Historic Landscape Characterisation - Dolgellau Historical Themes

Prehistoric settlement

The dissected nature of the area, at an internode of valleys and routes with relatively little agricultural land or land suitable for settlement, meant that from at least the medieval period Dolgellau developed as a market and administrative centre on a river crossing. Throughout the prehistoric period, however, when most settlement was scattered and was densest in areas that were more agriculturally productive or where settlement had developed around tribal groupings, there seems to have been little activity in the Dolgellau area, where neither of these applied.

Evidence of occupation in the mesolithic period, before about 4000BC, is almost absent from the whole of Meirionnydd. The closest evidence of this period relevant to the Dolgellau area is a single flint point from just to the east, and possibly a collection of flints and an antler tool from Mochras, on the coast north of Barmouth. However, comparison with elsewhere in north Wales suggests that most mesolithic occupation was close to the coast, and whereas in Llyn and Anglesey such sites are preserved on cliff headlands, in Meirionnydd, with its low-lying coast, all such sites (except perhaps that on the headland at Mochras) may have been lost to rising sea-levels during the post-glacial period.

In the earlier neolithic, several areas of concentrations of chambered tombs in north-west Wales demonstrate the presence of settlement nearby, but there are none close to the project area, the nearest group being that in Ardudwy to the north-west. However, there are several finds of neolithic stone axes along the valley of the Mawddach, showing that it was at least being visited, and possibly exploited and settled, in the middle or later neolithic. One such axe has been found here at Cefn Meilan, just north-east of Dolgellau.

Pollen studies of buried peat horizons in the uplands of Ardudwy show the first indications of human activity from about 4000 BC, but reveal that there was much more widespread clearance of forest in the early bronze age, in the second millennium BC (Chambers and Price, 1988). This expansion of settlement is illustrated also in the Dolgellau area by the presence of numerous funerary and ritual monuments of the second millennium BC, of which there are fifteen in the immediate area and many more close by. The most important group in this area is that at Hafod Dywyll, Islaw'r Dref, where there are seven cairns close together; this group can be regarded as a communal cemetery. However, the settlement to which the cemetery belonged is unknown and may be at some distance, since the cairn group lies at the top of a pass alongside a trackway that runs east-west. Further to the west this track passes another concentration of early bronze age funerary and ritual monuments at Cregennan, Arthog, including cairns, a stone circle, several standing stones and several cup-marked stones. The Cregennan area can be regarded as a funerary and ritual complex and may have been a focal centre for a wide area around. The location of the funerary monuments does not therefore help to identify the whereabouts of the contemporary settlement, which may have had a focus elsewhere or have been quite widely scattered. The close relation between the Cregennan and Hafod Dywyll monuments and the trackway has a parallel with another trackway and concentration of monuments around Hengwm, Ardudwy. Both tracks head east towards the Mawddach valley and it has been suggested that the northern track crossed the Mawddach close to where Dolgellau is now, joining the southern route to continue inland towards the Upper Dee (Bowen and Gresham, 1967, 61-2, 116).

However, this interpretation is not supported by the distribution of bronze artefacts such as palstaves, all of which have been found quite close to the coast in this area, only appearing inland on the north side of Ardudwy, in the land lying between the Vale of Ffestiniog and the Upper Dee. The probable prehistoric route south of the Mawddach may therefore have joined the northern route to continue northwards over the Ardudwy uplands, and if so the crossing of the Mawddach near Dolgellau may have been an important communication point, perhaps as the first easy crossing point on the estuary.

While the uplands in this period were cleared for pasture, there is some evidence that the wealthiest settlement may have been in the areas of arable lowland. One of the largest known burial monuments of this period in north Wales, possibly reflecting high status, is from the lowland close to Dolgellau, at Pentre Farm near Cymer (area 05), on the north side of the valley. The mound is about 22m diameter and 2.5m high, and excavation in the 19th century suggested it was of complex construction and probably of several phases of re-use (Bowen and Gresham, 1967, 93-40). There are also two high-status finds of this period from close to Dolgellau, a stone battle-axe and a stone axe-hammer. Another high-status object of the middle bronze age has also been found, a gold torc or neck-ring, from a hill south-west of Dolgellau. A bronze palstave axe-head has also been found close to the town. All these finds might suggest that there was some settlement nearby, but there is no direct evidence, and all the objects could be associated with trade routes.

The earliest known prehistoric settlement in this area is represented by several examples on the fringes of the upland above Dolgellau, consisting of groups of small circular houses and attached fields. By analogy with other excavated examples in north-west Wales these belong to the last centuries of the first millennium BC and into the Roman period (G Smith, 1999). Their presence on the upland fringes may be a matter of survival and there may have been other, perhaps more affluent, settlements on lower and better quality land, the remains of which have been removed by many centuries of agriculture. Possible remains of such settlement was found sealed beneath a Roman period building close to the Roman fortlet at Brithdir, 4km east of Dolgellau (White, 1978, 36-8).

Other evidence of settlement here in the first millennium BC is in the form of four defended sites around the fringes of the area. These forts are set high up in natural strong defensive positions, between about 300m to 400m OD. Three lie to the north on the ridge between the Wnion and Mawddach valleys (areas 11 and 12) and one is to the south-west in Islaw'r Dref (area 04). There is also one lower-lying defended site on a promontory at Cymer (area 05), overlooking the Mawddach estuary. All are similar in having very prominent positions with wide viewpoints, but are relatively inaccessible as settlements. None has been excavated or otherwise dated and all may have been constructed not long before the Roman conquest. Only one, the largest, at Moel Offrwm, has evidence of much actual settlement; two are suggested to have been deliberately demolished (Bowen and Gresham, 1967, 142, 153) and one, that at Islaw'r Dref, is unfinished. In common with the majority of excavated sites of this period in north-west Wales, most native settlements probably continued to be occupied into and through the Roman period (G Smith, 1999). The presence in the Roman period of only a small fortlet at Brithdir, 4km east of Dolgellau (area 15), suggests that there was a relatively sparse native population and even this fort, constructed about AD 70-80, was abandoned, at least as a defended site, by about AD 120 (Hopewell, 1997, 315-6).

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Historic administrative areas

The project area currently lies within the present Unitary Authority of Gwynedd, administered by the Snowdonia National Park Authority, and the historical county of Meirionnydd. The current community councils include Dolgellau, Brithdir & Llanfachraeth, Llanelltyd and Ganllwyd. J Beverley Smith (1999) contains a detailed discussion of the possible administrative boundaries at the time land was granted to the abbey at Cymer in the early 12th century, which were probably somewhat different from those of today. In the pre-conquest period, the area was divided between the commotes of Ardudwy Is Artro (to the north-west and including character areas 06 (part), 07, 08, 09 and 10), and Tal-y-bont in Meirionnydd (containing the remainder of the character areas): the division probably lay along the course of the Wnion). The shire county of Merioneth was created under the Statute of Wales in 1284, and the project area was subsequently further sub-divided between Llanelltyd parish (in the former commote of Ardudwy), and Brithdir & Llanfachraeth and Dolgellau (in the former commote of Tal-y-bont), with the Mawddach apparently forming the dividing line between the latter two. This corresponds with the churches recorded in the Valuation of Norwich in 1254 which were Llanelltyd, Llanfachraeth and Dolgellau (Davidson, 2001), although only the former retains any medieval masonry.

The only pre-conquest township recorded within the southern part of Ardudwy Is Artro is Llanelltyd. Within Tal-y-bont, however, there are several recorded settlements (Bowen, 1971; Smith, 2001). To the north are the church and settlement of Llanfachraeth (area 13) and the bond settlement of Nannau (area 11). Dolgellau (area 01) was a self-contained parish shown as having a church foundation, whilst the remaining part of Uwch Cregennan (lying mainly to the south of the Wnion and Mawddach estuary) within the project area had townships at Garthmaelan (now in the southern part of area 11, and actually north of the Wnion), Brithdir and Gwanas (both near the eastern end of area 15). There is a further possible township at Garthgynfawr (on the southern edge of area 16), and several farms on the 1838 Dolgellau tithe map are recorded as being within this township.

By 1293, when the Merioneth Lay Subsidy Roll was compiled (Williams-Jones, 1973), several townships are recorded within the project area. In Ardudwy there was Llanelltyd; and in Tal-y-Bont, Nannau consisted of up to one hundred families (it was, in fact, the most populous and highly-assessed township in the whole county), Garthmaelan to the south had around fifty (both area 11, and important in the development of the monastic lands of Cymer), Dolgellau had around thirteen (ironically it was one of the smallest, least-populated and lowest assessed townships in the new county, but see below, area 01), Brithdir (area 15) and Garthgynfor (area 16) both recorded around fifty households, while Gwanas (also area 15 and linked with the Knights Hospitallers) had very few.

The extent of 1284 records, on 'manors' such as Dolgellau, groups of bondsmen whose numbers may have been small but whose very existence pre-supposes modestly centralised administrative nodes (Thomas, 2001). The small increase in the growth of the 'town' of Dolgellau between 1293 and 1548 is misleading in that it refers to households not in the 'town' but in the old parish of Dolgellau, which consisted of eight townships. Leland described Dolgellau in the 1530s as the 'best village in this commote' of Tal-y-bont (Toulmin Smith, 1906), and village or not it clearly had larger ambitions. The 'town' of Dolgellau by the mid-16th century was bigger than one of its rivals, Bala, but had yet to overtake the 'county' town of Harlech, although it was already in a strong position to challenge the claims of other towns to be the administrative centre of Merioneth: as early as 1546 it was playing host to quarter sessions (Williams-Jones, 1976).

Williams-Jones (ibid.) has an interesting table showing the relative populations of the various parishes at certain dates between 1292 and 1801. Of those parishes which concern us, in Dolgellau 154 people were taxed in 1293-4 and 158 in 1543, while there were 140 households in 1563 and 130 tenements in 1592; 307 people were taxed in 1670, while the population in 1801 was 2,949. In Llanelltyd, there are no returns for 1292 or 1543, but there were 38 households there in 1563, just 59 people were taxed in 1670, while the population in 1801 was 398. In Llanfachraeth, 112 people were taxed in 1293-4, there are no returns for 1543, but there were 76 households in 1563 and 79 tenements in 1592; 166 people were taxed in 1670, while the population in 1801 was 1,069. This statistical table should be treated with some care as it does not not necessarily reflect trends in population growth, but it does provide an interesting set of 'snap-shot' figures in certain set years.

The boundaries of Ardudwy and Meirionnydd altered after the Dissolution in the 16th century, when the previously ex-parochial monastic lands were incorporated into the parish system and became part of Llanelltyd and thus Ardudwy (Gresham, 1984; Smith, 1999).

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The medieval landscape - Cymer and Nannau

The charter of Llywelyn Fawr, dated 1209 and granted to the Cistercian Abbey of Cymer, founded by Meredudd ap Cynan about 1198, gives some detail regarding the location and boundaries of the lands held by the monks (Williams-Jones, 1957; Gresham, 1984; Smith, 1999). The abbey was located in a typical (Cistercian) riverside location, in the commote of Tal-y-bont in Meirionnydd and close to the border with Ardudwy (formed at that point by the Afon Mawddach). The settlement of a colony of Cistercian monks in a new territory was a familiar feature of the Order in the 12th century, and although we do not know why the monks from Cwm-hir settled at this particular location, Smith (1999) explores some of the possible reasons and suggests the most likely explanation was because the land was probably originally given by Gruffudd ap Cynan and would thus, for political reasons, have been from the lordship of those commotes in the southern part of the principality, where the Cymer lands are in fact located (Smith, ibid.).

Probably as a result of the limited choice available to their benefactors (whichever of the Welsh princes was ultimately responsible for the granting of land (Smith, ibid.)), the monks of Cymer did not enjoy extensive arable lands (unlike elsewhere); despite holdings in Llyn, particularly at Neigwl, their possessions were largely the pastures of an upland terrain, and they never knew great affluence. Nevertheless, lay patronage was crucial to their foundation and survival. The Cistercian grange could reflect more than one form of economic exploitation, and it is obvious that the granges of Meirionnydd were not like the typical lowland grain-producing farms. The land here was largely pasture, so stock-raising and dairying were the mainstay of the monks' economy (Smith and Butler, 2001).

It is possible that the granges here were largely devoted to cattle rather than to sheep, given contemporary records (Smith, 1999), so the grange was thus in essence a cattle farm, a vaccaria, a term also used to describe the upland estates of the princes. An alternative to vaccaria is havotrie, indicating that the hafod, so often associated in later centuries with sheep farming, was, in the 13th century, a cattle farm rather than a sheep farm. The hafod, Smith suggests, was not necessarily associated with summer grazing in the system of transhumance, but with a system which necesitated the provision of shelter for beasts and those who tended them all year round and which required the pasture resources of the upland to be available for exploitation all year round. At Cymer, even the domain in close proximity to the abbey seems to have been a cattle farm. To what extent the monks exploited their mineral resources we do not know, although 14th-century sources (quoted in Smith, 1999) indicate that they took advantage of the iron resources of Ardudwy, and that their forges provided a commodity for which there would have been a ready market.

The lands which formed the nucleus of the abbey's possessions were located on the bank of the Mawddach near its confluence - its cymer - with the Wnion (area 06), probably itself in part of the township of Nannau, but probably also including the small township of Garthmaelan (area 11). Unfortunately the abbey and its domain lands are not recorded in the 1209 charter, although lands in Ardudwy, namely Llanelltyd and Cwm yr wnin, inter alia, are recorded (and now fall within character areas 07, 08 and 09). These lands are now in the parish of Llanelltyd (Ardudwy), but at the time they would have been extra-parochial. The nearby grange at Hengwrt (area 05) is also recorded. Unfortunately, the charter does not give any details about the extent of it (Gresham, 1984). The vast majority of the lands belonging to the abbey lie at some distance to the east (outside the project area), including Abereiddon and Esgaireiddon (Griffith, 1984; Gresham, 1984) and many other locations spread around the general area, including eleven lands in Brithdir (probably part of area 15), and others outside the project area to the north (including Trawsfynydd).

Cymer was never an affluent house, and the limited nature of their endowments is reflected in the buildings that they provided for themslves (clear from an analysis of the standing remains - Ralegh Radford, 1965). In response to the investigations of Henry VIII, the Abbot of Cymer decided to lease off some of the farms belonging to the monastery in 1534, to increase income (many to the Nanneys of Nannau and Baron Owen of Llwyn). However, by 1536, when the monasteries were visited to review their cost-effectiveness, Cymer fell into the category whose annual income fell below £200, and Dissolution was near. Two cottages and appurtenances in Llanfachraeth ('arhengourth' and 'Llyn Kenthal') are mentioned in litigation in 1540 as being a parcel of the manor of Cymer (Griffiths, 1984, 369), and there are numerous examples of further litigation concerning land in the area.

Thomas (1966), among others, traces the identifiable history of the township of Nannau from c. 1100 to 1600. At the time of the Edwardian conquest, the largest township in Meirionydd in terms of population (see above) was Nannau, apparently occupied by a single clan (although 112 families are recorded there by the end of the century), probably with a population centre around Tyddyn Cefn Llanfair (area 11, to the south of the present Nannau house). The Vaughans had acquired virtually the whole parish by 1797, when a detailed estate survey was carried out (UCNW Bangor, Nannau MS 678), and the field names would seem to imply reliance on pastoral resources, although the medieval mill at Llanfachraeth was important to inhabitants of the local townships (including Nannau and Garthmaelan).

The story of the family of Plas Nannau and their investments in land in the 15th-century, both in Llanfachraeth and beyond, is well documented, and one can trace in some detail the growth of a far-flung estate (Thomas, 1966; Parry 1958; Thomas, 2001; J Gwynfor Jones, 2001). They leased land from the Abbot of Cymer in the early 1500s, a valuable asset when the Dissolution arrived, and soon after, for example, purchased all the messuages, meadows and pastures of a free tenement in Nannau. In the latter part of the 16th-century there were c. 80 families living in Llanfachraeth parish, and by the time of the 1592 rental, two concentrations of ownership were evident. Fourteen tenements were held by William ap Rynallt and Hugh ap John Wynne in the north-western part of the township (outside the project area), while 38 were held by Hugh Nanney in what is largely land in areas 11 and 14. The sheer volume of surviving documents concerning litigation allows a fascinating (and time-consuming!) insight into the area during this period. At his death, Hugh Nanney Hen left a vast amount of land to his heirs and also a massive debt.

After the Dissolution, the domain land formerly controlled by the monastery, and Hengwrt, had to be included in the parochial system and it was taken into Llanelltyd. The abbey and its domain became the property of John Powys, Sergeant-at-Arms, and it subsequenty passed to Sir Walter Lloyd of Cardiganshire. Hengwrt, after being leased for some time, came into the family of Baron Owen of Dolgellau. Then Hywel Vaughan of Gwengraig managed to buy both properties and left them to his son Robert Vaughan, the antiquary.

From the time when Hugh Nanney bought the large parcel of monastic properties, the granges formed part of the Nannau estate; for example, the former grange of Hengwrt-uchaf in Llanelltyd which had been important in the 13th-century. Hugh ap Gruffydd became known as one of the few 'gentlemen' in the area in 1538, and used the surname Nanney after 1549 (Griffiths, 1984) (the family name was changed from Nanney to Vaughan in the middle of the 18th-century, when one of the female descendants married William Vaughan of Cors-y-gedol). Nanney had considerable legal difficulties over former abbey lands he had purchased, as many tenants claimed that they still maintained rights over the land they farmed.

A struggle for social supremacy ruled life in the area at this time (the late 16th-century), the main contestants being the Nanneys of Nannau (area 11) and the Owen family of Llwyn (area 02) and Tymawr. Baron Owen had been sheriff in the 1540s and 1550s, but he was subsequently murdered and Hugh Nanney became sheriff in the 1580s, giving his son an Oxford education. The local history of this period is clouded by the feud between these two families. The Nannau estate was tenanted and controlled by William Vaughan until 1774, when it passed to a relative, Hugh Vaughan of Hengwrt-isaf, and therafter was passed down the family line.

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Meirionnydd has always been a typical highland agricultural county, and this part of it is no exception. Typically, settlements and enclosed fields are restricted to the valleys and foothills (for example areas 05, 11, 14 15 and 16), between steep and almost barren mountain ridges (area 17) and hill tops (for example areas 08, 10 and 12), which still also dictate major transport routes. Only rough grazing takes place on the higher slopes (areas 08, 09, 10 and 17 again), and although there is evidence for past (area 17) and some present (area 09) settlement, much of the occupation must have been seasonal (although see Smith, 1999, who argues against the traditional view of transhumance).

There is actually surprisingly little recorded archaeological evidence for hafodtai, the most substantial being on the edge of areas 16 and 17 above Bwlch Coch, where there is an impressive set of platform houses, while there are ephemeral remains further up in area 17. The highest permanent farms now are those are on the lower slopes of Cadair Idris (in area 16) and above Cwm yr wnion (area 09), which lie approximately along the 200m contour.

Following the Edwardian conquest, surveys of lands now belonging to the Crown ('extents') were undertaken. That for Meirionnydd was probably undertaken between 1284 and 1285 (MCJ, 1867; Carr 2001), and is less detailed than the extents of Anglesey and Caernarfonshire. It is arranged under commotes but with only a summary entry for each one, with a few separate entries for the individual townships, giving a summary of the numbers of households and their taxable value at the time of the conquest. It may be simply a digest of an earlier survey rather than the extent itself. The purpose of an extent was to record the rents, dues and services due to a lord from his tenants, and Edward, of course, wanted to ascertain what exactly was due to him, so these extents relate to the situation before the conquest, although they do not yield any information about the gwely or gafael or about the tenurial pattern in each individual township.

Demesne lands in the various commotes in Meirionnydd appear to have been more dispersed than in other parts of Gwynedd; for example, in Tal-y-bont demesne services were due from bondsmen at Dolgellau (see area 01 below for a fuller description of the development of the town), rather than the eponymous maerdref of the commote. These residents, who were described as tenants of the Crown, were primarily either Welshmen (described as cattle breeders) or foreigners (Englishmen and Irishmen who were recorded as being 'agricultural workers').

During their occupation, for over three and a quarter centuries, the monks at Cymer made the most of their knowledge to advance agriculture in the area. The main aspects were cattle and sheep production, making full use of the wool for clothing. Some recent research has refined the traditional view of the medieval economy of north Wales as being one which was dominated by pastoralism in a largely free social context (Thomas, 1968). It has long been clear, however, that the upland grazings of the interiors of Meirionnydd supported considerable numbers of livestock, some of which went to the border markets and helped form the drovers' routes of later centuries.

Draught animals (oxen and horses) were more valuable than any other livestock: cattle were priced at about half their value and sheep were relatively worthless, although this does not imply relative numbers of stock. Oats were the most widely-grown field crop, closely integrated with the pastoral economy.

Pastoralism was the keynote in the economic structure of the Nannau estate in the medieval period, and a notebook entry for May Day, 1599, lists 72 cattle, oxen and bulls; 55 sheep and lambs; 17 goats and 5 horses. It is clear from records (Thomas, 1966) that during the 16th- and 17th-centuries there was a great expansion in sheep rearing in response to the demands of the woollen industry, and it is also evident that among the more progressive landowners (including the Nanneys) profits were ploughed back as investments, which in turn caused the landscape to be modified profoundly. Where they had existed, relics of open-field cultivation had been largely obliterated, Thomas suggests, by 1600, while on the flanks of the Afon Wnion, Hugh Nanney was making careful note of payment made for ditching and the building of stone walls near Garthmaelan (southern end of area 11), in much the same way as Sir Robert Williams Vaughan did two centuries later. In Nannau, as elsewhere in Meirionnydd, the medieval society and landscape was fading away and the foundations of the modern structure were being laid.

Thomas (1967) records the locations of over 400 encroachments on common and waste land in Meirionnydd in the late 16th century, recorded in an inventory drawn up in 1592. The predominant post-enclosure use of encroachments was for cattle and sheep pasture, probably in response to the increasing demands for beef and wool marketed through the towns of the Welsh border. The values of land increased from 6d to 3s or 5s per acre if it was enclosed and drained. Thomas's distribution map shows concentrations of enclosures to the south (probably area 16) and to the south-west of Dolgellau (area 04). One or two smaller encroachments are shown in Llanfachraeth parish. He argues that many of the larger units of encroachment may be on former monastic land which had been intensively and continuously grazed by cattle and sheep since the 13th century, and thus it might be expected that the greatest changes in the landscape took place in these areas. For example, within the project area, a number of former squatter holdings can be reconstructed, such as one dated 1793 (Ty'n y maes) on the Nannau estate, amid sporadically-cleared woodland and heath on the outskirts of Llanelltyd hamlet (area 07). On the other hand, a number of houses on Foel Offrwm (area 12), whose names also appeared on the 16th-century encroachment inventory, have had their original layouts masked by more recent acquisitions of land, and one can only suggest that their cores are repesented by the half-acre gardens which subsequently grew into the farms of Pen-esgynfa and Lletty'r-hwsmon (edge of area 12).

The product of this activity was a new moorland edge, a 'crenellated margin of occupation' (Thomas, ibid.) the precise course and position of which depended on a whole complex of interacting factors, including the tenurial history of encroachable land, soil quality, vegetation and altitude, the latter factors probably being less important as the land would be used for grazing, not arable. These encroachments had a profound impact not only on the physical landscape, but also on the social and agrarian fabric of the whole area. Agricultural limits were pushed upwards and outwards, and cottage settlement began to fill in corridors between existing farms (Thomas, ibid.).

There were several important sub-medieval estates within the project area in addition to Nannau and Llwyn (the lands of the former are still readily recognisable by the distinctive architectural style, while the latter, largely subsumed, are virtually unrecognisable in the modern landscape). These centred on houses (all of which still exist) such as Dôl-gun, Dolserau, Caerynwch and Gwanas, all situated in the lowlands. Most of these were later absorbed by the Nannau estate which eventually owned Nannau, Hengwrt, Caerynwch and Llwyn.

The Merioneth Agricultural Society was founded in 1801 as the Napoleonic Wars' demand for increased productivity led to a reassessment of agricultural resources, particularly of the common lands, many of which had been eaten away over several centuries by private Acts of Parliament and illegal encroachments (Thomas, 1967). An Act permitting enclosure of the commons and waste land was passed in October 1810, when the principal landowners in the area (which comprised Nannau-uwch-afon, Nannau-is-afon and Llanelltyd) included Sir Robert Williams Vaughan (Nannau): there were seven acts altogether just dealing with Llanfachraeth parish. In the depression which followed the Napoleonic Wars, the building of stone walls gave welcome work to local people. Sir Robert Vaughan's workmen were reputed to have built 55 miles of walling for enclosures at this time, using mules to cart the stones. The effect on the landscape is still evident today (see character area descriptions below - 12, for example): the long stone walls which seamed the friddoedd produced a network of large, rectilinear fields which contrasted sharply with the irregular patchwork of the smaller, older enclosures.

There are three tithe maps which cover the area - Llanelltyd (drawn up in 1843), Llanfachraeth (drawn up in 1846), and Dolgellau (dating from 1838). That for Llanelltyd covers (all or part of) character areas 7, 8, 9 and 10; Llanfachraeth covers (all or part of) areas 12, 13 and 14 while Dolgellau covers all of areas 1, 2, 3, and 4 and parts of 15, 16 and 17. Unfortunately none tell us much about the contemporary agricultural landscape, as they all simply record the extent of properties without going into details of field patterns or names. The Dolgellau tithe map is more detailed, but probably simply reflects the more complex pattern of land holding here (outside the main core of the Nannau estate - most of the area is owned by Sir R W Vaughan).

In Llanfachraeth, most of the (arable) area was apparently given over to oats and barley with about a fifth down to wheat. Rent due in lieu of tithes was £75. There was a similar pattern in Llanelltyd where oats, barley and wheat were grown in the same proportions as above, but with about half the amounts, while the rent due in lieu of tithes was only £38. There are no comparable figures for Dolgellau.

Across the project area, the typical upland Meirionnydd practice of remote cow-houses dispersed about the farms seems to have been commonplace, and there are several examples, mostly lapsing into ruin (for example area 14). Most of the smaller farms are linear in plan, and this appears to correspond with both altitude and acreage (e.g. Ty Glas, Brithdir; Cors-y-garnedd, Llanfachraeth), but the larger ones (especially those related to estates - see above) have detached farm houses and buildings (e.g. Gwanas, Brithdir, Hengwrt).

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Settlement patterns - nucleated

There are only three truly nucleated settlements within the project area - Dolgellau, Llanfachraeth and Llanelltyd. Each has developed around a core of a medieval church (recorded in the 13th century), but in quite different ways. The entire area is dominated historically by Dolgellau, with the other two settlements only really developing in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Dolgellau (principally area 01, but also area 02) is a hugely important town, from both a historical and an architectural point of view. Its eventual success must, undoubtedly, be attributed to its favourable geographical location. Its historic core is built on the floodplain at the junction of two rivers and the first mention of Dolkelew is from 1253, while in the 1293 extent (Williams-Jones, 1976) there is reference to the bond community of Dolgellau, and it later developed as the main agricultural market, Assize and county administrative centre of Meirionnydd. It appears to have developed as a town in the medieval period 'almost by stealth' (Smith, 2001), its urban characteristics virtually unrecognised by royal administrators for several centuries. Not until the early 17th century are there references to its being a market town or borough and to its tenements as burgages, but the commercial importance of the town may have begun by the early 14th century, when there were already references to a market and fairs.

Various industries have contributed to the character of Dolgellau, and have left their mark on the names of buildings and roads in the town and in the unique, complex pattern of streets and small squares south of the river Wnion. A valuable woollen industry, specialising in flannel, flourished in the 19th and 20th centuries, and tanning was an important part of the local economy until quite recently.

The architectural character of Dolgellau is dominated by the grey dolerite and slate buildings, of which over two hundred are listed. Visitors in the 17th- and 18th-centuries complained that every entrance to the town was barred by a turnpike, that the streets were irregular and very narrow, the houses small and ill-lit, but during the first part of the 19th-century the town was vastly improved by Sir Robert Williams Vaughan of Nannau. He largely rebuilt the centre of the town, laid out its fine market square and was instrumental in getting a Court House built, a National School founded and a new county gaol erected.

The small village of Llanfachraeth lies within the northern part of the project area. Again, the church (which has medieval origins, but was rebuilt in the early 19th century) forms the focal point of the village, but the settlement in its present form is 19th-century, built under the patronage of the Nannau estate (thus nicely introducing one of the major themes of this area, discussed in more detail under 'architectural character'), and many of the listed buildings in particular are of a distinctive 'estate-derived' style. There are two dated houses in the village (1809 and 1812), but nothing appears to be any earlier and the 1846 Llanfachraeth tithe map shows just three houses (to the east of the church and north of the road), although by 1901 (OS 2nd series map) the village had expanded somewhat. There is no suggestion of formal planning in the village, however, which retains a vernacular character principally spread out along a single road, until the building of a small council estate (to the north of this road) in the late twentieth century. It now has its own 'suburban' development in the form of a string of bungalows on its edge.

The earliest historic core of the settlement of Llanelltyd is concentrated around the church, towards the southern end of the character area, opposite Cymer Abbey, on land which was once owned and controlled by the monks (Gresham, 1984 and Williams, 1990), where there are, perhaps, three late-medieval structures. The next 'historic core' lies to the west along the northern side of the 18th-century turnpike road from Dolgellau to Barmouth. Here the houses, most of which now are 19th century, with some earlier examples, are built along the base of the south-facing hill slope above the floodplain of the Mawddach where it broadens out into the estuary. The 1901 OS map shows Llanelltyd appearing to have developed further at the junction where the road crossing north across the Afon Mawddach from Dolgellau meets the road running from Barmouth north to Trawsfynydd. A separate core to the village was created to the north in the mid 20th century, with the building of a council estate based on a series of terraced houses above the main road.


Settlement patterns - scattered

Outside the nucleated settlements, the project area can be loosely divided into three areas based on patterns of scattered settlement and 'architectural character'.

The first area covers the northern part of the area and includes settlement around Cymer (area 06), Nannau (area 11), Llanfachraeth (area 14) and, to some extent, Hengwrt (area 05). Here, settlement is wrapped around the high spur whereon runs the Precipice Walk to the west, and Foel Offrwm to the east, as well as occupying the valleys of the Wnion and Mawddach. It is mainly a dispersed, traditional farming settlement pattern. The existence of the Nannau estate has had a strong influence on the character of settlement throughout the area, particularly following the massive re-building programme undertaken by the estate from the early 19th century; most of the vernacular farm and other buildings date from this period, giving the area one of the most distinctive architectural landscapes in north Wales. Arguably the house of Nannau, with its appurtenances, represents, in effect, a rural nucleation of its own which extends far beyond the defined area of the designated parkland (area 11), and which needs careful recording.

The second area lies to the south of Dolgellau, roughly bounded by the high ground of Dolgledr to the west, the foothills of Cadair Idris to the south (area 16), and to the north and east by the valleys of the Wnion and the Clywedog (taking in most of character areas 04, 16 and 17). Once again it is a landscape of scattered traditional agricultural settlement, with the occasional partial nucleus, most notably at Tabor (area 15). There is a series of sub-medieval farmsteads (such as Maes Angharad and Llwyn-iarth), most of which display the characteristics of marginal upland properties (linear farms and remote field barns), always surviving 'on the edge', not surrounded by estates. Here, inevitably, there is an emphasis on abandonment and de-population (particularly a series of farms and fields within area 04), a phenomenon which does not occur elsewhere within the project area. This is a typical, marginal, agricultural landscape, displaying evidence for a move into, and then retreat from, upland holdings.

The third area, although more disparate in character, can be defined as lying between the valley of the Wnion and the A470 (i.e. based on character area 15), where the historical settlement looks to have origins in traditional agriculture and small estates, similar to the first area but without the domination of either a major estate or the flux of marginal, upland settlement. Dolserau and Caerynwch were parts of the Nannau estate but are largely untouched by its architectural influence, while areas around Gwanas and Tir Stent display upland farming characteristics but without the evidence of abandoned farmsteads. Brithdir, by contrast, is a straggling settlement, much of which is modern. It appears to be a roadside development and mainly mid 19th century in date (for example, its chapel is dated 1860). This would appear to have developed outside the limits of estate control.

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Architectural character

Building materials

The use of local stone dominates throughout the area (sometimes, though rarely, limewashed), together with slate as a roofing material (Dolgellau (area 01) is the only place whre there is a substantial use of other materials). Differences in the sourcing of material (whether it was field stone, or quarried) and handling (whether it was rubble, dressed, dry-stone etc.) of stone are indicative of dating, but also of status. The well-dressed blocks used in Caerynwch (area 15), or contrasting examples in Llanfachraeth village of fieldstone and boulder and dressed boulders, are good examples. Similarly, the differences in the use of roofing slate are indicative of age and status, graded slates being earlier. There is evidence, too of prior building traditions involving timber: for example, there are several cruck-framed buildings (e.g. Gwanas Fawr, area 15, and most notably the barn at Dref Gerrig, area 16). There are at least three good examples of sub-medieval houses characterised by the internal use of timber (see below).

Building functions

Dolgellau displays a wide range of building types, from cottages to gentry houses, inns and hotels, mills, factories, police station, county administrative offices, colleges and schools and almost every other type of infrastructure-related building This range is unmatched in the area: even the other nucleated settlements only contain cottages (houses), a church and a school.

The social structure of buildings in the rural part of the project area ranges from Nannau at the top, via other gentry houses, including some sub-medieval houses which appear big enough to have functioned as small estate centres (e.g. Llwyn, Plas Hen, Dôl-gun, Dolserau), to small cottages (mainly north of the Wnion) and farmsteads which were intimately linked to the land. Caerynwch is a later example of a building of clear gentry character, and built for a baron of the exchequer at the end of the eighteenth century: later still are Gelligemlyn and Plas Canol. Most of the (rural) vernacular buildings are farmsteads, with houses conforming to a common plan, with limited variation in size. There are a few examples of smallholdings (there is one just below the A470, between it and the Torrent Walk, for example), but most seem to be of medium size. There are remarkably few cottages in the area.

Across the project area, the typical upland Meirionnydd practice of remote cow-houses and open-sided haybarns, dispersed about the farms, seems to have been commonplace and there are several examples, mostly lapsing into ruin (for example, area 14). Both of these are highly characteristic of an upland agriculture dependant on stock. In rural areas, non-farm buildings mainly seem to have been built singly (with a few examples of paired estate cottages, such as 1 & 2 Carleg, and 1 & 2 Brynteg at Bontnewydd).

Arguably, the other principal historical building type in the area was the woollen mill, and more recently the ffatri (see section 6.5.1, and area 01 description). Unfortunately, there are no significant buildings of this type now remaining.

Building chronologies

The area boasts a particularly long chronology of building. The earliest surviving standing buildings are probably those associated with Cymer Abbey, Y Fanner (area 06), a substantial farm with two houses, one 17th-century and the other medieval, and the only structure to survive intact the dissolution of the monastery, as it was almost certainly the abbot's house (Smith & Suggett, 1995). The other two principal late-medieval houses are Dolgun-uchaf (area 15) and Plas-hen (area 16 - the home of Lewis Owen, the baron of the exchequer at Caernarfon). The latter is classically built down, rather than across, the steep slope on which it is set, with the parlour end almost certainly (originally) on three floors. Dolgun-uchaf is the most complete of the houses, having survived a whole succession of additions and alterations, including the conversion of half of the house into a farm building. This is built on low-lying land again (as at Y Fanner), and interestingly has its parlour at the uphill end. The size of the rooms (including an open hall of three bays) indicates an ancient house of high social status, and it was probably the home of Tudur Goch ap Ednyfed. Unlike many of the Nannau-related houses, it never became the centre of a large estate, and by the mid 19th-century was part of a small estate of six farms owned by one John H Lewis of Dolgun Hall (shown on the tithe map).

Other sub-medieval houses have survived by virtue of being relegated to farm-building status when a new house was built (e.g. the 17th-century primary house at Bronwian, and the house at Cefn-creuan-uchaf; also, Cae'r march is thought to be late 15th-century, while Plas Hen also has late medieval origins as a hall-house). Fragments of an early building are incorporated within Gwanas Fawr (area 15): this is particularly significant as the presence of crucks is indicative of building traditions which pre-date the now ubiquitous use of stone across the area. Surviving buildings suggest that a considerable amount of building work was undertaken during the 17th-century, suggesting an important period of prosperity. Thereafter, it was not until the 19th-century that there seems to have been any significant development in building traditions. Then, there is evidence for extensive estate-sponsored activity (see Nannau (area 11) in particular), but also the arrival of new generations of gentleman builders, principally building small country houses on apparently new sites (e.g. Coed and later Gelligemlyn). The area shows a little evidence for small-scale 20th-century building (outside Dolgellau - areas 01 and 02), with the little housing estate in Llanfachraeth (area 13), and rashes of speculative building there and at Brithdir (area 5). Otherwise, contributions from this and the last century simply amount to heavy-duty alterations to the historic building stock.

Architectural character

A key theme (especially in the first 'rural character area' mentioned above) is the buildings sponsored by the Nannau estate, including cottages and farms (e.g. Coed mawr and Gallt-y-carw, Llanfachraeth (which are remodellings of earlier buildings), Ty'n-y-llwyn (also Llanfachraeth) and Gelli (Tan y foel). These buildings were described by Samuel Lewis in 1833 thus: 'the numerous farmhouses built of stone in the ancient English style which are scattered through the parish have a very pleasing effect on the general appearance of the scenery'. There are certain identifiable stylistic hallmarks (curved walls and shaped chimneys for example), but in general there was no blueprint, rather a picturesque variety. Their idiosyncratic character enables the reach of the estate to be identified beyond the immediate environs of the Plas and the definition of character area 11: for example, Gellilwyd fach and Plâs y Brithdir are Nannau estate farms south of Dolgellau. To the east, Gwanas (area 15) appears to have been another estate farm, incorporating a genuine late medieval porch, and with its pedimented gable and bold roof has a distinctive robust style, presumably deemed appropriate to its upland setting.

Before the introduction of this architectural variety in the early 19th-century, a common regional house-type seems to have predominated in the area. The Snowdonia-type house is typified by its end chimneys, near-central entrance (to cross passage) and early storeyed form, developed from an earlier hall house tradition which here can be seen in the primary house at Bronwian, at Cae'r march and Dolgun-uchaf. There are numerous examples which chart the development of this plan from single storey, via attic with dormers to two full storeys. The detail evolved, but the essentials of the plan survived, to be subsumed eventually in a vernacular Georgian.

Polite architectural traditions are represented (in addition to Nannau) by Caerynwch (area 15), which is Georgian in character. Examples of a later 19th-century vernacular revival (in a sense, the heirs to what was being done on the Nannau estate a couple of generations earlier) is seen to advantage in, for example, Gelligemlyn: this is a style which is consciously apt for a ruggedly picturesque, upland landscape. It appears in smaller buildings too, as at Dol-y-clochydd nearby (area 06), with its over-sized roof. (It is perhaps worth noting that none of these 19th-century buildings have been listed). South of Dolgellau, polite architectural traditions are also represented to a degree (for example in Coed, which is a small gentry house (based on an earlier farmhouse) near Tabor (area 16), and Bryn y gwin, of 1805). The other architectural glory of the area is the church of St Mark (area 15), with its former rectory (Goedlan) which dates from 1895-8.

Other miscellaneous themes identified during fieldwork include the extent of modernisation in housing, combined with the extent of dereliction in farm buildings (several on the edge of Llanfachraeth, for instance, and also in area 04). This marks quite a radical change in building use, and has also created a large class of vulnerable buildings which warrant recording before they are lost.

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Woollen industry

While Meirionnydd is not particularly suited to being an 'agricultural' county, due to its topography and landforms, it is ideally suited to the exploitation of water power. The average rainfall is high (at least 60-80 inches per year) and many streams and rivers rise in the mountains and flow into the lowland valleys (Parkinson, 1984). Until the development of the steam engine in the 18th century, water provided the power for almost all industrial processes, particularly in rural areas. In Meirionnydd the major 'industries' were more or less directly related to agriculture, as exemplified in the distribution of water mills in the county (corn mills, woollen mills, saw mills and slate-dressing works), mostly situated at lower altitudes near to settlements.

The Dolgellau area was first connected with the wool trade in the 13th-century, following the establishment of the Cistercian Abbey at Cymer, and it subsequently became the principal industry of the area in historical times (DRO CQ7/76). The actual manufacture of woollen cloth here is mentioned in Acts of Parliament in James I's reign, and in order to encourage the woollen trade, a law was passed in 1678 making it obligatory for only woollen shrouds to be used in local burials. The first reference to a fulling mill in Meirionnydd occurs in 1546 at Garthgynfor (area 15), when Dolgellau was noted as being an important wool market in west Wales (Jack, 1981): 16th-century sources also provide a detailed record of the cattle and wool traders prominent in the fairs and markets here (J Gwynfor Jones, 2001). The general trade benefited from Dolgellau's situation on a complex of thoroughfares, diverging from Caernarfon (and Holyhead), Aberystwyth and Shrewsbury (see area 01 below).

The Afon Aran, which flows northwards down the steep slopes of Cadair Idris before entering the Wnion at Dolgellau, was the power source that drove the fulling machinery and later the carding and the spinning mills. There were several fulling mills along its banks where the cloth was beaten and washed to close up the fibres (see below). Tour writers of the 18th and 19th centuries talk of the streams 'resounding with the sound of the pounding wooden mallets', and of the tenter racks where the cloth was then dried and bleached 'extending along the hills' (e.g. Bingley, 1801). The lengths of coarse, undyed hand-woven cloth, called 'Welsh Webs' or 'White Plains', were around two hundred yards long.

Arthur Aikin, who toured north Wales in 1796, wrote a serious and well-observed account of the Welsh woollen trade at the time (DRO Dolgellau town file). He had difficulty getting at the facts both because (he claims) of its disorganised state (compared with, say, Yorkshire) and also because of the 'shyness and jealosy of those concerned in the trade'. However, the kind of cloth that was produced in Dolgellau was apparently 'strong cloth' or 'high country cloth' and all the farms around produced webs of this cloth, using every scrap of wool that was to hand, even 'the refuse from the wool-staplers and skinners'.

Aikin goes on to say that the standard measurement of a web was seven-eighths of a yard wide, by about 200 yards long, and while the price of each web depended on the quality of the wool, he noted that during 1796 the price per yard had, in general terms, been increasing rapidly by about 3-5 pence a yard. The central market for the Dolgellau webs was at Shrewsbury, but this centre was by now far less important than it had been earlier in the 18th century, principally because of the increasingly competitive nature of the woollen business. The Shrewsbury trading centre was a closed shop, run by the Drapers' Company, and only members were allowed to do business. Other, more progressive dealers, therefore, who were excluded from dealing at Shrewsbury, went direct to the source of supply and did business in Dolgellau itself with either farmers, cottagers or the owners of the fulling mills. In time, members of the Drapers' Company were also forced to do business at the source of supply and they began to keep employees permanently at Dolgellau to develop business links and make sure they got first choice of the product. Aikin adds that in more peaceful times (i.e. before the outbreak of the wars with France in 1793) wool used to be transported from as far away as Kent, showing what an important processing centre Dolgellau was.

By 1780, the woollen trade was flourishing and most of the webs went to Shrewsbury. After this, a direct export trade grew, with the products being shipped firstly down the Mawddach to Barmouth and thence principally to London, but this declined after war broke out in 1793, and the goods had to be sent to Shrewsbury again. Whilst most of the woollen cloth helped fulfill home demand, much of it was exported to the continent (particularly Holland and Germany) or to the Americas to provide clothing for slaves. There was also a weekly market in Bala for locally-made small, woollen articles such as stockings, wigs and gloves which were a by-product of the main trade and which brought in much-needed cash. At one time, Dolgellau was the third-largest (behind Llanidloes and Newtown) wool-producing town in Wales.

Output was at its height at the end of the 18th century, with 718,000 yards of webs being produced, mostly for export. However, output thereafter fell dramatically and by 1831 only 352,000 yards were being produced, and less than a thousand yards in 1848. One writer (unknown) in 1833 estimated that 1,400 people were employed in the flannel industry at that time and the number of pieces made annually was 30,000, averaging 110 yards each. Towards the height of the industry, in the middle to late 18th century, it was estimated by Walter Davies (see Parkinson, 1984) that perhaps eighteen mills were operating in the Dolgellau area. However, in 1842 only three pandai are recorded, and by 1861 only three fullers were living in the parish (ibid.). Later in the 19th century 'factories' were established to take advantage of new developments in machine technology (Parkinson, 1984, contains a detailed description of the various processes involved in the production of the cloth), and there may have been as many as sixty in the county at one time: by 1925 there were only six.

It was this thriving woollen industry that made Dolgellau such a busy place in the late 18th- and 19th-centuries (along with the booming tourist industry). According to Bingley (1801), it was the focal point of the neighbourhood. He noted that there were very considerable manufacturers of flannel which had led to an increase in the population of the town and to the town being considered as something of a trading centre (although he didn't think much of the standard of accommodation on offer!). The manufacture of flannel was still in full swing fifty years later. A booklet printed in the town (printing was another local industry - see below) around that time (DRO Dolgellau town file) stated that a great number of 'little farmers' were making a kind of woollen cloth called 'gweuodd' or 'webs', and that almost every cottage had a loom. It was the job of fulling mill owners to gather together the work of the cottagers and farmers and to scour, bleach and mill it ready for the market.

The 1901 OS map shows the extent of woollen factories on the Aran to the south, with four factories and two mills shown (including Fron-goch factory, Idris factory, Wenallt factory and Factory fawr, as well as Pandy and Pandy Aberneint (dis.)). Parkinson's figure E (1984) also shows an area across the Wnion, north of the town, as 'tenter field', where the webs would have been laid out to dry.

At the same time (i.e. from the end of the 18th-century until well into the 19th), Dolgellau also had a flourishing tanning and currying industry, along with associated activities (six skinner's yards and three tanneries), and about 100,000 local lamb skins and many kid skins were sent to Worcester, Chester and London each year.

Iron production

In the early 18th-century Abraham Darby of Coalbrookdale (through his Quaker connections with the area) discovered ironstone ore about half a mile west of Cross Foxes. Combining the discovery with the potential of charcoal from the well-wooded district as a fuel encouraged him to build a blast furnace, just beyond the confluence of the rivers Wnion and Clywedog. At that time the Afon Wnion was navigable up to Dôl-gun, which enabled the manufactured pig iron to be shipped away.

Darby first thought of smelting in 1714 and began building charcoal stocks the following year. Despite initial problems the foundations of the smelter (still visible at the side of the road to the foot of Torrent Walk) were laid in 1718. Smelting began the following year and almost 500 tons of pig iron were produced in c. 37 weeks of work. This annual amount was never improved on, possibly as production was no longer in the hands of Darby himself, but those of John Kelsall, a Quaker, who had been an apprentice at Coalbrookdale and who took up residence in Dolgun-uchaf. (Kelsall kept a series of journals, largely unpublished and now in Friends' House, London, which are an important source of information on the social and religious history of the period.) There were problems with the regular supply of good quality charcoal, largely due to the calcareous nature of the local limestone ore. In 1729 the use of local ore ceased, and supplies richer in iron content were obtained from Lancashire, although this, of course, led to higher production costs. Most of the iron was taken by sea to London where it was sold.

A forge had been erected c. 1720 to create puddling facilities needed to convert the cast iron to wrought iron which would be suitable for forging. This was erected near the blast furnace, and remains are still visible. The original water wheel was replaced in 1730, and reports relating to the blast furnace ceased after 1743. In the Nannau papers (Nannau MS 536) there is preserved an agreement dated 1732 between Kelsall and Katherine Nanney for making charcoal at various specified woods. The forge continued in use for a few years but most of the machinery etc. was offered for sale 1802. The farmhouse near the river is where the horses used for transporting the iron to the river boats were stabled, and the present walled garden was the horse paddock (Thomas, 1984). The furnace was excavated in the 1980s by P Crew and was clearly of the charcoal-fired type (Crew, nd).


In about 1860, the owner of the copper mines above Bontddu discovered gold. The owners of the Figra and Clogau Copper Mining Company took out a licence to extract gold, and by May 1861 profits were sufficient to initiate a mini gold rush in the area (the so-called Welsh gold rush of the 19th-century), centred on Dolgellau (Hall, 1988). Gwynfynydd Gold Mine (to the north of the project area but within the banded vein which contains the ore and which stretches from Trawsfynydd down the Mawddach corridor and eventually out under the sea at the western end of the Mawddach estuary) was also established at this time, but serious mining ceased during the First World War (Farr, 2001).

Some of the easternmost remains connected with the gold mining industry (Prince of Wales, Sovereign, Wnion, Cesailgwm and Caegwernog mines - Hall, 1988, 66; Foster-Smith, 1977) are to be found in areas 08 and 09 (most were originally trialled for lead and none were particularly successful), although details about their outputs etc. are difficult to establish. Some of these minor concerns were worked between c. 1856 and 1866 by the East Cambrian Gold Mining Co. Ltd., but little seems to have been found.

T H Roberts, Ironmongers (towards the northern end of Eldon Square, Dolgellau), was an important source of panning equipment, and in fact, the gold and copper mines in the hills around the town employed over 500 miners towards the end of the 19th century.

In 1798 the first printing press opened in the town, and this began a small but important local industry which printed everything from tourist leaflets to (religious) pamphlets to books.

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A remarkable number of roads pass through Dolgellau, and this goes some considerable way to explaining the growth and importance of the town as a communication hub. Leading north over the river, roads immediately go east and west (with a smaller one continuing north) to Bala and Barmouth (via Llanelltyd). On the western edge of the village the road forks into two, with both routes leading to Tywyn (one over the mountains and one by the side of the estuary). A smaller road to the south leads up the southern side of the Ceunant, while a complex of roads to the east leads (via Tabor) to Dinas Mawddwy and (presumably) Bala. These roads are shown on a map of 1794 and many are considerably earlier.

There is good evidence for a Roman road which extended southwards from Tomen-y-Mur (past the Roman tile kilns at Penystryd) to Brithdir, and from Llanfor (Bala) westwards to the same fortlet (Hopewell, 2004). It is likely that these roads continued in use well into the medieval period and beyond (the route of the latter is still evident in the current landscape and is still in use). Roman pottery and coins are reported as being found on the Marian in Dolgellau in the late 17th century (area 01), but there is no direct evidence of Roman occupation underneath the modern town.

The Hengwrt archives (THCS, 1927) contain some 'ancient' maps of Meirionnydd, and the earliest, dated 1578, shows not a single road in the county. The next (probably also about 1578) shows just one, which runs from Dinas to Dolgellau to Llanfacreth (sic) and then takes a straight line over the mountains to Harlech. Robert Norden's map of north Wales (1694) shows the mail route from the West Midlands to Caernarfon via Dolgellau for the first time, and also shows some other Welsh towns.

The first turnpike roads in Wales were established in 1777 (Pritchard, 1961). The Act which established the Merioneth Turnpike Trust was general and embraced all the principal highways in Meirionnydd: it was kept going until the last quarter of the 19th century. The Trust was a single entity but was split up into five road districts, including Dolgellau and Mawddach, which took in the road to Barmouth, and the road between Dolgellau and Maentwrog as far as the bridge at Trawsfynydd.

George Kay, writing in 1794, commented that, in recent times, roads in Meirionnydd had been improved by the turnpikes but were, in his opinion, still too narrow. He reported that 'part of the road from Dolgellau to Barmouth cost two and a half guineas per rood of eight yards'. This road would appear to be a brand new construction, as all previous traffic had been by boat. In around 1755 the road to Bala was built, replacing the old track. In April, 1834, a correspondent for the Caernarfon and Denbigh Herald (C&D, 19/4/1834) described the state of the Trawsfynydd to Dolgellau road as 'disgraceful and dangerous', adding 'in every yard of it there is a rut deep enough for the grave of a child and to ensure breakdowns the space between is filled up with lumps of stone each as large as cannon balls of Swedish turnips' (Pritchard, 1961, 29).

The Post Office map dated 1823 (Dolgellau Archives, Trawsfynydd parish file) does not show any road northwards from Dolgellau (although 'Transvynith' is shown), but the road was certainly shown on a map dated 1827 (Dodd, 1925, 139), and appears to have been a brand new turnpike construction. Before the 1860s, the daily Royal Mail coach route ran from Dolgellau (whence mail had arrived from Shrewsbury via Bala), over Bont Fawr and over Llanelltyd bridge and then took two routes - northwards towards Plas Tan y Bwlch ( via Trawsfynydd) or westwards along the Mawddach via Barmouth (using the new turnpike road which passed through Bontddu, and a ferry across the estuary) to Tywyn. These routes had been established since at least the middle of the 18th century and are shown on a series of contemporary maps. Again, its position at the centre of a hub of communications emphasised Dolgellau's importance.

There were tollgates at all road entrances to Dolgellau by the end of the 18th-century, which was a constant cause of complaint by visitors until they were finally abandoned in 1875.


Cambrian Railways was formed in 1864 (as an amalgamation of three mid-Wales companies) and the section of the railway which linked Aberystwyth-Machynlleth-Barmouth-Porthmadog opened on 3rd July 1865. The main line was opened throughout its length on 10th October 1867. In 1899 McDougall built, at his own cost, a station at Morfa Mawddach to serve his enterprise (the development of the area on the morfa, as a holiday resort for wealthy Midlands industrialists, which eventually became Fairbourne). An extension (Dolgellau branch) to the east of Morfa Mawddach station had reached Penmaenpool in 1865, where it was halted due to lack of finances. However, four years later it was continued and ran along the southern side of the estuary, before crossing over it, and on as far as Dolgellau, where it terminated just east of Bont Fawr on the north side of the Wnion (the details of the line and station are shown on the 1901 OS 2nd edition map).

This station formed an end-on link with the westernmost extent of the Great Western Railway, which came via Bala from Ruabon and opened at the same time. Travellers had to change platforms from one railway to the other; up until 1925 this was by means of simply crossing the track, until a footbridge was built. The line was finally closed in 1965 and is now a cycleway ('the Mawddach trail'). The line of the railway was partly used (in area 02) as the line of the new road bypass, opened in 1981 (Wear & Jones, 1990). The only other station in the project area was Dolserau Halt (Torrent Walk) to the north-east of Dolgellau (the track came down the Wnion valley alongside the river and can still be traced today throughout area 15). This consisted of a very simple platform with no staff and was intended mainly for visitors to Torrent Walk. Originally opened in 1935, it was closed in 1951.

A minor narrow-gauge railway was constructed to take ore down to the furnace at Dôl-gun in the 19th century: the slight remains can still be seen today as part of a bridleway running down the eastern side of Tir Stent (area 14).

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Cultural associations

The Meirionnydd Quakers

The Quaker George Fox made his first visit to Wales, and specifically to Dolgellau, in 1657, saying he had found an earthly Paradise and that 'here is a valley of peace and beauty'. He and John ap John, the first Welsh Quaker, had been travelling throughout Wales preaching their belief that man could have direct personal communion with God, with no need for formal creeds, rites or church hierarchies. Fox taught that men and women should learn to listen to 'the Inner Light' and follow Christ's words in all things.

Although they had both met with opposition and persecution on their journey, their message had a great appeal for many of the farmers living in the hills around Dolgellau, Llwyngwril and Bala. Among the first converts were Thomas Ellis, Iscregennan; Owen Lewis, Tyddyn y Garreg (area 16) and Robert Owen, Dolserau (area 15). Other leading families who owned their own properties were also members of the faith, and lived in houses such as Llwyn Du, Brynmawr and Dôl-gun. At the latter, there is an outbuilding with steps leading up it where an early meeting of the Quakers took place: there is also a building at Tyddyn y Garreg which was similarly used.

Several leading industrialists in the 17th- and 18th-century were Quakers. People like the Rowntree, Cadbury, Darby and Clark families were members of the Society of Friends and in fact the industrial revolution owed much to the Quakers. They were hard-working people, who, as Fox said, believed in the inner light, a personal relationship with God, and hard work. As a sect they rejected rituals, including social ones - they did not, for instance, believe in doffing hats to people who were considered to be more important in society. They espoused ideas of equality, even basic feminism, and they did not believe in holding services in churches, which they called steeple houses, preferring informal meetings in simple rooms. They were persecuted much more vigorously than other Nonconformist sects, mainly because of their refusal to take the Oath of Allegiance to the King: following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 this was considered to be political treachery and probably part of a Papist plot. But Quakers (or Friends, as they called themselves) maintained that to swear an oath of any sort was contrary to the teaching of Christ.

One of the first to suffer here was Robert Owen of Dolserau, who spent five and a half years in a damp prison on the banks of the Afon Aran, not being allowed home even once during that time. He was one of the local gentry, a descendant of Baron Owen who had been murdered by the Red Bandits of Mawddwy. But not all Quakers belonged to the landed gentry: for example, Ellis Pugh had been born in Brithdir of humble parents and became a notable preacher; his book, translated as 'Salutation to the Britons', was the first Welsh language book to be printed in America. It is interesting that his printer was the father-in-law of Benjamin Franklin.

Rowland Ellis, Bryn-mawr, became a member of the Society of Friends in 1672, and, shortly afterwards, he and a number of others were brought before Judge Walcott at Bala. When they refused to take the Oath of Allegiance and Supremacy the judge threatened to punish them as traitors, the men to be hanged, drawn and quartered, the women to be burnt. But an eminent London lawyer arrived in time to prove that Walcott was administering a law which had already been repealed, and he was obliged to release the prisoners.

Bala, also, had its share of persecution, with Quaker barns being set on fire and tenants being dispossessed of their land. A farmer called Cadwaladr Thomas was the first to be evicted by his landlord, with £55 worth of his stock seized. Fortunately many of the Welsh Quakers owned their own farms and were able to help the less fortunate among them.

In 1681, William Penn acquired land in America (which later became Pennsylvania), and the Welsh Quakers bought 40,000 acres between them. The first to emigrate were Dr Edward Jones of Bala and his company in 1682, sailing from Liverpool in the ship 'Lyon' and reaching Delaware some eleven weeks later. They were followed by hundreds of other Welsh Quakers, including Rowland Ellis, who, in 1687, named his new farm there Bryn-mawr, after his old home south-west of Dolgellau (area 16). This name was later given to the famous women's college there, though it is not on the site of the original Bryn-mawr.

William Penn had promised the Welsh that they might live together in one 'free' Tract, speaking their own language and administering their own laws. However, on reaching Pennsylvania they discovered that their dream was not to be honoured, and after a long struggle to persuade the Founder to keep his promise to them, the authorities finally changed the boundaries, splitting the Welsh Tract in two.

Although Welsh names such as Merion (sic), Radnor, Haverford and Gwynedd still survived, and although Welsh was the language of worship in both Merion and Gwynedd Meeting Houses until about the middle of the 18th-century, the Tract soon lost its Welsh identity. Disillusioned, many of the Welsh Quakers returned to Wales, but gradually they disappeared from Meirionnydd. By the next century only one or two well-known names remained - such as that of the woman minister, Sorti Owen, Dewisbren, who would walk all the way to London and back every year to be present at the Quakers' Yearly Meeting. In 1847 the Congregationalists were given permission to use the old Quaker Meeting House near Dolgellau, which was named Tabor (area 16), and it is still a place of worship today. There is a Quaker burial ground at Tyddyn y Garreg, and it is generally believed that the last Quaker in the area died in about 1850.

The houses associated with the Quakers in the Dolgellau area shown in the Atlas Meirionnydd (Bowen, 1970) include Dolserau, Dôl-gun (area 15), Hendre, Tyddyn-y-clawdd, Gwanas, Tir-stent, Cwm-hafod-oer, Bwlch-coch, Dewisbren, Bryn-mawr, Tregerrig and Tyddynygarreg, with a chapel at Tabor (all area 16).

Painters and artists

Since the end of the 18th century, Dolgellau has been a mecca for Engish and Welsh painters and artists, who were interested in both the town itself and the surrounding landscape (most notably Cadair Idris and the Mawddach, as well as the woollen mills on the Aran). Two of the more significant paintings, perhaps, are Richard Wilson's 1765 painting 'Llyn-y-cau, Cader Idris' (which now hangs in the Tate Gallery in London and is considered one of the masterpieces of 18th century art) and the later 'The Old Mill, Dolgellau' by William Mander (fl. 1880-1922).

In addition, a series of artists has also made numerous paintings of the town of Dolgellau itself over the years: these include works by Thomas Gainsborough and John Hassell (both late 18th- century); John Webber (for example, a 1790 painting looking down on the town from the road to Tywyn); George Pickering (an early 19th-century painting looks south over Dolgellau towards Cadair Idris); Elizabeth Baker (again a 19th-century artist, one of whose views is similar to the latter); and William Hughes (who painted several views of Eldon Square and surrounding streets in the 1830s). Copies of these are incuded in the Dolgellau Town File (DRO). The latter also contains many historical photographs of Dolgellau (by numerous photographers) which go back to the late 19th-century and record the development of the town in considerable detail.

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Amongst the earliest recorded 'outside' views of Dolgellau are those of Camden, in his 'Britannia' (1586), who saw Dolgellau as no better than 'a small market town', while Leland (1710) described it as no more than 'the best village' in Tal-y-bont (J Gwynfor Jones, 2001).
By the 1770s, partly as a result of improvements in the road infrastructure, the more adventurous (English) were being attracted to Wales: they came to 'admire her sovereign mountains, beautiful vallies and surprising cascades' (Pritchard, 1961). Some of these visitors, known as tourists to distinguish them from 'ordinary' travellers whose main object was simply to travel from A to B, kept accounts of their journeys or tours. These accounts are invaluable sources of information on the state of the country at the time. One of the foremost was Thomas Pennant, whose 'Tours in Wales' (published in the early 1780s) influenced many others to travel here (J Gwynfor Jones, 1981).

The popularity and influence of these accounts were reinforced by the publication from the 1770s of Road Books as Guides to Travellers: Pennant had not been impressed with the state of the roads around Dolgellau, although these did gradually improve after 1777 with the building of the first turnpike roads in the county. Many of the early tourists repeated the routes (and opinions!) of Pennant, but things changed considerably over the next thirty or so years.

John Byng, later Viscount Torrington, wrote in 1784 'to suppose that Wales can be seen from a carriage is a grand mistake. It is impossible to explore this country but on horse-back: as from Dolgelle we have travelled nothing but narrow paths..'. Henry Wyndham (nd), an Old Etonian Sheriff of Wiltshire, described his entry into the town thus: 'we entered among the miserable hovels of this town under a boarded chanel which serves as an aqueduct to a mill and from which the water is constantly dripping upon the passenger's head' (Dolgellau Town File, DRO).

In 1836, Thomas Roscoe describes his visit to the area : 'a pleasant walk of about a mile and a half beyond Llanelltyd brings the traveller to Dolgelley, which is encircled by mountains, and seated on the river Wnion, here a broad, shallow stream, over which is a handsome bridge of seven arches. It has a neat church, containing some old monuments; and a commodious county-hall'. Some time later, H V Morton (in 1912) visited 'Dolgelly ', stating he 'might be in the Austrian Tyrols as the square is crowded with mountaineers'.

Cadair Idris (allegedly) takes its name from a 7th-century warrior killed in a battle against the Saxons. Unlike many other peaks in north Wales, it does not quite reach 3,000 ft (it is 2,927 ft high), but due to its isolation it appears higher, and during the 18th century it became one of the most popular destinations for tourists in north Wales, with most visitors to it staying in Dolgellau. Byng (1784) reported that 'Robin Edwards has shewn this mountain for forty years' to 'Wilson, Gainsborough and every artist who for thirty or forty years back have visited these places'. Robin Edwards (probably the most famous of all Cadair's and Dolgellau's guides even now) would refer to English tourists as 'Curiosity men', and was still advertising his services in the town (via handbills printed on one of the local presses) at the age of 84.

By the mid 19th-century, Robert Pugh, the 'Guide General', amongst others, used to lead people up the tracks of Cadair Idris on ponies. He had a cottage on the summit where shelter 'was to be had for those wishing to see the rising sun, or in case of a shower or likewise' (there are still remains of a dwelling there). Riding up Cadair was a very popular activity, and at one time between 40 and 50 Welsh ponies were kept at one hotel in the town alone for this purpose. Also in the 19th-century, a man used to travel from Dolgellau to the summit of Cadair Idris on a pack mule, to sell lemonade and sandwiches to tourists, and the route he took is now called the Pony Path. The two highest glacial lakes - Llyn Cadair to the north and Llyn Cau to the south - are favourite destinations. Llyn Cau is a most impressive lake, reputed to have no bottom, and also to hide in its depths a monster like that of Loch Ness.

One of the most famous climbers of Cadair Idris was O G Jones, an adventurer of the late 19th-century who pioneered a number of rock climbing routes, including several up Cadair. In the early days, climbers stuck to gullies and crack lines; O G ventured onto faces and ridges, and so began a new trend of higher risk climbing. Sadly, he was killed in the Alps at quite a young age.

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Other associations

Several houses in the area are associated with Court Poets of the medieval period: these include Nannau (area 11), Hengwrt (05), Cymer (06), Dolserau, Caerynwch, Gwanas (all area 15), Berth-lwyd, Tyddyn-y-garreg, Plâs Brithdir (all 16) and Llwyn (02). These poets were nearly all associated with the 'uchelwyr' and the distribution of houses (and estates) gives an important glimpse into 16th-century life (Bowen, 1970). Among the more famous bards are Gruffudd ap Adda ap Dafydd (born c. 1344), Gruffudd Nannau (fl. 1654), Harri Hywel (fl. 1637-71) and William Jones (1907-64). For a full discussion of the bardic evidence for the Meirionnydd gentry in the social order see J Gwynfor Jones, 1981-4.

Several other important figures are associated with Dolgellau. Dr John Thomas, the 18th-century Bishop of St. Asaph, Lincoln & Salisbury, was a native of Dolgellau, and John Price (1828-1903) became Dean of Bangor. Gryffydd Owen, the first physician of the newly formed state of Pennsylvania in the 17th-century, originated from the town. Robert Owen, the famous Quaker, lived briefly at Dolserau Hall, while a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Temple, founded the Dolgellau cricket team - one of the oldest in Wales. Richard Jones (1787-1855) and William Hughes (1838-1921) were two of the town's more important printers. Henry Owen (1716-95), the cleric, physician and scholar was born at Tan-y-gadair into a Quaker famly. Owen Owens (1792-1862), the 'sensible preacher and moderate Calvanist' and schoolmaster was born at Maes Angharad (area 04). In 1725, Baron Richards was born at Coed, Brithdir: well-educated, he became Chief Justice of Chester, Baron of the Exchequer and Lord Chief Baron.

Hengwrt is now largely famous, as one of the mansions of the Vaughans of Nannau, for being the place where the Hengwrt MSS, now at Peniarth, were formerly kept, and also as the home of the famous diarist Elizabeth Baker (c. 1720-89) (Passmore, 1999), whose diaries give an unrivalled view of life in late 18th-century Dolgellau.

One of the earliest Grammar Schools in Wales was built in Dolgellau in 1665, endowed by Dr John Ellis (who was a Rector here at the time): the building was demolished in 1969. The year 1715 saw the death of Dr Daniel Williams: a trust was established from his will which eventally set up Dr Williams' School for Girls (see area 02) in the late 19th century (an establishment since taken over by Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor).



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