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Tanat Valley Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Tanat Valley


Ornamental landscapes
The principal ornamental landscape within the Tanat Valley is the Llangedwyn Hall garden listed in the Register of Parks and Gardens in Wales. This important garden was created by Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn of Wynnstay, constructed in the early 18th-century date, around Llangedwyn Hall, by far the most prestigious house within the valley. The house, which is of late 17th to mid 18th-century date, was inherited by the third baronet, one of the major landowners in the Tanat Valley, from his father-in-law, Sir Edward Vaughan in 1718. The complex retains elements of the original layout including formal terraces set out on the sloping grounds, together with a kitchen garden, managed woodland on the hillside above, and with significant views across the meadows to the south, all shown in a contemporary bird's-eye view painting. Ancillary buildings within the complex include a stable block and a notable octagonal structure with loose boxes in a paddock to the east of the house. Notable guests of C.W. Williams-Wynn MP, bart., at the house in the early 19th century included Robert Southey (1774-1843), Poet Laureate and one of the romantic Lakeland Poets, and Reginald Heber (1783-1826), prelate and hymn writer ('From Greenland's Icy Mountain', and 'Holy, holy, holy'). Guests were taken to visit local sites of interest such as the church at Pennant Melangell, the site of the residence of the princes of Powys at Mathrafal, and Owen Glyndwr's principal residence at Sycharth, as well as being entertained in the gardens of the house, as recorded in the following lines by Southey:

When on Llangedwyn's terraces we paced
Together to and fro
Partaking there its hospitality,
We with its honoured master spent
Well pleased the social hours

Picturesque landscapes
The Welsh landscape became generally more accessible to travellers from the later 18th century, following improvements to the turnpike roads, coinciding with a fashion for the picturesque, an aesthetic movement which valued rugged and irregular landscapes. Although the Tanat Valley, the Berwyns and the area of the eastern borderland in general were less popular with 18th and 19th-century travellers and artists than the more rugged landscapes of north-west Wales, one of the notable attractions was Pistyll Rhaeadr and Cwm Blowty, at the head of Afon Rhaeadr, descriptions of which appeared in various tours from the later 18th century. The waterfall became so well known at this date that it became considered as one of the 'Seven Wonders of North Wales' in the traditional rhyme:

Pistyll Rhaeadr, and Wrexham Steeple,
Snowdon's mountains without its people,
Overton's yew trees, Gresford bells,
Llangollen bridge and St Winifrid's Well.

Anon, 18th century

Investment was made in catering for an influx of visitors to the falls. The Revd Worthington, vicar of Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant between 1748-78 was instrumental in getting the turnpike road built from Llanrhaeadr to the falls, the room he caused to be built for sheltering visitors being replaced in the early 19th century by Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn by a rustic picturesque cottage 'for tea drinking'. Thomas Pennant's Tours in Wales, 1770, records the provision he made for visitors to Pistyll Rhaeadr waterfall:

I must speak with due respect of the memory of the late worth vicar, Dr Worthington; to whose hospitable house I was indebted for a seasonable reception, the wet evening which fortunately preceded my visit to the celebrated cataract Pistill Rhaeadr. It terminates the precipitous end of very narrow valley, and, as it were, divides a bold front to the Berwyn mountains . . . . When I visited it, the approach was very bad; but that is not only effectually by the late benevolent vicar, but, as I am informed, he has besides erected a cottage, as a retreat to the traveller from the fury of a storm.

The custom continued into the following century, and indeed to the present day, George Borrow in his Wild Wales, published in 1862, noting that having visited the waterfall he was invited to take some refreshment and sign the vistors' book 'which contained a number of names mingled here and there with pieces of poetry'.

Other rugged landscapes came to be seen as picturesque during the course of the following century, especially those at the head of the deeply glaciated valleys towards the western side of the Tanat Valley. Landscapes which are described in this way include 'Rhwng-y-creigiau' at the entrance to Cwm Maengwynedd, north of Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant, and Craig Rhiwarth above Llangynog is described by Lewis 1833 as 'abounding with features of picturesque beauty, and of rugged grandeur'. Both Lewis and Thomas Pennant considered Cwm Pennant to be 'exceedingly picturesque':

The upper end is bounded by two vast precipices, down which, at times, fall two great cataracts; between them juts out the great and rude promontory of Moel ddu Mawr [Moel Dimoel], which almost divides the precipices into equal parts: and all together formed a fine and solemn retreat for devotees.

Cultural associations
the Tanat Valley has attracted strong cultural associations, some from native inhabitants and some from travellers which are considered below under the following headings - literary, artistic, antiquarian and topographical, theological, musical and theatrical.

One of the earliest literary associations of the Tanat Valley is with the legend of St Melangell, which provides a 'literary presentation and elaboration of the saint's cult', the early transmission of the legend with its strong associations with the landscape of Cwm Pennant probably local and originally primarily oral and visual. the Tanat Valley has a number of later literary associations, particularly in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Cadwaladr Roberts (died 1708/9), was a native of Ty Ucha, Cwm LlÍch, his poem begging a harp of Wiliam Llwyd, Llangedwyn, being noted for its social interest. The following anonymous verse in praise of Cwm Pennant which appears on the flyleaf of the Parish Register of 1720-92 is probably also a local composition.

Cwm Pennant galant gweli, Cwm uchel
I ochel caledi
Cwm iachus nid oes i chwi,
Ond cam i Ne o'n cwm ni

(Behold the fine Cwm Pennant, a high cwm/ to avoid hardship/a healthy cwm, there is not for you/but a step to Heaven from our cwm). Most of the later literary associations are with visitors however, such as the poem about Pistyll Rhaeadr, celebrated by Dewi Wyn, one of the first Welsh descriptive poets.

By the early 19th century the Tanat Valley appealed the romantic sensibilities of English literati such as Robert Southey. Whilst a guest of the Williams-Wynns at Llangedwyn Hall he made visits to Mathrafal, Sycharth and Pennant Melangell , his visit to the latter in 1820 being to 'observe what vestiges/Mouldering and mutilate/Of Monacella's legend there are left':

Melangel's lonely church -
Amid a grove of evergreen's in stood,
A garden and a grove, where every grave
Was deck'd with flowers, or with unfading plants
O'er grown, sad rue and funeral rosemary

The legend of Melangell together with its dramatic and mysterious setting continue to inspire introspection, Cwm Pennant like Cwm Rhaeadr terminating in a dramatic though less well-known waterfall - Pistyll Blaen-y-cwm.

The lane had given way to a farmyard. Lydia skirted it and took to a mountain path which meandered nonchalantly between rowan and hazel trees before stopping to present the traveller with a view of the valley's close. The hill that faced her was bearded like a prophet with a wild white waterfall. The boulders which God had flung about at the time of the creation had, to Lydia's eyes, a patriarchal air, and the pebbles which littered the stream seemed like little children confidently at rest in this fatherly presence.

Alice Thomas Ellis, Unexplained Laughter, 1985

Relatively few artists appear to have visited the Berwyns, many more being drawn to the more rugged landscapes or north-west Wales. Moel Dimoel and Pennant Melangell church in Cwm Pennant were sketched by John Ingleby in 1795. Pistyll Rhaeadr was sketched by in primitive style by J. Lewis between about 1735-40, by John Evans in 1794 and by Francis Nicholson 1810, and general views of the Berwyns were sketched by Revd John Parker in about 1825 (National Library of Wales). Watercolours were made of a number of the larger houses, most notably one of Llangedwyn Hall by S. Leighton in 1872. Sketches of antiquities were made again by John Parker in the 1830s, by the local architect R. Kyrke Penson in the 1840s, and by the illustrator Worthington G. Smith in the 1890s.

The earliest antiquarian associations are with local scholars, notably with Thomas Sebastian Price of Llanfyllin who recorded various aspects of the cult of St Melangell in the late 17th century. A number of notable antiquarians and topographers travelled through the Tanat Valley during the period 1750-1850 in pursuit of antiquarian and topographical interests. Richard Fenton, Sir Richard Colt Hoare and Thomas Pennant visited the area during this period, Thomas Pennant drawn to visit Pennant Melangell church in 1773, and also made some record of the cult of Melangell. The clerical scholar and antiquarian, Walter Davies (Gwalter Mechain) was vicar of Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant from 1837 until his death in 1849.

Dr William Morgan, translator of the Bible and one of the most important figures of the Reformation in Wales was the vicar of Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant (1578-1588) and rector of Pennant Melangell (1588-1595) before being elected to the see of Llandaff in 1595 and the see of St Asaph in 1601. His closest associations are with Llanrhaeadr, however, where his translation described as 'the greatest gift the Welsh people ever had' is generally held to have been undertaken.

This is where he sought God.
And found him? The centuries
Have been content to follow
Down passages of serene prose.
. . . The smooth words
Over which his mind flowed
Have become an heirloom. Beauty
Is how you say it, and the truth
Like this mountain-born torrent,
Is content to hurry
Not too furiously by.

R.S. Thomas, 'Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant', 1968

There were further important clerical associations with Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant during the 18th and early 19th centuries. The prolific theological writer Dr William Worthington, vicar between 1745-78. This remarkable man was also closely involved with improvements to turnpikes in the region and played an important part in opening up the Tanat Valley to outside visitors, acting as host to notable visitors such as Dr Samuel Johnson and the antiquarians Sir Richard Colt Hoare and Thomas Pennant and making provision for visitors to Pistyll Rhaeadr. A further remarkable incumbent of St Dogfan's, Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant was the Revd Walter Davies (Gwallter Mechain), who was vicar between 1837 and his death in 1849, a man of extraordinarily wide and varied interests which embraced poetry, antiquarianism, literature, medicine, astronomy, and genealogy, and who was active in the early eisteddfodau.

Musical and theatrical associations are less pronounced and has little direct association with place. Llangynog was a well-known centre for harp-making in the early 20th century, however, Thomas Lloyd (Telynor Ceiriog; died 1917), a quarry worker at Llangynog and buried at Pennant Melangell, being the winner of competitions for both making and playing a harp. Nancy Richards was another internationally-famous harpist with American connections now buried at Pennant Melangell.

Theatrical associations are largely limited to the anterliwtiau (interludes) which were commonly performed at church festivals and fairs until about the beginning of the 20th century. Twm o'r Nant (Thomas Edwards, 1739-1810) is said to have been the last to perform in an interlude at Pennant Melangell. Edwards, timber haulier and native of Denbighshire, was an actor and poet and a prominent competitor in the early eisteddfodau. The general character of this last performance at Pennant may be gauged by the interludes he composed, which include such popular works as Tri Chydymaith Dyn (The Three Companions of Man), Cyfoeth a Tholodi (Wealth and Poverty), and Cain ac Abel. Little physical evidence of this activity has survived within the landscape, although a plan of the church and churchyard illustrated in Archaeologia Cambrensis 1894 shows that the northern side of the green outside the church had been used as the stage (proscenium) and changing room (vestarium), and that the audience occupied an area designated the auditorium to the south. Contemporary descriptions of similar anterliwtiau in Llangollen survive from the late 18th century, the purpose of which 'was to ridicule the Methodists, taxes, horse racing etc' and no doubt have their origin in theatrical performances accompanying medieval and later gwylmabsantau (patronal festivals) of individual churches, particularly before the Puritan movement. Similar is not more extravagant theatrical performances would no doubt have accompanied the two three day fairs permitted by Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant's market charter of 1284 of which again no visible evidence has survived.

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