Thursday, 7 August 2014

Landscape in particular 8: Siarpal in the Vale of Ewyas

“In the deep vale of Ewias, which is shut on all sides by a circle of lofty mountains and which is no more than three arrow-shots in width...”
Gerald of Wales (Giraldus), The Journey Through Wales, 1188

The Vale of Ewyas, more commonly known as Llanthony Valley, winds its way through twelve sinuous miles, one of four major valleys dissecting the upland massif of the Black Mountains; its eastern ridge forming both the English-Welsh boundary and also a section of the Offa's Dyke National TrailAt the heart of the valley lies Llanthony Priory, magnificent in its ruination. Here, the Black Canons of the Augustinian order, backed by lands and patronage from the de Lacy Marcher Lords, had the vision, faith and tenacity to build a monastic community that lasted for over 400 years. 

Despite a National Park location, an iconic heritage site in its midst and the National Trail traversing the valley, not to mention easy accessibility from the urban areas of South Wales and Bristol, the Vale retains the atmosphere of a remote and little known place. Even in summer the sense of a tourist honey-pot is largely absent; yes, the three camp sites and handful of self-catering cottages will be peopled, there will be cyclists, hikers, pony-trekkers and day-trippers, but these are generally word of mouth folk, often returning year after year.

Looking north-eastwards from the Priory ruins to the ridge, England just over the horizon, the view beyond sheep pasture and mature trees is of a dip in the skyline, the hillside incised by a number of steep gulley's. This is Cwm Siarpal, the backdrop to a thousand photographs, traversed by several footpaths up to the high ground and yet largely an unknown place to visitors to Llanthony and walkers going up to or coming down from the Offa's Dyke path.

Section of 1:25,000 map, courtesy of Ordnance Survey (from Digimap).
An unmetalled track runs from Llanthony up the cwm to a lonely farmstead hidden behind Wiral Wood. As the track bends sharply to the right at the break in slope it passes a collection of ruinous buildings. On the face of it, just another abandoned farm, a fading ghost of upland toil. However, this architectural relic has a more interesting back story.

Image from
In 1809 the forgotten and quietly declining backwater estate of Cwmyoy-Llanthony was purchased by the Romantic poet and prose writer Walter Savage Landor. He was held in high esteem by his literary contemporaries but never widely popular and is now largely forgotten. Sidney Colvin opened his 1881 biography of Landor with the memorable line: "Few men have ever impressed their peers so much, or the general public so little, as WALTER SAVAGE LANDOR". He was one of a number of eccentrics attracted to the remote beauty of the valley: in the late nineteenth century the self-styled Father Ignasius built a new Llanthony Abbey at Capel-y-ffin, four miles north of the Priory and later owned by the artist Eric Gill who established a bohemian artistic community there; and the beat poet Allen Ginsburg spent time here in the late Sixties. 

Taking temporary quarters in one of the surviving towers of the Priory, the 32 year old Landor entered into his new career as country squire and 'beneficient landowner' with gusto, as he contemplated the "wild and striking country that he had chosen for his future home". A lover of nature, Landor had a particular passion for flowers and trees, "...not with any scientific or practical knowledge, but with a poet's keenness of perception" (Colvin). Of the wild flowers of Llanthony, he observed: "I love these beautiful and peaceful tribes". His most striking scheme was to reinvigorate the neglected woodland of the valley through the mass planting of cedars of Lebanon, popular at the time for the their Classical associations, with the eventual preposterous sounding aim of adding two million trees to the landscape. He also engaged construction gangs to build new roads and bridges throughout the estate, and sought to change the moribund nature of the agricultural activity of the estate through the introduction of sheep imported from Segovia in Castile and new tenants bringing improved methods of cultivation.

For a time Landor was ebullient in his praise and affection for his new home:
“Homeward I turn; o’er Hatterils rocks
I see my trees, I hear my flocks.
Where alders mourned their fruitless bed
Ten thousand cedars raise their head.
And from Segovia’s hills remote
My sheep enrich my neighbour’s cote
The wide and easy road I lead
Where never paced the harnessed stead…”
Letter to Robert Southey, 1812

Due to his position as a son of the landed classes, Landor was able to push a personal Enclosure Act through Parliament in 1813. However, his scheme to enclose the upland grazing land surrounding the valley was never completed. Indeed, Landor's ambitious plans to turn the property into a grand country estate predictably ran out of money, local goodwill and motivation before most of his designs could be realised. Ill-advisable financial decisions (including the installation of an expensive printing press) led to eventual bankruptcy. A disillusioned Landor abandoned the estate (his affairs brought " such a pass as utterly to disgust him with Llanthony, Wales and the Welsh") and left for a new life on the Continent after just five years of hopeful activity, over-expenditure and neighbourly dispute. His ire was especially reserved for his local tenants and labourers. In a viscous but undoubtedly memorable parting shot he claimed:

"If drunkenness, idleness, mischief, and revenge are the principle characteristics of the savage state, what nation - I will not say in Europe, but in the world - is so singularly tattooed with them as the Welsh?" and further, in case the point had not been made clearly enough "The earth contains no race of human beings so totally vile and worthless as the Welsh". 

The views of the inhabitants of the valley have not been recorded but the feeling was no doubt mutual. Llanthony was left in the hands of trustees of the Landor family, who remained as unspectacular absentee landlords as the valley returned to its familiar pattern of gentle decline and neglect and the estate was finally broken up in the early twentieth century.

In the midst of this eventful period in the estates stewardship, the jewel in the crown was to be Landor's mansion at Siarpal, the building that now stands ruinous in this quiet corner of the valley, a quarter of a mile uphill from the Priory. With no known plan or picture of the house to study, the remaining structures are all that provide an indication of the scale and ambition behind its construction. Iain Sinclair provides a distinctive fictional account of Landor's vision for the house and wider estate in his novel Landor's Tower

"He saw the avenues of his planting, pastureland and parkland declining to the ruined priory. Here is my place. Siarpal. A mansion, commodious but plain, facing the warm south, respecting the nature of the chosen site; a vervent spirit responsive to method, the laws of proportion, simple husbandry. The Roman model. Senatorial retirement from the fuss of society. Estates, well-managed, conversing quietly with the original rudeness of this remote valley; withdrawn from the vanity and pomp of the careless world, its princes and popes. Here Landor declared his republic. Here would he bring his new bride." 

There is no indication that the building was ever fully completed or lived in, although it would seem that during the summer of 1811 Landor and his new wife, Julia, played host to a number of house guests, including the poet Robert Southey and his wife. Shortly after Landor's theatrical retreat the half-built mansion was mostly pulled down and remained in use as a hay barn into the late twentieth century. Colvin noted that the adjacent stream "is all but dried up, and silent, as if its Naiad had fled with her master, while all the rest are vocal", and indeed, the watercourse has often seemed surprisingly wan for a Welsh mountain brook when I have visited.  

Although Landor was both a quixotic dreamer and an arrogant incomer (possessing, in Colvin's words a "lordly, imaginative, sanguinely unpractical manner"), his imprint on the landscape remains in the form of a range of features, including trackways, dry stone walls across the higher slopes, the remnants of avenues of trees, as well as the remains of his mansion. The vision of a wide parkland vista narrowing to then reveal the handsome mansion as the approach track curves its way uphill can still be clearly realised walking up to the ruin from Llanthony. A noticeable number of the beech, cedar and larch that he had planted have survived and are now, two centuries later, magnificently mature specimens.  

Landor’s house was probably built on the site of an existing upland small-holding: Siarpal was recorded as a farm of 2 acres, let on a lease for life and worth 1 shilling, in the 1799 particulars of sale for the Cwmyoy, Llanthony and Llanvihangel estates. The name therefore predates the Landor period, its origins lost in the bastardised Welsh-English etymological fog of centuries of border interactions, consistency in the written word an irrelevance. Siarpal, recorded as Sharpole and Sharpwell on nineteenth century maps; possibly originally from the Welsh Siarp meaning 'sharp': Sharp Hill, an accurate topographical description for this steep sided cwm. Iain Sinclair, with Welsh-born insight, adds: "The Sharples. Sharpil or Sharpll: so they cursed it. Sharp Hill, something of that sort. The Welsh had a flair for stating the obvious and making it portentious by speaking in an awe-struck whisper". There are numerous other examples in the area, probably Welsh in origin but anglicised into arcane mutation: Hatterrall Hill, Loxidge, Llanthony itself (in the original Welsh, Llanddewi Nant Honddu, meaning ‘the church of St David on the Honddu brook’).

As a postscript, the current long-standing custodians of the site have recently had an impressive new roof constructed on the coach house, the best surviving part of the house, and repaired the walls to prevent their imminent collapse. With the owners kind permission I have been lucky enough to camp in this special place on two occasions, the first a memorable birthday party. On the more recent camping weekend I was told by the owners that they are not yet sure what to do with the buildings. As, in Robert Southey's words in his poem The Ruined Cottage, "I pass this ruin'd dwelling oftentimes, and think of other days" I hope that these relics of a Romantic poets vision, loaded with memories of unrealised dreams, will continue to bear quiet witness to the layered landscape that they survey.  

This is the latest in a regular-occasional series of posts on specific landscapes and places that are particularly meaningful to me, for whatever reason; after all, interest in the topographical is nothing without a feeling for sense of place: genius loci.
Previous 'Landscape in particular' posts:

The Uffington White Horse and Wayland’s Smithy
Bolton Abbey


Bradney, J, 1907. History of Monmouthshire Vol. 1 Part 2a: Hundred of Abergavenny (Part 1). Academy.

Colvin, S, 1881. English Men of Letters: Landor. MacMillan.

Craster, O, 1963. Guide to Llanthony Priory. Her Majesty’s Stationary Office.

Evans D et al, 1980. Excavations at Llanthony Priory, Gwent, 1978 in Monmouthshire Antiquity 4, p5-43.

Fancourt, L, undated. Llanthony Priory: History and guide. Leaflet.

Gerald of Wales (Giraldus), 1978. The Journey through Wales/ The Description of Wales (Trans. Thorpe L). Penguin.

Sinclair, I, 2002. Landor's Tower or the Imaginary Conversations. Granta.


  1. Thanks Eddie for this and your other perceptive blogs. I live in north Herefordshire and will certainly try this walk next time I cross Gospel Pass and visit Llanthony. The valley and landscape are wonderful. Have you visited Cwmyoy church, built on an ancient landslip and consequently crooked?
    Bests, Gill Alderman, Orleton, Herefordshire.

    1. Thanks Gill. Yes Cwmyoy is a gem. Also the church at Partishow in the next valley.


  2. There's also the deserted settlement of Blaenyoy. The whole valley was much more heavily settled pre-C19.

  3. Descending to Llanthony Priory on a beautiful summer evening after a long day of walking was a highlight of the Offa's Dyke path for me, even more so when we discovered there was a pub in the grounds. Fascinating to find out more about the history of the area, and beautiful photographs!


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