Whilst the Society has a carefully prepared schedule of lectures for the winter seasons, our summer outings are more topical as we try to target destinations where new work is giving rise to new discoveries.
2015 was the year of the great bluestone controversy. The mysterious and improbable link between Pembrokeshire and Ston ehenge, which has given rise to so many hotly contested theories over the last 90 years, became even more active when Professor Mike Parker Pearson of the Archaeological Institute, UCL and his team identified two new Pembrokeshire sources for the Stonehenge bluestones. Naturally, we were delighted when he agreed to escort us to Carn Goedog high in the Preselis and to Craig Rhos-y-Felin near Felindre Farchog last September where he pointed out the various features which formed the basis of his theory. Both sites were impressive, with colossal stones rearing from the ground seemingly already shaped, and in the case of Craig Rhos y Felin, one that had shattered as it was being levered and abandoned.
As an added bonus Mike also guided us around a newly discovered circular enclosure by the river at Felindre Farchog which had been spotted by Toby Driver of the Royal Commission in a flyover just after a light sprinkling of snow. The excavation in progress appeared to be uncovering a prehistoric site overlaid by an early Christian cemetery with cist graves. We look forward to the publication of the archaeological report.
St Patrick’s Chapel, Whitesands Bay
In May this year the Society visited Whitesands Bay where the Dyfed Archaeological Trust was extending its 2015 dig at St Patrick’s Chapel. This site is right on the beach and is being excavated because it is endangered by coastal erosion. We arrived in time to watch a cranium being carefully exhumed from a sector of the early medieval cemetery which appeared to be reserved for the burial of children. The skeletal remains exhumed so far date from the 6th – 12th centuries and their east-west orientation, together with the discovery of a cross-shaped grave marker, indicates that this was a Christian cemetery. St Patrick’s Chapel is later, as some of the burials lie beneath it, but it is described in the records as ruinous in 1600. The excavations also revealed evidence that Whitesands was once an important maritime trading post with links to Ireland, the Continent and other parts of Britain.
After a pleasant break for lunch, a member of the DAT team took us on a tour of the prehistoric remains of megalithic structures, fortifications and field systems on St David’s head. An inspiring tour made special by the carpet of pink orchids at our feet.
The Society’s next outing in June was to Manorbier where we were in the knowledgeable hands of Gerald Codd, author of ‘Manorbier Parish: a history.’ It was a very full day starting at Manorbier Church where we all puzzled over the architectural clues to its former form and its possible Celtic antecedents. This task was aided by an image in one of the stained glass windows showing the interior of the church before the Victorians got to work on it.
The stained glass window in Manorbier Church which shows the interior before Victorian restoration.
Passing the Castle gate, we took some time to inspect the fine Arts and Crafts Village Hall which was designed in 1908 by Benson, a protégé of William Morris who owned a house in Manorbier. The building has recently been renovated by its current owner, the Picton Estate.
After refreshments in the excellent Beach Break Café (which is not near the beach) our party set off to explore the network of green lanes which lace this landscape linking Manorbier to its satellite villages of Jameston and Manorbier Newtown. In the course of the afternoon the group examined the remains of the ancient fishponds referred to by Giraldus Cambrensis in his fond description of his birthplace, the newly restored medieval dovecote and the remains of the mill. Regrettably, we didn’t have the time (or the energy) to examine the extraordinary axial field systems surrounding Manorbier which are a rare survival from the Bronze age. Perhaps next year …..
Members on their way to inspect Manorbier’s superb dovecot which would have played an important role in the economy of the manorial household. It held about 250 birds.
The green lane linking Manorbier to Jameston, called Coffin Lane as bodies had to be carried along it to be buried in Manorbier churchyard.
The Regency Restoration Project at Middleton Hall, National Botanic Garden of Wales
Finally, just before this publication was going to press, members of the Society had an exciting day at the National Bontanic Garden of Wales which is the scene of a multi-million pound project to restore the Regency water gardens, lakes and landscaped parkland of Middleton Hall. Professor Emeritus David Austin, who is in charge of the archaeology of the project, started the day with a brief illustrated lecture tracing the history of the site from the 16th century, when it was the seat of the Middleton family, to the development of the park under its 18th century owner, the East India Company nabob, Sir William Paxton. David explained that the Middletons also had a connection with the East India company, being founder members, and that, like Paxton, they too used the springs on the site to create elaborate water gardens that have only recently been discovered by geophysics and LIDAR.
Professor Emeritus David Austin who is directing the archaeological work.
The walk which followed revealed the enormous scale of the 500 acre 18th century park with its lakes, dams, waterfalls and cascades together with the engineering that their construction entailed, and we marvelled at the fabulous wealth that must have been at the disposal of its creator. Unfortunately, Paxton’s mansion has mostly disappeared – only the outline of its footprint is preserved, delineated in stone ……. at half scale.
Towards the end of the tour, we visited the site of the earlier Renaissance hall of the Middleton family which lies on the opposite side of the water to Paxton’s mansion. There, we were able to appreciate the complexity and scale of the 16th – 17th century water features described in the lecture. Curious passers-by wondered what we were finding so interesting about the lumps and bumps under our feet but, thanks to David’s interpretation, we were envisaging a magnificent Tudor mansion surrounded by formal gardens of great beauty where fountains played and cascades tumbled down to the nearby river.
This visit was topped off by a humid stroll through the Botanic Gardens’ tropical house amidst clouds of exotic, brilliantly-hued butterflies.