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Natural History

Llangiwg: the haunt of red kites, ravens, mystery and breath-taking scenery and the Gwenllian Daffodil.

The Gwenllian Daffodils at Llangiwg

Princess Gwenllian was the daughter of Llewelyn, the last Prince of Wales and his only child. He was killed at Cilmary, Powys in 1282. At the time, she was seven months old. Edward I was determined that the royal bloodline of Wales should end and he ordered Gwenllian to be taken to Sempringham Abbey in the wilds of Lincolnshire to be brought up as a nun. She died at the age of 54, never knowing that she was a royal princess. Welsh people never forgot her and recently a plaque was erected on one of the peaks of Snowden and there is also a memorial stone at Sempringham.

Friends may remember that I wrote about her great grandfather, Llewelyn Fawr being at Llangiwg in 1217. Now we have the opportunity to remember his great granddaughter by a strain of daffodils, aptly named "Gwenllian Daffodils". Six of these bulbs were planted around the well in 2014 and have now increased considerably. They are exceptionally pretty with a beautiful scent. Cynthia Mullan

As with many ancient churchyards, Llangiwg is a sanctuary for both flora and fauna. It is a very large area in proportion to the size of the church and is surrounded by a dry stone boundary wall which harbours lizards, grass snakes and mosses. The grass used to be scythed three times a year, with local farmers being given the hay. Sometimes a sheep or two would be put in to 'mow' the grass.

Luckily, by not following the 1970's practice of moving gravestones to facilitate the use of lawn mowers, the species rich grassland on the north side is slowly being cleared of bramble and bracken by strimming, and 'positive management'. This has revealed long hidden swathes of snowdrops and bluebells. As the year progresses foxgloves, ox-eye daisies, cranesbill, poppies and campions appear in the longer grasses, whilst birds foot trefoil, clover, buttercups and speedwells (veronicas) can be seen in the shorter grass areas. By nurturing these plants we hope to encourage more butterflies and moths to visit this special place.

Probably the churchyard's most ancient inhabitant is the yew tree behind the east window. This could be many hundreds of years old. There are also juniper, Scots pine, beech and ash trees on the north boundary. Occasionally, a box plant (Buxus Sempervirens) can be discovered by a grave. These are believed to signify that a small child or baby had been buried there and the little bush would remain small as a sad reminder to future generations of the child's premature death.

The gravestones too are important to a naturalist, for there are many different species of lichen on them, probably due to Llangiwg's unpolluted atmosphere at 700 feet. One stone can reveal three or four different types of lichen in varying hues of grey, green and yellow, each growing in its own little microclimate. The small ancient well, although in a sad state of repair (2010) is home to many frogs and they have even been seen hopping over recumbent gravestones!

Overhead, we see buzzards, tails fanned out, hovering over small rodents, and the occasional red kite with its enormous wing span, sometimes reaching 165 cms. Way up overhead, ravens can often be seen too, performing their aerobatics in the thermal currents. Swallows have a permanent summer home in the porch over the door. Their return in late April is welcomed by us all, for they have as much right to be there as we have. Remember to bring your binoculars and magnifying glasses. There’s a lot to see!

The former church is situated on The Barley which is 688ft./206.4m above sea level. The town of Pontardawe lies 1.5km to the south east. The name reflects the agricultural nature of the area before the advent of industry in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

The three main crops were oats, barley and wheat, oats being the most important although the primary concern was rearing animals, particularly sheep. In 1782 it is recorded that almost 140 acres of barley were sown in the parish. There were two kinds in fairly common use, the long - eared spring barley (barlys ) considered good for malt making and the square-eared variety (haidd) suitable for bread making. A local farm (Gilfach-yr-haidd) took its name from this last crop and we can assume that The Barley did the same.

The church is a Grade 2 listed building and is the oldest church in the borough, sited in an area of outstanding natural beauty and is now in community ownership after a successful appeal to purchase the building.

As industry grew, the focus moved to the valley floor and slowly the village of Pontardawe began to expand. Pontardawe, as the name suggests, was a few houses near the bridge, first built in 1583 as a wooden construction over the River Tawe and was later built as a stone bridge by William Edwards (1719-1789).

The 19th and 20th centuries saw great changes in the valleys of Wales. The traditional industry of farming gave way to industrial production. It had been known for centuries that Wales and in particular the valleys of South Wales were rich in natural resources. Even from the time of the Celtic invasion of Britain, smelting had been important and it was the Celts who brought the Iron Age to our shores.

By the final quarter of the 20th century Pontardawe was no longer the industrial centre it once was. Major industries were long gone; either a distant memory or something which people read about.

The redevelopment and restoration of the church will improve the quality of life for young people and families in an extremely depressed area experiencing economic disadvantage, high unemployment and multiple deprivations, with little direct or indirect youth or community provision. There is little community growth in the area, and the interpretation proposal highlighting the church and its surrounds has capability of attracting walkers and visitors from outside the area, who may well aid the local economy.

Llangiwg's ancient churchyard grounds.
Llangiwg's ancient churchyard grounds.
Llangiwg's ancient Holy Well.
Llangiwg's ancient Holy Well.
Common Buzzards are seen at Llangiwg's Barley Hill.
Common Buzzards are seen at Llangiwg's Barley Hill.
Spacer Image.
Spacer Image.
Ploughing at Garth adjacent to the Barley (c.1920).
Ploughing at Garth adjacent to the Barley (c.1920).
Church Flowers next to Porch (South Wall).
Church Flowers next to Porch (South Wall).
View of Upper Swansea Valley & Brecon Beacons from Llangiwg.
View of Upper Swansea Valley & Brecon Beacons from Llangiwg.

Astronomy and Llangiwg.

Llangiwg is situated in haunting and splendid isolation atop the Gwrhyd in Pontardawe. 'Friends of Llangiwg' is a dedicated part of the community putting their energies into turning this haven into a spiritual centre with a focus on my passion - astronomy. With this in mind, my son Alexander and I went to Llangiwg, with our camera equipment to take this image of star trails over Llangiwg in the early hours of Saturday morning on 29/8/9. Alexander gives the technical details below - he's already light years ahead of his old man in using the new digital!

Apart from the dizzying realization of the earth's rotation there is also the mind-boggling thought that the light from the stars that is reaching us now to make this image first left the stars when Llangiwg was being built all those centuries ago. Ian Glendenning is a local Astro Physicist with a wealth of experience in astronomy and is a stalwart Friend.

For further information, click here For the technically minded the image was obtained using a Sony A900 with 24-70mm F2.8 Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar zoom lens. Exposure was 1 hour, F7.1 at ISO 100

It must be noted that this image's quality has been affected heavily by JPEG compression. The original RAW file is over 30 times larger. As it was our first attempt at a star trail photo, there was a considerable amount of guesswork involved in how to expose it correctly. Because we were unsure how long the battery could last, long-exposure noise reduction was turned off (otherwise it would have taken twice as long). This meant that I had to manually take a dark-frame exposure when I got home to help correct the significant noise and hot pixels that had emerged. The result was far from perfect - many hot pixels still remain and the ones that don't have been replaced by cavernous dark pixels instead! Although they're invisible when viewing the picture normally, they certainly feel cavernous after waiting in the freezing cold for over an hour. Next time, we'll either keep long-exposure noise reduction on or try a multiple-exposure stacking method.

Llangiwg Church in the early morning - showing star trails in the clean air above Llangiwg.
Llangiwg Church in the early morning - showing star trails in the clean air above Llangiwg.