Tuesday 6 December 2011

Gorwel and the buildings on Parrog Bach

The area of the Parrog known as Parrog Bach still contains several reminders of Newport's seafaring past.  I wrote about some of the remaining buildings a little while back but there's always more to be discovered. 

By co-incidence, two people on the same day sent me interesting photos of Parrog Bach and they are both happy for me to share them. The first two pictures appear courtesy of Alec James and are taken from across the Nevern estuary towards Parrog Bach. The first image is particularly interesting as it dates from the days when the Parrog was still very much a working harbour. A sailing vessel is moored at the quayside and a man in a top hat is sculling himself across the river in the foreground of the picture. Dillwyn Miles has an a very similar photo in The Mariners of Newport (2006) showing the man in the foreground in a slightly different pose. He says that the vessel is the 28 ton dandy Newland and that the sculling man was a ferry man. He certainly has the customary board at the ready to get passengers aboard dry-footed.

 There are three buildings on the quayside behind the moored boat in this photograph, a warehouse which is intact, flanked by what looks like two further ruined storehouses. At first I found it hard to work out exactly what these buildings were. Then I realised that the image shows the view across the estuary towards what is now the holiday cottage, Camelot, confirmed by the fact that the buildings on the quay appear in this position on the England and Wales Valuation Office Survey map 1910-15. They no longer exist today. Stone from the larger warehouse in the picture was, I believe taken to build the Memorial Hall in the town.  Behind these stores and warehouses the photo shows a further, whitewashed building which looks more cottage-like in appearance. Again, this building no longer exists. There was a limekiln in roughly this spot at the beginning of the twentieth century so was this another limeburner's cottage? Although this one looks a little grander.

The postcard below shows the view from roughly the same spot and I think dates from the 1950's. Intriguingly, there's a ferry in this photo too, again with the landing board at the ready. Getting to Traeth Mawr by a rowed ferry was still common in those days. By this period all the storehouse buildings had gone to be replaced by two cottages, Camelot and Gorwel which are still there today. Camelot was built from the ruins of a warehouse which could be the one shown intact in the top photo. It is interesting that in the 1950's there were still further buildings to the left of Gorwel on Parrog Bach. Now only the ruins of one of these buildings remains, barely noticeable under a tangle of brambles. 

It's interesting to note the sorry state of the seawall in the 1950's.

This is much the same view taken in 2011with the seawall restored to a similar height to the wall in the first picture.

The final photo below was supplied by Pat McGregor, the current owner of the holiday cottage Gorwel

I'm not sure of the date of the image, possibly 1940's. Gorwel is the wooden cottage with the veranda to the left of this picture, painted in seaside stripes. Again two storage sheds (or is the first one a house maybe?) are shown beyond Gorwel. The far one was I believe used in those days by one of the local rowing boat hire firms. You can see some of the rowing boats lined up on the grass in this picture.

According to local historian Reg Davies, this particular parcel of land was once owned by the Barony of Cemaes but by the 1930s the site of Gorwel had passed into the hands of Dr David Havard of East View who sold it to Mr Roach Thomas in 1937. Mr Thomas built the cottage in this picture for his consumptive daughter so that she could benefit from the sea air. I'm not sure what happened to the daughter but by the early 1940's the house had been sold to Gladys Evelyn Evans whose daughter in law Elizabeth replaced the wooden house with the current one in 1992. Although it is a more sophisticated building, it still keeps the character of the old one.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Bridging the River Nevern

These days. the bridge over the River Nevern in Newport is a busy focal point. It's rare to go there even in winter and not see people scanning the mudflats for interesting birds or simply admiring the sunset.  Two years ago, an osprey was spotted there, although all I saw of it was a tiny dot disappearing into the distance. I have seen a spoonbill though and a passing cattle egret. "I was in Egypt last week and saw hundreds of these," a man paused from scanning it with his binoculars to tell me. "Now I've rushed over from the other side of the county to see this one." Sometimes otters snuffle around under the seaweed at low tide after crabs or a seal puts up it's head, stares and then vanishes again.

There's been a bridge across the Nevern at this point at least since Elizabethan times when the existence of a six-arched bridge was recorded by George Owen of Henllys. There was probably a crossing of some sort much earlier than this because the pilgrim route via Nevern to St Davids passed this way.

Story has it that the bridge was later demolished to prevent the spread of "sweating sickness". After this stepping stones were used to cross the river at low tide and these can still be seen on the upstream side of the bridge when the water is low enough.

At high tide two sisters, Elizabeth and Hannah Griffiths from the cottage nearest the bridge at Penybont operated a ferry to row people across.
Horses and carts would ford the river at low tide. 

Martin Lewis has an interesting story of one such crossing. (Newport Pem. and Fishguard revisited or, for Welsh speakers, there's a longer version here). John Laugharne was working at Berry Hill Farm at the time and was returning from an errand in Fishguard with one of the farm's carts. He decided to stop at the Golden Lion to quench his thirst. After a few beers he went on his way but by the time he reached the ford, the tide was already coming in. Farm workers knew he was in trouble when the horse and cart returned to the farm without its driver but it was dark by then and John could not be found. His body was washed up in the estuary the next morning. 

It's a good story, but who was this John Laugharne? Because some of my ancestors were Laugharnes, I was keen to find out.  The story was told to Martin Lewis by the late William Lewis of Dinas and Martin knows no more than he has already recorded. The drowning was said to have prompted the setting up of a committee to raise funds for a bridge and this committee was formed in 1891 so I was excited to find a death recorded in 1890 for a John Laugharne, aged 29, from Nevern. This fitted Census data from 1881 for a John Laugharne who was an agricultural labourer along with his parents Daniel and Catherine,living near enough to Berry Farm for it to be feasible for him to have worked there. It seemed a perfect fit  until the death certificate arrived. This John Laugharne hadn't drowned, he had died of pneumonia after suffering from diabetes for the previous two years. He was also, at this time, a journeyman stonemason. There were no other deaths recorded for a John Laugharne in the area at this time. I tried other spellings Larn/Larne/Laugharn but with no success. Perhaps the story. like many present day Newport yarns, grew in the telling and he was pulled from the river alive, only to die from pneumonia later or maybe the name is wrong or the death was never recorded.

Whatever the truth of this story, the committee managed to raise £1400 for a new bridge, half coming from the County Council who dawdled about sending the cheque, and the rest from public subscription. The iron girders and lattice parapet railings were sent by rail from Messrs Pierson and Co, Fenchurch St, London but the construction was carried out by Messrs Clifford and Sampson Morgan of Haverfordwest. The bridge was rebuilt from 1999/2000.

The image at the top of this piece was taken by Chas Edwards in the early 1900's, when the bridge was still new. One of the boats in the foreground looks as though it might have been a ferry but I'm not sure why one would have been needed once the bridge had been built although I have heard talk of a ferry which used to take golfers from the bottom of Long Street. Here is a view of the same bridge in the 1950's:-


And this is the refurbished bridge today. There's usually a few cars parked here because it's a good place to start a walk along the coast path to the sands at Traeth Mawr:-

Thursday 3 March 2011

Crossing the Nevern: Parrog ferries and fording at the chain

Even in living memory, the Nevern estuary in Newport has become considerably shallower. Now, at low tide it's usually possible to wade across almost anywhere at the Parrog, even at the very mouth of the estuary. In the nineteen sixties and seventies, however, crossing wasn't quite so easy and the usual advice was to cross at low tide at "the chain" where the water was at its shallowest. People still talk about "the chain" which no doubt confuses many visitors as there is rarely a chain visible. So what exactly is this mythical chain?

The silting up of the Nevern estuary has not just happened in recent times. Local legend has it that it began when the bridge was errected a little further upstream in the 1895 to replace the stepping stone crossing (more of this in a later post) It seems feasible that this could have altered the flow of the water and reduced the scouring effect of faster-moving water. By the early twentieth century, silting was already beginning to be a problem and some mariners stretched a chain across the riverbed close to what is now the Boat Club to hold back some of this silt. The effect was that a deposit built up on either side of this chain making the river shallower at this point and providing a good crossing place at low tide. The picture below shows the effect quite clearly:-

A horse and cart is in the foreground ready to take advantage of the shallow crossing. Today the chain is rarely visible, although Tyrone Williams tells me it does occasionally appear when tides and water movement are right. It's still a good place to cross and, when conditions are right, the water is now little more than ankle deep.

When wading across, look out for the small flat fish, or dabs, which sometimes dart out from underneath your feet. When I was a child I remember people using tridents to catch these. It requires quite a bit of nerve and accuracy. If you don't calculate the angle of refraction properly, it's easy to spear your own feet which is perhaps why the practice seems to have died out. The fish are very small anyway and not really worth the trouble.

When the estuary was harder to ford, there would be quite a few ferries waiting to row people across. Here's one making the crossing in the early 1900's:-

Looked at in detail you can see the board propped in the bows ready to be let down to help passengers step ashore dry-shod:-

Similar boards can be seen in this 1950's photo of ferrymen waiting at the edge of the river for their fares:-

The most famous ferryman of this era was Jack Price who lived in Seagull Cottage. He was nicknamed Jack Price No Change. He charged a penny at low water and tuppence when the tide was in but whenever his passengers produced larger coins, he always denied he had any change. He was rumoured to wear several waistcoats to stop his loose coins rattling and to decant his money into a thermos flask which he kept at the bottom of the boat. His wife would come out from time to time to take the full thermos and replace it with an empty one on the pretext of bringing him tea. When he wasn't rowing he could be found sitting outside Seagull Cottage scanning the horizon with a telescope and would talk of the days when the big ships still visited the harbour.

He had been a merchant seaman in his younger days, going to sea in the winter months when business was slack but earned enough from his ferry service that, according to local stories, he used to take all the coins he had accumulated up the hill to the bank in Newport in a wheelbarrow (See Martin Lewis Newport Pem and Fishguard Revisited and Dilwyn Miles The Mariners of Newport Pembrokeshire).

Friday 21 January 2011

The old Beach Cafe on the Parrog

The Beach Cafe was very much a part of my childhood holidays on the Parrog. Painted in bold stripes like a wasp, it was essentially a large wooden shed built on to the front of the old limekeeper's cottage at the edge of the car park. The inside, from what I remember, was simple with a plain wooden floor which could be swept clean of trodden-in sand. It was a place of childhood treats, full of warmth and steam on a rainy day. In the sixties it was run by George and Rose but I'm not sure if they were the original owners. It had been closed for several years by the time I took this photo and, sadly, I don't have any photos of it in it's heyday.

The sign at the top of the building was made from hammered on crown caps, perhaps from some of the bottles of pop which were so much a part of my childhood memories of the place. In those days you paid a deposit on the bottle when you bought a drink and the money was returned when you brought the bottle back. My friends and I could earn a bit of pocket money by picking up the empty bottles people had left lying around on the beach and returning them to the cafe to claim the deposit. We had to be careful that we'd washed all the sand out first, of course.

The cafe was demolished in the nineteen nineties when the limekiln and the adjoining cottage were restored. It was sad to see it go. Even its derelict state it had a certain charm.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Newport's West End

Newport owes a lot to it's 19th Century master mariners. They built many of the big houses around Newport and the Parrog which are so sort after today. The house in the photograph is West End, Feidr Brenin, set back behind the Parrog and commanding wonderful views of both the bay and the mountain. A master mariner lived here for many years but it's open to debate whether he was responsible for building this house.

Originally there were three cottages here, probably simple, single storey dwellings, inhabited by three separate families. By the 1870's, the Rev Benjamin Shadrach, Rector of Llanllawer and Llanychilwydog and his wife and daughter were living at West End. They were wealthy enough to send their daughter, Elizabeth Anne away to Hill House in Haverfordwest to be educated, along with 13 other girl boarders, aged between 12 and 19, in a school run by three unmarried sisters, the Misses Pilpott. The Shadrachs could also afford to keep a live in general domestic servant but did they have this particular house built or were they living in an earlier dwelling on the same site?

With it's large windows and pale brick chimneys, West End has the look of a late Victorian House, brick chimneys were a late nineteenth century feature in the area, earlier chimneys were made of stone. Benjamin Shadrach had died by 1880. His widow and daughter continued living at West End. In 1887, Elizabeth Anne became the second wife of a master mariner, James Thomas, from Dinas and West End became their family home. James Thomas certainly would have had the resources to rebuild or update the building. He was a particularly successful mariner, captaining the large barque the West Australian on voyages to Australia.

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to take photos inside West End before the builders moved in to renovate it. What was particularly interesting was that the main building was flanked by two smaller cottages/ outbuildings which had not been touched for many many years. They looked much older than the main house. Walking into the small cottage which opened on to the road at the lefthand side of the house, was like stepping back a hundred years, an exciting but also a very poignant feeling:-

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most cottages would have had a large fireplace like this, a simne fawr , providing cooking facilities as well as heat. Cooking would have originally taken place over an open fire, often in a suspended cauldron. Simple stews would have been kept simmering with extra ingredients being thrown in to stretch the contents for a second or third meal. This was the origin of the meat and vegetable cawl, a chunky, meal-sized soup which can still be sampled in the area. These days it is usually served with bread and a chunk of cheese. Cast iron griddles were used over the open fire for much of the baking and that too has left its legacy in the Welsh Cake, flat, fruit-studded and irresistible when eaten warm with a little salty Welsh butter.

By the end of the nineteenth century, domestic fires were fuelled by culm, an economical mixture of coal dust and clay which would have been landed from vessels down at the Parrog. The cast iron range seen in the picture was probably an Edwardian introduction. Some ranges incorporated hobs, a boiler and a bread oven. More details can be found in Saving the last of the magic. Traditional Qualities of the West Wales Cottage, Martin Davies (1991). The range in the cottage at West End looked very basic:-

The simne fawr itself was built like an inverted funnel and it's possible to look straight up it towards the chimney pot:-

The front room of this side cottage was equally simple with an uneven, flagstone floor:-

A wooden staircase led up into a crug loft above where the floor was sagging at an alarming angle and plants were trailing in through the roof:-

Around the back of the main house was another cottage/outbuilding which may have at one time housed a dairy:-

Arrangements in the main house were definitely more sophisticated:-

Everywhere in this empty house there was a sense of the past. A hand twitching a curtain in one of the cottages:-

Or someone coming back from sea with the large conch shell, which was perched on a wall in the garden. Elsewhere, there were a couple of old trunks, one supporting the water tank. The romantic in me would like to think that they had once been sea chests and had travelled the world. But there was certainly
very little romance in the kind of life James Thomas of West End led at sea, as this newspaper report from 25th June 1890, when he was captain of the West Australian, shows:-


The captain of the Barque West Australian which reached Hobson’s Bay on Sunday afternoon from Mauritius, tells of the loss of one of his crew, a tale which has peculiarly sad features, says the Daily Telegraph. Benjamin Lorne (sic. a misprint for Larne), the captain’s nephew, a youth of 17, who had served two years as an ordinary seaman, was the last of the three sons of his widowed mother, who lives in Pembrokeshire. Each of his brothers had been drowned at sea at about his age when completing apprenticeship and he has met with the same fate during the West Australian’s voyage from Port Louis. When the ship was in 89 58 degrees S and 99 56 degrees E, the weather was very stormy and the vessel was rolling a good deal. The lad had been sent aloft to overhaul the maintopgallant buntlines. He had just reached the masthead when he lost his hold, and fell headlong into the troubled sea. The captain instantly threw a lifebuoy towards him, but as he could not swim and was moreover hampered by his oilskins it is scarcely likely that he reached it. The ship was brought to as soon as possible and a boat was got into readiness. Then the captain wore the ship round, and sailed to the west for an hour and a half, with men on the mainroyal yard and mizzenmasthead to keep a lookout but nothing could be seen of the boy. The barque then tacked to the north east, but as darkness was coming on, the search had to be given up as hopeless. Everyone on board felt the loss deeply as the lad was a general favourite.

The boy concerned was my great great grandmother's nephew too so I feel a sympathy with any of these sad memories which might still haunt this house. Deep sea voyages brought the kind of wealth which made Newport the town it is today but that wealth came at a hard price and I think it's sad these men and their often uncomfortable stories have been forgotten.

Thursday 30 December 2010

Morfan in its former life as The Queen's Hotel, Parrog

I've just been reading Keith Johnson's book "The Pubs of St David's. Fishguard & North Pembrokeshire" which includes a very useful chapter on the pubs of Newport and the Parrog. There were quite a number of them in the area and a thriving Temperance movement too.

Some of the pubs are hard to tie to existing buildings but the former Queen's is easier to trace as it occupied the large house which is now Morfan, the right hand of the pretty row of cottages lining the Parrog Road in the picture below.

The Edwardian postcard at the top of this blog shows the building when it was the Queen's Hotel and enlarging the card shows what may well be holiday makers outside decked out in their finery.

I suspect that people in these postcards must have known the photographer was coming and dressed accordingly or did young boys always wear suits for the beach?

The pub was sometimes simply called the Queen's but by the 1891 census, it was listed as the Queen's Hotel and was run by Margaret Williams, a mariner's wife. It was quite common for the pubs in the area to be run by retired sea captains or the wives of serving mariners. Sea captains often spent several months or even whole years ashore when they were not in command of a vessel so an alternative source of income must have been useful. It is interesting that the census does not list anyone except immediate family members in residence on census night (5th April) so there do not seem to have been any paying guests present, perhaps indicating that it was still more of a pub than a guest house. It was certainly listed as a pub in the 1895 Kellys Directory.

A bit of digging around on Reg Davies' Welsh Mariners' website shows that Margaret William's husband, David Williams took his mate's certificate in 1869, moving on to become 1st Mate. He was a Captain by 1874, commanding ships such as the Asiana and the Anglo American and survived a shipwreck in the Azores on the barque Keewaydin (not connected to the trawler Keewaydin which can sometimes be seen moored at the quay in Cardigan). Seafaring was David Williams' blood. His father was Captain Thomas Williams of the Parrog, who held shares in the barque Ondara and named his large sea front house after his vessel.

Before taking on the Queen's Hotel, David Williams and his family were living in St Mary Street in Newport. The pub seems to have been a retirement venture but he died shortly afterwards in 1891. His widow was still running it in 1895 but after that it had a succession of landlords before closing in the 1920's.

Friday 3 December 2010

Watching the boats come in from the Parrog seawall

The tide is in, so far in, that a small tongue of water to the left of the photo spills out into what is now the car park on the Parrog. A group of people sit on the seawall gazing out to sea and a small rowing boat with three passengers is making it's way to shore, a typical holiday scene from the early 1900's maybe. That's how I first interpreted this image until I read what Martin Lewis had to say in "Newport Pem and Fishguard Revisited". He thinks that a vessel has just come into the harbour and that the crew are being ferried ashore. Looking more closely at the rowing boat, the man in the prow seems to be wearing a seaman's cap and perhaps the other men have caps too:-

A further look at the people on the seawall shows that the man third from the left is also in uniform:-

In the early 1900's, the Parrog would have still been a working harbour. Large vessels would have come in at high tide when they could cross the bar at the mouth of the estuary. They would then be beached on the sands ready to be unloaded at low water when carts could come alongside. It is still possible to see tracks cut through the rocks to allow laden carts to be driven straight up to Feidir Brenin from the waterfront. The arrival of one of these vessels probably attracted the curiosity of locals and visitors alike.

It is always interesting how smartly dressed people are in these early photos. Did people always dress this formally in those days or was it for the benefit of the photgrapher? Pictures like this would have been taken on a plate camera. A long exposure was needed to expose the photographic plate and most of the people in these photos would have been posing, motionless. You can just see the blur of the oars but the people in the boat are sitting very upright and straight as if they too know they will be in the picture.

Looking in detail at the limeburner's cottage it seems to have a hole in it's roof. I wonder if it was still inhabited at the time?