The little mountain of Carningli dominates the landscape around Newport and Cilgwyn, and although it is only 347m ( 1,138 feet) high it is visible as a prominent feature from all compass directions. It looks like a volcanic peak -- and this is appropriate, since it is indeed an ancient volcano. But it is around 450 million years old, and its present-day profile gives us little guidance as to what it looked like when it was erupting. During the Ice Age the mountain was completely covered by the ice of the massive Irish Sea Glacier, moving down from the north and north-west, possibly in several different glacial episodes. Some traces of ice erosion can still be seen on rocky slabs near the summit and on the eastern flank of the mountain. The east face of Carningli is almost obliterated by a great bank of scree even today. Martha and her children loved to climb on the great jumble of boulders and craggy outcrops, and somewhere, in the middle of it all, is Martha’s cave and the crevice into which she dumped Moses Lloyd’s body.
We should not be surprised that the mountain has been thought of as a “sacred mountain” for a very long time. There are no burials on the summit (although there may well have been human sacrifices and executions, given that the Iron Age was a pretty brutal time), so Carningli may not have been thought of as a particularly sacred or spiritual place in pre-Christian times. But when St Brynach, our local saint, came into the district around 450 AD he used to climb up onto the summit in order to “commune with the angels.” The name “Carningli” is difficult to translate, but in old Welsh it may well mean “Mount of the Angels” -- and on old maps it is called Carn Yengly or Carnengli, which are probably both corruptions of Carn Engylau.
So where does this aura of sanctity come from? Well, all who climb onto the summit know that is a very special place -- high enough above the surrounding countryside to be closer to heaven than everywhere else, low enough to be easily accessible to those who are reasonably fit, and not quite rocky enough to be dangerous or threatening. In the stories, Martha taps into the sanctity of the place just as I do on every visit and just as thousands of others do. Take a look at the profile of the mountain from the south. With the eye of faith, you can see a woman lying on her back -- head to the left, then breast, rib cage, stomach and raised knees. For many, the mountain is a place of great spiritual power. Not surprisingly, for some this is Mother Earth or the Earth Goddess.
Newport is an ancient borough which was for many centuries the main town on the North Pembrokeshire coast. Trefdraeth, its Welsh name, means “the town by the beach”, and it derives from the proximity of the vast sandy sweep of Traeth Mawr on the Nevern estuary. The original settlement site may well have been downslope of the present town, on the southern shore of the estuary where there is a strange earthwork referred to as Yr Hen Gastell or The Old Castle. The arrival of the Normans led to several centuries of social upheaval, with motte and bailey and stone castles being built across North Pembrokeshire. The main invisible product of this time was the Barony of Cemais, which -- against all the odds -- survives to this day. The Lord Marcher (when he was in residence) controlled his vast estates from a fine stone castle built on a spur, very close to the new town centre. It was built around 1200, with a fine Anglo-Norman church in its shadow. A short distance inland, the Norman town grew apace under the protection of the castle battlements, with streets running downslope towards the shore and with more than 200 burgage plots occupied by burgesses or freemen. There were at least three water mills within the town boundaries, many craft establishments and traders, and more than a fair share of inns. Schools and chapels came later, built during the social and evangelical transformations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Later still merchants, craftsmen, shopkeepers, doctors and bankers, teachers and “lodging-house proprietors” all helped to change the face of the town.
As an ancient borough Newport has a number of very old buildings, and the medieval pattern of small streets has survived intact. Today the town’s axis runs east - west, along the A487 road. The castle and St Mary's church still look down on the town. Other interesting buildings include the Sessions House, the nonconformist chapels, the Castle Hotel, the shop fronts on Market Street, the assemblage of old cottages and guest houses on the Parrog sea front, and a number of fine old houses on the outskirts of the town, some of which were built by ancient mariners who risked life and limb to make their fortunes. There are few town centre buildings of outstanding quality, but some are listed, and the small-scale and varied styles of house fronts, cottages and commercial premises gives Newport a charming and unpretentious character. Houses and shop fronts co-exist side by side in a happy jumble. In recent years many property owners in the town centre have renovated buildings attractively, restoring stone facing, slate roofing and other vernacular features. Window boxes and hanging baskets add bright splashes of colour during the summer months.
In the Angel Mountain novels Newport is the scene of a great deal of the action. Martha herself is routinely in and out of town, since she does her shopping here and knows many of the traders and other townspeople. Her servants have families and friends in town, and her children enjoy the company of Newport playmates. The Newport market -- and Ffair Gurig -- feature prominently. The Plas Ingli servants spend their free time in the Newport hostelries, and there is much excitement in the Black Lion. Martha is whipped through the streets in "On Angel Mountain" -- the ultimate degradation for a female member of the gentry. But after that, she has huge support from the least reputable members of the community, and under the leadership of her friend Skiff Abraham her network of low-life spies becomes a very effective weapon against her enemies.
Cwm Gwaun is the deep and spectacular valley that runs for more than seven miles in a great look from Cilgwyn to the outer coast at Lower Town Fishguard. It cuts off Carningli and Mynydd Dinas from the rest of the Preseli Hills, and because it is served by just one narrow and winding road the valley community has become stronly independent, keeping alivce traditions that have long since disappeared everywhere else. So the tradition of "Hen Galan" (the Old New Year) is kept alive here by all the resident families. The valley figures very prominently in the life history of Mistress Martha, with villains living at Llannerch, Gelli Fawr and Llanychaer, and with the beloved Owain living first at Pontfaen and later (following the demise of Alban Watkins) at Llannerch. Martha walks into the valley along the Penrhiw - Llannerch track on many occasions, and the woodlands provide the setting for much of her affair with Owain. In the later novels the focus moves to Llanychaer, and the old house at Cwrt occupied (in my imagination) by old Squire Price and his tragic son Iestyn, and then later by Brynach and his children.
Ty Canol Wood
Most of the ancient woodland of Pembrokeshire has disappeared, trampled underfoot by the inexorable march of progress. Forest clearance has been going on since the Iron Age; and although Pembrokeshire may appear superficially to be a well-wooded county most of the mature deciduous trees that survive are in very small copses or in old hedgerows. Genuine old woodlands are few and far between. Luckily, some of the surviving old woods are now protected by designations as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and they have management plans in place to ensure that they are not threatened by building development or even by heavy levels of recreational use. Tycanol Wood, located between Newport and Brynberian, is a very special oak wood which has probably never been totally cleared even though it has been used for meeting local timber requirements down through the centuries. The oak trees in the wood are gnarled and twisted, and many of them are shallowly rooted on the flanks of rocky crags and cliffs.
The wood features strongly in the stories of the Angel Mountain Saga. Martha and David make love for the first time in a glade between the gnarled oaks; it is a favourite location for Martha and her children on family picnics; and there are terrible events here in "Flying with Angels."
Mynydd Dinas is the western extension of Carningli Common, and in its physical appearance it is very similar, with rocky crags on the summit ridge and wide expanses of heath and moorland. Much of this higher area is used for common grazing by sheep and horses. The most interesting area lies to the west of the Dinas - Pontfaen road, where the tors of Garn Fawr and Carn Enoch dominate the landscape. They are really tumbledown crags made of the igneous rock called dolerite, and traces of ice action bu the overriding Irish Sea Glacier (over 20,000 years ago) are seen on all sides. There are some spectacular ice-smoothed slabs at the western end of Garn Fawr in particular. On the south side of the ridge there are thousands of glacial erratics scattered all over the land surface. There are also abundant traces of prehistoric occupation here, with ring cairns, walled enclosures and what appear to be field boundaries quite easy to trace.
In the days before modern roads, the ridge walk from Cilgwyn to Fishguard was the main thoroughfare for foot traffic -- and in the novels Martha walks back and forth many times. Several very dramatic incidents also occur along the way......
Llwyngwair sits snugly on the banks of the Nanhyfer, close to its confluence with the River Clydach, "necklaced with generous groves affording shelter and pleasure to both residents and wayfarers" according to an old account. The Llwyngwair estate was owned by the Bowen family since at least the early sixteenth century. Many generations lived there, and there were family connections with Berry Hill, to the west. The Bowens were renowned for their agricultural innovations. In Martha Morgan's day, the family was very supportive of the Methodists, and it is reputed that John Wesley, Howel Harris, Daniel Rowland and Williams Pantycelyn (the man who wrote "Guide me, o thou great Jehovah") all stayed at the house. The Bowen family built both the Church Chapel in Newport and the similar building in Nevern so that the Methodists could have their own places of worship. The latter is now used as the village hall.
The big house itself was used in WW2 by the Salvation Army as a refuge for elderly people left homeless in the London Blitz. In 1957 it was sold out of the Bowen family, and it has now been transformed into a hotel on which the grandiose name of 'Llwyngwair Manor' has been bestowed, despite the knowledge that no evidence whatsoever exists to show that it had ever enjoyed that great status or distinction. It has an imposing facade, and much of the house dates from the Regency period, but there have been many alterations since then. The farm at Llwyngwair is now under separate ownership. The parkland around the mansion is now used as a caravan park, and still retains some of its planned features along the pretty banks of the river.
In the novels Martha visits Llwyngwair many times, since this is the home of her great friend Eleanor Bowen. John Bowen, the Squire of Llwyngwair, is a faithful friend of the Morgan family of Plas Ingli, and he is one of the heroes of "On Angel Mountain".
On the trackway that leads from the clapper bridge near Cilgwyn Church up the wooded valley towards the common, there are at least five ruined cottages, with traces of assorted outbuildings as well. They are somewhat mysterious, but at least one of them was used well into the twentieth century. Their presence suggests that the trackway was once quite heavily used, and indeed the maps suggest that this was the main road from Haverfordwest to Newport beffore the modern asphalted road was constructed. Just off the trackway, near the upper edge of the woodland, is a place called Fagwr Lwyd. According to the ancient records, this was where Henry Tudor stopped for the first night on his march from Dale to Bosworth field in 1485. He worshipped in Cligwyn Church before proceeding next day towards Aberystwyth.
In the Angel Mountain stories these cottages are mentioned frequently, and at one time the last love of Martha's life, Amos Jones, inhabited one of them.
Cwm yr Eglwys
This little village has been home to a small seafaring community for many thousands of years, favoured because it is very well sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds. So boats could be launched and beached here when conditions prevented boat owners from operating in many of the more exposed small ports and harbours of the county. Because it is so sheltered, temperatures are always a few degrees warmer here than elsewhere in North Pembrokeshire, and this has given rise to vegetation of almost tropical luxuriance. The safe sandy beach is very popular with holidaymakers, and this is a favourite venue for the sailing community.
But when the wind and the waves are coming from the east, Cwm yr Eglwys is very vulnerable, since the floor of the valley called Cwm Dewi (which runs through to Pwllgwaelod) is not much above sea level, and is made of soft glacial sediments which are easily eroded by the sea. For that reason the old church of St Brynach, on the site of an ancient llan, built in a place that was originally considered quite safe, became more and more at risk with the passing of every century. The churchyard was gradually whittled away by the advancing sea, and the church itself was regularly afflicted by storm waves by around 1800. There was storm damage in 1850 and 1851 when the chancel was destroyed by the sea, and the church footings were left hanging over an abyss. The graveyard suffered even more damage, exposing human remains in large quantity. The great storm of October 1859 (the Royal Charter Storm) removed the church roof and damaged the walls, and the building was abandoned. The ruins stood until 1880 when they were demolished, except for the present west end. A new sea wall was built to protect what was left of the graveyard. Another storm in 1979 caused damage to the sea wall; repairs by Preseli District Council and a rearrangement of the gravestones converted it into a most pleasant public space.
Plas Ingli, the rebuilt house which is Martha’s “House of Angels” in the stories, is a figment of my imagination. There never was a large gentry house high up on Angel Mountain. But there was a little house about 300 yards to the south of my fantasy location, and on the map it is called Carningli Lodge. It is surrounded by a cluster of mature trees which is quite easy to spot from the Dolrannog Road car parking area. It lies on the edge of the common, only about 200 yards from the road. It is reached via a metal gate, and the tumbledown walls are just a few yards inside the boundary wall which separates the open land from the enclosed area which used to be cultivated. The house (if that is not too grand a word for it) was very small indeed, and I suspect that it was built around 1820 as a ty unnos (one-night house) following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when land was scarce and there were too many mouths to feed.
To find out what the house might have looked like, we can look at the house called Cwrt, high up above the Gwaun Valley above Llanychaer. This is an early nineteenth-century mansion which has recently been rescued from decay. Alongside it, there is a fine rectangular farmyard with stables, cowsheds and barns such as those that existed in my mind at Pas Ingli.
The building of stone trading quays on the south side of the Nevern estuary, and the first use of the name “Newport”, came in the early Middle Ages. Parrog, which was really the new port, expanded as the home of a small seafaring community. Over the centuries it developed as a small community in its own right, displaying a certain animosity towards the people who lived in the town up the road. The earliest quays were probably on the shore where the cottages are; but the little peninsula on which the limekilns, warehouses and mortuary were later built was brought into use because more space was needed, and stone walls had to be built to defend it from the constant attack of the waves. Most of the work was done in 1816-25, using slate slabs taken from the sea quarries along the coast.
In Elizabethan times there was a huge herring fishery here, but when the herring shoals disappeared, that industry was replaced by coastal trading, lime burning and boatbuilding as the most important activities -- with most local men taking to a life at sea or at least linked to the sea. The inns and brothels did good business too, since there were always visiting seamen in town. But the port always suffered from the heavy silting and shifting sands at the mouth of the Nevern river, and larger sailing vessels had to be beached some way from the quays so that loading and unloading could take place when the tide was low. The heyday of all this maritime activity was in the period 1800-1850, but then the coming of the railways led to a gradual decline, and cargo shipments in and out became more and more irregular until the coastal trade finally came to an end in 1934.
In the stories of Mistress Martha, many dramatic episodes take place on the Parrog. It is the place from which the locals watch the Cnapan Game in which David is killed. This is where Patty, ex-prostitute and one of Martha's best friends, lives with her husband Jake. A place of disorder and gossip. And much else besides....
Fishguard features more prominently in the stories than Cardigan, largely because it is closer to Newport, and because the commercial and family links between the two towns were stronger. In the Middle Ages Newport had a market, but Fishguard did not. But later it grew rapidly as a fishing port, and the herring fishery was very important for the growth of Lower Town in Elizabethan times. Indeed, the little harbour was the focal point of the community until the later 1700's, when houses started to be built on the higher land to the west, where there was room for expansion. By the time of the French Invasion in 1797 there was a distinctive community here, with wider streets and more spacious and modern houses and cottages. Goodwick (the last of the "three communities") was a small fishing village in its own right until it expanded enormously with the arrival of the railway in 1895. It was planned that this would become one of the great transatlantic ports of western Britain. As the blasting work for the quays and railway sidings proceeded there was enormous growth in house construction, and subsidiary settlements developed at Harbour Village and Stop and Call. But the great plans never came to fruition, since it was realised that Fishguard Harbour was not deep enough for the great ocean liners that were being built after 1900. The transatlantic ships disappeared, and since the First World War the majority of ferries using the port have plied the routes to southern Ireland. Recently the railway line, which had been used by just two "boat trains" each day, has seen a resurgence in passenger use, with a more sensible timetable.
Pontfaen is one of the two villages of Cwm Gwaun (the other is Llanychaer), and it has a delightful location at one of the river's bridging points. On one side of the river we have a primary school (called the Llanychllwydog School), the substantial Jabes Baptist Chapel (rebuilt in 1904) with two graveyards, the Dyffryn Arms inn (known universally as Bessie's pub), and a string of cottages along the valley road. On the other side of the river is the little church dedicated to St Brynach (probably medieval but greatly altered) and the gentry house of Pontfaen, with an interesting farmyard adjacent. The house probably dates back to the 1400's, but it was remodelled in Regency times and then again in Victorian times.
The Mynydd Preseli upland ridge, much of which is unenclosed moorland or low-grade grazing with areas of bog, is flanked by farmland and active or deserted farms. Field boundaries on these lower slopes tend to be earth banks topped with fencing and stock-resistant plants such as gorse. The principal peak at 1,759 feet (536 m) above sea level is Foel Cwmcerwyn. There are 14 other peaks over 980 feet (300 m) of which three exceed 1,300 feet (400 m). Carningli is essentially a part of the upland, although physically cut off from the rest of it by the deep cut of Cwm Gwaun.
Villages and other settlements within the uplands are Blaenffos, Brynberian, Crosswell, Crymych, Pontfaen, Llanychaer, Glandy Cross, Mynachlog-ddu, New Inn, Pentre Galar, Puncheston, and Rosebush. The principal town in the area is Newport, on the seaward flank of Carningli. Rosebush Reservoir, one of only two reservoirs in Pembrokeshire, supplies water to southern Pembrokeshire and is a brown trout fishery located on the southern slopes of the range near the village of Rosebush. It has no public access. The other reservoir is at Llysyfran, built originally to provide water to the refineries of the Milford Haven oil industry. Here there is a circular walk around the lake, and a pleasant Visitor Centre. There are no natural lakes in the mountains, but a number of local rivers are fed from springs or bogs in the uplands.
Preseli has Special Area of Conservation status; the citation states that the area is "...exceptional in Wales for the combination of upland and lowland features...". Numerous scarce plant and insect species exist in the hills. This is the most important site in Wales for the declining Southern damselfly, and efforts to restore habitat were underway in 2015.
The hills were once forested but the forests had been cleared by the late Bronze Age, and since then tree growth has been suppressed by animal grazing. A vast WW2 coniferous forest around Pantmaenog and Rosebush has now been largely cleared. There are many prehistoric remains, including evidence of Neolithic settlement. In 1923 the petrologist HH Thomas suggested that bluestones from the hills were used to build the inner circle of Stonehenge, and for many years Carn Menyn (formerly called Carn Meini) was believed to be the key source of the spotted dolerite stones used in the monument. That theory has now been shown to be wrong, and modern geological research has shown that the bluestones, and the fragments found in the soil at Stonehenge, have come from multiple sources within the mountains -- and that they were probably carried eastwards by glacier ice.
The mountains are rich in sacred and historic sites, many of which are marked on Ordnance Survey maps. They include burial chambers, tumuli, hill forts, hut circles, stone circles, henges, standing stones and other prehistoric remains mostly from the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. In 1946 there was a proposal to turn the greater part of the uplands into a military firing range and training area, but after a coordinated community campaign (called "The Battle of Preseli") the idea was abandoned and Castlemartin was chosen instead.
In the stories, Martha visits Preseli several times, in the company of her friend Richard Fenton -- and on one occasion she actually gets involved in an "antiquarian investigation" on the summit of Foelcwncerwyn!
Llannerch is a substantial yeoman farm house in Cwm Gwaun, situated not far from its eastern end on a swell on the valley floor -- which is actually the divide between the Gwaun river which flows west and the Clydach river which flows east. The valley sides hereabouts are densely wooded with mature trees -- some of which might well go back to the days of the old "wildwood". Across the valley is the side valley through which the Gwaun river descends via cataracts and pools. There was a pandy or fulling-mill, and we can still see traces of it adjacent to the footpath that runs up to Gelli Fawr.
There was once a mansion at Llannerch, called Llannerch y Bleiddie or "glade of the wolves" -- an appropriate name for a place occupied in the first book of the saga by Martha's predatory enemy Alban Watkins! The old house is lost without trace, although parts of it might have been incorporated into the modern farmhouse. There might also have been a private chapel, and a flight of stone steps leading down into a cellar or crypt.
In the story of Mistress Martha, one of the pools near Pandy features as the place where the heroic Owain Laugharne bathes naked, spied upon by Martha while she hides in the bushes. In the stories, the house is purchased by the Laugharne family following the demise of Alban Watkins, and is occupied by Owain himself.
The old mansion of Gelli Fawr occupies a spactacular location on the south side of the Gwaun Valley. It features prominently in the stories of the Angel Mountain Saga, and it is occupied by the fictional Owen family. Philip Owen, the old squire, features in "Dark Angel". His son John Owen becomes one of Martha's enemies, and for his sins he is executed in "Rebecca and the Angels." Mefin, who then inherits the estate, also comes to a sticky end in "Flying with Angels." In reality the estate was built up by the James family, who lived there for five generations from the early 1700's. The old house was replaced with a substantial mansion in Victorian times, by the Davies family. For the last 50 years or so the house has been used as a country hotel, with guest accommodation in the converted outbuildings. It is a popular wedding venue, with an excellent restaurant and facilities for meetings and conferences. Every year it celebrates Hen Galan, the Old New Year, on January 13th.
A great deal of the Angel Mountain Saga is centred on Cilgwyn. It's a “scattered hamlet”, with only one real cluster of houses around Cilgwyn Bridge and with maybe fifty or sixty dwelling- houses in the bad old days. The main physical feature is the valley of the Afon Clydach, which joins the Afon Nyfer close to Llwyngwair. There is abundant woodland along the river, but the most extensive woodlands are in the east, where Pentre Ifan and Tycanol Woods clothe the rocky slopes beyond the spur of Carnedd Meibion Owen. There are tors in the woods, but the most prominent ones are on the skyline above the top edge of the wood. To the west the cwm is protected by the mass of Carningli.
Around 1800 the dwellings were sprinkled more or less at random across the face of the land, some on sandy and gravelly hummocks and others on areas of thin acid soil. The majority housed labourers or peasants, some of whom had a garden or a small paddock to help them to eke out a living. Some larger houses were used by the tenant farmers and their families, and there were three or four more substantial buildings put up by those who owned land and who counted themselves as minor gentry. There was a church and a Baptist Chapel, and a number of skilled craftsmen including a blacksmith, a miller and a farrier. Although the community was tied quite closely to Newport it was not far from self- sufficiency, and many crafts including weaving, knitting, carpentry, candle-making, wood-turning, basketry and leatherworking were practised by people who could turn their hands to almost anything.
Money was in short supply, and bartering was commonplace. Cilgwyn split its loyalties between Newport on the coast, Pontfaen in the Gwaun Valley, and Brynberian to the south-east. The road from New England to Dolrannog and Penrhiw did not exist in 1814, and it was probably easier for the farming community on the southern slope of Carningli to get to Llannerch and Pontfaen than to travel to Newport.
After 1850, the rise of the merchant class brought newcomers into the cwm, and many of the old houses changed hands. With more cash in circulation and with improvements in the road network, Newport became more important as a shopping centre and the locals did less and less business with Pontfaen and Brynberian. Well within living memory there was a post office and two pubs in Cilgwyn, and the mill continued to operate until 1948. But there was not enough business for these little businesses to continue and thrive. Young people left the land, more and more families who spoke no Welsh began to purchase properties, and the Welshness of Cilgwyn was certainly diluted. In the 1970’s and 1980’s Cilgwyn became one of the great centres of the “self-sufficiency” movement, with key figures like John and Sally Seymour at Fachongle Isaf and Satish Kumar and June Mitchell at Pentre Ifan preaching the virtues of self-reliance to a worldwide audience. John Seymour was particularly influential, and his best-selling books attracted many others to the cwm. Even today Fachongle and Brithdir Mawr are famous for their residents who do things differently and who dare to challenge the planning rules............ Martha Morgan would have been proud of them.
This tumbledown tor, not far from Carningli, is a delightful spot for a picnic, located just off the main footpath that follows the ridge westwards towards Bedd Morris and Dinas. On one flank of the tor you can see a semi-sircular enclosure made of large boulders, well sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds. Nobody knows how old this feature is. Was it a Bronze age dwelling which had a roof of timbers and thatch? Or was it just an open enclosure or sheep fold?
In the Angel Mountain stories a great deal happens at Carn Edward, and it is one of the favourite picnic spots used by Martha and her children.
Werndew is a small farm on the northern flank of Dinas Mountain, between Newport and Dinas. It really was the home of Joseph Harries the Wizard, and there are many stories in local folklore about the strange things he did and the crimes he solved. According to the present owners of the house, some of the great man's bottles and potions remained on shelves in one of the rooms -- but they have now all been thrown away. The character of Joseph Harries in the stories is an invention -- and in the stories the house is transformed into a very small cottage in a dell, with roses over the door and a little garden at the back. This is the location for many of the pivotal moments in the saga of Mistress Martha.