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The Middle Wye Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Middle Wye Valley

The Religious Landscape

The Middle Wye historic landscape area preserved a rich heritage of religious landscapes represented by buildings and other structures from the prehistoric period, the early medieval to post-medieval periods.

Belonging to the Neolithic period are an important group of chambered long cairns including those at Pipton, Penyrwrlodd (Talgarth), Little Lodge, Penyrwrlodd (Llanigon), Clyro, and the pair of long cairns near Ffostyll. At least one additional tomb once existed at Croes-llechau, east of Porthamel, which survived until at least the early years of the 19th century. The tombs belong to a distinctive group of monuments in the Black Mountains area of Brecknockshire, whose closest parallels lie in the Cotswolds. A number of the sites in the area have been excavated and have been shown to consist of long trapezoidal cairns, up to 50m long in some instances, enclosing one or more burial chambers that were used for the burial of a number of different individuals. The form of the monuments possibly symbolize a 'house of the dead', with the individual chambers possibly representing different family groups. The tombs are widely spaced and cover a wide topographical range, from the edge of the floodplain of the Wye in the case of Clyro, up to the lower foothills of the Black Mountains in the case of Penyrwrlodd (Llanigon). The scale of the monuments suggest that they may in some way defined the territories of different groups.

The round barrow became the principal form of burial monument during the earlier Bronze Age, of which a number of examples are recorded in the on the lower-lying hills at Ffostyll, Park Wood, and Coed Meiadd near Tredomen, as well as on the lower edge of the Black Mountains at Pen-y-beacon, Wern Frank, Twyn-y-beddau, Y Grib, and Mynydd Bychan and on the edge of the escarpment of the Black Mountains at Twmpa. A number of the burial mounds are prominently sited within the landscape, on spurs, ridges or hilltops, and although many barrows have either not yet been identified or have been damaged beyond recognition, the fact that the sites often occur singly and at some distance from each other suggests that they might again have some territorial significance as well as having been used for burial. In addition to the surviving mounds a number of ring-ditches have been identified by aerial photography which probably also represent Bronze Age burial monuments. A single ring-ditch has been identified near Applebury on the north side of the Wye west of Glasbury, and a group of six have been identified near Spread Eagle, to the west of Pipton. The Spread Eagle group appear to form part of a barrow cemetery perhaps significantly sited on the edge of the floodplain near the confluence of the Llynfi and Wye. Cropmark evidence suggests that the ring-ditches might form part of a complex which includes a Neolithic cursus monument represented by two parallel ditches. The purpose of cursus monuments is uncertain, but they appear to be associated with ritual activity. A single stone remains prominently visible of the Pen-y-beacon or Blaenau stone circle below Hay Bluff, a Bronze Age monument of a type which again appears to have had ritual or ceremonial functions.

Little further is yet known of the religious activity in the area until the early medieval period. Christianity had already become adopted by the late 5th century, and by this time the earliest recorded rulers of Brycheiniog are closely associated with the church. The traditional burial place of Gwenfrewi (Gwendoline), daughter of Brychan Brycheiniog, king of Brycheiniog, is at Talgarth, his chief court, suggesting the existence of an royal burial ground and possibly a church associated with the court at this early date. The dedication of the churches at both Talgarth and Llyswen to Gwendoline indicate that she was the focus of an important local cult. The church at Llyswen had probably been established by the middle of the 6th century, in association with a pre-conquest llys or court, but there is no certain evidence of a pre-conquest church associated with the assumed llys at Bronllys.

Glasbury is a further important early religious centre in the area of the Middle Wye in the pre-conquest period, its name possibly either deriving from the Welsh Clas-ar-wy ('clas on the Wye', a version of the name first recorded in the 16th century), or representing a hybrid of the Welsh clas and the English burh ('fort, enclosure') and synonymous with the name Clastbyrig first recorded in 1056. The church appears to have lain at the heart of an extensive pre-conquest parish which spanned the entire width of the valley, and which perhaps ceded territory to other daughter churches as they became established in the pre-conquest period. The clas church at Glasbury is associated with the legend of Cynidr, an alledged son of Brychan, who is said to be buried at the church he founded there. The earlier church at Glasbury was strategically sited at the confluence of the Llynfi and Wye, aerial photography suggesting that the church may have lain within a large curvilinear enclosure. There have been suggestions that the original foundation may alternatively have been on Ffynnon Gynydd Common to the north of Glasbury, but this seems less likely. Other pre-conquest churches in the area appear to have been those at Llowes, Llanigon, Llanfilo, and Llanelieu, each sited within circular churchyards, each with Welsh dedications, to Meilig, Eigon, Beilo, and Ellyw respectively. Two possibly 7th to 9th-century inscribed pillar stones in the churchyard at Llanelieu a possibly 11th-century cross with wheel-cross of celtic type at Llowes appear to confirm the pre-conquest foundations of at least these two churches, Llowes also probably referred to in the 12th-century Book of Llandaff, with reference to a grant made in the 7th century.

A number of significant changes were made to the organisation of the church in the area following the Norman conquest in the 1090s. The clas church at Glasbury was refounded and bestowed upon St Peter's in Gloucester. The churches in Talgarth and Llanigon were both bestowed upon the new Benedictine priory founded by Bernard de Neufmarché in the 1090s at Brecon, the glebe land at Talgarth being known at Tir-y-prior ('Prior's Land') until modern times. A new parish church dedicated to St Mary was built at Hay, perhaps initially to serve the early castle built by William Revel following the conquest of Brycheiniog, its parish being carved out of the pre-conquest parish of Llanigon. The church had evidently been built before the medieval town was founded further to the north and was consequently to remain outside the town walls. The church at Bronllys likewise appears contemporary with the foundation of Bronllys castle by the Clifford's in about 1090, and similarly dedicated to St Mary, its parish in this instance being carved out of the extensive parish belonging to Glasbury church. The church was given to the Cluniac priory at Clifford Herefordshire, who still held it at the dissolution. The origins of the parish church dedicated to St Michael and All Angels at Clyro is uncertain, but it too may have been a new foundation associated with the construction of Clyro Castle. A number of other churches and chapels in the area possibly originated as non-parochial proprietary churches associated with early manorial centres at Aberllynfi and possibly Pipton and Llanthomas, a former private chapel or llan at the latter possibly being referred to as Thomaschurch in 1340. These smaller chapels were probably never wealthy, but a number of the parish churches had evidently accumulated significant wealth during the later medieval period despite the apparently size of the settlements associated with them. The fine rood screens in the isolated churches at Llanelieu and Llanfilo can only have been purchased at considerable cost, and yet the parishes themselves seem unlikely to have ever had large populations.

Following the re-establishment of the castle and town at Hay away from the original focus of the settlement a new chapel dedicated to St John was built within the town walls possibly in the 1250s, serving as a guild chapel as well as for the convenience of the townspeople. A change in the course of the Wye and Llynfi flooded the former clas church at Glasbury in about 1660, leading to its abandonment and ultimately to the further fragmentation of its parish. The parish church was replaced by the new church of St Peters consecrated in 1665, built on higher ground on the river terrace 400m to the south, and possibly using some stone brought from the old church. The new church eventually fell into disrepair and was replaced by the present church dedicated to St Cynidr and St Peter in the 1830s. The chapel of St John's in Hay, long known as Eglwys Ifan, had an equally chequered history. Abolished at the Reformation in the mid 16th century, it was used as a schoolroom in the 17th century but had become ruinous by the 1770s. It was turned into lock-up between 1811-70, later becoming a fire station, a shop and then a house. The building was substantially rebuilt in the 1930s and is now used as a chapel and meeting room.

Three further elements of the medieval Christian landscape in the area of the Middle Wye are holy wells, monastic lands, and a single wayside cross. Several holy wells or springs are known in the area, and though little is generally known about them some are associated with folklore or have supposed curative powers. They include Ffynnon Eigon at Llanigon, opposite side of Digedi Brook from the church, Ffynnon Beilo outside the churchyard at Llanfilo, now capped with stone but formerly the village water supply, Ffynnon Gynydd to the north of Glasbury, and Monk's Well at Tir-mynach. The lands at Tir-mynach formed part of a grange or farm managed by lay brothers, belonging to the Cistercian abbey at Cwmhir. Stone buildings of 14th-century which probably formed part of the grange are evident at Clyro Court Farm. Other lands granted to the Benedictine Priory at Brecon included lands near Trefecca Fawr, granted in the later 12th century, and lands between Trewalkin and Mynydd Troed granted in the early 13th century. The medieval stone wayside cross south of Llanigon, known as the Scottish Pedlar, may have been sited on the medieval pilgrimmage route from Hay to Llanthony via Gospel Pass. It is first described in 1690 as 'Pitch'd in a hedge by ye way side call'd hewl y groes'.

By the end of the medieval period the Middle Wye historic landscape area was divided between the ecclesiastical parishes of Hay, Llanigon, Clyro, Glasbury (on the north and south banks of the river, but subsequently split), Llowes, Boughrood, Llyswen, Llanelieu, Aberllynfi, Talgarth, Bronllys, and Llanfilo, together with small areas of Llandefalle and Llangorse parishes. The guild chapel of St John at Hay was abolished at the time of the Reformation and the former chapelries at Aberllynfi, Felindre, Cilonw, and the possible chapel at Pipton had all disappeared by the 18th century. The chapel at Cilonw, possibly dedicated to St Celin, was already in ruins by the 1570s. The chapel at Aberllynfi had no incumbent after 1660, its old font dated to 1635 being moved to the new church of St Peter's, Glasbury. The chapel at Felindre is supposed to have fallen into decay by the 18th century its site possibly below the present community hall in a field formerly known as Chapel Field.

Much of the original medieval fabric survives at Llanigon, Llanelieu, Llanfilo, and Talgarth, whilst at Hay the church collapsed in about 1700, leaving only the 15th-century tower. The main body of the church was rebuilt at Clyro in the mid 19th century, leaving only the base of the medieval tower intact, and at Bronllys the main body of the church was similarly rebuilt in 1880s, leaving the 13th-century tower intact, a rare Welsh example of a detached medieval belltower. The remaining churches at Llowes and Llyswen, like the nave and chancel of Hay, were totally rebuilt between the 1830s and 1860s, though the foundations of the medieval churches no doubt still lie buried below the ground. A new church near Cwmbach to the north of Glasbury was opened in 1882, which formed the new parish of All Saints, Glasbury, Radnorshire.

The eastern borderland of Radnorshire and Brecknockshire played an important role in the history of Welsh nonconformism, of which significant traces are still to be seen within the landscape. A sermon before the House of Commons in 1646 spoke with evident concern that 'The Gospel has run over the mountains between Breconshire and Monmouthshire as the fire in the thatch'. Early nonconformism in the area is especially associated with the Baptist leader Vavasor Powell who is believed to have started his itinerant preaching at The Beudy near the present Maesyronnen Chapel on the hills to the north of Glasbury in the 1640s. Maesyronnen Chapel, described as 'the most important surviving building associated with the early nonconformist movement in Wales' was converted from a 16th-century farmhouse and barn in about 1696, being an offshoot of the early Baptist communities which had already become established at Hay and Llanigon.

An Act of Parliament passed in 1649 permitted the setting up of licensed nonconformist groups, which for a time were to meet in private houses and barns throughout the district. Part of the new house built by the Parliamentary soldier William Watkins at Penyrwrlodd, Llanigon, in 1650, is said to have been aside for this purpose. Subsequently, in 1707, a stable-block was built to provide a dissenting chapel on its upper floor. A dissenting academy was established at the old farm of Llwynllwyd to the west of Llanigon in the early 1700s. This was attended by both Howel Harris and Williams Williams, Pantycelyn, who were to become prominent figures in the history of Welsh nonconformism.

Various denominations emerged during the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, including the Baptists, Calvinistic Methodists, Wesleyan Methodists, Primitive Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists, who in time were able to build their own places of worship within the area. Many of the surviving chapels date to the mid or later 19th century, in some instances replacing later 17th- or earlier 18th-century buildings. These buildings often form important architectural and historical elements within the towns and villages of the area, and include five chapels in Hay, three chapels in Talgarth, and one each in Bronllys, Glasbury, Cwmbach, Felindre, Llyswen and Treble Hill. A number of chapels were built in the countryside, to serve the dispersed rural communities, including those at Felin-newydd, Tredomen, Pwll-mawr near Tredustan, Pengenffordd, and the New Zion Primitive Methodist Chapel near Moity Farm. A number of the chapels have awe-inspring _Penyrheol and Rhosgwyn, both with the dramatic escarpment of the Black Mountains as a backdrop, and Brechfa, on the edge of the common next to Brechfa Pool.

A further important legacy of nonconformism in the Middle Wye are the complex of 18th- and 19th-century buildings at Trefecca resulting from the ministry of Howel Harris with the support of Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon. The Methodist community at Trefecca was established by Howel Harris, the founder of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism, who following a profound religious experience in the Talgarth churchyard, had spent the years after 1735 preaching and founding Methodist societies in Wales and England. Harris's preaching in turn inspired the hymn-writer William Williams, Pantycelyn, to the nonconformist persuasion. In 1752 Harris assembled about 100 of his Welsh supporters whom he referred to as his teulu ('family') in a community at Trefecca Fach, his own home. A new building was built for the community, next to the farmhouse in 1772, in a 'modern Gothick style', being described by William Williams as 'the castellated monastery' and by John Wesley as 'a little paradise'. The community, sometimes referred to as 'a kind of Protestant monastery' was actively involved in farming and manufacturing and aimed at self-sufficiency, Howel Harris also playing a leading role in the formation of the Brecknockshire Agricultural Society in 1754, the first such society in Wales. Further buildings were erected to serve the community, including a chapel, infirmary, bathhouse, dovecot and fishpond. A printing press was established in 1758 which continued until 1806, and a school for the manufacture of woollens with 8 looms was set up in 1756. At one stage the residents of the community are said to have been engaged in up to sixty different crafts and trades. The vitality of the community dwindled after Harris's death in 1773. The building became a Calvinistic Methodist Theological College (Coleg Trefeca) in 1842, to which a terrace of students' lodgings were added in 1876. The college closed in 1906 and the buildings have now become a training centre for the Presbyterian Church in Wales.

Rapid population expansion and the more frequent use of memorial stones in the later 19th-century gave rise to a shortage of burial spaces, particularly in the case of the larger nucleated settlements, giving rise to the large new cemetery at Hay, opened in 1870, which remains the only municipal cemetery in the historic landscape area. The cemetery, along Common Lane, to the west of the town, is set out within one of strip fields resulting from the enclosure of the former medieval open fields of the town.

The most recent religious landscapes within the Middle Wye are those created by the presence of the 20th-century hospital chapels at Talgarth and Bronllys. The chapel at Talgarth was built in a gothic style in 1900, Bronllys chapel being built in 1920 in an 'Arts and Crafts style with Modern Movement influences'.

The Middle Wye historic landscape area contains a rich and diverse heritage of what can loosely be termed religious associations from the prehistoric past up to modern times and which are important in number of spheres - for their significance in terms of architectural history, for their visual significance within the landscape, for their association with important historical figures or movements, and for the archaeological evidence they preserve below and above ground. The monuments present an equally diverse range of conservation and management issues, but a number of priorities can be outlined. The management of below and above ground archaeological evidence is particularly important in the case of prehistoric cropmark sites, prehistoric burial mounds and abandoned medieval church and chapel sites. Building conservation is clearly most important as regards medieval and later churches and chapels. Churchyards and churchyard monuments are of equal importance in terms of landscape history. Memorial stones in the historic landscape area largely date from the later 18th century onwards and are important in terms of social, cultural and family history, and sadly because of the nature of the local sandstone many of these monuments are now under threat. The visual setting of the the religious monuments and buildings is of some importance, perhaps particularly in relation to medieval churches and upland nonconformist chapels.

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