I haven’t blogged much lately, because I’m writing a new book (details to follow!), but the very nice weather drew me out today to explore a church I’ve not seen before. It required crossing the Strait, so isn’t strictly Anglesey History, but is still a very interesting place. And it overlooks Anglesey!
St. Baglan’s Church stands in an isolated position, overlooking the mouth of the Menai Strait, just south-west of Caernarfon. Finding it requires driving down a narrow coastal road, passing Caernarfon Castle across the Afon Seiont on the way, then walking across a field of barley to the church nestled within a grove of trees in an oval-shaped church enclosure wall.
Like most medieval churches in Wales, this one, dating to the 13th century, is a small and fairly simple church. However, unlike most, it wasn’t renovated by the Victorians, so retains its medieval character and the 18th century benches and box pews, many inscribed with names or initials and dates from the 1700s. As a result it was given a Grade I historic building listing in 1968, indicating it is of exceptional interest. It became redundant and in 1991 was taken over by the Friends of Friendless Churches.
Inside the church are numerous 18th and 19th century memorial plaques and gravestones, and the churchyard surrounding it contains many more 19th century and recent gravestones. However, the window-sill of the porch consists of a reused gravestone that is probably from the 13th century. It depicts a ship as well as a cross, and may have been the tombstone of a mariner.
The most famous internment at this church is a recent one. In January this year the burial took place here of Antony Charles Robert Armstrong-Jones. He is better known as Lord Snowdon, well known photographer as well as former husband of Princess Margaret and brother-in-law of the Queen. The Armstrong-Jones family hailed from this part of Wales and he spent much time at the family home of Plas Dinas, Bontnewydd. His parents divorced when he was young and his mother married the Earl of Rosse from Birr Castle in Co. Offaly, Ireland (a favourite place of mine to visit during my regular visits to the Irish midlands), where he also spent much of his youth.
On such a beautiful day there was a steady stream of visitors to this remote church. Some were coming with curiosity like us, others came carrying flowers for their loved ones. Whatever your purpose, this church is well worth a visit. You can find it with this Google Map.
One thing leads to another. While working on the new section of my Anglesey History website on Prehistoric Monuments I wanted to compare the geology of one site to the types of stone that were used to build the monument. I thought I had a geological map of Anglesey, but couldn’t find it, so ordered a new one. It arrived yesterday, and my wife and I spent part of the day poring over it with a magnifying glass, looking for interesting features.
This map is mainly based on Edward Greenly’s pioneering work on the geology of Anglesey. His two volume 1919 work The Geology of Anglesey, followed by the geological map of 1920, are considered classics in the field. The geology of Anglesey is fiercely complex, and his 25 years of surveying the rocks of the island, with the latest geological theories in mind, unravelled its mysteries.
In looking into accounts of his life, most said that Greenly and his wife Annie were buried in Llangristiolus parish churchyard, under “a fine headstone of red ‘Balmoral’ granite.” I distinctly remember visiting a grave of a prominent geologist with an unusual headstone, a large boulder inscribed with the details, many years ago, but this was in Llansadwrn, not Llangristiolus. Which was correct? After another cup of coffee we hopped into the car and headed off on a circular route to both churches.
When we got to the church we spotted the unusual grave stone, a boulder of Carboniferous limestone, before we even got out of the car. We crossed the graveyard and turned to face the headstone, only to discover that this was the grave of another very well known geologist with Anglesey connections. Sir Andrew Crombie Ramsay was a Scottish geologist who published The Geology of North Wales in 1881, as well as many other earlier important works. He rose to become the president of the Geological Society of London and director-general of the Geological Survey. He retired to Beaumaris, where he died in 1892.
The inscription on his gravestone explains his Anglesey connection. His wife, Mary Louisa Williams, was the daughter of Rev. James Williams of Llanfair-yng-Nghornwy and granddaughter of John Williams of Treffos, in Llansadwrn. Her brother Owen was the grandfather of the famous Anglesey artist Kyffin Williams, thus making her his great aunt. In his autobiography Across the Straits, Kyffin Williams talks about playing with the Ramsay children when he was young.
So, I guess Greenly was really at Llangristiolus. Back in the car to head towards Llangristiolus. We decided to take the narrow lanes from Llansadwrn through Rhoscefnhir and Ceint, which once formed the major post road from Beaumaris to Holyhead (more in this in another blog soon).
After a bit of a wander around Llangristiolus churchyard I spotted a grave of distinctive red stone that stood out against the grey slate and black marble of most of the surrounding ones. Here was Edward Greenly and his wife Annie, “reunited”, as the inscription said.
Edward was born in 1861 and died in 1951, having been widowed since 1927 when his beloved Annie died. They first met when he was just 14, when she and her parents visited his family home. She was 11 years his elder, but their similar intellectual and scientific interests soon blossomed into a close friendship, then love. But after four years their parents, worried about such a relationship between one so young with one so much older, forced them apart. Eleven years later they met up again, and this time married in 1891.
Their’s was a close scientific working relationship as well as a loving marriage. Annie also had a keen interest in science from a young age. During his years surveying the geology of Anglesey (and before that in the Highlands of Scotland) she was usually at his side. Although Edward’s name is solely on the publications, he always readily admitted she was instrumental in developing ideas and in organising the publications. She died just days after they jointly finished a short geological textbook called The Earth. To mark her contributions Edward set up an Annie Greenly Fund through the Geological Society of London to support detailed geological mapping.
On the way home we stopped at Oriel Ynys Môn for a bite to eat and a look around the galleries. Who should we run across there but our new-found friend Edward Greenly, in a display in the history gallery, with a copy of his map alongside his portrait and biography.
It was a clear, frosty morning, and I was thinking of standing stones. A couple of days previously I had driven over to Holy Island, aiming to clear my mind of the recent American election results, as well as visit the Penrhos Feilw standing stones (more on these some other time). As I looked at the photos from there I realised to my shame that I hadn’t photographed the nearest standing stone, which I drive past regularly: the megalith in Llanddyfnan. So this morning was a good time to take a quick trip up the road with my camera.
This single standing stone is just beside the road between Pentraeth and Talwrn, close to the Llanddyfnan parish church and its neighbouring Ty’n Llan farmhouse. The Stone Science museum is across the road. I got some nice photos of a well-lit monument, plus some of a herd of curious cattle who ran over to the fence, either to see what I was up to, or to see if I was bringing their feed. I then went over to the church, which I had photographed before, but several years ago.
After a few shots of the church I began wandering around the graveyard, mindful that some of the people I mentioned in my recent blog about the abandoned house, Ynys, at Cors Bodeilio might be here. Sure enough, two prominent slabs near the church door were for the Thomas family of the Bodeilio estate, including Evan Rice Thomas, who died 20 August 1875. Back by the wall was the grave of William Williams, the last recorded resident of Ynys, who died in 1906, and his wife Ann, who died the next year.
A few other interesting stones were spotted, including a Commonwealth War Grave stone for Corporal H. Jones of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who died in November 1940, aged 28. I stood by his grave for a moment in advance of the minute silence later in the morning for Armistice Day.
But the real surprises were to be found in the newer section of the cemetery. I spotted a grave with a number of plants and flowers around it, and a familiar name. Ann Benwell was a prominent local historian, a retired university lecturer, devoted member of the Anglesey Antiquarian Society and trustee of Menai Heritage, of which I am also a trustee. She died suddenly in 2013. I was surprised to find her here in Llanddyfnan, as she had lived in Menai Bridge, and I didn’t know of any connection to the parish. I’ve since learned she grew up near Talwrn.
I was further surprised when I looked at the grave next to Ann’s. This was for Eirian Llwyd, a well known local artist and wife of former Anglesey MP, AM and Plaid Cymru party leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones. She died after a short battle with cancer in 2014. I met her a couple of times a few years ago when I bought two of her prints, which hang proudly in my house. One of these prints is of a raven, so I was touched to see her gravestone also features a raven, a bird that appears in a number of her artworks. It must have had special significance to her, perhaps because of the association with the figure from the Mabinogion, the giant Welsh king Brân the Blessed, brother of Branwen.
When visiting historic churches, I always have a wander around the cemetery, looking at inscriptions old and new. I often wonder what this person was like, or how that person lived their life. Occasionally, the inscription gives a tantalising clue to an interesting story, which I will sometimes try to follow up later. On a recent trip to the St Fagan’s outdoor museum in south Wales I had a look around the village churchyard. Towards the back was a Commonwealth War Grave stone on the grave of John Heritage, who died in 1982. I assumed he was in the Falkland War. Once home I looked up his somewhat unusual name, to find that he was actually killed in the IRA bombing of the Royal Green Jackets military band in Regent’s Park, London.
A more puzzling grave can be found hidden behind St. Tysilio’s church on Church Island in Menai Bridge. I spend a lot of time in Ireland, so I stopped in my tracks when I spotted the grave of Thomas Fane Uniacke “of Lynnbury, Co. Westmeath, Ireland”. How did someone who lived in Ireland wind up buried in Menai Bridge?
He was also blessed with a rather unusual name, which made tracking down information about him relatively easy. I first turned to Ancestry.co.uk, where I found several family trees that have him listed. Most of them gave the same death date as on this grave, March 2 1857, but there seems to be uncertainty about the circumstances of his death, as two different death places are given. Some say he died in Co. Cork, Ireland, whereas others say he died in Rifle Township in North Dakota, USA. Many give no death place at all. None say anything about Menai Bridge or Anglesey.
I contacted some of the people who had posted these family trees, but none was able to tell me much about him, other than the basic facts in the trees. He was a side branch of all their families, rather than a direct ancestor.
The basic facts are these: Thomas Fane Uniacke was born in 1792, son of Redmond Uniacke Esq. and Elizabeth Fleming, of Carrig, Co. Cork. He and his family are listed in Burke’s Landed Gentry Of Ireland, and were prominent landowners with their seat at Mount Uniacke, near Youghal, Co. Cork. His grandfather, James FitzGerald Uniacke, was a commander in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, who apparently gave up his horse to King William when the king’s horse was shot in the battle.
The family is full of military men, and Thomas was an officer in the Rifle Brigade. His two brothers were also military men, with Capt. John Uniacke being killed in the Siege of Ciudad Rodrigo, Spain, in 1812, and his four sisters all married officers. His two sons were officers in the Highland Light Infantry and his daughter married an officer.
Thomas somehow made the move from Cork to Co. Westmeath, perhaps through an arranged marriage to Elizabeth Rochfort, daughter of Gustavus H. Rochfort, Esq, M.P. for Westmeath and grandson of the first Earl of Belvedere. Thomas owned land in the county and was a land agent and a magistrate. His name crops up regularly in newspapers related to court cases and other legal matters, and even as a steward at the races in Mullingar.
The most interesting newspaper article I found about Thomas was one from the Dublin Evening Mail in 1840, headlined “Conspiracy to Murder a Magistrate”. Police in Westmeath got wind that four brothers named Kelly had stockpiled arms and ammunition, apparently intending to assassinate Thomas Uniacke, who was the agent for their landlord. The Kellys were insolvent and not paying their rent, but also refusing to vacate the properties. The article praises Thomas, saying “As an agent, we believe there is no man in the country, filling the same office, more kind-hearted and indulgent – indulgent, perhaps, to a fault – to the tenantry under his charge.”
The last record I find of Thomas Uniacke himself before his death is related to a court case in 1853. What happened to him after that, and why did he wind up dying in Menai Bridge? One clue is the death notice of his wife Elizabeth, just a year before his own death. Curiously, she died at Glenavon, Haverfordwest, in South Wales. Did they have some connection to Wales?
Their daughter Frances, who married Capt. Seton Lionel Smith, settled in Laugharne, about 25 miles from Haverfordwest, after he retired from active military service, probably sometime in the 1850s-1860s. Perhaps Elizabeth had been travelling to visit her when she took ill? Perhaps her husband had also been travelling there a year later when he died? It’s still a mystery, but I’m still looking for clues.
Most history about buildings is written about large and interesting houses, churches, castles, shops and other places. However, sometimes the history of small, remote and obscure dwellings can be just as intriguing.
One of my favourite nearby places for a short walk is Cors Bodeilio. This National Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest lies between Pentraeth and Talwrn. It is a nationally important nature site as it is an uncommon lime-rich fenland supporting rare plant life, including a variety of sedges, rushes and reeds, as well as a number of orchid species. The pools contain medicinal leeches, and many species of rare flies, aquatic beetles and moths make their home throughout the area. It is also the home of some Welsh Mountain ponies, whose grazing helps maintain the fenland.
The boardwalk through the marsh eventually takes you to a slightly raised and dry spot. Disappearing into the trees at the edge of a meadow is a long abandoned house. It is named on the maps as Ynys. Welsh for “island”, Ynys might seem an odd name for a house, but closer inspection of the maps and surrounding topography shows that it is indeed an island of dry land in the middle of marshes.
The house and surrounding nature reserve are now owned by Natural Resources Wales, but the mid 19th century tithe maps that have been digitised by the Cynefin project show that this, and much of the land around it, was ultimately owned by the Right Honourable Lord Vivian of the Plas Gwyn estate in Pentraeth. It was leased to Evan Rice Thomas as part of the nearby Bodeilio estate. The parcel of land called Ynys is listed in the 1841 tithe apportionments books as just 9 acres of pasture land, with no hint of there being a house, and indeed no house is shown on the map itself.
Also, Ynys does not appear in 1841 or 1851 censuses, but it is listed in 1861, suggesting it was built sometime in the 1850s. The first recorded tenants are Thomas Hughes and his family, wife Jane and sons William and Owen. As might be expected in a small cottage in the middle of pastures and marshlands, Thomas was an agricultural labourer, as was his 14 year old son William. Eight year old Owen was not yet old enough to be working and was listed as a scholar, so was attending school.
In the 1871 census the house name Ynys isn’t found in this part of the Llanddyfnan parish. But, among the houses nearby to Ynys is one called “California”, occupied by one Thomas Hughes. The name California doesn’t appear in any other censuses in this area. Did Thomas decide to start calling the house California instead, for some reason?
This Thomas Hughes is listed as widowed, a farmer of 8 acres and a labourer, and living with his 13 year old son John and a servant named Elizabeth Owen. By 1881 the house is again listed as Ynys, and Thomas had remarried to a much younger woman, Elizabeth, who was 28 to his 61 years. They had been busy, producing five children aged 1-9 by this time.
By 1891 the tenancy of Ynys had changed hands to William Williams, and he was living there with his wife Ann and daughter Margaret, who was a domestic servant. William was listed as a labourer in this census, but in the previous census in 1881, when he was living at nearby Heulog, he was a shoemaker. He again gave his occupation as shoemaker in 1901, when he is listed as living with his wife Ann and son William.
Curiously, his son William is listed as a copper miner. Copper mining on Anglesey usually means Parys Mountain, but that is a long way from Ynys, probably about a four hour walk. Also, by this time the copper there was almost worked out, and there were just 141 copper miners, down from thousands at its height. As he was still single at the age of 33, perhaps he usually lived near the mine, but happened to be at home visiting his parents on census day.
What I’ve so far been able to discover about the history of Ynys ends here. It is not listed in the 1911 census. Perhaps it had been abandoned by then, although usually even unoccupied houses will be listed in the census. Maybe the census-taker missed this remote house on his route through the parish.
As the house disappears into the vegetation, its abandonment becomes poignant. What was it like in the late 19th century when occupied by the Hughes and Williams families? Did Thomas’ five children play games in the meadow and go searching for frogs in the surrounding bogs? My favourite time to visit is in the autumn, when the plum trees behind the house are bearing delicious fruit. Perhaps these were planted by Thomas Hughes. Did they also have a garden patch somewhere around the house? In the absence of a time machine I can only guess.
It’s bigger on the inside than it appears from outside, and it lets you travel back in time, like Dr. Who’s Tardis. That was my first thought when I ducked through the low entrance into the high-ceilinged space of the reconstructed Bryn Eryr roundhouses at St. Fagans open air history museum.
I’ve been wanting to visit St. Fagans for quite a while, and I finally managed to extend a trip south to spend the day there. It is a wonderful place for anyone with an interest in the past. You can wander through historic buildings, brought here and rebuilt from all over Wales, experiencing the way people lived, worked and worshipped through time.
The most recently rebuilt house is also the oldest. Bryn Eryr is a reconstruction of what archaeologists think an Iron Age house would have looked like. It is based on the excavation of a farmstead on Anglesey, at Bryn Eryr farm, which lies halfway between Menai Bridge and Pentraeth, just off the A5025. Between 1985 and 1987 the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust excavated a site on the farm where early archaeologists had noted the faint rectangular outline of an enclosure wall and found pieces of Roman pottery in what was otherwise a flat and unremarkable field.
The excavation revealed the walls of two roundhouses, built right next to each other, as well as pits, post holes, grinding stones and animal bones. It appears that the site initially had one roundhouse, built in the Earlier Iron Age (about 800-400 BC), with the walls made of clay quarried from the pits. It was partially enclosed by a wooden fence.
A second phase of building occurred in the Middle Iron Age (400-100 BC), when the defensive rectangular bank and ditch was built around the settlement. A second somewhat smaller roundhouse was built right next to the original one, most likely with a passage between them, much as a modern bungalow might have an extension built to accommodate a growing family.
The reconstruction at St. Fagans represents the houses as they were during this period. Excavations of the original site also uncovered a third roundhouse, somewhat separate from the other two, where numerous pieces of Roman pottery were found. These have been dated to the 2nd-4th century AD, thus showing that this site was occupied for over 1000 years.
Although archaeological excavation can tell you about the walls of these ancient houses, it doesn’t tell you much about how the roof was built, nor how it was furnished. Particularly, there was much puzzlement about how the roof was constructed once the second roundhouse had been added.
A single round house would have a conical roof, but what about two? Did it have some type of roof that spanned both circular areas? Or did it just have two conical roofs next to each other? In the later case there would be a risk of rainwater draining off both roofs between the two houses, which could water-log that area and damage the walls. In the end it was decided to reconstruct this with two conical roofs with a lower ridged roof over the passageway between the two.
The next question was what to use to do the thatching and how to construct it. Some earlier roundhouse reconstructions have used straw from the same varieties of wheat that are used today by thatchers. But these varieties didn’t exist back in the Iron Age, so wouldn’t be authentic. The original excavation of the site turned up spelt as the main grain used by the occupants, so it makes sense that the straw from that would have been used for the thatch. A field near St. Fagans was planted with spelt, which was then used to thatch the houses.
Once the roofing was complete the interior needed to be fitted out to show how it might have appeared when occupied. This again involves a lot of conjecture, as the Bryn Eryr archaeological excavation didn’t give much evidence as to what the furniture and contents might have looked like. However, artefacts from other similar aged sites from elsewhere around Wales and Britain, many of which are housed in the National Museum of Wales collections, can act as templates for producing replicas to be displayed in the roundhouses.
The centrepiece of the smaller roundhouse is the fireplace with a fine bronze cauldron hanging over it. It is similar to one found at Llyn Cerrig Bach, near Valley on Anglesey and was made by Hector Cole.
The shelves along the walls contain wood bowls, modelled on ones found in Wales and Somerset and made by Robin Wood, plus various tools that have been found in Iron Age and Roman era sites in North Wales and produced by the St. Fagans blacksmith, Andrew Murphy. Baskets, leather bags and even a child’s doll join these objects.
St Fagan’s previously had a Celtic Village, built in the 1990s, that Bryn Eryr has replaced. An excellent article about lessons learned from that exhibition and how that informed the decisions about how to reconstruct Bryn Eryr can be found at the Exarc (Experimental Archaeology) Journal site. An archive of tweets and photos of the building of Bryn Eryr can be seen on Sara Huws’ site.
In addition to this new feature, St. Fagan’s has an ambitious building program going on, with not one but two new visitor centres being erected. Another new feature being developed is Llys Llywelyn, a medieval Prince’s court, based on Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and Llywelyn ap Grufydd’s court at Llys Rhosyr, near Newborough, Anglesey. I was only able to get a tantalising glimpse of it through the construction site fences, but I look forward to seeing it when I next visit St. Fagans.
After visiting Bodior house, a smaller group of Anglesey Antiquarian Society members walked across a couple of fields in the rain to the shore of Holy Island. Our goal was to see the Bodior Tide Mill.
The most familiar type of mill on Anglesey is the windmill. Thirty two of these dot the island, and at most places with distant views you can see one of these towers on the horizon. Descriptions and pictures of all of these are on the Anglesey History web site.
Tidal mills are less noticeable, rarer and older. Rather than capturing the wind to turn the machinery, these capture the tides. A dam is built across an inlet, at just the right height so that at high tide water will spill over part of the dam to fill the basin behind it. As the tide goes out water will begin flowing out of the basin again, turning a wheel that is built over the outlet.This wheel will then turn a millstone for grinding corn.
Some tidal mills on Anglesey, such as ones at Tre’r Gof near Trearddur Bay, and one near Church Island in Menai Bridge (the current site of the rugby pitch), first appear in the records in the early to mid 16th century (compared to 18th century for the earliest existing wind mills). This mill at Bodior is first mentioned in records somewhat later, in the 17th century, but could be older.
As you can see from the photos, the dam and sluice-way of this tidal mill are still extant, although the wheel is long gone. The remains of the walls of the mill building can still be seen as well. This would have held the millstones and other equipment for grinding the corn.
The placement of a successful mill is important, whether driven by wind, stream or tide. The mill must be able to harness the best of the driving force, so a windmill must be in an exposed position, often on a high point in the topography, and a tidal mill must be someplace with a good tidal range and substantial area for the reservoir. But, it must also be accessible for the farmers to bring in their corn, and take away the resulting flour. Bodior mill is in a remote spot with no apparent track leading to it. The group visiting the mill puzzled about this, and there was speculation that perhaps the corn was brought in by boat. Before the 19th century roads were often in poor condition, and in a place like Anglesey, with an extensive coastline, boat travel was much more common.
Aerial photographs, a location map and a brief description of Bodior mill can be found on the Coflein website, run by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.