The Holy Rood of Llangynwyd

Llangynwyd is probably most famous now as the burial place of Ann Thomas, the ‘Maid of Cefn Ydfa’, and her poet lover wil Hopcyn. (More about them at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Maddocks ). But in the Middle Ages it was famous as the shrine of the Holy Rood of Llangynwyd, a carving of the Crucifixion that was so vivid it was believed to be able to perform miracles. People went there on pilgrimage, the poets wrote in its praise.

We can still trace many of the routes pilgrims would have taken to get to Llangynwyd. One route came over the hills from the east, and ran between Llangynwyd and the even more famous shrine of the Virgin Mary at Penrhys. One route came from the coast at Margam, where the Cistercian monks had custody of the shrine. And one route came from the south, from the rich farmland of the Vale of Glamorgan. This was the route called the Ffordd y Gyfraith, the ‘Road of the Law’, because it was also the route that officials took, travelling from the lowlands to the wild hill country.

You can still trace these routes on the ground. They are marked by lines of hollow trails, worn into the hillsides by generations of travellers. The line of the Ffordd y Gyfraith is also marked by the bases of wayside crosses which would have shown travellers they were on the right track. There is one called Croes Antoni on Ogmore Down, one where the Ffordd y Gyfraith crosses the main road at Laleston, and one which marks where the line of the road was diverted to go round Margam Abbey’s Llangewydd Grange.

Old pilgrimage routes still make good walking. The have a sort of resonance, from all those footsteps of people travelling in hope. Looking at the hollow trails worn into the hillside on Mynydd Ty-talwrn, and the little platforms that are all that’s left of peasant cottages and bigger farmhouses, you realise that these empty hills were once home to a thriving and complex society.

I’m working with Merthyr Mawr and Laleston community councils on a circular route round their villages, looking at the heritage of early Christian carved stones and later monastic granges (more on that at http://heritagetortoise.wordpress.com/2013/11/05/laleston-stones-trail/ ). Part of the route of that goes along the Ffordd y Gyfraith.  More, the church at Laleston has a very strange medieval tombstone with three crosses on it which may be based on the design of the rood at Llangynwyd, showing the two thieves as well as Christ on the cross .

So taking the route north from Laleston to Llangynwyd is a good idea for all sorts of reasons. It isn’t entirely straightforward … for the first sections of the route and their problems see  http://heritagetortoise.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/laleston-to-parc-slip/  and http://heritagetortoise.wordpress.com/2013/11/22/heritage-trails-again-2/ . But it still looks doable. So taking advantage of a break in the rain on Thursday, Cara and I headed back to Parc Slip, walked up to the ridge and explored the footpaths down to Llangynwyd.

The line of the Ffordd y Gyfraith clearly went along the hollow trails you can see coming down the Glamorgan Ridgeway from the radio mast.

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At this point the modern road goes west of the old track. In about half a mile you take a waymarked footpath to the right. Bear left across the first field, heading for an old gatepost. Ahead of you on the skyline are the earthworks of a big complex of ruined buildings.

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This is called ‘Farmstead’ on the modern OS map but older maps call it the ‘British Residence’. When the archaeologists Cyril and Aileen Fox were surveying this area in the 1930s, they thought this and the house platforms on Mynydd Ty-talwyn were the remains of early medieval farmsteads. They eventually decided they were later, probably built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when the climate was better and you could farm the hills. When the climate got dramatically worse in the early fourteenth century, there were famines followed by the Black Death and most of these settlements were deserted. Recently, an American archaeologist has revived the idea that this was an early medieval settlement. My friends in the Archaeological Trust say it is much, much later, possibly post-medieval. But the hollow trails of the Ffordd y Gyfraith run through the site, and seem to go through some of the buildings –

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so my guess is that it’s medieval, and that it was deserted by the time the pilgrimage became popular in the fifteenth century.

Walk across the next field to the head of a little valley. Walk down a rough farm track with the stream on your left, then cross the stream and walk up the track to Maescadlawr farm. Take the footpath to the left  just past the farmyard and bear right across two fields. Go through a gate and cross the metalled lane. Walk down the lane towards Bryncynan farm. Just before the farmhouse, the track bears right and goes downhill. At the bottom, cross a stream then turn left on the roughly metalled track to Gadlys Farm. At the farmhouse take the track to the right and look out for an overgrown but waymarked footpath down to the right.

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This takes you across a bridge. Go over the rather battered stile to your left.

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From here a faint path runs along the right bank of the stream and into the woods then bears up to a mossy and tumbledown stone wall.

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When you reach the corner of the wall, turn right and follow the faint path up the field towards the top right corner, then follow the field boundaries to your right up to the minor road. Once you go under the line of pylons you will see the whitewashed tower of Llangynwyd church ahead of you.

So far, so good. Merthyr Mawr to Llangynwyd would be a good day’s walk: you could find a local B&B then walk on along the suggested Cistercian Way route to rejoin the coast at Margam. But if we want a circular walk back to Parc Slip or Laleston there may be problems. You can retrace your steps along the minor road and take an earlier waymarked footpath along a track to the right. After a few yards the footpath goes left – there’s a nice new gate

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But the lane is very heavily overgrown, the fields are boggy, there are some dodgy fences …

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Bridgend CBC have done good work on stiles but once the path gets into the woods it disappears. There should be a footbridge leading to the lane from Gadlys farm but I couldn’t find it. In the end we took a path to the left, and went back to Parc Slip the way we came. I need to have another look at this one from the other end. If we could clear and waymark that bit of the path through the woods, then clear the blocked lane near Ffynnon Iago, we’d have a good circular walk from Parc Slip.

Heritage trails (again)

posted in: Heritage Paths | 0

The road goes ever on …

The trial round Laleston and Merthyr Mawr seems pretty much sorted. Bridgend CBC are keen to have a trail going north to Llangynwyd. Since the route round Laleston is themed around the pilgrimage route to Llangynwyd this seemed a no-brainer. And yesterday was a sunny day so Cara the pilgrim dog and I set off with our sandwiches.

Following the actual Ffordd y Gyfraith won’t work  beyond Llangewydd because most of it is a busy B road. It’s difficult to find footpaths shadowing it and crossing the M4, but the very minor road north from the Laleston pound goes under the M4 and there are footpaths across the fields, then a wiggle gets you into the Parc Slip nature reserve at Cwm Ffos.

More about Parc Slip at http://www.welshwildlife.org/visitor-centres/parc-slip-visitor-centre/ and something about walking trails in and around the park at http://www.glamorganwalks.com/parc_slip.htm . The long walk around the park looked promising so we parked there and set off north. The road past the reserve crosses the main Cefn Cribwr road and becomes a pretty lane to Cwmrisca farm.

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When you get to the farm, go through the gate to the right

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Some of the gates need a bit of attention but in general the path is well waymarked.

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You leave the fields, climb a steep slope and emerge on the ridge. Don’t take the obvious trackway to the left

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but bear right to join the old Ogwr Ridgeway (now renamed the Glamorgan Ridgeway)

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and turn left over this rather battered stile

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Follow the ridgeway past the mast on Mynydd Baeden and down to a minor road. You are now back on the medieval Ffordd y Gyfraith. The hollow trails running parallel to the metalled road suggest how much traffic it took.

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(here’s a detail with some sheep for scale)

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The little dimple on the far ridge of Mynydd Ty-talwyn is a house platform, all that remains of a deserted settlement. Many of these upland settlements vanished during the early fourteenth century, when the weather got dramatically worse, there were famines and mountain land could no longer be farmed. Harsh times.

Our world now has the opposite problem, the diseases of affluence – once you get back on the road, rubbish and fly-tipping is a problem.

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but the views are spectacular

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You can take a diversion along the track to Cefn Ydfa, home of the famous maid of Cefn Ydfa, the beautiful Ann Thomas.

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The story is that she was the daughter of a wealthy local farmer. She was in love with a young poet, Wil Hopcyn. But Wil was only a labourer and her family made her marry the son of another local landowner. She died of a broken heart. Wil wrote the famous Welsh song ‘Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn’ in which he says he has watched the white wheat ripening but another man has the harvest. You can see memorials to both of them at Llangynwyd church.

I didn’t have time to explore the footpaths down into Llangynwyd – that will have to wait for another day. We walked on along the Ridgeway then down through the forest. The monks of Margam had a summer grange here called Hafod Deca. Walking here some years ago I thought I found the ruins of an old farmhouse but it is now nowhere to be seen. Did I really see it, or did I read about it and think I had seen it? Memory is a funny thing.

Below where the ruins might have been you rejoin the Glamorgan Walks route, cross a minor road and walk through the farmyard of Ffynnon Iago with its well under the trees.

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But after that the route gets bogged down and totally overgrown. We had to push our way through woods and I sank up to my knees in some very wet fields. Not an alternative route, then, and no scope for a circuit. But once you reach Llangynwyd there are routes off in all directions – east to the railway station, east and west along the Glamorgan Ridgeway, following the pilgrimage route down to Margam, or north to join Andrew Dugmore’s Cultural Olympiad route.

We got back to Parc Slip in the twilight –

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more fine tuning next week.