The Rev John Evans 1803

Letters written during a tour through south Wales

Page 3 : The Elenydd mountains

On the right, a picture of the highlands of Cwm Mwyro on a wet, dark day, with  Afon Mwyro in full flood. Although this upper part of the valley is bare with little trees or grassland, it has a special beauty and a great deal of charm for those who love upland solitude. Most of the  old names associated with the area have now lapsed and are only remembered and still used by a few local people [1]

Cwm Mwyro with the river Mwyro in the background

From Ystradmeurig  to the Elenydd uplands

Llyn Figyn

Photo © Ian Medcalf (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Click to see original and more details

From Ystrad Meurig, John Evans continued his journey to Elenydd, the most remote area of the Cambrian mountains. He said that nothing he had seen on his travels exceeded the astonishing variety of scenery in this part of the country :

. . you descend into one vale only to climb another hill, and gain one ascent only to prepare you for another of more difficult access. Nature seems to have thrown about hills in sport ; for mountain ranges behind mountain  in almost every direction . . . Here is the remarkable spot of Cragnaullin . . . whence the eye can recognize nine lakes . . . most of which abound with trout and eels

One of the smallest of these lakes is Llyn Figyn ; John Evans, referred to it as Llyn Ynigen Velin [2] and he described it as :

. . . the yellow lake of the quaking moor . . . characteristic of this part of the country, which abounds with bogs and swampy moors, of little value for pasture, but of unspeakable utility to the inhabitants of a district so destitute of fuel.

In contrast, he said that the Elenydd’s slopes provided fine pastures for cattle and he recorded that these slopes were dotted with numerous ‘hafodtys’ (hafodydd), occupied mostly by cowherds during the summer months

Like Gwallter Mechain [3] he believed that these open upland pastures were not being fully exploited – they were barely half stocked and a great deal of good grass  was allowed to rot on the ground each year. This, he claimed, was bad for the soil and a great loss to the local community and, indeed, to the whole country. He also thought that the system of summer grazing on unenclosed land was very badly managed ; those people who made use of the slopes :

. . .  have scarcely any idea of demarcation , ranging with their cattle for grazing where situation may induce, or inclination lead.

It is unlikely that John Evans ever imagined the changes that would take place during the course of the century. The principal estates of Ceredigion gradually appropriated the bulk of Elenydd by legally (and often not so legally) encroaching on almost all unenclosed waste land. In so doing they effectively deprived local people of the seasonal use of upland pastures. There were odd-times throughout the 19th century when this led to strong local resistance, accompanied, occasionally, by force and even bloodshed.

On his way back from Carreg-naw-llyn to Ystrad Fflur, John Evans was caught in a fierce thunderstorm which he described as :

. . . a truly awful and sublime phenomenon, a thunder-storm amidst the mountains . . . imagination will be able to form but very faint ideas of the horror excited by thunder and lighting in those wild and mountainous places . . . the thunder rolls with loud and awful rumbling over your head, and  . . . reverberate through the vales with redoubled noise . . . while the blue forked lightning, flashing in every direction through the passes of the mountains, induces you to imagine that you are surrounded with fire ; the contending clouds pour torrents of rain, which, running like rivers down the cwms, form floods under your feet as you pass the vales beneath. Measuring the distance of some clouds, we found ourselves at times nearer than was . . . consistent with security ; and though we reflected that the instances of injury from lightning are rare, we were unable to dismiss all apprehension on the occasion.

He goes on to say that such thunderstorms for ‘lesser mortals’, like his guide :

. . . who consider every clap of thunder as the effect of God’s wrath, and every flash of lightning as the minister of Divine vengeance, the terror  must be great indeed : it was strongly visible  on the poor fellow’s countenance ; in vain did we endeavour to make him acquainted  with the nature of its formation in the atmosphere, and assure him that it was beneficial, as clearing the air from noxious vapours, and fertilizing the ground : and that no injury could arise but by too great a proximity to the clouds which we had now escaped – every new clap or flash would overturn our reasoning, and he would instantly turn pale as death, stop his ears with his fingers, and mutter ejaculations for his safety ; nor was it till some time after the storm had ceased, that tranquility was restored to his perturbed breast.

Although this story makes good reading, it may not be a true reflection of what actually happened. John Evans’ version of events and places are sometimes suspect [4], and it is quite possible that he was, in fact, describing his own fear (together with that of his friends) rather than that of his escort. John Evans’ guide would have had intimate knowledge of the mountains. Elenydd, in 1804, was arguably the most remote and isolated region in the country, and it is highly unlikely that an inept guide could escort a party of toffs around such places as Carreg-naw-llyn, Llyn Inigen Velin and Llynnoedd Teifi. Very likely, the guide would have been born and bread on the mountains ; he would have been familiar with Elenydd’s peaks, valleys, and swamps and experienced all the varied weather one could encounter on those hills – wind, rain, snow, mist and hill fog. Maybe the guide would have been concerned with being caught in a thunderstorm in open country, but it is difficult to believe that he would have been panic-stricken. John Evans, on the other hand, was a stranger to this kind of terrain (wild and mountainous) and a likely candidate to be utterly petrified by the experience. Whether he actually skewed the story will never be known, but his account of events probably went down well with his readers, most of whom would have had littlre knowlege of Elenydd and its treacherous weather.



Llyn Figyn – © Copyright Ian Medcalf and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

[2]Figyn also written as figin and gign means boggy ground. Leland (around 1536) refers to this lake as ‘Llyn y Figin Velen’. Figin he says is a quaking moor and velen is yellow, the colour of the mosse and corrupt gresse about it. To find out more about Leland’s visit to this part of the country, click here
[3]Walter Davies (Walter Mechain), General View of Agriculture and Domestic Economy of South Wales (volume II), London 1815.
[4]Dictionay of Welsh Biography