Wednesday blog at the Eisteddfod

Elfen, Eisteddfod

We're just over half way through our programme of Eisteddfod Shed Talks and I’m struck at how all the talks seem to be connected. The subject of one leads on to the next, and they’re already beginning to build a unified picture of where the National Trust in Wales is now and, more importantly, where we need to go in the future.

The first two talks in today’s programme illustrate this point nicely.

Claudine Gerrard, the Trust’s South Wales archaeologist gave us a sneak preview of a film produced for the Gower Landscape Partnership (soon to be available through their website) which reveals the fascinating work being done by local volunteers in order to better understand a hidden landscape around Rhossili. Working with Claudine and archaeologists from Black Mountain Archaeology, volunteers are literally peeling back the layers of history and are starting reveal tantalising evidence of a lost landscape.

And what makes this project different from many digs is that it also involves experimental archaeology. In the film, volunteers are shown building a series to corn-drying kilns (one speaks with surprising enthusiasm about the correct consistency of cob – mud and straw to you and me) to better understand how Gower’s early medieval communities dried their grain for the winter.

Claudine summarised her work and the project nicely when she said, “There’s no point us doing this work if local people aren’t interested and involved. It’s all about getting your hands dirty to experience something of the lives of our ancestors”.

Then we heard from Ceridwen Davies of Dyffryn Gardens, who has been working on a project which involves – guess what – local volunteers getting their hands dirty to recreate and better-understand a lost landscape. Perhaps I shouldn’t labour the similarity too much though, as this project is in a rather different setting.

The walled gardens at Dyffryn were laid out by the fantastically wealthy coal baron, John Cory. A measure of his success can be gained by the fact that at the height of the coal boom in the late 1800s, he owned more coal wagons than any of the other Welsh tycoons, such as Lord Bute and David Davies.

Much of this wealth was being ploughed into the gardens at Dyffryn by John’s son Reginald when the Great War broke out. With imports blocked, everyone was being encouraged to grow their own vegetables and the Methodist, philanthropic Cory family went to great lengths to help the local community raise to this challenge. A hundred-thousand vegetable plans were raised and distributed, and in 1918, Reginald’s head gardener Arthur Cobb wrote an article in the Barry Docks News on the ‘ten perch allotment’: the amount of land that could be ‘dug by a working-class man in his time off’.

In her talk, Ceridwen described how this recently rediscovered article was used as the blueprint for a remarkably successful volunteer project to recreate a 1918 ten-perch allotment at Dyffryn. Later, after the talk, I asked Ceridwen if she’d show me the Cory Building, which was just down the Bute St. from our venue. I photographed her standing by the imposing classical building (empty, unused and for sale by the way) which was the administrative nerve-centre of the empire that created Ceridwen’s workplace.

So there you have it, two talks by National Trust front-line staff working with local communities; delving in the very earth of their heritage to better understand the lives of their ancestors