Review: Hanes Tregaron a’r Cyffiniau by D.Ben Rees
For the tens of thousands attending the National Eisteddfod this week the Tregaron area will be a beautiful backdrop to the cultural busyness of the Maes but as this new history attests this small town of 1200 inhabitants is so much more.
It’s been a market town for a very long time, dating back indeed to the 13th century when socks, blankets and clothes to keep one warm in the chill of the surrounding hills were sold every Tuesdays.
Then there were the very busy fairs in March and May when livestock such as horses, bulls and sheep were traded.
These, in turn, attracted droves of drovers and it’s been estimated that 30,000 animals went overland annually from Tregaron to markets such as Bartholomew and Barnet in London, a trade which speeded up with the advent of the Milford to Manchester railway line in 1866 which opened up new outlets.
There was a lot of money to be made, quite literally so in the 1960s when the quirky Welsh Black Sheep Company, an offshoot of the Aberystwyth and Tregaron Bank set up a new paper currency, printing its own pound notes.
Ben Rees, best known as a historian of Liverpool, is perfectly well suited to the task of telling Tregaron’s complex and rich story.
He was brought up on a farm halfway between Tregaron and Llanddewi Brefi and so is able to weave in some of his own family history and personal recollections into the structure of the book.
Hanes Tregaron a’r Cyffiniau starts in Tregaron itself but then radiates outwards to include scores of nearby villages such as Bronnant and Blaenpennal, Ffair Rhos and Gwnnws, Ysbyty Ystwyth and Ystrad Fflur.
Along the way Rees introduces us to wandering tramps and self-taught poets, to local barbers such as Jac Olifer whose slogan was ‘Put Your Hair in Oliver’s Care’ and to a host of farmers as well as a veritable slew of ministers.
In the villages hereabouts the farmers and tenants were often staunch Calvinist Methodists and the chapel culture was very strong.
Indeed, in 1901 there were no fewer than 91 chapels in South Ceredigion, or one for every 186 people and many villages, of course, had not one but two chapels.
But perhaps none is as iconic as the lonely Soar-y-Mynydd, one of the simplest Christian meeting houses which has been standing for over 200 years in a remote but beautiful spot on the banks of Afon Camddwr.
Hopefully some Eisteddfod goers will find time to visit the place, as it is very special.
The town of Tregaron itself has some very visible landmarks such as the statue of the pacifist politician Henry Richard, the jeweller Rhiannon Evans’ shop and the thirst-slaking Talbot Hotel.
But some features are less well known, such as the Evans Family Butchers which have been trading for over a century and a half, or six generations up the present day when Rhys and Annwen now run ‘Cigydd Evans Butcher.’
The area also has a worldwide reputation for the breeding of Welsh cobs in places such as the Derwen Stud, home of the legendary Derwen Rosina and its offspring Derwen Welsh Comet, which was exported to Pakistan to improve the stock of horses for playing polo.
The town of Tregaron has been a busy hub of Welsh language culture for many a year and the local secondary school, Ysgol Uwchradd Tregaron produced so many prominent nationalists, such as W. Ambrose Bebb, Cassie Davies, Griffith John Williams and J. Kitchener Davies that it was teasingly known as Plaid Cymru’s private school.
One of the area’s most interesting sons was Joseph Jenkins, who decamped to Australia, where he lived for a quarter of a century as a swagman.
Luckily he kept a detailed diary of his adventuring over the course of some sixty years. Even more luckily these were discovered after his death and made it into print in a book which Jan Morris said brought ‘disparate corners of the 19th century world uniquely and startlingly to life.’
Some of the other local characters are much more recent, such as fisherman, TV personality and river celebrant Moc Morgan, who once took U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalind out on the Teifi for a day’s angling.
Some local inhabitants were more controversial, such a novelist Elizabeth Inglis-Jones whose first, historical novel, Starved Fields elicited a strong response from the head of St David’s College in Lampeter who said: ‘I’m afraid you will not be popular with the “county” after your remorseless revelation of what life can have been like in Cardiganshire at any period in its history.’
Undeterred, Inglis-Jones went on to pen several more books including the popular Peacocks in Paradise which told the story of Thomas Johnes and the Hafod estate, thought to be the inspiration for Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.
With his customary energy and diligence D.Ben Rees has produced a substantial tome about a small but special Welsh town.
It benefits from both his expansive knowledge and clear love for the place and its inhabitants, from garage owners to members of the judo club, from letter carriers who walked miles over the hills to shepherds in the same wild places.
It’s the people that bring a place to life and D.Ben Rees introduces us to so very many of them with his usual energy and enthusiasm.
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