The Destruction of Braich-y-Dinas

Anyone who has driven the A55 will have likely come face to face with Penmaenmawr. Coming from the west you drive around the outside of it, the road balancing precariously between the sea and the shored up, granite cliff face. Come from the east and you’ll mostly drive underneath it but before you get there you’ll see it rising up in front of you, blocking the road ahead. When you get close you’ll see it scarred by scree slopes and criss-crossed with wire fences. It looks uninviting, unwelcoming, but it does not look all that threatening. It is hard to believe, driving past it today, that this was once regarded as one of the most dangerous headlands in Britain. In order to get around it people used to brave the mudflats of the Lavan sands at low tide. That mountain genuinely terrified people. The Romans had the better idea of diverting their road behind it. Over the course of the twentieth century the mountain was decimated, stripped of its terror, first by way of intensive quarrying and the reduction of its size from 1550 feet to just over 1000, and then by the building of the A55 dual carriageway around and under it. The quarrying in particular is both a travesty and a tragedy for not only has it has stripped Britain of one of its coastal wonders, it has completely destroyed what was, potentially, one of the most important archaeological sites in the region, the hill fort of Braich-y-Dinas.

Braich-y-Dinas was, until the quarrying destroyed it in the early nineteen tens, one of the largest hill forts in North Wales. It was by no means the largest hill fort in Britain, it was nothing when compared to Maiden Castle in Dorset, but according to plans made in the late 1800s (1877, precisely,) it was around 1000 feet across north to south and 800 feet east to west. The ramparts were stone, comprising of an outer wall and a series of inner walls. The outer wall was roughly 1000 metres (3300 feet) in length. At the time of its destruction these walls still stood to around 9 feet high, though one report from 1845 makes the suggestion that they were 12 feet high. To me this latter height sounds like an overestimation and a height of around 7 to 10 feet is more likely. In terms of thickness the ramparts varied from between 8 and 15 feet thick.

The 1877 plan (Archaeologia Cambriensis, July 1877, through Wikimedia)

Already we can see that this was a substantial monument and it would not only have been one of the largest hill forts in North Wales, but one of the largest archaeological monuments in North Wales, period. To give a comparison of size, today the largest surviving monuments are the medieval castles of Edward I. Take, for example, Conwy castle. From the east to the west barbican, its length, is 340 feet. Braich Y Dinas was almost three times as lengthy. Conwy castle could have sat comfortably inside Braich-y-Dinas and there would still have been room to fit Caernarfon in as well. Even then there’d still be a bit of space left over. Admittedly, if we include the area within the old town of Conwy, including the walls, Braich-y-Dinas comes up short but even despite this the fort is still quite substantial. Conwy, for example, does not have walls that are eight feet thick. At best they are only five and a half feet thick. At 29 feet high they are considerably taller than the walls of Braich-y-Dinas, but let us not forget that the 9 foot height of Braich-y-Dinas was after two thousand years of weathering and erosion. At the time of occupation the height of the ramparts would likely have been much, much higher than at the time of their destruction. How high, however, we cannot say.

In its heyday Braich-y-Dinas would have been as much of a statement as those castles of Edward I, more so given its prominent position in the landscape. Even today, despite being a shadow of its former self, Penmaenmawr is a notable presence in the landscape and the presence of an above nine foot high masonry wall at the very peak would have been an astonishing sight. It would have indubitably demonstrated that the people who occupied this hill fort, that the people who built it, were in charge. Braich-y-Dinas would have dwarfed all other forts in the area. It sat in a chain of them which stretched along the high ground of this coast, from the fort of Caer Seion on Mynydd y Dref above Conwy to Maes-y-Gaer above Abergwyngregyn, and occupied what was then, and still is, the highest point on the North Wales coast. In fact, in the whole of the Irish Sea zone, you would struggle to find any coastal point that was higher than the old altitude of Penmaenmawr. To get anywhere close you have to go as far north as Scotland and the Isle of Mull. The hill fort, therefore, would have perhaps indicated the presence of a powerful people who not only dominated the local landscape, but the whole of the Irish Sea zone as well.

Within Braich-y-Dinas were a sizeable number of stone buildings, mostly ovoid and between 10 and 20 feet diameter. It was estimated there were around ninety of these, though the 1877 plan shows in excess of one hundred and forty. There is a high chance that not all of these would have been dwellings. Some would probably have been used for storage or as animal houses and others may have had a more public function, though the reports made about the site seem to suggest there was no evidence for the latter. All the buildings that were investigated during rescue excavations in 1910 were revealed to have paved stone floors and hearths. One was even found to have a raised stone bench, similar to those seen at Skara Brae. According to the 1845 report one of the buildings was still roofed, though I find this fanciful. The indications are there was a fairly large community here.

Finds included coins from the reigns of Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian as well as bronze bracelets featuring a ‘celtic’ design of concentric circles. There were also spindle whorls, whetstones, saddle querns and fragments of Roman pottery, in particular Samian ware. In total the finds indicated that the fort was occupied from some point in the Iron Age to at least the 2nd Century AD. I couldn’t find any definitive location for these finds in the modern day, but I would presume they are in Penmaenmawr museum.

There were also three Bronze Age Cairns at the very summit of the mountain, within the hill fort enclosure. This is not untypical of mountain peaks in this area.

Sketch from around 1880 (courtesy of cy.wikipedia.org)

Given its location, the fort would have been of vital strategic importance. I have already mentioned how it was positioned at one of the highest points in the Irish Sea zone and the height would have given the occupiers in both the Iron Age and Roman period a major advantage when it came to controlling and observing both maritime and land based activity. On a clear day the view from the top of the fort would be uninterrupted all the way over to Ireland, to Man (at least) and right across the whole of Liverpool Bay. Even on a day that was cloudy the view would still be considerable. Approaching ships could have been observed well in advance of their arrival and in the case of enemy or pirate shipping apprehended and dealt with before they could do any damage. It would also have been a useful site for  controlling trade. It is not likely, however, that there was any connection with the copper mines at Gogarth. These had been abandoned by the start of the Iron Age and were not reworked until the Roman period, towards the supposed end of Braich-y-Dinas’s occupation.

The hill fort sat in the far north of the Carneddau archaeological zone, an area that stretches from the Conwy River in the east to the junction of the A5 and A55 in the west. As is clear by the name, it mostly encompasses the Carneddau mountain range. This whole area, approximately 200 square miles in size, is saturated with archaeology of all periods from the Neolithic to the post-medieval. Braich-y-Dinas, being one of the largest monuments in the area, was crucial to our understanding of how this landscape functioned and changed over time. It was crucial to our understanding of what happened here in the Iron Age and early-mid Roman period. Sadly, thanks to its destruction, we can no longer study, in detail and using modern techniques and practices, this site. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, this is a travesty and a tragedy for this, as I have shown, was one of the most significant sites in the area.

How, therefore was its destruction allowed to happen? How did it come to pass that such an important and significant site came to be completely destroyed?

The first schedule of ancient monuments in Britain was undertaken by Augustus Pitt Rivers, who became the first inspector of ancient monuments in 1882. Pitt Rivers made great strides in cataloguing and preserving important archaeological sites but his work was far from a complete picture. He was limited by the law, which at that time gave precedence to the needs of landowners instead of the public benefit and the preservation of the past. His work only included a few select sites in Wales, for example. One of these was not, as you can well guess, Braich-y-Dinas. It was not until 1908, when the need for protection and preservation was becoming paramount, that three separate Royal Commissions were set up to protect ancient monuments in England, Wales and Scotland. In Wales this body is still known as the Royal Commission but in England and Scotland the commissions are now part of Historic Scotland and English Heritage, respectively.

Asquith (courtesy of Imperial War Museum)

When these commissions were set up in 1908 Braich-y-Dinas was not beyond saving, though it was perilously close to destruction. Already some parts of it had been destroyed. Small scale quarrying had been going on at Penmaenmawr for some time, there was an axe factory here in the Neolithic, but under the ownership of a Colonel Darbishire in the 1880s the mountain began to be quarried on an industrial scale. The newly formed commission began efforts to save the site in 1909. Parliament was petitioned and the issue was even raised with the Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith. According to the North Wales Weekly News (dated 25th June 1909) he responded, when asked about the issue at Prime Ministers Question Time, by saying: ‘as the undertaking gives employment to six hundred men I do not think that Commissioners would be warranted in interfering on this point, even if they had the power to do so.’ In other words, Asquith placed the interests of the quarry owners, of business, above the need for preserving an ancient site. The quarrying was allowed to continue. Rescue excavations and research, such as that undertaken by Harold Hughes, were made and by 1912 the site had been, more or less, completely destroyed. The destruction was so important that it made international news, featuring in no less than the New York Times (27th November 1910.)

Had Asquith (and parliament) not put the interests of business first, had the true significance of the site been recognised at the time, Braich-y-Dinas would still be with us today. At the time various excuses were made that the quarrying would not destroy the camp, including erroneous claims that the quarrying lease did not include that portion of the mountain and that it would not be profitable to quarry out that portion of the mountain. It should have been blatantly apparent that the quarrying would continue and that the site would be destroyed. The fact that it took only a few years for the site to be decimated shows how critical the situation was. Any cursory glance at the site, at this time, would have made abundantly clear that it was in danger.

We can certainly blame the likes of Asquith, as much as we can blame the quarry men and quarry owners, for the destruction as (knowingly or not) the excuses were accepted and the desecration allowed to continue unchecked. Instead of recognising the significance of this site, instead of listening to the Royal Commission and putting a stop to the quarrying for the sake of the long term national, historical interest, he let Braich-y-Dinas be destroyed.

Was it really for the sake of those six hundred men? I doubt it. At least, I doubt that it was entirely for those six hundred men. If it was supposedly not profitable to quarry out that portion of the mountain, as was claimed, would they not have lost their jobs anyway? If the quarry had been closed, for the sake of saving the hill fort, could not a provision for their employment be found elsewhere? Yes, they deserved security of employment but at what cost? Quarrying in North Wales, at this time, was ubiquitous after all. There was the Penrhyn Quarry at Bethesda, the Dinorwig in Llanberis, mines elsewhere. Even if they could not find work locally, there would have been opportunities further afield. Skilled labour such as that would not have remained unemployed for long, especially at a time when industrial quarrying and mining was still enormously profitable on the whole. Yes, there may have had to have been a small scale migration, but such was the risk of working in industry in those days. You had to go where the work was. The only person who lost out in the long term would have been Colonel Darbishire, the quarry owner. It is clear to me that it was mostly in his interest, for the sake of his profit and quarry that Braich-y-Dinas was destroyed. I do not know what kind of a man he was, but it is apparent that he was at least the sort who thought profit and money were more important than an ancient monument of national significance.

Any gains for Darbishire and his workers, profit and secure employment etc. would have been phenomenally short term and would have benefited only the select few. The advantages of saving Braich-y-Dinas would have far outweighed those of saving the quarry. Modern analysis could have revealed so much about life in Iron Age and Roman North Wales. There is every chance that it could have fundamentally altered our understanding of the period. Future generations could have learnt from and explored this site. We would be better able to understand its relationship to the landscape and to sites that were then unknown. Preserving it would have been of an enormous benefit to future generations. Its regional importance would have been recognised and it would have formed, perhaps, a key component of our national heritage. Saving it would have been an advantage for all time.  Meanwhile, Darbishire and his workers are all dead. Today their continued employment means nothing. Any profit made from cutting out the heart of Penmaenmawr has presumably been long frittered away and scattered to the winds. For that we have lost one of the finest ancient monuments in Wales and it can never be replaced.

Today much of the Carneddau archaeological zone is covered by the Snowdonia National Park and most of the important ancient sites are well protected, even those that lie outside of the park boundary. The chances of losing another monument like we did Braich-y-Dinas are slim. Yet, around the mountain of Penmaenmawr the park boundary makes an unusual kink. Mostly it follows the edge of the mountain range but here it diverts a long way inland before, on the far side of Llanfairfechan, returning to the edge of the mountains. The area that this kink excludes includes is dense with archaeology, amongst which are the remains of the Neolithic axe factory. There is one reason and one reason alone for this kink- The Penmaenmawr quarry. Still it is active, though today it employs less than ten people, and still the once mighty headland is being whittled away stone by stone and pebble by pebble. So that this may continue, the national park boundary makes its kink and in so doing endangers the nearby archaeology. In theory the quarry could swamp these sites like it once did Braich-y-Dinas, destroy them utterly, forever. They are not so important as Braich-y-Dinas was, but their presence is still a vital component in understanding this landscape as it once was.

The environment act of 1995 sets out that the aim of a national park is to ‘conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage’ of a given area. By allowing the kink around the Penmaenmawr quarry Snowdonia National Park is not fulfilling that aim. It is, again, a case of business being served at the expense of wider, more national and cultural, interests. For the sake of this one quarry, which has already been the destruction of one staggeringly important monument, the remaining beauty of Penmaenmawr and the surviving archaeology is being placed at potential risk. There is nothing left of Braich-y-Dinas but it is my opinion that we should now be doing what should have been done over one hundred years ago, and preserving this small corner of North Wales for future generations.

 

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One thought on “The Destruction of Braich-y-Dinas

  1. The quote on Braich-y-Dinas which the Weekly News attributes to Asquith is attributed to Charles Hobhouse in the Pioneer, and I think he is the more likely source; although with conflicting evidence either way it’s difficult to know for certain.

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