Heritage of Wales

St Michael's Church, Llanfihangel Abercowin; Pilgrims' Church. Pilgrim's graves at Llanfihangel Abercowin Church. 2004. (Image: DI2006_0821 / NPRN: 102138) Soar-y-mynydd Chapel, Welsh Calvinistic Methodist, Llanddewi Brefi. 2004. (Image: DI2006_0814 / NPRN: 7229) Caernarfon Castle. Slide of RCAHMW colour oblique aerial photograph of Caernarfon Castle, 1/5/1994. (Image: GTJ00136 / NPRN: 95318)

Episiode 4

Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station

One of the roles of the Royal Commission is to survey major industrial sites that are closing down, making sure we have permanent records of ways of life that are changing forever. Commission secretary Peter Wakelin and photographer Iain Wright look at the huge industrial structure located in the heart of Snowdonia National Park.

  • The modern Medium Level Waste Storage Building constructed as part of the decommissioning process. (Image: DS2010_540_033 / NPRN: 30192)
  • Part of the 'Rest Area' landscaping designed by Dame Sylvia Crowe. (Image: DS2010_540_001 / NPRN: 30193)
  • Operative controlling the robot demolition machine. (Image: DS2010_540_030 / NPRN: 30192)

Work on the power station began in 1959 with electricity production commencing in 1965 under the Central Electricity Generating Board. Trawsfynydd worked for 26 years, and was designed to produce 500MW, enough to power a city the size of Manchester. It was shut down for repair in 1991 and decommissioning started in 1995, carried out by Magnox North under the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

Some 600 people now work on the site but 99.99 per cent of the radioactive material has now been removed. The plan is to reduce the reactor buildings in height and clear structures ready for care and maintenance over the next ninety years, and then complete the site clearance at the end of the century.

The architectural concept was by Sir Basil Spence, designer of Coventry Cathedral and the British Embassy in Rome. The associated landscaping was designed by Dame Sylvia Crowe to fit the highly sensitive location. They worked together to display the buildings in the landscape, replicating the mass of a medieval castle, rising dramatically, uncluttered by surrounding structures. The contouring of the landscape was designed to hide ancillary buildings and the massive electrical substation. Planting of trees extended all around, using native species that would make the landscape part of the local environment.

The twin Magnox reactor buildings, each 180 feet high, are the dominant features, standing starkly in the mountain setting. Their concrete panels contain local aggregates, and have surfaces broken up by patterns of ribs to avoid the stark whiteness of standard concrete, allowing them to better blend into the landscape. The huge turbine hall where energy was created from the high-pressure steam produced by the reactors was demolished in 2003, and the lakeside pumphouse for cooling water was demolished in 2005.

Trawsfynydd was the only inland nuclear power station built in the UK – all the others were constructed on the coast to give them plentiful water for cooling. The site was chosen because of its lake, built in 1920 for a hydro-electric power scheme in Maentwrog. This was enlarged to provide 35 million gallons of water an hour for cooling and a series of barriers was created to ensure that water travelled to the whole length of the lake to cool before returning to the power station inlet.

The Royal Commission is working to record the site and ensure that material is properly archived, collaborating in a team with Magnox North, Merioneth Archives, the National Museum of Wales, Trawsnewid, members of the local community, and other organisations, with the support of Cadw and CyMAL. The Commission’s main role is to photograph the existing buildings and equipment and to capture for posterity the decommissioning process, which is itself a major part of the history of the site. It is also recording the site in its landscape setting and making a photographic record of associated features such the housing built for the power station staff.


Skomer Island

Skomer Island (a Scandinavian word which describes the cloven shape of the island) ranks among the finest archaeological landscapes in Britain. Royal Commission investigators Toby Driver and Louise Barker look at how comparative isolation from the mainland, and the limited impact of recent agriculture, has preserved the remains of prehistoric settlement.

  • Skomer Island - Prehistoric boulder walls north of Marble Rocks, west Skomer. (Image: DS2010_550_003 / NPRN: 24369)
  • Skomer Island - Prehistoric stone-walled house, known as hut number 20. (Image: DS2010_550_005 / NPRN: 24369)
  • Skomer Island, Harold stone standing stone, view from west. (Image: DS2010_548_003 / NPRN: 305372)

The remoteness of Skomer Island means that considerable tracts have not been ploughed or built on since prehistoric times. It is now famed for its wildlife and ecosystems, but on the unploughed parts of the island small huts, animal pounds, farmsteads and elaborate systems of fields survive from the Bronze and Iron Ages to show us the ways in which our prehistoric ancestors lived and worked the land. A detailed survey by John Evans, published in 1990, together with earlier survey work by W F Grimes, represent our main source of information.

The soils on Skomer are known to be fertile and were farmed in recent centuries. When prehistoric founding communities first made the crossing to Skomer it is thought the island would have presented a favourable habitat, with a light covering of oak woodland, an equable climate, and a number of freshwater springs and streams. Prehistoric settlements chiefly survive on the peripheries of the island, while in the central area, fields dating from the eighteenth century and farmed until 1948, have largely obliterated any traces of earlier structures, in a pattern repeated endless times across mainland Pembrokeshire. Traces of life are abundant within these small hamlets. Mounds of burnt stone close to houses are probably evidence for cooking sites, whilst funnel entrances to some farms, and isolated circular or D-shaped enclosures, are tangible evidence of stock management. Indeed, prehistoric fields, originally used for grazing sheep, cattle and even pigs, radiate outwards from the hamlets and their outcrops. A mixed economy of livestock and cereals would have been supplemented with coastal and marine resources: sea-birds and their eggs, seals and seaweed, plus a range of shellfish and sea-fish. In all, the Skomer families would have enjoyed a varied and nutritious diet. Groups of stone cairns along more remote coastal headlands may be burial monuments, or evidence for organised field clearance where they occur closer to farms.

One prominent reminder of prehistoric ritual and burial on the island is The Harold Stone, a 1.7 metre high standing stone. It tapers from a broad base to a point, with its edges aligned nearly north-south; its wide face is orientated to face the sea to the east and the island to the west. Although the Harold Stone is currently undated, excavations at other similar stones in Pembrokeshire have always yielded a prehistoric, Bronze Age, date. It is therefore safe to assume that this stone is also a Bronze Age monument, marking a burial (in a cremation urn) or an area of now buried ritual and funerary activity. Sian Rees (Cadw) has noted that the Harold Stone stands as a prominent marker on the skyline as one approaches by sea and may have been used as a transit marker to clear submerged dangers. This is also a useful hypothesis. The stone does not have an obvious relationship to the adjacent prehistoric field boundaries that pass close to it on the west side, however, it does stand towards the eastern end of a distinct block of fields, not far to the south of a prominent outcrop that no doubt provided a convenient slab. Therefore the stone may have stood at the edge of a contemporary plot of fields. Other cairns and mounds are known from Skomer, at least some of which may be burial cairns contemporary with this standing stone.


Sully Island Wreck: A tale of a Pilot and his Pilot Cutter?

Deanna Groom, Maritime Officer, and Eddie Butler reveal that size really matters if you want to confirm whether a wreck is one of the best performing and most seaworthy vessels of its era.

  • The stern post of the Sully Island Wreck looking towards the bow. The flat timbers forming the bottom are very different from sleek shape of a pilot cutter. (Image: DS2010_400_020 / NPRN: 309865)
  • A port into which our mystery vessel may have worked - Barry Docks photographed from the air on 15 September 1929. (Image: af103_aerofilms_29396 / NPRN: 309685)

On the foreshore of Sully Island, lies a wooden wreck which continues to intrigue local people. The aerial photographic collections of the RCAHMW reveal that it has been there since the early 1950s at least.

Research being undertaken by the Royal Commission into shipwrecks around the coast of Wales suggests several possible identities – including a wooden ketch called the Friendship which was carrying a cargo of coal when it stranded at Sully island on 30 January 1902; a smack called the Robert which was carrying a cargo of stone when it became stranded on 27 November 1882; and a barge called the Eliza that was built at Chepstow and used in the sand and gravel trade.

Intriguingly, the documentary losses in the vicinity also include references to a type of vessel which remains iconic nearly 90 years after the last was sold out of service – the Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter.

A pilot is a mariner who guides ships through dangerous or congested waters, such as harbours or river mouths, and were most often drawn from local coastal communities where there was accumulated knowledge of coastal waters from centuries of fishing and sailing. The pilot would join the crew for the period that the ship would need that additional knowledge and experience.

In the 17th century, the port of Bristol was given overall control of pilotage services in the Severn estuary and Bristol Channel. This remained the case for the majority of the south Wales ports until 1861, when Cardiff, Newport and Gloucester Town Councils succeeded in getting parliament to pass a Bristol Channel Pilotage Bill giving each council the power to appoint its own Pilotage Board and pilots. Each pilot was then responsible for acquiring and maintaining his own boat. Over time, a unique hull shape and sailing rig evolved to meet the need for craft which work could keep working in bad weather, and win the race to be the first to reach the inbound vessels attracting the highest pilotage fees.

Piloting was a very risky job involving boarding a larger ship from the punt (a small rowing boat stowed on the deck of the cutter). The usual method was to request the master of the ship to position his vessel across the seas, making a shelter or lee for the cutter from the wind. The cutter would sail under the ship’s lee, out the punt with the pilot and boy/apprentice on board, who would row across to the ladder on the ship’s side. The cutter would sail on into the wind again and turn to come back under the lee of the ship to pick up the punt and the boy/apprentice. Such manoeuvres required a great deal of skill and judgment. The NMRW contains shipwreck records for 66 sailing pilot cutters, of which 37 were lost following a collision, 6 foundered, 16 were wrecked or stranded, and 6 where no cause of loss is known. These statistics confirm the riskiness of the venture – that is, being a small sailing vessel deliberately putting itself in close proximity to much larger ships.

In January 1882, the Cardiff Pilotage Board gave its fleet of around 65 cutters permission to use the small anchorage behind Sully Island in ‘an easterly wind during an ebb tide’. References to pilot cutters becoming stranded here include the LOTTIE on the 15 October 1886; the pilot boat belonging to Charles Rowles in July 1893; and the BARATANACH which sank at its moorings to the north of Sully Island on 27 March 1916. The BARATANACH was owned by three Cardiff pilots during its service life – Thomas Rosser, Edward Parry and William S Williams – but at time of loss it had passed into the ownership of the Binding family for use in coastal trade.

Could the Sully Island Wreck be one of these cutters?

The tape measure reveals all...