Every Site a Story by Dr Adam N. Coward, Data Enhancement Assistant
In recent weeks, Royal Commission staff have been sharing their favourite images from the National Monument Record of Wales, with some wonderful and engaging results. I, however, have been struggling to think which picture is my favourite. In part, this is because there are so many amazing pictures from which to choose. But also, while I greatly enjoy the images, as a historian I’m drawn first and foremost to sites for the stories which they tell. All sites have stories. It is these that connect them to ‘the contemporary culture, civilisation and conditions of the life of the people in Wales’, in the words of our Royal Warrant. Some site entries capture these stories alongside archaeological and architectural descriptions, providing a richer understanding of the Welsh historic environment.
The way in which stories appear in site entries is not uniform across Coflein. Some entries, such as those for Dinas Emrys and Llyn y Fan Fach, refer obliquely to the existence of stories. Other entries give fuller treatment to the folktales which give the sites cultural meaning. The entry for Cader Idris discusses the idea that sleeping on the mountain grants either inspiration or madness and the fact that Evan Evans (Iuean Brydydd Hir) (1731–1788) tested the truth of it. The site entry for Llyn Barfog, refers to several tales, including the mythical Afanc and a fairy bride story. Similarly, the entry for Twm Siôn Cati’s Cave wouldn’t be complete without an account of its eponymous sometime resident. My favourite entry of this type is for Trwyn Farmhouse. A substantial seventeenth- or eighteenth-century farmhouse, it was ruinous well before it was recorded by the Royal Commission. However, it is significant as the setting for the haunting activities of the mischievous spirit, the ‘Pwcca’r Trwyn’.
Not all stories are legendary; some relate to interesting historical events. The entry for St Derfel’s Church, Llandderfel, records the brutal use to which the statue of St Derfel (which it once housed) was put. The entry for New Brewery, in Llanelli, records the business venture (and possibly revenge) of a former manager of Buckley’s Brewery, also in Llanelli. The entry for Plas Newydd, Llangollen, naturally, records the remarkable story of the ladies who lived there.
Other site entries also record the stories behind the stories. The entry for the King’s Rent Hole in Llanbister, Radnorshire, includes its observation by the Royal Commission’s first Secretary, Edward Owen, the likely reason for its inclusion in the Inventory of Historical Sites in Wales and Monmouthshire […] County of Radnor (1913) and thus on Coflein. The entry for Beddgelert notes the eighteenth-century adaption and promotion of the story of Llewelyn’s faithful hound in order to attract tourists. One of my favourite entries, however, is for ‘Standing Stone, Abattoir, Gasworks Lane’, which describes in delightful detail a ‘serendipitous’ discovery and is fleshed out with local knowledge. In doing so it not only provides an engaging account but evokes the sense of discovery and appeal to local informants which was the basis of the early inventories.
These are just a few of the stories included in site entries across Coflein. Sites from manor houses to public houses, castles to cottages, record the cultural interactions to which they have played host. These stories help us to understand the Welsh historic environment for what it is – the setting of Welsh history.
Adam N. Coward, RCAHMW