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Middle Usk Valley
Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Making of the Middle Usk Valley Landscape


There are several seemingly early farmhouses scattered across the area, where 16th-century origins are suspected. There are also fragments of even earlier domestic buildings such as Ty Mawr, Llanfrynach and the bishops’ palace at Llan-ddew. Thereafter, most architectural periods seem to be represented, and there is no sense of one period dominating building development. This relatively long chronological span, and perhaps also the land-ownership pattern in the area, has militated against the emergence of a strong vernacular style, though the dominant plan-type was that in which the chimney backed onto the entry (Peter Smith’s plan-type B). There is however, a strong coherence in the use of building materials — the locally obtained red sandstone predominates, with the introduction of brick only after the arrival of the railways in the second half of the 19th century. Earlier traditions of working in timber can certainly be identified in the area, as for example at Gilfach, Llan-gors, but have left little trace in the external character of its building stock.

There is also a clear social hierarchy in building, with a series of small country seats at the top of the range; most farms are also quite large, and have the character of gentry farms. Some of these have associated cottages, though the smaller dwellings of this kind, most of which are unlikely to be earlier than about 1800, generally seem to be gathered into the villages. This may be the result of a rationalisation of settlement in the 19th century, but whatever its origins, it is a strong feature of this area. This hierarchy is reflected in a range of architectural languages, since some of the small country houses belong to ‘polite’ architectural traditions, rather than the vernacular. Some of them were designed by the leading architects of their day. Examples of these polite houses are Scethrog House (late 17th century), Peterstone Court, Maesderwen (an early 19th-century Doric villa outside Llanfrynach), Aberyscir Court (1837), Penoyre (1848, by the architect Anthony Salvin), and the remarkable complex of buildings by the architect J. L. Pearson at Treberfydd. The transition from vernacular to polite traditions is neatly illustrated by the house at Trebinshwn, where the original house of about 1630 was comprehensively re-fronted in 1805.

Red sandstone predominates, but there are variations in both its colouration and its handling. In some instances it is finished almost as ashlar, elsewhere is rubble. The use of lime-wash and render also contributes significantly to the character of settlements but its traditional use in the area appears to be diminishing. The influence of the railways is clear in the introduction of imported, manufactured materials. The railway settlements of Tal-y-llyn and Pennorth for example make extensive use of brick and especially a yellow brick of uncertain provenance, typically used for string-courses and window and door openings. For roofing, there remain a few examples of split-stone roofs traditionally used in the area, but imported slate from north Wales now predominates.

Field evidence suggests a vigorous campaign of farm improvement from about 1800. Whereas farmhouses have a range of dates from the 16th-century onwards, and a corresponding range of architectural form, there is a much greater coherence amongst the stock of farm buildings, because of their much more restricted chronology. Most of the examples seen seem to be early 19th-century or later. There are large numbers of well-planned farmyards that look to be the result of improved agricultural practices and considerable investment. Examples include the model farm outside Llanfrynach mentioned above, and Aber-Brân-fach Farm and Pool Farm, both near Aberbrân, where the house is built as part of the farm ranges, though the latter have been converted. Troedyrharn, Alexanderstone, Wern and Manest Court also have fine, large courtyard ranges. Dominant buildings tend to be the barns, though the farms were clearly mixed, with good ranges for housing stock as well. Other characteristic building types are open-fronted shelter or cart sheds (sometimes with cylindrical stone pillars supporting the roof), and there are also examples of open hay barns, whilst there are granaries at Ty Mawr, Llangasty Tal-y-llyn. An unusual example of a possible hay barn at Aberyscir uses wrought iron in the roof trusses; its association with the large house suggests considerable investment.

The buildings of the town of Brecon provide a valuable record of its long history of prosperity, fulfilling its roles as county town, agricultural centre, and garrison town. The centre of Brecon has preserved its character remarkably well, the medieval layout of its main streets, recognisable in Speed’s map of 1610, being still easily recognisable today. Amongst domestic buildings there is very little which is obviously medieval though there are a number of important early post-medieval survivals. Buckingham Place was originally a 16th century house with detached kitchen or solar; the 2 parts were linked in the early 18th century. Church House in Lion Street is a late 16th- or early 17th-century L-plan house, refronted in the 18th century. Just outside the western limits of the town stands Newton House built around 1582 by John Games, High Sheriff of Breconshire. Possibly the earliest double-pile plan house in Wales, and four storeys high, the house has interiors which include a great hall with screen and fireplace with heraldic relief. Upper rooms with relief plasterwork including Tudor roses and fleur-de-lys. The typical sub-medieval building type in Brecon was the so-called ‘three-quarter house’ consisting of side and rear walls of stone with a timber-framed front. Most obvious of these is 20 Ship Street, dating to the mid 17th-century, which retains its timber front. Most houses of this type were re-fronted in the late 18th century or early 19th century, however, of which the Sarah Siddons’ public house in High Street Inferior is one of many examples.

Town houses of the 18th century and early 19th century belonging to gentry or prosperous tradesmen survive in remarkable numbers, especially in Lion Street, The Struet and Glamorgan Street. No. 4 Lion Street is rare in using exposed brick and follows fashionable plans from the English Midlands. Cantre Selyf, also in Lion Street, with 17th-century origins, has enriched plaster ceilings and fine stair. In Glamorgan Street, Havard House, again with 17th-century origins, has remarkable interiors including panelling and stair. Hamilton House, in The Struet, has fine Regency interiors.

As a county town Brecon provided space for balls and theatrical performances. Above Nos 29 and 30 High Street Superior the former great room of the Bell Inn survives where the actress Sarah Siddons performed. To the rear of a furniture shop in The Watton, a purpose-built theatre survives, which has unfortunately been stripped out. The importance of the town as a retail centre is shown by fine 18th- or 19th-century shop fronts at 20 High Street Inferior, for example, and especially 46 High Street Inferior with classical detailing worthy of Bath. Amongst public buildings, the present Brecknock Museum, built as the Shire Hall around 1840, by the architects T. H. Wyatt and David Brandon, is one of the best Greek Revival buildings in Wales, and housed courts which partially survive. The present Guild Hall is a late 19th-century remodelling of a building of 1770, formerly with open arcading on the ground floor for market use.

The Plough Chapel in Lion Street has a good late 19th-century interior. The church of St Michael (by the Victorian architect and inventor Joseph Aloysius Hansom) of 1851 is early in date for a Roman Catholic church in rural Wales, and the great Spanish soprano Adelina Patti was married here in 1899. Outside the historic centre, the main road out of Brecon to the east, the Watton, was largely developed in the early to mid 19th century, with regular terraces of houses in late Georgian style. The front wall of the barracks with its keep of the 1870s hides excellent buildings of the 1840s arranged around a parade ground. The former cavalry barracks with lantern are particularly impressive. The red brick buildings on the west side date from around 1805, however.

The part of the present day town across the river Usk was formed the separate parish of Llanfaes. Brecon spread across the bridge and there are good late 18th- to early 19th-century houses near the bridge. The church of St David’s was rebuilt in 1859, and again in 1923-35. Also here Christ College incorporates remains of the medieval friary of St Nicholas. The choir the medieval chapel remains, as do the 13th-century infirmary and guest hall. The whole was restored in the mid 19th century by architects Pritchard and Seddon, and their School House (1861) is a fine Gothic Revival building in its own right. Brecon Congregational Memorial College, now converted into flats, was designed by the architect Thomas Thomas in an Elizabethan Renaissance style and built as a theological college between 1867-69 on a prominent hillside location on the eastern side of the town. The new building, with Bath stone dressings, and has been described in the following terms: ‘a pleasing structure of native stone, harmonizing well with the unpretentiously beautiful Brecknockshire landscape and exhibiting in its simplified, angular and sober version of the Gothic idiom some of the virtues and idiosyncrasies of Welsh Puritanism’.

The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal came at the very end of the 18th century, but very little survives apart a weigh office and bridges. One of the canal bridges on the eastern outskirts of the town has an extra arch through which the Hay Tramroad ran. The steam railway came in the 1860s and vanished a century later but has left few traces apart from the abutment to a viaduct which crossed the Honddu (in the Postern), and the name Viaduct House of a building in the Struet.

The relative lack of Victorian and Edwardian houses suggests a period of slow down in the town’s economy, although there are some attractive Edwardian villas to the north of the old railway line. As already mentioned, the overall ‘Georgian’ character of the town masks earlier origins for many of the buildings, and some residents have objected to the local authority’s enhancements to its Georgian character. Major developments such as the Bethel Square shopping centre have generally been handled well. The inner relief road built in the early years of the 21st century has meant the loss of listed buildings. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the loss of character to the less important, but typical smaller houses lining the approaches to the town by replacement glazing and roofing in the approaches to Brecon.

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