Saturday, March 07, 2015

Abbey Cwmhir History, Homes and People

According to the 2011 census the community of Abbeycwmhir consists of 96 households with a total population of 235.  Of these, 48 individuals regard themselves as English-only, 109 chose a Welsh-only identity, 15 claimed to be both Welsh and British and 59 British-only.  126 inhabitants were born in Wales and 101 in England.  Of the working population 39% were still engaged in agriculture while around 13% claimed to  have some knowledge of Welsh.

Given these figures it comes as something of a surprise to discover that these 96 households have managed to produce a 320 page book, size 9¾" x 7½" illustrated throughout and mainly in colour.  If Cwmhir can do it, so can any community in Wales.

The first half of the book is largely historical, with the second half given over to pieces submitted by the inhabitants of the households themselves - autobiographies, house and family histories in the main with the occasional mild rant against modernity.  Most were provided as part of a millennium project, although some were updated in 2008.  Here, for example, we come across the 12 year-old Dan Lydiate of Tynyberth, who was rather good at Rugby.  The book costs £18, which given the profusion of illustrations is fair value for money.

The history is a little bit too Gwynedd orientated for my taste but does at least recognize that the Abbey was founded in 1176 by the princes of Maelienydd.  In places the story gets confusing, I could have done with a tree to sort out the comings and goings of the various 19C and 20C Phillipses - the local squires.  The family kept a tight rein on the local community, most of whom were their tenants.  Children were provided with a school but in return were expected to curtsy and bow to their betters. Perhaps this paternalism is why the parish doesn't figure greatly in the rebellious annals of the West Radnorshire Rebeccaites.  Incidentally an uncle of mine was painting at the hall sometime after the Second World War.  Perhaps unfairly he felt the lady of the house was trying to overawe the workmen with her knowledge of a foreign tongue. Unfortunately she wasn't making much progress in getting her message across to a recently arrived maid with little English.  My uncle stepped forward and explained things in Eighth-Army Italian.  He wasn't thanked.

Reading this history is like panning for gold, luckily there are plenty of nuggets to be found.  A major gripe are the doubts cast on the Abbey being the burial place of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd.  Certainly Archbishop Peckham and a contemporary chronicler believed this to be the case.   The doubts cast on the story are opinions rather than facts - for example why should the English fear that the Abbey might become a shrine?  Llywelyn wasn't being returned to Gwynedd, rather to his cousin Mortimer's lands - who might well have feared for his own soul if he denied the prince a Christian burial.  The Americans may have feared to bury Bin Laden but perhaps he was more in touch with the medieval mind when he said that people prefer a strong horse.  Llywelyn had proved himself a weak horse, the English may have feared his bloodline but not his memory.

I could find nothing about the decline of the Welsh language in the parish, no-one was on hand to record the demise of the community's last Ned Maddrell.  In the 1901 census I once found three elderly Welsh speakers, born in the parish to parents who themselves had been born in the parish and who never appeared to have lived away from home.  They may well have been the last native speakers of the traditional dialect of the cantref of Maelienydd.

Getting on for 90 households have provided material for the second half of the book, which will certainly be of interest to social historians and, perhaps, gossips.  I can't claim to have any connection to the parish so I searched for the names of folk who I'd known from secondary school days.  Like nearly all my contemporaries they'd mostly left Wales, some barely remembered, others long forgotten.

Dai Hawkins' meanings of local farm names is a useful appendix, although he doesn't say why his explanations of Cefn Pawl and Hirddywel differ from those in Richard Morgan's little book on Radnorshire Place-Names.  There are sections on geology, pre-history, and the pub with the most annoying name in Wales - for some of us anyway -The Happy Union.

I'd say a must buy for anyone with Cwmhir connections and a worthwhile read for those interested in a rather atypical - it had no council houses - community in rural, English-speaking Radnorshire.


Jac o' the North, said...

I visited a short while back, by the road from Rhayader, and I was amazed by the number of ugly new dwellings that have been erected in recent years. Some of them beyond ugly.

How the hell could anyone give permission for these monstrosities, unless the over-riding consideration was to allow as many English as possible to move in to the area?

I can remember a different, more Welsh village, when Dai Jones kept the Happy Union, and sold joints of meat over the bar.

All gone.

radnorian said...

Spot on, the county seems to be full of these brick monstrosities with their double car ports, ranch fencing and solar panels.