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The Middle Wye Historic Landscape
Character area map

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Middle Wye: Pen-rhos-dirion
Gwernyfed, Llanigon and Talgarth, Powys
(HLCA 1095)

CPAT PHOTO 1040-09

Unenclosed upland common on the northern escarpment of the Black Mountains with prehistoric burial and ritual monuments, traces of marginal agriculture, quarrying, and abandoned post-medieval encroachments.

Historic background

Early prehistoric activity of Bronze Age and possibly earlier date is indicated by scatters of prehistoric flintwork at Chwarel-ddu, and on slopes of Hay Bluff, Twmpa, and Mynydd Troed. Bronze Age burial and ritual activity is represented by a number of monuments including the round barrows at Twyn-y-beddau, Pen-y-beacon and Wern Frank and the remnants of the Pen-y-beacon (Blaenau) stone circle. Though remote from centres of population, the extensive upland grazing of the Black Mountains has probably been an important economic resource as summer grazing since at least the later prehistoric period. Later prehistoric activity is represented by the Iron Age hillfort at Castell Dinas, its position on an isolated hill at a height of over 400m on the edge of the Black Mountains, overlooking the Rhiangoll valley cutting through the mountains to the south, indicates its strategic significance as well as its potential economic significance in terms of exploiting upland grazing within the mountains. Following the Norman conquest the area was split between the sub-lordships of Hay, Glasbury and Talgarth. By the 14th century an upland manor had been established at Castell Dinas (Bwlchyddinas) focused on the stone castle probably built in the 12th century within the defences of the former Iron Age hillfort. The castle, one of the demesne castles of the marcher lordship of Blaenllynfi, was the highest castle above sea level in England and Wales. Though initially of strategic importance, its possessions by the 1330s comprised only three trestle tables and a herd of 55 cows and 17 calves, indicating that it had become no more than an upland dairy farm, the animals possibly kept in the enclosure provided by the prehistoric hillfort defences, described as the beili-glâs ('green bailey'). The castle had probably been used for a similar purpose since at least the late 13th century: on several occasions during this period, the constable of Bwlchyddinas, William Gethin, had taken cattle belonging to the prior of Llanthony Abbey and kept them at the castle. The castle continued to be occupied throughout the later 14th century, and though it probably continued to suffer from decay it was provisioned against attack during the Glyndŵr rebellion in the early years of the 15th century. At the Act of Union in 1536 the area fell within the hundred of Talgarth. Practically the whole of the area remains unenclosed Common Land to the present day.

Key historic landscape characteristics

Topographically, the area encompasses the part of the northern escarpment of the Black Mountains and the unenclosed commons at the foot of the escarpment, between a height of about 300-700m. Some of the area has well-drained reddish coarse loamy soils, (Erdiston 2 Series), overlying sandstone bedrock which is exposed in places on the steeper slopes. Some of the flatter ground above the enclosed land and below the mountainside has seasonally waterlogged reddish fine silty soils and fine loamy soils, some with a peaty surface horizon (Fforest Series). Present-day land-use is predominantly rough grazing, with gorse and bracken. There are some marshy areas with reeds and pools of standing water in more poorly-drained areas, which in some instances may contain deposits which are of potential significance in terms of the environmental history of the area.

Traces of former settlement of medieval or late medieval date on the common is represented by house platforms and enclosures on less steeply sloping areas beyond margins of the enclosed land near Upper Island, Waun Croes Hywel, Blaenau, and Chwarel-ddu. Practically no modern settlement falls within the character area, with the exception of the possibly late 18th or early 19th-century encroachments at Cockalofty and Wern-ddu, which have small stone-built cottages and outbuildings, Cockalofty being described in the 1960s as 'the meanest rural house' seen in the Hay and Talgarth districts. These and a number of other abandoned and derelict stone house sites survive near the margins of the unenclosed land.

The area is largely unimproved rough grazing, often with no more than an occasional boundary stone marking parish boundaries and grazing rights on upland commons. There are some traces of agriculture possibly of late 18th- or early 19th-century date, though possibly earlier, represented by intermittent banks, narrow rig cultivation, and by remnant strip fields laid out date up and down or along the contours, as for example near Upper Island on Waun Croes Hywel, and on Rhos Fach and Rhos Fawr Commons.

The area is crossed by numerous trackways and footpaths, some of which are probably of medieval or early post-medieval origin, some running in hollow-ways or terraced into the slope of the hill, giving access to mountain pastures from lower-lying farms and townships and forming routes to settlements on the southern side of the Black Mountains, including the made-up road through the Gospel Pass and on to Capel-y-ffin and Llanthony Abbey.

Extractive industry is represented by numerous small post-medieval stone quarries and associated trackways for building stone and limestone at Cockalofty, Chwarel-ddu, Wern-ddu and on the sides of Mynydd Troed, including some linear quarries and areas of shallow, surface quarrying and small pits, with remains of quarry buildings at the larger quarries at Chwarel-ddu. Limekilns formerly existed near Bwlch and Chwarel-ddu, of which some structural remains survive at Chwarel-ddu.

Prehistoric burial and ritual monuments form a significant landscape element within the area, including the Pen-y-beacon stone circle, of which only one stone is now clearly visible, and the round barrows at Wern Frank, Twyn-y-beddau and Pen-y-beacon, often sited at access points onto the mountain-top. It appears to be significant from the point of view of ancient routes across the mountains that the modern road from Hay to Llanthony via the Gospel Pass passes Twyn-y-beddau round barrow and Pen-y-beacon (Blaenau) stone circle. A possible early medieval hermit's cell also lay on the route near Dan-y-capel, represented by orthostatic walling, with incised crosses on one stone, known as Waun Chapel.

An unusual survival in the area are the traces of the drainage ditches dug around tents of the Brecon Militia who camped upon Rhos Fach Common in the 1870s.


Burl 2000;
Davies 1983;
Haslam 1979;
Jones & Smith 1964;
King 1983;
Powys Sites and Monuments Record;
RCAHMW 1986;
Rees 1932;
Soil Survey 1983;
Walker 1998-99

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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