Years ago my parents used to take a magazine called Country Walking, which is still going strong, as a companion and guide to the walks they did all over Britain. I am currently having a massive sort-out and today went through a large number of leaflets and walks, keeping some and disposing of others, always a horrible job. This walk, torn out of the January 2004 issue of Country Walking looks excellent. The introduction says that in 1993 local ramblers launched and won a campaign to save the route, known as Bryncrug Six, as a public right of way. This is the victory referred to at the top of the article. I have checked on the OL23 Ordnance Survey map, and the paths are all marked on it. You can either head out by the Tal y Llyn railway, or park in Bryncrug, from where the walk starts. Although I haven’t tried all of it yet, being somewhat obsessed with hillforts at the moment, I’ve walked the section between 6 and 7, which is excellent. The untidy blue and purple annotations are mine, for my own use, as I found the black and white a bit of a jumble, making it a bit difficult to distinguish roads from streams.
A footpath runs along Afon Fathew (translating as River Matthew) from Bryncrug and then bears left where the Fathew meets the Dysynni. This footpath used to form part of the Wales Coast Path, bringing walkers away from the coast, where they were blocked by the River Dysynni. The path took them inland, crossing the river where the road crosses at Bryncrug before looping back to reach the coast again. In 2013 the Tonfanau bridge was built across the Dysynni at the point where the railway also crosses the river at the mouth of the river, so this footpath has much fewer visitors than it used to. The Fathew, a tributary of the Dysynni, is itself fed by streams from the hills on either side of the stretch of valley in which Dolgoch sits, including Nant Dolgoch, that flows over the Dolgoch Falls.
It was a warm day with a gentle breeze, but the sky was an incredibly light, almost invisible blue, and it was very hazy. The scenery and surrounding environment are completely different from anything that I have walked recently. The hills behind us looked pale, with pastel shades instead of the usually high-contrast bright colours. It was an extraordinarily peaceful walk along a raised levee. To our left, on the outward leg , were either empty fields filled with mauve grass and buttercups, or green fields full of sheep. On our right was a margin of grasses and wildflowers between us and the the tiny, shallow river. The Afon Fathew itself was idyllic, flowing lightly over a pattern of golden-brown stones, with shoals of tiny fish, the sound delightful. Two herons were in a distant field, and both took off, looking wonderful, but aerodynamically improbable.
In the above photograph, one of the first pleasures was a field of Rough hawkbit in the foreground (Leontodon hispidus) and feathery mauve Yorkshire Fog grass in the background Holcus lanatus). Rough hawkbit spreads just like dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), with its seeds carried on the air in even the lightest breeze on a hairy pappus (Latin, meaning “old man”), some of which can be seen in the above photograph. The “hispidus” in the name, meaning bristly, refers to the protective bract that covers the buds before the flowers open.
Water starwort (Callitriche stagnalis) often form clumps,with their roots embedded into the mud. It is good for rivers, streams and ponds because it is a good oxygenator and provides shelter from the heat for fish, fish eggs, frog spawn, tadpoles, frogs and other aquatic species. Its Latin name is derived from the Greek carlos and trichos, which translate as “beautiful hair,” referring to its hairy stems.
– a short-lived perennial, a good pollinator and an excellent oxygenator. Produces two types of leaves – submerged foliage with very fine feathery leaves and then, in late spring during flowering, floating three-lobed leaves. Like the Water starwort it provides shelter for aquatic species.
The path takes an abrupt left where the Fathew flows into the Dysynni, a much wider river flanked by marshy areas, some full of short spiky Spiny rush reeds and sheep tracks, others filled with the tall, gently rustling Common reed. Little snatches of bird song from the marshes hinted at a healthy population of nesting pairs amongst the reeds, including reed bunting. The floodplain of the Dysynni gives a sense of great openness and space, with excellent views over the sheep towards Bird Rock. The Dysynni is home to salmon and trout, and there have been sitings of otters, but no otters were out to play that day.
Spiny rush (Juncus acutus) is found in freshwater flats and marshes but is also saline tolerant and will grow in brackish and salt marsh environments. It is pollinated on the wind, and spreads quickly.
Male reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus). Reed buntings prefer tall reeds and high grasses where their nests, near to the ground, are hidden, but they are increasingly found in farmland too. Their song is described by one of my books as “cheep-cheep-cheep-chizzup” but and it can be heard rather more usefully here on the excellent British-Birdsongs website. Reed buntings eat insects when breeding, but switch to seeds for the rest of the year.
Almost certainly female reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus). This was a long way from me, and I took a photo on the off-chance that I would be able to identify the bird once I had enlarged it in Photoshop, which sometimes works well enough to enable broad markings to be made out.
I had intended to walk as far as the woods of Ynysymaengwyn, but three enormous splodges of warm water landed on my head as I was approaching, so although I had waterproofs in my rucksack I decided to turn back, and had the benefit of different views on the return journey. Sheep were scattered along the levee. Sometimes they moved off, and sometimes I did. They were far more curious and confident than hillside sheep, perhaps more used to people, perhaps less nervous because they had no lambs. Some were standing in the river. When I came to one gate, there was a young male bull, jet black, looking at me over the top of it, a lovely animal. I opened the gate slowly and carefully and he stood back, but I still had to push gently past him.
(Acer circinatum) leaves and samaras (the latter, its fruits, often known colloquially as helicopters or whirligigs). Vine maple (Acer circinatum) looks very like the standard sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), but it doesn’t grow as big, its leaves are attached to branches by reddish stems and its fruits are red and green. In Wales, sycamore trees were traditionally used in the making of ‘love spoons.’
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), just about to bloom. It has attractive feathery foliage (millefolium means “a thousand leaves”), spreads by underground stems, and is patch-forming. It is disease resistant, which can benefit neighbouring plants, and its small leaves prevent excessive moisture loss. It was named for Achilles, who used it to heal the wounds of his soldiers, and it retains its reputation as a good cure for cuts and bruises. It has a long history as a remedy for colds and fevers (as a tea) and for toothache (when the leaves are chewed). Its leaves and flowers are used in salads in small quantities, it can be boiled as a vegetable and served with butter, and it can be thrown into soups and stews. It has a slightly bitter taste. Flowers July to October.
Elder (Sambucus nigra). They are versatile plants, their flowers providing pollen for insects, the leaves popular with moth caterpillars, and the fruits eaten by a wide variety of mammals. For human consumption they must be cooked, as all parts of the plant are poisonous when raw, but is popular for making tea, wine, cordial and preserves. It has a distinctive scent and was thought to keep the Devil away. It was also hung around dairies to keep flies away. It is sometimes known as the Judas Tree, because Judas Iscariot is said to have hanged himself from an elder.
Red campion (Silene dioica). A favourite of so many people, its bright pink face is instantly cheering, and there was a lot of it along the Afon Fathew section of the footpath. Plants are either male or female, so two plants are needed for reproduction. Flowers May-July/August.
Tutsan / Shrubby St Johns Wort (Hypericum androsaemum). The name Tutsan is derived from the French toute-sain, “all health,” reflecting its use in herbal medicines, primarily the application of bruised leaves to cuts to help healing. Androsaemum means “sap the colour of blood.” After flowering the plant produces oval red to black berries when flowering has finished. It likes shady areas, particularly deciduous woodland where this was found just on the way back to the start of the walk. Flowers June to August.
I arrived back at Aberdovey just as the rain started in earnest, and just in time to take my clothes off the outside dryer!
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
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: