Sunday 26 November 2023

Mari Lwyd


A nice pic of the Mari Lwyd from the Castell Henllys web site.......

Wednesday 15 November 2023

Jemima & Co 1997



A nice pic from 1997 (the Bicentenary Celebrations relating to the Last Invasion of 1797) -- showing Yvonne Fox (Jemima Nicholas) and her ladies striding across the town square in Fishguard.  A fearsome sight indeed........

Pic -- from the Hanes Abergwaun web site.

Tuesday 14 November 2023

The Wizard of Werndew

Having collected up as much information as possible about Joseph Harries (1830-1890), the Wizard of Werndew, I have now published it as a short article on the Peoples Collection Wales web site:

I have added 13 stories about Joseph that seem to be authentic -- but you never can tell when it comes to folk tales.........

Once upon a time I acted the role of Joseph Harries in a dramatic production in Newport called "The Enchanted Land".  That was fun........

The Joseph Harries as he is revealed in historical snippets is very different indeed from the character I invented for the purposes of the Angel Mountain saga:

Joseph Harries the Wizard

(Spoiler alert: the following gives information which new readers may prefer not to know.....)

Joseph Harries of Werndew is one of the key characters in the story.  He was born in 1761 and died in 1826 at the age of 65.  In Martha’s time, wizards (or “knowing men”) were greatly respected.  Joseph Harries really did exist -- there are a number of folk tales about him. In reality, it seems that he might not have been a very nice fellow! And he did live at Werndew, just above the village of Dinas on the north side of the mountain ridge. The cottage was, and still is, within walking distance of Carningli and Plas Ingli.

But in my mind, and in the stories, Joseph is a herbalist, mystic, apothecary, surgeon, psychiatrist, sleuth, diplomat, counsellor and master of the arts of observation and deduction. He is a scientist, as well as being a man of culture. He knows several foreign languages and is familiar with many of the esoteric books on which the world’s great religions are based. On occasion he retreats into his cottage before emerging, exhausted, with answers to very complicated questions; but there is always the possibility that he is a “charlatan” with a superior intellect and an ability to observe things and make deductions in the manner of a prototype Sherlock Holmes. Whether or not he is familiar with the denizens of the spirit world, he certainly does have a vast range of abilities, acquired during years of careful study under a variety of great teachers, whom he mentions every now and then. We cannot doubt that in some way he is the inheritor of the wisdom of the Druids, who were reputed to be active in this area at the time of the Roman invasion and who might have had a grove in Tycanol Wood.

Joseph is a stout and loyal friend to Martha, and a friend to many others as well. Sometimes he charges for his services, or over-charges in certain cases, on the basis that his services provided to the poor are generally free. So as well as being a Sherlock Holmes, he is also a Robin Hood figure, loved by the poor and hated by at least some of the rich. He is also Martha’s knight in shining armour, who rides to her defence from his place across the mountain whenever he senses that she is in distress or in danger.

But while Joseph is always good humoured, eccentric, witty and supportive of others, he is also a tragic figure. As the stories unfold he reveals very little about himself and his family background, for as he explains to Martha, it is in his own interests to maintain an air of mystery about who he is, where he has come from, and where he will go to when his task on earth is done. But in one sensitive moment he admits to Martha that he was once married and that he lost his wife and child in childbirth. He dies after a horrible accident, gored by a bull during the course of a routine visit requested by one of the estates. There is irony as well as tragedy in that, since Joseph says many times that he enjoys working with animals.

He loves Martha from the the very beginning of the stories. This might be suspected by the reader, but Martha never realizes it until Joseph confesses it to her when he is on his death-bed. Even then he can try to make light of it, and when he has gone to his grave Martha finds the situation very difficult to bear, blaming him for his foolishness in allowing his emotions to get the better of him, and blaming herself for her blindness as to the reality of the situation.

Joseph knows, from the beginning of their relationship, that his love for Martha will never be requited, because she is a member of the gentry and he is a disreputable wizard with nothing but a small cottage and a pretty garden to his name. In any case, he is almost old enough to be her father. So he loves and worships her from a distance, gaining comfort from their close and easy relationship, and some physical pleasure from their frequent embraces.

He is quite a mysterious figure, and by all accounts he has a little fan club all of his own!


Did the real Joseph Harries have a "Big Book" or grimoire?  If so, were there incantations like those found in the papers of Dr John Harries of Cwrt y Cadno?

One of the incantations recorded by Dr John Harries, Cwrt y Cadno

The only first hand documentary material we know about is that which was recovered from a waste skip (yes, really!) by Dr Hywel Bowen-Perkins.  It consists of many pages from Dr Harries's case books, dealing with patients, symptoms, remedies and results.  Some patients died, but most seem to have recovered!   The local doctors clearly did not approve of Dr Harries and his dealings with patients across a wide area -- but Hywel says that the remedies prescribed and issued by Dr Harries were sensible and quite advanced, with no indications of "quackery".  In fact, Hywel thinks that his remedies were potentially far more effective than those prescribed by Dr Owen and other medical men in North Pembs.  There is evidence of good knowledge of herbal remedies and pharmaceutical practices, and not a trace of the occult.......

This is a typical page -- difficult to read but full of meticulously recorded detail:

Hywel is editing and annotating this treasure trove of material, and he hopes to publish it in some form in due course.  It also needs to be archived somewhere safe, as it is full of fascinating information relating to medical practices in the late 1800's.

On one page, in 1887, Joseph describes the ailments and treatment of "my dear brother David Harries" -- so maybe in later life they did get on well together, having gone through a rough patch earlier on......  That's family life for you!

Tuesday 7 November 2023

The grave of Joseph Harries


Joseph Harries of Werndew (1830-1890) is buried in bottom corner of the graveyard behind Gedeon Chapel, Dinas.  The headstone is a simple granite slab with a rounded top, identical to that marking the grave of Thomas, his half brother, who died in 1887.  Between the two is a squared-off slate headstone erected at the grave of their sister Jane who died in 1858 at the age of 26, and Mary Harries, Joseph's mother, who died in 1885.  Nearby is the grave of father William, who died in 1857, marked by another slate headstone.

According to the headstones both Joseph and Thomas were deacons of the chapel.

Gedeon Independent Welsh Chapel, built in 1830 (the year of Joseph's birth) and extended several times afterwards.

I find it intriguing that Joseph, known in his lifetime as a "dyn hysbys", conjuror and wizard, was nonetheless buried here in hallowed ground, on the patch dedicated to the Harries family of Werndew.

Monday 6 November 2023

Joseph Harries and the building of Glan-y-Mor

The wizard Joseph Harries was born in 1830 and lived during his youthful years at Werndew -- the family farm on the mountainside above Dinas. In 1859 he was forced to move out when his half brother inherited the property, and he built a house on the main Newport-Fishguard road at the bottom end of the Werndew driveway.   This was planned to be the residence for himself and his widowed mother, and she probably paid for most of the work.  The building of the house took almost ten years - maybe because cash was tight. 

Two men were employed on building the house.  One of them recorded that one day the supply of building stones ran out.  Joseph Harries was unconcerned, and told the builders that there was nothing to worry about.  Sure enough, next morning when the men turned up for work "there were stones aplenty".   How did they get there?  Nobody else could have delivered them overnight, and the builders were quite convinced that some mysterious power had been invoked by the wizard in order to bring them in and stack them ready for use.........

Willian Beddow, one of the builders, made a deposition to the Rector of Dinas on 28 March 1892 about Joseph Harries, who had died in 1890.   He claimed that around 1874 he had been engaged to build a wall at Glan-y-Mor.  One day he and a local miller were called in by Joseph Harries to look at a mirror placed on the kitchen table.  He then said he would go upstairs and stamp his foot on the floorboards -- at which point the men were required to look into the mirror. They did as they were bidden, and saw David Harries of Werndew (Joseph's half brother) and Ebenezer Davies of Ffynnonofi (a well-known local rascal).  

They gave the names to Joseph when he came downstairs, upon which he nodded and said no more.  It was known that the wizard used the mirror in order to find the names of those who had committed various crimes -- it was used to find the name of the man who shot a horse belonging to a local farmer, and also the name of the person who had stolen jewels belonging to a lady belonging to the Pembrokeshire gentry.

Joseph Harries and the ghostly reverberations


When the wizard Joseph Harried died at Werndew on 29 November 1890 -- probably of kidney failure -- some very strange things happened.  He had written his will 8 days earlier, so he must have known that the end was near......

In the throes of death he groaned and screamed, as if he was refusing to die.  On that day the horses on the farm went wild and unruly and the pigs refused to eat.  The locals thought that the devil had come to take him.  There were rumours that the family had put something on the fire and that the smoke had choked him -- and that suggests that he was not greatly loved by his nearest and dearest.  A couple of months later, when his possessions were sold by auction, people were very reluctant to bid, assuming that somehow to bring any of his things into their own houses would bring the devil in too.

Not long after the death Rev Benjamin Rowlands was at Glan-y-Mor, where he heard a horse arrive at the trot at about 10.30 pm in the pitch darkness.  The sound became more distinct but slower, and then faded away, and there was no sound of the horse leaving again.  The reverend gentleman went to the inner door of the porch and shouted "Who's there?" to which there was no reply.  He did the same at the outer door, again with no response.  This happened on several later occasions.

Around Christmas and New Year of 1891/92, just over a year after Joseph's death, a student called James Beynon Williams came to stay at Glan-y-Mor as a guest of Rev Benjamin Rowlands.  He was very sceptical about some of the things he had heard about Joseph from his host.  One evening they went off to bed, leaving the dog on the mat in the kitchen across the door.  At 10.30 they were awoken by the dog howling.  They heard the door latch, footsteps, harness being hung up, boots coming off, more footsteps, and another door being opened.  Both men left their rooms to investigate what was going on, but their candles were both extinguished.  James Williams was speechless and terrified, and afterwards they found that the dog had shifted its position to lie on the mat by the front door, which is where it would lie when Joseph came home when he was alive.

After that Benjamin Rowlands accepted that 10.30 was the "haunting hour" and always endeavoured to return home after 11.30 pm.........

On 13th March 1892 a lad called John Thomas was staying at Glan-y-Mor -- his sister was engaged to marry Rev Benjamin Rowlands.  At 11.30 pm he clearly heard a pestle and mortar being used in the room that had been Joseph Harries's dispensary and surgery.  The sound continued for about 30 minutes.

Late one night -- around the same date -- a passer-by from Newport heard groans and screams, as if from somebody on their deathbed, coming from Glan-y-Mor.

At Glan-y-Mor Joseph's bedroom was the one above the entrance -- and after his death it was reputed to be haunted -- referred to locally as "The Devil's Room".

It was reputed that in the garden of the house a Bible was kept "in a burrow" -- presumably because Joseph did not want it inside the building.  It was also reputed that a skeleton collected by Joseph from the beach at Cwm yr Eglwys (derived from the churchyard as it was being eroded away by the sea) was also buried somewhere in the garden.

(Information kindly provided by Stephen Evans and Hywel Bowen-Perkins)

Sunday 5 November 2023

Joseph Harries -- Pembrokeshire's best known "cunning man"


We should perhaps refer to Joseph Harries, the Wizard of Glan-y-Mor........

I have in my possession -- courtesy Stephen Evans of Glan-y-Mor and Hywel Bowen-Perkins -- assorted notes and copies of pages from Joseph Harries's notebooks that were literally recovered from a skip.......  He was a meticulous record keeper.  In his notebook entries dating from 1873 to 1889 (copied by Hywel) we see that he most often saw just one patient per day -- and hardly ever more than three in a day.  He recorded their names and addresses, symptoms, previous treatment from local doctors, prescribed remedies and details of recovery or reactions.  Hywel records that he was very precise in his observations and diagnoses, and gave very sophisticated treatments -- often, but not always, based on herbal preparations that he mixed himself. Some sources say that he was qualified as a chemist or pharmacist but not as a doctor -- so some in the medical profession would have seen him as a "quack doctor" and would have resented his involvement in the care of the sick people of the community. He was registered as a chemist on 29 June 1869 -- but that does not mean he was qualified (the Royal Pharmacological Society registered all practising chemists as an amnesty, and were afterwards much more carful about those accepted as qualified practitioners).

Joseph lived from 1830 to 1890,  and was just 59 when he died. He never married. Virtually nothing is known about his childhood or his life as a young man.  Where was he educated?  Did he have a mentor? Where did he learn his skills as a chemist and and as a physician?  Was he self-taught?  

He is referred to as living at Werndew, but  his family also owned Glan-y-Mor and he appears to have spent much of his life there, on the main Newport-Dinas road, rather than in the cottage up on the mountainside. He travelled widely -- "a little man on a grey mountain pony" -- and sold his services to those who needed them over a distance of 20 miles to west, south and east, incorporating Cardigan, Haverfordwest and Fishguard.  The "renowned doctor" was feared and respected in equal measure.  He comes over as someone rather disreputable, and rather frightening and intimidating......

I am intrigued by his association with Gideon Chapel, where he was a deacon.  How "religious" was he?  Not very, by all accounts, since he is reputed to have fathered at least two local children as a result of liaisons with unmarried local girls.  Nonetheless, he left £1,500 to the chapel in his will.

Joseph's father William (who died in 1857) was first married to Ann, and their first son David inherited Werndew when his father died.  Joseph was 37 at the time, and his mother was Mary, William's second wife.  We don't know all the details, but it appears that he and David did not get on well, and in 1857 he set about building Glan-y-Mor as a home for himself and his widowed mother. It took a long time -- most of the work was done between 1861 and 1871; maybe they lived there while the work was going on.  It was like a lodge down on the main road, connected to Werndew by a driveway. The driveway is still in use today.  The family must have owned an extensive tract of land, including Felin Werndew to the east along the Newport Road.  In 1887 Joseph inherited Werndew on the death of his brother, and moved back there -- and that is where he spent the last 3 years of his life.  So we can assume he was at Glan-y-Mor for 30 years. There are records of his surgery and dispensary there.  

Joseph had an interesting relationship with Rev Benjamin Rowlands, who was ordained in 1885 and immediately took up his post as minister of Gideon Chapel, not far from Werndew and Glan-y-Mor. He was a lodger at Glan-y-Mor between 1885 and 1887, and resigned his post at Gideon in 1892 prior to moving with his new bride to Saron Chapel in Clydach. He died in Dinas in 1902, having left Clydach in 1899.  He was only 44 years old -- and locals blamed his early demise on the evil influence of Joseph Harries the wizard.......    He left a "deposition" in March 1892 relating to various spooky events that occurred after Joseph's death.  He was not always complimentary about his erstwhile landlord; nonetheless,  Joseph left him a pony and trap in his will when he died in 1890.

The most solid of the stories relating to Joseph Harries are these:

The building of Glan-y-Mor

The Conjuror and the Hornets

Joseph and the familiar hare

The killing at Clyn

The smashed windows of Gideon Chapel

The robber on Trenewydd Mountain

Joseph and the jewel thief

Joseph and the salty bones

The Ghost of Joseph Harries

When I visited Werndew a few years ago the lady then in residence told me that she had recently cleared out a room that had been used (presumably about a century earlier) by Joseph Harries as a dispensary.  She had thrown away assorted old bottles full of medicines and potions -- what a sad loss to science and folklore.......!!

As far as I am aware, there are no photographs of Joseph Harries in any of the local collections.

See:  "Folklore and Folk Stories of Wales" by Marie Llewellyn, 1899

Note:  When I collected together assorted folk tales for my Pembrokeshire Folk Tale Trilogy (in 4 volumes) I found some confusion relating to Joseph Harries and Abe Biddle, who lived near Haverfordwest.  Some folk tales have been transferred from the one to the other, and who knows where the truth lies?

Werndew, where Joseph Harries was born and where he died

Outbuildings at Werndew

There are some interesting insights here: the section on Gideon Chapel, Dinas.  The chapel was built in 1830 (the year of Joseph's birth) but Mrs Harries Werndew is listed as one of the leading lights in the growing "independent" congregation.  So we can assume that Joseph's mother was very active in the chapel and was committed to the cause.  She must have contributed to the building costs, and to improvements to the chapel in 1843 together with an extension to the cemetery.  One wonders what Joseph's feelings were about the chapel, the ministers and the great revival in the local area in 1859?  He was eventually a deacon, but it does not appear that he was the architypal "good Christian gentleman......."

John Davies was the minister from 1843 to 1877.  Then came John Francis, who was driven out in 1881 because of the bitterness of a small number of persons in the congregation.  One wonders what that was all about.  When he left, the chapel may have been without a minister for a while, until the young single minister called Benjamin Rowlands arrived, and he was still in post when Joseph died.

One person who studied the life and reputation of Joseph Harries was Rev Towyn Jones, who died in 2019.  He gave a talk to the Dinas Cross Historical Society on 20 Jan 2003, and Stephen Evans took some rough notes of what he said.  It's not known whether there was a transcript of the talk.  Towyn picked up some information from Joseph Thomas of New Moat, who knew a lot about Joseph Harries's deeds and reputation -- the Welsh Folk Museum taped his recollections.

The depositions about JH collected by the rector of Newport may be somewhere in Cambridge, together with an 1892 photo of Glan-y-Mor.........

Rev Towyn Jones (1942-2019), who had a great interest in the supernatural and who wrote extensively about wizards, ghosts etc in the Welsh language.

Saturday 4 November 2023

John Harries and his big book

This extract deals with the characteristics of certain spirits with which Dr Harries 
communicated, when required........

There has been an interesting discussion on one of the Facebook pages about cunning men and their methods, and I discovered this link to the National Library collection of John Harries documents.  Harries, from Cwrt y Cadno in Carmarthenshire, was of course the most famous wizard in Wales -- not to be confused with Joseph Harries of Werndew, Dinas.

Some fascinating material here: 


John Harries (Shon Harri Shon) (c.1785–1839) was probably born at Pantycoy, Cwrtycadno, Carmarthenshire, and was baptised at Caio on April 10th 1785. He was the eldest child of Henry Jones (Harry John, Harry Shon), Pantycoy (1739-1805), a mason, and his wife Mary Wilkins. He was educated at The Cowings, Commercial Private Academy, Caio, and at Haverfordwest grammar school, but it's not clear where he studied medicine before returning to Caio to establish his practice.

He is said to have kept one of his books padlocked and hidden away, and only dared open it once a year in a nearby secluded wood where he would read various incantations from it to summon forth spirits. Once opened, the book was said to create a very severe storm. This led to the notion that the Harries' derived their power from this large thick volume of spells, bound with an iron chain and 3 locks. J. H. Davies mentiones in his book Rhai o Hen ddewiniaid Cymru published in 1901, that when he visited Cwrtycadno a few years previously, the only book that he found that resembled this book of spells was an old black book with two locks that was the size of a family Bible, that contained miscellaneous medical equipment. He suggest that this was the aforementioned book. In her essay, Ithiel Vaughan-Poppy states that according to family tradition the book is housed at the National Library of Wales, but no record of it has been found at the Library.

It is reported that John Harries had a premonition that he would die by accident on 11 May 1839 and to avoid this happening he stayed in bed all day. The house caught fire during the night, and he died.


There is a new book by Andrew Phillip Smith: Pages From a Welsh Cunning Man's Book: Magic and Fairies in Nineteenth-Century Wales. I haven't seen it yet, but it looks interesting.....

There is a long tradition of "magic books" or grimoires. Prof Owen Davies is the author of Grimoires: A History of Magic Books

"Grimoires are books that contain a mix of spells, conjurations, natural secrets and ancient wisdom. Their origins date back to the dawn of writing and their subsequent history is entwined with that of the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the development of science, the cultural influence of print, and the social impact of European colonialism."

I cover some of this same territory in "Pembrokeshire Wizards and Witches" -- long since out of print but still available (if you are lucky) as a used copy:

Tuesday 31 October 2023

The Carningli Mountain Railway and stone quarry


The incline running down from the cable drum pillars (the "Gateway to Carningli") bottom left.  The quarried area was mostly to the right, off the picture.

One of the iron sleepers exposed on the incline.  This was just a section of iron rail, placed upside down.

The entrance to the main quarrying area.  This was wide enough to allow the passage of horses and carts, travelling from the quarry to the loading area adjacent to the cable drum pillars.

Looking up the incline from the car parking area on the Dolrannog Road

The cable drum pillars, showing the rather crude stonework.  A diesel engine was set next to one of the pillars, and this operated the cable drum which allowed the loaded wagons to descend the incline to the crushing plant on the Cilgwyn Road under control, and then to be pulled back up again.


This is the story as I have pieced it together...........

Between the two World Wars the hundreds of little roads around Newport and Cilgwyn were being improved and provided with asphalt surfaces, and there was a great demand for crushed roadstone. Seeing a commercial opportunity in this, five Newport men decided that Carningli bluestone would fit the bill perfectly, since it could be obtained in good quantities from the lower scree slopes of the mountain with relatively little effort. They cleared things with the Commoners, applied to the Barony of Cemais for permission to take stone from the mountain (in exchange for a royalty for every ton taken), and did a deal with the County Council. 

They set up in business, and built a narrow-gauge railway track about 500 yards long from the Cilgwyn Road up onto the mountain side. It runs almost east-west. In some places the men had to build embankments, and in others they had to excavate cuttings. They built a small crushing plant at the roadside, operated by a diesel engine. At the top of the incline they constructed two masonry pillars to support a large cable drum, the mountings for which were fixed on two large iron bolts on the top of each pillar. Another diesel engine was installed adjacent to the pillars, and this provided the power to rotate the drum and pull in the cable. They installed the railway track and bought three little railway trucks, which were connected together and then coupled to one end of the cable. When the trucks were stationed at the top of the incline they could be filled with blocks of stone carried from the quarrying area in a horse-drawn cart. Then they would be let down under the force of gravity, using a braking system on the cable drum to control the rate of descent. When they reached the bottom, they would be unloaded and the stone fed into the crushing plant. Then the upper diesel motor would be started, and the cable would be wound in again, pulling the three trucks back up to the top of the incline for a fresh load of stone.

I have never seen any written records (or photographs) of this short-lived industrial enterprise, but according to rumour it only lasted for a few years. Two men worked in the crushing plant and three up on the mountain. The “quarry” was maybe a hundred yards long, extending southwards along the contour from the winding gear. There are several obvious cuts into the mountain slope, but probably most of the rock which has been taken consisted of loose boulders and scree rather than solid rock. In the quarry the rock was broken up into stones about the size of footballs. Today we can still see still some piles of excavated stones here and there, but the most obvious trace of the quarrying activity is a cutting or gully which was used by the horse and cart for its journeys back and forth in delivering stone to the “loading bay”.
And what was it that brought the Industrial Revolution on Carningli to an end? It must have been a truly spectacular event. According to legend, one day around 1933 the man in the quarry who had charge of the dynamite became a little too enthusiastic, and this led to an almighty explosion which caused fragments of shattered bluestone to rain down upon the roofs of all the cottages in the cwm. Thankfully nobody was hurt, but there was such an outcry that the firm’s operating licence was revoked. The men dismantled their machinery and sold it off, leaving the mountain once again in the possession of sheep and angels.


1.  This is real oral history, based on personal observations and on things that I have picked up in conversations mostly with Byron James and Robin Evans, both of whom have sadly passed away.  There must be some written records of events surrounding the railway and the quarry, probably in the Bronwydd papers and other documents relating to the Barony of Cemais -- these are all in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, and as far as I know they have not been digitised.

2.  Byron told me that he had seen some contemporary photos of the "industrial operations" on the mountainside, but in spite of various attempts we have never managed to find any of them. 

This is all that's left of the crude shelter used by the quarrymen in this exposed location in inclement weather.......  it's very close to the stone pillars, just to the north of the top of the incline.  It probably had a corrugated iron roof.  

Saturday 28 October 2023

Recollections -- Ivor John's childhood memories, 1901-1915

I have now managed to scan this little booklet by my father Ivor John, and it is here as a PDF.........

I am also placing it onto Peoples Collection Wales, and will add a link when it is available.  It was published in 1983 as a Christmas present for my Dad -- in a very small print run and using rather primitive technology.  But it is well worth a digital version, in order that this little social history is not lost and forgotten.  After all, we are talking of a childhood lived more than a century ago.

My father was a very fluent speaker and a powerful preacher -- and a pillar of the local Methodist Church in Haverfordwest.   In his later years he suffered from bronchial problems and failing eyesight -- but until the day he died his mind was as sharp as ever.  So this is in the way of a small memorial to him -- a very intelligent man, a good Christian and a loving and very funny father......


Thursday 26 October 2023

Pembrokeshire Folk Tales Compendium

Peoples Collection Wales is a fantastic resource which is well worth investigating.  It is full of bits and pieces of information about local history, documents and family memories -- social history in the raw.........

Check these out: 
Pembrokeshire Folk Tales Compendium
The books are free for anybody to use. Here are the 4 links:

Pembrokeshire Folk Tales

The Last Dragon

Fireside Tales from Pembrokeshire

More Pembrokeshire Folk Tales


Wednesday 10 May 2023

Odin's Raven


As our faithful followers will know, I'm rather interested in the mythology of ravens, given that the raven on the mountain plays a large role in Martha's story.  I've been listening to an intriguing track by Hilmarsson, called Odin's Raven Magic, with the plaintive voice of Steindor Andersen.  I wish I could have a better understanding of Icelandic -- but the image above, used on the cover of the CD, is also very moody and effective.......

Sunday 16 April 2023

THE POISON SEED. When Jemima met Rebecca, and confronted the foe...........

Ah yes, I remember it well..........


A Brief History

10/4/01 BBC News reports GM trial T25 maize crop to be planted in Mathry (West Pembrokeshire) by Aventis and Toddingtons Ltd., landowners of Castle Cenlas Farm, Mathry.  Jill Chambers, partner of ex-Tory MP Tony Marlow, says this is part of the scientific advance in agriculture. There is no notification in the local press. Local organic farmers are immediately alarmed that their Organic status could be compromised. There are 80 organic farms in Pembs., more than in any other part of Wales, several within a five-mile radius of Mathry. Together with other concerned local people they phone the local press to announce a public meeting and put up posters all over North Pembs.

Tory MP Tony Marlow, the landowner whose land was earmarked for a GM crop trial

11/4/01 Petitions and anti-GM posters are organised by FoE and other groups all over Pembs. Already apparent that there is massive public support for keeping Pembs GM-free.

16/4/01 Easter Monday. Public meeting in Mathry attended by about 250 people. TV, radio and press in attendance. Four speakers, including one from FoE. Dismay and rage that the Welsh Assembly had not been consulted in the light of its vote last year to keep Wales GM free, and fury that Mathry Community Council has not been consulted at all (although an obligation to consult locally over a 6 week period is placed on the trial organisers by the licensing directive). The meeting approves a "Mathry Resolution Against GMOs" unanimously. Supporters urged to send email protests to Carwyn Jones (Welsh Assembly Rural Affairs Minister), the GM Strategy Group, Tony Blair, local MPs and AMs. £250 raised which is used for keeping people in touch: setting up website; stamps, paper, envelopes for newsletter. 

So GM-Free Cymru was born.  Decided that the campaign should have no leadership and no committee. Instead, action Groups are formed, covering bright ideas; scientific research; political links and lobbying; demonstrations and non-violent action; and website. The structure is a loose affiliation of independent people to avoid entanglement with new anti-terrorist legislation and to promote self-motivation. The action groups were left to plan and execute their own ideas, publicity, newsletter and email information lists, mobile phone networks.  The principle was that the loose steering group should not do much steering; the less it knew about other groups and their plans, the better........

17/4/01 Waiting for the support of the CCW, County Council, National Park, Wildlife Trust, RSPB, Farmers Union of Wales etc. This takes time and a lot of lobbying, but gradually "official" support for our position appears.

19/4/01 Delegation to Welsh Assembly in Cardiff presents petitions and statement calling on WA to use legal means to halt trials. Also, AMs are asked to make representations in Westminster to reverse legislation permitting commercial  sowing, in light of ban by Germany; non implementation of EU directive by France and Austria; scientific evidence of likely dangers of horizontal gene transfer; loss of livelihood by organic farmers, market gardeners and beekeepers; public resistance to GM foods. Labour MP Jackie Lawrence is present and promises to raise questions in Westminster and begins to get informed of the full legal and scientific facts. Welsh Assembly's GM Strategy Group looks at what legal avenues can be pursued, due to report in a week (27/4/01)

21/4/01 March of about 300 people to Castle Cenlas to release yellow balloons simulating wind blown pollen. In the crowd are Jemima (a local heroine who helped to defeat the French in the invasion of 1797) and the daughters of Rebecca (symbolic reminder of the Rebecca Riots against toll gate injustices in 1835).

23/4/01 First newsletter distributed. CCW announces support for the trials, and refuses to get involved in any scientific work related to the field trial sites. This causes much anger among protestors and Assembly members.

24/4/01 We discover that the field trials site is part of an area notified as a candidate SAC and SSSI (designation largely because it is an otter habitat). Drainage from the field will contaminate the Upper Western Cleddau with glufosinate ammonium herbicide. This herbicide is very toxic and dangerous for aquatic life, and does not have a commercial license. We ask CCW and Environment Agency to intervene and try to halt the field trials, but they refuse.

25/4/01 Landowners invite organic farmers and other key protestors to a private meeting at Castle Cenlas. In attendance, Meurig Raymond (the contractor), Huw Jones (Welsh Assembly civcil servant), Graham Davies (DETR civil servant) and Judith Jordan from Aventis. Also various farmers who support the field trials. We are given the chance to ask questions and state our case. Afterwards, landowners say they will give due consideration to the points we have raised. Great media interest in the meeting.

26/4/01 Two computers crash and strange things happen on telephones and faxes. Fun and games with the police and the media -- Aventis later confirm in writing that they have "security consultants" working in the area to protect their interests!

27/4/01 GM Strategy Group say Welsh Assembly has no power to do anything.

28/4/01 This is confirmed by a Statement by Rural Affairs Minister Carwyn Jones

Welsh Rural Affairs Minister Carwyn Jones

30/4/01 Panic as tractors appear on the site -- but after a general alert it transpires that they are only ploughing. Spy network attempts to find whereabouts of seed.

2/5/01 Farmers and lawyers meet to find possible grounds for an injunction. Barrister from Cardiff offers to act for reduced fee, local solicitor (from farming family) acts for expenses only.  Vigil around the clock starts to ensure that the whole community is alerted if tractors and seed drills appear on the trial site. Telephone links with supporters able to come immediately. A lot of media coverage. Local residents come forward to offer support, act as lookouts, give information as to where the seed might be. Plans are put in place for peaceful pickets etc if tractors and seed drills appear. Police cars patrol regularly; the police are kept informed of actions planned. Second newsletter published.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher

3/5/01 Delegation to see Environment Minister in London, organised by our MP.  In attendance, organic farmers, beekeeper, Chairman of Community Council, campaign spokesmen. Michael Meacher finds out that his own civil servants have not passed on to him crucial letters and have not insisted on correct consultation procedures and notification periods. Meacher asks for a delay and for proper consultation, but is snubbed later in the same day by SCIMAC and Aventis who say they will carry on regardless.
All this week various local individuals visit and phone Tony Marlow and Jill Chambers (landowners) to talk with them and plead for the trials to be abandoned. They stick to the Aventis line that the new technology is beneficial and safe, opposition is not local and is not from farmers, GM crops are all round us anyway, the commercial planting is legal already and people don¹t know the facts. It becomes clear in conversation that they are not very well informed -- and probably only interested in the money.

4/5/01 Farmers meeting convened with organic and conventional farmers, to discuss the evidence of GM damage to the environment and health. Professor Brian Goodwin and Dr Mae-Wan Ho in attendance.
The weather is warm and dry. We know that the seeds could go in at any moment. Enough volunteers for a 24 hour non-stop vigil for as long as it takes. Supporters number about 500 by now.

Protestor Des Llewellyn

5/5/01 am, Technical seminar in St Davids led by Mae-Wan Ho for local scientists and specialists

5/5/01 pm, Professor Goodwin and Dr Mae Wan Ho explain the scientific dangers at a public meeting in Letterston, attended by about 250 people. Our AM, MP and MEP are present, and the political temperature starts to rise!

Dr Mae-wan Ho

6/5/01 Fund raising and fun Rally in Mathry. Stalls, barbeque, auction etc-- amazing atmosphere and public support... £2000 raised. Offer of £2500 from FUW towards farmer's legal costs.

6/5/01 On the same day, volunteers work with Mae-Wan Ho and Brian Goodwin to declare Chardon-LL plantings as illegal. Press release and big media interest

7/5/01 Bank Holiday Monday. Marathon bike ride across Pembs by "Rebecca and her sisters" (local folk heroes). Tractor rally -- about 30 local farmers, both conventional and organic, come out in support and drive a convoy of tractors past Castle Cenlas farm. Tractors and cyclists all meet on the village green in Mathry, to great public acclaim and media interest.

Steering group member Gerald Miles

8/5/01 Word leaks that Toddingtons were unable to implement their plan to plant last weekend because of problems in finding a contractor with the right seed drill.  Also it comes to light that the NFU has major investments in Monsanto; and various committee members such as Lord Sainsbury (Chair of GM Strategy Committee) have money invested in GM companies.

8/5/01 am Meeting between representatives of the campaign group and Carwyn Jones at the Welsh Assembly. Our MP and AM in attendance. Last-ditch attempt to force the Assembly to take decisive action. The Minister still says he can do nothing.

8/5/01 Early evening, Toddingtons suddenly issue a press release saying they are pulling out of the field trials! They cite distress caused to local residents by misinformation; blame the Government for not promoting a positive image of GM technology; and point out they were legally entitled to plant commercially anyway.  Euphoria all over Pembrokeshire. Within an hour, everybody knows!

9/5/01 Press announcement by NFU boss Ben Gill claims intimidation and threats had been used by protesters, and claimed that there had been attacks on landowners. Way over the top, and if he had bothered to ring the police he might have obtained a more reliable impression of the campaign.

9/5/01 The police rang up to thank all involved for the courteous, peaceful and good humoured way in which the protest had been conducted.


There is a very strong community spirit in Pembrokeshire, many very active supporters are from families local for generations with family members in a variety of professions, eg our solicitor is from a farming family. There is a tradition of protest which has been successful in the past, eg the original Rebecca Rioters who protested against highway tolls in the 19th C; the recent campaign which stopped the burning of Orimulsion fuel at Pembroke Power Station; and the successful campaign to prevent nuclear waste storage at Trecwn mine depot.  The fact that the wishes of the Welsh Assembly and Welsh people were being totally disregarded by Westminster caused great resentment locally.

People here are highly protective of our unpolluted environment.Organic farmers are a strong and numerous lobby since their livelihood is at risk. They persuaded many conventional farmers to support them. Instead of centralised leadership there was networking to involve people, put them in touch with others, and give them encouragement to carry out their own ideas. Most energy from the centre went into keeping people informed. Speed and ease of communication improves all the time (eg we relied heavily on our mobile phones, website and emails) so support kept on increasing.

We have a determined body of academics able to trawl all the scientific reports and legal directives for conflicts, procedures not properly carried out, facts people in high places would prefer not to know...  We were determined to keep within the law and not to antagonise the police.

Also we had some powerful symbols, which the media loved: small children with painted faces carrying yellow balloons, Jemima and her army of elderly female warriors, Rebecca and her daughters, the otter as a symbol of a special environment, marathon bike ride, and a large tractor convoy.  All very visual and colourful -- perfect for TV.   Also, one of the chief characters in the saga was Tony Marlow, a very colourful ex-Tory MP already well known to the media.

Nearly all the groups involved planned "theatrical" things which underpinned the serious negotiating and lobbying going on at another level. The mutual support mechanism was fantastic. A lot of us lived on adrenalin for more than 3 weeks.

In the end the three families involved in Toddingtons Ltd and in the plans to plant and harvest the GM crops could not handle the concerted pressure from the community in which they have to live.

GM Free Cymru steering group:
Gill Rowlands, Judy Bruce, Moira Charles, Leon Downey, Wyn Evans, Jane James, Brian John, Tom Latter, Des Llewelyn, Gerald Miles, Ian Panton, Van der Spoel, Chris Samra Tibbetts, Gareth Waters.
  (original draft of this article)