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East Fforest Fawr and Mynydd-y-Glôg
Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

East Fforest Fawr and Mynydd-y-Glôg


Prehistoric and Roman periods

The earliest settlement and land use in the area is suggested by the chance find of a Neolithic polished stone axe in the now wooded area near Cefn-y-maes, overlooking the Taf Fawr valley on the eastern side of the historic landscape area. Finds of this kind suggest the beginnings of forest clearance around the margins of the uplands by early farming communities, though it is not improbable that both the lowland valleys and the uplands of Fforest Fawr were also exploited by nomadic hunter-gatherer groups during the preceding Mesolithic period.

A number of important complexes of early land use and settlement have also been identified within the historic landscape area including huts, abandoned field walls and clearance cairns and although none of these have so far been closely dated it seems likely that at least some of these remains date broadly to the period between the Bronze Age and the Roman periods, though some are also likely to be of early medieval and medieval date.

Initially, settlement and land use required the clearance of woodland and scrub, no doubt as part of a gradual process which began in the potentially more fertile and sheltered areas. The stone footings of circular round huts suggest a date within the Bronze or Iron Ages, though the presence of some rectangular buildings suggests either continuity into the Roman and early medieval periods or re-use of earlier sites in the early medieval, medieval or early post-medieval periods. In the absence of excavation the interpretation of these settlement and land use remains is uncertain. The huts appear either singly or in small clusters and may either indicate seasonal or all-year settlement. These are sometimes associated with small stone-banked enclosures where possibly animals were herded. Clearance cairns, which often occur in extensive but loose clusters or cairnfields, represent the collection of surface stone either for pasture improvement or to improve cultivated land. Low walls and field banks might again be associated with field clearance or pasture improvement as well as controlling stock from straying.

The distribution of the surviving remains is likely to be strongly influenced by later land use. The remains have largely been found on the lower fringes of the unenclosed moorland areas, between a height of about 300-480 metres above sea level. It is likely that the traces of earlier settlement and land use on lower-lying ground, now mostly within present-day enclosed farmland within Mellte, Hepste and Cadlan valleys, have been obscured, overlain or removed by subsequent agricultural activity, during the period between the medieval period and the present day. The upper contour of about 480 metres is likely, however, to provide a reasonably accurate upper limit of past settlement activity.

Larger and more significant areas of surviving early settlement and land use are known in the northern part of the historic landscape area in the sheltered upper valley of the river Hepste, extending into the tributary stream valleys of the Nant Hepste-fechan and Afon y Waun and onto the sheltered east-facing slopes of Mynydd y Garn and Waun Tincer. An isolated group of round-huts of possible prehistoric date is also recorded at Carn Caniedydd, towards the eastern side of the area, at about 400 metres. In the eastern and southern parts of the historic landscape area there are significant and extensive remains of early settlement and land use surviving on the sheltered, east-facing slopes of Cadair Fawr, at the head of the Garwnant and Nant Ffynnonelin streams, overlooking Pant y Gadair and the Taf Fawr valley, on the more sheltered southern slopes of Cefn Cadlan and the northern slopes of the col extending beyond the limits of the enclosed farmland at the head of Cwm Cadlan, and on the southern side of Cwm Cadlan and extending onto the more exposed northern slopes of Mynydd-y-glog.

As noted in a following section about Bronze Age prehistoric burial and ritual monuments there are clear indications that at an early period the landscape was already segregated for different clearly-defined purposes. Clusters of probably Bronze Age burial cairns and ritual ring cairns often appear to lie on the upper fringes of the areas where there are the surviving remains of early settlement and land use with which they are most probably at least in part contemporary, and often sited on local hill crests and summits from which they would have been visible from lower ground.

Another facet of early settlement and land use is the presence of a number of burnt mounds of which a handful of examples have been identified mostly in unenclosed moorland areas, below Cefn Esgair-carnau overlooking the Taf Fawr valley, next to the Afon-y-waun towards the head of the Hepste valley, and on the western edge of Cefn Sychbant, overlooking the Cadlan valley. These sites, which evidence elsewhere suggests are likely to be Bronze Age in date, are represented by accumulations of burnt stones, ash and charcoal, usually sited next to a stream. They are most convincingly interpreted as a kind of sauna bath, though some may have been used as cooking sites. Like the distribution of prehistoric burial and ritual sites these monuments appear to avoid areas of contemporary settlement and land use which again suggests significant functional division of landscape in the early prehistoric period.

Traces of early settlement avoid the more exposed and less hospitable land which in the historic landscape area extends up to about 730 metres above sea level, and generally peter out and become much more sparse at heights of between about 400-480 metres. Several small clusters of probably prehistoric round huts are known at these heights, as for example on Cors y Beddau — on the spur between the Nant Ganol and Nant Mawr streams, close to the Nant Llywarch stream, on Waun Llywarch — between the Nant Llywarch and Afon y Waun streams, and also at several locations next to the Afon y Waun stream, though they are only infrequently associated with traces of cultivation in the form of field banks or clearance cairns and are sometimes found in association with rectangular structures which seem more likely to represent medieval to early post-medieval hafodydd (‘summer houses’) inhabited by family groups and associated with the seasonal exploitation of upland pastures during the summer months, particularly for cattle rearing. This association raises the question of whether transhumance in the region had its origins in the prehistoric period.

Early medieval to early post-medieval periods

Clearance of woodland and scrub within the area no doubt continued on a piecemeal basis up to and beyond the beginning of the early medieval period. By this time it is likely that a system of land use and settlement had emerged adopting a mixed arable and pastoral economy exploiting both lowland and upland resources. Initially, it seems probable that there was an emphasis upon cattle rearing and dairying but later on, the emphasis was on sheep herding. Detailed evidence of the forms of settlement, the size and extent of holdings and the nature of the economy is largely lacking until the later 18th and early 19th centuries, when the first estate maps and the tithe surveys were drawn. However, it was probably during this period that settlement was based upon a pattern of small and dispersed holdings with all-year-round habitations or hendrefydd (‘permanent residences, winter dwellings’) associated with enclosed meadow, pasture and arable on the more fertile and productive land in the lower-lying, sheltered valleys with grazing of the extensive moorland pastures during the summer months which in some instances or during some periods involved the use of hafodydd (‘summer houses’) temporary upland habitations particularly to be associated with cattle grazing. The place-name elements hendre and hafod are in fact unknown within the historic landscape area but since the way of life that these represented had all but disappeared by the time many of the earliest farm names were being recorded, in the second half of the 18th century, this is probably of little significance.

The emergence of permanent lowland farms or hendrefydd during the Middle Ages is suggested by the survival of a number of early farmhouses of longhouse form, such as Hepste-fawr in the Dyffryn Hepste historic landscape character area, discussed in a following section upon buildings, which at this period were probably mostly held by freehold farmers. This form of building was multi-functional, often accommodating both humans and animals, fodder and grain storage under a single roof. As at the present day, early farms were probably dispersed and set amongst their own fields. Though specific evidence is lacking, it also seems likely that much of the general pattern of small irregular fields had gradually evolved by at least the later medieval and early post-medieval periods, probably clearing away in the process any earlier traces of settlement and land use, though some fluctuation probably continued around the margins of the surrounding unenclosed moorland, depending upon climatic conditions or the tenacity of their occupants. The detached and isolated moorland encroachment at Hepste-fechan, for example, between a height of 330-70 metres is first documented in the 1780s but probably represents the partial survival and enhancement of a much earlier period of land use activity, with fields as elsewhere lower down in the Hepste and Cadlan valleys defined by drystone walls and clearance banks.

Much of the modern pattern of lanes, trackways and fords probably also emerged during this period, providing access to individual farms, with green lanes between the fields enabling livestock to be driven up to the mountain pastures in the spring and returned to the home farm in the autumn. Specialised uses for different fields had probably already emerged by this period, depending upon fertility, aspect and natural drainage. Drier fields would be better suited to cultivation, less freely draining fields to permanent pasture, and damper lower-lying to hay meadows.

As noted above, temporary summer dwellings or hafodydd which were no doubt linked with these lowland farms are known in the higher, unenclosed moorland areas, often seeking out more sheltered spots adjacent to streams providing water for household purposes and for watering stock. In the northern part of the historic landscape area, below Fan Fawr, groups of rectangular building platforms with the remains of stone-built long huts which appear to represent hafodydd have been recorded along the Afon Hepste stream below the 380-metre contour. Several small clusters of rectangular huts probably of medieval date are at heights of between 430-80 metres on Cors y Beddau, on Waun Llywarch. These higher settlements are sometimes associated with small embanked enclosures which may have been used for controlling stock, but are rarely if ever associated with evidence of cultivation. In the eastern and southern part of the area significant clusters of similar rectangular house platforms and stone footings are also known between about 380-420 metres on the sheltered, east-facing slopes of Cadair Fawr, at the head of the Garwnant and Nant Ffynnonelin streams, overlooking Pant y Gadair and the Taf Fawr valley, between about 350-450 metres on the more sheltered southern slopes of Cefn Cadlan and the northern slopes of the col extending beyond the limits of the enclosed farmland at the head of Cwm Cadlan, and hugging the southern boundary of the enclosed land in Cwm Cadlan, to the east of the Cae’r Arglwydd, Wern-las and Beili-helyg farms and extending onto the more exposed northern slopes of Mynydd-y-glog, between a height of about 300-380 metres above sea level. Few if any of these more remote upland dwellings within the historic landscape area seem to have ever evolved into permanently occupied dairy farms of the kind which emerged in other areas of upland Wales.

The hunting of wild game and fowl for subsistence will have continued to be practiced at this period, though as noted above, in the section on boundaries, by the end of the 11th century, following the Anglo-Norman conquest of the kingdom of Brycheiniog, the greater part of the historic landscape area formed part of the extensive hunting preserve of Fforest Fawr or Great Forest of Brecknock belonging to marcher lordship of Brecknock, possibly assuming more ancient rights previously held by native princes of the kingdom.

The extent of the medieval forest is only loosely defined and remained unmapped until the early 19th century, the forest being essentially an area of unenclosed ground over which rights of the chase were reserved. In time other smaller preserves were identified within the broader mantle of Fforest Fawr, such as Cadlan Forest, to the north of Mynydd-y-glog. The boundaries of Fforest Fawr are likely to have fluctuated from early times, however, gradually diminishing as licensed or illicit encroachments of potentially better farmland nibbled away at its outer rim.

Management and administration of the forest by the lordship is poorly documented, though it is likely that as in the case of other similar medieval forests and chases in Britain it was governed by forest law, a body of local rights, customs and regulations governing the activities of those who lived near or within it, such as grazing rights, rights to gather fuel, to dig for stone and burn limestone. It has been suggested that the medieval stone castle at Castell Coch at the southern foot of Fforest Fawr, just outside the historic landscape area at the head of the valley of the Afon Mellte, might have been used as temporary accommodation during hunting expeditions to the vast Fforest Fawr by the medieval lords of Brecknock.

Due to expense and the difficulties maintaining game stocks open forests of this kind tended to decline in significance towards the end of the Middle Ages, to be replaced by enclosed deer parks. Fforest Fawr passed to the Crown in 1521, which retained ownership until the early 19th century, a period during which the present-day rights of commoning were established.

Later post-medieval and modern periods

As noted above, it is likely that throughout Fforest Fawr much of the boundary between the unenclosed moorland and the enclosed farmland around the mountain edge had become reasonably well established by the early post-medieval period, represented by a pattern of generally small irregular fields in the valleys. However, a distinctive feature of post-medieval farming, probably during the course of the 17th to early 19th centuries, was the enclosure of significant areas of mountain pasture around the fringes of the moorland which continued to observe pre-existing rights of way. These larger enclosures were typically between 10-20 hectares but occasionally 70-80 hectares in extent, and were carved out of the common moorland, often with characteristically curving upper boundaries. In parts of Wales enclosed but uncultivated moorland grazing around the mountain edge is sometimes called ffridd (‘moorland, rough mountain pasture’), though in parts of south Wales the term coedcae or coetgae appears to be more common. In this context it is probable that the name of the farm Coed Cae Du close to the moorland edge on the northern side of Cwm Cadlan is probably significant.

Areas of enclosed moorland grazing are evident high on the eastern side of the Mellte valley north-east of Goitre farm, on Gwaun Cefnygarreg, on the more sheltered northern side of the Hepste valley, around the margins of Cwm Cadlan and on the southern fringes of Mynydd-y-glog. The precise dating of some of these boundaries is uncertain, but 18th-century estate maps denote ‘old banks’ on the moorland edge near Pen-fathor in the Mellte valley and at the eastern end of Cwm Cadlan, suggesting that some of these boundaries are at least 17th-century in origin. These later boundaries, whose length extends to tens of kilometres, show a variety of construction methods, including banks, revetted banks, freestanding drystone walls, and walls accompanied by ditches. In some instances a sequence of construction is evident, with drystone walls in some cases evidently lying on top of earlier earthen banks. The purpose of these new mountain enclosures was probably to secure the private use of the better areas of moorland grazing, to prevent stock from straying across the mountain, and perhaps also to control breeding.

The general shift towards sheep farming in Wales in the later middle ages and post-medieval periods is to some extent reflected in the archaeological record of the area, most notably in the appearance of drystone sheepfolds strategically sited at convenient points for gathering flocks being brought down from the hill. The less demanding day-to-day requirements of managing sheep led to end of transhumance and the abandonment of the hafodydd though smaller shelters might occasionally be needed by lone shepherds.

The first comprehensive evidence of settlement and land use in the historic landscape area is provided by estate maps which began to appear in the second half of the 18th century and the tithe maps and schedules of the 1840s which show most of the existing farms and cottages on the eastern rim of the Mellte valley, Dyffryn Hepste and Cwm Cadlan though some buildings have clearly disappeared since that time. By the mid 19th century most of the farms are shown as holdings of between 15-60 hectares (40-140 acres) and were mostly tenanted. Many of them had been acquired by estates such as the Tredegar, Penmailard and Bodwigiad estates, which had begun to emerge in the area from about the later 17th century onwards.

Place-name evidence from estate and tithe maps gives a number of hints about the former independence and social status of some of the farms that had probably originated during the later medieval and early post-medieval periods. In the Hepste valley, some of the older and possibly originally higher-status houses are suggested by the element mawr (‘large, important’) in the names Ty-mawr and Hepste-fawr, and neuadd (‘hall’) in the lower part of the valley, the latter first appearing in the form ‘Tyr y noyadd’ in 1618, though in many cases it is evident that the place-name elements were used to distinguish dwellings that might only be a little larger than average. The use of the element neuadd is perhaps ironic in the case of Gelli-neuadd applied to the pair of 19th-century roadside workers’ cottages on the lane along the Cadlan valley north of Penderyn. The place-name element tir ‘land, ground’ also occurs in a significant proportion of other farm names in the valley, including Tirmawr, Tir-dyweunydd, Tir-yr-onen and Tir-Shencyn-Llewelyn (renamed Llwyncelyn), the last of which is first recorded in 1819. These farms, like the suggested originally higher-status dwellings, are normally set within their own fields. By contrast a number of cottages and smallholdings may represent later encroachments set alongside lanes and trackways, single examples of which in the Hepste and Cadlan valleys are significantly called Heol-las, meaning ‘green lane’, and others are indicated by the element tyle (‘steep path’) in the name Gawr-dyle on the southern edge of the Cadlan valley.

Place-name and field-name evidence, from the tithe survey in particular, also provides some evidence about former vegetation and land use which in some respects is similar though in other respects is in marked contrast to the present day. Names referring to trees are predictably quite frequent in the sheltered valleys of Dyffryn Hepste and Cwm Cadlan, with names such as Llwyn-y-fedwen (‘birch, birch grove’), Tir-yr-onen (from onn, ‘ash, ash wood’), Gelli-ffynhonnau-isaf and Gelli-ffynhonnau-uchaf (from celli, ‘grove, copse, woodland’), and Beili-Helyg (from helyg, ‘willow’). Little indication of former land use is provided by place-name evidence, though the area name Gweunydd (or Gwaunydd) Hepste, the enclosed area on the moorland edge on the south-west side of the area and the farm name Tir-dyweunydd both includes the plural of gwaun (‘moor, mountain pasture’), with better quality grassland indicated by the field-name element gweirglodd (‘hay-field, meadow’) and its various spellings and by names such as ‘Cae Clover’. Limitations upon land use of some of the enclosed valley land due to poor drainage, is indicated by the element gwern (‘swamp’) in the farm names Gwern-pawl and Wernlas and the stream name Gwern Nant-ddu, and also by the element garw (‘rough’) in the farm names Pant-garw and Garw-dyle (formerly Garw-dylau) and brwyn (‘rushes’) in some field names. Even so, unlike today, it is clear from the tithe survey that in the 19th century, and presumably in earlier periods, there was a much greater emphasis upon arable farming, reflected in occasional occurrence of the element haidd (‘barley’) in the fields such as ‘Caer Haidd’ on Coed Cae Ddu farm.

The former emphasis on a mixed arable and pastoral economy is also strongly reflected in the surviving farm buildings, as noted in the following section on vernacular buildings. It is again evident from the surviving buildings that significant investments were made in new farm buildings and in new and renovated farmhouses in the later 18th and 19th centuries, possibly under the influence of the local estates and bodies such as the Brecknockshire Agricultural Society, founded in 1755. A number of other improvements in farming methods that were taking place in the later 18th and 19th centuries are also reflected in the archaeological record. Clusters of more regularly-shaped fields close to the farms at Tirmawr, Tir-dyweunydd, Llwyncelyn and Hepste-fawr in Dyffryn Hepste and close to the farms at Glyn-perfedd, Garw-dyle, Gelli-dafolog, Wern-las and Nant-maden, including some with straight-sided boundaries, suggest small-scale reorganisation of field boundaries, probably during the 19th century. Improved drainage of enclosed fields was also attempted in some areas with open ditches, underground drainage and by the construction of cultivation ridges (sometimes called ‘lazy beds’) which are visible in some areas. As noted in the section on industry below, limekilns were set up in a number of areas which provided agricultural lime to improve soil fertility.

Parts of Fforest Fawr were sold by the Crown in 1819, due to the cost of the Napoleonic Wars, becoming the largest single enclosure in either England or Wales. The immediate impact upon the historic landscape area was muted however, since due to the objections of commoners and others only the middle portion of the Forest was sold, the unenclosed land within the area under study being retained as one of a number of substantial blocks of common.

The later 19th and 20th centuries saw a general decline in the profitability of farming, the introduction of mechanisation as well as the industrialisation of south Wales which drew people away from the land, resulting in farm amalgamation and the abandonment of some farms and cottages which have likewise left their mark upon the landscape. In Dyffryn Hepste, for example, a house between Tirmawr and Tir-yr-onen and a possible smallholding on moorland edge west of Llwyn-y-fedwen, were abandoned or in a ruinous condition by the 1880s. The isolated barn at Heol-las, is possibly all that now survives of a former farm complex abandoned in the 19th century. Other farms, such as Blaen Hepste, were abandoned for similar reasons in the 1920s. In Cwm Cadlan the farmsteads and cottages at Gwern-pawl, Blaen-cadlan-isaf were already ruinous in the 1880s, whilst those at Cae’r Arglwydd, Gelli-ffynhonnau-isaf, Blaen-cadlan-uchaf all appear to have been abandoned from the early in the 20th century onwards.

Arising from the depressed state of agriculture in the early 20th century, proposals had been made to implement various kinds of agricultural improvements within the Welsh uplands with a view to increasing agricultural prosperity and arresting the process of rural depopulation that was affecting these areas. Few changes were made to upland farming, however, until the second world war when these areas were said by the recently established Welsh Agricultural Land Sub-Commission to be in an ‘advanced state of dereliction’. With the declaration of war all British agriculture came under the direct control of the County War Agricultural Executive who were charged with the responsibility of increasing agricultural productivity. Based upon aerial photographic evidence, the exigencies of wartime agriculture seems to be reflected in the significant attempts at pasture improvement that were made to extensive areas of moorland within the historic landscape area at this time, with the appearance of extensive systems of drainage gullies or grips dug, probably by machine, at the heads of the Afon y Waun, Nant Llywarch, Nant Iwrch and Nant yr Ychen, tributures of the Afon Hepste in the moorland below Fan Fawr. Modern air photograph coverage shows patterns of parallel drainage trenches, up to 400 metres long and spaced between about 8-18 metres apart, were dug covering almost 200 hectares of waterlogged areas at the heads of the streams between a height of about 400-600 metres above sea level, in an attempt to drain waterlogged areas. Today, most of the drainage trenches have largely silted up and have eroded into more regular courses to the extent that on the ground they often have the appearance of natural watercourses, but are shown in a pristine condition on RAF air photographs taken in 1945 and 1946, just after the second world war, evidently soon after these works were carried out.

Otherwise, by contrast with the later 18th and 19th centuries, little significant investment has been made in farming which has left a mark on the landscape since about the beginning of the 20th century apart from the appearance of a number of steel-framed agricultural buildings. The loss of necessary skills and the relatively labour-intensive nature of maintaining drystone field walls and traditional hedge laying has resulted in the increasing decay of ancient and traditional field boundaries and a growing dependence on post-and-wire fencing probably from a date early in the 20th-century.

Some changes in land use during this period resulting from a decline in profitability are also evident, including the reversion of some areas of enclosed improved pasture to rough grazing and, from about the mid 20th century, the overplanting of some areas of former fields with conifer woodland by the Forestry Commission, notably on the western side of the area at Gweunydd Hepste and on the eastern side of the area at Penmailard and Cefn-y-maes. The latter woodland, overlooking the valley of the Taf Fawr, forms part of a large estate of over 2,300 acres of land in the upper Taf Fawr valley purchased by the Forestry Commission in 1946. In more recent years the amenity value of these wooded areas has been premoted by the creation by the Forestry Commission of a number of woodland walks and picnic areas and also by the Taff Trail, a long-distance footpath and cycle trail running between Brecon and Cardiff.

The creation of the Brecon Beacons National Park in 1957 together with more recent conservation and recreational initiatives from about the 1990s up to the present day are beginning to have a muted visible impact upon the historic landscape. Conservation measures have included the creation of a number of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) including the nature reserve focusing on an area of wet meadow in Cwm Cadlan which is also designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the European Habitats Directive, pioneered by the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), and a number of farms which have joined the Welsh Assembly’s Tir Gofal agri-environment scheme.

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