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Middle Usk Valley
Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Making of the Middle Usk Valley Landscape


A number of different and generally small-scale extractive and processing industries characteristic of rural areas were active in area from at least the medieval period onwards, but though significant in local terms have had a fairly muted impact upon the historic landscape area as a whole.

Relatively small and isolated quarries for building material for houses, agricultural building and walling appeared throughout the area since medieval times and perhaps particularly during the period between the late 17th and 19th centuries, the principal material quarried being Old Red Sandstone either in the form of more amorphous red or brown blocks or more greenish-grey beds of more slabby stone. Some of the latter, which occurs as beds within the Old Red Sandstone, appears to have been suited for the production of split-stone roofing tiles which was used as a traditional building material in the area (perhaps initially limited to high-status buildings) until, as noted above, it’s use was supplanted by imported slate as the predominant roofing material during the course of the later 19th and earlier 20th centuries. A group of small abandoned quarries is to be seen, for example, in the area between Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn and Pennorth which were probably used for building materials. Quarries which supplied building works in Brecon are known in the Honddu valley, just to the north-east of the priory, and at Pennant, to the west of the town. Larger-scale stone quarries are also known along the Allt yr Esgair ridge, to the north of Talybont-on-Usk.

Limekilns, largely for the production of agricultural lime were set up and operating in the area in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly following the opening of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal at the beginning of the 19th century which readily transported both limestone and coal to feed the kilns. Kilns were constructed alongside the canal at the Watton, Brecon, and at Brynich and possibly Pencelli. An impressive bank of kilns survives at Talybont-on-Usk which were connected with the Brinore Tramroad.

Water power of the Usk and Llynfi and their tributary rivers and streams were harnessed from medieval times until the later 19th and early 20th century when they were gradually replaced by alternative and more reliable forms of energy which were less dependent upon seasonal fluctuation. Several early mills are known which exploited the flow of the Afon Honddu in Brecon including the corn mill known as the Watergate Mill, Castle Mill or Honddu Mill, near the confluence with the river Usk, where a mill was active from at least the later 14th century until the early 20th century. Further upstream, the Brecon woollen mill, a former fulling mill known as Burges Mill or Priory Mill, was in operation from at least the mid 17th century until again the earlier 20th century. Medieval mills are also recorded at Pencelli and the Watton, which went out of use in the early 15th century, possibly as a consequence of the devastation brought about by the Glyndŵr rebellion. Water corn mills which survive in varying states of preservation are known on the banks of the river Usk at Millbrook, north-west of Llanhamlach, on the Nant Cwy stream in the village of Llan-gors, on the Nant Brân stream at Aberbrân, on the Nant Menasgin stream at Pencelli, and on the Afon Cynrig, north-west of Llanfrynach, all of which were probably in use during at least the 18th and 19th centuries. A water mill on the Afon Llynfi is depicted on a 16th-century map of Llangorse Lake. Water-powered sawmills were in operation in Brecon in at least the later 19th century on the Afon Tarell near Pont a’r Darell, Llanfaes, and off Orchard Street, the Watton, adjacent to the canal and railway wharfs. Former saw pits dating from the 18th or 19th centuries are recorded at Llan-gors and Brecon. Each of the former water mills was associated with a variety of other structures including leats and millponds, some of which have either been filled in or still survive as distinctive landscape features.

Water power was also exploited at the iron furnace on the river Honddu at Forge Farm about a mile north of Brecon. The furnace built about 1720 and supplied with iron ore and limestone from Hirwaun and charcoal from the surrounding countryside was based on bloom methods. It remained in operation until about 1780, coming under increasing competition from ironworks in the Merthyr area from the middle of the 18th century using coke-fuelled blast furnaces.

Other relatively short-lived industries in the area include the brick and tile works exploiting deposits of glacially-derived clay were in operation in the 19th century to the north of Brecon on the southern flanks of Pen-y-crug and at Tairderwen where complexes with the remains of kilns and clay pits are still visible. These works probably supplied the growing town of Brecon with locally-produced ceramic building materials until the impact of competition with more cheaply produced goods from elsewhere was felt as a result of the coming of the railways in the last decades of the 19th century.

Other characteristic small rural industries included village smithies at centres such as Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn, Talybont-on-Usk, Llan-gors and Cross Oak in the 19th century but most probably of earlier origin. Brecon was provided with a slaughterhouse and a tannery, off Bridge Street. The former Brecon Brewery operated from premises in The Struet, Brecon in the early to mid 19th century and a malthouse of this period was in use at Abercynrig, just to the south-east of the town.

Town gas for lighting was introduced into Brecon in the late 19th century with the establishment of the former gasworks just off Charles Street, initially using coal supplies transported by canal and stored in three gasometers, which remained in production into the first half of the 20th century.

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