Review: Cerdded y Caeau by Rhian Parry
You can sometimes judge a book by its cover and this handsome account of Welsh field names is informative, colourful and utterly engrossing. It can also send one’s blood pressure skyrocketing, such as when it tells us about names that have been changed, often through ignorance but sometimes wilfully so.
One example, the medieval Y Faerdre Fach near Llandysul being changed to Happy Donkey Hill can cause apoplexy, while nearby Cwm-March has egregiously been renamed as Stallion Valley.
Meanwhile a farm called Cefn Bryn Sarth, first noted in 1184 and which was part of Lord Rhys’s estate and also part of the abbey-lands of Talley is now called Emerald Valley. To say this is cultural vandalism of the most extreme and ignorant order is an understatement. Sadly, there are many other examples such as the actual prohibition of using a name under which a church was first consecrated should it be sold by the Church in Wales, thus losing Batel in Breconshire or Eglwys Cynog Sant, a church dedicated to Saint Cynog.
While Rhian Parry concentrates in this book on the commote of Ardudwy in north west Wales there are fine examples of field names from all over Wales between its covers.
One of the most striking comes from Ebbw Vale. Here a field called Cae Saffrwn, the crocus field is still full of these spring flowers today, despite its being in such an industrialized part of the country.
But what is almost as striking is the fact that the map on which this name first appears is not a tithe map or other early document but rather an estates map drawn up by cartographer Thomas Pride for the ironmasters Harfords, Croker and Company in 1816.
‘Field of trouble’
Another interesting case in the area is the way in which a new housing estate carries the name Pen-y-cae, being the first field and place where iron was produced in the valley.
The volume is full of sterling detective work, finding out about historical communities by dint of names for land, farms and fields.
Along the way she traces the origins of a field called Cae Helbul, roughly ‘field of trouble’ in Trawsfynydd to a ‘riotous assembly’ that occurred there four hundred years ago.
Some of the basic names are just as old. The term ‘acre’ comes in with Edward I’s conquest and establishment of Norman boroughs but Welsh names persist, often surprisingly in Shropshire, Staffordshire and in places quite plentifully as in Herefordshire.
Sadly, many Welsh names are being lost throughout the country as farms are amalgamated because small family farms are simply no longer viable.
Other factors accelerate the disappearance. The field names aren’t necessary, say for government forms and as young people leave farming so too do the opportunities to hand on names and knowledge collaterally from generation to generation. This means that gathering names, especially as they exist in people’s memories, has a certain urgency to it. One salutary example is listed by Parry who met a man called Ieuan Jones who carried names for every feature of the high land above the hamlet of Llandecwyn in his head, a sort of living memory bank.
Many names in Parry’s patch date back six hundred years with all manner of historical aspects buried in or carried by the names. And some are just haunting – Cae Christmas, Ffriddoedd Gwanas, Penantigi, Rasol Gwm.
The book helps us understand so many parts and particles of field names such as talar, gwndwn, gwern and so on. A good example from this fine volume is odyn/kiln. Not only does Parry look at kiln names which commemorate places used to dry oats or barley, or coastal ones for burning lime but there are rarer examples of ones used for burning bracken so that the ashes could be used in the production of soap. There are also ones from Roman times used to produce tiles.
Some field names commemorate customs which no longer continue, such as ones which mark the locations of gallows or others which mark meeting places for the inhabitants of adjoining commotes or lordships, while others located such features as standing stones which could themselves mark such things as Bronze Age routes across Welsh highlands.
Parry’s investigations are not confined to trawling archives and unearthing dusty documents.
Some of the most striking images in Cerdded y Caeau use aerial photography to illuminate the names used for landscape features, including spotting patterns created by people ploughing the high tops a long, long time ago. This is field-spotting in the age of Google and satellite imagery.
The book is exemplary in directing the reader to the many online sources of maps and information that are nowadays available including the remarkable Melville Richards archive and digitised Tithe Maps and the like. It will no doubt encourage many readers to start their own detective work even as it provides an account of just how to conduct such work.
Rhian Parry is to be hugely congratulated on producing such a readable, engaging account of names which helps us read the land across the centuries, making ancestral connections and understanding why our forebears named so many places in the first place and how they can change or sadly be lost.
There are beautiful names such as Ffridd y Cymylau, Bryn Llestri Cynfal, Pant Cadwgan Ddreiniog, Buarth Cynyddfa and others which denote the boundaries of parishes, or ones of Irish influence such as the presence of the word Cnwc, as in the charming Cnwc y Llygod, with mice playing in and around the name.
This is a bountiful book in many regards and a fine repository, one to which readers will surely return to both learn and to further delight in all its evidences. Put simply it celebrates those who were here before, and knew this land, these lands and their parcels most intimately well. In this it honours their understanding.
Cerdded y Caeau by Rhian Parry is published by Y Lolfa and is available from all good bookshops
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A work of this significance must surely be translated and shared with the wider population of these islands…I always see in my mind’s eye a ‘sermon on the mount’ type scenario when I pass Caeathro near Caernarfon…thank you for such a compelling review…