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Elan Valley
Historic Landscape
Gazetteer of

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Elan Valley


The place-names of the Elan Valley area provide a record of an oral tradition that developed over the course of many generations and provide evidence of the ways in which the landscape of the Elan valley was perceived and exploited by those who drew their living from it, complementing evidence from other sources. In the 1860s and 1870s Cwmteuddwr was the only parish in Radnorshire where Welsh was still commonly spoken and by the 1880s it was the only parish where it was actually still spoken. Consequently most early names are in Welsh, though some appear in anglicized forms. The most consistent record of names is that given on the larger-scale Ordnance Survey maps published in the later 19th century but many of the names are likely to have originated much earlier. The names are particularly significant for the mountainous parts of the area, especially since here as elsewhere in Wales the place-names often include early descriptive elements. It was in the valleys and on the valley edges that most people lived, and it is here that many of the names of farms and tenements first appear in written leases, wills and transactions from about the mid 16th century onwards, though some at least were probably much earlier. See the gazetteer for place-names within the study area.

Because of the particular topography of Elenydd, place-name elements distinguishing ridges (esgair, rhestr, trum/drum, cefn, crib) and slopes and ascents (llethr, rhiw, llechwedd, allt and lan) are particularly common, though the common terms fan ‘peak’, bryn ‘hill’, moel/foel, moelfryn ‘bald hill’, and mynydd ‘mountain’ also appear. The terms for hills and ridges appear to be some extent interchangeable, though drum tends to be reserved for the higher hilltops, over 500m, with the other terms generally below 500m, esgair being often used for the ridges between stream valleys and cefn for more extensive flatter upland areas. Terms for slopes likewise appear to be interchangeable, though lethr and rhiw tend to be used for the higher slopes whereas allt and lan tend to be more frequently applied to the lower slopes, below 400m around the margins of the uplands. Terms used to describe discrete eminences include talcen ‘forehead’, pentanau, ‘nobs’, clap ‘lump’, clapiau ‘lumps’s’, cnapiau ‘knobs’, cnwch (cnwc), ‘hillock’, uchelfa ‘high place, copa ‘summit’, crug ‘hillock, heap’, banc ‘bank, hillock’, talar ‘headland’, and more poetically, llofft ‘loft’, castell ‘castle’ and disgwylfa ‘lookout’. The frequent rock outcrops on the sides of steep-sided valleys are called carreg/cerrig ‘stone’, craig and creigiau ‘rock, crag’. Hollows are often indicated by the term pwll.

The broader river valleys are often referred to by the term cwm, several of the narrower stream valleys on the upland edge being distinguished by the terms ceunant or dyfnant ‘ravine’. Some of the shallower upland valleys bear the place-name elements pant ‘valley, dent’ and bwlch ‘pass, gap’, the heads of a number of the upland streams being called blaen ‘point, end, summit, source’.

Major rivers such as the Elan, Claerwen and Ystwyth are distinguished by the term afon, the term aber ‘confluence, mouth’ being restricted to the confluence of the Elan with a number of the major streams feeding it, including the Claerwen, the Afon Gwngu and the Nant Hirin. The majority of streams and brooks are called nant, of which almost 200 are named within the study area, the plural neint ‘streams’ being used for an area with many small streams near the head of the Ystwyth, though several smaller streams have the element ffos or ffrwd. The area includes numerous small waterfalls though none are called pistyll, possibly since they are so common, though the place-name Cwm Pistyll occurs in a single instance, and there is a single occurrence of the terms sgwd ‘flow, fall’. Ffynnon ‘spring, well’ is a surprisingly rare place-name element in the area, and the two named springs Ffynnon Fyw and Fynnon Mary both lie on the southern edge of the Elenydd, in the community of Llanafan Fawr. The small upland lakes and associated topographical features of Elenydd are invariably carry the place-name element llyn, as does the small lowland lake called Gwynllyn to the north-west of Rhayader. The confluence of the Elan and Wye south of Rhayader is known as Llyn Aberdeuddwr.

These topographical features are described by a wide range of descriptive terms including anatomical terms such as safn ‘mouth’, braich ‘arm, spur’, bron/fron ‘breast of hill’, troed ‘foot’ and gwar ‘neck’. Colour attributions are common and include coch/cochion ‘red’, wen/gwyn ‘white’, gwinau ‘auburn, brown’, rhudd ‘red’, llwyd/lwyd/llwydion ‘grey, brown’, melyn ‘yellow’, du/ddu/duon ‘black, gloomy’, and glas/las ‘green, blue’. The colour attributions tend to have reasonably distinct altitudinal ranges, du/ddu/duon tending to be above a height of 500m above sea level, llwyd/lwyd/llwydion and glas/las tending to be above a height of 400m, and coch/cochion, gwen/gwyn, and melyn all tending to be above 300m and below 400m. Relative positions and sized tend to follow the same place-name formulae found elsewhere in Wales, including ucha/uchaf ‘upper’, canol/ganol ‘middle’, isaf ‘lower’, ochr ‘side, limit, border’, perfedd ‘middle’, dan ‘under’, traws ‘across’, pen ‘top’, mawr/fawr ‘big’, bach/fach ‘small’ and bychannau/bychan, ‘little’.

A number of widely-separated place-names are repeated, as in the case of Llethr Melyn which appears twice, Banc Du which appears three times, and Lan Wen which appears four times, though it is perhaps significant that there is little duplication in the naming of streams which tend to provide of a framework for the naming of places throughout much of the area. In other instances closely-grouped names appear in pairs distinguished by colour or hue such as wen ‘white, du ‘black’ as in the case of Afon Claerwen (claer ‘clear, bright’ and wen ‘white’) and Afon Claerddu (ddu ‘black’) or size (bach ‘small’, mawr ‘big’) as in the case of Chawel Bach and Chwarel Mawr. The pairing of hill and stream names is frequent (eg Nant Cormwg and Esgair Cormwg), the sharing of place-names being extended in many instances to other neighbouring topographical to provide a word map of the moorland extending, probably originating as a device to distinguish between discrete unenclosed upland grazing areas up to between 0.5 to 3 kilometres across. The root name is often a stream or river, the means by which the moorland is often approached. The names Afon Gwngu, Abergwngu, Llyn Gwngu, Llethr Gwngu and Blaen Gwngu which define an area about 3 kilometres across near the headwaters of the river Elan. Nant Egnant, Cae Blaenegnant, Bryn Llyn Egnant, and Bryn Caeblaenegnant likewise define an area of upland about 1.5 kilometres across to the west of the Claerwen reservoir. Occasionally, the area names are derived from a particular settlement, as in the case of Treheslog, Creigiau Treheslog and Banc Treheslog, and even upon a colour, as in the case of Creigiau duon, Banc du, Chwarel du and Lan du, which are all to be found within a kilometre of each other.

The condition of the terrain is described by a wide variety of adjectives and nouns which generally emphasise the harshness of the landscape or its degree of exposure to the elements, such as gwyllt ‘wild’, llaith ‘damp’, sych ‘dry’, dyrys ‘difficult’, caled ‘hard’, garw ‘harsh, extreme, coarse’, chwefrin/chwefri, ‘wild’, wynt/gwynt, ‘wind’, eira ‘snow’. The terms melys ‘sweet’ and paradwys ‘paradise’, tawell ‘peaceful’, clyd ‘sheltered’ are less frequent and generally restricted to more sheltered locations, especially on south-facing slopes.

The shapes of the landforms are described by a wide range of terms, including cadenu ‘shaggy’, crychion/crych, ‘wrinkled’, cwta ‘short’, hir ‘long’, pica/bica ‘pointed’, crwn ‘stocky’, lled ‘wide’, cam ‘bent, crooked’.

The names of areas of semi-natural and natural broadleaved woodland together with a number of conifer plantations include the term coed ‘wood’, though this is infrequently used as a place-name element elsewhere, as are llwyn ‘grove, bush’, perth ‘bush, hedge’ and gelli/celli, ‘grove’. The most common tree species name to be mentioned is bedwen/fedwen, (plural bedw) ‘silver birch’ and there are only rare occurrences of onnen ‘ash’, derwen, (plural derw/dderw) ‘oak’, helyg ‘willow’, gelynnen/celyn, ‘holly’, and afallen ‘apple’, the latter predictably only occurring in a lowland context west of Rhayader. Other infrequent references to vegetation include draen ‘thorn’, eithinog ‘gorsey’, cors and mign (in the form figyn/fign) ‘bog’, hesgog/hesg, ‘sedges’, and brwyn ‘rushes’.

Several of animal names occur, particularly in upland areas, including the domesticated animals gaseg/caseg, ‘mare’, march ‘horse’, geifr/geifre, ‘flock of goats’, defaid ‘sheep’, ci ‘dog’, gwartheg ‘cattle’, anner ‘heifer’, ych ‘ox’, moch ‘pig’, hwch ‘sow’. These may provide an indication of the former land use but may alternatively have been used as terms to describe topographical features. Generally, however, the occurrences are so infrequent that few meaningful conclusions can be drawn. Bird names such as aderyn ‘bird’, cywion ‘chickens’, ceiliog ‘cock’, twrci ‘turkey’? (perhaps a corruption of dwrgi ‘otter’), gigfran/cigfran, ‘raven’, gwalch ‘hawk’ likewise only occur infrequently. The names of a number of wild animals also appear. The name of the river Elan, first recorded in the 12th century, is thought to derived from the Welsh elain ‘hind’, to describe the leaping and rushing character of the river before the construction of the reservoir. Other place-names in the area include the elements bwch ‘buck’ and carw ‘deer, stag’.

Historic land use and settlement information is provided by a number of place-names with significantly discrete distributions in a number of instances. Dol ‘meadow’ occurs as an element in a number of place-names on land below 300m in the lower Elan and Claerwen valleys and in the lowlands west of Rhayader, in areas where historically hay meadows are likely to have been created. Upland grazing, by contrast, is indicated by a widespread scatter of place-names with the element waun/gwaun ‘meadow, moor’ which are generally to be found on all but the highest ground, generally within the unenclosed moorland between 400–500m. Rhos ‘moorland’, probably also often indicating upland summer pasture, is represented by a smaller number of names with a similar altitudinal range, but reaching down to between 300–400m in the Elan valley itself, and sometime either within or close to the margins of the enclosed land. The distribution of both waun and rhos names, like that of encroachments are restricted to the more accessible areas of upland grazing on Elenydd. They are rarely found in the remote uplands in the south-eastern part of the area, suggesting that they relate to particular phase of settlement and land use history. The place-name element ffridd ‘mountain pasture, enclosed mountain pasture’ is notably absent from the area, suggesting either that its place is locally taken by another terms or that the particular traditional land use system which the term applies to elsewhere in upland Wales was locally less well developed.

Other place-name elements indicating fields, including cae, maes and erw are very infrequent in the area and appear in both upland and lowland locations. Crops are only rarely mentioned and include haidd ‘barley’ and gwair ‘hay’ both of which are included as elements in place-names around the fringes of the lower-lying ground, at heights of between about 300-400m.

Clearance and enclosure is indicated by several names. Llanerch/llannerch, ‘glade, clearing’ is represented by a number of place-names generally associated with dispersed settlements and generally confined to the now enclosed land in the lower Elan and Claerwen valleys. The terms garth ‘enclosure, garden, hill, ridge’, corlan ‘fold, pen’ fuches ‘herd, fold’, camlas ‘ditch’, clawdd, (plural cloddiau) ‘ditch, barrier’ also occur but are generally too infrequent for any positive conclusions to be drawn, except that as in the case of waun and rhos names, few of these forms are found in the remote uplands in the south-western part of the area. Magwyr (as in the stream name Nant y Fagwyr) may represent ‘wall, enclosure’ or more simply ‘rocky place’.

A number of significant place-names relate to the settlement history of the area which similarly tend to avoid the remote uplands in the south-western part of the area. Tyddyn ‘smallholding’, invariably contracted to ty’n, is often associated with existing dwellings within the enclosed land on the valley edge, generally at a height of between about 200-300m. By contrast, lluest ‘booth’ and less frequently hafod ‘summer house’, caban ‘hut, booth’, by contrast occupy somewhat higher ground above or just above the enclosed land, often at a height of 300-400m. The element hafod occurs much less frequently than in some other areas of Wales, suggesting that locally it is replaced by lluest. Both terms probably indicate seasonally occupied habitations, some of which have remained as permanently occupied farmsteads. The element bod ‘dwelling’, as in Bodtalog, is found in several upland valleys. The less specific place-name element ty ‘house’ occupies a fairly broad altitudinal range extending from valley bottom up onto the higher moors where its occurrence in place-names such as Esgair-y-ty may relate to former seasonal settlements. Higher status settlement place-name elements such as cwrt ‘court’ and neuadd ‘hall’ are infrequent and are predictably confined to the lower lying ground west of Rhayader.

Ownership or an association with individuals is represented by a relatively small number of place-names. Several personal names appears, as for example Dafydd-shon, Iago, Ifan, Ifor, Owen, Madog, Mair and Mary, Siencyn, and Steffan, and in other rare instances denoting associations with people with particular occupations or positions in society appear, such as esgob ‘bishop’, mynach ‘monk’, gweis/gweision ‘servant’, offeiriad ‘priest’, rhingyll ‘bailiff’, though in the case of gwyddel ‘Irishman’ and bleiddiad ‘warrior’ the association is probably legendary. A ridge on the southern part of the moor to the north of Rhos Saith-main is called Rhiw Saeson (‘English ridge’). The elements esgob and mynach are both confined to the lower-lying ground in the lower Claerwen valley and the lowland to the east of Elan Village and are related to the Cistercian grange which existed in this area before the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Supernatural associations are implied by a mere handful of place-names, with the elements diawl ‘devil’ and cawr ‘giant’. Two terms indicating boundaries, gororion ‘border’ and ffin ‘boundary’ both lie in the western part of the boundary, on the county boundary between Radnorshire and Ceredigion.

A number of antiquities are individually named which include a number prehistoric burial cairns with the place-name element carn (Carn Nant-y-ffald, Carn Wen, Carn Ricet, and Carn Pant Maenllwyd) and several standing stones with the element maen (Maengwyngweddw, Maen Serth, Maen Cam, and Saith-maen) which mostly lie above 400m and probably represent ancient patterns of land use, though in some other instances both of these place-name elements may refer to natural outcrops of rock. The date of most of the names given to antiquities is uncertain, but folklore attached to the cairn known as Carn Gafallt, on the hill to the south-east of Elan Village, is mentioned as one of the Mirabilia Britanniae (‘Marvels of Britain’) appended to the mid 10th-century compilation known as the Historia Brittonum, attributed to the 8th-century Welsh writer Nennius, which provides an early source for the Arthurian legend. In translation, the relevant passage is as follows:

‘There is another wonder in the region called Buelt [Builth]. There is a heap of stones, and one stone laid on the heap having upon it the footmark of a dog. When he hunted the swine Troynt, Cabal, which was a dog of the warrior Arthur, impressed the stone with the print of his foot, and Arthur afterwards collected a heap of stones beneath the stone in which was the print of his dog’s foot, and it is called Carn Cabal [Carn Gafallt]. And people come and take away the stone in their hands for the space of a day and a night, and on the next day it is found on its heap.’

The hunting of the ferocious wild boar Troynt, in this instance known as Twrch Trwyth, also appears in the 11th-century tale of Culhwch and Olwen which appears in the collection of medieval Welsh tales known as the Mabinogion.

Former quarries and mines are indicated in several instances by mwyn ‘ore, mine’, plwm ‘lead’, chwarel ‘quarry’, and gwaith ‘works’, the latter occurring near a known mining site. Other naturally-occurring resources which are possibly indicated by place-names include gro ‘gravel’.

Lines of communication including the roads and tracks and associated structures which cross the mountain are referred to by common terms such as sarn ‘road’, ffordd ‘way’, croes ‘cross, crossroads’, pont/bont ‘bridge’, and llidiart ‘gate’.

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