Historic Landscape Characterisation - Dolgellau Landscape Register

Extract from the Register of Landscapes of Outstanding Historic Interest in Wales

The confluence of the Mawddach and Wnion river valleys forms a distinct natural basin situated between the southern ends of the Rhinog and Arenig Mountains and the northern flanks of Cadair Idris. Above the basin floor, which is only just above sea level, the slopes rise steeply on all sides, reaching 629m above OD at the summit of Y Garn in the north west, 400m above OD at the summit of Moel Offrwm in the north east, and 893m above OD at the summit of Cadair Idris in the south. The latter dominates prospects of the basin from most directions. Between 100m and 200m above OD, however, shelves of land with gentler gradients occur, which have assisted communications and attracted settlement from the earliest times.

Although the area is not without evidence of prehistoric activity, it is perhaps more significant historically, as it demonstrates the way in which the development of a medieval landscape can be clearly charted, using historical sources and fieldwork, starting with the building of the motte and the granting of the charter of Cymer Abbey in the 12th-century. It continued with the development of the Abbey granges, which later disintegrated and were taken over by a large gentry estate, Nannau, which itself grew in power and wealth. The area also has associations with the growth of the Quaker movement in Wales. Dolgellau was a centre of the woollen industry, and in the north of the area there are the remains of gold and copper mining enterprises of the 19th and 20th centuries.

There are several Iron Age hillforts on the higher summits between the valleys of the Wnion and Mawddach Rivers south-west of Llanfachraeth, notably Moel Offrwm and Moel Faner. The close grouping of these sites in this relatively small area may indicate its strategic location at the focus of several natural routes in and out of the basin. To the east, a Roman fortlet was established above the River Wnion valley at Brithdir, from which good prospects of the basin are obtained and where excavations have revealed evidence of activities of an industrial nature, including tanning.

Cymer Abbey, one of the last and the smallest of the Cistercian houses to be founded in Wales, was built in 1198-9, close to the estuary of the River Mawddach at its lowest bridging point. The 1209 Charter of Llywelyn Fawr granted it extensive lands. The home grange extended up to Y Garn and beyond, but most of its lands, including the granges of Abereiddon, Esgaireiddon and Hafod Newydd lay outside the area described here, in the inland valleys to the east. The Abbey was never especially wealthy but was involved with dairying, fulling, shipping, fishing and possibly iron-making at Dôl-gun (where there was an early blast furnace in the late 16th- century).

With its origins in the 12th century, Nannau is the oldest, and possibly the foremost, estate in Gwynedd. Its growth is well documented from the 15th century onwards, helped to a great extent by the acquisition of abbey landholdings after suppression, and by encroachments onto Crown lands. By 1840, Nannau owned over 9600ha in Meirionnydd, covering some 200 holdings. The estate has well-preserved examples of late 18th- to early 19th-century cottages constructed on a distinctive model, whilst Plas Nannau, built in the same period, is also largely intact.

Meirionnydd boasted a considerable woollen industry which reached its peak towards the end of the 18th century, declining rapidly in the first half of the 19th-century. There were perhaps 60 factories in the county at the beginning of the 19th-century. The area around Dolgellau saw the greatest concentration of fulling mills between the mid 16th- and mid 19th-centuries, many of which were sited in the River Arran valley to the south of the town. In the 18th-/19th-centuries, tanning and the production of leather, and especially the glove industry, also prospered, and the number of tourists who came to climb Cadair Idris increased. It was at this time that the town itself was largely rebuilt: it remains a place of distinctively uniform architecture, although the many meandering, small streets reflect the unplanned nature of its development from earlier origins in the medieval period.

The area is strongly associated with the Quakers. George Fox came to 'sound the day of the Lord' on the slopes of Cadair Idris in 1657, and by 1660 there were at least 24 people named as Quakers in Meirionnydd. Many of the early Friends emigrated, but in the 18th century Quakers were involved in several economic enterprises. Dôl-gun, an early blast furnace on the banks of the River Wnion east of Dolgellau, was planned by the Quaker Ironmaster, Abraham Derby, and managed intermittently by the Quaker diarist, John Kelsall. At Tyddyn-y-garreg, Tabor, there was a burial ground, and also a meeting house (now a Congregational chapel).

The western side of the area fringes the Meirionnydd Gold Belt which saw considerable activity during the later half of the 19th century, although many of the mines only operated sporadically, producing small quantities of metal. Copper was worked at Glasdir, west of Llanfachraeth, where there are the remains of a large mill.


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