Caernarfon is famous for its polygonal towers (most towers and turrets of the time were round) and the striped masonry of its walls was certainly intended to impress. Historians have suggested the stripes echoed the walls of Constantinople, or alternatively Roman towns in Britain. I honestly don’t think it matters which, because it’s still abundantly clear that Caernarfon was intended to impress and over-awe. It’s a symbol of power – if ever there was one.

Caernarfon Castle, from across the port and River Seiont.

Caernarfon Castle, from across the port and River Seiont.

If you want a complete contrast with Caernarfon, then Penrhyn Castle, near Bangor, is the place to choose. At first glance it’s a massive, grey gloomy Norman structure. It positively glowers at you as you approach it. But relax: it’s entirely fake. Yes, there was an early tower (keep) on the site, but it was almost completely smothered by the huge Victorian ‘castle’ designed by Thomas Hopper in the 1820s and ‘30s. Both Caernarfon and Penrhyn were designed to impress; the former does so with grace and elegance, the latter with brooding menace that owes much to the then popular fashion for Gothick horror. And I don’t think it helps that the man and the family with the vast fortune that paid Hopper, acquired their wealth from slave-run sugar plantations in Jamaica. That fact alone somehow makes the building even darker.

Penrhyn Castle, Bangor. An early Victorian reconstruction.

Penrhyn Castle, Bangor. An early Victorian reconstruction.

The buildings of north Wales are very varied, which is one of the reasons they make for an excellent holiday. Sometimes an itinerary of churches alone can become rather wearisome, leading to extended lunches and sleepy afternoons. On a visit to Conwy we strayed into the town, away from the massive walls, to see the superb Elizabethan townhouse of Plas Mawr (in English: Great Hall). This is a hidden jewel. Simon Jenkins in his superb book, Wales: Churches, Houses, Castles describes it as ‘…the most splendid town mansion of the Tudor period remaining in Britain.’ Built in 1576, and enlarged shortly thereafter by a family of prosperous Welsh merchants, this wonderful house (I shall resist the temptation to describe it as a monument to mercantile munificence) was not rebuilt and enlarged in the 18th and 19th centuries – the fate of so many Tudor town and country houses in England – so its interiors, including superb plasterwork, remain remarkably intact.

The Tudor merchant’s house, Plas Mawr, Conwy.

The Tudor merchant’s house, Plas Mawr, Conwy.

But we did manage to visit at least one church (sadly, as happens these days, some were locked) and it was most remarkable, being essentially all of one period (Perpendicular – 15th Century), although it was actually founded very much earlier, in the 7th Century. Pilgrims would make their way from Caernarfon to Bardsey Abbey on its small island off the western tip of the Lleyn Peninsula, as part of a pilgrimage route along the north coast that became hugely popular In the later Middle Ages. The church of St. Beuno, at Clynnog Fawr (where the eponymous saint’s bones are buried) was the starting and assembly point for the pilgrimage, which still takes place from time to time to this day. But what makes this church remarkable, is its range of medieval and later church furniture including a fine screen, chests and a remarkable device for catching dogs. I doubt the RSPCA would approve of it.

St Beuno, Clynnog Fawr

And finally, those wonderful Lleyn sheep, which were all around us, although very often I could detect that many lambs had been crossed with a Charollais ram. It’s an excellent cross and produces a fine lamb with well-built hind quarters. But these sheep I photographed on the edge of marshy ground near Llangian, were all, I think, pure-bred Lleyns. And they looked in very good order indeed. Let’s hope lamb prices pick up later in the year!

Lleyn sheep near Llangian, Lleyn peninsula, Wales

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