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Clywedog Valley
Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Making of the Clywedog Valley Landscape


Throughout history the valleys of the river Severn valley and its tributaries the Clywedog and Trannon formed important communications corridors giving access to central and west Wales from the borderland and English Midlands to the east.

Roman roads

The Roman fortlet at Penycrocbren on the hills near the head of the Clywedog valley, south of Dylife, lies midway between the Roman forts at Caersws in the Severn valley to the east and Pennal in the Dyfi valley to the west and is approached by a Roman road which is thought to run across the northern side of the area from the Trannon valley via Gwartew, Staylittle and Pen Dylife. The fortlet and road, which appear to have been in use during at least the earlier 2nd century, were probably of military significance but, as noted above, may have played a role in the administration of the lead mining industry during the Roman period. No certain traces of this road have been identified within the historic landscape area, however, and though its course is therefore very largely conjectural it probably largely underlies later tracks and roads.

Medieval to early post-medieval roads, drovers’ roads and miners’ tracks

It is assumed that much of the present-day network of local and long-distance footpaths, lanes and roads was already in existence by the early post-medieval period. Most of these would not have been surfaced in any way, however, and were in a notoriously poor condition before the improvements that were introduced from the second half of the 18th century. By the Middle Ages Llanidloes lay at the hub of long-distant routes along the Severn valley between settlements of medieval origin at Llandinam to the north-west and Llangurig and Rhayader to the south-west, and across the hills north of the Clywedog valley to the medieval town at Machynlleth. Lesser trackways would have linked outlying farms with upland pastures and seasonal settlements in the hills.

Llanidloes also lay at the confluence of two important drovers’ routes in operation between the later medieval period and the coming of the railways in the later 19th century, taking cattle from west Wales to the market towns along the Welsh borderland, which again ran down the Severn valley from Llangurig and across the hills from Machynlleth.

Until almost the end of the 19th century the numerous metal mines that were opened in the area, largely during the period between the later 17th century and the mid 19th century relied almost exclusively on horse-drawn transport and packhorses for transporting men and equipment to the mines and carting processed ores to the smelteries. A distinctive feature of many of the mining landscapes in both mid and north-east Wales feature are consequently the so-called ‘miners’ tracks’ often in remote locations, linking the various elements of the mine workings, the places where the miners lived, and the routes by which processed ores were transported to distant smelteries. The transport of considerable tonages of ores on unmade-up roads resulted in the braided tracks that are characteristic of some mining sites in the historic landscape area, notably Pen Dylife and Gwestyn.

Turnpike roads and improved bridges

Major improvements were made to the network of major network of roads in the later 18th century following the passing of the Montgomeryshire Turnpike Act of 1769, enacted from the 1790s onwards, which gave powers for the repair and widening of various specified roads and to pay for these works and continuing maintenance by raising tolls by means of turnpike gates.

The improved turnpike roads within the historic landscape area that were improved during the later 18th and early 19th centuries comprised the Newtown to Aberystwyth road through the middle of Llanidloes, and the turnpikes running northwards to Trefeglwys and westwards to Machynlleth, all originally provided with toll gates on the outskirts of Llanidloes. The now demolished toll house to the north of the town lay across the Long Bridge in the fork of the roads leading to Trefeglwys and Machynlleth, which were consequently named Westgate Street and Eastgate Street. The old toll house on the road to Newtown, which originated as a half-timbered cottage, survives on Hafren Street though not in a recognisable form. The Trefeglwys road followed the line taken by the modern minor road (B4569), via Dol-llys Hall, Gellilefrith and Cerist Bridge, which forms much of the eastern boundary of the historic landscape area. The turnpike road to Machynleth took a quite different and more circuitous route to the modern main road, following what is now the unclassified road from Pant-yr-ongle, just west of Llanidloes, via Y Fan and Borfa-newydd, to rejoin the modern main road again just to the east of Dinas. Further west it followed the unclassified road northwards via Gwartew to Staylittle and west of Staylittle followed the bleak, predicted route of the Roman road across Pen Dylife past the Roman fortlet at Penycrocbren, rather than the modern route via Dylife in the Twymyn valley.

Milestones, a characteristic feature of the turnpike road improvements of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, are recorded on each of these roads on early editions of Ordnance Survey maps, though possibly only one of these still survives within the historic landscape area, near Borfa-newydd. Another feature which is typical of this period of road improvement is the presence at regular intervals of small roadside quarries, especially in some of the remoter areas, as for example to the north of Dinas. A further major improvement to the road network in the early 19th century was the repair or replacement to bridges, of which the two bridges crossing the Severn at Llanidloes are notable examples. These two bridges known as the Long Bridge and the Short Bridge were both designed by Thomas Penson, the Montgomeryshire county surveyor. They were originally built in 1826 and 1850 respectively, in the first instance replacing an earlier timber bridge and in the second instance an earlier stone bridge. The impact of these improvements can be gauged by the following comment in Evans’s The Beauties of England and Wales, published in 1812.

‘The entrance to the town over a long wooden bridge, erected in 1741, that crosses the Severn, is by no means calculated, to prepossess the traveller in favour of the place’.

Llanidloes acted as an important staging point along the turnpike roads, where various inns provided refreshment and accommodation for travellers. An additional rural roadside inn formerly existed between 7-8 miles west of Llanidloes at the New Inn near Gwartew, named on Ordnance Survey maps of the 1880s, and the Stay-a-little Inn, recorded in the early 19th century but gone by the later 19th century, which gave its name to Staylittle.

Other buildings and structures directly or incidentally associated with the turnpike roads included former smithies recorded at Staylittle and at Y Fan, and more somberly the site of a former gibbet near the roadside and more or less on the summit of Pen Dylife, about 100 metres to the west of the Roman fortlet at Penycrocbren. Excavations here in the 1938 found the central posthole of a gallows as well as gibbeting irons and a skull, thought to date to about 1700, now in the National History Museum at St Fagans. The gallows (Welsh crocbren) is the origin of the name for the Roman fortlet, which translates as ‘Gibbet Hill’. Folklore associates the gallows with a local blacksmith (‘Sion y Gof’) who is said to have murdered his family and disposed of their bodies down a mineshaft, and subsequently made to forge his own gibbeting irons, now in the National History Museum at St Fagans. Little appears to have been written about the sites of early capital punishment in rural Wales, though there appears to be a tendency, as elsewhere in Britain, for gallows as here to be sited on a hilltop, close to a roadway, and close to the boundary of a particular legal jurisdiction. In this instance the site lies on the boundary between the hundredal courts of Machynlleth and Llanidloes, which followed the former medieval territorial divisions of Cyfeliog and Arwystli.

Access to the canal and railway networks

As noted above, the Montgomeryshire canal had been extended to Newtown by the early 1820s and for almost the next 30 years the road link from Llanidloes to the canal terminus at Newtown became an important means of carrying goods to and from the historic landscape area.

The coming of the railways at the end of the 1850s was to have a considerable impact upon the social and industrial development of Llanidloes and its hinterland. Construction of the railway from Llanidloes to Newtown began in 1855 and after an interruption in 1857 due to shortage of funds was finally completed in 1859, with a single large and impressive railway station within the historic landscape area on the eastern side of Llanidloes. The line ran independently of the rest of the national railway network for several years, carrying passengers and goods for transfer to or from the canal until the completion of first the Oswestry to Welshpool Railway in 1859/1860 and the Welshpool to Newtown line in 1861. The line was built using local labour and capital, the principal contractor being David Davies of Llandinam, in partnership with the railway engineer Thomas Savin of Llwyn-y-maen near Oswestry. The first locomotives, carriages and wagons to run on the line had to be brought to the railhead at Newtown by road on specially-made wagons, with other materials brought by canal. In 1864 the Mid Wales Railway line skirting the eastern side of Llanidloes to Rhayader and on to Builth Road and Three Cocks also opened, which amalgamated with the Cambrian Railway Company.

The Llanidloes Railway Works on the north-east side of the town was amongst the engineering industries that developed in the town during the later 19th and earlier 20th centuries by virtue of the railway. The works specialised in the production of rails and other heavy castings.

The Van mine near Llanidloes, which had become one of the most productive and profitable lead mines in western Europe by the 1870s, was unique in mid-Wales in being provided with its own railway line. In 1871 the standard-gauge Van Railway was built branching from the Newtown to Machynlleth line at Caersws and running westwards along the valley of the Cerist and Trannon rivers, with former halts within the character area near Penisafmanledd and just to the east of Y Fan. The railway possessed an impressive underground railway portal, unique amongst lead mines in the United Kingdom, which has been restored and gated at the mine site. From 1873 the line also carried passengers and after some difficulties was reopened for the carriage of freight by the Cambrian Railways in 1896. The railway was a private venture by Earl Vane who leased the mine to the mining company and was at the same time the chairman of the Cambrian Railway Company. The line finally closed in 1940 but much of the line survives amidst the rural agricultural landscape today where the original embankments, cuttings and track bed can still be traced.

Following the first world war the Cambrian Railway became part of the Great Western Railway (GWR). The Van Railway finally closed in 1940, outliving the closure of the Van lead mines by about 20 years whilst GWR was nationalised along with the rest of the rail network as British Railways in 1948. From the 1950s the railways came under increasing competition with road transport. The Newtown to Llanidloes line was closed to passengers south of Moat Lane Junction near Caersws in 1963, but continued to carry some freight until 1967, having been kept open to transport materials used for the construction of the Clywedog reservoir west of Llanidloes.

The modern road network

Remarkably widespread changes were made to the road network throughout the historic landscape area during the course of the 20th century, in response to various stimuli, notably the dislocation caused by the general demise of the local mining industry from about the 1890s, the creation of Hafren Forest from the late 1930s onwards, and the construction of the Clywedog Reservoir in the 1960s.

North and west of Llanidloes and the Clywedog Reservoir the route of the main road from Llanidloes to Machynlleth was substantially altered to the one it now occupies. The upgrading of former minor lanes and tracks and the construction of some new stretches of road was carried out over the 5-kilometre stretch from Pant-yr-ongle, west of Llanidloes, to the east of Dinas via the new earthwork dam at Bwlch-y-gle, superseding the former turnpike road taking the northern route via Y Fan and Borfa-newydd. Further west a new almost 4-kilometre stretch of road was constructed from just to the west of Dinas to Staylittle via Lluest-y-dduallt, superseding the former turnpike which ran via Gwartew. More dramatically, the course of the turnpike road across Pen Dylife via Rhiw Dyfeity Fawr now taken by Glyndŵr’s Way was abandoned in favour of the more northerly route through Dylife and Esgair-galed that had probably previously been avoided by the main road due to the intensive mining operations in this area up to the second and third decades of the 20th century.

Substantial changes were also made to the course of minor roads to the south and west of the Clywedog Reservoir, involving the construction of an essentially new 14-kilometre road branching from the Llanidloes to Machynlleth road near Dyffryn and running via Bryntail and Llwyn-y-gog to just west of Staylittle.

The Llanidloes bypass, to the east of the town, which had been first proposed in the late 1960s due to traffic congestion in the town was eventually opened in 1991, built in a new cutting which largely followed the course of the dismantled GWR line to Rhayader.

Modern long-distance footpaths and cycling routes

The Glyndŵr’s Way footpath, granted National Trail status in 2000, runs through the area from near Dylife, across Pen Dylife to the Hafren Forest and beyond via Staylittle, Llwyn-y-gog and Cwmbiga. A second National Trail, the Severn Way, also passes through Llanidloes. Two National Cycle Network on-road routes crossing the historic landscape area have also been developed in recent years, Lôn Cambria (route 81) which runs between Rhayader and Newtown via Llanidloes, and Lôn Las Cymru (route 8) which follows the route to the west and south of the Clywedog Reservoir, via Dylife, Staylittle and Llanidloes.

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