History of the House in the Marsh

Most history about buildings is written about large and interesting houses, churches, castles, shops and other places. However, sometimes the history of small, remote and obscure dwellings can be just as intriguing.

Ponies on the boardwalk, Cors Bodeilio

One of my favourite nearby places for a short walk is Cors Bodeilio. This National Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest lies between Pentraeth and Talwrn. It is a nationally important nature site as it is an uncommon lime-rich fenland supporting rare plant life, including a variety of sedges, rushes and reeds, as well as a number of orchid species. The pools contain medicinal leeches, and many species of rare flies, aquatic beetles and moths make their home throughout the area. It is also the home of some Welsh Mountain ponies, whose grazing helps maintain the fenland.

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Map of Cors Bodeilio, 1899. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The boardwalk through the marsh eventually takes you to a slightly raised and dry spot. Disappearing into the trees at the edge of a meadow is a long abandoned house. It is named on the maps as Ynys. Welsh for “island”, Ynys might seem an odd name for a house, but closer inspection of the maps and surrounding topography shows that it is indeed an island of dry land in the middle of marshes.

The house and surrounding nature reserve are now owned by Natural Resources Wales, but the mid 19th century tithe maps that have been digitised by the Cynefin project show that this, and much of the land around it, was ultimately owned by the Right Honourable Lord Vivian of the Plas Gwyn estate in Pentraeth. It was leased to Evan Rice Thomas as part of the nearby Bodeilio estate. The parcel of land called Ynys is listed in the 1841 tithe apportionments books as just 9 acres of pasture land, with no hint of there being a house, and indeed no house is shown on the map itself.

Ynys, Cors Bodeilio, 2005

Also, Ynys does not appear in 1841 or 1851 censuses, but it is listed in 1861, suggesting it was built sometime in the 1850s. The first recorded tenants are Thomas Hughes and his family, wife Jane and sons William and Owen. As might be expected in a small cottage in the middle of pastures and marshlands, Thomas was an agricultural labourer, as was his 14 year old son William. Eight year old Owen was not yet old enough to be working and was listed as a scholar, so was attending school.

In the 1871 census the house name Ynys isn’t found in this part of the Llanddyfnan parish. But, among the houses nearby to Ynys is one called “California”, occupied by one Thomas Hughes. The name California doesn’t appear in any other censuses in this area. Did Thomas decide to start calling the house California instead, for some reason?

This Thomas Hughes is listed as widowed, a farmer of 8 acres and a labourer, and living with his 13 year old son John and a servant named Elizabeth Owen. By 1881 the house is again listed as Ynys, and Thomas had remarried to a much younger woman, Elizabeth, who was 28 to his 61 years. They had been busy, producing five children aged 1-9 by this time.

By 1891 the tenancy of Ynys had changed hands to William Williams, and he was living there with his wife Ann and daughter Margaret, who was a domestic servant. William was listed as a labourer in this census, but in the previous census in 1881, when he was living at nearby Heulog, he was a shoemaker. He again gave his occupation as shoemaker in 1901, when he is listed as living with his wife Ann and son William.

Curiously, his son William is listed as a copper miner. Copper mining on Anglesey usually means Parys Mountain, but that is a long way from Ynys, probably about a four hour walk. Also, by this time the copper there was almost worked out, and there were just 141 copper miners, down from thousands at its height. As he was still single at the age of 33, perhaps he usually lived near the mine, but happened to be at home visiting his parents on census day.

What I’ve so far been able to discover about the history of Ynys ends here. It is not listed in the 1911 census. Perhaps it had been abandoned by then, although usually even unoccupied houses will be listed in the census. Maybe the census-taker missed this remote house on his route through the parish.

Ynys, Cors Bodeilio, 2014

As the house disappears into the vegetation, its abandonment becomes poignant. What was it like in the late 19th century when occupied by the Hughes and Williams families? Did Thomas’ five children play games in the meadow and go searching for frogs in the surrounding bogs? My favourite time to visit is in the autumn, when the plum trees behind the house are bearing delicious fruit. Perhaps these were planted by Thomas Hughes. Did they also have a garden patch somewhere around the house? In the absence of a time machine I can only guess.

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An Iron Age Tardis? Bryn Eryr roundhouses at St. Fagans

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Bryn Eryr roundhouses, St. Fagans

It’s bigger on the inside than it appears from outside, and it lets you travel back in time, like Dr. Who’s Tardis. That was my first thought when I ducked through the low entrance into the high-ceilinged space of the reconstructed Bryn Eryr roundhouses at St. Fagans open air history museum.

I’ve been wanting to visit St. Fagans for quite a while, and I finally managed to extend a trip south to spend the day there. It is a wonderful place for anyone with an interest in the past. You can wander through historic buildings, brought here and rebuilt from all over Wales, experiencing the way people lived, worked and worshipped through time.

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Entrance to Bryn Eryr farm. The site of the excavation is just beyond the tree on the right.

The most recently rebuilt house is also the oldest. Bryn Eryr is a reconstruction of what archaeologists think an Iron Age house would have looked like. It is based on the excavation of a farmstead on Anglesey, at Bryn Eryr farm, which lies halfway between Menai Bridge and Pentraeth, just off the A5025. Between 1985 and 1987 the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust excavated a site on the farm where early archaeologists had noted the faint rectangular outline of an enclosure wall and found pieces of Roman pottery in what was otherwise a flat and unremarkable field.

The excavation revealed the walls of two roundhouses, built right next to each other, as well as pits, post holes, grinding stones and animal bones. It appears that the site initially had one roundhouse, built in the Earlier Iron Age (about 800-400 BC), with the walls made of clay quarried from the pits. It was partially enclosed by a wooden fence.

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Bryn Eryr roundhouses

A second phase of building occurred in the Middle Iron Age (400-100 BC), when the defensive rectangular bank and ditch was built around the settlement. A second somewhat smaller roundhouse was built right next to the original one, most likely with a passage between them, much as a modern bungalow might have an extension built to accommodate a growing family.

The reconstruction at St. Fagans represents the houses as they were during this period. Excavations of the original site also uncovered a third roundhouse, somewhat separate from the other two, where numerous pieces of Roman pottery were found. These have been dated to the 2nd-4th century AD, thus showing that this site was occupied for over 1000 years.

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Inside the roof

Although archaeological excavation can tell you about the walls of these ancient houses, it doesn’t tell you much about how the roof was built, nor how it was furnished. Particularly, there was much puzzlement about how the roof was constructed once the second roundhouse had been added.

A single round house would have a conical roof, but what about two? Did it have some type of roof that spanned both circular areas? Or did it just have two conical roofs next to each other? In the later case there would be a risk of rainwater draining off both roofs between the two houses, which could water-log that area and damage the walls. In the end it was decided to reconstruct this with two conical roofs with a lower ridged roof over the passageway between the two.

The next question was what to use to do the thatching and how to construct it. Some earlier roundhouse reconstructions have used straw from the same varieties of wheat that are used today by thatchers. But these varieties didn’t exist back in the Iron Age, so wouldn’t be authentic. The original excavation of the site turned up spelt as the main grain used by the occupants, so it makes sense that the straw from that would have been used for the thatch. A field near St. Fagans was planted with spelt, which was then used to thatch the houses.

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Inside the second roundhouse

Once the roofing was complete the interior needed to be fitted out to show how it might have appeared when occupied. This again involves a lot of conjecture, as the Bryn Eryr archaeological excavation didn’t give much evidence as to what the furniture and contents might have looked like. However, artefacts from other similar aged sites from elsewhere around Wales and Britain, many of which are housed in the National Museum of Wales collections, can act as templates for producing replicas to be displayed in the roundhouses.

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Fireplace and cauldron

The centrepiece of the smaller roundhouse is the fireplace with a fine bronze cauldron hanging over it. It is similar to one found at Llyn Cerrig Bach, near Valley on Anglesey and was made by Hector Cole.

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Shelf with pots and other items

The shelves along the walls contain wood bowls, modelled on ones found in Wales and Somerset and made by Robin Wood, plus various tools that have been found in Iron Age and Roman era sites in North Wales and produced by the St. Fagans blacksmith, Andrew Murphy. Baskets, leather bags and even a child’s doll join these objects.

St Fagan’s previously had a Celtic Village, built in the 1990s, that Bryn Eryr has replaced. An excellent article about lessons learned from that exhibition and how that informed the decisions about how to reconstruct Bryn Eryr can be found at the Exarc (Experimental Archaeology) Journal site. An archive of tweets and photos of the building of Bryn Eryr can be seen on Sara Huws’ site.

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Construction site for Llys Llywelyn

In addition to this new feature, St. Fagan’s has an ambitious building program going on, with not one but two new visitor centres being erected. Another new feature being developed is Llys Llywelyn, a medieval Prince’s court, based on Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and Llywelyn ap Grufydd’s court at Llys Rhosyr, near Newborough, Anglesey. I was only able to get a tantalising glimpse of it through the construction site fences, but I look forward to seeing it when I next visit St. Fagans.

Visit to Bodior House with AAS

Img2016-09-03_133911Yesterday saw a good turnout for the Anglesey Antiquarian Society’s last excursion for 2016.These trips are always interesting; visiting historic sites around the island, often places that you wouldn’t normally be able to access. The tours are led by knowledgeable guides, and there are usually several visitors in the group who can spot interesting features and contribute additional bits of information to complete the picture.

Img2016-09-03_133939bWe visited Bodior House near Rhoscolyn on a blustery, soft rain type of day. We were glad to get in out of the rain, into the main sitting room, where our guides Robin Grove-White and Andrew Davidson introduced us to the house.

Img2016-09-03_133939c.jpgThis is a gentry house, first built in the 16th century. A tablet over one of the windows bears the date 1529, and another below that window has the initials J.O.O., for the estate owner John Owen. The Owen family were descendants of a Welsh clan leader, Llywelyn Aurdorchog, who was from Denbighshire but also owned land around Rhoscolyn. The house and estate passed down through the family, often through the female line, who married other local landowners, with the result that land holdings were combined. The estate eventually passed to the Lewis family of Plas Llanfigael, and a later marriage to the Hampton family of Henllys, near Beaumaris, resulted in the owners being known as the Hampton-Lewis family. It is now owned by the Bulmer family, of cider-making fame, who use it as a summer retreat.

Although built in the 16th century, the house has been modified and extended many times through the centuries. It would have originally consisted of the main sitting room, just inside the main entrance, with a room on either side, and additional rooms on the story above. It has been extended a couple of times at one end with a service wing with kitchen and utilities rooms, plus numerous bedrooms and baths.The last remodelling took place in 1848 (commemorated by another dated plaque above the main entrance), so the house retains its 19th century character, including the carved main staircase in the sitting room, and the early Victorian fire surrounds in many of the bedrooms, some decorated with enamelled slate.

After the brief introduction by Robin and Andrew the group were given free rein to explore the house, with no areas off limits, before regrouping in the sitting room to discuss the features of interest that were spotted. We looked for evidence of the differing periods of extension and remodelling, as shown by variations in the timber & stone flooring and styles of doorways and windows. There were some interesting and intricately carved furnishings and some period pieces, like the wind-up gramophone.

Img2016-09-03_140541A particularly fun aspect of the exploration was looking for evidence of the vocation of the current owners. Books about the Bulmer family and cider-making were in many rooms, apple-shaped cutting boards were in the kitchen alongside bottles of Bulmer’s cider, ready for the next cider casserole, and crates marked “Bulmer’s Hereford” were in some of the unused rooms. The many objects on shelves and walls throughout the house included an inordinate number of green woodpecker items: paintings, carved wooden figures and taxidermy specimens. It seemed curious until I remembered that the green woodpecker was the symbol of Bulmer’s Woodpecker Cider!

After the debriefing sessions some of us went on to explore a nearby tidal mill, the subject of my next blog.