Tuesday, 10 February 2009
Walking through history
Above and below - the tree-covered valley showed how it must once have looked totally covered in woodland and how it is since clearance and Inclosure. Various bills were passed between 1750 and 1860, although the 1845 Act allowed Inclosure without submitting a request to Parliament.
I managed to get a good walk in today - about an hour and three-quarters, a good half of it steadily uphill too! I was shedding layers till I thought I would end up arrested for indecency! As I walked I thought about how the landscape of this parish and beyond was formed, what it looked like in different ages from the Mesolithic onwards, when it was dense woodland, and the only way of exploring it was along the river valleys, where I don't doubt the earliest population followed the sewin and that king of fish, the sturgeon, the last of which was caught locally in Edwardian times and offered - as it must - first to the King, as it it a Royal fish, but he declined and so it was sold for a shilling a pound on Swansea market. . .
Along the Towy Valley they went, leaving worked flints and stone tools to be found by later generations, clearing woodland and colonizing the land. Spreading out into the river valleys of the Gwili, and Cothi, and Sannan, they formed settlements, building homes for the living and homes for the dead, with Neolithic burial chambers incorporating huge boulders, some of them - near Brechfa - being huge pieces of white quartz. The people of the Bronze Age topped the mynydd land with their burial cairns and tumuli, proclaiming their ownership of the summerlands where people of the valleys brought their livestock to pasture in the passage of transhumance. They built temporary homes, just as their descendants did in the Middle Ages, the Hafods, or summer dwellings.
Hilltops were claimed anew in the Iron Age, when the fires of our local tribes glowed in the blackness of winter nights, claiming grazing land, and ancestral land, and ritual land, just as the Iron Age enclosure beyond our field boundary lay claim to the area on our land where three streams met - a magical place where the Gods dwelt. The sign of three - three Gods, three heads incised in stone, three deaths, a lucky number three . . .
(Above, the swell of the hillfort bank above the gorse covert).
The Romans marched along the valley bottom in their cohorts, from fort to fort with their supply wagons and slaves and amphoras of olive oil and fish paste, their glass and their careless money, their leather sandals hopeless in the mire of the Welsh winter. Small townships grew up at the feet of their forts and became trading posts and market towns like Carmarthen.
Christianity spread like tendrils into the landscape, monastic cells in sheltered hollows where cows now graze, leaving their sainted bones as the focus for a small church. A farm now sprawls where once Egwad dwelled. The old Welsh divisions of Elvet and Cathinog and Hernin still dwell in this landscape. Mynachdy Grange, beside a rushing river, marked the boundary of Talley Abbey's lands, falling into disrepair until it was a stable as many years ago as my walk was in minutes today, its dressed ashlar stone carried to be built into my old farmhouse floor.
A promontary fort for early colonizers became the perfect situation for a motte and bailey when the Normans arrived, but their influence was soon absorbed into the Middle Ages, and local warfare and skirmishes happened elsewhere in and about the parish, focused on the Welsh castles and struggles between the Welsh and the English, and the Welsh against the Welsh . . .
The influential homesteads in the area were rated on their hearths and our house provided High Sheriffs for Carmarthen town, and an Esquire to the Body of Henry VII no less . . . the first Tudor monarch - and on the English throne. Maenors and farmsteads grew up in the landscape, quarried stone to build them from the ground beneath. Talley Abbey grew rich on the fleeces of its vast flocks. The Bardic poet Lewis Glyn Cothi warmed his feet by our hearth and compared genealogies with his host here, when our farmhouse was still a Great Hall and not rebuilt into the hunting lodge (and finally farmhouse) it would become.
Inclosure changed the landscape again, as the common land was fenced off. Labourers on farmsteads were grateful to be granted a small corner of land to build a hovel on - on which their landlord then demanded rent when times were hard for farmers.
Indeed, the influential homesteads became grand buildings, where the gentry invited each other to games of cricket, tea parties, and to dances. They met at church on Sundays and married each other's children off. How sad that some of those houses are now just ruins - like the wonderful Italianate Pantglas - the tower is all that remains, and the stable yard which is now part of a leisure and holiday complex.
The abandoned cottages of last century are now being reinvented as new homes for land-hungry English incomers, and disenchanted Welsh townsfolk. They have a value again. Some are beyond memory and serve merely as a windbreak for a passing tramp, with his billy can and his wood fire, cooking his wet socks on sticks beside the flames. All this I saw today . . .