Category Archives: Dysynni

Vintage Postcards #6: Dysynni valley and Bird Rock

Amongst all the recent postcards, this is one of my favourites, mainly because it is so relentlessly prosaic.  Straying out of Aberdovey, but not too far, it’s a peaceful view of cattle in the Dysynni valley with Bird Rock unmistakeable in the background, seen from the west near the coast.  Numbered 36502, and dating to 1895 (courtesy of the Francis Frith Collection website for the date) it is characteristic of Francis Frith photographs, offering a slightly unusual take on the usual subject matter.  Unlike other contemporary views of scenery which focus on the romantic this shot is particularly evocotive of the the landscape as I have seen it so often, with Bird Rock looking rather intimidating, and the lugubrious cattle waiting patiently for whatever weather is about to emerge from the clouds.  Cattle stand in water to cool themselves down on hot days (in some states in America where summer temperatures are usually high, cooling ponds are often provided) so although the sky looks rather overcast, it was probably a hot, sunny day.  There is a real sense of timelessness about this photograph.

In a part of the Dysynni valley to further to the east (with Bird Rock this time to the west) and below Castell-y-Bere are fields along the river Dysynni that are still used for pasturing cattle, as well as sheep.  There are some lovely walks along the Dysynni valley, which is well worth exploring.

The card was completely unused. I like the “Post Card” font, which has panache.  I instantly liked the little saying at the top of the reverse side, below, “T.N.T. – Today, Not Tomorrow!”  At first it amused me because it could have been written for me, as procrastionation is probably my worst sin, and I could often do with a bit of explosive to move me in the right direction :-).  But when I looked into it, it turns out to be a wartime slogan introduced by British Minister of Production, Captain Oliver Lyttleton, during September 1942, the thrust of which was that there was a new urgency to the production of war supplies. It gives one pause for thought.  What is interesting here is that, as above, the photograph is listed in the Francis Frith archive as dating to 1895, but it is clear that the early photograph was re-used later for post-1902 postcard production (see below) and in at least one of its more modern iterations carried a 1942 slogan.

Francis Frith is probably the best name, amongst non-specialists of early postcard production.  There is a lot about Frith and his photography business on the Francis Frith Collection website, which is a going concern and preserves an archive of his work.  It is a really fascinating story.  Frith was born into a Quaker family in 1822 in Derbyshire.  He built up a thriving grocery business in Liverpool, which he sold in the 1850s, making him financially independent, in today’s terms a multi-millionaire.  A founder member of the Liverpool Photographic Society, only 14 years after the invention of photography, be began to pursue his hobby on a full-time basis, travelling to the Middle East for fourteen years between 1856 and 1860.  I was very familiar with his Egyptian photographs, having a particular interest in this field, but the Francis Frith Collection website gives a real insight into the scope of Frith’s intersets and abilities.   Marketed by Negretti and Zambra of London, he became rich on the sale of his images as prints and steroscopic views.  After he married and settled down in England, he opened his company F. Frith and Co to “create accurate and unromantic photographs of as many cities, towns and villages of the British Isles as possible and sell copies of the photographs to the public, who were travelling in ever greater numbers and looking for souvenirs of their travels.”  He eventually retired and left the company to his sons, dying in 1898.  His sons built on their father’s legacy, and when in 1902 the Post Office agreed the design for the postcard, with a picture on one side and a divided plain side on the other for message and addresss, the Frith brothers jumped on the bandwagon and became one of the market leaders in postcard production and distribution in the first half of the 20th Century, using the extensive archive of existing photographs.

Digitization of the Frith collection, consisting of over 300,000 images, is ongoing on the other website, with a searchable archive, where 21 other views of Dysynni (and 105 of Aberdovey) can be found.

 

A short history of the Ynysymaengwyn Estate, Ystumanner, including Tywyn, Aberdovey and Bryncrug

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 Ynysymaengwyn Estate, showing Ann Owen’s 18th Century house and the servants quarters and kitchens in a separate building to the right. Source: Coflein.

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.

North wing at Ynysymaengwyn used in the 18th and 19th Centuries for kitchens and servants quarters

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 commote of Ystumanner.  Source: Wikipedia

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.

The raven at Ynysmaengwyn today

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.

Ann Owen Corbet c.1720. Source: ArtUK

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 dovecote and dog kennels

The interior of the dovecote

Ynysymaengwyn in c.1795 by etcher T. Bluck, T. Source: National Library of Wales

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.

The Dovey Inn donated by Athelstan Owen and a row of three houses provided by Ann Owen

Richard Owen, second in line to inherit the estate after his elder brother Corbet, but both died childless so their younger sister Anne inherited. By Richard Wilson c.1748-50.  Source:  Richard Wilson Online

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.

Ynysymaengwyn mansion. Sources: Coflein (top) and Ynysymaengwyn Camping, Caravan and Woodlands Park (plan at bottom)

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.”

Griffith Owen, butler and harpist to the Corbets at Ynysymaengwyn, portrayed in the last 1820s or early 1830s by Benjamin Marshall (1768-1835). Source: ArtUK

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.

Corbet Arms Hotel 1829. Source: Hugh M. Lewis, Pages of Time.

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.

Corbet Arms Hotel 1867. Source: Hugh M. Lewis, Pages of Time.

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.

Ynysymaengwyn 18th Century mansion. Source: Commando Veterans Association

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:

News report of Athelstan Soden Corbet attaining his majority. Source: National Library of Wales.

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.

The Corbet coat of arms, preserved today in the walls of the ballroom garden in the public area of Ynysmaengwyn today.

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). 

John Corbett. Source: Dodderhill Parish Survey Project.

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 main staircase at Ynysmaengwyn. Source: Coflein

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.

Literary Institute Verandah, with the Corbett coat of arms showing an elephant carrying a tower or castle in red, with the black raven beneath

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.”

John Corbett’s contributions to Ywyn. Top line, 1893 Assembly rooms (which he did not build, but to which he contributed) and the land and contribution to the building of the new Market Hall. Middle row: expansion and modernization of the Corbet Arms Hotel (renamed Corbett Arms Hotel) and its stables. Bottom row: plaque commemorating the new promenade and esplanade, and one of the gateposts into Ynysymaengwyn

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.

Rear aspect of Ynysymaengwyn mansion.  Source: Coflein.

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.

Ynysymaengwyn mansion, interior views.  Source:  Flickr, Richard Griffiths

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.

The interior of the Ynysmaengwin ballroom wing. Source: Flickr, Richard Griffiths

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.

The carvings flanking the porch of the north wing.  Source of photograph at left: Coflein

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.

On the right is a noticeboard showing the walks, which are positioned at strategic places around the woodland. I have annotated a Google map on the left with approximate locations of some of the features (you can click to expand the view). The porch of the servants and admin quarters is to the right of the ballroom, minus the Corbet coat or arms, which was spectacular and is now preserved in on of the remaining walls of the ballroom garden.

One of the twin gateposts of the Ynysymaengwyn Estate today, with part of John Corbett’s coat of arms

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
Tywyn, Gwynedd
LL36 9RY
See the website for directions:
https://www.ynysy.co.uk


References:

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

 

The railway arrives in Aberdovey in 1864

Welsh Coast Line. Source: Wikipedia, where you can see it as a single image, without rather than being split into two, as it is here.

Today the Cambrian Line runs from Shrewsbury (Shropshire) to Pwlleli (Gwynedd) with a branch just after Dovey Junction to Aberystwyth.  The section from Dovey Junction (to the southwest of Derwenlas) to Pwlleli in the north is known as the Cambrian Coast Line.  There are two stops in Aberdovey, one at Penhelig and the other at the far side of the village, behind the bowling club.  The arrival of the railway in the 1860s had a significant impact on Aberdovey, altering the economy and physically reshaping parts of the town.  The excellent legend to the left shows the final form of the railway line, complete with information about which stations remain in use.  I have split it into two to fit on the page, and Morfa Mawddach appears twice as a result.

The Aberystwith and West Coast Railway was authorised by a Private Act of Parliament on 22nd July 1861.  The spelling of Aberystwyth as Aberystwith was the name in which the company was registered.  To put this date into perspective, by the 1860s Aberdovey had a very successful shipbuilding industry, it was an important port for the transhipping of slate exports and was important for the import of grain and other goods.  Copper mines had been established in the hills around the village and a growing tourist industry based on the beach was flourishing even without a railway.  There were two Nonconformist chapels dating from the late 1820s and St Peter’s Church had been established for nearly two decades.

The railway routed around the back of the village, rather than along the seafront as originally planned. Source: Hugh M. Lewis.  Aberdyfi, A Glimpse of the Past.

The railway was intended to link north and mid Wales, to improve efficiencies in the export of local slate and to enable Aberdovey and Aberystwyth to serves as Irish ferry termini, linking Ireland with the Midlands.  These were boom years for Aberdovey, and it must have seemed like more in the way of progress.  Local people were not, however, blinded by the coming of the railway and significant disputes between Aberdovey residents, the owners of the land (the Ynynsymaengwyn Estate in Tywyn) and the representatives of the railway company over exactly where the railway should run and how the harbour would be developed.  The original plan was to send the line along the sea front but extensive disputes with Aberdovey business leaders and villagers, who were concerned about the impacts on shipping, ship building and tourism, lead to it being routed around the back of the village, an expensive compromise that required tunnelling through rock.  The dispute is described in Lewis Lloyd’s account on the subject in A Real Little Seaport.   The need for the tunnels meant that the railway’s contractor Thomas Savin’s estimate for the cost of the railway was unrealistically low, and this contributed to his personal bankruptcy in  1866.

Thomas Savin (1826-1889) was a well known railway engineer,  who built several railways in Wales.  Although the contractors for the new railway are listed as Thomas and John Savin, Thomas was clearly the driving force.  He had multiple business interests and often invested in his railway projects, meaning that he was far from impartial when local interests impacted business decisions, as happened in Aberdovey when villagers contested his plans to run the railway along the sea front and develop the harbour in ways that would have been harmful to local shipping and tourism interests.  Savin represented the railway company in most of his dealings with the villagers. A lot more about Savin can be found on a page dedicated to him on the Llanymynech Community Project website.

Penhelig shortly after the railway was laid, and before Penhelig Terrace was built, showing the railway tunnel and the shipyard just in front of the Penhelig Arms. Source: Hugh M. Lewis.  Aberdyfi, A Glimpse of the Past.

Savin had originally intended to build a bridge across the Dyfi to connect Aberdovey and Ynyslas by rail, and this remained the plan for some time, but due to the local geomorphology, civil engineers decided that the bridge could not be built and an additional 12 miles of rail had to be laid to go around the estuary, crossing the river just north of Gogarth instead. This meant that until the new stretch was built, southbound passengers had to cross the river by ferry between Aberdovey and Ynyslas, where a line had been built.  All the necessary materials for construction of the railway were carried into Aberdovey by ship, except for the locomotive and carriages that were carried from Ynyslas over the river Dyfi to Aberdovey.  Aberdovey served as the depot for most of the equipment and materials, including plant, sleepers and rails.  The construction work on the Aberystwith and West Coast Railway began at Aberdovey in April 1862, and was built in a number of stages,as follows:

  • By early September 1862 the line reached the river Dysynni and the first locomotive with 10 carriages was launched in South Merioneth and undertook the short trip from Aberdovey, stopping to pick up more passengers, to the river Dysynni and back again, carrying dignitaries and holiday makers.  In the evening a firework display celebrated the achievement.
  • In 1863 a track was laid down between Aberdovey and Llywyngwril to the north along the Welsh coast, including the three-span steel plate girder bridge over the Rivery Dysynni. This section of the line connected with the narrow gauge TalyLlyn slate quarry railway at Tywyn.  Before the railway, slates were offloaded from the TalyLlyn single gauge railway, loaded on to the new line and taken to Aberdovey for loading on to ships.
  • Before the section of line was built around the estuary, the s.s. Elizabeth was purchased to carry railway passengers across the river at Aberdovey to Ynyslas.  The Elizabeth was a 30 horse-power Blackwall paddle steamer that was rigged for sail.  She arrived in October 1863, and was captained by a Machynlleth resident Captain Edward Bell who was succeeded by his younger brother Captain John Bell.  But she was not a success.  At c.125ft long she was too long, and small boats had to be used to supplement the ferry service.  The Elizabeth was owned by Thomas Savin, who sold it in 1869 to an agent in Londonderry.
  • The section of railway between Machynlleth and Aberystwyth was completed by July 1864.
  • The stretch from Aberdovey to Pwllheli was completed in August 1867, the delay caused by the building of the viaduct across the estuary at Barmouth.  The line was originally intended to go along the Lleyn Peninsula to Porthdinllaen, but this plan was abandoned and the terminus was established at Pwllheli. This section of the line linked at Afonwen Junction to the Caernarfonshire Line to Caernarfon.
  • In 1867 the railway was also extended along the north bank of the river to Machynlleth.  The line split at Dovey Junction with two branches, one going to Machynlleth and one going to Aberystwyth.

Photograph of the Temperance Hotel in Chapel Square, showing the bridge over Copper Hill Street in the background in 1867. Source: Hugh M. Lewis. Pages of Time.

As the Newtown and Machynlleth Railway had opened at the beginning of 1863 and absorbed into Cambrian Railways the following year, the two lines were now linked.  Newtown was linked to the Oswestry and Newtown Railway (which opened in 1860), which in turn linked at Welshpool to the Shrewsbury and Welshpool Railway (which opened in 1862) and the Shrewsbury and Birmingham Railway (opened in 1847), the Shrewsbury to Hereford line (opened in 1853) and the Newport, Abergavenny and Hereford Railway (also opened in 1853) thereby linking mid and north Wales with the borders, south Wales the Midlands.

In 1866 the line had been integrated with Cambrian Railways under the Cambrian Railways Company, which was created by an Act of Parliament in July 1864 in order to amalgamate a number of companies operating in Wales.  The Aberystwith and West Coast Railway was still under construction at the time of the Act, so was not included in the original amalgamation, but was incorporated two years after the first part opened.  Cambrian Railways was head-quartered at Oswestry, where there is now a heritage museum celebrating the railway, the Cambrian Railways Museum (which has a website here).

Railway Tunnel on the other side of Penhelig

Heading to Aberdovey from Machynlleth, the line enters Aberdovey from the southeast at Penhelig Halt (added in 1933) where it emerges from a tunnel and is then carried over the road and follows a track through the back of the village before crossing the road again at the far end of Aberdovey, to continue along the coast to Tywyn.  The spoil from the tunnelling operation that was required to run the railway at the back of the village was deposited in Penhelig, on land cutting into a former shipbuilding yard, and this was the site of the future Penhelig Terrace, which was built c.1865.  Two tunnels were required to carry the railway through the hillside alongside the estuary, and four bridges were erected to carry it over the coast road  at Penhelig, under Church Street, behind St Peter’s Church, over Copper Hill Street and at the far end of Aberdovey by the modern fire station.  As soon as the line between Aberdovey and Machynlleth opened, the Corris and Aberllefenni slate carried on the Corris narrow gauge railway ceased to be loaded onto boats for transhipping onto seagoing vessels at Aberdovey, and was now transported instead by rail into Aberdovey.  Much of it the Welsh Coast Railway is raised only a few feet above sea level and it follows the coastline very closely for much of its length, making it one of the most scenic coastal railways in the UK.

The GWR Railway advert for Penhelig Halt. Source: Hugh M. Lewis. Aberdyfi, A Glimpse of the Past.

Aberdovey (Aberdyfi) Station was built in a location that was at that time just outside the main village.  It was equipped with two platforms flanking the tracks, and a fairly substantial single-storey railway building that survives in good order, but has been converted for residential use.  It is a charming red brick-built building with a slate roof, finished in stone around its doors and windows.  The front of the station has decorative black engineering bricks around the porch’s archway and in a parallel linear arrangement in the walls.  The porch is also equipped with twin stone columns.  Penhelig Station was added in 1933, by which time the railway was operated by the Great Western Railway, which absorbed Cambrian Railways in 1922, and was equipped with a single platform and an attractive little wooden shelter that remains today.

The railway clearly improved the economic stability of Aberdovey in some ways, but it also had negative impacts.  In its favour, it made it much easier for the evolving tourist industry to develop.  Efficiencies in cargo handling improved, and international trade continued to be important.  Cargoes that were not time sensitive still travelled by local ships, because their freight rates were so much lower, meaning that slate continued to travel by sea.  However, it a number of shipbuilding yards had to be destroyed for the railway to be completed, and over the two decades after the railway arrived the shipbuilding industry went into permanent decline, aggravated by the Great Depression in Britain between 1873 and 1896).  The last locally built ship was launched in 1880.  Derwenlas, which was an important inland port and shipbuilding centre, was cut off from the river by the railway embankment, almost completely closing it down.  Although transhipping to seagoing vessels still took place at Aberdovey for international trade, ships were no longer needed for national transportation.  It was was much more efficient to carry goods and livestock by train than by boat, so the previously coastal trade faded fast. The promised Irish ferry port never arrived, and as the railways expanded and improved, minor ports lost out to big ports with better facilities and connections.

A Cambrian Railway steam engine shunting down at the modernized wharf in 1887. Source: Hugh M. Lewis. Pages of Time.

In spite of the Great Depression, the wharf and jetty were given a major overhaul in the early 1880s, and were provided with a tiny branch track that led into the wharf area and out on to the jetty.  The new wharf and jetty were built on land acquired by Cambrian Railways for the purpose, opening in 1882.  Two large buildings were used for the storage of cargo and building materials, the jetty was around 370ft long and allowed ships to be loaded and unloaded at both high and low tides and animal pens were erected on the foreshore to hold livestock that was offloaded from ships. Railway tracks linked the jetty and wharf to the railway so that the transhipping process was far more fluid than it ever had been before.  Exports included slate from local quarries.  Imports included limestone, coal and cattle from South Wales, potatoes and cattle from Ireland, grain from the Mediterranean, timber from Newfoundland, and phosphates and nitrates from South America.  This will be covered in detail on a future post.

Penhelig Halt as it is today

Both Penhelig and Aberdovey stations remain open today.  Penhelig Station retains its 19th Century wooden shelter in an excellent state of repair, but no other station buildings. The platform is reached by a fairly long flight of steps.  Aberdovey Station is at ground level, retaining the original single-storey long brick structure on the one remaining platform.  It has been converted into three cottages, with the rear facing on to the platform and the front now overlooking the football pitch and adjacent to the golf cub.  The short branch to the harbour that was added in the 1880s was later built over.  Neither of the stations is staffed.  Tickets are purchased on the train itself and there is an electronic display containing information about the next trains due to arrive.  Because the platform is very low, built before platform heights were standardized, in 2009 a raised section made from reinforced glass-reinforced polymer was added.  This type of solution is called a Harrington Hump after the first station to have one installed, and Aberdovey was only the third UK station to receive one, after a period of consultation with local residents.  It was funded by the Welsh Government.  The BBC website says that instead of the usual £250,000 to raise the level of a platform the Harrington Hump costs a mere £70,000.  In 2014 part of the embankment was washed away, with the Daily Post reporting that the track was left hanging in the air.  A photo gallery on the site shows repairs being carried out.

Penhelig Lodge is to the left and below the level of the railway track and the tunnel in about 1865.  The photograph also shows the newly built Penhelig Terrace, which is end-on in this photograph. Source: Source: Hugh M. Lewis. Pages of Time.

The following video was shot in the 1920s and shows a steam train on the Aberdovey section of track:

Main sources:
The main source for information about the railway and its relationship to Aberdovey is Lewis Lloyd’s excellent A Real Little Seaport.  The Port of Aberdyfi and its People 1565-1920. Volume 1, which makes extensive use of local newspaper reports and contemporary records.  For anyone interested in learning more, there is much more information about the disputes, issues and accidents concerning the railway in his section “The Advent of the Coastal Railway” in chapter 7.  Hugh M. Lewis also has some information in his book  Aberdyfi – Portrait of a Village and other invaluable Hugh M. Lewis publications provide super photographic records.  For more general background information two well-researched Wikipedia pages were useful sources: Aberystwith and West Coast Railway and Cambrian Railways.

Railway track as it leaves Aberdovey for Machynlleth

 

Short walk along the Wales Coast Path from Tywyn to the Tonfanau footbridge

It was such a lovely day again that I decided to walk the short stretch along the road that runs along the side of the railway from Tywyn to the new Tonfanau Bridge over the river Dysynni.  It forms part of the Welsh Coast Path, which follows long sections of the 882 mile Welsh coastline, with some unavoidable detours inland.  Until recently one of these detours was where the Welsh Coastal Path met the river Dysynni at the point at which it opens into the sea.  Here it was necessary to divert inland along the Dysynni as far as Bryncrug, returning on the other side of the river to rejoin the coast, an admittedly very attractive detour of some eight miles.  In January 2013 this all changed when a new 50m bridge was installed to link the two parts of the Coast Path.

The bridge is of an unusual design, formed of twin crescent-shaped sides of white tubular steel.  It is a type known as a Vierendeel bridge, named for its inventor, the Belgian civil engineer Arthur Vierendeel (1852-1940), defined by vertical trusses, rather than the usual diagonal ones.  This creates rectangular rather than triangular spaces between the trusses.  Most Vierendeel bridges are in Belgium.  The bridge cost £850,000 and was funded by the Welsh European Funding Office, Traac, the Countryside Council for Wales and Gwynedd Council.  It was installed  on the 16th January 2013 by Jones Brothers of Ruthin.  It is the largest span for a Vierendeel truss footbridge in the UK.  It takes pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders.  The Tonfanau Bridge takes its name from the nearby village of Tonfanau, which has an interesting history in its own right and will be discussed at a later date.

Section of the Ordnance Survey Explorer Map (OL23 Cadair Idris and Llyn Tegid) showing the Wales Coast Path, and the start and end point for the short walk between Tywyn and the Tonfanau footbridge over the Dynsynni. Click to enlarge.

The Wales Coast Path (Llwybr Arfordir Cymru – www.walescoastpath.gov.uk) opened in May 2012 and extends between Chester in the north to Chepstow in the south, following the line of the coast wherever possible.  The route between Aberdovey and Tywyn goes along beach for four miles, but becomes more complicated when it reaches Tywyn.  The map to the left shows the Welsh Coast Path as a line of green dotted diamond shapes.  For those who want to walk this short section, I have marked my starting point in the car park on the sea front in Tywyn and the location of the bridge itself.

In Tywyn you can either walk along the sea front on the promenade or on the walkway that runs the length of the promenade at beach level.  The path then goes on to the extended promenade lying between residential housing and the sea.  This gives you excellent views of the sea, but blocks views of the hills.  Part way along is a turn off between the last of the houses and a mobile-home park.   This is a small lane that crosses the railway.  From there you either walk along the small road that leads to the footbridge or through the fields.  Here, there’s nothing but the raised track of the railway to be seen to the west, although the sea can be clearly heard, but the views to the east are absolutely terrific.

We have been incredibly lucky with the weather recently.  It has generally been cold, and there have been frosts in the village, but the sunshine so late in the year has been a splendid treat.   There were lots of dog walkers out today, everyone making the most of the weather whilst it lasts.

 

 

Castell-y-Bere (1221-1295) in the Dysynni Valley

Ordnance Survey map showing Abergynolwyn, shaded red at bottom right and Castell y Bere in the red square (OS Explorer OL23 Cadair Idris and Llyn Tegid)

Castell-y-Bere is at Grid Reference SH6676908547, overlooking the Dysynni valley near the village of Llanfihangel-y-Pennant.  It is maintained by Cadw (Cadw number ME023 ).  It is a splendid place to visit.  Its remains are substantial, accessed via a short and easy walk, offering spectacularly scenic views over the Dysynni valley that it protected, and is far enough off the beaten track to be wonderfully peaceful.  There are various routes to Castell-y-Bere, but if you are not fond of single track roads, the easiest, and almost certainly the quickest, is to go along the B4405 from Bryncrug to Abergynolwyn, turn left in the middle of the village and follow the brown signs to Castell-y-Bere for about 15 minutes.  For those that don’t know the roads, they are very good quality with plenty of passing places, and the hedges are kept cut right back, but you do have to resign yourself to the fact that you are almost certainly have to do some backing to passing places before you get to your destination, particularly during the summer when the castle has a lot of visitors.  It is very well worth it, however. 

There’s a parking area, and an information sign before you pass through a kissing gate and head along the path.   The walk takes you through trees.  The stone-cut path is well defined but quite uneven.  Although it qualifies as an easy walk and there are no particularly steep bits, there are some fairly sharp drops to the side of the path, so you do have to be sure of your footing. This is even more the case with the castle itself.  There are a number of flights of stairs within the castle, some of which terminate at the edge of a steep drop with no barriers.  If you walk around using a bit of common sense (particularly if you have children in tow) it is perfect, and so much better than the usual ugly tubular metal barriers that disfigure most heritage sites today. 

Castell y Bere aerial photograph with my annotations showing key components of the castle (Source of photograph: Coflein website)

Approaching its original entrance, the castle offers a gloomy and imposing welcome to the building that requires a climb up wooden steps, emulating the original sense of entering into an intimidating stony eyrie,dominated by walls and gate towers, with pits beneath the wooden drawbridges so that when the two drawbridges were raised and each portcullis was dropped there were formidable barriers to entry.  The castle itself provides uninterrupted views over the entire landscape surrounding it, which was strategically invaluable in the 13th century when it was built.  I was expecting a far more dilapidated structure, but what survives is sufficient to make the reconstruction shown on one of the signs traceable on the ground with very little effort, although it helps to have the aerial photograph to refer to.  I have added labels to my photograph of the reconstruction and the Coflein aerial photograph of the castle as it is today, so that my photographs can be related to the original layout of the castle. 

The castle was built in 1221 by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (also known as Llywelyn Fawr, or the Great, c.1173-1240). Llywelyn, prince of Gwynedd, was a remarkable character, a landmark personality in Welsh history whose reign is characterized by military action to extend his power and attempts at diplomacy to retain it.  It was one of several that he built, including the important castles at Dolwyddelan in southwest Conwy and Dolbadarn at the foot of Snowdon’s Llanberis Pass.

Cattle grazing at the foot of Castell-y-Bere in the Dysynni valley.

The land that Llywelyn chose for his castle was owned by Llywelyn’s illegitimate eldest son Gruffud ab Llywelyn and was taken from him by Llywelyn for the construction of the castle.  The glacial Dysynni valley is wide and flat-based, providing unusually wide tracts of fertile pasture.  Cattle was one of the principal sources of wealth for the Welsh princes in Gwynedd in the 13th Century, and by controlling the pastures surrounding Castell-y-Bere, Llywelyn was able to protect his herds and provide year-round pasture.  Cattle are still herded in the valley, and there were plenty of Welsh black cattle in the fields below the castle when I visited. 

The river Dysynni at the foot of Castell-y-Bere

The castle had political as well as economic value.  From Llywelyn’s point of view, establishing a realm over the entire area of Merionnydd was part of a much more ambitious plan to extend his control over substantial of Wales that were not yet dominated by invaders from England.  Castle building was a relatively new tradition for the Welsh who established undefended courts called llysoedd, which would not have stood up to much in the way of determined attack.  At Dolwyddelan Castle, for example, the remains of the earlier llys survive.  The Norman advances into Wales from the 11th Century put a different complexion on Welsh strategic thinking.  The Norman lords who established their territory in the southeast of Wales, along what is now known as the Welsh Marches, demonstrated how vulnerable the Welsh were to potential hostilities from the east. Timber and earthwork motte and bailey castles were the first defensive structures, but stone castles soon followed.

A photograph of the Cadw sign showing a reconstruction of Castell-y-Bere by Chris Smith. I have added annotations to identify key features of the castle.

View from the middle tower towards the north tower

Llywelyn’s castle was built on a rock outcrop and incorporates much of the bedrock into its construction.  As clearly shown in the aerial photograph from the Coflein website above, it was a contour fort, following the line of the rock.  The castle’s current substantial form reflects various additions to Llywelyn’s original structure.  Its original walls were not as substantial as Edward I’s later additions, and the surviving walls of the original structure demonstrate that this was a much less durable structure than those built by the English.  English castles consisted mainly of straight walls connected by either square or round towers.  In Wales contour forts were common, and apisidal D-shaped towers were characteristic.  Castell-y-Bere has two D-shaped towers, one at each end of the castle, together with a round tower the middle rectangular tower.  K. Steele of the RCAHMW describes how the southernmost of these D-shaped towers differs from typical design “being isolated from the main castle structure, overlooked by the rectangular keep, and accessible from the ground floor, thus rendering it defensively weak.”  The castle was constructed of the ubiquitous local stone.   When the castle was excavated in 1851 some high quality carved stonework was discovered, suggesting that Castell-y-Bere was one of the elaborately decorated of Llywelyn ab Iowerth’s castles. 

The following section looks at the history of Gwynedd up until Castell-y-Bere was abandoned in 1295, for which the following family tree might be of assistance:

Llywelyn ab Iowerth family tree for the period during which Castell-y-Bere was occupied

 

Llywelyn the Great on his deathbed, with his sons Gruffydd and Dafydd in attendance. By Matthew Paris, in or before 1259.  Source: Wikipedia

Castell-y-Bere remained in Llywelyn’s possession during his lifetime.  Between 1218 and 1240, when Llywelyn ab Iowerth died, peaceful relations were maintained between Llywelyn and Henry III, but the situation deteriorated after his death.  Llywelyn ab Iowerth died in April 1240 of natural causes, leaving two sons, his illegitimate eldest son Gruffud and his legitimate younger son Dafydd by his wife Joan.  Llywelyn had disinherited Gruffud in 1220 to ensure that Dafydd ab Llywelyn would succeed him, an arrangement that was rubber-stamped by the Pope, thanks to the intercedence of Henry III.  When Dafydd ab Llywelyn inherited his father’s seat, Henry re-organized.  Dafydd’s disinherited half brother Gruffud was handed over to Henry for imprisonment in the Tower of London to prevent any attempt to oust Dafydd and destabilize Gwynedd, and Dafydd’s own rights were undermined. Gruffud died at the Tower in an escape attempt in 1244.  Dafydd died of natural causes without an heir in 1246.

Stairs leading up to the rectangular middle tower

The power vacuum allowed Henry III to enter Gwynedd and establish Crown control over the most powerful of the strongholds in Wales, now under the leadership of Owain and Llywelyn ab Gruffudd, two of Gruffud’s sons.  A third brother, Dafydd, was also a beneficiary.  They inherited a Gwynedd under siege, and peace was purchased with the provision of knights and foot soldiers.  Wales remained subjugated until the three brothers came into conflict with each other, Llywelyn ab Gruffudd emerging triumphant and proceeding to take over large tracts of Wales.  From 1258 until 1262, whilst Henry was busy with a rebellion of the barons under Simon de Montfort, he consolidated his new territory, securing its borders.   However, in 1262 he was on the march again, claiming new territories in the far south.  He formed an allegiance with Simon de Montfort in 1265, formalized in the Treaty of Pipton, and although Simon de Montfort was defeated and killed in battle only weeks later, Henry III chose to honour the Pipton agreement in the Treaty of Montgomeryshire in 1267.  The principality of Wales was formed, with Llywelyn ab Gruffudd officially recognized as Prince of Wales, with the right to homage of all the Welsh lords, for which privilege he paid 25,000 marks and became a vasal of the king.

Entrance into the building providing access to the north tower.

Llywelyn ab Gruffudd had made a lot of enemies, particularly in the Marches.  In 1271 he attacked Caerphilly castle and extended his realm even further.  Davies says that his authority “extended from Anglesey to Machen, from the outskirts of Chester to the outskirts of Kidwelly.  He was lord of about three quarters of the surface area of Wales and of as somewhat lower proportion of its inhabitants.  He had perhaps two hundred thousand subjects.” However, the powerful Marcher houses of Clare, Bohun and Mortimer came into direct conflict with Llywelyn, and in 1274 both his brother Dafydd and his chief vassal abandoned him, going to England.  Henry III had died in 1272, but his heir Edward I was away on the Crusade and did not return to claim the crown until August 1274.

One of the rectangular structures in the courtyard

The relationship between Llywelyn and Edward I was strained from the very beginning, caused partly by Llywelyn’s marriage to Elinor, the daughter of Simon de Montfort and by Llywelyn’s refusal to travel to the English court to pay homage to the king.   Edward retaliated by abducting Elinor and in 1276 Llywelyn was labelled a rebel.  Permission was given to the Marcher Lords to reclaim territories that they had lost and the king himself prepared for war against the prince and took an army of 800 knights and 15,000 foot soldiers into Gwynedd.  Llywelyn, cut off from food supplies in Anglesey, submitted in  November 1277.  The Treaty of Aberconwy in 1277 swept away Llywelyn principality in all but name.  Much of eastern Wales was lost to Norman control and castles were established to maintain control in key areas of  Gwynedd, giving Edward nearly complete control by 1280.

Oak bucket bound with hazel, with hazel pegs, found in the well. Source: National Museum of Wales. 53.123/4.

More uprisings followed, in particular the war of 1282-3 that spread after an attack by Llywelyn’s brother Dafydd ab Gruffudd on Hawarden and Rhuddlan Castles.  Llywelyn ab Gruffud had little choice but to participate but all these attempts were ultimately futile.  Llywelyn ab Gruffud was killed in battle on 11th December in 1282 and Dafydd assumed the title Prince of Wales but by early 1283, Edward I’s vast English army had the Welsh heartland hemmed in.  Dafydd based himself at Dolwyddelan Castle in southwest Conwy whilst the English took Bangor, Caer-yn-Arfon and Harlech, building vast castles as they went.  Castell-y-Bere was the last of the Welsh strongholds to withstand Edward’s armies, falling in April 1283.  Dafydd was captured in June 1283.  He was tortured and put to a grizzly death in Shrewsbury in October 1283, whilst Edward’s programme of castle building continued uninterrupted.

The rubble interior of the walls, in a section probably reinforced by Edward I.

Castell y Bere survived the 1283 battle and under Edward I a number of improvements were made.  It received additional fortifications, in particular thick walls linking the south and middle towers.  The large rectangular keep overlies a rock-cut ditch suggesting that it had the adjoining D-shaped tower are additions to the original castle may be from this time.  Edward wanted to establish an English borough and a charter was granted, extending from Abermaw to the Dyfi, but the site never prospered.  In 1284 the Statute of Wales, or the Statute of Rhuddlan, was initiated.  The three counties of Anglesey, Caernarfon and Merioneth were created and placed under the management of English sheriffs, effectively splitting Gwynedd into manageable administrative chunks and ending the dreams of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth.  A last ditch Welsh uprising during 1294-5 ended Castell-y-Bere.  Madog ab Llywelyn attempted to take the castle from the English.  He failed, but the castle was very badly damaged in the process and was abandoned.  The 1850 excavations found extensive charcoal, suggesting that it may have been burned.

View along the castle towards the pastures in the Dysynni valley

The 1850 clearance of the site produced some other interesting discoveries.  One of the excavators W.W.E Wynne describes opening the excavations in an article in Archaeologia Cambrensis “in the year 1850, we commenced our excavations, not with the expectation of discovering any object of superior interest, but for the purpose of tracing as accurately as possible the circuit of the walls and making a plan of the building.”  It was during these excavations that the ornamental stonework and other masonry fragments were found. Other items discovered were pieces of chain-mail, corroded arrowheads, part of a crossbow, several knives, one retaining a wooden handle, part of a bone comb and large amounts of pottery, mainly glazed in green or olive.  Animal bones bearing signs of butchery included roe deer and boar. 

Plate from Wynne’s 1861 report of the 1850 excavations.

Views from Castell-y-Bere over the pastures that are used today for grazing cattle and sheep

 

References:

Stonework from Castell-y-Bere, held at Criccieth Castle Museum. Source: Hchc2009 under CC-BY-SA-3.0 licence

Avent, R. 2010. Dolwyddelan Castle, Dolbadarn Castle, Castell y Bere. Cadw
Cadw information signs at Castell-y-Bere
Davies, J. 2007.  A History of Wales. Penguin
Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust http://www.gatehouse-gazetteer.info/Welshsites/510.html
Jenkins, G.H. 2007. A Concise History of Wales. Cambridge University Press
Steele, K. 2008.  Castell-y-Bere. RCAHMW, 4 November 2008 http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/93719/details/castell-y-bere.
Wynne, W.W.E., 1861. Castell y Bere, Merionethshire.  Archaeologia Cambrensis Vol. 16 p. 105-10 https://archive.org/stream/archaeologiacam07moorgoog#page/n121/mode/1up