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Former “Cricketers”

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Former “Cricketers”

Nothing sums up my Gafnu Cymuned:Hollowed Community project more than the sight of The Cricketers public house now shut and boarded up. It is just across the road from the St Helens Rugby and Cricket ground where sport has been played for over 140 years. On 19 June 1928 the ground was the venue of a mile race, for Swansea Grammar School’s Sports Day, won by a teenage Dylan Thomas; he carried a newspaper photograph of his victory with him until his death. Seven years later, Swansea RFC defeated the New Zealand 11-3 at St Helen’s, becoming the first club side to beat the All Blacks.

A famous cricketer, Gary Sobers, once hit six sixes in a row, in one over, during a cricket match in the nearby St Helens cricket ground in 1968. The final ball of the six sixes supposedly sailed through the air and crashed through the window of the Cricketers pub. In later years this great sporting feat was commemorated with a cricket ball drawn in the window that the ball supposedly crashed through all those years ago.

Sadly, an important piece of local and international history, has been bulldozed by the march of Swansea University. Now this window is boarded up and like much local history rubbed out by the advancement of student houses (HMOs) and the student ghettoisation of Brynmill and Uplands. Its rather curious, that despite being surrounded by students in Bryn Road and King Edwards Road, that this pub was not a viable business. A rather telling piece of evidence against those who always claim that more students bring more money to the city. They didn’t bring enough money to this local business.

Recently, stories have appeared in the local press claiming that discarded needles have been found around the back of the pub. These claims have been fiercely rejected by locals who see the newspaper reports as fake news planted by the developers, in order to strengthen their case for another massive HMO. I don’t think Dylan Thomas would have approved of the passing of this historic pub.

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Newspaper cutting of Young Dylan Thomas’s triumph at St Helen’s
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Former Corner Shop and Post Office.

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Former Corner Shop and Post Office

The Corner of Bernard St. and Marlborough Rd.

Long before I came to Swansea in 1998, there used to be a corner shop and a post office, side by side on Marlborough Road. There were both there in 1986. There is a photo to prove it (see below). The Corner shop had gone by 1998. The building was completely renovated; the large side window on Bernard Street was blocked up, the upstairs windows made smaller, the front door was moved and the shop window removed and replaced with modern uPVC double glazing. The front of the building was pebble-dashed. The chimney was removed, presumably when the new roof was added.

I do remember the post office. It was still open when we moved to Waterloo Place in 2000 – I remember queuing to buy stamps and posted my Christmas parcels there.  Soon after, the government decided that there were too many Post Offices, and although people said that the elderly would struggle to walk the half a mile to the Uplands, to pick up their pensions, it was closed in 2003.

The red pillar box remains. The only clue to the former identity of one of these nondescript houses. The other clue is the lack of a boundary wall at the front of the former shop. Just an apron of grey concrete. They are both student houses now. There is still a “for let” sign in the window of the former shop. They sit in a street which is well over 50% student houses.

 

 

 

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English Corner

English Corner
English Corner

I love Victorian tin chapels. Maybe it’s because a playgroup I went to as a child in Hereford was held in one. I think that one was painted dark green. It was near the racecourse.

This tin building is at the crest of the hill, on Rhyddings Park Road. The corrugated iron is painted cream. It is jammed in by the side of the much larger and grander Argyle and Rhyddings Park Presbyterian Church.

The tin chapel is a friendly and welcoming building. The painted blue door always seems to be open. Playgroups meet here. I often see people with small infants coming and going.

There is a banner hanging above the door advertising “English Corner” for visitors to come and practice their English. This Welsh church has clearly gone out of their way to welcome international students and immigrants. I knew nothing about this community until I looked at their website and discovered that the church has been led by two energetic and thoughtful overseas mission workers, Charles and Molly Chua ,from Singapore for the past 11 years.

English Corner was set up by Charles and Molly after they found two lost Chinese students wondering the streets of Swansea. Charles and Molly took the two students to a Chinese shop and then drove them home. Over a cup of tea, the students pleaded: ‘we need someone to help us with our English!’ So they did something. The church set up weekly English classes on Friday evenings, and “English Corner’ grew rapidly, from 9 to 29 Chinese students in 3 weeks. Now 50-60 students regularly attend. It has since grown to become an international community linked with the Universities and Language Schools in Swansea. This proactive and positive work has had many benefits for the local community, students and new residents as well for the church which has a diverse congregation of Welsh and Chinese, Asians, Europeans and Africans worshipers.

So this unassuming little tin building holds a strong and vibrant community.  I like that.

Find out more about Argyle and Rhyddlings Park Church

 

 

 

 

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The Former Grocers

People remember Edward VII. He is in History books and TV programmes. In Brynmill there is a road named after him.  Kings Edward’s Road was once part of Gorse Lane, the narrow road that runs along side Patti Pavillion and St Helen’s Rugby and Cricket Ground that has been there since the 1870s. The street had its name changed in 1904, in honour of the new-ish king Edward VII, known to his family as Bertie.

On 20th July 1904, Bertie came to visit Swansea. He arrived in the royal yacht “The Victoria and Albert” and “cut the first sod” of the new King’s Dock named in his honour. Thousands turned out to see Bertie and his Danish wife, Alexandra, drive through the streets of Swansea in an open-topped carriage. They also traveled up and down on the Mumbles railway in a specially decorated carriage.

Ordinary people liked Bertie. He had the common touch. He had been Prince of Wales for many, many years before his mother, Queen Victoria, died in 1901. He had spent many of these years drinking, gambling and womanising, but when he became king, he proved to be a popular king.

When I first moved to Swansea in 1998 to do my teacher training course, I used to walk around the area, exploring. My friend bought a house at the top of Rhyddings Park Road. She later moved to Sketty and now rents the house out to a PhD student and his family. Rhyddings Park Road had very few student houses in 1998 many three or four. It’s all changed now.  There are 40 students on Rhyddings Park Road.

King Edwards’s Road is over 52% students houses (that’s about 90 of them). It feels like more. Its a rather soulless street now. The large pub on the corner is closed. The grocers on the opposite side of the road is gone.  The house in the painting isn’t very pretty. Covered in ugly pebble-dashing.  I can’t remember if it had pebble-dash on it in 1998.

I remember going into the shop and admiring its wooden floors. It was light and airy. However, grief haunted that shop, like a heavy pall. I never forgot it. The old grocer sat, silently next to his till, starring into to space. There were not many vegetables in the shop but there were some green apples. On a piece of folded paper on the counter there was a colour photograph of a cheerful old lady wearing glasses. In wobbly old fashioned hand writing, next to the photograph was the statement “SMOKING KILLED MY LOVELY WIFE”.

It was heart-breaking. I didn’t know what to say to the grocer. So I just asked for a few apples. He put them in a brown paper bag and I paid for them.  Later I saw that the notice had been placed in the window. Then the shop closed. I suppose the grocer died or went into a home. He didn’t look like he’d go into a home. Now, it is a characterless house. The shop front was changed, the windows were made smaller. Maybe, the pinkish pebble-dash was added to the house then.  It’s a personal history lost.

I suppose that’s one of the distressing aspects of this transient community, no-one remembers. We are just here for a year. Passing Through. No point investing time or energy here. All is forgotten and something very important is lost. I don’t know what the grocer’s name was, but I still remember him.

Former Grocers
Former Grocers, King Edward’s Road, Brynmill, Swansea.

 

 

 

 

 

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Brynmill, past and future

Rhyddings Hotel from Brynmill Avenue (Park Place end)
Rhyddings Hotel from Brynmill Avenue (Park Place end)

The schools have gone back. Unusually its raining. When I was teaching, the first weeks of term usually would enjoy an Indian Summer. It made the pain of returning to work after  the long break a little easier.  Not this year. The students are returning. Term does not start for another month but quite a few students have been here over the summer.

The roads are starting to fill up with cars. The empty kerbs are vanishing. The stretch of road in this painting is often packed with cars on both sides. The local bus struggles round this bend and down the hill towards the viewer. The shadow to the far right is that of a rather tatty old coach house which has suddenly been converted into student accommodation over the summer. The Rhyddings pub is perched at the top of the hill.

In term time at the start and end of each school day a “lollypop lady” ushers the junior school children and their families across this stretch of road. She does her job well. She gives motorists a very fierce look as she steps out into the road with her stop sign. She says hello to all the children as they cross. I have not seen her for weeks. Today must be her first day back at work too.

It all looks so peaceful but recent events in North Korea remind me not to take peace for granted. During the Second World War, air raids killed several Brynmill people and damaged homes in the area. In September 1940, Brynmill had a lucky escape. A single plane dropped 3 High Explosive bombs over Brynmill just before 9.00pm. One failed to explode and there was slight damage to Langland Terrace but no casualties.

In the following year, in February 1941 was what is commonly referred to as ‘The Three Nights’ Blitz’ took place. It  lasted for nearly 14 hours, killed 230 people, injured another 397, wiped out entire streets of residential houses, made 7,000 people homeless and left the town centre of Swansea a terrifying inferno of total destruction. Some bombs fell on Brynmill too. The glow of the fires could be seen as far as Devon, and the west part of Wales in Pembrokeshire. My grandfather, who lived in Cardiff with my grandmother and mother, came to Swansea to help with the aftermath. Surprisingly, some of Swansea’s oldest buildings, the Castle, Swansea Museum, the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery survived but the town’s commercial heart was razed, with the Ben Evans store, which seemed to have supplied everyone with everything for upward of fifty years, was flattened.

I think that Swansea people think that the blitz only affected the town centre and the docks. The last raid on Swansea was two years later on the sixteenth of February nineteen forty-three. The Germans called the raid “Operation Wasservogal”. It started at nine-thirty in the evening and the target was the docks.  A German bomber, possibly getting rid of its last bombs before it returned to Europe, dropped a bomb that fell on 24 Park Place and killed Elizabeth Fabian and Selina Mogridge outright. Selina’s 24-year old daughter, Hilda, later died of her injuries at Cefn Coed Hospital, just under 2 miles away in Cockett.

Thankfully, the Luftwaffe never came again. Later in the war, in spring of 1944 1,566 American troops were stationed in hundreds of tents at Camp X3 in Singleton Park in preparation for the D-Day landings. The officers, apparently, were stationed in Mumbles. The Americans were using Gower’s sandy beaches backed by cliffs to train for the D-Day landings on similar terrain in Normandy. Jim Owens has collected many stories about the GIs in Swansea in 1944. The local kids clearly thought they were both glamorous and generous.

Churchill visits Swansea 1941
Winston Churchill 1941 visiting Swansea after the Three Nights’ Blitz

 

If I remember rightly, there used to be photos of Prime Minister Winston Churchill visiting Swansea after the blitz in the Rhyddings pub.

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Rhyddings House, Brynmill

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Rhyddings House, Brynmill

This is a strange rather ugly building. It’s pebble-dashed exterior is tinged grey with neglect. The front garden is unkempt and there’s a red boat in the far corner of the garden. I noticed this building ages ago and was intrigued by it. Why didn’t it look like the houses around it? It reminded me of a block of flats and it seemed out of place amongst the tight terraces.

 

I have discovered recently that it is, in fact, an old mansion house, originally built in the mid 18th century. If you walk around the back of the building it looks less like an ugly tenement as through a stone archway there is smaller stone building attached called “the cottage”.

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Rear of Rhydding House with the “Cottage”

 

 

Further research reveals that when it was built in the mid-18th century, it was one of few big houses to the west of Swansea. It had 8 generously sized bedrooms, an orchard, walled garden, and farmland. The surrounding areas would have been hay fields, dotted with patches of trees.  It was located far away from the smoking chimneys of the industrial areas along the River Tawe. It had views of the burrows (sand dunes) at the bottom of the hill to the south and, weather permitting, across the bay to the distant shores of Devon. From 1837 onwards, you would have been able to see the new Brynmill Reservoir to the north-west. This lake later became the heart of Brynmill Park.

The name of Rhyddings is a bit of a mystery. I asked my Welsh-speaking facebook friend, Rhydian, his opinion on why “Rhyddings” is pronounced locally with a hard “d” sound instead of with a soft “f” sound. He said,  “short answer is that I don’t know. The word ‘Rhydd’ is Welsh for ‘Free’ but I’m not sure whether there’s any connection there to be honest because the word Rhydding isn’t used today if it was ever a word, and -ing isn’t a common suffix in Welsh.With regards to the pronunciation, it probably is being mispronounced technically but since it’s not, as far as I’m aware, an actual word then I don’t feel it matters.”

The house had many tenants over the years. Thomas Bowdler , was its most notable resident. He was an English doctor of medicine, philanthropist, and man of letters. He lived here in 1818, whilst he was carefully deleting all the unsuitable parts from the plays of Shakespeare ‘which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family’ to make them suitable for women and children to read:- this was his “The Family Shakespeare”. He died in 1825 at the age of 70 and was buried in nearby Oystermouth.  He left money to the poor of Swansea and his home parish of Box, in Somerset. Although the bulk of his large library was donated to the University of Wales, Lampeter, the remainder of his library and print collection were put up for sale along with his furniture.

The house was subject to a series of misfortune, not least of which was being struck by lightning during an autumn thunderstorm of 1831 and being bombed during the Second World War. Relations with the local community weren’t always easy – different tenants prosecuted local children for minor “crimes” on a more than one occasion. Once for a 12-year-old was prosecuted for “scrumping” (pinching apples) and a 14-year old for picking flowers. In 1873 a public right of way through the near-by Rhyddings Fields were closed off and this provoked an anonymous letter from the fictional  “Twm Sion Catti” (a Welsh version of Robin Hood) demanding to know who had done this. A later tenant, the Dutch South African farmer Richard White Beor, became a Justice of the Peace and no doubt helped keep law and order in this rural area.

The last decade of the 19th century saw the start of the terraces being built. In the 1880s Swansea was growing rapidly. Middle-class suburbs were spreading west. St Helen’s Avenue and King Edward’s Road had been built and houses were starting to climb up Rhyddings Park Road and Finsbury Terrace. By the start of the First World War, the farmland and the orchard was a dim and distant memory.

 

Map of Brynmill
Brynmill, Swansea

 

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The Rhyddings, Brynmill, Swansea.

 

 

The Rhyddings
“The Rhyddings” 33x 41 cm

 

The magnificent red brick building at the end of our road used to be called the Rhyddings Hotel but in recent years has recently rebranded itself as “The Rhyddings at Swansea”. I have always admired it’s generously arched windows which look out north and west from the bar and the lounge bar.

Local legend has it that it used to be a coaching house. Presumably, the current building was constructed in the late Victorian period, as it is built from similar red brick to that of the Brynmill Junior School which was built in 1986.

Writer Kingsley Amis (of “Lucky Jim” fame as and father of Martin Amis)  later drank here in the late 1940s when it was run by ex-professional footballer Jack Fowler. I was would amazed if Dylan Thomas hadn’t drunk here too but I have yet to come across a reference to him doing so. He is known to have been keen on the Uplands Tavern and the pubs in Mumbles.

For some reason, locals use an Anglicised pronunciation of the name “Rhyddings” (with a hard “d” sound instead of the soft “f” sound that would be used in Welsh pronunciation. Perhaps this is simply a sign that Swansea is a very Anglicised town and sadly, Welsh is not often heard here. Medieval Swansea had an English community and much later the English from Devon and Cornwall came here in the 18th and 19th centuries came to work in the copper and tinplate industries.

The white building on the opposite corner to the Rhyddings is the Park Fish Bar which claims to be the oldest fish and chip shop in Swansea (running since 1974 since you ask). It is unusual to see the road outside The Rhyddings pub empty. There are usually cars parked there. The absence of cars illustrates how the community of Brynmill has been hollowed out by an imbalance of student houses. In many streets in this area, 80%-90% of houses are empty in the summer.  It makes for an eerily quiet summer. It’s like a ghost town. It’s very sad.

The imbalance also affects local businesses. Not only because the area is very empty in the summer months but even when they are here students tend not to drink in the local pub or eat chips from the chip shop. They drink at home and order their food from Adsa & Tescos or have takeaways delivered by some poor Deliveroo rider who struggled up the steep Swansea hills to deliver their food. Some do, of course, but Jeff, who used to run the Park Fish Bar, used to tell me tales of the days before the student houses swamped the area when families regularly bought fish, chips, and pizzas from his shop and the queue reached out the door and around the corner.  This is a shame as students undoubtedly bring youth and energy to the area but when there is such an imbalance it no longer feels like a healthy and varied community but instead some sort of annexe to the University Campus.

Note: Not to be confused with Rhyddings House, which is at the corner of Bernard Street and St Albans Road. I’ll be coming to that ghost of a house next.

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Bernard Street, Brynmill

“Urban minimal” paintings of Swansea 

 

Bernard Street
Bernard Street

 

Swansea is full of hills. It’s why there are so many great views in this town. It helps keep you fit. We live on top of a hill that -gave its name to the area – Brynmill (Lit. “Mill Hill” in Welsh).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bernard Street is a long tree-lined avenue that “hangs” between two hills. It leads from the uplands of busy Gower Road down a long slope past a small parade of shops and then uphill again to St Albans Road, which runs parallel to the north side of the ridge of Brynmill.  This land was once part of the grounds of a country mansion called “Pantygwdyr”  (Lit. “Stream of Glass” in Welsh) that longer exists, that was once owned by a John Richardson, a ship owner.

Bernard was, apparently, a family name that was given to this street that was built around the turn of the 19th century. The north end of Bernard Street is lined with elegant large Edwardian red brick houses.  It is one of the red-brick houses I have painted. I love the fiery colour of the hard brick. Not at all like modern bricks. These are smooth edged and a reddish orange.

I also love the trees on this road. They are periodically pruned so that the branches are reduced to stumps but they always burst forth with verdant abundance in the spring. It hard to be minimal with such lush greenery! It is usually rare to find parking spaces at this end of the street. The summer and the absent students have left gaps. The shadow of the house opposite, encroaches into the sunny scene, possibly a hint of something ominous.

More on Brynmill

© Emma Cownie 2017

 

 

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My Painting Project: Urban Minimalism

I have just finished a 5-month teaching contract at a local school. Teaching is all consuming, it has to be in order to do be done well, but it does affect my capacity to “think” about art. So, recent weeks I have finally been able to stop and take stock of what I am doing, and where want to go with my work.

I have decided on a new project which I am calling “Urban minimalism“. It was initially inspired by the empty streets around where I live in Brynmill, Swansea. In recent years Brynmill has been increasingly taken over by HMOs (Houses of Multiple Occupancy) rented out to the growing population of university students. In the summer months most of the students leave and the local streets which are usually crammed with cars are suddenly empty. I was struck by both the physical empty space as well as the peace they left behind. I wanted to capture this temporary calm in paint.  So I started to take lots of photos of the local area with an eye to using them for the basis of paintings.

My “rules” for composition and painting

  1. No cars
  2. No People
  3. Bright light. There must be shadows – at diagonals if possible.
  4.  Simplified forms – there must be little detail in the final painting. I found this the most challenging “rule” to stick to.
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Shadow Play

I wanted to explore the interplay of the geometry of shadows and man-made structures – the tension between the 3D buildings and the 2D shadows. The simplified blocks of colour. Shadows are one of the earliest ways man has used to mark time and seeking out the long shadows that mark the rising or falling of the sun in the morning and evening are a reminder that the empty streets are only temporarily so.

 

In future, I am intending to extend the “principles” of this project to other urban landscapes.