Sunday, 24 August 2014

In Praise of Port Talbot


For many British people the August Bank Holiday weekend  comes as a last chance to get a few days in the sunshine before the Autumn weather sets in. The tourists who come across the Severn Bridge and stream along the M4 towards Pembrokeshire will know Port Talbot because it is the only place where they have to cut their speed to 50 MPH and the steel works are unmissable.  This is what they see from their car windows.

The steam and the industrial sprawl is mesmerising, especially when the fires from furnaces can be seen or when the factories belch sulphurous black clouds into the sky.  Port Talbot has a positive side, this will involve you turning off the motorway as you reach the steel works and heading up into the rolling wooded hills that surround this industrial wasteland.  Just two miles from the town are the secluded historic buildings, gardens and estate that was the home of the Talbots who built the Port in the 1830s and brought the railways and industry to the area in the 1850s.
As you arrive at the gates of Margam Park look to your right into the field where there is a herd of horned red-brown cattle with white stripes on their backs.  These impressive beasts are Glamorgan Cattle.

Glamorgan Cow with her Calf

Glamorgan cattle are believed to be directly descended from very ancient stock. In the late 1700s King George III, fondly known as "farmer George", is said to have kept similar cattle Windsor, but by the 1920s the breed was thought to have been extinguished and was only remembered from pictures, such as from this oil painting by William Shiels (1783–1857). 

Five Glamorgan Cattle by William Shiels

In 1979 a long forgotten herd was re-discovered in Sussex, and the entire stock was purchased and brought back to Margam park where they now reside.

When you enter the car park you will see two enormous pillars, these  hint at the grandeur that nestles behind the trees.  When I was there a family were using the pillars as goal posts.

Parking costs £4.50 but entrance is free.  This is what your first glimpse of Margam Park looks like

Your first View of Margam Park - the ruins are the remains of a Cistercian Abbey demolished in the 1530s

The Gothic arches in the foreground are remains from the Norman Cistercian Abbey that was built in the mid 12th Century and stood until its dissolution at the hands of Henry VIII in 1537. The remains of the Abbey are extensive, the ruined Chapter House (not shown) being of exceptional architectural quality.  The building further back is the longest and perhaps most beautiful Orangery in Britain  

On Bank Holiday Saturday, whilst I was drawing this scene, wedding guests began arriving.  They congregated in the sun at the doors of the Orangery

Guests in front of the Orangery- the little girl in white with flowers 
in her hair is Libby, daughter one of the bridesmaid's
The bride arrived in a gleaming white open topped classic car,

she looked as lovely as her name suggested. 

 Rose and her husband Ben posed in front of the Adam's style architecture of the Orangery.

Rose and Ben
Photos were taken with all the family.  This is the Brides mother, Mrs Higgins, who had an elaborate hat and rightly looked very proud.
Mrs Higgins, Rose's mother
Of course quite a crowd of onlookers gathered to watch the spectacle
Watching girl with a bicycle

These moments, which are often unaffected and tender, are always so enjoyable to draw.  

A tender moment between a mother and daughter
After the photographs had been taken the Bride and Groom lingered a while so as the last to enter the Orangery.  This my last view of Rose before she disappeared.

Rose about to enter the orangery after the photo session was over

The venue chosen for the reception could not be bettered: The Orangery at Margam (1783). It is much too difficult for me to draw, which is why I have to show you with a photograph

Margam Orangery 1783
The Adams style decorated front façade looks exotic with palm trees, 17th century fountains and  garden ornaments
Stone Urn in Front of Margam Orangery
The building at Margam are all made of warm coloured limestone.  Sadly nothing remains of the much earlier Margam House that was was built by the Mansel-Talbots after the dissolution of the monasteries.  I found this picture of what Margam House looked like before the Orangery was built.

Margam House which was demolished in 1993

The Talbots went on collecting rare plants and trees in the centuries after the Orangery was built.  They have left an arboretum around the orangery that includes mature cork oaks and about eight large tulip trees (Kew has only one) and many lovely trees that have branches that spread at ground level, that children can play amongst them.
Children playing amongst the sprawling branches of a Plain Tree
The Scots Pines are particularly elegant.

Scots Pine at

Just a little way down the path is an enclosed area for parents to bring their toddlers, it is called Fairy land and has piped nursery music miniature houses, a giant boot and play areas.

A toddler in fairyland at Margam Park
portrait of a toddler with pig tails

 a little boy with a ball

Walking back, this time behind the Orangery, we come across another jewel of  17-18th century architecture, this time it is a façade with statues depicting the four seasons which has been ascribed to Inigo Jones 

One of the four Seasons attributed to Inigo Jones
As we the leave the Orangery the land becomes steep and a wide path lined with rhododendrons, azaleas, acers and benches where young mothers can sit a while before taking their children up the hill. 

Looking up we see steps and one end of Margam Castle.   

Margam Castle
They say the style is Tudor Gothic.  The "Castle" is huge.  

In a courtyard behind the Castle is a gift shop and inexpensive cafe that serves ice cream, tea and chips.  It is favourite place  for me to stop and draw. 

Family Group at Margam Castle
 I was particularly pleased with this drawing of a little girl
Little Girl at Margam Castle

One child arrives with a balloon

 Girl with a Balloon

Leaving the Castle you have a choice, you can take long hikes into the wooded hills that surround the Park or walk across a huge flat expanse of grass (800 acres) with paths, lakes, trees, an adventure playgrounds, a children's zoo and herd of wild deer.  These is narrow gage railway that takes you round the park.  Today we are going to explore the parkland on foot. Walking towards the lake and looking back we can see the full extent of Margam Castle.

 Looking back at the full extent of Margam Castle.

Between 1890 - 1920 the "castle" was lived in by Miss Emily Charlotte Talbot who modernised and extended the house for her large house parties. She is largely responsible for the gardens as we know them today.  After her death the house stayed in the family for another twenty years, before being sold in 1942 to a local brewery.   Many of the treasures from the house are now displayed in our National galleries and museums.

In 1973 the estate was bought by Glamorgan County Council.  Disaster struck in 1977 when a fire gutted the interior of the Castle. Since the fire the roofs have been replaced and the rooms are slowly being renovated.  The interior includes a magnificent stone staircase which is used by film companies.  There is even a tardis for Dr Who which has been filmed here

Walking away from the castle we pass a lake where local people fish and play with model boats, and an adventure playground.   Looking towards the sea we can sea the fuming steel works below.  It actually looks beautiful

The Steel Works

Along the way are more beautiful tress to enjoy

 Beautiful trees to enjoy

and benches where people picnic and rest with their dogs

Resting with the dogs

 children scamper this way and that

Children scamper

whilst their mothers chat

A Mother

 with their children

The Conversation

At the end of the path is a farm zoo.  This farm zoo is one of the most spacious and interesting I have ever visited.   I was particularly taken by the many varieties of chicken.   

These furry birds are called Silkies

A Silky

Silkies came from the far east 200 years ago.  At the time a rumour went round that they were a cross between a chicken and rabbit. The breed are used to brood eggs of chickens, ducks and geese.

A Peking Bantam 

Another interesting breed are the Peking Bantams were presented to Queen Victoria after being looted from the collection of the Emperor of China during the opium wars (1860).  There are turkeys and mewing guinea fowl with blue faces and red combs

Guinea Fowl

and goats.  This one looked contented in an enclosure that included a brook and long grass with wild flowers.


and Jacobs sheep with curly horns

Jacobs Sheep with curly horns

and asses with crosses on their backs

 An Ass

and Shetland Ponies

 A Shetland Pony

At the end of the zoo are fibreglass models of Glamorgan Cows that children are allowed to play on. 

  Children on the back of a model cow

The railway cuts its way through the landscape 

 The Narrow Gage track

I take another route back to the car park.  At Margam Park one never knows what to expect next because the place is so full of surprises: In one secluded glade I discovered these large toadstool houses with grass roofs.

and the path back to the car park took me over along raised walkways over a woodland stream with logs carved into shapes of dragons..

When I reached the Car park the sun was losing its heat and in the dying light men were in their whites were playing cricket   Margam is too big a place to cover in one day and I had not drawn the local husky club who were out with their dogs or Go Ape which is area on the side of the hills where instructors swing visitors high in the Scots Pine forest with ropes and harnesses.  I did not even draw the deer that roam wild in the wide open spaces.  These things, and many more, I leave for you to discover when you decide to stop for a break at Port Talbot.

Links and Photos

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