Aug 132018
 

Today is the birthday (1666) of William Wotton, an English theologian, classical scholar and linguist, who is largely forgotten nowadays, but in his day was known for his involvement in what became called the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. I’ll get to that in a minute. In Wales he is remembered as the collector and first translator of the ancient Welsh laws.

William Wotton was the second son of the Rev. Henry Wotton, rector of Wrentham, Suffolk. He was a child prodigy who could read verses from the Bible in English, Latin, Greek and Hebrew before he was 6 years old. In April 1676, when he was not yet 10 years old, he was sent to Catharine Hall, Cambridge, and sat for his B.A. in 1679 (13 years old). By this time Wotton had learned Arabic, Syriac, and Chaldee, as well as a knowledge of logic, philosophy, mathematics, geography, chronology, and history. His parents died whilst he was still at Cambridge, and as a teenager he was taken into the household of Gilbert Burnet, later bishop of Salisbury. He was awarded a fellowship at St John’s College, where he received his M.A. in 1683 and earned a B.D. in 1691. In 1686 he was appointed curate of Brimpton in Berkshire and the following year he was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In January 1689 he was appointed vicar of Lacock in Wiltshire, which he held until his resignation in 1693. Soon after ordination he was also appointed chaplain to Daniel Finch, Earl of Nottingham, and tutor to his family. Finch presented him with the rectory of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, in 1693.

Wotton began his scholarly career as the translator of Louis Dupin’s A new history of ecclesiastical writers, (13 vols. 1692–99). However, he is chiefly remembered for his share in the controversy about the respective merits of ancient and modern learning. In his Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning (1694, and again 1697) he took the part of the moderns, although in a fair and judicial spirit.  The “ancients versus moderns” debate began in France in the early 16th century with a number of “moderns” claiming that the renewed interest in Classical arts and philosophy during the Renaissance, should not be slavish imitation of the ancients, but should be tempered with an awareness of the accomplishments of modern times. The “ancients” championed ancient learning over the modern. The “quarrel” got erudite and pedantic, and I am not going to dissect it for you. Do your own research. Simplistically, it can be boiled down to the importance of “authority.” Should we admire ancient authors as sacred (i.e. authorities), or should we move on? Medieval scholasticism got mired in authority. To be a scholar you had to first read all the authorities on a subject, learn them inside-out, and then add your own bits of wisdom without contradicting any of the authorities. The orthodox rabbinical tradition works this way, and my education at Oxford in the 1970s was not so very different. Every week I was given an essay topic, for example, “Was the author of Mark’s gospel Paul’s traveling companion, John Mark?” or “When was John’s gospel written?” My job for the week was to distill out all the arguments from the authorities, divide them into camps, and conclude with my decision as to which of the camps (authorities) was correct. This was not quite Medieval scholasticism in that the authorities were allowed to disagree with one another, but I was not allowed to disagree with them. You can guess what I think of this as a method of education.

Swift attacked Wotton for pedantry in The Battle of the Books and A Tale of a Tub, but Wotton was far from being a pedant. He had a thorough command of the arguments, and was fair in his assessments. Wotton responded calling Swift’s Tale “one of the profanest banters upon the religion of Jesus Christ, as such, that ever yet appeared.”

Wotton wrote a History of Rome in 1701 at the request of Bishop Burnet, which was later used by the historian Edward Gibbon. In recognition, Burnet appointed him as a prebend of Salisbury from 1705. In 1707 Wotton was awarded a Lambeth degree of Doctor of Divinity by Archbishop Thomas Tenison in recognition of his writings in support of the established Church of England against the Deists. Around 1713 Wotton also developed ideas concerning the relationship between languages introducing the concept of an early proto-language by relating Icelandic, the Romance languages, and Greek. This pre-dated Sir William Jones’ famous lecture comparing Sanskrit with the Classical languages, by more than 70 years. These theories were later published after Wotton’s death, as A discourse concerning the confusion of languages at Babel (1730).

Throughout his adult life, Wotton was said to be “a most excellent preacher, but a drunken whoring soul”. He was also very extravagant, transforming his rectory into a 32-room mansion. He was, however, able to borrow money against future expectations of ecclesiastical preferment as a result of his close friendship with William Wake, then bishop of Lincoln. Between the summer of 1711 and the Spring of 1712, Wotton appears to have experienced a mid-life crisis, and he scandalized the neighborhood on many occasions by being found drunk in public, or else was known to have spent prolonged periods in local brothels. As a result, he was initially warned about his behavior by Wake, who later broke off their friendship and rescinded his promise of providing an additional living in Buckinghamshire. As soon as it became known that the rector’s expectations had been dashed, local businesses began to press for the payment of their debts. In May 1714, Wotton was forced to abandon his rectory at Milton Keynes to avoid his creditors, and for 7 years he lived in Carmarthen in south-west Wales under the assumed name of Dr. William Edwards.

Whilst in Carmarthen, Wotton turned his life around and returned to his studies. He was also able to re-establish his friendship with Wake, who had become Archbishop of Canterbury in December 1715. Wotton began to study Welsh, and produced an important bilingual parallel text edition of the Welsh and Latin texts of the medieval Welsh laws traditionally attributed to Hywel Dda. To do this he had first to identify and obtain transcripts of around 15 known manuscripts in either Latin or Medieval Welsh, and establish an authoritative text, and then begin the difficult task of translating the Mediaeval Welsh terminology which appeared in both the Latin and Welsh versions, but the meaning of which had been lost by the 18th century. From 1721 Wotton was assisted by the Welsh scholar Moses Williams. Wotton lived to complete the translation but was working on an accompanying glossary when he died. This was completed by Williams, and the whole work was published in 1730 by his son-in-law William Clarke in a large folio edition under the title Leges Wallicae.

Whilst in Carmarthen he also conducted surveys of the cathedrals of St David’s and Llandaff which were published by his friend Browne Willis in 1717 and 1718. He published Miscellaneous Discourses relating to the Traditions and Usages of the Scribes and Pharisees which included a translation of part of the Mishnah in 1718. Wotton had repaid his creditors and was able to return to Bath by October 1721 and London by June 1722 but was in very poor health. He was still working on his Leges Wallicae, when he died of dropsy in Buxted in Sussex, on 13th February 1727.

In the spirit of the quarrel of ancients and moderns we can put an ancient and modern recipe side by side. You would be forgiven for thinking that the modern recipe is superior. What you are not taking into account is that ALL recipes make assumptions about what the reader can be expected to know. If you read a modern recipe for a cake that begins “cream the butter and sugar” You probably know what “cream” means in this context, that is, if you have any baking experience. Someone reading the recipe 2,000 years from now might have no idea what it means, and think that 21st century recipes are incomplete. So, it’s not a question of saying that modern recipes are better than ancient ones, but, rather, that we know the implicit assumptions in modern recipes, but not in ancient ones.

Apicius gives this recipe for mussels in De re coquinaria (c. 1st century CE) and I have mentioned it before. Here’s the original Latin:

X. in metulis: liquamen porrum concisum cuminum passum satureiam, uinum; mixtum facies aquatius et ibi mitulos quoques.

Roughly translated:

10. For mussels: liquamen (fermented anchovy sauce), cut up leeks, cumin, passum (very sweet wine), savory, and wine. Mix these ingredients with water and add mussels.

On the surface this recipe does not seem much to go on, and a modern cook would normally want more detail, particularly as concerns quantities. The instructions are also pretty slim by modern standards. I could give a modern recipe thus:

Mussels

Ingredients

2 lb fresh mussels
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 leek, chopped
1 tsp cumin
1 tbsp chopped fresh savory
½ cup sweet sherry
½ cup dry white wine

Instructions

Make sure the mussels are thoroughly cleaned and beards removed. Discard any that are not tightly shut.

Place the ingredients, except the mussels, in a large saucepan. Add around 2 cups of cold water. Bring to a boil, add the mussels and cover. Cook for several minutes and check to see that all the mussels have opened.

Remove the mussels with a slotted spoon, and place them in a serving bowl. Carefully pour the cooking juices over the mussels, but make sure not to pour out the last part, because it may contain grit.

You might think that my recipe is better than the ancient one. Really there is not much difference between the two. Apicius does not say you have to boil the mussels, he assumes that you know this. He is making a number of assumptions. But my modern recipe makes many assumptions also. Apicius actually gives you a lot more freedom than I do. Sure, you can vary my quantities at will, but most cooks will try the quantities as given first, and then adjust them later. With Apicius, you have to make decisions about quantities from the start.  I’d be happy, for example, to use 3 or 4 leeks, and serve the mussels on a bed of them, with or without the sauce. This idea would not occur to you with the modern recipe because you are thinking of a watery sauce for the mussels.

 

Dec 202015
 

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On this date in 1955 Cardiff was proclaimed the capital city of Wales. Surprised that it is so recent? Wales was subsumed under English hegemony from the 13th to 19th centuries, when its distinctive culture (which was always there) was finally acknowledged politically. Until 1955 London was the de facto capital. Cardiff was a small town of little importance until the early 19th century when its prominence as a major port for the transport of coal and manufactured goods developed following the arrival of mining and attendant industries in the region.

King Edward VII granted Cardiff city status on 28 October 1905, and the city acquired a Roman Catholic Cathedral in 1916. In subsequent years an increasing number of national institutions were located in the city, including the National Museum of Wales, Welsh National War Memorial, and the University of Wales Registry Building—however, it was denied the National Library of Wales, partly because the library’s founder, Sir John Williams, considered Cardiff to have “a non-Welsh population.”

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After a brief post-war boom, Cardiff docks entered a prolonged decline in the interwar period. By 1936, their trade was less than half its value in 1913, reflecting the slump in demand for Welsh coal. Bomb damage during the Cardiff Blitz in World War II included the devastation of Llandaff Cathedral, and in the immediate postwar years the city’s link with the Bute family (of major importance in the development of modern Cardiff in the 19th century) came to an end.

The city was proclaimed capital city of Wales on 20 December 1955, through a written statement by the Home Secretary Gwilym Lloyd George. Caernarfon (rather more Welsh in culture than Cardiff), had also vied for this title. The Encyclopedia of Wales notes that the decision to recognize the city as the capital of Wales “had more to do with the fact that it contained marginal Conservative constituencies than any reasoned view of what functions a Welsh capital should have”. Although the city hosted the Commonwealth Games in 1958, Cardiff only became a center of national administration with the establishment of the Welsh Office in 1964, which later prompted the creation of various other public bodies such as the Arts Council of Wales and the Welsh Development Agency, most of which were based in Cardiff.

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Archaeological evidence from sites in and around Cardiff—the St Lythans burial chamber, near Wenvoe (about four miles (6.4 km) west, south west of Cardiff city centre), the Tinkinswood burial chamber, near St Nicholas (about six miles (10 km) west of Cardiff city centre), the Cae’rarfau Chambered Tomb, Creigiau (about six miles (10 km) north west of Cardiff city centre) and the Gwern y Cleppa Long Barrow, near Coedkernew, Newport (about eight and a quarter miles (13.5 km) north east of Cardiff city centre)—shows that people had settled in the area by at least around 6,000 BP during the early Neolithic; about 1,500 years before either Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid of Giza was completed. A group of five Bronze Age tumuli is at the summit of The Garth (Welsh: Mynydd y Garth), within the county’s northern boundary. Four Iron Age hill fort and enclosure sites have been identified within Cardiff’s present-day county boundaries, including Caerau Hillfort, an enclosed area of 5.1 hectares (51,000 m2)

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Until the Roman conquest of Britain, Cardiff was part of the territory of the Silures – a Celtic British people that flourished in the Iron Age – whose territory included the areas that would become known as Breconshire, Monmouthshire and Glamorgan. The 3.2-hectare (8-acre) fort established by the Romans near the mouth of the River Taff in 75 AD, in what would become the north western boundary of the centre of Cardiff, was built over an extensive settlement that had been established by the Silures in the 50s CE. The fort was one of a series of military outposts associated with Isca Augusta (Caerleon) that acted as border defenses. The fort may have been abandoned in the early 2nd century as the area had been subdued. However, by this time a civilian settlement, or vicus, was established. It was likely made up of traders who made a living from the fort, ex-soldiers and their families. A Roman villa has been discovered at Ely. Contemporary with the Saxon Shore Forts of the 3rd and 4th centuries, a stone fortress was established at Cardiff. Similar to the shore forts, the fortress was built to protect Britannia from raiders. Coins from the reign of Gratian indicate that Cardiff was inhabited until at least the 4th century; the fort was abandoned towards the end of the 4th century, as the last Roman legions left the province of Britannia with Magnus Maximus.

Little is known about the fort and civilian settlement in the period between the Roman departure from Britain and the Norman Conquest. The settlement probably shrank in size and may even have been abandoned. In the absence of Roman rule, Wales was divided into small kingdoms; early on, Meurig ap Tewdrig emerged as the local king in Glywysing (which later became Glamorgan). The area passed through his family until the advent of the Normans in the 11th century.

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In 1081 king William I of England, began work on the castle keep within the walls of the old Roman fort. Cardiff Castle has been at the heart of the city ever since. The castle was substantially altered and extended during the Victorian period by John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, and the architect William Burges. Original Roman work can, however, still be distinguished in the wall facings.

A small town grew up in the shadow of the castle, made up primarily of settlers from England. Cardiff had a population of between 1,500 and 2,000 in the Middle Ages, a relatively normal size for a Welsh town in this period. By the end of the 13th century, Cardiff was the only town in Wales with a population exceeding 2,000, but it was relatively small compared with most notable towns in England. In the early 12th century a wooden palisade was erected around the city to protect it. Cardiff was a busy port in the Middle Ages, and was declared a Staple port (look it up) in 1327. Henry II travelled through Cardiff on his journey to Ireland and forbade the holding of Sunday markets at St Piran’s Chapel, which stood in the middle of the road between the castle entrance and Westgate.

In 1404 Owain Glyndŵr burned Cardiff and took Cardiff Castle. As the town was still very small, most of the buildings were made of wood and the town was destroyed. However, the town was soon rebuilt and began to flourish once again.

In 1536, the Act of Union between England and Wales led to the creation of the shire of Glamorgan, and Cardiff was made the county town. It also became part of Kibbor hundred. Around this same time the Herbert family became the most powerful family in the area. In 1538, Henry VIII closed the Dominican and Franciscan friaries in Cardiff, the remains of which were used as building materials. A writer around this period described Cardiff: “The River Taff runs under the walls of his honours castle and from the north part of the town to the south part where there is a fair quay and a safe harbour for shipping.” Cardiff had become a Free Borough in 1542. In 1573, it was made a head port for collection of customs duties, and in 1581, Elizabeth I granted Cardiff its first royal charter. Pembrokeshire historian George Owen described Cardiff in 1602 as “the fayrest towne in Wales yett not the welthiest.”, and the town gained a second Royal Charter in 1608.

During the English Civil War, St Fagans just to the west of the town, played host to the Battle of St Fagans. The battle, between a Royalist rebellion and a New Model Army detachment, was a decisive victory for the Parliamentarians and allowed Oliver Cromwell to conquer Wales. It was the last major battle to occur in Wales, with about 200 (mostly Royalist) soldiers killed.

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In the ensuing century Cardiff was at peace. In 1766, John Stuart, 1st Marquess of Bute married into the Herbert family and was later created Baron Cardiff, and in 1778 he began renovations on Cardiff Castle. In the 1790s a racecourse, printing press, bank and coffee house all opened, and Cardiff gained a stagecoach service to London. Despite these improvements, Cardiff’s position in the Welsh urban hierarchy had declined over the 18th century. Iolo Morgannwg called it “an obscure and inconsiderable place”, and the 1801 census found the population to be only 1,870, making Cardiff only the 25th largest town in Wales, well behind Merthyr and Swansea.

In 1793, John Crichton-Stuart, 2nd Marquess of Bute was born. He would spend his life building the Cardiff docks and would later be called “the creator of modern Cardiff”. A twice-weekly boat service between Cardiff and Bristol was established in 1815, and in 1821, the Cardiff Gas Works was established. After the Napoleonic Wars Cardiff entered a period of social and industrial unrest, starting with the trial and hanging of Dic Penderyn in 1831.

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The town grew rapidly from the 1830s onwards, when the Marquess of Bute built a dock, which eventually linked to the Taff Vale Railway. Cardiff became the main port for exports of coal from the Cynon, Rhondda, and Rhymney valleys, and grew at a rate of nearly 80% per decade between 1840 and 1870. Much of the growth was due to migration from within and outside Wales: in 1841, a quarter of Cardiff’s population were English-born and more than 10% had been born in Ireland. By the 1881 census, Cardiff had overtaken both Merthyr and Swansea to become the largest town in Wales. Cardiff’s new status as the premier town in South Wales was confirmed when it was chosen as the site of the University College South Wales and Monmouthshire in 1893.

Cardiff faced a challenge in the 1880s when David Davies of Llandinam and the Barry Railway Company promoted the development of rival docks at Barry. Barry docks had the advantage of being accessible in all tides, and David Davies claimed that his venture would cause “grass to grow in the streets of Cardiff”. From 1901 coal exports from Barry surpassed those from Cardiff, but the administration of the coal trade remained centered on Cardiff, in particular its Coal Exchange, where the price of coal on the British market was determined and the first million-pound deal was struck in 1907. The city also strengthened its industrial base with the decision of the owners of the Dowlais Ironworks in Merthyr (who would later form part of Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds) to build a new steelworks close to the docks at East Moors, which Lord Bute opened on 4 February 1891.

Cardiff’s fortunes in the 20th century followed those of South Wales in general – growth through the 2 world wars followed by decline in the 1970s up to the turn of the century. The stereotypical 20th century image of Wales as a land of coalminers and male voice choirs is reflected in this clip from John Ford’s 1941 movie “How Green was my Valley.”

But when the BBC Dr Who spinoff, Torchwood, was first filmed in Cardiff in 2006, the city was represented as a highly modern urban center. “There’s not a male voice choir … or a miner in sight.” said BBC Wales Controller Menna Richards. Conservative MP Michael Gove described the debut of Torchwood as the moment confirming “Wales’ move from overlooked Celtic cousin to underwired erotic coquette.”

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The national symbol of Wales is the leek, and I have covered this vegetable more than enough in posts here with cock-a-leekie, leek and potato soup, and buttered leeks, plus the myriad uses of leeks in soups and stews. Right now leeks are in season in Mantua, so, having lived without them (proper ones) in Argentina and China for close on 6 years, I now use them every chance I get, and always have a plenteous stock on hand. Instead, therefore, I will turn to another Welsh staple, laver.

Laver is an edible, littoral alga (seaweed). In Wales, laver is used commonly as a vegetable of for making laverbread. It is smooth in texture and forms delicate, sheet-like thalli, often clinging to rocks. The principal variety is purple laver (Porphyra umbilicalis). Purple laver is classified as a red alga, tends to be a brownish color, but boils down to a dark green pulp when prepared. It is unusual amongst seaweeds because the fronds are only one cell thick. Laver has a high content of dietary minerals, particularly iodine and iron. The high iodine content gives the seaweed a distinctive flavor in common with olives and oysters.

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Laver cultivation as food is thought to be very ancient, though the first mention was in Camden’s in the early 17th century. It is plucked from the rocks and given a preliminary rinse in clear water. The collected laver is repeatedly washed to remove sand, and then boiled for hours until it becomes a stiff, green mush. In this state, the laver can be preserved for about a week. Typically during the 18th century, the mush was packed into a crock and sold. Nowadays you can get frozen laver mush online quite easily.

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Laver can be eaten cold as a salad with lamb or mutton, or heated with butter and the juice of a lemon or Seville orange. Commonly now it is served heated with cockles and bacon as part of a Welsh breakfast. Or you can make laverbread. Simply coat a patty of laver mush in oats and fry it in lard or bacon fat. Richard Burton has been quoted as describing laverbread as “Welshman’s caviar”.

Oct 212015
 

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Today is the anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, a catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip in the Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil, in 1966, that killed 116 children and 28 adults. It was caused by a build-up of water in the accumulated rock and shale, which suddenly started to slide downhill in the form of slurry. Over 40,000 cubic meters of debris covered the village in minutes, and the classrooms at Pantglas Junior School were immediately inundated, with young children and teachers dying from impact or suffocation. Many noted the poignancy of the situation: if the disaster had struck a few minutes earlier, the children would not have been in their classrooms, and if it had struck a few hours later, the school would have broken up for half-term. Enormous rescue efforts were made, but the large numbers who crowded into the village tended to hamper the work of the trained rescue teams, and delayed the arrival of mineworkers from the Merthyr Vale Colliery. Only a few lives could be saved in any case.

I remember watching events unfold on television with horror. In fact I believe it is the first time in my life that I was so deeply affected by tragedy – and still am. I can’t write without weeping. The stark black and white images are seared in my memory. I couldn’t really fathom the enormity of it, then or now. I was relatively new to England, having grown up in Australia, so Welsh coal mines, slag heaps and the like had not been part of my consciousness. They were after that.

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For 50 years up to 1966, millions of cubic meters of excavated mining debris from the National Coal Board’s Merthyr Vale Colliery was deposited on the side of Mynydd Merthyr, directly above the village of Aberfan. Huge piles, or ‘tips’, of loose rock and mining spoil had been built up over a layer of highly porous sandstone that contained numerous underground springs, and several tips had been built up directly over these springs. Although local authorities had raised specific concerns in 1963 about spoil being tipped on the mountain above the village primary school, these were largely ignored by the NCB’s area management.

Early on the morning of Friday, 21 October 1966, after several days of heavy rain, a subsidence of about 3–6 metres occurred on the upper flank of colliery waste tip No. 7. At 9:15 a.m. more than 150,000 cubic meters of water-saturated debris broke away and flowed downhill at high speed. It was sunny on the mountain but still foggy in the village, with visibility only about fifty meters. The tipping gang working on the mountain saw the landslide start but were unable to raise the alarm because their telephone cable had been repeatedly stolen – although the official inquiry into the disaster later established that the slip happened so fast that a telephone warning would not have saved any lives.

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The front part of the mass became liquefied and moved down the slope at high speed as a series of viscous surges. 120,000 cubic metres of debris were deposited on the lower slopes of the mountain, but a mass of over 40,000 cubic meters of debris smashed into the village in a slurry 12 meters (39 ft) deep. The slide destroyed a farm and twenty terraced houses along Moy Road and slammed into the northern side of the Pantglas Junior School and part of the separate senior school, demolishing most of the structures and filling the classrooms with thick mud and rubble up to 10 meters (33 ft) deep. Mud and water from the slide flooded many other houses in the vicinity, forcing villagers to evacuate their homes.

The pupils of Pantglas Junior School had arrived only minutes earlier for the last day before the half-term holiday. They had just left the assembly hall, where they had been singing “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, when a great noise was heard outside. Had they left the assembly for their classrooms a few minutes later the loss of life would have been significantly reduced, as they would not have reached their classrooms when the landslide hit: the classrooms were on the side of the building nearest the landslide.

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Nobody in the village was able to see it, but everyone could hear the roar of the approaching landslide. Some at the school thought it was a jet about to crash and one teacher ordered his class to hide under their desks. Gaynor Minett, then an eight-year-old at the school, later recalled:

It was a tremendous rumbling sound and all the school went dead. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone just froze in their seats. I just managed to get up and I reached the end of my desk when the sound got louder and nearer, until I could see the black out of the window. I can’t remember any more but I woke up to find that a horrible nightmare had just begun in front of my eyes.

After the landslide there was total silence. George Williams, who was trapped in the wreckage, remembered:

In that silence you couldn’t hear a bird or a child.

After the main landslide stopped, frantic parents rushed to the scene and began digging through the rubble, some clawing at the debris with their bare hands, trying to uncover buried children. Police from Merthyr Tydfil arrived soon after and took charge of the search-and-rescue operations; as news spread, hundreds of people drove to Aberfan to try to help, but their efforts were largely in vain. A large amount of water and mud was still flowing down the slope, and the growing crowd of untrained volunteers further hampered the work of the trained rescue teams who were arriving. Hundreds of miners from local collieries rushed to Aberfan, especially from the nearby Merthyr Vale Colliery, as well as miners from Deep Navigation Colliery and Taff Merthyr Colliery in the neighboring Taff Bargoed Valley, and also from pits across the South Wales coalfield, many in open lorries with their shovels in their hands, but by the time those miners reached the site, there was little they could do. A few children were pulled out alive in the first hour, but no survivors were found after 11 a.m.

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By the next day, 2,000 emergency services workers and volunteers were on the scene, some of whom had worked continuously for more than 24 hours. Rescue work had to be temporarily halted during the day when water began pouring down the slope again, and because of the vast quantity and consistency of the spoil, it was nearly a week before all the bodies were recovered.

Bethania Chapel, 250 meters from the disaster site, was used as the temporary mortuary and missing persons bureau from 21 October until 4 November 1966 and its vestry was used to house Red Cross volunteers and St John Ambulance stretcher-bearers. The smaller Aberfan Calvinistic Chapel was used as a second mortuary from 22–29 October and became the final resting-place for the victims before their funerals.

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Two doctors were given the job of making death certificates and examining the bodies; the causes of death were typically found to be asphyxia, fractured skull or multiple crush injuries. A team of 400 embalmers arrived in Aberfan on Sunday and under police supervision they cleaned and prepared over 100 bodies and placed them in coffins obtained from South Wales, the Midlands, Bristol and Northern Ireland. The bodies were released to the families from the morning of Monday 24 October. Due to the cramped conditions in the chapel/mortuary, parents could only be admitted one at a time to identify the bodies of their children. One mother later recalled being shown the bodies of almost every dead girl recovered from the school before identifying her own daughter.

The final death toll was 144. In addition to five of their teachers, 116 of the dead were children between the ages of 7 and 10 – almost half of the children at the Pantglas Junior School. Most of the victims were interred at the Bryntaf Cemetery in Aberfan in a joint funeral held on 27 October 1966, attended by more than 2,000 people.

The chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB) at the time of the disaster was Lord Robens of Woldingham. Robens had been a senior union official in the 1930s and then served as a Labour MP, briefly becoming Minister of Power in the final days of the Attlee Labour government. His actions immediately after the Aberfan disaster and in the years that followed have been the subject of considerable criticism.

When word of the Aberfan disaster reached him, Robens did not immediately go to the scene; he instead went ahead with his investiture as Chancellor of the University of Surrey, and did not arrive at the village until the evening of the following day (Saturday). NCB officers covered up for Robens when contacted by the Secretary of State for Wales, Cledwyn Hughes, falsely claiming that Robens was personally directing relief work when he was not present.

When he reached Aberfan, Robens told a TV reporter that nothing could have been done to prevent the slide, attributing it to ‘natural unknown springs’ beneath the tip, a statement which the locals knew to be false – the NCB had in fact been tipping on top of springs that were clearly marked on maps of the neighborhood, and where villagers had played as children. His evidence to the Tribunal of Inquiry was unsatisfactory; so much so that counsel for the NCB in their closing speech to the Tribunal asked for Robens’ evidence to be ignored. He took a very narrow view of the NCB’s responsibilities over the remaining Aberfan tips. His opposition to doing anything more than was needed to make the tips safe (even after the Prime Minister had promised villagers the tips would have to go) was overcome only by an additional grant from the government and a (bitterly opposed and subsequently much resented) contribution from the disaster fund of £150,000 (nearly 10% of the money raised).

The traumatic effects of the disaster on the village of Aberfan were wide-ranging and profound, as the first-hand accounts gathered by Iain McLean and Martin Johnes indicate. During the rescue operation, the shock and grief of parents and townspeople were exacerbated by the insensitive behavior of the media – one unnamed rescue worker recalled hearing a press photographer tell a child to cry for her dead friends because it would make a good picture. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Aberfan on 29 October to pay their respects to those who had died. The Queen received a posy from a three-year-old girl with the inscription: “From the remaining children of Aberfan”. Onlookers said she was close to tears.

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Anger at the National Coal Board erupted during the inquest into the death of 30 of the children. The Merthyr Express reported that there were shouts of “murderers” as children’s names were read out. When one child’s name was read out and the cause of death was given as asphyxia and multiple injuries, the father said “No, sir, buried alive by the National Coal Board”. The coroner replied: “I know your grief is much that you may not be realising what you are saying” but the father repeated:

I want it recorded – “Buried alive by the National Coal Board.” That is what I want to see on the record. That is the feeling of those present. Those are the words we want to go on the certificate.

Aberfan’s social worker later noted that many people in the village were on sedatives but did not take them when it was raining because they were afraid to go to sleep, and that surviving children did not close their bedroom doors for fear of being trapped. An Aberfan doctor reported that although an expected surge in heart attacks did not occur, the trauma of the disaster manifested itself in other ways – the birth rate went up, alcohol-related problems increased, as did health problems for those with pre-existing illnesses, and many parents suffered breakdowns over the next few years.

Many suffered from the effects of guilt, such as parents who had sent children to school who did not want to go. Tensions arose between families who had lost children and those who had not. One of the surviving school children recalled that they did not go out to play for a long time because families who had lost children could not bear to see them, and they themselves felt guilty about the fact that they had survived.

On 26 October 1966, after resolutions by both Houses of Parliament, the Secretary of State for Wales appointed a tribunal to inquire into the causes of and circumstances relating to the Aberfan disaster, chaired by respected Welsh barrister and Privy Councillor Lord Justice Edmund Davies. Before the tribunal began, the UK Attorney General imposed restrictions on speculation in the media about the causes of the disaster.

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The Tribunal sat for 76 days – the longest inquiry of its type in British history up to that time – interviewing 136 witnesses, examining 300 exhibits and hearing 2,500,000 words of testimony, which ranged from the history of mining in the area to the region’s geological conditions. Lord Robens made a dramatic appearance during the final days of the Tribunal to give testimony, at which point he conceded that the National Coal Board had been at fault; had this admission been made at the outset, much of the tribunal’s inquiry would have been unnecessary. The Tribunal retired to consider its verdict on 28 April 1967. Its report, published on 3 August, found that the blame for the disaster rested entirely with the National Coal Board, and that the basic cause was the NCB’s “total absence of a tipping policy”.

The report also noted that the NCB was:

   …following in the footsteps of their predecessors. They were not guided either by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Mines and Quarries or by legislation” and also found that there was “no legislation dealing with the safety of tips in force in this or any country, except in part of West Germany and in South Africa.”

   …we reject out of hand Mr. Ackner’s observation that what has been revealed here is “callous indifference” by senior National Coal Board officials to the fears of a tip-slide expressed to them. Callousness betokens villainy, and in truth there are no villains in this harrowing story. In one way, it might possibly be less alarming if there were, for villains are few and far between. But the Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above. Not villains, but decent men, led astray by foolishness or by ignorance or by both in combination, are responsible for what happened at Aberfan. That, in all conscience, is a burden heavy enough for them to have to bear without the additional brand of villainy.

   Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board. This is shared, though in varying degrees, among the NCB headquarters, the South Western Divisional Board, and certain individuals … The legal liability of the NCB to pay compensation of the personal injuries, fatal or otherwise, and damage to property, is incontestable and uncontested.

The specific cause of the collapse was found to have been a build-up of water in the pile; when a small rotational slip occurred, the disturbance caused the saturated, fine material of the tip to liquefy (thixotropy) and flow down the mountain. In 1958, the tip had been sited on a known stream (as shown on earlier Ordnance Survey maps) and had previously suffered several minor slips. Its instability was known both to colliery management and to tip workers, but very little was done about it. Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council and the National Union of Mineworkers were cleared of any wrongdoing.

The Tribunal found that repeated warnings about the dangerous condition of the tip had been ignored, and that colliery engineers at all levels had concentrated only on conditions underground. In one passage, the Report noted:

We found that many witnesses … had been oblivious of what lay before their eyes. It did not enter their consciousness. They were like moles being asked about the habits of birds.

The Tribunal also found that the tips had never been surveyed, and right up to the time of the landslide they were continuously being added to in a chaotic and unplanned manner. The disregard of the NCB and the colliery staff for the unstable geological conditions and its failure to act after previous smaller slides were found to have been major factors that contributed to the catastrophe.

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The NCB was ordered to pay compensation to the families at the rate of £500 per child. Nine senior NCB staff were named as having some degree of responsibility for the accident, and the Tribunal report was scathing in its criticism of evidence given by the principal NCB witnesses. Lord Robens, addressing the National Union of Mineworkers in 1963 had said “If we are going to make pits safer for men we shall have to discipline the wrongdoer. I have no sympathy at all for those people—whether men, management or officials—who act in any way which endangers the lives and limbs of others.” However, no NCB staff were ever demoted, sacked, or prosecuted as a consequence of Aberfan or of evidence given to the Inquiry (one notably unsatisfactory witness had been promoted by the time Parliament debated the Davies Report). Lord Robens and the entire Board of the NCB retained their positions. Corruption (and incompetence) in high places has a long history.

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I wouldn’t call this disaster, nor the outrageous aftermath, anything to celebrate. But I think we can celebrate the tireless efforts of the rescue workers and the generally indomitable spirit of the Welsh. So here is a classic Welsh dish: cawl, a meat and root vegetable stew thickened with oats and seasoned with summer savory. I don’t normally peel vegetables for stews, just scrub them well. Do as you please. The swede has to be peeled.

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Welsh Cawl

Ingredients

2 lbs stewing pork,cut in bite-sized chunks
1 medium swede (rutabaga), peeled and cubed
3 medium size carrots, peeled (optional) and cut in chunks
2 medium size parsnips, peeled (optional) and cut in chunks
1 large potato, peeled (optional) and diced coarsely
2 leeks, washed well and cut into think rounds
1 small cabbage shredded coarsely
fresh summer savory
2 tbsp oatmeal
light stock

Instructions

Put the meat in a large stock pot, cover with stock and bring to a simmer. Skim, and cook covered for about 1½ hours or until tender. Make sure the broth remains at a constant level.

Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and reserve. Keep warm.

Simmer the rutabaga in the broth for 30-40 minutes.

Add cold water to the oatmeal and mix it to a paste, then add fresh summer savory to the paste, to taste.

Add the diced potato, carrot and parsnips together with the oatmeal paste to the broth.

After 10 minutes add the sliced leaks and chopped cabbage.

Continue to simmer until all the vegetables are tender.

Remove the cawl from the heat. Serve in deep bowls garnished with savory. The meat should be served separately on a heated serving platter, allowing people to help themselves. Crusty Welsh bread makes a good accompaniment.

Mar 012014
 

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Today is St David’s Day.  David is believed to have died on 1 March 589.  He is the patron saint of Wales.  His Welsh name, by which he was known, is Dewi.

Like most Medieval saints, David’s biography is a mixture of fact and fiction.  These are the undisputed facts.  Although his hagiography was written many centuries after his death, he really existed (not true of a great many saints from the Middle Ages).  He was central to the conversion of the western Celts in the 6th century.  He was archbishop of Wales.  He founded numerous churches.  He was an active opponent of Pelagianism.  Oh dear – let me not go into a long theological discourse.  Pelagius argued that human perfection was possible through human will – Augustine denied this, arguing that divine grace was necessary.  I had enough of this nonsense when I was at Oxford.  Let us just say my tutors and examiners were not thrilled with me.

His best-known miracle is said to have taken place when he was preaching in the middle of a large crowd at the Synod of Brefi. The village of Llanddewi Brefi stands on the spot where the ground on which he stood is reputed to have risen up to form a small hill. A white dove, which became his emblem, was seen settling on his shoulder. Historian John Davies notes that one can scarcely “conceive of any miracle more superfluous” in that part of Wales than the creation of a new hill.  He was supposedly preaching against Pelagianism at the time.

The leek is the national symbol of David and Wales.

This from Henry V, act V, scene I, the first known reference to Welshmen wearing the leek in their hats on St David.

GOWER

Nay, that’s right; but why wear you your leek today?
Saint Davy’s day is past.

FLUELLEN

There is occasions and causes why and wherefore in
all things: I will tell you, asse my friend,
Captain Gower: the rascally, scald, beggarly,
lousy, pragging knave, Pistol, which you and
yourself and all the world know to be no petter
than a fellow, look you now, of no merits, he is
come to me and prings me pread and salt yesterday,
look you, and bid me eat my leek: it was in place
where I could not breed no contention with him; but
I will be so bold as to wear it in my cap till I see
him once again, and then I will tell him a little
piece of my desires.

Among other things, the barred “l” is a distinctive feature of Welsh.  English speakers typically cannot pronounce it – it is a guttural “l.”  They end up with two choices – either turn it into “fl” as Shakespeare did or pronounce it as a simple “l” – as in Lloyd. Both are wrong.

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Anyway . . . leeks.  An incredibly versatile vegetable and incredibly underused.  No recipe again today, but some advice.  Cut your leeks very thin and poach them in butter.  Then use them as a base for anything you want.  Buttered leeks are perfectly delicious.  Use them in place of onions in any sauce.  Use them in soup.   Baste them in oil and roast them along with your potatoes.