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The Middle Wye Historic Landscape
Character area map

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Middle Wye: Hay
Hay and Llanigon, Powys
(HLCA 1088)

CPAT PHOTO 1041-23

Medieval castle borough, market town and associated open fields, emerging as important commercial and service centre in 17th and 18th centuries and cultural and tourist centre in the modern period.

Historic background

Hay, unlike other nucleated settlements in the Middle Wye Valley historic landscape area, appears to be have been a wholly new foundation of the Norman period, though the ford across the river at this point is probably of much greater antiquity. The earliest earthen castle, to the south-west of the town, probably dates to the period of the Norman conquest period in about the 1090s, and was probably built by William Revel, to whom the lordship of Hay was granted by Bernard de Neufmarché in recognition of his part in the conquest of the pre-conquest kingdom of Brycheiniog. An early church on the site of the present church of St Mary was probably also built at this period. The name of the town is derived from the Norman French La Haie Tailée ('the clipped hedge'). The precise significance of the name is uncertain, though it appears to refer to a hedged and possibly defensive enclosure of some kind at this early period. It is uncertain whether the Welsh name of the town, Y Gelli or Y Gelli Gandryll is a direct translation, being composed of the elements celli ('grove') and candryll ('hundred piece'). The focus of the town shifted slightly to the north-east towards the beginning of the 13th century when the masonry castle was built. The new town of Hay grew up in the shadow of the stone castle, and following a number of attacks in the early 13th century it was provided with stone defences and gateways in about the 1230s, when the castle itself was refurbished by order of Henry III.

The town initially held an important administrative position within the lordship, but following the period of turmoil at the beginning of the 15th century the castle the military significance of the castle declined in the later medieval period. Due to its prominent position controlling one of the few routes into the Middle Wye Valley, the town came to benefit from the gradual growth of trade in the later medieval period, becoming an important market town and service centre for an extensive hinterland in the 16th and 17th centuries. The town failed to develop as a significant industrial centre during the course of the Industrial Revolution, but further stimulus to growth came with the improvements to the turnpike roads in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the opening of the Hay-Brecon Tramroad in the second decade of the 19th century, and the opening of the Hereford, Hay and Brecon Railway in the 1860s. The town acquired many of the trappings of provincial urban life during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and in the later 20th century witnessed further rejuvenation following its development as a cultural and tourist centre.

Key historic landscape characteristics

The character area occupies an area of sloping ground above the floodplain and to the west of Cusop Dingle, extending from the southern bank of the Wye at a height of 80m above Ordnance Datum to the lower slopes of the hillside above, at a height of about 160m above Ordnance Datum. The soils are well-drained reddish coarse and fine loams (Newnham Series) overlying gravel on lower ground, and deep well-drained reddish coarse loams (Esrick 1 Series) overlying reddish till on the higher ground above the town.

The town contains a number of significant buildings from the 13th century to the 19th century, which illustrate its historical progression from planted castle borough, through medieval market town to its present-day status as a modern service centre. Surviving medieval buildings include, the masonry castle probably started by Matilda de Breos in about 1200, consisting of a ringwork, square keep and curtain wall, refurbished in the 1230s. Belonging to the 15th century is the tower of St Mary's Church, the remainder of the church having been rebuilt following collapse at about the end of the 16th century. Eglwys Ifan, an early guild chapel within the town fell, into disrepair and was substantially rebuilt in the 1930s. Many of the medieval houses and other buildings within the town are likely to have been of timber of which little or no trace has survived above ground. The earliest surviving building is the Three Tuns, perhaps characteristic of many former buildings in the town, which originated as a small 16th-century cruck-built timber hall. Timber-framing with wattle and daub panels probably continued to be the most common building material until well into the 17th century, later medieval buildings possibly being characterized by the Cafe Royal, which originated a timber-framed town house with a jettied upper floor, dating to the 1620s. Stone, as in the case of the large stone mansion built in about the 1660s against the west side of the medieval castle (badly damaged by fire in the 1930s and 1970s), may have been used only sparingly within the town until later in the 17th century. The town's medieval stone defences were evidently still to be seen in the 16th century, but practically all trace above ground was fast disappearing by the late 18th and early 19th centuries as the town expanded beyond its earlier limits. Little otherwise is known of the buildings of the town, however, before early 19th century, when a considerable amount of rebuilding took place, often still within the framework of the medieval street plan. A wide range of new buildings appeared, including new genteel town houses, civic building, almshouses, hotels, workers' houses, mills, nonconformist chapels, schools, a workhouse, and a clocktower. Sandstone rubble and slate remained the most commonly used building materials throughout the 19th century, though an increasing use was made of ashlar and red, yellow and blue bricks for window and door dressings.

Distinctive traces of the former open fields of Hay manor survive on the flatter ground to the west and the sloping ground to the south of the town centre some with field-names such as Maes, Maesdowen and Lower Maesdowen, indicating former open fields. Particularly characteristic are the strip fields to the south of the town, between Clay Cottage and Bryn Teg, representing enclosure of former medieval strip fields, now often with low-cut multi-species hedges including hawthorn, holly and hazel. Some of the field here as well as some bordering directly onto the southern and western boundaries of the town also retain traces of ridge and furrow, representing medieval open field strips, much of the original field systems having been built over as the town expanded during the 19th and 20th centuries. Cultivation of the town's open fields will have been undertaken from the town during the medieval period, the crises of the 14th century and Hay's growth as a market town during the 14th and 15th centuries probably leading to the amalgamation and consolidation of former dispersed holdings and the emergence of farmsteads sited in the countryside outside the town during the late medieval period, on the periphery of the former open fields. The substantial hollow-way, between Bryn Teg and Caenantmelyn to the south of Hay, cuts through part of the system of strip fields in this area, suggests that the process of enclosure of the open fields was already have been well advanced by the early post-medieval period.

Parts of the horse-drawn tramway between Hay and Brecon built in 1816 are still visible in the area, most notably a 400m-long terrace cut into the edge of the river bank at The Warren, to the west of Hay. Much of the former course of the tramway was superseded by the Hay, Hereford and Brecon Railway in 1862, which remained in operation until the 1960s, the course of which is still visible in places.


Bowen 2000;
Cadw 1988;
Cadw 1994b;
Cadw 1999;
Haslam 1979;
Hughes 1990;
Jenkins 1970;
Jervoise 1976;
Jones & Smith 1964;
King 1961;
Minchinton et al. 1961;
Morgan 1995-96;
Morris 1986-87;
Powys Sites and Monuments Record;
Soil Survey 1983;
Silvester & Dorling 1993;
Soulsby 1983;
Williams 1965

For further information please contact the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust at this address, or link to the Countryside Council for Wales' web site at

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