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Vale of Clwyd Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Vale of Clwyd


The earliest evidence of human settlement activity in The Vale of Clwyd in the post-glacial period is represented by Mesolithic flint tools found during excavations at Tandderwen, near Kilford Farm, near the confluence of the Afon Ystrad and Afon Clwyd, perhaps dating to the 5th millennium BC. The site lies on the gravel delta which formed where the Ystrad ran into Lake Clwyd, a former lake formed from the glacial meltwaters which dammed up against the ice and moraines nearer the mouth of the valley. It is uncertain how long the lake survived, before becoming infilled with sediment, but there is a possibility that this evidence of human activity represents temporary lakeside hunting camps occupied by hunter-gatherer groups as part of a seasonal migration pattern between the coastal lowlands near the mouth of the Clwyd and summer hunting grounds on Hiraethog or on the Clwydian hills. Although little further evidence has yet been found of human activity in The Vale of Clwyd in the Mesolithic or subsequent Neolithic period when settlement probably became more sedentary.

There is significant evidence of activity in The Vale of Clwyd during the Bronze Age, but this is almost entirely related to human burial, represented by lowland burial mounds identified by excavation again at Tandderwen, and near Llysfasi and Cefn-coch, for example, and by upland burials along the Clwydian hills. Some of the upland burial sites have been built of stone and where these survive the sites are still visible as mounds. The lowland sites were largely built of earth and appear to have generally been ploughed away and are generally only known from cropmarks discovered by aerial photography. The burial of the cremated remains of a young man found in a pot near Llanrhaeadr, during the course of drainage works, may for example have once been covered by a burial mound which has since been levelled by ploughing. Evidence from elsewhere in Britain suggests that it was during this period that the tribal groupings known from the later prehistoric and early historic periods began to develop and it is possible that the prominent topographical siting of Bronze Age burial mounds as for example on the summits of Foel Fenlli and Moel y Parc and at the head of the pass between Moel Llanfair and Moel Pls, and possibly even some of the lowland burial mounds, may represent the territories occupied by different tribal or family groups.

Significant inroads were no doubt being made into the natural vegetation of The Vale of Clwyd between the Mesolithic and Bronze Age periods, but it was during the Iron Age that the first major impact of human settlement on the physical environment can be first detected, most significantly in the chain of five hillforts along the Clwydian Hills - Foel Fenlli, Moel y Gaer (Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd), Moel Arthur, Penycloddiau and Moel y Gaer (Bodfari). It is probable that these large and impressive sites represent tribal centres, the sheer size of the hillforts along the Clwydians indicating that a relatively large and well-organized social groupings had developed during the Iron Age. The hillforts probably belonged to a tribe known as the Deceangli, conquered by the Roman army in about AD 60, whose territory seems to have extended from the Conwy on the west and the Dee on the east. Occupation of the hillforts almost certainly ceased at the Roman conquest.

As noted below, however, it is uncertain whether the hillforts were occupied all year round and whether they represent the only form of settlement during the Iron Age. Evidence from elsewhere in Britain suggests that other elements of society may have been dispersed among smaller and less nucleated forms of settlement on the lower-lying land in the valleys. A number of certain or possible smaller ditched enclosures are known from crop-mark evidence within the vale, as for example at Llanynys, at Ty'n-y-wern south of Ruthin, Bachymbyd, and Rhewl, which may represent small enclosed settlements of Iron Age date. None of these sites have been excavated, however, and it is also possible that they belong to earlier prehistoric periods or to the subsequent Romano-British or early medieval period.

It seems probable that during the later prehistoric, Roman and early medieval periods that unenclosed forms settlement developed hand in hand with population increase to exploit the rich agricultural potential of The Vale of Clwyd. The traces of Roman settlement activity and cemetery found during the course of housing development on the eastern outskirts of Ruthin probably represents just one of a large number of contemporary agricultural settlements within the vale that still await discovery, other evidence of Roman activity being represented by chance finds and a possible temple near Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd, chance finds and possible Roman cemetery near Bodfari, and chance finds near Llanrhudd. It may be no more than coincidence, but the discovery of Roman finds at or near places where churches were established in the medieval period suggests that there may have been some continuity of settlement from the Roman times into the early medieval period. Some discontinuity of settlement is likely to have occurred as a consequence of the area forming a frontier zone between the emerging Welsh kingdoms and the expanding English kingdom of Mercia from the 7th century and Anglo-Norman expansion in the late 11th century.

The marcher lordships of Denbigh and Ruthin established by Edward I in the 1280s were superimposed, however, upon an already well-established settlement pattern and parochial structure, with medieval churches within the historic landscape area at Bodfari, Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd, Llanfarchell, Llanynys, Llanrhaeadr-yng-nghinmeirch, Llandyrnog, Llangynhafal, Llangwyfan, Llanfwrog, Llanrhudd, Llanychan and Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd. A range of different settlement types is likely to have existed during the earlier medieval period including bond and free settlements, small nucleated settlements and more dispersed farmsteads and holdings, but as yet there is little detailed evidence from The Vale of Clwyd of the form of these settlements. Even the nature of settlement associated with each of the medieval churches is unclear, though detailed study of Llanynys has suggested that a cluster of houses and gardens developed here around a relatively small open field composed of individually-owned strips on this island of ploughland between the Clywedog and Clwyd rivers. Similar settlements may have existed around some or all the other churches and the townships associated with them, the pattern of early settlement now being difficult to decipher due to the expansion of settlement during the later medieval period and the gradual consolidation and amalgamation of individual holdings.

Some dislocation of settlement inevitably followed the creation of the two marcher lordships in the late 13th century, the administrators of the lordships being keen to secure and exploit their economic potential. New manors on the English model were created at Denbigh and at Kilford. Some of the changes were politically motivated, land confiscated or acquired by escheat from native clans being consolidated into larger holdings and granted to immigrant English families, who would thereby show greater allegiance to the new regimes. As a result there was a tendency towards the creation of larger estates on the richer lands within the vale and the resettlement of local inhabitants in more outlying areas. New patterns of settlement developed which broadly conformed to that which had been established in the older marcher lordships in Wales that were divided into Englishries and Welshries. Englishries with centres of English settlement were thus established in the vale, around the new administrative centres of each of the lordships - the castle-boroughs established immediately after the conquest of Wales at Ruthin and Denbigh - surrounded by an area that remained essentially native in character and where the Welsh tribal landholding system persisted. The various injustices suffered by the Welsh at English hands in the region contributed to the rebellion led by Owain Glyndwr, which began with an attack on the town and castle of Ruthin in September 1400.

The decay of the Welsh clan system combined with the the trend towards money payments in lieu of customary services by bondmen and the effects of the epidemics of the Black Death, especially in the 1340s and 1360s, gave led to significant changes to the settlement pattern in The Vale of Clwyd from the 14th-century onwards, gradually giving rise to a landscape characterised by large consolidated estates within the vale and dispersed, individually owned or tenanted farms on the surrounding hill land. The process continued into the later medieval period. The boroughs of Denbigh and Ruthin with their own charters and commercial monopolies continued to flourish as commercial centres providing a market for locally-produced goods, but as settlement expanded during the later medieval and early post-medieval periods new nucleated settlements were created and some of the earlier centres were eclipsed. Bodfari, Llanynys, Llanrhaeadr-yng-nghinmeirch, Llandyrnog, and Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd perhaps all survived as small nucleated settlements, but churches at Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd, Llanfarchell, Llangynhafal, Llangwyfan, Llanrhudd, and Llanychan all eventually became marooned in the landscape and surrounded by little more than fields.

Many new centres of population were created as a result of population shift, particularly during the 18th and 19th centuries, at important road junctions, along the new turnpikes or associated with mills, quarries, nonconformist chapels, smithies, schools, land enclosure, and which have become a particularly important and characteristic feature of the rural landscape of The Vale of Clwyd. Examples of these new settlements include Graig-fechan, Craig-adwy-wynt, Pentre-Llanrhaeadr, the new settlements at Llangynhafal and Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd, Waen Aberchwiler, Hn-efail, Rhewl, Hirwaen, Gellifor, Hendrerwydd, Ffordd-las and Aifft. The 20th century has seen the expansion of these and earlier centres of population, and has also witnessed a number of linear developments along some rural roads, as between Ruthin and Rhewl, Gellifor and Hendrerwydd, and Llandyrnog and Llangynhafal and a more recent trend towards the creation of a number of new small rural estates or conversion of farms to multiple occupation, as at Llwyn-celyn farm to the north of Llanrhaeadr.

The earliest surviving elements of the built environment of The Vale of Clwyd are the fabric of some medieval churches, the medieval castles and a number of other structures at Ruthin and Denbigh. In the case of these medieval buildings and other stone buildings of late medieval and post-medieval date the building materials appear to be principally of relatively local materials. Thus, cottages and farmhouses on the eastern slopes of the vale are predominantly of quarried local Silurian shales whilst those on the western side of the vale are predominantly of quarried Carboniferous limestone. Stone buildings towards the centre of the vale tend to be built in either shale or limestone or occasionally in Triassic and Permian red sandstone beds exposed at a number of points within the vale. On rare occasions, as in the case of Llanynys churchyard wall, early farm buildings at Dregoch Ucha south of Waen Aberwheeler, and parts of several buildings in the Clywedog valley to the west of Rhewl, rounded boulders from stream beds or glacial erratics from field clearance were used. Where poorer stone was used there is a tendency for the buildings to be rendered, as in the case of numerous farmhouses and the churches at Llandyrnog, Llangwyfan and Llangynhafal - all on the eastern side of the vale.

A high proportion of early town houses, farmhouses and farm buildings were probably of timber, only a small proportion of which have survived, generally only in the case of some of the larger and grander houses, including for example the probably late 15th/early 16th-century cruck-built barns at Bachymbyd, and cruck-framed halls at Hendre'r ywydd-uchaf (now reconstructed at St Fagan's museum), Hendre'r ywydd, and Plas Iago, and the late 16th/early 17th-century timber-framed houses at Eyarth Hall, Caerfallen, Llwyn-ynn (now largely demolished), Plas Coch, Plas-yn-llan, Pls-yn-rhs, Glan Clwyd, Rhydonen, Rhyd-y-cilgwyn and Ffynnogion, though timber-framing with brick infill survives in the case of a number of farm buildings, as at Fron-vox and Pls Draw.

Stone appears to become the preferred building material from about the mid 17th century onwards. The first use of brick appears in the 17th-century, as in the case of the brick-built house belonging to the Salusburys at Bachymbyd Fawr, becoming used with increasing frequency for houses, cottages, farm-buildings and walls from the early to mid 18th century onwards, a barn at Dre Gch Ganol, for example, having a date of 1752 set out in the brickwork. Present-day roofing on traditional and pre-modern buildings is almost invariably of slate, but this probably a trend since the late 16th century onwards. Before that date a majority of buildings were probably either thatched or roofed with wooden shingles. The use of stone tiles appears to be unknown in the region, probably due to the lack of suitable stone in the region.

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