Tag Archives: History

A Mock Castle Built on the Backs of Slaves and Welsh Quarrymen

Penryhn CastleI’ve been away this week helping the National Trust out with some of their management issues at Penrhyn Castle in North Wales.  My first impression of this place, because of its incredibly grand appearance on a truly large scale, was that this mock castle must have been built either by somebody with a great sense of humour, or someone with a whopping ego.  I’m reliably informed it was the latter.

Penryhn Castle 1The castle is another reminder of the ubiquity of Britain’s links with slavery.  It belonged to the Pennant family, famous for their slate quarries in North Wales, but whose major fortunes came from the exploitation of the slave trade in the Caribbean in the 17th century.

The family acquired plantations in Jamaica and held high office on that island, before a new generation returned to Britain and started trading from Liverpool.  With the money the family made from these varied slavery-based enterprises, the Pennants acquired substantial holdings in Wales and also developed slate quarries.

Penryhn Castle 2Penrhyn Castle was developed on the site of an ancient property, but it is a 19th-century version of a Norman castle.  Alongside Harewood House, it provides an example of the levels of material wealth that was accumulated by those engaged in the slave trade, which was then invested into British property and land.

The family apparently were not liked by the indigenous Welsh population.  Apparently they didn’t treat the quarry workers at all well.

These days the castle is owned and managed by the National Trust, and the gardens are lovely.

Rhody pathIt was a real pleasure to have a look round and to help out with management issues.

Walled gardenThe castle itself was closed on the day I was there, but the rather lovely railway museum was open, so I had a little wander around some beautiful machines from yesteryear…..

Fire engineI’ll be visiting many more interesting castles and mansions as part of this particular job, so I’ll keep you posted….


The Old Wooden House

I once had the great pleasure of wandering around an old wooden church in the state of Mississippi and was able to really feel and smell its history.  It was quite a humbling experience in many ways, and it certainly penetrated deep inside me, so that many years later, when I had developed the ability, I wrote a piece of music about it and included it on my fourth album Heading West.

I was particularly gratified that the esteemed music reviewer Kathy Parsons wrote of the track…..“Old Wooden House suggests a time-worn structure that has seen better days and holds generations of precious memories of days gone by.”  I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Here’s a little video that I put together featuring the beautiful photographs of Walker Evans and Bernard M Baruch, which I felt illustrated the kind of building that it is/was, I hope you like it.

The Old Road to Nowhere

Photo: Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander

High up on the slopes of the Rhinogau (Rin-og-i), an isolated, rugged range of mountains forming much of the Harlech Dome in North Wales, lies a 19th century gold mining complex.  All that remains of the hard toil of the men and women of the time are some deep,cavernous mine shafts which drip with the rain from the mountains, a few ruined buildings and the old track that was used to transport the rock for processing.

Photo:  Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander

Since all the industry left the hillside, nature has quietly taken over again, so that now the only sound you hear up there is the sighing of the wind and the throaty call of the raven in his craggy domain.  The noise and disruption of the past is long gone, along with all the stories of the people who worked this land in order to provide a living for their families.

The land is now cared for by the National Trust, and I have had the privilege to write the plan for its future conservation.  There’s plenty more to see at this place, and I’ll update you as I go.  I’ll be back there next week.

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The wonderful history, landscape and wildlife of the Dinefwr Estate

I have been exceptionally lucky recently to have been asked to prepare a conservation management plan for the estate at Dinefwr (Din-ev-or) near Llandeilo in West Wales, which is owned and cared for by the National Trust.

It is quite a difficult task to paint a verbal picture of Dinefwr and it isn’t possible to convey the importance of the place in strictly factual terms.  It’s only when you are lucky enough to visit Dinefwr that the sheer unusual beauty of the place strikes you in a way that the words that you have read cannot.  It is a very, very special place indeed.

Dinefwr is of exceptional significance for its archaeology, designed landscape and buildings.  The present day landscape was set out by George Rice and his wife Cecil with some assistance from Lancelot ’Capability’ Brown in the second half of the 18th century.  It has been widely admired ever since with impressions recorded by means of painting, sketching and the written word – it even appeared on a dinner plate, part of a service commissioned by Catherine the Great.

Today the park is widely acknowledged to be one of the finest designed landscapes in the UK.  At its centre is Newton House, originally constructed in the 17th century to a simple but elegant design, it was encased in limestone to a Venetian-gothic design in the 1850s.

Photo: Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander

Trees and open grassland are so important to the appearance and aesthetic qualities of Dinefwr’s landscape and they were deliberately set out as part of the landscape design, with most of the trees planted on the higher ground and the grassland occupying the valleys and the areas immediately adjacent to the house and the main drive.

Archaeological surveys have, inevitably, revealed evidence of earlier landscapes including the defensive structures of an Iron Age fort and most remarkable of all, two overlapping Roman forts.  Faint earthworks mark the outlines of tracks and field boundaries that predated the construction of the deer park in the middle of the 17th century.

One of the most significant archaeological monuments in the park is Dinefwr Castle.  The 12th century stone buildings and walls seen today apparently replaced an earlier timber structure dating to the 8th century.  This castle was the capital of most of west and south Wales in the 12th century so the surrounding woodland and park must conceal evidence of medieval tracks and paths.

Dinefwr Castle

The park is well known for its fallow deer and, in particular, its white park cattle – a rare breed restored to the park in 1992 after a long absence, but that can be traced back to Dinefwr from at least 1000 years ago.  Both the deer and the cattle are integral to the historic park in their own right, but also because they maintain a complex mosaic of ancient grassland habitats.

Ancient white park cattle Photo: Mike Alexander
Ancient white park cattle Photo: Mike Alexander
Fallow deer herd  Photo: Mike Alexander
Fallow deer herd Photo: Mike Alexander

One of the most striking features of the grassland in the deer park is the abundance of yellow meadow ant hills, which indicates how undisturbed this grassland has been for centuries.

Photo: Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander

In some parts of the park there are remnants of medieval woodland featuring many ancient trees that are at least 400 years old.  And at its core, this wood pasture is dominated by nearly 300 huge oak trees, including some of the oldest and largest trees in the UK – one, the Castle Oak, is thought to be over 700 years old.

Photo: Mike Alexander
700 year old oak tree Photo: Mike Alexander

Dinefwr’s ancient trees, important in their own right, are host to a remarkable assemblage of wood decay invertebrates including 400 “saproxylic” beetle species, 26 of which are classified as nationally scarce.  More than 160 species of lichen have been recorded in the park, several of which indicate a long history of ecological continuity.

The assemblage of breeding birds at Dinefwr is very impressive, and some of the most important are the lesser spotted woodpecker, an increasingly rare species in the UK, as are the green woodpeckers, which thrive on the impressive colonies of yellow meadow ants, conspicuous by the presence of hundreds of ant hills in the deer park grassland.  Other notable bird species breeding in the woodlands include tawny owl, tree creeper, sparrowhawk, tree sparrow, jay, long-tailed tit and pied flycatcher.

On the lakes, ponds and ditches of the Towy floodplain greylag geese, Canada geese, swan, widgeon, goldeneye, heron and snipe amongst many others can been found year round.

Flood plain at Dinefwr  Photo: Mike Alexander
Flood plain at Dinefwr Photo: Mike Alexander