HISTORY OF DERNOL
There is plenty of evidence in this part of mid-Wales of habitation by humans since the Bronze Age (c 2100-1400BC), and it is possible that they have been here since about 4000BC, the start of the Neolithic period, when humans started the earliest farming communities.
It is also possible that the ancestors of many of the animals and plants we still find here have been in the valley for even longer!
It is likely that the original building was a farmer’s or farm-worker’s dwelling, consisting of the usual basic cottage, with stable for a donkey/horse and a barn for cattle attached. The barn was converted into a rudimentary chapel and the cottage possibly into a schoolroom, although the internal connecting door between the two was blocked and there was always an upstairs which included a hay tollent, to the cottage. The chapel was then re-configured in more than one stage both to increase its capacity and to render its identity as a chapel more clearly.
From Coflein :
“Capel Isaf Calvinistic Methodist Chapel was first built in 1826 and then rebuilt in 1884. The later chapel was stone built in the Simple Gothic style with a gable-entry plan, brick quoins and dressings and a pierced and fancy bargeboard. The centre porch has a pointed doorway and slate hipped roof with shaped slates and pointed flanking windows. It is possible that the window opening over and small lancet in the gable apex was altered. By 2002 Capel Isaf had been converted into a house, though the adjoining graveyard was left intact and is still used for local people.”
From publication MR/MI/79 by the Montgomeryshire Genealogical Society / Cymdeithas Achyddol Maldwyn:
“… All that is known … about this chapel is derived from the 1851 religious census of Montgomeryshire, where it … described by the anglicised version of a Welsh name, namely ‘Lowest Chapel’ i.e. Capel Isaf … . According to the religious census, ‘Lowest Chapel’ was built by the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists in 1830. In 1851, this chapel had 4 free spaces, 48 others and 48 standing (fairly small by the standards of the time). The attendance on census day was 35 at morning service, 24 at the afternoon Sunday School and 46 at evening service. The informant was Jacob Hughes, the ‘manager’ of Caregbwla, Llangurig (a nearby farm).
It is fairly obvious to the visitor that this is not the only building on the site that we see today. The present converted dwelling house takes in a neo-gothic chapel of the late 19th. century, when the 1830 building was presumably rebuilt. This more recent building probably dates to the period 1870-1900. It has a typical tall lancets to either side of its front external entrance porch. The fabric of the front is squared stone with purple brick dressings, but the side walls are random rubble. There are two rectangular windows above the porch, echoed by a small one in the gable end, with decorated barge boards above,
all apparently original all original apart from the main barge board on the south side, which is a faithful copy.
The pair of windows over the porch were originally lancet, just like the two taller ones on the ground floor to either side. Later (post-WWII) the arches were taken out, a single concrete lintel inserted over both windows and the resulting gap above them filled in with matching stonework. At this time the original blue engineering bricks from the sides of the arches were co-opted to build up the stack on the cottage chimney. Use of chamfered bricks for this purpose would never have been contemplated, except there was an urgent need to improve the drawing effectiveness of the cottage chimney, the bricks were to hand, surplus to other requirements and represented a significant saving in costs when funds were limited. The two capstones still exist, but have found no further practical use within the fabric of the building.
To the west side is an annex of random rubble, which may have housed a school room. It is not impossible that this was the original chapel building, to which the chapel on the east side was added. The conversion has not altered the structure of the whole a great deal, although some new skylights have been let in and there is a new conservatory on the south side. Two doors have been added into the east wall, and a garage added to the east rear. “
*Italicised text added by the current owner of the Old Chapel.
A pupil remembers:
Milwyn Hughes (known as Min) lived in the Dernol Valley all his life, and attended the school from the ages of 4 – 14 years old.
I visited him for a chat when he was living in Maes-y-Wennol Care Home in the latter part of his life. He was very cheerful and still had that cheeky twinkle in his eye. He loved talking about the valley and how, when he attended the school, a boy used to come from over the hill on a horse to get to school. The horse stayed in the school yard whilst the boy was in school, and the gate had to be kept shut. One day the gate was left open and some cows got in; the teacher Miss Penny Thelma Bennett (from Shortbridge Street, Llanidloes) got a poker and said “scoot, scoot” to herd them out. Milwyn remembered her as a strong woman who wore high heeled shoes that sometimes got stuck in the mud when she walked down from the main road over the fields to get to the school; but in the winter she would stay in the valley Mon/Tues/Wed.
I asked Milwyn what the school dinners were like, and he said they were very good, and that his favourite was cold custard from the day before (I like that too!).
During the war Milwyn’s family had an evacuee from London living with them, named Joan Rose Ellen Tinsley.
Milwyn went to the chapel in the valley and sang duets with his brother; his Dad had a baritone voice. I have heard Milwyn sing while working on his tractor in the valley, and he had a fine voice – it would have been good to have heard them sing together!
Milwyn passed away in 2019, and is remembered in the graveyard adjacent to the old Chapel.
(Written by a friend, Sue Purcell, 2020)
The Farmers Weekly – March 9, 1956
In this issue, the magazine published an article about Dernol. I’ve put the photos from the article in the gallery below, and extracted the text into a readable format. If you click on the pictures, you will see the original captions that accompanied them.
It was a hard life; many things have improved in my lifetime, but some problems have changed little.
“The smaller upland farms of Mid-Wales are emptying of people, and good hills become sheep walks. This poses many questions we cannot afford to leave unanswered, for this story of a Welsh valley is only one example typical of many. But the problem is one of humanity rather than of farming.
This is the story of a valley. It is also a phase in the evolution of hill farming life, for however unique in character, it is far from unique in its experience.”
Read the full article by clicking the + sign in the row below.
Thanks to Karl Schneider of Farmers Weekly for providing the copy of the article from which these photos and text were taken.
Exodus or Genesis? from The Farmers Weekly, March 9, 1956
EXODUS or GENESIS?
The smaller upland farms of Mid-Wales are emptying of people, and good hills become sheep walks. This poses many questions we cannot afford to leave unanswered, for this story of a Welsh valley is only one example typical of many. But the problem is one of humanity rather than of farming.
By C. S. SMITH
This is the story of a valley. It is also a phase in the evolution of hill farming life, for however unique in character it is far from unique in its experience.
It is a tributary valley of the upper Wye, taking its name from the Dernol brook that forms the boundary between Radnor and Montgomery. In it we find exemplified the words of the Mid-Wales Report of the Welsh Agricultural Land Sub-Commission … the established pattern of hill farming is in an advanced stage of disintegration due to the unwillingness of the younger generation of hill people to live in remote and lonely places with little hope of modern amenities.
Once – not so long ago – there were ten farming families in Dernol. Now there are seven. Once, in the days of big families, a score of children ran and shouted in the grass playground by the school. Seven years ago, only five children were left; the school was closed. It sold for £300; it is used now as a fishing lodge a few times a year by an owner living hundreds of miles away.
The Welfare State seems to have overlooked this outpost of civilisation. There is a doctor but he lives in the town several miles away. There’s not a telephone in Dernol, only a kiosk on the main road between Aberystwyth and Rhayader, over the Wye, two miles away. There is no bus service on this road.
Not a farm in Dernol has a bathroom (” the old house isn’t worth it “). One has a portable tin bath, and there are five children in that house. True, there was no freeze-up in February’s bitter weather, but that was because none of the houses has tap water. Usually it’s a spring, feeding into some sort of stone basin, with an old iron saucepan, or a copper, to collect the domestic supply.
Sewerage is primitive – just a closet on the hillside, open to the gales that sweep the mountains, the “sewer” feeding eventually into the Wye, one supposes. Lighting the house is by oil lamps; cooking on the big inglenook (”we don’t dig peat now – we buy coal and pay dear for it “) or by oil stove. The hard road finishes two farms up the valley. For the rest there are gated tracks on the steep hillsides; and two fords, very deep when the Dernol is in spate, have to be passed to get to Trafelgwyn, last farm up the valley.
Twice a week the bread van gets to the hard road by the Wye, but food costs more, for this transport must be paid for. Once a week the eggs are collected and often bartered for groceries.
If you want a lift into town (Rhayader, eight miles, or Llangurig about four) you get a lift in the van. But you have to hire a taxi to come back at night; he’ll drop you on the main road and you must walk in the darkness through the Wye valley, across the river and home.
There are no sale crops from these hill farms. The oats, kale, rape and turnips (and not all can grow them) are needed for wintering stock.
Yet these folk are the most self-contained of all our race· The “cow for the family” provides butter and cheese; they have eggs, there’s always a side of bacon hanging, and the occasional sheep killed. They grow enough potatoes and some swedes for their own needs, and “carrots on Sundays” are a weekly luxury. Fruit is almost unknown, but on the whole the diet is well balanced.
Television hasn’t reached them; not all have wireless. One farm has car, owned by the farmer’s son. This is an advance for Dernol; its owner can get to town at least once a week.
There is no communal life, no village hall or institute. If you want company, you go to your neighbour’s house of an evening – if you don’ object to the long walk back< up the valley and through the fords.
None of these farms is small or necessarily uneconomic, but as you pass down the valley so the farming changes. At the highest farm, the stock is simply Welsh Mountain sheep, selling draft ewes and four-year-old wethers. Farther down you come to farms that can winter – and wintering is the crux – Hereford cattle; finally to a more wealthy sheep (crossbred Kerries) whose lambs can be fattened on the crops grown there.
So the movement of families has been always down the valley – to bigger communities, better land, more amenities. The Wye is their Jordan, the Promised Land the next village.
So it is likely to go on, leaving bigger holdings as the farms are merged. With that comes a demand for farm workers, until peasant owner-occupiers surrender their cherished status as landowners, and for the first time get a weekly wage.
This is a vicious circle. Amalgamation is no answer – unless it retains labour. The more folk leave these valleys, the more remote they become for those who stay, until they in turn follow suit. Soon it must empty of population. I talked to an old man of 84 still farming. Retiring? “No, I must farm or starve.” He had the advantage of living on the main road.
I talked to Miss Mary Bywater (76). What will happen when she goes? “I suppose the farm will go down like the rest.”
The farmhouses, stone built and structurally sound for the most part,sell for a song – holiday homes for suburban car owners. The land reverts to sheep walk, if it isn’t merged with the next farm. And if the owner’s foot is the best manure then these sheep walks may revert rapidly. Bracken that is not cut regularly spreads quickly, it is spreading now. Sheep on free range can’t keep hill grazings open – but they need little labour.
What will the country lose if these valleys are denuded of population? It will lose a race of people as remarkable as their native sheep for hardiness. In a country where thrombosis, cancer, ulcers take a toll of urban population in middle life, these people live to great ages and die of sheer old age. While industry is plagued with strikes and discontent among men working regular hours and getting holidays with pay, these people of the hills work untold hours, often out of doors in the worst weather, for comparatively small returns.
They are individuals, for there is no standard type among them. They take a pride in knowledge for its own sake. Yet modern education has passed them by.
As owner-occupiers they complain of high taxation, as well they might. These taxes pay for the Welfare State, for housing and services and higher standards of living. And in these things they have not shared.
All over the country are new towns, vast council estates, community centres for urban populations bristling with television aerials. Compare these smart new houses, provided out of the public purse, with the homes of those who farm the hills. And then say who is feather-bedded?
Are there no subsidies? Surely store sheep and cattle have been making good prices for years? True enough, but costs have risen too. Hill sheep payments are not an annual occurrence. No farmer may plan his farming relying on that income. The hill cattle subsidy has brought cattle back to the hills – if your hill is good enough or your intake land adequate to provide winter keep for them. But as farms become empty, the cattle depart and sheep stocks become fewer. Yet there is a demand for more meat.
Livestock Rearing Act grants? Only one farmer in Dernol has put up the other 50 per cent, and his farm is better situated than the rest.
Farm subsidies account for considerably more than half of the net farm income of all the farms in this country, but only one-third of the net income of those whose farms come within the Livestock Rearing Act comes from subsidies.
It isn’t the farming, nor the poorness of the return, nor the hard work that is driving folk from these hills.
If the hill peoples were given the wherewithal to furnish themselves with some of the things they lack, would this stop the slow exodus from the hills? Would tractors, cars, telephones be the answer, even without larger communities?
Or would new blood from distant parts, a different species of human beings, be content to live and farm where the natives have departed. Are the larger farm, the wealthier farmer, a worker’s wage instead of a small owner’s title deeds, the cure for the ills of remoteness?
These are some of the questions posed by Dernol. They need answering.
Nant-y-Dernol Youth Hostel (Tan-yr-Allt) was open from 1951 to 1987. It is now a private house.
Grid ref. SN900754
In the early 20th century there were proposals to take a branch line from the railway at Marteg. This was to run up the west bank of the Wye and along Dernol to Trafelgwyn, where it would split into two, one branch turning left up Cwm Ysgryd and into a tunnel, to come out south of Glan Fedwen (roughly on the Old Drover’s Road near Bodtalog), then following the Ystwyth; the other branch would have come down the opposite side of the valley to Carreg y Bwla, then swerved around via Tan-y-berth and up to Llangurig to join a proposed Manchester and Milford branch line.
More details coming soon.
In the 1890s London Council Water Authority proposal to flood several valleys, including part of the Wye Valley and all of the Dernol Valley. The proposal got to the 2nd reading in Parliament before it got dropped in the early 1900s.
More details coming soon.
Post 1485 AD
Esgair Dernol clearance cairn
A large stone pile placed against a rock outcrop. The stone pile measures 7 metres by 3 metres and is 1 metre high. It is a clearance feature in an area of rough grass pasture. (© Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Coflein)
Esgair Dernol pond
This small, artificial pond measures about 15 metres by 10 metres in area and still holds water. Reeds grow around the water’s edge. (© Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Coflein)
Esgair Dernol stone pile
This stone pile is thought likely to be a clearance cairn, measuring 4 metres by 3 metres and up to 0.5 metres high. However the edges of the cairn are well-defined, composed of relatively large stone blocks, up to 0.6 metres in length, which suggests a possibility that it is actually a funerary cairn. (© Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Coflein)
Esgair Dernol quarry
A minor quarry working, about 10 metres in diameter, now filled with water. (© Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Coflein)
Medieval & post-Medieval History (late 5th century to 1485 AD)
Esgair Dernol earthwork
This long bank measures 2 metres wide at base and between 0.5 and 0.7 metres high. It is grassed over with some reed growth along its length. (© Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Coflein)
Esgair Dernol earthwork 2
A denuded earthwork bank, which measures 1.5 metres wide at base and is up to 0.3 metres high. This bank runs on a north-northeast to south-southwest axis and passes beneath another earthwork bank. (© Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Coflein)
Esgair Dernol earthwork shelter
This is a small shelter or sunken shelter which consists of a central, linear hollow cut into the slope at its northeastern end, with a low banks to either side and the southwestern end left open. Overall it measures 5 metres in length, northeast to southwest, by 2 metres wide (1 metre wide internally). (© Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Coflein)
Esgair Dernol earthwork shelter 2
This is a small shelter or sunken shelter which consists of a central, linear hollow cut into the slope at its east-southeast end, with a low banks to either side and the west-northwest end left open. Overall it measures 5 metres in length, northeast to southwest, by 2 metres wide (1 metre wide internally). (© Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Coflein)
Esgair Dernol trackway
A trackway which runs parallel to, and south of, the Nant y Dernol stream linking Glan Helffin and Nant Llemysten. It is shown on late 19th and early 20th century Ordnance Survey maps and remains designated as a bridleway. It is not shown on the 1833 1″ to 1 mile map. It appears to continue south southwestwards from Glan Helffin as trackway (© Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Coflein)
Esgair Dernol quarry 2
A small quarry working set in a rock outcrop. The pit measures 6 metres by 5 metres and spoil has been pushed to the southeast side. The area is of rough grass pasture. Some stones have been dumped into the quarry hollow. (© Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Coflein)
Ancient History (pre 5th century AD)
Dernol Bronze-age (c 2000BC) round barrow
The barrow’s age is uncertain, though we have assumed it belongs in this section.
A mutilated and threatened round barrow. Courses of crude paving and an upright, but buried, monolith are reported to have been observed. A stone-walled, slab-roofed chamber built into the S side of the monument was used as a potato store before 1938. (© Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Coflein)
The barrow is 23m. diameter and 1.4 m. high at its highest point, and covered in grass, with a Hawthorn tree growing on it. It was partly levelled before 1938, before which flint and crude stone paving had been found. It was used as a potato store for many years, until well into the 20th. century.
There is more technical information about this barrow – and thousands of other sites throughout Wales – on the Archwilio – Historical Environment Records of Wales website.
Esgair Dernol cairn 1
A grass-covered cairn, measuring 5 metres in diameter and up to 0.5 metres high. The stony mound is grass-covered with only one stone protruding through the vegetation cover. (© Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Coflein)
Esgair Dernol cairn 2
This is a very low feature, apparently a scatter of stone, which is thought to possibly represent a very denuded cairn. White quartz is visible in the southeast quadrant of the stone scatter. It lies just 5 metres to the northeast of cairn, NPRN 534611, which is composed mainly of white quartz. (© Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Coflein)
Esgair Dernol cairn 3
This cairn has been built largely of white quartz. The original cairn was a low mound, measuring 4.5 metres in diameter and up to 0.3 metres high and this is thought to be a funerary cairn. More stone has been added to the top of the cairn at a later date, creating a small marker cairn that measures 1.75 metres in diameter by 0.8 metres high. The feature is found in an area of semi-improved pasture with grass and some nettle growth on and around the mound. A second, much more denuded cairn, NPRN 534612, lies 5 metres to the southwest. (© Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Coflein)