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Elan Valley
Historic Landscape
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Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Elan Valley: Elenydd
Llanwrthwl, Rhayader, Llanafanfawr, Treflys, Llanwrtyd Wells, Llangurig Communities, Powys and Ysbyty Ystwyth, Pontarfynach and Ystrad Fflur Communities, Ceredigion
(HLCA 1136)

CPAT PHOTO 03-c-0653

Extensive, unenclosed moorland with small upland lakes, peat bogs, prehistoric funerary and ritual monuments and small and dispersed medieval to early post-medieval encroachments.

Historic background and key historic landscape characteristics

Extensive upland common forming the central portion of the Cambrian Mountains, dissected by the Elan and Claerwen river valleys. To the south are extensive upland plateaus at heights of between 400–500 metres, with peaks such as Drum yr Eira, Drygarn Fawr and Pen y Gorllwyn reaching over 600 metres, from which both Cardigan Bay and the Brecon Beacons are visible on a clear day. The western part of the moor, between the Elan and Claerwen, again has extensive plateaus with somewhat lower peaks such as Bryn Garw, Trumau and Graig Dyfnant just over 500 metres high. The eastern part of the moor, overlooking the Wye valley is generally lower though with a few peaks such as Moelfryn and Crugyn Ci of over 500 metres.

During the last Ice Age, between about 70,000 and 12,000 years ago, the area became submerged beneath a glacial ice sheet which had a considerable impact upon the present-day topography. Distinctive features of this period of glaciation are the smoothed and flattened upland plateaus, steep-sided, U-shaped glaciated valleys, morainic deposits, and hillside terraces and platforms where glacial meltwater has cut through the layers of stone debris deposited by glacial action. Glacial action disrupted the flow of the river Ystwyth which originally fed a lake in the area of Gors Lwyd, in the watershed between the Ystwyth and Elan, which in turn fed the river Elan, a tributary of the river Wye. Present-day vegetation is predominantly grassy heathland with heather, bilberry and gorse and with extensive blanket bogs dominated by sphagnum, cotton grasses and heathers with bog pools and larger clear-water lakes such as Llyn Gynon, Llyn Fyrddon Fawr and Llyn Fyrddon Fach, especially in the northern and western areas of the moor, which have formed since the last glaciation. Pollen analysis of peat deposits on Elenydd has shown that the broadleaved woodland that had become established on the upland plateaus of Elenydd in the post-glacial period began to be affected by human activity during the earlier prehistoric period, woodland clearance and climatic change giving rise at high altitude to the onset of blanket peat formation. Continued woodland clearance for cultivation and for the creation of upland pastures appears to have continued from the later prehistoric to the medieval periods.

Physical evidence of prehistoric activity in the Elenydd uplands is largely limited to stone burial cairns, standing stones, stone alignments and stone circles which crown many of the peaks and ridges and are possibly to be associated with the exploitation of upland pastures in the period between about 3500 and 1500 BC. Clusters of upland sites such as those on Carnau Cefn-y-ffordd, Drygarn Fawr, Darren and Bryn. may represent ceremonial foci within the landscape, and may possibly representing the activities of different family or tribal groupings. Settlement and cultivation on Elenydd in the later prehistoric to early medieval periods may be represented by a number of early huts and stone clearance cairns. The period of the Roman conquest of Wales in the late 1st century is represented by the military Roman ‘marching camp’ discovered on Esgair Perfedd.

By the late 12th century most of the area fell within the Cwmteuddwr grange granted to the Cistercian abbey of Strata Florida. The principal resource derived from the extensive upland pastures upon which cattle and, increasingly, large flocks of sheep were grazed, most of the income from the grange probably arising from customary rents and dues from those with holdings in the area rather than by direct exploitation by the abbey itself. Upland pools on Elenydd also supplied eels and trout to the monastery.

Small, scattered encroachments represented by a habitation attached to a several isolated fields had probably come into existence well before the dissolution of Strata Florida abbey in 1539, often sited on the sheltered south or east-facing slopes of stream valleys, many of which probably originated as seasonally-occupied farmsteads, enabling the exploitation of upland pastures at some distance from home during the summer months of which a number probably became established as permanently-occupied farms in the later medieval period. The isolated farmstead at Ciloerwynt (Cilewent) in the upper Claerwen valley, for example, began life as a cruck-built single-bay hall which has been shown to date to about 1476. Stone cottages, farmhouses and outbuildings were built at a number of these isolated upland farmsteads in the later 16th to 18th centuries, though many of these were subsequently abandoned during the 19th and earlier 20th centuries. Stone sheepfolds, sheep shelters and shepherd’s huts are to be seen across the moorland, often now in a ruinous condition, many perhaps dating from the 16th to early 19th centuries.

Further agricultural innovations that may have been introduced to the area by go-ahead farmers and landowners in the late 18th and early 19th centuries intent on enhancing their revenue from the land are the groups of artificial rabbit warrens or ‘pillow mounds’ such as those on Esgair y Ty and near Glanhirin and Aberglanhirin farms. Areas of ridge and furrow cultivation in these areas as well as near Lluest-pen-rhiw and on the slopes of Moelfryn and Cefn Cwm, for example, may also represent a relatively short-lived experimentation with upland cultivation at this period.

Peat cutting for domestic fuel was amongst the common rights exercised on the moorland in former times but perhaps only being undertaken on a significant scale in the later medieval and post-medieval periods once suitable sources of firewood had become exhausted. Evidence is widespread and can be seen, for example, on Gwar y Ty, Waun Lydan, Allt Goch and Y Gamriw. Possible peat-drying platforms have been identified in a number of places, including Rhos Saeth-maen. In some areas it is evident that each farm or a group of neighbouring farms had its own turbary, approached by trackway, which must have been used over the course of many years. The area is crossed by other ancient trackways and by drovers’ roads, in their heyday in the later 18th and earlier 19th centuries for transporting cattle on the hoof from west Wales to markets in the English Midlands.

The opening up of the metal mines on the moorland edge in the late 18th and earlier 19th centuries, to the west of the Elan valley and the south of the Claerwen valleys, depended upon the harnessing of water power from the moorland, and involved the digging of a leat which carried water for nine miles from Llyn Cerrig-llwydion on the western side of the Elenydd moorland to the Cwm Elan mine, just to the west of Garreg-ddu reservoir.


Banks 1880; Caseldine 1990; Countryside Commission; Drake 2000; Flemming-Williams & Myhill 2003; Jones & Smith 1963; Moore-Colyer 2001, 2002; Moore & Chater 1969a, 1969b; Wiliam 1992; D. H. Williams 1990, 2001; J. Williams 1905; Wiltshire & Moore 1983; Regional Sites and Monuments Record.

For further information please contact the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust at this address, or link to the Countryside Council for Wales' web site at

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