Author: Dai Francis June 1983
This brief account is based upon my short chapter entitled “Aberthin and Ystradowen”, published in Border Vale of Glamorgan (Stewart Williams 1976).
It leaves many gaps to be filled and it is to be hoped that someone with ample time to do some detailed research will eventually write a full and comprehensive history of the parish using these notes as a rough guide. In many ways the topography, soils and vegetation of the parish owes as much to the Ice Age as to anything. Indeed the scenery of the whole area, which some ‘geologists still refer to as the of the “Ystradowen” section of the Vale of Glamorgan is hummocky in character and typical of an area of glacial deposition. The ill drained soils from the earliest times supported dense woodlands, known as the Old, and New Forests in the direction of Llanharry and, of course, to the north east of the village of Ystradowen was, and still is, a large area of uncultivated moorland in the shape of Morfa Ystradowen. The peat from this bog, incidentally, was used to heat Talyfan Castle in medieval times. Like most Border Vale parishes Ystradowen has its fair share of open commons and here, on the freely drained soils, primitive man most likely made his settlements or at least pursued a nomadic existence.
The most important pre-historic find was made about fifteen years ago by Mr. Howard Hopkins of Fforest. Fawr of a Bronze axe head at Coed-y-trenches close to the Llanharry boundary. It was probably an import from Ireland from about 1500 B .C. While this is likely to have been a “stray” find, the people who used it probably lived mainly by stock raising and dwelt in lightly constructed huts in small clearings in the forests. It is interesting to note that another find at Windmill Farm -a mere stonethrow away -by Mr. Philip Vowles this year also relates to the middle Bronze Age, and there are some odd references to a New Forest hoard by Sir Mortimer Wheeler indicating that the high downland to the north west of the parish attracted early man.
The present village of Ystradowen is a rather tentative straggling village of inns, farmhouses and cottages with private and council estates of recent origin. The church of St.Owain is a modern edifice, but it is certain that it is built on an earlier foundation. Whether the church is pre Norman is difficult to say, but the earliest references to it in a manuscript is a little later in 1291 when it was declared to be worth £4
The village that grew up near the castle of Talyfan could never have been much more than a “hamlet”. In the reign of Charles II there were some Hearth Tax Returns made and these suggest there were only about thirty houses in the parish in 1670-80. There is no indication of a large “Ty Mawr” or Squire’s house at that time similar to Trecastle, Llanharry or Llansannor Court, both of which had eight or more hearths. This suggests that Ash Hall, the biggest house in the parish was of a later date. A smaller house might have existed at Ash Hall at that time however.
Whether there was a Norman village or not, the Ystradowen locality was certainly a sort of “wild west” territory where the Welsh fought the Norman advance from the easily conquered Vale in a most determined manner. Samuel I,ewis in his “A topographical Dictionary of Wales” ( 3rd edit 1845) refers to a battle taking place at Ystradowen in 1031, i.e., even before the Norman conquest, but it is likely that this is derived from a spurious document forged by Iolo Morganwg – possibly in an effort to explain the name Ystradowen for Lewis tells us that one of the protagonists was Owain ap Collwyn, a local Prince, whom Iolo imagined to have lived in a palace on the mound near the church. But Ystradowen could not have escaped the desperate struggle between Welsh and Normans and it is safe to assume that the mound near the church was indeed the site of a temporary motte built prior to the construction of the large stone castle at Talyfan. The site has been recently investigated and the interesting conclusion drawn by the archaeologists was that this is a rare example of an unfinished motte which was begun by scarping and ditching the highest end of a glacial moraine. Why it was incomplete is unclear; it is probably the only such one in Wales. We do know that the Quintin family probably built the stone castle at Talyfan, so they may have had their hand in this one as well. Little is known about Castell Talyfan situated on a low ridge half a mile away from the abandoned motte. It was probably built by a member of the St.Quentin family and was the military centre of the large lordship of Talyfan that included the seven parishes immediately to the north of Cowbridge. The administrative centre of the lordship incidenta1 was Trerhyngyll -the town of the beadle. Most of the land around the castle was poor quality – good for pasture and rough grazing but there were patches of demesne land at Prisk and Llanhari where early villagers were soon established.
If little is known of the castle itself, quite a lot is known of the last of its turbulent owners namely RICHARD SYWARD or SIWARD. He was a baron of some national importance during the reign of Henry III and when he began to extend his power in the intermediate tract of land between the Lord of Glamorgan’s demesne in the Vale and the Welsh comotes, a bitter war resulted between himself and Howel ap Meredith of Miskin. This gave Richard de Clare, the Chief Lord the chance to intervene and when Siward blatantly refused to keep the truce, De Clare using the County Courts dispossessed Siward of his lordships of Talafan and Ruthin, seized the Welsh upland commotes of Miskin and Glynrhondda and ended for good the endemic warfare that had plagued the “Ystradowen” part of the Vale for decades. It is significant that very soon afterwards the boroughs of Cowbridge and Llantrisant were established by De Clare and Castell. Talyfan fell into disuse. We have made a few tentative remarks about Ystradowen village or hamlet in medieval times earlier. We have, apart from the Hearth ‘Tax Returns, to wait until 1763 for any notion of the numbers living in the parish. In the Visitation returns of that year we find that 36 families lived in the parish of Ystradowen compared with only 30 in Llansannor. The first census of 1801 verifies that number by agreeing exactly with the earlier figure, so there is little indication of growth in a century and a half.
From the Tithe Survey of 1848 we can gather that the land use of the parish was: –
486 acres arable.
615 acres meadow or pasture.
95 acres woodland.
223 acres commons and waste.
21 acres buildings.
22 acres roads.
The three pieces of common were New Forest, 159 acres, Mynydd y Glew 17.5 acres and Morfa Ystradowen 45 acres.
The first two were enclosed under the Talyfan Enclosure Award of 1860.
The census enumerators returns of 1851 give a vivid picture of a small rural parish of the mid Victorian era, untroubled by industrialism, when the chief activity of the week was the trip to Cowbridge market by the local farmer on his carthorse, with his wife seated behind him carrying a large basket full of butter, eggs, cheese and poultry. The farms themselves were very small, with the exception of LLWYNYDOG (150 acres) The census return for 1851 tells us that there was a large percentage of the population under 20 years of age -thus causing a demand for a local school to be built, that most of the population derived their livelihood from agriculture together with the usual country crafts -shoemaker, wheelwright, thatcher, weaver, sawyer etc., there was one victualler, a coal miner who walked 4 miles to Llanharry Meadow pit and two rail workers who were engaged in the construction of the South Wales Railway. The population had risen and the number of houses in the parish was now forty-seven.
Ash Hall was now the principal house in the parish and was a hive of activity in the social life of the area. !t had been built in the eighteenth century by the Deere family who had come from Rhoose. We learn with interest that Iolo Morganwg himself was influenced as a poet by one of the daughters of Ash Hall. She wrote quite a lot of English poetry and Iolo insisted, in a poem to her, that it was she who had made him into a poet. The alliance was short lived owing to Iolo’s inferior social standing.
In the late nineteenth century Ash Hall belonged to Daniel Owen, who seems to have been a typical “self made” man of the Victorian Age. He came from Llanharan but soon emigrated to Australia where he made a fortune in the timber trade. When he returned to England he became a highly successful printer and paper manufacturer, and, on account of his great wealth, he was invited by Lescelles Carr to become a joint proprietor of “The Western Mail”. To celebrate the event he threw a mammoth party at Ash Hall in April 1869. “After lunch some played croquet and tennis, others tripped it on the light fantastic toe, some improvised games of their own, while the sedater members sat beneath the trees. Cricket was played on a splendid level pasture adjoining the lawn and some capital fast races were run by both men and boys. In the evening after the speeches, young folk found “kiss in the ring” an attractive amusement and the party drove off amid cheers and expressions of good will on all sides, reaching; Cardiff a little after midnight. Such were the balmy days of Victorian age for the well to do!
Daniel Owen was succeeded as squire of Ystradowen by his son Tudor, after whom the “Tudor Arms” was named. During the First World War the house was used as a Red Cross Hospital for sick and wounded soldiers, with Mrs. Owen acting as a highly successful matron. The first batch of Commonwealth soldiers arrived in May 1915.
The arrival of the Taff Vale Railway from Llantristant to Cowbridge brought further prosperity to the village and the station was much used, especially on Pontypridd market days. With the help of remarkable porter John John, a veritable Samson in his strength, vegetables, poultry, eggs and rabbits were wheeled in their hand trucks on to the waiting train. The ever willing “Johnny T’wice” would even go to the rescue of trains that failed on the Ystradowen Moor incline.
In the present century, small though it still was, Ystradowen boasted a thriving saw mill, its own cattle market, two inns, a village store, kept by Mrs. Sarah Gibbon and a smithy. The smithy was the rendezvous for all the youth of the district who, under the watchful eye of Tom Griffith, would blow the fire, turn the grindstone and wield the sledge. Tom would make hoops for all the children, who faced little or no traffic hazard on the main road, in an age untroubled, as yet, by the motorcar. His quaint way of swearing endeared him as “The Uddy Man” and he was one of the last of the old characters.
After the’ 1939-45 war, with the closure of the railway station and a restricted bus service the social life of the village went into a decline until about 15 years ago when the Ystradowen Friendly Society was formed at the White Lion to bring a little fun and entertainment into village life by organising carnivals, sports meetings and historical expeditions. Villagers owed a great debt to the friendly patronage of Mrs. Anne Phillips at this time. It is to be hoped that with the influx of new inhabitants in the last few years Ystradowen will once again enjoy a vigorous social life. This exhibition is a definite step in the right direction.
June 1983. Dai Francis.