A Puzzle In the Woods: Part One

There is something captivating about ruins, those structures that humans abandon which are slowly eroded and engulfed by nature.  Barons Hill woodland in Beaumaris has not one but two such ruins: an ancient mill, and a Georgian mansion.
We’d explored these woods three times over the course of six years, and discovered something new each time.  At the end of the first visit we found the mill, and a gate lodge, but our holiday ran out and we could explore no further.  During the second trip, we pursued the path past the gate lodge, and came across the mansion.  Our most recent visit resolved some of the puzzles that lingered from previously.
Ramsons around the mill race

Having twice visited in September, the last holiday took place in spring.  In May, the abundance of ramsons in the woods around the derelict mill seemingly frothed and foamed, like the water churned out by water wheels.  There had been two mills here dating back to at least 1528, and were documented as Britons Mills on the 1610 map on John Speed.  Initially used to produce flour, the lower mill fell into disuse in the 19th century, whilst the upper mill continued, having converted to the processing of slate.  This finally went out of use, probably in the 1920s.   All that’s left of this mill are its half-dilapidated walls and a chimney suggesting that a steam engine would have been used here at some point. Nant Meigan is the small river that supplied the mills; a reservoir and a sluice gate at the top of the hill controlled its flow and the leat system of ditches through which the water was channelled is still obvious, if partly covered now by the path.  Ferns stipple the banks down to the Meigan, growing through a mulch of beech leaves and mast.  At first I’d assumed this was a beech woodland due to the leaf-litter, but I realised how much sycamore there is.  The beech seems more concentrated further towards the mill-pond.  There is evidence of formal, ornamental planting within the woods; a series of trees line one of the paths, made up mostly of lime but there is also sweet chestnut and sycamore.  All of them are bushy at the base. I don’t recall ever seeing either sweet chestnut or sycamore do this, though it is typical of the common lime (Tilia x vulgaris).  Up through this epicormic growth, kids have scrambled a permanent route in one tree and constructed a shack in the forking branches.

The gate lodge,  2010
The gate lodge, 2014
Following a path away from the mill race leads to a gate lodge. Beside it, a bridge spans Wrexham Street, one of the main b-roads out of town. Leycesteria formosa sprouts from the stone work, aping Buddleia which, being a sun-lover, is rarely found in the shadows of woodland. Before visiting Anglesey, I’d never observed Leycesteria demonstrate this capacity.  Close by, a monkey-puzzle tree stands tall, and a Tilia made top-heavy by ivy had snapped in two.  Luckily it had fallen away from the main road onto this disused drive-way.   There are several paths through the woods that have become impassable due to windblown trees and branches.  But this section was traversable with a bit of clambering. Crossing the bridge, bluebells were seen to assert dominance, the wild garlic staying on the other side of the road.  Continuing along this old carriage-way, an avenue of limes and conifers accompanied us.  Eventually, rounding a corner, the portico hoves into view – an astonishing sight.
The portico, 2010

The original mansion was instigated by Sir Richard Bulkeley in 1618.  It was expanded in the 1770s by Thomas James Warren Bulkeley, 7th Viscount of Bulkeley, who had returned from his Grand Tour to Italy in 1774 enthusiastic about altering the estate to reflect his status as a travelled and learned man.  He commissioned Samuel Wyatt to re-model the building.  It bore his signature motifs: a domed bow (sometimes scorned at the time as resembling “tea-canisters!), and over-arched tripartite windows.  The Italianate style was continued in the aftermath of a fire in the 1830s, when the stucco was rendered back to the brickwork.  Working in association with Wyatt was William Eames.  A follower of Capability Brown, he laid out the grounds, accordingly, as parkland.  It included a greensward sweeping down to Beaumaris castle (which Bulkeley had purchased from the Crown), a parterre beneath the balustraded terrace of the mansion, and a circular fountain.

Neil Fairlamb, The Viscount and the Baron: The Life and Times of Thomas James Warren Bulkeley 1752-1822 (Bookcase: 2009)

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales

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