Goldcliff and the 1607 flood
Eddie Butler and Richard Suggett investigate evidence for the great 1607 flood in the Bristol Channel beginning with an inscription in Goldcliff Church and ending at Little Porton Cottage on the Monmouthshire Levels.
The Royal Commission has been collecting information on inscriptions in Wales for a long time. They are messages from the past deliberately put there for us to read in the future. They are commonly seen on buildings and they can be used them to construct maps and graphs of building activity. Inscriptions are interesting because of the language used (English, Welsh or Latin) and the event commemorated. Sometimes events were so cataclysmic that they demanded commemoration – like the Fire of London memorial (1666). The inscription at Goldcliff is one of several memorials to the great flood of 20th January 1607 which devastated much of the Severn estuary.
The inscription is on a small brass plate in Goldcliff church and is in rhyme, presumably to make it more memorable:
“On the 20 day of January even as it came to pas/ It pleased God the flood did flow to the edge of this same brass/ and in this parish there was lost 5000 and od pound/ Besides xxii people was in this parish drowned.”
How high was the water? At several adjacent churches (e.g. Peterstone Wentlooge ) the actual flood level is marked with a lead plug (socketed for a stick) and a level. The heights have been accurately measured showing the flood here reached a height of 7.14 m. (23.4. feet) above OD. Using these heights we can model in a rough and ready way the extent of the flood that covered the Gwent levels reaching all the way to the present M4 on the edge of the alluvial plain.
Documentary sources provide evidence that the destruction reached around the Welsh coast as far as Carmarthen Bay. However there are differing views among climate historians as to whether the flood was caused by a storm surge or a tsunami, the subject of a brilliant Timewatch programme (BBC, 2005). That doesn’t concern us here – we are interested in the historic landscape.
Some communities may never have fully recovered from the flood, but the Gwent levels did largely because it had (and still has) a water management system of sea-walls, dykes or reens and sluices or gouts. This wasn’t of course the first time this area had flooded. Goldcliff Priory was abandoned in the mid-C15th after flooding, and the parish church was built then. Abandoned seawalls show that there has been a continual process of reclaiming and abandoning land from a remote period. The area is archaeologically very rich.
Stone built churches withstood the flood but the pamphlet literature suggests that many houses didn’t. It is certainly very hard to find early houses on the Gwent levels. However, Little Porton, near Whitson church, is built in the local vernacular tradition, and is really quite an illuminating house. We are on an alluvial plain without much tree-cover or building stone here. Basic building materials wood, stone and, later, brick, have to be imported. At Little Porton we see a third alternative building material - clay. Underneath the alluvial deposits there is gre, sticky marine clay which can be used for building. Little Porton is a post-flood building but it gives a good idea of what a C17th buildings was like - long and low with a thatched roof. The front and side walls have probably been rebuilt but the rear wall is still clay, and shows that the local marine clay was a local vernacular building material. Of course when clay walls get wet they collapse, and this is probably what happened in 1606/7 flood.
Alongside the cottage there is another intriguing building. This is a plank-built cowhouse, which is also thatched. It is quite unlike any other surviving farm building in the area. Timber is scarce here and yet this is lavishly plank-built. The walls are built from planks set side by side and spiked together. The builder had the good fortune to acquire a load of planks. I’d like to believe that this was part of the harvest of the sea.
Wig-wen-fach, Llanerchaeron, Ceredigion NPRN 35396
Eddie Butler and Eurwyn Wiliam investigate one of the last surviving cottages in Ceredigion that preserves most of its traditional features.
Travellers in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Wales often alluded to the wretched state of cottages and small farmhouses that were frequently mud-walled, thatched, with make-shift chimneys, and internally dark and squalid. And yet this picture can be overdrawn: surviving cottages (and of course they are only the select survivors) are often robust with well-crafted features.
Wig-wen-fach, on the Llanerchaeron estate in Cardiganshire, is a precious survival of this vernacular building tradition. Latterly it provided cottage accommodation for farm workers on the estate, and was empty when bequeathed to the National Trust in 1989. The National Trust has made an enlightened decision not to modernise or develop the cottage but to preserve it as it is. There is an illuminating contrast for visitors to the estate between the splendid C18th mansion built by John Nash and the contemporary single-storey estate cottage.
Wig-wen-fach preserves craft features that have largely disappeared elsewhere. The walls have generous quantities of clay and internally, the original plaster, the flagged floors, wickerwork partitions, fireplace hood, scarfed cruck-trusses, and underthatch survive. Wig-wen-fach preserves an early C19th craft interior. In Eurwyn Wiliam’s felicitous phrase, cottages like these were ‘home-made homes’: they were often built by the people who lived in them using their traditionally-learnt craft skills and as such the provide early examples of sustainable building that have lessons for us in the C21st. Access to Wig-wen-fach is by appointment only through the National Trust.
The Llantisilio Chain Bridge
The Chain Bridge has spanned the River Dee for nearly 200 years. RCAHMW investigator Stephen Hughes and UNESCO bursary researcher Rachael Leung investigate whether the chains in the current bridge could really be those drawn by a French industrial spy in 1819 and later lost to the flood waters of the Dee.
The Chain Bridge was first built in 1817 in order to link two major transport routes in North Wales, the Llangollen canal and the London to Holyhead Road. Local entrepreneur, Exuperius Pickering, wished to take advantage of the Llangollen Canal to transport his goods of coal, lime and iron bar to Telfords’ highway, thereby giving him quick and cheap access to the markets in the north. To achieve this he spent considerable time from 1814 onwards petitioning the Llangollen Canal Company to improve the feeder section of canal and allow him exclusive access to the wharves and bridges. Ultimately, the construction of the bridge allowed him to monopolise the coal trade in the area.
Pickering’s bridge was constructed of wooden decking supported by wrought iron chains from below and with a covering surface of earth and stone. Six oak pillars supported the bridge from within the river bed, substantial enough to withstand heavy floodwaters. Detailed survey drawings of this bridge were carried out by the French Industrial spy, J. Dutens, in 1819 accompanied by a report that included ‘one cannot assign a limit to the genius… there exist in London examples of chain bridges, but the conception of the bridge of the Dee is preferable’. By 1870 however the condition of the bridge was considered to be beyond repair and the structure removed. It was replaced in 1876 by Henry Robertson, a renowned bridge and railway engineer, as well as an owner of the Brymbo Ironworks. His design is known to have closely followed that of the first structure, the supporting pillars being of iron rather than oak.
On 16th February 1928, severe flooding washed away the majority of the bridge, although the supporting chains held fast. Sir Henry Robertson, the previous Henry’s son, decided to rebuild the crossing along the lines of the Menai Suspension Bridge, reportedly re-using the chains from the original structure. Six of these chains were suspended to support the deck from above, while a further two again lay underneath the deck. The new design was a great improvement, being of greater strength and unaffected by floods. The total cost was £303.11.00, and the official opening was marked by a day of celebrations, including the standing of 45 employees on the bridge in order to demonstrate its strength.
This bridge was finally closed in the mid 1980s and, being in a dangerous state of repair, is inaccessible. The research carried out by Commission however, has been able to show that the design and scale of the chains used in the third structure are so similar as to lend considerable weight to the hypothesis that the chains from the original structure were stored and reused 111 years later.