I found another batch of leaflets today during a sort-out, and will post some of them in the coming weeks in case they are of interest. I’ve never seen the submerged forest at Borth, which needs a very low tide to see it properly, but it’s now firmly on my radar. As well as previewing the leaflet in the images below, you can download it as a PDF by clicking here: Submerged forest leaflet
Ynyslas carries with it the novelty of parking on the beach. There is a nominal fee when the visitor centre is open (from Easter to the end of September), but it is free in the winter months when the visitor centre is closed. The drive to Ynyslas from Aberdovey takes about 40 minutes via Machynlleth, and of course you are driving in a loop around the Dyfi estuary because Ynyslas is immediately opposite Aberdovey. There used to be a passenger ferry between the two, which had been operated for centuries, but eventually became redundant when the railway was built and the roads improved to handle the growing number of cars.
Ynyslas is a nature reserve, properly entitled the Dyfi National Nature Reserve and Visitor Centre and as well as the sand dunes and the beach, includes the Cors Fochno raised peat bog, which is of international importance. I have only been to Ynyslas once before, and then only very briefly when it was an exploratory mission tacked on to a visit to the terrific mill at Furnace (covered on a previous post). The visitor centre was open then, and had stacks of books on tables for visitors to consult, information boards, and a good collection of relevant books, greetings cards and small toys to buy, as well as a coffee and tea machine. Considerate to out of season visitors there is a big board outside, by the entrance, showing the layout of the nature reserve, with the paths clearly marked.
Out of season Ynyslas is virtually empty of bodies, just a few dog walkers in the dunes and rather more on the beach. I decided to do the circular walk that leads through the dunes, out on to a stretch of beach, and then back along the mouth of the estuary to the car. The dunes are of particular interest because they demonstrate all the stages of dune formation and growth, and there are multiple types including both fixed and mobile dunes. There was not a lot to see other than marran grass at this time of year, but come the spring there will be all sorts of flowering plants and insects to see including wild orchids, mosses, liverworts, fungi, insects and spiders.
Where the path tips you out on the beach there is a big ribbon of huge rounded grey pebbles that lies between you and the vast, eternal vistas of sand. You need to be a bit careful as they shift constantly underfoot. Once safely installed on the beach there is tons to see, and it is quite different from the stretch between Tywyn and Aberdovey. For one thing, there is a sense that you can see forever down the beach along Cardigan Bay. It is a very wide, open stretch of beach, with the waves chasing each other up the sand in long white-topped lines for as far as the eye can see.
Before the beach reaches the estuary, the sand is largely uninterrupted by the mass of small cockle, razor clam and tellin shells that scrunch underfoot on the stretches on the north side of the estuary. Instead, there are occasional shells of a completely different character, and even the usual species like cockles are generally much larger. Gigantic Icelandic cyprine and common otter shells are dotted around, big common whelks are a frequent sight and the pod razor clams reach their maximum lengths along this section of beach. Of the smaller species the limpets were a pleasant surprise, as were needle whelks and acorn barnacles. Some of the shells contained keelworm tubes (spirobranchus). In the sand itself there were dozen upon dozen of sandhopper burrows. I was surprised at how many articulated bivalves I found, both halves still connected, including well preserved cockles
The Icelandic cyprine (Artica islandica, also known as the ocean quahog) is particularly fascinating. It has a dark brown periostratacum (outer skin of a shell) and lives so long that it is amongst the longest living of any animal – up to 500 years. Amazing to think that an Icelandic cyprine shell could have contained a creature that was alive when Shakespeare was writing. The oldest known, its age determined by counting growth rings, was 507, and was nicknamed Hafrún (c. 1499–2006) . This example is 10cm (4 inches) from top to bottom.
Dog whelks (Nucella lapillus), which are lovely to look at and beautifully constructed along a spiral axis, are actually somewhat stomach-churning in their feeding habits. Like all gastropods, whelks have a toothed tongue called a radula. They use it to drill through the shells of other gastropod, and produce a chemical to help with the process. Once the shell has been pierced, they inject other chemicals into the shell cavity to paralyze and liquefy their prey before extracting it through the hold in the shell. You can spot the holes in shells on the strandline.
One of the whelks had keelworm (Spirobranchus) tubes. These calcareous tubes are made by the keel worm with an open and closed end. The open end allows it to put out tentacles with which it feeds on organic detritus, whilst safely armoured in its shell. Like keelworm tubes, barnacle shells are also found on shells of other organisms. There were several examples of acorn barnacles at Ynyslas, like the dog whelk in the above photograph, all in clusters because barnacles form colonies.
Sandhoppers (Talitrus salafor) are interesting too. At around 20mm in length, they look rather like fleas, with their backs arched. They live in burrows at depths up to 30cm and emerge at night to feed on the strandlines. Although they live on the strandline they are terrestrial and cannot survive in the water so when the tide comes in they dive into their burrows, backfilling with sand to plug the passage and protect themselves. They are targeted by some species of wading birds.
I found two nursehound eggcases, which I dutifully reported to the Shark Trust. One of them was partially covered with what look like tiny shells, as well as some keelworm tubes. I thought at first that the shells might the blue-rayed limpet (Patella pellucidum) but quite apart from the fact that they are the wrong shape, I cannot see any of the radiating blue lines that ought to be present if this identification were correct. Perhaps they are very early on in the growth cycle.
The limpets are common in some areas, but I have never seen one at Aberdovey. There were plenty on the beach at Ynyslas. Like dog whelks they have a toothed radula, but they infinitely more friendly to other species. They feed on algal spores left behind when the tide recedes, and in clearing patches of seaweed they create opportunities for other species to colonize rocks, increasing biodiversity along the seashore.
As I returned towards the car I thought I could hear oyster catchers, but all I could see were ducks. If you are a refugee from an urban environment, like me, you might associate ducks with the coarse quacking of mallards, but these sounded more like oyster catchers, with a a high-pitched peeping noise as you can hear in the video. They were feeding in the marsh grasses in the muddy zone at the edge of the estuary waters.
The views from Ynyslas towards Aberdovey, as you round the corner from the open sea into the estuary, are breathtaking, particularly on a gloriously sunny day. Beyond the town you can see down the Dyfi, a long peaceful arc of water flanked by low hills.
The BBC website has a good suggested walk beginning at Ynyslas, which goes further than I did and can take up to three hours. The Natural Resources Wales website gives more information about what to see at Ynyslas, and it offers a number of suggested walks of different durations. I plan to return to do the Cors Fochno walk, and to do another dune walk when there will be plants in flower.
I drove past the golf course into Borth for a quick stroll along the seafront, overlooking the pebble beach and rolling waves. Now a seaside town, it used to be the main source of sailors for the local shipping trade in the 19th Century.
I have been fascinated by Afon Leri ever since I first visited Aberdovey some twenty years ago. From my living room window it is an unwavering slender scar on the flat landscape to the east of Ynyslas. From up on the hill its opening is clearly perpendicular to the banks of the Dyfi estuary, and one can see the bridges that carry the road and railway over the river towards Ynyslas, next to a small boatyard. The river’s course across this topmost corner of Ceredigion is obviously canalized, an engineered artifice, but why? What was its purpose?
The Leri rises at Llyn Craig-y-Pistyll below Pumlimon and passes through Talybont, (on the main road between Machynlleth and Aberystwyth) where it meets the Afon Ceulan before flowing behind Borth. The canalized section is 3.35km long and c.35m wide and runs from Ynysfergi in the south to Pont Leri in the north, crossing the low-lying Cors Fochno. Cors Fochno is a Special Area of Conservation and one of the largest remaining examples of a raised peat bog in Britain, which started to form from c.5500BC. Afon Leri now opens out into the Dyfi estuary at Pont Dyfi in Ynyslas. Work on the canalized section had begun by 1790 when the above map was created by T. Lewis, marked as the Pil Newydd.
In the early 19th Century local landowners and neighbours Pryse Pryse of Gogerddan and Mathew Davies of Cwmcynfelin were incentivized by the General Enclosure Act of 1801 to reclaim land from the bog in order to develop it for pastoral agrarian use. Land reclamation would require the waterlogged land to be drained. There was little recorded opposition from parishioners, and royal assent was granted on June 22nd 1813. The land surveyor Charles Hassall saw the advantages of enclosing the 5106 acres but warned the landowners against contractors who were either duplicitous or ignorant of the task ahead. His words were almost premonitionary as successive problems plagued the project. Disagreements between land owners, contractors and commissioners, together with serious and ongoing financial problems, caused major delays.
Charles Hassall’s plan was to divert a number of streams that entered the bog to drain away spring floodwaters and build embankments along the Dyfi estuary to prevent salt-water transgressions. He recommended an experienced contractor called Anthony Bower, who was employed in 1815. Bower suggested that using the river Leri to drain water from the land was the most viable solution, but there were problems. The course of the Leri ran along the far western edge of Cors Fochno and emptied a little further up the coast at Aberlery into Cardigan Bay. It was insufficiently deep and fast-moving to serve as a drain for the bog, so Bower suggested that the best solution was to deepen, widen and straighten the river. As Professor Moore-Colyer describes it: “A sluice was to be constructed at the river mouth from which a main drain would run through the centre of the bog. This would be accompanied by a catchwater drain which would follow the course of the Lerry to the foot of the hills and then along the south-eastern boundary of the bog to join the River Cletwr. By this means, Bower believed, water from the hills would be prevented from entering the bog while an embankment on the southern side of the Dyfi would preclude the entry of salt-water.” Sluices and catchwater drains would be employed to control water levels.
In 1815, an alternative proposal was put forward by Griffith Parry of Penmorfa, and which carried an estimated cost of £10,000. Griffith Parry had trained under the great engineer Andrew Rennie on the construction of the London Docks. He also favoured diverting the Leri, but from the west end of Ynys Fergi in a straight line to Pont Afon Leri, and he too believed that deepening, widening and straightening the river was the solution, which he thought should be embanked with clay. In addition, he suggested deepening, widening and embanking surrounding ditches and streams to improve the drainage potential offered by canalizing the Leri.
Hassall died in 1816 and was replaced by co-commissioners Robert Williams of Bangor and David Joel Jenkins of Lampeter. Williams was staggered by the estimated total cost of £30,000 proposed by Bowers which, with the widening and deepening of other existing drains, would absorb over 1000 acres, and would create a total landmass with a value of only £20,000. Bower and Williams fell out over both this and more personal reasons. For the next two years the parties vied for position, with Jenkins supporting Bower and Williams supporting Parry. Parry’s plan eventually won out. Contractors, to be paid £2500.00 in instalments, were appointed. A final payment of £250.00 was to be withheld until two years after the project was completed, to provide insurance against post-completion problems. Additional costs, including raw materials, were provided by the Aberystwyth Bank after Pryse Pryse of Gogerddan provided security of £6000.00 for the loan, the balance of the cash was raised by selling land on the peripheries of the marsh for over £2340.00 initially. However, financial problems and disputes plagued the drainage scheme, particularly in respect of the contractors not building various elements to specification. Williams resigned and in 1822 Richard Griffiths of Bishop’s Castle, with three successful enclosures under his belt, was appointed in his stead. After the change in commissioner, the appointment of the surveyor Charles Mickleburgh of Montgomery, a new Act of Parliament in 1824, the chaos of further financial difficulties, escalating debts and a court case, the project was eventually completed by 1847, and a small harbour was provided for the local shipbuilding industry. It is difficult to see how the project could ever have seen a return on its investment.
The above map from the 1790s, the Google map to the left and the Ordnance Survey map below show the former and present courses of the river.
A road bridge, Pont Afon Leri, carries the B4353 over the river at Ynys Tachwedd, connecting Ynyslas with the A487. A small boatyard is located on the western side of the road bridge. The Cambrian Coast Line crosses just to its south on a 7-pier railway bridge that was built in 1863. The river is tidal along the length of the cut, and a footbridge over the Leri where the river meets the Wales Coast Path marks the boundary between the tidal cut and the non-tidal river.
The West Wharf boatyard at Pont Afon Leri has a history dating back to the 19th Century. Here’s the description from the Coflein website:
Remains of timber-fronted quay on the west side of the entrance of the river Leri constructed by the railway company. The northern end of the quay frontage is degraded and the quay material has been washed out from behind the piling. The section in front of the boatyard has been repaired and remodelled to accommodate a modern boat lift. Sales particulars dating to 1862 reveal that short section of wharf already existed close the road before the coming of the Welsh Coast Railway. The wharf was part of the land holdings belonging to Issac Ll. Williams Esq under the Geneur’rglyn Inclosure Act. The railway company subsequently undertook the development of the wharf to act as a landing point for a new steamer working the Aberdovey ferry. The paddle steamer ELIZABETH started service on 24 October 1863, the day that the railway line between Aberdovey and Llanwyngwril opened on the northern side of the opened. The vessel was to operate every hour and to charge 6d per head for the crossing. Maintaining the service was extremely difficult as the ELIZABTH was frequently stuck fast on the Dyfi sandbanks. On 5 July 1867, George Owen, the Cambrian railway engineer reported that if the railway line to the north side of the Dyfi could not be fully opened soon, then the wharf would need to be piled. The line subsequently opened in August 1867. The ferry’s use of the West Wharf might have ended then, but the railway inspectors required more work to be undertaken on the tunnels. Whilst passengers were taken round by road, goods continued to be shipped across the Dyfi by the tug JAMES CONLEY. The use of the ELIZABETH on the route was abandoned and the vessel sold in 1869. In 1893, it was proposed that that the barges transhipping slate from the Plynlimon and Hafan Tramway would be charged for using the railway company’s West Wharf. Two years later, in May 1895, Mr I Hughes Jones, owner of the East Wharf sawmill proposed the transfer of the business to the other side of the Leri. This was accomplished soon after April 1896 when a new railway siding was opened to service the transferred sawmill. Also in 1896, is appears that the Hafan Sett Quarry (Plynlimon and Hafan Tramway) were still proposing to use the wharf, as they contacted the railway company with regard to installing a level crossing for the tramway. It is likely that the piling for the wharf was extended around this time to facilitate these new developments. The saw mill continued to occupy the wharfside through to the First World War.
Today the boatyard is still a functioning business, offering boat storage, slipway launching and repairs and has a 16-ton slipway hoist.
The Ceredigion Coast Path follows part of the course of the canalized section of the river, and intersects with the Wales Coast Path just east of Borth where the canalized stretch of the river begins, as shown on the above map. The Ceredigion Coast Path website has more details, and for those wanting to walk the Leri, there’s a good outline of how it can be approached by Ben Fothergill on the UKRGB website. An official walk across Cors Fochno can be found on the Natural Resources Wales website.
Main source for this post and a lot more information, particularly about the financial problems, land sold for financing the drainage, and allotments of land to the poor, with my thanks:
- Plwyf Llangynfelyn, THE ENCLOSURE AND DRAINAGE OF CORS FOCHNO (BORTH BOG), 1813-47 by Professor Moore-Colyer: http://www.llangynfelyn.org/dogfennau/cors_fochno_enclosure.html
I will be talking about shipping, shipbuilders and individual ships over the next weeks and months, and in order to put these topics into context, I have been looking at how a maritime tradition developed not merely in Aberdovey but in west Wales as a whole. The following summary, amalgamating information in a number of secondary resources, is brief but hopefully provides sufficient information to introduce shipping and shipbuilding in the Aberdovey area. For those who would like to read more, I have listed the books and papers I used at the end of the post.
The 900-mile Welsh coastline, includes many river estuaries and natural harbours. Mid Wales sits within Cardigan Bay, a sweeping arc at the east of the Irish Sea, extending from the Llyn peninsula in the north to St David’s peninsula in the south. As Moelwyn Williams says: “the small ports and creeks along the coastline were focal points in the economic life of the Welsh people: they formed a kind of network of commerce and trade.” Often largely cut off from the interior due to the absence of roads, and excluded from land-based trade networks, it may have seemed inevitable that the Welsh coastal inhabitants would take to the sea, but in fact up until the 18th Century the vast majority of the ships exporting Welsh goods and supplying Welsh ports with Welsh, Irish and English goods were either English or Irish.
The Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages natural harbours became important for provisioning of military bases established by foreign invaders to fend off attempts to oust them. This means that most shipping engaged in trade at that time was not Welsh but Norman. J. Geraint Jenkins describes how wine and fruit imports could come from as far away as France and Spain, giving the example of Edward III who gave Tenby a grant to build its first landing stage in 1328, enabling it to import wine from France. Wales in return exported agricultural produce, animal hides and wool. Other traders came from nearer to home, particularly from ports along the Bristol Channel, exchanging a wide variety of imports in return for agricultural produce. An important fishing industry also developed during the Middle Ages, taking advantage of the rich herring shoals, both for local consumption and, salted, for export. The salt for preserving the herring was imported from Ireland, Cheshire and Lancashire. Irish vessels carried most of the salted fish for export, and most other ships came not from Wales but ports like Liverpool and Deeside. Piracy and smuggling were both common, with Irish salt the most commonly smuggled import due to its importance for preserving fish for export and the high duty imposed on it since 1693. Smuggling of salt only ceased when the duty was dropped in 1825.
The 17th and 18th Centuries
After the conflicts of the Middle Ages a wide range of commodities and industrial products were transported along the coastline. As J. Geraint Jenkins says “Much Welsh export was transported in the veritable armada of ships owned by local people who traded the entire length of the Welsh coast.” This highlights two important points. Ships were owned by local people, sometimes by individuals who owned only one ship, usually by locals who combined their resources to purchase shares in a ship, and only more rarely by ship owners who could afford more than one ship, sometimes extending to a small fleet. The second point is that whilst much of the trade was local, in the sense that it was focused on moving commodities from one part of Wales to another, an eternal revolving door of commercial activity, some ships were also travelling regularly to Ireland and Europe, exchanging local Welsh products like wood, wool, coal, fish, wheat and beer for commodities like wine, different agricultural produce, fruit and kitchen wares.
In the 18th Century, Wales was swept into the Industrial Revolution and goods like lime, coal, granite, bricks, slate, tin, lead and copper joined the export trade, and it seems to have been this that gave Welsh coastal inhabitants the impetus to take to the sea. As these new materials acquired increasing importance, so did the Welsh coastline, with investment both into improvements at existing ports, harbours and wharves and into new ports to serve specific industries. At the same time, small flat-bottomed boats continued to land on beaches to unload their cargoes, requiring no specialized facilities. Passengers, too, increasingly required transportation between commercial centres. Coastal work dominated, but long distance trade also continued to have an important role, not merely to Europe but across the Atlantic and elsewhere, facilitated by both local and foreign shipbuilders who were now building the larger ships required for such enterprises. Moelwyn Williams says that by 1768 there were around 60 ports and cargo handling creeks in Wales from Chepstow in the south to Chester in the north. In the early days of its maritime tradition, many sailors were also engaged in land-based trades, spreading the risk. By the 19th Century, however, sailors were engaged in the maritime trade full time.
The 19th Century
It was only in the 19th Century that Welsh ports developed into more prosperous and organized enterprises, hubs for longer distance and sometimes international trade, building on the 18th Century trades and reinforcing it with new produce. Exports included slate, lead, copper, oak poles and planks, wooden furniture, bark, trenails (wooden pegs), butter, cheese, wheat, malt animal hides, dried salmon and wool were exported. Williams says that imports included goods from Liverpool, including bricks, tiles, boards, fir timber, potatoes, turnips and clover seeds as well as foreign commodities such as tea, sugar, tobacco, raisins, Spanish wines and spirits. Competition opened up between ports, both under sail and under steam, as trans-Atlantic trade and passenger travel took off. Steam began to make its presence felt in Wales from the first half of the 19th Century, but as Williams and Armstrong discuss, sail still dominanted for heavy cargoes, partly because steamers were most appropriate for rivers and lakes rather than the open sea, fuel costs for carrying the heavy industrial cargoes were prohibitive, and they were unsuitable for bulk cargoes due to the size of the coal bunkers that they carried. For most of the 19th Century sail and steam worked together in harmony, each suitable for different roles. Competition with the railways, spreading remorselessly into even the most remotest parts of England, Scotland and Wales, undermined coastal shipping, but provided some ship owners with the motivation to engage in more ambitious trading enterprises in the long distance deep sea trades. These ships were usually not based in Wales, and did not export Welsh goods, but many of them were owned by Welsh individuals and companies who were themselves based in Welsh villages and many were crewed by Welsh sailors. Local shipbuilders now had to compete with the Canadian counterparts for business. Many of the big ships owned in Wales were built by famous clipper and schooner shipbuilders in Canada used to designing ships that could tackle the dreadful conditions around Cape Horn. Both American and Canadian ships were larger than most British ships. In spite of the benefits of size and short-term durability, they were built of softwoods, which had a much shorter lifespan than the durable hardwoods preferred by British shipbuilders. Welsh sailors were soon to be found on ships travelling all over the world on ships that could be away from Britain for many months at a time, travelling west from ports like Liverpool, London, Bristol and Cardiff to Europe, New York, round Cape Horn to Peru and California and east as far as China, Japan and Australia. The main exports from Wales were slate and coal, with ships returning from Canada with salted dried cod for the Mediterranean, from America with copper ore, from Peru with guano, from Chile with copper ore, from the China and Japan with tea, from Australia with wool, from the Mediterranean with wine, oil, fruit, iron ore and zinc, and from eastern Europe with grain for western Europe and timber for Britain. All destined for the major British ports including Liverpool, London, Newcastle, Bristol and Cardiff. Iron ore and copper ore were of particular importance to south Wales where the tin and steel trades were developing towards the end of the 19th Century.
Cardiff became the biggest port in Wales and in the north Holyhead on Anglesey was dominant due to its connections with Ireland. In mid-west Wales Cardigan was an important port until the late 18th Century, when Aberystwyth, which had started to become a successful port during the late 18th Century began to overtake it. Liverpool dominated west coast trade in the northwest. There were many attempts to establish mid-Wales terminals for either crossing between Britain and Ireland, or as bases for trans-Atlantic passenger liners. Porthmadog, on the northwest Welsh coast, became important due to the demand for slate in the early 19th Century. Unlike Cardigan, which grew up over the centuries, it was the brainchild of William Maddocks who in 1810 created a sea wall and diverted a river in order to reclaim land for agricultural use, which led to the river carving out a natural harbour at Porthmadog, making it an ideal location for exporting slate. Four narrow gauge railways descended into the town, which became an important port and an important shipbuilding centre, producing famous schooners.
Shipbuilding was a natural match for a country with an important export trade and a poor inland transport infrastructure. As trade grew, so did the demand for new ships, the men to sail them, and all the crafts associated with the shipbuilding industry. Wood and metalworking, rope-making, sail-making, anchor manufacture, mast-makers and other craft specialists, all provided work for local craftsmen who benefited from the business. Building wooden sailing ships was surprisingly low-tech. It did not require, for example, the construction of dry docks or the provision of cranes. All that was needed was a flat piece of land, preferably a beach or close by, the supply of timber, particularly oak, a saw pit and something to act as a mould loft (a sort of design studio) where the ship plan is laid out, and and men with the requisite skills to create scaffolding, work wood and finish a ship. Porthmadog was famous for its beautiful schooners, but a lot of other Welsh ports produced ships, including most notably Barmouth and Pwllheli, and the river Dyfi was a smaller base for shipbuilding at Aberdovey, Penhelig, Morben and Derwenlas. Some of the vessels produced were small sailing ships, with no more than one mast, like sloops, smacks, snows and ketches, but many were more ambitious including two-masted schooners such as the 84 ton 75ft Frances Poole, the 112 ton 83ft Acorn and the Jane Owens, both built by John Jones of Aberdovey, brigantines such as the 148 ton 88ft Charlotte built in Barmouth for Aberdovey owner Thomas Daniel, and square rigged brigs, including the substantial two-masted 208 ton 101ft Rowland Evans, built at Derwenlas and even three-masted barques like the Mary Evans. The bigger ships, particularly the square-rigged ships, travelled all over the world, as demonstrated by Alan Jones’s description of the career of John Jenkins, born and raised in Borth in the 1800s, who sailed on several Aberdovey-built ships. Churches and chapels for different denominations grew up, support services for locals and visitors developed and an entire social infrastructure, including schools, pubs, hotels, shops and ferry services evolved to serve the needs of these growing communities. Local railways serving quarries and mines improved the connection between industries and ports and even the roads eventually improved.
Ships were financed by local investors, each of whom owned one or more of 64 shares. These included the ship’s captain, farmers, quarry owners, merchants and similar businessmen with who had need of ships for their own business ventures, as well as craftsmen who worked on the ships, the ship’s and ordinary people from the local community who saw them as an opportunity for profit or to expand meagre incomes. When larger enterprises developed with two or more ships, the most common model for ship ownership was the Single Ship Company, in which the manager or owner takes a portion of the gross earnings of the ship rather than a share of its profits, thereby benefiting from its successes without suffering from its losses. An alternative with the Limited Joint Stock Company, an innovation of the 19th Century in which an individual could invest in a company without risking his personal fortune.
As steam began to replace sail on all but the most remote parts of the globe, where steamers were unable to carry sufficient coal for the long legs between coaling stations, the Welsh shipbuilding industry began to go into decline. The Welsh coastal ports never invested in the development of a steam shipbuilding industry, and the shipbuilding industry died out when steam largely replaced sail during the late 19th Century. With a busy coastal trade based on steam, Welsh boys and men continued to go to sea, in spite of low salaries and uncomfortable conditions, finding it a viable alternative to work available in small farming communities and the hinterland beyond. Even with the advance of rail, much of west Wales still offered limited opportunities for young men who did not want to work on the land or leave to find work in other areas. Jenkins says that in the big ports, steamship owners “preferred sailors from rural Wales because they know how to handle a ship in difficult situations on a rugged coastline” and that on many ships sailing from Cardiff, Welsh was the first language.
Shipping and Shipbuilding in Aberdovey
Aberdovey was located in the Ynysymaengwyn estate, in the parish of Tywyn, at the far south of Meirionnydd (formerly Merionethshire). It is a good example of a small fishing village, specializing in herring, that grew into a small but important port as its own natural resources became desirable elsewhere. Lewis Lloyd, in his admirable book “A Real Little Seaport” (1996), describes how, in its hey-day “Aberdyfi was a great deal more than a coasting port with a modest fleet of locally built smacks and schooners . . . . Aberdyfi possessed a number of deep-water or ocean-going vessels which sailed to distant places and Aberdfyi’s larger schooners, especially those built at Aberdyfi by Thomas Richards, sailed to St John’s Newfoundland, and to Labrador along with Porthmadog’s famous 3-masted schooners. . . Aberdyfi was, in short, a complete and diversified small port.” Aberdovey started from modest beginnings, and there are almost no traces of its shipbuilding and shipping past now, but it is still possible, via the work of a number of authors, to trace the history of Aberdovey and to locate some of the long-buried centres of activity on the ground today.
Williams says that the first official reference to Aberdovey as a port was in 1565, coming to life only during the herring season, when it was described as “a wonderful great resort of fishers assembled from all places within this Realm with Shippes, Boats and Vessells.” Just two years later, however, the official port books show that a substantial amount of cargo was being offloaded at Aberdovey, and the same records show that lead ore was the chief export. By the end of the 16th Century Aberdovey was a busy maritime location. Aberdovey became both the region’s registry throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries, and it was the most important herring port in Cardigan Bay. Herring fishing took place in autumn and winter, and during the spring and summer the same vessels engaged in carrying coastal cargoes. A Custom House had been established from at least the 17th Century, and J. Geraint Jenkins quotes a 1704 report from a local newspaper quoted by Jenkins that says that customs officers from the Aberdovey office caught three boats smuggling salt that was ready to be loaded on horses, around 200 of them, In New Quay.
A significant source of work for Aberdovey came from its with Derwenlas. Derwenlas, at the last navigable point on the River Dyfi, was the major port serving Machylleth, a thriving wool manufacturing centre based on the unnavigable part of the Dyfi, 2 miles inland from Derwenlas. Industries like the 17th Century silver mill and Royal Mint at Furnace (Ffwrnais) and the subsequent lead smelting furnace on the same site in the 18th Century depended on the sea to send and receive cargoes. Sea vessels were too large to navigate the river Dfyi, and river vessels were too small to tackle coastal waters, so all cargoes were trans-shipped at Aberdovey, making the port a hub for local trade. Furnace is the subject of another post on this blog. Machynlleth’s position at the meeting point of Montgomeryshire, Cardiganshire and Merionethshire at the border between north and south Wales was significant, and provided Aberdovey, as the main port for the Dyfi valley and beyond with, as Lewis Lloyd puts it, a certain “hybrid vigour.” In 1770 the Custom House moved to Aberystwyth, taking with it some of Aberdovey’s status, but not its business. In 1776 a bigger blow was the establishment of the statutory registers of shipping, in which Aberdyfi was subordinate to Aberystwyth, which firmly established Aberystwyth as the dominant port in mid Wales.
In the 19th Century trade expanded and Aberdovey the relationship between Derwenlas and Aberdovey continued to be symbiotic, whilst Aberdovey began to develop in its own right. Slate exports became Aberdovey’s main source of income from at least the 1850s, with other cargoes supplementing this trade. Williams gives details of the cargo shipped down the river for export including slates, bark and timber, whilst imports included rye, wheat, limestone, and English and foreign hides. Most of the area’s wool exports went out from Barmouth. Jenkins describes how Corris slate was conveyed via tramway to Derwenlas and lead ore was was brought from Dylife in horse and cart. Samuel Lewis, writing in 1883, adds that tree bark, oak timber and oak pole for collieries were also loaded into river boats at Derwenlas. Imports offloaded at Derwenlas included rye, wheat, coal, culm (a form of coal), limestone, hides and shop goods including groceries. All products into and out of Derwenlas had to be carried by river, so Aberdovey functioned as the major hub for transferring cargoes to and from river boats to and from seagoing ships. Even cargoes destined for Aberystwyth from America were often trans-shipped at Aberdovey into barges from the 1840s, because Aberystwth’s harbour was too shallow to handle the the big deep-drafted trans-Atlantic vessels. In 1852 a marine insurance society was formed in Aberystwyth, but Aberdovey never formed one, which, as Lloyd points out, underlines the secondary nature of Aberdovey at this time.
Shipbuilding took place all along the river Dyfi, at Aberdovey, Penhelig, Aberleri, Morben Isaf (now a caravan park) and Derwenlas. D.W. Morgan says that in the mid 19th Century around fifty five schooners were built on the Dyfi, as well as a barque, two brigantines, three brigs and fourteen sloops. Some of these larger ships were specifically built to serve the trans-Atlantic trade, where size and speed were in demand for carrying woollen goods. The best known of the shipbuilders was Thomas Richards who built ships in Aberdovey. Ship’s crews came from the the parish of Tywyn, the Dyfi valley and its hinterland, with a remarkable number coming from Borth, on the other side of the river in Ceredigion, at that time Cardiganshire.
In the 1860s the railway connected Machynlleth and Aberystwyth, undermining Derwenlas, and the construction of a railway bridge to extend it up the coast cut off traffic upriver. The railway arrived in Aberdovey in 1867, marking an end to the shipbuilding yard at Penhelig, which was already suffering from competition from experienced shipbuilders in the north-east and Canada. Jenkins says that the last ship to be built on the Dyfi was the 1869 76-ton 75.2ft schooner/ketch Catherine built at Pennal. It had been the same story in Borth, across the estuary, and Barmouth to the north. In both cases, when the Aberystwyth and Welsh Coast Railway arrived in the 1860s maritime trade went into decline and together with the shipbuilding industry. This was just a year before the last sailing ship, the 1870 794-ton tea clipper Lothair, was built at Rotherhithe on the Thames, demonstrating that although the new Dyfi railway bridge, the west coast railway itself and Canadian-built ships were challenges to shipbuilding and maritime trade in the Aberdovey area, there was a bigger threat.
Steam power was slowly taking over the sea, and many steamships and long distance sailing ships were now iron-hulled. Whilst some shipyards on the Thames began to make steamers, Wales never got to grips with building steamships, an industry that became concentrated in north-east England and, most importantly, in Scotland on the Clyde. Steam, however, held out considerable hope for the future prosperity of Aberdovey, capitalizing on the proximity of Aberdovey to the Midlands and improving trade links along the coast. In 1834 the Cardigan Bay Steam Navigation Company began to provide a service between Aberystwyth and Pwllheli with the S.S. Vale of Clwyd, stopping at Barmouth, Aberdovey, Aberaeron and New Quay. It carried passengers in the summer but also carried cargo in the winter, including livestock, and agricultural produce. In 1880 the Waterford and Aberdovey Steamship Company was established to connect the Midlands to Ireland for carrying livestock and passengers, but this was short-lived. In 1892 the Aberdovey and Barmouth Steamship Company Ltd., financed mainly by Liverpool wholesale grocers,.sailed most weeks between Liverpool and Aberystwyth with three ships, the S.S. Countess of Lisburne, the S.S. Dora and the S.S. Grosvenor.
The decline in maritime trade was not the end of Aberdovey’s prosperity in the short term. Slate was carried on the Talyllyn railway into Tywyn, where it was trans-shipped to Aberdovey and then loaded on to the mainline railway.
In the 1880s the slate trade went into a slump, but in 1882 new wharves, animal pens and warehouses were built, handling imports of timber, corn, livestock and fuel for distribution both locally and throughout Britain, and it continued to handle diminished exports of local slate and agricultural produce. As steam took over from sail, the character of the town changed. Although hopes of becoming a port between Ireland and the Midlands was sustained for some time, these were doomed to failure because Holyhead in the north and first Neyland and then Fishguard in the south dominated shipping across the Irish Sea, both thanks to excellent rail connections with London. Sadly, hopes of a trans-Atlantic steamer service also came to nothing. Trade, like shipbuilding, began to suffer in the late 19th Century, in spite of the railway. Jenkins describes how the lead and slate industries went into decline and the wool trade came to a close. Timber continued to be imported, and the Melin Adrdudwy steam flour roller mill continued to be productive in the late 19th Century, but by 1914 the main form of income was tourism.
Future posts will look at some of the above topics in more detail, with reference to specific examples from Aberdovey and the surrounding area.
The main sources for this post are as follows, with full details listed in the Bibliography:
Fenton, R. 1989
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2007
Jenkins, J.G. 2006
Jones, A. 2010
Lewis, S. 1833
Lloyd, L. 1996, volume 1
Morgan, D.W. 1948
Williams, D.M. and Armstrong, J. 2010
Williams, M. I. 1973