With many, many thanks to Dai and Helen Williams for getting in touch and lending me this superb photograph of the interior of the Calvinist Methodist Tabernacl on Sea View Terrace, built in 1864 to replace their earlier chapel in Chapel Square. I have updated my earlier post about the chapel with this photograph, but for those who have already read it, it seemed a good idea to post the photograph separately as well. It shows not only the organ and the pews, as well as some of the decorative features, but also, to the left, the gallery. It quite clearly had a magnificent interior, now converted to apartments.
Any research into the Tywyn and Aberdovey areas in the 18th and 19th Centuries runs into the landowning Corbets and the Ynysymaengwyn Estate, one of the top eight estates of Merionnydd in its heyday. The Ynysymaengwyn Estate owned much of the land in and around both Tywyn and Aberdovey well into the Twentieth Century.
The few material remains of the Ynysymaengwyn Estate are located 1 mile from Tywyn on the road to Bryncrug. The name of the estate (pronounced Inis mine gwin) means island or river meadow (of) the white rock. In 1949 the piece of land that retained the last echoes of the estate was bequeathed to the people of Tywyn by Mary Corbett. Although it is now dominated by a mobile home park and campsite, parts of the former estate now contain woodland walks and some of the original features of the estate survive, although the house and most of the accompanying buildings were dismantled in the late 1960s. These remnants are discussed at the end of the post.
The Ynysymaengwyn estate included both highland and lowland areas, and extends down to the south bank of the river Dysynni, stretching along a portion of its valley. The Dysynni has silted up considerably and it is thought that it may have provided a natural shelter for small boats. One of the earliest buildings in the area is St Cadfan’s Church in Tywyn, parts of which date to the 12th Century probably developed out of the clas (a semi monastic church) that was founded near the shoreline. There was also a small settlement at Bryncrug, where most of the land belonged to Ynysymaengwyn. Llanegryn church is listed in the 1253 Taxatio, so must have been the centre for a small settlement before that time. The core buildings of the Medieval Ynysymaengwyn estate would have been much nearer the sea than today. A second estate that was present in the Medieval period was Peniarth, also on the Dysynni. Gwynedd Archaeological Trust observes that “these two houses and their associated parks, together with the villages of Bryncrug and Llanegryn and the town of Tywyn emerges as focal points of this area in late Medieval and Modern times.” There were also a number of early freehold properties such as Dolau Gwyn and Caer Berllan.
The history of the Estate can be traced back to the reign of Elizabeth I. It passed through a number of families. Like all these family histories, it is a bewildering succession of names that are quite meaningless to anyone not trying to trace their ancestry, and a substantial amount of this family history is captured in a well researched Wikipedia page dedicated to the Ynysymaengwyn Estate and and the Dictionary of Welsh Biography and will not be reproduced here, although some details are unavoidable. The first name linked with certainty to Ynysymaengwyn was was Gruffydd ab Adda in the early 14th Century. He was bailiff (legal custodian) in 1330 and 1334 of the Ystumanner cymwd (anglified as commote, an organizational division of an area into about 50 villages for the purposes of defence and justice). His daughter Nêst married Llywelyn ap Cyunrig ab Osbwrn Wyddel, and from there the estate passed through the male line for over 200 years.
The family were noted patrons of Welsh poets. Hywel, the great great grandson of Llywelyn was the subject of an elegy by Hywel ap Rheinallt when he died of the plague, and Hywel’s son Hwmffre ap Hywel ap Siencyn was in turn the subject of a famous cywydd (poem with a particular metrical form, in rhyming couplets) by Tudur Aled. In the poem Tudur Aled (c.1465–1525) takes on the role of a conciliator between kinsmen. Glanmor Williams describes the genre as follows: “Quite apart from any disputes kindled by faction and war, there might be serious splits between kinsmen in ordinary circumstances. Such quarrels could be more than usually bloodthirsty, ‘deadly feuds’ more dangerous than civil war . . . It was the intensity of such divisions that led poets to attach key importance to the role, which they shard with the priests, of being conciliators between kinsfolk.” He says that the most celebrated of all the poems of this kind was Tudur Aled’s cywydd to reconcile Hwmffre with his kinsmen “by urging them to remember the tragic futilities of past internecine differences, from which only the English had benefited at Welsh expense (p.109). I have been unable to find a translation of the poem, so please let me know if you have access to one. Hywel ap Siencyn’s grandson Arthur ap Huw became vicar of St Cadfan’s Church in Tywyn between 1555 and 1570, and was another patron of Welsh poets. He also translated Counter-Reformation literature into Welsh.
When Hwmffre died in 1545 his son John Wynn and then John’s son Humphrey each inherited the estate in turn. On Humphrey’s death the estate passed to his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Sr James Pryse of Goderddon, who was high sheriff of Merioneth (married in 1601). Both died in 1642 and and their daughter Bridget inherited. Bridget Pryse married Robert Corbet of Moreton Corbet, Shropshire, in about 1612, which was the beginning of the long association of the name Corbet with the Ynysymaengwyn Estate, which endured for the best part of the next two centuries. Robert Corbet was a passionate Royalist. During the English Civil War, to prevent Parliamentarians taking the property, the estate’s mansion was burned down in 1635 and had to be rebuilt. The coat of arms of the Corbets of Moreton, whose name means “little crow” was a black raven, and the name Corbet is itself French, derived from “corbeau,” from the Latin Corvus. It eventually gave The Raven Inn in Aberdovey its name. The family motto was Deus Pascit Corvos, God feeds the ravens.
The estate passed to their great granddaughter Ann Owen (1684-1741), who had married Athelstan Owen. Athelstan Owen clearly contributed new buildings to the estate, one of which is now the the Dovey Inn (formerly the Dovey Hotel and before that The Ship) built by Athelstan Owen in 1729. Above the door is a plaque inscribed “This house was built by Athelstain Owen Esq, Anno Dom 1729.” He died in 1755, leaving Ann with three children. She lived for another 30 years and did not re-marry. She was known locally as Madam Owen, a woman of considerable personality. Anne purchased the Caethle Estate in Tywyn from Richard and Margaret Braithwaite, absorbing it into the Ynysymaengwyn Estate. She also built the central block of buildings on the estate, added the dovecote for 800 birds that still stands and in 1717 donated almshouses for five widows in Tywyn. According to Barbara Middlemass, however, her business methods could be ruthless: “Her favourite method of adding to the estate was to lend money by way of mortgage to needy farmers and then, when she knew they could not pay, call in the mortgage and seize the land to swell the Ynys acreage.”
The two-storey house that Ann built in around 1758 was a built in a classic Eighteenth Century architectural style in local stone with details picked out in Portland stone, including an elegant pediment. It was an unusual sight in Wales. It was flanked by the two existing buildings, the north wing and the south wing, to make an impressive ensemble. The stone-built dovecote has a truncated pyramidal slate roof, a deep segmental arch in the front wall inset with a much smaller flat-headed doorway. She also appears to have been actively involved in building houses in Aberdovey. A house on Copperhill Street bears a plaque reading “Built By Anne Owen Widow AD 1733,” and this was probably Madam Owen. Although there’s a discrepancy on the dates (she could not have been a widow until 1755 if the date of Athelstan’s death is correct), the fanlight window on Anne’s plaque exactly mirrors the fanlights on the Dovey Inn, suggesting a close connection.
Of Anne and Athelstan Owen’s children, Corbet and Richard died childless so their daughter Ann Maurice (married to Pryce Maurice) inherited the estate. To comply with Ann Owen’s wishes, the estate then passed to Henry Arthur Maurice, who was Ann and Pryce Maurice’s younger son, presumably chosen because Ann Owen disapproved of the elder son Edward’s youthful activities, which included fathering at least two illegitimate children. An interesting twist in the tangle of family names is that when the property then passed to a male with a different last name (for example, where a daughter who inherited the estate married) those men were required in the terms of the bequest to change their last name to Corbet, ensuring that the name Corbet was always associated with Ynysymaengwyn. This was the case even when the estate passed out of the Corbet bloodline. Henry Arthur Maurice, grandson of Ann Owen, therefore changed his last name to Corbet. When he died childless in 1782, his elder brother Edward Maurice (1741-1820) inherited the Ynysymaengwyn Estate against his grandmother Ann Owen’s wishes, and Edward also changed his name to Corbet.
Although Ann Owen had disapproved of him in his feckless youth, to the extent of cutting him out of her will, the more mature Edward was not unlike her in terms of his urge to make improvements to the estate and to benefit its dependants. Lewis Lloyd says that he had travelled to London to learn from a physician “to acquire sufficient knowledge to dispense medicine to his tenants and others.” He was a loyal supporter of Britain’s role in the Napoleonic Wars, and was a captain in the local militia. During this period, much of the lowland and upland parts of the estate were enclosed and marshy areas were drained. Edward was noted for breeding horses, cattle and sheep, and beginning in 1788, the drainage of some 260 acres of peat land for conversion to hay fields for use as livestock fodder, eventually producing 500 tons of hay annually. This denied poorer members of the community access to peat cutting (turbary) and communal pasture, and many people left the area, some emigrating to the United States. The upland parts of the estate that Edward enclosed were of potential interest for their mineral content, and he established copper works and searched for coal. His loyalty to the English government and the crown led, at least in part, to his suspicion of Methodism, which he thought radical and borderline seditious, and which was growing fast in Wales. His persecution of Methodists in Aberdovey, for example, resulted in their eviction from their premises with bibles and benches thrown out onto the street, with fines imposed on anyone who gave them shelter for their meetings. Edward Corbet’s obituary records that he “was a cynic and a wit, a man of the world and when he pleased a very polished gentleman. he was by turns petulant and affable, entertaining everyone. With the flashes of his wit and the bitter but often just severity of his satire.”
When Edward died in 1820, the estate passed to Edward’s nephew Athelstan Maurice, son of Edward (Maurice) Corbet and Henry’s brother Price Maurice, and he too changed his name to Corbet. Athelstan continued Edward’s work building enclosures and draining land. His main achievement was to invest in the local road network, which was in very poor condition. He built a new road between Pennal and Aberdovey that opened in 1827 and improved the road from Pennal to Machynlleth. This improved communications and soon stagecoaches began to arrive with passengers, some in the area on business, some visiting as early tourists. Interestingly, when the Wesleyan Methodists were looking for somewhere to build their chapel, it was rented from the Ynysymaengwyn Estate in 1828, suggesting that Athelstan did not share his uncle’s violent dislike of Methodists. The portrait to the right shows Griffith Owen (1750-1833) who fascinatingly combined the roles of butler and harpist to the Corbets before be became the landlord of the Raven Arms in Aberdovey.
In 1829 Athelstan built the Corbet Arms Family Hotel and Post House at the western end of Aberdovey to cater to the needs of visitors. It was right on the edge of the sea before the construction of the sea wall. A bowling green was laid out in the front of hotel, and on the beach bathing huts were installed and donkey rides were available. Writing in 1833, Samuel Lewis described how horse races were held at Ynysymaengwyn every September by the side of the Dysynni, and one can imagine how perfect the wide flat floodplain would have been for this purpose. By the 1840s the estate comprised some 7201 acres, eighth in size of the 21 south Meiryonnydd estates. The nearest estate in size in the immediate area of Tywyn and Aberdovey was the Peniarth estate of 4421 acres.
In his account of Ynysymaengwyn Lewis Lloyd says that from the mid 1850s the history of the estate “was increasingly troubled.” When Athelstan Maurice Corbet died, the estate passed to his sister Henrietta Maurice, who married Charles Decimus Williams with whom she had a daughter also named Henrietta. The younger Henrietta married John Soden of Bath, who duly changed his name to Corbet. In 1862 a Trust was established for running the estate and the trustees were given leave to raise £5000 for harbour improvements. In 1865 the harbour area, including the wharf and jetty, were leased to the Cambrian Railways Company. The Corbet Arms Hotel was rebuilt in 1867 to accommodate the visitors were anticipated would follow in the wake of the opening of the railway in the mid 1860s. The opening of the railway was discussed on a previous post.
Lewis says that most of the stewards of Ynysymaengwyn were local men until the late 1860s, examples being two former ship captains, after which English agents were apparently preferred, but he adds that not much is known about who they were and that this is research yet to be undertaken. In the 1860s the half-yearly rent audit of the estate was held in Tywyn and a dinner was given for the tenants in the Town Hall, and any important local issues were discussed. In 1863 this included the opening of the railway. It is quite clear that there is a lot of information about people who worked on the estate in various records held in the National Library of Wales and National Archives and elsewhere (see for example the results of a National Archives search on Ynysymaengwyn), so a major research project is awaiting someone.
John Soden Corbet died in 1871 and his son Athelstan John Soden Corbet inherited. Athelstan’s majority was celebrated lavishly in both Tywyn and Aberdyfi in July 1871, celebrations that were reported at length in the The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard on 7th July 1871. Reading the account with hindsight, the optimism and happiness with which he was greeted seem rather sad. Some highlights are copied here, but you can see the full account on the National Library of Wales website. The celebration shows just how important the Ynysymaengwyn Estate was to the local communities:
THE MAJORITY OF ATHELSTAN J. SODEN-CORBET, ESQ., YNYSYMAENGWYN. Towyn and Aberdovey were on Thursday the scene of long to be remembered rejoicings in honour of the attainment of the majority of Athelstan J. Soden-Corbet, Esq., of Ynysymaengwyn. The Corbets are one of the best known and oldest families of which the county of Merioneth can boast; their connection with Towvn, Aberdovey, and their neighbour- hood can be traced back for a good many generations, and, upon the whole of the extensive estate connected with the family property, the name of Corbet is never mentioned but with feelings of the greatest respect, for the Corbets have always been identified as liberal, go d-hearted land- lords, who are respected by their tenantry, and held in high esteem throughout the length and breadth of the county. Liberal sums were subscribed both in Towyn and Aberdovey, to celebrate the event in a manner be- fitting the occasion, and the hearty enthusiasm which was evoked cannot but have testified to the young heir the good wishes which his tenantry and numerous friends entertain for him. Towyn was quite en fete on Thursday; the demonstrations were of a varied and pleasurable character in honour of the young heir. The decorations were of the gayest, and bunting was profusely displayed from the residences of the principal inhabitants. Handsome arches spanned the roads and bore flags, banners, and mottoes wishing health, long life, and happiness to Athelstan John Soden Corbet, Esq.
Here’s the account of the venue:
THE BANQUET, or complimentary dinner, given by the Ynys estate, to the friends and tenantry, took place in a large tent erected on the grounds adjoining the Corbet Arms, Towyn. The tent, with the decorations, was supplied by Mr Andrews, of Shrewsbury, and was embellished in a most tasteful manner. The sides were of scarlet, relieved with white and the supports were entwined with pink, blue, and white draperies, and suspended from them were festoons of coloured flowers. Each support bore a banner and armorial bearings of the county families, the principal being the shield of the Corbet family with motto Deus Pascit Corvos.
The food served must have been something to behold:
Soup.-Mock turtle, ox tail, green pea. Fish.-Salmon and lobster sauce, turbot, filleted soles. Entrees.-Yeal Cutlets, sweetbread, patties, steak and oyster pie, stewed pigeons, curried rabbit. Champagne. Removes.-Haunch of venison, roast beef, boiled beef, roast mutton, boiled mutton, lamb, veal and ham, veal and pigeon pies, chicken and tongue, ducklings and green entremets, &c. -Sir Watkin’s pudding, plum pudding, strawberry, currant, and raspberry tarts, cheese cakes, jellies, blancmange, tipsy cake. Cheese and salad. Dessert.-Pine apples, grapes, strawberries, dried fruit. Claret, sherry, port.
Athelstan married Mary Helen Annie Oldfied in 1873. The marriage failed very quickly and divorce followed. He was Justice of the Peace and became High Sheriff in 1875. In spite of all the high hopes of the community, Athelstan Soden Corbet’s poor management of the estate combined with expensive renovations to the house, new furnishings, the costs of the divorce and heavy expenditure by Athelstan and his wife on luxurious lifestyles resulted in serious debts. Lewis concludes that “he did not share the sense of duty and regard for his estate in Wales and its people which his predecessors had demonstrated.” In 1875 he decided to sell the 9347 acre estate, which earned an annual rent of £8241. Athelstan fled his responsibilities by going overseas, living a rich life, but his letters to his agent demonstrate that he was suffering increasing financial stress, and the estate was barely able to support him. Ynysymaengwyn was put up for sale in April 1876. In 1877, still living vastly beyond his means, Athelstan was forced to take out a series of mortgages on the estate, which by 1878 had reached £42,000 (around £2,779,757.40 today, according to the National Archives Currency Converter).
Athelstan Soden Corbet must have been very relieved when John Corbett purchased the property for £51,000, which secured for Corbett the mansion, demesne and pleasure grounds. John Corbett (1817-1901) was, somewhat confusingly, no relation to the Ynysymaengwyn Corbets. He was a wealthy salt merchant who owned the Stoke Prior Salt Works near Droitwich, was the Liberal M.P. for Droitwich between 1874 and 1885 and the Liberal Unionist M.P. for Mid-Worcestershire between 1886-1892. In Droitwich he was known as The Salt King. He remained very involved with Worcestershire throughout his life, and like some of his predecessors did not live at Ynysymaengwyn on a permanent basis, although his wife moved there with their children. His Coat of Arms incorporated the symbol of the raven, an elephant and a castle. It can be seen on the gate posts at the entrance to Ynysymaengwyn and on the porch of the Aberdovey Literary Institute.
The property when he bought it was described in detail in the Book of Sale of 1878, and this has been reproduced by Lewis Lloyd. Anyone wanting to see the full description should see Lloyd’s book, but here are some of the highlights, which also indicate the extent to which Athelstan Soden Corbet was living beyond his means. The mansion was described, in typical estate agent speak, as “a commodious stone-built residence of commanding elevation,” containing “a magnificent Central Hall, 42ft by 26ft, surrounded by the Reception Rooms, over which are the principal Bedrooms and in Two Detached Wings are the Secondary Apartments, Private and Domestic Offices, possessing all the conveniences necessary for a well-ordered establishment.” Athelstan’s renovations “in the most substantial manner and regardless of cost” were “in the purest feeling of the Adams’s time and school.” Furnishings were described as “of mediaeval style, most exquisite in design and unsurpassed in quality and workmanship. It is practically new, having been recently supplied to the owner, and is in admirable order, and in perfect harmony with the elegant surroundings.” A London upholstery firm had been imported to restore the fabrics. Outside it lauded the “gardens and pleasure grounds.” The estate itself was described as “a sporting estate” including pheasant, partridge, duck, widgeon, teal and snipe, and offered fishing in the river Dysynni with salmon, sewin and trout. Further attractions listed include yachting, sea-fishing, the seaside resorts of Aberystwyth, Aberdovey and Barmouth and “the unsurpassed beauty of the Welsh Mountain and River scenery.” Details of the farms attached to the property and the rent they paid were also detailed. The house was home to Belgian refugees during the First World War. The Gwynedd Archaeological Trust says that in 1879 the estate began to be sold off piecemeal, and that this resulted in a period of land-speculation and development. It would be interesting to know more about how this happened and took up the opportunities offered.
When John Corbett arrived at Ynysymaengwyn he made many improvements to the property, including connecting the south wing and the north wing, which housed the kitchens, via stone corridors to the main house, which underwent extensive improvements. Remnants of these walls still remain at the estate. The south wing was gutted and provided with a ballroom, stage, gallery and additional bedrooms. He also invested heavily in the gardens and by the 1880s the gardens were were thought to be amongst the finest in Wales. The estate was expanded by the purchase of additional estates, farms and the Tonfunau granite quarry.
John Corbett became a significant investor in Tywyn’s physical, social and cultural infrastructure. His investments, most of which followed the sale of his salt business in 1888, included the development of Tywyn’s water and sewage system, the construction of the promenade in 1889 (at a cost of £30,000), the Intermediate School in 1894, improvements to the Corbet Arms Hotel (renamed the Corbett Arms Hotel) and the land for and £500 towards building of the new Market Hall as well as £70 towards the price for its clock. In Aberdovey he paid for the charming porch or verandah for the Literary Institute in 1897, topped with his crest showing a raven, an elephant and a castle. He continued to invest in the school, as this short report in the Weekly Mail describes: “A meeting of the local managers of the Towyn Intermediate School was held on Saturday evening, Mr. Haydn Jones, J.P., presiding. Mr. J. Maethlon James announced that Mr. John Corbett, Ynysymaengwyn and Impney, Droitwich, had generously subscribed a sum of £100 per annum for three years towards enabling the managers to secure the services of an additional teacher and to increase the number of John Corbett’s Scholarships. The Chairman remarked that Mr. Corbett had already given over £2,000 in cash, towards the school.” In January 1896 the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard reported “It is gratifying to find that Mr Corbett of Ynysymaengwyn, after having the matter brought under his notice, has given instructions that local tradesmen are to be allowed to lender for the work of constructing the Corbett Avenue and the Llechlwyd Tramroad. This gives a prospect of plenty of work for the spring and summer.”
Corbett’s convictions was completely consistent with 19th Century beliefs in philanthropy, public education, the promotion of healthy activities and the social obligation for the rich to invest on behalf of the relatively deprived. This tendency was particularly prominent in industrial cities, where manufacturers and merchants like John Corbett conducted business, but as these successful city entrepreneurs became landowners in their own right, many of these philanthropic ideas began to spread into more rural areas. It also did local landowners no harm to invest in infrastructure to improve the local economy and boost their own incomes. John Corbett died 22nd April 1901. The Towyn-on-Sea and Merioneth County Times reported on the funeral, listing estate workers who attended the funeral in Droitwich, stating that all flags in Tywyn were flown at half mast.
In John Corbett’s will, the estate was left to his brother Thomas Corbett, who besides Ynysymaengwyn inherited “Impney Hall and estates in the Droitwich district, brine baths and four hotels,” (Welsh Gazette and West Wales Advertiser). John had been alienated from his wife, from whom he was legally separated in 1884. The will was contested, but although financial compensation was provided for John’s children, Thomas retained the estate. It only passed to John and his divorced wife Anna’s son Roger (1863–1942) on Thomas’s death in 1906, on the fifth anniversary of John Corbett’s death. Roger and Anna moved back to the property in the same year, news received with considerable enthusiasm by the residents of Tywyn, although Roger only used it as a summer residence. Barbara Middlemass says that in 1908 the house and grounds were “maintained by a housekeeper, eight maids, a chauffeur, seen gardeners and two game keepers. Among the activities of the last mentioned were the rearing of 500 pheasants for a single season’s shooting” The Corbett Arms Hotel in Aberdovey, which had been rebuilt in 1867, burned down in 1914, remaining in ruins until it was knocked down to create space for a new primary school in 1968. In 1935 a Roman Catholic chapel dedicated to St David was established in a former Predbyterian Chapel in Brook Street. It has a rather fine stained glass window decorated with the Corbett raven. It only closed in 1989 when it was replaced with a new St David’s.
When Roger died in 1942 the estate passed to his sister Mary Corbett, who remained unmarried, and ended the line of inheritance at the Ynysymaengwyn Estate. During the Second World War the army occupied the Ynysymaengwyn Estate as a Royal Marines’ Camp, although I have not found a date for when they took it over. When the Ministry of Defence handed the estate back to Mary Corbett in 1949 she transferred it in trust to Merioneth County Council, together with £3300, suggesting it might be converted to an agricultural college for the county. The house was in a state of significant disrepair, with extensive dry rot, and there was insufficient income from the estate to pay for repairs, which the council could not afford either, and the theft of lead from the roofs added to the speed of decay. Given the extensive revamps carried out by Athelstan Soden Corbet in the 1870s and John Corbett in the 1880s, it is frightening how fast the property deteriorated. One wonders to what extent the occupation by the army was responsible, but it is also clear that the estate was no longer in any condition to pay for itself, perhaps because of the war, and perhaps because of changing economic and social processes from earlier in the 20th Century.
Mary died in 1951. In 1957, under the terms of the 1906 Open Spaces Act, Merioneth County Council transferred the property to the Urban District Council of Tywyn “for securing the enjoyment of the said open space.” New trees were planted between 1958 and 1962 and two fields were let out for livestock grazing. Initially the house was converted into a base for training and practice facility for the fire brigade and army, but was demolished in around 1965 (there is some disagreement about exactly when it was taken down). It was set on fire as an exercise by the Fire Service, and was finished off by the Royal Engineers who blew it up during a demolition exercise. It was a sad but far from prosaic end to its life. In 1966, part of the grounds were turned over to 115 static caravans, with an additional 4.5 acres developed as a campsite for tents, caravans, and campervans. This destroyed the mansion’s pleasure garden, of which according to the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust there are now no traces. In 1984 the local government organization of the area was changed, and the following year a dispute erupted between Bryncrug Community Council and Tywyn Town Council regarding the management of Ynysymaengwyn, with the result that Tywyn Town Council took over the Caravan site, with profits being re-invested into the estate for its maintenance. The ballroom wing was demolished in 1989. In 2008 Tywn Town Council, with a £47,000 contribution from Cydcoed (Woods for All) completed the restoration of the woodlands, which had become dominated by conifers and were replanted with broadleaf trees, which are far more friendly to other wildlife, letting in more light and providing good mulch following leaf fall.
The video below shows the remains of the ballroom and the walled ballroom garden, some of the walled kitchen garden, and local scenery that would have been enjoyed by the occupants of Ynysymaengwyn (February 2019 – and sorry it’s a bit jerky, I am still new to a camcorder).
Of the projects that John Corbett initiated in Tywyn and Aberdovey, the Assembly Rooms are still in use as a cinema, the market hall has been divided into three retail properties, the promenade is still going strong, the porch at the Aberdyfi Literary Institute is in excellent condition, but the Corbett Arms Hotel in Tywyn, a Grade 2 listed building, is in an appalling state of disrepair and is empty. I’ll talk about each of these buildings in more detail on future posts.
Finally, there are two puzzling carvings flanking the last surviving remnant of the north wing, its porch, shown in the image below. The one on the right is still well preserved, but although there was also one on the left this is now very difficult to make out. I have seen no suggestions about when they were added or what they were supposed to signify.
A rather depressing adjunct to the story of modern Ynysymaengwyn was reported in the Cambrian News. In 2016 the neighbouring Ysguboriau farm and campsite attempted to claim between five and seven acres of the bequeathed land, having grazed sheep there for sufficient time to attempt to legally sequester the land for themselves, planning to fence it off. As Tywyn town councillor and trustee of Ynysymaengwyn, Cllr John Pughe, said: “the land they are claiming should be for the benefit of everyone.” The dispute was still ongoing in 2018.
If you would like to visit, and I do sincerely recommend it, the surviving portion of the estate is open to the public as a woodland walk, with access to walks along the wonderful Dysynni river. Just drive through the gate posts on the A493 and head down the short lane, watching out for a left turn that will take you into the carpark. In the bottom left hand there’s a map that shows you three woodland routes, the longest of which takes 30 minutes, but you can lengthen this by doing a section of the Dynsynni.
There are a few features of the 19th Century estate still visible, most notably the dovecote, the former vast kitchen garden (now just an enclosed area of grass, the remains of the former ballroom and its garden, the old entrance to the big block of servants quarters with figures carved into the stonework each side of the entrance, and several sections of wall. The snowdrops are splendid in February. Take a bag full of bird seed with you if you like bird life – the wild birds are borderline tame, and all expect to be fed, and yell vociferously if you stand there looking at them and don’t provide sustenance! Here’s the address:
Ynysymaengwyn Caravan & Camping Park
The Lodge, Ynysymaengwyn
See the website for directions:
The starting points for this post, with my thanks, were Lewis Lloyd’s A Real Little Seaport, and the Coflein website, supplemented extensively by other information resources, all listed below.
Anon. 1829. Wanderings in Wales. Cambrian Quarterly Magazine and Celtic Repertory, vol.1, 1829. https://bit.ly/2DujYjq
Eade, S. 2017. Towyn on Sea, Merionethshire. Volume 2. Sara Eade
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2007. Ports and Harbours of Gwynedd: Aberdyfi. A Threat Related Assessment. GAT Project No.1824, Report No.671.1, April 2007
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2011. Conservation Area Appraisal: Aberdyfi, Gwynedd. GAT Project No.2155, Report No.956, June 2007
Lewis, H.M. 1989. Pages of Time. A Pictorial History of Aberdyfi. Published by the Author.
Lewis, S. 1833. A Topographical Dictionary of Wales. Brython Press
LLoyd, L. 1996. A Real Little Seaport. The Port of Aberdyfi and its People 1565-1920, Volume 1. ISBN-1874786488
Marshall, D. 2009. Local Walks Around Tywyn in the Snowdonia National Park. (Walk 17). Kittiwake Press
Middlemass, B. 2017 (second edition). John Corbett. Pillar of Salt 1817-1901. Saltway Press
Williams, G. 1987. Renewal and Reformation Wales c.1415-1642. Oxford University Press.
Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard. The Majority of Athelstan J. Soden-Corbet, Esq., Ynysymaengwyn. Welsh Newspapers Online – The National Library of Wales.
Coflein. Ynys-y-Maengwyn Estate Cottages. http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/28895/details/ynysmaengwynynys-y-maengwyn-estate-cottages-bryn-crug
Geni.com. Historic Buildings of Merionethshire. https://www.geni.com/projects/Historic-Buildings-of-Merionethshire/25169
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust. Dysynni Historical Themes. http://www.heneb.co.uk/hlc/dysynnithemes.html
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust. Tywyn. http://www.heneb.co.uk/hlc/dysynni/dysynni3.html
Jones, A. 2016. We’ll fight to keep land for the town. Cambrian News, 17/11/16. https://bit.ly/2N3dp79
Jones, A. 2017. Fence row erupts in Trust land dispute. Cambrian News, 02/01/17. https://bit.ly/2NJfav8
North Wales Daily Post 2008. New Life Breathed into Old Woods. Daily Post (North Wales) 03/07/08. https://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/new-life-breathed-old-woods-2824545
Owen, Athelstan (1676-1731) of RHIWSAESON, LLANBRYN-MAIR, MONT. https://Biography.wales/article/s-OWEN-ATH-1676
Wikipedia. Ynysymaengwyn. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ynysymaengwyn
Wynn, Pryse and Corbet families, Ynysmaengwyn, Mer., and Gwyn And Nanney families, Dalau Gwyn, Mer. https://biography.wales/article/s-WYNN-PRY-1275
The Ynysymaengwyn Papers. Archives Wales. https://archiveswales.llgc.org.uk/anw/get_collection.php?inst_id=38&coll_id=1246&expand=&L=1
Ynysymaengwyn Camping, Caravan and Woodland Park website, history page https://www.ynysy.co.uk/history.html
Yesterday’s walk along the beach was extraordinary. I had intended to park by the cemetery, but by accident parked opposite the row of houses at the foot of the road from the Trefeddian Hotel, crossed the golf course and emerged from the dunes at the Second World War pillbox. The sun was hazy and incredibly pale, but at the same time reflected off the wet sand, creating some beautiful colour and light combinations. I walked for far longer than intended, and it nearly became a case of walking into Tywyn and getting a bus or taxi back to my car! Instead I retraced my steps, and because of the light it was like doing an entirely different walk. It was lovely to see a pair of oyster catchers, obstinately refusing to do anything other than stand, preening in the sun! They are in the video at the end of this post.
I went over to Ynysymaengwyn today to take some photos for the article I’m writing about the history of the Ynysymaengwyn Estate. Although it is now a caravan and camping site, it used to be the biggest landholding property in the area, dating back to the reign of Elizabeth I. It is best known for its 18th and 19th Century history, when it owned most of Tywyn and Aberdovey, the fortunes of which were inextricably tied with those of the estate. A splendid house was built in 1758 by the widow Ann Owen, and this was still standing together with a ballroom wing, a servants’ and administrative, kennels, a dovecote and kennels, as well as a vast kitchen garden in the 1960s.
When the last owner of Ynysymaengwyn signed the buildings and the remaining 40 acres of the estate over to Merioneth council, and it was then handed over to Tywyn Town Council, it fell into increasing disrepair it was decided that the buildings should be disposed of.
Only very few remnants of the buildings remain, but some of the woodland has been preserved as a series of very beautiful short walks. I’ll write up full details of what is left of the original estate when I post the article, but in the meantime here are a few photos of the walks. The snowdrops today were absolutely stunning, the walk down the Dynsynni was beautiful with the reeds rustling in the breeze, and the views across the hills from the Dysynni were wonderful. The birds were all amazingly tame, and even a rabbit hopped across the path in sublime unconcern.
If you would like to visit, and I do sincerely recommend it, the surviving portion of the estate is open to the public as a woodland walk, with access to walks along the wonderful Dysynni river. Just drive through the gate posts on the A493 and head down the short lane, watching out for a left turn that will take you into the carpark. In the bottom left hand there’s a map that shows you three woodland routes, the longest of which takes 30 minutes, but you can lengthen this by doing a section of the Dynsynni. Take a bag full of bird seed with you if you like bird life – the wild birds are borderline tame, and all expect to be fed, and yell vociferously if you stand there looking at them and don’t provide sustenance!
Here’s the address:
Ynysymaengwyn Caravan & Camping Park
The Lodge, Ynysymaengwyn
See the website for directions:
It has been remarkable watching the birds in the garden as they rush around to stock up on calories in this cold weather. Even the blackbirds have ventured really close to the house to take advantage of a bowl of mealworms.
In a heavy wind, the goldfinches hold on for dear life to collect nyjer seeds, but are not to be deterred, as this one individual demonstrates.
I have no idea why these two blue tits tried, tried again and failed to collect peanuts from this feeder! Fabulous to watch their quick dashing movements. I love the bit where one of them decides that if the holes won’t work, he’ll drill through the plastic with his beak! I went and had a look at the feeder, and although I could see nothing wrong I gave it a good shake and matters seemed to resolve themselves after that, and the peanuts began to be extracted in good order.
And this little visitor, not seen before or since, was quite a character. I had to move the peanut feeder onto an upturned flower pot because it was quite clear that the mouse was going to carry on taking and collecting peanuts until it had enough to see out the winter! He knew that they were there but couldn’t reach them. He reverted to the tray of seeds had been put down for the robin, sparrows, dunnock and the blackbird.
The pheasants have no difficulty helping themselves to a bit of everything. There were seven of them this morning, two males and five females, which is the greatest number I’ve seen in one go. I feed them twice a day and they are quite happy to help themselves to whatever the other birds are eating, but in spite of their apparent greed, they are big birds and must need quite a lot of food to sustain themselves.
St Peter’s Church is the Anglican Parish Church (Church in Wales / Yr Eglwys yng Nghymru). It was built in 1842. According to Hugh M. Lewis (Aberdyfi: Portrait of a Village) it was established on the site of a preceding Chapel of Ease, built in 1837. A wooden sign has been retained at the base of the tower of St Peter’s which says that the Chapel of Ease could seat 372 people, and that 186 places were “appropriated free sittings,” meaning that they were not allocated to any one family or business, and were exempt from any rental of pews that might be paid for the upkeep of the church and its clergy. The church was built on the site of a row of former thatched cottages called Tai Pen Shelff, which were in the process of demolition by the time they were shown in the following 1834 sketch (from the Hugh M. Lewis booklet Aberdyfi, A Glimpse of the Past). The main entrance of the church faces out over the mouth of the Dyfi estuary on Sea View Terrace, and can also be accessed via Church Street to its rear, through the churchyard.
St Peter’s has an instantly recognizable appearance typical of Anglican churches in England and Wales, with a square bell tower topped with crenellations, a chancel, simple lancet windows along each side, a big arched stained glass window at the east end in the chancel with three others on the south side of the church, and a slate roof. Set on a site above the road, it has a very prominent position in the centre of the village, with the main churchyard extending in a slope at the rear of the church towards a gateway on Church Street. The style is Gothic Revival and it is made of local stone with bathstone dressings. The interior layout is straight forward with a west tower, a simple nave, a rather fine tiled aisle along the nave, and a vestry incorporated into the north side. The bell tower was fitted with two bells, the largest of which was inscribed to the Reverend Richard Scot, BD. The smaller was simply inscribed with the year 1838. The church is Grade 2 listed.
The new church, with its own newly appointed vicar, substantially altered the character of the sea front, unlike the earlier Calvinistic Methodist and Wesleyan Methodist chapels, which were set back from the road in Chapel Square (at that date Copperhill Square). The view to the right shows St Peter’s in relation to the busy heart of Aberdovey, its wharf and jetty. Increasing import and export activity translated into growing demand from an expanding population and a growing number of visitors, which resulted in the addition of the new chancel with a hammer roof and and two stained glass windows in 1890. The chancel has a very Victorian feel to it, with plenty of wood carving and the incorporation of ecclesiastical symbolism including the crossed keys symbolizing St Peter and the chi-rho representing the first two letters, in the Greek alphabet, of ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, Christ. The wooden altar rail features a set of motifs picked out in gold.
The main entrance to the church is a doorway in the south side of the west tower, overlooking the sea. A flight of stairs in the tower leads up to the bell chamber, and the commemorative wooden plaque that was installed when the Chapel of Ease was built is preserved on the wall at the foot of the stairs. Entering the nave, above the west doorway, on each side, are the Creed and the Paternoster, both written in Welsh. The interior is relatively plain, but has a number of features of note. At the east end of the church, The Ten Commandments are displayed in Welsh either side of the the rood arch that separates the the nave from the chancel.
There are four stained glass windows, of which only one dates to the original construction. The window to the right of the door, depicts John 21:15 “Feed my lambs,” made by Ward and Hughes, in 1873. At the far end of the nave, also on the right, is an original window from 1837 by David Evans, with a simple but very attractive pattern framing plain glass. On the south side of the chancel there is a small window with another finely coloured scene showing the the Good Shepherd, by James Powell and Sons and designed by Frank Mann. At the far end, above the altar and dominating the church, is a window by James Powell showing a series of narratives, dominated by Matthew 19:14 “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven,” which was installed in 1890 and bears at its base the inscription “In Loving Memory of Maria Jane Pugh of Craigydon Who Died December 15th 1872.”
The organ chamber was added in 1907, with an organ built by Brindley & Foster. Charles Brindley started the business and was joined by Foster in 1854. Brindley trained in Germany, probably under the renowned organ builder Edmund Schulze. He went on to set up his first workshop in Sheffield, employing German organ builders. He was soon joined by organist and voicer (a person who regulates organ pipes) A. Healey Foster, and between them they continued to improve the design, technical sophistication and reliability of the organs that they produced. At the International Invention Exhibition of 1885 they were awarded a silver medal for excellence. Charles Brindley retired in 1887 and died in 1893 but was replaced by his son who, with Foster, continued to make improvements, with two major innovations in 1902 and 1904. From 1885 a total of 18 patents were filed and between 1909 and 1914 they built an organ every month on average, but in the post-World War I years they struggled and the company eventually went into receivership in 1936. The organ’s electric pump was added in 1934 in memory of Hugh Copner Wynne-Edwards, contributed by his wife.
As with most Anglican churches, a number of memorials line the walls of the nave. The ornate Gothic style memorial to Mrs Susan Scott is of particular interest, having been contributed by her pupils. Over a period of twenty years Mrs Scott ran a boarding school for young ladies to teach them social graces in the building now known as Penhelig Lodge, which has been discussed on an earlier post. It is difficult to make out the inscription in the adjacent photograph, but as well as listing her parentage it reads: “Died in Penhelig on the XIV day December MDCCCXLII in the LXV year of her age. In testimony of their admiration of her character, gratitude for her affectionate and maternal care, this tablet is erected by some of her pupils who are sensible that they shall best perpetuate her memory by conforming their lives in her excellent example.” The size of the memorial and the warmth and sincerity of the message say much about how Mrs Scott was regarded by her pupils. The rest of the memorials are fairly plain plaques in brass or stone, commemorating people who died elsewhere, former vicars and parishioners, all beautifully kept.
In 2014 a conservation project was started to restore the late 19th Century soft furnishings in the church, of which the Celtic cross that hangs from the pulpit is a particularly fine example (see photographs at the end of the post). The Glorias meet on the first Monday of the month from 2pm-4pm in the church. Anyone with an interest in sewing or embroidery is very welcome to join.
At the time of the church’s construction a gallery was installed, but this was removed in 1907, the same year that the organ was installed. In 1936, ready for the centenary of the establishment of the Chapel of Ease in 1937, the Reverend Alfred Abel placed on order with bellfounders John Taylor for 10 chime bells on which the famous song The Bells of Aberdyfi (described on an earlier post) could be played. Donations contributed £600.00 (in today’s money approximately £30,397) for the set of bells that are played by a carillon, a keyboard-like device with wooden keys called batons that are connected to individual bells and can be used to produce quite complex tunes. The bells are each engraved with a dedication. The smallest is 1ft 3.5ins in diameter, and the largest is 3ft 1in. They were formally dedicated in a service held on 27th June 1937.
One of the running themes of the church is how important donations were to maintaining and upgrading the church throughout the 19th Century and early 20th Century. Examples include the furnishing of the new chancel, the stained glass window over the altar, the electric pump for the organ and the new set of bells. All are indications of both how central the church was to the Anglican members of the community.
The rectangular churchyard is entered via a gate through an archway in a stone porch on Sea View Terrace. The gate is topped with a lovely curvilinear wrought iron feature with curving leaves and a central circular panel topped with a cross bearing the Welsh words, in gold, “ER COF AM A. ABEL FICER 1931 -1945,” meaning, roughly, “In memory of A. Abel, vicar 1931-1945” The porch is topped by a sun dial.
According to the church website, repair work took place in 2010 following a serious outbreak of dry rot, which had inflicted damage to the ceiling and walls. A wooden window near the vestry had to be replaced and lime plaster was stripped from the walls and ceiling around the entrance to the church. In 2017 the church was awarded £100,000 by the Listed Places of Worship Roof Repair Scheme, to pay for repairs to the tower, which included re-plastering the damaged interior walls.
The churchyard is small. A small number of graves are at the front of the church, but most are in the churchyard to the rear, where a number of gravestones are still in position, all east-facing. Most of those that remain date to the early and mid 19th Century. They are inscribed in either Welsh or English and many of them are reminders of Aberdovey’s connections with the sea and the seagoing trade. Examples are the gravestones of Jane Lewis, wife of Captain Elias Lewis who died in 1862, age 33; Evan Evans, a boatman who died in 1863; Anne, wife of William Lloyd, timber merchant, aged 39 years; and Mary Jane, daughter of Captain John and Jane Rees (Schooner John Wesley) who died in 1862, aged 9. As in most graveyards of this period, there are a sad number of child burials, some infants. The gravestones are all slate, and are all very finely carved. There are also a small number of tombs, with inscribed lids.
Set into its sea-facing wall is a memorial to local men lost in the First and Second World Wars. This was first erected in 1919. Made of granite, the memorials are set into slate, and as well as providing a focus for Remembrance Day events are a constant and much-needed reminder of the sacrifices made during both wars.
St Peter’s Church is part of the Bro Ystumanner Ministry Area, which covers the Dyfi Estuary and Dysynni Valley and includes five other churches: St Cadfan in Tywyn, St Peter ad Vincula in Pennal (posted about on this blog), St David in Abergynlowyn, St Michael in Llanfihangel-y-Pennant and St.s Mary and Egryn in Llanegryn. The Mother Church for the Ministry is St Cadfan’s Church in Tywyn. The Reverend Ruth Hansford presides over the Ministry Area, supported by both clerics and lay personnel.
On the departure of the previous Vicar and Ministry Area Leader, Reverend Richard Vroom, he was temporarily replaced by Associate Vicar Janet Fletcher, who was also appointed acting Ministry Area Leader, and it was Reverend Fletcher who welcomed Reverend Hansford to St Peter’s and the Ministry Area in 2017. There was considerable interest in the local media, including The Cambrian News, about the appointment of Reverend Hansford, who had been formerly based in Exeter, where she was ordained after a career as a clinical biochemist in the NHS. Her move to Aberdovey with her family fulfilled her desire to work in rural communities. She has made significant strides in learning Welsh since her arrival and has enjoyed becoming involved with the community, including braving sailing lessons! One of her innovations has been the introduction of prayer walks in lovely local places, and she has continued to run the excellent “Messy Church” project that is designed to involve children in the church. I was particularly amused by the Jason and His Coat of Many Colours poster where children had pinned their dreams. One read “My dream is for people to be kind to one another,” another dreamed of “peace and justice for everyone in the world,” whilst Oliver, far more prosaically, quite simply dreamed “to have a motorbike” and another hoped for “thousands of dog biscuits.” Great fun, and such a good idea.
The church also holds weddings, has hosted a number of classical concerts by visiting chamber orchestras and is one of the organizers of and contributors to the monthly Community Lunches held in the Neuadd Dyfi (the Aberdovey village hall) during the winter months. These and other events are announced in the Bro Ystumanner Newyddion newsletter. More information about the Bro Ystumanner ministry, which also publishes their newsletters, can be found on their website.
Services are held in English every Sunday at 11.15: the Holy Eucharist on the first and third Sundays, an All Age Worship service, started this year, on the second Sunday of the month, and a sung Matins on the fourth Sunday of each month, but do check their website in case of any changes since this post was published.
The nearest Roman site to Aberdovey is the fort at Pennal, called Cefn-Caer (which translates roughly as ridge/hillside of the fort), 10.5km (6.7miles) away from Aberdovey. Although there is a rock-cut track that stretches from Penhelig to Picnic Island along the estuary that is known locally as the Roman Road, this actually dates to 1827. Cefn Caer at Pennal, however, is the real thing: a Roman fort 600 yards from Pennal down a small B-road. It formed part of a network of forts and roads that were key to the Roman plans to subjugate Wales. When I first started looking into Cefn Caer for this post, it was simply because the site is part of this area’s history and I wanted to include it as a small representatives of Roman activity in Wales. The word “small” is worth noting here, because I was expecting Cefn Caer to be no more than a very ephemeral way station for travellers (mansio) or a tiny watch-post. In fact, it is a fairly substantial affair, as demonstrated by the above simplified reconstruction by Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (GAT). The GAT work at the site reveals an auxiliary fort with all the features associated with a permanent installation, which had an important strategic role.
The Roman Empire first made its presence felt on British shores first under no less a personage than the Emperor Julius Caesar, albeit only briefly in 55BC and 54BC. Under the Emperor Claudius matters were taken far more seriously in AD 43 and there was to be no retreat, and after the invasion most of Britain was incorporated in the Roman Empire for for the best part of 400 years. The period of the Roman occupation of Britain is known as the Romano-British period (AD 43 to 410).
Iron Age Britain immediately prior to the invasion was divided into six main tribal areas, recorded in Roman documents, which were organized in social hierarchies that were based on lineage, status and military aptitude “cemented by the distribution of favours and hospitality; consequently equipment for eating looms large in the archaeological record” (Davies and Lynch 2000). Parade gear, with a particular focus on horses and chariots, is also dominant in the archaeological record. Subsistence practices depended very much upon geography, but combined herding of domesticated animals (cattle, sheep, goat and pigs) with the cultivation, where possible, of emmer wheat and barley. Hillforts are generally thought of as synonymous with the Iron Age, as places where political power was centred, but in mid-west Wales, where there are very few hillforts, suggesting that political power was more fragmented, and consisted of scattered farmsteads. Although the Tal y Llyn hoard (covered on an earlier post) found at Cader Idris is very rich, it is entirely possible that it was hidden by someone travelling through the area, rather than a local resident. Although in some areas life went on without disruption for some time, in the areas where the invaders first settled, they introduced substantial change very quickly.
When Aulus Plautius, the chosen commander of the Emperor Claudius, led an invasion force to Britain and landed in the southeast, he found the prosperous and sophisticated Catuvellauni tribe dominant, their territory extending from Essex to Surrey under the leadership of Caratacus and his brother Togodummus. Caratacus and Togodummus were defeated when confronted with the 40,000 men in four legions and supporting auxiliary forces. Caratacus abandoned his family and fled to the Silures tribe in southeast Wales to rethink his strategy. Caratacus realized that the partially low-lying territory of the Silures was vulnerable and created an alliance with the Ordovices, which had highland areas in its territory, to organize resistanc,. The Ordovices were the main tribe occupying most of Gwynedd and Ceredigion, and “by creating a multi-tribe resistance he [Caratacus] offered the most effective bulwark against the Roman invasion to date” (de la Bédoyère 2003).
It was not until AD 47 that the Romans felt the need to turn their attention to the tribal areas of what is now known as Wales. Wales had many benefits from a Roman point of view, including rich mineral resources, fertile valleys and a long coastline. It would also have been a good source of manpower via voluntary enlistment or conscription. Perhaps most important, strategically, without peace in rebellious Wales, all Roman-controlled land to its east was potentially under threat. The first period of military hostilities between Rome and Wales lasted between AD 47 and AD 60, with multiple campaigns against the Marches and Welsh communities, starting in the southeast. A significant event was the Battle of Caer Caradoc in AD 50, where Caratacus led armies composed of the Ordovices and Silures against the Roman military. In spite of the strategic advantage of Caratacus and his armies, holding the high ground, the Roman forces under the governor Publius Ostorius Scapula had weaponry, body armour and military experience that outclassed Silurian and Ordovician resources. Caratacus was defeated and ultimately taken into custody and carried to Rome where the Roman senate were sufficiently impressed by his speech that he earned a pardon from Claudius and lived out his life in Rome. In his book “Defying Rome,” de la Bédoyère comments that Caratacus “failed to appreciate that he was on the whole a dinosaur. While he maintained his resistance he found the only place he could do so was amongst people who had no idea what Rome amounted to.” The Romans did not have it all their own way, but although the Silures went on to defeat a Roman legion in AD 52, it was only a matter of time before Wales was brought under Roman control. There was a brief respite when the Boudiccan rebellion in East Anglia in AD 60 required the redeployment of troops. Full-scale invasion was temporarily abandoned and a strategy of containment was practised in Wales, with all of the only permanently occupied military bases lying along the border.
In AD 73 under the Emperor Vespasian, Sextus Julius Frontinus was appointed Governor of Britain (AD 73-77) , and it is during his tenure that Wales was fully conquered. Three legionary fortresses were established as campaign bases, at Caerleon (Isca Silurum), Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum) and Chester (Deva Victrix), and temporary camps were set up within Wales itself, setting the scene for “a network of garrison posts, incorporating fortlets and watchtowers, eventually linked by an all-weather road system” (Arnold and Davies) which were used to maintain control over the rural and often highland zones.
Information about Iron Age and Romano-British exploitation of the western areas of west of mid Wales is particularly sparse, but it would be surprising if such rich natural resources as the Dyfi and particularly Dysynni valleys were not employed for cattle herding and some cultivation, with the surrounding highlands excellent for sheep herding. It is by no means clear if the Ordovices occupied the whole area, as the boundaries of tribal areas are not known, and it is thought that other smaller and less dominant communities also occupied parts of Wales, but it seems clear that whatever happened to the Ordovices would have had an impact on other small communities in the area. After their defeat under the leadership of Caratacus in AD 50, the Ordovician tribe again rebelled in AD 77-78 and was put down uncompromisingly by the British governor, Gnaeus Julius Agricola. Agricola went on to establish forts at Caernarfon, Caersws, Pen Llystyn (Bryncir), Tomen y Mur (Trawsfynydd), Caer Gai (Penllyn) and Cefn Caer (Pennal), most of them in river valleys or estuaries. Other sites in the mid Wales area established in this period were the fortlets at Erglodd in Ceredigion and Brithdir in Merionnydd.
The Roman architectural infrastructure in Wales took the same form as it did elsewhere, a hierarchy of military installations. The most important in strategic, organizational and to an extent administrative terms were the legionary fortresses at Chester (Deva), Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum) and Caerleon (Isca Silurum). These were, however, in a minority, and the main control over Wales was exercised by a large number of auxiliary forts dotted at strategic positions throughout Wales, often on rivers and estuaries, supplemented at intervals by small fortlets and watch towers. Legionary and auxiliary forts each refer to the type of garrison stationed there. Legions were the elite army of the Roman Empire, composed of c.5000 men, divided into ten cohorts. They served for twenty-five years and were rewarded on retirement with a choice of land or a payment. Auxiliaries were composed of non-Roman citizens, men who entered the army from throughout the Roman empire sometimes sometimes as volunteers but sometimes extracted from their homes by force. They were granted Roman citizenship once they retired. They were far more numerous than the legionary forces and were essential to the Roman occupation of Britain. Mid Wales in the Romano-British period remains poorly understood, which means that wherever a Roman site or a contemporary Iron Age is identified in the area, it is potentially of considerable importance for understanding what was happening in mid Wales at this time. The Cefn Caer fort was an auxiliary fort, the westernmost of Roman structures in Meirionnydd, established in the AD 70s.
There are few visible features of Cefn Caer on the ground. The ramparts to the southwest and northwest can be made out, but elsewhere they are low banks that cannot always be seen. Before it was torn down and rebuilt in 1769 the church in the village of Pennal was reported to include a large number of Roman brick in its walls, and remaining obstructions to cultivation were probably moved in the distant past, and the land continues to be used by the local farm for cultivation. The farm buildings, including a sub-Medieval farmhouse (which can be visited), sit within the west corner of the fort and the northern corner of the fort is crossed by a small B-road Although the 1967 History of Merioneth provided dimensions derived from previous surveys of the fort, detailed knowledge of the scale and structure of the fort comes from more recent analysis of aerial photographs, the use of geophysical survey and field excavations, the latter only sampling certain parts of the site. The history of the archaeological work can be summarized as follows. The site was first noted by Robert Vaughan in his Survey of Merioneth in the mid 17th Century, and in a late 17th Century letter by the rector of Dolgellau, Maurice Jones. Amongst the 17th Century finds were a silver coin inscribed with the name of the Emperor Domition. Subsequent visits to the site reported ditches, coins, bricks, a hard paved road, pottery and a tile relating to II Augustian Legion. The main sources of information are the initial detailed report by Professor R. C. Bosanquet in 1921, which was further studied and commented upon in 1957 by H.C. Irvine in BBCS Volume XVII part 2, and these were the best sources of information on the subject prior to the work by Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (GAT). GAT used conventional survey, geophysical survey, and excavated some sample trenches to investigate further (Hopewell 2001, 2003).
Cefn Caer was a small auxiliary fort (castellum) with traces of a ditch still visible at the northwest, outside the rectangular bank that encloses the fort. It was built in AD 70s. It is more than 1.68ha (5 acres) in area, measuring 140m x 120m (c.550ft x 425ft) northeast to southwest with rounded corners. An earlier site of c.2.4ha appears to have predated it, which may have been the temporary fort established before the construction of the permanent site. The fort was located at the west end of a ridge or spur that rises 15m (50ft) above the floodplain north of the river Dyfi, c.10km (c. 6 miles) from the mouth of the estuary. This offered it the dual benefits of having something of a view over the surrounding area, and in particular the river crossing. It was only 100m (328ft) northeast of the marshy Dyfi floodplain and 1.6km (half a mile) from the river itself, where “tongues of the land extend opposite each other to both banks of the river” (History of Merioneth) providing an ideal place for fording the river, and where coastal vessels could unload. Roman forts were built to a fairly standardized template, meaning that they could be built rapidly without resorting to labour beyond the personnel they had to hand, and Cefn Caer does not deviate from this basic form. For comprehensive details see Hopewell 2003 (available to download – link also at the end of this post) but here are some of the key features that Hopewell describes, with numbers in the text referring to the site plan, copied here.
Cefn Caer was arranged around two main axes that crossed the fort at right-angles to each other, one on a northeast to southwest axis, the other crossing it on a northwest to southeast axis, and the whole fort was surrounded by defensive ditches. At its centre, on a natural rise, were the fort’s stone-founded headquarters, the principia (principal buildings – no.5 on the above plan) measuring 25m x 28m. Several other buildings also appear to have had stone foundations. The entrance to the principia is on the south-west side, and “leads into a courtyard with a portico on four sides bounded by a cross hall at the rear. At the rear of the building stand a set of five rooms comprising a central shrine room (sacellum) with offices to either side” (Hopewell 2003). There are two buildings either side of the via principia. GAT interprets the building to the north-west (10) as the praetorium (commander’s house). In the retentura (rear part of the fort) one block of centuriae (military barracks) (12 on the above plan) can clearly be seen. The officer’s quarters stand towards the corner of the fort. Part of the space in the praetentura (the front part of the fort) appears to be taken up by two ranges of centuriae. Part of the big building complex (14) may be a stable block with the stalls. Within the fort are a number of roads, which are standard for an auxiliary fort, as follows:
- The via principalis (6 on the above plan), running from north-west to the south-east across the centre of the fort.
- A short length of the via praetoria (7) runs at right angles to the via principalis under the farmyard
- The via decumana (8) runs from the rear of the principia to the north-eastern gate
- The via sagularis (9) runs around the inside of the ramparts
Beyond the main limits of the fort a vicus developed to the northeast and northwest. A vicus is a small settlement associated with an auxiliary fort, a community of traders and their families, who supplied good to the garrisons within, but its inhabitants were rarely local, and were just as much outsiders as those within the fort. Marriage was forbidden to Roman soldiers, but there is little doubt that less formal arrangements existed, and that families of soldiers also resided within the vicus. The presence of a vicus next to the fort is indicative of its permanence and relative longevity. Below the southwestern annex there was a small circular building that was probably a small temple, shrine or tomb. A large rectangular building (33 on the above plan) measuring 34 x 22m may be a mansio (travellers’ way station). A mid 19th Century visit by the Cambrian Archaeological Association mentions the remains of a hypocaust (sub-floor heating, sometimes associated with bath complexes), and this appears to have been located in an annex to the northwest of the fort (22) where there is plenty of Roman tile on the surface.
The fort has four entrances, one in the centre of each side, and there have been some efforts to determine where the roads that terminated here linked to locally. A small B-road cuts across the north corner of the site, shown in the plan from History of Merioneth to the left, and the History of Merioneth suggests that the sudden kink in the road indicates that for a short span it follows the Roman road that emerged from the site. Evidence of the same Roman road a little further on appears to run along a nearby ridge. There was also an earlier indication that portions of a road led from the southwest gate led down to the river. The History of Merioneth suggests that this may have led to a quay at Llyn y Bwtri. The southeast gate would have faced the river crossing. Cefn Caer appears to be linked to a number of national routes as follows.
- Via the fortlet at Brithdir towards Tomen y mur (to the northeast of Llyn Trawsfynydd. Tomen y Mur is considered to have been the most important Gwynedd fort due to its strategic position, its size and its complex layout, with an amphitheatre, bath house, vicus, mansio and related structures, including a possible aqueduct. Although the roads connecting it are not completely mapped, it is clear that it was an important link between mid (and south) Wales with the important sites of Caernarfon and Canovium (Caerbun) to the north, which were in turn connected to the regional capital at Chester.
- Via the fortlet at Brithdir northeast towards the important fort of Chester), via smaller forts at Caer Gai and Llanfor.
- Cefn Caer probably linked to another route, this time west to another ciwitas captial at Wroxeter via the fortlet at Pen y Crogbren and the forts at Caersws and Forden Gaer.
- It was also clearly connected with sites to the south of the river Dyfi, in the first instance the fortlet at Erglodd and, in turn, the forts at Pen Llwyn and Cae Gaer. These were on routes to the important southern Welsh fort Caerleon.
These are all shown on the map of Roman Wales above and although the road network cannot currently be completed, the map indicates how Pennal was linked to other sites in the area, providing an important intersection at the river Dyfi between north and south parts of west Wales.
Another Meirionnydd fort at Brithdir, 3 miles east of Dolgellau, was found in the early 1960s and is clearly connected by a contemporary road to Cefn Caer at Pennal. It measured c.184x184ft (54m sq), so was much smaller than the Cefn Caer fort. It has not been excavated and there are no extant remains, but it shows up very clearly in aerial photographs like the one at left, and in the early 1990s geophysical survey was carried out at the fortlet. When a new housing estate was under construction nearby in the 1970s the opportunity was taken to excavate, and the results of these combined sources show a complex history at and around the site. At least two and possibly three, ditches surrounded the fort, and there are indications that a bathhouse and workshops were present. Brithdir was considered to have been built to guard an important intersection of a number of routes.
Looking to the south of Cefn Caer, the nearest site on the other side of the river was the fortlet at Erglodd, to which it was presumably connected by a road to the Dyfi ford. You can read more about the results of the geophysical survey in the Gwynedd Archaeological Report on the subject (Hopewell 2007).
Unlike the other parts of England and Wales, there is no evidence for towns developing or villas being built in Mid Wales. Arnold and Davies say that this “may be a silent commentary not just upon native resistance but upon the inability of the agrarian base to produce the necessary surplus. Together with geographical constraints, this inhibited political co-operation and fostered continuation of highly segmented societies.”
In the period AD 78-83, again in AD 98-119 and then again in AD 125-6 troops were required in the north of Britain (eventually resulting in Hadrian’s Wall and Antonine Wall) and overseas, when some troops were again withdrawn from Wales. Some forts were abandoned whilst others, like Tomen-y-Mur at Trawsfynydd, were resized and operated with less manpower. By AD 140 very few auxiliary forts were occupied in Wales and it is probable that Cefn Caer was abandoned either at this stage, or during the 3rd Century, when most of Wales was abandoned.
A lot of unanswered questions may be tackled in the future. Gwynedd Archaeological Trust’s Roman Fort Environs Project funded by Cadw is researching the environs of a number of forts using fluxgate gradiometer survey, which should help to develop an understanding not only of the forts but of their ancillary structures, roads and supporting settlements. Gwynedd Archaeological Trust has so far carried out surveys at Canovium (Caerhun), Caer Gai (Llanuwchllyn), Caer Llugwy (Capel Curig), Cefn Caer (Pennal) and Pen Llystyn (Bryncir). These findings will be published in the future. At the same time, a number of GAT and independent projects are looking for the remains of Roman roads in areas where the linkages are known only from small sections, in order to fill the gaps in knowledge about the roads between forts and the routes they followed. Research by Hugh Toller, for example, is thought to have uncovered a number of previously unknown sections of the RRX96 road between Pennal and Brithdir.
Arnold, C.J. and Davies, J.L. 2002. Roman and Early Medieval Wales. Sutton Publishing
de la Bedoyere, G. 2003. Defying Rome. The Rebels of Roman Britain. Tempus
Bosanquet, R.C. 1921. Cefn Caer – Roman fort in An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire VI. County of Merioneth RCAHM
Bowen, E.G. and Gresham, C.A. 1967. History of Merioneth. Volume 1: From the earliest times to the Age of the Native Princes. The Merioneth Historical and Record Society
Davies, J. 2007 (third edition). A History of Wales. Penguin
Davies, J. and Lynch, F. 2000. The Late Bronze and Iron Age. In (eds.) Lynch, F., Aldhouse-Green, S. and Davies, J.L. Prehistoric Wales. Sutton Publishing
Gwyn, D and Davidson, A. 2007. Ports and Harbours of Gwynedd: Aberdyfi. A Threat Related Assessment. GAT Project No. 1824. Report No. 671.1. April,2007. Gwynedd Archaeological Trust
Hopewell, D. 2001. Roman Fort Environs G1632, Report 416. Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2001. http://www.walesher1974.org/her/groups/GAT/media/GAT_Reports/GATreport_416_compressed.pdf
Hopewell, D. 2003. Roman Fort Environs 2002/2003, G1632, Report number 479. Gwynedd Archaeological Reports. http://www.walesher1974.org/her/groups/GAT/media/GAT_Reports/GATreport_479_compressed.pdf
Hopewll, D. 2007. Roman Fort Environs. Geophysical Survey at Trawscoed Roman Fort and Erglodd Fortlet. G1827(2). Report number: 667. Gwynedd Archaeological Trust. http://www.dyfedarchaeology.org.uk/projects/07romanergloddgeophys.pdf
Irvine, H.C. 1957. Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies Volume XVII part 2, (p.124-131)
Coflein entry on Cefn Caer:
Coflein entry on Brithdir fortlet: