A History of Rhayader
The abundance of cairns and standing stones that dot the hills around Rhayader is witness that man inhabited this area several thousand years Before Christ. Bronze Age man followed the trackways along the tops of the hills in search of food, shelter and for trading purposes.
Neolithic axes (3000-1700 B.C.) have been found in or around Rhayader and are now in the collections of the local museum, and in 1899, James Marston, a local man, discovered a collection of gold jewellery on Gwastedyn Hill to the south of the town. This treasure trove, thought to have belonged to the Saxon Princess Rowena, is now housed in the British Museum.
Centuries later the Romans followed, fording the River Wye at Rhayader on their way to the Cardiganshire lead and silver mines via Castell Collen and Caerfagu.
However it is not until the 12th century that the documented history of Rhayader begins, with the building of its castle and the battles between the Welsh Princes and Norman Marcher Lords for control over the area.
In 1176 two local princes Einion Clyd and Morgan ap Meredydd were returning from the Great Eisteddfod in Cardigan, held by the Lord Rhys, Prince of South Wales to celebrate the completion of Cardigan Castle, when they were ambushed and killed by the soldiers of Roger Mortimer, Earl of Wigmore, who had designs on their land. Tradition has it that they were killed 2 miles west of Rhayader near to a stone called Maenserth, known locally as the Princes Stone.
Prompted by this outrage, Lord Rhys built Rhayader Castle in 1177 to try and stop the spread of Norman influence up the River Wye. The castle was a wooden one surrounded by a dry moat and precipices; the only remains now visible is the moat – to be seen on the left by the enrance to Waun Capel Parc.
The Castle was burnt down in 1192 and Lord Rhys captured and imprisoned. On gaining his freedom and realising the importance of Rhayader Castle he had it rebuilt and regarrisoned in 1194. After Prince Rhy’s death in 1230 the Castle was captured by Roger Mortimer.
A book written in the 12th century refers to a magic hand bell called Bangu, which was in Glascwm Church. It is thought to have belonged to St. David the Patron Saint of Wales. The story is told that the wife of one of the prisoners in Rhayader Castle obtained the bell and sent it secretly to the Keeper of the Castle on the understanding that her husband would be released. The Keeper did not free him and refused to return the bell. One of the soldiers was told to fasten it to a wall in a room of the Castle. That night a great fire burnt everything except the wall on which the bell hung…
Whilst the foundations of a new tower for St Clements Church were being dug, several skeletons were discovered laid neatly in a mass grave. One was of enormous size with a thighbone longer than a metre. It is generally agreed that these were soldiers of the garrison of Rhayader Castle who had been slain by Llewelyn the Great and that the ‘giant’ was the Castle Commander.
Later the Cistercian monks plodded their weary way through the town on their way from Strata Florida, through their Grange at Capel Madog, and on to their sister Abbey at Cwmhir. Perhaps refreshing themselves with a glass of ale at the Tafarn y Rhyd, now the Triangle Inn, whilst waiting to cross the ford on Cwmdauddwr Gro.
The Act of Union in 1536 brought together approximately 300,000 acres, 52 parishes, into the county of Radnorshire and The Shire Court was held in Rhayader . That was until one day over the Cwmdauddwr hills came a band of Cardiganshire outlaws who ambushed and killed the Shire Court judge on his way to Rhayader church, and whose criminal act forced the Shire Court to be henceforth held in Presteigne.
Later still came the drovers with their vast herds of cattle and sheep heading for the lucrative markets in the growing industrial cities of England.
In the 19th Century the roads were encumbered by tollgates and passage was only allowed on payment of a toll. This led to people rioting and on October 11th 1843 “Rebecca” first appeared in Rhayader and three tollgates were demolished with impunity by local farmers dressed as women. These people, known as ‘Rebeccaites’, appeared again on the 2nd November when the North, East and Rhayader Bridge gates were demolished. The last gate to be attacked in the Rhayader area was the Cwmdauddwr Hill Gate. A Commission of Inquiry was set up and most of Rebecca’s grievances were righted.
In 1856 the Wye Preservation Society was set up, whose object was to enforce a close season on Salmon fishing in the Wye and its tributaries. Up to then fishing had been allowed 12 months of the year with net, gaff, spear and rod.
The people of Radnorshire and especially Rhayader took objection to this infringement of their ancient rights and more riots took place which were to be known as the 2nd Rebecca Riots. Again men dressed up in women’s clothes, and this time took to the rivers in their hundreds killing fish by the score, defying the bailiffs or police to stop them. Those that did try to enforce the close season often received severe hidings or injuries. There were major riots in 1856 58, 1866 68, 1875 81 gradually petering out with the advent of World War 1.
In their day the Mail coaches on their way from London to Aberystwyth, via Cheltenham and Kington, would stop at the Red Lion (now the Lion Royal) and the Lion and Castle Inn for a change of horses and drink, food and warmth for their passengers.
Rhayader was primarily a market town, providing the goods and services for the surrounding rural area and with its Old Market Hall built in 1762 at the central crossroads of the town. Farming, in particular sheep farming, has been an important part of Rhayader’s history and it continues to be an important centre for livestock sales today. At one time a gristmill and a woollen mill operated in Mill Street, now called Water lane, and a Tannery once operating in the town was taken down and re-located and can now be seen at the National Folk Museum of Wales at St. Fagans near Cardiff. There are other ruins of flannel and corn mills in the district, built on streams draining into the Wye to harness the force of the water to power them.
Although all the tanners, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, millers and others who provided these services are long gone, the fairs and markets remain, surviving after several hundred years and with them many of the inns that are such a feature of Rhayader. The market hall too is gone but in its place now stands the Town Clock built and carved by a local sculptor, it is also a War Memorial to those who died in the two World Wars.
Rhayader continued to grow with the railway reaching the town in 1864. It’s arrival brought sensational changes as goods no longer needed to be moved on a ‘gambo’ - a horse and cart. The line served the town until November 1962 when it ceased operation in the national Beeching cuts.
In the 1890’s Birmingham decided that the Elan Valley was the ideal source of water for the city, a decision that changed the face of Rhayader for ever.
The building of the dams started in 1894 and they were officially opened in 1904 by King Edward VIl and Queen Alexandra. It was a magnificent feat of engineering that overcame enormous odds to supply the people of Birmingham and its environs with pure clean water and the people of Rhayader with a marvellous monument to Victorian engineering skills.
The hovels of Rhayader were replaced with many of the three storied buildings which are a feature of East Street today. The shops in the town centre were nearly all enlarged or rebuilt to cater for the growing tourist trade engendered by the newly opened reservoirs.
Today the Elan Valley reservoirs and the surrounding hills are the focus for the tourist trade in Rhayader, offering miles of unspoilt country which is ideal for walking, pony trekking, bird watching, fishing or for just sitting and admiring the view.
We cannot leave Rhayader without mentioning the River Bwgy. “The pride of its inhabitants and the bane of travellers”. The Bwgy started in a wood north of Rhayader and flowed in an artificial channel down North Street, West Street, Mill Street and eventually into the River Wye, supplying the houses on its route with drinking water. There is an old Welsh verse which roughly translated reads:
“The finest children Wales can have are those that drink bright Bwgy’s wave”.
A local saying states that anybody who dipped his feet in the Bwgy would always return to Rhayader.
Although the Bwgy was piped underground in 1877 Rhayader and its people are still known as Bwgy and Bwgyites respectively.
Banner image - West Street Rhayader & Market Hall: Credit to Rhayader Musuem & Gallery