Category Archives: River Dyfi

Vintage Postcards #8: Penhelig

A crisp, sharp photograph of Penhelig Terrace and the row of houses beyond, a postcard produced by Judges Ltd of Hastings (postcard no.14818).  The memorial park, about which I have posted, had not been established and the ground that it now occupies looks curiously empty and rather desolate.  The roofs and gardens of Penhelig Terrace are shown in the foreground.  The 1864 railway runs past Penhelig Terrace, which was built on spoil from the excavation of the tunnels, one of which is clearly visible here.  A footpath appears to run over the top of the hill, over the tunnel entrance.  Everything looks so crisp and manicured.

The card is unusued and unmarked, so there is no stamp or postmark data to help with a date.  Even though Judge’s is still going in the guise of  Judge Sampson, and this postcard is in their archive, there is no information listed about it.  Judge’s Ltd was established in 1902 in Hastings by photographer Fred Judge, who bought an existing photography business to enter the poscard trade when postcards were accepted by the Post Office in the same year.  His business evolved from a focus on photographic comissions to  the publication of postcards the following year.  This strand of the business was so successful that in 1910 they moved into wholsesale postcard production, appointing agents all over Britain  to sell postcards. In 1927 new premises were built to enable the expansion of the company, with additonal branches established at Ludgate Hill, the West Country and the Lake District in order to facilitiate the distribution of a wide range postcards featuring new resorts and rural areas.  The EdinPhoto website says that postcards began to be numbered after 1906, starting with 50 and going up to 31782.   A history of Judge’s by Judge Sampson is available on the Wayback Machine website.

The row of houses behind the memorial park to the right of Penhelig Terrace on the main road through Aberdovey has not changed much since the above postcard.

The row of houses behind the memorial park to the right of Penhelig Terrace on the A493.

Penherlig Terrace seen from Penhelig beach:

The canalized section of Afon Leri and West Wharf Boatyard, Ceredigion

Afon Leri from the Panorama Walk behind Aberdovey, showing the railway bridge and the boatyard. The road bridge is between the two, but difficult to see in this photograph.

I have been fascinated by Afon Leri ever since I first visited Aberdovey some twenty years ago.  From my living room window it is an unwavering slender scar on the flat landscape to the east of Ynyslas.  From up on the hill its opening is clearly perpendicular to the banks of the Dyfi estuary, and one can see the bridges that carry the road and railway over the river towards Ynyslas, next to a small boatyard.  The river’s course across this topmost corner of Ceredigion is obviously canalized, an engineered artifice, but why?  What was its purpose?

Cors Fochno c.1790, before the route of the Afon Leri was changed. Source: National Library of Wales (where there is a zoomable version of this image)

The Leri rises at Llyn Craig-y-Pistyll below Pumlimon and passes through Talybont, (on the main road between Machynlleth and Aberystwyth) where it meets the Afon Ceulan before flowing behind Borth. The canalized section is 3.35km long and c.35m wide and runs from Ynysfergi in the south to Pont Leri in the north, crossing the low-lying Cors Fochno.  Cors Fochno is a Special Area of Conservation and one of the largest remaining examples of a raised peat bog in Britain, which started to form from c.5500BC.  Afon Leri now opens out into the Dyfi estuary at Pont Dyfi in Ynyslas.   Work on the canalized section had begun by 1790 when the above map was created by T. Lewis, marked as the Pil Newydd.

Excerpt from the above map of Cors Fochno showing the former course of the Afon Leri at far left.  The Leri begins at Borth and meanders along the coastline to the west of Cors Fochno up to the point where it emerges into Cardigan Bay at Aberlery (which means the mouth of the Lery).  Source: The National Library of Wales (where a zoomable version can be found)

In the early 19th Century local landowners and neighbours Pryse Pryse of Gogerddan and Mathew Davies of Cwmcynfelin were incentivized by the General Enclosure Act of 1801 to reclaim land from the bog in order to develop it for pastoral agrarian use.  Land reclamation would require the waterlogged land to be drained.  There was little recorded opposition from parishioners, and royal assent was granted on June 22nd 1813.  The land surveyor Charles Hassall saw the advantages of enclosing the 5106 acres but warned the landowners against contractors who were either duplicitous or ignorant of the task ahead.  His words were almost premonitionary as successive problems plagued the project.  Disagreements between land owners, contractors and commissioners, together with serious and ongoing financial problems, caused major delays.

Charles Hassall’s plan was to divert a number of streams that entered the bog to drain away spring floodwaters and build embankments along the Dyfi estuary to prevent salt-water transgressions.  He recommended an experienced contractor called Anthony Bower, who was employed in 1815.  Bower suggested that using the river Leri to drain water from the land was the most viable solution, but there were problems.  The course of the Leri ran along the far western edge of Cors Fochno and emptied a little further up the coast at Aberlery into Cardigan Bay.  It was insufficiently deep and fast-moving to serve as a drain for the bog, so Bower suggested that the best solution was to deepen, widen and straighten the river.  As Professor Moore-Colyer describes it:  “A sluice was to be constructed at the river mouth from which a main drain would run through the centre of the bog. This would be accompanied by a catchwater drain which would follow the course of the Lerry to the foot of the hills and then along the south-eastern boundary of the bog to join the River Cletwr.  By this means, Bower believed, water from the hills would be prevented from entering the bog while an embankment on the southern side of the Dyfi would preclude the entry of salt-water.”  Sluices and catchwater drains would be employed to control water levels.

In 1815, an alternative proposal was put forward by Griffith Parry of Penmorfa, and which carried an estimated cost of £10,000.  Griffith Parry had trained under the great engineer Andrew Rennie on the construction of the London Docks.   He also favoured diverting the Leri, but from the west end of Ynys Fergi in a straight line to Pont Afon Leri, and he too believed that deepening, widening and straightening the river was the solution, which he thought should be embanked with clay.  In addition, he suggested deepening, widening and embanking surrounding ditches and streams to improve the drainage potential offered by canalizing the Leri.

Gogerddan estate, the seat of Sir Pryse Pryse. Source: Parks&Gardens

Hassall died in 1816 and was replaced by co-commissioners Robert Williams of Bangor and David Joel Jenkins of Lampeter.  Williams was staggered by the estimated total cost of £30,000 proposed by Bowers which, with the widening and deepening of other existing drains, would absorb over 1000 acres, and would create a total landmass with a value of only £20,000.   Bower and Williams fell out over both this and more personal reasons.  For the next two years the parties vied for position, with Jenkins supporting Bower and Williams supporting Parry.  Parry’s plan eventually won out.  Contractors, to be paid £2500.00 in instalments, were appointed.  A final payment of £250.00 was to be withheld until two years after the project was completed, to provide insurance against post-completion problems. Additional costs, including raw materials, were provided by the Aberystwyth Bank after Pryse Pryse of Gogerddan provided security of £6000.00 for the loan,  the balance of the cash was raised by selling land on the peripheries of the marsh for over £2340.00 initially.  However, financial problems and disputes plagued the drainage scheme, particularly in respect of the contractors not building various elements to specification.   Williams resigned and in 1822 Richard Griffiths of Bishop’s Castle, with three successful enclosures under his belt, was appointed in his stead.  After the change in commissioner, the appointment of the surveyor Charles Mickleburgh of Montgomery, a new Act of Parliament in 1824, the chaos of further financial difficulties, escalating debts and a court case, the project was eventually completed by 1847, and a small  harbour was provided for the local shipbuilding industry.  It is difficult to see how the project could ever have seen a return on its investment.

Google map of Afon Leri

The above map from the 1790s, the Google map to the left and the Ordnance Survey map below show the former and present courses of the river. 

A road bridge, Pont Afon Leri,  carries the B4353 over the river at Ynys Tachwedd, connecting Ynyslas with the A487.  A small boatyard is located on the western side of the road bridge.  The Cambrian Coast Line crosses just to its south on a 7-pier railway bridge that was built in 1863.  The river is tidal along the length of the cut, and a footbridge over the Leri where the river meets the Wales Coast Path marks the boundary between the tidal cut and the non-tidal river.

The West Wharf boatyard at Pont Afon Leri has a history dating back to the 19th Century.  Here’s the description from the Coflein website:

Afon Leri from the hill behind Aberdovey, showing the boatyard by the Pont Afon Leri road bridge

Remains of timber-fronted quay on the west side of the entrance of the river Leri constructed by the railway company. The northern end of the quay frontage is degraded and the quay material has been washed out from behind the piling. The section in front of the boatyard has been repaired and remodelled to accommodate a modern boat lift. Sales particulars dating to 1862 reveal that short section of wharf already existed close the road before the coming of the Welsh Coast Railway. The wharf was part of the land holdings belonging to Issac Ll. Williams Esq under the Geneur’rglyn Inclosure Act. The railway company subsequently undertook the development of the wharf to act as a landing point for a new steamer working the Aberdovey ferry. The paddle steamer ELIZABETH started service on 24 October 1863, the day that the railway line between Aberdovey and Llanwyngwril opened on the northern side of the opened. The vessel was to operate every hour and to charge 6d per head for the crossing. Maintaining the service was extremely difficult as the ELIZABTH was frequently stuck fast on the Dyfi sandbanks. On 5 July 1867, George Owen, the Cambrian railway engineer reported that if the railway line to the north side of the Dyfi could not be fully opened soon, then the wharf would need to be piled. The line subsequently opened in August 1867. The ferry’s use of the West Wharf might have ended then, but the railway inspectors required more work to be undertaken on the tunnels. Whilst passengers were taken round by road, goods continued to be shipped across the Dyfi by the tug JAMES CONLEY. The use of the ELIZABETH on the route was abandoned and the vessel sold in 1869. In 1893, it was proposed that that the barges transhipping slate from the Plynlimon and Hafan Tramway would be charged for using the railway company’s West Wharf. Two years later, in May 1895, Mr I Hughes Jones, owner of the East Wharf sawmill proposed the transfer of the business to the other side of the Leri. This was accomplished soon after April 1896 when a new railway siding was opened to service the transferred sawmill. Also in 1896, is appears that the Hafan Sett Quarry (Plynlimon and Hafan Tramway) were still proposing to use the wharf, as they contacted the railway company with regard to installing a level crossing for the tramway. It is likely that the piling for the wharf was extended around this time to facilitate these new developments. The saw mill continued to occupy the wharfside through to the First World War.

Today the boatyard is still a functioning business, offering boat storage, slipway launching and repairs and has a 16-ton slipway hoist.

The Ceredigion Coast Path follows part of the course of the canalized section of the river, and intersects with the Wales Coast Path just east of Borth where the canalized stretch of the river begins, as shown on the above map.  The Ceredigion Coast Path website has more details, and for those wanting to walk the Leri, there’s a good outline of how it can be approached by Ben Fothergill on the UKRGB website.  An official walk across Cors Fochno can be found on the Natural Resources Wales website.

View of the Afon Leri as it approaches the Dyfi estuary. Photograph by Chris Denny (under Creative Commons licence).

Afon Leri from the footbridge where the tidal section of Afon Leri meets the non-tidal section. Photograph by Nigel Brown, used under Creative Commons licence.

Afon Leri in the mist, seen from Aberdovey

 

Main source for this post and a lot more information, particularly about the financial problems, land sold for financing the drainage, and allotments of land to the poor, with my thanks:

Vintage Postcards #4: The Roman Road

The Roman Road as it is today from a similar viewpoint to the first postcard, with Trefri in the background

The Roman Road is a nice local myth.  It forms part of a popular low-tide walk along the estuary to Picnic Island (which I have written about here) and is a truly remarkable sight, cut out of the black Aberystwyth series shales, which in places are so smooth that the rock looks polished and glistens in the sun.

Although there is a Roman fortlet at Pennal 11km away, there are very few indications that the Romans did anything more than pass through Aberdovey, if they even did that.  Trying to find out what it was built for I first looked to Hugh M. Lewis, who wrote several histories of the village, but he was unable to shed any light on the subject.  My original guess was that it was built in the 1860s, part of the works for the building of the railway, but that failed to address the question of the purpose of such a track.  In his description of a 6-mile walk that incorporates the road, the author David Roberts, an Aberdovey resident, states that the track was built in 1808 for horse and carriage, but he doesn’t expand on this observation.  I then found a publication by the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (GAT Ports and Harbours of Gwynedd, 2007) that contains the following statement, and which appears to confrim what David Roberts says and provides sources for identifying this as a road designed to connect to a stretch of road that already linked Pennal to Machynlleth:

Fenton remarks in 1808 that a new road was under construction from Aberdyfi to Machynlleth but implies that the section from Pennal to Machynlleth was already in being, that an extension west and north to Tywyn ‘by way of the sands’ was contemplated if not actually under construction. This road, known as ‘hen ffordd Corbet’ was not a success, being built so low that it was frequently covered by the tides. Its course is marked on the plans for the replacement road dated 1823 and prepared by Thomas Penson (DRO: Z/CD/168).  This is probably Thomas Penson junior (1790-1859), county surveyor of Montgomeryshire, a versatile and able architect-engineer, rather than his father. Lewis states that this road was completed in 1827

I am still unsure if this is the correct answer, as the track barely seems wide enough for horse-drawn vehicles, and in places would have been lethal underfoot for horses.  One would need to see Penson’s plans for the replacement road mentioned by the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust’s report.  Whatever its original purpose, it is invaluable today as a ready-made footpath for walkers.  The note about the road being unpopular due to being submerged by tides holds true today.  The walk is impossible without wading through water at high tide.  I note that the second of the two postcards does not commit itself on the subject and states merely that the scene shows “The Rocks.”

The first postcard was unused, so there are no helpful postmark or stamp details to give an indication of date.  It was manufactured by Lilywhite Ltd of Triangle, Halifax.  Lilywhite was set up by Arthur Frederick Sergeant (1882-1952) in around 1910 and produced postcards at least until 1931 when their factory burned down, destroying both prints and negatives.  They took over Arrow Series Postcards in the 1920s and as well as retaining the Arrow name for some of their postcards, re-released some earlier Arrow postcards under the Lilywhite name.  I’ll keep an eye open for a used version of this postcard to see if I can find a date or at least a date range.

The second postcard has a Edward VII stamp and an Aberdovey postmark dated August 7th 1904.  Edward VII reigned from 1902-1910, and this particular shade of blue-green was issued between 1902 and 1904.

I loved the brevity of the message, which also contained the brilliant information that the sender had been staying at Glandwyr in Aberdovey. 115 years later it is owned by a very nice local holiday company, Dyfi Cottages, that lets out properties in the village and also runs the Visit Aberdovey Facebook page.  There’s a lovely sense of continuity in those details.  I suppose that postcards were, and still are, a form of social media, a way of maintaining communication with people far away.  The postcard was sent to the beautiful village of Luccombe, which now lies in Exmoor National Park in Somerset.  The house to which it was sent, Wychanger, was a manor house now Grade 2 listed and converted to semi-detached homes.  It is fun to have the full breadcrumb trail.

Photograph showing the location of Glandwr, used with permission, copyright Dyfi Cottages and Aberdyfi Holidays

Evelyn Wrench, from an article in
‘The Pictorial Magazine’, January 2nd 1904. Ref: Wr D 48/65.  Source: The University of Nottingham’s Manuscripts and Special Collections blog

The 1902 Post Office regulations are provided as simple instructions on each half of the back of the card, leaving no room for any confusion!  The title Gwladgarwr at the front of the card is a puzzle, appearing on a lot of Wrench’s Welsh postcards.  It means “patriot” and was the title of a Welsh language newspaper (Yr Gwladgarwr), but the newspaper appears to have no connection with the postcard manufacturer.  The card is in the Wrench Series, no.8006, and was printed in Berlin.

Sir John Evelyn Leslie Wrench (1882-1966) was a British author and journalist.  While in Germany after leaving school, Wrench was impressed with the popularity and high quality of German postcards and decided to shelve his plans to become a dimplomat and instead set up a British business producing high quality postcards in sepia, black and white, and colour.  He had his resort postcards printed in Dresden (Saxony) and Berlin from where they were shipped in bulk to London.  Although it remained in business for only a few years, the postcard company was a initially a phenomenal success and Wrench himself became something of a media darling.  Based in Haymarket in London Wrench’s postcard company had over 100 employees and sold in the region of 50 million cards, all before he had reached 21 years of age.  Wrench went out of business in 1904, having sunk too much capital into the company, leaving him unable to repay loans but he went on to have a very successful career.  He was founder of the Royal Over-Seas League, became editor of The Spectator and was knighted by George V in 1932.

Vintage Postcards #2: Sheep herding on Trefri Road in 1903

Like the postcard #1, which was a 1910 sepia photograph, this 1903 scene really throws one back to a previous era where the threat of being run over by one of the hundreds of cars that use the A493 estuary road simply didn’t exist.  The mid-1850s Trefri Hall is again visible in the background, but this postcard gives a real sense of rural isolation.  This sense of isolation is, however, quite misleading.  An east-west turnpike was built following the Merioneth Turnpike Act of 1775, which ran from near Pennal through Cwm Maethlon (Happy Valley) towards Tywyn, and although it bypassed Aberdovey it was still an important link between the coast and the interior of mid Wales.  Most importantly, the railway was established in 1864, connecting Tywyn, Aberdovey and Machynlleth with other parts of north Wales and England.  The industrial revolution and the demand for raw materials such as copper, silver and lead, as well as the slate trade had made Aberdovey an important port and shipping was a major activity, both via river and sea, and the tourist industry was becoming increasingly important.  By the turn of the century, Aberdovey had at least six places of worship, at least one pub, a literary institute and several hotels.

1903 postcard

The stamp shows Edward VII who reigned from 1902-1910, and this particular shade of blue-green was issued between 1902 and 1904.  The stamp is postmarked Stowmarket and is dated 9.30AM, June 26th 1903.  Perhaps the purchaser bought it in Aberdovey and took it home to post.

The postcard was produced by Raphael Tuck and Sons, “fine art publishers to their majesties the King and Queen” in their “Art” series.  Queen Victoria had granted them the Royal Warrant in 1883.  According to the TuckDB website, Raphael Tuck was a Prussian who had trained as a graphic artist and started his picture frame and graphic design business with his wife Ernestine in Bishopsgate (London) in 1866.  It became one of the world’s biggest postcard producers, all based on art works, but produced a number of other products as well, as shown on the 1901 advert below.  Most of the postcards were printed in Germany up until the First World War, and this card is marked “Printed in Berlin.”  The Aberdovey card, by artist Frederick William Hayes, was sold as one of a set of six Welsh scenic views, the others showing Cader Idris, Bala, Harlech, the Dolgellau Precipice Walk and  Llyfnant Valley, Aberystwyth (all of which you can see here, on the TuckDB website).  Later, the a postcard was issued showing the same painting in full, extremely bright colour.

The artist, Frederick William Hayes (1848-1918), was born on the Wirral, trained first as an architect and then as a painter in Liverpool and London before returning to Liverpool where he established a watercolour society.  He was an Associate of the Royal College of Art.  Hayes exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts between 1872 and 1891.  He was a prolific painter, working in pencil, watercolour and oil.  His paintings are usually very picturesque in theme, and he painted a lot of landscape and seascape scenes in Wales and Scotland.

The House of Tuck – an advert from 1901. Source: TuckDB website.

Trefri Hall today. I lacked the courage to dodge the cars in any attempt to reproduce the exact viewpoint in the postcard!

 

 

Cefn Caer, Roman auxiliary fort, Pennal

Simplified reconstruction of Pennal Fort by Gwynedd Archaeological Trust: Source: Gwynedd Archaeological Trust

The nearest Roman site to Aberdovey is the fort at Pennal, called Cefn-Caer (which translates roughly as ridge/hillside of the fort), 10.5km (6.7miles) away from Aberdovey.  Although there is a rock-cut track that stretches from Penhelig to Picnic Island along the estuary that is known locally as the Roman Road, this actually dates to 1827.  Cefn Caer at Pennal, however, is the real thing:  a Roman fort 600 yards from Pennal down a small B-road.  It formed part of a network of forts and roads that were key to the Roman plans to subjugate Wales.  When I first started looking into Cefn Caer for this post, it was simply because the site is part of this area’s history and I wanted to include it as a small representatives of Roman activity in Wales.  The word “small” is worth noting here, because I was expecting Cefn Caer to be no more than a very ephemeral way station for travellers (mansio) or a tiny watch-post.  In fact, it is a fairly substantial affair, as demonstrated by the above simplified reconstruction by Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (GAT).  The GAT work at the site reveals an auxiliary fort with all the features associated with a permanent installation, which had an important strategic role.

Pre-Roman Wales. Source: Wikipedia

The Roman Empire first made its presence felt on British shores first under no less a personage than the Emperor Julius Caesar, albeit only briefly in 55BC and 54BC.  Under the Emperor Claudius matters were taken far more seriously in AD 43 and there was to be no retreat, and after the invasion most of Britain was incorporated in the Roman Empire for for the best part of 400 years. The period of the Roman occupation of Britain is known as the Romano-British period (AD 43 to 410).

Iron Age Britain immediately prior to the invasion was divided into six main tribal areas, recorded in Roman documents, which were organized in social hierarchies that were based on lineage, status and military aptitude “cemented by the distribution of favours and hospitality; consequently equipment for eating looms large in the archaeological record” (Davies and Lynch 2000).  Parade gear, with a particular focus on horses and chariots, is also dominant in the archaeological record.  Subsistence practices depended very much upon geography, but combined herding of domesticated animals (cattle, sheep, goat and pigs) with the cultivation, where possible, of emmer wheat and barley.  Hillforts are generally thought of as synonymous with the Iron Age, as places where political power was centred, but in mid-west Wales, where there are very few hillforts, suggesting that political power was more fragmented, and consisted of scattered farmsteads.  Although the Tal y Llyn hoard (covered on an earlier post) found at Cader Idris is very rich, it is entirely possible that it was hidden by someone travelling through the area, rather than a local resident.  Although in some areas life went on without disruption for some time, in the areas where the invaders first settled, they introduced substantial change very quickly.

The Emperor Claudius, Naples Archaeological Museum.

When Aulus Plautius, the chosen commander of the Emperor Claudius, led an invasion force to Britain and  landed in the southeast, he found the prosperous and sophisticated Catuvellauni tribe dominant, their territory extending from Essex to Surrey under the leadership of Caratacus and his brother Togodummus.  Caratacus and Togodummus were defeated when confronted with the 40,000 men in four legions and supporting auxiliary forces.  Caratacus abandoned his family and fled to the Silures tribe in southeast Wales to rethink his strategy.  Caratacus realized that the partially low-lying territory of the Silures was vulnerable and created an alliance with the Ordovices, which had highland areas in its territory, to organize resistanc,.  The Ordovices were the main tribe occupying most of Gwynedd and Ceredigion, and “by creating a multi-tribe resistance he [Caratacus] offered the most effective bulwark against the Roman invasion to date” (de la Bédoyère 2003).

Cefn Caer, showing farm buildings with traces of the Roman fort in the field to its right. Source: RCAHMW (on the Coflein website) Catalogue Number C872327, File Reference : AP_2009_1671. By Toby Driver

It was not until AD 47 that the Romans felt the need to turn their attention to the tribal areas of what is now known as Wales.  Wales had many benefits from a Roman point of view, including rich mineral resources, fertile valleys and a long coastline.  It would also have been a good source of manpower via voluntary enlistment or conscription.  Perhaps most important, strategically, without peace in rebellious Wales, all Roman-controlled land to its east was potentially under threat.  The first period of military hostilities between Rome and Wales lasted between AD 47 and AD 60, with multiple campaigns against the Marches and Welsh communities, starting in the southeast.  A significant event was the Battle of Caer Caradoc in AD 50, where Caratacus led armies composed of the Ordovices and Silures against the Roman military.  In spite of the strategic advantage of Caratacus and his armies, holding the high ground, the Roman forces under the governor Publius Ostorius Scapula had weaponry, body armour and military experience that outclassed Silurian and Ordovician resources.  Caratacus was defeated and ultimately taken into custody and carried to Rome where the Roman senate were sufficiently impressed by his speech that he earned a pardon from Claudius and lived out his life in Rome.  In his book “Defying Rome,” de la Bédoyère comments that Caratacus “failed to appreciate that he was on the whole a dinosaur.  While he maintained his resistance he found the only place he could do so was amongst people who had no idea what Rome amounted to.”   The Romans did not have it all their own way, but although the Silures went on to defeat a Roman legion in AD 52, it was only a matter of time before Wales was brought under Roman control.  There was a brief respite when the Boudiccan rebellion in East Anglia in AD 60 required the redeployment of troops.  Full-scale invasion was temporarily abandoned and a strategy of containment was practised in Wales, with all of the only permanently occupied military bases lying along the border.

Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum). Source: Wikpedia. Photograph by Alastair Rae

In AD 73 under the Emperor Vespasian, Sextus Julius Frontinus was appointed Governor of Britain (AD 73-77) , and it is during his tenure that Wales was fully conquered.  Three legionary fortresses were established as campaign bases, at Caerleon (Isca Silurum), Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum) and Chester (Deva Victrix), and temporary camps were set up within Wales itself, setting the scene for “a network of garrison posts, incorporating fortlets and watchtowers, eventually linked by an all-weather road system” (Arnold and Davies) which were used to maintain control over the rural and often highland zones.

Information about Iron Age and Romano-British exploitation of the western areas of west of mid Wales is particularly sparse, but it would be surprising if such rich natural resources as the Dyfi and particularly Dysynni valleys were not employed for cattle herding and some cultivation, with the surrounding highlands excellent for sheep herding.  It is by no means clear if the Ordovices occupied the whole area, as the boundaries of tribal areas are not known, and it is thought that other smaller and less dominant communities also occupied parts of Wales, but it seems clear that whatever happened to the Ordovices would have had an impact on other small communities in the area.  After their defeat under the leadership of Caratacus in AD 50, the Ordovician tribe again rebelled in AD 77-78 and was put down uncompromisingly by the British governor, Gnaeus Julius Agricola.  Agricola went on to establish forts at Caernarfon, Caersws, Pen Llystyn (Bryncir),  Tomen y Mur (Trawsfynydd), Caer Gai (Penllyn) and Cefn Caer (Pennal), most of them in river valleys or estuaries.  Other sites in the mid Wales area established in this period were the fortlets at Erglodd in Ceredigion and Brithdir in Merionnydd.

Military installations c.AD 70-80. Source: Arnold and Davies 2000, p.16

The Roman architectural infrastructure in Wales took the same form as it did elsewhere, a hierarchy of military installations.  The most important in strategic, organizational and to an extent administrative terms were the legionary fortresses at Chester (Deva), Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum) and Caerleon (Isca Silurum).  These were, however, in a minority, and the main control over Wales was exercised by a large number of auxiliary forts dotted at strategic positions throughout Wales, often on rivers and estuaries, supplemented at intervals by small fortlets and watch towers.  Legionary and auxiliary forts each refer to the type of garrison stationed there.  Legions were the elite army of the Roman Empire, composed of c.5000 men, divided into ten cohorts.  They served for twenty-five years and were rewarded on retirement with a choice of land or a payment.  Auxiliaries were composed of non-Roman citizens, men who entered the army from throughout the Roman empire sometimes sometimes as volunteers but  sometimes extracted from their homes by force.  They were granted Roman citizenship once they retired.  They were far more numerous than the legionary forces and were essential to the Roman occupation of Britain.  Mid Wales in the Romano-British period  remains poorly understood, which means that wherever a Roman site or a contemporary Iron Age is identified in the area, it is potentially of considerable importance for understanding what was happening in mid Wales at this time.  The Cefn Caer fort was an auxiliary fort, the westernmost of Roman structures in Meirionnydd, established in the AD 70s.

Cefn Caer geophysical survey results. Source: Hopewell 2001

There are few visible features of Cefn Caer on the ground.  The ramparts to the southwest and northwest can be made out, but elsewhere they are low banks that cannot always be seen.  Before it was torn down and rebuilt in 1769  the church in the village of Pennal was reported to include a large number of Roman brick in its walls, and remaining obstructions to cultivation were probably moved in the distant past, and the land continues to be used by the local farm for cultivation.   The farm buildings, including a sub-Medieval farmhouse (which can be visited), sit within the west corner of the fort and the northern corner of the fort is crossed by a small B-road  Although the 1967 History of Merioneth provided dimensions derived from previous surveys of the fort, detailed knowledge of the scale and structure of the fort comes from more recent analysis of aerial photographs, the use of geophysical survey and field excavations, the latter only sampling certain parts of the site. The history of the archaeological work can be summarized as follows.  The site was first noted by Robert Vaughan in his Survey of Merioneth in the mid 17th Century, and in a late 17th Century letter by the rector of Dolgellau, Maurice Jones.  Amongst the 17th Century finds were a silver coin inscribed with the name of the Emperor Domition.  Subsequent visits to the site reported ditches, coins, bricks, a hard paved road, pottery and a tile relating to II Augustian Legion.   The main sources of information are the initial detailed report by Professor R. C. Bosanquet in 1921, which was further studied and commented upon in 1957 by H.C. Irvine in BBCS Volume XVII part 2, and these were the best sources of information on the subject prior to the work by Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (GAT).  GAT used conventional survey, geophysical survey,  and excavated some sample trenches to investigate further (Hopewell 2001, 2003).

Cefn Caer was a small auxiliary fort (castellum) with traces of a ditch still visible at the northwest, outside the rectangular bank that encloses the fort.  It was built in AD 70s. It is more than 1.68ha (5 acres) in area, measuring 140m x 120m (c.550ft x 425ft) northeast to southwest with rounded corners.  An earlier site of c.2.4ha appears to have predated it, which may have been the temporary fort established before the construction of the permanent site.  The fort was located at the west end of a ridge or spur that rises 15m (50ft) above the floodplain north of the river Dyfi, c.10km (c. 6 miles) from the mouth of the estuary.  This offered it the dual benefits of having something of a view over the surrounding area, and in particular the river crossing.  It was only 100m (328ft) northeast of the marshy Dyfi floodplain and 1.6km (half a mile) from the river itself, where “tongues of the land extend opposite each other to both banks of the river” (History of Merioneth) providing an ideal place for fording the river, and where coastal vessels could unload.   Roman forts were built to a fairly standardized template, meaning that they could be built rapidly without resorting to labour beyond the personnel they had to hand, and Cefn Caer does not deviate from this basic form.  For comprehensive details see Hopewell 2003 (available to download – link also at the end of this post) but here are some of the key features that Hopewell describes, with numbers in the text referring to the site plan, copied here.

Resuilts of the GAT geophsyical survey at Cefn Caer. Source: Hopewell 2003, Gwynedd Archaeological Trust

Cefn Caer was arranged around two main axes that crossed the fort at right-angles to each other, one on a northeast to southwest axis, the other crossing it on a northwest to southeast axis, and the whole fort was surrounded by defensive ditches. At its centre, on a natural rise, were the fort’s stone-founded headquarters, the principia (principal buildings – no.5 on the above plan) measuring 25m x 28m.  Several other buildings also appear to have had stone foundations.  The entrance to the principia is on the south-west side, and “leads into a courtyard with a portico on four sides bounded by a cross hall at the rear. At the rear of the building stand a set of five rooms comprising a central shrine room (sacellum) with offices to either side” (Hopewell 2003).  There are two buildings either side of the via principia. GAT interprets the building to the north-west (10) as the praetorium (commander’s house).  In the retentura (rear part of the fort) one block of centuriae (military barracks) (12 on the above plan) can clearly be seen.  The officer’s quarters stand towards the corner of the fort. Part of the space in the praetentura (the front part of the fort) appears to be taken up by two ranges of centuriae.  Part of the big building complex (14) may be a stable block with the stalls.  Within the fort are a number of roads, which are standard for an auxiliary fort, as follows:

  • The via principalis (6 on the above plan), running from north-west to the south-east across the centre of the fort.
  • A short length of the via praetoria (7) runs at right angles to the via principalis under the farmyard
  • The via decumana (8) runs from the rear of the principia to the north-eastern gate
  • The via sagularis (9) runs around the inside of the ramparts

Beyond the main limits of the fort a vicus developed to the northeast and northwest.  A vicus is a small settlement associated with an auxiliary fort, a community of traders and their families, who supplied good to the garrisons within, but its inhabitants were rarely local, and were just as much outsiders as those within the fort.  Marriage was forbidden to Roman soldiers, but there is little doubt that less formal arrangements existed, and that families of soldiers also resided within the vicus.   The presence of a vicus next to the fort is indicative of its permanence and relative longevity.  Below the southwestern annex there was a small circular building that was probably a small temple, shrine or tomb.  A large rectangular building (33 on the above plan) measuring 34 x 22m may be a mansio (travellers’ way station).  A mid 19th Century visit by the Cambrian Archaeological Association mentions the remains of a hypocaust (sub-floor heating, sometimes associated with bath complexes), and this appears to have been located in an annex to the northwest of the fort (22) where there is plenty of Roman tile on the surface.

Cefn Caer site plan. Source: History of Merioneth, page 239, figure 102.

The fort has four entrances, one in the centre of each side, and there have been some efforts to determine where the roads that terminated here linked to locally.  A small B-road cuts across the north corner of the site, shown in the plan from History of Merioneth to the left, and the History of Merioneth suggests that the sudden kink in the road indicates that for a short span it follows the Roman road that emerged from the site.  Evidence of the same Roman road a little further on appears to run along a nearby ridge.  There was also an earlier indication that portions of a road led from the southwest gate led down to the river.  The History of Merioneth suggests that this may have led to a quay at Llyn y Bwtri.  The southeast gate would have faced the river crossing. Cefn Caer appears to be linked to a number of national routes as follows.

  • Via the fortlet at Brithdir towards Tomen y mur (to the northeast of Llyn Trawsfynydd. Tomen y Mur is considered to have been the most important Gwynedd fort due to its strategic position, its size and its complex layout, with an amphitheatre, bath house, vicus, mansio and related structures, including a possible aqueduct.  Although the roads connecting it are not completely mapped, it is clear that it was an important link between mid (and south) Wales with the important sites of Caernarfon and Canovium (Caerbun) to the north, which were in turn connected to the regional capital at Chester.
  • Via the fortlet at Brithdir northeast towards the important fort of Chester), via smaller forts at Caer Gai and Llanfor.
  • Cefn Caer probably linked to another route, this time west to another ciwitas captial at Wroxeter via the fortlet at Pen y Crogbren and the forts at Caersws and Forden Gaer.
  • It was also clearly connected with sites to the south of the river Dyfi, in the first instance the fortlet at Erglodd and, in turn, the forts at Pen Llwyn and Cae Gaer.  These were on routes to the important southern Welsh fort Caerleon.

These are all shown on the map of Roman Wales above and although the road network cannot currently be completed, the map indicates how Pennal was linked to other sites in the area, providing an important intersection at the river Dyfi between north and south parts of west Wales.

Brithdir fortlet from the air. Source: RCAHMW colour oblique photograph of Brithdir Roman fortlet. Taken by Toby Driver on 11/12/2007. Published on the Coflein website.

Another Meirionnydd fort at Brithdir, 3 miles east of Dolgellau, was found in the early 1960s and is clearly connected by a contemporary road to Cefn Caer at Pennal.  It measured c.184x184ft (54m sq), so was much smaller than the Cefn Caer fort.  It has not been excavated and there are no extant remains, but it shows up very clearly in aerial photographs like the one at left, and in the early 1990s geophysical survey was carried out at the fortlet.  When a new housing estate was under construction nearby in the 1970s the opportunity was taken to excavate, and the results of these combined sources show a complex history at and around the site.  At least two and possibly three, ditches surrounded the fort, and there are indications that a bathhouse and workshops were present.  Brithdir was considered to have been built to guard an important intersection of a number of routes.

The fortlet at Erglodd in Ceredigion.  Source: Gwynedd Archaeological Trust

Looking to the south of Cefn Caer, the nearest site on the other side of the river was the fortlet at Erglodd, to which it was presumably connected by a road to the Dyfi ford.  You can read more about the results of the geophysical survey in the Gwynedd Archaeological Report on the subject (Hopewell 2007).

Unlike the other parts of England and Wales, there is no evidence for towns developing or villas being built in Mid Wales.  Arnold and Davies say that this “may be a silent commentary not just upon native resistance but upon the inability of the agrarian base to produce the necessary surplus.  Together with geographical constraints, this inhibited political co-operation and fostered continuation of highly segmented societies.”

In the period AD 78-83, again in AD 98-119 and then again in AD 125-6 troops were required in the north of Britain (eventually resulting in Hadrian’s Wall and Antonine Wall) and overseas, when some troops were again withdrawn from Wales.  Some forts were abandoned whilst others, like Tomen-y-Mur at Trawsfynydd, were resized and operated with less manpower.  By AD 140 very few auxiliary forts were occupied in Wales and it is probable that Cefn Caer was abandoned either at this stage, or during the 3rd Century, when most of Wales was abandoned.

A lot of unanswered questions may be tackled in the future.  Gwynedd Archaeological Trust’s Roman Fort Environs Project funded by Cadw is researching the environs of a number of forts using fluxgate gradiometer survey, which should help to develop an understanding not only of the forts but of their ancillary structures, roads and supporting settlements.  Gwynedd Archaeological Trust has so far carried out surveys at Canovium (Caerhun), Caer Gai (Llanuwchllyn), Caer Llugwy (Capel Curig), Cefn Caer (Pennal) and Pen Llystyn (Bryncir).  These findings will be published in the future.  At the same time, a number of GAT and independent projects are looking for the remains of Roman roads in areas where the linkages are known only from small sections, in order to fill the gaps in knowledge about the roads between forts and the routes they followed.  Research by Hugh Toller, for example, is thought to have uncovered a number of previously unknown sections of the RRX96 road between Pennal and Brithdir.

Main sources:
Arnold, C.J. and Davies, J.L. 2002.  Roman and Early Medieval Wales.  Sutton Publishing
de la Bedoyere, G. 2003.  Defying Rome. The Rebels of Roman Britain. Tempus
Bosanquet, R.C. 1921. Cefn Caer – Roman fort in An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire VI. County of Merioneth RCAHM
Bowen, E.G. and Gresham, C.A. 1967.  History of Merioneth.  Volume 1: From the earliest times to the Age of the Native Princes.  The Merioneth Historical and Record Society
Davies, J. 2007 (third edition). A History of Wales.  Penguin
Davies, J. and Lynch, F. 2000. The Late Bronze and Iron Age.  In (eds.) Lynch, F., Aldhouse-Green, S. and Davies, J.L.  Prehistoric Wales.  Sutton Publishing
Gwyn, D and Davidson, A. 2007. Ports and Harbours of Gwynedd: Aberdyfi.  A Threat Related Assessment. GAT Project No. 1824. Report No. 671.1. April,2007. Gwynedd Archaeological Trust
Hopewell, D. 2001. Roman Fort Environs G1632, Report 416. Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2001.  http://www.walesher1974.org/her/groups/GAT/media/GAT_Reports/GATreport_416_compressed.pdf
Hopewell, D. 2003.  Roman Fort Environs 2002/2003, G1632, Report number 479. Gwynedd Archaeological Reports.  http://www.walesher1974.org/her/groups/GAT/media/GAT_Reports/GATreport_479_compressed.pdf 
Hopewll, D. 2007.  Roman Fort Environs. Geophysical Survey at Trawscoed Roman Fort and Erglodd Fortlet. G1827(2). Report number: 667.  Gwynedd Archaeological Trust.  http://www.dyfedarchaeology.org.uk/projects/07romanergloddgeophys.pdf
Irvine, H.C. 195
7. Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies Volume XVII part 2, (p.124-131)

Coflein entry on Cefn Caer:
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/300159/details/cefn-caer-roman-fortpennal-roman-fort
Coflein entry on Brithdir fortlet:
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/95480/details/brithdir-roman-site

A walk down the Dyfi estuary on a beautiful January day

Thursday last week was a beautiful day, all sunshine and blue skies.  A treat.  About as different from today’s gales as possible!  I went down into Aberdovey to take photos of the interior of St Peter’s Church, because I am working on a new post about the church.  Someone told me that it was open every day, but perhaps that was just in the summer, because it was firmly closed.  I took some photographs in the churchyard instead, and then decided to take advantage of the sun and headed down the estuary.  It was an hour past low tide and the sea was coming in, but not fast enough to cover up the sand flats before I had enjoyed seeing them.  At some points in this video there’s some very wobbly footage, but it was such a beautiful day that even with some slightly dodgy camcorder work it seemed a shame not to share it!

A thin strip of cloud at floodplain level today on the way to Machynlleth

This is a poor photograph, taken through the side window of my car in a mad rush, whilst I was held up at the roadwork traffic lights on the Aberdovey to Machynlleth road, on my way to a dental appointment.  My closest friend Cheryll, to whom I emailed it, argues that I should post it in case no-one has been lucky enough to see this particular cloud formation.  So here it is, with the cloud in a thin strip hovering just above the floodplain on the opposite bank of the river Dfyi, with apologies for the poor quality.  I don’t know what this type of cloud formation is called (if anyone knows, please do let me know), but it happens around here quite often.  This, however, was the first time I have driven alongside it along the estuary and river all the way from Aberdovey to Machynlleth.  It was an amazing sight.  Every time I glimpsed right (south), it was still there in the 20 or so minute drive some time between 1120 and 1145.  So here’s the photo, and please remember to blame Cheryll if you don’t like it!  By the time I was driving back to Aberdovey it had evaporated completely.