Historic Landscape Characterisation - Trawsfynydd Historical Themes


This landscape area occupies an inland, largely marginal situation, stretching from the lower eastern slopes of the Rhinogau mountains (at a height of up to 450m OD) eastwards across the low-lying valley through which the Afon Eden slowly flows (at around 200m OD) and up to the top of Moel Oernant and Moel Ddu (a maximum of 500m OD): the eastern extent of the area is the top of Cwm Prysor. The area extends from Gellilydan (a 20th-century settlement largely the product of workers imported to build the dam (area 05) for the hydro-electric scheme) in the north, to the edge of main forestry block of Coed y Brenin in the south.

The principal themes which make this particular historic landscape outstanding include well-preserved evidence of communications and recurrent military use from Roman to recent times, and the creation of power in recent times. On top of this ‘hard’ evidence, the area is also rich in historic legendary and literary associations.

There are no hillforts in the area, but the military complex at Tomen-y-Mur (mainly area 17), most of which is scheduled, which extends over many hectares comprises one of the most important relict Roman landscapes in Britain. The fort at the heart of the complex was probably built in AD 77 or 78 as a result of Agricola's campaign. Under Hadrian, it was reduced in size and rebuilt in stone, although the fort does not seem to have been garrisoned for long after the rebuilding, and may have been abandoned by the middle of the 2nd century AD. The fort is surrounded by an extensive complex of ancillary earthworks, including an amphitheatre, bath house, mansio, practice camps and burial monuments, some unique in Britain.

However, the name Tomen y Mur derives from the Norman motte for which the fort provided a ready-made bailey. Very little is known of the history of the motte beyond the fact that William Rufus campaigned there in 1095. About four miles to the south east is Castell Prysor (area 12), a ‘particularly impressive Welsh motte and bailey castle’ (Avent, 1983, 8). Originally revetted or faced with mortared masonry, today is survives as a series of low rubble walls on top of a natural stone outcrop, with a series of buildings (presumably the original bailey) around its base. It was an important base, probably the llys of the commote at the end of the 13th century (Edward I sent a letter from here in 1284), dominating the east-west running valley from which the area derives its name, one of the major routes into the heartland of medieval Gwynedd.

Around five miles to the south of Tomen y Mur, a small military camp was established at Bryn Golau, on the southern outskirts of Trawsfynydd village at the turn of the 20th century (southern edge of area 12). In 1906, a larger, more permanent site was established at Rhiw Goch further south: the War Office bought land from the locals and the camp developed. Soon the War Department owned 8,020 acres in Trawsfynydd parish, mainly for artillery practice for both the Regular and Territorial Army. During the First World War the camp became a busy centre not just for accommodation for soldiers, but also as an artillery range and a prisoner-of-war camp.

By World War II, more-permanent structures had replaced the tents as accommodation. Once again it was also used as a POW camp, though this time mainly for Italian, rather than German, prisoners. After 1945, the camp gradually lost its importance but was used more as a firing range for unused ammunition, conveyed by rail to Trawsfynydd and then by lorries to Rhiw Goch. By 1948 the ‘Trawsfynydd Artillery Range’ extended to some 8403 acres.

The camp was finally closed as a military establishment in 1957-8, but was re-opened almost immediately to accommodate over 800 non-local construction workers involved with building the Trawsfynydd power station (area 05).

Prior to this, the land on which the Maentwrog hydro-electric power station, and the lake and dam necessary to supply water to it, was purchased in the mid-1920s by the North Wales Power Company: work began in 1925 and the station was opened in October, 1928. The lake was formed by the construction of four dams which between them impounded the water to form Llyn Trawsfynydd. Work on the construction of Atomfa Trawsfynydd (power station) begun in July, 1959, and the station was finally opened in October 1968. It has since been decommissioned, and the site is being heavily promoted as a leisure and tourist attraction, principally for fishing and boating.

Moving to cultural associations, Tomen-y-mur (under the guise of Mur Castell, as it is known in the story) is one of the main scenes of action in the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, Math vab Mathonwy (see below). Ellis Humphrey Evans (whose bardic name was Hedd Wyn) was born at Penlan, Trawsfynydd, Meirionnydd in 1887, and soon afterwards the family moved to his father’s old home ‘Yr Ysgwrn’ a small hill farm about a mile to the east of the village of Trawsfynydd (area 12). He famously won the chair for poetry at the National Eisteddfod in 1917 in Birkenhead for his awdl, ‘Yr Arwr’ (The Hero), having been killed a month earlier in the war at Passchendale. In scenes of great emotion and sadness the chair was covered with a black cloth, and today the Birkenhead Eisteddfod is still referred to as ‘Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu’. Saint John Roberts, one of Wales’s most famous Catholic martyrs, was allegedly born at Rhiw Goch, Trawsfynydd, in 1577. Having been raised as a Protestant, educated at Oxford and studied further in France and Spain he was eventually found guilty of high treason (having sinceconverted to Catholicism) and was executed in 1610.

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Land holding

The project area lies almost entirely within the parish of Trawsfynydd which, in the medieval period, was within the commote of Ardudwy Uwch Artro (the largest and most-densely populated commote in Merioneth) (Williams-Jones, 1976). In the Merioneth Lay Subsidy Roll of 1292-3, Trawsfynydd is recorded as one of the poorest parishes in the county, worth between 10 – 20 shillings per thousand acres.

There are very few early references to land holdings here in the archives: the most significant (though not terribly helpful) is in the first Nannau papers (NLW Nannau MSS A1 (1st August 1420/1)) which records a release by Goronwy ap Llywelyn of Adda of Trawsfynydd [probably modern day Cae Adda – area 06] to John Salghell, burgess of Harlech, of a tenement called Hen Gastell in Trawsfynydd [possibly Tomen-y-mur].

Information on the Trawsfynydd tithe map and apportionment (dated 1840), which covers almost 90% of the project area, shows just five ‘large’ landowners in the parish, with the majority of farms owned by individuals. For example, Thomas Price Anwyl, Esq., owned much of the land within area 06, south of the present lake (i.e. farms which appear to be late 18th/early 19th century in date; in the same area, the land owned by Coed-y-rhygen (owner’s name illegible), an apparently earlier settlement, is also very large; while Anne Jones owned several farms in Cwm Prysor (including Ysgwrn) as well as land in the south of the area; the Trustees of the late Richard Parry, Esq., owned a large number of farms around Trawsfynydd (now within areas 9, 12 and 16).

The Maentwrog tithe map (1841), which covers the northern part of the project area including areas 16, part of 17 and 18, shows no large farms or estates, just lots of small parcels of tenanted land. Most of the enclosures here are large and irregular, possibly due to the marginal land involved.

It is likely that much of the area was formally enclosed around the end of the 18th – beginning of the 19th centuries (see areas 9 and 16), although there is evidence for earlier enclosure in the field walls and patterns to the west of Llyn Trawsfynydd (area 06), along the southern side of Cwm Prysor (area 12) and in the small valley to the west of Moel Ddu (area 10).

During the last century, large portions of the western part of the area (area 01, 06 and 18 in particular) were planted by the Forestry Commission with conifers. Study of earlier maps (and recent fieldwork, D Thompson, pers comm) suggest that these plantations mask evidence for landscape composition which duplicates in most cases that to be seen to their immediate east (i.e. a landscape of 19th century enclosure of marginal land, with scattered small-farm settlement and irregular field enclosures).

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In the 17th century, the land in Trawsfynydd parish was described as being so poor that over half of the parish was not cultivated (Lhwyd, 1911). At that time, the parish was said to have indifferent pasture ground, while some bogs had excellent turves and there was heath for sheep and cattle: around eight hundred cattle, two thousand lambs, a hundred goats and a hundred horses were kept at that time. In addition, oats were grown, along with some rye and barley (ibid).

As recorded above, the Trawsfynydd tithe map and apportionment (dated 1840) shows just five ‘large’ landowners in the parish, with the majority of farms owned by individuals. Unfortunately the apportionment does not always record field names, although those it does imply (perhaps surprising given the upland, pasture appearance of the landscape today) a mixed agriculture of pasture and some barley, with smaller ‘garden’ plots immediately surrounding the farmhouses.

There is little evidence for early (prehistoric or medieval) agricultural practices remaining in the landscape: the scheduled site at the northern end of Crawcwellt (area 04) below the Rhinogau, which comprises a series of ill-defined wandering walls below a hut group site which is probably late prehistoric in date, suggest some form of cultivation and animal husbandry, although recent excavation has suggested that this was a subsidiary part of the local economy at this period. Another isolated site on Ffridd Wen (area 11), this time an apparent enclosed hut group surrounded by a partial survival of a ridge and furrow system (presumably later – see photograph) gives a glimpse of an early agricultural economy which involved cultivation.

However, analysis of the existing field walls and patterns strongly suggest that it is likely that much of the area was only formally enclosed around the end of the 18th– beginning of the 19th centuries (see areas 9 and 16). Certainly the area to the south of the present Llyn Trawsfynydd, given its SSSI status (area 7), and the areas immediately adjacent to its east and west sides, suggest that this area has not been subject to long-term agricultural improvement. However, there is some evidence for earlier (medieval?) enclosure in the field walls and patterns to the west of Llyn Trawsfynydd (area 06), along the southern side of Cwm Prysor (area 12) and in the small valley to the west of Moel Ddu (area 10). With the possible exception of area 10, however, none of these display classic evidence of extensive enclosure from the prehistoric period.

The northern part of the project area, which includes area 16, as well as part of 17 and 18, shows no large farms or estates, just lots of small parcels of tenanted land. Most of the enclosures here are large and irregular, possibly due to the marginal land involved, and suggest late enclosure of waste land in the post-medieval period. Similarly, the enclosures below the Rhinogau (area 02 in particular), but also many of the enclosures typical of the field systems visible in area 09 to the west of the modern road on the edge of the SSSI suggest late 18th/early 19th century encroachment on to former waste (although recent analysis of some of the houses here (e.g. Bryn Maen Llwyd) suggest a possible 17th century date (J Alfrey, pers comm)).

Some of the farms along the southern side of Cwm Prysor (Ysgwrn, Bodyfuddau, Bronasgellog - area 12) and their associated field systems also may be of sub-medieval date, the field walls showing evidence of ‘early’ construction and re-builds.

The preponderance of out-lying cow houses (mostly two-storey, stone-built constructions built perpendicular into slight slopes, with an open lower end and door access for hay and straw at the upper end) in most of the lower-lying, less marginal situations (such as areas 09 (see photograph), 10, 12 and 16) display good evidence for a concentration on a cattle-based agricultural economy in the last couple of hundred years. Many have machine-cut slate pillars holding up the bulk of the roof structure, which suggests construction after c. 1840. It is significant that many of these have been repaired as part of recent agri-environment schemes (Tir Cymen and Tir Gofal).

Meanwhile, in the upland areas (for example on the eastern flanks of the Rhinogau and on Moel Oernant), there are the remains of several (although not numerous) hafotai, some with small enclosures and sheepfolds. However, these are not extensive when compared with areas to the north and west.

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Evidence for prehistoric settlement in the area is largely limited to Crawcwellt (where there is an extensive field system lying below a scattered group of circular huts – area 04), and a more self-contained site on the north-east-facing slopes of Ffridd Wen (area 11). A detailed description is to be found in section 8.5. The impressive evidence for Romano-British settlement (one of the principal reasons underlying the inclusion of this area on the Register) is summarised as part of area 17). It includes, as well as the central fort, an amphitheatre and other structures relating to a military infrastructure.

Only three townships are recorded in this huge parish in the medieval period (Williams-Jones, 1976), all at its northern end: Trawsfynydd (a modern village at SH706355, the only nucleated settlement in the area – area 08), Prysor (whose name is recorded today in both a major valley and in the castle which lies at its centre (SH758369 - area 12), and Cefn Clawdd (now an isolated farm at the base of the Rhinogau (SH678336) – area 02). The Merioneth Lay Subsidy Rolls records 105 tax payers in the parish in 1292-3 (a relatively high number compared with other parishes, no doubt in part explained by its size), most of whom were, typically, paying tax at the lowest rate possible. However, there is little if any physical evidence in the landscape for (medieval) settlement in the form of ‘long huts’, even in the upland, marginal areas, which is quite surprising.

In the 17th century, the number of houses in Trawsfynydd was put at c. 300 and the number of inhabitants estimated at c. 1200. There were 12 houses and a church in Trawsfynydd itself, and the land was so poor that over half of the parish was not cultivated (Lhwyd, 1911). In 1801 the census shows that the population of Trawsfynydd parish (which comprises most of the project area) was 1232: thereafter there were small rises until 1881 when there was a large increase from 1553 to 1930. Interestingly, the number of people working in the quarries at Blaenau Ffestiniog fell from 1834 onwards, so it is not known how these people were employed. By 1891 the population dropped rapidly to 1615 but had risen again to 1708 by 1911 (by which time the Army camp was well-established): it declined thereafter until 1961 (when the nuclear station was being built) when it was up to 1878 people: it was down to 1030 in 1971, and has continued to decline ever since.

The date of the turnpike road (now the modern A470) (see below) as being newly-constructed between 1777 and 1823 supports the suggestion that the settlement of this central area (between Trawsfynydd and Coed y Brenin) is principally late 18th century/early 19th century in date. Most of the farmsteads appear to date from this period, almost all of which lie to the west of (and below) the main road, and their surrounding field systems have the appearance of encroachment on the fringes of marginal land (for example around Bryn-crwn and Adwy-deg). Certainly all were established by 1840, but none (farms nor field pattern) appear to be as old as the farms in the smaller valley to the east (area 10) and it would seem that the emphasis of settlement shifted from this latter area to the edges of the Common in the early modern period following the improvement of access.

Some of the farms along the southern side of Cwm Prysor (Ysgwrn, Bodyfuddau, Bronasgellog - area 12) and again their associated field systems also may be of sub-medieval date, the field walls showing evidence of ‘early’ construction and re-builds.

Just outside the area to the north, Gellilydan is a rather sprawling settlement which developed in the early 20th century due to workers (many Irish Catholics) imported to build the dams for the hydro-electric scheme (area 05). The wayside shrine and Roman Catholic church to the east of the main road here also owe their origins to this phase of settlement in the area. The former army camp at Bronaber (area 20) was taken over in the late 1950s by construction workers brought in to build the nuclear power station at Trawsfynydd, and many of the structures date from that period, although the layout of the settlement belongs to its earlier life.

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Non-nucleated settlements

According to Lhwyd (1911), in the mid 17th century the houses occupied in Trawsfynydd parish included Rhiw Goch (described as a ‘park’ and owned by the Honourable Sir John Wynne (area 20), Orsedd-lâs (area 09), Wyddow (unlocated), Ysgwrn (area 12), Bronasgellog (area 12), Caer y Cyrrach (unlocated), Tyddyn Gwladus (unlocated), Celligen (unlocated), Llech Edris (possibly Bryn Maen Llwd), Dolgen, Goedyr hygun (unlocated) and Cae Adda (area 06).

The chronology of surviving building in this area suggests a definite history of settlement which may be related to other evidences of historical land use. The earliest surviving buildings appear to occupy the southern slopes of Cwm Prysor (area 12) and the steeper western slopes below Moel Ddu (area 10). Some may be traceable to the late sixteenth century, though many are more recent than that. Most are relatively small farmsteads (of which Ysgwrn and Tyddyn Mawr, both of which are listed, are good examples), with the single exception of Rhiw Goch, which is an early 17th century gentry house, typifying the aspirations of ambitious estate-building gentry at the period (the house is large, and originally approached by a separate gatehouse). Both house and gatehouse are enriched with armorial panels in celebration of genealogy. In these character areas, the earlier houses are characterised by the longer plans of the sub-medieval tradition, with some sited against the slope, again an indication of early origins.

A small area of relict settlement on the western shores of Llyn Trawsfynydd may also be of earlier origin: Tyn Twll is another farmhouse clearly built within a sub-medieval tradition (the voussoir-arched doorway suggests a late 16th- early 17th-century date).

West of Afon Eden (area 09), the settlement pattern suggests later encroachment onto waste land (though the site of a medieval township suggests some at least of this may have much earlier origins). Evidence from these buildings is probably consistent with late 18th - early 19th century development, though few have been examined in detail (and recent evidence suggests that Bryn Maen Llwyd, at least, is earlier (J Alfrey, pers comm).

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Nucleated settlements

There is only one nucleated settlement in the area, the village of Trawsfynydd itself (area 08): it has the characteristics of a 19th-century industrial village which expanded during the century (although its economic base is still unclear). Short terraces of workers’ housing predominate, but there is a clear chronology of building within the village, which has a recognisable early nucleus around the church, where there is some evidence of earlier buildings, including the inn (Ty Gwyn) with stabling at rear. An early 19th-century phase of growth is traceable in several Georgian vernacular buildings (for example the White Lion on High Street, and Glasfryn) which used large blocks of stone; whilst later 19th century terraces (in snecked masonry) developed along the main road to the north and south of the original centre. There are no listed buildings in the village (except for the church), where there has been a high level of loss of detail but, that said, it retains strong overall character.

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Building types and material

Almost all of the buildings outside Trawsfynydd (see above and description for area 08) are farms or farm buildings. Linear farms (where the farmhouse and outbuildings are in line) appear to be more common in more upland locations (for example Tyddyn Mawr, area 09); while elsewhere, grouped specialist buildings seem to predominate (for example, Bryn Maen Llwyd and Tyddyn Sais, area 09). Detached cowhouses (and some haybarns, for example attached to Berth Ddu, area 09, and in area 16) are also a distinctive feature of the landscape.

Generally within the area, local building stone predominates, generally without limewash or render. Most of the farmhouses (and other buildings) are of mortared stone, either worked as boulders or quarry-dressed, although drystone walling is used for some farm-buildings (although this does not seem to be as common in this area as it is in Ardudwy, for example). Later 19th-century work has characteristic snecked masonry, enabling clear phasing distinctions to be drawn, for example in the village of Trawsfynydd (area 08). Regrettably, the strong local tradition of bare masonry has been rudely disrupted in the small industrial settlement adjacent to the former station (Ardudwy terrace and Ty-llwyd terrace) where housing ‘improvement’ has introduced by way of 'spar-dash render'. Generally, however, the exposed stone walling provides one of the strongest elements in the character of the area, and the maintenance of this tradition is highly desirable.

With the exception of Rhiw Goch, which has some Renaissance characteristics, building seems to be rooted firmly in a regional vernacular tradition, remaining so until well into the 19th century, by which time a simple Georgian style had taken hold. One farm, Berth ddu (area 09), however, takes up a Georgian vocabulary earlier in the 19th century. It has all the appearance of an estate farmhouse. This fits in well with the proposed model (see above) of the agricultural development of the central area around this date.

To the north of Afon Prysor (area 12), the buildings appear in general to be much later, with little to suggest a building date prior to the 19th century (although most of the farms were in existence by 1841). Many of the farms in this area have been heavily altered in more recent times, but their outlines suggest the more compact planning of a later period.

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Relict archaeology

The upland basin originally compised an extensive peat bog, Gors Goch, before the construction of the present reservoir began in 1926. This basin may once have contained a natural lake which could be expected to have been well-visited and a focus of activity in the early prehistoric period, as a resource-rich area for a hunter-gatherer economy (see the SSSI designation within the description of area 07). Environmental studies of pollen preserved in upland peats in Ardudwy, close by to the west, have shown that these uplands were covered by well-developed woodland before the middle of the fourth millennium BC (Chambers & Price, 1988). However, there is no archaeological evidence of human activity in the Trawsfynydd basin belonging to that period. To some extent this reflects a similar pattern found elsewhere in north-west Wales, where most evidence of activity before the neolithic period is concentrated around the coast. Inland and upland areas may have been inaccessible in this period, with resources that were harder to exploit and so less-frequently visited. However, other upland basins elsewhere in north-east and south Wales have produced evidence of activity during the mesolithic period and it may well be that at Trawsfynydd there is archaeological evidence hidden by blanket peat or now submerged beneath the reservoir.

A similar situation exists for the neolithic period, for which most known evidence, particularly the distribution of chambered tombs, comes from areas close to the coast. Settlement would have been confined to small areas of the most easily-cleared and cultivated soils. However, the economy continued to rely to some extent on hunting and gathering, and the distribution of chance finds of neolithic stone axes provides clues to the wider presence of activity in the landscape. Such finds occur beyond the distribution of chambered tombs, in the major valleys but still largely avoiding the uplands. There are several axes from the valley of the Mawddach and upper Dee basin although the nearest to Trawsfynydd comes from a little way to the south at Y Garn. There is however, one object of probable Neolithic date, a flint scraper found in the eroding edge of the reservoir at the foot of Bryn y Bleddiad in 1929. There is, therefore, likely to be other material of that period buried beneath the blanket peat.

During the second millennium BC evidence of activity in the uplands of north-west Wales becomes much more widespread as shown by the presence of several hundred burial monuments of types typical of that period. They are found in three types of situation, firstly on prominent summits, secondly close to trackways and thirdly in groups that might be seen as specialised cemeteries or funerary and ceremonial areas. Unfortunately none of these locations need necessarily be close to areas of actual settlement. Around Trawsfynydd there are only two cairns and these are situated close together on shelves overlooking the west side of the basin. Their non-prominent setting and local aspect may indicate that they were associated with settlement close by. However, they also overlook a major ancient trackway through the mountains and so may be just related to that route.

There is other evidence of activity in the basin during the second millennium BC in the form of several mounds of burnt stone around Crawcwellt and Bronaber. Examples that have been excavated and dated elsewhere have shown them to belong mainly to that period (Davidson 1998). They are typically found alongside a water supply and have a timber-lined pit in which it is thought meat was cooked using heated stones. They have not been proved to belong to permanent settlement and are thought to represent seasonally visited sites associated with hunting or herding.

Environmental evidence from Ardudwy shows that the uplands were becoming deforested during the third and second millennia and evidence of human interference was appearing (Chambers and Price 1988). The upland of Ardudwy was certainly settled by the early first millennium as shown by the excavation of two similar settlements each consisting of a single large round house within a circular concentric enclosure (Kelly 1988). There is only one possible example of a similar settlement in Trawsfynydd, at Fridd Ddu on a hillslope at the south side of Cwm Prysor (see photograph for area 11). This has not been excavated but seems to have been a concentric enclosed roundhouse later modified by the addition of further houses or huts and a rectilinear enclosure annexe.

Finds of stone artefacts of types typical of the second millennium BC in north-west Wales, such as axe-hammers and perforated mace-heads have a similar distribution to that of neolithic stone axes, confined mainly to the lowland and valleys and there are none from the Trawsfynydd area. However, there are finds of bronze axes, two from around Tomen y Mur and one from Cwm Prysor as well as a hoard of three rapiers and a spear-head from Cwm Moch. None of these necessarily indicate settlement since all are close to major routes. Such items were anyway introduced and the Cwm Prysor axe, of late bronze age type, from the early first millennium BC, is of a style typical of south-east England or the Continent. The trackway through Cwm Moch originates in the west, possibly from a harbour at the mouth of the Afon Artro in Llanbedr and its route is fringed by standing stones and a variety of burial monuments (Bowen & Gresham 1967). It is believed to have crossed to the south of the main Trawsfynydd basin, near to Bronaber, where there is a standing stone, Maen Llwyd, and then continued into the valley of the Afon Gain close to another standing stone, Llech Idris.

The area was certainly settled towards the end of the first millennium BC and there are several scattered settlements of small round houses linked to irregular curvilinear fields or enclosures on Crawcwellt, partly buried by blanket peat, as well as in Cwm Moch and Cwm Prysor. Excavation of one of the settlements on Crawcwellt (area 04) has shown that it was occupied between about 300 BC and 50 AD and its main economy was not agricultural, but based on exploitation and smelting of local bog iron ore (Crew 1998). The same may have been true of other settlements nearby and all would have declined as iron became available more cheaply from other sources after the Roman invasion. Estimates from the quantity of slag suggest that the settlement would have produced about half a tonne of refined iron during its lifetime (ibid ). The area also contains some isolated huts in higher land and these are likely to have been pastoral settlements, for instance in Cwm Moch at the west and on Fridd Wen at the east.

There are no hillforts immediately around Trawsfynydd to indicate that there was any centre of authority here in the later first millennium BC even though its location at the focus of a number of natural routes was seen as strategically important when the Romans established the fort at Tomen-y-mur (area 17). There has been, however, one particularly high status find from peat-cutting somewhere in the basin during the 19th century. This is a tankard of yew with a casing of bronze and a handle in very finely-executed late Celtic style, dating to the end of the first millennium BC. It was probably made in the south west of England and so was an imported item. It may have been a funerary or ritual deposit but possibly again was associated with trackways rather than local settlement.

There are several settlements here of more substantial stone construction and complexity than those at Crawcwellt, including that at Fridd Ddu, mentioned above, and one at Cae Ddu, Gellilydan. These are nucleated groups of buildings and yards. That at Cae Ddu also contains a rectangular building and these settlement types are believed to have been farmsteads carrying out both arable and cattle farming. By comparison with similar settlements excavated elsewhere in north-west Wales these were almost certainly occupied during the Romano-British period and would have benefited from the political stability and market opportunities of the Romanised economy, possibly helping to supply the fort at Tomen-y-mur.

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Parks and gardens

There are no designed parks or gardens of note within the area. The only possible exception might be the landscape immediately around Trawsfynydd power station which was designed by Sylvia Crowe in 1961/2. The area surrounding the new, concrete monolith set within a National Park was deliberately designed to blend in with the surrounding (natural) landscape and to this end it was a successful undertaking: there is now actually nothing to differentiate between the ‘natural’ and the ‘planted’ (see photograph of area 05) . On the Trawsfynydd tithe map, the only farm shown as having an established garden (with trees etc.) is Bronasgellog on the southern side of Cwm Prysor (area 12).

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From an historical point of view, the most significant industrial remains are the Roman tile kilns which lie alongside the former Roman road at Penystryd on the south-western slopes of Moel Ddu (area 19). There are undoubtedly connected with Tomen y Mur to the north, and form an important part of the extensive relict Roman landscape which surrounds the fort.

Otherwise, there is little of industrial archaeological interest in the area, apart from a few small, disused slate quarries. The only significant one, Braich-ddû slate quarries to the north of Tomen y Mur (area 15), closed in 1868 (and was the last quarry to have slate taken down to the Afon Dwyryd to be taken out by boat), although it was used briefly in the 1980s and the remains are somewhat disturbed (Richards, 1991, 145). There is a small pit and adit, with outbuildings, at Cefn Clawdd (area 04).

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There is good evidence for the Roman roads which extended outwards from Tomen-y-mur north-eastwards towards Bryn-y-gefeiliau fort; north-westwards (possibly down via a harbour on the Dwyryd at Felinrhyd) to Llystyn and eventually Segontium; eastwards (via the practice camps at Dolddinas) to Caer Gai; and southwards (past the Roman tile kilns at Penystryd) to Brithdir. (A detailed description of the roads is to be found in Hopewell, 2004, summarised in the description of area 17 below.) The former and the latter form part of Sarn Helen which has passed into medieval Welsh folk-lore (see below). It is likely that these roads continued into use well into the medieval period (see the description of the settlements in area 09 below).

The Hengwrt archives (Trans. Hon. Cymrod, 1927) contains some ancient maps of Merioneth, and the earliest, dated 1578, shows not a single road in the county. The next (probably also 1578) shows just one, which runs from Dinas to Dolgellau to Llanfacraeth (sic) and then takes a straight line over the mountains to Harlech.

The first turnpike roads in Wales were established in 1777 (Pritchard, 1961). The Act which established the Trust was general and embraced all the principal highways in Meirionnydd: it was kept going until the last quarter of the 19th century. The Meirionnydd Trust was a single entity but was split up into five districts of roads, including Dolgellau and Mawddach, the road to Barmouth and the road between Dolgellau and Maentwrog as far as the bridge at Trawsfynydd (see area 09).

George Kay, writing in 1794, comments that in recent times roads in Merioneth had been improved by the turnpikes but were, in his opinion, still too narrow. 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 or Swedish turnips’ (Pritchard, 1961, 29).

The first advertisement for bids for the letting of the Trawsfynydd toll gate appeared in 1823, which may well indicate a date for the completion of the building of this section of road. However, a Post Office map dated 1823 (Dolgellau Archives, Trawsfynydd parish file) does not show any road northwards from Dolgellau although ‘Transvynith’ is shown, along with Bala, Dolgellau, Harlech and Tan-y-bwlch (the latter was a hotel and Post Office in 1798 (it had its own stamp)) (ap Owain, nd). It was certainly shown on a map dated 1827 (Dodd, 1925, 139). The road appears to have been a brand new turnpike construction (see description of area 09 below for the development of farming settlements in this area), but nothing is known of the route beyond Trawsfynydd except that the Oakely Arms at Tan-y-bwlch was the next post office on the chain along this route so the road must somehow have linked these two places. The Trawsfynydd gate was let in 1862 for just £47 10s, one of the lowest rents in the county (Dolgellau Archives, ZM/581/5). The road was further straightened and improved in 1970.

The 25½ mile Bala to Blaenau Ffestiniog branch of the Great Western railway was one of the most expensive to be built (with its more than 70 bridges and viaducts, plus miles of embankment and ledges) and was probably the least profitable of all the Welsh railways (Richards, 201, 141ff). Part of it (towards the Bala end) was opened on 11th November, 1882 (Southern, 1995), and it finally reached Blaenau in 1884. The route came from Bala, and entered the study area at the head of Cwm Prysor where it crossed the huge viaduct (see area 12): it then clung precariously to the north side of the valley before reaching Trawsfynydd station and then proceeding northwards (just to the east of the present A470 road – see area 17), with a small junction at Maentwrog Road where traffic from Braich-ddu quarry joined it, eventually to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Slate was taken from Blaenau to Bala (and then onwards), and passenger and goods services extended to Trawsfynydd and Prysor (via an infrastructure of sixteen stations and halts). However, its greatest impact was to enable a large military training camp to be established from 1903 at Bronaber (area 20 – it remained open until the 1950s), and in 1911 a special station was built at Trawsfynydd (immediately to the north of the public station) (Southern, 1995, has detailed plans) where troops, horses and artillery coming from Bala were off-loaded and travelled the last section by road. The ranges were used by both the Regular and Territorial Army during an annual camping season which was usually spread over c. 6 months during the summer.

The railway was finally closed to passengers in 1960 and to freight in 1961, although the Trawsfynydd to Blaenau section was retained and a connection made to Llandudno Junction to service the building of the new Trawsfynydd power station (area 05). The station was finally closed on 4th May, 1964. The remains of most of the line of the railway are still visible crossing the landscape, and the relatively extensive remains of Trawsfynydd station and goods yards are now an agricultural supplies depot. The remains of the military station, some 200 yards to the north, are largely intact.

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Cultural associations


Tomen-y-mûr (under the guise of Mur Castell, as it is known in the story) is one of the main scenes of action in the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, Math vab Mathonwy. Following the defeat of Pryderi and the birth of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, Math and Gwydion create for Lleu a wife out of flowers from the oak tree, broom and meadowsweet, and by their enchantment created the fairest maiden that any man had ever seen, and baptised her with the name 'Blodeuedd'. When Gwydion points out to Math that nevertheless, without land, it is difficult for any man to keep dominion, Math agrees to give Lleu the best possible cantref, Dunoding, and there he settles him in a court called Mur Castell, in the uplands of Ardudwy, where he rules to the satisfaction of everyone.

One day, when Lleu has returned to Caer Dathal to visit Math, Blodeuedd hears the sounds of a nearby hunt and she invites Gronw Pefr, the lord of Penllyn, into the court. That night they are immediately attracted to each other and sleep together. They fall in love, and on the second night Gronw Pefr suggests that they should kill Lleu, and instructs Blodeuedd to find out how they should accomplish the deed, which she does by close questioning. Following his betrayal by Blodeuedd, Lleu is struck by Gronw on the banks of the Afon Cynfael, by a spear which it has taken the latter a year to make, and flies away in the shape of an eagle, all but dead. Blodeuedd and Gronw return to the court, and on the following day Gronw conquers Ardudwy and rules over it and Penllyn.

Gwydion eventually tracks down the eagle, turns Lleu back into human form and takes him to Math’s court to recover. A year later, they set off to seek revenge on the man that had caused Lleu’s suffering. They muster an army from Gwynedd and march to Ardudwy, to Mur Castell. Blodeuedd flees the court and is turned by Gwydion into an owl, while Gronw is killed by Lleu in the same manner in which he himself had been struck. Then Lleu Llaw Gyffes conquers the country again and rules over it prosperously, eventually becoming lord of Gwynedd.

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Hedd Wyn

Ellis Humphrey Evans (Hedd Wyn) was born at Penlan, Trawsfynydd, Meirionnydd in 1887, the eldest son of eleven children born to Evan and Mary Evans. Soon afterwards the family moved to his father’s old home ‘Yr Ysgwrn’ a small hill farm about a mile to the east of the village of Trawsfynydd (area 12). Apart from a very brief spell working in south Wales, it was here that he lived all his life until he was called up by the army. ‘Yr Ysgwrn’ (now a listed building) to this day remains in the hands of the family with Gerald, a nephew to Hedd Wyn, continuing the farming tradition.

Ellis began writing poetry at an early age, winning his first competition at the age of twelve at a local literary meeting. At Bala in 1907 he won his first chair with a poem called Dyffryn (Valley). Following this he won chairs at Llanuwchllyn (1913), Pwllheli (1913), Llanuwchllyn (1915) and Pontardawe (1915). Apart from competing he also composed poetry about events and people in the Trawsfynydd area. He was given the bardic name Hedd Wyn at a meeting of local poets held at Ffestiniog on August 20, 1910.

Though not a soldier by intent or inclination Ellis was called up in January 1917. After a brief training period at Litherland, near Liverpool, he arrived in Flanders sometime during the summer. By the end of July his regiment was stationed near Pilken Ridge in preparation for the battle of Passchendale. On July 31 there was fierce fighting with great loss of life, amongst them Hedd Wyn, who died of his wounds. He was buried on the battlefield, although his body was moved after the end of the war to Artillery Wood cemetery.

In 1917, the National Eisteddfod of Wales was held in Birkenhead. ‘Yr Arwr’ (The Hero) was set as a subject for the chair and Hedd Wyn decided to compete. Working diligently, he finally completed the poem in Belgium, in 1917. On Thursday, September 6 the Eisteddfod pavilion was packed to hear the adjudication of T. Gwynn Jones. In his opinion, and that of his two fellow adjudicators, the poet with the nom-de-plume of ‘Fleur-de-lis’ fully deserved to win. The Archdruid Dyfed then rose to tell the audience that the winner was a Private E H Evans – Hedd Wyn – who had been killed a month earlier in the war at Passchendale. In scenes of great emotion and sadness the chair was covered with a black cloth. Today the Birkenhead Eisteddfod is still referred to as ‘Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu’ – the Black Chair Eisteddfod. The Eisteddfod chair had been made by Eugeen Vanfleteren a Belgian refugee who had settled in Birkenhead. Using Celtic and Welsh symbols Vanfleteren created one of the most impressive Eisteddfod chairs ever made. On September 13, 1917 the chair arrived in Trawsfynydd by train and was carried by horse and cart to ‘Yr Ysgwrn’.

In 1918 a volume of Hedd Wyn’s poetry was published – ‘Cerddi’r Bugail’ and on August 11, 1923 a statue of him was unveiled in the village of Trawsfynydd. In 1991 a feature film was made about him which received an Oscar nomination (as best foreign language film).

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Saint John Roberts (1577 – 1610)

He was allegedly born at Rhiw Goch, Trawsfynydd, in 1577, and probably baptised at St Madryn’s Church, Trawsfynydd. He was the eldest son of Robert and Anna Roberts, a brother to Ellis, Cadwaladr, Gwen, Margaret and Ellen. It is mentioned that they lived at Gelli Goch or Tyddyn Gladys. He was a cousin to Robert Lloyd, Rhiw Goch, first MP for Merioneth. The ashlar dressing to the door opening at Rhiw Goch carries Robert Lloyd’s initials, together with the year 1610, when St. John Roberts was martyred. It is believed that he received his early education from a dispossessed monk from Cymer Abbey, following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.

He was raised a Protestant, and joined St. John’s College, Oxford, on 26 February 1595/6. There he came into contact with John (Leander) Jones and William Laud, later to become Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury. He left Oxford to study law at Furnival’s Inn, London before deciding to travel to the continent. Whilst in Paris, he became a Catholic at Notre Dame cathedral and he then went to the Jesuit College at Bordeaux, before joining the same order at the English College in Valladolid, Spain, on the 18 October 1598. The following year he went to St. Benedict’s Abbey, Valladolid, where he became a Benedictine, and after a few months he went on to do his novitiate in the famous Abbey of St. Martin in Santiago de Compostela, towards the end of 1600. He adopted the name of Fray Juan de Mervinia, Brother John of Merioneth – an unusual choice, since most priests chose the name of their monastery. This suggests that his old country was very dear to him, and that he had a high regard for Wales.

He was ordained and set forth on the English Mission on the 26 December 1602 – he was the first monk to return to England following the closure of the monasteries by Henry VIII. This fact is considered very important since parallels are drawn with St. Augustine. Dom. Weldon wrote: “He was the first who, out of a monastery, after the suppression of monasteries in England, attacked the gate of hell, and provoked the prince of darkness, in his usurped Kingdom, which he overcame, like his great master, the Prince of Martyrs, by losing his life in the conflict”.

Lewis Owen (Y Llwyn, Dolgellau), the spy, said of him “He was the first that had his Mission from the Pope, and his own Spanish prelate to go to England, which made him not a little proud that he should be a second Augustine monk, to convert and reconcile his countrymen to the Roman Anti-christ”. Despite being followed by spies, he managed to land in England in April 1603.

He fell into the hands of the authorities four or five times, once in November 1605, during the Gunpowder Plot, whilst in the house of Mrs Percy (wife of Thomas Percy), but on each occasion after a short term in prison, he was sentenced to be exiled. The Plague was always around at the turn of the sixteenth century, and he made quite a name for himself attending to the sick and dying at that time and was noted for his constancy, zeal, charity and persevering devotion.

Despite knowing that he faced execution, he returned to England for the last time in 1610. Whilst he was finishing Mass he was taken away in his vestments by pursuivants to Newgate. He was found guilty of high treason and was executed on the 10 December 1610.

He was executed by being hung, drawn and quartered. It was traditional to disembowel the victim whilst still alive, but the crowd would not allow this – these were the poor folk that he had cared for during the Plague, and they remembered his kindness - therefore the executioner had to wait until he was dead. Another tradition was for the executioner to seize their hearts after disembowelling then showing them to the people, crying: “Behold the heart of a traitor!” with the crowd replying “Long live the King” – not one word was uttered by the crowd on this occasion.

With the help of Dona Luisa de Caravajal, a Spanish lay missionary, the monks took his remains to Douai in France. The relics went missing during the French Revolution. Some of his remains also went to Valladolid and Santiago de Compostela, but they were also lost.

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