Understanding environmental impact is crucial to sustainability and community quality of life.

South Sebastopol Archaeology and Historic Landscape Re-evaluation

3. Topography and society

3.1 The first essential in understanding the upland valley landscapes of Wales and, indeed, Britain as a whole, is to realise that the perspective of traditional (pre-industrial) farmers of the past was in terms of units of land and their rights of access to, and use of, them. This determined their capacity to put food in their stomachs and to make a bit more to pay their dues to lords and those in power. This is fundamentally different from the notion of bounded property and ownership which we have today and which began to appear in this part of the world in the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In our reconstruction of past landscapes through retroactive analysis in Britain we are often able to look back beyond the modern capitalist era into this traditional past and South Sebastopol is no exception.

… rights of access to [land] … determined their capacity to put food in their stomachs and to make a bit more to pay their dues to lords and those in power.

3.2 Depending on status, the peasant farmer of the Middle Ages and earlier had core arable lands which he and his family held exclusively. These may be scattered in strips through an open or common field or may be in relatively discreet blocks of land usually sub-divided into smaller hedged or walled units. Beyond this arable land the farmer had shared access to permanent pastures, characteristically the mountain areas (mynydd) where the larger animals would be put for the summer months, both to keep them away from the growing crops on the lower land and to eat the rough grass and herbage growing on the high ground. The farmer would also be able to take peat for fuel from the uplands, and similar rights existed for using woodland whether from managed coppices or semi-natural scrub lands and woods on the steeper slopes. The right, however, to use the timber from the main trunks of fully-grown trees was usually restricted to the lord, although he would frequently grant them away to tenants and others in return for services. There were other important rights of access to meadow land for winter fodder, to rivers and streams for water, fish and reeds, to rough ground for hunting smaller animals and birds (warren). ln this world daily life happened in patterns of movement from the valley floor, up the slopes and on to the mountain areas. The structure of the available resource, therefore, lay at right angles to the direction of the valley and the territories of communities frequently ran from river to mountain top so that a bit of every type of land and resource was available for use. The ancient parish of Llanfrechfa, of which the threatened landscape was once a part, was structured like this.

The right … to use the timber from the main trunks of fully-grown trees was usually restricted to the lord …

3.3 Later, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the land was consolidated either as freeholds or, more frequently as leasehold farms on large estates, and the old pattern of rights began to disappear. Nevertheless the form this consolidation took sometimes meant that the older organisation was still visible, especially in the core arable lands. This would seem to be the case in the South Sebastopol landscape.

3.4 In addition to this broad social and economic framework, agricultural life, whether traditional or capitalist, sat within the physical constraints of the land and climate. In the South Sebastopol landscape the soils of the lower slopes and valley floor lie on a relatively impervious base of glacial clays over Devonian sandstones. Higher up, the rock, Coal Measure Limestone, is closer to the surface and exposures have been extensively quarried. This upper land rises steeply from about the 200 metre contour, but below this point the slope becomes a more gentle bench of intensively farmed arable land, deeply incised, however, by gullies carved into the clays by streams rising from springs along the base of the upper mountain. These gullies are a dominant element of the topography and cut the space into discreet units of land. These streams, however, are not an efficient natural drainage and there is much evidence, in the surviving areas surveyed, that small bogs and wetlands were frequent on the impervious clays of the bench, especially lower down towards the eastern edge, which consists of a slight cliff above the flood plain. Elsewhere there are abundant traces of the continual management of water to keep the land relatively dry.