Wentwood again

Finding yourself on someone else’s blog is a rather strange experience – a bit like bumping into a school teacher on holiday. Last week Rachel and I walked across Wentwood to check some of the paths – see https://cistercianway.wordpress.com/2018/07/25/rewalking-wentwood/ . When we had scrambled down to the the Usk Valley Walk, we saw another walker in the distance. We stopped to remove a bee from the path (I thought it was dead, Rachel said it might just be tired because of the heat, and we didn’t want it being trodden on), the walker passed us, asked what we were doing and went on his way.

Then I found this on Twitter – https://twitter.com/AnneWareham/status/1023492376147439616 . I thought I’d look at the blog at https://charleshawes.veddw.com/other-walks/the-usk-valley-walk-usk-to-caerleon/ . And there we were!

Then we had a really interesting discussion on Twitter (involving people like  @AncientTorfaen, @ Gwentydd and @ServiliusPulex – see the threads from Anne Wareham’s initial tweet) about the relationship between the Usk Valley Walk, the Roman roads between Usk and Caerleon and possible medieval routes through the area. At one point Charles Hawes said he wished we could have the discussion on his blog so I summarised some of the information there.

I felt it still needed a blog post of its own – so what follows is a bit more background and some more thoughts.

Details of the Roman roads east and west of the river between Caerleon and Usk are in GGAT’s report at http://www.ggat.org.uk/cadw/cadw_reports/pdfs/GGAT%2075%20Yr3%20Roads%20final.pdf. Plotting all those OS grid points on the online OS map suggests that the road east of the river followed the minor road from Caerleon past Bulmore and Abernant Farm. The next identifiable bit is between ST3898697257  and ST3916298149 on a lane running north from Llantrisant – not the line of the Usk Valley Walk but slightly to the east. GGAT reported some aerial evidence of a route south of Llantrisant but gave no grid references. Nearer to Usk, evidence of the road is at SO37970025 just south of the prison and just east of the Llanllywel road.

So the Roman road east of the river probably underlies the pre-A449 road or runs near it for much of its length. The Usk Valley Walk roughly parallels it but apart from the road section from just south of Usk to Llanllywel probably doesn’t use much of it.

What about the route east from Caerleon towards Caerwent and Chepstow? GGAT were broadly happy with Margary’s description of this, which is reflected in the route marked on the OS map. There is more detail in D. Maynard’s 1996 reports and A. M. Yates’s 1997 report on excavations in the Celtic Manor golf course, still unpublished in 2004 and in the GGAT archives. The Usk Valley Walk roughly follows this from Cat’s Ash across the golf course to the Bulmore road across the river from Caerleon, though there may be some diversions to get through the golf course.

There is plenty of other evidence, archaeological and documentary, for early activity in the area. The OS map shows a remarkable group of earthworks west of the road down from Caer Licyn. A student of mine, Daryl Williams, did some survey and geophys on these for his M. Phil. thesis a few years ago (when we still did Archaeology in Caerleon … when we still had a university in Caerleon …). His conclusion was that the more northerly site, a rectangular double ditch, was probably Roman and could be a pre-Caerleon temporary fort (similar examples at Gelli-gaer, Coelbren etc). The complex to the south-west of this he thought was later (because the central enclosure clearly respects the earlier structures) and could be an early medieval ecclesiastical site of some sort.

This was all very speculative – and why another ecclesiastical site in an area that’s littered with disused churches? There’s the site of St John Henrhiw, St John in the Wilderness, at about ST 396 915, the chapels of St Julius, St Aaron and St Alban nearer Caerleon, Gwenog and Penrhos somewhere in Caerleon (more about all these in Diane Brooks, ‘The Early Christian Church in Gwent: A Survey’ in the Monmouthshire Antiquarian vol. 5:3). Diane Brooks also suggests Cat’s Ash is the Villa Cathouen in a charter in the Book of Llan Daf that Wendy Davies dates to c 745. The charter may suggest there was a church there. The converted barn of Cat’s Ash Farm was a later medieval chapel – you can still see the outline of the east window. And there are more recent closures – Llanbedr was disused in the 19th century. Kemeys Inferior was closed to build the A449 and much of its stonework went to extend St Woolos Cathedral, through the footings and the gravestones can still be seen. There’s no right of public access to it now but I did get permission to take students there for some years. Churches are also thick on the ground west of the river – Llanhennock, Tredunnock, Llandegfedd, the disused church of Llanddewi-fach. Many of these have archaeological or documentary evidence of early date.

So the site between Caerlicyn and Cat’s Ash could be part of this pattern of over-provision. Paul Courtney (in I think his Ph D thesis on the medieval landscape of Gwent) speculated that the number of disused or vanished churches in the area around Caerleon might derive from the dispersal of the Christianized Roman population in the early fifth century. There are several ways that early churches got started – on burial sites (often with relics of martyrs), as monastic foundations on the edge of villa estates – but over much of the Roman empire, Christianity spread from town to countryside (the word ‘pagan’ comes from pagus, a country-dweller) and one likely point of origin for many rural churches is the church built on a villa estate.

Later on, Caerlicyn and Cat’s Ash were on one of the main roads through south Wales. Ogilby’s Britannia (1675) is the first detailed road map of Britain, and it marks the route past Caerlicyn as the main road from London to St David’s. This makes it likely that it was the medieval pilgrimage route to St David’s. (Terry Jones – yes, him from Monty Python – had some very interesting ideas about the politics behind Ogilby’s choice of routes to survey and particularly about his edging back towards the Catholic tradition with routes to St David’s and Holywell. Worth remembering who was on the throne in 1675, who the heir to the throne was – but also what happened in 1678 and 1688 to make Catholicism politically difficult again.)

Derek Bissell’s detailed work on the location of Ogilby’s Monmouthshire routes was privately published in 2001 as ‘In the Steps of John Ogilby: some old roads of Monmouthshire and Brecknockshire’ – should be a copy in the bigger libraries. He traced Ogilby’s London-St David’s route through Monmouth and Trelech, past Newchurch and Gaerllwyd, mainly following the modern roads but with a few sections that are now off-road (eg the bridleway between ST 43707 96263  and ST 43169 96381 ). It goes round the north of Wentwood, passing Cas Troggy. Ogilby’s surveyors rarely noted antiquities but Cas Troggy is an exception. What this tells us about its condition in the 1670s is anyone’s guess. At the crossroads past Cas Troggy, at ST 41327 95029, the Ogilby route leaves the road and goes along the edge of the forst following the track to the south-west up Bertholau Graig. At ST 40029 94087 it is joined by the track running across Wentwood from east to west, and heads towards Caerlicyn and the the Kemeys Graig. Past Caerlicyn it contimues down the tarmac road to ST 37457 91042 where it bears right down a hollow lane to the Abernant road and so to Cat’s Ash.

What my daughter and I were doing when we met Charles was exploring an off-road alternative to the last bit of tarmac. There is a bridleway down from Caerlicyn but it is VERY steep, then you go steadily back up hill to rejoin the road. Looking again at the map, I’m not entirely certain that the bit where we met was the UVW as it’s marked on the latest online OS. We were on the track that goes from ST 38238 92445 to ST 37780 91747 and ST 37520 91410. According to the map, we should have continued downhill across the fields from ST 38238 92445 and gone closer to the farm. However, we did pass several UVW waymarks and there were waymarks on the road at ST 37477 91065. Has the route changed – does the OS need updating?

Rachel and I had left a car in Cat’s Ash and drove back to the other car in Earlswood. From Cat’s Ash the Cistercian Way follows the UVW into Caerleon. There’s a bit of road walking then you are supposed to cut across the golf course. I haven’t walked that section in many years. Last time I was walking that way was towards the end of our round-Wales trek in 2005. I was walking on my own at that point, there was some sort of high-powered world trade conference at the Celtic Manor and what they called a Ring of Steel round the whole site. I think my mother was worried that I was going to try to batter down the fence with a cross-stave but discretion was the better part of valour and I walked round by the road.

A couple of years ago, though, the route was far from clear. Andy Delmege is a clergyman from the West Midlands who walked much of my Cistercian Way route on a sabbatical in 2016. He had great difficulty negotiating the route of the Usk Valley Walk through the Celtic Manor golf course. Charles Hawes also reported problems – waymarks defaced and missing, paths crossed by roads that aren’t on the map. I probably ought to have a look at it myself, but something definitely needs to be done. It’s an important promoted route and part of it does run along a documented section of the Roman road. That bit of the route is actually within Newport City Council – their footpaths team have been keen on the project in the past so we’ll see what they can do.

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On to Rhedynog-felen

We have done some work on extending the route to the north-west, to the original location of Aberconwy Abbey. Monks from Strata Florida founded an abbey in 1186 at a place called Rhedynog-felen, but they soon moved east to the mouth of the Conwy. This could have happened as early as 1192 according to David Williams, though James Bond (in Archaeologia Cambrensis vol. 154, 2005, suggests it was on the initiative of the great Llywelyn ab Iorwerth in 1198-9.

We can’t be certain about the exact site of Rhedynog-felen. One tradition puts it just south of Clynnog Fawr, where there are two farms called Mynachdy Bach and Mynachdy Gwyn. David Williams in his The Welsh Cistercians suggests it was a little further north, between Llandwrog and Llanwnda, at SH 461 574 or SH 453 573.  This seems more likely as there are farms there actually called Rhedynog-felen Fawr (now a ruin) and Rhedynog-felen Fach.

But how to get there? Most of this I haven’t walked for eight or nine years, so it could well have changed. Follow the line of Sarn Helen north of Trawsfynydd until you reach the Iron Age settlement at Bryn y Castell. At SH 72541 42756 take the track to the left and bear to the north, away from the settlement. At SH 72498 43179 you pass Hafod-ysbyty, the summer farm of the Knights of St John who were based at Ysbyty  Ifan, some miles to the east. They had the privilege of sanctuary and according to tradition it was abused. Hafod Ysbyty was one of the hide-outs of the Red Bandits of Dinas Mawddwy, who terrorised the area in the fifteenth century.

Continue on the track past Hafod Ysbyty. Below you and to your left are Llan Ffestiniog and Blaenau Ffestiniog, centres of the Welsh slate mining industry in the nineteenth century. Here you will find shops and accommodation.

The path you take here depends on what you want and where you are staying. Head towards Tanygrisiau on the other side of the valley. Walk up Cwmorthin Road, across the railway line and up a steep hill. When the road becomes a stony track by a waterfall,

stay on the right bank, then cross to the left bank at SH 68206 45618 and continue up stream.

Cwmorthin is an amazing, evocative place, the deserted ruins of what was once another big slate mining settlement. Here are the original farmsteads, the cottages of quarrying families, the chapels, the barracks where some of the men from neighbouring villages lived during the week and the actual slate works.

More on the history of the valley and its people at http://www.cwmorthin.com/introduction.html and good photos at https://becausetheyrethere.com/2013/05/22/thirty-years-on-cwmorthin-revisited/ .Specifically on the slate mines see http://www.cwmorthin.org/ .

Walk along the track past the ruins of Capel y Gorlan,

up the slope past quarry buildings and a mill

to the main slate works. Turn right here and walk across the remains of the yard. From SH 66572 46381 a right of way is marked on the map going a little west of north and towards Llyn yr Adar. I walked this about 10 years ago and there was no track on the ground so I had to do it on compass reckoning, working across ridges of outcropping stone.

At  Llyn yr Adar you have to be very careful because if you continue on the same line you walk off the edge of a rather spectacular waterfall. A slightly more perceptible track bears to the right, round the head of the little stream that feeds Llyn Llagi, then becomes a much clearer track north of the river. You should be able to find footpaths down to Llyn Dinas and past the Sygun copper mines and follow the minor road south of the river to Beddgelert. Bits of this are a spectacular walk but I can’t really recommend it – navigating from the quarry at the head of Cwm Orthin to Llyn yr Adar is difficult even in clear weather and could be lethal in poor visibility. On the other hand, if you like a challenge, you could use it to approach the Watkin Path up Snowdon.

A better alternative goes down Cwm Croesor. The OS map marks the right of way behind the Cwmorthin quarry buildings but this is difficult to find on the ground. The map also marks a track turning left at SH 66429 46234 but my recollection is that the path is waymarked from the end of the buildings at about SH 66479 46238.  Anyway, turn left around here and follow a faint track between outcrops of stone, with a small stream and slate tips to your left. Over the first ridge, cross a stile and keep straight on. The track becomes clearer and continues down through the ruins of Croesor Quarry and on down the valley, eventually becoming a metalled road.

At the cross-roads at SH 63198 44616 turn right. Walk past the school. Next to the chapel, the house called Ael-y-bryn was the home of Bob Owen Croesor, farm labourer, quarry clerk, W.E.A. lecturer and historian (more on him at http://yba.llgc.org.uk/en/s2-OWEN-ROB-1885.html ). The road becomes a steep stony track. (At SH 62829 45079 a footpath to the right would take you up Cnicht, the ‘Matterhorn of Wales’.) The track bears round to the west through heather and bracken. Cross the Afon Dylif and keep going west above the north bank of the river. To your left around SH 61391 45105 is something marked on the map as ‘Cytiau’r Gwyddelod’, ‘the houses of the Irish’ – actually the foundations of  Iron Age round houses and field enclosures.

At SH 61196 45113 the track bends to the right and goes sharply downhill. At the crossroads at SH 61163 45247, go straight on and take a very minor road across the Afon Nanmor and over the spur to Nantmor. This is a tricky bit – I haven’t walked it since the Welsh Highland Railway between Beddgelert and Porthmadoc was reopened and the OS map isn’t entirely clear about the paths. If you cross the railway line and continue to the main road, then turn right, you might be able to take a track which bears right at SH 59685 46172 and meets the footpath near Pont Aberglaslyn. Alternatively, you can continue on the road (a main road but not that busy) to the bridge, turn right on the footpath and walk along the east bank of the Afon Glaslyn. There is a right of way through the car park if you turn sharp right at SH 59685 46172 and you can turn left at the railway line for the footpath to Pont Aberglaslyn. I feel it should be possible to bypass the main road entirely by walking along the railway line from the crossing at SH 59874 46099  but there isn’t anything on the map.

Anyway, once you get to Pont Aberglaslyn you can follow a footpath between the river and the railway line to the bridge at SH 59170 47375 then stay with the river into Beddgelert.

This is really as far as we have got, because from Beddgelert we walked south-west down Cwm Pennant towards Garn Dolbenmaen, heading for Clynnog. That was a lovely walk – as the poet Eifion Wyn said, ‘Pam, Arglwydd, y gwnaethost Cwm Pennant mor dlws, A bywyd hen fugail mor fyr’ – Lord, why did you make Cwm Pennant so beautiful, And the life of an old shepherd so short?

Alas, it goes in the wrong direction for us. There are paths up the west bank of the river going north from Beddgelert but it’s hard to see how to get further west without a lot of road walking. We might settle for Cwm Pennant and Garn Dolbenmaen, after all, and the cycle track up towards Llanwnda.

Or look at the footpath across the mountain from Llanfihangel-y-pennant via Bwlch Cwmdeulyn to Nebo and throiughthe lanes to the cycle path a little further north.

Once you get there, Rhedynog-felen lies between the Coast Path and the North Wales Pilgrims’ Way, so you could use either to get to Aberdaron and Bardsey, or follow the Pilgrims’ Way in reverse to Bangor and Conwy.