Review: Mynydd Epynt a’r Troad Allan yn 1940 by Herbert Hughes
If you’re anything like me and have an interest in Welsh history, when it comes to evicted communities in Wales, the first to spring to mind is probably the village of Capel Celyn in the Tryweryn valley, drowned in 1965 to provide the city of Liverpool with water.
Or perhaps if you’re from Montgomeryshire, you may think of Llanwddyn, inundated to service the needs of the same city in the 1880s (though that village was rebuilt nearby to house the original inhabitants).
One community I hadn’t heard of until a few years ago, was the rural community of Mynydd Epynt in Breconshire. This again was an evicted community. However, the reason behind the displacement on this occasion had nothing to do with water, but war.
Indeed, after an initial visit to the area by officials at the dawn of the Second World War in September 1939, the residents of this isolated region of southern Powys were given until the 30th of June 1940 to vacate the area, which was to become a shooting range the very next day.
The eventual deadline itself had been an extension of an earlier eviction date, brought about only because of the lambing season.
If however, any of the locals had hoped the initial stay of execution would lead to a change of heart from the War Office in London, they were to be disappointed.
The end of the world
The subtitle of this eye-opening book “Mae’n ddiwedd byd yma…” (It’s the end of the world here) comes from an exchange between Iorwerth C Peate of the National Museum, who’d gone to Epynt on that final day to visit the homes being vacated to measure and photograph them.
An elderly lady sat outside her lifelong home of Waun Lwyd. Upon hearing he’d come from Cardiff, she implored him to “go back there as quick as you can. It’s the end of the world here.”
Between the advent of the Second World War and having to leave the house where she had been born, it probably felt to her as if the world was indeed coming to an end.
Another exchange which struck a chord with this reader was that between Peate and a younger lady at another property who asked “Do you think I could take the front door with me, to remember the old place?”
Although the circumstances in which I lost my home in 2013 couldn’t have been more different, I’m reminded of when I briefly considered taking the light fittings from the dining room and living room with me. Yes, “to remember the old place”. But also as an act of rebellion to make clear how I felt about being forced from my home. In case you’re wondering, the light fittings stayed put in the end.
Although some Epynt residents were resigned to their fate, others seemed to possess a touch of optimism that perhaps, one day, they could return.
This was true of Thomas Morgan, Glan Dwr. Thomas was confident that he would occasionally return to Glan Dwr to light a fire. The army noticed this and the reader learns that, either out of concern for Thomas’ safety (which I hope was the case) or to punish him, “overindulgent action” was taken and the farmhouse blown up.
“Disbelief quickly turned to hatred towards the War Office. The local people’s anger was manifested in their refusal to allow soldiers to lodge with them – a practice pushed upon them which they had tolerated as an inconvenient necessity up to that point.”
This event we are told, inspired the popular stage play Sound of Stillness by T C Thomas, which explored both the dilemma of the farmers and the sympathy felt by some soldiers who had to follow orders they themselves felt uneasy about.
In addition to the events leading up to the evictions, Herbert Hughes gives the reader a valuable glimpse into various aspects of daily life in the area between the end of the nineteenth and the first four decades of the twentieth century.
Entries from the Cilieni school log books provide a glimpse into both education at the time as well as the realities of living in a rural area.
For instance, the entry for the 15th of September 1883 reads “Most of the senior scholars absent this week, being kept home to assist in corn harvest.”
Another entry from the 17th of June 1903 reads “Received from County Hall – 1 doz Cant o Hanesion Dyfyrrys” this being the first reference to Welsh books being ordered by the school.
Asleep in a manger
The author also devotes a chapter to local characters. One such was William Probert aka “Billy Boy”.
One story about Billy involves him going to Llanwrtyd where a preacher warns him about the dangers of alcohol, adding that he’d been surprised to hear Billy was often too drunk to ride home and had to sleep in the pub’s manger.
To which Billy apparently replied, quick as a flash “I have no shame in that as a much greater man than I has slept in a manger in a stable next to an inn.”
Also included here are a substantial collection of photographs supplementing the written word with a visual record, and in the appendices, a list of farms, including information recording where the final inhabitants moved to after 1940.
Originally published in 1997 by Gomer before being republished by Y Lolfa this year, this is a very comprehensive account, not just of the events leading up to the evictions, but also of life before the authorities gave notice as to their intentions.
The author makes a very interesting assertion at one point that “It is a measure of the failure of the national movement that Epynt was followed by Tryweryn. A measure of the national movement’s success is that no government would now dare to steal Wales’ land in such arrogant ways.”
Looking at how devolution is currently being undermined, I wonder how much longer will we still be able to consider that to be true?
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