The story of the Bear of Amsterdam is probably the best known of all local stories, apart from the Bells of Aberdovey. Unlike the Bells, this is not a matter of myth but a slice of Elizabethan history.
The Bear of Amsterdam was a ship in the Third Spanish Armada, which took place between October and November 1597 during the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585–1604. The war, which consists of a series of naval episodes over this period, had its origins in both religious and commercial disputes. Philip II, King of Spain, defender of the Catholic faith, was under pressure to tackle the rise of Protestantism in Spanish territories in the southern Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and northern France, collectively referred to as the Low Countries. At the same time Queen Elizabeth had reinstated the Act of Supremacy that established the Church of England as the national religion, detaching England from Catholic Papal authority. This was naturally a source of tension between England and Spain. This relationship became even more strained when the English crown supported the activities of English ships trading with Spanish outposts in the West Indies. Spain held a trading monopoly on these colonies and English activities were condemned as smuggling. Spanish retaliation at the Battle of San Juan de Ulúa resulted in the capture and sinking of English ships under the command of Sir Francis Drake. The English retaliated with an escalation of privateering, which not only aimed to undermine the Spanish monopoly, but to line the pockets of the crews involved. When England came out in support of the Dutch against Spanish military action to squash the rise of Protestantism in 1585, Spain considered this a declaration of war. A number of skirmishes took place, but the final straw came with Elizabeth’s execution of Mary Queen of Scots in February 1587, leading to Philip II’s decision to invade England in order to place a Catholic monarch on the English throne, a plan for which he received papal authority in July 1587.
On 28 May 1588 the first Spanish Armada (armada meaning a fleet of warships) set sail for the English Channel and were met by the English fleet. A battle of attrition succeeded in preventing the Spanish from reaching any English port and the Spanish withdrew to Calais to regroup. The English pursued them, using fireships to break through the defensive formation, forcing another battle on the Spanish, who were defeated and forced to retreat. The second Spanish Armada took place in 1596, Philip II’s next attempt to tackle England, this time by invading Ireland, but the fleet hit a storm that annihilated it, and it never reached the English channel.
The third and final Armada took place between October and November 1597, aiming to surprise the English fleet in the English Channel as it returned from a failed expedition to the Azores, whilst another part of the Armada would land an invasion force in Falmouth or, if this proved impossible, Milford Haven, both of which were important Elizabethan ports. 136 ships set out from Spain with 8,634 soldiers, 4,000 sailors, a total of 12,634 men and 300 horses, but storms again led to the failure of Spanish plans. With their fleet dispersed, only a few ships were able to land troops in England and Wales. The returning English ships had also been disrupted by the storm, but still managed to capture several Spanish ships. The third Armada was again defeated and remaining Spanish ships were captured.
The last ship from the third Armada to be captured was the c.120 ton caravel, The Bear of Amsterdam. Having headed for Milford Haven she overshot and eventually weighed anchor in the middle of the river Dyfi on 26 October 1597, probably to acquire stores. The prevalence of Westerlies stranded the ship for until 5th November. Aberdovey was very isolated at this time, with only a few houses that served the ferry from Aberdovey to Ynyslas. A survey of ports, creeks and other landing places on the Welsh coast from earlier in the century stated that only during the herring season when fishermen arrived from elsewhere was there any activity in Aberdovey where there were only three houses, and no local boats. Local militia from both sides of the river gathered on the banks of the Dyfi and prepared themselves for a fight, but there were no suitable boats with which to board The Bear of Amsterdam, and no canons with which to hole her. Muskets had some impact, killing three and wounding others on board the ship, but the ship moved out of range during the night. D.W. Morgan (Brief Glory) quotes a contemporary document that describes how the ship landed about six men ashore in a cockboat (a small rowing boat used as the ship’s tender), with two more remaining in the boat, but these were ambushed by the Merionethshire Militia, with two killed and four captured. The Vice Admiral visited the camp of the Cardiganshire militia “but could do nothing except helplessly watch the Spaniard swinging to his anchor in midstream. Of little avail were the plans of the Merionethshire men.” A plan by the Merionethshire milita to build wooden fire rafts and float them down the river on an outgoing tide in the hope that it would set fire to the ship failed when the wind turned. In spite of intentions to capture The Bear of Amsterdam, the ship left without challenge or further incident when the winds changed.
The Bear of Amsterdam headed south, but she did not manage to return to Spain. Rounding the Cornish peninsula The Bear of Amsterdam suffered damage in another storm and surrendered on the 10th November to an English squadron. She was led into Dartmouth with no ammunition on board and almost no supplies. The crew consisted of 62 Spanish sailors, 3 Flemish and 2 English (one acting as a pilot, the other a known pirate who was immediately gaoled). Morgan says that the Captain of The Bear of Amsterdam “was a man of note and was sent up to London under guard to be exchanged for 2 Englishmen who were Spanish prisoners.”
Back in Aberdovey, Morgan describes how the local magistrate was in trouble. Ednyfed Griffith found himself under investigation when complaints were lodged against him about his handling of the Bear of Amsterdam affair: “Although he lived within a mile of the scene he failed to repair thither with any men, arms or weapons; nor did he raise any manner of force to resist the Queen’s enemies. He, being remiss, slack and careless thus greatly discouraged those that were eager.” It does not seem to have done him much harm, because in 1608 he was appointed Sheriff of Gwydgwian.
As with all good history, an unverifiable story emerged from the incident, which is that a handful of Spanish sailors swam ashore after dark, vanished into the hills and eventually integrated with Welsh inhabitants. Unless they were fluent Welsh speakers, which is improbable, it seems unlikely that the presence of foreign accents in the area would have gone unnoticed in a period of heightened awareness and fear of Spanish invasion, but it is a nice story.
In 1953 both the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the Elizabethan story of The Bear of Amsterdam were celebrated by fitting out a local ship to represent the Spanish caravel. She was moored mid-river and set on fire.
Today the episode is preserved in a popular restaurant on the sea front in Aberdovey named The Bear of Amsterdam.
I was so lucky this afternoon to see two wonderful oystercatchers on the foreshore. I was on the members’ terrace of the Literary Institute (I promise that I am a member and wasn’t trespassing!) and heard a high-pitched peeping noise coming from below. And there they were. Squinting into the sun, I suddenly saw two absolutely perfect little waders rushing around on their spindly pink legs picking up mussels from amongst the seaweed and bashing them with their long, strong orange beaks against the stones. You can hear the peeping and bashing noises on the video below. The camcorder did a remarkably good job, given that I was shooting straight into the sun. Oystercatchers also target cockles, limpets, small crabs and shrimps, all of which are available in the area. Although oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) are common on coasts, and I have seen them at the mouth of the Dysynni, I have never seen one at Aberdovey before. I was utterly charmed. Wonderful to watch and to listen to them. When they took off, startled by some people walking along the foreshore, the lovely white streaks against the black of their wings were clearly visible.
Wednesday last week was one of those rare but gorgeous January days that provides a welcome reminder that spring lies ahead. Almost too good to be true. The tide was on its way out, always a beautiful sight as dips in the sand fill with still water reflecting the blue sky, and the millions of deeply scored fractal patterns in the sand are revealed, with the contrast of the dark shadows and bright surfaces always a sensational feature of the low winter sun. Apart from a few dog walkers the beach was almost empty, sensible people remaining in the warm.
My garden continues to be a source of wildlife activity, all the local species filling up on solid carbohydrates to see them through the bitterly cold nights.
The goldfinches, which turned up in my absence over Christmas, are now a daily presence, between two or seven of them at a time, four on the nyjer feeder with the others bouncing up and down in frustration in the tree. When they first arrived I was very taken by their beautifully minimalist movements and intricate eating habits, but when there are more than four trying to get onto the feeder at a time there can be real jockeying for position in a great thrashing of brightly coloured feathers, with some of the angelic looking little things chasing off others quite ruthlessly. A gaggle of goldfinches is called a “charm.”
Since I moved here in August, all the feeders have been popular, but in the last month the mixed seed feeder has been completely rejected, no matter where I hang it. Instead, most activity is concentrated on the fat ball, mealworm and peanut feeders. Do note that I put a soundtrack on the following video, just to get used to the software that I am using, but it is a really lovely piece of Bach, so hopefully not too intrusive.
My RSPB Big Garden BirdWatch pack turned up today. Lots of helpful material, including a handy bird counting sheet, and some useful suggestions for attracting birds to your garden and encouraging them to stay.
BirdWatch itself is such a great idea. You choose an hour, at any time of the day on one day between 26th and 28th January and write the highest number of each bird species that you see at any one time. The example given is “if you see a group of eight starlings together, and towards the end of the hour you see six together, please write down eight as your final count.” This is because the second bunch may be the same individuals as the first bunch, back for another visit. The purpose is to count individual birds, not individual visits. Even if someone participating in the survey sees nothing in the hour, it’s still useful information for the RSPB.
As BirdWatch has been going for 40 years (this is their anniversary year) some interesting statistics have emerged. Examples are that sightings of song thrushes have dropped by 75% since the first BirdWatch, starlings by 79% and house sparrows by 57%. There were some rises too, such as a 52% increase in long-tailed tits. One of the interesting findings is siskin and brambling numbers were up in 2018. I hadn’t heard of either, but both are winter visitors, and the RSPB site says that their numbers are higher in years when conditions here are more favourable in the UK than on the Continent. I suppose that global warming will result in even more visitors of this sort. Blackbirds were in 93% of gardens and robins in 83%. Figures like this allow ornithologists to get a much better idea of what is happening to bird communities across the country. As the survey is postcode sensitive, regional patterns can be determined.
The survey is not confined to birds, although this is the primary purpose. There is also a section on the form that looks at how often garden owners are visited by other wildlife – daily, weekly, monthly, less than monthly, never or don’t know. It’s a fascinating selection, everything from what I think of as fairly common species like grey squirrels, badgers, foxes and frogs to animals that I have rarely seen like red squirrels and muntjacs. Mind, I thought that pheasants were exotic until I moved here, and now I’m literally falling over them every time I leave the house.
All the photos on this post were taken in my garden at Aberdovey, and are just a sample of the avian life that regularly visits, one of the real joys of living here.
The survey can be returned by post or completed online, and must be submitted no later than 12th February by post or 17th February online. The survey results are published in April, and it will be fascinating to see what the results are. The results of the 2018 survey, consisting of 420,489 collated responses, are posted here on the RSPB website. The main findings are shown below, but you can also see the findings by country, and see an Excel spreadsheet of the detailed survey results.
The 2018 general wildlife findings were also interesting. The survey results indicated that although frogs were seen in more than three-quarters of UK gardens, that’s 17% fewer regular sightings than in 2014, whilst toads have been seen in just 20% of gardens at least once a month, which is 30% down on four years ago. At the same time, sightings of hedgehogs have increased and were seen in 65% of gardens during 2018, with foxes reaching 72%. I saw foxes all the time when I lived on the edge of a park in Rotherhithe (London), but I cannot recall ever seeing one here, although there must be plenty around.
The best thing about living in Aberdovey is the ability to walk in some wonderful scenery. I love the hills and and the rural walks in the summer, but the vast open beach has an energy all of its own, particularly at low tide on a sunny day in the winter and spring. With the light casting sharp shadows and delineating wild patterns in the multi-textured sands and the gorgeous estuary waters feeding out into the waves there’s almost nowhere in the world that I would rather be. Except, perhaps, the Sahara desert in the sun 🙂
The little chapel opposite the Snowdonia Tourist Information Centre on Glandyfi Terrace has a steeple with its own entrance, an octagonal spire, Gothic Revival clerestory windows, and a large pointed arch window that dominates the stone-dressed façade, featuring attractive traceries with four quatrefoils and stained glass. The Gwyneth Archaeological Trust states that the unrendered stone is from Penrhyndeudraeth, probably from the Garth quarry in Minffordd, which opened in 1870 and is still in use. the stone dressings and quoins are of Anglesey limestone. The slender painted iron columns in the interior are absolutely in proportion to the rest of the building, and a very distinctive feature. It is a bijou little place, quite one of my favourite buildings in Aberdovey. It was built in the late 1870s, and opened in 1880 to seat a congregation of 250 worshippers. The first service was held in the new chapel in 1880, when the village’s first harmonium was introduced. A few years later the village’s first pipe organ was installed. It closed in 1998, when it was purchased and converted for residential use in 1999 by the present owner (with my sincere thanks to him for showing me around the absolutely super interior).
Prior to building a dedicated chapel, the Congregationalists met in a house called Capel Bach (Low Chapel), established in 1845. This was located just off Chapel Square, up a steep slope in Prospect Place on the lower slopes of Pen y Bryn, the small hill with the folly on top. By the 1870s Aberdovey was becoming prosperous, and in 1882, two years after the chapel opened, the new wharf and jetty were built, improving transport links between sea and the decade-old Cambrian railway for the import of timber, livestock and unprocessed grain and the export of slate and milled grain. As Aberdovey became more affluent, new people took up residence, both Welsh and English, and their spiritual needs were catered for by a remarkable number of chapels for such a small community. The welshchapels.org website indicates that a major renovation took place in 1905, at the cost of £1950.00.
The choice of architectural design is interesting because far more than the other Aberdovey chapels, it borrows directly from the Catholic and Anglican paradigms of church architecture. A photograph of it in the late 19th Century in Pages of Time by Hugh M. Lewis shows it with the surviving boundary walls and rails and two gateways opening directly onto the road with a gas light opposite, with no pavements (see above). St Peter’s Anglican Church is clearly visible further down the road.
Congregationalism dates back to the 16th and 17th Centuries. The Congregationalists, together with the Baptists, are two of the oldest Nonconformist religions, and Geraint Evans credits the Congregationalists with being the “seedbed of Welsh Protestant Dissent” in Llanfaches, established in November 1639. It was given a major boost during the Evangelical Revival of the 19th Century, and in 1832 the Congregational Church of England and Wales was established, a national organization of independent Congregational churches. Many Congregationalists agree on a number of doctrines, which may include the principle of sola scriptura (the idea that all knowledge required for a spiritual life and to achieve salvation is contained in scripture) and that adult conversion to the faith is a requirement for spiritual salvation. They all reject the episcopal concept of Holy Orders that are conferred by a religious leader (usually a bishop), adopting professional clergy and an active laity instead. Finally, Congregationalist churches and chapels are independent of other doctrines, and are self-governing.
The above photograph, this time from another booklet by Hugh M. Lewis, Aberdyfi: A Glimpse of the Past, shows the village in about 1900, with the chapel at the far end, giving a good impression of the stretch of road from the corner of Copper Hill Street down as far as the chapel. Fishing nets are out to dry in the foreground, and there is a two-masted ship moored against the jetty, and the architecture along that stretch of road preserves many of the terraces from the 17th Century village.
Looking around for anything similar in the area with a view to trying to identify who the architect of Aberdovey’s Congregational Chapel might have been, I stumbled across the larger Capel Tegid at Bala, a Calvinist Methodist church (reconsecrated as a Presbyterian church in the 1930s) that has a lot in common with the Aberdovey chapel, including painted iron columns. I have no idea if it was built by the same architect, but it is not entirely implausible that William Henry Spaull of Oswestry, who built Capel Tegid and a number of Wesleyan Methodist chapels in Wales, was also responsible for the Aberdovey Congregationalist chapel.
The 1999 conversion of the Aberdovey Congregationalist Chapel to residential use by a Welsh citizen was absolutely in tune with the existing architecture, retaining all the key features including the wonderful slender painted cast iron columns and the stained glass windows, and all the furnishings complement the original features beautifully. It is beautifully maintained, inside and out, and is a credit to its owner. The perfectly manicured hedge in front of the chapel is evergreen myrtle, the leaves of which have a wonderful aromatic scent when rubbed, and it produces a plethora of tiny white flowers in the summer.
I won’t mention the owner’s name, to preserve his privacy, but when I first moved into the area I had not realized that it had been converted and thought that it was still either in use as a chapel or was empty. When I saw someone emerging from the building I therefore had no hesitation in asking if it would be possible to see around it at some stage. He was so kind that he invited me in there and then. I was expecting dusty recesses and cobwebs, and instead stepped through the door to find that I had invited myself into what was clearly someone’s very beautiful home! To say that I was mortified barely touches the surface. But I am so glad that I made that particular mistake, because it was super to see how stunning it is.
Some restoration work was carried out to the steeple in 2018.
It should be noted that although the Coflein website has a photograph of the Congregational Chapel under its entry for the English Presbyterian Church of Wales, this is a case of mistaken identity. The Presbyterian chapel is the yellow building at the opposite end of the village (and shown in this blog’s header). Elsewhere on the site, the Coflein website has the chapel listed as an Independent chapel (nebo), the Welsh-speaking term for Congregationalism. The Coflein website lists many photographic records of the interior prior to its conversion in its catalogue, but these are not currently available online.