Sunday, 31 May 2009

Gwal Y Filiast, Carmarthenshire

(Click photos to enlarge).

The dolmem - or cromlech - of Gwal Y Filiast is quite well hidden away just outside of the small village of Llanglydwen in Carmarthenshire. To reach it you have to take a walk down a muddy track for about 10 minutes or so and take a turn into the woods.

It's very easy to get yourself lost whilst looking for this site. My father and I tried finding it one day during the Christmas holidays and ended up going too far and following the river and surrounding woodland for hours. We still managed to take a wrong turning today when we visited, although we knew the rough direction this time and soon got back on track.

Gwal Y Filiast - the name translates as Lair of the She-Wolf or Lair of the Grey Hound Bitch (not greyhound but grey hound - literally a hound that is grey - a wolf) - seems unusual for such a burial chamber being located in this setting beneath the trees.

The dolmen is at the epicentre of a ring a beech trees, while several other stones which may once have been part of the greater structure are scattered around the site. The dolmen itself consists of a huge capstone - easily 10 feet in length and 3 to 4 feet in thickness - balanced on four uprights, and there are a pair of smaller stones set in the ground at one end.

This is a really atmospheric site, which is in no doubt enhanced by its surroundings on the wooded slope above the river Taf. It is a little off the beaten track and is unlikely to be visited by casual tourists, who would be far more likely to head for somewhere better known in the general area such as Pentre Ifan. I think they are missing out! Remember to consult a map if you want to visit and wear walking boots or wellies!

Date visited: 31 May 2009.

See also: Gwal Y Filiast on The Megalithic Portal
Gwal Y Filiast on The Modern Antiquarian

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Portchester Castle, Hampshire

(Click photos to enlarge).

Portchester Castle, which sits overlooking the eastern end of Portsmouth Harbour, is a medieval castle, palace and former Roman fort.

It all seems so much bigger once you get inside the inner walls of the main castle.

Pictured below is one of the castle's current residents.

St Mary's Church (below), dating back to Norman times, sits in the south east corner of the complex within the outer castle walls.

Here is another photo looking down at the ruins from on top of the keep, which is a whole lot higher than it first appears to be!

Proof that graffitti is no modern phenomenon.

All in all, this is a very nicely kept site and is well worth the admission fee. Like Doctor Who's TARDIS, it's a lot bigger on the inside than you may at first think. Personally, I didn't care for the audio tour (which is included as part of your admission fee), finding the actors doing silly voices extremely tedious, and I also prefer to make my own way around at my own pace and not have the tour dictated by a piece of technology. However, it may appeal to you, especially if you want a potted history. The other alternative is to read up about the history separately.

Date visited: 21 May 2009

See also: Portchester Castle
A Guide to Portchester Castle
An Interactive Guide to Portchester Castle

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Fishguard Fort, Pembrokeshire

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From the information sign outside the fort:

"The fort was built following a raid on Fishguard in 1779; the privateer vessel Black Prince demanded £1,000 to return a captured local ship and as a ransom for the town. When this was refused it bombarded Fishguard, damaging St. Mary's Church and some houses.

"As Fishguard was a prosperous port, protection was vital. The fort was completed in 1781; armed with eight 9-pounder guns manned by three invalid gunners from Woolwich, it became the headquarters of the Fishguard Fencibles.

"On 22nd February 1797, an invading French force appeared off the coast. Alarm guns were fired from the fort, but the Fencibles were withdrawn from the building which played no further part in the invasion.

"Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Fishguard Fort fell into disrepair. It is now owned and maintained by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority."

Below is a view of the fort as seen from the other side of the harbour.

Below is a view of what is now known as Lower Fishguard and the actual harbour that was being guarded. This is not to be confused with the much larger commercial harbour from which the ferries to Ireland depart.

Date visited: 10 April 2009.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Church of St Brynach, Cym Yr Eglwys, Pembrokeshire

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When I was a small child, we used to holiday at a farm near Dinas Head in Pembrokeshire, and as a family we would trek almost daily from the farm to the nearest beach at Cwm Yr Eglwys. We spent many happy hours playing there. It was a fantastic beach for bathing in the sea and for its many rock pools waiting to be explored. Set in a secluded bay, Cwm Y Eglwys is said to have its own micro-climate and is supposedly a few degrees warmer than elsewhere on the Pembrokeshire coast.

One of the main distinguishing features at Cwm Yr Eglwys beach is the ruins of the 12th Century church of St Brynach. Most of the church was destroyed in the almighty storm of 1859, and much of the ground that it was built upon and graveyard was also swept away.

Above: The old parish church of Dinas, Pembrokeshire, prior to its destruction in the 1830s. Scan of a hand-coloured print dated 1830. Copyright expired: from "Wales Illustrated", Jones & Co, London, 1831. Painting by Henry Gastineau (1791-1876). Engraved by Edward Kennion.

By the entrance to the churchyard, we find this memorial - a model brig consructed in metal by James Eifion Thomas, Blacksmith, of Dinas Cross. The plaque reads:
The Cwm Trader

This is a scale model of a coastal trading brig, typical of those that plied the waters of Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire about the time when St Brynach's Church in Cwm-yr-Eglwys was destroyed in the Royal Charter storm of 1859. These vessels were of relatively shallow draft and largely flat bottomed, so allowing them to be sailed into bays at high water and then unloaded at low tide by horse and cart transport. Many of these vessels were lost in that fateful storm and this model is erected as a memorial to those sailors and their ships and to mark the occasion of The Millennium.
Date visited: 10 April 2009

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

St Andrews Church, Church Ope Cove, Portland

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The ruins of St Andrews Church are situated halfway up the cliffside above Church Ope Cove on the eastern coast of the Isle of Portland in Dorset.

Overlooked by Rufus Castle, St Andrews was originally built between 1150 and 1470 and served as the parish church of Portland until the mid 1700s.

The church was damaged following a landslip in 1675, but it wasn't until 1756 that the church was finally closed, and when stones were taken away to help build St George's Church at Reforne.

According to local legend the graves include those of several pirates, although we were unable to make out any of the lettering on the tombstones due to weathering and so couldn't pinpoint quite where their resting places might be. Another story I have heard is that it was French pirates who, along with the landslips, helped destroy the church.

Below we see another picture of Rufus Castle, looking across Church Ope Cove. The cove is now a popular site for fishermen and is home to many beach huts, although it was quite empty when we visited. The beach, which is absolutely strewn with pleasingly round stones and boulders of the grey Portland stone, seems to be quite a tranquil place and it must be a far cry from the days of attacking pirates and the smugglers for which the beach is famous.

Date visited: 9 March 2009

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Lighthouse, Pulpit Rock & Sea Caves, Portland Bill, Dorset

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Portland Bill lighthouse was built in 1906 and is 35 metres (115 ft) tall. There are two earlier lighthouses relatively nearby, one of which is now a bird observatory.

Portland Bill itself is the promontory of (the eponymously named) Portland stone at the southern tip of the Isle of Portland, off the coast of Dorset in South England. Portland isn't quite a true island in that it is connected to the mainland by the sandbank formed by the eastern end of Chesil Beach (which is itself 18 miles long).

Everywhere there is evidence of the isle's history of quarrying. There are piles of Portland stone at regular intervals, and as you follow the coastline around you encounter various abandoned quarries. Near to the lighthouse is an enormous structure jutting out into the sea, known as the Pulpit Rock (pictured above). This is in fact a man-made structure formed by the quarrying process.

It's hard to tell in some parts whether the jagged coastline of Portland has been cut away by men and machines or if it has been naturally eroded. To the east of the lighthouse and approximately half a mile away there are some huge sea caverns that have, presumably, been eroded out underneath the land above by the sea.

My guess is that they were formed by a natural process, as it looks to be a very peculiar way in which to quarry stone - but if you know differently, please let me know! One of the sea caves is viewable from above through a hole in its "roof" which has a grill laid across it formed from sections of railway line.

Date visited: 9 March 2009

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Durdle Dor, Dorset

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Durdle Dor - or Durdle Door which might seem to be the more logical spelling - is a natural limestone arch on Dorset's Jurassic coast located between Lulworth to the east and Weymouth to the west.

The photo below is taken from the east and shows the Man O'War beach on the other side from the limestone arch, and you can also see quite nicely how the bands of rock continue straight through the main structure.

Note Portland on the horizon in this and the first picture.

See also: Durdle Door on Wikipedia

Visited: 9 March 2009

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Oxford Castle and Castle Mound

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On the way home from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History last Sunday, I took this very moody photograph of Oxford Castle and the the Castle Mound as I walked past. Oxford Castle was built back in 1071 for William the Conqueror, has since spent half of its life as a prison, and these days is part of a tourist attraction which also comprises restaurants, bars, and a hotel.

Last year I spent a night with a group of ghost-hunters in the supposedly haunted castle. It was an interesting night and it was quite fun finding our way around by only the lights of our torches, but I can't say I found it particularly spooky or believed there was any supernatural presence there. I could quite easily have settled down in the castle vaults in a sleeping bag and had a good night's sleep. But the important thing was that we were sponsored and raised a lot of money for Cystic Fibrosis.

See also: Oxford Castle

Date visited: 1 March 2009

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Oxford University Museum of Natural History

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I'm slightly ashamed to say that although I have worked in Oxford for over 20 years, I very rarely get out and about and visit its various places of interest. I think, like many others in Oxford, I tend to leave that to the tourists and end up missing out on what's there on my own doorstep.

I only visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for the first time last November, but I instantly fell in love with the place and wondered why on earth I'd never been before. I'm not going to give its whole history here, but to say that the museum came into being following a competition in 1854, when Deane and Woodward's design for the museum was selected, and then in 1860 the building was opened despite being unfinished in parts. (The museum sells a booklet entitled Oxford University Museum: Its architecture and art for £2.50, and which will fill in all the historical details should you want them).

The architecture of this place is incredible. Upon entering the main court, one of the very first things you notice is how very light it is. Intriguingly the main court has a glass roof which is held aloft by a system of cast and wrought ironwork. The ironwork is decorated with various botanical ornamenation, so that you almost get the impression of being inside an iron jungle.

The stonework in the museum is pretty impressive too. Each of these pillars surrounding the court (pictured above) - which are to be found both around the court on the ground floor and on the first floor galleries - is made from a different British decorative rock whilst their capitals and corbels (the stonework immediately above and below each pillar) are each intricately carved with various flora and fauna.

Those who find taxidermy repellent might want to stay away as there are various stuffed animal exhibits here. Unlike the museums I remember from my childhood, visitors are actively encouraged to touch some of these stuffed animals. Small children in particular seem to love these exhibits. Where else could they get up close to a cheetah, or a badger or fox, and get to stroke its fur and see what it feels like to the touch? Several of these exhibits that we are invited to touch have labels in braille, so the museum should be commended for taking its blind visitors into consideration.

One of the more macabre exhibits features this pair of carrion crows feeding their young with a little fluffy yellow chick. But such is nature!

Another much more legendary bird, of which the museum is very proud, is the dodo. This particular example is usually referred to as the Oxford Dodo and famously appeared in Lewis Carrol's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Supposedly, the head and foot of the dodo displayed here are the most complete remains of a single dodo anywhere in the world.

Here (above) we see the dodo again, but in a "slimline" version after research has suggested it wasn't as fat and clumsy as it has been previously portrayed.

This huge slab of sandstone caught my eye. It contains fossils of three different genera of trilobites, as well as several brittle stars. To give an idea of scale some of the larger trilobites here are each roughly the size of one of my hands (and I have reasonably large hands).

And of course there are dinosaurs in the museum. Plenty of them. As one of my favourite authors, Robert Rankin, would say: I think it's a tradition or an old charter or something.

This chap, a certain Mr Charles Darwin, is also present albeit in statue form as are a whole host of other famous scientists. Darwin's collection of crustacea, amassed from his expeditions on The Beagle, is owned by the museum, and the 1860 evolution debate which discussed Darwin's On The Origin of Species took place here.

As if you haven't gathered by now, I think this museum is absolutely fantastic, and I've not even mentioned the displays of fossils, minerals, the insects and arachnids (including a live tarantula) and very probably a whole lot more that I simply can't think of right now. The museum is very child-friendly, and it was great to see so many families out together for a visit. It doesn't cost anything to get in (although donations are welcome), so all in all I'd say the Oxford University Museum of Natural History is well worth a visit and brings together a wealth of natural history, art and architecture all under one roof.

(Casts of the footprints of the bipedal carnivorous dinosaure Megalosaurus from 168 million year-old middle Jurassic limestones of Oxfordshire - on the museum's front lawn.)

See: Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Date visited: 1 March 2009