Episodes 30 and 31 – Abdon, Shropshire and Aberaeron, Ceredigion

Abdon, Shropshire

Abdon in Shropshire is the shortest name of all the places we have visited so far. The village is in the west of England, far away from any major towns. The nearest would be Bridgnorth in the north east, or Ludlow to the south west.

The name ‘Abdon’ hints at Saxon origins; in 1066 it was called ‘Abetune’ or ‘Abba’s farmstead’, following a very common Saxon naming convention. We have also seen this in other places ending with ‘ton’.

The Domesday survey shows just nine households at the site, and its lord was Azo the Bigot. Azo was an under lord of Reginald the Sheriff, who in turn was underneath Roger of Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury.

And this is really the story of Abdon. Perhaps due to its remote location, there was a long history of tenants and sub-lords managing things in the real world, making money to send back to the owner far away.

In around 1121, Azo gave a small amount of village land to Shrewsbury Abbey, and a few decades later his descendant Robert passed on further land. Shrewsbury was a Benedictine monastery, founded by Roger of Montgomery a few years after the Norman Conquest. But by the mid 1200s the ownership had been rescinded.

At this time Abdon was ‘subinfeudated’. What this means is the lord split it into several smaller parcels, each one controlled by a different sub-lord. Two of those were Geoffrey of Ledwich and John Le Strange.

Geoffrey in turn would also parcel out land to other landholders including Richard of Sutton. The main part of the estate would pass to Robert Burnell, Bishop of Bath and Wells, in 1291 when Geoffrey’s son Roger died.

Archaeological investigations have revealed that there was a medieval longhouse in the village. A lot of pottery was found there, including some cooking pots of a type never before seen in Shropshire. The clay from the pots was analysed and revealed to be local, so there may well have been a pottery kiln at Abdon.

The longhouse was abandoned around 1300, at the same time as other villages in the area – Cold Weston and Heath – were also going through tough times. Records suggest that a disease had gone through the cattle in the area, decimating their numbers. At all three locations, the people moved out to find work elsewhere. Those who remained were in desperate poverty.

Bishop Robert Burnell died just after receiving Abdon, and the village became a part of his family estate’s inheritance. The English church being Catholic at the time, Burnell was not married and did not have children. Officially, anyway. He might have had a mistress who bore him four sons and several daughters, but the man denied it.

In the mid-sixteenth century, Abdon became the property of William Heath, who sold it on to Henry Cressett of Upton. It was at this time that the village began to thrive again, as quarrying took place at Clee Hill. This was thanks to the presence of dhustone or dolerite, a difficult rock to mine.

By 1598, the different property holdings around Abdon were starting to come together in the Briggs family. The line of the family goes down to 1767, and the death of Hugh Briggs.

Hugh’s estates were shared between Richard Cavendish and Wadham Brooke. The technical term for this is that they were ‘coparceners’ – the estate was not split in two (where Richard gets some bits and Wadham gets others); instead they had equal care for the whole. Each share is called a ‘moiety’.

When Richard died two years later, his moiety want back to Wadham. When Wadham died the year after that all the shares went on to John Brooke, his son.

John died in 1786, and the Richard Cavendish moiety in Abdon went to George Brooke Briggs Townshend. The Wadham Brooke moiety was split up between Rev. Richard Huntley and Gen. John Fitzwilliam. I don’t pity the lawyer who had to sort out all the paperwork around this!

John Fitzwilliam didn’t have any children, so when he died in 1789 his moiety went to a distant relative: Richard, Seventh Viscount Fitzwilliam. It was around this time that the second major occupation of Abdon was beginning to fall apart, as industrial activity around the quarry slowed down.

In 1800 the three owners of Abdon sorted out all the property sharing issues, and Richard Fitzwilliam became the full – and only – owner of Abdon manor.

Richard was born in Surrey in 1745. He was well-educated and musically talented. His skill at the harpsichord sent him to Paris in 1764 to study composition and keyboard. His interest in the arts would see him purchase important manuscripts and drawings across Europe, and many can now be found in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

After his father died, he inherited the family’s Irish noble titles. But he had other things on his mind than nobility. He had met a French ballet dancer, and they had fallen in love. It would have been scandalous for a man of his station to marry a woman of her’s, but perhaps even more scandalous that they only lived together!

The pair never married, but had three children. On his death in 1816, though he could make some provision for them, they were unable to inherit the family lands and title. The majority of the FitzWilliam property, including Abdon, went to George Augustus Herbert, Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery.

In 1873, George’s descendant sold Abdon Manor to William Bradley, who was the tenant of Lower House Farm. This means that he actually lived and worked in the area! His descendants would continue to hold the land and still live in Abdon today.

Mining of dolerite continued at Abdon Quarry until 1936. When crushed up, the rock would be used as a construction aggregate (basically lots of small rocky granules) for road beds, railroad beds and in concrete. By the time the mining finished, there were concrete and tarmac plants nearby, with a small railway that would move the stone out where it was needed.

Quarrying still continues at Clee Hill, though other local quarries have ceased operation.

During World War Two, the hills around Abdon proved dangerous to both enemy and allied aircraft. In total 23 planes crashed into Brown Clee, which is 546 metres in height, and there is a memorial to their losses. It’s believed there were more wartime crashes here than on any other hill in Britain. Today, planes are protected thanks to a radar station on top of the hill.

Aberaeron, Ceredigion

We’re now going to take a break from England, to visit a part of the United Kingdom that we haven’t been to before – Wales. We’re going to be visiting a lot of Welsh towns in the next few months, as the Celtic word ‘Aber’ meaning ‘river mouth’ is commonly found at the start of place names here. For that reason I won’t go into too much detail about the history of the country unless it relates to our particular tour stop.

Aberaeron (a-burr-ay-ron) itself is on the west coast of Wales, a short way south of Aberystwyth. ‘Aeron’ is the name of the river that emerges here into Cardigan Bay. It comes from the Celtic deity Aeron, god of slaughter and battle. His name derives from an older British goddess, Agrona.

The settlement of Aberaeron was a small fishing village until the 1750s with nothing to tell for history, but there are a couple of local landmarks that go back much earlier.

Castell Cadwgan and Llanerchaeron House

Not much is known about Castell Cadwgan (the ‘w’ has an ‘oo’ sound). It dates to the early twefth century, and if the name is right it is connected to Prince Cadwgan ap Bleddyn. Cadwgan lead a rebellion against the Normans, who were trying to conquer Wales as they often did at the time.

The fort was a type called a ‘ringwork’ – basically a small circular hill with a bank around it. It may have been one of the earliest Welsh-built castles. Sadly, all this is in the past, because the fort no longer exists. Having overlooked the Irish Sea for centuries, it was finally eroded by the waves in the late 1800s. Now no trace remains.

In 1634 Llanerchaeron (pronounced ‘hlan-er-hay-ron’; the ‘h’ sounds are like the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’) was a farmhouse with a large acreage of land. It had just been purchased by Llewellyn Parry for £140. The Parrys could trace their lineage all the way back to a Welsh prince of the ninth century.

Llewellyn’s heiress Anne Parry married Hugh Lewis of Plas Cilie Aeron the next-door country house, in 1689. Anne and Hugh’s lands were merged into a single estate, which would be the inheritance of all their descendants.

In 1784, Colonel William Lewis married Corbetta Williama Powell. She was a high status woman, and brought a lot of money and standing to the family. Once William had inherited Llanerchaeron, they used the money to replace the farmhouse with a mansion.

This was Llanerchaeron House, and the architect was John Nash. No, not the mathematician played by Russell Crowe in ‘A Beautiful Mind’. Later in his career, Nash would transform London with his regency style; his work included part of Buckingham Palace.

William died in 1828, and his son John inherited the house. He married his wife Mary in 1841, then died childless in 1855. Mary, however, lived on. And on. And on. She managed the estate right up to her death, aged 104, in 1917.

Mary wasn’t the owner of the estate, which was John’s sister Eliza and then her descendants. Though she lived there and managed the place, she was not able to make any changes to the mansion. This meant that when electricity came along, it went right past Llanerchaeron.

After Mary’s death the estate was taken over by the owner, Captain Thomas Powell Lewes. Thomas’s first task was to put in electricity. He hooked up a water wheel to a pair of batteries that would power the house; this was more for practical purposes than any idea of eco-friendliness – Llanerchaeron is rather remote.

Over time, economic troubles caused some of the Llanerchaeron estate to be sold, but the house remained in the Lewes family. Thomas’s son John inherited it in 1940, and after he died in 1989 it was given to the National Trust. The National Trust maintains a large collection of British property, which it opens to visitors both for funding and to encourage people to find out about the country’s history. So if you want to visit somewhere from this blog, Llanerchaeron might be a great place to start!


In the 1750s, Aberaeron began being used as a port to export grain, fish and lead ore out to the major ports on the Irish Sea such as Liverpool and Bristol. But its history did not really take off until fifty years later.

Rev. Alban Thomas-Jones Gwynne and his wife Susannah moved to the area in 1805, and Alban became lord of the manor. He recognised the importance of the port’s location, and obtained an Act of Parliament to get the port rebuilt and improved in 1807:

… Alban Thomas Jones Gwynne, Clerk Lord of the said Manor of Llyswen, otherwise Aberayron, is willing and desirous at his own Expense, to rebuild, enlarge, improve and maintain the said Quay or Pier, and also to improve the said Harbour.

Work began in 1808, and over the next decade the piers and harbours were completed. The total cost was around £6,000.

Alban’s son and heir Colonel Alban Gwynne employed an architect to plan out the town layout, centred around Alban Square. Aberaeron would be one of the first planned towns in Wales, and it had the same regency style as Llanerchaeron.

Soon the port was thriving, filled with all kinds of trading boats.

‘The port is……in a thriving state. There are from thirty to forty sloops belonging to it, of from seventeen to one hundred tons’ burthen, which are navigated by about 120 seamen: they are chiefly employed in the importation of coal and culm, and two of them trade regularly with Bristol. The principal articles of importation, in addition, are grocery and timber; and of exportation, butter and oats: there is also a lucrative herring fishery, in which about thirty boats, with seven men to each, are engaged.’

But the goods had to get from the farms to the port. At this time, travellers would have to pay a fee to access major roads. This payment was made at a ‘turnpike’, or tollbooth, which would be operated by one of the turnpike trusts. The trusts would then use the payment for road maintenance.

But local poor farmers found this fee to be a great expense when they were taking their goods to port, and yet another worry for how they were going to feed their families and keep their jobs. This was before Robert Peel got the Corn Laws repealed, so food was expensive. In addition, the Poor Law meant they would no longer get an unemployment payment if they lost their job; they would go to the workhouse instead. On top of all that, the Welsh were majority non-conformist Christians, but they still had to pay tithes to their local Church of England parish church.

All of this worry spilled over into rioting, and it was the turnpikes that bore the brunt of the fury. The trusts were often operated by notable locals connected to the Church of England. Men dressed up as women and attacked the turnpikes, and some attacked the workhouses as well. They called themselves ‘Rebecca and her children’ after Genesis 24 verse 60:

And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.

One of the Rebecca attacks took place at Aberaeron.

The same day (August 3rd 1843) Rebecca visited Aberayron, with about a hundred of her followers, and destroyed two gates ; five only of the Rebeccaites were on horseback. They made the toll-keepers begin the work of destruction, and in a short time the gates, posts, and boards on the walls were smashed to atoms.

As the 1800s continued, the town became home to a thriving shipbuilding industry. One in particular was the Dolphin Shipyard, founded by John Harries and Evan Jones on the south side of the harbour. It was founded in 1844, and built nine ships between 1846 and 1849.

Being remote, Aberaeron was dependant on public transport to bring in workers. Motorised buses began passing through from the 1860s, and in 1911 the railway came. There isn’t a railway there any more – the last passenger service was in 1951, and the last freight service in 1965.

Ron Davies was born in Aberaeron in 1921. Aged ten, he got a job with a local chemist, and during that time he developed a love of photography. The chemist, Mr Thomas, gave him his first camera.

During World War Two, he worked for the RAF in a photographic unit. They flew over India and the Far East, taking reconnaissance photos. After the war, he returned to Aberaeron to set up a photography business.

But in 1950 his life changed dramatically when he was paralysed in a motorcycle accident. He spent two and a half years in hospital, where he found that the accident hadn’t diminished his love for taking pictures. He became the hospital’s medical photographer.

Once he left hospital, he took up his business again. Soon he began taking press photographs for local papers, and then the BBC and Fleet Street. He was also a cine cameraman for ITV in Wales.

Outside of his business, he taught photography at various art schools including Aberystwyth Arts Centre. He created the first mobile darkroom for disabled people, saying “Ability isn’t the issue, mobility is.”

He received many awards during his life, including from the National Eisteddfod of Wales, which celebrates Welsh Language and Culture. In 1986 the Gorsedd of Bards (which runs the Eisteddfod) gave him the green robes of the Order of Ovates. Later, in 2002, he received the white robes of the Order of Druids. In 2003 he was given an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for services to photography.

BBC Wales presenter Eleri Sion was born in Aberaeron in 1971. She was a singer and part-time presenter of children’s TV programmes before she went to Cardiff University to study Welsh.

She captained the university’s women’s rugby union side, and from there she joined the sports department at BBC Radio Cymru in 1995. (‘Cymru’ – pronounced ‘cum-ree’ – is the Welsh word for ‘Wales’) She was their first female rugby reporter.

Eleri continued to work in Welsh-language programming for the BBC, and later for S4C. S4C is a Welsh-lanaguage public television service, and is the fourth-oldest channel in the UK after BBC One, BBC Two and ITV. S4C usually commissions programs from other channels and also makes Welsh-language versions of English programs. It also has English subtitles, and also Welsh subtitles with tricky words in English for language learners.

Eleri Sion now presents the Monday to Thursday afternoon radio show on BBC Radio Wales.

Today Aberaeron is a thriving seaside town, and gets lots of tourists every year. It has even won awards for its two beaches. There are lots of different festivals that take place in the town during the summer including a food festival, beer festival and the Welsh Pony and Cob Festival.

Next time, we travel south-east to the Welsh village of Aberaman, close to Wales’s capital city Cardiff.





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