The Llangorse crannog

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The lake at Llangorse in Powys (Llyn Syfaddan in Welsh) is the largest natural body of water in the whole of south Wales.

Lorraine Parker (Photo Lorraine Parker)

It is an impressive stretch of water but while it may be long, the lake is certainly not deep – going down to a mere seven metres at its deepest point.

Giraldus Cambrensis wrote about the lake in his book about journeying through Wales in the late 12th century, reporting the local tradition that the birds in the area only ever sang for a truly Welsh prince or ruler.

Giraldus also said the lake was often called Clamosus, which is the Latin word for 'noisy'. Whether or not he was thinking of the clamour of the singing birds when he wrote the words is not known.

Giraldus did, however, note that when the sheets of ice that invariably covered the lake in winter finally cracked, there was a loud noise. He may well, therefore, have had this noise in mind when he gave the lake its Latin name.

Quite apart from anything else, Llangranog Lake is remarkable for the fortified house or dwelling place on the lake, the only known example of a crannog in Wales.

The house on the lake

As this 'house on the lake' was one of several royal houses belonging to the rulers of Brycheiniog – palaces would be too grand a term – it does provide strong evidence of the links between Ireland and this part of Wales in the period between the rule of Rhodri Mawr and the arrival of the Normans at the end of the 11th century. Ireland has many examples of early crannogs.

The crannog at Llangorse, in effect an artificial island, measures about 40 metres in width and is situated 30 or 40 metres off the northern shore of the lake. Now it is covered in trees, bushes and reeds - a far cry from how it would originally have looked - and dates from the end of the ninth century.

Timbers from the wooden palisade that used to surround the island have been dated to come from between 889 and 993 AD but as several of these pieces of wood had been used on earlier buildings it is hard to be too precise with dates.

The island was built using oak planks as piles, sharpened at the bottom and driven into the floor of the lake. Then huge boulders, sandstone in the main, were used to fill the open space inside the piles. Small stones were  scattered over the boulders in order to provide a level floor and a strong wall of timber stakes erected to form a defensive palisade. A causeway, again made of timber, led to the shore on the northern side.

Quite possibly the King of Brycheiniog sent his craftsmen across to Ireland to learn the skills required for such a construction. If the lack of other, similar buildings in Wales is anything to go by, it was certainly something outside their experience. The other possibility is that one of the Irish builders may even have journeyed to Wales to advise on the project.

It is not clear what buildings stood inside the palisade but there would certainly have been a central or main hall. This was not the dwelling place of some local chieftain but one of the many homes of the rulers of Brycheiniog. The presence of a hall where they could live and entertain guests, where the bards and musicians could play and sing, would have been essential.

There were other smaller buildings where food could be cooked and servants could sleep. Finds during excavations on the island have included combs, glass rings, pieces of cooking pots and whetstones for the sharpening of knives and axes. They certainly indicate that this was a substantial settlement that was well used by the kings of Brycheiniog and their courts.

The various kings of the time – and Brycheiniog would have been no different – probably lived something of a peripatetic lifestyle. They would move between one royal house and another, collecting tributes and dispensing justice amongst their subjects. Therefore a substantial house or fortress such as Llangorse crannog would have been essential.

It is unlikely that a crannog like the one at Llangorse would have been occupied all year round although the king would have retained servants in the immediate area, to oversee his affairs and prepare the crannog when he next decided to inhabit the place. It probably provided a fair degree of employment, of one sort or another, for the people of the immediate area.

The demise of the crannog at Llangorse is a little unclear. Relations between Alfred the Great's English territories and Brycheiniog deteriorated in the wake of Alfred's death and in 916 AD Aethelflaed, the daughter of Alfred, sent an army into the Welsh kingdom. A number of burnt timbers have been found in the crannog and it is possible that the island was attacked and its defenders put to the sword by the English army.

Certainly the crannog was never rebuilt by Twedwr ap Elisedd, the ruler of Brycheiniog at the time, and in due course Brycheiniog became part of the kingdom of Deheubarth. What is left is an amazing archaeological site, the only known crannog to have yet been discovered in Wales.

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