Category Archives: Heritage

A first-time walk from Happy Valley towards the Dysynni

I hadn’t seen my friend Caroline for ages, so it was great to do one of our social distancing walks, and one that was new to me, taking in a tiny prehistoric stone circle.  The track is marked on the OS map as a “byway open to all traffic” and follows the line of the Nany Braich-y-rhiw stream, at a higher level.  The views were as spectacular as they always are when you get on to the higher ground in these parts, into the Dyfi valley at the start of the walk, into Happy Valley, and eventually, ahead into the Dysynni valley.  The track is very deep and carved out of the bedrock in places, just like the Aberdovey estuary’s “Roman Road,” which is actually thought to date to the 1820s.  We drove to the point of departure in separate cars, parking on verges, as it is a long hike to reach the start from Aberdovey, and then a long hike in its own right.  On this occasion it was a there-and-back walk rather than a circular one, but just as good because the views are different in each direction.  It was 19th September and the weather was in our favour.

On the map below I’ve marked the starting point in red, and have put blue dot where another path descends into the valley, more or less opposite the Bearded Lake.  Although we carried on along the main track, you can make a lengthy circular walk if you take the path into Happy Valley, and it would probably be easiest to park in the official Happy Valley car park if you are going to do that (which also serves as the car park for those wanting to walk up to the Bearded Lake).

It’s an easy walk if you have good footwear, with a good track and no very steep gradients.  It should also be avoided in wet weather, or at least go in heavy duty footwear.  It had been very dry for the previous week, but we still ended up having to walk off the path in certain places as it was swamped with mud, and was often marshy either side of the path.  There were several points at which we had to ford fairly wide streams, two of which are marked on the map as fords. It was very windy even on a sunny day, so head gear would be a sensible precaution.  The only cloud on the horizon was that at weekends it is used by trial bikers, travelling at speed, with precious little care for any walkers who might be round the next corner.  Thanks to the noisy engines, you can hear them coming and get out of the way, but I recommend that you avoid walking there at weekends.

The stone circle is a little way along the path, up to the right, just a few seconds to reach it from the footpath.


The walk offers beautiful views over Happy Valley and the hills beyond.

Watch out for the Bearded Lake on the other side of the valley to the left, on this occasion glistening in the sun like a silver mirror.  I’ve written about the legends associated with the lake on an earlier post.

We walked past the footpath down into Happy Valley, which would have formed a circular walk, and headed instead for the views ahead, which offer an unexpected sight of the Dysynni valley.

As it descends towards the Dysynni, the track meets the stream, Nant Braich-y-rhiw.

At this point, descending towards the Dysynni valley, we turned back towards the cars, but if you carry on you reach a single-track B-road that crosses the Talyllyn railway at Rhyd-yr-onen and finishes in Bryncrug.  It was an equally beautiful walk on the return leg.  I suppose it was about an hour and half in each direction, pausing to enjoy the views with a picnic.

 

Day Trip: The Grade II listed Pont Abermaw (Barmouth Bridge)

After walking up to Castell y Gaer hillfort in mid September, I drove to Morfa Mawddach railway station, a short drive away, and parked up.  This is a favourite route for cyclists of all sorts.  Some go there to do some serious peddling around the Mawddach on a marked out on the Mawddach Trail (following the route of the disused “Dolgelley Branch” of the Aberystwyth and Welsh Coast Railway line, which opened in 1869), others had hired bikes in Barmouth.  It’s the same with walkers – some are there to do the trail, others are just walking the bridge.  Fortunately, it was a very quiet day, at least on the bridge itself.  The views on a sunny day are great, and when the wind drops, the high-pitched sound of the oystercatchers is lovely.

The railway viaduct in c. 1869.  Source: Wikipedia

Barmouth Bridge, or viaduct, was built between 1864 and 1867 in  to carry the Aberystwyth and  Welsh Coast Railway, now the Cambrian Railway, across the Mawddach estuary, which it still does.  It cuts off an 18 mile trip around the estuary that would otherwise have had to be taken by the railway between Morfa Mawddach and Barmouth.  Designed by Welsh civil engineer Benjamin Piercy, and English civil engineer and architect Henry Conybearet, it has a span of c.800m, the longest wooden-framed viaduct in Britain.  It was grade II listed in 1988.

Although most have been replaced long ago, timber pile viaducts of the Barmouth bridge type were once common on the Welsh coastal railways.  Conybeare’s decision to choose timber as the main construction material was probably driven by much the same concern to save costs, rather than employing iron,.  Baltic timber could be brought to the site very cheaply by sea, and was a fraction of the cost that an iron viaduct would have been.  Although it was well known that Teredo navalis, a boring worm, could do considerable damage to vessels and sub-surface wooden structures, it was thought not to inhabit the Mawddach estuary, and may not have done when the viaduct was built.

The original design included a rolling drawbridge section that pulled back across the track and  enabled vessels to use the navigation channel into the estuary.  This was replaced by the twin-hogback steel lattice swing bridge in 1899, which, with a span of 41.5m, could swing open to let vessels pass, shown on a vintage postcard to the right.  The swing span was operated in March 1984 and April 1987, but permanent rails indicate that it is unlikely to be opened in the future.

After a number of repairs and renovations, the wooden elements supporting the span are composed of 113 timber pile trestles 5.5 metres apart, which are now encased in concrete sleeves reinforced by glass-fibre.

The viaduct has had quite an exciting life, with a number of challenges to its longevity.  It caught fire in 1892, and it was only thanks to a local boy, who raised the alert, that the fire was swiftly extinguished.  It had a lucky escape in 1946 when a live mine came in on the tide and touched one of the wooden pillars, but fortunately failed to detonate. In 1980, considerable dismay was caused by the discovery that Teredo navalis had eaten into 69 of the supporting pillars.  The bridge had to be closed, and restoration work was carried out over a six month period, during which a rail replacement service was run by the Cambrian Line between Barmouth and Tywyn.  In August 2015, there were real fears that the footbridge would be closed as part of a cost-saving exercise announced by Gwynedd Council.  The bridge had been a toll bridge, with a couple hired to collect small sums from users of the walkway, but with 90,000 visitors a year, these sums added up very nicely and contributed towards £38,000 that Gwynedd Council paid to Network Rail to keep the walkway open.   An online petition was immediately organized by a local resident, collecting over 20,600 names in support of keeping the bridge open.  A £1.00 honesty box system was implemented, but even on my one walk to Barmouth and back, it was amazing how many people didn’t contribute anything.  In October 2016 a fire broke out and the bridge had to be closed again, but only for a fortnight, with a rail replacement service also running between Barmouth and Tywyn.

On its 150th anniversary a celebration was held, and a special train was run from Shrewsbury to Pwllheli, pulling Riviera Trains Mark 1 carriages.  In March 2020 it was announced that the bridge was to receive a £25 million revamp from Network Rail to replace a large number of the timber and metal elements and install a new track along the entire span.

Sources

Barmouth Railway Viaduct. Coflein.  https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/34918/details/barmouth-railway-viaductbarmouth-bridge-cambrian-coast-line

Barmouth Viaduct. Engineering Timelines
https://web.archive.org/web/20141015015046/http://www.engineering-timelines.com/scripts/engineeringItem.asp?id=1340

Closing Barmouth Bridge will have ‘big effect’ on economy warns charity.  North Wales Live.  20th August 2015
https://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/closing-barmouth-bridge-big-effect-9841952

20,000-name petition to keep Barmouth Bridge open to all. 21st August 2015.  BBC.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-north-west-wales-34010645

Fire shuts Barmouth Bridge until next week.  North Wales Live. 4th October 2016
https://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/fire-shuts-barmouth-bridge-until-11978355

150th Anniversary of Barmouth Bridge Celebrated with Special Train Service.  Forwarder Magazine. 10th October 2017
https://forwardermagazine.com/150th-anniversary-of-barmouth-bridge-celebrated-with-special-train-service/

Barmouth Bridge £20m plan on its 150th anniversary.  BBC News. 10 October 2017
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-north-west-wales-41568248

Barmouth Viaduct to get £25m revamp. BBC News.  26 May 2020
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-52807338

A visit to Castell y Gaer hillfort

Aerial view of Castell y Gaer. Source:  People’s Collection Wales via the RCAHMW

This can hardly be termed a walk, because the B-road runs around 15ft from the ramparts on an unenclosed section of open hillside overlooking the sea.  I certainly had a good walk on and around it, but it was not a walk in its own right, and I went elsewhere to stretch my legs properly afterwards.  For those of you hoping that the endless posts about hillforts will eventually come to an end – five down, four to go, plus a summary post 🙂   If you are wondering about the sunshine, this was actually on the 17th September, but I have a bit of a backlog at the moment.

Of all the hillforts in the series so far, this was by far the easiest to access and observe on the ground.

The approach is from the A493 coast road.  As you close on Llywgril from the south, there is a cemetery on the right, just before you reach the village itself, and a tiny, sharp right-hand turn in front of the cemetery.  The hillfort is about 3 minutes up the single-track road (driving slowly).  It is on private land, and there’s no public footpath, there are barriers to entry and the Heneb website states that the owner currently allows access, which is a generous courtesy.  I parked on the verge opposite.  The banks are liberally covered in gorse, but there are plenty of ways into the fort, including the original entrance at the far right as you look at it form the road.  Sheep tracks show that it is regularly visited by the local livestock, and they break through the gorse at a number of locations around the perimeter.

Castell y Gaer site plan. Source: Bowen and Gresham 1967

Castell-y-Gaer is quite different from most of the hillforts described so far.  Well preserved, it overlooks the sea but is not on the peak of the hill.  Although it seems high from below, which it is at just above the 120m OD contour line, it only has that drop on its western side.  It is on a slight knoll, very slightly tipped towards the sea to the northwest, a slope dropping fairly steeply away beneath it, running into pasture below.  The land around it on three sides, however, is fairly level and it is overlooked by higher ground on the same hill.  If it was not for the defenses, would present no difficulty to anyone attempting to enter it.

It measures c.60m by 30-44m and gives a sense of good amount of internal space.  The overall shape is sub-rectangular, and although the internal space tips to the northwest, the interior is far more level than any of the previous hillforts visited in the area, and it would not be surprising to find the foundations of structures within it.  Although not obvious at first glance, it does incorporate natural scarps above steep natural slopes on the west and north, but it is particularly notable for its artificial defenses, particularly its stone-faced banks, reaching 6m wide, and deep ditches, with counterscarping (second bank and ditch) to the southeast.  The stone appears to have been quarried from the ditches, and possibly from the hillfort interior.  Even though it is not at the summit of the hill, it is very exposed, and on an averagely breezy day was very windy.

Ditch on the eastern side

Stone-faced rampart

Stone-faced rampart to the north

Hillfort interior

Wider view of the hillfort interior

Ramparts along the eastern side

Ramparts looking northeast

The defenses have something in common with Craig yr Aderyn, which has similar wide, sloping rock-faced banks, but the entrance is more complex, the interior more open, and the siting completely different.

Plan of Castell y Gaer. Source: Heneb

The entrance is at the northeast corner, facing east.  On the eastern side of the hillfort the northern end of the outer bank overlaps with the southern end of the scarp, forcing the visitor the visitor to walk in facing north, but they are immediately confronted with more earthworks that force them round in a loop to the south, and this gives access to the entrance.  This dog-leg turn would have impeded access if control over entry was required.

The Coflein website says that the interior of the enclosure shows signs of cultivation and that a rectangular enclosure/platform, c.20m square, to the northeast may be connected.  It also records that there are extensive traces of relict fields occur to the west, although it does not comment on dating, although the close association between the fields and the hillfort makes a direct association possible.  The fields are visible on the photograph below,

Aerial view of Castell y Gaer. Source: Coflein (catalogue C821284)

 
The Afon Gwril runs down the narrow, shallow valley to the north, but is not a major water course, and it is unknowable if it was a reliable source of water in the Iron Age.  The OS map marks a well/spring immediately to the north.  Again, it is impossible to know if this was present in the Iron Age.

The views are all about the coastline.  As well as the sea immediately to the west, the coastline is clearly visible all the way to Barmouth and the mouth of the Mawddach estuary to the north.  Immediately to the north, the inland view is over a nearby hillside, now a pattern of drystone walls.  The Lleyn Peninsula was visible in the far north as a blue silhouette.  Behind the fort, rising to the east and southeast, is lightly sloping hillside.  This drops fairly steeply to the southwest of the fort in a line with the hillside beneath the fort itself.   The slope flattens gradually towards the sea, and both the hill and the fields below are grazed today by sheep at all levels and cattle on the lower levels.  To the south, pastures look out to the sea.

View to the west

Looking west from outside the southern bank of the hillfort.

Looking south across the gently sloping pastures to the sea

Looking north across the hillslope pastures towards Barmouth and the hills beyond

View from the hillfort to the east

View of the hillfort from the east

To the north, the hills behind the Mawddach are visible, at least on a sunny day.  To the west there is just sea.

View towards Barmouth, the Mawddach estuary and Dinas Oleu (approximate location marked with a red arrow)

There are no hillforts in sight to the south or east, just the immediate hillside.  The nearest hillfort to the south, also on a hill overlooking the coast but out of line of sight from Castell y Gaer, is Bwlch on Foel Llynfandigaid, which is around 4km away as the crow flies but a range of higher ground stands between them. A perusal of the Ordnance Survey map produced the site of Dinas Oleu, which sits immediately above Barmouth at SH61711578 and turns out to be the remains of an Iron Age hillfort (approachable via a footpath and there are a few details about it on the Coflein website).  The two sites are around 7km apart as the crow flies, and it would require a very clear day or night for any signals to be visible, not always a foregone conclusion in a coastal/estuary location.  The arrow in the above photograph is a guess, based on trying to match up the photograph with the OS map, and should be treated as extremely approximate.  The lack of a line of sight to the sites to the south does not rule out that Castell y Gaer had an important role linking north and south along the coast.

Although I included this as a possible outlier of the Dysynni and Dyfi hillfort group, I suspect that it is probably part of the Mawddach group, although at the moment, not having seen or read about any of the Mawddach hillforts, that’s just a guess.  This does not mean that it would not have been in communication with hillforts to the south, or that it did not have a potentially pivotal role in communication between north and south along the coast, but its main physical orientation to the north, its views to the north and its distinctive architectural features, suggest that it may be part of a slightly different tradition.

Sources:

Bowen, E.G. and Gresham, C.A. 1967.  History of Merioneth, volume 1.  From the earliest times to the Age of the Native Princes.  The Merioneth Historical and Record Society.

Websites:

Coflein
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/302716/details/castell-y-gaer

Heneb
http://www.heneb.co.uk/merionethforts/13castellygaer.html

 

Bryncrug Six: a self-guided walk in the Bryncrug area from “Country Walking” magazine

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 walk up Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock) #2 – the Iron Age hillfort

Looking up at Craig yr Aderyn from the medieval castle Castell y Bere in the Dysynni valley to the west

This walk has been divided into two, partly because I went crazy with the camera and took too many photographs, but also because I had quite a lot to say about the hillfort.  The second post, this one, is about the hillfort and what can be seen from it.  The first one was about the walk itself, how to get to it, where the two different forks take you to, and what views can be seen from parts of the route.

I am currently walking as many of the nine Iron Age hillforts in the local area as I can before winter sets in.  Or at least, I am when it’s not sloshing with rain and there’s no haze or mist to obscure views.  Fortunately there has been some glorious weather recently, after a rather soggy summer.  One of the wonderful things about hillforts is that the views are often terrific, and Craig yr Aderyn is simply the best.  It dominates the Dysynni valley from miles around, catching the light in dramatic ways, but I had never seen it up close.  Approaching it along the lovely road from Llanegryn for the first time, I was somewhat staggered when I rounded a corner and suddenly found it looming over me.  Drifting happily down the road, I had no idea that I had arrived so near to it.

Craig yr Aderyn is a highly visible local landmark in the Dysynni valley (SH643068), and is approached by small B-roads from Bryncrug or Abergynolwyn.  For full details of reaching Craig yr Aderyn and the route up, see my other post, about the walk rather than the hillfort.

A distinctly soggy part of the Dysynni floodplain.

Craig yr Aderyn, which translates as Rock of Birds, or more usually Bird Rock, is a major local landmark, abutting the of the Foel Wyllt hill ridge overlooking the Dysynni valley from the south. The course and character of the river Dysynni have changed over time.  Before the 18th century the estuary reached almost to the foot of Craig yr Aderyn, but the river silted up and is no longer navigable.  The land has been drained since the 1700s to create better quality land for farming, although standing looking down from the summit, it is quite clear that the land to the west still has some very boggy patches marked by beds of spiny rush (Juncus acutus), which is found in all freshwater flats, bogs and marshes herabouts.  It is not known what it looked like in prehistory, but the presence of a glacial valley with Cadair Idris at its back indicates that a melt-water river certainly passed Craig yr Aderyn on its way to the sea, and this will have established a valley route into which later hill drainage descended.  It would be useful to know what it was like during the Iron Age.

According to a Snowdonia Active publication (2018) the crag is made of rhyolitic tuff, rock formed from volcanic ash laid down after a major eruption through the Bala fault line c.800 million years ago.  It is separated from the hillside behind it by a saddle or col 100ft below the peak.  Its distinctive shape is immediately recognizable from miles around, almost always visible in the Dysynni area.  Its gaze always seems to follow you around.  Its summit is at 230m OD (700ft).  The hillfort is lower, at about 180 OD, 10m higher than the 170m OD Tal y Garreg, the next highest hillfort in the area.  Although the north face of the crag is very steep, the home of nesting birds and a route for rock climbers, there is a much more gradual approach to the rear.

Craig yr Aderyn is one of a small number of hillforts that were built near the Dysynni valley.  I’ve already posted about the two small hillforts at the mouth of the Dysynni, Tal y Garreg and Llechlwyd on Mynydd Garreg above Tonfanau, some 8km away to the west of Craig yr Aderyn.  Nearer to Craig yr Aderyn is Castell Mawr, c.5.5km to the west as the crow flies, about which I have also posted.  See the map at the end of the post.

At Craig yr Aderyn all of the hillfort construction work took place on a natural shelf beneath the rocky peak, which the hillfort incorporates.  Its man-made defenses consist of two phases of earthen and stone banks.  Today the fort’s ramparts are covered in grass, but most of them are still clearly visible, although it took me some time to trace them against the site plan on the ground.  Thankfully they are covered mainly with short turf rather than bracken or long grass, which makes the job much easier than at places like Castell Mawr.  The ramparts are impressive, and served to cut off the only realistic line of human access to the hillfort, as the other side is a sheer drop into the valley beyond from the summit of Craig yr Aderyn, some 270m below.  The combination of natural and stone-faced sloping man-made defenses makes this one of the most ostentations structures of this type in the area.  The site is thought to have been built in two phases.

This site plan shows how the ramparts are built into the rocks of the crag behind a natural shelf, using the existing topography as part of the design of the hillfort. The earlier phase is on the left, divided by a bank and ditch with a slightly inturned entrance. The second phase is on the right with a much deeper inturned entrance that forms a short passageway.  Source:  Bowen and Gresham 1967

The most obvious features of the first phase are the two sets of ditches and eroded banks, which once formed ramparts that were stone-faced.  This is sometimes called the upper fort.  There was an in-turned entrance at the southeast side through a gap in the rampart.  The enclosed area encloses approximately 0.8 hectares (just under 2 acres), and measures roughly 100 by 55m (c.330 x 180ft).  the shape formed against the line of the natural topography is a triangle.

Detail of the second phase entrance, with the inturned entrance forming something of a corridor into the second phase enclosure. Source: Bowen and Gresham 1967

In the second phase an additional line of banks and ditches were built on the eastern side to enclose a larger area of approximately 1.6 hectares, measuring 119 by 170m (390 x 560ft) on the east side, which was most vulnerable to attack. This included a substantial stone wall, much more impressive than the first phase.  Unfortunately, this has now collapsed, but its original line is still clearly visible.  Secondary improvements were a wall on the south side and two new banks to the east.  These were accompanied by another in-turned entrance, this a lot more prominent and well built than in phase 1.  Unlike the first entrance it could only be approached via a steep slope.  This is the entrance that the public footpath uses today, but even if you approach the hillfort at a tangent and follow a sheep track into the interior, the entrance is unmistakable from the interior.

The early excavations at Craig yr Aderyn, such as they were, produced very little in the way of dateable artefacts, and although a pottery sherd was identified at the time as Romano British, I have not seen any modern opinion on the subject of its date, and have no idea where the sherd itself is located today.  Even if this tenuous evidence was validated, it is not enough to tie in in with the other hillforts in the area, as none of those have been excavated and the architecture itself is only suggests very approximate dating.

View to the northwest from the summit

The location of the site is commanding.  It is c.9 km inland and therefore although the sea is visible, it has no view over the comings and goings of anything that was travelling along the coast.  If it was in league with any or all of the Tal y Garreg, Llechlwyd or Castell Mawr hillforts, that may not have been important.  What it did have, and still does, is  remarkable views over the Dysynni valley to the west and east from the summit, and good views towards the hill slopes to the north and south.   It is lower than many of the surrounding hills to north and south, but difficult to reach except via the saddle connecting it to the main hillside to its north.

View to the west

View to the east

Stone-fronted ramparts

The function of this hillfort remains unknown.  Even at 180m OD (590ft), Craig yr Aderyn cannot be completely ruled out as a settlement, but it it was very small, and would certainly be extremely inconvenient for permanent living, just like the other hillforts so far visited.  Although there are level surfaces that might have been suitable for settlement huts and storage, the only signs of settlement that have been found to date are an indeterminate feature found in 1874, and two possible and unconfirmed platforms in the south-east corner found in the 1921.   Whilst it might have been used as a seasonal settlement for taking sheep herds into the hills, it seems far too elaborate for this sort of role, particularly given the human resources required to build the impressive stone facing of the ramparts.

The entrance to the phase 2 extension to the hillfort

The stone-faced ramparts and entrance are themselves interesting, unique in the Dysynni area, and suggest that the site was particularly important to its builders.  In his overview of the Iron Age, Timothy Darvill in his overview of mentions that after c.400BC a number of sites were provided with sloping stone-faced ramparts, which he suggests were as much for ostentation as defense.  In a more recent discussion, focused on the Ceredigion hillforts, Toby Driver points to these as a recurring theme in that area, and he too suggests that they may have been intended to give the appearance of strength, a deterrent rather than being strictly defensive.  Although they would have required substantial investment in effort to build them, they would have been relatively easy to maintain, as their survival today demonstrates.

Upper (phase 1) and lower (phase 2) ramparts, both stone-faced

If there was insufficient stone for the facing from digging out the ditches, there was plenty of loose stone available for the ramparts.  Nearby rockfalls from the hill behind Craig yr Aderyn would have done the trick, and it is quite likely that those prominent today were the result of glacial activity.  The rocks in the immediate area were much bigger than any of those used for the stone facing, so they were probably broken up.  Interestingly, much of that rock is quartzite, some of it quite massive, but none of that was used in the rampart facing.  This suggests that the builders had a very specific vision, and it didn’t include quartzite.

The hillfort coming into view along the col (or saddle).

One slight oddity if the hillfort was to impress, is that it is not visible from a distance.  It is only when one is almost upon it that the impressive stonework comes into view.  Its appearance is defensive, because the ramparts are large and stone-faced, and the entrance well built, but the approach is not particularly challenging.  I paused twice for a breather on my way up, but I’m in my mid 50s and not at optimal fitness.  For a fit person it would present no difficulties at all, and for a hypothetical raiding party accustomed to such tasks it would have been all in a day’s work.  The approach is out of direct line of sight of the hillfort itself, and partly obscured even from the summit.  If its role was primarily defensive, lookouts would have to be stationed in the area to ensure that any threat was detected early.  its potential as a defensible retreat was tried and tested during the 10th Century AD when, according to a publication by Snowdownia Active, Tywyn was attacked and burned by Norsemen.  When they approached from the sea a warning beacon was lit on the coast, and Tywyn residents retreated to Craig yr Aderyn.  There are related theories for use.  One  are that the site might have been used as a refuge for local farming families or the most important of the local elite if there was conflict over land, or it could have been used as a secure communal store for important raw materials, food and craft products, including livestock.  There is really nothing to help narrow down a precise role.

Map showing the known hillforts in the area (my annotations in yellow). Source of map: Archwilio

From Craig yr Aderyn there is a 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape.  From the hillfort it is a very short walk to the summit where there is an excellent, uninterrupted line of sight west to Mynydd Garreg and the sea in the distance, along the Dysynni valley.  Although I couldn’t make out the trig point or ramparts on Tal y Garreg hillfort through my telephoto lens, the ramparts are certainly in the line of sight.  The promontory on which Llechlwyd sits was easy to make out and I could see where Castell Mawr was located.  Bwlch too, which I haven’t yet visited, was easily visible, with its unmistakable trig point.  These lines of sight would have been no use at all for seeing what people were up to, because the other hillforts were simply too far away, but would be invaluable if the occupants were signalling to one other about any threats from outside the area, including from the sea.  There are no known hillforts nearer to Craig yr Aderyn.

The ridge at the left of the photograph, at the end of the Dysynni valley is Mynydd Garreg. Llechlwyd and Tal y Garreg hillforts are at the coastal end, and Castell Mawr at the opposite end of the ridge. Bwlch is also visible at far right. Views from Craig yr Aderyn

Bwlch hillfort from Craig yr Aderyn

Phase 2 ramparts, incorporating an enclosure that may be later in date

The second phase of the hillfort argues a renewed interest in securing the space, extending it over a larger area and adding further stone-faced ramparts.   Two distinct phases of hillfort construction have been identified at many sites elsewhere in Britain.  Although it is unknown whether the two phases at Craig yr Aderyn conform to this pattern, it seems worth giving a brief outline of the general framework.  The first British phase of hillfort building occurs, at the transition between the Late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age at c.800BC, gaining momentum after c.600BC.   These were generally single rampart-and-ditch (univallate) structures.  The addition of more defenses and additional banks and ditches then came substantially later, at a time when some other hillforts were abandoned at around 400BC.

Craig yr Aderyn from the hillfort Castell Mawr

Some hillforts in the south of England continued to be used into the Roman period.  It would not be surprising if those in  west Wales, became overtly defensive during and after the Roman invasion of Wales in AD74.  If the identification of Romano-British pottery was accurate, this might have coincided with a new anxiety about protecting the community from the threat of Roman incursion, or the threat of raiders coming to secure products to accumulate resources that would help negotiations with Roman traders or native traders securing goods to sell to the Romans.  According to Roman sources Britain was a good source of slaves, and rural areas were likely targets.

If it emerges that the local hillforts were contemporary at the time of their original construction,  I am leaning towards a completely speculative model of fortified sites being used to enable people to stay in touch and share early warnings about potential threats from further afield.  More about the role and function of local hillforts will be discussed on a future post, once I have finished visiting all nine hillforts (four down, five to go).

Sources:

Bowen, E.G. and Gresham, C.A. 1967.  History of Merioneth, volume 1.  From the earliest times to the Age of the Native Princes.  The Merioneth Historical and Record Society.

Cunliffe, B. 1995.  Iron Age Britain.  Batsford

Driver, T. 2013.  Architecture, Regional Identity and Power in the Iron Age Landscapes of Mid Wales.  The Hillforts of North Ceredigion.  BAR British Series 583.

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2009.  A visitor guide to the main Iron Age hill forts of Meirionnydd.  Project No. G1770. Report No. 839

RCMHCW 1921.  Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments and Constructions in Wales and Monmouthshire.  An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire.  Volume IV: The County of Merioneth.

Sjöberg, K.S. 2014.  Hidden possibilities.  Possible uses of hillforts in southern Gwynedd, north-west Wales. Unpublished Masters thesis, Uppsala University, Department of archaeology and ancient history. http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A799381&dswid=8151

Snowdonia Active 2018. Craig yr Aderyn. Site Guides for Recreation.  Protected Landscapes of Wales.

Websites:

Archaeology Data Service
https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk

Coflein
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/archive/6512930/details/504
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/archive/6512928/details/504
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/archive/6512929/details/504

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (no date).  Historic Landscape Characterisation: The Dysynni
http://www.heneb.co.uk/hlc/dysynni/dysynni2.html

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (no date).  Hillforts in Dwyfor and Merioneth http://www.heneb.co.uk/merionethforts/9craigyraderyn.html

 

A walk to Castell Mawr hillfort, Mynydd Garreg, near Llanegryn

This is the third Iron Age hillfort in my series about hillforts south of the Mawddach estuary and north of the Dyfi estuary.  Out of a total of nine, which includes an outlier in Machynlleth, I am visiting all those in the immediate area that are accessible via public footpaths, and Castell Mawr is one of those.

Castell Mawr (translating roughly as big castle) lies on the far northeastern end of a ridge along the top of Mynydd Garreg.  The nearest village is Llanegryn.  At the opposite end of the ridge are two hillforts about which I have posted previously, Tal y Garreg and its lower neighbour the promontory fort Llechlwyd, both of which are a mere 1.5km away from Castell Mawr.  None of the three hillforts have been excavated but structurally and topographically, each is very different in character.

Castell Mawr is quite unlike either Tal y Garreg or Llechlwyd in a number of ways, although like them, it is surrounded by pasture and has views over Craig yr Aderyd (Bird Rock) where another hillfort was located.  Whilst Tal y Garreg and Llechlwyd are on fairly high points on the ridge, (170ft OD and 70 OD respectively), and are on the edge of very steep drops on at least one side, Castell Mawr appears to be much lower than either.  The site is at 120 OD, but the surrounding pastures are also quite high, sloping gently away towards lower contours, and the hills that form the main views to the north and east are much higher, giving a sense that it is quite low down.  The ridge is only 10ft or so above the surrounding fields, with the west side ditch raising this to 18ft.   Unlike the hillforts overlooking Tonfanau, this feels very much integrated into the immediate landscape, not above and apart from it.  On the other hand, it does have remarkable views to west, north, northeast and east.

The overgrown interior of Castell Mawr hillfort, with views to the north. The modern drystone wall has been built along the western edge of the hillfort

It is a scrubby hillfort.  Some hillforts are scrubbier and more indistinct than others, but this one outdoes itself.  I was even in doubt that I was in the right place at first, in spite of the OS map clutched in my hand that argued forcefully that the site couldn’t be anywhere else and neither could I.  I eventually found sufficient features to confirm that the map was right, and I was indeed at Castell Mawr.  This is nothing like the great hillforts of the Welsh Marches or the Clwydian Range.  It is small, overgrown and incredibly difficult to make any sense of at all on the ground.  It is, however, interesting, and the views are simply stunning.  If you walk to the other end of the ridge to Tonfanau (about 1.5km away as the crow flies, but about 2km when you follow the footpath) you will be seriously happy that you went because the views are terrific.

If you are interested in visiting Castell Mawr (Grid Reference SH5804504795) or walking the ridge, here are some basic details.  The nearest village, about 2km away as the crow flies (about 3km to walk), is Llanegryn.  The hillfort is located just beyond the Castell Mawr Farm house and out-buildings, and is helpfully skirted on its southwestern side by a footpath that continues across the ridge to the two hillforts above Tonfanau, making it easy to walk the three hillforts in one day.

The location of Castell Mawr on the Ordnance Survey map, OL23. Click to enlarge to see the footpath around the hillfort clearly.

There are two ways of approaching Castell Mawr.  The first way is a less straight forward walk, parking at the Tonfanau bridge and walking up to the ridge of the hill and then along it, about 5km there and back with diversions to find gates through the drystone wall, but including a short but steep route up Mynydd Garreg.  See the Tal y Garreg post for my preferred way up on to the ridge.  Instead of turning left to Tal y Garreg, turn right along the centre of the ridge, which is a footpath leading to Castell Mawr.  The footpath is not at all clearly marked, so if you take that route, I recommend that you take a map and compass.  Alternatively it’s a matter of parking up at the Castell Mawr end and taking a short walk to the hillfort along a short stretch of footpath and then proceeding along the ridge towards Tal y Garreg.  The footpath is accessed just off a narrow B-road that runs just to the north of the hillfort, which is itself accessed from the A493.  There is no formal parking area, but you can either leave your car on the wide verge outside Castell Mawr Farm, or alternatively park in Llanegryn and walk footpaths from the A493, which is  a distance of no more than 3km.  The footpath alongside Castell Mawr is not marked with a public footpath sign.  You simply walk up into the farm, past the house on the right and follow the track to the left behind a stone barn and then to the right, continuing along the track.  On your left are a modern farm building and some fields and on the right a steep bank, which is the hillfort.  Carry on up the track.  On the right is a gate that takes you into the hillfort.  Immediately ahead of you is another gate that takes you up on to the ridge to continue the walk.

Castell Mawr hillfort is aligned northeast (top of the photograph) to southwest.

The site is a roughly oval enclosure on a rocky protuberance at the end of the Mynydd Garreg ridge, measuring roughly 262.5ft/80m north-east to south-west by 118ft/36m.  It depends for most of its defensive potential on natural slopes.  A man-made rampart is clearly visible on the west, consisting of a rock-cut ditch below a steep slope.  It is around 18ft/5.5m from bottom of the ditch to the top of the bank. Another line of defense can just about be seen at the south side of the fort, but does not extend around the east side, which is something of a puzzle, as the natural slope is steep but not terribly high –  at a guess I would say about 10ft/3m from the level of the surrounding fields.  At the north there is a slight inner bank, possibly with a shallow ditch behind it, which I found by falling into it.  This seems to be an extension of the outer earthwork visible above on the outside of the drystone wall.  Other details are remarkably difficult to make out, although by dint of fighting my way through brambles and leaning over the drystone wall I did find the outer bank on the west side that is shown on the aerial photograph.  The Coflein website suggests that there may be an east-facing entrance, and I have no idea how anyone could have made that judgement.  I can’t see it either on the ground or from the aerial photographs and Bowen and Gresham says that the position of the entrance is uncertain.  The The Royal Commission (1921) covers the site in four lines on page 128, but the brief entry does include the information that in a 1914 visit a freshwater spring was observed within the hillfort.  Today a spring is marked on the OS map immediately to the north, just to the west of the farm.  Bowen and Gresham suggest that the site is incomplete.  Unfortunately, and perhaps sensibly, they have not attempted to provide a plan of the hillfort.

The interior of the hillfort, looking to the west

The outer ditch on the west side, with the short but steep slope to the top of the bank, where a drystone wall has since been constructed

Another view of the slope and the ditch at its base

Another view of the ditch and bank.

In the hillfort looking south

The wide outer bank shown clearly on the aerial photograph, on the west

The interior of the hillfort looking east

Minor modern quarrying along the eastern edge of the hillfort, showing the top of the hillfort above, giving an indication of the short height above the levels of the fields

The west bank from outside the hillfort, from the south

An annex is mentioned by Bowen and Gresham, of which I could seen nothing due to the heavy scrub and bracken, but it apparently extends a further 78ft/24m to the north of the inner bank.  Perhaps part of it includes the outer bank shown on the west of the aerial photograph.

Castell Mawr does not seem a promising site for locating internal structures of any sort.  The interior is a mixture of considerably uneven ground, with big dips and holes disguised by bracken and very thick grass, together with big horizontal chunks of bedrock around which the site is built.  There are three massive glacial eratics within the site, which are not mentioned anywhere else, but are truly impressive.  Two of them must be about 6ft/1.8m tall.

View to the north

Some more questions arise with an assessment of the views from Castell Mawr.  My initial response (other than “wow”) was that from the point of view of keeping an eye on the movements of people across the landscape the potential for observation of any activities in the valley below, coming from east or west, was excellent.  The land drops slowly away from Castell Mawr into the valley, and there are superb, wide views across to the north and northeast, across the pass through which the A493 travels towards the hills beyond, with some views towards the west.

View from the Castell Mawr to the west

View from Castell Mawr to the east

View from Castell Mawr to the northeast

View from Castell Mawr to the east

View from the hillfort to the northeast

Looking uphill to the south

On the other hand, looking back along the ridge to the south, you find yourself looking up to higher ground.  From the hillfort it doesn’t look like much of a rise, but as you approach it, it turns out to be a fairly steep slope that has views for miles around.  Once up there, you find yourself looking down into the hillfort’s south end, and it is difficult to imagine that the single line of defensive bank and ditch, even with sturdy palisades, would have been much of a deterrent to anyone approaching from this direction.  This is the same story at the promontory hillfort Llechlwyd, at the opposite end of the ridge, where a much better positioned site sits on very high, steep slopes and is only vulnerable from the rear, where high ground looks down on it.

Looking towards the hillfort from the south.  The rise on the other side of the wall is one of the defensive banks.

A view to the north looking down into the hillfort from the higher ground to the south. As you follow the two converging lines of drystone downhill, the hillfort is on the other side of the section of drystone wall that connects them.  The line of stone in the foreground, at the bottom of the photo, seems to be artificial and extends some way to the west, but there is no indication of its date.

As to other hillforts, this is also interesting.  Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock) is unambiguously visible to the northeast, overlooking the Dysynni valley, but none of the other known hillforts are visible.  Craig yr Aderyn is too far away to be able to see any significant activity unless there were signals set up between the sites.

The distinctively shaped Craig yr Aderyn from the interior of Castell Mawr

Tal y Garreg from the ridge above Castell Mawr.

If you want to see either Bwlch or Tal y Garreg, you need to walk a maximum of 10 minutes to the top of the ridge, from which Bwlch, Tal y Garreg and Craig yr Aderyn are all clearly visible.  Llechlwyd is not visible from the ridge, because like Castell Mawr, it too is at the bottom of a steep slope at the end of the ridge, but at the opposite end. Bwlch, like Craig yr Aderyn, is too far away to be able to see any significant activity at the site unless there were intentional signals set up between the sites for communication. From the point of view of line of sight to other hillforts, this part of the ridge above Castell Mawr would have been a much better, if much more exposed location (it was very windier than on the Castell Mawr outcrop).  On the other hand, the view into the pass below Castell Mawr (perhaps a former river valley) was completely invisible from the ridge, so perhaps the route along valley bottom and its approaches from east and west were the most important factors in the decision to locate the hillfort on that relatively low, rocky outcrop.

Bwlch, the brown hill in the distance, at right of the photograph, with a trig point just visible on top.

In my previous two posts about Tal y Garreg and Llechlwyd I have mentioned that no excavations have taken place on any of the Mynydd Garreg hillforts, so it is impossible to establish whether they were or were not contemporary, and therefore whether they had any form of relationship with each other.  It is immensely frustrating that speculation is all that’s available right now, but here are a couple of educated guesses.  Tal y Garreg and Llechlwyd are at the opposite end of the Mynydd Garreg ridge from Castell Mawr.  Tal y Garreg and Llechlwyd overlook the Dysynni broadwater and are so close to one another that if they were contemporary they must have been used together and if they were not contemporary it seems probable that one replaced the other.  In either case it is possible that one or both had a relationship with Castell Mawr.  They occupied the same ridge but faced in opposite directions overlooking different valleys and landscapes, which would have been invaluable for a joint defensive role as well as for communication and the moving of livestock to markets.  The ridge could have been used both for for livestock herding, as it is today, as well as driving eastwards, and the annex at Castell Mawr might have been used for rounding up sheep, cattle and/or horses.

It is also possible that they were in conflict with each other.  The most substantial defences of Castell Mawr are to the south, which could have been against an incursion from the Tal y Garreg end of the ridge, and Tal y Garreg similarly made impressive use of a rocky outcrop to raise itself above the level of the ridge in the direction of Castell Mawr.

Oh for a bit of subsurface clarification and a few radiocarbon dates!

More views from Castell Mawr:

 

Sources:

Bowen, E.G. and Gresham, C.A. 1967.  History of Merioneth, volume 1.  From the earliest times to the Age of the Native Princes.  The Merioneth Historical and Record Society.

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2009.  A visitor guide to the main Iron Age hill forts of Meirionnydd.  Project No. G1770. Report No. 839

The Royal Commission 1921. An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and
Monmouthshire: VI. – County of Merioneth.  His Majesty´s Stationery Office
https://tinyurl.com/y3a8yhtc

Sjöberg, K.S. 2014.  Hidden possibilities.  Possible uses of hillforts in southern Gwynedd, north-west Wales. Unpublished Masters thesis, Uppsala University, Department of archaeology and ancient history. http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A799381&dswid=8151

Websites:

Archaeology Data Service
https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk

Archwilio
https://www.archwilio.org.uk/arch/

Coflein
https://www.coflein.gov.uk/

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (no date).  Historic Landscape Characterisation: The Dysynni
http://www.heneb.co.uk/hlc/dysynni/dysynni2.html

 

A walk to Llechlwyd Iron Age hillfort, Tonfanau

The location of the two hillforts above Tonfanau, with Llechlwyd on the promontory, right.

Llechlwyd (sometimes referred to as Llechrwyd) hillfort is located on a long, narrow promontory that extends out from the hill above Tonfanau, Mynydd Garreg (Garreg hill), a short distance from Tywyn.  Llechlwyd means “grey (lwyd) stone (llech).”  At a height of 70m OD it is considerably lower than nearby Tal y Garreg hillfort (170m OD).  If you have not read my post about Tal y Garreg hillfort I suggest you read that first, because this post makes frequent reference to it.  Like Tal y Garreg, Llechlwyd has not been excavated, but it conforms to the basic design of an Iron Age hillfort, and is generally accepted to be of that period.  Llechlwyd is only a short walk from Tal y Garreg, but is a rather more difficult hillfort to reach.  The relative positions of the two hillfort are shown in the aerial photograph on the above left. The dark shadows to the left of both hillforts highlight parts of the Tonfanau stone quarry, which has cut away bits of both.

My route up and down Mynydd Garreg, above Tonfanau.  The shading in purple shows Tal y Garreg at the top and Llechlwyd below.  Source: Archwilio, with my route drawn in.

The routes up and down the hill that I took can by seen at the end of the post.  Apologies for the legend “style” instead of “stile” in the photographs above and left, but I only realized after I had posted this piece.  I parked by the Tonfanau bridge, on the Tywyn side, and walked to the bridle path, up the hill, over the stile, and back along the ridge towards the easily visible hillfort of Tal y Garreg, which makes excellent use of a natural rise in the topography.  Then, instead of going through the fence to Tal y Garreg, I turned left and walked along the fence, passing Tal y Garreg on my right.  This fence leads directly into Llechlwyd. On the aeriel photograph above it looks like a straightforward walk along the ridge, but in fact there’s a rather steep drop from the ridge to the promontory below, with a 100ft difference between the heights of the two hillorts. This can be seen clearly in the picture at the top of the post.  The route down is along very indistinct sheep tracks through coarse gorse – very rough on the lower legs if you are wearing shorts!  There’s no way through the fence, which is topped with barbed wire, and it splits the hillfort in two, so you have to retrace your footsteps towards Tal y Garreg when you want to return to the valley.  I returned via the quarry track that leads down into the old quarry yard, which itself is part of a footpath that skirts the northern base of the hill.

The date range for Llechlwyd is unknown because the site has not been excavated.  It has features typical of an Iron Age hillfort, but as the the Iron Age spans the period c.800/600BC – AD43, overlapping with the Roman occupation (AD43-c.410) that doesn’t narrow it down a great deal.  Unfortunately the structural remains alone are not sufficient to establish a narrower time frame.

Aerial view of Llechlwyd, annotated. Source of photograph: Coflein

Llechlwyd is something of a curiosity.  Although it has excellent views over the Dysynni valley and the coast to the north and south, it is in a very low position relative to the line of the hill above and behind it, with absolutely no visibility of anyone approaching along the ridge.  Although there are two banks and ditches across the promontory, it would be incredibly difficult to defend if the promontory was approached from the rear.  This would argue that either it was used in conjunction with Tal y Garreg hillfort, or that its purpose was not defensive.  Tal y Garreg today is often hidden within low cloud, not an ideal feature for a site presumably located at least partially for its views over the surrounding landscape.  In the Iron Age the temperature fluctuated, but was generally far more wet and cloudy than in the preceding Bronze Age.  This might be a good reason for establishing a secondary, lower fort to maintain clear visibility even in bad weather.  Unfortunately, it is not known whether Llechlwyd and Tal y Garreg were actually contemporary.

Another view of Llechlwyd. Source: Apple Maps

The quarry has removed part of the site, but the remaining banks and ditches are still visible and the aerial photographs above and left show where the large banks and entrance are located along the promontory. The big inner rampart, 3.6m high, consists primarily of stone.  The outer rampart is 3.2m high and the ditch 1.9m deep. The entrance, at the west end, is in-turned and sits on a steep slope of the hill. The steep sides provided enough protection on three sides, and the banks and ditches were used to secure the access to the ridge.  No excavation or geophysical survey have taken place, and the aerial photographs reveal nothing about what may lie beneath the surface of the hillfort, so we remain ignorant of any possible hut circles or storage structures.

The hillfort has lines of sight to Bwlch hillfort on Foel Llanfendigaid, c.2km to the north, and Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock), c.8km to the east.   Its main views are over the Dysynni valley immediately at its foot, as far as Craig yr Aderyn, and along the coast to the north and south.  The modern quarry makes the lines of sight between Llechlwyd and Tal y Garreg difficult to assess.  It is possible that the occupants of Llechlwyd would have been able to see a stretch of the ramparts of Tal y Garreg, and by the same token the occupants may have been able to see into Llechlwyd, but it is also possible that the topography blocked the line of sight completely.  It is a marvellous spot for a look-out over the lowlands, but, as mentioned above, to its rear it is overlooked by a steep slope that links the promontory with the rest of Mynydd Garreg.

Looking down over Llechlwyd promontory hillfort, with the Dysynni and the sea beyond

View over the Dysynni Broadwater. The valley will have had a different look to it during the Iron Age, but will have had a similar value for subsistence strategies

View across the broadwater towards Tywyn and over Cardigan Bay

View to the east

A very murky view of Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock), upon which another hillfort was built, to the east of Llechlwyd and Tal y Garret

A view to Bwlch hillfort to the north, with the Llyn Peninsula visible on the horizon.

There are no signs of Iron Age domestic structures hereabouts, but they will have been somewhere in the valley, visible from the hillfort, distributed at a similar frequency to modern farmsteads.  Livestock herding was probably the most practical subsistence activity, just as it is today.

At the other end of Mynydd Garreg, about 1.5km away, shown on the map above, is the hillfort Castell Mawr.  It is not visible from Tal y Garreg or Llechlwyd,  Castell Mawr has a secondary enclosure attached to it, which may have been used for corralling livestock.  If the area’s hillforts were related and friendly, it may be that Castell Mawr was used as a local livestock trading point, or as the gathering point for moving livestock further afield.  Without excavation such musings are pure speculation, particularly in view of the fact that it is not known if they were contemporary, but these are the sort of question that excavation might help to answer.  Excavation could provide insight into construction methods and artefacts, both of which could give an idea of the date of construction and the usage of the site, and would help to establish the chronological relationship between neighbouring hillforts and between these and the hillforts of other areas.

Sources:

Bowen, E.G. and Gresham, C.A. 1967.  History of Merioneth, volume 1.  From the earliest times to the Age of the Native Princes.  The Merioneth Historical and Record Society.

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2009.  A visitor guide to the main Iron Age hill forts of Meirionnydd.  Project No. G1770. Report No. 839

Sjöberg, K.S. 2014.  Hidden possibilities.  Possible uses of hillforts in southern Gwynedd, north-west Wales. Unpublished Masters thesis, Uppsala University, Department of archaeology and ancient history. http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A799381&dswid=8151

Websites:

Archwilio
https://www.archwilio.org.uk/her/chi1/arch.html?county=Gwynedd&lang=eng

Coflein
https://www.coflein.gov.uk/

A brief history of RAF Tywyn (or RAF Morfa Tywyn), later known as the Morfa Camp

RAF Tywyn as it is today, near the beach off Sandilands Road. The concrete hard-standings are where two hangars once stood Source: Coflein, catalogue no. C679084

In Tywyn, if you head past Idris Villas and carry on down Sandilands Road towards the level crossing, you will pass what remains of RAF Tywyn, which comprised a camp, hangars, airfield, control tower and transmitter.  It was built on a large piece of flat grassland belonging to Morfa Farm and later known as the Morfa Camp.  Morfa means marsh/bog, and Roy Sloan reports that it flooded frequently, to the extent that damage was sometimes inflicted on planes as they attempted to take off and land, and the station’s aircraft occasionally had to be moved to RAF Llanbedr.   The majority of the wartime buildings have been demolished.  Most of the information in this post comes from Roy Sloan’s 1991 book Wings of War Over Gwynedd, full details of which are listed below under Sources, with my thanks to the author.

RAF Tywyn. Aerial Photograph 540/373/UK/3611/0181 from 1st July 1950 showing airfield and tented barracks. Source: Dyfed Archaeological Trust, Report 2015/32. Copyright National Monuments Record of Wales

The purpose of the camp was mainly to engage in anti-aircraft co-operation duties, which primarily involved supplying target practice for anti-aircraft training in Tonfanau Camp, which had been established on the coast a few kilometers to the north of Tywyn in 1938 (described on an earlier post). 

The camp and airfield was built during the summer of 1940 and opened on 8 September 1940 as an air-cooperation base for the Royal Artillery Anti-Aircraft Practice Camp at Tonfanau. It was under the control of No.70 Group, Army Co-Operation Command, which was created in December 1940 to facilitate joint British Army and the RAF activities where air support to the Army was likely to be vital.  Its Commanding Officer was Squadron Leader Irens, recently promoted from the position of Flight Lieutenant, and the personnel numbered 12 officers and 226 airmen.  Two flights were assigned to RAF Tywyn.  “Flights” were units that consisted of a small number of planes (usually no more than six), their aircrews and ground support.  The two assigned to RAF Tywyn were from No.1 Ant-Aircraft Unit (AACU), called U-Flight and C-Flight. 

Winston Churchill, David Margesson and others waiting to watch the launch of a DH.82 Queen Bee target drone, 6 June 1941. By  War Office official photographer, Horton (Capt) – Source: Imperial War Museums photograph H 10307

U-Flight specialized in de Havilland Queen Bee pilotless drones, the radio-controlled version of the Tiger Moth, and had relocated to Tywyn from RAF St Athan (Vale of Glamorgan, south Wales).  C-Flight was equipped with Hawker Henleys, and had come from RAF Penrhos (Llyn peninsula, north Wales), arriving at RAF Tywyn in June 1941.  In June 1942 these were joined by two Lysanders on detatchment from No.6 AACU.  In November of the same year three Miles M.25 Martinet target tugs arrived when C-Flight became No.1605 Flight (all lettered Flights were to become numbered instead during the war).  The unit lost one of this Henley’s, together with its pilot, in a crash in low cloud over hills at Penygroes at about the same time.

Miles Martinet TT Mark I in flight in c.1942. Source: Wikipedia

Maycrete hut, RAF Tywyn Morfa

The camp was built of pre-fabricated huts and hangars, plus a control tower. The Nissen huts were composed of corrugated iron sheets that form half-cylinders to create lightweight buildings.   They looked like gigantic pig-styes, a half-tube of corrugated iron blocked at either end, one end containing a door for access. Maycrete huts are long single-storey rectangular buildings consisting of reinforced concrete posts supporting a pitched roof frame that supports corrugated asbestos roof panels.  The hangars were all similarly made of prefabricated parts according to specific design standards and consisted of two Bellman hangars (walls and roof easily assembled from rolled steel sections),two Blister hangars (another pig-styie style arched structure made of corrugated metal on a wooden or metal frame, which does not need a solid base to be laid, and can be anchored with pegs), and two Bessoneau hangars (portable timber and canvas structures with a central ridge anchoring a slightly arched roof on vertical stanchions).  Parts of the concrete aprons on which two of the hangars stood remain.  The control tower was built to an RAF specification.  A transmitter for control of the Queen Bee was installed in November 1940 but due to technical difficulties it was not operational until the end of February 1941. 

A Hawker Henley deploying a drogue target. Source: Ref: RAE-O 784a from the collections of the Imperial War Museums

When the station opened, the Queen Bee and the Henley were both used as targets for training.  The Queen Bee was used as a direct target and the Henleys towed targets behind them.  Offset aiming was supposed to protect the Queen Bee from destruction in these sessions, but when shot down, its controller would attempt to retrieve it.  Unlike the Tiger Moth on which it was based, it had a light wooden fuselage that was a lot more buoyant that the Tiger Moth’s metal construction.   Sloan says that the Queen Bee was quite sophisticated for its time, but was subject to fairly heavy losses when being used for target practice, as near-misses caused damage to its control system.  The Henleys were manned by a pilot and drogue/towing operator.  The drogue was a a canvas cylinder approximately 12 feet long and 4 feet in diameter.  The Henley was not designed for use in target practice, and the drag of drogue towing often caused heavy engine strain.  There were several accidents when engines malfunctioned or failed, and some deaths.  Unlike the Henleys, the Martinets that arrived in 1942 were designed for towing, with a lot of attention having been invested into the cooling system to counteract the strain of towing heavy loads.  In March 1944 two Hurricanes joined the station, and some of the Henleys were replaced by Martinets.  Sloan says that by the end of December there were 21 aircraft at RAF Tywyn, 8 Hawker Henleys, 9 Miles Martinets, 2 Hurricanes, and an Oxford.  The Queen Bees were no longer in use.

RAF Tywyn Christmas menu 1942. Source: Coflein, cataloge no.C554685

The Army Co-Operation Command was disbanded in 1943, as part of a general re-organization, and became part of the prestigious Fighter Command, which became responsible for the airfield in June of that year.  In the December 1605 Flight, formerly C-Flight, was combined with 1628 Flight to become 631 Squadron, but it continued to be saddled with Henleys when most other towing squadrons were now using Martinets. Sloan says that by February 1944 the station’s complement was 16 officers, 25 non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and 185 airmen.  In February 1944 one of the Henleys caught fire in the air and was ditched in the sea, very near the shore, with no loss of life.  The plane was retrieved the next day by the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) No.1 Amphibious Training Wing based nearby.

Sloan quotes pilot Bert Pudney as a source for what it was like to be a towing pilot.  He had joined the RAF in 1937 at the age of 16.  By 1944 he had the rank of Sergeant and was transferred to Tywyn in the May of that year to fly Henleys.  The account covers two pages in Roy Sloan’s book, but here’s a short excerpt:

The were several types of target, the largest being red flag 40 feet long and 6 feet wide, which was towed at various heights at a distance of 2,000 feet from the beech at Tonfanau, where Royal Artillery units had their guns – 4.5s and 3.7s.  We towed at 140 m.p.h. because anything faster would send engine temperatures up.  Some of the shelling was erratic, sometimes the target was hit and it dropped into the sea, sometimes the wire was cut and we lost the flog, but quite often the RA gunners seemed to be aiming at me and not the flat.  I remember my Target Towing Operator (TTO) once saying after a few shots surrounded us, ‘This is getting bloody dangerous, Skipper!’

We also used a variety of drogues, carrying about a dozen or so then streaming them with about 400 feet of tow for various bodies to shoot at, e.g. RAF Regiment, Commandos etc.  Their bullets were dipped in various coloured paints and after a few passes the drogue was dropped to check which groups had hit the target.  This was indicated, of course, by coloured hols in the white nylon.

A B-17 at an airshow in 2014. Source: Wikipedia

Some excitement occurred in July 1944 when a USAAF (United States Army Airforces) B-17 Flying Fortress bomber returning from North Africa with the 390th Bomb Group became lost in bad weather and, short of fuel, the pilot identified the Welsh coastline and flew along it, deciding to attempt a landing at the Tywyn airfield.  The bomber was huge, far bigger than anything that the airfield was designed to cope with, and the bomber not only overshot the airfield but crossed the railway line and ran into an air raid shelter.  A fire in the wing was put out by the station’s fire tender and the local fire brigade.  The occupants of the bomber were fine, but the aircraft itself was a write-off.  The railway line was again a victim in February 1945 when one of two Hurricane crashes again crossed the line, again resulting in a write-off of the plane.

RAF Tywyn. The legend reads “In memory of the men and women of the RAF and the airforces of the commonwealth who served at RAF Morfa Towyn on this site, 1939-1945 and the members of al forces who traced for service here 1946-1999. Erected by Towyn and Aberdovey Branch of the Royal Air Forces Association

After the end of war 631 squadron were deployed to Llanbedr in May 1945 and were replaced by No.22 Group, Technical Training Command.  On 25th July it was closed, but its life was not yet over.  It was transferred to the War Office and became an army camp and Outward Bound school and then a Joint Service Mountain Training Centre, an Armed Forces training facility .  The latter closed in 1999.  The old airfield was turned into a sports field and following a number of feasibility studies in 2015, is now a solar farm.  Morfa camp is now privately owned, and some of the buildings are apparently let out as storage units.  There is a commemorative plaque mounted on a slate monument at the entrance to the former camp.


Sources:

Sloan, Roy 1991.  Chapter 8, A Forgotten Airfield. RAF Tywyn. In Wings of War over Gwynedd. Aviation in Gwynedd during World War II. Gwasg Carreg Gwalch

I failed to get hold of the following book, but for anyone interested in finding out more, it might be worth tracking it down:  Jones, Rees Ivor 2000. The Military in Tywyn 1795–1999: The Warlike Side of a Small Welsh Seaside Town.

Websites:

Airfields of Britain
https://www.abct.org.uk/airfields/airfield-finder/towyn

Coflein
https://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/309967/details/towyn-airfieldmorfa-town-airfieldmorfa-raf-base-tywyn

De Haviland Aircraft Museum – Queen Bee
https://www.dehavillandmuseum.co.uk/aircraft/de-havilland-dh82b-queen-bee/

Newspaper illustration of Tywyn and the railway in June 1894

On the same page in The Cardigan Bay Visitor as the Aberdovey advertising feature that I posted about the other day, was this super illustration of Tywyn showing the steam train, 30 years after the railway opened, and boats pulled up on the beach. To get a better look, click the image to enlarge it, because the details cannot be seen clearly on the small image above.

Thanks to John Pughe for letting me know that the road in the picture is Pier Road.

It is sometimes easy to lose sight of the great surrounding views when in Tywyn itself, but as the illustration shows, Tywyn is nested at the base of some very fine hills, and it really is in a super location.  A road now follows the railway on its far side, leading to the railway and foot bridges across the river Dysynni with great views over the hillsides.  Much of the  area just beyond the railway was eventually taken to build the RAF camp and airfield (that later became known as the Morfa camp), much of which still stands, although part of it was replaced with a solar energy farm.

The Cardigan Bay Visitor, 30th July 1894, courtesy of Welsh Newspapers online: https://newspapers.library.wales/view/3824070/3824072/7/

Tonfanau Army Camp from 1938 to the present day

Some of the few surviving remains of Tonfanau Army Camp today, behind Tonfanau station, complete with grazing sheep, the sea just out of sight in the background

 

Tonfanau in the past and recent present. Source of upper image: AAJLR.org, ref tonp_067. Source of lower image: Coflein.

The first time I heard the name Tonfanau was when I was researching the Ynysmaengwyn Estate.  In the late 1870s John Corbett, who had purchased the estate, also invested in Tonfanau granite quarry to aid with his construction projects in Tywyn.  Recently I have been doing research into the hillforts on the hill behind Tonfanau.  In both cases my searches came up with a lot of information about an army camp that I had known existed but knew nothing about, and I became interested in the story.

The camp was established in the 1930s as an anti-aircraft artillery training centre, but it underwent many changes in role over time, before being nearly entirely demolished in the 1980s or 90s One of the most arresting things about this subject, is that there are a remarkable number of accounts and photographs available online by those who were stationed there.  The camp is not merely a thing of the past, it is something that lives on in people’s memories, and that gives lie to the few desolate, abandoned ruins that remain.

The impressive extent of Tonfanau camp shown on an Ordnance Survey map, circa 1960s. Source: AAJLR website, ref tonp_068

This is a short summary of what the camp was used for at different times, how far it extended over the surrounding area, what it consisted of, and what remains today.

I have made considerable use of the resources that I have found on the web, all of which are credited below in “Sources” with my sincere thanks.  Particular thanks must go to the Tonfanau page on the AAJLR website and its many contributing volunteers for assembling such a magnificent collection of photos, many of which are reproduced here.

If you fancy incorporating the remains of the camp into a walk, the best way is to drive down Sandilands Road, turning right just before the level crossing.  Follow the road to the Tonfanau footbridge, and it is about a 15 minute walk from there.  In summer it is a particularly nice walk as the verges from the Dysynni footbridge to the station are filled with a profusion of wildflowers.  Otherwise it is a matter of driving to Tonfanau station and parking up there.  You can cross the railway to go down to the emplacements on the beach, or walk up the road opposite the station to see some of the other remaining structures.  Otherwise it’s a matter of wandering around the publicly accessible parts of fields to see more.

Tonfanau camp.  Source: AAJLR.org

Unlike most of my posts, which look at things that are usually aesthetically pleasing, or at least have interest as industrial archaeology, the remains of Tonfanau camp are really very ugly, a thorough blot on the landscape.  In some ways, these camps that were dotted around the country (and there is another one, in much better condition, in Tywyn) must have been just as alien as Roman camps, just as uncompromising and just as much as an imposition, but eventually becoming a fact of life.  Unlike the Roman armies of occupation, these invaders of the landscape were British, and the camps were there to serve the nation, giving their probably traumatic arrival a positive reason for being.

Anti-Aircraft Training 1938s – 1957

Heavy ackack anti-aircraft gun at Tonfanau, ref tonp_274. Source: John Smith, AAJLR.org

The camp consisted of a series of fairly basic buildings, including brick-built huts, wooden huts, hangars and so-called Nissen huts.  Nissen huts, like bailey bridges (of which more below) were assembled from pre-fabricated parts to enable the rapid construction.  They used corrugate iron sheets to form half-cylinders that formed lightweight buildings, useful in a variety of situations.  They looked like gigantic pig-styes, a half-tube of corrugatged iron blocked at either end, one end containing a door for access.

The camp was built well outside the reach of the nearby villages, on a wide coastal plain beneath Tonfanau hill, spanning both sides of the railway line.  The Tonfanau railway station was added to serve the camp on the existing Cambrian Railway line, which itself linked into the national rail network.  By train, the camp was a few minutes from Tywyn.  By road, it was a matter of negotiating some B-roads and passing through Bryncrug before reaching Tywyn, some 30 minutes later.  The decision to put the site at a relatively remote location was probably related to keeping the camp away from most residential sites because of the noise that the camp would produce as an anti-aircraft gun range.  Either that, or this was the biggest flat-ish area available in the vicinity for the construction of this sort of camp.  Either way, the camp was neither a part of the village, nor completely isolated from it.  At some point a bailey bridge was established at the crossing over the Dysynni where the railway also crosses, substantially reducing the time taken to get into Tywyn.  When the RAF camp was built at Sandilands in Tywyn in September 1940, partly to build on an existing relationship that the RAF already had with the Tonfanau camp, communication and visits between the two camps probably became quite frequent.

Anti-aircraft emplacements at Tonfanau camp from the air. Ref. tonp_067. Source: AAJLR.org

As an artillery training camp, Tonfanau had various sites for training on different types of weapon.  The big ant–aircraft (AA) guns were mounted on permanent emplacements just behind the beach, as shown on the above photograph.  The foundations of which can still be seen above the line of the beach.   These pointed out to sea for target practice.  The targets were initially supplied by RAF Tywyn’s, which had a camp in the Sandilands part of town and later became known as Morfa Camp, which is how it is usually known today.  Disposable gliders were towed using Hawker Henley planes near to the position of the anti-aircraft emplacements, and all I can say is hats off to the pilots who took on that unenviable task!  Eventually these were replaced with an unmanned remote-controlled version of the Tiger Moth known as the Queen Bee, which must have been a lot safer all round.

Anti-aircraft guns in action, ref tonp_028. Source: AAJLR.org

A first hand account of the Anti-Aircraft training is provided by Stanley Briggs, who found himself at Tonfanau in 1949 after initial training at Oswestry before shipping out to Egypt:

“After our initial training we were taken by train to Tonfanau on the West coast of Wales between Aberystwyth and Barmouth. This is the Cardigan Bay coastline area, the nearest town is Towyn. Only the beach, a railway line and a road separated us from the sea. We had the sea on one side and the Cader Idris mountain, inland, behind us.

That bay is massive and ideal for target practice for our 3.7 guns, but I have to say that I didn’t fancy the RAF pilots jobs of towing a sleeve behind their plane while National Servicemen were firing at them for practice with live rounds.

The Cader Idris was ideal for physical fitness too, which our physical fitness training instructor (PTI) put to good use, we were all eighteen years old and I have to say that personally I really enjoyed every minute of that part of it.

QF 3.7 inch anti-aircraft gun.  Source: Wikipedia

The same discipline training continued at Tonfanau. It was here that we were confronted with the 3.7 gun, the Sergent in charge gave us all a good knowledge of how to maintain, dismantle and fire it. We all had to learn each others position on the gun in case one of the members of the team was killed in action (that was a sobering thought!)

The gun had a large barrel and was transported on a trailer consisting of four legs and wheels, towed by an AEC Matador lorry. Each leg had to be raised for the travelling position and lowered for the firing position. Other positions for the team of gunners were Traverse Operator, Elevation Operator, Tannoy Operator, and Ammunition Operator who had to lift a round up and put it in the breach and finally, the Sergeant who had the responsibility of firing. The first time I lifted a round of ammunition, my knees buckled as they were very heavy for a nine stone weakling, which I was at the time.”

There seems to have been a second level of artillery training at the site during this period, which took place after the heavy anti-aircraft guns had left, as described by Frank Yates who, at the age of 21, served with the Royal Artillery, Light Anti-Aircraft Battery and was attending the Officer Cadet course.

Aerial view of the remains of a small-bore firing range. Source: Coflein

“The camp was large, with brick and concrete hutments and purpose built dining halls, garages and the like, with the Garrison Theatre dominating the landscape. The camp had been Heavy AA before we moved in, but there were now two separate factions, the bulk of the Heavies had returned to their base Artillery depot at Oswestry, leaving a nucleus to run the firing camp. On the firing apron, between the sea and the railway, was an ex Naval 3” Gun, a weapon which fulfilled a dual role in the Navy. It had the reputation of producing the loudest ‘bang’ of any British gun and they once fired it for our benefit. It certainly lived up to its reputation! Before leaving the “Heavies” may I mention that they did not fire at a towed drogue, the tow plane would not have survived. There was talk of them using a radio controlled, unmanned target, a project easily arranged nowadays, but too unreliable in those days. . . .

After various demonstrations, witnessed from a head down position in the trench, the sticky bomb was shown. This was an anti tank weapon, although it would need a very brave or a very lucky man to get near enough to use it! It was a glass ball, like a small goldfish bowl, full of TNT and covered in stockinette which was impregnated with very powerful glue. The thing was provided with a handle, containing the fuse and firing mechanism. The bomb was smashed down onto the tank, deforming into a dome shape, a ‘shaped charge.’ The handle is released, the bomber runs away and the charge explodes in 4 seconds.”

Frank Yates goes on to describe what the camp was like to live in whilst he was there, and what sort of other training took place at the camp.  It’s a very engaging read, so do have a look at his entry on the BBC WW2 website.

Bailey bridge over the Dysynni. Photograph by Edwin Lines 1990, ref. tonp_278. Source: AAJLR.org

I am assuming that the bailey bridge that used to cross the Dysynni dates to this period.  It was still in situ in 1990 when former camp resident Edwin Lines took this photo.  Bailey bridges were portable, pre-fabricated, truss bridges. The concept was developed by Sir Donald Bailey, a civil servant in the War Office, between 1940 and 1941 by the British for military.  It was a portable, pre-fabricated, truss bridge that was was made up of prefabricated panels and easily assembled parts.  The can be carried by trucks and assembled by men without special equipment, using simple devices such as ropes and pulleys in a matter of hours.  Once a bridge has done its job it can be moved and rebuilt elswhere.  The bailey bridge proved its worth in the Second World War.  The Tonfanau one ran parallel to the railway bridge, where the railway bridge and the 2013 Tonfanau footbridge now cross the Dysynni.   As they were designed to be able to carry tanks, I assume that this one could carry light vehicles as well as pedestrians, which would have substantially improved access to the bright lights of Tywyn!

All Arms Junior Leaders’ Regiment 1959 – 1966

Entrance sign to the All Arms Junior Leader Regiment camp at Tonfanau.  Source: 28 Days

The All Arms Junior Leaders’ Regiment (AAJLR) was established at Tonfanau in May 1959 and was disbanded in August 1966.  Its purpose was to train boys aged between 15 and 17½ as future senior non-commissioned officers.  Boys were sourced from a various points within the British army.

My thanks to Ken Hart’s excellent AAJLR.org website as the source of the information on this page, which talks about the activities that they boys were engaged in on a term by term basis:

Entrance to Tonfanau Camp in about 1964, complete with postbox. By Brenda Keens, ref tonp_265. Source: AAJLR.org

“The year was split into 3 terms with a fresh intake of boys each term. The first term of each boys service was completely dedicated to turning these 15 and 16 year olds into disciplined soldiers.  From the second term the prime emphasis was on education as all senior NCO’s were required to obtain the Army Certificate of Education [Class 1].  Alternate days were spent on Military Training which included Drill, Weapons Training, Driver Training, Map Reading and casually strolling over the gently rolling Brecon Beacons in wonderful Welsh weather fully equipped in thin denims, a poncho and carrying a webbing back pack.  The boys final term included specialist training according to the arm or corps he intended to serve in as a senior soldier.  Mixed in with all this there was sport, adventure training, outward bound courses and inter company competitions including the Rhyl cup.

Every boy also took part in the ‘Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme’ and to this end most evenings were spent doing a large number of hobbies. The rest of the time was spent cleaning the barracks or doing your personal kit whilst huddled round a coal burning pot-bellied stove in a futile attempt to keep warm.”

There’s a whole page on the AAJLR website dedicated memories of Lance Corporal Fagg who, in charge of the Guardhouse, was the terror of most of the boys at the site.  These short accounts bring daily existence at the camp to vivid life.  One contributor to the site, John Sabini, wrote the following, which is a nice introduction to an awe-inspiring individual.  Other accounts are often a lot more earthy!

The idea of over-wintering in one of those flimsy huts makes my All Arms Junior Leaders Regiment plaque (Photograph by Peter Woolridge, ref. cphoto_153.) Source: AAJLR.org

L/Cpl Fagg re-joined 3 RGJ sometime around 1967 in Iserlon Germany. Due to a quirk of fate I was allocated to a room with him (thankfully for only a couple of nights) when I moved from a Rifle Company to the Battalion Signals Platoon.
Did you know his first name was Hermes (a bit like being a boy named Sue) which could explain his bad attitude to his fellow human beings! He was a cookhouse NCO orderly in charge of tea urns and spud bashing. His nickname in the battalion was ‘Dog-End’. He disappeared mid way through our tour in Germany and I am not sure where he went; this was my last sighting of L/Cpl Hermes (Dog-End) Fagg, 3rd Green Jackets, The Rifle Brigade.
As he is probably now in the great guard room in the sky, I am sure he would appreciate that he is immortalised (!) on the AAJLR website and that he made such a lasting impression on all those who had the misfortune to cross his path.

The idea of over-wintering in one of those flimsy huts makes my blood run cold!

PYTHON site 1968

In 1968 the camp was one of the designated sites for the PYTHON project, a plan for continuity of government in Wales in the event of nuclear war.  There’s not much information on the web on the subject of PYTHON, and what is here comes from a Wikipedia article, the main source of which was the book The Secret State: Preparing For The Worst 1945 – 2010 by Peter Hennessy (Penguin 2014).  The idea was to disperse government officials to various locations instead of centralizing them in one place.   Sites were chosen on the basis of existing accommodation, independence from the national power and water grids, nuclear fallout protection and distance from likely targets.  Tonfanau Army Camp was temporarily designated as the PYTHON location for Wales.  Each PYTHON group would be supported by dispersed sections of the United Kingdom Supply Agency and the National Air Transport Agency.  Aberystwyth University replaced Tonfanau as the preferred location soon afterwards, which is probably just as well as I don’t see government ministers surviving a mid-Wales winter in those huts, never mind a nuclear war!

Uganda-Asia refugee camp 1972 – 1973

Photograph of Ugandan Asian family at Tonfanau by Jim Arnould, Nova (April 1973). Source: Oxford University Press blog

The camp was re-opened very briefly to house Uganda-Asian refugees.  Uganda had been a British colony, and while India was still also a British colony, the British government had encouraged Indian professionals to come to Uganda to seek prosperity by helping with railway construction and the overall improvement of the economy.   The offer was taken up with enthusiasm, with thousands of Indian families settling in Uganda and making good livings.  Their successes were at first welcomed and then regarded with suspicion by Ugandan communities.

In 1962, Uganda was granted independence and in 1971, military leader Idi Amin staged a coup and came into power.    Only a year later, on August 5th 1972, Amin inaugurated a policy of economic reform, an “economic war” in his own words, that included the expropriation of properties owned by Asians and Europeans.  He gave Ugandan Asians 90 days noticed to leave the country, calling them “economic bloodsuckers,” claiming that they were draining the wealth of the nation at the expense of native Ugandans.  Their departure was hastened at gunpoint, giving them little doubt about their fate should they stay.

Of 80,000 Ugandan Asian exiles, nearly 29,000 with UK passports came to Britain.  The official Ugandan Resettlement Board (URB) had the thankless task of providing them with temporary accommodation until permanent resettlement could be arranged, and took the decision to place them in refugee camps.  Tonfanau was one of sixteen refugee camps chosen for the task.

The entrance to the Cafe at the Tonfanau refugee camp, when the camp was in ruins. The bright, lively scene is very much at odds with the drab surroundings, and gives a sense of how hard it must have been to relocate to such a bleak place. Source: 28 Days website.

Tonfanau camp had been closed for nearly four years when it was suddenly dragged back into service to house over 3000 of these refugees for a period of six months, and must have been in somewhat poor condition. It was, in fact, only chosen as a last resort when other locations had been rejected.   Captain Freddy Fuller was put in charge of the camp, probably very well qualified as he had spent 25 years running an Outward Bound school.  Volunteers from the surrounding community formed a welcome group to provide the newcomers with essentials, including clothes and toys for the children, and each volunteer was instructed to assign themselves to individual families to assist them.  However, there was very little furniture and most of the exiles had to sit on the floor. It must have been a freezing, bleak and worrying winter in those bare huts, and Jordanna Bailkin’s book Unsettled repeats James Hamilton-Paterson’s poignant report on the camp, seeing “miserable people in their gorgeous saris” huddling in Tywyn’s two fish and chip shops for warmth.  Bailkin describes how donations of clothes resulted in some peculiar and probably difficult encounters:  “Adding to the bizarre atmosphere, most of the clothes donated to Tonfanau through the WRVS [Women’s Royal Voluntary Service] were from the 1960s.  Chandrika Joshi, whose family stayed at Tonfanau for fiver or six months when she was 14 years old, found herself garbed in a brown rubber minidress.  Such outfits went largely unnoticed in camp, where everyone was similarly attired, but more ‘out of place’ when she went to a school a few weeks later.”

Fortunately, by the spring of 1973, all had been re-homed elsewhere in the UK.

Demolition of the site

I have been unable to find when the site was finally demolished, or why some buildings were left in tact.  It was probably done between the late 1980s and early 90s.  Apart from the bare handful of surviving buildings, it was a pretty thorough job.

Part of the site is used by Tonfanau Road Racing for motorcycle racing on a 1-mile track during the summer, run by Crewe and South Cheshire Motor Club.  A 2010 proposal to use the land for a new prison never came to fruition.  Most of the land has been returned to agricultural use and sheep now roam freely over most of it.

Below are a couple more of my photographs of what’s left of the site today.  For many more from all periods, see the substantial collection contributed by many volunteers on the All Arms Junior Leaders Regiment website.

Sources:

Jordanna Bailkin 2018.  Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain. Oxford University Press

Becky Taylor 2018.  Good Citizens? Ugandan Asians, Volunteers and ‘Race’ Relations in 1970s Britain. History Workshop Journal, Volume 85, Spring 2018, p.120–141
https://academic.oup.com/hwj/article/doi/10.1093/hwj/dbx055/4818096

Roy Sloan 1991.  Wings of War over Gywnedd.  Aviation in Gwynedd during the World War II. Gwasg Carreg Gwalch


Websites

28 Days Later Urban Exploration
https://www.28dayslater.co.uk/threads/tonfanau-military-camp-tonfanau-nr-tywyn-february-2015.94390/

40th Anniversary for Ugandan Asian Refugees in Wales
https://www.itv.com/news/wales/2012-07-31/40th-anniversary-for-ugandan-asian-refugees-in-wales/

Ken Hart’s All Arms Junior Leaders Regiment (AAJLR) website
About: http://www.aajlr.org/about/about_main.html
Tonfanau camp: http://www.aajlr.org/tonfanau/tonfanau_main.html

Memories of Frank Yates, Royal Artillery, Light Anti Aircraft Battery. Chapter 17, BBC World War 2 People’s War. Article ID A7375845
https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/45/a7375845.shtml

Stanley Briggs: Then and Now
http://www.stanleybriggs.com/art_nat_service1.html

Tonfanau Road Racing
https://www.tonfanauroadracing.co.uk/

Wikipedia article about PYTHON
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PYTHON#Locations