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Mynydd Hiraethog Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

Mynydd Hiraethog

Settlement Landscape

The extensively studied landscape of Mynydd Hiraethog has been influential in providing what is now widely regarded as a model for the history of upland settlement in North Wales. Despite its remote upland setting, a long and surprisingly complete though sporadic record of human settlement is evident on Mynydd Hiraethog from both archaeological and historical sources, possibly of a seasonal nature at some periods and of a more permanent nature at others due to a combination of climatic and economic factors and inextricably linked with the history of land use, discussed in the following section.

The earliest human activity which has so far been detected on Mynydd Hiraethog belongs to the later Mesolithic period, after about 6,000 BC, and is represented by scatters of worked stone implements found during excavations in the Brenig valley to the west of Hafoty Sion Llwyd and by fieldwork in the Aled valley, around the margins of the Aled Isaf reservoir. Finds of this kind have traditionally been thought to represent temporary encampments created by small family groups who spent much of the rest of the year in the lowlands, towards the coast, but followed the herds of deer and other game which migrated to the more open upland pastures in the summer months. There is a possibility that some of the early prehistoric lithic scatters on the moorland represent more permanent settlements, but the occurrence of a distinctive type of black chert, found in the limestone hills east of Prestatyn, 30km away to the north-east, provides a direct link between these upland sites with other contemporary settlements along the coast of North Wales and towards the mouth of the Vale of Clwyd. Similar evidence has also been found suggesting possible seasonal occupation during the middle or later Neolithic period, about 2,500 BC, at a number of places, especially within the Brenig valley, including the chance find of a stone macehead at Hafod-lom.

Despite the presence of numerous contemporary burial and funerary monuments, evidence for settlement on the moorland is generally fairly sparse during the early Bronze Age period. Temporary seasonal settlement may have continued in some areas, again possibly indicated by scatters of stone tools found around the margins of the Aled Isaf reservoir. Some of the monuments, particularly around the fringes of the moor, appear to have been deliberately sited to be visible from more permanently occupied dwellings on lower ground. There are even suggestions that settlement may have been deliberately excluded for a period of over 500 years during the early Bronze Age from the funerary and ritual landscape created around the head of the broad valley of the Afon Brenig and Afon Fechan, when possibly a substantial population lived and worked within sight of their ancestral tombs.

The ending of this sacred landscape is perhaps signalled by a circular timber structure, possibly a roundhouse of the middle Bronze Age, perhaps dating to about 1,300 BC, found below a kerb cairn (Brenig 6) towards the head of the Aber Llech-Damer stream. More certain evidence of renewed settlement either of a temporary or permanent nature is represented by a second posthole structure representing a roundhouse with a central hearth, belonging to the Iron Age period during the 3rd to 1st centuries BC, discovered during the excavation of a post-medieval dwelling in the Nant-y-crifolen stream valley (note below). Evidence of prehistoric settlement is quite rare within the historic landscape area as a whole, however, though a number of possible circular roundhouses with stone foundations have been identified, including two small structures about 5-6m in diameter in the valley of the Afon Twllan, towards the head of Bwlch-y-garnedd, possibly associated with several clearance cairns and therefore perhaps representing permanent settlement.

More widespread and coherent evidence of both seasonal and permanent settlement is evident from both archaeological and historic sources from the medieval and post-medieval periods onwards.

A substantial medieval farming establishment is represented by the partially excavated enclosed farmstead at Hen Ddinbych in the Aber Llech-Damer stream valley towards the western side of the historic landscape area, probably known by the name of Bisshopswalle (from bishop's 'wall' or 'enclosure') by the 1270s, which appears on comparison with sites elsewhere to have housed a dwelling and a number of long roofed sheepcotes which enabled flocks of sheep to be overwintered on one of the more sheltered areas of the mountain. The settlement, whose name implies that it formed an ecclesiastical upland grange, undoubtedly represents a significant capital investment by one of the larger medieval ecclesiastical landowners in Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch. The name of the person who set up the farmstead is yet to be identified, but it may have been one of the bishops of Bangor, who once held various manors in the parish. The farmstead had been established before the Edwardian conquest, probably under the patronage of Dafydd, brother of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, 'Prince of Wales', the waste of Bisshopswalle having been included within the possessions granted to Henry de Lacy, earl of Lincoln, as part of the newly-created lordship of Denbigh in 1282, after the uprising and defeat of the Welsh prince Dafydd.

This specialised farmstead may have been relatively short-lived, having evidently ceased to operate as a sheep farm by the 1330s, since by then the surrounding pasture was being sold annually to the local community by the lordship of Denbigh. The Survey of the Honour of Denbigh compiled in 1334 states that the pasture associated with the settlement was capable of supporting cattle rearing in both summer and winter, implying that all-year-round settlements in at least this more sheltered part of the moorland at this date. Indeed, the lands belonging to Bisshopswalle are defined in the survey by reference to Havothlum (Hafod-lom), an important farmstead in the area, which stood until the construction of the Llyn Brenig reservoir in the 1970s. In the 16th century Bisshopswalle appears to be later named hen dref ('old settlement') by Edward Lhuyd and Place amedowe (possibly plas y meudwy, 'hermit's hall') by John Leland, the name 'Hen Ddinbych' seemingly having been first coined in the mid 19th century.

More characteristic of the subsequent settlement history of Mynydd Hiraethog are smaller-scale dwellings associated with pastoral farming during the medieval period, represented by a number of hafodydd or 'summer houses' which, like Hafod-lom noted above, are documented from at least the early 14th-century onwards. There is the suggestion that over the course of time a larger number of temporary seasonal dwellings, linked to all-year-round settlements or hendrefi sited on more hospitable, lower-lying ground, probably developed into a smaller number of permanently occupied farmsteads and smallholdings due to changing patterns of land use. Some increase in population in the area during the later 13th and earlier 14th century resulted from the deliberate policy of dispersing Welsh communities from the parts of the Vale of Clwyd following the creation of the lordship of Denbigh, a number of whose inhabitants were resettled around the fringes of Mynydd Hiraethog.

Other early hafodydd are known from historical sources on Mynydd Hiraethog. Hafod-elwy, like Hafod-lom, is mentioned in the 14th-century Survey of the Honour of Denbigh and can be associated with two later farmsteads in the valley of the Afon Alwen, at Ty-isaf and Ty-uchaf, now partly engulfed by the forestry plantation. (The house known as Hafod Elwy near Tan-y-graig, further to the north, is evidently a more recent borrowing of the name.) Hafod-y-llan is mentioned in the earlier 16th century, the name being perpetuated in three 19th-century holdings just downstream from Hafod-elwy known as Hafod-y-llan-uchaf, Hafod-y-llan-isaf and Hafod-y-llan-bach, and may conceivably have been the place called Hauot y llan from which Llywelyn 'Prince of Wales' wrote to Edward I in 1280. Havotty-llyn-dau-uchain, an unidentified settlement now probably submerged below the Alwen Reservoir, is referred to in the early 17th century.

A number of hafod names on Mynydd Hiraethog are first recorded on 19th-century cartographic sources, as in the case of Hafod-gau, Pant-y-fotty and Pant-y-fotty-bach on the northern part of the moor to the west of Aled Isaf, and Hafod-yr-onen and Hafoty Sion Llwyd in the Brenig valley. Not all of these holdings are necessarily of medieval origin, however: on basis of cartographic evidence Hafod-y-llan-bach which made its first appearance in the early 19th century and, as noted above, the name of the present Hafod Elwy only re-emerged in the 20th century.

It is probable, however, that (as implied by the Survey of the Honour of Denbigh), a proportion of these hafodydd had been established by the earlier 14th century as either temporary or permanent dwellings associated with cattle rearing, presumably for the production of meat, dairy products and hides. A number of dwellings had clearly ceased to be occupied before the later 16th and earlier 17th centuries, when documentary references become more numerous. This was evidently the fate of the remarkable group of seven seasonally or permanently occupied dwellings represented by platforms, house foundations and enclosures along the banks of the Nant-y-criafolen stream, north of Hafoty Sion Llwyd, which have been shown by archaeological excavation to have been built and occupied in the 15th/16th century. The clustering of dwellings here appears to be unusual on Mynydd Hiraethog, however, where a single isolated dwelling or pair of dwellings at or just above the moorland edge was more characteristic of the pattern of settlement at this period here and elsewhere in the uplands of North Wales. The higher, open moor generally appears to have been avoided, early dwellings normally being focused, as in the case of the Nant-y-criafolen settlement, on the stream valleys which provided greater shelter, better pasture and the reliable sources of water essential for cattle husbandry. The principal valleys of the Afon Alwen, Afon Brenig and Afon Fechan were clearly a major attraction in this respect from an early date and in effect extending the settlement zone into the heart of the moorland. Characteristic settlements of this kind, represented by one or more building platforms or the foundations of long huts up to about 4-5m across and 8-9m long and often associated with an enclosure or cluster of fields, perhaps for milking and rearing calves, are to be seen at a number of similar locations. The head of each of the three stream valleys on the south side of the moor - the valleys of the Nant y Foel, Afon Nug, and Afon Llaethog - for example, have traces of long-abandoned settlement of this kind, probably associated with dairying, the names Ffynnon Llaethog and Afon Llaethog, meaning 'milky spring' and 'milky river', possibly having some resonance in this regard.

The later medieval and early post-medieval periods saw a rise in the importance of wool production in the Welsh uplands generally, which in view of the less labour-intensive nature of sheep farming is taken to be represented by the abandonment of many former upland summer dairy farms attached to lowland farms. A direct physical indication of this process is represented in the case of a number of earlier dwellings converted into sheepfolds or shelters and by the construction of new small stone huts only 2-3m across, often in the more inhospitable areas of the moor as temporary shelters for shepherds. A small number of farmsteads of medieval origin continued in occupation in the 17th to 19th centuries, however, particularly in the more favoured and sheltered valleys of the Alwen and Brenig, as in the case of Hafod-lom, Ty-isaf, Ty-uchaf, Hafod-y-llan-isaf, Hafod-y-llan-uchaf. Other new settlements emerged during this period as a result of continued encroachment onto the common, like the new cottages and smallholdings which appear to have become established at Tan-y-graig, Tai-pellaf and Tai-isaf in the Alwen valley, Rhwngyddwyffordd in the Aled valley and possibly Hafoty Sion Llwyd in the Brenig valley. Some farmers lived in relative comfort, Hafod-lom, for example, being a reasonably substantial farm with a reputation for poetry and song, but the occupants of dwellings scraped by in poverty. One family at Hafod-elwy, was described in the early 19th century as having a wooden box for a table and only stones to sit on.

By the 18th and 19th centuries a number of the larger farmsteads had developed complexes of stone buildings enclosing three or four sides of a yard, characterised by Tan-y-graig the former farmstead at Hafod-lom, and the more random clusters of small buildings still surviving in woodland at Hafod-y-llan-uchaf and Hafod-y-llan-isaf. The smaller farmsteads in more marginal locations generally had fewer outbuildings and often took the form of a house standing alone or a linear arrangement with the house with one or more outbuildings attached to one end, as for example at Rhwngyddwyffordd and Waen-isaf-las, or occasionally an L-shaped arrangement with an outbuilding set at right-angles to the house, as formerly at Hafod-yr-onen. Characteristic perhaps of the 18th-century dwellings is the now dilapidated pair of stone-built, single-storey cottages at Rhwyngyddwyffordd and Bwlch-du, the latter described in the 1930s as having heather underthatch covered with rush thatching and with a ridge of sods. Typical of the later 19th-century farmhouses is the small two-storey stone-built farmhouse at Hafoty Sion Llwyd, rebuilt in the 1880s, formerly with a slate roof, and with brick and stone window and door openings and a lean-to outhouse with a brick oven.

A number of specialised dwellings arose on the moorland in the wake of the construction of turnpike road in the early 19th century, including the turnpike cottage at Turpeg Mynydd, the coaching inn which at the Sportsman's Arms, and most spectacularly, the now ruinous hunting lodge at Gwylfa Hiraethog, visible as a landmark for many miles around. It was built early in the 20th century by Viscount Devonport at a scale and in an English vernacular style quite out of keeping with its setting but redolent of the privileged world of countryside pursuits in the years before the First World War. Several new cottages sprang up along the new turnpike road including Bryn-pellaf and the small dwelling after which Cottage Bridge is named, all of which have now disappeared. Other new dwellings were built below the dam when the Alwen Reservoir was built in the early 20th century, including barrack-housing to accommodate construction workers and a terrace of more permanent houses to accommodate the workforce employed in the waterworks.

A new cycle of abandonment afflicted Mynydd Hiraethog during course of the 20th century. During this period population figures plummeted from perhaps an all-time high in the late 19th and early 20th century to possibly the lowest level for many centuries, as witnessed by the isolated dwellings at Hafod-gau, Rhwngyddwyffordd, and Hafoty Sion Llwyd, the abandoned farms at and Hafod-y-llan-uchaf now engulfed by forestry, and the farms at Hafod-yr-onen and Hafod-lom, submerged below the Llyn Brenig reservoir in the 1970s. The ruins of a number of abandoned cottages, like Pant-y-maen, are now barely perceptible, but flagged in the landscape by stands of sycamore which once sheltered them from the wind.

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