This edited article about Powys originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 708 published on 9 August 1975.
If primitive man had an eye at all for the beauty of his surroundings, he could scarcely have chosen a more comely spot than Llangorse Lake as a site for a prehistoric home.
Here, between the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacon in the Welsh county of Powys he has left traces of what was once a Neolithic community. It was the home of this county’s earliest inhabitants, the lake dwellers, who poured sand and clay into the lake near the shore and on these artificial islands built houses on stilts.
They fashioned these stilts from trees, hacking them out with their stone axes and then driving them into the ground with large, flat stone hammers. Across the stilts they laid more lengths of wood, and bound these together with a mixture of clay and branches to make a rough floor. The walls were also made from this mixture of clay and twigs, and a roof of straw or reeds served to keep out the worst of the weather.
From their homes these early Welshmen (although Wales did not, of course, exist as a country at that time) fished and hunted, grew barley and wheat on the banks of the lake, and sped over the water in canoes made from hollowed-out tree trunks.
Today in Brecon Museum there may be seen one such canoe, snatched from this long-gone past as a twentieth century reminder of the lake dwellers of Llangorse.
After the lake-men were swallowed up in this dim period of prehistory, the county was occupied by Stone Age and then Bronze Age people who also left such traces of themselves as burial places and implements, many of which may be seen in the museum, and many of which were discovered in 1920 during excavations carried out by Sir Mortimer Wheeler.
The Romans, too, savoured the delights of beautiful Powys and today the county sees invaders of a more pleasurable kind. In summer, thousands of holidaymakers flock into the county where sheep and cattle graze in the fertile valleys beside whispering streams and tumbling waterfalls.
The sheep are grown for their fine quality wool, and the story of the rise of the woollen industry is an important part of the story of Wales.
The latest chapter was written in April last year when the three counties of Montgomery, Radnor and Brecknock were combined into the new county of Powys. In the Middle Ages, this was part of Powysland, one of the four kingdoms of Wales, stretching from Chester to Machynlleth, which is at the head of the Dovey estuary.
It was one of the few kingdoms which the Normans failed to overrun, and when in 1293 the rest of Wales came under the crown of England, Powysland and the “marches” or border estates remained under the rule of separate chieftains.
The Normans, however, did manage to open up four roads into Powysland from England for trading purposes, protecting them from raids by “marcher” lords with castles. Gradually, the kingdom became a great centre of wool production and English merchants rode in from Salop to bargain with the shrewd Welsh farmers for wool.
By 1536, when Henry VIII created five counties out of Powysland, English had already replaced the Celtic tongue in the valley towns. Welsh, however, is resuming its place as the national language of Wales and is being spoken more extensively.
Whether the tongue spoken is Welsh or English, there can be few places where the human voice is used so musically as in Wales, as witness the Welsh actors who have found wide fame. Among these was Sarah Siddons, who was born in the Shoulder of Mutton Inn in Brecon High Street on 5th July, 1775. She found success on the London stage where her rich and powerful voice captivated her audiences.
She was mainly a tragic actress, and her last and formal farewell to the stage was as Lady Macbeth in 1812.
Sarah carried with her some of the magic of the remote county of her birth, where tales of fairies, dragons and wolves have lingered into modern times. The last dragon was traditionally supposed to have been killed on the tower of Llandeilo Graban church, and in Tudor times the last wolf was reported killed at Cregina.
Tales such as these flourished in a county of small towns and villages which have never been well-populated, and from which many of the young people have left to find work in England. Attempts are being made to overcome this by the introduction of industries so that some of the towns can be enlarged. But these can never encroach upon the mountains and the lonely valleys with their beauty which has not altered for centuries and promises to retain its wonders for centuries to come.
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