Ystradfellte -
Toponymical & History Notes

By James M Burton 2015


This is an unfinished thesis that was meant to encompass the whole of the history of Ystradfellte in Breconshire. For now it compiles of all the deeds, documents, wills and references to this parish from archives, libraries, books and online that I have found to date. It also gives some insight into the toponymy and history of the 100 or so farms that have existed in the parish since the earliest written mention of them, c.1500. I may come back to it in the future. Please bear in mind this is a public service and not a university funded project. Uploaded 12th July 2016.

Due to my extended research into the origins of Palleg manor in Ystradgynlais nearby (completed 2014), I found scores of documents scattered across 50 dimensions relating to Ystradfellte, and always keen to tidy, contain and categorise, as humans are apt to do, I decided to list every available MS, book and website pertainting to this ancient parish and give a chronological history from that factual data as best as I am able, being bereft of actual time travel skills. It really pains me to see that no one seems to have bothered to write a book on individual parishes within Brecon. It is supposed researchers like to give a general picture of the country as a whole rather than take the difficult task of poking into the minute and local details that might only interest a few, but surely from this microcosm we get a better overall picture of the macro.

Thus I take on this task to highlight any info that seems to have escaped the blurbs on the parish in local histories. This info will come from proven facts documented, steering clear of supposed and fanciful tales as told by the likes of Geoffery of Monmouth, Iolo Morgan, the Black Book of Llandaff, Brut y Tywysogion, the Mabinogion, Lives of the Saints etc, even Theophillus Jones is suspect as he quoted regularily from those former books, of course that does not preclude me from quoting their examples to enhance the story.

This is a desk based solo project by James M Burton professional-amateur in antiquary and history, and is free to be edited or added to by the public. I claim no copyright and is free to be distributed in the public domain as an enhancment to local history. The project involves glimpsing into the the reflective time-stream of history and therefore may contain conjecture, errors and misunderstanding, especially when combined with information from 3rd party professionals. I am fluent in Welsh and have tried to keep close to original meanings, spellings and etymology, but language is fast changing, even Victorian Welsh of the dialect particular to Ystradfellte might be a strain on the brain if I attempted to converse with a local at that time.


An average sized parish on the very southern edge of Breconshire, rising in length acutely to the first peaks of the Beacons mountain range, frequently covered in mist. A very wet and dark poor agricultural district for this reason, but a favoured destination in this time for cavers, rock climbers and hikers. A purely self sustaining sheep rearing district for well over 6000 years there is little difference in this age, many of the descendants could claim a lineage stretching back to original pre Roman settlers. Those Italian invaders were thoughtfull enough to extend their conquest into Ystradfellte, building a single road through the district, stretching from Coelbren to Brecon forts, stopping here to supposedly subdue the natives and bury one of their commanders under and ancient standing stone. Brychan was the first king of of their legacy who maintained an extensive defensive system in Breconshire which included Ystradfellte and deflected all Pict, Jute Dane and Saxon alike until 1093 when the Normans got a foothold in Brecon castle. Not enamoured with a poor agricultural district on its bounds, it was left to the Welsh who paid tribute in corn and cattle to its overlords.

It is divided now into north (Ystradfellte) and south (Pontneathvaughan) hamlets. The north consists of upland sheep farms and moorland with some cattle and a large reservoir built in early 1900's to serve the Neath industries. The south also has extensive farmland but at a lower level, therefore less sheep, more crops and includes the former industries of gunpowder, sand and coal mines on the valley peripheries. Of the 100 or so named farms, at least 30 today are in ruins, some sealed timecapsules of the Victorian era, as if waiting for the right owner to reclaim his heritage. The natural landscape is rich in biodiversity, but within 50 years many of the upland grouse, curlew, lapwing, hares and bird of prey have mysteriously vanished due to, it is thought chemical use on farms. A thouroughly almost permanetly wet district in this age, it obviosuly claims 8 rivers and 40 named tributaries with ancient toponymy. These have carved deep cave systems in their most ferocious moments through the limestone and is a popular exploration era for that reason. As with the presence of deep underground kingdoms, comes myths of dragons, fairies and devil hounds that are still told by the natives, that despite 200 of negative opression by an English education system still tell those stories in a Welsh tongue.

Roman Era AD70-383AD

Map of Roman Roads

Running through this parish is the prominent and well documented, if not one of the best surviving examples of a Roman Road in Wales not tarmaced. It has been used continuously for 2000+ years mostly by sheep & cattle drovers, for this purpose parts of it, especially that in Ystradfellte were recobbled and deviates up to 10m from the original Roman road. The stones would had to have been quarried locally, I wouldn't like to suggest anything but Carnau Gwynion has a large outcrop of suitable rock. It runs directly from Coelbren fort 4 miles west to a 'marching camp' at Plasygors in Ystradfellte, a parallelogram, which is traceable. It continues then 10 miles to Y Gaer fort at Brecon.

The road is supposedly named Sarn Helen after Helen of Hosts from North Wales who married Macsen Wledig, documented Emperor of Britannia and Gaul, who built all the Roman roads in Wales on her advice and his love for her (this according to the myths of the Mabinogion), very doubtfull since when Macsen made a bid for 'Western Emperor' in 383AD the Romans abandoned Britain with him. Archaeologists consider it to be much eariler, built a few years after the final conquest in AD70, others disaggree and say 200AD. The original name was thought to be Sarn Lleon/Lleng, the "road of the legion" and built for administrative and military control. Although we shouldn't dismiss the ledgend so easily, Roman influence and teaching persisted for many generations and it's perfectly possible for the natives to have improved those roads with the authority of a 'native govenor'. Plas-y-Gors marching camp is intersected by this road and considered earlier, used as a temporary camp in their conquest, consisting of a ditch and turf built bank.

With three Roman forts in the district on the road I consider it completely plausible, with the evidence of iron age settlements in Ystradfellte that there was fierce conflict and later influence with the local pastoral tribes, including early teaching of Christianity. In local folklore a mass grave at Cors Y Beddau (Bog of the Graves) near Penyfathor farm is said to sit, a result of a battle in this period. Streams running from it are named Nant yr Esgyrn (stream of bones) & Nant y Clefid (stream of sickness) may give plausibility to this, but no artefacts are documented. Were there any Roman Villas established here? With lack of records reuse of houses and extensive agriculture I can but give a vision of the enobled Welshmen having received citizenship of wider Rome administering this district for the local Roman governor. Having thousands of Pagan Welsh hiding in the hills in mud huts continuously throwing rocks at the Romans passing by on the road for 500 years is a ridiculous cartoon image and does diservice to my civilised and cultured ancestors, although I recognise them as apt in the arts of war and quick to disperse any intransigence shown towards them.

The parish having been robbed of its treasures over many centuries it's not suprising to find that little or no artifacts have been documented from this period, or secreted away in Cardiff Museum. The only found objects so far are a gold coin of Emperor Vespasian (69-79) before 1777, a greyware pottery vessel at Plasygors and possibly a mill Quern, recently. Close by, a Samian bowl was found near Blaen Senni farm (N. of parish) and the finds at Coelbren fort, and Penwyllt caves. All these items are stored at Cardiff Museum.

Early Christian Era 400-1000AD

After the Romans left, the native inhabitants, now armed and trained were left to administer Wales, but very soon infighting began, with invasions by Vikings, Saxons, Norse, Picts etc. It seems the Irish were either invited or invaded, bringing with them a stronger Christian faith and an Ogham alphabet. Deemed to have founded the Kingdom of Brycheiniog, after namesake chieftan Brychan Brycheiniog, of which Ystradfellte was a part.

Early Monuments

It is therefore thought that at the adoption of Christianity in the post Roman period (c.4-600AD) the cairns of the old religion were usurped by marked graves, and thus it is that Maen Madoc an 11 foot stone, standing on Sarn Helen road is dated, with its crude carved markings, "DERVACUS FILIUS JUSTI (H)IC JACIT" - "Of Dervacus, Son of Justus. He lies here" ; indicating, possibly a 'roadside burial'. Some enthusiastic genealogists consider him 4x great gransdon of Emperor of Macsen Wledig, which I wouldn't like to comment on without seeing the evidence.

Thought to be an ancient megalith reused and moved here, it was on its side c.1800 and re-erected by Victorian amateurs c.1850, located next to a 'pit' or socket thought to be a grave, and moved again to its present position 5m away by the Ministry of Works in 1940, whom I presume were repairing the road. The MoW was however formed in 1943 for "requisitioning of property for wartime use". Recent excavations yielded no burial remains, because they dug in the wrong place, the Roman road deviates 10m from its original path here. My thoughts are that as it is given the name 'Madoc' but no reference to it known, that it was reused later in early mediaeval times to mark some occassion after a notable man named Madoc, the immediate area is known as Caer Madoc, Madoc's Fort. But, who knows, maybe there was a Iron Age carving on the front of the stone now worn away, explaining why the Roman inscription is on the side. The stone is so named Madoc evidenced in the earliest farm leases of 1500 onwards.

Also not 100 metres away a chance discovery in 1798 of a later marked burial stone was made, bearing a Christian cross and the inscription in Ogham; "Of Gluvoca", suggesting an Irish Christian burial, but with a name possibly of Serbian origin, now kept at Cyfartha Castle. These two stones, placed in the same vicinity close to an old Roman fort, might there be more here in a communal gravyeard?

Early Documentation

The first mention of the river Mellte comes from the 'Black Book of Llandaff' - Liber Landavensis compiled c.1129. It contains a description of Llandaff boundaries supposedly copied from an ancient document dated c. late 600AD within the life of Bishop St. Oudocei (Euddogwy). Most of these grants however are considered manipulations of older documents or completely false. But it is thought by experts that the particular passage below is in the vernacular language of the time, and contains the ancient name for the river which is the 'Melltou'.

"...cingleis ny hyt bet y blain, o blain cingleis y allun guernenn, o allun guernen hyt blain peurdin, o peurdin hyt pan dyscyn y ned, ned ivynyd hyt melltou, melltou ny hyt y vynyd hyt heptur y vynyd dy guyragon, Guyragon hyt y blayn hyt Gauanhauc. O Gauanhauc bet deri emeris, o deri emeris y cecin clysty, cecin clysty ny hyt bet blamfrut y guidon ary hyt bet taf maur, Taf maur y guairet hit cymer, o cymer ivynyd ar hyt taf bechan... "

...along the Cingleis to its source; from there to Allunguernen, from there to the source of the Peurdin, from there to where it falls into the Ned, from there up to the Melltou, along there up to the Heptur, along there to the Guyragon, to its source, from there to Gauanhauc, from there to Deri Emeris, from there to Cecin Clysty, from there to the source of Frut y Guidon, along there to the Taf Maur downwards to Cymer, from there up along Taf Bechan...

Liber Landevensis 1129 1

The boundaries are mostly denoted by rivers, some of which still have the same names now. The modern county boundaries are assumed to be a mirror of mediaevel ones due to extensive surveying, research and debate including many lengthy court cases, even wars, and in most cases old documents describing them are extact to the modern, thus we apply this criteria to the former description.

Considering these three facts above, I with artistic licence suggest that the real meaning of the name of the river is that of 'the dark river of Mellt' alluding to a chieftan of renoun named Mellt, whom by his character was named after either lightning or the nature of his 'dark druidic magic abilities'. Down through the ages, it seems as if the name is consistently given by inhabitants of the area as Ystradfellte. English enumerators, and phonetic spellings however have rendered the usual list of mangled spellings in an effort to give literary life to the double 'll' sound (see table, right).

River & Stream Names : Enwau Afonydd a Nentydd

The abundance of rivers in the parish each with their own character, fed by the high mountains can combine to a ferocious beast when provoked by the everchangable Beacon's weather. Unfortunately most of the tributaries have not been named, or have lost them, but may still be used by local farmers. The main river names we can trace to the year 500 AD and some tributaries from 1500. These names mutate over time as old words become extinct and language evolves, but on the whole keep the original meaning. When unsure of a name I will give many suggestions based on direct or indirect spellings and mutations, sometimes refering to Brythonic, Cornish or Latin, in order of preference.

Afon Llia & Afon Dringarth combine to make Afon Mellte. Afon Y Waun collects tributaries to form Afon Hepste, which flows into the Mellte. The Pyrddin, Mellte, Sgyryd & Nedd Fechan form Afon Nedd, which runs down to Swansea and into the sea. The water catchment area is from the high mountain moorland. (For abbrev see Farms).

Farms Names - Enwau Ffermydd

Welsh farms have very simple names which are taken from the river or landscape features in the immediate vicinity. Being as we have concluded that some of the river names date to at least the Dark Ages, we may gather that many of the foundation of these farms may date from that period and probably before, with Roman activity in the area. The general consensus is that settlers were initially nomadic herdsmen, living in the uplands in summer and close to the valleys in winter. Over time and domestication upland houses, 'hafod' were abandoned in favour of the winter, 'hendre'. However the formal naming of farms did not become fixed, in documentation at least, until the abandonment of Welsh tribal laws and the need for legal documentation after c.1540. Before this lands owned could sometimes simply be described as i.e. Tir Morgan ap Jevan, the land of such and such a person. Indeed farms named in some 16th C deeds can hardly be traced on the first OS map of 1812, having been been given completely new names, but I must add the 1812 OS is frought with inacuracies and missing farms.

Population in the parish slowly grew up the 18th century and then rocketed due to the foundation of the silca works in 1822 & gunpowder factory in 1857 in Pontneddfechan and iron works elsewhere, but with the decline of farming, we see some of these farms abandoned by the 1870's. The construction of the dam in 1906 did not displace any farmsteads, and there are but a handfull of 'new' houses, most of these down in Pontneddfechan from the 1840s onward.

Many of the farm names start with a soft mutation, such as clyn for glyn; cors for gors; felin for melin; gwaen for waun etc as is particular to the dialect in the area, and they frequently drop letters in the second syllable. Welsh places do not translate well into English, the meaning becomes lost and long winded. For river name translation see chapter above.

Abbreviations: Lit. Trans: Literal Translation. Sug. Trans: Sugested Translation. Year will be given before document source.GCA: Glamorgan County Archives.HPO: History of Parliament Online. MTR: Middle Temple Records. NAS: Neath Antiquarian Society. NLW: National Lib. Wales. OS: Ordnance Survey. P: Penpont. PCA: Powys County Archive. PRO: Public Record Office, Kew. T: Tredegar. WGRO: West Glam Record Office.