Cymru Culture

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Emlyn Davies; Ynysyfelin, a lost community (English)

(March 01, 2017)


Ynysyfelin; a lost community

Llwyn Onn

We focus on a community rather than an individual in this edition. A community destroyed to create a reservoir to meet the demands of the city of Cardiff, and it happened without any significant objection.

As we travel from the south along the A470 towards the Brecon Beacons, it is well worth stopping for a moment in the first lay-by situated on the southern end of the reservoir near the hamlet of Llwyn Onn, close to the turning for Cwm Cadlan, although there is hardly any view from here. But if we look across the busy main road, we will see a little chapel, simple in appearance and much smaller than typical Welsh chapels. The sign in front of it speaks volumes about its history: "Bethel Baptist Church. Built 1799. Rebuilt 1866. Moved from Ynysyfelin 1914."

Beside the A470
Llyn Onn, beside the A470

Arysgrif ar fur yr argae
Inscription on the dam wall

Capel Bethel Arwydd y capel
Capel Bethel  Sign on the chapel wall

It may be a statement of bare facts, but at the same time it belies an amazing story. Bethel chapel was moved to this location a century ago, when the valley opposite was flooded. It is still open, but today only about a dozen people attend the services, which tend to be bilingual with more English than Welsh. But that was not always the case. Just over a century ago, the rich sounds of the Welsh dialect known as ‘Gwenhwyseg’ echoed throughout this valley, and the area was home to a vibrant community, rich in culture, proud of its religious tradition.

Capel Bethel
Capel Bethel today

The hamlet of Ynysyfelin stood on the other side of the lake, at the heart of an agricultural society that took pride in its neighbourly, close-knit nature. At that time, the old chapel, the original Bethel, was the mother church of several Baptist chapels over a wider area, and even though it belonged to Brecknockshire as part of the parish of Vaynor, its influence extended to areas such as Penderyn, Aberdare and Abercynon. Originally built in 1799, Bethel chapel had to be extended in 1866 because it had become far too small as a venue for all the activities on offer.

Fferm Ynysyfelin
Fferm Ynysyfelin

About 50 people lived here by 1900 in a collection of buildings on the banks of the river, some in farms such as Ynysyfelin and Troedyrhiw, others in the three small-holdings and two mills, not forgetting the two pubs, Godrefedw and the Red Lion, and the small terrace. There was no school in the village itself but the children travelled to nearby Nant Ddu to be educated, and that is where the local church of St. Mary was also situated. The village of Nant Ddu was saved from being drowned, but many of the inhabitants were forced to move. Altogether, there were about 30 farms in Cwm Taf, breeding sheep and growing crops. (Detailed descriptions of the names of farms and their produce appear in an excellent article by Gwyneth Evans in the local history journal: Brecon Volume XLV 2014. Further anecdotes and a potted history can be found on the website Cwmtaff and the Beacons


Capel Bethel and its cemetary Charles Morgan
Capel Bethel and its cemetary Charles Morgan

Most of the residents were tenants of Lord Tredegar, who owned most of the lands, and some other buildings belonged to landlords from Cardiff. This fact may explain why Ynysyfelin residents would sometimes make disparaging references to the "men of Cardiff", as they represented a very different class of people. The memory was still alive about earlier times when the whole valley was the hunting ground for Lord Tredegar, who took pride in his hunting lodge located where the Nant Ddu hotel stands today.

Nant DduNant Ddu

At the turn of the century, rumours proliferated that Cardiff Corporation was eyeing the valley with a view to establishing a reservoir to cater for the needs of the city, which was growing rapidly at the time. This was not unexpected, as Cantref reservoir had existed since 1892 and parliamentary permission had been granted to build another dam downstream since 1884. The Cardiff Times, Llwyn Onn editionBy 1908, the Cardiff Times states there were firm plans in place to drown Ynysyfelin, and create a new reservoir. On March 5th, 1910, a short report appeared in the same newspaper explaining that this day was the deadline to receive any objections to the plan, but as the publication went to press, no objection had been raised.

One theory is that the farmers in Cwm Taf were all tenants, but landowner Godfrey Charles Morgan, Lord Tredegar, had received substantial compensation. The residents of Ynysyfelin had no right to voice their opinions, and therefore had to surrender. To be fair, the case presented by the Water Corporation to drown the area was very strong, as Cardiff had suffered badly from a cholera outbreak in 1849, and was in urgent need of adequate supplies of clean water. We must also remember that the residents of Merthyr had opposed the plans to build the first reservoir, further up the river, but their efforts were in vain. It was therefore a dispirited community that was forced to accept the inevitable in Nant Ddu and Ynysyfelin. The lands were lost, homes were flooded, and the community was destroyed, but they took their chapel with them, or at least a new chapel was erected a safe distance away.

Work began in 1914 on the clearing and preparation operation, but it was another 12 years before the completion of the entire project, and the celebration of the opening ceremony on the wall of the dam during late June, 1926, lwas ed by the Lord Mayor of Cardiff, W. B. Francis.

Nowadays, not everyone realises that such a vibrant Welsh speaking community ever existed in this valley. Most of us drive past the lake along the A470, probably in a hurry, and although we may marvel at the beauty of Llwyn Onn reservoir, the majority of travellers would have no reason to think twice about the fate of the Ynysyfelin village.

The view from Ynysyfelin
The view from Ynysyfelin

But quite often, mid-summer will bring us an unexpected reminder of what was sacrificed. During periods of drought, when the level of the waters in the lake drops day after day, traces of the old village slowly emerge. As one who regularly spends hours on the shores of the lake trying to get the better of the cunning rainbow trout, I can vouch that the memory of the old lively community is never far away, and dark shadows from the deep often send cold shivers down one’s spine. We see glimpses of the yesterdays which were lost, invoking in us a certain guilt that we are trespassing into the realm of memories which belong to those whose honest toil and busy lives enriched this valley over a century ago.

Location of the old village
Location of the old village

The first structure to be clearly exposed is the old stone bridge that used to cross the river, on the outskirts of Ynysyfelin village. And when one sees it for the first time, one cannot help feeling the pull of the silver cord which binds us to those who lived their lives on the banks of the river without realising what fate awaited them.

The residents had their own name for this bridge. Officially, it was called ‘Pont ar Daf’, but colloquially it was always referred to as ‘Pont y Clecs’ (Gossip Bridge), for this is where they used to meet on a summer’s evening to chat and gossip, which was common practice. It is interesting to note that when broadcaster Richard Rees visited the area for a radio series some 25 years ago, his interviewee, a former villager, did not mention the words 'lake' or 'reservoir' at all. His word was always 'the pound'.

Pont y ClecsPont y Clecs

The next time you drive past Llwyn Onn on the A470, it would be worth your while to stop to admire the lake, to see Bethel Chapel, and to remember the old village, 'the lost community'.

Emlyn Davies, March 2017


If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Emlyn Davies:


     Canon William Evans; September 2017
Robert Owen; June 2017
Laura Ashley; December 2016
Adelina Patti, September 2016
Billy Hughes; June 2016
Coed y Bleiddiau; March 2016
Betsi Cadwaladr; December 2015
Sir Thomas Artemus Jones; September 2015
The two redheads; June 2015

cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan:
Caregos Cyf., 2017


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