Home and Work - Medieval and Beyond

Click to a larger version of Mwyro Valley Ruined Farmsteads, Ceredigion: photo © Mick Sharp

Mwyro Valley Ruined Farmsteads, Ceredigion: photo © Mick Sharp

The beautiful valley of the Afon Mwyro is a good example of a remote, now largely deserted landscape, which was once highly organized and populated. In medieval times, the apparently randomly scattered remains formed a network of a dozen or more farmsteads associated with Strata Florida abbey lower down the valley. Around such ruins as Hafod Eidos (centre) and Gelli Clwydau (rear left), the grazing and herding of monastic sheep and cattle took place along with the processing and storing of their products: grass was turned into other goods and money. The Welsh term hafod (summer place) was often applied to a remote upland location where stock were taken to graze, such delights as butter and cheese were made with some time left over for a bit of courting and versifying. A dwelling built on the hafod lands was called a hafoty (summer house). During the winter the livestock were grazed on the better land of the permanent settlement or hendref (winter dwelling). Stock manured the land which was then turned over to arable while the summer pastures were grazed. The medieval climate was drier and warmer than now, but from the 1300s the generally wetter and cooler weather put a check on upland settlement. Social changes, and a population much reduced by crop failures and plagues, gradually brought about the breakdown of the system by Elizabethan times. The grazing in the valley is now split between two large farms. Many of the old songs and tales from upland areas of Britain speak of the ancient custom of transhumance - the biannual movement of livestock ‘across the ground’ - and the physically hard but magical summer months spent on those distant pastures.
Click to a larger version of Taddiport Leper Fields, Devon (Great Torrington Town Lands Charity): photo © Mick Sharp

Taddiport Leper Fields, Devon (Great Torrington Town Lands Charity): photo © Mick Sharp

Within these quiet fields above the River Torridge are examples of medieval land use which cast light on 13th-century attitudes to disease, morality and religion. The two strip fields or ‘straps’ survive from seven long, narrow plots which were cultivated by lepers for whom a hospital was established on the outskirts of Great Torrington around 1300. At their peak in the eleven and twelve hundreds, there were well over 300 leprosy hospitals in Britain consisting of simple, timber-built cells and a communal chapel. Treatments included herbal remedies, blood-letting and special diets: fish prohibited, ‘dried scorpion heads and the soil from an ant hill’ recommended. Leprosy is caused by ‘Mycobacterium leprae’ and is most common today in tropical Africa and Asia, and South America; it is contagious but hard to catch. In medieval England, most sufferers of a range of conditions crudely diagnosed as ‘lepry’ were placed in the role of repentant sinners, their scaly skin, lumps and discolouration, disfigurement and deformities attributed to God’s punishment for sexual transgressions. Entry into a leper hospital involved a symbolic funeral and burial; they were disinherited, set apart, made to wear distinctive clothing and to loudly announce their approach. Largely forced to rely on the charity of those wishing to demonstrate piety and buy a reduced period in purgatory, at least in these fields ‘lazars’ could be in the open air and contribute to their own upkeep. Restored under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, the earthen banks have been rebuilt to their former dimensions, the hedges on top renewed and laid, a process known in Devon as ‘stepping’.
Click to a larger version of Blewbury, Oxfordshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Blewbury, Oxfordshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Field and other boundaries come in many shapes, sizes and materials. As well as earth, or earth-and-stone banks topped by thorns, there are free-standing hedges laid over to form a tight stock-proof barrier or left to grow naturally, the resulting gaps filled by whatever comes to hand, such as metal bedsteads. The various forms of post-and-wire, sawn wood and electric fencing are everywhere, but traditional fences of slates or flagstones may still be seen in such places as North Wales, Caithness and Orkney. Encouragingly, the pleasing forms of green wood boundaries are also still being produced: wattle hurdles and woven fences of split and round hazel or willow, cleft post and rail, cleft oak or chestnut paling, and gate hurdles of cleft oak, ash or sweet chestnut. More permanent are the walls of brick, slate or stone, but just as long-lasting dwellings can be fashioned by skilled hands from the very mud, clay, manure and straw from the fields, so can boundary walls. This example at Blewbury is said to be Saxon in origin. It runs beside a footpath in the old part of the village around St Michael’s church, a place of narrow lanes, pathways, white-painted timber-framed houses, streams and watercress beds. If a lime-washed ‘cob’ wall is well maintained, excessive water kept off its base by good boots and a hat - in this case stone foundations and wheat-straw thatch - it can last ‘forever’. In addition to the traditional pattern of split willow or hazel liggers held down by spars (spics or sprays), modern chicken wire keeps the thatch in place and protects it from the depredations of birds and rodents.
Click to a larger version of Shetland Croft House Museum, Boddam, South Voe (Shetland Heritage Association): photo © Mick Sharp

Shetland Croft House Museum, Boddam, South Voe (Shetland Heritage Association): photo © Mick Sharp

Peat smoke rises from the metal chimney of a restored croft house with attached byre and barn. There is a stone chimney in the gable end and a free-standing, cairn-like kiln for drying corn. By the burn below the house is a horizontal water-mill (clack mill) standing over a leat. Small amounts of corn could also be freshly ground using a rotary hand quern in the barn where harvested sheaves were threshed on a wooden floor. Livestock were butchered in the barn, sheep heads hung from the rafters to grow tender. Meat, fish and birds were stored in barrels, potatoes in a dark corner. Cows were overwintered indoors, tethered in stalls in the byre which served as the household toilet when the weather was too fierce to go outside. The ‘ben end’ of the house contained raised wooden box beds with sliding doors, the ‘but end’ (living kitchen) had the cooking fire and a flagged floor: it was warm, dark and smoky. The house was built with inner and outer skins of drystone walling held together by long rectangular slabs known as trow bands and insulated with dry soil and rubble. The interior faces were pointed with clay, plastered and lime-washed. The roof consisted of a complete layer of turves supported on timbers and ropes, the straw thatch topping held in place against ferocious gales by simmens (straw ropes) and linkstens (stone weights). A typical family unit living here consisted of three generations who farmed both land and sea: the women and children looking after the land and animals while the men were away sailing, fishing or whaling. The croft house dates from around 1850, its last occupant was Bobby Mouat who moved out in 1962.
Click to a larger version of Loch Baravat Norse Mill, Cnip, Isle of Lewis: photo © Mick Sharp

Loch Baravat Norse Mill, Cnip, Isle of Lewis: photo © Mick Sharp

In the Western Isles, primitive horizontal water-mills are known as Norse mills whatever their age. This one, used into the twentieth century, may be no earlier than the 1700s. Of the five clack (or click) mills once placed astride the burn running down from Loch Baravat to Loch na Cuilc only three survive: this is the one near the bottom of the burn at the rear of a sandy beach. The lintelled doorway leads to the lower part of the mill where a horizontal paddle was turned by the stream. The two millstones, driven by a vertical shaft turned by the water paddle, would have been in the upper storey which has collapsed here, but was still in place at one of the mills higher up the burn. A similar Norse mill at Shawbost, with a kiln house for drying damp grain prior to milling, has been beautifully restored by James Crawford who also built a replica, pre-Norse figure-of-eight house at Bosta on Great Bernera.
Click to a larger version of Plas Mawr, Conwy (Cadw/Mostyn Estates): photo © Mick Sharp

Plas Mawr, Conwy (Cadw/Mostyn Estates): photo © Mick Sharp

Behind its impressive gatehouse on High Street, lies one of the best preserved Elizabethan townhouses in Britain; conserved and restored by Cadw. Robert Wynn was the third son of John Wynn, the son of Meredith ap Ieuan ap Robert who founded the Wynn dynasty and estates centred on Gwydir Castle, situated ‘two bowshots above the river Conwy’. Born at Gwydir around 1520, Robert returned to North Wales after serving for twenty years with the soldier-diplomat Sir Philip Hoby. Married for the first time at the age of 50, Wynn set about creating a home for his new wife, Dorothy Griffith, and their hoped-for family. For £200 he bought a ‘mansion house’ with a garden and three orchards within the ‘English’ medieval walled town of Conwy. In stages, between 1576 and 1585 while he acquired adjacent plots and demolished the mansion, he built a ‘worthy plentiful house’ combining architectural elements from the local Tudor gentry houses of his youth with the Flemish Renaissance styles seen on his travels. Built on a slope, the main façade and entrance fronted the narrow Jugler’s Lane to the east (right). Completed last, the gatehouse provided a ceremonial approach into the lower courtyard, up steps to the terrace and into the main hall of a U-shaped house arranged around an upper courtyard leading to gardens at the top of the plot. Interior furnishings and decoration, including brightly coloured textiles, were designed to proclaim Robert one of the newly-emerging Elizabethan middle class, and to celebrate the prestige of his connections and forebears. In rich reds, blues, greens and yellow-golds, 22 heraldic emblems are arranged within geometric plaster patterns on ceilings, walls and chimney breasts. Dorothy lived in the house for a just year before dying childless. Robert married another Dorothy (Dymock) to father seven children in six years in his 70s. After his death in 1598, a legal dispute dragged on until 1630 preventing the family from making major changes to the house.
Click to a larger version of Gop Farm Dovecote, Trelawnyd, Flintshire: photo © Jean Williamson

Gop Farm Dovecote, Trelawnyd, Flintshire: photo © Jean Williamson

Many monasteries kept well-stocked fishponds to vary the diet and provide a meal on Fridays when, out of respect for Christ’s ordeal on the cross, no meat was eaten. Dovecotes or pigeon houses were also features of monastic life, the eggs and meat very welcome to the monks. Roast squab - a young unfledged bird - was considered a particular delicacy, but I don’t know if the monks ever ruminated on the irony of a dove being used in Christian art as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Many houses and farm buildings still have niches in their gables where a few pigeons were kept, but some establishments factory-farmed the birds on a grand scale in dovecotes designed to produce envy as much as meat. This ruined example, built from local limestone, has elegantly stepped gables, a door at the south, a window at the north, and over 700 niches from where the eggs, squabs and roosting birds could be taken. Peasants, tenants and smallholders often felt aggrieved that money from their rents and tithes was used to build fancy homes for birds who would rob their crops and then be eaten by the wealthy. The niches put me in mind of bank deposit boxes and how the better off devise ways to gain from the poor. Domestic and feral pigeons are the descendants of wild rock doves which haunt coastal and inland cliffs. Doves are generally smaller and more delicate than their plump cousins, and white doves are a variety of the domestic pigeon. Of the family Columbidae, the term columbarium - pigeon house - is used to describe a room, outdoor wall or whole building with niches to hold funeral urns.
Click to a larger version of Huer’s House, Newquay, Cornwall: photo © Mick Sharp

Huer’s House, Newquay, Cornwall: photo © Mick Sharp

On Towan Head, overlooking Newquay Bay to the east, is a tiny whitewashed house with a small tower and outer staircase. Every August the huer would keep watch for the huge shoals of migratory pilchards suddenly pouring in from the wide Atlantic, around the Isles of Scilly and into Cornish waters. At other places huers watched from the open cliff or even mast-like poles on the beach. As soon as the dark shadow was sighted on the water, the cry of 'Hevva! Hevva!' (a shoal) went up, the waving of a flag or furze bush indicating the progress of the fish to those waiting on shore. Boats were launched, seine nets thrown around the fish and the seething mass hauled in to every available craft. Quickly landed on the beach, the pilchards were carted to the salt-house to be packed in layers for six weeks or so. Drained oil was clarified for use in lamps, the rest of the waste used as manure. Most Cornish households kept a supply of salted pilchards: houses at St Ives had ground-level fish cellars with first-floor accommodation accessed by exterior steps. Pilchards not sold locally for winter use were washed and packed in large casks to be exported by sea to Italy and Spain. From around 1850, when fresh fish could be sent to London by train, the Cornish fishing industry had a golden half century. But ships with engines soon crowded into the waters of the Cornish sailing luggers, and the summer shoals of pilchards ceased. Staying at Mullion Cove in 1912, the five-year-old Daphne du Maurier was able to witness one of the last. In her book ‘Vanishing Cornwall’ she describes being pulled from her bed to the cliff head to witness the landing of the struggling fish. At the high-pitched cries and frenzied excitement of the normally staid grown-ups, du Maurier was 'filled with a sudden wild delight'.
Click to a larger version of Pont Scethin, Merioneth, Gwynedd: photo © Mick Sharp

Pont Scethin, Merioneth, Gwynedd: photo © Mick Sharp

In the wild hills of Dyffryn Ardudwy, north of Barmouth and the Mawddach estuary, prehistoric cairns, standing stones, forts, enclosures and hut circles lie mingled with the ruins, mining works, peat cuttings, clearance cairns, sheepfolds, field walls, drovers’ routes and a paved coach road of more recent times. There is no settlement now on these moorland sheep-walks: ramblers and cyclists inhabit the tracks. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, before the coastal road and Cambrian Railway were built, Pont Scethin was on the coach route running south-east from Harlech down to Bontddu, inland beside the Mawddach estuary to Dolgellau and thence to London. The crossing was also used by traders with pack horses, and by Welsh drovers moving their cattle or sheep on the hoof. The coach road passed through Cwm Nantcol and approached the bridge from the north (rear left). One of the drove-ways approached Pont Scethin from the WNW (middle left) via Bron y Foel, while another crossed the Afon Ysgethin further downstream at Pont Fadog, a single arch stone bridge dated 1762. There was an overnight stop and ‘emergency shoeing station’ at Llety Loeger just to its west. This route continued south-east through Bwlch y Rhiwgyr (Pass of the Drovers) before turning inland to Dolgellau, the Borders, and the markets of the English Midlands and South. On the southern slope of Moelfre, to the north-west (centre left) of Pont Scethin, is the ruin of an old coaching inn. The area around Ty-newydd was notorious for bandits, and on one occasion wealthy Londoners heading to a posh wedding in Harlech were thoroughly fleeced. There are also tales of solitary drovers robbed and killed on home turf as they returned with hard-earned money from distant markets. The drover’s dogs would have been loping far ahead on the home stretch to bring false hope to wife and child.
Click to a larger version of Conwy Bridges and Castle, Conwy (National Trust/Cadw): photo © Jean Williamson

Conwy Bridges and Castle, Conwy (National Trust/Cadw): photo © Jean Williamson

Conwy is a medieval walled town positioned just within the mouth of the Conwy estuary. When Edward I gained control of the Conwy valley in March 1283, he began to build his castle to secure the estuary crossing and replace the Welsh castle of Deganwy above the opposite shore. The new town was built on the site of a former palace of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd and the abbey of Aberconwy, now St Mary the Blessed Virgin’s church, whose monks were moved to Maenen further up the river. Thomas Telford’s suspension bridge, built in the shape of a drawbridge with crenelated towers to fit in with the castle, was completed in 1826. Now owned by the National Trust, it and the toll house are open to the public. Robert Stephenson’s tubular girder, railway bridge was opened in 1848. Conwy is a vital link on the north coast road leading from Chester to Bangor. The modern road bridge was completed in 1958 to speed traffic on this busy route but Conwy remained a bottleneck, and family holidays to North Wales usually involved long waits on the bridge while the engine of the Standard 8 or Ford Pop threatened to overheat. As a direct result of this inconvenience - and European funding - the A55 was revamped as the North Wales Expressway with a tunnel dug under the estuary to keep through traffic out of the town. Her Majesty the Queen opened the Conwy Tunnel on 25 October 1991 and, as part of the Trans-European Networks programme, the A55 has been extended across Anglesey to give fast access to Holyhead port and the ferry for Dublin.
Click to a larger version of Hay Tor Granite Tramway, Dartmoor, Devon: photo © Mick Sharp

Hay Tor Granite Tramway, Dartmoor, Devon: photo © Mick Sharp

The granite domes of Haytor Rocks rise to 1500ft (450m) in the north-east quadrant of Dartmoor. On the slopes below are the remains of disused granite quarries with spoil heaps and a railway system made from carved granite slabs. Trucks were moved along the grooves by gravity and horsepower. There is one main line with a siding for each of the six quarries. At each junction there is a primitive points system where a metal bar, placed in a hole drilled in the rock, was used as a lever to push the cars over from one track to another. The whole system was created in the 1820s by Quarry Manager George Templar. Horses pulled the granite down from the moor on the tramway for seven miles to the Stover canal at Teigngrace. Taken eastwards by barge along the estuary to Teignmouth, the stone was then shipped by coaster to London. The Haytor Down Quarries supplied granite for building the National Gallery and British Museum, and for reconstructing London Bridge but, by the late 1850s, competition from Cornish quarries had put them out of business.
Click to a larger version of Victoria Incline, Dinorwig Slate Quarries, Gwynedd (First Hydro Company): photo © Mick Sharp

Victoria Incline, Dinorwig Slate Quarries, Gwynedd (First Hydro Company): photo © Mick Sharp

Not the pyramids and terraces of such cities as Teotihuacán or Tikal in Mesoamerica, but the remains of slate workings which, at their height in the 1870s, employed over 3000 men. Subjected to heat and pressure, fine mud laid down in the sea 500 million years ago became nine layers of slate running through the Cambrian rocks of Elidyr mountain, in colours from ‘green and wrinkled’ to ‘purple red’. Welsh slate has been used since at least Roman times, but this quarry began in 1787, became largely worked out by the 1950s and finally closed in August 1969. Using the rock’s vertical cleavage, quarrymen created a series of stepped galleries with vertical working faces which they drilled and packed with explosives: sometimes they had to scale the cliff or work from aerial ropeways. Black powder and other necessities had to be bought from the quarry company. Gathered for lunch in the ‘caban’ the men would sing, and wide-ranging discussions were encouraged amongst the dust and weariness. Many of the Dinorwig workers travelled from Anglesey to live in barrack blocks on the hillside, only seeing their families on Saturday night and Sunday. Quarried rock was sorted, the slate shaped with cold chisels and hammers, sawn and planed by machines, then split and dressed by hand into a dizzying array of roof slates, each size, thickness and quality with its own name: ‘Ladies’ are 16”x12”, ‘Queens’ 42”x27”. We have Penrhyn Heather Blue ‘Celtics’ on our roof. Finished slate was moved down the iron-railed inclines on wagons fastened by cables to the drum of a winding shed: as one cart descended by gravity its twin was automatically pulled up. Narrow-gauge railways connected quarries with ports and railheads for export, or distribution around Britain. At peak output in 1898, the 17,000 men of the Welsh slate industry produced 485,000 tons of finished slate. After near collapse in the 1960s, the industry is still able to compete in a world market because of the high quality and multiple uses of its products. The Victoria Incline is on private land, but the National Slate Museum in Llanberis makes a fascinating visit and there are Gwynedd County Council trails around parts of the quarry.

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