CPAT logo
Cymraeg / English
Back Home
Middle Usk Valley
Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Making of the Middle Usk Valley Landscape


The Middle Usk Valley between Brecon and Llan-gors is associated with the works of a number of notable writers and poets from the early medieval and medieval periods onwards. It has been argued, for example, that the famous cycle of early Welsh poems known as Canu Llywarch Hen (‘Song of Llywarch the Old’), probably dating to the 9th or 10th century, were composed at Llan-gors crannog.

Llan-ddew, a village to the north-east of Brecon, is associated with Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis), a colourful cleric of Anglo-Welsh parentage appointed archdeacon of Brecon in 1175 at the age of twenty-eight and particularly well known for two compositions which provide a rich source of social and economic information about medieval Wales known as the Itinerary through Wales (Itinerarium Kambriae) and Description of Wales (Descriptio Kambriae). The medieval manor of Llan-ddew belonged to the bishops of St David’s had a fortified palace there. The tithes of the parish were appropriated to the archdeaconry of Brecknock and Gerald describes his residence there evidently with some affection: ‘a place of dignity, but no great omen of future pomp or riches; and possessing a small residence . . . well adapted to literary pursuits, and to the contemplation of eternity’.

Gerald’s Itinerary provides a record of the journey he made throughout Wales in 1188 in the company of archbishop Baldwin preaching for the Third Crusade in his Itinerary through Wales. One of the chapters concerns their journey through Brecknock, preaching at Hay-on-Wye, Llan-ddew and Brecon, and alludes to a rich vein of myth and legend about the Middle Usk Valley, much of which has no doubt now been lost, some involving events that occurred in Gerald’s time and others of much greater antiquity. He records, for example, the miraculous happenings involving a boy endeavouring to take pigeons from a nest at a church dedicated to St David at Llanfaes. He also describes the annual festival at St Elyned’s Chapel, just to the east of Brecon, which involved a frenzied dance in around the churchyard which involved the male and female participants miming various professions, including those of ploughman, shoemaker, tanner, spinner, and weaver.

Gerald writes of the life of Illtud the early medieval saint whose name is associated with a number of topographical features in the parish of Llanhamlach, including the Neolithic chambered tomb called Ty Illtud (‘Illtyd’s House’), an upright stone which formerly stood nearby called Maen Illtud (‘Illtud’s stone’), and a holy well or spring known at Ffynnon Illtud (‘Illtud’s Well’). Gerald relates the story that the mare that used to carry the hermit’s provisions was mated by a stag, a union resulting in ‘an animal of wonderful speed resembling a horse before and a stag behind’.

Stones of the chambered tomb are covered by numerous symbols including crosses, stars, lozenges, first recorded by the 17th-century antiquary, Edward Lhwyd. The dating of these symbols is uncertain but they may relate to the use of the site as a cult centre of St Illtud between the early medieval period up until perhaps the Reformation in the mid 16th century, though the depiction of a 5-stringed lyre may indicate a Roman association.

Llangorse Lake (Llyn Syfaddan), the second largest natural lake in Wales and rich in natural resources, was a focal point in the pre-Norman kingdom of Brycheiniog and was a further rich source of myth and legend from early times. One interpretation the Welsh name of the lake, Llyn Syfaddan, is that it is derived from the name of a pre-Christian deity, suggesting that may have been the focus of an early pagan cult. In the later 12th century Gerald of Wales in his Description of Wales notes that it was celebrated locally for its miracles. Since early times the lake has been an important feeding place for waterfowl and it is probably no coincidence that one of the early folk-tales relates to birds upon the lake. Gerald records an ‘ancient saying in Wales that if the natural prince of the country, coming to this lake, shall order the birds to sing, they will immediately obey him’ and records an instance of this during the reign of Henry I when Gruffudd, son of Rhys ap Tewdwr, succeeded in this challenge where the two Normans who accompanied him—Milo, earl of Hereford and lord of Brecknock, and Payne FitzJohn—had failed. Gerald also noted that the lake was also sometimes seen by the inhabitants ‘covered and adorned with buildings, pastures, gardens and orchards’. A related legend is recounted by Walter Map in a manuscript of anecdotes and tales held by the Bodleian Library in Oxford known as De Nugis Curialium (‘Courtiers’ Trifles’). Map, a friend of Gerald and most probably a native of Herefordshire, who became archdeacon of Oxford in 1197, recounts a folk-tale that the palace or town within the lake was drowned because of the wickedness of the prince and his subjects. It belongs to a tradition of inundation legends of a kind associated with other lakes in Wales and elsewhere, including Llyn Tegid near Bala, but perhaps in this instance based upon a folk-memory of the early medieval crannog. With the revival in interest in folklore in the modern era this and other tales about Llangorse Lake were to be retold in publications such as Sir John Rhys’s Celtic Folklore published in 1901 and W. Jenkyn Thomas’s The Welsh Fairy Book of 1907.

Llangorse Lake was also renowned from early times for a number of phenomena which as we have seen above were probably anthropogenic in origin but which then appeared magical. Gerald of Wales noted that the lake was sometimes tinged with red ‘as if blood flowed partially through certain veins and small channels’, though at other times it was seen as being portentous if ‘the large lake and river Leveni [Llynfi] were tinged with a deep green colour’. Gerald also noted that when the lake froze over in winter the covering of ice was said to emit ‘a horrible sound resembling the moans of many animals collected together’ which is the origin of Clamosus, the alternative Latin name for the lake given by Gerald. The remark by William Howells in his Cambrian Superstitions published in 1831 that the water of the river Llynfi will not mix with that of the lake, is amongst other phenomenon recorded at a later date.

The church dedicated to St David at Llanfaes mentioned by Gerald is again referred to in a praise poem to St David called Canu y Dewi by the little known poet, Gwynfardd Brycheiniog (‘Grey Bard of Breconshire’) writing in about the 1180s, who as his name suggests may have been a native of Breconshire. The poem lists twenty churches owned by St David’s, amongst those in Breconshire being

Llanfaes, a lofty place shall not suffer by war,
Nor the church of Llywell from any hostile band;
Garthbrengu, the hill of Dewi, void of disgrace
And Trallwng Cynfyn by the dales.
Llangorse Lake forms the context of a poem entitled ‘The Swan on Syfaddan Lake’ attributed to the 14th-century poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym, the most distinguished of the medieval Welsh poets, given below in a translation by Sir H. Idris Bell.

Fair swan, the lake you ride
Like white-robed abbot in your pride;
Round-footed bird of the drifted snow,
Like heavenly visitant you show.
A stately ministry is yours,
And beauty haunts your young hours.
From God’s hand this day you take
Lordship over Syfaddon lake,
And two noble gifts you have
To keep you safe from the whelming wave:
Master craft in fishery—
On the wide lake could be better be?—
And skill to fly on high and far
On strong wings over hill and scaur.
Your eyes discern, high overhead,
Earth’s face beneath you spread,
And search all ways the watery deep,
Whose countless crop of fish you reap,
Riding the waves in stately sort
For fish to angle is your sport,
And your fishing rod, beyond compare,
‘Tis your long neck, shapely and fair.
Warden you are of the round lake,
Fair-hued as the foam-flake.
Pure white through the wild waves shown;
In shirt as bright as crystal stone
And doublet all of lilies made
And flowered waistcoat you’re arrayed,
With jacket wove of the wild white rose;
And your gown like honeysuckle shows.
Radiant you all fowls among,
White-cloaked bird of heaven’s throng. . . .
The well-known 15th-century Welsh poet Lewys Glyn Cothi also mentions the lake in a poem which alludes to its associations with the afanc, a mythological water beast, which in modern Welsh is one of the names by which the beaver is known. In the poem, addressed to friend Llywelyn ab Gwilym ab Thomas Vaughan of Bryn Hafod in the Towy valley, Lewys suggests that it would be as hard to make him leave his friend’s hospitable home as it would be to get the lure the afanc away from Llyn Syfaddan.

The afanc am I, who, sought for, bides
In hiding on the edge of the lake;
Out of the waters of Syfaddan Mere
Was he not drawn, once he got there.
So with me; nor wain nor oxen wont to toil
Me to-day will draw from here forth.
Later medieval literary associations within the Middle Usk Valley include the poet Huw Cae Llwyd (1431-1504) and his son Ieuan who praises Brecon (Aberhonddu) at a time when it had probably already become one of the pre-eminent towns of medieval Wales: Aber sy benna seren, Hyd nef, Aberhodni wen (‘Fair Aberhodni, the greatest star as far as Heaven’). The priory church at Brecon, the ‘Church of the Holy Rood’ had become a notable place of pilgrimage from at least the early 15th century, pilgrims being drawn to the highly decorated rood screen commemorated by Welsh poets but destroyed at the time of the Reformation. Offerings by pilgrims at the rood had become an important source of income to the priory. It is described as ‘Y grog Aur droediog drwydoll’ (‘The golden rood, footed, pierced’) the poem entitled ‘Crog Aberhonddu’ (‘Brecon Cross’) by Hywel ap Dafydd ap Ieuan ap Rhys, a poet from Raglan of the second half of the 15th century associated with a number of prominent families in south Wales, including Phylip ap Tomos of Llanspyddid. Another later 15th-century poet, William Egwad, emphasises the role of the rood in contemporary religious observance: ‘at Aberhonddu let every man pray: there, is an image gracious for its restfulness’.

Perhaps the best-known literary associations with the area, however, are with the 17th-century metaphysical poet and translator, Henry Vaughan (1621-95), a member of one of the important gentry families of the area. Henry’s family lived at Newton, on the banks of the river Usk between Scethrog and Llansantffraed, where he is believed to have been born. His twin brother, Thomas, philosopher, mystic and alchemist, served as rector of Llansantffraed church in about the mid 1640s (where Henry is buried), being evicted from the living by the Puritan parliamentary commissioners under the terms of the Act for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales in 1650. Their sister lived at Trebinshwn on the other side of the mountain near Llangorse Lake. Henry was proud of his Welsh ancestry and frequently signed himself ‘the Silurist’. Though Welsh-speaking, he regarded himself not as a successor to the Welsh poetic tradition but as the first Welsh poet to write in the ‘civilizing’ medium of English. The collection of poems Olor Iscanus (‘Swan of the Usk’), with dedication written at Newton by Usk in December 1647, was published in London in 1651, its title possibly being a reprise of the title of the poem entitled ‘The Swan on Syfaddan Lake’ attributed to Dafydd ap Gwilym. Like many of the metaphysical poets, few of his works are concerned with descriptions of the physical landscape, though it is clear from its opening poem of Olor Iscanus, ‘To the River Isca’, that he cherished his native valley:

Thus Poets (like the Nymphs, their pleasing themes),
Haunted the bubling Springs and gliding streams,
And happy banks! whence such fair flowres have sprung,
But happier those where they have sate and sung!
The river Usk is the subject of a further Latin poem in the same collection, entitled Ad fluvium Iscam (‘To the river Usk’) includes the following couplet:
Isca parens florum, placido qui spumeus ore
Lambis lapillos aureos
(Kind Usk, among thy flowers, whose wave
Golden pebbles still doth lave’).
Priory Grove, the celebrated wooded walk along the Afon Honddu in Brecon is celebrated in his poem entitled ‘The Priory Grove, His Usual Retirement’ from Poems, with the Tenth Satyre of Juvenal Englished, published in 1646, which seems to relate to the courting of his first wife, Catherine Wise.

HAIL, sacred shades ! cool, leafy house !
Chaste treasurer of all my vows
And wealth ! on whose soft bosom laid
My love’s fair steps I first betray’d :
Henry and his brother Thomas were grandsons of William Vaughan of Tretower, a well-established Welsh family which had associations with the Herberts and which proudly traced its ancestry back to a member of the family that had fought at the battle of Agincourt. He was educated at Llangattock by a further relation, Matthew Herbert, and Jesus College, Oxford, and then in about 1640 studied law in London, though this was disrupted by the Civil War. He became involved with the literary circle of Ben Jonson, and it is clear from a number of early works and from later writings that in the political turmoil of the time his sympathies were very much with the Royalists and with the Established Church. Recalled from London, he appears to have been appointed clerk to the Chief Justice of the Great Sessions of Brecknockshire, Radnorshire and Glamorganshire in 1642. It seems likely that both Henry and Thomas enlisted in the service of the king and took and active part in royalist defeats near Chester which probably ended their participation in the Civil War. Vaughan had returned to Newton by 1647, as evidenced by the dedication of Olor Iscanus, where he lived for the remainder of his life. In a letter to John Aubrey dated 1673, Vaughan states ‘My profession . . . is physic [medicine], wch I have practised now for many years with good successe (I thank god!) & a repute big enough for a person of greater parts than my selfe’, though when he first began to practise medicine is uncertain, though this was probably by 1655, the year in which he published his Hermetical Physick: Or, The right way to preserve, and to restore Health, translated from the Latin text by Heinrich Nolle.

John Aubrey, a distant ancestor of the Aubreys (Awbreys) of Breconshire which included branches at Cantref, Abercynrig and Tredomen, was most famous for his Brief Lives which includes portraits of leading figures of Breconshire, as well as for his antiquarian writings about Stonehenge and Avebury. The earliest house at Abercynrig was probably built by the Aubrey family in the 13th century. The family had gained local prominence by the 14th century and by the 16th century Dr William Aubrey became a national figure, well known as an intellectual, lawyer and MP whose wealth, as noted above, enabled him greatly to extend his estates. Within the present house there are traces of an earlier, 16th-century one, probably built by Dr Aubrey. In Brief Lives John Aubrey states that his great grandfather bought Abercynrig from an Aubrey cousin and that he built the ‘great house at Brecknock: his study looks on the river Usk. He could ride nine miles together on his own land in Breconshire’.

The prominent gentry families of Breconshire fostered an early interest in the antiquities of the Middle Usk Valley, a number of whose sites in the historic landscape area were amongst the earliest to be investigated or to be speculated about in Wales during the time of the Enlightenment. John Aubrey, who as we have seen, had strong Breconshire connections provides the earliest known reference to one of the Breconshire Neolithic chambered tombs the following probable mention of Ty Illtud: ‘The Carn at Cravannesh [?Manest] in the parish of Llansandfred [Llansantffraed] in the Countie of Brecknock’. He further recorded that ‘under this Carn is hid great treasure. The Doctor caused it to be digged; and there rose such a horrid tempest of thunder & lightening, that the workmen would work no longer; and they sayd they sawe strange apparitions; but they found a Cake of Gold, which was of a considerable value. This was about 1612. From Sr Tho: Williams Baronet, Chymist to K. Charles II’. In 1690 Ty Illtud was also to be visited by William Jones, assistant to the antiquary Edward Lhwyd, and received its first mention in print in the 1695 edition of William Camden’s Britannia.

Knowledge of this or other local sites may not have been universal at this time in the locality, however. Writing to John Aubrey in 1694 from his house at Newton, just 2.5 kilometres away, Henry Vaughan confessed little knowledge of antiquities in the area.

Honoured Cousin.
I received yours & should gladly have served you, had it bene in my power, butt all my search & consultations with those few that I could suspect to have any knowledge of Antiquitie, came to nothing; for the antient Bards (though by the testimonie of their Enemies, the Romans;) a very learned societie; yet (like the Druids) they communicated nothing of their knowledge, butt by way of tradition wch I suppose to be the reason that we have no account left us: nor any sort of remains, or other monuments of their learning, or way of living.

The earliest discoveries at the Maesderwen Roman villa near Llanfrynach were made in 1698, when Hugh Thomas reported on finds of brick and the ruins of walls in a field called ‘Kearney Bach’ (Carnau Bach), on an estate recently purchased by William Thomas. Hugh Thomas’s report notes that about 20 years previously a pavement of small stones of various colours had been uncovered, together with pottery, Roman coins and other finds, the adjoining field called ‘Clos y Gavelin’ being largely covered with iron cinders that were thought to be of Roman origin. The site was rediscovered in 1783 when workmen clearing trees and brushwood from the corner of a field on the estate and extensive excavations were undertaken by Charles Hay of Brecon, copies of which were published in the journal Archaeologia in 1785.

The crannog or artificial island on Llangorse Lake known as Ynys Bwlc was a further site in the historic landscape area to excite early antiquarian interest. Two local antiquaries, Edgar and Henry Dumbleton were the first to realise that the island was artificially constructed and recovered from partial excavations in 1868 animals bones, pottery, leather, bronze and a rubbing stone, reported upon in the journal Archaeologia Cambrensis published in 1870. Copies of Ferdinand Keller’s The Lake Dwellings of Switzerland, published in 1866, had become widely influential in Britain and Ireland, inspiring many antiquaries to look more closely at potentially similar sites closer to home. Modern excavations in the 1980s and 1990s have shown, as noted above, that the crannog was defended by a palisade and probably comprised an early medieval hall comparable to the contemporary Irish royal crannog sites, and was connected to the shore by a wooden causeway.

A painting by the well-known Radnorshire artist, Thomas Jones, which appears to show boatmen at work fishing on Llangorse Lake in perhaps the 1780s or 1790s can be seen in the possession of the Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery. Pleasure boating had become a popular pastime on the lake by the 1890s and by this date jetties and boathouses had been built on both the north and south sides of the lake. Tourists had begun to visit and pass through the historic landscape area in increasing numbers from the middle of the 18th century, encouraged by improvements in the turnpike road network, and by the publication of road maps, topographical and historical accounts and by prints of picturesque scenes such as the views of Llan-ddew, Pencelli Castle and Brecon by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, published in 1774.

The first decade of the 19th century saw the publication of the first, two-volume edition of Theophilus Jones’s History of the County of Brecknock, conceived at the turn of the century, and one of the finest of earlier generation of Welsh county histories. Jones (1759-1812), educated at Christ College, Brecon, and trained as a lawyer, lived for many years in Lion Street, Brecon. The subject matter of the two volumes, published in 1805 and 1809, focused as is usual, upon the early history of the county and upon the pedigrees of its gentry, but it also considered the customs and traditions of its inhabitants and the county’s antiquities. The volumes owed much to the researches of his friend and near contemporary, the ecclesiastical historian the Revd Henry Thomas Payne (1759-1832), who together with the Brecknock historian and antiquary Thomas Price, who were active in researching and writing upon the early history and antiquities of the county.

Richard Fenton and Sir Richard Colt Hoare were amongst the early visitors from further afield who came to see for themselves the antiquities of the county, Sir Richard painting a watercolour view of the priory church in Brecon in 1793. The pair made the acquaintance of Theophilus Jones and Thomas Payne amongst others. They visited the Roman fort at Brecon Gaer on 22 May 1804:

charmingly situated near the Usk; nor can a finer situation be imagined, whether we consider the Aspect, the River, the Woods, and the sublime back Ground of Mountains seen through a Skreen of Trees. . . . At the farm house of Aber Eskyr [Aberyscir] saw a Brick, about 9 inches square and 2 thick, stamped with LEG. II AVG [the Roman legion called the Second Augustan].

The Usk valley as a whole was to be admired for its picturesque scenery:

the beautiful vale of Usk, which, whether we consider its form, its cheerfulness, or its boundaries, is without comparison the prettiest Vale in the Kingdom. A very peculiar feature of it is the endless openings into Smaller Vallies on each side.

Saw the course of the new Canal to Brecknock for a great way on the North side of the Usk, and then on the South side.

From the mid 18th century the town of Brecon became the focus of the cultural life of the region. Balls and theatrical performances were held in the great rooms of a number of inns. The tragic actress Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) was born at The Shoulder of Mutton in the High Street (now the Sarah Siddons public house), whose parents were strolling players who had recently performed in the town, Her associations with the town after her early years were slight, though she did perform in the great room at the Bell Inn when on provincial tour.

Brecon became an important regional focus of nonconformist worship and teaching in the 19th century, during the course of which there eight chapels in the town belonging to the Wesleyans, the Baptists, Calvinistic Methodists and the Independents who each had separate English and Welsh-speaking chapels. The swing to nonconformism during the town during the 19th century is shown very clearly by the religious census of 1851 which shows that nearly 60% of the population attended nonconformist places of worship. Early nonconformist meetings in the area had tended to be at chapels or in private houses in the surrounding countryside, the earliest chapel in Brecon was Welsh Independent or Congregational Plough Chapel, built on the site of the Plough public house in 1699 and subsequently enlarged between 1874-1901. John Wesley often preached in the town promoting the Methodist cause. In 1780 a Welsh Calvinistic chapel was built in the Struet by Lady Huntingdon, which was replaced by Bethel chapel built in 1859, which could seat 800. A Baptist chapel was built at the Watergate in 1806, superseded by the Kensington Chapel built in 844. The Welsh Wesleyan missionaries built the Tabernacle in the Struet in 1824, though this had already been converted to a shop by the 1870s. The English Independent Chapel built in Glamorgan Street in 1836 and the English Calvinistic Presbyterian Chapel was built at the Watton in 1866, largely in response to the greatly increasing numbers of English speakers in the borough during the later 19th century. Only four nonconformist chapels still remain in use. Brecon Congregational Memorial College (named in memory of ministers ejected from the Anglican Church in the 17th century), founded in 1869, had had its roots in the Brecon Independent College founded in 1839 in what was then a private house in St Mary’s Street. By 1852 it was recognized as one of the colleges of the University of London and in 1903 became an associated theological college of the University of Wales. It became an important educational institution which it has been claimed ‘decisively moulded the development of the Welsh people’.

In cultural terms today, the area is perhaps best known for the annual Brecon Jazz Festival, and for the tourism and leisure activities associated with the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal and Llangorse Lake.

(back to top)

Privacy and cookies