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Tanat Valley Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Tanat Valley


The modern agricultural economy of the Tanat Valley, in common with much of the Welsh borderland is based on a number of basic and dependent elements, clearly recognisable within the landscape - unenclosed upland pastures and the enclosed pasture and arable on lower-lying ground. Arable production today is relatively slight although fodder crops are still essential for over-wintering. This basic pattern of land-use had probably already begun to develop by the late 14th and early 15th centuries, the disintegration of Welsh medieval system of tribal holdings - the gwelau and gafaelion - enclosure and the amalgamation of holdings ultimately giving rise to a landscape of scattered farms worked by a class of peasant farmers and lesser gentry. Medieval inheritance customs had a considerable impact upon the landscape, the system of cyfran or division between all make heirs giving rise to intakes around the older tribal centres - a process later superseded by population pressure. Old customs die hard, however, and as late as about 1560 Maurice ap Meredith avoided the Tudor innovation of primogeniture by dividing the small estate of Lloran-uchaf in the north-east corner of the Tanat Valley among his eight surviving sons. The 17th and 18th centuries saw the development of large estates, the major landowners in the Tanat Valley including the Herberts of Powis Castle and the Williams-Wynns of Wynnstay. Major improvements were made in agricultural practice, the 'land hungry' years of the later 18th and early 19th centuries witnessing the establishment of smaller tenements and squatter's cottages. The agricultural depression of the later 19th and earlier 20th centuries saw the abandonment of some of the smallholdings on the more marginal land, and the beginning of the 20th century saw the break-up of a number of estates and an increase in the number of owner-occupiers.

It is probably significant that in this part of the Tanat Valley there is a sharp transition here between valley bottom and mountain top. Once the finite agricultural land in the adjacent valley bottoms had become fully utilized, most probably during the medieval period, the valley sides are so steep that it would have been necessary to leap to the mountain top to take in more agricultural land. A different picture is evident in the eastern parts of the Tanat Valley, where the transition between valley bottom and mountain top is less dramatic and where intakes of more marginal land were continuing to take place around the immediate margins of the enclosed land well into the 19th century. The extent of the present-day upland common in the Tanat Valley represents only a small proportion of the unenclosed wastes and commons that survived as late as the earlier 19th century, as shown on the tithe, and it is clear that walls were still being built and hedges planted during the later 19th century.

Upland commons
As in many parts of Wales, the exploitation of the summer pastures of the upland commons have been an important and integral part of the rural economy for many centuries, considerably enhancing the economic potential of lowland farms of modest acreage, and of particular importance in terms of cattle husbandry. Transhumance, or seasonal migration from the hendre/hendref or permanent lowland farm to the hafod/hafoty or upland summer dwelling (haf, summer + bod, dwelling or ty, house) also played an important part in the annual agricultural cycle by keeping stock away from open arable and common hay meadows in the lowlands. Regular contact would have been maintained with the hendref throughout the summer months, bringing dairy produce home, and peat cutting. There is every likelihood that transhumance in the Tanat Valley has its roots at the earliest period of settled agriculture, probably beginning locally at some during the Neolithic period. Indeed, there have been suggestions elsewhere in Britain that it had its roots in the practice of hunter-gatherer groups during the Late Glacial and early post-Glacial following in the train of herds of the larger herbivores such as elk and deer migrating into the uplands to feed on the summer pastures. The presence of prominently-sited upland burial cairns of the later prehistoric period may also be related to the seasonal rather than year-round exploitation of upland pasture.

By at least the early post-medieval period common rights were highly prized, being determined by the number of livestock which could be kept on the hendref during the winter, by the 18th century the 'stint' or allocation of animals that a farmer was permitted to graze on the commons generally being proportional to size of the lowland farm and emphasising the vital and age-old linkage between the upland pastures and lowland farms. Transhumance is probably of considerable antiquity in the Tanat Valley, but there is as yet tantalisingly little evidence of the practice apart from the place-name evidence. The tithe maps generally only show the extent of the enclosed land, and although an occasional hafod can be identified on the margins of the uplands where is had become engulfed by piecemeal encroachments of the upland commons taking place during the 18th and 19th centuries, most of the uplands of the Tanat Valley were first mapped in detail on the relevant maps of the first edition of the Ordnance Survey 6-inch, published between 1879-92. These maps, published a century or more after many hafodydd were abandoned, are the first record of most place-names in the uplands of the Tanat Valley. The relatively small number of hafodydd names recorded on tithe and on the first edition of the 6-inch Ordnance Survey are largely found on the margins of the enclosed land and it seems likely that other similar place-names within the upland moorland areas have been lost.

Interestingly, one of the few hafod names which lies towards the centre of moorland can be directly associated with an identifiable hendref or lowland farm. Hafoty Arllen-fawr at a height of 450m on the moorland to the south-west of Pennant Melangell was clearly the summer house of Arllen-fawr, a farm on the valley floor near Penybontfawr, about 9km to the north-east, which can be traced back to at least the second half of the 16th century. The hwylan or byroad was a vital means of communication between the lowland farms and the upland commons. Intriguingly, the hendre and hafod of Arllen-fawr are linked by public road and then by the path called Ffordd Gefn, one of a small number of major tracks linking the valley farms with the uplands in the west. The place-name Hafoty Arllen-fawr can be traced back to the 1st edition of the Ordnance Survey 6-inch, published in 1890, and still appears on modern maps. The same name, but in the form of Garthgelynen-fawr, was that of one of the principal townships in the parish of Pennant Melangell, which raises the possibility that the farm and its association with an upland hafod might have its origins in the early medieval period. Today, Hafoty Arllen-fawr is a group of sheepfolds, but recent fieldwork suggests traces of earlier walls beside the sheepfold as well as a number of other building platforms and possible abandoned hafodydd in the vicinity. A similar picture may be represented at Hafoty Cedig, a further group of sheepfolds further to the west. The remains of a number of other possible hafodydd have also been identified in the vicinity, but due to the lack of systematic fieldwork elsewhere in the uplands of the Tanat Valley the full distribution of possible hafodydd is unknown.

Sheepfolds are the most widespread historic farming structures visible in the uplands, their distribution is generally marginal to the commons and are important in showing the customary routes of access to the mountain top. A majority of the sheepfolds probably belong to the later 18th and 19th centuries, coinciding with the increasing importance of sheep farming during this period. Most of the sheepfolds in existence today are shown on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey 6-inch, published between 1879-92, though a number seem to first appear on maps published early in the 20th century. Some of the sheepfolds show evidence of building at different periods, and as we have seen there is the possibility that some overlie earlier hafodydd.

A number of other place-name elements may have had a similar meaning to hafod which occur less frequently locally, their occurrence not been fully researched within the Tanat Valley. The place-name element meifod (May dwelling) appears, for example in the name Gwernfeifod, a farm at a height of 380 metres just north of Cwm Blowty, though two of its associated field are confusingly called Gwern Hendre and Buarth y Hendre on the tithe. Lluest ('hut') also occurs occasionally, though less frequently in some other parts of Wales. The place-name 'Lluest yn Hafod-y-maen' recorded in 1636 in the parish of Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant associates the meaning of lluest with that of hafod. Bwthyn ('booth') is a further place-name element which may be relevant here.

Various changes were taking place from at least the 17th century onwards, which gave rise to the demise of the summer migration throughout north Wales by the end of the 18th. Firstly, the growth of in importance of sheep farming at the expense of dairy cattle meant that there was less need to supervise the grazing of upland stock on a day-to-day basis than there had formerly been. Sheep farming became so important that the traveller, John Aikin, claimed in 1800 that 'the riches of Montgomeryshire proceed from its sheep and wool and the flannels and other coarse cloths manufactured from it'. Secondly, due to increasing encroachment many of the summer houses on the margins of the upland commons were being turned into permanent farms, occupied all the year round.

The rate of enclosure that must have been taking place during the course of the 17th and 18th centuries is poorly documented, but the Tithe Apportionment of 1841 for Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant for example, gives details of over 2,200 acres of common land which had been unofficially enclosed in the previous 20 years. By at least the 18th century Montgomeryshire was also famed for the rearing of 'wild horses upon the hill'. Small ponies bred on the Berwyn range were traditionally sold at the stock fairs held in July and November at Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant, but this had declined by the later 19th century due to enclosure. The process of upland enclosure since the 17th century appears to have taken one of three principal forms: intakes from the common of land adjacent to existing enclosed farmland; isolated enclosure of fields surrounding an upland hafod subsequently used for year-round occupation; and small-scale squatter encroachments of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A tenement in the parish of Llanrhaedr ym Mochnant called Bache'r Nefoedd, now disappeared, was on land so high that to describe it as being 'near heaven' was not inappropriate. A tradition of setting up house overnight (tyunnos) and claiming ownership to surrounding lands, popularly supposed to be legal, had died out by the early 19th century, and no substantial evidence of the practice has been identified in the Tanat Valley, there being only one occurrence as a place-name in the tithe, that of 'Cae un nos', in the township of Glanafon, in the parish of Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant.

Lowland enclosure
As in the case of settlement evidence the earliest comprehensive mapped evidence of field boundaries is relatively late in date, being that given on the tithe maps of the 1830s and 1840s. It is possible to identify some of the processes by which this mid 19th-century landscape had developed, but detailed analysis and interpretation of this and the present-day field pattern is beyond the scope of the present study.

Study of the settlement evidence above suggests that the mid 19th-century landscape represents an amalgamation of various different processes superimposed upon each other. Firstly, there appear to be the larger farms on the lower-lying ground, often grouped in twos or threes by name and giving their name to the older core townships, which it seems likely arose during the later medieval period by a process of consolidation and amalgamation of earlier landholdings shared by extended family or tribal groups. Secondly there are the smaller farms, sometimes to be dated by cruck or box-framed buildings, representing an expansion of farming onto slightly less favoured ground during the later 15th to 17th centuries. Thirdly, there was further encroachment of the upland commons in certain areas by cottages and smallholdings during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Clear examples of each of these processes can be identified in the present-day field patterns within the Tanat Valley. Traces of medieval arable open fields can be identified in a number of places, as for example in Cwm Pennant and Cwm Rhiwarth, represented by areas of strip fields in multiple ownership. Both of these open fields are very small, being less than 5-10 acres in extent, and it is probable that they have only survived because of their relative isolation towards the margins of the settled area. An almost identical pattern has been studied in a similar setting at Pennant, south of Llandrillo which likewise, at the time of the tithe, was ringed by a group of three or four farms. Similar evidence has probably generally been lost elsewhere within the Tanat Valley as a result of the amalgamation and consolidation of landholdings during the later medieval period, though some indication of its prevalence appears to be given by field-name evidence. The strips in the Cwm LlÍch and Cwm Rhiwarth open fields are either called quillets or maes in the tithe apportionment - both names being indicative of open arable of this kind. The distribution of maes field-names within the Tanat Valley indicates the location of some of the perhaps one or more areas of open arable on the better soil within each of the townships. This basic pattern appears to be distorted within the vicinity of Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant, with a concentration of maes place-names and field-names to the south-east of the town, in the area of Maes Mochnant, which probably represent the 'town fields' belonging to the market settlement. There is a wealth of other field-name evidence relating to land-use in the Tanat Valley, including a number references to structures such as a field kiln (odyn), probably for corn drying, which are no longer visible.

Evidence from elsewhere indicates that the Welsh systems of land tenure was beginning to break down during the 14th century and that by the later 15th and earlier 16th centuries a pattern of independent farmsteads had emerged by the consolidation and amalgamation of shared lands. As noted in an earlier section a tyddynodd settlement pattern had developed by the later medieval period of scattered farms characteristically sited on the valley edge, just below the lower margins of the enclosed friddoedd or unenclosed upland. Much of this general pattern appears to have survived to the mid 19th century, though had to varying degrees had begun to be overtaken by an acceleration in the enclosure of the upland commons probably from at least the beginning of the 18th century. This also affected the gweirgloddau or hayfields, which like the arable had also traditionally been unenclosed and partitioned into strips. In the Tanat Valley the main areas of meadowland were sited on the damper land to either side of the rivers and streams, enclosure of this land again continuing into the 19th century.

This is the predominant pattern that can be seen in the Tanat Valley on the tithe maps drawn up in the 1830s and 1840s - most of the low-lying ground already enclosed, and independent farmsteads set within their own arable fields and meadowland. The landscape of the upland margins was evidently still in a reasonably dynamic state at that date, however. As noted above, encroachment took a number of different forms, which often overlapped each other, a number of examples of which can be identified in the Tanat Valley. In Cwm Glan-hafon are several small isolated intakes of the common, probably representing smallholdings belonging to miners or quarrymen, a similar pattern being evident near Tyn-y-graig, on the west end of Craig Orllwyn. Elsewhere, particularly near Mynydd-y-briw and Cefn-cŰch, landscapes characterised by closely spaced cottages and small fields were created by the piecemeal encroachment of the common. More frequently, farms near the upland margin, took in a number of small additional fields from the common. Since the mid 19th century large areas of sheepwalk in the west and north of the Tanat Valley, some of it still common land, have been enclosed by stone walls, which as noted below were spinal walls probably along estate or parish boundaries.

Enclosure boundary types
A variety of different historic field boundary are represented in the the Tanat Valley, including hedges, banks with hedges or fences, and stone walls.

Hedges are most characteristic of valley bottoms and the lower lying parts of the valley sides together with some of the later 18th- and 19th-century enclosures of the commons in the north and east of the Tanat Valley. A number of hedges are no longer managed and are now represented simply by an irregular line of larger trees or by tree stumps. Many of the lowland hedges comprise multiple species (eg hawthorn, hazel, field maple, oak, holly etc). Many of these likely to be of some antiquity and represent residual woodland or piecemeal enclosure in the later medieval and early post-medieval periods, though there is only rarely good dating evidence. The more recent hedges enclosing marginal areas of the upland commons are invariably single species (eg hawthorn).

Broad, low stone banks surmounted by hedges or fences are most characteristic of a swathe of mid altitude land running between Llangynog and Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant. Most of these banks appear to include in their construction rounded boulders and probably represent field clearance of glacial erratics, of harder stone than the underlying solid geology. The dating of these banks has not yet been fully established, but there is a possibility that in some cases they belong to a period of expansion of settlement into these areas in the 15th and 16th centuries onwards.

Stone walls are most characteristic of parts of the deeply glaciated valleys in the west - Cwm Pennant, Cwm Rhiwarth and Cwm Blowty, where glacial boulders were used - and the enclosed sheepwalks created from the common land in parts of the northern and western of the Tanat Valley, and dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries onwards. A comparison between the 1st and 2nd editions of the Ordnance Survey 6-inch suggests that many of the walls were under construction during the second half of the 19th century. A variety of building materials are evident and include both freshly quarried stone and stone gathered from field clearance. In some instances there are spinal walls probably along estate or parish boundaries from which subsidiary walls have been set out. Early boundaries of upright slabs can be seen in parts of Cwm Pennant and Cwm Blowty.

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