13th November 2009
A PLACE DESERTED: Ruins of Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire & Pembrokeshire

Article from the Cambrian News 5/11/09

Below is a transcript of the talk I gave at Ceredigion Museum in November 2009.
I’d like to thank everyone who turned up and who kindly and patiently listened – this was the first time I’d ever spoken about my work and I was a little nervous! Thank you to those who also asked questions after the talk and shared their knowledge on ruins they knew and where they could be found.

Mieri Lle Bu Mawredd / Brambles Where Once Was Glory

Llanstinan House, Llanstinan, Pembrokeshire 2009

I first began taking photographs when I was 17 years old. I purchased a 35mm camera and spent a few weeks rapidly shooting colour film. After about 3weeks and 10 films I tried my first ever black and white film up at the mines at Cwmystwyth in Ceredigion, Mid-Wales. I had painted ruins at school especially of Cwmystwyth mines when the large corrugated iron finishing mill still stood, a large rust coloured mass of red against the grey heaps of waste. At about the same time, in 1988, my parents moved from the Tregaron area to the Hafod estate between Pontrhydygroes and Cwmsywtyth. Also at this time I began working in the photographic department at the Hugh Owen library, at Aberystywth University on a Youth Training Scheme.

Although the training placement was only for 6 months I was kept on afterwards full time. I not only had access to darkrooms and cameras but also to books. I immersed myself in the photographic books, mainly monographs of the great American landscape photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

It was mainly Weston who captivated. He spent a very productive time in Mexico at the turn the century and was great friend with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Tina Modotti. His pictures had something I call a sculptured and weightiness to them. If he photographed a fallen tree you not only saw an image of a fallen tree but he also conveyed the trees texture, weight and mass. The tree became sculpture.

After reading and re-reading his daybooks and diaries it was then that I decided I wanted to be a photographer like him. He used large wooden field camera, which due to their size and weight meant that one had to enter the landscape with perhaps only a few sheets of film. But it also meant that the image quality, due to the size of the negative, was superb.

After some research I purchased a similar camera, newly made in Japan. Incidentally these cameras are as popular as ever, there must be at least 15 different manufacturers still producing such camera – a design which hasn’t changed since the birth of photography over 150 years ago.

I was 21 at the time and felt I had just spent a fortune on this cumbersome and very slow type of photography. Nonetheless I became acquainted with my camera and the fact that it took a long time to set up, focus and take a picture. I became economical with film and therefore more selective on what I photographed.

Whilst working at the library I had also become aware of Tom Lloyd’s ‘Lost Houses of Wales’ book. It was, and still is, a fascinating document of the larger houses throughout Wales. After 5 odd years working at the library I decided to leave and began a course at Carmarthen College for two years. It was there, in 1995, that a friend took me and five others to the ruined mansion of Aberglasney.

I remember my visits to Aberglasney quite vividly. I returned the following morning without my friends but with my camera. It felt like I had found the subject matter I had always sought. The house is large, its tiny rooms felt like a labyrinth, and its walled gardens all overgrown with shoulder high brambles and nettles. I suppose on one level I imagined whilst looking through the pages of Tom Lloyds book that it would be amazing to visit such houses and quite unexpectedly I had stumbled across one of Wales’ most treasured and wonderful lost houses.

Aberglasney Façade, Llangathen, Carmarthenshire 1995

I took a number of images at Aberglasney over the next few weeks. I also began researching its history, (I hadn’t even known its name when I visited) the neglect it had suffered and the theft of much of its interior and exterior treasures. At one point Aberglasney had become a free-for-all – its architectural components quickly being removed and sold.

Of all the photographs I took it is one particular image that has remained a favourite of mine and that it one of a white door leaning against the rear of the house. It was taken on a very drizzly and dim morning; the trees overhanging stopping much of light penetrating the walls of the house. The house itself was rendered a grey lifeless colour and ivy covered. Yet this white door seemed to hint at a hope amongst this hopeless and neglected house.

White Door, Aberglasney, Carmarthenshire 1995

It wasn’t for another 2 years that I decided to photograph more ruins. I by then had moved to Nottingham to further my studies. Compared to Carmarthen, obviously, the city of Nottingham felt huge and not only that so was the university. I felt after my two years there that most of tutors hadn’t learned my name and not only that there as a general persuasion not to photograph in the ‘pure’ tradition. My type of photography was considered old fashioned and without worth in the late 20th century.

Nonetheless I was older than many of the students and reluctant to follow my lecturers suggestions I knew that I only wanted to photograph the way I always had. And that was to keep the photography as simple or as ‘pure’ as possible – no darkroom tricks, no pretentions of being modern art.

I decided as a major project to photograph more ruined mansions. Aberglasney had had a lasting effect upon me and if I could find similar places I knew it would be a worthwhile project.

I wrote to Tom Lloyd and he quickly responded with a list of around 15 houses he considered photographic. He also gave me instructions on where to find the houses and where to ask permission. So for a few weeks in 1996 and 1997 along with my own research I began searching and photographing ruined mansions. My first week was very successful, house such as Neuadd Fawr, Tegfynydd, Bronwydd, Iscoed and Llwynywormwood (all in Carmarthenshire) were photographed. Incidently Llwynwormwood was recently purchased by the Prince of Wales – at least the farm that stands beside it and shares its name. I don’t believe he has any plans to rebuild the mansion! The owners were open and friendly, sometimes they left me to it and other times they came around with me genuinely interested in the house and why they had left them to fall to ruin.

Most of the houses I’ve photographed are either the victims of fire and never re-built or have been abandoned after the Second World War, their upkeep too expensive and property tax beyond the means of many families after the wars. So the houses were boarded up or just left. Theft and vandalism will soon take its toll on a house and it basically only takes one slate to come off a roof before damp penetrates.

I all but stopped visiting mansions after 1999. I had exhibited the work throughout Wales and thought I’d visited most of the houses. I began photographing other subject matters, returning, as ever, to Welsh landscapes and also abstractions, close-ups of weathered walls. These abstractions became somewhat an obsession. Over the last 15 years I’ve moved and lived in about 6 different towns and cities in England and Wales. I’ve photographed close-ups of many walls throughout the UK and you often get a few funny looks from passer-bys wondering why you’ve got such an old fashioned camera and pointing it 6 inches away from a wall covered in messy posters.

Peeling Paint, Dolgor’s Farm, Devil’s Bridge, Ceredigion 2004

Nonetheless I believe that these images show another element and an equal representational view of decay and can be just as revealing as a general view can be. I personally get lost in their micro world of tiny bits of peeling paint and I revisit many walls over a period of time to document their further decline.

It was seeking these abstractions that took me to Edwinsford Mansion in 2004. I had attempted to visit Edwinsford way back in 1997 but someone who lived close-by refused me permission – I revisited in 2004 and after finding no abstracions within its crumbling walls I decided instead I would begin searching for mansions again.

Edwinsford’s focal point is the absolutely wonderful square house, built in 1635 with further ranges built throughout that century and then further additions throughout the centuries after that. When I visited I was surprised to find huge tarpaulins at the front of the house with fragments of architectural pieces from the house on them. The ong and arduous process of restoration had begun.

After the thrill of visiting Edwinsford I thought I’d dig out all my old research and visit those mansions I hadn’t photographed before. A new list of houses was drawn up and in April and May of 2005 I visited a number of properties including Piercefield House near Chepstow, The Hermitage in the Breacon Beacons, Malpas Court and Great Milton in Newport and the magnificent ruins of Baron Hill on Angelsey.

About half a mile west of Beaumaris Baron Hill stands high overlooking the town. I had seen images in Tom Lloyd’s book and I believe at that time I had seen the outline of the ruins on ‘Google Earth’. I knew the ruins still stood and were probably large but the scale of Baron Hill is quite staggering. Walking through the overgrown grounds with massive pines and other species of trees with twisted knuckled bark a few glimpses of the house can be spied.

It was built in 1612, damaged by fire during the Second World War and thereafter remained vacant. There are many outbuildings, all ruined: stables with enormous large wooden doors, all rotting and overrun with brambles. However, the owner, Lord Buckley who resides in a smaller house close by as made many attempt to find a use for this monstrous building and there are now plans to transform this house into 40 odd luxury apartments. So after 60 years of neglect, 60 years of small saplings growing into large trees, it looks like. Finally, Baron Hill is to be rescued.

Baron Hill, Anglesey 2008

Along with this new list of houses to visit, I’ve also found myself driving close to previous houses and have begun to re-visit some and re-photograph. Bronwydd and Tegfynydd are two examples – the former had lost in the 15 years since my first visit some of the Latin inscriptions on its walls and had apparently been partially demolished by the farmer who owned it. A wonderful house with its many towers all but lost, it’s also unlisted and therefore will surely and slowly decline back in to the ground over time.

And Tegfynydd, which had barely changed since I had visited in 1996 except for the growth of saplings inside the great hall, now over twenty feet high and towering over the great stone fireplace. Tegfynydd was actually for sale not so long ago for a measly 20 thousand. However, it was sold on condition that the owner took it down stone by stone and re-built elsewhere.

I went to Aberglasney a couple of years ago with my parents. They have done an absolutely amazing job on the house and gardens. I had decided almost immediately once I heard it was being restored that I would not be interested in visiting. I also have to admit part of me whilst wandering around felt a sense of loss that the Aberglsney I knew had gone – a large romantic ruin, vandalised and uncared for – a selfish thought but one I could not deny.

And this selfish thought remains. Some houses obviously need saving, Rhuperra Castle, Pencoed Castle, Baron Hill et al. However there are houses I’ve visited that I would be filled with horror of they are restored – some have been subliminal experiences.

The Hermitage at the foot of the black mountains in the Brecon Beacons is a good example. In Tom Lloyds book there a small mention of it. It says: ‘a remote villa of early 19th century, subsequently a shooting box to the Glanusk estate. Ruined.’ (there’s no photograph, just that short description - just mystery – will it still stand 20 years after the book was published?)

Before I visit a house I like to find as much about it as possible. This I believe helps laying an emotional foundation. If I visit a house that became a ruin due to fire such as Great Frampton I approach it differently than a house that has been abandoned by its owners, supposedly, half way through breakfast such as Brynkir in Caernarvonshire.

Further research on the Hermitage revealed it had been built early 19th century of a certain John MacNamara who built it for his mistress. To reach The Hermitage one drive about 8 miles up a single lane road. The road turns to track and comes to an end. It was here the house was built, beside a small river whose bridge has long fallen. My first visit was a very wet one, I was soaked within 15minutes and my equipment equally so. But wandering around this ruin, remote and as secluded one could not help but wonder what life would have been like for this mistress, at once lucky to have a house built for her but also with such misfortune for it to be located in such seclusion. Of course I know not of life for this mistress in the early 19th century – perhaps she had a very happy life at The Hermitage but the very name MacNamara called his house leaves you with a feeling of seclusion.

The Hermitage, Crickhowell, Beacon Beacons, Breaconshire 2009

Many people also mention in my work about the lack of humans. This is true for a number of reasons. Firstly I usually rise very early, depending upon the time of year and how far I need to drive to visit a house – sometimes a 3am alarm call – I shudder just thinking about it but usually the excitement I feel before I visit a house sets my adrenaline running.

Another reason is I am quite a solitary person whilst photographing. As I was explaining about the Hermitage I like to do some research on a house and the drive to a house allows me to emotionally prepare myself. Many of the exposures, even the outside exposures can be up to 16 minutes long, it’s a long time to ask someone to keep still. That’s not to say though that a lone figure wouldn’t add interest and possibly a further dimension to the images although I believe the project would become more about these blurred ghostly figures than about the houses themselves. I’m not seeking to document these houses as old haunted mansions occupied by ghosts and phantoms but as a peaceful and beautiful places filled with sorrow rather than ghosts. Although the idea of adding an actual figure in the pictures is probably a concept worth exploring more if done correctly.

And although they do not show any fellow humans in them but all of them, without exception show a human element. Even the landscapes show the remnants of farming & drainage, so yes, there are no humans but our influence on the landscape can be seen everywhere in Wales even the most remote areas of Ceredigion.

Mining particularly in Ceredigion as had an immense influence on the landscape. There are even a number of shafts hidden away on the Hafod Estate; deep low tunnels that come to an abrupt end. The pictures I’ve shown here of Copa Hill at Cwmystwyth which many of you will surely know but less well known due to their remoteness are the workings at Banc Esgair near Ffair Rhos.

There had apparently been a mine here in the 12th century but then abandoned for centuries and then re-opened in the 18th century when it mined lead and later on zinc
Apparently at this desolate and remote sight was mined at depth of 165 fathoms - the deepest workings in the county. It was mined on and off until the 1960’s and much of the machinery which still stands dates from the mid 1900’s. Discovering such sights proves very rewarding – unfortunately Banc Esgair has been used as a dump, I presume by the local farmers, for many years now but I do urge all of you to visit – there are plenty of footpaths wending in and out of the area so you won’t be trespassing but it will give you a glimpse into what it must have been like, at least on the surface, of working at such a site.

Banc Esgair Mwn, Ffair-Rhos, Ceredigion 2008

Also exhibited is the Ceulan woolen mill at Talybont which has been left empty since the 1960’s. I remember seeing this mill whilst driving through Talybont once. It’s quite out of the way down a small lane next to Davmor garage – and perhaps due to it secluded spot – like so many other ruins in Wales – at has avoided the destructive eye of the bored vandal.

Sometimes boarded up access isn’t possible, other times you will find a board dislodged and entrance is possible. Inside two floors and a large attic area which appears to have been an office. Ceulan on the ground floor is an almost impenetrable space – with very large heavy iron machinery filling almost all floor space. It is very dark within due to the windows all being boarded up. Taking photographs using only available light is a challenge. I use a touch first and shine it on what I want in focus. I then attempt to find an exposure reading of an area and basically use my experience on how long to make an exposure for.

The below was taken on the ground floor showing machinery required an exposure of around about 45 minutes. This means the camera lens is opened for 45 minutes whilst the image is recorded onto the film. During this time I can freely move around, even in front of the camera, my movement is so brief compared to the overall exposure that I am not recorded onto the film. Not even a ghosting of my image. These long exposures also mean I can not only explore a building but also sit and listen and try to experience a building. Sometimes I make notes on my visit, sometimes I take a book and find a little light to read.

Upstairs where the windows are not boarded up and such long exposures are not necessary, even so, exposures of around 16 minutes are used. There’s a calmness to these images of the old mill. I recently came across a simple phrase which sums up many of these images and what I experience when visiting them and they are ‘silent, solitary and old’ I think that sums up ruins perfectly.

Ceulan Mill, Ground Floor, Talybont, Ceredigon 2009

Ceulan Mill, Upstairs, Talybont, Ceredigion 2004

Returning to the mansions project I have photographed approximately only 45 houses – I’ve visited many other sites only to be unable to find a property, or restored, or to find it had been demolished, like a house called Maesgwynne – the year I visited I was unable to gain permission. I returned the following year – did not ask permission but found a huge crater in the ground where this once fine house stood. I felt I’d missed out on a potentially wonderful experience and although there was a photograph in the ‘Lost Houses of Wales’ book it was a photograph of the house when it was lived in. In my imagination I had turned that photograph in a wild and overgrown ruin - one which I would never get to see. Someone has since sent me some photographs he’d taken around the same time I tried to visit so I’ve still got some inkling of how the house looked.

And of those 45 houses visited I’ve only actually taken approximately 250 photographs which over a 15 year period seems very little. I myself was surprised. I always seemed to in the car with a list of directions and houses to visit and then driving home, developing the negatives, spending nights upon nights in the darkroom. But perhaps not all that surprising I’ve only taken 250 photographs. My visits are relatively fleeting, perhaps only an hour or a morning depending on the size of an estate. And I have no wish to photograph every room, every architectural detail, doorway and lodge house.

I do not wish to steal away the soul of a house or even to take away its mystery. I attempt to capture just a small essence of the house as I experienced it on the day; with those weather conditions; with how I was feeling during those minutes. I never ventured into the cellars at Aberglasney – I was a little scared I must admit and they were knee deep in water but equally what would I find down there? What’s there to discover? Empty beer cans and darkness, and the same can be said with the cellars at Hafod or Boverton Place near Llantwit Major. I am content in wandering around and getting a feel of a place rather than exploring intimately every nock and cranny. No doubt if I still used the 35mm camera I first purchased when I was 17 I’d probably trying to record every inch of a mansion sight and perhaps rightly so especially since many of these houses will perhaps soon no longer stand.

When asked what it is I try to capture when photographing old buildings I usually have to hesitate before I answer. I approach each house these days ideally with three goals. The first is to photograph a general view of a house, then an interior and then finally, once I’ve wondered around and explored, an image which sums up a property. A good example can also be seen at Blaen Blodau.

Blaen Blodau, Carmarthenshire 2009

I struggled to with this image. I set up the camera, focussed carefully under a dark cloth and all the elements of a good image were present but I just couldn’t get them all into the frame! It took a good 10minutes for me to realise, changing lenses, moving back and forth from the subject that to capture the image I wanted all I had to do was to take a vertical rather than an horizontal view of the subject!

Along with this image of the rear of Blaen Blodau which barely has the house in the frame at all, it is probably the image of the white door at Aberglasney which encapsulates all I seek in photographing such ruins.

One immediately sees a white door, and then perhaps the decorative corner stones of a large building, and then perhaps the ivy cascading forty foot down its walls. Information is slowly revealed and it becomes the viewer who discovers that what they’re looking at is a mansion in the state of disrepair not just a dirty white door.

I think it’s these images of these details, at least for me, that makes this project such a joyful one to undertake.

Paul White November 2009

If you know of any ruins that you think I might like to photograph, be they mansions, farmsteads, cottages, mills or factories please do contact me using the form in the main menu.


Photo comment By david trevillion: intresting places shame to see them in that state
Photo comment By Hilary Tolhurst: I was pleased to discover your work on f.b on the old houses in Wales. They bring back such memories of my younger years riding over the banks of Wales and coming across an abandoned farm house on the edge of a bog, complete with cups and saucers on the table. The solitude and feeling of waiting..
Photo comment By Kate Hurst: Fascinating to see the shot of Baron Hill. The 1861 census showed that my 3xgreat-grandfather John Siggs was a gamekeeper living there, with his family. He had married in Yorkshire, had two children there, one more in Denbighshire and the youngest four were apparently born at Baron Hill. I am guessing there was some kind of keeper's lodge there for them to live in, but seeing the house and estate he must have looked after is quite something.

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