- FAMILY LIFE AT BLAENTAF -
My Grandfather Williams (my mother's father) farmed
two farms: Blaentaff Cantref, the last farm in the valley at the foot
of the Brecon Beacons; and Cwmcynwyn the first farm after crossing
over the Beacons through Bwlch a Fan on to the Brecon side (the North
side). A parish road, which climbed almost two thousand feet and passed
between two high mountains, connected the two farms.
Grandfather, or Granch as he was affectionately called, was a sheep
farmer. I believe he had about two thousand Welsh mountain sheep between
the two farms. We also bred pure bred Welsh mountain cobs, prefix
Blaentaff in the stud book.
The parish road was much used by the family and shepherds. Although
it was maintained by the parish the family would also tend to it,
for after heavy storms in the Winter large ruts would appear, so it
was to their benefit to fill them in with stones etc to keep the road
passable. At one point a viaduct crossed over a small valley called
Cwm Llysiog, but after Granch left Blaentaff and moved to Caerleon
the road soon became rutted, the viaduct collapsed and it is not passable
I have heard many stories of shepherding on the Beacons and of the
severe winters and weather they had to contend with. In the wintertime
they built small shelters here and there on the mountainside, with
stones scattered about the ground, to enable them to shelter from
sudden storms or severe wind, or to attend to the sheep if need be.
I've heard Dad say that on bitter, windy days when passing through
the Bwlch or Gap they would dismount and walk on the lee side of the
horse and cling to the stirrup leather to prevent them from being
blown away. The Gap was fairly narrow, not much wider than the road,
a passage way through the mountains, the wind howling and whistling
through causing a terrible draught. They would wear small shawls over
their heads to protect their faces from sudden hail storms.
They had great respect for the mountains and all its moods. They endured
such as fog descending, leaving them enveloped in a still, silent,
eerie, strange world, completely lost. Although they knew every inch
of the mountainside, they had great respect for it. For apart from
the fog there was another hazard, bogs, which were most treacherous,
and so they would leave it to the ponies' instincts to get them out
of trouble and safely out of the fog.
When my Great Granpa was widowed, he came to live at Blaentaff. He
had lived in the Sennybridge area for many years, and was a tailor
but of farming stock. He lived to be 99 years old. When he was in
his early nineties he was asked by farmers in the area to attend a
High Court case, regarding a dispute of boundaries on the hill in
that area. Going to London in those days was an adventure, stories
of thieving and pickpockets were rife, so there was some anxiety over
letting him go. However, the day before they went he got his sewing
thread out, waxed it as he always did, placed his money in the inner
pocket of his jacket, and sewed it up securely, much to the amusement
of the two farmers who teased him. "Ah," he said, "Better
be safe than sorry." As it turned out he had the last laugh,
as both of them had their pockets picked leaving them without any
money, so they had to turn to Great Grandfather to borrow money which
was safely sewn in his pocket.
Great Grandfather pioneered Sunday School in the Glyn Valley, at the
ancient little church there. Much controversy was caused when it was
demolished without permission from the authorities, a few years ago.
Sadly only a memorial stone marks the spot today.
Great Grandfather rode his pony there, approximately five miles, every
Sunday. He was helped to mount his horse at home, and again to dismount
on arrival at the church. He attended every Sunday until the year
before he died, aged 99 years. He was presented with a 'Thomas Gee'
medal for his good work.
Shearing was a very busy time. The men from Blaentaff would go to
help Cwmcynwyn and vice versa. My mother always rode side-saddle a
stallion named 'Whitland Dick'. On one occasion she rode over to Cwmcynwyn
at shearing time with a basket of extra china on her arm. Whilst riding
through the Gap some shale tumbled down the mountainside and frightened
the horse causing it to bolt, but my mother was soon able to control
him. Later, on inspection of the basket, it was found to be intact
not a thing broken, mother had packed it so tightly and well.
Mam and Dad were both good riders, most days they rode over rough
terrain, one depended on being able to ride. The nearest town was
Dowlais seven miles away. Imagine having to ride seven miles or having
to ride a pony trap to fetch a doctor when someone was ill!
My father was quite well educated for those times, a little over a
hundred years ago. He was born in the village of Penderyn, near Hirwaun
Breconshire, and attended the village school until he was twelve years
old. His father, who was the village blacksmith and wheelwright, then
sent him to an academy in Aberdare to learn English for one year.
Welsh being the only language spoken in the area at that time. Father
was always well spoken. He was then sent to a well known public school
in Pontypridd as a day boy. His elder sister, Gwen, was married and
living in Pontypridd. He stayed with her, and so was able to attend
school each day. The school was demolished a few years ago, to make
way for a new by-pass road.
At the time Dad attended school in Pontypridd, there lived a very
eccentric man, a Doctor Price. His wife and two children, a son and
daughter, lived on the mountainside overlooking Pontypridd. The son's
name was Jesus, which horrified the locals.
Doctor Price was a very intelligent man, he was a poet and a bard,
but most eccentric. He dressed oddly, he lived in a world of his own
beliefs and ideals. They lived like hermits, very rarely seen or going
One day Dad went to have his photograph taken and was about to leave
when the door opened and in walked Doctor Price, his wife and two
young children. He was dressed most oddly in a sheepskin Davy Crocket
style hat, and some sort of sheepskin or goatskin garment. He had
a grey beard and was a striking looking figure. Dad was so excited
(he was only 14), having heard so many weird tales of the eccentric
man but not having seen him before, and here he was in the same room.
He couldn't get home quickly enough to tell his sister and family.
Some time later, after this rare sight, Doctor Price's son became
ill. Doctor Price attended to him himself, but unfortunately he died.
But, instead of burying his son, he built a wood pyre and cremated
him on the mountainside, much to the horror of the locals who thought
it an awful sin. I suppose it was the first cremation in the area
and the fore-runner of present day cremations, which seem to be on
About twenty five years ago I saw a programme on television about
the life of Doctor Price. I found it most interesting after hearing
Dad's tales about him.
On leaving school Dad wanted to be a metallurgist and was to be apprenticed
to the large iron works in Dowlais to learn about making different
kinds of metals. Unfortunately there was not a vacancy for that year,
but he was to be enrolled the following year. During that year he
took a job with a Mr Jenkins, a notable figure in Dowlais who owned
much of the property in the area and was also the proprietor of a
large ironmongery business selling anything from screws, nuts and
bolts, china, silver ware and all kinds of kitchen furniture to machinery
for supplying the iron works, also farm machinery.
Dad enjoyed the work there, and when the work year ended he decided
to stay with Mr Jenkins and be properly apprenticed, he was 16 or
17 years old. He stayed with Mr Jenkins and family and was treated
like a son. Mr Jenkins had a son and daughter. Dad stayed with them
for a couple of years then went into digs. His fellow boarder was
training to be an artist, and it was he who painted the large picture
of the lion and lioness which hung in the dining room at the Tan House.
He also painted a study in different shades of grey of cockle fishing,
which hung in the hall, and now hangs in my cottage.
Around this time the horse drawn mowing machine came into being. Dad
sold the first mowing machine in the Penderyn area and also demonstrated
it. What a relief for the farmers it must have been to just let the
machine do the work, as opposed to the backbreaking job of scything.
When Mr Jenkins began to ail Dad became manager of the business and
agent for all his property.
My mother was born at Blaentaff Cantref, Breconshire. Her mother died
when she was five years old. Granch employed a housekeeper, Ann, who
stayed with him for many years and died at Tan House Caerleon. When
Mother grew older she would go to Dowlais to do the shopping and so
she would purchase things from the ironmonger's, and that is how she
met Dad. Eventually they married quite young, I believe about 21 years
old. They were a devoted couple, and over the years they had eleven
children (seven girls and four boys) of whom I was the tenth child.
They were married for 52 years.
My brother Rees and two small sisters died before I was born. Rees
was fourteen years old, he had mastoid of the ear. An operation was
successful, but he developed pneumonia and died. Bronwen had acute
croup, and died aged three years. Cecilia developed measles, the rash
came out quite thickly, but after an hour or so turned inwardly, causing
inflammation and she too died.
What a sad time for my parents to lose three children, the two little
ones fairly close together, Rees a few years later. Gladys died at
Tan House a few years later, she had been ailing from rheumatoid arthritis,
I was about nine or ten years old and can just remember her.
John, Rachel, Jennet, Rees, Morgan William, Bronwen, Cecilia and Gladys
were all born at Blaentaff. When the older children became of school
age my parents bought a house in Dowlais, number 13 Wimbourne Street,
to enable them to attend school.
Cecil and I were born in Dowlais; Megan at Tan House, also Ken, born
at Tan House Caerleon, where the family moved when Granch died.
When my mother's brother married he took over Cwmcynwyn. He had two
daughters, Cissy and Pats, and one son Bryn. Bryn lived with us in
Dowlais during the week to attend school, otherwise he may not have
had any schooling. John hated Dowlais, so as soon as school finished
on Friday afternoon he and Bryn would race to the station to catch
the train to Torpantau Station, the nearest station to Blaentaff,
and walk the rest of the way home. John loved the life at Blaentaff.
There was plenty of company with two or three shepherds living in.
He loved the life with the sheep and horses and in later life became
an excellent horseman, breaking in the wild ponies and carthorses,
and was an excellent rider too. He had his own pony 'Snowdrop' and
as a boy of thirteen years old rode in lots of Gallaway Races in the
area. Snowdrop was unbeaten and ran against very good horses in the
Swansea area. But unfortunately she broke her fetlock in a pothole
whilst grazing and had to be destroyed.
I'm told that Granch had a special saddle made for John with a wicker
backrest, similar to a chair back, when he was just over two years
old. John was strapped to the backrest and so was able to accompany,
on his own pony, Granch on the low lying ground each day. It is not
surprising that he loved the mountains and the area so much from an
My cousin never attended school. She would accompany her father, on
her own pony, at a very young age shepherding on the Beacons all day.
She knew her sheep well and in later years was as good a shepherd
as any of the men. Pats carried her flask of whisky as they all did
to ward off the cold, and ever afterwards was fond of a tot of whisky.
My mother and her brother, Uncle Rhys, attended school in Brecon.
Fortunately they had an aunt and uncle living in Bilea the next farm
down towards Brecon from Cwmcynwyn so they were able to stay with
them during the week, walking the four miles to school each day and
four miles returning home each evening. The roads were very rough
so they wore hobnailed boots, changing into shoes on arrival at school.