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Tanat Valley Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Tanat Valley


Legendary landscapes
It is little surprise that the dramatic landscape of the Tanat Valley has inspired numerous legends involving dragons, giant's, serpents, fairies brigands, princes and saints. Many of the legends were first recorded in the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries but seem likely to reflect much earlier folklore and traditions, such as Craig Rhiwarth, Cwm Blowty, and Cwm Pennant. The association with objects and places within the landscape which in a later age were held to be of antiquarian, picturesque or romantic interest is significant.

The origin of the name Mochnant (Welsh 'pig-stream' or 'pig valley'), the commotal name, which survives in a number of modern place-names, such as Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant, Maes Mochnant, and Castellmoch, is fancifully explained the tale of Math son of Mathonwy in the Mabinogion as one of the places that Gwydion spent the night whilst bringing swine to Math from Pryderi, king of Ceredigion.

By tradition the Maes Mochnant standing stone (Maenhir y Maesmochnant) was raised in order to stop the devastation being caused in the surrounding country by a dragon or serpent - the beast eventually being killed by dashing itself against the stone which was also known as Post Coch, Post y wiber (Hancock 1871, 236; Sayce 1930, 750). Penygarnedd was held to be 'infested by dragons', one of the places in which they lurked being known as Nant y Wiber near Penygarnedd. Mischievous fairies were said to haunt Craig Rhiwarth, a spot which it was said should be 'avoided at all costs' .

The giant known as Cawr Berwyn is associated with both Cwm Blowty and Cwm Pennant. The three enormous boulders at the foot of Pistyll Rhaeadr, at the head of Cwm Blowty, are said to have been hurled by the giant, his wife and his maid when they were crossing the waterfall on their way to Pennant Melangell - the boulders being known as Baich y Cawr (Giant's Burden), Baich y Gawres (Giantess's Burden), and Ffedogaid y Forwyn (Maid's Apronfull). On another occasion Cawr Berwyn is said to have taken a mighty leap from the top of the Moel Dimoel, the most prominent mountain towering above Cwm Pennant, landing in a field said to be called Wern Blaen y Cwm (possibly synonymous with the field known as 'Weirglodd Blaen y Cwm' listed in the tithe apportionment) on the opposite site of the valley opposite the farm of Tyddyn yr Helig. The spot was said to be marked by a spring of clear water which issued forth as soon as his heel touched the ground, the hillside behind the farm being called 'Baich y Cawr'. In another version the giant jumped into the farmyard of Rhyd y Felin, one of the farms at the foot of Moel Dimoel.

The large whale bone mounted on the wall of nave of Pennant Melangell church is known variously as Asen y Gawres ('Giant's Rib') and Asen Melangell ('Melangell's [the patron saint's] Rib'). One account reports that it 'was found in the grave where Melangell was said to have been buried' but an earlier and probably more reliable account says that it was found on the mountain between Bala and Pennant Melangell, though its presence here is unexplained.

Various places in Cwm Pennant and the surrounding area are associated with Gwylliaid Cochion, a legendary, 15th- and 16th-century band of brigands of Dinas Mawddwy who were said to have frequently raided the Tanat Valley and associated with other neighbouring places. Thus a number of rings and coins are said to have been found beneath a large flat stone known as Bwrdd y Gwylliad Cochion ('Table of the Red Bandits') somewhere near the head of Cwm LlÍch. According to local tradition, the grooves on natural boulders near the head of Cwm LlÍch and on the top of Y Gribin, on the opposite side of Cwm Pennant showed where Gwylliad Cochion had sharpened their swords.

Later Prehistoric funerary and ritual landscapes
Prehistoric funerary and ritual monuments of later prehistoric date are widely distributed throughout the Tanat Valley, many of which are important landscape features in the present-day landscape, particularly on the higher ground in the western part of the area. None of the monuments within the historic landscape have been investigated by means of modern techniques, but comparison with those which have been studied elsewhere suggests that they are mostly likely to represent burial monuments of the later Neolithic to middle Bronze Age periods, during the period 3,000-1,200 BC. Only a proportion of the original number of such sites have survived to the present day. Excluded from the present study are some recorded sites have either been destroyed or can no longer be located on the ground, and a number which may be signified by place-name evidence.

A majority of the sites on the higher ground can be classed as round barrows, ring cairns, and standing stones. The round barrows, built of either earth or more frequently of stone, are predominantly burial monuments associated with either inhumation or cremation burials. Excavations elsewhere in Britain have shown that barrows or cairns in some instances overlie the grave of a single individual of high status within a tribal group, though in other cases the mound may have been used for multiple interments, over a period of hundreds of years. In some cases burial mounds have been shown to have a complex internal structure consisting of rings of stones, kerbs, with burials set in stone-lined cists. It is uncertain what proportion of the Neolithic and Bronze Age population were buried in this way, but there is good evidence which indicates that this form of burial practice ceased during the middle and later Bronze Ages, in favour of the kind of cremation cemetery discovered at Pennant Melangell (see below).

Ring cairns are a second monument type of this period which have been found to be associated with burials, with token burial deposits, and also with activity which appears to be ritual in nature. Standing stones have likewise been associated with Bronze Age ritual activity, though there is the possibility that some of them represent much later boundary markers. The standing stones are largely all on higher ground, with the notable exception of the magnificent 3.65m high Maes Mochnant standing stone which lies on the floor of the valley to the south-east of Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant. Bronze Age ritual activity is also represented by an important complex of sites represented by the Rhos-y-beddau stone circle and stone row and the Cwm Rhiwiau stone circle near the headwaters of Afon Rhaeadr, above Pistyll Rhaeadr.

The other important classes of monuments include ring-ditches, a probable henge monument and two pit circles, all of which are located on the valley floor. All of these monument types are cropmark sites that have been discovered by aerial reconnaissance, and do not generally survive as earthworks that are visible at ground level. The ring-ditches probably mostly represent burial mounds similar to the upland round barrows and cairns noted above. Most of them probably originally had earthen mounds which have since been levelled by ploughing, though unusually, a possible large round barrow still survives as a mound near the Maesmochnant standing stone. The probable henge monument and the two pit circles all lie in close proximity to each other to the south-east of Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant and probably represent a lowland ritual complex similar to the upland complex noted in the vicinity of Rhos-y-beddau. The probable henge monument is a type of monument, named after Stonehenge, enclosed by a circular bank, the two pit circles possibly originally having been timber circles.

As noted above, our knowledge of the distribution of these sites within the Tanat Valley is both partial and fortuitous. It is probably that the upland sites, which lie in areas of marginal agriculture, have survived due to the less intensive land-use in these areas, whilst the intensive cereal cultivation on the lighter and better-grade agricultural land on the valley floor has aided the formation of cropmarks by which the sites have been identified. The distribution of upland sites is also to a certain extent dependent upon areas in which more intensive fieldwork has been carried out - the focus of upland fieldwork in recent years having been in the south-western corner of the area. An illustration of the selective survival of sites is given by the chance discovery of an unusual type of prehistoric funerary or ritual site found during excavations at Pennant Melangell church. This comprised part of a middle Bronze Age cremation cemetery, dating the period about 1,200 BC.

Although there is little settlement evidence of this period, the general number of monuments indicates that the Tanat Valley was widely settled by this period. The distribution of monuments, on the valley bottoms and on the mountain tops indicates that a broad range of different habitats were being exploited at this date, possibly already reflecting the pattern of transhumance between permanent settlements in the lowlands and temporary upland settlements in the uplands which is known to have existed in the region until about the 18th century.

The ritual complexes at Rhos-y-beddau and near Maesmochnant suggest that at this early date particular areas were designated as ritual landscapes. Likewise, the apparent concentrations of round barrows the uplands in the south-west corner of historic landscape and on the valley floor in the south-east corner seem to designate certain areas as funerary landscapes. At least in the case of the valley-bottom complexes there is a parallel with the later prehistoric ritual complexes and cemetery areas which it has been suggested existed in other parts of the upper Severn watershed. In the case of both complexes in the Tanat Valley there are clear suggestions that their siting within the landscape is significant - Rhos-y-beddau being lying near the headwaters of Afon Rhaeadr, above the well known falls at Pistyll Rhaeadr, and the Maesmochnant complex lying within the broadest part of the valley floor of the upper Tanat, between its confluence with Afon Rhaeadr and Afon Iwrch.

Although it is likely that upland cairns and lowland ring-ditches had a similar function as funerary monuments there are indications that the monuments in different locations had a different significance in terms of landscape. Many of the upland round barrows in the north-western part of the area, for example, are isolated monuments set on hilltops or in other prominent positions. So much so that some of them have been taken to demarcate various political and administrative boundaries. The cairn at Moel Sych, for example, at a height of nearly 830m near the northern tip of the Tanat Valley has marked the junction of the county boundaries of Merionethshire, Montgomeryshire and Denbighshire since their creation at the Act of Union in 1536, and in the centuries prior to that had probably marked the junction of the medieval commotes of Edeirnion, Mochnant Is Rhaeadr and Mochnant Uwch Rhaeadr. Indeed, prominently-sited upland prehistoric cairns may have formed territorial markers since the time when they were built - the act of interring the remains of tribal ancestors within a cairn helping to mark the boundaries of a territory to which that tribal group laid claim.

A different pattern is clearly represented in the case of some of the lowland burial monuments. At Banhadla, to the east of Llangedwyn several linear settings of up to five or six ring-ditches are evident. Each of the groupings may represent the burial grounds of different tribal groupings, linear settings in some cases possibly indicating that they were set out along a boundary or along the edges of fields, as suggested by evidence elsewhere in Powys.

Apart from their intrinsic importance, various of the prehistoric funerary and ritual monuments are also important in preserving deposits such as buried ground surfaces below round barrows and buried soils in ring-ditches which contain important and well-dated evidence relating to the early environmental and land-use history of the Tanat Valley.

Later prehistoric and Romano-British funerary and ritual activity
There is little surviving evidence of funerary or ritual activity during the later Bronze Age or through the Iron Age and Romano-British periods (700 BC - AD 400). Indeed the only evidence of religious activity which might fall within this period are the three 'Celtic' heads of uncertain date or function built into the facade of the mid 17th-century house at Glantanat-isaf, in the south-east corner of the Tanat Valley.

The absence of evidence of funerary activity in the Tanat Valley during this period is by no means exceptional, since there is little evidence elsewhere within the region, and it consequently appears that burials of these periods and indeed those of the later Bronze Age took form which is not represented in the archaeological record.

Ecclesiastical landscapes
A possible and potentially important early Christian inhumation of cemetery of forty or more graves arranged in rows is known from cropmark evidence at Meusydd, about 1.5km to the south-east of Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant. Little else is known of this site, however, and although it is strictly undated it possibly belongs to belong to the early Christian period and possibly pre-dating the establishment of the clas church and burial ground at Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant, and therefore possibly dating to the period between the 5th and 9th or 10th centuries. Due to the proximity of the cemetery to the prehistoric funerary and ritual complex at Maesmochnant (see above) there is a possibility, as at Pennant Melangell church, noted below, of some form of continuity or reuse of a pre-existing pagan burial ground.

Five medieval churches are known at the Tanat Valley - St Dogfan's or St Doewan, Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant, St Cynog's, Llangynog and St Melangell's, Pennant Melangell, St Garmon's, Llanarmon-mynydd-mawr and St Cedwin's, Llangedwyn. The churches at Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant, Llangynog and Pennant all lie within townships called Tre'r-llan (for tref yr llan, or 'church township') - probably the principal township in within each of the medieval parishes, but as noted elsewhere there is only clear evidence at Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant that the church formed part of a nucleated medieval settlement.

On the evidence of sculptured stonework an ecclesiastical site at Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant was established by at least the 9th century on the northern bank of Afon Rhaeadr. It was clearly an important church early on and although little is known about the early history of the site it is set within a large curvilinear churchyard and having associations with royalty and preserving fragments of a Romanesque shrine possibly dedicated to the patron saint, St Dogfan. Pennant Melangell likewise has the remains of a Romanesque shrine and an early foundation date, possibly of about the 8th century, associated with the legend of Melangell. Though poorly dated and historically unreliable, the legend is important for the questions it raises about the early structure of the Christian church in the Tanat Valley. The earliest surviving written version is a Latin text of the early 16th century but seems likely to be based on written or oral sources dating back to at least the 13th century. The story is also depicted on the elaborately carved 15th-century rood screen in St Melangell's church.

The legend tells of Brochwell, prince of Powys, hunting at a place called Pennant and alighting upon a beautiful virgin Melangell (Monacella) in a thicket, the folds of her skirts giving protection to a hare being pursued by the prince's hounds. Upon enquiry Brochwell learnt that she had lived alone in this wilderness for many years, having fled from Ireland, her native land, to escape marriage to a nobleman her father, the king, had wished to force upon her. Brochwell donated the lands to her as a perpetual sanctuary, a nunnery being established there by Melangell.

The legend provides us with a number of early and important symbolic images of the landscape which appear to be integral to the original legend and which are firmly rooted Cwm Pennant - the royal hunting grounds, the wilderness and the wildwood (rubum quendam et spinosum), the latter possibly also depicted by the exuberant late Celtic foliage which embellishes the Romanesque shrine. Further threads running through the legend are those of the rights of sanctuary and of continuity, a place set apart from the world as a perpetual asylum (perpetuum sit asylum). The church at Pennant, like St Dogfan's at Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant, lies within a relatively large curvilinear churchyard, traditionally held to demarcate the noddfa or sanctuary, and is also set within a ring of large and yew trees of some antiquity. The earliest surviving elements of the church are of 12th-century date built as a place of pilgrimage and housing Melangell's shrine, possibly under the patronage of the nobleman (uchelwr) Rhirid Flaidd described in an englynion of Cynddelw, the greatest of the Welsh bards of the latter half of the 12th century, as 'Proprietor of Pennant' (Priodawr pennant pennaf). Cynddelw also links Rhirid with Dinmawr or Moel Dimoel, the prominent hill on the southern side of Cwm Pennant, a hill linked with the legend of the giant Cawr Berwyn.

The legend of Melangell has also become projected into the surrounding landscape - a rock ledge several hundred metres to the south of the church is known as Gwely Melangell (Melangell's Bed) first noted by Thomas Pennant in the 18th century and inscribed with the words 'St Monacella's Bed' probably some time in the later 19th century. The association is probably the result of folk etymology and probably derives its name from a nearby field called Cae Gwelu, which refers to a medieval Welsh system of landholding by a family group.

The shrine of Melangell at Pennant became a significant centre during medieval period, it being evident from the poems of Guto'r Glyn that by the 15th century it drew pilgrims from far afield seeking a remedy for their ailments and was also seen as a final resting place for former pilgrims. During the medieval and early post-medieval period the church, as elsewhere in Wales, formed an important focal point for the dispersed rural community which it served. Various parish affairs such as the maintenance of roads, apprenticeships and the administration of poor relief were discussed at church vestry meetings.

The llan - in the sense of the area around the church as well as the church enclosure - became a centre for various communal activities including ball-games, fairs and the gwylmabsant - the annual patronal festival. The small green just beyond the megalithic lychgate at Pennant Melangell has a cockpit and was used until perhaps the end of the 18th century for theatrical performances. Much of this activity was suppressed with the rise of Puritanism during the 18th and early 19th centuries, and the focal importance of the parish church waned due to population shift and the proliferation of nonconformist chapels throughout the countryside.

There is still much to learn about the early parochial landscape of the Tanat Valley. Parish churches were already in existence by the middle of the 13th century at Pennant Melangell, Llangynog and Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant. Llanrhaeadr was a clas or mother church governed by a lay abad (abbot), and until perhaps some time between the 9th to 11th century may have been the principal or sole church within Mochnant, at the hub of a large ecclesiastical parish synonymous with the cantref. By the later 13th century and following the subdivision of Mochnant into its two constituent commotes, Llanrhaeadr was a rare instance of a single parish corresponding to the entire commote - that of Mochnant Is Rhaeadr - the churches at Llanarmon-mynydd-mawr and Llangedwyn at this stage being dependent chapels (capellae) of Llanrhaeadr and only later becoming independent parish churches in their own right.

The story in Mochnant Uwch Rhaeadr seems to have been more complex. A substantial part of the commote formed part of the parish of Llanrhaeadr, the remainder being split between the parishes of Pennant Melangell and Llangynog, as well as Hirnant and Llanwddyn, possibly representing the fragmentation of a larger ecclesiastical district based on the clas church at Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant. Indeed, there are suggestions that churches such as St Melangell's at Pennant Melangell may have started life simply as enclosed cemeteries, to which a church only became established as late as perhaps the 11th or 12th century. There is further evidence to suggest that the history of Pennant Melangell may have been even more complex, for in an apparently remarkable demonstration of continuity within the landscape, perhaps paralleled at Meusydd (noted above), the early Christian cemetery appears to have been established above a pagan cemetery originating in the middle Bronze Age.

Other sites with ecclesiastical associations
Other sites with important ecclesiastical associations within the Tanat Valley include two holy wells - St Dogfan's well on the hills above Cwm Rhaeadr and Ffynnon Cwm-ewyn on the hill above Pennant Melangell and a medieval grange at Gwernfeifod belonging to Valle Crucis Abbey, which perhaps significantly includes the site of St Dogfan's well. In some instances religious observances of which little other evidence survives have been captured in place-names. The farm of Tyn-y-cablyd near the source of the Afon Tanat, at the head of Cwm Pennant, takes its name from Dydd Iau Cablyd (Maundy Thursday) the day upon which traditionally those of high degree washed the feet of and distributed gifts to the poor. No doubt this and many other traditions associated with other parts of the landscape were lost with the rise in Protestantism, from the 16th century onwards.

There is was relatively little early nonconformist activity in the Tanat Valley and the surviving archaeological evidence of nonconformism follows the early 19th-century Methodist revival, consisting of numerous chapels belonging predominantly to the Wesleyan Methodists, Calvinistic Methodists, and the Independents. As elsewhere in Wales two trends are evident in the distribution of nonconformist chapels within the landscape. Firstly, chapels were erected in the relatively few nucleated settlements Llangynog, Penybontfawr and Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant. Secondly, there was a marked increase in the number of places of worship in the countryside and on the higher ground away from the valley bottoms, typically no more than 2-3km apart, representing a process which has led to the general observation that in the Welsh borderland 'the population of the uplands is one of Dissenters rather than Churchmen'.

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