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Tanat Valley Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Tanat Valley


Ancient highways and byways
The first tracks and footpaths in the Tanat Valley, were probably established during the prehistoric period. The principal routes, determined by natural topography and by river crossings, are to Bala on the north-west via Llangynog, to Llansilin and Oswestry on the north-east via Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant, to Shrewsbury on the south-east via Llangedwyn, to Llanfyllin and Welshpool on the south via Penygarnedd, and to Hirnant and Llanwddyn via Penybontfawr on the south-west. The western end of the valley seems to have been very much a dead-end until the second half of the 18th century, no roads being shown crossing the area, for example, on Robert Morden's map of North Wales of 1695, although another route, said to have been used by drovers, ran northwards from Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant, up the valley of Afon Iwrch and across the watershed into the valley of the Dee at Llandrillo yn Edeirnion.

Most of minor roads and lanes are first mapped on the tithe maps of the 1830s and 1840s, forming a network linking individual farms, tenements and cottages. A number of these routes have survived as green lanes, sometimes forming distinct hollow-ways, up to 4-5m deep in places, which formed in the centuries before road drainage was installed. Some of these roads and lanes are probably of early medieval, medieval and late medieval origin and are of importance to our understanding of the economic and social history of individual communities and their interaction with neighbouring communities and more distant markets. Most if not all of these roads would have been impassable to lightly wheeled vehicles and would have been more appropriate to walking, travelling on horseback, the movement of goods by waggon, or the movement of livestock on foot. Indeed, wheeled vehicles for the carriage of people were said to have been scarcely known until the close of the 18th century. The replacement of oxen by horses as draught animals for ploughing and hauling was taking place as late as the 18th century on ordinary Welsh farms and from early times only the wealthy could afford to travel even on horseback. The status of prince Brochwel out hunting, as depicted on late 15th-century rood screen at Pennant Melangell church, was no doubt greatly enhanced in contemporary eyes by his representation on horseback. Considerable prestige continued to be attached to the ownership of horses until the early 20th century, the adoption of the horse by ordinary farmers being seen as part and parcel of the adoption of English and anglicised Welsh cultural attitudes.

Before the 20th century most journeys were on foot - to work, market, school, shopping and visiting - leaving the legacy of green-lanes, hollow-ways and footpaths which crisscross the enclosed land between farms and smallholdings the Tanat Valley. Though perhaps exceptional, Robert Thomas walked every Sunday to chapel in Hirnant, a round trip of 17 miles from his home at Blaen-y-cwm in Cwm Maengwynedd. Thomas's journey is likely to have taken him as the crow flies, on the footpath across the uplands of Godor, between Cwm Maengwynedd and Cwm Blowty, then by footpath across the uplands of Y Garn to the Tanat Valley, and thence up Cwm Hirnant. These and other cross-ridge footpaths must have been important since the earliest times in helping communities in the deep isolated valleys in the west of the Tanat Valley to remain in contact with each other. Farms less than a mile from each other across the hills between the head of Cwm Pennant and Cwm Rhiwarth are over five miles apart by road.

Footpaths and tracks up onto the hills from the valley bottom were also of considerable economic importance for bringing down peat from the upland turbaries (see below) and in giving access to upland pastures. The exploitation of upland grazing as today is always likely to have been seasonal, involving the movement of stock onto the uplands in the spring and bringing them down again in the autumn, and probably from prehistoric times until the 18th century involving transhumance between the lowland hendref and upland hafod. As noted above in the section on settlement there is good evidence in the western part of the Tanat Valley that some of the major upland paths are known to link particular farms and their upland hafod.

The sides of the valleys in the western part of the Tanat Valley are so steep that most of the paths onto the unenclosed mountain tops here are necessarily confined to the gentler slopes cut by mountain streams along the sides or at the heads of the valleys. The distribution of sheepfolds indicates many of the easier routes up onto the hills, and it is probable that many of many of these routes were used since the earliest times. 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 sea of unenclosed upland. The tithe maps of the earlier 19th century often show unenclosed tongues of common land stretching down the streams through the enclosed land, from the uplands down towards the valley floor, allowing access to the uplands by the more landlocked farmsteads at greater distance from the mountain edge.

These funnel-like paths leading up onto the higher ground still remain an important feature of the upland edge and often appear as hollow-ways worn away by the passage of animal and human feet as well as other forms of unwheeled transport. Peat, the major source of fuel until at least the first half of the 19th century was brought down from mountain turbaries by sledge, locally known as 'drages' in the 18th century. Building stone and slates were also brought down the mountain by this means, Lewis noting that slates from the Llangynog quarries were brought by sledge 'with extreme danger to the persons employed in this arduous task'. The sledges were no doubt of types known elsewhere in, and were sometimes restrained and steered by human rather than animal power.

The turnpikes
The earliest turnpike in the Tanat Valley lay between Llangedwyn and Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant, with the passing of the passing of an act of Parliament in 1756 for the repair of the road from Knockin to Llanrhaeadr. Following an act of 1769 all the turnpike trusts in Montgomeryshire were brought under a single system, with a system of major roads with toll gates falling within the area at Llangynog and Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant. The trusts lasted until 1879, when roads were freed of toll, and responsibility fell to the individual counties. Prior to the mid 18th century the responsibility fell to individual parishes. The turnpike roads undoubtedly had a considerable impact on the agricultural and industrial exploitation of the valley, a leading figure in their creation locally being Dr William Worthington, vicar of Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant between 1748-78. The turnpikes also had the effect of opening up the landscape to visitors from other parts of the country.

Under the terms of the turnpike acts, the Trustees were empowered to take materials for repairing roads from 'any Waste Ground Common or River without paying anything for them', and it is probable that many of the smaller, isolated, and poorly documented stone and gravel quarries on common land adjacent to turnpike roads began at about this period. Many of the earlier turnpikes simply represent an improvement to an existing road rather than the construction of an entirely new road, but in places it is still possible to see the line taken by the old road where the turnpike took a slightly different route, as for example the line of the old road to Penybontfawr, just to the north of Penygarnedd. Communications were also considerably improved at this time by the construction of stone bridges along the turnpikes across the Tanat and its tributaries, replacing earlier timber bridges or fords.

Links to the river, canal and railway networks
The cost of transport had always been particularly critical in the financial viability of mining operations, and the lack of good communications was a constant burden to the mining industry in the Tanat Valley both before and following the introduction of the turnpikes. The remoteness of the valley was the primary difficulty, which posed difficulties in transporting the processed ore from the mines at Llangynog, Cwm Orog (on the north side of Craig Rhiwarth), and Craig-y-mwyn (at the head of Cwm Rhaeadr) to smelteries sited more conveniently elsewhere. The vast quantity of the Tanat Valley's mineral wealth was to be taken eastwards, an exception being the phosphates mined intermittently between the 1860s and 1880s at sites in the Llangynog area were carted across the Berwyns to Llandrillo where the nodules were converted to fertilizer.

Lead mining in the Tanat Valley had begun in earnest by the Herberts of Powis Castle in about 1705, production rising to a peak in 1737 when it became one of the richest contemporary mines in the country, when a total of almost 3,000 tons of ore were produced. Smelting of ore from this section of the Llangynog mine was undertaken at 'the Marquess's cupola' on the Severn at Pool Quay, which began production in 1706, a convenient point for bringing in fuel and shipping out lead pigs by water. The marquess's tenants were forced into providing the necessary transport 15 miles away across the hills via Llanfyllin to the south-east, being threatened with eviction in they refused. The ore was originally carried in sacks but later loose in carts - the task being particularly unpopular since the best season for moving the ore also coincided with harvest time.

In the 1730s ore from the Chirk section of the Llangynog mine was carted 12 miles by cart to Llandrinio, transferred to barge and shipped down river to smelthouses at Benthall. River transport was always unpredictable, however, and a load of lead pigs to be shipped from Pool Quay being held up on their journey to Bristol for over two months in 1761 due to low water above. Various other goods were also moved by road and then by water: Llangynog slates being carted to the Clawdd Coch Wharf on the Vyrnwy near Llanymynech and from thence downstream via the Severn to Shrewsbury in the 1770s; a new bell for the church a Pennant Melangell purchased from Rudhall's Foundry, Gloucester, in 1754 arrived by way of the river Severn.

A considerable quantity and variety of goods had also to be imported into the valley in support of the mining industry - coal, gunpowder, candles, timber, iron and steel, lime. The production of lead ore from Llangynog declined rapidly in the 1740s, the Pool Quay smelthouse finally closing in 1762. A small smelter had been built at Llangynog in the 1750s but in the 1780s and 1790s the smaller quantities of lead ore that were being produced were being sent to Minera.

Following the completion of the Montgomeryshire Canal in 1797 the main outlet for goods was via the canal system although river trade continued long after the opening of the canal since it was not to become a major carrier to central and southern England until it was linked to the main canal system in 1833. By the 1860s slates from the Llangynog and Cwm Rhaeadr quarries could be taken to the railhead at Porthywaen, with some of the lighter traffic using the railhead at Llanfyllin. Getting the goods to the point of outlet continued to be a problem, however, the Cwm Maengwynedd slate quarries being forced to close in the 1870s because of damage to roads caused by hauling the slate to Porthywaen by traction engine.

The Tanat Valley Light Railway
The Tanat Valley Light Railway was finally built between 1899-1904 joining the railhead at Porthywaen which linked to the national rail network at Oswestry. The desirability of constructing a Tanat Valley line had been discussed since the 1860s but various proposals, including rival bids by the Oswestry and Llanfyllin corporations foundered partly due to the costs involved. The Light Railway Act of 1896 provided an opportunity for a less costly project. Stations or halts called were built in the Tanat Valley at Llangedwyn, Llanrhaiadr, Pentrefelin, Pedairffordd, and Penybontfawr, with a terminus at Llangynog. Animal pens were constructed next to a number of the stations and special facilities for off-loading aqueduct pipes for the Lake Vyrnwy reservoir were built at Penybontfawr Station and Llanrhaiadr Station.

It had been hoped that the railway would stimulate the local mineral industry which had fallen to a low ebb by the time the railway was opened. In the event, much of the outward traffic in the early years was agricultural produce - livestock, timber, cereals and dairy produce - with incoming goods including coal, lime, animal feedstuffs and fertilizers, as well as a passenger service. Despite some reinvigoration of the metal mines including renewed workings at the Cwm Orog lead mine between 1908-11, and the Llangynog mine which was worked for lead on a small scale between 1900-12, the Craig-y-mwyn lead mine worked on a small scale from 1900-11, the railway had reached Llangynog too late to have much impact on the mining of lead ores - after the major seams had been exhausted. The railway gave some stimulus to the quarrying industry, however, including Cwm Maengwynedd slate quarry until 1910, the Llangynog mine which was worked for barytes in 1916, West Llangynog slate quarry until 1937, and the Craig Rhiwarth slate quarry at Llangynog.

The Llangynog roadstone quarry became the mainstay of the railway in the 1920s and 1950s, helping it to survive much longer than it would otherwise have done, the stone originally taken by horse and cart to the station, but replaced in the 1920s by tipping lorry. The increasing use of road rather than rail transport for stone in the 1940s and livestock from the 1950s eventually led to the demise of the railway. The passenger service ceased in 1951. All services west of Llanrhaiadr Station ceased in 1952 and the entire line to Blodwel Junction was finally closed in 1964.

The railway played an important though short-lived part in the history the Tanat Valley. The track has now been lifted but most of the course of the railroad is still represented in the landscape by field boundaries, cuttings or embankments and the sites of most of the individual stations and holts can still be identified. Special engineering works were needed where the railway crossed the line the Lake Vyrnwy aqueducts to the west of Penybontfawr and part of the course of the river Tanat was straightened just to the east of Llangedwyn to prevent it from undermining the railroad.

Vyrnwy Aqueduct
The aqueducts carrying water a day from Lake Vyrnwy to Liverpool was constructed across the valley for the reservoir constructed between 1881-92. It crosses the valley floor near Penybontfawr and then runs north of Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant and Efail-rhyd on the north-east of the Tanat Valley. The aqueducts is largely hidden from view although there are a number of visible surface features including air valves, the Cileos valve house, the Parc-uchaf balancing reservoirs, and a deep cutting to the west of Llanrhaeadr-ym-mochnant. In terms of the history of roads in the Tanat Valley it is interesting to note that complaints were made about damage to local roads during the construction of the Lake Vyrnwy reservoir.

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