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Elan Valley
Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Elan Valley


Little is known of the area during the later Roman and early medieval periods, though it is to be supposed that it much of it was claimed as part of the grazing lands of the emerging communities encircling Elenydd.

The Cistercian Grange

By the late 12th century practically the entire area formed part of the lands granted to the Cistercian abbey of Strata Florida by The Lord Rhys. Most of the historic landscape area falls within the Cwmteuddwr grange, the western part of the area falling within the Cwmystwyth grange to the north-west and the Pennardd grange to the south-east. Although few contemporary records survive there is some evidence which suggests how these monastic granges were managed in the Middle Ages.

As in the case of other similar Cistercian estates, grange centres were established in the most favoured areas for demesne cultivation or grazing by the abbey itself. Two such granges were established within the Cwmteuddwr grange, one in the area known as Llanmadog, now in the vicinity of the Elan Valley Hotel, with a subsidiary centre at Nannerth in a small valley bordering the river Wye just over 5 kilometres to the north. There are no surviving standing buildings associated with either centre, though the site of the grange chapel, Capel Madog (‘Madog’s chapel’), is known, in a field opposite the Elan Valley Hotel. Some remains of the building were still visible in the early 19th century, the architect Stephen Williams being instrumental in causing the track of the Elan Valley Railway to be slightly diverted to avoid it in the later 19th century. Other local place-names which suggest associations with the monastic grange include Nant Madog (‘Madog’s stream’), Llanmadog (Madog’s ‘enclosure’ or ‘church’), and Coed-y-mynach (‘monks’ wood), the name of woodland and a farm about a kilometre to the north. The section of valley in which Elan Village lies, about half a kilometre to the south-west is known as Cwm yr Esgob (‘bishop’s valley’) which also appears significant. Other names in the area which indicate an association with the former grange are Dol-y-mynach (‘monks’ meadow’) and Craig y Mynach (‘monks’ crag’), places which lie close to each other in the Claerwen valley, near Llannerch-y-cawr. Two other names which may possibly have early ecclesiastical associations include Nant Offeiriad ‘priest’s stream’, a tributary of the Nant Cletwr, to the west of Craig Goch, and Nant Rhingyll (‘steward/bailiff’s stream’) to the east of Garreg-ddu reservoir.

The principal resource of these monastic lands was undoubtedly based on the extensive upland pastures upon which cattle and, increasingly, large flocks of sheep were grazed, both by the monastic granges themselves and by those with holdings within its boundaries. As in the time before they were bequeathed to the abbey, the greater part of the income derived is likely to have been derived from customary rents and dues by those with holdings in the area, though because of the nature of the estate the returns from this source were probably relatively low. The greater part of their wealth was probably derived from the wool trade, the monks of Strata Florida being granted a licence by the Crown in 1200 to export their wool free of duty to France and Flanders. The grange centres were ideally placed to manage the flocks of sheep brought down from the eastern side of Elenydd: Llanmadog straddles the principal valley on the eastern side of the uplands, and Nannerth sited on one of the principal stream valleys, the significantly named Nant y Sarn, which gives direct access to the northern areas of the moor from the Wye valley.

It is probable that some crops were grown on cultivated demesne lands at the Llanfadog grange centre and there seems a possibility that the regular field system along the north bank of the river Elan between Coed-y-mynach farm and Noyadd owes its origin either directly or indirectly to the medieval monastic grange. Low ridge and furrow has been noted in the fields opposite the Elan Valley Hotel which may possibly be of medieval date. Other holdings within the grange boundary, especially within the valleys and on the lower-lying ground bordering the Elan and Wye, are likely to have had cultivated fields.

Other resources in the locality available to the grange would have included the oak woodlands which must have once bordered the river valleys, supplying both fuel and building materials, and fish from the rivers and from the upland pools on Elenydd. Both Llyn Teifi and Llyn Fyrddon Fawr supplied eels and trout to the monastery.

Most of the other Cistercian granges in Wales were managed by lay stewards. At the time of the dissolution of Strata Florida abbey in 1539, the Cwmteuddwr grange was unusual in being managed by a monk-bailiff. A further unusual arrangement, evidently current in Cwmteuddwr in the earlier 19th century, which it has been suggested might have had its origin in monastic practice, was the custom of landlords within the parish in effect renting out their flocks on a yearly basis to the tenants living on their land. The rigour with which the monastic lands in Cwmteuddwr were managed at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries is brought into question, however, by John Leland’s observation about Elenydd in the later 1530s that ‘everi man there about puttith in bestes, as many a they wylle, without paying of mony’.

The Break-up of the Monastic Grange

The grange remained in the hands of Strata Florida abbey until its dissolution in 1539 in the reign of Henry VIII, when the crown took possession of all the estates belonging to it. The lands remained in the possession of the crown for a number of years, being leased by various parties until the manor was acquired by Sir James Croft of Croft Castle and Thomas Wigmore of Shobdon, who then proceeded to resell it in lots. Much can be learnt from the extent of the monastic holdings, the tenements already in existence and the nature of their economy from the various deeds and leases relating to the splitting up of the estate in the later 16th century. Some of these documents refer back to tenancy arrangements made by the abbot of Strata Florida in the first decade of the 16th century.

Encroachments on the Elenydd Moorland

Several of the isolated encroachments on the Elenydd moorland were probably also already in existence by the 16th century, a number having possibly originated a matter of centuries earlier. Today, these encroachments are represented by islands of enclosed fields within the moorland between about 3 and 35 hectares in extent. They are confined to the more accessible and agriculturally more favourable parts of the moorland, on the fringes of the moor or within easy access of the Elan and Claerwen valleys, generally on the sheltered south or east-facing slopes of stream valleys. Established in the first instance with or without the authority of manorial courts, these kinds of encroachments on the common were often regularised by the imposition of annual fines which became converted into rents or sometimes into freehold tenure.

Many of these upland settlements possibly originated in the medieval period as a temporary summerhouse (hafod), occupied between about May and August or September, in order to exploit upland pastures at some distance from the home farm. Some were later to become permanently occupied farmsteads, of which a proportion have survived to the present day.

The names of a number of the encroachments on Elenydd include the significant element lluest, which locally appears to take the place of hafod to describe an impermanent dwelling of some kind. Two neighbouring and now abandoned farmsteads on the uplands to the west of Graig Goch reservoir, for example, are called Lluest-aber-caethon and Lluest-Calettwr, named after the streams that they lie next to. Several other upland farms are named more simply after streams or rivers, such as Aberglanhirin, Abergwngu and Claerwen. The place-name element hafod does occur, as in Cwm yr Hafod (‘hafod valley’) and Esgairhafod (‘hafod ridge’), signifying topographical features associated with hafodydd. Other upland habitations are suggested by the place-name element ty (‘house’), as for example in the names Esgair y Ty and Gwar-y-ty.

CPAT PHOTO 03-c-0675

Aerial view of the stone enclosures and derelict house site in the Rhiwnant valley, south of the Claerwen. Photo: CPAT 03-c-0675.
The named encroachments and upland farms tend to be those which were still inhabited when the first accurate maps of the area were produced in the later 19th century. There is a range of archaeological evidence that there were many more hafodydd and other similar habitations that were abandoned before the first detailed maps of the area were produced. Few if any of these sites and their form and dating is often obscure since in some instances the site of earlier structures have been superimposed by later buildings. The earliest buildings of this period on Elenydd appear to be represented by a number of rectangular platforms, set at right-angles to the slope, where timber buildings were erected. In some instances, as in the case of a platform on Craig y Lluest, traces of drystone walling are visible which seem to represent low sill walls on which timber structures of this kind were built.

A number of hafodydd on Elenydd are first documented in the 16th century, but may have originated much earlier. Typical of the leases of this period was one in 1579 for the tenement and lands of Come Coill [Cwm Coel, now on the western edge of the Garreg-ddu reservoir] which was let for keeping 40 cattle and 100 sheep. The ancient custom of moving to temporary summer homes in the uplands during the summer months to take advantage of the upland pastures is referred to in a lease drawn up in 1585 for ‘a messuage or tenement called Y Brith come [cwm] Ycha, together with one somer house, called Y Clettwr mawr, sometime parcel’, evidently referring to a lower-lying permanent house in the valley of Nant Brithgwm, on the west side of Penygarreg reservoir and a summer house probably to be identified with the ruined upland farm at Lluest-Calettwr, in the hills about 3 kilometres to the north-west, near the head of the Nant Cletwr stream. In the later 1530s John Leland records that near the Claerddu stream, at the head of the Claerwen valley, he saw ‘two veri poore cottagis for somer dayres [summer dairies]’, yet to be identified, which no doubt produced dairy products that were marketed in the surrounding villages.

Late Medieval and Early Post-medieval Farmsteads

Many early timber buildings are likely to have disappeared without trace, though the history of the former farmhouse at Ciloerwynt (Cilewent) may be typical of many of the smaller later medieval smallholdings in the area. The house lay within an encroachment in the Claerwen valley first recorded in a document of 1568 in which the owner is styled ‘yeoman’ farmer. The original house (moved to the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans in 1955 and replaced by a new bungalow) perhaps began life as a cruck-built single-bay hall which has been shown by tree-ring dating to have been built in about 1476, though it is uncertain whether the original outer walls were of timber or stone. The later form of the building, with a lintel dated 1734, took the form of a single-storey longhouse with a living-room and fireplace at one end and with accommodation for cattle, calves and horses at the other, perhaps mirroring the form of the 15th-century building.

Stone was probably becoming a more common building material from the later 16th century onwards. Other stone-built upland longhouses appear to have been built during the later 16th to earlier 18th centuries, again with living rooms at one end and with accommodation for animals at the other, a number of which, such as Bryn Melys, Lluest-fach (Llwst-fach), Penglaneinon, continued in habitation until the later 19th and earlier 20th centuries when they were abandoned. Writing in 1880, the Reverend R. W. Banks made the following perceptive comments:

‘the site of the old enclosure, as the names show, was generally selected by the side of one of the brooks, which run from the higher ground, and feed the rivers of the district, with a view to turn out a flock of sheep on the soundest portion of the extensive pasturages which the wastes afford, and at the same time obtain shelter from the steep hill sides. Rude, yet substantial dwellings, constructed of the large schistous flagstones of the district, with a chimney shaft of some pretensions . . . still in many instances remain, and wear the appearance of buildings which may have existed in the sixteenth century.’

Like Ciloerwynt, many of the lowland farms and smallholdings and the fields surrounding them which are shown on maps of the later 19th century were clearly already in existence by the later 15th century and early 16th century. The subsequent 18th- and 19th-century country house at Nantgwyllt in the Claerwen valley, for example, is first recorded as a tenement of ‘Y nauntgwyllt’ in a lease of 1568, its name taken from the adjacent stream. Mention being made of four neighbouring farms in the valley and in a deed of 10 October 1579 by which the then owners of the Grange of Cwmteuddwr, Sir James Croft and Thomas Wigmore esquire, granted to Howell ap John ap Howell, gentleman, for £110 the yearly rent of 6s 8d ‘Aber Nant Guilth’ (Nantgwyllt), ‘Aber Elan’ (Aber Elan), ‘Pen Glan Eignon’ (Penglaneinon) and ‘y Kayhayth’ (Cae-haidd).

CPAT PHOTO 1538.20

Stone longhouse at Llannerch-y-cawr in the Claerwen valley. Photo: CPAT 1538.20.

The surviving longhouse at Llannerch-y-cawr in the Claerwen valley, now owned by the Elan Valley Trust, may be typical of the more substantial lowland farms of the later 15th and 16th centuries belonging to an emerging late-medieval gentry class. This stone-built longhouse was remodelled in the 17th century and later centuries from a late 15th- to early 16th-century timber cruck-built two-bay hall with a central open hearth and wooden outer walls built on a platform up and down the slope of the hill. One of the most distinctive features of the longhouse was the juxtaposition of living rooms at the upper end and cattle byre or cow-house at the lower end, typical of the later medieval and early post-medieval cattle farms in the area. A smaller, single-bay hall, of similar type is known at Nannerth-ganol in the Wye valley, just outside the historic landscape area, which has a tree-ring date of 1555/56. The farmhouse, again with a byre at one end, is probably more characteristic of the smaller tenanted farms in the area from the later 15th and 16th centuries. Other farmsteads that take this linear form are Nannerth Ffwrdd (just outside the historic landscape area) and at Ty’n y waun, west of Rhayader. The small farm at Cnwch, south of Caban-coch dam, may represent another typical layout, probably of later origin, in which small buildings are grouped informally around a yard.

Growth of Landed Estates in the Early Post-medieval Period

The break-up of the monastic grange in the later 16th century gave rise to a number of the landed estates that were to dominate the history of the area in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1579/80 the Howells of Nantgwyllt were acquiring land locally including ‘Groy gwonyon’ (Gro Hill lies on the eastern side of the valley), and ‘talke y rose y gelyne’ (Rhosygelynnen lies to the west) probably representing enclosed hill land within a kilometre of Nantgwyllt, on the margins of the moor. In 1581 he was disposing of Aber Elan and Penglaneinon, though in 1585 he was acquiring land further afield including ‘Dolfola’ (Dol-falau, a farm 2.8 kilometres away in the Elan valley, now submerged below the Garreg-ddu reservoir) and ‘Blaenllyngwynllyn’ (a farm near Gwynllyn, about 7 kilometres to the north-east), much of the land here and elsewhere tenanted to other farmers. By the time of his death in 1597 he was a substantial owner of land and mills in Radnorshire and north Breconshire, with a dozen farms in Llanafan Fawr, ten in Llanwrthwl in Breconshire, over twenty properties in Cwmteuddwr. His marwnad (‘elergy’) was sung by the prolific poet and genealogist Lewys Dwnn. His elder son became High Sheriff of Radnorshire. Much of his wealth was derived from his herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, the commercial value of the latter principally based on wool, horses and some grain. His descendant, Howell Powell, was styled ‘Gentleman, of Nantgwyllt’ in the 1670s.

Population Growth During the 16th and 17th Centuries

The local population continued to expand during the 16th century and 17th centuries. New tenements continued to be created from the moorland well into the 17th century, if not later. In 1674, for example, a grant was given for ‘that new cottage in Clarwen [Claerwen], then lately built . . . upon Y Eskyrne y Guion [?Esgair y Guon, not closely located], being a common or waste within the lordship of the Grange, with all inclosures thereto, and with liberty to inclose on the same common, not exceeding sixteen acres’. Despite this, however, the nature of the agricultural economy of the area which had emerged in the later medieval period was probably to remain little changed until the middle of the 18th century. In contrast with the houses of the gentry, however, many households probably survived at little more than subsistence level. Taxation records known as the Lay Subsidy assessment for ‘Comelan’ (Cwm Elan) in 1544 suggests about taxable 21 households, though there were other poorer ones which were not assessed. Twice this number of households are listed in the district of ‘Diffrin Ellin’ (Dyffyn Elan) in Hearth Tax return of 1670, the average number of hearths per household suggesting that it was one of the least prosperous areas of a county which was already poorly off in comparison with its neighbours.

Peat Cutting and Other Common Rights

The 16th- and 17th-century farms and tenements of Elenydd and the Elan valley will have had common rights probably of great antiquity deriving from the Cwmteuddwr grange and the ancient manor of Builth. These will have included grazing rights for sheep, cattle, ponies, and rights for the digging of peat (turbary) and for taking wood for fuel or building repairs (estovers). The date at which the cutting of peat on the moorland commenced is uncertain, but it is likely that it only came into its own as a source of domestic fuel once sources of readily available wood had become exhausted. Evidence for peat cutting is widespread on Elenydd, as for example on Gwar y Ty on the northern side of the moor, on Waun Lydan, to the south of the Claerwen, and between Allt Goch and Y Gamriw, to the east of Caban-coch reservoir, and can often be most clearly identified by aerial reconnaissance. Artificial platforms on which peat may have been dried have been detected by fieldwork in some instances, including ones on Rhos Saeth-maen. It was often the more accessible and consequently often the shallower peat deposits that were exploited in order to lessen the burden of carrying it away from the hill. 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. Crossing the moor by way of the turnpike from Rhayader to Aberystwyth in about 1820 the scientist Michael Faraday noted the presence of ‘a turfcutter or a peat digger here and there drew the eye for want of a better object’. Jonathan Williams, writing in the decade before noted that the hills in the parish of Cwmteuddwr

‘contain turbaries which supply the neighbourhood with the most excellent peat. This kind of fuel when dried by the joint action of the sun and the wind becomes a black and hard substance, make a cheerful fire, reflects great head, and is little inferior to coal. A peat pit is three feet deep and more, and often contains branches and trunks of trees’.

Peat cutting had all but come to an end during the second half of the 19th century, locally coming into direct competition with the coal from depots at Rhayader following the opening of the Mid-Wales Railway in 1864.

Corn Mills, Fulling Mills and Saw Mills and Corn-drying Kilns

Locally produced grain, wool and timber is likely to have been processed locally up to about the end of the 17th century, all based upon water power. One of the earliest references to the local corn is in a lease of the farm at Ciloerwynt, in the Claerwen valley, made in 1569. According to the custom of the times, the tenant of Ciloerwynt was required to take any corn he had grown to be ground at his landlord’s mill.

The site of this mill is uncertain, but it may have been the same mill in Cwmteuddwr mentioned as belonging to the Howell family of Nantgwyllt in 1597. This may have been on the site of the former corn watermill known at Melin Gwynllyn, now known as Upper Mill, on Nant Gwynllyn stream, to the north-west of Rhayader, which appears to have been in operation from before 1670 up to about 1900, when it consisted of a three-storey timber structure. Melin Gwynllyn operated as a woollen mill, first mentioned in 1710. Another woollen mill is represented by the converted mill building known as Walk Mill, just down stream, about which little has been written. A further woollen mill, a stone-built structure known as Fron Factory, for carding or fulling, was in operation about half a kilometre upstream until about 1840. Ttraces of its leat are still visible.

A second corn watermill known as Gro Mill, belonging to the Nantgwyllt estate, was in operation from at least 1806 until the time it was flooded by the rising waters of the Caban-coch reservoir in 1892. The mill was sited just below the confluence of the Elan and Claerwen rivers, and took its power from a leat drawn from the river Elan to the south of Cwm Elan house. At one period the a corn-drying kiln was attached to the mill, which also operated as a saw mill.

The sawmill complex until recently run by the Elan Valley estate on the western edge of the Caban-coch reservoir, alongside the Nantgwyllt stream and just to the south of the former Nantgwyllt house dates from about the 1920s and includes a complex of timber-framed, brick and corrugated buildings, and includes the remains of a tracked lifting crane, now unused.

Local corn-drying kilns are suggested by place-name evidence were evidently in use by at least the 17th century though no surviving structures have been identified. A late 17th-century deed relating to Rhydoldog, for example, mentions ‘Kaer odin’, a field-name derived from the Welsh cae’r odin (kiln field), which probably refers to a corn-drying kiln.

Earlier Stone Quarries

Small stone quarries are to be seen here and there, particularly around the fringes of the Elenydd uplands as for example near Rhydoldog, on Tremblyd and on the hills above Llannerch-y-cawr which were most probably in use from the later 16th century onwards for the construction of stone buildings and walls. The small quarry at Waun Geufron possibly may have supplied material for the Rhayader to Aberystwyth turnpike road. Other larger quarries at Cigfran and Cnwch, opened for the construction of the reservoirs are mentioned below.

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