“The Road to Llan Eithrim”

Today’s travellers in and out of the City and County of Swansea use many thoroughfares. They may curse the Speed Cameras in the west and road works in the east, or the confusions at the massive M4 Roundabout in the north at Ynysforgan. The history of our road network is worthy of a grand study in its own right. That is for another day and a real historian. I’d like to take you on a jumbled journey on the road to Llan Eithrim which will involve no original research, so take all of this journey as a secondary sourced jaunt through several centuries. One road that I use frequently is the Llangyfelach road north out of the city centre. There is no doubt that this is part of the ancient highway network in and out of Swansea or Abertawe. This links to an old way at Pantlasau (near Morriston Hospital today). As we know the old word used for a church in Wales is a “Llan” normally associated with some real or legendary saint. The “Llan”, usually meaning the entire church building complex and graveyard, is   sometimes interpreted as the whole enclosure. Today on passing Llangyfelach Church for Morriston Hospital  we pass under the M4 by Gors Lan Farm and Gors Lan Common, wetland common associated with the Church (Lan). Next is Maes Eglwys Farm (or the Church Fields) on the river Llan, a part of Pantlasau or green hollow, signifying cultivated land. Could these have been Glebe lands? On a short diversion up Rhydypandy road there is the Dorglwyd which signified it was gated and above that Cefn Betinge Farm or a place beyond the fallow land. The road that crosses at Pantlasau coming up from Cwmrhydyceirw is called Heol Llanllienwen (the road of the Nuns of the White Order). A whole sequence of names associated with the “Llan” or Church at Llangyfelach. Incidentally this “cross road”, an ancient  forerunner of the M4,  led to the West and Ireland, via Penywaun Farm, Llangyfelach, the home in the mid Seventeenth Century of young Phillip Jones who became Governor of South Wales in Cromwell’s Protectorate. Colonel Phillip Jones was a signature to the warrant of “Regicide” to execute King Charles 1st. On the return of the Monarchy he survived a purge of those who signed the death warrant. Not many Welshmen can lay claim to be party to killing a King of England!

We need to return to our road. At Pantlasau we needed to swing around onto a continuation of this ancient road going east behind the hospital into Heol Gelliwastad skirting Mynydd Gelliwastad (of the flat groved mountain) and continue down into Clydach. Here it crossed the Lower Clydach river falls at Forge Fach, a very early industrial site of simple cottages with coal levels and a forge with facilities to mill iron and a woollen mill downstream. The road then continued edging the fields of Down Farm and its stream, now Down Street and Heol y Nant of old town Clydach or the Faerdref. The road then swings up hill as Heol Gellionnen onto Mynydd Gellionnen (ash tree groved mountain). We will return to the name Clydach and the significant location Gellionnen later. The road soon descends to cross the Upper Clydach river and ascends up, passing the locality of the ancient Llangiwg Church,  and over Mynydd Gwrhyd  towards Cae Gurwen manor and Mynydd Du and beyond. Our journey now ends.

This sinuous lengthy narrow road was once a significant ancient highway from Swansea passing several small settlements and their ancient churches on to Mynydd Du and beyond. This was centuries before industry developed the area, with its present maze of many roads and villages and townships  as we now know it.

We now need to retrace our steps in time and distance to Clydach and Mynydd Gellionnen to complete our journey to Llan Eithrim. There are many places in Wales called Clydach. Our Clydach on Tawe with the Lower and Upper Clydach rivers as major tributaries of the Tawe is one. Dyffryn Clydach near Neath is another. Also a river Clydach at Brechfa, Carmarthenshire, and Clydach Gorge near Abergavenney.

Remember the song lyrics – “If you ever go across the sea to Ireland, then maybe at the closing of the day, you will sit and watch the moonrise over Claddagh, and see the sun go down on Galway Bay”.  Claddagh is a famous suburb of Galway city and is named after the river that drains Loch Corrib in a short rocky torrent into the sea. The famous heart shaped Claddagh Ring is worn by Irish colleens and it depends which way the heart is pointing on whether the girl is promised to a sweetheart or not. There are indeed very many “Clydaghs” in Ireland, far more than in Wales. In the deep archive vaults at County Hall, Swansea, the oldest item in the entire West Glamorgan’s massive Archive Collection is an ancient calf skin vellum document dating back to the year 1129. It is an inventory of the Neath Abbey Estate that the monks prepared and it refers to a “Cloydach” nearly a thousand years ago in our locality.  There are many explanations to the meaning and derivation of the word Clydach, and many variations in both the Welsh and Irish languages. These are all different but they seem to have one common root – they all lead back to a rapid, rocky, noisy river tumbling quickly through a stony bed.

One tributary of the Lower Clydach river is Nant y Capel that joins it at the New Inn public house. This stream has its source up on Mynydd Gellionnen near Gellionnen’s Unitarian Chapel or the “White Chapel” or Capel Gellionnen, which is just North of the road we’ve been following. Location National Grid Map Reference SN 701 042. This was founded for Protestant Dissenters in 1692 in an era of religious unrest. In 1801 the now Unitarian Chapel was rebuilt and at that time an ancient stone was placed into the wall. This carved stone had variously been used as a gate post and as a horse mounting stone. It had been found on the open mountain common nearby as one of several fragments of an original larger carving. Those involved must surely have recognised its antiquity if not its importance. The Royal Institution of South Wales (Swansea Museum) was not set up until 1835 so perhaps it was fortunate that the Unitarians saved this stone in the wall of their chapel high up on Mynydd Gellionnen. Indeed in 1853 Lady Mackworth of the Gnoll Estate in Neath had workmen to pillage ancient stones from all around the area to create a “Grotto” (a glorified rockery) in the estate’s garden! These are now saved elsewhere as valuable museum pieces known as the “Gnoll Stones”.

Our road journey has paused on top of Mynydd Gellionnen in terms of distance travel. We now need to do some “time travelling” to unravel the mystery of the stones found there.  The Llangyfelach Tithe Map of 1839 has a small parcel of land, at today’s Ordnance Survey Map grid Reference SN 697 037, entered on the Tithe Map and its Register as a small field parcel number “5645 – Penlle’r Fynwent” (the headland with a graveyard) this is located immediately downstream of Ffynnon Wen (white spring)  the source of Nant y Capel stream a little South of Capel Gellionnen. This “graveyard” and Chapel are certainly not connected. Up until about seventy years ago this small enclosure had the outline of a small building now long gone. This is recognised by most historical researchers as the site of “Eglwys Llan Eithrim” a very early Celtic Roman Catholic Church. Llaneithrim is recorded in the annals of the Book of Llandaff known in Latin as “Liber Landevensis” the ancient register  of the

Cathedral Church of Llandaff compiled around the year 1125. In this ancient manuscript it is written that Bishop Herewald, who was installed in 1056, consecrated Llan Eithrim Church at about 1060 and installed a Priest called Guidir to officiate mass there.

There can be little doubt that  the Carved Stones of antiquity found nearby on Mynydd Gellionnen must surely be associated with this ancient church and no other. A church sited there, in what is now a secluded remote site, must have been close to a nearby existing highway, and that highway must have been the road we’ve been following. The main stone section is a carving of a Priest in Vestments of the Irish style from the Ninth Century pre dating the entry in the  Book of Llandaff. This stone was gifted in 1967 by the Trustees of Capel Gellionnen to the safe keeping at Swansea Musuem where it stands proudly on display in a protective case long known as “the Gellionnen Stone”. It is local Pennant Sandstone and just one of several fragments. Originally it would have had a Wheel Cross at its head. The Wheel stone Cross is believed to be now in the porch of the deconsecrated Llangiwg Church at Rhydyfro, Pontardawe. Perhaps one day wisdom will prevail and for posterity and safe keeping these two larger fragments should be reunited as one large stone and put proudly on display in a safe public museum haven. There is an abundance of references to LlanEithrim in historical journals, yet nobody can shed any light on the meaning or origin of the word / name “Eithrim”. All the experts shrug their shoulders and say it is “obscure”. The word Eithrim lives on in several local farm names and even street names in Clydach. In my lifetime I have spoken to my elders who clearly remember another unusual feature in the vicinity of LlanEithrim – a “Sulphur Well” that was well known locally as “Ffynnon Rotten Eggs”. This water reputedly had healing powers. Could this have been why a nearby house is called “The Spa”? Unfortunately this well dried up about sixty years ago and was lost due to underground subsidence of its waters into the workings of the Darren Colliery underneath at Trebanos. Could it have been a “Holy well” associated with LlanEithrim? At the time of writing, summer 2007, the St Benedict’s Roman Catholic Church  at Clydach, is celebrating its Centenary. From the evidence of Llan Eithrim it seems that the Christian faith has been celebrating Mass high above Clydach for at least one thousand two hundred years at Llan Eithrim.   On a personal note, I’d like to think that those ancient folk who celebrated their Mass at Llan Eithrim were all monoglot Welsh speakers. Today we have a thriving Welsh medium Primary School on this road to Llan Eithrim – Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Gellionnen at Heol Gellionnen, Clydach. For its official opening day ten years ago in 1997 the late Arch Druid and Crowned Bard Dafydd Rowlands wrote of Gellionnen :-

“Mae hyfrydlais plant yn fyw fel blagur gwanwyn newydd, ac ar y tafodau ifainc bydd seiniau’r Gymraeg yn llafar hyderus”.

Ioan Ap Trefor, Craigcefnparc, Abertawe.                 V111  –  2007.

City and County Councillor Ioan M. Richard 23, Mountain Road, Craigcefnparc, Swansea SA6 5RH Tel  01792 843861        e mail   aptrefor@yahoo.co.uk