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Mynydd Hiraethog Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

Mynydd Hiraethog


As in the case of settlement history, subtle patterns are revealed in the land use history of Mynydd Hiraethog through a combination of evidence of environmental change, historical and archaeological evidence, presenting a microcosm of the impact of human activity on the Welsh uplands since early prehistoric times.

The principal land use of Mynydd Hiraethog from the earliest times has undoubtedly been as an area of summer grazing, probably first supporting herds of wild red deer hunted by Mesolithic and subsequently, from perhaps the Neolithic and Bronze periods onwards, supporting domesticated herds of cattle and more recently flocks of sheep. The early 19th-century observation that the farmers in the district are chiefly engaged 'in attendance upon their herds and flocks' is as true today as is was in the more distant past.

Pollen evidence from the study of peat deposits on Waen Ddafad and Gors-maen-llwyd has provided a reasonably detailed vegetation history of the Brenig valley on the eastern edge of Mynydd Hiraethog. The moorland landscape had become established from early prehistoric times, contrasting with the surrounding wooded lowland valleys. By about the 6000 BC the upland was essentially bare of trees but probably with birch and alder woodland along the more sheltered river and stream valleys and with pine, oak, elm and lime woodland on lower ground, the moorland itself being dominated by a grasses with sedge and reeds in poorly drained hollows giving rise to peat formation. The earliest impact of human activity is first registered in perhaps the Neolithic period, with the expansion of grass and particularly heather-dominated moorland in the Bronze Age, contemporary with the Bronze Age ritual landscape, giving an open landscape unobstructed by trees similar to that of the present day, the increasing dominance of heather moorland probably reflecting a change from the relatively drier and warmer to cooler and wetter conditions from the early Bronze Age period onwards. There is evidence for the continued though reduced presence of alder and birch, probably in the river and stream valleys, and possibly an increase in hazel woodland, perhaps resulting from coppicing. Cereal pollens appear in small numbers, indicating cultivation somewhere in the vicinity during the Bronze Age and Iron Age periods, but possibly restricted to lower-lying ground. A similar sequence is evident from a study of peats on Cefn Mawr, above Llyn Aled, except that here, further from the margins of the moor, there is relatively little evidence of human impact on the natural environment during the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods before about 1700 BC, the middle and later Bronze Ages showing a continuing decline in woodland and the period between 200 BC and AD 60 providing the first evidence of cultivation and the occurrence of burning, possibly to control advancing heather moorland. The sequence here shows an uninterrupted increase in heather since the 1st century, together with an increased accumulation of peat, both probably resulting from the advent of wetter and cooler climatic conditions.

The general picture derived from pollen analysis is supported the excavation of a number of the Bronze Age monuments forming part of Brenig valley complex, which revealed that they had been built in an open moorland landscape, similar to that of today, providing fairly low quality grazing, and with no evidence of cultivation within the moorland area itself, probably at some distance from settlement sites on lower-lying ground. Some of the larger burial mounds within this particular landscape were built of turf which had evidently been carried from some distance, possibly having been stripped during the creation of new intakes of ploughland further downhill, towards the southern margins of the historic landscape area, the total volume of material in four of the larger mounds representing the stripping of areas turf of between about an eighth to less than a half of an acre in extent. Other prehistoric funerary and ritual monuments on Mynydd Hiraethog are built of stone possibly representing stone clearance resulting from early pasture improvement.

Two distinct patterns of early land use appear to be reflected in the distribution of Bronze Age monuments on Mynydd Hiraethog. The Brenig valley complex combines a wide variety of both funerary and ritual sites and appears to represent a landscape devoted to ceremonial activities over a period of over half a millennium by a community probably living to the south of the moor. A different pattern is represented elsewhere on Mynydd Hiraethog where generally only groups or single burial monuments occur, unaccompanied by more specialised ceremonial structures. The distribution of these burial monuments is far from random, however, and it appears that as well as acting as burial sites they may also have acted as territorial markers, indicating the extent of at least some of the most favoured or disputed upland pastures at this period, and in some instances clearly intended to be visible to communities dwelling below the moor.

Single large burial mounds near the moorland edge at Blaen-y-cwm overlooking the valley of the Afon Hyrdd and at Boncyn Crwn overlooking Dyffryn Aled were most probably associated with communities occupying discrete lowland valleys on the northern side of the moor. A string of round barrow along the Gorsedd Bran ridge, now partly obscured by the forestry plantation, likewise perhaps map out the customary upland pastures of communities which had colonised the Nant y Lladron and Lliwen valleys towards Bylchau and Nantglyn, on the north-east side of the moor. Similarly, burial mounds occurring either singly or in groups on the southern peaks of the moor, as on Moel Seisiog, Moel Bengam and Pen yr Orsedd, appear to reflect the exploitation of upland pastures by communities living to the south of the moor. A scattering of other similar monuments are to be found in the Bwlch-y-garnedd area towards the head of the Afon Twllan, and in the lower-lying valleys of the upper Alwen and upper Aled, closer to the heart of the moor.

The further away from the edge of the moor that these burial monuments appear, the greater likelihood that they signal early settlement evidence, possibly of a seasonal nature, related to the exploitation of upland grazing. As noted in the previous section, possible seasonal settlement in the middle Bronze Age is suggested by a circular timber structure, perhaps a roundhouse, found below a kerb cairn towards the head of the Aber Llech-Damer stream and more certainly by the Iron Age roundhouse found in the Nant-y-criafolen stream valley. Early prehistoric cultivation elsewhere on the south side of the moor, perhaps of later prehistoric or Roman date, is suggested by a number of clearance cairns found in association with two stone-walled roundhouses in the Bwlch-y-garnedd area, at the head of the Afon Twllan valley. Other clearance cairns probably indicating early cultivation are known elsewhere, especially in more sheltered valleys, as for example to the west of Aled Isaf and on Waen Ddafad where a group of 30 small heaps of stone have been identified.

Little further is yet known of land use and settlement on Hiraethog until the Middle Ages, though there is every reason to suppose that clear patterns of seasonal settlement and land use which had emerged by this period had continued to evolve throughout the 1st millennium AD, resulting in a pattern of transhumance involving the dual exploitation of lowland and upland resources which in settlement terms was based upon the hendref and hafod. Indeed, the combination of historical, place-name, early maps and archaeological evidence gleaned from Mynydd Hiraethog has been influential in elucidating the seasonal cycles of settlement and land use which are seen to characterize the medieval and early post-medieval periods in Wales as a whole. According to this model, after ploughing and sowing the lowland fields in the spring, traditionally on May Day (Calan Mai) animals were driven to the upland pastures to make way for the cropping of hay in the meadows. Some members of the family needed to move at this time of year to the hafod to tend the animals and to make butter and cheese, the traditional date for the return to the hendre or 'home farm' lower down the hill being All Saint's Day (Calan Gaeaf).

The clearest picture of the processes involved relate to a number of ecclesiastical holdings on the southern side of the moor, for which some early documentary evidence has survived. A number of properties grouped together under the title of Tiryrabad-isaf and Tiryrabad-uchaf ('lower abbot's land' and 'higher abbots land') on the southern half of the moor had been gifted to the Cistercian abbey at Aberconwy by local Welsh lords by the later 12th century, both of which took in extensive areas of upland grazing devoted to the exploitation for well-organised cattle husbandry for meat and dairy products, associated with lower-lying grange centres, a cow-pasture being specifically mentioned in the Pentre Llyn Cymmer area. No mention is made of rents in the documents of the 1290s, suggesting that the monks were possibly still managing these holdings themselves at this date. By the 1330s a proportion of the granges were evidently being let to lay tenants who probably, in common with other similar areas in Wales, had the right to erect a seasonal hafod ('summer house') to enable the successful exploitation of the upland pastures during the summer months. The low value of the grazing land, however, is indicated by the fact that in some instances rents were commuted to small annual gifts (anrheg) paid to the abbot. A number of local families had become hereditary stewards exercising extensive control of the abbey lands by the later medieval period. The entire ecclesiastical holdings on Hiraethog were mortgaged in the early 16th century due to the financial difficulties facing the abbey at Aberconwy, remaining holdings being dispersed by sale at the time of the Dissolution, towards the middle of the 16th century.

A similar pattern of dispersed seasonal settlements emerging from the disintegration of an early ecclesiastical estate is represented by Hen Ddinbych, towards the eastern side of the moor. This enclosed farmstead, which as noted above was first known as Bisshopswalle, was an enclosed farmstead which appears to have housed a number of long sheepcotes up to 25m in length for overwintering sheep on the mountain and largely related to the woollen trade, of a kind commonly associated with medieval ecclesiastical estates on the Cotswolds and elsewhere in England being among the property confiscated from Dafydd ap Gruffudd and subsequently granted to the earl of Lincoln as part of the lordship of Denbigh in the early 1280s. The site is without parallel in North Wales, and may represent a relatively shortlived experiment in the exploitation of upland Wales,

By the early 14th century the pasture once attached to the farmstead was being let annually by the lordship to the community for cattle rearing, which was probably to become the predominant land-use for several centuries to come, it being said, for example, that the thousand or so acres attached to Bisshopswalle at this date could support 8 bulls and 192 cows in both winter and summer on 1,128 acres of upland pasture. As discussed above, this supports the suggestion that a number of the hafodydd or 'summer houses' around the margins of the moorland, have their origin as medieval cattle-farming units. Havodlom (Hafod-lom) and Havodelwe (Hafod-elwy) were two such towards the moorland edge, in the valleys of the Afon Brenig and Afon Alwen respectively, first recorded in the survey of the lordship of Denbigh compiled in 1334, Havodelwe being described as a waste of 650 acres capable of supporting 180 animals, which judging from their value were most probably cows and oxen. These early settlements, like a number of others identified by fieldwork evidence, occupied a number of stream valleys on the southern and eastern side of Mynydd Hiraethog, whose sheltered position and better soils had the effect of drawing the successful exploitation of the upland pastures nearer and nearer to the heart of the moor - the eastern flanks of Mynydd Hiraethog having one of the highest densities of small farms in north-east Wales, a number of other hafodydd around the margins of the moorland probably originating in lands rented from local lords rather than from the break-up of ecclesiastical estates.

The pattern of transhumance based upon the hafod and hendre had already declined dramatically throughout Wales by the middle of the 18th century, due in great part to the rising importance of sheep farming from the later medieval period onwards, initially for the production of wool and latterly for both wool and meat. The differing demands of sheep farming led to the abandonment of a number of the earlier dairy farms, though some of the hafodydd in more hospitable locations developed into small farms focusing on the production of beef cattle within areas of improved grassland, some cereal cultivation on the most fertile fields, and focusing sheep husbandry in the higher and remoter areas of the moor. The desire of controlling breeding, preventing flocks of sheep from straying from one side of the moor, and undertaking some pasture management appear to have led to the creation of large moorland enclosures or ffriddoedd indicated by a number of place-names such as Ffriddog, Ffrithuchaf, Ffrith-y-foel and Ffridd Fawr. Reference to 'friths of Havott Elway' in the Alwen valley in 1537 suggests that the process had probably begun by the early 16th century, though it no doubt accelerated in the wake of the widespread agricultural improvements of the mid 18th century onwards.

The system of land use that had emerged on Mynydd Hiraethog by the mid 19th century resulted in a pattern of relatively small farms around the fringes of the moor, where climate, relief, soil conditions and poor accessibility all conspired to reduce the economic viability of farming. A high proportion of farms were owner occupied, the mainstay of farming here by this date having become the rearing of beef cattle and sheep for both meat and wool. Cattle were normally reared on areas of improved grassland near the farmstead, being sent to market in autumn or overwintered in cattle byres near the farm, sustained by supplies of thin mountain hay. Ewes for breeding were generally wintered on lowland farms, lambing in late March or early April in the enclosed fields near the farm and returned to the hill for grazing by about mid May. Characteristic stone-built outbuildings for milking, storing fodder and overwintering of stock were built at some of the larger farms in the 18th and 19th centuries including the former buildings at Hafod-lom and the surviving complex of buildings at Tan-y-graig.

Small-scale cultivation is evident associated with a number of the upland farms, cultivation ridges having been identified from aerial photography or fieldwork evidence at Hafod-yr-onen. Oats followed by barley are listed as the most common crops in the agricultural returns for Mynydd Hiraethog made at the turn of the 19th century and as late as the 1830s white bread was considered a luxury by the inhabitants of Cerrigydrudion, 'the inhabitants generally subsisting on oat cake or barley bread'. Specific references to cultivation on Mynydd Hiraethog first appear during the 16th century, a period when much interest was being shown in agricultural productivity of many parts of the country. John Leland on his tour of Britain in the 1530s inevitably described the hundred of Uwch Aled, much of which covers Mynydd Hiraethog, as 'the worst parte of al Denbigh land and most baren'. With its numerous bogs, rocks and moorish ground and its cold soil it was then generally considered only fit for the rearing horses and sheep, though oats and some rye were cultivated. The agricultural economy of Mynydd Hiraethog evidently remained unpredictable and held relatively limited scope for improvement, little evidently having changed in the period of 300 years between the late 16th and late 18th century when Walter Davies noted that 'on some parts of the Hiraethog Moors . . . no grain is sown but the hardy oat; of which, whole fields may be seen, in some years, as green as a leek in the month of October, and not likely to ripen at all'. Despite the widespread agricultural improvements of the 18th and 19th centuries Mynydd Hiraethog remained as one of the largest blocks of unenclosed land in north-east Wales, common land in the mid 19th century still accounting for half the total areas of the main tithe parishes encompassing the moor, namely Tiryrabad-isaf (Pentrefoelas), Gwytherin, Llansannan, Nantglyn, Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch, Gyffylliog and Cerrigydrudion.

The continuing and developing history of land use from the medieval period onwards is represented by number of distinct though subtle patterns of settlement, enclosure and structures visible within the recent and present-day landscape of Mynydd Hiraethog.

A land use pattern characteristic of the lowest altitudes within the historic landscape area were a number of small farms, such as Hafod-yr-onen and Hafod-lom (both now submerged below Llyn Brenig), which probably had their origin as isolated seasonally-occupied medieval hafodydd, a number of which subsequently became established as permanent farms, being the culmination of a process whereby a hafod at the extremity of the farm next to the open mountain, once it became established, in turn established its own hafod further into the moorland area. Here, later enclosure and the establishment of intervening farms such as Ty'n-y-ddol and Rhos-ddu resulted in the assimilation of the earlier seasonal settlements within a landscape of small irregular fields, more characteristic of lowland farming landscapes, continuous with the hendrefi with which they were once associated, a lowland pattern of enclosure having been drawn into the moorland area by virtue of greater shelter and marginally better soils within the Brenig valley.

A second pattern is represented by a number of more remote farmsteads, once permanently occupied, lying closer to the heart of the mountains. Some of these were also probably of medieval origin, but remained as isolated islands of enclosed land within the moorland, either singly, as in the case of Hafoty Sion Llwyd in the Brenig valley (Maen-llwyd character area), or a multiple establishments as in the case of the linear setting along the north bank of the Alwen valley Hafod-y-llan-isaf, Hafod-y-llan-uchaf, Hafod-elwy Ty-isaf and Ty-uchaf (now mostly hidden by forestry plantations in the Bryn-y-gors-goch character area), or in the case of the multiple settlements forming more compact blocks towards the northern side of the moor at Pant-y-fotty and Pant-y-fotty-bach, Waen-isaf-las and Waen-isaf-uchaf (Creigiau Llwydion character area). The continuing process of encroachment and the creation of new farms and cottages from these earlier nuclei continued well into the 18th and 19th centuries, Rhwngyddwyffordd and Hafod-y-llan-bach being two examples of dwellings with enclosures dating to this period. Other encroachments of this later period appear to be the isolated farmstead at Ty'n'y-llyn, north of Llyn Aled (Creigiau Llwydion character area) and possibly the cluster of present-day farmsteads including Tan-y-graig, Ty-isaf and Tai-pellaf, north of the Afon Alwen (Tan-y-graig character area).

Most of these isolated 'island' settlements, many of which were abandoned during the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, are associated with a characteristic early pattern of small fields with curving boundaries set around the homestead for rearing calves and as milking closes, passing into later progressively larger and more rectilinear enclosures of rough pasture as they moved out into the open moorland. Similar, though less successful farmsteads 'fell into disuse and decay, abandoned to the moors and the mists' before the 19th century, having failed to make the transition to a permanently occupied establishments following the rise in importance of sheep farming. A number of these settlements, with their banked enclosures, have been identified from fieldwork evidence around the margins of the moor, fossilised in time.

A third distinctive pattern is represented on the western side of the moor, overlooking the Conwy valley, where settlement and enclosure had clearly passed beyond the belt of the hafodydd before the 19th century, as indicated by place-names Hafoty-fawr, Hafoty-fach, Hafod-las, Hafod-y-geunen, Hafoty-cerrig and Hafoty-gwyn which now lie some distance below the moorland boundary. A distinctive land use pattern in this area is represented by a series of large polygonal enclosures marked by banks, fences and walls, resulting from the enclosure of extensive areas of rough pasture probably in the late 18th and early 19th centuries (Moel Maelogen and Fawnog-fawr character areas), some of which has undergone further improvement in more recent years.

The growth in importance in sheep farming between the later medieval and the present day has given rise to a variety of stone and earth structures built to provide shelter for flocks grazing all-year-round especially on the higher and more exposed parts of the moor. These vary from simple banks and windbreaks to more elaborate structures in the form of a cross or letter L or Z, designed to provide protection for winds blowing from different directions. Some of the structures are relatively recent, though others are ruinous and obviously of some antiquity and in several instances clearly built out of earlier buildings. A three-armed stone-built shelter near the head of the Brenig valley possibly being the origin of the place-name Hen-groes ('old cross') recorded in this area, still retained in the name Bryn yr Hen-groes. The place-name Waen Ddafad ('sheep moor') on the eastern flank of the Brenig valley is, interestingly, the only certain place-name on Mynydd Hiraethog associated with sheep husbandry. The need to gather sheep at various times of the year for shearing, marking, dipping and culling has likewise given rise to numerous sheepfolds on the moor, many of which are sited on tracks or around the fringes of the moorland. The sheepfolds like the shelters are of varying dates and range in form from small walled enclosures to larger and more elaborate structures with a number of different pens. Many of the older, stone-built folds have now fallen into disuse, the newer ones, together with other structures providing supplementary nutrition, commonly being built of timber posts, wire, and corrugated-iron sheeting.

Much of the eastern fringe of the historic landscape area is now dominated by commercial timber production, some areas of which area being extensively felled and replanted. The conifer plantations, which form part of the Clocaenog Forest managed largely by Forest Enterprise, has taken in many thousand hectares of former moorland and dates mainly from the 1930s, following in the wake of the crisis affecting upland farming before the First World War, much of the forestry within the historic landscape area belonging to the period after the Second World War. A number of smaller areas of conifer and mixed conifer in the area near Ty-isaf to north of the Alwen Reservoir and in the vicinity of Tan-y-graig had already been planted by the earlier 19th century, however, and other plantations were clearly actively being planted in this general area during the later 19th century.

For a relatively short period in the early 20th century much of heather moorland, particularly on the southern side of the moor, was managed as a grouse shooting estate, archaeological evidence of this phase of activity being the gaunt ruins of the Gwylfa Hiraethog hunting lodge, dating to the first two decades of the 20th century together with stone and earth shooting butts. The shooting butts are often arranged in groups or lines and sometimes marked by marker cairns. The shooting butts take a variety of different forms, including short lengths of walling, rectangular, circular or semicircular structures, and more complex shapes including H-shaped, L-shaped and T-shaped ones.

Today, large areas of moorland lie within the Mynydd Hiraethog Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) supporting low density sheep grazing, designated by virtue of its upland heathland and bog, and breeding bird assemblage.

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