Like many other key medieval monuments in Wales, Deganwy Castle is barely known to the tens of thousands of visitors who pass by on their way to the picturesque seaside resort of Llandudno. And yet these sites are hidden gems locked away in the Welsh countryside, with extraordinary stories to tell about the life and times of Wales’s native princes. Deganwy is just one of eleven such sites that have benefitted over the last two years from Cadw’s Welsh Cultural Heritage Initiative (WCHI). The aim of this initiative has been to unlock the secrets of these iconic sites and to ensure that they are conserved for future generations to enjoy. However, the key to the success of the programme has been to negotiate full public access to the monuments, many of which are in private ownership.
Over the last twenty years, Cadw has transformed public access and understanding at key sites associated with Welsh nationhood. For example, Cadw has undertaken access and conservation work at Dinefwr and Dryslwyn Castles, which are associated with the princes of Deheubarth, and at Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’s Dolforwyn Castle in Powys. Support has also been provided for Denbighshire County Council, which manages the hilltop castle of the princes of Powys at Dinas Brân. In addition the magnificent castles associated with the princes of Gwynedd at Dolwyddelan, Dolbadarn, Castell y Bere and Criccieth are in Cadw’s guardianship.
The Welsh Cultural Heritage Initiative has now extended this programme following the announcement in January 2009 by the Minister for Heritage that £2 million would be made available from the Welsh Government’s Strategic Capital Investment Fund.
The initiative is now close to completion and has supported work on three groups of sites. Three sites linked with Owain Glyndŵr — Sycharth Castle, Glyndyfrdwy and Machynlleth Parliament House — make up the first group. The second contains two monuments in south-west Wales with connections to the princes of Deheubarth: Nevern Castle and Strata Florida Abbey. The third group in north Wales includes three castles (Deganwy, Tomen y Mur and Dinas Emrys), two royal courts (Llys Rhosyr and Abergwyngregyn) and a Cistercian abbey (Cwmhir) associated with the princes of Gwynedd.
Two of the Glyndŵr sites that have benefited from the initiative, Glyndyfrdwy and Sycharth Castle, were fortified homes of the Welsh hero. The traffic of the A5 passes barely a stones throw from the great earth motte or castle mound of Glyndyfrdwy, near Corwen. For many years this motte, has been in danger of partial collapse onto the adjacent Llangollen Railway line. Meanwhile, the earthwork motte-and-bailey castle at Sycharth lies hidden away in the countryside of northern Powys but has long suffered from erosion.
The WCHI project has allowed detailed archaeological surveys and conservation at both sites. At Sycharth, a combination of geophysical survey techniques, including ground-penetrating radar, provided significant new evidence of the position and construction of the keep and the buildings within the bailey. At Glyndyfrdwy geophysical survey has revealed the complex arrangement of defensive and water management features associated with this moated residence.
Both sites have now benefitted from clearance of scrub, tree management and extensive earthwork conservation and repair. At Glyndyfrdwy the stablisation of the motte involved a very sophisticated engineering solution using a combination of rock anchors and wire meshing. New interpretation has also been put in place at both sites and at Sycharth a much needed car-parking area has been created. The sites can now be visited as part of a Glyndŵr tour. Another location that could be included on a Glyndŵr journey is the Machynlleth Parliament House, which has also benefitted from the WCHI.
Although the existing building in Machynlleth is a later fifteenth-century structure, it is believed to stand on the site of Owain Glyndŵr’s first parliament, convened in 1404. The programme has worked with a local charitable trust to support a programme of essential conservation on the building fabric and internal interpretation. This has included the restoration of the Battle of Hyddgen Mural, the provision of new computers, which incorporate an interactive Owain Glyndŵr timeline, and interpretation that links in with other sites associated with Glyndŵr.
Princes of Deheubarth
In south-west Wales, the Welsh Cultural Heritage Initiative has supported a project that has led to important discoveries at the twelfth-century castle of Nevern in northern Pembrokeshire. Cadw worked in partnership with Pembrokshire Coast National Park and the community council, which owns the site, on a programme of investigation, conservation and public access improvements.
Major excavations, led by Chris Caple from Durham University, have revealed evidence for wooden and stone buildings, dating to the early twelfth-century Anglo-Norman occupation of the site and to later twelfth-century activity, possibly associated with the great prince of Dehuebarth, Rhys ap Gruffudd — known to his contemporaries and to history as ‘the Lord Rhys’. The most dramatic find has been the base of a large round tower, constructed of slate with clay bonding, on top of the castle motte. This has now been consolidated by members of Cadwraeth Cymru, Cadw’s conservation works team second tower, isolated from the rest of a complex by a steep rock-cut ditch, has also been excavated and conserved. Careful tree and vegetation management has transformed the appearance of the site, which is now fully accessible to the public. As well as new on-site interpretation, Nevern Castle also now boasts an attractive website (www.neverncastle.com).
The Lord Rhys was also a major patron of the Cistercian abbey at Strata Florida just outside Pontrhydfendigaid, Ceredigion. The major refurbishment to the visitor centre, which was partly funded by the initiative, is described elsewhere in this issue.
Princes of Gwynedd
Gwynedd’s princes governed their kingdom from a network of royal courts (llysoedd). Although many of the courts are known by name, few have been identified on the ground or investigated archaeologically. The Welsh Cultural Heritage Initiative has supported work at two important llys sites: Llys Rhosyr, near Newborough in south-west Anglesey, and Abergwyngregyn on the north Wales coast.
The foundations of several buildings associated with the court at Llys Rhosyr were excavated during the 1990s. However, over the last 15 years the remains have suffered from gradual deterioration. The WCHI has provided support to Menter Môn for essential conservation work, improved site drainage and complete refurbishment of the on-site interpretation, including new interpretation panels due to be installed in late summer.
At Abergwyngregyn, the initiative provided funding for Snowdonia National Park Authority and community heritage group Tirwedd Dyffryn Aber Cyf to undertake a programme of investigation and interpretation at this royal centre and in the associated historic landscape of the Aber Valley. Major excavations have been led by the park archaeologist, John Roberts, at two locations in the valley. The first during the summer of 2009 was of a prehistoric roundhouse and a medieval corn-drying kiln. During late 2010 the focus of investigation moved to the area adjacent to Yr Mwd, the earthwork motte at the heart of the modern village of Abergwyngregyn. The foundations of a large aisled hall thought to date to the late thirteenth century have now been excavated. Both excavations were visited by local schools and included student participation and other public outreach events. It is hoped to facilitate public access to the motte and the site of the medieval hall excavations in the near future. Meanwhile, a new interpretation facility has been established in the village (Aber Tŷ Pwmp), appropriately titled ‘Life at the Royal Court’.
At Deganwy, Cadw has also been working closely with the landowner and the tenant farmer to protect and to interpret the fragmentary and fragile remains of the castle. The early stages of the project included detailed archaeological and conservation surveys. This provided the basis for a challenging programme of masonry consolidation of the surviving walls on the twin hilltops of the castle site. A new parking area has been established next to All Saints Church in Deganwy and the castle can be accessed from there by waymarked public footpaths.
Although Cwmhir Abbey is in Powys, it has important links with the princes of Gwynedd. Llywelyn ab Iorwerth was an important patron of the house and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was buried there after he was slain at Cilmeri, near Builth Wells, in 1282. The masonry foundations of the Cistercian monastery had already benefited from a programme of conservation supported by Cadw during the 1990s. However, thanks to the Welsh Cultural Heritage Initiative, an area for car parking has been made at the farm adjacent to the site and an outbuilding converted into a small interpretation centre.
Finally, the initiative has also supported the preparation of conservation management plans at Dinas Emrys and Tomen y Mur. Dinas Emrys is a multi-period hilltop stronghold occupying the summit of a volcanic outcrop overlooking Nant Gwynant, north of Beddgelert. The site is owned by the National Trust and has evidence for Iron Age and early medieval occupation and the remains of a stone tower, probably built by the princes of Gwynedd. The conservation and access plan will allow the National Trust to provide better protection and public access to the monument. At Tomen y Mur near Trawsfynydd, the conservation management plan has informed earthwork repairs of the medieval motte, which is located over the gateway of an earlier Roman fort.