Book Launch at Hay

Last Sunday afternoon, we drove the short journey to the book town of Hay-on-Wye, where we had an appointment with the author Robert Scourfield. He was launching his new book, a revised version of the Powys volume in the Buildings of Wales series.

The book launch was part of the Hay Festival’s Winter Weekend, whose leaflet included the following details:

Image A few weeks ago, we investigated reserving seats for the discussion about the new book, but the Saturday afternoon slot described above was fully booked. Luckily, the talk was in such demand that the author agreed to repeat the discussion at 3:30 the following afternoon. Thus it was that we strode up the entrance path to Hay Castle on Sunday in the fading light of a dull winter’s afternoon.

The discussion was to held on the Landmarc Stage, a small, intimate meeting room in part of what was once Hay Castle Bookshop where in past years I had purchased many of the old engravings and prints displayed on my website.

Hay Castle

Entrance to Hay Castle: John Ball, 7 Dec 2013

Hay Castle itself is one of the few surviving great medieval defence structures on the border of England and Wales. It was built in the late 12th century and has a long and turbulent history. Castle House, a Jacobean mansion, was built alongside the tower in 1660, but was severely damaged by fire in 1939, and again in 1977. Owned by bibliophile Richard Booth since the 1960s, the site was purchased in 2011 by the Hay Castle Trust.

Powys Ed 1 Powys Ed 2

The subject of last Sunday’s discussion was the recent launch of the second edition (right) of an authoritative book on the architecture of the Welsh county of Powys. The previous edition (far right), published in 1979, was authored by Richard Haslam. I dip into this book frequently when researching churches and other buildings for my online Welsh Churches and Chapels Collection.

Robert Scourfield explained the background to the Buildings of Wales series, which was influenced greatly by the Buildings of England conceived in 1951 by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner. Robert also told us how his latest edition differs from the previous one. For example he includes much more information on chapels than his predecessor.

Robert Scourfield is an impressive speaker: authoritative yet approachable. After the discussion, he took a number of questions from the floor and then retired to an adjacent room to sign copies of his book purchased by members of the audience. I understand I shall be receiving my own signed copy as a gift on Christmas Day. So I look forward to enjoying my first real taste of the book on Christmas afternoon.


The Buildings of Wales: Powys by Robert Scourfield and Richard Haslam, Yale University Press, 2013; £35.

Robert Scourfield is Buildings Conservation Officer for the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority, and co-author of Pembrokeshire (2004) and Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion (2006) in the Buildings of Wales series.
Richard Haslam is the author of the first edition of Powys, and co-author of the Buildings of Wales volume on Gwynedd (2009).

Publisher’s blurb
The historic counties of Montgomeryshire, Radnorshire and Breconshire are described in this final volume of the Buildings of Wales series, expanded and revised from the first edition of 1979. Prehistoric hill-forts and standing stones, Roman encampments, Early Christian monuments, ruined castles and the enigmatic remains of early industry enhance the landscapes of this wild and beautiful region. Atmospheric medieval churches survive in quantity, together with diverse Nonconformist chapels. Vernacular traditions are represented by robust medieval cruck-framed houses, and by the manor houses and farmhouses of the Tudors and Stuarts. Other highlights include Montgomery, with its beguiling Georgian heritage, the Victorian spa at Llandrindod Wells, and Powis Castle, with its Baroque interiors and terraced gardens.

A Tale of Three Clocks

When I was growing up, I was fascinated by chiming clocks, and always fancied a real grandfather clock. But the three clocks whose stories I’m about to relate are rather less grand.

The Grandmother Clock

1936 Ball, FL (cropped)At home in Markby Road (Birmingham) we had what Dad called his grandmother clock. It had a four foot tall black case in art deco style, and a circular face with Roman numerals. It stood in the corner of our front room (the ‘parlour’) on the right hand side of the fireplace (see photo, taken in 1936). Dad said he acquired it before the war by collecting cigarette vouchers. As he was a heavy smoker, this probably didn’t take him long! The clock had an eight-day spring-driven mechanism and a soft “bong” chime that struck every half hour. Dad went through the weekly ritual of resetting the time and winding up the clock and striking mechanisms. I don’t recall it keeping very good time, but its tick-tock sound and its regular chime were somehow comforting.

After Dad died in 1961, the clock remained in the same corner of the front room at Markby Road for years, although by this time we rarely wound it up. It came with us in 1971, when we moved with Mom to a maisonette in Selly Oak. The following year, my brother Richard married and soon the clock was installed in his new house on the outskirts of Redditch in Worcestershire.gmclocknow He had the clock cleaned and serviced, and for while it ticked and chimed away happily in Rich and Mary’s living room, surviving two further house moves. Sadly, the old clock has not been working properly for several years, but it is still a prominent feature in Richard’s home office (right).



The Wall Clock

The second clock is a spring-driven chiming Edwardian or late Victorian Gothic style wall clock originally owned by my Dad’s parents, my Grandma and Grandpa Ball. I do not know how or when they acquired it, but I remember seeing it at their home in Ivy Road, Handsworth in the 1940s and ’50s. Grandpa died in 1942, but Grandma stayed on at Ivy Road with her daughter, my Aunt Alice, until her death in 1957. Aunt Alice and her husband then sold the Ivy Road property and moved to a stone bungalow near Ciliau Aeron in a remote part of Cardiganshire. The clock went with them and stayed with them, even after they moved in the early 1970s to a flat in the coastal town of Aberaeron. Alice was widowed in 1975, and she herself died 12 months later. She spent the final year of her life, accompanied by the clock, in a council flat near Aberaeron harbour.

On Aunt Alice’s death in 1976, the clock was passed on to her sister-in-law, my mother, at her home in Selly Oak, Birmingham. Mom mounted the clock on the wall of the entrance hall in her maisonette, but the clock never seemed happy there. Its eight-day clockwork mechanism kept stopping despite being wound up regularly. One day, during one of my visits to Mom from my home in Ystalyfera, South Wales, she asked if I’d take the clock back to Wales with me and see if I could get it going.Wall Clock

I removed the clockwork mechanism, immersed it in petrol, and left it overnight. By the next morning a black sediment had collected at the bottom of the liquid. I put drops of 3-in-1 oil on the mechanism, carefully replaced it in the wooden case, adjusted the chime and hung the clock on the wall in the hallway (see photo). Lo and behold, it began ticking and ran for its full eight days. Furthermore, the chiming mechanism worked, too! It took a few days for me to adjust the length of the pendulum, but from then on the clock kept excellent time, accurate to within a few minutes per week. Mom told me to keep the clock as it was obviously meant to stay at my home.

Twenty years later, when I sold my home in Ystalyfera, the clock was still working well and keeping good time. It even survived a severe trauma in 2000, when it fell off the wall and crashed onto the floor! The mechanism was unharmed, and I was able to repair the minor damage to the wooden case. When I left Ystalyfera, I put the clock and other belongings into a secure storage container, where they remained for nine months, until Helen and I moved into our permanent home in Brecon. Here in Brecon, the clock has tick-tocked and chimed contentedly on the wall of our dining room ever since. It still keeps good time, and still runs for at least eight days on one winding.

The Cuckoo ClockCuckoo Clock

The latest clock to grace our home is a gravity-driven, wall-mounted cuckoo clock (see photo). The clock was originally acquired by Helen’s mother at an auction in Nova Scotia in the 1940s or ’50s, and hung in the dining room of the family home for years. Helen recalls her father resetting the weights first thing every morning.

After his death the cuckoo clock was seldom wound and in about 1969 Helen’s mother packed the clock away in a cardboard box, protected only by some crumpled sheets of newspaper. Sometime in the 1970s Helen received the clock, still in its cardboard box. It remained with her through several changes of address over the years in various storage cupboards until we unpacked it this spring.

During a visit in April, we opened the box, removed the old newspaper and I examined the clock. It had survived remarkably well, apart from a missing piece of decorative fretwork. I was convinced we had a good chance of being able to get it working again. We brought the clock’s two weights home to Brecon with us and resolved to bring the rest of the clock next time. Thus it was that when we visited Ottawa last month, we wrapped the cuckoo clock carefully in bubble-wrap, placed it in a suitcase together with clothes and other odds and ends, and checked it in for the flight home from Ottawa.

Last weekend, a few days after arriving home, I unwrapped the old clock for the last time, cleaned it, oiled the mechanism, rethreaded the chains, hung it on the wall, and attached the pendulum and weights. After spending nearly 50 years in hibernation, the old cuckoo clock burst into life. It took only a few hours to adjust the pendulum so the clock would run at the  cuckoocorrect speed. The mechanism doesn’t quite run for the full 24 hours before the weights reach the floor!  Now I have to reset them twice a day. But best of all, the ‘cuckoo… cuckoo…’ sound echoes round our dining room every half hour, day and night.

Helen says that as well as evoking memories of home, the sound of the cuckoo clock reminds her of a series of sketches called The Clockmaker written in the 1830s by Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a satirical humorist from Nova Scotia. The sketches feature  Sam Slick of Slickville, Connecticut, a Yankee clock-peddler who accompanies a visiting English gentleman on an unforgettable tour of early nineteenth century Nova Scotia. The sketches may be downloaded (free) from the website.

I began this blog by describing my life-long fascination with clocks and my ambition to own a grandfather clock, but the two clocks in our dining room here in Brecon more than make up for the absence of a grandfather clock!

In Perpetuity – or not?

For the past week or so, I’ve been preoccupied with the fate of some graves and their monuments in two very different Welsh nonconformist chapel burial yards, one in Swansea and one in Bwlch, near Brecon. In both cases my concern was prompted by the appearance of Public Notices in local newspapers announcing the intention to remove and relocate gravestones and the human remains beneath them.

Crug Glas Chapel, Swansea

Back in October 1998, a Public Notice appeared in the South Wales Evening Post giving details of the intention to remove human remains, tombstones and monuments from the Crug Glas chapel graveyard, Chapel Street, Swansea, in order to build an apartment block:


A few days later, I visited the graveyard, took some photographs, and posted a report on the state of the graveyard on my website as an Images of Wales feature. I revisited the graveyard six years later and found that although no new building work had taken place, the graveyard had been fenced off. I added a follow-up report and new photograph to my webpage.

Then, two weeks ago, almost exactly fifteen years after I first became aware of Crug Glas Chapel and its burial yard, I was contacted by Sue McGuire who had visited my webpage. She wrote:

I came across your webpage while searching for pictures of The Palace Theatre in Dyfatty, Swansea.
I was so intrigued at the story of the graveyard of Grug Las that I went and found the graveyard, but had to return with a step ladder in order to take some photos.
The graveyard is in a far more overgrown state now – and although there is a gate in the fence, it cannot be opened.
I would like to find out more about this story – and establish where they moved the grave contents to. I do hope they were treated respectfully – the graveyard certainly was not.
I added her report and photographs to my original webpage as a second follow-up report.
Since then we have both been attempting to find out more, not only about the present ownership of the graveyard, but also about Crug Glas Chapel to which it was attached. Crug Glas Calvinistic Methodist Chapel was originally built in 1799, rebuilt in 1869/70, and demolished (we believe) in the late 1980s. West Glamorgan Archives Service kindly provided some old photographs of the chapel, possibly taken years before it was demolished. An example is shown below:


Old photo of Crug Glas Calvinistic Methodist Chapel, Swansea.
[by kind permission of the West Glamorgan Archive Service]

A former member of Crug Glas Chapel recalled that Crug Glas was one of three neighbouring Welsh Calvinistic Methodist chapels in Swansea. By the 1980s, all three had diminishing congregations and premises that were expensive to maintain. Consequently, the members decided to close two of the chapels and worship together at the chapel they judged to be in best condition.  Crug Glas Chapel did not survive. Everything usable was salvaged from the building and it was then sold off and later demolished.

In 2013, the chapel burial yard is in a desperate state of neglect. Apart from fencing it off, presumably for safety reason, nothing seems to be being done to care for this final resting place for a considerable number of Swansea’s former residents.


Crug Glas burial yard, October 2013 [photograph by kind permission of Susan McGuire]

Precise details of the demise of Crug Glas Chapel have yet to be revealed. For example, a report by The Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales claims that the chapel was demolished in the late 1980s, following a fire, but to date, we have been unable to find any evidence to substantiate this story.

Penuel Independent Chapel, Bwlch, Breconshire

Recently, three successive issues of the Brecon and Radnor Express weekly newspaper carried a Public Notice:

ImageAs Bwlch is only a ten-minute drive away, at the first opportunity I grabbed my camera and visited the chapel and took photographs of the chapel building and its burial yard, paying particular attention to the tombstones under threat.


Penuel Independent Chapel, Bwlch – October 2013

Unlike Crug Glas, Penuel Chapel building is still intact, albeit no longer a place of worship, and the burial yard is well looked after and still in use. The 24 monuments scheduled to be relocated are clustered around the left hand front and side of the chapel. Many of them are visible in the photograph below:


Grave monuments, Penuel Chapel, Bwlch – October 2013

We do not yet know what the eventual fate of the gravestones at Penuel Chapel will be. One wonders whether only the monuments will be relocated, or whether the human remains beneath them will also be disturbed.


I’m sure most of those who buried their loved ones in Crug Glas and Penuel Chapel graveyards assumed they would remain there, undisturbed, in perpetuity.  Unfortunately this is not so: the Disused Burial Grounds Act 1884 and the Disused Burial Grounds (Amendment) Act 1981 make provision for the lawful movement and relocation of gravestones and disposal of any human remains lying beneath them. Both Acts may be accessed in full on the website.

Graveyards are meant to be peaceful places, places where the recently bereaved can find solace and where later generations can renew family memories. Inscriptions on the monuments tell a great deal about the lives as well as the deaths of the people buried there. Even neglected graveyards have their own sad stories to tell.

But it is disturbing when the wishes and intentions of those who had buried their loved ones seem to be ignored. On the other hand, the pressure on land in the UK is such that burial grounds cannot be overlooked when attempting to find plots on which new homes can be built. Nor can the need for new burials to take place be forgotten. A recent survey by the BBC concluded that almost half of England’s cemeteries could run out of space within the next 20 years.

By recording and making known some of the details of such burial yards, we revive the memories of the men, women and children buried there and bring them to the attention of future generations.

Tumbledown Cottage (part 2)

I drove past The Old Crow again today and stopped to take a photo showing the barriers referred to in my previous blog.

I was shocked and saddened to see how much it has deteriorated since I last studied the cottage closely. Compare my picture taken today with the one below it taken by Google’s StreetView camera in 2009.


The Old Crow Cottage, 12 October 2013 (John Ball)


The Old Crow Cottage, 2009 (Google StreetView)

Two sections of brick wall at the west end of the cottage have collapsed, including one of the front windows. Also the stone tiles around the dormer are disappearing fast, and the dormer itself seems to be about to fall. Its window frame has gone. I do not think it will be long before the front of the cottage collapses completely.

What a sad end to The Old Crow. I’ll continue to keep an eye on this venerable landmark as it crumbles gradually into ruins.

Tumbledown Cottage: A Mystery Solved

Over the past thirty years, I must have made hundreds of journeys by road from South Wales to the Midlands and back. My favourite route has always been to follow the A438 from Brecon, crossing the River Wye at Glasbury, crossing the border into Herefordshire at Rhydspence and continuing through the villages of Whitney-on-Wye, Winforton, Willersley, Kinnersley, and Sarnesfield, eventually reaching Birmingham via Leominster Bromyard and Worcester.

Every time I take this route I’ve been intrigued by the sight of a tumbledown old cottage on the roadside at Willersley, just before the junction between the A438 and the A4111. Back in March 1997, I stopped the car and took the photo shown below:

Tumbledown Cottage, Willersley 1997

Tumbledown Cottage, Willersley 1997

Google’s StreetView camera captured an image of the cottage in April 2009:

Tumbledown Cottage, Willersley (Google StreetView 2009)

Tumbledown Cottage, Willersley (Google StreetView 2009)

As time passed, the cottage became more and more ruinous and since the above shot was taken, a metal barrier has been erected around the building, presumably to protect any curious passers by.

The dilapidated state of the building has always intrigued me, but what intrigued me even more was that on several occasions I had spotted through one of the windows a bare light bulb suspended from the ceiling. And the light bulb was switched on! How spooky is that! Surely no one could be living there now.

I last saw the tumbledown cottage while en route to Hereford three weeks ago, and my curiosity was such that I decided to see what I could find out about its history.

I managed to find a large scale Ordnance Survey map published in the 1970s which identified the cottage by name (at grid reference: SO3134147426). It was The Old Crow a short distance away from Old Crow Farm. But why was it named The Old Crow? Had it once been a pub, perhaps?

Hunting for references to the Old Crow cottage on the internet, I came across two postings about the cottage on photography forums:

In 2009, it was reported that two brothers lived there, both well into their seventies or eighties. One lived in the house, the other in an old caravan in the orchard.

Two years later, a photographer intending to take some shots of the cottage was confronted by a man described as quite smart, middle aged and wearing a jacket and tie. He said he was fed up with people nosing about and taking pictures of his home. He, or at least his car, was still there in April 2013.

It seems the cottage may still be inhabited after all!

Subsequent searches on the Internet have revealed that the property dates from the 17th century and was indeed a public house at least as far back as the end of the 18th century – probably even earlier. But it seems to have ceased operating as licensed premises in the decade following the 1871 census.

Over the last few days I have gathered together a great deal of information about the Old Crow, its owners and its occupants. I hope in the next week or two to create a special feature on my website to display the story of The Old Crow.

Back at last!

I’m back at last! It’s been three weeks since I posted my last blog, three enjoyable but busy weeks, as you’ll see.

Brecknock History Week   6- 15 September

The period began with tasks relating to the first annual Brecknock History Week, a series of events aimed at bringing Breconshire’s colourful history to the attention of the public. As a member of the Breconshire Local & Family History Society, I helped to research the history of some of the shops and businesses in two of Brecon’s main shopping thoroughfares: High Street Inferior and the Bulwark. We produced information sheets for display in shop windows, illustrating various aspects of the history of the building or the trades conducted there:



Brecknock History Week proved to be a great success and at the end of the week, many shopkeepers were reluctant to remove the information sheets from their windows.

Family visit from Germany

One of the highlights of the past three weeks has been the visit of my son and his family who live in Berlin. My son was returning from a two month arts residency in Canada but he broke his journey to spend a week here in Wales where he was joined by his partner and their baby daughter who’d flown over from Berlin. It was great seeing them all and to have chance to spend time with our granddaughter whom we last saw in Berlin in May.

Amroth Family Gathering   8 September

Sunday, 8th September was marked by the long-awaited Ball and Bray family gathering at Amroth in Pembrokeshire. At least once during most summers in the 1980s and early ’90s, when my children and my brother’s children were young, we would meet at Amroth for a day at the seaside. This year, twenty years on, my daughter decided to arrange to revisit these childhood days by the sea, this time accompanied by the next generation of children: my grandchildren and my brother’s grandchildren. Fifteen of us gathered together to reminisce over lunch in the Temple Bar Inn and then to enjoy games on the beach.


Trip to Hereford   13 September

On Friday 13th (!) we drove to the County Archives in Hereford, where we spent the morning searching through microfilms of old parish registers.  Thanks to preliminary work done at home, the searches proved highly successful, so we were able to leave Hereford and begin our return journey before lunch. We noticed the many orchards in the Herefordshire countryside, heavy with ripening fruit.

On reaching Whitney on Wye, while still in Herefordshire, we pulled into the car park of the Boat Inn. We enjoyed a delicious meal overlooking the River Wye. This stretch of the Wye is known for its otters, but we didn’t spot any on this occasion.


After lunch, we headed home along the A438, following the course of the Wye and re-entering Wales at Rhydspence. Before crossing the Wye at Glasbury, we stopped to explore and photograph two Radnorshire parish churches that I wanted to add (eventually) to my on-line Welsh Churches and Chapels Collection.

The first stop was the village of Clyro, where we visited St Michael’s and All Angels Church. Clyro and its church have strong connections with the 19th century diarist Rev Francis Kilvert. Luckily the church was unlocked, so I was able to take some interior as well as exterior shots. I found it particularly interesting that nave has retained its original box pews, shown in the photo below.


Our next stop was the village of Llowes, where I photographed St Meilig’s, the local parish church. Again, we were lucky to find the church unlocked. There was lots to see inside the church, but probably the most prominent feature was the ancient Celtic cross, moved into the church to protect it from the elements back in 1956.


The Celtic inscriptions are thought to be from the 12th century although the stone itself is much older. In the next few weeks I hope to add much more detailed accounts of these two fine churches to my website.

I’ll try to update my blog more regularly over the next few weeks.

Brecon Sunset

Yesterday evening we experienced the most beautiful sunset one could imagine. The sky was on fire! Nearby trees in our own and our neighbour’s gardens prevent us from following the setting sun as it dips over the horizon, but last night we were treated to a most spectacular light show.


It was just after eight o’clock. “Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight” – so a good day should follow.

I’ve photographed a number of spectacular sunrises and sunsets over the years, and I’ve picked out a few to share (below) in today’s blog.


Above: Sunrise from my former home in Ystalyfera, Upper Swansea Valley (Sep 2002)


Above: Sunrise from Ystalyfera (Feb 2003)


Above: Sunrise from Ystalyfera (Feb 2006)


Above: Sunset, Brecon (Oct 2008)


Above: Sunset in Brecon (Apr 2009)


Above: Sunrise on Brecon Beacons (Oct 2010)


Above: Sunrise in Brecon (Jan 2012)


Above: Sunset in Ystalyfera (Dec 1998)


Above: Sunset on Brecon Beacons (Dec 2010)

I do hope you enjoyed my photos…


Yesterday, I spent a pleasurable half hour revisiting and photographing two places of worship in the beautiful valley of the Rhiangoll brook, a tributary of the river Usk. The first photographic subject was the parish church, St Michael’s, which I had first visited back in 1998 when taking photographs for a friend in the USA. Although I made several subsequent visits, the last time was 13 years ago!

It is difficult to get a clear shot of the church because it is partially obscured by large trees. The shot below, taken from the south-eastern corner of the churchyard, is probably the most successful.Image

 A feature I hadn’t previously noticed was an old church cross described by Richard Haslam as comprising “steps, base and part of the shaft only.” (The Buildings of Wales: Powys Penguin Books, University of Wales Press, 1979)Image

After wandering round the churchyard and photographing a number of interesting old tombstones, I returned to the car and drove onwards seeking an old nonconformist chapel at Cwmrhos, situated along a narrow lane halfway up the eastern side of the valley. I recalled noticing the chapel years ago in rather poor evening light, unsuitable for photography. Sadly, yesterday’s weather was only marginally better, and my only acceptable shot of Penuel Independent Chapel was from the chapel graveyard (below).Image

Fortunately, I have better photographs on my own website, including an excellent shot acquired by the Google StreetView camera. Its high viewpoint, combined with bright sunshine, provides a much more pleasing image than I’ve been able to achieve: see

The chapel appeared yesterday to be occupied, so I wonder whether, like many old chapels, it has been converted into a private residence.

The most disappointing aspect of yesterday’s trip was that St Michael’s Church was closed. I must have visited the church at least five times over the years, and have yet to gain access to the interior. Nor is it listed among the churches, chapels, and other historic buildings to open its doors to the public during the forthcoming Open Doors week – see:  It is difficult to understand why access to some churches is restricted for security reasons, while others have managed to retain an ‘open doors’ policy.

Lunchtime Recital – Brecon Cathedral

During the summer months, lunchtime recitals are held every Monday in Brecon Cathedral. Today’s recital, by organist Cameron Luke, Director of Music at All Saints Church, Cheltenham, followed the theme of cats and dogs. We enjoyed the music, which lasted about 50 minutes.

ImageAfter the recital, I took a few photos to supplement the collection already displayed on my website’s Images of Wales feature:

In particular, I wanted some shots of the recently installed crucifix suspended above the transept.

The crucifix was sculpted in bronze by South Wales artist Helen Sinclair. Weighing 90 kg it was cast from driftwood found on Rhossili beach on Gower Peninsula.ImageThe crucifix hangs above where the rood screen once stood, before it was destroyed in 1538 by Henry VIII. A gold crucifix hung from the original rood screen, and was touched by pilgrims as they prayed for healing.  

ImageBrecon Cathedral has an excellent website at:




Hello Everyone. This is my first post on my new blog from Brecon in the most beautiful part of Wales.

I’ll be adding proper posts once I get into the swing of things.

Brecon Beacons at 7:40 this morning

Brecon Beacons at 7:40 this morning