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Llantarnam Abbey – Another Case of Torfaens Archaeological Destruction Technique

December 13, 2011

I should really be following up the last blog post on Coed-Eva Mill but other things have cropped up, another two development sites in Cwmbran – or should I say Torfaen? I have a lot to follow up on as well, a lot of further information has come to light in regards to the mill in Coed-Eva but until I can get over to our illustrious County Hall, things may have to stay quiet on that front, although not for long.

Many of you may know what interest I have, from a historical perspective, in this area. I have, quite horribly, just realised that my about page on wordpress.com has not been filled out to let people, who do not know me, what I am all about. So here is a very quick summary that will enable you to understand why this next blog post is all about the Welsh institution that was in South East Wales, that of  Llantarnam Abbey.

I am currently a part time student at University of Wales Newport – Caerleon campus. I am studying part time, for a MA in Regional History and I am half way through my second year. My final year will be taken up by my dissertation topic.  There are many things my dissertation could centre on that would not be associated with Cwmbrans landscape, but there is one subject that has grabbed my attention over some time now,  monastic water systems, and it is these that I have been investigating. I think the subject is fascinating, the ability to control a natural resource that wants to remain level at all times.

The ‘working title’ may be something along the lines of ‘The Monastic Hydraulic Systems of Llantarnam Abbey’. I have to say working title, for if I included all of the systems that I have researched, the work would easily surpass the 20,000 word limit that is placed upon me. Lets just say that the hydraulic systems directly associated with Llantarnams inner and outer precincts will be dealt with. These have been touched on in an academic manner before, the Gwent Glamorgan Archaeological Trust have covered part of them while conducting a watching brief for a by-pass road built recently.  As with all watching briefs there is a limit to how much of the surrounding landscape you can investigate and so the accompanying report would of course, be quite limited in its scope. The advantage I have is that I have not been constrained by any limits. I am lucky enough to go out and about into the landscape to carry out a thorough investigation. And that is what I have done for the last two and half years, I have been hands on so to speak. The water systems I have investigated associated with the Abbey are immense. It is important, to me at least, that these investigations have been undertaken whilst in the field and not at a desk. The desktop work is important, don’t get me wrong here, but it is only out in the field that you get a real feel for the archaeological remains.

Last week I attended a public consultation that was held by Torfaen planning to have a look at the proposed plans, for housing, at Llantarnam Abbey. Planning permission had already been granted, but that was for an industrial park – we have not enough already apparently! – this consultation was for a change of planning from industrial use to housing.

Please, take a look at the plans.

It is the largest group of buildings to the centre right of the picture that most concerns us most. Personally, I find the size of that development quite shocking. Why we have to build on these green field sites when there are plenty of brown field sites is a bit mind boggling, nevertheless, the permission has been granted. Take a look at the photo I took of what was said about the archaeology.

Now this is exactly my problem with the planners in Torfaen, it has to be said that it is not their fault and you can also add the advisors from GGAT to that list as well. You see, that statement is technically correct; although it should be added that a lot of metal detector finds have been discovered very nearby. According to the  Historic Environment Record (HER) there is nothing there, but should we believe it and just write off the possible archaeology with the sweeping statement above? Of course we shouldn’t. For starters, I could easily construct an argument that the majority of that large estate is inside the outer precinct of the medieval abbey. Whether I am right of course is another matter, but I could still build the argument.

Not only that, the much written about medieval deserted villages of Llantarnam may not be all they are made up to be. Some buildings are that close to the current abbey building that another argument, for them being inside the inner precinct, could also be construed. The excavations that produced these conclusions were not published fully, as such, in my opinion, they are open to re-interpretation.

Again, the buildings that are thought to be in the other ‘deserted medieval village‘ nearby, could quite easily be in the outer precinct.  If that is the case, who is to say that the proposed land to built on does not hold similar buildings?

The possibilities are endless. Nobody has really looked at the abbey in an in depth manner since the last excavations. It is in Cwmbran remember. It may be thought of as a difficult ‘subject’.

I have mentioned this before. There is nothing of interest in Cwmbran whatsoever, or at at least that is the current popular historical culture that is generated around here; it is not helped by the wording of most planning decisions. Once again the destructive legacy, left to us by Cwmbran Development Corporation, has hit home. But hang on, is this not 2011, soon to  be 2012? How long have we been getting rid of stuff in the Cwmbran area due to there being nothing on the HER due to the ineptitude of the Development Corporation? There will be nothing on the HER of note, they did not look. As such, the current planners are hamstrung. It is a viscous  archaeological circle we find ourselves in.

So, would you like to see what is in the area proposed for the development? Not a problem but please allow me to quickly explain how the Abbey was fed by the water systems it felt the need to employ.

The are two major sources for the Abbey, that are from outside of the outer precinct, that are popularly thought to have drawn from the Afon Llwyd and the Dowlais Brook. The tapping of the Afon Llwyd was made some distance away on Avondale Road, after the bus station in fact, and carried on down Llantarnam Road, feeding the two mills near Brook House before entering its tail race… I’ll leave that one there as it gets quite complicated after that.

The Dowlais was tapped at the end of Llantarnam Comprehensive Schools football fields and it was then canalised into its present course today. There could be an argument built for Cistercian management of this water course as far up as the Mill Tavern Public House (where I have we heard that one before?), although I am unsure of this at present and it needs a lot more research.

The Dowlais Brook: Canalised for the transport of materials and to open up the area available for the inner precinct.

Both systems probably fed extensive medieval water meadows which are now, in the main, built on. I’ll have to deal with water meadows at another time but trust me, they were very important to Llantarnams wealth.

There is another system that fed the Dowlais but this one may have entered the Dowlais inside the outer precinct. This water system is smack bang in the middle of the proposed development area. The reason for its existence is open to debate but let me show it to you now so that you can see, and hopefully understand, the problems that our current planners have. There are two leat systems that carry water towards the Dowlais Brook. Think of a leat that is cut in a V shape into the ground. There is a lot more to it than that of course but that explanation will do for now. As I am not allowed onto the land that is proposed to be developed on, the systems are very difficult to photograph, I hope to remedy this soon.

The leat at the top of the picture leads down from Pen-yPark

The lower leat is running behind the tree from the bottom left of the picture to the top right, its source is unknown.

These two leats lead from an unverified source, although there is a very tempting possibility, for at least one of them, that was not identified with Llantarnam, that popped up during GGAT’s watching brief for the relief road for Brynglas tunnels.

It reads,

The substantial remains of a dam were recorded in advance of the construction of the Brynglas Tunnels Relief scheme, financed by the Welsh Office Highways Directorate. This feature crossed the line of the small stream valley leading from Pen-y-Park to the Crindau Pill and measured some 55m in length, 6m wide and 3.2m high. The maximum area of the impounded pond would be 160m by 50m and up to 3m in depth.

It is probable that the dam formed a header pond to a mill, so far unlocated, further down the valley, although no documentary evidence has been found for a mill in this area.

Now what if they looked (thought) the wrong way down ‘a’ hill and didn’t think of the Abbey? Possibly because of the current topographical situation? It is also quite possible, given the size of the dam, that it fed more than one water system. The Cistercians, after all, were complete masters of water management. Lets not underestimate their capabilities here.

The two systems run down towards the Magna Porta gatehouse that sits on the line of the current grade two listed conservation area. As you look at the gatehouse, on the left you will see the remains of a dam.

A similar dam to this one has been discovered during the Strata Florida Research Project. The conclusion, that was arrived through excavation, was that the area behind the dam was a boggy area which other trial excavations have shown to be a possible settling tank for clays(scroll down).

That is not all, where does the water go after being drained from the dam at Llantarnam? It enters the Dowlais brook through a drain. Much hidden, under a dense and large canopy, I eventually found this by accident while trying to fight my way through vegetation that I had not explored before.

It does not look like much to shout home about perhaps? Take another look, this time at the inside, that way you see the construction technique employed.

This system is still in operation. As the catchment area for the two leats is so large, heavy rainfall means that the drain will empty the fields above of any excess water. The water then flows, quite freely, into the Dowlais Brook. It is a pleasure to watch it flow after being built so many years ago. Ok so there are not any Lay Brothers operating the drain that would have released the water, mother nature has taken over, but you get my gist.

This is just one of many micro water systems that fed Llantarnam Abbey. The hydraulic systems are vast and complicated but at the same time, exciting for the study of monastic water systems.

Further, there is an opportunity here to investigate a medieval park, the park, or outer precinct may remain untouched since medieval times; it was in one family (the Morgans and their descendants) for a very long time after the reformation and this fact should not be dismissed without serious investigation. The outer reaches of Llantarnams current park could quite easily derive from the monastic outer precinct.

The planning process employed by the Cwmbran Development Corporation, while destroying vast amounts of the historical landscape, left us with pockets that have the ability for current investigation, the area for the proposed development is one of them.

Think of Cwmbran as a large 5,000 piece archaeological jigsaw. 4,500 pieces of that jigsaw were wiped out when the New Town was built. We have about 200 pieces left on the lowlands, another 200 pieces on the uplands. 50 pieces are left scattered in the middle belt of her lands. Unless we understand the whole picture of this jigsaw we will will be left with an archaeological void, one that can can not be back filled. In a hundred years time, unless this planning department changes its tune, future archaeologists are going to look back and laugh, pointing at our total and utter inability to see a historic landscape that is crying out for serious research using early 21st century archaeological techniques.

Let it not be seen that we never tried to put together the remaining pieces of the jigsaw of this almost impossible puzzle. Are we really going to place the remaining pieces in the recycle bin? Oh well, at least they are collected weekly.

It is not like having the most brilliant Cistercian water systems in your home town is important is it?

Is it?

If you wish to oppose this development then please send an E-Mail to LDP@torfaen.gov.uk It has to arrive in their electronic box by 4:30PM on 6 January 2012 otherwise your comments will not be considered.

MD

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7 Comments
  1. TheRooster permalink

    great stuff Dave – why do local authorities treat heritage as an after thought unless they see it as an immediate cash cow. Caerleon is the jewel in Newports crown but they are hell bent in developing more and more houses to turn it into gridlock and a horrible place to visit. Sometimes places like Torfaen are best protected by people who love what it was, what it is and what it could be, people like you. The council only has one idea about progress its time they woke up to others.

  2. Thank you Rooster. You’re right of course but there has to come a tipping point, one where we say ‘hang on, lets look at this properly’. Hopefully, that tipping point will start soon enough. If it doesn’t happen, by the time Torfaen implements its full planning policy of 7,000 houses, Cwmbran will become a concrete city.

  3. Dave

    You are quite correct that the lack of information on the Historic Environment Record means that the current planners are hamstrung. I therefore strongly recommend that you and your readers provide any information on the archaeological sites you are aware of to the Historic Environment Record so that it can be updated and become the tool that is required to protect the archaeological record. I am sure that you are aware that the existing record information is available to see on-line at http://www.cofiadurcahcymru.org.uk/arch/index.html. However, it only contains information on sites that have been reported –so here is a chance for you to add to the record and help to protect Cwmbran’s historic landscape.

    I have enjoyed reading your hypothesis and theories about the hinterland to Llantarnam Abbey and clearly further research is required; however there is one part of your blog which is incorrect. The dam that GGAT investigated on the route of the Brynglas Tunnels Relief Scheme ( HER Primary Record Number (PRN) 5193g) is situated at NGR ST 3078 9182. This is a considerable distance down the valley of the stream leading into Pillmawr and well below the watershed between this stream and the Dowlais Brook. Whilst I agree with you that the Cistercaians were “complete masters of water management” even they could not get water to flow up hill!

    Keep up the research and do please ensure that your findings are sent to the HER.

    • Thank you.

      I quite agree that the Cistercians could not get water to flow uphill, what I am quietly confident of them being able to do is install a drain that is under the ground. These are well documented, especially in France, and they can run for miles. However, if I am incorrect, which is obviously perfectly possible, then the subject of where the leat leading from Pen-y-Park originates from has to be raised.

      May I also thank you for your E-Mail, I shall reply shortly.

  4. Dave

    Unfortunately you do not provide a map or give grid references to the location of the possible leats (it remains possible that they are natural features or drainage) so I cannot give a definite location for the source of water for these features although there are a number of springs on the hill above Pen Y Parc all of which are more likely sources than a dam in the next valley

    Neil

  5. oldnewportonian permalink

    In the 1940’s when cars were few and far between in Newport /Cwmbran area I regularly went to Old Cwmbran either along the tow path of the canal or by road on my bike. Once you passed St Joeseph’s Nursing Home on the right as you are going up hlll to Cwmbran there was next to no buildings to be seen. Court Far was what it said A Farm with a small row of houses, the right habd side of the road had more houses. The Greenhouse Pub was next to the abbey.
    As far as the Brynglas Tunnels are concerned prior to them being built and the Malpas Road being built higher and running further to.the left of where it now runs as a large chunk of Kimberley Park as it was then called was became the road – you can see the difference as a small part of the old Malpas Road is still there where the Etap Hotel and the Fire Station now are. Prior to the Fire Station being built there a firm that used to be on the corner of Redland St and Prospect St.built a ware house there and it sunk) Prior to the Tunnels being Built and the Malpas Road Raised plus I do not know what was done to the canal and Malpas Brook, the whole area used to flood regularly. Before my time the water was up to the top of the lower floor of the houses in Redland Street and the people had to be rescued by boat. I know this is correct as I have seen a photo of the lady who lived in Number 24 being taken to safety in a boat. The canal then had sluice gates which were opened every time it was expected the area would flood which I can assure you was often especial when heavy Rain Coincided with the high Spring Tides. Many times I have had to paddle home with my shoes etc in my hands. and trying to keep them and my school satchel dry. I have seen the water cover the cross bar of the rugby posts in Kimberly Park. I think it may now be called Crindau Park. I have been away from the area for 32 years. Coming from Malpas towards Newport Town you would see a vast expanse of water which spread from Blaen Y Pant to Barrack Hill. In those days Barrack Hill Came down to the level of Malpas Road. Following the Building of the M4 and the Brynglass Tunnels this was not much of a problem. which is why I said earlier I do not know what if anything was done to the Canal and Malpas Brook.The old railway line went past the back of Redland Street following Heidenheim Way. I have walked that railway line as well once it was no longer in use. The whole area as I understand was reclaimed from Marshland.
    You mention Pwllmawr Road, At one pont on that Road it was flooded more often than not as I found out on the many occassions I walked to Caerleon that way as it was the shortest way from Redland Street. Before the New Town of Cwmbran was built the Old Cwmbran always appeared to me as being very old and quaint so I fail to see why the powers that be can say it was of no historical or archeological interest. As far as I am concerned the whole area including as far towards Newport to just before St Josephs Nursing home has been ruined. Until last year I used to visit Newport on a Regular basis as my family lived there but since my mother has now departed this earth and my brother has moved plus I have moved to just 2 miles short of Northumberland it is approx 21 months since I was there as it was in March 2010 when I went to Newport to see my family and also to attend the Memorial Service of Submarine Commander John Wallace(aka Tubby) Linton Newport’s only person to ever get the VC and since my mother was a Linton and a cousin of Tubby’s I went to the memorial service held on the bank of the River by the wave, there is a Capstan with the name on it and Tubby was born in Malpas the part of Newport which led to Llantarnam Road. I had not realised the damage Torfaen Council had done so I hope you can get one over on them or perhaps get them to permanently change there ways

  6. Andromeda! permalink

    Some of my upbringing as a child back in the 60’s was on Llantarnam Road, so I often ventured into the woods with my trusty bow and arrows, by the side of Llantarnam Station and presumably illegally into the Abbey grounds. The nuns there were never very friendly to kids, or the others that worked there, shouting their threats as we scarpered! It probably influenced my religious views up to the present.

    I can imagine many think the whole concrete world of the New Town was a blot on the landscape, and much of it may be just that. Councillors have never been renown for any imaginative conservation.

    These were magical nostalgic times for a 10 year old of course, and your blog has been very interesting.

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