Translation of Issue 58, pages 9-13      Er clod i’n cloddiau cerrig

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In praise of cloddiau

Note on the translation: the Welsh word clawdd (plural cloddiau) can be variously translated as ‘wall’, ‘bank’, ‘dyke’, earthwork’ or ‘hedgerow’, or any combination of these.

Cloddiau are an integral part of the landscape in much of upland Wales. They can tell us a great deal about the history of agriculture in Wales, and they are important habitats and shelters for much wild life. This article, by TWM ELIAS, JOHN H. DAVIES and DAFYDD ROBERTS, is based upon the deliberations at the conference ‘In praise of stone hedges’(1) held at Plas Tan y Bwlch in April 2014.

Building cloddiau of all kinds dates back to prehistoric times, as seen at old archaeological sites, especially on some mountain pastures where there has been no ploughing to scatter the remains. Here you find traces of round huts with networks of low ridges around them, showing where rambing cloddiau enclosed a patchwork of small fields.

Much enclosure of lands to create fields happened at different times over the centuries, and particularly following the introduction of English law into Wales in the mid 16th century. Through the following century, with the growth of estates, much open common land was enclosed in local areas and many boundaries of earth and stone were built as well as hedgerows.

As Ellis Wynne tells us in 1703 (2), enclosure was a great loss to ordinary folk, who relied heavily on common land for resources such as fuel, useful plants and grazing land for a few animals and geese:

“Beth yw Taeliwr a ddŵg ddarn o frethyn, wrth Wr mawr a ddŵg allan o’r Mynydd ddarn o Blwy? Oni haeddei hwn ei alw’n Garnlleidr wrth y llall? (What is a Tailor who steals a piece of cloth, compared to an important Man who takes out of the Mountain part of a Parish? Does he not deserve to be called a Thief next to the other?)

 Most upland cloddiau date from this earlier period – the time of the agricultural revolution of the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. The population and wealth of the country was increasing quickly at that time and this encouraged estates to invest widely in agricultural improvements in order to feed the new urban and industrial populations, and of course to make huge profits in the wake of the increasing demand for food.

There were many ways of increasing production from the land:

  • improving and draining lands which already belonged to the estates
  • reclaiming and cultivating new land from coastal grazing areas
  • introducing new crops and new methods of cultivating the land
  • improving breeds and methods of nurturing and feeding animals
  • taking possession of common lands and enclosing them.

 

An Act of Parliament was required to enclose common land and ordinary people, in other words the commoners, could do very little to prevent that. Once landowners had made an application to enclose land under an Act of Parliament, they could rely on all the force of law and the local militia to support them. The fate of those who opposed was very often to be exiled to Botany Bay, Australia.

There is a difference between South and North Wales in the number of Acts made during this period (3):

North Wales     South Wales

1700 – 1760               3                     0

1761 – 1801             20                    6

1802 – 1811             32                     14

1812 – 1844             24                     30

1845 – 1885             22                     83

We see that enclosure was at its peak in North Wales during the Napoleonic War, when landowners had the perfect excuse to enclose lands on the basis that more food needed to be produced to fight against the French. In South and Mid Wales we see that the mid 19th century was the busiest period.

But the starting point, very often, was enclosure. An important part of the estate plan would be to combine a number of small agricultural holdings to create larger ones and connect a piece of upland mountain, previously common land, with all the holdings so that they included bottom land to grow crops and fatten the animals, ‘ffridd’ land (mountain pasture) for cattle, and uplands for sheep during the summer. A strong incentive for occupying common land was to substantially increase the number of sheep in the uplands, in order to satisfy the needs of the woollen industry which was expanding at this time. We can assume that building thousands of miles of cloddiau in the uplands, in addition to grazing tens of thousands of sheep rather than much fewer sheep, cattle and goats as previously, had a substantial effect on the ecology and habitats of upland Wales.

In many areas it is believed that it was French prisoners of war or, more likely, former soldiers from the Napoleonic War, that built them, e.g. in Carneddau and the Brecon Beacons. In other areas it is believed that Irishmen fleeing the huge famine that followed the potato blight in 1845 were responsible for building many walls in the mid 19th Century.

Many of the new ‘family farms’ created during this period, along with the basic pattern of a mixed method of farming, remained unchanged until the 1970s.

The Geology and Structure of the Hedges (John H Davies, former geologist with CCW)

The boundaries of fields and uplands usually reflect the land and rocks on which they stand. If hard rocks come to the surface, as in Snowdon, the Brecon Beacons and Preseli, then stone walls are most common. If the rocks are soft and split easily, or if they are covered with a thick layer of soil, then it is easier to construct either hedgerows growing directly from the ground, or banks of soil faced with stones with a hedgerow or wire fence on top.

When one travels from one end of the country to another, these differences can be seen quite clearly. Along with the traditional buildings which have also been built of local materials, they give each area a particular character. For instance, we see mostly hedgerows and hedges of earth in the gentle landscape of the Eastern counties (Silurian rocks); accomplished stone walls mainly characterise the red sandstone landscape of Glamorgan and Gower; hedges of earth and stone are to be seen on the glacial deposits of Llŷn, Ceredigion, Pembroke and Carmarthenshire, and slate slabs characterise some of the boundaries of the quarrying areas of Gwynedd.

In addition to this, within each area you have variations which reflect the complexity of local rocks and the differences in the traditional methods of the craftsmen who built them.

Snowdonia is definitely the place to see the huge variety in an area’s cloddiau; they reflect the geological complexity of the area, a mixture of ancient igneous slates and rocks, each one giving a distinct character. In addition, the skills of those who built them, sometimes on unwieldy rocky slopes, are to be marvelled at. The Brecon Beacons offer an opportunity to see the building of cloddiau at its most intricate, because the nature of the red sandstone gives oblong blocks which are far more convenient as building material.

The stones are not always easy to handle, particularly the igneous rocks which arose from the bowels of a volcano between 440 and 700 million years ago. These are of all shapes and sizes and are difficult to place neatly, quite different from slabs or blocks of deposit.

Stone hedges can tell us much about the nature of the local rock. The original contractors a century and a half or two centuries ago would hardly have bothered to carry stones any distance – no more than a few yards. This is why geological map makers, in some areas, search for clues as to what is under the surface by looking at evidence from the cloddiau. Small changes in land form, or minor changes in the size, shape, colour and quality of the stones along the hedges, can very often show in some detail where geological changes happen.

Unusual stones carried from further away will only be found in some of the modern cloddiau along roads. The reason for that is a lack of suitable local stone. A good example is the black limestone brought from Anglesey by the former Gwynedd Council when some roads needed to be widened in the 1970s and ’80s; these can be seen in places such as the Llanberis Pass. These stones do not suit the pattern, colour or character of the traditional cloddiau in this part of Snowdonia National Park, but they reflect the fashion and convenience of the time.

Usually it is in those areas where rocks come to the surface – on the mountain or on the coast – that cloddiau are seen, but you will also see them in areas where round stones have been carried down by glacial deposits and left there at the end of the Ice Age. The cloddiau along the coast at Ardudwy, between Harlech and Barmouth, are a very good example of this and they show the particular craft of those who built them as it is not easy to build walls of round stones. They have a very particular character partly because they are quite thick, which is essential if this kind of wall is to not to fall.

Stone walls – a shelter and a habitat (Dafydd Roberts, Ecologist, Snowdonia National Park)

The reason for building cloddiau in the first place was to enclose land – the Welsh words cau (‘closed’) and cae (‘field’) stem from the same root. Collecting stones from the surface of the land and making walls from them around the field enclosed that land so that it could be cultivated in addition to creating boundaries to keep animals out, or in.

Building a wall created a habitat in itself, or in fact a series of minor habitats. These reflect the differences between the sunny and sheltered sides, the top of the wall and its base, the places facing the wind and also the internal filling and the outer surface. The soil under the base of the wall is also a dryer shelter for wildlife, and it is a very different habitat from the grass in the field or at the base of the wall, where sheep sleep or take shelter.

An old stone wall can be an extremely rich habitat for different kinds of moss. Indeed, when you look at an old wall you will hardly see the stones themselves but rather the greyish cover of moss over them. They are a shelter and a hiding place for mice and rabbits, and also of course the other animals who hunt them: weasel, stoat, and polecat.

If there is suitable habitat nearby they are also good places for adders and common lizards to lie in the sun, and if there is uncultivated or marshy land in the area slowworms, frogs and newts can be seen around the walls.

Mountain walls are favourite nesting places for wheatear and stonechats, and sometimes even carrion crows can be seen nesting on top of a wall. In some areas ‘ffriddoedd’ (mountain pasture) offers a nesting habitat for little owls.

Craft and legacy

After a period of neglect during the latter half of the 20th century, when many of the stone walls deteriorated and fell, and when fences were placed alongside to contain the animals, there was a change of heart. From 1992 onwards grants have been offered under the agri-environmental schemes Tir Cymen, Tir Gofal (and Glastir by now) and also under special schemes in the National Parks, such as Rhaglen Tir Eryri, in order to restore traditional walls. This was an important recognition of the importance of walls to the landscape and that they were extremely valuable to agriculture and to wildlife. For example, there is far more shelter for an animal behind a wall than behind a wire fence! And it is also much more sustainable than a fence. During the lifetime of some of our existing walls, and some of them are over 200 years old, a fence would probably have to be renewed about 8 times.

Another advantage of the grants to restore walls was that they kept alive a craft to enable many a wall builder to make a living and adapt his skills to be able to restore stone work in an archaeological context, or convert traditional buildings for various purposes.

For further information about walls and local patterns in Snowdonia, contact Carwyn ap Myrddin, Agriculture Department, SNPA, [email protected]

 Twm Elias, John H Davies and Dafydd Roberts

References

  1. ‘Er Clod i’n Cloddiau Cerrig’, conference at Plas Tan y Bwlch, Maentwrog, March 8th 2014, a joint partnership bewteen Plas Tan y Bwlch, Snowdonia National Park Authority and Cymdeithas Hanes Amaethyddiaeth. Cyhoeddwyd adroddiad llawn yn Fferm a Thyddyn 53, (2014).
  2. Wynne, Ellis (1703). Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsc. London. (‘Visions of the Sleeping Bard’)
  3. Thomas, David (1952). Cau’r Tiroedd Comin. H. Evans. Page 28.