Joining the Mary Gillham Archive Project: my first week



Last week Natalie Christie, a Zoology student from Cardiff University, joined the Project on her Professional Training Year (PTY) a year-long placement between the 2nd and final year of her degree. Over the next 12 months Natalie will spend her time working on the Project and taking advantage of Mary’s archive to answer a research question of her own.


Here’s the first of many blogs by Nat describing her Mary Gillham Archive Project journey:

Before starting my first day at the office I was both excited and a little nervous; working a real, full week job is very different to being lectured at for a couple of hours a week and doing work from home. At uni I’m used to 2 or 3 hours a day of intense, information-loaded lectures and the constant feeling that I should be doing more work. Even though I am now working a much longer 7-hour day, it’s nice to spend that time being productive rather than just listening and it feels good to be able to relax when at home (and not feel guilty about not studying every minute of the day!).

I am enjoying having more structure and routine to my week and everyone that I’ve met so far has been really kind and welcoming. I’m looking forward to meeting the rest of the team and am thankful to Al for putting up with my endless lists of questions…

During my first week on the project I’ve had access to some of Mary’s writings to get a better insight into her personal life and travels, learning a lot more than I was expecting to in my first week – a particularly intriguing fact being how Mary was brave enough to once hitchhike across all of Africa, impressive! I have been introduced to the important task of data entry and slide transcribing, and have also successfully completed my coffee training (how to use the cafetiere) – a task that I’m coming to realise is a crucial part of office life.

I was also not expecting to get my very own office desk (my first!), but it’s made me feel like I’m part of the project and the novelty of decorating the space with my own mug and other bits and bobs still hasn’t worn off.


Map of some of Mary’s travels

 Slide Celebrations

On Friday a milestone was reached in the project as the 5000th slide was transcribed. The slide was called ‘Adiantum capillus-veneris, Maidenhair’ featuring a male fern at Cwm Mawr, Wales. A proud moment as this means that over a third of the slides have now been transcribed!

5000th slide!

Overall it’s been a fun, successful week and I’m excited to get involved with more of the project, including some of the outreach days as well as meeting more of the volunteers!

A mine of information

There is currently an exhibition of Edward Burtynsky’s photographic work on display at the Flowers Gallery in London. Burtynsky likes to take pictures predominantly of the impact of man and industry on nature which, in his words:

are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence… We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. 

With images of Railcuts, Quarries and Mines (among other things) we are easily reminded of Mary Gillham whose own landscape was dramatically shaped by industry. Mary was particularly active from the mid-60s at the height of the post-war industrial boom in South Wales right the way through the demise of mining; the long lasting effects it had on the landscape (e.g see our PWC walk) and people; and the struggle to work out how best to transform drastically altered landscapes back into something resembling a natural state.

The Mary Gillham homage to Edward Burtynsky

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Mary, the botanist, was interested in how communities of plants re-colonise altered habitats once man has deemed fit to leave them. It is of little surprise that she spent a great deal of time at Cosmeston, Tylorstown, Gelli Draws (among others) observing and recording the succession of plants from early pioneer species to the ones who settle in for the long haul. As an active member of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society and Glamorgan Naturalists’ Trust (later the Wildlife Trust) as well as well-respected botanist in her own right, Mary was involved in discussions and campaigns to protect certain areas as well as being consulted on how best to achieve reversion to a more natural state (such as these communications between Mary and the County of Glamorgan regarding the development of Lavernock Quarry into the Cosmeston Country park and Lakes).

There’s so much to say about the interaction between nature and industry that I am sure we will revisit the subject time and again. However, let me leave you with this hugely interesting blog by dicmortimer on Cardiff’s Quarries which highlights some of the hidden industrial and geological heritage which can easily be found in the area around Cardiff…

It’s always good to walk around with your eyes open, you’ll never know what’s there otherwise!

A walk with Mary at Pwll Waun Cynon

GUEST BLOG! One of the WTSWW Volunteer Wardens and all-round wildlife identifier-extraordinaire, Graham Watkeys has written this lovely summary of last weekend’s Walk with Mary.  Thanks Graham.

If you would like to make and compare your own species list, download Mary’s lists here!

Mary Gillham was a pioneering naturalist, wildlife recorder and diarist who spent much of her life absorbed in the wildlife and wild places of south Wales.   Her vast and comprehensive photographic and written archives were donated to SEWBReC, who are now running a project to digitise the archive and make it available for study, and as part of this project they are running “Walk with Mary Gillham” events.   These events revisit sites visited by Mary in the past with the aim of comparing her records and photographs to how sites are now, one of these walks took place at the WTSWW Pwll Waun Cynon reserve in Mountain Ash.

When Mary visited the phurnacite plant was still in operation making the area one of the most polluted in the whole of the UK and her diaries and photographs note things like newly emerging leaves being covered in black soot, but her diaries are not only concerned with wildlife but also history.   I was fascinated to learn from Mary that the pond on the reserve is an ox-bow lake (yes remember them for your Geography lessons?) a relic, maybe the only surviving relic, of the old natural course of the River Cynon and was perhaps the last natural pond left in the whole of the Cynon valley.    Nobody is exactly sure how old this pond is, it may be hundreds of years old. Although it may have been altered over the years it’s a survivor of the massive industrialisation of the valley, a small piece of natural landscape in a sea of continual change.

The walk around the reserve, with the aim of recording the wildlife seen and discussing the changes over the years, was somewhat hampered by the continual torrential rain (although some of our younger walkers very much enjoyed splashing in the puddles!).  But I managed to record 8 new species on my personal list for the reserve, these included four first recorded by Mary (Marsh Cudweed, Water Pepper, Gypsywort and Red Bartsia)!  There was a lovely sense of comradery and connection with a fellow recorder as those species were genuinely spotted by me for the first time on this walk.   Thank you Mary Gillham for a wealth of insight and knowledge about one of my local reserves.

Graham Watkeys

We can be heroes…

Am I more receptive to stories of pioneering females or is it pure chance playing games?

That is unclear, but as I drove along the A470 yesterday morning to a meeting about the forthcoming ‘Explore your Archive: Wonder Women’ exhibition at the National Museum Wales, Radio 4’s Natural History Heroes came on and presented me with a fascinating 15 minute insight into Alice Eastwood – the curator of the California Academy of Science botany collection during the early 1900s – presented by Dr Sandra Knapp of the Natural History Museum.

As with all good stories, Alice’s is certainly worth sharing and if you get the chance to listen, I urge you to do so: Natural history Heroes – Alice Eastwood.

Alice Eastwood is credited with cataloging the type specimens (the example specimen for each species, akin to the reference weight used to calibrate other weights) found within the Californian Academy of Science and then, as California fell apart and fires spread after the 1906 earthquake she rescued these precious species and relocated them to a safe place away from city (she also spent over a year in the Yukon looking at willows, published over 310 scientific articles, guided Alfred Russel Wallace and rebuilt the California Academy of Science’s herbarium collection to three times the size it was pre-earthquake among many other things). A courageous, dedicated and talented botanist indeed!

Dr Knapp who presented the show is a formidable botanist herself having described over 75 species of plants, published over 175 papers and become a leading expert on the nightshade (Solanaceae) family (over 1000 species mind you!). It was lovely to not only hear the story of Alice Eastwood’s life but also to share Dr Knapp’s obvious enthusiasm and respect for one of her heroes.

Mary Gillham, our very own botanical hero, was similarly inspired by another great botanist. Professor Lily Newton, who contributed greatly to our knowledge of plant distribution and wrote the Handbook of British Seaweeds (1931) which detailed around 750 different species, was Mary’s supervisor at Aberystwyth University. The effect of Lily on Mary’s life was undoubtedly great as Mary’s book detailing her trip to Macquarrie Island (Sub-Antarctic Sanctuary, 1967) is dedicated to ‘Professor Lily Newton, who set my feet on the naturalist’s trail‘.

If there was even a shred of doubt as to Mary’s feelings toward Lily, last week when we were rooting through Mary’s archive we came across this Botanist’s Psalm written by Mary and extolling the virtues of her professor.

Botanist's Psalm
“Lily is my Professor, I shall not want another! She leadeth me forth into the Bogs of Tregaron. She maketh me to lie down in wet places. She prepareth an exam paper for me in collaboration with my enemies. My head she doth fill with confusion & my sweat runneth over. Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of failure, will I hope for no concession for she is with me, her rod and staff correcting me. Surely she will not follow me all the days of my life or must I dwell in the finals class forever?”


I wonder how many supervisors today receive such high affection? It is also intriguing to think about who from the current generation of botanists was inspired by Mary to cite her as their inspiration? We shall have to wait and see…

As we get a clearer picture of the contents of Mary’s archive we can tell more of these stories… And that is what we, and the National Museum Wales will be doing on November 19th. Come along to see us and learn more about some of the Wonder Women of Wales who worked to further knowledge, civilization and science.

Pwll Waun Cynon wildlife walk – 3/9/16

All week I looked up the weather forecast for Mountain Ash in the Cynon Valley hoping for good news and on some days (aaah blessed Thursday), the met office told me it would be dry. In reality, however, Saturday had those rainclouds with three blobs of rain on them… you know, that really persistent, wet rain that seeps nefariously along seams, through zips and up trouser legs. It’s in no rush – there’s no need to be! – those silly folk are going to be trampling around this exposed field for three hours, I’ve got loads of time to penetrate their puny defences…

No such thing as bad weather…

Despite the weather, 20 hardy folk came along to Pwll Waun Cynon to hear about the industrial and natural heritage of the site and also the gargantuan effort of the the Wildlife Trust in reverting a severely impacted site back into an accessible and enjoyable wildlife haven.

Mary and her naturalist colleagues had visited the ‘Abercwmboi water meadows‘ in the 70s, 80s and 90s and described how the mining industry and phurnacite works impacted the habitat and nature found within it. However, it wasn’t just human impacts that have altered the shape of this landscape. Old maps show that in the late 1800s an ox-bow of the Cynon budded off from the rest of the river and then, at some point int he 20th century, one of the fields flooded and combined with the ox-bow to form the pond that remains in place today.

This picture was taken a couple of weeks before the walk!

Caution, massive tangent approaching…

This leads back to the age-old question of what, exactly, are we trying to restore when we talk about conserving and protecting a landscape.  The alder woodland that pre-dated the pond (the rotting stumps of which can still be seen sticking out from the centre of the pond)? Something that resembles pre-industrial wildlife? Or simply a representation of what should be present in the current landscape? Often the answer comes down to how much money we have and what is realistic or feasible. Whether the end product looks like it did 50, 500 or 5000 years ago is somewhat moot although well worth musing upon…

… Aaaaaaanyway, to get back on track. While our plan to try and match the species list generated by Mary and her colleagues fell by the wet wayside we still had an excellent walk guided by Carys Solman (Wildlife Trust Officer for the Valleys Area) and the volunteer wardens who help to manage the site. We looked at the restoration work which has battled the spread of knotweed, Himalayan balsam, brambles and bracken, the new fencing which has allowed horses to begin grazing the land again, the hibernaculum and pond installed to provide refuge for grass snakes and slow worms whilst also encouraging newts to take residence and talked about the next stages of recovery for the ox-bow pond.

Local lepidopterist Mark Evans had set up a moth trap the night before and, before releasing them, revealed his findings to the interested crowd (including a blood-vein and antler). Whilst walking around the reserve we also saw a kingfisher and common toad and most excitingly some new fungi records for the site – a pair of Dapperling species, some Taphrinas and a tar spot – congratulations to Emma Williams and Graham Watkeys for spotting them!

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Whilst we didn’t get to spend huge amounts of time hearing about how it was to grow up in such an industrial landscape a few stories about hijacking coal trains to acquire a little coal and how local fog smelled like rotten eggs (because of the sulpher added to coal to make it smoke-free) did sneak out… We’ll have to go back at some point to find out more.

Thanks very much to everyone who attended and the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales staff and volunteers who showed us around. Next guided walk will be near Draethen on November 6th.

Mary’s photographic record of Pwll Waun Cynon

Walking in the Footsteps of Mary: September, Pwll Waun Cynon Nature Reserve

Pwll Waun Cynon Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve, Mountain Ash (Main entrance: ST035998 Site centre: ST034997) is situated in an area that was previously known as one of the most polluted parts of the UK partly as a result of the adjacent Phurnacite plant. The plant closed in the late 1980s and Lord Aberdare generously gave the reserve to the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales (WTSWW) in November 1986.

Mary and colleagues (including  Alex Coxhead, Bernard Curtis, Nigel Ajax-Lewis, Diana Phillips, Geoffrey Raum, Joan Raum and Ceri Williams) visited the site many times in the 1980s and 90s and found many interesting species and habitats.

The site itself has changed dramatically over the past 100 or so years as a result of an Oxbow from the Cynon detaching and forming a pond, an Alder woodland becoming flooded and causing a water meadow, the Cynon being diverted to allow for a new road, the construction and deconstruction of a railway line and the huge impact of the Phurnacite plant next door.

Mary’s photographic record of Pwll Waun Cynon

Over the past few years, however, the Wildlife Trust has been working hard to restore the site back to good health and great progress has been made. This month we are encouraging you to visit the site and see what you can find – download Mary’s species list and see how it compares!

PWC species list

An interesting feature of this site is the high proportion of melanistic (dark-coloured) varieties of animals such as peppered moths caused by industrial pollution. Although as the health of the environment improves the number melanistic individuals decrease you may still catch one or two! Eyes peeled!


Submit your records at or send them in a spreadsheet to You can download a template spreadsheet from the Walks with Mary Gillham page on the SEWBReC website:

Notes about Walks with Mary Gillham:

  • Please take a common sense approach to recording at these sites. We do not advocate any form of trespassing, and please do not take any risks with regards to your own health and safety.
  • All records are welcome, even the most common of species!
  • For a record to be useful, we need the following information: recorder’s name; date recorded; location name; grid reference (ideally 6 figures or more); species name. Please feel free to include extra information or photos.