Archives for August 2011

Open Doors returns to Wales

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 13:35 UK time, Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Open Doors project begins on Friday and lasts throughout September. Offering a chance to explore some of Wales' most fascinating buildings and locations, there'll be special events, talks and guided walks taking place.

Open Doors days offer the public free access to places and buildings of historic and architectural interest. Many buildings which are normally free to visit put on something very special. This year there are over 500 events at more than 300 sites across Wales.

The gate at Llantarnam Abbey near Cwmbran

The gate at Llantarnam Abbey near Cwmbran

Derw Thomas, the Open Doors coordinator at Civic Trust for Wales, told us all about the project and what to expect this year.

What is Open Doors all about?

Open Doors is a celebration of architecture and built heritage. It's part of European Heritage Days and runs for the whole of September.

So what happens?

Open Doors has two main aspects to it. Buildings which aren't normally available to the public open up for people to see, and buildings which normally charge people to go in waive their charges.

And it's completely free?

Absolutely! There are no charges for people to go into these visitor attractions and buildings which are not normally open. Some sites are even offering free refreshments.

Is it purely about buildings opening up?

No. There are plenty of other events like guided walks, talks and lectures. There are even musical events and book launches.

So there's something for everyone?

That's absolutely right. There are events and sites that are more geared to families. And there are more specialised lectures and illustrated talks. The basic premise is about built heritage. We've got such a wonderful range of buildings and heritage sites around Wales. Whatever your taste or interest there's something to suit all everyone.

Mansion House in Cardiff

Mansion House in Cardiff

Are there events all over Wales?

Yes there are. Every local authority area of Wales has a programme of sites and events. Inevitably there are more in some areas than others but I'd estimate that wherever you live in Wales you're never more than half an hour away from an Open Doors event. From the cities of south Wales to Anglesey there are really interesting sites waiting to welcome visitors.

The Open Doors programme has grown in recent years. What do you think is the secret of its success?

Well, obviously I'm biased but I'd say that variety is its watchword. There's such a huge range of sites and events. From large and grand stately homes to remote churches and places of worship. There are impressive civic buildings, fascinating industrial heritage sites and behind the scenes tours at museums.

Why are people so keen to visit some of these sites?

That's a difficult one. For me, I'm fascinated with old buildings but also with new architecture and the prospect of what might become the heritage of the future. Ultimately, I think the programme appeals to our sense of nosiness! For many of us, we might drive or walk passed a building every day and think I wonder what it's like inside there. Open Doors gives us an opportunity to find out!

Cantref Church in the Brecon Beacons

Cantref Church in the Brecon Beacons

What are your top tips?

I'd advise people to check out what's going on near to where they live. Give yourself an opportunity to take a closer look at something that might seem familiar. And why not go a bit further afield to have a look round somewhere you've always wanted to go? There are National Trust sites, Cadw sites and lots and lots of independent and quirky places people can visit.

Remind us when Open Doors starts and how long it's on for.

It starts on Friday 2 September and runs for the whole month. Let's hope that people decide to get out and about and explore one of the best aspects of Wales.

How can people find out more information?

There's a full diary of events listed on our website and a gazetteer of detailed site and events listings. Visit, or on Twitter @CivicTrustWales, for all the information.

Wales opens its doors

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 12:56 UK time, Wednesday, 31 August 2011

OK, hands up anyone who has ever heard of Open Doors? If you're someone whose hand has just been left resting firmly in your lap, then this blog might possibly lead you to some great experiences and magnificent sights in the month ahead.

Every September buildings - or, in some cases, places where buildings used to be - take part in the Open Doors Programme. It is, quite simply, a time when buildings and places not normally available to the public throw open their doors and invite people in. The buildings might be churches or castles, private houses or old forts. It really doesn't matter what your normal interest might be, this is simply a chance for you to see buildings and structures that you might otherwise never encounter.

Llanerchaeron in Ciliau Aeron, near Aberaeron

Llanerchaeron in Ciliau Aeron, near Aberaeron

And what's this, I hear you ask, about places where buildings used to be? Simple. One of the locations involved in this years programme is the old Stackpole Court in south Pembrokeshire, a wonderful Georgian building that was totally demolished in the 20th century. Now almost nothing remains of this grand old residence of the Cawdor family and so Open Doors is offering a virtual tour of the building. Fascinating stuff, eh?

The Civic Trust for Wales is organising Open Doors on behalf of CADW and if you think you might be interested you can find out more by logging on to You will find lists of places to go and things to see - there really is something for everyone.

But as a way of whetting your appetite, just look at some of the places you can visit in Wales if you decide to get involved this September.

To start with you can get yourselves into the Royal Mint at Llantrisant - now that's not something you can do every day! Or how about a trip to Trinity Church in Penarth, a church that is known as The Cathedral of Methodism. If you do decide to try Trinity keep your eyes peeled for the Titanic connection - by way of a hint, it's a plaque to a Sunday School teacher who was drowned when the liner went down in 1912. But you'll have to find the location of the plaque for yourselves.

If you head west you could do a lot worse than try two buildings in the Royal Naval Dockyard at Pembroke Dock, both of them being opened up for the first time in years. Firstly, there's the Garrison Chapel. It's a recently refurbished building that originally dates from 1832, the only classical Georgian chapel to remain in Wales. Last used as a Motor Museum, the building has been lovingly restored to its previous state and is well worth an hour of anyone's time.

Newcastle Hill in Bridgend

Newcastle Hill in Bridgend, where a cluster of Open Doors events will take place.

And then there's the wonderful medieval Paterchurch Tower. Situated in the western part of the yards, its origin is unclear but it pre-dates both the dockyard and the town. Quite possibly it has some type of connection with the Knights Hospitallers, an early religious order - many believe it was a watch tower for nearby Pembroke Castle. It is unlikely we will ever know but one thing is clear. The tower is a magnificent structure that is both atmospheric and ancient.

In north Wales you could do a lot worse than call in at Hawarden to steal a glimpse of Gladstone's library. This is the only prime minister's library in the country and was the result of a lifetime's work by Victorian prime minister William Gladstone. There are over 200,000 volumes in the library, books that cover a huge range of topics.

Statue at Gladstone's library, Hawarden

Statue at Gladstone's library, Hawarden

Or you might like to visit Flint Castle - the key keeper will be on hand to offer guided tours on a regular basis. But if you would prefer to wander around at your own pace then that option is also available. It is entirely up to you.

Anglesey has a wealth of wonderful sights, not least St Mary's Church at Aberffraw. This ancient medieval church was built to serve a community that has long since disappeared and now it sits, alone and almost tragic on Wales' biggest island.

Then there is Plas Newydd Country House, the home of the Marquess of Anglesey. It is a palatial building, sitting in easy grandeur in its country park. But perhaps one of the best reasons for visiting the house is to see the partially completed wall painting by Rex Whistler. He had not finished the work when he went off to fight in World War Two. Whistler, of course, was killed and never did finish what would probably have been his masterpiece.

Swansea Castle

Swansea Castle

There are so many more options to choose from. Wherever you decide to go, whatever you decide to do, you can be sure you will enjoy it. Just make sure you do actually do something. Take advantage of this years Open Doors.

Open Doors days take place throughout September and offer the public free access to places and buildings of historic and architectural interest. Buildings which are normally free to visit put on something very special. This year there are over 500 events at more than 300 sites across Wales. For more information visit

New exhibition at Swansea Museum celebrates the history of the Swans

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 14:01 UK time, Wednesday, 24 August 2011

An exhibition devoted to Swansea City Football Club has just opened in the centre of the city.

Proud To Be A Swan takes place at Swansea Museum on Victoria Road until the end of September. It charts the history of the club from the very earliest days, through the successes and the failures, and rounds off with the return of the club to the Premier Division.

The exhibition also features memories of the Vetch, the highs and lows over the years and some of the club's best known characters since its inception over 100 years ago. Other displays tell the story of famous players, diehard supporters, footballing rivalries and the move to the Liberty Stadium.

swansea city exhibition

The exhibition is open until the end of September

Roger Gale, exhibitions and events officer at Swansea Museum, said: "What the Swans have achieved in a short space of time is truly magnificent and this is an opportunity for people to celebrate the club and their wonderful heritage.

"It is a relatively small exhibition in our Long Gallery, but Swansea Museum wanted to mark the new success of the home club, and - with the help of fans and former players - show how the Swans have developed over the years."

The exhibition includes many items of memorabilia from fans, including an array of old pottery and bottles exhumed from beneath the famed Vetch pitch when the demolition men removed the ground from the Swansea landscape.

The Vetch was originally rented from the Swansea Gas Company, and the ground was so rough that players had to wear protective knee padding!

Football shirts - including a famous white Number 5 worn by Alan Curtis - photographs, scarves and autographed ball, as well as many more items lent by supporters for the exhibition.

To keep up with the latest news from Swansea Museum you can follow them on Twitter.

The Great Escape - in Wales?

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 12:09 UK time, Monday, 22 August 2011

Stories about escaping from prisoner of war camps are legion. We all know about Colditz and the various other Stalag camps. And is there anyone out there who has not seen Steve McQueen try to jump that barbed wire on his motorbike in the film The Great Escape?

Barbed wire

In May 1945, 66 German prisoners escaped from the Island Farm camp

The one thing all these stories have in common is that they are about British soldiers or airmen trying to escape from German camps. But during World War Two German soldiers were also kept in prisoner of war camps, in this country and in various parts of the British Commonwealth. And, like their British counterparts they, too, often attempted to escape.

The largest of these escape attempts actually took place in Wales. The camp was called Island Farm and it stood just off the main road outside Bridgend.

Island Farm camp was originally a series of huts built for women working in the munitions factory at Bridgend but few of the women liked the idea of living away from home and the camp was, first, underused and, then, left empty. It was next used as a base for American troops, prior to D-Day, but after the invasion of Europe on 6 June the camp was again abandoned, empty and without purpose.

With hundreds of Germans soon being captured on a daily basis in France and the Low Countries, it was decided to convert Island Farm into a prisoner of war camp. The theory might have been a good one but the execution was very wrong.

The camp was not even finished when many of the prisoners arrived at Bridgend towards the end of 1944. As a result, the prisoners were employed in adapting the hut accommodation and even in putting up the barbed wire entanglements, thus giving them a pretty good idea of the locality and of the camp defences.

Most of the camp guards were either old men or soldiers with little or no interest in doing much except sit out the war in as much comfort as possible. And yet the plan was to incarcerate as many as 1,500 prisoners in the camp.

The authorities might be excused from too much blame because, with the war almost over, conditions at Island Farm were probably far better than they were on the streets of Germany. Nobody, they thought, would be interested in escaping. There was one small flaw to that way of thinking: the prisoners at Bridgend were mostly fanatical Nazis and for many of them getting out of the camp and returning to Germany was of paramount importance.

It was inevitable that an escape attempt would be made. A tunnel was discovered by the guards in January 1945 but the prisoners did not give in. The original tunnel might even have been a decoy. Then, on the night of 10 May 1945, 66 prisoners made their bid for freedom through a second tunnel leading from the floor Hut Nine to a spot outside the barbed wire fence. It was the largest successful escape ever made by German prisoners of war in mainland Britain.

The tunnel stretched for over 60 feet and was even equipped with a basic ventilation system. When investigations were carried out it was discovered that the earth from the excavation had been taken out, yard by yard, and stored in one of the huts. The prisoners actually constructed a partition wall in front of the waste, in order to hide it.

The fact that nobody noticed the room had suddenly been reduced by 10 feet says, perhaps, as much about the quality of the guards and the slack nature of the watch they kept as it does about the ingenuity of the escapees.

Eleven Germans were quickly re-captured, one of them being shot and wounded by a guard. Road blocks and army patrols were immediately established across the surrounding area but many of the prisoners were already well away from Bridgend. Operating in escape groups of three, they were equipped with basic maps and compasses and most of them had supplies of food - pilfered from the camp food store - to stave off hunger as they tried to reach the coast and find a way back to Germany.

Their escape maps, however, were of little use. They had clearly been copied from the maps in the railway carriages that had brought the Germans to the Bridgend area, with the result that railway lines were shown but there was little or no acknowledgement of the road system. It caused more than a little confusion for the escapees.

Like all escapes from prisoner of war camps, German or British, there was a varying degree of success. Some prisoners were apprehended before they had gone 10 miles; some were found hiding in nearby woods with little idea where to go or what to do next. Others, however, managed to get as far as Birmingham and Southampton before they, too, were hauled in by the police or army.

The public was, understandably, terrified at the thought of dozens of Nazis adrift in south Wales. When a woman in Porthcawl was shot and fatally wounded, rumour said that it had been done by the escapees - in fact, it was her estranged lover who had carried out the killing.

Slowly but surely the escapees were recaptured. Not one of them managed to make good his escape and reach Germany. The last group, who were caught a week after the escape, had not even managed to get out of Wales. They were found in the Swansea Valley, tired and hungry and with very little idea where they were.

Following their re-capture the Germans came back to Island Farm. It was a brief sojourn. By the early spring of 1945 all the prisoners had been moved to other, perhaps more security conscious, prisons and Island Farm became a Special Camp, designed to hold only senior officers. Several significant German Generals were subsequently held there, the most notable being Field marshal von Rundstedt.

Island Farm prisoner of war camp closed down in the summer of 1948, three years after the end of the war. By then, of course, the men held in the camp were allowed considerably more freedom than those who had planned and carried out the Welsh Great Escape. In fact, several of them forged friendships - and even found wives - in the locality and settled down to make their homes in the area.

The huts of Island Farm have now virtually disappeared although, several years ago, the discovery of wall paintings made by the prisoners did bring the escape back into the limelight for a brief period. The escape remains a fascinating and most unusual episode in Welsh history.

The physicians of Myddfai

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:05 UK time, Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Red Book of Hergest is one of the most ancient manuscript volumes in existence, dating from the years immediately following 1382. Now kept in the Bodleian Library on behalf of Jesus College, Oxford, as well as containing early prose and pieces of poetry the red vellum book also holds a collection of herbal remedies from the Physicians of Myddfai.

The Physicians of Myddfai were herbalists, living and working in and around the Carmarthenshire village of Myddfai. Their origins and dates are a little unclear but certainly the Lord Rhys - the same man who instigated the first eisteddfod - established and sponsored a new monastery at Strata Florida in about 1177.

Strata Florida means layers of flowers and, before too long, the monastery had become a centre for herbal healing. The Lord Rhys had a personal physician called Rhiwallan who probably received his training there and he and his three sons - Cadwgan, Griffith and Einon - were given land in the village of Myddfai in recognition of their work.

The legend of the Physicians of Myddfai originates from this period, a time of new ideas and of great cultural development, not just in Wales but in the whole of Britain. And over the years the knowledge of these physicians, their healing arts and remedies, were passed down from one generation to the next.

Remedies were made from only natural products, over 170 of them, grown locally in the Myddfai area. They included cures for such things as headache, sunburn, swellings and pain in the legs, coughs and sneezes. It has been claimed, with some justification, that the birth of modern medicine can be traced back to these Physicians of Myddfai.

While the monasteries at places like Strata Florida and Talley continued their work, Myddfai also achieved fame as a centre of medical help. People came from all over the country to find cures and help for ailments, and the physicians were in constant demand - not just for people with money but for ordinary folk, too. For over 100 years the village of Myddfai was a place of great learning and excellence in the healing arts.

Of course, as the fame of the physicians grew so, too, did legends and stories mystifying their craft and origins. One of them suggested that their powers had fairy origins. It is a story that is told in the Mabinogion and, like the list of the physicians' herbal remedies, is contained in the Red Book of Hergest.

According to this story a farmer of Blaensawdde in Carmarthenshire - born as the first flowers broke through on the Black Mountain - saw a beautiful woman sitting on a rock in Lyn-y-Fan Fach, the lake on the mountain. After three attempts to woo her he was at last successful but she agreed to marry him only if he promised to treat her well. Three causeless blows, she said, would return her to the lake. Vowing never to do such a thing the farmer took her as his wife and the family moved six miles down the mountain to the village of Myddfai.

Naturally, three blows were struck, soon after the birth of each of their three children. They were just taps on the back or arm but they were engendered through lack of understanding.

The lady had delayed going to the christening of their first child because the baby would have been harmed by the sun. She cried at a wedding because she knew the bride would soon die. And she laughed at the bridegroom's subsequent funeral because his suffering was over and she was happy for him. The farmer, her husband, could not possibly know these things as he did not have her fairy powers.

But the slaps or blows, innocuous as they were, were enough to cause the lady to immediately return to the lake. No matter how fast the farmer ran she was always ahead of him and soon she had reached the lake and disappeared into the water, leaving the farmer heartbroken and alone.

As the three sons grew they turned their knowledge and powers, knowledge and powers inherited from their mother's fairy lore, to the healing arts. They could have been great warriors, says the legend, they became, instead, great healers. Using the herbs found in the Myddfai area, a long line of physicians or healers was created.

The legend, of course, is part of the mystifying process of medicine - a process that lives on today. And while Myddfai may no longer be the centre of healing and medicine that it once was, the region did receive some degree of celebrity when, in 2007, Prince Charles bought a house in the area. There are those who would say the story has come full circle!

Newport Medieval Ship to hold open day

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 16:45 UK time, Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Newport Medieval Ship is to hold an open day on Saturday 20 August, with a range of family activities taking place. The themes of the event are medieval trade and food and drink.

The events will run from 11am to 4pm. Re-enactments group the Wythe Retinue will be on hand to tell tales of medieval trade and customs.

Family activities will include Hunt the Rat, castle making, coracles and costumes, plus stocks and pirates. Guided tours will also be offered by the Friends of the Newport Ship.

The ship is located at Unit 22 on Maesglas Industrial Estate in Newport. For more information call 01633 215707, email, or visit the website at The Newport Bus number 35 service to Duffryn is also being extended to stop at the ship on open days.

Visitors on a tour of the Newport Medieval Ship

Visitors on a tour of the Newport Medieval Ship

The Newport Medieval Ship was discovered in 2002 in the banks of the River Usk during construction of the Riverfront Theatre. It was excavated by a team of archaeologists and lifted from the ground timber by timber.

A team of specialists are now recording and conserving all 1,700 ship timbers and the artefacts discovered during the excavation. The work is uncovering information about the ship, including its original size and shape, where it was built, the different parts of the world it sailed to, and what its cargo was.

Once conservation is complete it will be possible to rebuild the ship for open display. The team will use the virtual model of the ship that was made during the recording process and the 3D model that is being constructed at present to help them to do this.

Newport Medieval Ship on the web:

The Llanelli railway riots of 1911

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:55 UK time, Monday, 15 August 2011

One thing you can say about the Welsh - they're a pretty militant lot and they do not take kindly to exploitation. From the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr to the Rebecca Riots, from the Chartist march on Newport to countless miners' strikes at pits and collieries, perceived injustice has often led not just to argument and debate but to active protest and, occasionally, to riot.

Troops camped near Llanelli during the Railway Strike, 1911

Troops camped near Llanelli during the Railway Strike, 1911 (Image from Cardiff Central Library).

One hundred years ago this year, on 17 August 1911, the first ever national railway strike began in the steel town of Llanelli. The causes were many, not least poor wages, a 70 hour working week and compulsory overtime whenever management felt they needed it. 1911 was the year of "Great Unrest" all over Britain and it did not need very much for worker solidarity to assert itself in the industrial areas of south Wales.

When talks between the union and management broke down on 17 August there was an immediate "walk out," the Llanelli railway workers being quickly joined by thousands of tin plate workers from the area. Before long a 1,500 picket was forming a barricade at the two railway crossings to the east and west of Llanelli station. All train traffic was effectively stopped.

At 10am on Friday 18 August the Fishguard Express, taking passengers and goods to the main ferry port across the Irish Sea, was halted in Llanelli station. Striking workmen quickly raked out the fire from the engine's boilers, immobilizing it completely.

There was already a significant force of soldiers in Llanelli but now magistrates panicked and requested more troops from home secretary Winston Churchill. These were duly sent and by late afternoon there were at least 350 of them in the town. Before the end of the day this figure had grown to nearly 700.

The soldiers went quickly into action. After much skirmishing and a bayonet charge against unarmed workers, the eastern crossing was cleared. Unrest went on much of the night but on Saturday 19 August a train, driven by blackleg railwaymen, reached the station.

After standing for some time at the platform the train finally moved off at about 2.30 in the afternoon. A crowd of some 250 people followed it along the track, jeering and shouting, until it was finally forced to stop by the human barricade at the level crossing on the western side of the station.

A detachment of 80 soldiers under Major Stuart proceeded to clear the line, again at bayonet point. The crowd, rather than disperse, surged up the embankment and stood, hurling abuse and the occasional stone at the military. And then, with the Riot Act being read - the last time it has ever been read in mainland Britain - Major Stuart ordered his troops to open fire.

Two men were killed instantly. One, John John - Jac as he was known - was a local rugby star. The other, Leonard Worstell, was on weekend leave from the sanatorium where he was being treated for TB. He had only left the kitchen of his house, where he was shaving, to see what the noise and fuss were all about. There were other injuries in the crowd before the soldiers left, moving back to the station complex to cries of "Assassins" and "Murderers" from the onlookers.

The death of the two unarmed men created a furore that still surfaces in Llanelli, even today. Many local people believe the shooting was nothing more than a wilful act of murder.

Tragically, the strike had already been settled by this time, management and the government caving in - Churchill himself declared "They have beaten us." Railway workers had already achieved most of their demands with regard to pay and conditions before the events at the western crossing. But the shootings had lit a powder keg and in that hot, hot summer of 1911 troubles in Llanelli had only just begun.

As the afternoon and evening went on tensions and tempers grew. There was looting in Market Street and dozens of shops had their windows smashed and goods stolen. The rioting crowd even took materials and items from some of the goods wagons waiting in the railway sidings close to the station. Goods wagons and railway property were destroyed by the rioters.

At one point a wagon carrying explosives blew up, killing one man and severely injuring several more. Before the next morning three of the wounded had succumbed to their injuries, bringing the death toll in what were already being called the Llanelli Riots to six.

Soldiers continued to patrol the town, managing to clear the streets by midnight - but not before many more people were injured.

In the aftermath of the riots there were several notable events. Children at Bigyn School in the town were so appalled that they decided to arrange their own strike. They duly boycotted lessons as a way of marking the unjust killing of two innocent men.

A few days later an army deserter was found, many miles from Llanelli. He was Harold Spiers and the story he told was a frightening one. He had, he claimed, been in the party of soldiers at the western crossing but refused to fire on innocent and unarmed people. As a result he was arrested but managed to escape and flee.

Local legend - though its truth has never been confirmed - declares that Spiers was the Dai Bach y Soldiwr in the song Sosban Fach. Certainly that verse was added to the song after the riots but the truth will probably never be known.

The Llanelli Railway Riots of 1911 were a tragic and unfortunate series of events. Quite apart from the iniquities of the wages and working arrangements of the railway men, six innocent lives were lost. Yes, the strike was an early example of workers solidarity but you have to question the cost.

The story of the Llanelli riots on BBC Wales

Phil Carradice will be chatting with Roy Noble about the Llanelli railway riots on Tuesday 16 August, from 2pm on BBC Radio Wales.

Presenter Huw Edwards returns to his home town to re-tell the story of the Llanelli riots. A century after the death and destruction that marred the town's history, he attempts to set the record straight and bring to an end 100 years of shame. You can catch the programme Llanelli Riots: Fire In The West on Tuesday 16 August at 10.35pm on BBC One Wales.

The Llanddona Witches

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 11:30 UK time, Thursday, 11 August 2011

The legend of the Llanddona Witches might not be the best known of Welsh legends but it is one that has a clear origin - well, as clear as you are going to find at this distance in time.

llanddona beach

Llanddona beach (image by Kristofer Williams)

According to the legend a boatload of men and women, all with Irish accents, was washed up on the coast of Anglesey, in Red Wharf Bay. The boat was without sail or oars and was sinking fast when it finally made shore. The locals were afraid and tried to drive the survivors back into the sea but one woman leapt ashore and struck the sand with a stick - her wand, perhaps? Fresh water immediately gushed out from the spot and the locals, simple fishermen and their families, fell back in horror.

An agreement was quickly reached. Whether it was prompted by fear or good fellowship, by expectation of plenty or by sheer apathy, is not known. But the local people from Llanddona agreed to let the witches - if that was what they were - to remain, provided they made their settlement outside the village. It was a terrible mistake.

The newcomers made themselves homes outside the village of Llanddona and quickly established themselves as a powerful force in the region. They bullied the villagers, lorded it around the place, and paid for no goods in the shops or from the farmers fields, simply taking what they wanted.

They put charms and spells on farms and on animals and charged to have them removed. The men - wearing distinctive red neckties - became renowned across north Wales as smugglers.

When the customs officers got too close, the men would, according to the legend, release swarms of deadly black flies from their neckties. And the forces of authority fled, leaving the men to carry on with their criminal activities.

There are dozens of stories about the Llanddona Witches. Bella Fawr and Siani Bwt were two of the most famous. Siani Bwt (meaning Short Betty) was apparently less than four feet high and, with two thumbs on her left hand, she had all the classic hallmarks of a witch.

So much for the legend. The date of their supposed arrival at Llanddona is hard to pin down. Some say it all happened at the beginning of the 17th century, others stating that it took place many years before or after.

However, visitors from the sea - usually unpleasant visitors - were, for many years, an occupational hazard for all those who lived on the Welsh coast. The Vikings, the Normans and, in particular, the Irish regularly attacked or invaded from the sea. Fear of the Irish remained long after the threat of the Vikings had diminished.

During the Civil War in the 1640s there was a constant threat of an Irish invasion when, in the imaginations of a largely Protestant Welsh and English population, the Catholic masses from across the Irish Sea might, at any moment, land to massacre and murder everyone in their beds. King Charles was widely suspected of Catholic beliefs, of plotting to bring back the Catholic religion, and the fear that he would invoke the Irish to help him in his fight was actively promoted by Parliament.

If the legend does date from the 17th century, it is clear that fears of an Irish invasion lay behind its creation and its continued popularity.

There is another possibility, however. It was 1736 before the Witch Laws were repealed and that led to a situation where people who had previously turned to the state in cases of supposed witchcraft now took the law into their own hands. Actually, what quickly began to happen was nothing new. It had been going on for years.

In distant parts of the kingdom - like the east coast of Anglesey - where the forces of law and order were often scattered and ineffective, it was invariably left to village elders to make judgements or to make decisions about issues that affected the local people.

Witches had always been feared and hated - it was a prejudice that continued unabated until well into the 19th century. The powers of darkness were never far away for a superstitious and largely uneducated people. And in coastal communities where the success of the local fishing fleet or the viability of the lobster and crab pots depended as much on luck as judgement, their power was seen as a threat to the whole community.

One way of dealing with people suspected of being witches was to cast them adrift in an open boat without food or water, sails or oars. Arguably, here we have the basis of the legend of the Llanddona Witches.

They might have been real people, suspected of witchcraft, and the legend was simply a retelling of events - with a little bit of embellishment here and there. Or the story might have been invented as a warning not to accept witches - or any strangers, for that matter, into your tight-knit and vulnerable community.

Whichever version you believe, one thing is clear. The legend of the Llanddona Witches remains one of the great Welsh fables.

Thomas Pennant, natural history pioneer

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:30 UK time, Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Few people these days have ever heard the name Thomas Pennant but, in the second half of the 18th century, this remarkable and fascinating man was one of Britain's foremost naturalists and antiquarians. He ranked alongside men such as Gilbert White of Selbourne and, perhaps more importantly, was regarded as one of Wales' greatest travel writers.

Thomas Pennant was born in Flintshire on 14 June 1726, his father having recently inherited Downton Hall (and its large country estate), not far from Holywell. Educated, first, at Wrexham Grammar School, then at Thomas Croft's School in Fulham, by 1744 the young Thomas had moved on to Oxford where he studied at both Queens and Oriel Colleges.

Like many wealthy men at the time he left Oxford without taking a degree. He had already become fascinated by natural history and, in particular, after a walking tour around Cornwall in the winter of 1746, fossils and minerals.

In 1750 he wrote an account of an earthquake that had occurred at Downing Hall and when this was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society his career as a naturalist and zoologist began.

Further papers soon appeared in the journal and within a few years after leaving Oxford, with no formal qualifications, he was regarded as one of the most important scientific writers of the age. Interestingly, several years later, in 1771, Pennant's pioneering work as a zoologist was recognised with the awarding of an honorary degree from his old college.

Thomas Pennant succeeded to the property at Downing after his father's death in 1763. He immediately began to develop and extend the house and estate, even opening a lead mine - which went a fair way to funding his projects.

Pennant was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1767 and began to publish books in earnest. He wrote A History Of Quadrupeds and A Tour Of Scotland in 1769, with two other travel books about Scotland following quickly in their wake.

Pennant is perhaps best known for his Tour Of Wales which came out in 1778. He was soon regarded as an expert on his native country, its customs and topography. And yet he spoke little or no Welsh, having to receive help - in the form of translations - from friends such as the Reverend John Lloyd of Caerwys.

Lloyd and artists such as Moses Griffith and John Ingleby - who illustrated his various books - soon created something of a niche for themselves. Pennant was a shrewd businessman and Ingleby, in particular, was paid for his work on a contract basis - not always with money, sometimes by the provision of board and lodging. The illustrations that he and Griffith provided certainly added to the appeal of books like his autobiography The Literary Life and travel books such as Journey To Snowdon.

Over the next 20 or so years Thomas Pennant popularised and promoted the study of zoology. His work was characterised by detailed and accurate research and Pennant even oversaw the production of his books.

This was due, in no small degree, to something of a disaster when The Literary Life was printed on paper that was too large.The book was one of the few by Pennant that made a loss and thereafter he insisted that all his publications should appear in smaller size.

Thomas Pennant was also a fanatical collector of art and artefacts. He regularly commissioned paintings from well-known artists of the day and acquired many old maps and prints, not only of Wales but of the whole of Britain.

Indeed, at his death on 16 December 1798, he was actively engaged in writing and publishing a series of works to be called Outlines Of The Globe. It was an ambitious project, with only two of the volumes appearing in his lifetime. The others were edited and produced by his son in the years after Pennant's death.

Thomas Pennant built up an impressive library at his country house in north Wales. There were eventually over 5,000 volumes in this library, consisting, in the main, of works about topography, travel and natural history. The collection was only broken up and finally sold in the 20th century.

Pennant was an incredibly industrious man. In The Literary Life he actually states that his output and work ethic amazed even him! He had a gift for befriending many influential people and, of course, had the means to pursue his interests.

Yet without his indefatigable efforts there is no doubt that the study of zoology would have been long delayed in its development - and where would Charles Darwin have been then?

Wartime evacuees' special 70th anniversary reunion

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 13:59 UK time, Thursday, 4 August 2011

This week saw a very special reunion at Iscoyd Park near Wrexham. Five women, all in their late 80s, gathered in north Wales to celebrate the 70th anniversary of their evacuation to the stately home during World War Two.

Catherine Fisher, Sheenagh Bradbury, Sonia Vanular, Marguerite McGuire and Eleanor Roscoe

The women were all students at St Godric's Secretarial College in Hampstead. In 1941 they were the first evacuees to Iscoyd Park. The park was also requisitioned for use as a hospital for the US forces in 1942.

The stately home, located between Whitchurch and Wrexham was used as a 1,500-bed hospital for US forces during World War Two.

iscoyd camp

Prisoner of war camp

There was a small compound for trusted German prisoners enclosed in the parkland, some of whom acted as orderlies in the hospital.

The five women were met by Philip Godsal and his son and daughter-in-law who currently live at Iscoyd, and treated to lunch and a tour around Iscoyd Park.

Phil and Susie Godsal, far left, welcome (l-r) Marguerite McGuire, Sonia Vanular, Catherine Fisher, Eleanor Roscoe and Sheenagh Bradbury to Iscoyd Park

Sonia Vanular, who had travelled from the south of France especially for the reunion said:
"We were then shown around the house by Mr Godsal - we all found it fascinating to see how the house had changed. Some remembered it better than others!


"Looking back 70 years later we realise how lucky we were to have lived in such a splendid house in beautiful surroundings while bombs were falling in London."

Iscoyd Park recently featured in the BBC Wales history series Hidden Houses Of Wales, in which Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen discovers some of Wales' finest houses. You can watch the programme on the BBC iPlayer until Monday.

130th anniversary of the Sunday drinking ban in Wales

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 09:41 UK time, Thursday, 4 August 2011

This month marks the 130th anniversary of William Gladstone's Liberal government's passing of the Sunday Closing (Wales) Act 1881 which banned the sale of alcohol in Welsh pubs on the Sabbath.

The act was the first piece of Wales-only legislation passed by Westminster since the 1542 Act of Union.

Sponsored by well-known Welsh nonconformists in the Liberal party, including David Lloyd George, the Act would not be repealed until 1961.

Each county in Wales was responsible for holding a referendum on Sunday opening, to measure support in their particular area. The last country to vote in favour of dropping the ban was Dwyfor - now part of Gwynedd - in 1996.

The Act would impact on the culture, politics, and even the architecture of Wales, for over a century.

Historian and former BBC Wales producer John Trefor thinks that one unexpected effect of the act was that it may have helped to shape Wales as we know it.

"It was a victory, not only for the chapels and the temperance leagues, but for Welsh identity," he says.

"There was a sense that things could be done differently here. Wales-only Education and cemetery acts came soon after, and in many respects it established the principle on which devolution and the National Assembly are based."

Read Neil Prior's article on the BBC Wales News website.

The flying boats of Pembroke Dock

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 13:50 UK time, Wednesday, 3 August 2011

In the 1930s and 40s one west Wales town played host to the largest flying boat base the country had ever seen - maybe even the world. That town was Pembroke Dock and for nearly 30 years residents of the community woke each morning and went to bed at night with the deep throated roar of Pegasus engines rolling in over the town and reverberating off the waters of Milford Haven.

Mk I Sunderland

Mk I Sunderland of 210 Squadron on Atlantic patrol c.1941 (Images provided by Pembroke Dock Sunderland Trust)

The town of Pembroke Dock burst into existence in 1814, its main purpose being to build warships for the Royal Navy. The dockyard of the town was in existence for just 112 years but in that time it created dozens of giant battleships - including the Duke of Wellington, the largest woodenwall ever built - and no fewer than four royal yachts for Queen Victoria. At one stage the yards employed over 4,000 men with dozens more, throughout the county, depending on the place for their livelihood.

When the dockyard closed in 1926 it left the town it had spawned without hope or reason for existence. Then, in 1931 the RAF announced that they were establishing a flying boat base in the eastern end of the old yard - the sheltered expanse of deep water, the very thing that had brought the ship builders to the region in the first place, was, it seemed, ideal for the seaplanes of the time.

The coming of the flying boats could never hope to replace the economic security provided by the Admiralty dockyard but it did offer some slim consolation to the people of the town. It meant work for many; it meant businesses could thrive and prosper; it meant the town was alive again.

The RAF had meant to stay for just a few short months, but remained in west Wales for 29 years. The first aircraft based in the town were the Supermarine Southamptons of No. 210 Squadron. New barrack blocks and wide slipways were built inside the old dockyard walls and two huge hangers were erected, enormous structures that can still be seen today.

Many famous airmen served at PD, as the flying boat base soon became known. Wing Commander Bob Leckie was the first station commander but perhaps the most renowned of these was Arthur "Bomber" Harris, the air marshall who later went on to mastermind the Allied bombing offensive against Germany in World War Two.

As might be expected, the base at PD saw its greatest hours during the war. Throughout those turbulent and dangerous times, giant Sunderland flying boats - and the odd Catalina - patrolled the Western Approaches, searching out the deadly U Boats that were threatening Britain's very existence. For the crews of these huge machines, patrols were long, cold and arduous and contact with the enemy was rare.

When the Sunderlands did encounter opposition, however, the battles were life and death affairs. In one well known incident in 1942 a single PD Sunderland was attacked by no fewer than eight JU88s while over the Bay of Biscay. The Sunderland, bristling with guns, was no easy target and in the fight three German planes were shot down, a fourth being badly damaged. And although damaged the Sunderland managed to get back to PD.

Mark V Sunderland on take off, in 1945.

Mark V Sunderland on take off, in 1945.

When peace came again in 1945 the base at PD began, inevitably, to lose its importance. Aircraft design had moved on and seaplanes, always at the vagaries of weather and tide, clearly had a limited operational lifespan. Nevertheless, Sunderlands from PD undertook the vital role of supplying members of the British North Greenland Expedition in 1952. The expedition and the job of the PD aircraft were well recorded in local and national press.

Mark V Sunderland over Royal Yacht Britannia, mid 1950s.

Mark V Sunderland over Royal Yacht Britannia, mid 1950s.

The sight of the beautiful white flying boats moored on the haven off the town - or, occasionally, powering down the estuary as they lumbered gracefully into the air - are images that that impinged themselves into the minds of all Pembroke Dock children. The giant aeroplanes seemed to symbolize security and strength and were as much a part of growing up in the old dockyard town as games of football or cricket on the Barrack Hill, overlooking the yards.

The air station at Pembroke Dock finally closed in March 1959, the land where the workshops and hangers stood being given back to the Admiralty. Yet Pembroke Dock was not quite finished with flying boats.

In 1963 Sunderland M2824, originally having served with No 201 Squadron in Pembroke Dock, was presented to the town by the French Navy. A trust was established, local air cadets (including the author) began work cleaning and polishing and the plane was opened to the public as a living memorial and museum. Each year thousands of tourists and locals visited the aircraft but, finally, as time and age began to make themselves felt, in 1971 she was dismantled and taken to a new home at Hendon Museum.

These days the old dockyard and the flying boat base operate as the terminal for ferry boats across the Irish Sea. Many of the buildings put up by the RAF are still there, however, and the Sunderland Trust operates a small visitor in the western end of the yards. At the moment it might be little enough to mark the passing of such a huge operation but, like the PD base itself, it will surely grow and grow in the years ahead.

You can find out more about the flying boats of Pembroke Dock and the Flying Boat Visitor Centre on the Pembroke Dock Sunderland Trust website.

Mary Jones and her Bible

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 13:16 UK time, Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The story of Mary Jones and her Bible used to be part of the staple diet of all Welsh children. It is doubtful, these days, if many of the younger generation have ever heard of her - or her amazing journey. Yet it remains a tale well worth telling.

Photograph of a Bible

In the year 1800 Mary Jones, the 15-year-old daughter of a weaver from Llanfihangel-y-Pennant at the foot of Cader Idris, walked 25 miles, barefoot and across rugged mountain country, simply to buy a Bible from the Reverend Thomas Charles of Bala. There is a lot more to the story than that, however, and Mary's epic trip was to have lasting effects throughout the world.

There had been no Welsh version of the Bible until Bishop William Morgan completed his famous translation in 1588.

Before that worshippers in Welsh churches and chapels had to use Latin or, occasionally, English texts. Most of them understood little of either language. Once Morgan's Bible became available things began to change.

However, Bishop Morgan's Bible was both expensive and heavy and, therefore, was restricted to church and chapel use. A smaller and cheaper version was published in 1630 and by the end of the century there were several new editions freely available to all those who could afford them.

When Griffith Jones began his Circulating Schools the Bible was an essential teaching tool and many families, now able to read, bought their own copies so that they could read and digest in the comfort and security of their own homes.

In north Wales the Calvinistic Methodist preacher Thomas Charles, operating from his chapel in Bala, was active in making sure Sunday Schools and, wherever possible, individuals were plentifully supplied with Bibles. Enter Mary Jones.

Mary came from a devoutly pious family. She had learned to read at one of the Circulating Schools and, having been openly religious since the age of eight, was desperate to have a Bible of her own.

The nearest Bible to her house was lodged in a farm two miles away, a long hike every time she wanted to read God's word, and so the young girl began to save her pennies until she had enough to buy a Bible of her own.

The saving took her, apparently, nearly six years. Only then did she reach the target sum of three shillings and six pence. The only person who had copies of the Bible was Thomas Charles of Bala and so, according to legend, Mary Jones set out to walk the 25 miles in order to purchase one. She had no shoes and the journey was both long and exhausting.

When she arrived in Bala Mary Jones was devastated to learn that Thomas Charles had either sold or promised all of the copies he had. But, again according to legend, he was so moved by the girl's faith and determination that he arranged lodgings for her until a new supply of Bibles arrived two days later. Then he sold her three copies for the price of one. Another version of the story says that he gave Mary his own copy.

Two copies of "Mary Jones' Bible" still exist. One is lodged in the archives of the British and Foreign Bible Society in Cambridge, the other is held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. The copy in Cambridge actually contains a note, written by Mary, on the final page. The third copy of the Bible has, unfortunately, now been lost.

How much of the story is true will probably never be known. However, Thomas Charles undoubtedly used the story to persuade the Religious Tract Society to establish a new organisation, the British and Foreign Bible Society. This came into existence in 1804 and over the next 200 years distributed thousands of Bibles to people across the world.

The society - often known simply as The Bible Society - still distributes Bibles to places like India and Africa and is an ecumenical and non-sectarian organisation. The story of Mary Jones and her determination to own a Bible was central to its creation and to its work - as well as its publicity. In 1882 the society even published a book about her, a volume that has helped keep her name alive in all quarters of the world.

And Mary herself? Apparently she returned to Llanfihangel-y-Pennant in the same way as she had left it - on foot. This time, however, she sang hymns all the way back, even making up some verses of her own as she skipped happily on her way.

She later married a weaver, Thomas Lewis, and moved to the village of Bryn-crug near Tywyn. She died on 28 December 1866. Two monuments to Mary exist, one being a memorial obelisk on the site of the cottage where she was born, erected by the Sunday Schools of Merioneth. The other memorial is a long and flowing tribute on her gravestone in Bryn-crug.

How much of Mary's story is fact and how much is a piece of fiction invented for publicity purposes may never be known. It is certainly a stirring tale and, as one of the great legends of Wales, is one that needs to be preserved.

Find out more about the history of religion in Wales on the BBC Wales History website.

Roman fort project wins cash boost

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 10:34 UK time, Tuesday, 2 August 2011

A not-for-profit history project that has been years in planning has won a £50,000 regional prize to help fund the reconstruction of a Roman fort and settlement to teach children about history.

The Roman Fort Project was the Wales regional winner in a Barclay's competition, Take One Small Step, to help small businesses.

Over 5,000 businesses had registered to take part in the scheme. Judges created a shortlist of 27 ideas across nine UK regions and the public then voted for their favourite scheme online.

The project is now looking for land in Flintshire or Cheshire to build a replica Roman fort of the type that would be constructed in the first century - made of earth and wood and surrounded by a ditch.

Read the full story on this winning project on the BBC News website.

Get ready to explore Wales' Open Doors

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 15:44 UK time, Monday, 1 August 2011

Every September buildings which are not normally open to the public take part in the annual Open Doors programme.

Llanelly House

Private houses, archaeological sites, religious buildings, castles and fortresses, together with the best of contemporary architecture give a once a year opportunity to learn about Wales' special buildings.

Among the new sites this year, is Stackpole Estate in Pembrokeshire, which will be offering a virtual tour of this once grand but now ruined mansion house, and the Royal Mint at Llantrisant will open its doors to the public.

This year there are over 300 sites are more 500 events in all local authority areas of Wales, and it's never too early to start planning your visits. A website is now live and has full listings of sites and events that have registered to take part in Open Doors, Wales' largest volunteer event in the heritage sector. All the sites and events are free.

You can also follow the programme on Twitter @CivicTrustWales.

Open Doors is organised by the Civic Trust for Wales, on behalf of Cadw, the Welsh Government's historic environment service. The programme is part of European Heritage Days. Throughout September 50 countries across Europe celebrate architecture and build heritage.

Last year BBC Wales History was lucky enough to visit Llanelly House, an 18th century Grade I listed Georgian house, through the Open Doors programme.Read the blog..

Marconi and the Welsh connection

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 08:10 UK time, Monday, 1 August 2011

Most people are familiar with the name Marconi and the position it holds in the history of radio transmission and communication.

How many people know however that Wales played a crucial role in revolutionizing the way in which we communicate over large distances? And in particular, relaying messages across our vast oceans.

Guglielmo Marconi was born in Bologna, Italy on 25 April 1874. His parents were well-off, his father Giuseppe being a wealthy landowner and his mother, Annie, related to the whiskey producing Jameson family of Ireland.

His father wanted the young Marconi to join the navy as a cadet but Guglielmo was more interested in science than the sea.

Flat Holm (image from Gale's Photos)

With the support of his mother Guglielmo attended the Leghorn Institute and attended lectures at Bologna University (even though he wasn't enrolled). By the age of 20 he was already conducting experiments in electro-magnetic waves.

In 1895 Marconi sent a message in Morse Code over a distance of two miles on his father's vast country estate in Bologna and Marconi duly decided he should try to interest the Italian government in his findings. After several months the government replied - they could not see how Italy could possibly benefit from Marconi's experiments and findings.

Putting aside his disappointment, Marconi visited London, using the influential contacts of his mother's family. He knew that the best use of his experiments and inventions would be in creating a messaging system between ships and England, with her vast merchant and naval fleets, seemed to be the ideal customer.

Sir William Preece, Chief Engineer to the Post Office, saw the value of Marconi's work and made sure that the weight of this important government department was firmly behind him.

Marconi needed little encouragement and was soon successfully transmitting messages between the roof of the post office in London to other government buildings and demonstrated his invention to the military on Salisbury Plain.

George Kemp, a post office employee, became his assistant. With Marconi still firmly believing that the most effective use of his invention was to send messages over water, they came to south Wales. They needed an island, a mile or so off shore, with no obstructions in between.

Kemp, being a Cardiff man, knew that Flat Holm Island lay just three miles off Lavernock Point in the Vale of Glamorgan and would provide an ideal location.

Two 100-foot masts, one at Lavernock Point, the other on Flat Holm, were erected, each with an aerial at the end. On 7 May 1897 Kemp and his nephew, Herbert, sailed out to Flat Holm while Marconi set up his equipment in a field at Lavernock Point, overlooking the Bristol Channel.

11 May was a day of near gale force winds. Watched by Sir William Preece, several spectators and a German professor by the name of Adolphus Slaby, Marconi settled over his transmitter.

"How are you?" he typed. Within minutes the printer was working, recording the return message from George Kemp. History had been made and the first radio telegraph message across water had been successfully made and recorded.

A few days later Marconi repeated the performance. This time messages were sent, not to Flat Holm Island but right across the Bristol Channel to Brean Down on the English coast, a distance of nearly nine miles.

The young Italian inventor then went on to found the Marconi Company and, in due course, become a very wealthy man in his own right.

In 1898, the Italians finally recognized that they had earlier rejected the work of a genius and the Italian Navy became the first armed service in the world to install and use Marconi's invention.

In 1901 he achieved the first radio link to America on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and when, in 1909, Guglielmo Marconi shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Ferdinand Braun, it was official recognition for a far-sighted and brilliant inventor.

Marconi spent most of his later life in Italy, becoming friendly with Mussolini and even joining the Italian Fascist Party. His politics may have been reprehensible but there is no denying the value of his invention. And to think it all started in a field, overlooking the Bristol Channel.

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