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Castell Gwallter
& the Village of Llandre

4m NE of Aberystwyth, Llandre, Ceredigion, west Wales

(On private land)

Map link for Castell Gwallter

Copyright © by Richard Hartnup, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

A look at the pathfinder map suggests that Castell Gwallter is right next to the church. However, close inspection of the contours reveals that it is 90m - nearly 300 ft. - higher, and getting there involves a steep climb through the woods. Although the motte is on private land, it can be viewed from adjacent rights of way.

The castle is a typical motte and bailey construction of the type built by the Normans and the Welsh in the middle ages to administer the Cantref or the Cwmwd. In fact its original name according to David Jenkins in Bro Dafydd ap Gwilym was Castell Penweddig - after the Cantref of Penweddig, the most northerly of the Ceredigion Cantrefi and the only one whose name we know. The motte - a surrounding mound and ditch, and the bailey - a central hillock are very well preserved, but there is no trace of stonework on the hill. Perhaps the castle was of wooden construction. It was the Castle of Walter de Bec, d'Espec, or Spech, built some time before 1136. Horsfall-Taylor (Walks and Wanderings in County Cardigan c. 1900) calls him "a distinguished knight who had chief command at the 'Battle of the Standard' in 1138, and is said to have stood on the wagon of the Standards, and to have inspirited his troops by an oration in a voice like a trumpet'. He was one of the greatest feudal knights with estates in the North of England, was Justice of the Forests of Yorkshire. The abbot of Rievaulx speaks of him as a man 'prudent in council and discreet in war, a trusty friend, loyal subject, of giant-like stature, but comely.' " Despite these qualities of its owner the castle did not long remain in use. Like many of the 300 or so castles of this type in Wales it was quickly destroyed by Welsh attacks.

Llandre is a small village some 5 miles north of Aberystwyth. It is more properly named Llanfihangel Genau'r Glyn. There is a persistent legend that the church was originally intended to be sited at Glanfred, on the banks of the Leri about a mile to the north-east, and be dedicated, like the church at Llan-non, to St. Ffraid- or Bridget. The builders constructed the walls, but each morning when they returned to their work, the previous day's building had fallen down. Eventually a mysterious voice was heard whispering in the wind. It gave instructions that the church was to be dedicated to St. Michael (Mihangel), and built at the mouth of the valley - Genau'r Glyn.

The dedication to Mihangel suggests an early Welsh church. There are about 100 dedications to the Archangel in Wales, and 8 in Ceredigion. The Celtic cult of Mihangel is associated with heights according to Padraig O Riain in the Cardiganshire County History. Some mystics connect St. Michael with ley lines, and with a "masculine principle" - balanced by the "feminine principle" of St Mary (Mair). The church used to be called Llanfihangel Castell Gwallter, and this name is to be found on the communion cup which is dated 1573. Another hint at the antiquity of the site is given by the presence of a "Holy Well" just below the lych gate and recently restored. I have not seen any references to this well, but tradition in the village says that it was used as a healing well not too long ago The present building, a 19th century restoration, stands at the entrance to a steep cwm. The graveyard extends outside the walls so that scattered tombstones poke up through the woodlands on the steep slopes above the church. The slope is unstable in places, and the graves are gradually tumbling down the hill!

The most historic feature in the churchyard is the ancient yew tree to the north-east of the church. It looks like three separate trees, rising from a small mound, but investigations have shown that it is all one bole beneath the mound. It has been somewhat damaged by fire, but is still a large specimen. Arthur Chater, an eminent local botanist lists the yew as one of great age, whilst a survey made recently by the Conservation Foundation and "Country Living Magazine" tentatively dates the tree as 1800 years old. This is an amazing claim, but it is based on reliable estimates derived from numbers of the annual rings counted in small sample cores. Much more work would need to be done to confirm the age, but no doubt it is a venerable tree. There is a theory that suggests that some of the very old yews in churchyards lie to the north of the church because the church was built on the holy southern side of a pre-Christian sacred grove. This would appear to be pure speculation. Oliver Rackham, one of our greatest authorities on landscape history says:

"As far as I know ... there is nothing to connect yews with pagan religion; indeed the only written evidence for yews as holy trees comes from the Christian laws of Wales, which require compensation equivalent to sixty sheep for destroying a 'saint's yew'".(History of the Countryside).
Gerald Wilkinson in his "History of Britain's Trees" says that the oldest known wooden artefact in the world is a yew-wood spear dated at 13000 years old, and found at Clacton. He says: "The oldest tree in Britain, the Fortingall yew, Perthshire, was 52 feet [in girth] in 1769, and is now 1500 years old at a very conservative estimate. The Celtic "iw" is our oldest tree name" (The modern Welsh for yew is ywen).


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