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Middle Usk Valley
Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Making of the Middle Usk Valley Landscape


Prehistoric and Roman settlement and land use

The earliest indications of human activity within the Middle Wye Valley historic landscape area are represented lithic implements found by chance in the peats below Llan-gors crannog. These belong to the Mesolithic period and probably represent one of a number of temporary camps used by hunter-gatherer groups moving along the Usk valley and up onto the surrounding hills on a seasonal basis. These finds from Llangorse Lake are probably an indication of it’s importance as a wildfowling and fishing resource from early times.

A general picture of the early land use is given by studies of sediments in Llangorse Lake which indicate a decrease in tree pollen and an increase in sedimentation during the period between about 3800–950 BC, suggesting a period of forest clearance and arable agriculture during the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods. Settlement sites of these periods are as yet undiscovered within the area but the existence of early communities of settled farmers is indicated by a scattering of characteristic burial and ritual monuments of these periods. The fact that the area has probably been farmed intensively since the later prehistoric period may explain why all traces of associated settlement sites have now disappeared from view. The Ty Illtud long barrow, between Llanhamlach and Pennorth, is one of a group of early Neolithic chambered long cairns which are known in and around the Breconshire Black Mountains. A number of round barrows of early Bronze Age date are known within the area and include a hilltop cairn on the summit of Allt yr Esgair and the prominent series of valley-bottom standing stones at Cradoc, Battle, Llanhamlach (Peterstone) and Gileston may also be of Bronze Age date.

The presence of the cluster of relatively large Iron Age hillforts, noted above, at Coed Fenni-fach, Pen-y-crug, Slwch Tump and Allt yr Esgair suggests that the area probably supported a substantial population by the later prehistoric period. No doubt much of the native broadleaved woodland still survived at this time, though a significant amount had probably already been felled and cleared for the creation of both pasture and arable land by pattern of as yet undiscovered dispersed farmsteads in the lower-lying areas around the hillforts. Indeed, it is likely that some of the irregular field patterns to be found within parts of the historic landscape area suggesting piecemeal woodland clearance and enclosure have their origin in the Bronze Age and Iron Age periods.

It is likely that the area most continued to be settled and farmed on a reasonably intensive scale throughout the Roman period even though relatively few habitation sites of this period have again yet been identified. A further substantial increase in the rate of sedimentation in Llangorse Lake suggests an intensification of arable agriculture and increased soil erosion in about the 3rd century AD, at least within the watershed of the river Llynfi, which probably mirrors the pattern of land use elsewhere. A nucleated civilian settlement sprang up in the shadow of the Roman fort at Brecon Gaer probably inhabited by merchants and artisans supplying goods and services to the military. This was probably a relatively short-lived settlement of the later 1st and 2nd centuries, however, and appears to have had little lasting impact upon the settlement and land use pattern of the area. The high-status Roman building complex at Maesderwen, near Llanfrynach, on the southern margin of the historic landscape area, may indicate the emergence of an aristocracy owning large landed estates in the area by the 3rd and 4th century AD, and it may possibly have been from within this milieu that the legendary king Teuderic emerged in the 5th century, as one who claimed descent from a Roman nobleman.

Early medieval and medieval settlement and land use

Farms and estates which had emerged during the course of the later Roman period most probably continued in production into the early medieval period, including the holdings and estates of the kings of Brycheiniog and his followers in the pre-Conquest period. The late 9th to early 10th-century royal palace on the crannog at Llangorse Lake is unique in Wales and atypical of other contemporary settlements in the area in the early medieval period: these were likewise probably of timber construction, but would have been encircled by fields rather than by water.

Little is yet generally known of the pattern of land use, landscape organisation or settlement in the period before the Anglo-Norman conquest in the late 11th century. As noted above, a pattern of churches had sprung up before the conquest period in the late 11th century, including the church at Llan-ddew and those at Llan-gors and Llanspyddid associated with inscribed or decorated stones of the 7th to 9th centuries. Other churches, such as Llanfrynach and Llanhamlach are associated with pre-Conquest inscribed or decorated stones of the 10th to 11th centuries. The origins of some medieval churches, such as Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn and Llanfaes, is less certain. Nucleated settlements are associated with a number of these churches, notably those at Llanfrynach, Llan-gors, Llanfihangel, Llanspyddid and Llan-ddew which had probably emerged as free or bonded settlements before the Norman conquest in the late 11th century. A number of these nucleated settlements, such as Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn, Llan-ddew and possibly Llanhamlach contracted in size as a result of rural depopulation during the post-medieval period, resulting in patterns of abandoned house platforms in some instances. The status of some other churches is less clear, such as that already mentioned at Llanhamlach, as well as those which may have originated in either the pre- or post-Conquest period at Aberyscir, Cathedine, Battle, and Llansantffraed. Today these churches are associated with little more than a single farm or a scattering of houses, which suggests that they may have originated as proprietary churches endowed by prominent landowners following the conquest, and set up next to their principal habitations — the predecessors of the present-day farms or gentry houses which lie next to the churches.

Following the Anglo-Norman conquest under Bernard de Neufmarché in the late 11th century substantial rural landholdings appear to have been granted to knights and other high-ranking individuals who had taken part in his expedition. These probably included estates confiscated from native princes and landowners within the native kingdom of Brycheiniog as well as those which may have been newly-established at this time, often occupying the richer lower-lying agricultural land in the Usk and Llynfi valleys. As noted above, Norman manors recorded within the historic landscape area include the following: Scethrog, granted to Sir Miles Picard, de Picardé or Pitcher; Llanhamlach and Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn granted to Sir John Walbeffe or Walbeoff; Aberyscir, granted to Sir Hugh Surdwal; Gileston (Gilestone), granted to Sir Giles Pierrepoint; Llansantffraed, granted to Walter de Cropus; and Llanspyddid, granted to Sir Richard de Boulogne, or Bullen, many of whom founded estates that were to survive into the modern period.

After the conquest Brecon became the administrative, religious and commercial focus of the region. The town appears to have been established here on the western bank of the Afon Honddu, possibly at some remove from earlier native royal centres. It lay adjacent to the earth and timber castle was probably established in the late 11th century or early 12th century by the Norman lord, Bernard de Newmarché, shortly after the conquest of the kingdom of Brycheiniog in 1093 and the Benedictine priory was founded before 1106. The settlement subsequently expanded along the banks of the river Usk to the east of the Honddu, being provided with town defences in perhaps the early to mid 13th century and receiving a series of charters from the later 13th. As noted above, it was designated as one of the four regional capitals of Wales by the Act of Union in 1536.

A number of the secular, early manorial centres, such Pencelli, Aberyscir, Llangasty Tal-y-llyn (Twmpan Motte) and Alexanderstone were associated with mottes or motte and bailey castles probably in the late 11th or 12th centuries, to which in some instances masonry keeps or defences were added possibly at a later date. The 16th-century defensive tower house at Scethrog, associated with the Picard family, may have replaced an earlier defensive structure. Ecclesiastical estates belonging to St David’s had been established at Llan-ddew by the 12th century, the manorial centre here being focused on the bishop’s palace which was also provided with masonry defences, probably in the 13th or 14th century. These episcopal holdings remained in the possession of St David’s until the Reformation in the 1530s. Brecon Priory also had substantial holdings in the area, which included the parish of Battle, which as noted above, was named after the priory’s mother church at Battle in Sussex. Just prior to the reformation St David’s holdings in the archdeaconry of Brecon and those of Brecon Priory were managed by a single steward, Thomas Harvard, who stood accused in 1531 of wrongfully appropriating revenues owed to the manor of Llan-ddew.

Systems of arable farming associated with a number of these secular and ecclesiastical manorial centres appear to have given rise to distinctive field patterns that are still evident in some areas at the present day. Characteristic patterns of strip-fields with hedged boundaries, representing the enclosure and amalgamation of medieval open-field furlongs are discernible, for example, near Llanspyddid, Aberyscir, Aberbrân, Llan-ddew, Alexanderstone, and Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn, in each case associated with relict ridge and furrow cultivation. Relict ridge and furrow of possible medieval open-field origin has also been identified at or near the centres at Pencelli, Llan-gors and Battle. Possible reorganised strip fields and ridge and furrow have also been identified on the eastern, northern and southern margins of the town of Brecon, including its southern suburb of Llanfaes, which may represent former medieval open-fields associated with the manor and town of Brecon itself. In some instances the Welsh place-name element maes, which occurs in the place-name Llanfaes, is thought to indicate former open-fields.

An indication of the impact of intensive agriculture in the later 12th century in the area appears to be given by the observation by Gerald of Wales in his Description of Wales that Llangorse Lake was sometimes tinged with red. This suggests that soil erosion was taking place at least within the watershed of the river Llynfi, presumably following ploughing or after woodland clearance. Suspended sediments of this kind are still carried into the lake by streams in winter and spring. Gerald’s observation that the lake was sometimes tinged with green suggests the formation of an algal bloom of the kind observed in recent years which has been viewed as a detrimental effect of modern agricultural practice resulting from the leaching of nitrates and phosphates. In a modern context high levels of both nitrate compounds and ammonia are often caused by intensive livestock production and it may have been this which was the cause of a similar phenomenon in the later 12th century.

The customary medieval patterns of tenure and land use based upon the manorial system and open-field cultivation probably began to break down and fragment during the course of the later 14th and 15th centuries, exacerbated by the plagues and other disasters that occurred during this period. The deaths of a significant proportion of tenants in areas such as the Watton are recorded in 1372, for example. The commutation of services to rents, the sale and dispersal of demesne holdings will have encouraged the establishment of individual freehold farms with perhaps a greater emphasis on grazing. As well as the attack on the town of Brecon during the Glyndŵr uprising in the early years of the 15th century many of the rural manors in the surrounding countryside were also devastated, it being recorded that in the area ‘The rebels purpose to burn and destroy . . . all pertaining to the English in these parts’.

More irregular field patterns elsewhere, often at some remove from these early manorial centres, appear to represent a process of piecemeal clearance and enclosure of farmland from prehistoric, Roman, and early medieval periods onwards, characterizing a more dispersed pattern of settlement associated with freehold or tenanted farms.

The river Usk and Llangorse Lake evidently provided an important source of nutrition from early times. Gerald of Wales in the 12th century noted that the lake was a source of pike, perch, tench and eels and that like the river Usk it was also a source of trout. Medieval ministers’ accounts make reference to parties of women from Llanfaes fishing in the lake with nets. These sources of fresh fish were also supplemented in the medieval period by artificial fishponds, such as those which are known from earthwork evidence to the west of Llan-ddew church, which no doubt supplied the kitchen of the bishops’ palace at Llan-ddew.

Post medieval and modern land use and settlement

The towns, villages and farms that had emerged in the area by the end of the medieval period continued to expand and develop during the post-medieval period.

Though subsequently eclipsed by the growth of the industrial towns and cities of south Wales, by the 16th century Brecon had emerged as one of the four regional capitals of Wales. It is clear that by the early 17th century the town was beginning to expand beyond the area defined by its medieval town walls, notably on the north, in the area of the Struet and Mount Street. Improvements in the turnpike roads from the later 18th century saw an expansion in commercial activity and the development of coaching inns. Early industry in and around the town, largely based on the use of water power provided by the Usk and Honddu, was fostered by the coming of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal at the very beginning of the 19th century and the opening of the Hay Tramroad by the end of the second decade of the century, giving rise to industries based upon the use of coal and limestone. The town underwent a further spurt of growth in both workers’ and artisans’ housing and in town houses of the gentry and merchants and by the early 19th century had seen the expansion of the suburbs of the Watton to the east and Llanfaes to the south-west, the population doubling in the period between 1801-51 to nearly 6,000. The town further developed with the coming of the railways in the later 19th century. During the course of the later 19th and 20th centuries the town has seen a considerable expansion in housing in the Pendre area to the north-west and in both housing and commercial developments in the Camden Road area to the east.

Several of the nucleated villages and hamlets in the area developed around earlier, medieval nucleated settlements or manorial centres, sometimes associated with a church or castle, whilst others appear to have simply grown up around a farmstead. Some of the latter may have become small estate centres, though despite the existence of several country houses in the area, their influence on the wider settlement pattern appears to have been patchy.

The small nucleated villages that had emerged during the medieval period, such as Llan-gors, Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn, Llan-ddew and Llanfrynach continued to develop during the post-medieval period and indeed the surviving architectural evidence for their development belongs very largely to later centuries. Llanfrynach is a particularly good example of a nucleated village with the church at its centre, alongside which Ty Mawr has been identified as a fortified later medieval manor house. The agricultural roots of the settlement are suggested by the presence of some good farm buildings, but a strong village character is lent by the unified terraces that front the main road through the settlement, opposite the church. Beyond this nucleus there is an interesting mix of more informally developed housing (a huddle of very modest houses), giving quite a social-economic depth to the historical settlement here, where modern development has been fitted in sympathetically. There is a marked distinction between the informality of settlement in many of the villages where the majority of smaller houses and cottages are located (see for example Llanfrynach and Battle), and the appearance of control exercised by larger landowners in the rural areas. There is no surviving evidence for squatting or encroachment, for example, not even associated with the small common at Llan-gors, though there may have been some roadside intakes on the road to the west of the village.

Some of the villages clearly grew up during the post-medieval period as farm-settlements, in which one or more farms form the nucleus for later growth. A good example of this is Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn, in which there is a good farm complex in the middle of the village, but which is mostly otherwise a settlement of late 19th to early 20th-century character, with the addition of a modern housing estate. Scethrog may be another example of this. The nucleation here, which includes the earlier 16th-century house at Hen Persondy and a number of 18th-century houses and barns at Neuadd and Scethrog Farm, lies to the north of an earlier focus at the Tower which was probably part of a 16th-century fortified tower house built by a branch of the Pichard family. Llanspyddid likewise appears to have been little more than a couple of farms with the church alongside the main road until it expanded when a housing estate was built further up the slope to the south in the 20th century. Troedyrharn and Alexanderstone to the east of Brecon both retain the character of farm settlements, in which farmhouses and their working ranges are accompanied by what were probably estate labourers’ cottages.

The historical development of the different villages and hamlets in the historic landscape area is reflected in the differing nature of the building pattern: thus the informal development of individual houses in Llanfrynach contrasts with the more organised process of terraced building in the same village, or at Talybont-on-Usk. Llan-gors and Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn also have a settlement pattern characterised as an agglomeration of individual buildings suggesting development over a period of time and by many different agents. The formally designed terraces at Cradoc and Tal-y-llyn by contrast, show the influence of a single controlling hand.

Several villages, such as Llan-ddew, Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn and possibly Llanhamlach, appear to have undergone a period of contraction in the later 19th century, possibly in response to farm mechanisation and the competing attractions for employment in the burgeoning industrial settlements of south Wales. This also affected a number of more dispersed rural habitations, as for example on the eastern slopes of Allt yr Esgair, south of Llangorse Lake. This process resulted in the abandonment of former house-platforms dating probably from the medieval period onwards that are visible in and around these settlements, though most villages have experienced a period of renewed growth and revitalisation during the later 20th and early 21st centuries, including the renovation of many of the existing buildings.

Outside the town of Brecon the settlement pattern is characterised by dispersed farms, the degree of dispersal and the dominance of quite substantial farmhouses with large associated buildings suggesting that individual holdings were relatively large. It is only on the upland edges of the area that this pattern gives way to one in which smaller farms are closer together. Generally, the dominant pattern indicates an origin in a pattern of landholding in which there were many, relatively prosperous, freeholders.

The 16th and 17th centuries onwards saw the formation of a number of landed estates which were to continue to have an influential and visible impact upon the landscape in terms of the enclosure and improvement of farmland and in the development of houses and tenanted farms. Some of these estates sprang from prominent families that had emerged during the medieval period, the earliest house at Abercynrig, for example, appears to have been built by the Aubrey family in the 13th century, a family which rose to prominence during the 16th century when the family estates were greatly enlarged by Dr William Aubrey, lawyer and MP. The Games family which produced a number of sheriffs of the county who owned properties at Aberbrân, Newton (near Brecon) and Buckland, traced their ancestry to Sir Dafydd Gam, knighted by Henry V at Agincourt in 1415.

The area to the west and south-west of Llangorse Lake displays evidence of early prosperity in a series of buildings with probable early origins. These include Ty Mawr, the former manor house replaced by Treberfydd as well as other buildings in the area with features indicative of an early date such as Llan farmhouse, and Neuadd Farm, where the 19th-century farmhouse nevertheless retains evidence for its predecessor, including a good corbelled gable-end chimney. Similarly, Trebinshwn is big enough to have the character of a small country house — its large complex of farm-buildings has partially been converted to domestic use; the main house is early 19th-century Georgian, but its symmetries have been planted on a 17th-century house.

The Watkin’s family of Penoyre held substantial properties in Brecon and the parishes to the north of the town, forming an estate which had its origins in the holdings of a 17th-century lawyer, Pennoyre Watkins. Other larger farms may have had early origins as estate-centres, such as Ty Mawr, Llangasty Tal-y-llyn, mentioned above, or Aber-Brân-fawr, the large farm that lies west of the road to Aberbrân on the north side of the A40. The latter is a particularly interesting and apparently an ancient farm complex with what appears to be a double farmhouse, perhaps grown from the hall and retainers’ wing of the original house. Some of these farms continued, or were later configured, as the nuclei of estates. As noted in the following section, considerable investment appears to have been made during the 19th century by a number of the estates as well as some individual landowners to improve their farms. There is a good illustration of this at Llanbrynean, just to the south of the village of Llanfrynach, where a characteristic 19th-century model farm still survives, with a large later 19th-century house facing out from an enclosed yard at the rear.

Major landowners in the 19th century were the Gwynne Holford family of Buckland Hall, lying just to the south-east of the area, whose land included many farms stretching from Llangorse Lake to Cathedine. Treberfydd is a good example of a small estate with associated parkland, the nucleus of the estate here having apparently shifted from the nearby Ty Mawr to this newly-built house in the 19th century. Estate patronage is exceptionally well illustrated here by the reconstruction of the church at Llangasty Tal-y-llyn in mid 19th-century Gothic revival, together with the contemporary rectory, and schoolhouse. The patron was Robert Raikes who came to Treberfydd to establish a centre of Tractarian worship. His architect was John Loughborough Pearson, the well-known Victorian church architect, who was responsible for all the buildings mentioned above, as well as the house itself. Its park was landscaped by the architect and designer W. E. Nesfield. There are also estate cottages in the immediate vicinity of the house, and the substantial farm complex of Treberfydd Farm. The farmhouse looks as if it was remodelled by the estate in the 19th-century but its plan form suggests early, possibly 16th-century origins. The farm buildings include a good cartshed range with cylindrical stone columns.

There are further examples of estate cottages and improved farms elsewhere, but nothing that could be described as an estate village. The small estate of Maesderwen, for example, lies just to the west of the village of Llanfrynach, but there is little overt estate character to the settlement. There are clear indications of estate influence on settlement at Battle, lying close to the large house of Penoyre (described by the diarist Francis Kilvert as having ‘only twenty-five bedrooms’) with gate lodges and other ancillary estate buildings (perhaps a laundry?) just to the east of the village, which was the focus of a large estate in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some cottages in the village have a strong estate character, but the village as a whole does not have any sense of a coherent plan and it may be that the estate was only one of a number of landowners here, imposing its own architectural style where it could, but in piecemeal fashion. The house at Penoyre itself had a chequered history, becoming a military hospital during the Second World War, and passing through various hands since 1939 when the estate was sold, becoming successively a school, a club house for Cradoc Golf Course established in the grounds of the house in about 1960, and since 1970 a nursing home, a hotel, a rehabilitation centre and again a nursing home.

A general resurgence in agricultural activity in the area during the post-medieval is suggested by the analysis of sediments in Llangorse Lake which indicate increases in the rate of sedimentation at about the beginning of the 19th century, probably in response to the cultivation of marginal hill-lands within the catchment area of the Llynfi. The land, most of which is enclosed, includes some of the best grade agricultural land in the county of Brecknock and appears to have been farmed quite intensively.

Various changes were being made to traditional farming methods to increase agricultural production from the second half of the 18th century, many of which were being actively promoted by the Brecknockshire Agricultural Society, founded in 1755, the earliest county organisation of this kind in Wales. In addition to improvements to crop and animal husbandry, a number of changes were being made which were to have a lasting impact upon the historic environment. Widescale improvements to land drainage were introduced in a number of areas. The improvement of soil fertility by the application of lime required the construction of limekilns. The investment in new farm buildings and improvements in provision for the housing and welfare of agricultural workers had impacts upon the built environment which are discussed below. Many changes were made to field boundaries in some areas. Former medieval open-fields were probably undergoing a process of enclosure from the end of the medieval period, resulting in distinctive field patterns visible near Llan-ddew and Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn, for example, with strip fields and dog-legged boundaries. A number of areas of formerly more extensive upland common were enclosed during the 18th and 19th centuries, as for example to the north of Brecon and to the north-west of Llangorse Lake. This resulted in the creation of distinctive, rectilinear field patterns in these areas and the fragmentary pattern of unenclosed commons which survive in the area today. Surviving from this process are the two remnant lowland commons between Llan-gors and Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn which between them cover over 20 hectares, and the small patch of common land of about a hectare in extent just to the west of Battle. A residual narrow strip of common land survives along the ridge of Allt yr Esgair along the course of an ancient trackway between Pennorth and Bwlch which is marked as a ‘Roman Road’ on some Ordnance Survey maps but which now seems unlikely to be of this date.

The developing transport infrastructure during the later 18th and 19th centuries was a significant element in the shaping of settlement patterns in this area, with a number of smaller settlements emerging at a number of the more significant road junctions as well as near the canal and near stations and halts on the tramways and railways whose histories are described more fully below. Tal-y-llyn grew up at a railway junction, for example, and the 19th-century growth of Pennorth is probably also accounted for by the railway. Houses here are dated 1868 and the chapel was rebuilt in 1893. The railway clearly also exerted an influence on Cradoc where there was formerly a railway station. The influence of roads is apparent, in for example the strung out settlement with early-mid 19th-century houses which follows the A40, at Llanhamlach.

The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal was particularly influential on the location of settlement in the late 18th to early 19th century. At Talybont-on-Usk, early settlement is represented by the substantial Maes Mawr Farm to the south-east, but the modern village largely owes its development to the canal, as suggested by the rows of cottages which are characteristic of this form of settlement. There is also some architectural detail in cottages to the north that may be indicative of the work of a landed estate. Talybont-on-Usk contrasts with Pencelli, where the houses in the village are clustered together along the road but with no semblance of a unified building campaign. They are of varied sizes and heights. Settlement here clearly had early origins associated with the castle, and there are some fine farm buildings suggesting that the nucleus of settlement in the 18th century was a farm village which expanded with the arrival of the canal. The later settlements at Cradoc and Groesffordd in particular underwent significant residential expansion during the second half of the 20th century, the latter in relation to a local authority housing scheme.

Some reorganisation of field boundaries was undertaken in conjunction with the development communications network, firstly with the turnpike road system in the later 18th century and later in response to the construction of the canal, tramroad and railway networks during the course of the 19th century. However, apart from the larger-scale reorganisation of field boundaries near Pennant, just to the west of Brecon, these changes were generally on a relatively modest scale, and the general pattern is one of these lines of communication overlying much earlier field systems.

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