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Clywedog Valley
Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Making of the Clywedog Valley Landscape


Llanidloes and the surrounding district became an important centre of the woollen and metal mining industries in mid Wales for a period of about a century between about 1820 to 1920. The impact of these industries upon the landscape has been both transient and muted, and consequently the historic landscape has retained its essentially rural character. Significant remains of these and other processing and manufacturing industries survive as prominent visual landmarks though others have been reabsorbed back into the agricultural landscape.

Corn milling

As noted above, cereal cultivation was probably a relatively small but important component of the agricultural economy of the area from the Middle Ages up until perhaps the early decades of the 20th century and the processing of cereals for both human and local consumption was probably carried out locally throughout this period, making use of water power. Medieval water mills are first recorded in operation at Llanidloes and at Y Fan in the 1290s. Other, probably small mills are recorded here and elsewhere in the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Melin-y-wern on the Cerist at Y Fan, Y Felin Fawr on the Nant Melin (a tributary of the Clywedog) recorded in the 1670s, and Felin-newydd on the upper Clywedog in the 1790s. Some mills, such as Glan Clywedog Mill on the Clywedog just to the west of Llanidloes and Melin-y-wern appear to have been converted to woollen mills between the later 18th and earlier 19th century, though others such as Y Felin Fawr had already gone out of use by the later 19th century. Few visible archaeological remains of early corn milling survive within the area, the exception being Felin-newydd, abandoned some time between the late 1880s and the beginning of the 20th century, where visible remains of leats, millponds and mill stones still survive.

Stone quarrying

Small old stone quarries of later medieval to post-medieval date are to be seen scattered throughout the area, particularly in the area encircling Llanidloes. Though few of these are well dated, many no doubt belong to a distinct phase following the end of local vernacular timber-building traditions in about the middle of the 17th century and the widespread adoption of brick in the earlier 19th century when local stone was in widespread use for the construction of domestic buildings and farm outbuildings. Some quarries were evidently in use throughout the 19th century, however, for building material for mine buildings and also for field walls in some areas.

The woollen industry

From about the middle of the 16th century Montgomeryshire became one of the most important centres of the woven textile industry in Wales. Until the last decade or so of the 18th century it remained an essentially domestic industry, sheep wool being carded, spun and woven into cloth, particularly flannel, in perhaps a majority of farmhouses and cottages, especially during the winter months, and either sold at local markets or to wool traders.

From the end of the 18th century the industry became focused on the Montgomeryshire towns of Welshpool, Newtown and Llanidloes along the Severn, gradually transforming from a cottage-based industry to one that became increasingly industrialised and based upon large woollen mills which harnessed the power of the local rivers. A wide range of skilled workers were employed directly or indirectly by the industry including flannel drapers, wool carders, spinners, and fullers, fulling being the process of thickening and cleaning material which was locally accomplished by pounding the cloth in water-driven mills.

In the early years of the industry weaving was often carried out on hand looms in the homes of the workers and later on increasingly in open workshops on the upper floors of buildings, often with large windows to improve lighting, with living accommodation below. By the 1830s it has been estimated that there were numerous weaving workshops in the town, which together with other allied businesses employed upwards of 2,500 people. Llanidloes established its own flannel market in 1838, obviating the need to trade at the Newtown and Welshpool flannel markets. Poor working conditions and periodic depression in the industry, however, gave rise the Chartist riots in Llanidloes in 1839 which resulted in the imprisonment and in three instances the transportation of those held guilty of fomenting the disturbances, though the town continued to gain in prosperity largely because of the woollen industry.

The later, larger and more industrialized mills such as the Short Bridge Street Flannel Mill, Llanidloes Flannel Mill, Glan Clywedog Mill, Phoenix Mill and the Cambrian Mill, combined all the manufacturing processes under one roof, producing products such as flannels, tweeds and shawls. By the 1850s there were 9 such factories employing about 800 workers. The industry was still largely dependent upon water power and mills were mostly sited on the banks of the Severn and on the lower Clywedog west of Llanidloes, though with the coming of the railways and consequently the greater availability of coal from the late 1850s steam power became more economical and was introduced into several of the local mills, as at Spring Mill built in the 1870s.

The finished flannels were stretched out to dry on tenters close to the mills, which in the case of the Glynne Factory west of Llanidloes, as shown on contemporary maps and photographs, took the form of a wooden frames laid out along a series of six parallel tracks a furlong (220 yards) in length on the steeply sloping northern banks of the Clywedog.

By the 1860s the local woollen industry was already feeling the effects of competition from the mill towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire. By 1912-13 the woollen industry in the area finally came to an end. Some of the woollen mills were converted to other uses, such as Spring Mills which became a leatherworks, though many other mills failed to find alternative uses and have since been demolished. The surviving legacy is largely architectural, though there are now relatively few visual clues of the the importance of Llanidloes in the history of the woollen industry in mid Wales. The earlier domestic phases of the industry are represented at Highgate Terrace on Penygreen Road, where an open weaving loft survives. One of the surviving mills is the former Bridgend Mill near the Short Bridge across the Severn, the last of the Llanidloes mills to close.

Metal mining

An ancient iron bloomery site, possibly of medieval date, is known near the Nant Gwden stream to the south of Cwmbernant Farm. An iron mine is recorded in operation in the 1290s in the commote of Arwystli Uwchcoed, though its location is unknown. Small-scale industry was probably based on local deposits of sedimentary bog iron which were widely exploited in upland areas of Britain for the production of iron, probably in this instance deriving from the precipitation of iron from the local Silurian black shales which are rich in iron sulphide.

Mining for the production of lead as well as copper and zinc ores was a major industry, relict mining landscapes being a notable feature of parts of the Dylife, Hafren Forest, Banc y Groes, and Manledd historic landscape character areas. The remains illustrate a significant progression in both mining and processing technology from perhaps Roman and medieval times up to the early decades of the 20th century when the industry finally came to an end. Other minerals that were extracted included barytes, used as an inert and non-toxic filler for papers and paints, and calamine, use in the production of brass and skin lotions.

The mines are scattered and generally small but the area contains the largest single lead mine site in mid Wales, at Y Fan. The geographic distribution of mining remains in the area closely matches a number of rich mineral veins, giving rise to linear patterns of workings striking across the landscape with little or no regard for the local topography. One such band of workings runs across the open mountain for a kilometre and a half between Dyfngwm in the Clywedog valley to Dylife in the Twymyn valley. Another is the line of workings which extends for over seven kilometres from Gwestyn in the valley of the Nant Gwestyn to Cwmdylluan in the valley of the Nant Gwden via the mines at Bryntail, Penyclun and Van.

Some earlier workings are documented from about the mid 17th century when various leases were issued, though it seems likely that the industry had its origins in the Roman and medieval periods, though in many cases it is likely that early workings have been obscured by those that were extensively reworked at later periods. There is no explicit evidence of prehistoric mining activity in the area but Roman workings have been suggested by the presence of the Roman fortlet at Penycrocbren on Pen Dylife, which it has been suggested may have played a role in policing the local mining industry during the Roman period. There is likewise little certain evidence for mining during the medieval period, though it has been considered significant that a confirmation of the grant of the upland grange at Cwmbiga to the Cistercian abbey at Cwmhir in the 1198 contains the unusual phrase specifying that the grant applies to ‘all its uses and usages, above and below the same land’ (super eandem terram et subter) as well as the more usual rights to woodland, pasture and fishing, implying at least some knowledge of the local mineral wealth.

Mining technology remained little changed from Roman times until about the 17th century, and is generally characterized by numerous relatively small mining ventures, often of a seasonal nature, with relatively shallow workings due to flooding and the power needed to haul mined ore to the surface. Potentially early workings have been suggested in a number of areas, notably at Dylife, Pen Dylife, Dyfngwm and Gwestyn, on the basis of discarded stone mortars at Dyfngwm, narrow opencast workings known as open-cuts identified at Dylife, and by shallow shaft and mound workings of the kind visible on Pen Dylife and at Gwestyn. The possible use of hushing at Pen Dylife, a process involving the artificial channels dug on sloping ground to channel water collected in reservoirs to expose mineral veins in the underlying bedrock, may also indicate early workings.

Surface exposures of mineral veins would have been the first to be exploited and are likely to have become exhausted early on. The steeply dipping nature of the mineral veins in the area required the adoption of deeper and more sophisticated mining techniques locally, including the use of crosscuts (levels from a shaft to intersect with a mineral vein) and stopes (chambers dug above or below a level or crosscut to exploit a vein). One of the few mechanical innovations to be introduced before the Industrial Revolution was the use of the horse whim to raise and lower buckets in the shaft, sometimes recognisable as flat circular areas sometimes with an outer kerb, of which good examples of post-medieval date are known at Pen Dylife.

Further rapid advances in mining technology were made during the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, a period of considerable capital investment by individual speculators and mining companies. For a period in the 1870s the Van Mine was the world’s largest producer of lead ore, employing many hundreds of workers above and below ground. The harnessing of water power and the subsequent introduction of steam engines enabled mines to be dug to greater and greater depths by facilitating drainage and allowing ore to be hauled up from greater depths below ground. From the mid 18th century explosives became more commonly used and considerable improvements were also made to ore processing with the introduction of mechanisation, again by the exploiting water and steam power. Steam was more reliable but was costly to install and run given the distance from the coalfields, though it became more affordable with the coming of the railways. Water, by contrast, was readily available and relatively cheap to exploit and though unreliable during periods of drought it remained an important source of power until the decline of the mining industry in the area.

A vast range of distinct field monument types survive from this industrial period of activity. Mining setts may extend over many hectares and provide a detailed physical record of the extraction and processing techniques that were used. Deep shafts and adits were dug below ground and often connected by crosscuts, for removing ore, for drainage or for ventilation. Reservoirs and leat systems were constructed at various mine setts, including those at Dylife, Pen Dylife, Dyfngwm, Glyn, Gwestyn and Van to collect and distribute water to drive waterwheels used for winding, pumping and ore processing or in some instances to feed steam engines. Engine houses with attached boiler houses and chimneys were built, of which visible remains of one kind or another can be identified at the Pen Dylife, Penyclun, Aberdaunant, Glyn, Van, East Van, and Gwestyn mines. Tramways, tramway embankments, ore slides and inclines for transporting ore to processing areas survive at Dylife, Dyfngwm, Bryntail and Van. Different stages of processing and concentration of ores are well represented at a number of sites, including the remains of ore bins, crusher houses and associated wheelpits, platforms for jiggers, buddles, slime pits and waste tips at various of the mine sites. Early stamps mills are suspected at Dylife where hollowed mortar stones have been found at Esgairgaled. Investment was also made in the construction of various buildings including mine offices, stables, smithies and explosives magazines, of which there is surviving evidence at a number of mines, including Gwestyn, Bryntail, Aberdaunant and East Van.

Due largely to the shortage of local fuel, smelting was mostly carried out at distant smelteries. Concentrations of slag associated with Roman finds suggest that smelting was being undertaken at Caersws and Trefeglwys. During the 17th to mid 19th centuries processed ores were mostly taken westwards by horse-cart 20 kilometres or more over the hills by road to be loaded onto ships at Derwenlas on the estuary of the river Dyfi, to be carried by sea to smelteries at Bristol, Swansea, the Dee estuary and latterly to furnaces established in the Aberystwyth area. Some local smelteries were established, as for example at Penyclun in the 1850s, though it uncertain how successful this were. From the late 1850s ores from the eastern mines were carried to the railhead at Llanidloes, and from the early 1870 by means of the Van Railway. From 1862 ores from the western mines at Dylife and Dyfngwm were more economically carried northwards down the Twymyn valley to Llanbrynmair, to be put in wagons on the Newtown-Machynlleth railway.

Between 1870-78 the mines in the Dylife and Van area were producing many thousands of tons of processed lead ore each per year, but by the end of the 1870s lead production as in other parts of Wales fell dramatically, due to competition from elsewhere, resulting in the closure of many mines. Production in the area dropped to a fraction of its former level and the industry finally drew to a close locally in the 1920s and 1930s. With the introduction of more sophisticated processing equipment it sometimes become profitable to rework earlier spoil heaps for the recovery of metal ores, a process carried out at Dylife for example. The expansion of the paint and paper industries also made it worthwhile recovering barytes, as undertaken at Bryntail and at Penyclun, for example, in the 1930s.

Considerable quantities of sediments were carried downstream as a result of mining operations in the Clywedog valley area during the 18th and 19th centuries. Studies of floodplain sediments in the Severn valley at least as far downstream as Welshpool have shown that the metal content resulting from mining upstream can be used to establish the age of alluvial deposits during the historic period and assess rates of floodplain sedimentation.

Since the middle of the second half of the 20th century there has been a growing awareness not only of the significance of the metal mining remains in the industrial and social history of mid Wales but also the contamination caused by the waste heaps and tailings in some areas which have raised heavy metal levels in adjacent farmland and rivers, notably the Cerist and the Twymyn. This has resulted in some conflict of interests between the requirements of archaeological conservation on the one hand and pollution control on the other. Reclamation of derelict land and the making safe of extraction and processing remains have also been considerations. Nonetheless, in some cases, particularly early on, there has been the perception that important archaeological were destroyed without record.

The 18th and 19th-century mining settlements at Van and Dylife

Because of the often unpredictable and seasonal nature of early mining ventures in the mid Wales orefields, underground working, ore processing and the transporting of ores to distant smelteries were seen as occupations to be combined with agricultural work or work in other industries such as the woollen industry. It is clear from 19th-century census records for the area around the Van mine, for example, that miners either travelled to work from Llanidloes on a daily basis or were accommodated in farms in the surrounding area. Consequently early on there was little incentive for the creation of mining settlements. It was only during the later phases of the industry, during the 1870s and 1880s that some worker’s housing was provided. Van Terrace, a single row of about 18 simple two-storey dwellings, was built during period near the processing works and alongside the railway, forming the core of a small workers’ settlement which also included the mine manager’s and engineer’s houses, a shop, smithy, and Calvinistic Methodist and Wesleyan Methodist chapels. The bulk of the workforce, however, continued to be drawn from local farms and cottages, from Caersws and other stops along the Van Railway, and from Llanidloes.

A similar dispersed mining community at Dylife included the less formal row of about 20 miners’ cottages at Rhanc-y-mynydd (‘Mountain Rank’), each originally with their own small vegetable allotments on the northern bank of the Twymyn river. A shorter row of cottages at Bryn-goleu and a scatter of other houses or short rows were probably also related to the mining industry, all bleakly perched on the edge of the moorland. At one time the settlement also included Independent, Baptist and Calvinistic Methodist chapels, St David’s Church and vicarage, and school, which were all in existence by the 1850s, as well as a smithy and several inns. As in the case of Van, the bulk of the workforce continued to travel to the mine daily from more scattered farms and cottages. The collapse of the mining industry led to the gradual demise of the settlement, charted by the closure of the school in 1925, the disrepair of St David’s Church early in the 20th century and its eventual demolition of the church in 1962, and the recent conversion of two of the chapels to houses.

Elsewhere, there is some evidence for an industrial settlement pattern, with a surviving miner’s smallholding near Bryntail, and the remains of other small cottages in the area.

Roadside settlement at Staylittle

A dispersed settlement at Staylittle (Penffordd-Lâs) had emerged by at least the later 17th to early 18th century by virtue of its position beyond the deep gorge of the Clywedog, on ancient routeways roughly midway between Llanidloes, Machynlleth and Llanbrynmair, and close to the watershed between the Severn and Dyfi river systems. Its development was no doubt fostered by the fact that it occupied a kind of no-man’s-land on the edge of unenclosed common land close to the boundary between the ancient territorial division between Cydewain and Arwystli and parishes of Trefeglwys and Penegoes. In the early 18th-century the farm at Esgair-goch became an important focus of Quakerism in Montgomeryshire, with a Meeting House to which a burial ground, the Quakers’ Garden, was attached. By the early 19th century, as noted above, it lay on the turnpike road between Llanidloes and Machynlleth, which fostered the establishment of the former smithy and the roadside inn, the Stay-a-little. During the 19th century it became a significant rural centre of nonconformist worship for the local farming and mining communities. The Baptist Chapel, first built in 1805, was rebuilt in 1859. The Methodist chapel, formerly at Rock Villa, was established in 1806, and rebuilt in 1875. A new school was built which opened in the 1874. Rural depopulation resulting from the collapse of the mining industry and farm amalgamations during the 20th century led to the abandonment of farms, cottages and chapels, some of which have been renovated as second homes.

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