Following the end of the last glaciation about 12,000 years ago, broadleaved (deciduous) woodland became established over all except the higher peaks of the Cambrian Mountains. Today’s predominantly grassy heathland was created by woodland clearance from the earlier prehistoric period onwards, combined with climatic change which, at high altitude, gave rise to blanket peat formation.
The large numbers of cairns, individual megaliths (standing stones), stone rows and stone circles in the region may well be associated with the early exploitation of upland pastures during the Bronze Age, 5500-3500 years ago. The fact that many are sited high on horizons indicates that they were meant to be seen from long distances, possibly for territorial marking, for commemoration of special individuals or for use as foresights for astronomical alignments. Note, however, that the current form of the prominent Beehive Cairns on Drygarn Fawr is much more recent, suspected to have been an ‘enhancement’ of earlier cairns carried out in the Victorian era.
One-third of the Cambrian Mountains area is registered in the historic landscape register for Wales (Register of Landscapes of Special Historic Interest in Wales, Part 2.2: Landscapes of Special Historic Interest ). In addition, the Cambrian Mountains contain 80 individual Scheduled Ancient Monuments.
Peat bogs are a most important archive documenting human activity in the Cambrian Mountains. Despite their archaeological importance, they are an undervalued and diminishing resource, with many hectares having been lost only recently, during construction of Cefn Croes wind power station.
The archaeology of the Cambrian Mountains is relatively well preserved for the very reasons that make the area special – its remoteness and lack of human disturbance. There are many aspects which are not yet fully understood, and it is important that the archaeological record is preserved in its landscape context for future research.
The foundations of the earliest-known buildings within the Cambrian Mountains are Roman. There have been excavations within the Roman fort at Pumsaint which was occupied between around 75-125 AD. Little surface evidence of it survives, although the Romans’ mines at nearby Dolaucothi can still be seen.
For the thousand years thereafter, little is known of settlements in the area, let alone buildings, due to the very hostile soil conditions and still limited archaeological methods.
Ystrad Flur, or Strata Florida Abbey, is the best-known mediaeval building, and has inspired poetry in both national languages since its foundation by the Cistercian order in the mid-twelfth century. The Abbey’s great west doorway invariably attracts attention, as does the collection of original mediaeval tiles in the chapels of the south transept.
Strata Florida was the centre of a large mountain estate with granges throughout the Cambrian Mountains.
Paths would have been established based on the requirements of visiting pilgrims, the need for monks from the abbey to travel to chapelries on the remoter parts of their estate, and with their sheep to the outlying granges. There were also the routes used by the monks to access fisheries on the Ceredigion coast. Many of these paths would have been in use previously, and later the long distance cross-country routes became drove roads.
The degree to which the granges were accessed by maintained routes is uncertain, as without clearer documentation and structural examination, dating such features is very difficult. Some of the most important routes associated with Strata Florida Abbey which still survive on the ground are*:
The Monks Trod/ Llwbyr y Mynaich – an ancient route linking the abbey with the granges of Nannerth and Cwmdauddwr in Radnorshire, and with its sister abbey of Cwmhir. See more about this route below.
The route from Strata Florida to the chapelry at Ystrad-ffin and the grange of Nant-y-bai, via Soar y Mynydd.
The route from Strata Florida SE to Nantystalwyn.
The route from the abbey to Llyn Gynon and the Teifi lakes for fishing.
Lôn Lacs – the old route from Strata Florida to the fishery at Aberarth.
The Monks’ Trod or Llwbyr y Mynaich is a part-engineered medieval road between the two Cistercian monasteries, Ystrad Fflur (Strata Florida) and Abbey Cwmhir, with a probable branch to a third (Strata Marcella, Abaty Ystrad Marchell, near Welshpool). It follows the course of what is almost certainly a much older routeway across the Cambrian Mountains, connecting the Teifi basin with the Wye valley and eastern Wales. Artefacts along the route, such as Bronze Age cairns, have prompted speculation that the route may be much older than mediaeval, though there is no hard evidence to support this. But whether 1000 or 5000 years old, the Llwbyr y Mynaich is certainly one of the most important historic features of the Cambrian Mountains. It demonstrates very well how the routeway was engineered – ‘terraced’ in various sectors with ‘cut and fill’ and laid surfaces to make it more viable for horse and pedestrian traffic. Since such survival is rare in Britain, the Monks’ Trod has great archaeological value. The Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales attaches significant importance to the Monks Trod. In its Coflein database the Commission describes the path as “a celebrated ancient road across the Cambrian Mountains.” (The term ‘road’ here is clearly used not in the modern sense of the word but as in history, to indicate a major means of travelling by horse and foot through the land.)
Of course, many thoroughfares of medieval and earlier date ‘survive’ in our countryside, usually as roads still in use or as hollow ways. The special thing about much of the Monks’ Trod is that, because of its remoteness it has had very limited use in recent centuries, and the original construction remains well preserved. Since such survival is rare in Britain, the Monks’ Trod has great archaeological value.
It is also of historic importance, dating as it does from the times of the seminal Welsh writers Gerald of Wales and Dafydd ap Gwilym, and the Lord Rhys. The Lord Rhys was an able and powerful ruler who kept the Normans at bay and was almost certainly in part responsible for the improvement of this key routeway the use of which helped him to control his domains, in military and political terms.
Nowadays, travelling along the Trod allows walkers and horse riders to gain a sense of what it was like to cross the Welsh hills in earlier, unmechanised times, traversing a rare wilderness. In doing this, some are consciously perpetuating a tradition of pilgrimage which has its roots in the time of the Cistercians, when many travelled to Ystrad Fflur to improve their spiritual and physical health, or to be buried there in hallowed ground, alongside Dafydd ap Gwilym.
The Monks’ Trod, then, is a precious archaeological site, albeit one whose precise and full value has only been recognised and appreciated in recent years.
* The making of a medieval road: the Monks’ Trod routeway, Mid Wales. Landscapes 10 (1) (2009): 77-100. See also: The Monks’ Trod: Britain’s best medieval road? British Archaeology November/December 2009, 22-7.
House platforms believed to date from mediaeval times are commonplace throughout the area. Because there is some documentation, the best-known settlements occupied Monastic grange lands. They probably date from the later twelfth century, and it is likely that a number of the house platforms surviving in the Cambrian Mountains relate to the early granaries and subsequent sheep farms administered from Strata Florida and possibly Abbey Cwmhir before the Dissolution of the monasteries in the mid-sixteenth century.
Evidence from the surviving buildings on either side of the main east-west watershed suggests slightly differing mediaeval and later building traditions. On the western side, stone and mud were the main materials for buildings roofed with a minimum of timber. Conversely, the eastern side had a relatively timber-rich construction industry, notable for its skilled employment of hardwoods in elaborate house-frames as well as extremely durable roof structures. Many have survived, particularly in or on the edge of the uplands, owing to economic regression, and the need to ‘make-do-and-mend’ rather than improve or demolish/rebuild.
Early modern period
A recent study of Radnorshire houses shows how peasant hall-houses probably developed into animal-sharing timber-framed long-houses during the sixteenth century, how some grew into minor gentry houses thereafter, and the relationships between socio-economic functions of dwellings on lower ground with ‘summer houses’ on the upland pastures. A particularly good example is Nannerth-Ganol and its historically-related holdings in Cwmddeudwr.
Eighteenth century and beyond
There are relatively few eighteenth-century houses within the area, but the sites of Cwm Elan, Dderw, Dolaucothi, Hafod, Llwyn Madoc, Nantgwyllt, Neuadd Fawr (Cilycwm) and Rhydoldog deserve mention. Although five are now derelict or demolished, three (Dderw, Dolaucothi and Hafod) are registered as gardens or historic landscapes on the Cadw/ICOMOS Register.
The important Wilderness Picturesque landscape movement grew in the Cambrian Mountains after 1783, from the vision of Thomas Johnes at Hafod, in the Ystwyth valley of the western foothills. This landscape philosophy is probably best seen as a major antecedent to the wilderness vision underlying John Muir’s imperative to establish American National Parks. The movement emphasised visitors’ experience of the landscape, often idealised as pastoral and unspoilt, with people conceived as innocent compliments to it – their harder work kept tactfully out of sight, so as not to interfere with the imagined ease and beauty of living in Arcadia.
The Estate, taken under the management of the National Trust in mid-2022, has many recreational paths created by the owner, Thomas Johnes, in the late 18th century to show off his estate to distinguished guests, such as Turner, Coleridge and the Duke of Bedford. Most still survive and are maintained.
Tourism continued in the 19th century, when the Victorians also popularised the tradition of climbing mountains. In the early 1800s, visitors to the area continued despite the difficulties of reaching such a remote area and the limited hospitality available at the time. Routes up Pumlumon would have been known at this time, though the routes between Devil’s Bridge and Rhyader or Tregaron and Abergwesyn attracted limited leisure travellers, being extremely difficult to traverse despite their well established use by drovers.
With the arrival of the railways, spa towns such as Llanwrtyd Wells sprang up on the edge of the Cambrian Mountains.
Near Cwmystwyth stands a unique architectural monument in the form of a Jubilee Arch built in 1810 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of King George III. Now standing by the side of the road to Devil’s Bridge, it once formed the entrance to the nearby Hafod Estate but the road was later diverted to run past instead of through it.
Finally, the architectural value of the vernacular and industrial houses and farm buildings of the Cambrian Mountains should not be underestimated. Sadly, many of mid-Wales’s protagonists (in both local and national government) have, over the last century, seen the Welsh peasant and farmers’ built vernacular past as something to be swept away in the name of ‘progress’.
The future survival of the varied and important historic built environment of the Cambrian Mountains is largely dependent on the survival of their communities, and of the skills they possess to maintain these buildings and their settings.
Lying largely outside major settlement nuclei, the Cambrian Mountains encompass only a handful of parish churches. The earliest of these is most spectacularly mediaeval, at Cilycwm. St David’s Llanwrtyd is purported to have been founded by St David himself, and the isolated position and partly curvilinear churchyard enclosure may well indicate an early medieval origin for the foundation. The church here was the original parish church for the parish of Llanwrtyd but does not appear in written records before the 13th century. The present structure is the result of major restoration in 1862. The nave may originally have been 14th century with 16th century extensions and windows. Further restoration in 1969 revealed the rood loft stairs. William Williams Pantycelyn, the famous hymn writer and later Methodist, was the curate here in 1740-42.
The parish churches at Abergwesyn, Ysbyty Ystwyth, Caeo, and Ysbyty Cynfyn are all either nineteenth century re-modellings, or Victorian erections on new sites. Eglwys Newydd is notable for its Hafod associations, and for Chantrey’s poignant monument to Mariamne Johnes (a talented botanist who died in 1811 aged just 27; the memorial depicts her grieving parents Thomas and Jane Johnes at Mariamne’s deathbed). Neglect has already effected considerable damage to the graveyards at Abergwesyn and Ysbyty Cynfyn, where the most spectacular pebble graves which survived complete until about 1980 are now rapidly disintegrating through plant growth and tree root invasion.
There is also a sprinkling of chapels here, some only just surviving in quite remote areas. Soar y Mynydd, near Llyn Brianne, is both the remotest and the best-known; it has become a place of pilgrimage for its Sunday afternoon services in the summer season. Founded by Ebenezer Richard, father of the “Apostle of Peace”, this homely chapel with its Welsh painted wall inscription “Duw Cariad Yw” was built to serve the scattered pastoral community that has farmed in these mountains for generations. Capel Ystrad Ffin, also near Llyn Brianne, once belonged to Strata Florida abbey. A neglected chapel-of-ease at the county border, it made a convenient meeting place for the early Welsh Methodists.
Most surviving chapels are under threat of total abandonment as attendances drop, and there are particular problems about adaptation for re-use, since residential conversion may be disallowed, either by covenants or by the feelings of their communities.
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