The Lleyn Peninsular extends into the Irish Sea, with Cardigan Bay to the south, and Caernarfon Bay to the north, and is on the east separated from the mountains of Snowdonia by Eifionydd, which with it now, forms the area of Dwyfor.
There is reference to Lleyn in some Roman records, but for the most part, little of its recorded history is known other than generalities, and in ‘A History of Wales’ by Sir John Edward Lloyd, not much more than half a page was devoted to Lleyn in the two volumes. Yet, from its very character, Lleyn must have produced a good part of the food and wealth of Gwynedd.
The story of Lleyn lies here still, and has only to be uncovered. There is no doubt that local stories, legends, place names and their associations, field names, hill forts and churches provide clues to the life in an area with so little written history.
It is not surprising that interest has been in the more obvious sites and places of historical interest such as the late Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s investigation in Bardsey, and the more recent digs at Castell Odo, and the Rhiw axe factory site, and of Roman remains at Bryncir and Garn Boduan.
I started working in the area 30 years ago, and though born here, only developed an interest as the years progressed. Place names interested me initially, such as the incongruous Pendref, two cottages perched on the side of Rhiw mountain, which apparently did not lie above a township; but in fact they did, many centuries ago. They overlooked the township of Faerdref, or Maerdref of Neigwl, which was the centre of Cymydmaen, and which shows distinct evidence of fairly extensive occupation when viewed in aerial photographs. Further names, some quite well known, indicative of their use, siting or association, become of interest, such as Gegin Fawr, Cwrt, Secar, Bodernabwyd, Castell, Muriau, Lôn Goch, Rhyd Goch, Mynachdy, Tŷ Engan, Faerdre itself and many more. All this and a smattering of knowledge picked up here and there, such as a path in Cilan leading down to Porth Neigwl, and to an ancient church where drowned seamen found in Porth Neigwl were buried, and which itself has now slipped into the waves, made me feel that however minor the information, it is worth recording.
Evidence of early settlement abounds with particularly easily seen cromlechs at Cefn Amwlch, and above Tanmuriau, Rhiw. In Rhiw, deep ploughing of a field long left fallow, resulted in a burial urn being brought to the surface, being evidence, I presume, of the Late Bronze Age people’s occupation, while several pre-Roman fortified sites, some of surface stone, and one or two circular earth ramparts, occupy strategic areas of the hill, e.g., Castell Caeron, (circa 500 B.C.)
"Comb, Sinerary Urn and Knife discovered at Rhiw in the fifties"
The recently excavated site of quarrying and working of a Stone Age axe factory has, I understand, encouraged further survey and investigation, presumably to find where the rough stone implements were taken to be finished. From bitter experience, I know how inhospitable this particular part of Rhiw can be, most certainly in mid-winter, and at times during the summer, and it is inconceivable to me that a people with the same basic intelligence as ourselves, would not seek a more sheltered settlement for further manufacture, and I feel that the reasoning holds good for fortress retreats such as Castell Odo, and Castell Meillionydd, where these were only used for strategic withdrawal, rather than continious occupation.
Lleyn must have been subject to sea attacks from early days, as cliff top fortifications excavated at Pistyll, and an untouched walled outpost containing remains of round huts on the east coast of Cilan suggest. Small fortifications guard the approach from Porth Neigwl, though some of the sites such as Castell Caeron and Garn Fadryn are of a much later period, and possibly contemporary.
To digress, I have often wondered why the ‘cutiau gwyddelod’ sited for instance on the slope of Garn Fadryn, are so named if, as is suggested, they were occupied by marauding Irish invading the Peninsular, then they were particularly obtuse to seek to occupy the most uninviting areas. Surely any conquering force would occupy the best land. I wonder whether these are relics of an even further past. In the Roman conquest of North Wales, there is an account of the decimation of the Goidel tribes that occupied Lleyn, a tribe that appears to have been driven to the far west of Wales as well as the west of Ireland. Repopulation of the area could well have resulted in the remaining Gangani, an Irish rather than a Brythonic (Ordovices) tribe, resorting to hillside occupation, thus the ‘cutiau gwyddelod.’
As the Romans had obviously conquered the area, they left very little evidence of occupation. A transit camp at Brynkir, possible occupation of Garn Boduan, and a Roman roadway at Garn Dolbenmaen, unearthed by electricity workers.
The very nature of the terrain should have made it necessary for the new inhabitants to have lived in harmony with the Roman Legions, but no civil occupation has come to light, though rumour has it that Faerdref was Roman occupied. Whether there is any factual basis to this, I cannot say, but facts have a habit of being carried down from generation to generation, with disorientation of time and veracity of facts being distorted in the process, but basically true.
I seem to digress considerably, but, as stated previously, place names initiated my own personal interest.
There is an area in Sarn Meillteyrn where there are a series of farms called Trefaes, with additional identification such as Fawr, Bellaf, Bach, Newydd and Isaf, another more personal addition of G.O. (the initials of the former occupant), and Brunelli (the present occupant). As also within this area, there is a length of road and a house called ‘Lôn Goch,’ (probably the Bloody Road), and two small fields behind, called ‘Caeau Nant-y-Rhyfel,’ (Fields of the War Valley), with the river crossing of ‘Rhydgoch,’ (Bloody Ford) lower down the main valley, there appears to have been a battle field with probably an ambush of an invading force. There is no indication as to when this occurred.
Two small cottages in the Parish of Bryncroes, but on the eastern side o Rhiw, are called ‘Pendref,’ this appears pointless until it was realised that they overlooked Faerdref (the Maerdref of Neigwl), as stated before. Castell nearby indicates the presence of Castell Caeron, a dry-stone wall fortress on the northern slope of Rhiw Mountain, within direct vision of Garn Fadrun.
Bodernabwy on the road to Bardsey, could well have been an Abode of Strangers (or Unknown), or a hostelry for pilgrims,(Bodanabwyd).
Mynachdy in Sarn Meillteyrn catered for monks, Gegin Fawr in Aberdaron fed pilgrims. Cwrt (Court) and Seccar (Exchequer) in Uwchmynydd however, dispensed justice, and relieved the area of their money or goods, while the ultimate penalty was execution on Caegrogbren (Gallows Field), near Cwrt, and overlooking the village of Aberdaron, and a site probably chosen to deter any evildoers, as it would be visible for a considerable area of the surrounding countryside.
Ynys Enlli, the island of Bardsey, must have had considerable influence in the Dark Ages, and the ecclesiastical association is apparent in place names such as the village of Bryncroes, and a house in the area called Croesfryn, suggests a cross in a prominent position on the pilgrim’s track to Aberdaron, and thence to Bardsey. Two farm houses in the Rhiw Village area are called Tŷ Croes Fawr, and Tŷ Croes Bach, but whether a similar association could be assumed for these is doubtful, as though on a subsidiary route, they are not in a prominent position. Rhiw was apparently an area where Roman Catholicism prevailed long after the Reformation, and the names may be associated with the presence of a cross, or shrine at these houses, which had become unusual enough to be used to designate the houses.
The original pilgrims’ pathways appeared to the north and the south of the Peninsular, with Clynnog, Llanaelhaearn, Pistyll, Nefyn, Tydweiliog, and Llangian to the north and, confining itself to Lleyn, Llangybi, Penrhos, Llanbedrog, Llangian, Llandegwning and Bryncroes, or alternatively Llangian, Rhiw and Llanfaelrhys on the south side. All converged on Aberdaron.
This obviously provided the church with alms, the indigenous population working on church lands to provide the pilgrims with food and drink. This was hardly provided free, so, long before the tourist industry of this century, Lleyn was geared to provide for strangers.
This appears, however, to be far from the end of the story. With the probable increase in the number of pilgrims, there developed an organisation which surpassess anything which occurred in a similar area, such as Pembroke.
In an area without organised roads, I have read that straths, or straight paths, were developed using geographical features and churches, villages, important buildings or farms to give directions. This has been carried out to a considerable extent within Lleyn, showing quite an extraordinary pattern of focus on two pionts in the Aberdaron area. The first is at St. Mary’s Church in Uwchmynydd, which is now ruined, and the second in Anelog, at the site of a monastic chapel in the immediate vicinity of a farm named Gors, Anelog. Two Latin inscribed stones were found at this latter site, and I believe they are kept at Plas Cefn Amwlch, Tydweiliog, and local people report that there is an empty grave under the lane at this site.
To appreciate the complexity of these straths, (in the context as straight paths, rather than the dictionary definition as the Scots’ description of a broad valley), it is necessary to have a map of Lleyn one inch to the mile, or its metric equivalent, and a long straight ruler, better still, a board, map pins and thin coloured string, or thick thread.
First identify St. Mary’s Church in Uwchmynydd. Starting from the south, one finds that St. Mary’s Church, a church near Nant, Cilan (now non-existent), a Non-Conformist chapel and the recently excavated monastry on St. Tudwal’s Island, are in direct line. The church near Nant was used to bury drowned seamen found in Porth Neigwl, and has itself by now, disappeared into the Bay.
It is remarkable that the Non-Conformist chapel should be in line, but as you will see, this happens frequently in the lines of straths.
Further north, the line extends through from St. Mary’s to Llanfaelrhys, Llangian, and finishes at the ancient secular site of Castellmarch, Abersoch. Another strath, again further north, passes through Aberdaron church, Rhiw, Llandegwning, and surprisingly again, Capel Newydd, Nanhoron, which has been preserved as the oldest Non-conformist chapel in the area. At Capel Newydd, four lateral straths pass through the site, running diagonally across the Peninsular. The longitudinal strath, however, passes out of the area at Llanystumdwy.
Many more can be found at St. Mary’s Church, but others commence at Anelog, and with Gors Farm as a starting point, one strath passes from Anelog to Bryncroes, Llaniestyn, a ruined church site at the eastern side of Garn Bach, and extending in a straight line to Bryncir.
Church sites which are no longer identifiable, can be pinpointed with considerable accuracy. These are Eglwys Fair, in Bryncroes, Anelog itself, the Garn Fadryn site (site known as Caehen Fynwent), Llanfihangel Bachellaeth was contemporary, and not as suggested in the Survey of Royal Commission, as a later site, and the site at Nant, in Porth Neigwl. Two, three or even four lines converge on the same sites. In Llaniestyn, there is an area called Rhos Llandinwel, longitudinal and lateral straths converge in an area near Preswylfa, Llaniestyn. When the present occupier tried to clear an area of land, he found it too difficult because of the number of stones present, some of these he collected, and used in a rockery, and they seem to be small building stones. A spring nearby is called Ffynnon Coleg, and the rough lane leading up, Lôn Coleg. This may well have been a local seminary. I have only described a small number of straths, and the reader can identify others for himself.
Some of the local farms are included in this geometrical arrangement, amongst which are Faerdref, Tŷ Engan and Neigwl Plas, of which Neigwl Plas appears to be the most important site. The ancient site of Castellmarch is included but, surprisingly, more straths converge on Muriau, lying on a plateau above Castellmarch, suggesting an important site again. As well as these old secular sites, now modern farmhouses, some modern ecclesiastical buildings are included, such as the Roman Catholic Church at Abersoch, and that of the Polish Camp at Penrhos, and the Church of Wales at Abersoch. These may be due to their relationship to the estuary of the Soch, and an ancient fortress guarding it, while the Polish Camp is on the site of the old Penrhos farm, which was demolished when building the aerodrome Pen-y-Berth.
Many of the chapels built in the heyday of Welsh Non-Comformistism, must have been built on land previously occupied by a church, or even an older place of worship. Non-Conformist chapels Rhydlios, Rhydbach, Bwlchtocyn and Capel Newydd, Nanhoron, are such sites which relate to a church, river crossing or other prominent position geographically. There are too many for it to be a coincidence that these modern structures should accidentally be on the straths planned centuries previously. Capel Rhydbach is on a strath line, probably due to the fact that it lies at the confluence of two streams, and was a river crossing. It lies on a longitudinal line between Faerdref and Penrhos, and my home incidentally, lies on this line, and is also crossed by a transverse strath, but I can assure you, the house was not built until 1927, and no unusual features or artifacts have been found within the grounds. This line can be extended back to Cwrt, and continues after Penrhos to Talhenbont in Llanystumdwy, and passes close to Penarth Fawr, but actually through Penarth Bach, which may therefore, have been the original homestead.
It is unlikely that all intersections indicate sites of some interest, but where a particular site such as Capel Newydd shows four or even five lines crossing, then I can only come to the conclusion that it was a site of some importance in the trafficking of both pilgrims and clerics. This site is well known, having been donated by the then occupier of Nanhoron, to the Non-Conformists following the death of her Naval Officer husband, and has been perserved in its original state. The chapel is orientated East/West, and was probably known to have been a church site, and may have been the nucleus of a village reputed to have been in this area, but deserted because of some contagion, possibly plague, but probably cholera, some hundreds of years ago. The population in this case, as in the isolated Rhiw church, probably moved up-stream, or at least to higher ground, to avoid water-carried infection.
Rhydlios Chapel is on the line from Anelog to Edeyrn, and is also on the transverse line from the remains of the church at Tŷ Mawr Porth Ferin, to the old church of Llanfaelrhys at Rhiw. I have been told that there was a church at nearby Tŷ Newydd, and a farm adjacent called Rhydymerin could conceivably have been Rhydyferin at one time.
Natural features of prominence are involved quite frequently in these straths, which after all, are directional indicators, rather than actual straight footpaths, and in an udulating terrain, a point on a hill is seen from far afield, and indicates the next point on the pilgrimage, or later the outward journey. It was pointed out to me that the most southerly strath would in the present day, pass from Llanfaelrhys Church, over Rhiw, and then over the sea to Bwlchtocyn, and St. Tudwal’s Island. As in my lifetime, the clay cliffs of Porth Neigwl have been eaten away considerably, it may well indicate the rate of coastal erosion in eight to ten centuries.
As these directional paths lead out from Lleyn into Eifionydd and beyond, it appears that even the summit of Snowdon is a directional signpost, and after all, why not, in view of the fact that it is easily seen and identified. I wonder how far one can trace the straths, and who instigated such a system. The first I feel, is the province of someone outside Lleyn, the second we will probably never know, but he commenced the organisation of the tourist industry in Lleyn about ten decades ago, and which, to this day provides, with farming, the basis of our economy.
Noting the presence of secular sites on the paths between churches, suggested a degree of co-ordination with the ecclesiastical authority, and it soon became apparent that there was also a pattern developing where there were definite straight paths between the farms in the area. Seccar in Uwchmynydd, Bodwrdda in Aberdaron, Plas yn Rhiw, Neigwl Plas and Castellmarch in Abersoch were on line, and in the same general direction. Observation of other old farm sites showed that from Plas yn Rhiw, in a northerly direction, Mynachdy and Cefn Amwlch were in one line, and Tŷ Engan, Trygarn and Brynodol were on another. Castellmarch, Muriau and Saethon produced a further straight pattern. Back-tracking some of these lines showed one intersection of three lines east of the farm of Cwmistir in Edern, and examination of aerial photographs certainly suggested the presence of an old site in this very area. At Nanhoron, the site of the old house did not appear to correspond, but the old Keeper’s House of Nanhoron Isaf appeared more in line. However, unlike churches, which can be rebuilt on the same site, (such as the 19th. century church at Bodean, where the tower is built over the sealed burial vault), dwelling-houses would have to be added to, or newly-built on a nearby site. There would, therefore, not be the same lineal accuracy that shows remarkably well with the churches.
Also by back-tracking, there is a suggestion of a mediaeval farm about 200 yards off the cliff in Porth Neigwl, and in the area of Trefollwyn, three lines converge here, and tracks cease both west and east of the site on top of the cliff.
I have suggested previously that Porth Neigwl and Aberdaron Bay have eroded considerably in the last 1,000 years, and what was probably the old Trefollwyn, was one of the casualties of this phenomenon.
I had one static piece of evidence in the aerial photograph taken
I thought it feasible to work out the rate of erosion over the last
30 years at two points.
One was at Tŷ Mawr farm, and the other the popular path to the cliff
which lies below Treheli. Conditions were very muddy, so distance had to be paced
rather than measured. To obtain
caliberation of photographs, the road directly opposite the path was measured,
and also the west side of the house at Tŷ Mawr farm.
The house measured 21 feet,
and the road 20 feet.
Measurement with calipers showed that the same static measurements were
0.05 cm. on the aerial
photograph. This gave a scale of
1 foot =
1.000 years, if the average
was maintained, then 1,333
yards would have been lost, and paths which apparently were going over
the sea, would have been over shore and land.
The old Trefollwyn would have been well inland, and Aberdaron, with
similar erosion, would have been lying in a valley leading down to the sea in
the region of Porth Meudwy. Llanbedrog,
Penrhos and Pwllheli also would have been vastly different.
The site of the Manors in the population centres is also suggested by convergence of these lines. In Nefyn, it appears to lie between the old church and the sea, in Pwllheli, to the east of the town, above the Caernarfon Road, in Rhiw, at Plas yn Rhiw, and of course Criccieth Castle, though here, I have not pursued any convergence lines from north or east.
The most interesting stone monument for me personally, is in Llangian churchyard, where the stone inscribed in Latin, MELI MEDICI FILI MARTINI IACIT, must be, I should think, the oldest memorial to a medical man in the country. It is dated 5th. - 6th. century, as is an inscribed stone at Llannor, reputed to be commemorative of Saint Gwynhoidel, the saint associated with Llangwnadl Church. This suggests these as church sites on the original pilgrim’s way as far back as 5th. or 6th. centuries, but the later development must have been instigated by a strong partnership between ecclesiastical and secular authorities far removed from the Celtic hermits that initiated the Bardsey settlement, and was probably associated with the Romanisation of the Celtic Church. This dating requires more historical knowledge than the writer has, though there is one clue, in that the area still appeared to be divided into Cymydmaen, Dinllaen and Cafflogion of the sons of Cynedda, with convergence of straths to Neigwl, Nefyn and Muriau, in the coastal region of Cafflogion.
I can but hope that this short account will stimulate a more professional interest than I can hope to give to a probably biased opinion, that Lleyn is a most interesting area.
Dr. Deio Hughes, Bottwnnog. 1989.
Rhiw.com would like to thank the family of the late Dr Deio Hughes, for their permission to publish this article.
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