We met on a copper-sunned afternoon in early October – and only because I managed to avoid the mayhem which closed the Shrewsbury ring road. I had soon reached the long hill at Dinas Mawddwy, cruised past Cadair at Cross Foxes and arrived at the Finches in time for a cup of tea and a stroll on the headland. I was planning to meet friends in Barmouth later for supper and a chat about the new campaign to save the bridge.
It had been unusually dry for days and the path outside The Coach House which led upwards to the headland’s peak was clear and easy. I headed instinctively to what my school grandly called the Gazebo. In reality, it was more an uncovered semi-circle of stones perched precipitously at the summit on the edge of the cliff. But with a commanding view to the southern shoreline of the estuary, it made a perfect spot for a picnic or even more atmospherically, a reading of gothic tales by candlelight as the English department had been known to organise. It was no surprise that the Gazebo was one of everybody’s favourite places at Farchynys, my school’s adventure centre in an old coach house on the Mawddach estuary in Snowdonia.
I sat and scanned the long, sharp edge of Tyrau Mawr directly opposite and then looking down below, enjoyed the sand art: the constantly changing patterns left by retreating tides. Apart from a group of redwings feeding on rowan berries before heading off, there was an intense silence here: it was the perfect antidote to the noise of Brexit London which I had left behind.
I took some photos with my phone and then took the other path downwards and noticed storm damaged trees lying forlorn and waiting their appointment with the Warden’s chainsaw. Through a more vigorous tree’s accommodating branches I could see The Clock House, the iconic building positioned right on the water at Coes Faen, a few steps from the bridge. Soon I was heading down the path through overgrown bushes towards the Boathouse and the beach.
Technically out of bounds, the Boathouse was just too tempting an opportunity not to relive my youthful memories. Energised by the walk, I was humming enthusiastically along the headland path when I spotted a
figure on the beach sitting quietly near the slipway, head turned towards the sea. It was a woman of about forty, with strawberry blonde hair worn up in a French pleat. She was wearing a long summer dress. As I approached her, I saw she was holding something across her lap. She remained perfectly still, staring at the beach towards the bridge. The stillness was a little unsettling.
“Lovely afternoon!” I paused. “Everything well?” I added with deliberate fragmentary vagueness.
Her ornately embroidered dress was the colour of corn and the item sitting across her lap, I realised, was actually a drawing board on which a picture was taped down. She remained impassive for several more seconds before she turned towards me.
“Forgive me, I was captivated by this landscape. The viaduct somehow has improved what Nature already gifted to us.” Scattered around her on the sand, I could now see a painter’s impedimenta: a wooden box of tubes, brushes in various sizes and shapes, a square palette, rags and jars of water.
“I’ve always been fascinated by how special places can evoke emotion,” I replied.
“That’s why I am here,” and she pointed to her picture which consisted of a big wash of flax yellow laid across her pencil sketch of the estuary.
“Perhaps I should break the ice?”, I said, “I’m Paul Walton and I’ve just driven up from Oxford.” She gave a small puff and a smile.
“What a small world, then” she said, and began to tidy her clutter.
“I’m sorry, I mustn’t disturb your concentration,” I suggested, perhaps a little after the event.
“I think I’m finished for today; the light and warmth are going, and my next wash will not dry in time.” She placed her canvass into a pouch and turned to me: “I’m Amelia. Amelia Reid, and my sister’s husband was a Latin scholar at Christ Church. Are you staying at Farchynys Hall? I’ve met the new people there and I should tell you that they are happy to let me loose on their headland to paint.”
I laughed and folded up her stool.
“No actually, I am staying at the Farmhouse with the Finches. And you?”
“Across the way at Plas Caerdeon. With my sister and brother-in-law. My brother-in- law has been working at St Philips’s over the summer and I’ve been lucky enough to stay with him and my sister. We all like to paint in watercolour and this summer has provided many opportunities.”
She had now packed all her gear into an elegant wicker basket and placed its goatskin strap on her shoulder. “The sun is fading fast now, and I should be on my way back. It was good to meet you. Enjoy the rest of the afternoon!”
We heard the pic pic of a woodpecker.
“I have to get back too, Amelia, perhaps I could walk with you?”,
and we walked back through the meadow towards Farchynys. When we reached the drive, we said our goodbyes.
Later that evening before I left for dinner in Barmouth, I was enjoying a glass of beer with Dennis in the Farmhouse, and as was his custom with his B&B guests, he asked what I’d been up to. I told him of my encounter with Amelia Reid, the lady of the boathouse, our conversation about painting and the church at Caerdeon where her sister and brother were working for the summer.
“She sounds something straight out of Millais, my dear boy, and interesting to hear about St Philips’s too. Have you ever been there? It’s built in the Basque style and while it’s certainly non-standard C of E or W, it’s certainly worth a visit – if you can find it.”
“I’ve never been, Dennis, and in fact, until today, I hadn’t even heard about it.”
“Well how about a walk there tomorrow after breakfast? It may be closed, it often seems to be, but we can burn off some of the Farchynys calories in making the attempt and we may learn more about your new friends at Caerdeon.”
The following morning, after one Margaret’s epic Full Welsh feasts, Dennis and I set off down the road and then up the path into the forest like Hobbits marching into the Misty Mountains. The lane corkscrewed several times and after what seemed like a couple of miles, I spotted a Lychgate and behind it, a big rectangular building with plain rectangular windows. We went up to the entrance.
“Lucky boy, it’s open,” said Dennis, and I went inside whilst he took a look outside.
Inside, it was definitely lighter than other more ancient Welsh churches I’d visited, but it felt damp, didn’t smell like it was in regular use and there was no sign of any people or works in progress. At the crossing on the nave I noticed there was a large metal wheel with a rope connected to the four bells above me in the open belfry – an ingenious device which probably made bell ringing possible by one person. It appeared to be in working order. I was now thinking this was indeed a real curiosity of a building, half-way up a mountain on a dangerously steep incline.
“Paul,” a voice came from behind me in the porch, “I think you ought to come and look at what I’ve found.”
I followed Dennis outside and watched as he manoeuvred carefully down the overgrown slope of the graveyard. I followed.
“See what’s written on this? How’s your Latin, dear boy?”
We were looking down at a weathered memorial stone, half sunk into the slope.
Amelia Reid, sister of Louisa, taken from this world October 5th, 1868.
Non hodie Quod heri.
I murmured a translation: “I am not today what I was yesterday,”
- Philip’s Church also known as Caerdeon Chapel is indeed situated off a steep lane in a dramatically sloping churchyard not far from the Farchynys Coach house.
- Built in 1862, three years before the opening of Barmouth Viaduct, it had a somewhat controversial early history. It was built by the Rev William Edward Jelf, a Classics Tutor at Christ Church. He conducted services for his Oxford students in English rather than the official Welsh and thus fell foul of the local Church of Wales big-wig, the Rector of Llanaber. Matters were resolved in Jelf’s favour by The Court of Arches.
- The Church was designed by Jelf’s Oxford friend, the Rev John Louis Petit who was descended from a Huguenot family which had settled in Lichfield. He was also a one-man campaign against the overuse of neo-gothic Church design. Petit travelled widely exploring Mediterranean and eastern ecclesiastical styles and painted many watercolours. As did his wife, Louisa and her unmarried sister, Amelia Reid.
- I did take one major liberty in the story: whilst John Louis Petit died in 1868, apparently from a chill caught while sketching, Amelia lived to a fine old age and became with her sister’s sister-in-law, Maria Jelf, leading lights of the Ipswich Fine Art club. Amelia last exhibited in 1896.
- Maria Jelf’s painting of St Philip’s, the Mawddach and Cadair is below (Courtesy of Somerset and Wood Fine Art)
- My friends at The Circle of Petit (www.revpetit.com) have also made available for sharing two other studies in watercolour which can be found below. One is a splendid view of St. Philip’s, the other, a powerful study of the estuary from Rhuddallt.
There’s more at: www.mariansonthemawddach.com