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Vale of Clwyd Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Vale of Clwyd


One of the principal characteristics of The Vale of Clwyd the quality of its farmland, a feature for which it has been famed since at least the 16th century. The present-day agricultural landscapes in the vale are the result of continuous and human activity since earliest times - the felling of native woodland, cultivation and stone clearance, drainage of the wetter ground and the enclosure of land with banks, hedges and walls - all undertaken with the intention exploiting of the wide range of resources stretching from the hilltop to the floor of the vale - the meadow land on the wetter, lower-lying ground on the floor of the valley, the pasture and arable on the more elevated ground towards the floor of the valley, and the moorland summer grazing on the hilltops.

The essential character of the modern landscape had undoubtedly already emerged by some time during the later 18th century, if not earlier, and can be clearly recognised in Sir Richard Colt Hoare's description at the very beginning of the 19th century.

This vale is reckoned the finest in the principality; by fineness is meant richness of soil and fertility . . . . The ground is generally cultivated as high as the sides of the mountains will admit; the country thickly dotted with gentlemen's seats, villages etc, etc and the whole well wooded

Colt Hoare, 6 June 1801

The general processes by which this landscape came into being can be appreciated, even though further work will be neede to provide a detailed landscape history of the vale and to establish the origins of individual farms or particular field systems. The nature of agricultural production has changed significantly over the course of time, which will by itself have had an impact on the appearance of the countryside. The production of wool became important during the medieval period, Ruthin becoming important cloth producing centre with its own guild of fullers and weavers. In the 18th century the vale became well known for the production of grain which was exported to other regions. Beef and dairy production became important during the 19th century, and at the present day the predominant land-use is pasture and fodder crops, with limited corn production.

Substantial areas of woodland evidently still existed in the vale during the medieval period, forests and reserved woodland belonging to the lordship of Ruthin being recorded in the area of Cae'r Fedwen, to the north of Llandyrnog, at Hirwaen, Coed Marchan, to the south of Ruthin, Eyarth and in the township of Llysfasi. Groves are recorded at Gellifor and between Rhydonen and Llanychan, to the east of Llanynys. Other areas of common woodland would also have been available and exploited as a source for building materials and fuel as well as a wide range of other purposes. Areas of native woodland will gradually have diminished on a piecemeal basis in line with increasing demands for timber and additional farmland, the distinctive strips of woodland and farmland in the southern part of the Eyarth character area appear to indicate the process of assarting.

Only a small proportion of the ancient woodland of the vale still survives to the present day, though a number of areas ancient or semi-natural woodland still survive on steeper ground, particularly on the sides of the hills on the southern and western sides of the vale, to the south of Ruthin, in the Chwiler and Clywedog valleys. Other smaller remants of ancient woodland undoubtedly survive as the lines of trees along many of the stream valleys and in a number of the more ancient hedges in the vale. Relatively little modern woodland has been planted in the vale, and is largely confined to a number of small areas of conifers on the eastern side of the Clwydians, to the south of Llanbedr and in the valley to the east of Llangwyfan, with a number of small deciduous plantations on wetter ground to the east of Llanrhaeadr and to the south of Lleweni.

Little is yet known about farming methods in the vale during the later prehistoric and Roman periods, though by the early medieval period systems of land-use had undoubtedly developed according to the Welsh systems of land tenure, by which a number of free or bonded households, perhaps each with their own gardens and paddocks, were grouped together around one or more relatively small areas of open field arable, divided into individually-owned cultivation strips. These tribal groupings, surrounded by areas of common meadow, pasture and woodland, would form the basis of the medieval townships into which each of the administrative units were divided, a number of the townships eventually having a church attached to them and becoming the focus of an ecclesiastical parish.

These earlier medieval patterns of settlement and land-use and now often difficult to identify in the landscape because of later changes, though areas of early open field arable can sometimes be identified from distinctive field patterns or place-name evidence. A clear example of this were the two large arable fields, known as Maes isa and Maes ucha, divided into individually owned strips or quillets which survived in the village of Llanynys until the early 1970s - the field-names denoting lower and upper open fields. Farmland would have been much more open, though ring-fences or hedges would have been erected around the open arable fields and common meadows and pasture in order to control stock at different times of year. In looking for similar evidence of medieval ploughlands elsewhere in The Vale of Clwyd it is significant that no trace of these quillets is not to be seen in the Llanynys historic landscape area apart from the field boundaries encircling the two large arable fields.

Disruptions to this pattern no doubt occurred in certain areas as a result of incursions by the English kingdom of Mercia from the 7th century AD and Anglo-Norman conquests in the late 11th and 12th centuries. The largest disturbances will no doubt have occurred as a result of the creation of the lordships of Denbigh and Ruthin in the later 13th century, the creation of new manors at Denbigh and Kilford, and the settlement of English immigrants within the new castle-boroughs and in the countryside around them. Consolidated blocks of land confiscated from indigenous family groups, resettled elsewhere, were awarded to English families, thereby ensuring that the administrative centre of each lordship was settled by families that were sympathetic to the new regime. Arable land around each borough was no doubt initially worked from properties within the towns, the location of town fields probably being represented in the concentric field pattern in the Felin-ysguboriau character area on the south-east side of Ruthin and in the radial field pattern in the Meusydd-brwyn character area to the north-east of Denbigh.

By the early 14th century this had resulted in the creation of a number of large estates in the Englishries on the more fertile land in and around the vale with indigenous forms of land tenure and land-use generally being restricted to the surrounding Welshries. Large estates in the vicinity of Denbigh were thus held by families such as the Duckworths, the Salusburys, the Pigots and the Pontefracts, and those around Ruthin by the Thelwalls, the Goodmans and the Alsbels, the name of the latter being preserved in the name Plās Ashpool, north of Llandyrnog. A number of these families, like the Salusburys of Lleweni and Bachymbyd and the Thelwalls of Plas-y-ward were to remain prominent until well into the 16th and 17th centuries.

As noted above, the Welsh tribal system was fast disappearing during the later 14th century, and between the 15th-17th centuries there was an increasing trend towards the amalgamation and consolidation of landholdings and the creation of individually owned or tenanted farms within their own ring-fences, together with a scattering of tenements and smallholdings, leading to the gradual disappearance of former open fields and the private enclosure of common grassland to create the large fields ideal for sheep grazing, to support the burgeoning local woollen industry. Significant land improvements were made during the second half of the 16th century, as in the case of the former medieval hunting park at Bathafarn, described as having formerly been 'overgrown with woods and thorns and some part of it was marshground so that no cattle in winter time could pasture there without danger of drowning'. Here, between the 1550s and 1590s, the Thelwalls were reported to have

not only erected and made fair buildings upon the said park . . . but also bestowed great changes in ditching and trenching the said marsh grounds and bogs whereby they converted the unprofitable woods growing upon the same they converted the same to be arable and meadow whereas before it was barren and unprofitable and divided the same in sundry parcels by ditching and quicksetting of the said several parcels

The distintive modern landscape of Bathafarn character area, composed of relatively large rectangular fields with robust hawthorn hedges and drainage ditches, laid out in a reasonably regular pattern, would therefore appear to date from about the middle of the 16th century. A similar pattern is also evident in the Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd character area immediately to the north. A number of other distinctive early field patterns are evident in The Vale of Clwyd whose dating has not yet been clearly established but which appear to have their origins in the period between perhaps the 16th century and the mid 18th century.

The distinctive grid of small to medium-sized fields, roads, footpaths and trackways in the Llandyrnog character area appears to have been well established before about the 18th century since the basic field pattern appears to be cut diagonally by a number of roads joining a later settlements such as Hendrerwydd and Gellifor. It therefore seems likely that the field pattern in this area represents a combination of the piecemeal enclosure of medieval open fields associated with a number of older medieval centres such as Llandyrnog, Llangwyfan, Llanychan and Llangynhafal, together with the early enclosure of areas of common grazing belonging to the townships in these parishes.

Distinctive patterns of strip fields in the Llandyrnog character area near Ffordd-las and in the Esgairlygain character area again appear to represent early private enclosure, possibly in the period between the early 17th and early 18th centuries. The 18th-century in particular witnessed an increase in the rate of enclosure and in some instances the subdivision of existing fields. Improvements in farming methods such as the development of selective animal breeding and the introduction of seed-drills and mechanised weeding sometimes increased the desirability of smaller fields. Larger fields formerly used for sheep grazing were sometimes subdivided into small arable fields, following the introduction of cotton weaving during the Industrial Revolution. Additional land was taken into cultivation because of increases in wheat prices in the later 18th century.

Characteristic patterns of small irregular fields on the slopes and valleys on the western side of the Clwydian hills, in the Tyddyn Ucha, Fron-gelyn, Rhiwbebyll and Coed Draw character areas for example, appear to represent the piecemeal woodland clearance and enclosure of improved pasture between the late medieval and early post-medieval periods, enclosure often extending to a distinct boundary defining the contemporary moorland edge and often running about along the 250m contour, and representing expansion away from the medieval centres of population and occasionally involving encroachment upon the upland commons. The resulting field patterns can be clearly distinguished from the early 19th-century Parliamentary enclosures, characterised by large rectangular fields in the Fron-heulog, Bryn-isaf, Fron-dyffryn character areas. Present-day field patterns in all the character areas had become fully established the middle of the 19th century and have remained fairly stable ever since, except for the loss of a proportion of field boundaries.

Most of the field boundaries in The Vale of Clwyd are formed by hedges. Preliminary studies suggest that the form and species content of these hedges probably have a considerable contribution to make to landscape history of the vale, since there are clear distinctions to be drawn between older and more mature hedges composed of up to six or seven different species and single species hedges belonging the Parliamentary enclosures of the early 19th-century, for example, which are generally only single species, normally hawthorn. The use of 'quicksetting' for the creation of new field boundaries at Bathafarn, noted above, between about 1550-90, indicates that hedges up to 400 years old may nonetheless still be composed of single-species. Mixed species hedges may either represent relict woodland, surrounding areas which have now been cleared, but might result from the deliberate plainting of mixed species hedges.

The juxtaposition of mixed and single species hedges in some areas suggests that they warrant further study. Roadside holly hedges are a characteristic feature of a number of a number of areas of The Vale of Clwyd, as for example in the Bachymbyd, Tyddyn Ucha, Llanrhaeadr, Hirwaen and Ystrad character areas. This may be due to the selective exploitation of different species of tree and shrub, but might represent deliberate planting: Plymley's General view of the agriculture of the county of Shropshire of 1803, for example, recommends holly as well as hawthorn and blackthorn as suitable hedging plants.

The form of the hedges is also likely to be significant. In some areas there are irregular and slightly wandering hedges which may, for example, represent scrub growth along previously unhedges boundaries later managed to form hedges. In most areas the hedges either occur in isolation or are only associated with low and relatively insignificant field banks. Exceptions to this are a number of hedges in more steeply sloping, marginal areas, such as Bachymbyd, Fron-dyffryn, and Fron-gelyn, where there are a number of larger banks, sometimes containing boulders, which appear to have been constructed during initial land clearance and improvement. In these and a number of other areas with steeply sloping ground, particularly on the sides of the vale, hedges overlie lynchets which have been created as a result of soil erosion, and showing that the extent of arable land was once much greater than it is today.

A majority of hedges are now cut low by machine, including a proportion which show evidence of having been laid traditionally in the past, the proportion of laid hedges now being very small. A significant proportion of hedges in some areas are now no longer fully maintained, having become overgrown or now represented by no more than an intermittent line of trees or shrubs. Once this has happened there is a tendency for the hedges to disappear altogether as older trees die and fail to be replaced. A number of new hedges have been planted in some areas, generally as part of grant-aided countryside stewardship schemes. In some areas the hedges have a relatively high proportion of tall, mature trees, giving a parkland quality to the landscape.

Drystone walling is only rarely used for field boundaries in The Vale of Clwyd, being largely confined to axial parish boundaries along the Clwydian hills, for example, or along the boundary between the enclosed land and the upland common in some areas. Drystone walling is used more frequently, however, for farmyard walls and along the roadside entrances to farms and at some field entrances, where a robust, stock-proof barrier is needed.

Stone gateposts, appearing either singly or in pairs, are characteristic of field and farm entrances in many character areas. They are made in a variety of different materials and styles, and probably largely dating from the 18th to the late 19th century. Forms include relatively slender, rectangular limestone pillars, flat slatey slabs with square or rounded tops, massive rectangular blocks, and carefully shaped pillars with shaped tops and rusticated sides. The field gateposts are normally only to be seen along public roads but are to be seen away from the roadside in some areas of former parkland or in areas near to former quarries. A more recent feature of the agricultural landscape are the modern but now disused milk stand to be seen at many farm entrances, built of brick, concrete, concrete blocks, or of wood.

Post and wire stock-proof fencing is fast becoming the most widely used type of boundary in The Vale of Clwyd, being either used in isolation or in addition or in replacement of hedges and drystone walls. In some areas post and wire fencing is used to subdivide otherwide large pasture fields into a number of smaller paddocks.

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