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The Middle Wye Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Middle Wye Valley

The Agricultural Landcsape

There is evidence from both pollen work and carbonised plant remains for the beginnings of agricultural activity for cereal production in the region during the early Neolithic period, from a date of about 4000 BC. Animal bones from a number of local sites, including the Penyrwrlodd long cairn south of Talgarth, have also provided evidence of cattle, sheep, and pig husbandry from this early date, together with evidence for the hunting of wild deer. Woodland clearance continued throughout the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods for building materials, cultivation and for the creation of grassland, and there is some evidence for the selective clearance of local elm and lime woodland in the Neolithic to Middle Bronze Age periods, between 3500-1200 BC. Several studies in the Llynfi and Wye valleys suggest marked by increases in sediment accumulation in the valley bottoms throughout the prehistoric period, probably resulting from progressive forest clearance. As yet there is little evidence of agricultural activity in the area during the later Bronze Age, Iron Ages and Roman periods, but it seems likely that this intensified throughout this period. Increases in the sedimentation rate at Llangorse lake have been tentatively interpreted as indicating intensified arable agriculture and increased soil erosion in the Llynfi valley beginning in about the 1st and 2nd centuries, during the later Iron Age and earlier Roman period. Little is yet known about the extent of Romano-British settlement and land-use in the area, but the claimed descent of the lineage of Brychan, the legendary founder of the kingdom of Brycheiniog, from a Roman nobleman, hints at the possibility that a number of estates belonging to prominent Romano-British landowners having become established in the area by the end of the Roman period.

Progressive woodland clearance took place throughout the prehistoric, Roman and medieval periods, and it seems likely that by the medieval period the extent of woodland cover resembled that of the present day, with areas of semi-natural mixed deciduous woodland largely confined to the steeper and less accessible hillslopes and stream valleys. It is probable that from an early date systems of land-use developed to take advantage of the varied resources available within the historic landscape area. The area subdivides naturally into topographic regions, each with a distinct agricultural potential: wetter meadows along the floodplain of the Llynfi and Wye, best for winter grazing; the well-drained lower-lying ground above the floodplain, with extensive areas suitable for ploughing; sloping hill land, with woodland resources, meadows, and smaller level areas suitable for ploughing; and finally the exposed hill-land, best suited to summer grazing. Place-names often reflect the different kinds of land-use, ploughland (maes) probably being reflected in the names Maestorglwydd, Maesllwch, Penmaes and Pen-y-maes, woodland (coed) in the names Tregoyd and Cwrt-coed, meadow (gweirglodd) in the names Gwrlodde, Penyrwrlodd, and upland pasture or moorland in the names Rhos Fawr, Pen-rhos-dirion, and The Rhos.

Little is again known of the nature agricultural activity in the area during the early medieval period, though the legendary siting of Brychan's court at Talgarth and the supposed siting of the court Rhodri Mawr at Llyswen ('White Court') in the 9th century suggest that the rich low-lying farmland along the Llynfi and the Wye valleys saw the emergence of a number of important estates in the pre-conquest period, probably serviced by a number of bond settlements. The name of Bronllys, possibly derived from a personal name Braint and llys ('court'), suggests the location of another such estate.

A new administrative order was superimposed upon this system following the Norman conquest and the integration of the area into the newly-formed marcher lordships. Most if not all of the richer ploughlands on the lower-lying ground were confiscated and granted to lesser lords, knights and English settlers, to form feudal manors administered on the English system, extensive open fields being laid out in and around the former pre-conquest nucleated settlements at Llyswen, Bronllys, and Talgarth and around the new town of Hay and with smaller manors becoming established elsewhere, as at Aberllynfi, Pipton, Porthamel, Pont-y-wal, Trephilip, Tregoyd, Trevithel, Trebarried and Llanthomas. Settlements belonging to free men probably became established on the surrounding hill land from the conquest period, if not before, based upon Welsh inheritance rules and the joint rights to land by members of a single clan or gwely, and probably in some instances manifested by a group of tyddynau or farmsteads forming a township or tref clustered or with access to meadows, rough grazing and one or more sharelands divided into small open field strips. These welshries were largely confined to the smaller farms on the surrounding hill land throughout the medieval period. They remained subject to the marcher lordships and continued to form a vital element in the economic life of the lordship as a whole, the Welsh tenants of Cantref Selyf in the 14th century, for example, periodically undertaking harvest services to the English manor of Bronllys.

An idyllic picture of the region at the end of the 12th century is painted by Gerald of Wales who speaks of the production of great amounts of corn, ample pasture for cattle, woodland teeming with wild animals, and the Wye well stocked with salmon and grayling. Frequent documentary references to newly assarted lands in the parishes of Glasbury and Talgarth in the 12th century point to continuing population growth, and like other areas of Wales it is probable that by the end of the 13th century population densities had reached levels that, following plague and other disasters during the later 14th century, would only again be matched in the 16th century. Land shortage resulting from population growth and the effects of Welsh inheritance rules (which demanded equal shares between all male heirs) is evident from the fact that a majority of the tenants in the upland welshries of the lordship of Hay in the 1340s had less than 5 acres of arable land. A similar picture of overcrowding at this date is evident in the fertile lowland areas around Bronllys.

Llyswen was to have three common fields, one to the west of the village, one in the loop of the river to the north of the church, and one to the south-west of the village. Glasbury had extensive open fields on the sloping ground to the north of the village, with names such as Maes y llan issa and Maes y pentre in mid 17th-century documents. Bronllys remained an open field parish until the middle of the 19th century, the layout of fields on the Tithe map of 1839 suggesting a three-field system like Llyswen, with Minfield (Mintfield) to the north of the village, Coldbrook Field to the north-east, and with one or more open arable fields to the west and south-west, with names such as Maes Waldish, Maes dan Derwad, and Maes y bach. Talgarth again had a three-field system with Red Field to the north-east, Briar Field to the south-west and Lowest Common Field between the town and the Llynfi. Complex patterns of ownership had developed by the late 17th century within the extensive areas of open arable in the adjacent parishes and manors within the Llyfni valley, shared ownerships and the intermixture of strips suggesting that the agricultural economies of Talgarth, Porthamel and possibly Bronllys were highly dependent upon each other.

Much of the former extensive manorial open fields in the area have now been lost, following the enclosure movement particularly in the later 18th and earlier 19th centuries, though some areas have been lost to other activities. Various former areas of open field were cut through by new turnpike roads built in the later 18th century. Much of Glasbury's former open fields was emparked for Maesllwch Castle Park in the 18th century. Former areas of open field to the north of Talgarth, to the south of west of Bronllys, to the west of Llyswen, and to the west of Hay have been built over in relatively recent times. More extensive areas were still visible as individual strips shown on Tithe maps of the mid 19th century, but have since been lost due to hedge removal and the amalgamation of smaller fields. Significant traces of the common fields still survive in some areas, however, being represented by distinctive strip fields enclosed by hedges or by areas of ridge and furrow, as in the case of the area to the north-east and south-west of Talgarth, in the area of Penmaes to the north-east of Bronllys, in the area of Boughrood Brest, and on the sloping ground to the south of Hay. A number of smaller areas of ridge and furrow probably represent open fields belonging to some of the smaller manors, as for example near Llanthomas and Trevithel.

Animal husbandry also played an important role in the manorial economy, an important element here being the low-lying and formerly unenclosed meadow land to either side of the confluence of the Llynfi and Wye, traditionally open to commoners between the end of November to Lady Day, the 25 March, some areas such as Upper Gro and Lower Gro near Glasbury still surviving as common land.

From an early date the emphasis within the foothills and mountains was upon animal husbandry, cattle rearing for meat and dairy products, and sheep in response to boom in the wool trade in the 14th century. Much of the hill land was the province of the welshries, the broken topography of these areas, combined with different patterns of landownership and economic activity resulting in a distinct pattern of small and irregular fields in the valleys and lower slopes with unenclosed pasture on the hills and moorland above, used for summer grazing. Unlike the extensive open fields of the lowland manors, the sharelands of the native townships were probably often no more than a few small parcels of parallel strips which, following enclosure in the post-medieval period, are now much more difficult to identify. Some of the former sharelands can occasionally be identified by field-name evidence, however, the occurrence of the word maes often standing for the English 'open field'. The lands within the native welshries was held by tenants of the lordship, who also owned cattle and pigs, in return for ploughing and harvesting duties. In the lordship of Hay in 1340s, for example, 9 tenants held about 37 acres at Maestorglwydd at about 320m above Ordnance Datum, and at Wenallt 175 acres was held by 22 tenants at a height of 400m. The land at Wenallt was held by virtue of Calan Mai, a tribute of cows rendered at the beginning of May in alternate years. Hedged fields and paddocks were created from an early date to protect upland meadows and to control stock during the winter months and probably by at least the 15th century timber longhouses were being built for the upland farms which could accommodate animals at one end.

In some areas the enclosed land perhaps already extended to the margins of the mountain land by the middle of the 13th century. This is suggested by records suggesting that during the first few decades of the 13th century the monks of Brecon Priory were extending the land they held at Trewalkin by clearing woodland in the direction of Mynydd Troed, at heights of between about 300-400m above Ordnance Datum. In many respects the boundary between the enclosed and unenclosed land below the escarpment of the Black Mountains represents a relict landscape of the later medieval period, with fields and isolated holdings pushed out onto the common. Documentary evidence describing the lordship of Hay in the 1340s identifies Trefynes a name evidently derived from the Welsh Tref-ynys (island township), probably representing Lower Island, the 'island' of enclosed land on Waun Croes Hywel at 350m. In the 1330s the castle at Castell Dinas, at a height of over 400m, was evidently being used for little more than housing cattle, possibly within the defences of the former Iron Age hillfort, referred to as the beili-glās ('green bailey').

Other early systems of land-use in the area are suggested by the remains of 14th-century stone buildings belonging to the Cistercian grange at Clyro Court Farm, but are as yet poorly understood. The later medieval period saw the gradual decay of the medieval systems of land tenure in both the English manors and the Welsh townships, the substitution of rents for feudal duties, the amalgamation of holdings, and the emergence of a number of estates based on the earlier feudal manors. Surpluses of both corn and cattle were being exported to other regions of Wales and England. The local cattle trade in the early 18th century is described by Daniel Defoe in his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, published in the 1720s: 'from hence they send yearly, great herds of black cattle to England, and which are known to fill our fairs and markets, even that of Smithfield it self'. Extensive apple, pear and cherry orchards attached to the lowland farms around Talgarth, Bronllys, Llyswen, Glasbury and Hay had evidently already become a distinctive feature of the landscape by the 17th century, some clearly planted on former ridge and furrow enclosed from the medieval open fields and some perhaps on newly-constructed ridges. The remarkable late 17th-century plaster ceiling in the parlour Trefecca Fawr farmhouse is enriched with foliage and a profusion of cider apples which 'worthily celebrates the fruitfulness of the land'. The apple and pear orchards at Trefecca Fawr, which extended to over 10 acres in the middle of the 19th century, were known for a variety of apple called Golden Pippin, which is recorded from at least the 1620s.

The improvements in farming methods introduced during the 18th century effectively saw the end of the medieval system of farming in the area. Farms in the Wye valley between Hay and Talgarth by introducing new machinery, new crop rotations to improve soil fertility, and new breeding stock, were at the forefront of this agricultural revolution in Wales. Board of Agriculture reports note that as many as five rotations were in use in the lowland hundred of Talgarth by the late 18th century, including wheat, oats, barley, peas and clover leys. Many of the innovations were spearheaded by Howel Harris, the charismatic Methodist leader who played a leading role in the founding of the Brecknockshire Agricultural Society in 1755. Harris's primary objective had been to promote good farming practice within the cooperative and self-sufficient Christian community he had founded at Trefecca, which combined with 'manufactures' helped to create a profitable use of the land.

Commercial rabbit farming for both meat and fur is implied by the place-name The Warren which appears in the loop of the river, just to the west of Hay, and near Felindre, but pillow-mounds or artificial rabbit warrens are not recorded in either of these areas, and the date of this possible local agricultural industry is uncertain.

During the course of the later 18th and 19th centuries extensive tracts of common land in the form of the common open fields, common meadows along the Wye and Llyfni, and the upland commons or sheep walks were to be partitioned and fenced, walled or hedged. Though Brecknock still today has the highest percentage of rough grazing and common land of any county along the borderland of Wales, the amount of common land in the county as a whole was reduced by almost 50% during the course of the 19th century. Enclosure of the common land by means of fencing and hedging was promoted for the purpose of increasing agricultural efficiency, by consolidating landholdings, enabling drainage and other land improvement schemes to be undertaken, and as a means of controlling livestock and protecting crops. Enclosure was actively promoted by the major landowners and the Brecknock Agricultural Society, the society offering awards in the 1770s for the 'reclamation and [making] profitable the greatest quantity of Rough Land overrun with Fern, Broom, Furze or Heath, uncultivated within Memory'. Most of the medieval open fields had evidently been enclosed by the end of the 18th century. Only two common fields are recorded as being enclosed in the area in the first half of the 19th century, 50 acres at Llyswen in 1858 and 105 acres at Bronllys in 1863.

Other agricultural improvements undertaken during the 18th and 19th-centuries included the digging of drainage ditches and the creation of water meadows in some of the lower-lying areas along the Wye and Llynfi. Sale particulars of the 1790s for Chancefield farm, south of Talgarth, for example, mentions that the 'lands may at all times be overflowed with water', suggesting that some form of irrigation scheme was in operation. The demand for lime for spreading on the land gave rise to a number of small quarries and limekilns in the hills above Talgarth, Llanigon and Hay. New cattle breeds were introduced to the area, especially from the adjacent county of Hereford, which replaced or were crossed with the breeds that were traditional to the area. Oxen remained the main working farm animal for ploughing and other tasks upon the land until about the middle of the 18th century. Horses until this period had been largely used for road transport, but were becoming the most common working animal from the beginning of the 19th century.

Studies from the sediments deposited in Llangorse lake suggest a renewed period of soil erosion possibly resulting from a significant increase in the amount of marginal land being brought into cultivation and reflecting an increase in cereal prices in the troubled years at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the early 19th century. Further studies are needed, but it is possible that increased runoff of water resulting from agricultural expansion resulted in increased flooding in the valley bottoms, possibly giving rise to the abandonment in the mid 17th century of the medieval church site next to the bank of the Wye at Glasbury, which had perhaps safely occupied the same site during the previous millennium. In the first decade of the 19th century Theophilus Jones was bemoaning the continuing inroads being made into the native woodlands, noting that Llanigon 'like the rest of the county [is] becoming daily more denudated; few thinking of planting and still fewer of preserving'. By the middle of the 19th century the broad fertile valley of the Wye and its major tributary the Llynfi had become the main grain producing areas of both Radnorshire and Brecknockshire, the percentage of ploughland given in the Tithe rising to 30% in the parishes of Bronllys and Llyswen to over 40% in Clyro.

As noted above, Brecknockshire and Radnorshire suffered from rural depopulation in the early 19th century, resulting from the migration of substantial elements of the rural population to the South Wales coalfield. This was particularly marked in Talgarth, where the number of uninhabited houses in the 1801 census reached almost 10%, beginning a trend that continued throughout the 19th and earlier 20th centuries, and resulting in the further amalgamation and consolidation of farm holdings, and the abandonment of smaller farms, tenements and cottages especially in the more remote and marginal areas of the historic landscape area.

In addition to buildings and other structures, the complex history of agricultural land-use within the Middle Wye historic landscape area has given rise to a considerable variety of expression within the landscape: remnant areas of ridge and furrow representing medieval common fields; strip fields enclosed by planted single-species hedges representing the enclosure of former open fields in the 18th and 19th centuries; small and irregular fields on the foothills and hillslopes with mature multi-species hedges resulting from gradual and piecemeal woodland clearance from the medieval period onwards; large rectangular fields along the floodplain representing the late enclosure of former common meadows used for winter grazing; former water-meadows crossed by shallow gullies; large upland polygonal fields bounded by single-species hedges, banks or orthostatic walling representing late enclosure of upland commons; field lynchets indicating former plough erosion; areas of narrow-rig cultivation in some marginal areas; and unenclosed upland commons moorland. A wide range of conservation and management issues are involved, but the most vulnerable elements which of importance in illustrating the history of land-use in the area are the variety of field boundary types, including hedges, banks, walls and lynchets, the management of ancient broad-leaved woodland, and the conservation of waterlogged deposits and other sediments which preserve evidence of environmental change.

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