Monday, 1 July 2013

Pwll Tra: In Search of the Pool of Avarice

There are a number of strange and fantastic stories concerning  Twmbarlwm and the ridges and valleys of Mynydd Maen. One such is the tale of the Pool of Avarice brought back into the popular imagination  by local author Fred Hando in his articles in the South Wales Argus during the mid twentieth century . In the second of an occasional series of articles this legend will be examined to uncover whether there is any fact in this popular Gwentian myth.

Some years ago on one of my solo jaunts around the lesser known footpaths in the Nant Carn valley on Mynydd Henllys, I noticed an old path leading into the woods off the cycle track and thought I would follow it to see where it went. The path led to a pool, but then reached what appeared to be a dead end, the conifers having grown so dense as to obscure the route of the path down into the valley: because of this, after exploring the pool,  I was forced to make my way back up to the cycle track to continue my walk.

Quiet & reflective or lonely & mysterious? Make what you will of Pwll Tra

When I visited the nearby Tyn y Ffynnon farm in the spring of 2011 to interview Mrs Barbara White, the owner, she told me that there are the ruins of buildings close to this pool. She also suggested that I should take a good look around the pool and its environs as I was sure to find something of interest.

I revisited the site some weeks later and, aside from what were probably the remains of dry stone walls, I failed to find evidence of any permanent buildings.  However, I did discover what appeared to be some sort of temporary dwelling or ‘eco house’ in the woods close to the pool, where a homeless man had recently been living. One thing I did notice about the pool during this visit that I hadn't previously is the fact that no stream appears to flow into or out of it. That in itself might be considered a mystery. 

Remains of  the 'eco-house'

It was some time later, when I read the excellent ‘Western Valley Walks’ by Ralph Collins, that my thoughts returned to this location, as it was he who identified it as the legendary Pool of Avarice.

 If my memory is correct I first encountered the folk tale of the Pool of Avarice around twelve years ago while reading ‘The Pleasant Land of Gwent’ by the much loved Newport author Fred Hando. Hando’s story relates that there was once a great house at the site of the pool and that on one stormy day in the distant past the inhabitants were visited by a poor relative who was in need of food and sustenance. The lady of the house turned her needy relative away with nothing but curses. As he retreated from the house he was aware of a sudden violent movement of the mountain as the hillside opened up, crashed down and buried the house. Since that time, according to Hando, the local shepherds claim that strange sounds are heard to come from the reedy waters of the pool on stormy nights. These are thought to be the cries of the lost ones buried below, doomed forever by their avarice.
What secrets lie therein? There is no flow of water into or out of  Pwll Tra

I found this tale intriguing and wanted to find out the actual location of the pool. Fred Hando claimed that to reach the pool you should walk northwards from ‘Twyn Barllwm’ along the green path until it is possible to see a small reservoir on the eastern slope below the path. You then turn left downwards past a farm to a hollow where a deep pool is found in winter. From Fred Hando’s description this sounds like Henllys and Alan Roderick in his book ‘The Folklore of Gwent’ appears to confirm this.

The popular Newport author and columnist Fred Hando (1888-1970)

A little research and chats with local residents seemed to point to Pwll Tra, my reedy pool situated in a hollow high on the western slopes of Mynydd Henllys not far from the head of the Nant Carn Valley. Local author Ralph Collins, who has undertaken extensive research on the geology of the valley, confirms this. He confirmed that there was a cataclysmic landslide on the ridge of which Twmbarlwm forms a part, following the last ice age many thousands of years ago. This landslide and subsequent ones sent millions of tons of rocks and earth pouring down into the Nant Carn Valley.

While researching for my ‘Lost Farmsteads of the Nant Carn Valley’ walk, I decided to include the pool en-route and did a little research of my own on the internet. To my delight I came across the poem featured below. So on  the ‘Lost Farmsteads’ walk in July 2011  I recited the poem at Pwll Tra much to the amusement of the assembled members of CTS and Islwyn Ramblers.  I recently contacted Arwyn Evans, the author of the poem, who resides in Crumlin. He told me that the Welsh word ‘Tra’ could be a shortened form of ‘Trachwant’ which translates as ‘Avarice’ or ‘greed’. I am happy therefore to conclude  that we have located the actual ‘Pool of Avarice’ referred to in the folk tale.

Our visit to Pwll Tra on the lost farmsteads walk in the summer of 2011

 If you want to visit the pool I would recommend parking at car park two on the forest drive and taking the short walk along the cycle track towards the head of the valley. Take the first left turning you come to. Pwll Tra is a lonely and forlorn place with an eerie atmosphere. To visit this location as the dark clouds are rolling in late on a summer evening would send shivers down even the bravest person’s spine. Not for the faint hearted!

the pathway down into the valley from Pwll Tra

The poem featured below has been published previously. It is a Haiban, which is a style of Japanese poem combining prose and haiku poetry. Thanks to Arwyn Evans for his kind permission to include this.


Haibun: Pwll Tra’

On the slopes of Mynydd Maen there is a hollow with a quiet pool. A sullen place in gathering storm. So it is, as I sit in grass listening for the cries of those trapped far beneath. Damned by their greed.
Mew of the buzzard 
through whispering leaves 
the wavelets ripple.

I bring to mind the story of this place, this ‘Pool of Avarice’ :  Long ago a wealthy house stood here. There were poor relations living on the far side of the hill. One day, as times grew harder, the poor man in desperation crossed the ridge. I see him crawling down towards the house.   Knocking on the door.  Waiting.  The clouds grow black above the hill.    He knocks again.   The door is opened.     Slow.
Rich fowl, bacon, fats and herbs 
The warmth of bread, of conversation.
A tall and haughty dame stands in the entrance.   Her gimlet stare shows that  she knows me - why I’m here.
Just bread. A crust or two from last week’s loaf,   
I hear my pleading tones, truly my wife and children starve.
The tall one laughs.  Come see, she calls within, what's dragged itself from out the sin where it belongs. They come. They curse me with my just deserts. Spit on my  head. Withdraw into their world.
The tall one, last to go, gives me some words direct:  Naught do I have to spare  the likes of thee.  Be off before I loose the dogs!   
I start back up the hill looking for solace in the gathering storm.   A searing light.   The bark of thunder pounds the earth.     The rock begins to shake.    In  fear I fall and turn.    Below, the bowels of the hill burst wide.     Swallow the  farmhouse whole with those inside to leave a bare, dry hollow place. 
Slowly I slide. Come to a gentle rest in grass.
The birch trees hang 
dark skies drop rain 
the limp pool rings my silence
 Arwyn Evans

NB the photographs featured were taken by Phil Jenkins and may be found on his website at Many thanks also to to my colleague John Rogers for reviewing this article and doing some much needed editing. The article in its original form featured in the 2012 edition of Twmbarlwm News - newsletter of Cymdeithas Twmbarlwm Society
Rob Southall

Monday, 1 April 2013

Hafod Owen: a Lost Farmstead in the Gwyddon valley

All around the Twmbarlwm area the Forestry Commission has had a significant impact on the landscape over the last eighty years and many farmsteads that eked out a living have long disappeared, to be replaced by conifer plantations. On the Rhyswg, Mynydd Maen, Mynydd Medart and Twmbarlwm, farms with evocative names such as Gunnock (Cnwc), The Trwyn, Gnoll, Hafod Fach, Darren and Cwmbyr Uchaf and Isaf have left little on the historical record for us to remember them. This is the abridged story of just one of those farms. An earlier version of this article appeared in the CTS Journal 'Twmbarlwm News' in the summer of 2012.

The overgrown ruins of Hafod Owen farm today

The Nant Gwyddon valley, which reaches the Ebbw River at Abercarn, is the less accessible and little known sister to the Nant Carn valley, which is situated just a mile to the south. In the nineteen seventies and eighties this valley was opened to tourism, walks were waymarked and a picnic site was constructed. However, the limited access by road to the upper valley, coupled with the development of the forest drive in neighbouring Cwmcarn, meant that the Gwyddon developments were neglected and finally abandoned. The valley was then closed to public traffic and returned to its main vocation as a Forestry Commission plantation. Visitors to the Gwyddon today will often find themselves alone in this beautiful valley of pine trees.

The Hanbury family of Iron Masters of Pontypool built a furnace in the upper valley in 1580 and, from then on, the broad leaf woodland on the steep sides of the valley was utilised extensively by charcoal burners; however, the Gwyddon has always been the more remote, sparsely populated and agriculturally marginal of the two. Evidence from historical documents suggests that there were only two farms in the Gwyddon and these were located high above the valley floor on nooks, or platforms, cut into the hillside. This article, the first of an occasional series, looks at Hafod Owen, the less well known of the two farms.

The Location of Hafod Owen

If you were to visit Hafod Owen today you might be excused for doubting that anyone could ever have lived in such a place. Situated high above the Gwyddon valley at grid reference ST24662 96874, it is hard to imagine a more inaccessible setting for a farm house in south-east Wales. However, for around three hundred years there was a working farm at this location, which provided a living for more than a few generations of hardy Welsh hill farmers. In the nineteenth century Hafod Owen consisted of a farm house and outbuildings. Due to restricted space on the site, it was unlikely to have been a Welsh long house; rather it may possibly have been a 17th or 18th century direct entry house or a small ‘bwthyn’ or cottage.  The buildings occupied a narrow shelf, or nook, on a steep hillside on the eastern side of the valley towards the top of Graig Hafod Owen. The farm and its associated buildings were situated just off an old track way, which led out of the Gwyddon valley up to the Rhyswg and Mynydd Maen Common. 

the 1879 OS map of Hafod Owen farm

The 1839 tithe map seems to indicate two parallel buildings with their eastern/right side gable end built into the hillside, with another smaller building located between these. The remains of the gable ends of the two main buildings may still be seen. At least one of these was incorporated into the later bakehouse, constructed by the Forestry Commission during the 1920s.
a closer view

On the 1879 Ordnance Survey map (1879-1882 1: 2,500) it appears that a larger building has been constructed between the parallel buildings. This feature could also be interpreted as a garden. 

On nineteenth century maps, the buildings are surrounded by extensive ‘in-fields’, where livestock would be brought to pasture at certain times of the year. Robert Weeks’s excellent academic paper The View Across the Valley: Seventeenth Century Relict ‘Infield’enclosures at Hafod Owen and Craig Pant-Glas provides extensive discussion of this feature.

The early occupation of Hafod Owen farm

The earliest reference to Hafod Owen found to date (August 2012) comes from  “ Henry,Earl of Pembroke’s survey of the manor of Mynyddislwyn in 1570” (Dr Madeleine Gray’s article  NLW journal 1997 p171-196). The reference (on page 187) refers to Morgan Thomas previously Lawrence ap Phelip….a tenement called Havoed Owayne valued at 16d. This seems to take us back to the middle of the sixteenth century and only 20-30 years after the dissolution of Llantarnam Abbey.

The reference (on page 187) relates to the leasing by ‘Morgan Thomas, previously Lawrence ap Phelip’ of ‘a tenement called Havoed Owayne valued at 12d’. This seems to take us back to the middle of the sixteenth century and only 20-30 years after the dissolution of Llantarnam Abbey.

In his paper ‘The View Across the Valley’ Robert Weeks notes the following, which both confirms and adds to the evidence quoted above:

‘Amongst the collection of manuscripts and papers belonging to JA Bradney that were brought together in A History of Monmouthshire vol. V: The Hundred of Newport is a manorial survey of Abercarn taken in 1631, which states:

            There are no commons except one parcel called Monith Mane . . . Morgan John Morgan hath encroached of the lord's waste 40 acres near Havod Owen from Nant y Cie to Nant Hafod Owen.

The Weeks paper continues:

‘Here, it seems, we have direct documentary evidence for the creation of the field system at Hafod Owen. Rather than being a medieval creation, Hafod Owen appears to have been established in the early seventeenth century, at a time when new farm buildings were being built across Mynydd Maen.’

In a later section, Weeks tells us:

‘In 1653 two women, Gwenllian John and Jane John Morgan proved upon oath that their grandfather, Morgan Thomas, and their father, John Morgan Thomas, held, “a tenement and parcel of land called Havod Owen”. Its bounds are described thus.

            From a brook called Gwithon, upwards to a brook called Nant Havod Owen, up to the spring thereof, and from that spring as straight as may be, to another spring of a brook called Nant Ci, and along the said brook called Gwithon again, and a great part thereof is and were enclosed by the said Morgan Thomas.’

On the basis of this evidence, Robert Weeks believes Hafod Owen to be a squatter encroachment of the early seventeenth century. However, as we have noted, the 1570 survey reference uses the name (although in an earlier spelling, ‘Havoed Owayne’) so it is probable that there was a much earlier, possibly mediaeval, shepherd’s summer dwelling (hafoty) at the location, which would have been occupied between the months of May and September. This may have originated in late mediaeval times when transhumance was practised by the Cistercian lay brothers of Llantarnam Abbey. It was they, rather than the monks, who occupied and maintained grange farms at Chapel (Cwmcarn) Cil-lonydd and Rhyswg, on the Abercarn side of Mynydd Maen.

The nineteenth century occupation of Hafod Owen farm

Hafod Owen was certainly a tenanted working farm throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The farm, and surrounding land, was the property of the Manor of Abercarn. In the late eighteenth century the Manor was owned by the industrialist Samuel Glover. In 1808 it was purchased by Benjamin Hall (1778-1817) of Hensol Castle on behalf of Richard Crawshay of Cyfarthfa, Merthyr Tydfil. A few years after this date the ownership was transferred to Hall, who was by this time married to Charlotte Crawshay, and was a business partner of the Crawshays. The Abercarn Estate was subsequently incorporated into the Llanover Estate following the marriage of Benjamin Hall the younger (1803-1867) to Augusta Waddington of Ty Uchaf Llanover in 1823.  It may be assumed that the Llanover Estate still own the land, although it is now leased by the Forestry Commission and occupied by conifer plantations.

The first mention of Hafod Owen in the nineteenth century comes from a series of ‘Land Tax Assessments’ of the 1820s:  ‘Avod Owen   Tenant: Lewis Williams     (Owner: Benjamin Hall Esq)’.

Censuses taken between 1841 and 1911 record two related families living at the farm: Jenkins and Davies.

About the Jenkins Family

Evidence from the birth records of the children indicates that the Jenkins family moved into Hafod Owen Farm between 1835 and 1838. They had previously resided at Gelligaer. William Jenkins had been born about 1793 at Trellwm Breconshire. William’s wife Mary had been born at Bedwellty in around 1796. The couple were married around 1820. In 1841 and 1851 the census lists William Jenkins as the farmer of 40 acres. Also listed are his wife Mary, and their children Sarah, David, and Cicelia plus William  Morris, a single live-in agricultural labourer. The elder two children had been born at Gelligaer in 1830 (or 32) and 1834 respectively but Cecilia had been born in 1838 at Mynydd Islwyn, the parish in which Abercarn was at that time situated. There is no census data available for 1861 but it seems reasonable to assume that the family were still resident at Hafod Owen at this time. 

About the Davies Family

John Davies (1834-1919)  farmed both Hafod Owen and the Trwyn farms
Sarah, the eldest daughter of William and Mary Jenkins, married John Davies on the 17th February 1861 at Mynyddislwyn church.  John had been born at Llanfair, Monmouthshire in 1834 and was the son of Francis and Leah David (Davies) of Goytrey near Llanover. Francis is listed on the 1841 census as a woodcutter. In 1851 the family were living at Ty Coed, Goytrey and Francis and John are both described as labourers. At the time of his marriage John was aged 28, described as a woodcutter, and residing at Hafod Owen. Sarah was aged 32 and also residing at Hafod Owen, Neither could write. John and Sarah had seven children: Mary A 1862-1886, Lewis 1863, John 1864-1933, William 1865-1928, Leah 1869-1897, Sarah 1871-1879, and Thomas 1873-1879.

By the 1871 census John Davies is the tenant farmer at Hafod Owen. He occupied the farm with his wife Sarah, their children and John’s elderly and widowed father Francis (aged 74), who saw out his days following his wife’s death in 1867 with his son and growing family. Francis was to pass away in 1879 at the grand old age of 82. By 1881 John Davies is 49 years old and described as the farmer of 100 acres and all of the family are engaged in work on the farm.
John's son Lewis Davies (1863-1915) is listed as the last resident of
Hafod Owen farm before the Forestry Commission took ownership
By 1891 the Davies family had re-located to Trwyn Farm on the opposite side of the Gwyddon valley, although John Davies continued to be listed as working both farms. The last mention of the farm prior to WWI is a reference on the electoral register for January 1913 to Lewis Davies as being resident at ‘Aberdowyn’. There is a final reference to Lewis in the Kelly’s directory of 1923: however, he had died in 1915 and by this time the younger John Davies and his family were tenanting Old Crumlin farm, John Davies the elder having died in 1919.

Forestry Commission Tied Cottages at Hafod Owen

By the late 1920s the Forestry Commission had taken possession of Hafod Owen. The 1927 electoral register lists Aberdowyn Farm as being occupied by Harry Porter and  Hiram Watkins. Could they have been converting the old buildings and building the new double bungalow? Due to the lack of documentary evidence it must be assumed that they cleared the site, before constructing several new buildings for the use of their forestry workers. Only one of these structures, the combined pig sty and stable, remains in situ. In 1928, 1 & 2 Hafod Owen have come into existence  and at least four families – the Walkers, the Boobyers, the Reeds and the Jameses – lived at the location between 1927 and 1943.

Eva Reed, who is now 93 and lives at Cwmbach near Aberdare, resided there with her family between September 1928 and November 1942. Her dad Tom Boobyer worked for the Forestry Commission planting conifers and cutting ferns in the Nant Carn valley around Twmbarlwm. She remembers that he would walk over the mountain to work each morning leaving home at 6 to arrive at work for 7am. He used to arrive back at home at 6 to 6.30pm. For this long day’s labour he earned 35 shillings (£1.75) a week. 
Tom Boobyer (third from right) and Forestry colleagues circa 1940

During this period there were two attached bungalows at Hafod Owen. A bakehouse and toilet were located at one end (near the forestry track) and a stable and pig sty at the other end, adjacent to the path over to the spring. There was a large water tank on the far side of the bakehouse, which was used for washing but never for drinking. Drinking water came from the spring. Eva and her sister Eunice used to take cans down to the spring to carry water back to the bungalow. 

Eva describes the bungalows as looking, from a distance, like a hospital: there were five windows on the front of each and the doors were all on the same side. She describes their bungalow as having three bedrooms, a large lounge and a kitchen which contained a salting stone for salting the pork from the pig. Apparently this stone took up so much space in the small kitchen it was also the general work surface. In the bungalow they had a fire which they used to fuel with wood. A little later they had coal delivered and dropped off on the mountain near Ysgubor Wen on the other side of the valley. Eva’s sister and dad would go over with the horse and cart to collect it. The coal was kept in the bakehouse. On a Saturday the family would go down to Abercarn to the shops. There they would stock up, buying bags of Spiller’s flour with which to make bread.

After the Boobyers had lived at Hafod Owen for a little while, Eva’s mother became desperately ill with TB. She was confined to bed for 6 months. The doctor advised that she should drink a quart of milk a day. Eva and her sister would walk over to Gadylonydd farm, (which she translates as ‘Leave us alone’) to collect the milk. This was probably Cil-lonydd, which was at that time kept by a Mrs Williams. They walked down to the end of the valley over the brook and then up the hill to Ysgubor Wen to get there.

During the late 1920s and early 30s Eva would walk to school with Horace Hammett and Mary Lewis. Horace lived at Brook Bungalow near where the picnic site was later located and Mary lived up at the Trwyn farm, which by this time had been converted into three tied cottages by the Forestry Commission. 
Mrs James and Mrs Boobyer standing outside the bungalow at Hafod Owen circa  1940 

When the Boobyers moved to Hafod Owen in 1928 the Walker family were already in residence in the larger bungalow (number 1). They were a gypsy family and Mrs Walker would walk down to Abercarn in a straw hat with her basket to sell pegs. Her husband, like all the men, worked on the forestry. The Walkers had three children: Bert their son, Irene, and a younger daughter called Lottie. Around 1931 the Walkers moved to Llanybydder in west Wales, where the family still resides. After the Walkers came the Simmondses; and they in turn were replaced when Bence Reed and his family arrived in 1935. Eva eventually married Les Reed and they had a very long and happy married life at Cwmbach. The James family came after the Reeds moved to Lydney in the Forest of Dean. This would have been about 1940. A bad attack by fox on a freshly bought brood of hens was the straw that broke the camel's back on their life up there. And Mr and Mrs Boobyer finally left Hafod Owen to return to Cwmbach in January 1943. There is no evidence that the location was ever occupied, even on a temporary basis, again. John Saunders, whose dad John Owen Saunders farmed at Penheolybadd Fach in Henllys, recalls gathering in the sheep at Hafod Owen around 1949-50. He clearly remembers a large brick bungalow there, although it was empty and quite derelict by this time. It may even have been sufficiently open for sheep to get inside.
The remains of the stable and pig sty at Hafod Owen
The research on Hafod Owen and the other lost farms on Twmbarlwm and Mynydd Maen continues apace and there will be updates to each post as they arise. If you feel you can contribute in any way please sign up to the Lost Farmsteads of Twmbarlwm and Mynydd Maen group page on facebook.

Rob Southall