The old farmstead of CWMORTHIN UCHAF has the honour of being the earliest known dwelling in Cwmorthin. We must assume that the existing building is not the original dwelling on the site until actual proof of its age can be found. The view to the north-west shown left shows clearly two stages of build.
Many sources have quoted a resident, Sion Jones, as stating a few years before his death aged 100 in the 1860s that his family had occupied the farm for eight hundred years.
Certainly the farm building has developed since those early years as the remains show.
Local archaeologist Bill Jones conducted a preliminary survey of the existing building and came to the following conclusions:
The original section of the building would seem to be the part nestling against the hill behind the dwelling – the corner nearest the camera in the above photograph – indicated A on the sketch plan left.
The discovery of part of a cruck beam in one of the walls would indicate a possible 15th Century original construction.
Above is an artist impression of the first house at Cwmorthin circa 15-16 century.
This was typical of the Welsh of that period, a one roomed house, a TYDDYN, with a CROGLOFT.
The fireplace would have backed onto the hill and would need to be exposed fully as part of an organised dig
Based on a quick assessment of the walls of the existing building the next stage would have been the extension of the dwelling towards the lake when the currently visible fireplace would have been constructed.
Dendro dating of the old wooden fireplace lintel has resulted in a tree dating of 1406 - 1497 indicating a possible felling between 1508 and 1538. This points to a build date within the felling range.
Both these parts building are constructed of local stone and mortar with walls averaging 0.6m in thickness. The extended building had an internal length of 10.5m long and was 4m wide.
This was reduced by a thin 0.35m partition wall when the house was converted into two dwellings in the late 1870’s
What would then have become the main room has a magnificent wood-linteled fireplace in the southern wall.
A dendrochronology test on the wooden lintel may help date this build.
It measures 2m in width and is 1.22m deep. The height can only be estimated due to rubble on the room floor. We estimate the full height to be approx 1.5m. As with the original build an organised dig involving the clearance of the rest of the ground floor would prove highly beneficial and would assist in the formal dating of the dwelling.
The fireplace has an extremely well-constructed chimney which appears to have a slight spiral.
However this could be the result of what is perceived as the next stage in the development of the building – the construction of a second storey when the chimney was extended.
On the western side of the building two additional stages can be seen.
At the rear an additional single storey block, its single ground-floor room measuring 3.3m wide by 6.0m long. A very small partly obscured window exists in the north wall and a door to the outside is located in the western corner of the south wall.
A small fireplace can be found in the west wall.
Initially perhaps there would have been a crog-loft as a window exists in the south wall at a higher level. During the slate boom this section of the house was extended upwards by about 1m using slate block-ends on top of the original stone building.
A door links into the main house connecting to the second room created by the 1870’s partition.
Cwmorthin Uchaf Dig Report
The second, Cwmorthin Uchaf (Higher Cwmorthin), exists as a fairly intact ruin and is a very intriguing dwelling. Primarily so from local oral history and some 19th century Welsh text where a certain tenant, Sion Jones, is recorded as saying shortly before his death in 1869 at the age of 98 that he remembered his father saying that his father said that the family had lived there for 800 years!
The family was certainly known for its longevity with most living to near the century mark with the first born of each generation named John (Sion) hence the local reference to the “Sion Jonesiaid” – the John Joneses.
But it is the Jones residence that has drawn our attention and in July 2010 Mel Thomas asked local amateur archaeologist Bill Jones to accompany him to the location and assess the building.
Bill has many years of experience excavating Welsh dwellings and is currently concluding an eight-year dig at the hamlet of Penamnen near Dolwyddelan, Conwy. [www.dolwyddelan.org/heritage/taipenamnen]
He was immediately taken a-back with the building and its puzzling series of builds. The remains of a cruck in one wall deepened his interest somewhat and it was agreed that further study of the dwelling was essential.
The location and immediate surroundings was always going to cause problems.
The southern approach was across an extremely wet bog but was by far the quickest access on foot.
From the nearest public parking area it is at least a 45 minute trek and all tools would have to be carried to the site.
It would be impossible to get any form of mechanical digger to the dwelling and the ground along the entire southern side had been progressively covered by about half a metre of peat.
The reconnaissance trip indicated which room would have been the earliest built of the present layout and a team was put together to excavate through the 0.5 to 0.75m of wall and roof rubble that covered the floor and on the 8th of August the dig officially began.
It was decided that two teams would be formed – one to put in a drainage ditch to remove excessive water from the immediate surroundings and the second to begin rubble clearance. Two other experienced amateur archaeologists Mary Jones – Bill’s wife, and Avis Reynolds monitored the clearance and segregated any finds. As the drainage ditch and the path it formed would take some time to form it was reluctantly decided to begin tipping the rubble in the peat covered yard area.
Over five tons of collapsed wall and roof rubble was cleared and a floor level was pinpointed in the centre of the room. The remaining rubble was left in situ until a safety assessment could be made of the back wall. Some small finds were recorded during the above work.
Mrs Reynolds was successful in clearing down to the doorstep of the second room which will now give a level to work from as the dig continues in that section later.
Initial drainage ditch
The ditch resulted in some improvement in the drainage but progress was slow due to the thick reed-bed growing out of the peat that covered that area of the property.
Exposed floor in Section A
On 29th August 2010 four members of the group continued with the dig. Mary Jones and Mary Thomas ascertained the level and condition of the floor in the target room by extending the area of visible floor, clearing to the far corner exposing a cut slate slab floor and the position of the stairs to the first floor.
Drainage improvement was continued by Bill Jones and Mel Thomas and proved reasonably successful but served to confirm that the ditch needs grading from both main doors to allow better flow.
Bill then continued his excavation of what turned out to be a peat / coal store situated between the back gable end and the hill.
A slightly better manned team visited the site on Sunday 26th September when further drainage and clearance work continued both internally and externally.
The drainage channel was extended to the base of the east wall along its length allowing recording of the external wall on that elevation photographically by grid. The north facing gable end, butting up to the rock face was avoided until the inner wall could be recorded as a rather pronounced inward tilt caused safety concerns.
In the final visit of 2010, on Sunday 21st October the group made excellent progress.
The inner side of the north end gable was photographically recorded by grid before being made safe by reducing its height by about half a metre, removing the dangerous overhang.
Removal of rubble continued with more floor exposed as far as the north eastern extension showing a continuation of the floor into the next room.
In the doorway part of the floor was lifted exposing an under-floor drainage system leading towards the front door. The external drainage path was widened to allow wheelbarrow transfer of rubble away from the house.
During the winter months the archaeologists in the team catalogued the finds made and produced plans and drawings of the layout.
Two of the team, Gareth Morris Roberts and Steve Mundy, made an early ground clearance visit to the l ocation in late March initially to ascertain if the severe weather had caused any damage to the dwelling. Fortunately none had occurred despite the area being covered by more than a metre of snow and temperatures so low that the nearby lake was frozen for nearly a month.
Whilst on site they continued to clear towards the original fireplace on the northern gable end which allowed the full team to expose the layout on the next visit.
Fully exposed floor
<< underfloor drainage
This took place on 8th of April when the last arrangement of the fireplace was exposed. Although the cast iron frontage of the range had obviously been removed the layout was quite clear. Inside the original chimney breast a more modern and practical version had been constructed. At this point we should bear in mind that the farm was last occupied in the early 1930s.
On the right of the layout was an oven with a brick lining and an independent fire-hole underneath and no apparent connection to the main fire grid in the centre to its left. The main room fire would have been quite wide and to its left is an area which at this point remained a puzzle.
The 21st of April saw the team concentrating mostly on recording the now fully exposed floor whilst doing more recording and dismantling of the fireplace.
The floor itself was obviously not the original floor as it comprised almost uniform sized dressed and planed slate slabs cut by a Graves powered circular saw.
However in the area under the stairway what may have been original, at least earlier, shale slabs were visible and confirmation was obtained that the narrow small-stone built partition wall was built on top of the exposed floor.
It is likely that this took place pre-1881 when the main house was split into two dwellings as recorded in the ‘81 census. By investigating under some of the slabs additional drainage channels were discovered connecting with the earlier drain running parallel to the partition wall and out under the yard.
Exposed fireplace and recorded frontal elevation
Bill Jones, Mary Jones and Avis Reynolds paid another visit on the 28th of April to further disassemble the fireplace so that eventually the original hearth will on a future visit be exposed.
The east wall where the returning cruck should have been has been rebuilt at a later date and a bigger window incorporated with the cruck removed.
Excavations of the fireplace have revealed an earlier hearth and salt shelves in the inglenook.
The house was built without foundations, but on a stone plinth, again suggesting a medieval period.
After a very poor summer a visit was made to the farm on 6th September 2013 with a view to assessing Section B on the Chronological Sequence Plan.
As with Section A, the room was part filled with wall and roof debris but rather than empty the section it was decided to put in an L-shaped trench starting at the door in the east wall running along the wall past the fireplace to the door in the west wall. It was constructed 1.8m wide and confirmed a slate slab floor. Extending it to the right of the east wall door confirmed that the partition wall was built onto the slate floor bolstering a theory that both sections A and B were originally (pre 1880) one room with possibly a wooden partition next to the stairs splitting it into two.
Partially cleared fireplace in Section B
The main aim of this day’s work was to excavate the large fireplace covered in rubble from the inside of the chimney, as seen in the photo right.
The questionable state of the wooden lintel made this a potentially hazardous exercise but a thorough assessment of the chimney interior made the excavation viable providing care was taken not to disturb the lintel. It was more decayed on the inside but the stone on that side seemed reasonably stable.
Once the trench was completed the dig crew then excavated back into the fireplace with the debris being thoroughly checked for artefacts.
The fireplace itself was a different design to the one in section 1 and the chimney breast seemed to have been added on to the back wall. This wall was not keyed-in to the west or east walls.
Two salt holes were apparent – one on each side of the inglenook:
The rubble was eventually cleared revealing a configuration not too dissimilar to the remains in section 1.
A dig visit in October 2014 allowed further clearance of the fireplace uncovering two fire sites. The larger on the right was presumably for heat whilst the smaller on the left was possibly for cooking but a final excavation is needed to clarify this.
Section B fireplace exposed - work to continue