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Making History
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Listen to the latest editionTuesday 3.00-3.30 p.m
Vanessa Collingridge and the team answer listener’s historical queries and celebrate the way in which we all ‘make’ history.
Programme 13
25  December 2007

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Today from Pembrokeshire in Wales

Listener Shirley Matthews is intrigued by the history of a tiny bay near Fishguard called Abermawr. She thinks that there is a prehistoric forest under the sands and that Brunel contemplated building a port here and that there was a transatlantic telegraph station.

Vanessa Collingridge met up with Emma Plunkett Dillon a Senior Archaeologist with the National Trust which owns much of the land at Abermawr.

The National Trust owns the “lesser gentry” house on the Tregywnt estate close to Abermawr which was owned by the Harris or Harries family. Local legend has it that in 1797, when there was a small-scale French invasion at Fishguard, the alarm was raised at the estate as most of the local infantry were dining at the house that night – the local military were called from the house to defend the coast.

Emma confirmed the presence of a pre-historic forest and that Brunel was active in the landscape. Indeed, she says that a lot of Brunel’s activities in Abermawr are unknown, and the best kept secret of this part of Wales. There are no local records about who he stayed with or how he was received. The assumption is that he was welcomed as he brought jobs – and besides, at the time he was just another entrepreneur – not a historical figure.
Brunel at Abermawr

To Find out more about Brunel in Abermawr, Vanessa travelled a few miles inland to Treffgarne near Haverfordwest to meet up with Stephen K Jones, the author of Brunel in South Wales; Volume II, Communications and Coal. Tempus Publishing, 2006. ISBN: 9780752439181

Stephen K Jones at Treffgarne and the evidence for Brunel’s failed railway.

Stephen K Jones at Treffgarne and the evidence for Brunel’s failed railway.

Throughout this period and particularly during 1846 and 1847, The Cambrian and the Cardiff & Merthyr Guardian reported on the famine that was gripping Ireland and the Scottish Highlands in a vice of misery. Famine caused by potato blight was not unknown to Ireland, which had suffered on a number of occasions since potatoes had become the staple food of the country in around 1700. But the famine of 1846-47 has stood out as the high-water mark of suffering in Ireland. It also was to impact on the aspirations of the SWR, both in completing the line to Fishguard and the proposed branch lines in Ireland itself. Despite such a backdrop, Brunel managed to give an upbeat report on progress in February 1847. The effects of the Irish famine on the SWR caused much anxiety to the SWR directors, who saw trade being eroded before they had even commenced. They was also much fall out from the financial crises caused by Railway Mania, bringing down several financial houses and railway companies with many schemes being shelved in this period, including some of the SWR branches. The SWR agreement with the GWR allowed the latter to run the SWR and the SWR being guaranteed a dividend, subject to the SWR opening their line through to Abermawr, near Fishguard.

When the SWR was forced to suspend the works on to Fishguard, the GWR ceased to pay the dividends to the SWR. This naturally became a heated debate between the two companies. Eventually, the SWR moved to proceed in the construction of a harbour terminal that would allow for trade with Ireland and across the Atlantic. Following an extensive survey Brunel came forward with Neyland Point, located on an arm of the Cleddau, which fed into the Milford Haven waterway, where suitable facilities could be built. The railway would run from Haverfordwest and the SWR obtained an Act of Parliament to carry out these plans and abandon their works to Abermawr on 17 June 1852. The portion of trackbed completed up to that day in the spring of 1851 has remained virtually untouched; it had been suggested that later lines could use the workings – the Manchester & Milford Railway and the GWR’s branch to reach Fishguard in 1905. All of them, however, avoided the abandoned trackbed in Treffgarne and in the 1970s Roger Worsley, together with fellow enthusiasts from the local historical society, decided to take a closer look at the workings and carry out a survey:

… it was found we had something unique on our hands – a length of broad gauge trackbed just as Brunel’s navvies and engineers had left it in 1851; and as it was incomplete, we could see how his thinking went, how he divided up his gangs of men when sinking a cutting (first, a 6’ wide trench on the line, then a second, half way down to datum, of full 30’ width, then the third down to trackbed level and ballasted, the men following each other, making for easier removal of earth by hand barrowing); we could see a crossing, with its keeper’s hut and garden. We could see the reinforcement of drystone walling to take the sideways pressure of high speed trains on Brunel’s broad gauge.

With the new terminus now settled on, opening of the line continued in sections, to Carmarthen on 28 December 1853 and then to Haverfordwest and Neyland on 15 April 1856, where the railway was welcomed by illuminated images of Brunel and associates. On the new section of single line to Neyland, which was laid with ordinary bridge rails as Barlow rail had been found unsatisfactory on the Carmarthen section, could be found one of Brunel’s opening bridges. Not everyone was happy with the decision to terminate the line at Neyland and Colonel Greville appealed to the SWR to bring the line instead to the town of Milford Haven and promoted a line from Milford to join up with the SWR at Johnston for which he obtained an Act of Parliament in 1856.

Brunel considered that Neyland had the advantage of being sheltered and suitable for an Irish packet service, it was also opposite the Government dockyard, which was not served by a railway. In July 1857 Brunel visited Neyland and Milford Haven, speculation in the Telegraph newspaper that his visit may be in connection with settling a location to establish a home port for his PSS Great Eastern then under construction at Millwall, the protracted launch of which would occupy much of his time from 31 January 1858. In October 1858 Brunel and his wife Mary visited Neyland and were to enjoy the hospitality offered by the Lord Nelson Hotel at nearby Milford Haven.

The Tenby, Saundersfoot, & South Wales Railway, authorised on 27 July 1846, had already fallen by the wayside and with the lapse of the SWR’s powers to build their branch to Pembroke Dock, local interests now took over. A survey was made for a line between Pembroke Dock and Tenby which was promoted in 1858 as the South Wales, Pembroke & Tenby Junction Railway. In July 1859 supporters of the proposal were authorised to construct a line of railway between Tenby and Pembroke Dock, a distance of some eleven and three quarter miles. By the time of the line being opened, the company was calling itself the more familiar Pembroke & Tenby Railway (P&TR).

The Prehistoric Forest at Abermawr

Richard Daniel met up with Nigel Mayling from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Wales

The submerged forest off the coast of Pembrokeshire dates back to around 6,000BC, to the beginning of the Neolithic period when the British Isles were still connected to mainland Europe. It was part of Pembrokeshire’s coastal fringe that was flooded at the end of the last ice age. The forest extends out to sea between 1 mile and just a few metres. At low tides the remains of it are revealed. Flints and tools have been found there, so researchers know it was inhabited at this time.

People, it appears, lived near the coast, on rivers and lake sides where food was abundant, perhaps venturing inland seasonally for other food supplies. Pembrokeshire is rich in finds dating from the Mesolithic period. Flint tools and waste flakes are found all around the present coast line, especially in the south of the county. It is likely that Pembrokeshire had a particularly favourable climate at this time and therefore a good supply of food would have been available throughout the year. This would explain why there are so many Mesolithic sites have been discovered in Pembrokeshire and so few elsewhere in Wales.

While some of the hunter gathers continued to live in caves, like Nanna's Cave on Caldey, others settled on coastal sites, within reach of the sea for fishing and for raw material in the shape of flint pebbles. We know very little of this hunter gatherer communities, as their nomadic lives left little trace. We know they hunted smaller animals such as roe and fallow deer and wild pig, as remains of these bones have been found. The great herds of large animals which had been hunted by Palaeolithic man could not live in such a heavily wooded environment (forests which sprang up as temperatures began to rise around 8,000BC). They were forced to move to their natural habitat the cooler open plains that still existed further north. Archaeologists have also found acorns and hazelnuts, and piles of empty limpet shells, giving an indication of what these prehistoric communities would have eaten – and how they must have spent most of their time in search of these foods.

Other animal remains have been found along the coast. These include an auroch (Whitesands), a pig (Lydstep), a roe deer tooth (Freshwater West ), a red deer antler (Whitesands ) and a brown bear jaw (Whitesands Bay).

At Lydstep Haven, a pair of broken flint microliths were found by the neck vertebrae of a pig. This pig may have been injured, but not caught by its Mesolithic hunters and subsequently died in the forest. A tree trunk fell on its remains, preserving it, and the microliths in situ. This find has been dated to about 6 000 BC.

Geraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) noted the uncovered submerged forest, during tour of Wales in AD 1188.
'We then passed over Newgale sands at which place a very remarkable circumstance occurred. The sandy shores of south Wales laid bare by the extraordinary violence of a storm, the surface of the earth, which had been covered for many ages, reappeared, and discovered the trunk of trees cut off, standing in the very sea itself, the strokes of the hatchet appearing as if made only yesterday. The soil was very black and the wood like ebony . This looked like a grove cut down, perhaps at the time of the deluge, or not long after.'

We cannot be sure whether the marks he saw were made by a stone axe. It is certainly possible, since stone axes were in use before the forests were submerged between about 6 000 and 5 000 BC.

He made these observations 800 years ago and similar observations are the basis for medieval traditions about the Cantref Gwaelodd - 'the lost lands of Wales’ – and for myths which hold that these forests were Noah’s forests, drowned in the Great Flood.

Now much work is being carried out by archaeologists and scientists to find out more about the submerged forest. At the University of Wales, Nigel Nayling heads up the Dendrochronology Laboratory, looking at ring-width analysis focused on tree-ring dating, and the underwater archaeology division. Another department is using the latest technology to extract and analyse pollen from prehistoric sites to determine what kind of vegetation existed – the department is currently analysing data from the submerged forest near Abermawr.

For more on the work of the archaeology department at Lampeter, see

Cable Cottage

Cable Cottage at Abermawris now a holiday let. For more information about its history and photographs go

Producer Nick Patrick & Presenter Vanessa Collingridge on location at Treffgarne

Jpeg 2 Producer Nick Patrick & Presenter Vanessa Collingridge on location at Treffgarne

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Making History is produced by Nick Patrick and is a Pier Production
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Vanessa Collingridge
Vanessa CollingridgeVanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald. 

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