An Essay on Space in Space.

Fieldscape in Radnorshire

And the Lord said “Let there be Light”, and there was Light, and you could see for miles…

At last, I am back in wide open space, in green pastures, brown mountain rush and autumnal oakwoods.  The hills are alive with the sound of stone bashing on stone – and birds and sheep, fast jets and singing, my singing.  I like the sound of all of it, even my own voice !  I have been too long in suburbia, too long in gardens, too long on mortar and mixers, too long not doing what I was put on this earth to do, mend the landscape of Wales !  Yes, this week, after far too big a space in time I am back in the Cambrian mountains.

Random stone wall

As good a ‘field clearance’ wall as you’ll see; these small fields were created by hand, probably in the C16th and the ‘loc’ created was to keep the cattle safe in overnight.

Actually I am in a very historic part of the upland zone, a small Lordship that has remained essentially unchanged for centuries.

Now a part of Breconshire, the little valley of the Cymrun lies west of the great natural divide of the Wye, the main river that flows south through the area.  An ancient hamlet lies at its mouth,  Llanwrthwl, a centre of early Christianity with a dedication to Gwrthwyl who was a seventh century Saint.  The modern church dates from the early nineteenth century but an ecclesiastic presence on this site is much older indeed.  This poor upland area of the eastern Cambrian mountains is bounded by  the rivers Elan, Wye and Irfon, it is in fact the area in which I live.  Indeed should I be a horseman I could ride to the site in less time than it is taking me to drive there, it lies just over the hill to the north of my old farmstead.

Whilst it is now in Breconshire it has a much older identity which threads its way through medieval history.  Following the dismembering of the Iron Age tribes of Wales by the Romans in the early centuries AD,  Wales was divided into Kingdoms.  The Ordivices,  which inhabited the central upland area of Wales evolved through the Roman occupation, into the early medieval society which was highly organised, cultural and social. Buellt retained its identity from the C7th, through the years of the Welsh Heptarchy (9th-11th centuries) and the coming of the Normans when it came under the control of the De Braose Lordship.  Not until the Acts of Union in 1536 did it lose it separate identity and became subsumed into the old Kingdom of Brycheiniog.  There it remains, despite numerous Local Government re-organisations and boundary changes, the northernmost outpost of the old County of Brecknock, except of course it too now belongs to an enlarged ancient Kingdom, Powys.  The walls I am working on and examining cover most of that elongated history, and fascinating they are.

Boulder wall in mid Wales.

‘Boulders’ best describes the stones used in this seemingly chaotic wall that has stood for over ten centuries.

Once again I am on the edge of the world, the farming world that is, the farming world that has shaped and provided a livelihood for the inhabitants of these hills for millenia.  They in turn have shaped the landscape and much of what is now present was first begun in the Iron age and early Medieval periods. Therein lies the problem, at least it is for me.

The little cottage where I have been asked to reshape a centuries old enclosure began life as a summer shieling.  A Hafod or Lluest is  a place where members of a family would take their small herd of cattle and later, sheep, from May until early October.  There the animals would feed freely on the open commons whilst the members of the family – a son or daughter plus relatives – lived in a small timber frame hovel and gathered the animals into a corral at night.  Most importantly the milk was processed to butter and cheese which was transported back to the old home – the Hendre – for selling on.  Hence the hafod needed to be a walkable distance from the home base and archaeological studies have theorised this was probably no more than 8 miles distant.  Those of you who have read previous posts will recall the old ruined hafod I discovered high in the upper Rhiangoll valley whilst rebuilding the mountain wall of Grafog farm.  This time the hafod is an example of what happened in the later medieval period when changes in climate, population and inheritance saw these seasonal holdings become permanent farmsteads in their own right.

Smal farm set in the hill commons of mid Waes

The small fields have been won out of the old wild common that still surrounds them, the stones cleared to allow cultivation were used to build the walls. Hence, ‘field clearance’ !

I know the area well but I had never ventured as far up into the hill before, it is a really special place and I have already found a number of interesting field systems and old ruins that are not thus far recorded on the Historic Environment Record (HER) of the Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust, the body responsible for this geographic portion of Wales.  The little homestead where I am working is however recorded and I am disappointed to report that once again the professionals have ‘missed the point’.

Now I have come in for a deal of heavy criticism and lost supposed friends because of comments I have made in this blog previously about inept interpretations made by young archaeologists who know little of Historical Landscape Interpretation nor the relevant aspects of Welsh history which frames it.  The insecurity of those working on investigating and recording our past is perfectly understandable; in these days of austerity activities such as Archaeology, and indeed Conservation, are the first to be cut as funding for more statutory provision is squeezed.  Often therefore, when a site visit is made, and that is an increasingly rare event in itself, time on the ground is minimal and investigation tends to be a quick examination of the buildings and an almost ‘off the cuff’ assessment as to whether there is anything new, meaningful or interesting.  Such is the case with Lwest Fach.  It is recorded under the oft quoted (and quite dismissive, in my view) ‘Post Medieval’.

True, the building as it stands is a good example of a late C18th/early C19th modernisation of a much older ‘long-house’ type dwelling.  However there is no recognition in the report of an earlier history, nor of the ancient banks and ditches that surround it, nor the cattle corral near the stream, nor indeed the medieval dry stone walls that frame the pastures, built of the stone that was cleared from the ground when the fields were first claimed from the mountain.  In fact so dismissive is the report that no protection was consequently afforded the building resulting in irreversible damage to the fabric, obscene changes to the timber and openings and unsuitable materials employed in the ‘modernisation’ that took place.  Fortunately the current owners have a desire to return the building to a more traditional form but they had no idea what the significance of the place was, no idea even what the significance of the name was. Nor of the small fields, the old trackways nor the small dry stone cattle corral less than 100 metres from their (very wide) front door.  As for the old cobbles that were destroyed, or why there were no gutters on the smaller part of the building (the end in which the cattle were housed) or why the large open fire wouldn’t draw (because the builder had no idea of the science of old fireplaces and chimneys) they were (are) nonplussed.

And that is why I get agitated when I see such sloppy field work, such ignorance and such mis-representation set in stone, for such is the revered status of the H.E.R. it becomes the reference for future investigation, by owners, by planners and by archaeologists.  Thus, from henceforth, any desk survey of Lluest Fach (the correct spelling of the homestead) will show nothing more than a rather insignificant nineteenth century cottage (it doesn’t even suggest it had an attached cow -byre let alone that it was a traditional long-house) with nothing of interest, not even its name.

Ah well, I battle on, and certainly ‘battle’ is the word, against elements, mud and weight.  The stone in that part of the world is heavy, oh yes, heavy heavy heavy.  I knew it would be, it is just up the geological valley from Penlanole where I have long struggled with such dense boulders.

Farmstead wall

The ‘modernised’ old house with the original curtilege wall; I had to simply take down the two sides of the square you can see, and build the two sides that are not currently there. Simple !?

The job requires the demolishing of two sides of a square and using the stone in rebuilding the other two sides thereby giving the owners a much larger area within the walled yard.

I decided to get my friendly digger man in, there seemed no point in handling such heavy stones twice.  Also, the foundation stones are just immoveable even though the ground soon turned to a claggy mud as one would expect in an area where rounded boulders occur so freely – boulder clay lies over much of this area.  So, knock it down, machine-sort the stone and push the huge foundations into place as best as can be achieved and then build around them.  I certainly had no problem sleeping this last week !

Machine placed foundation stones.

That’s my size 12 boot, gives you an idea how large are the foundations but NOT how heavy they are; the machine just managed to slide them into position but could no-way lift them. Strong men those Celts !

The weather was not helpful, the problem with field stones is that they have been ‘weathered’.  That means they have no nice hand-holds or corners which can act as handles.  My ‘little helper’ likened them to the large round balls that the competitors in that TV series ‘Strongest Man’ have to lift.  He managed them without a grunt…

Once the half-way stage is reached the stones have reduced in size sufficiently to be able to actually lift and place them rather than heave them up and leave them where they land not good practise as there’s always a chance of catching a finger tip!

Dry stone boulder wall

It is still possible to ‘zipper’ the wall even with such awkward shapes and rounded boulders.

Of course, in such an ancient place I get easily distracted, there is so much to ‘go-see’ during elongated lunch breaks or early day finishes.  I had been exploring the wooded areas down the valley several weeks previously in search of an old field kiln.  Several old ruins of farmsteads which had similarly evolved from earlier summer shielings lie hidden amongst old field systems which have been reclaimed by natural woodland.  Old lluests and hafods abound around the edge of the large mountain commons, witnesses to a period when hundreds lived in these upland fringes which now seem remote and deserted.

Old Hafod in the hills near Rhayader

Another old hafod high on the valley side which had become a permanent farmstead sometime in the post-medieval period and rebuilt in dry stone.

I didn’t find the old kiln, but I will.  I know someone who can show me where it is if I fail to locate it.  I have a good idea of the locality and I am gradually pushing further each time but in so doing more and more features appear.  Some time is going to be spent in this valley.

The coming of autumn, the appearance of a sunny afternoon and the fact that I was within a mile or two of a very important part of my history and of Welsh landscape sent me on a little detour.

At one time Llanwrthwl was isolated on the western side of the Wye (a modern bridge now connects it to the main north/south trunk road, the A470).  A network of ancient routes come down to the village core from isolated valleys.  This is not an area where the Normans created their nucleated villages, this an area of (still) dispersed farms and workers cottages, of dilapidated mills and upland field barns.  It can be difficult to navigate around the area as more modern over-writing of that history confuses the sense of earlier patterns.

Every which way !

Every which way but…. Roads can get a little confusing off the beaten track.

I took a trip toward Elan village via a small road that runs from Llanwrthwl past the Talwrn farm, a steep valley with rocky outcrops and scree slopes.  The farm was the home farm of a man on whom I have based my Farm History collection, one Percy Jones of the family who have lived and farmed that valley for generations.

The route I took was the old way into the valley that now boasts some of Wales’ most scenic landscape.  I reported on the Elan Valley reservoirs just recently after I led a guided walk through woods above Carreg Ddu. This time I did a circular route around the older reservoirs and astonished my companion who was oblivious to its existence.

Elan valley dam and reservoir

Water was pouring over all the dams this time – the previous two visits, both about the same time of year, saw water levels lower than had been known for many a year. Drought conditions seem to have ended…

The reservoirs were certainly full and the afternoon sun cast long shadows over the dark waters.  There really is no better time to visit the Welsh lake-district, the old oak woods are stunning.

Oak woods in autumnal dress along the shore of the reservoir of Pen y Garreg.

The sun on the autumnal oak woods and the ever-green spruce on the strange island contrasts with the black waters of the highest of the reservoirs

I found myself giving an impromptu history- come-ecology lesson to my interested tourist. The oakwoods, hanging on the steep-sided valleys were fascinating, the open moorlands devoid of trees marked the huge sheep-walks of the Cistercian monks of Strata Florida and hence there were no hafods up here, only the remains of Granges of those long gone wearers of white wool.  How wild and difficult must the valleys have been before the flooding, how desolate a livelihood in the few dispersed farms that exist on the high plateau.  The roof of Wales it is called, here the watersheds of the Teifi, the Elan, the Ystwyth and ultimately of Welsh Wales and the Englishries of the Norman areas, touch each other in a stones throw.

My companion, for maybe the first time in his life, seemed to find a connection, “is this where the Merlin lives?” he asked.  The bird or the Wizard ?  “It’s where both live “, I replied he smiled, he bears the name.

Right or Wrong ?

It’s important to know where you’ve come from to know where you’re going… Now then, which way home ? The right way or the wrong way…

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