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South Sebastopol, Torfaen

An initial assessment of the historic environment and cultural landscape of the South Sebastopol site
by Professor David Austin, University of Wales, Lampeter

On January 31st, 2003, I visited the South Sebastopol development area in Torfaen, with Mike Jacob and Andy Lewis of Fight The Plan Group. The objective was familiarisation and an initial assessment of the historic environment and cultural landscape. What I saw was a rich diversity and a deep history, most of which stood in contrast to its immediate industrial and post-industrial context. The landscape here clearly has the capacity to sustain a rich narrative and a prolonged campaign of research. Within the limited timescales and the constraints of the well-advanced planning process, I have agreed to give my prima facie feeling of the potential of the landscape as an intact entity. In this I am concerned to define a central and coherent narrative which supports the integrity of this complete block of landscape. In what follows I am not attempting to detail with everything that is there or that I saw on the walk. I will say nothing of the canal, for example, or the railway, because, although important in their own right, they are peripheral to the core sustainable identity of this landscape which I would characterise as the traditional rural culture of the valleys as it developed in the five or six hundred years before mining and industry transformed the valley in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The South Sebastopol landscape I walked around is an island of pre-industrial farming in an overwhelming sea of industrial and post-industrial architecture. As an anciently farmed landscape it contains traces of its deep past, uniquely for the area expressing a narrative of identity and heritage which is the antecedent of the dominant stories of industrialised societies. In its totality it is a monument both of the deeper past of the valley and of that intimate relationship between mine and field, between terrace row and farm-house and between chimneys and woodland which forms the story of early mining communities, still balanced, as they were, between traditional agricultures and new mining technologies.

What I saw were the scattered farms of the old dispersed landscapes of upland Wales, set among enclosed fields whose hedges and walls have a rich complexity, sometimes proclaiming the disciplines of enclosure and improvement from the 17th and 18th centuries and sometimes hinting at older, medieval and earlier, organisations of the land, of open fields in the English way or tir coiddllan in the Welsh way. The story-line is a familiar one, but nonetheless vital in its local context and place.

In the middle ages the valley lay in the boundary zones of culture, English, Welsh and French, contested and dynamic in our modem telling, but actually more closely integrated and interactive than we might allow in our contemporary political agendas. To the south, east and north-east lay the Anglo-Norman landscapes of manor, village and borough, brought from Anglo-Saxon England and western Europe and with them also were the particular management protocols and habits of the Burgundian pioneers of forest and moor, the Cistercians at Llantarnam. To the north-west and west lay the Welsh landscapes of kinship and interdependence among small hamlets, scattered farmsteads and ancient rights apportioned through tir gwelyog, ffridd and mynydd. Among these complexities, the tenants of the monastic estates, the ancient kinship farmers and the serfs of the English manors led much the same hard-labouring life among the ploughed, ridged-up fields of the arable ground on the lower slopes and valley floors and the permanent and occasionally cultivated heather moorlands on the upper slopes and mountain tops. The rhythm of this traditional agriculture lay in the seasonal life amongst the cultivation of the valley floor and the pastures of the mountain areas. As such the pattern of life and labour amidst the landscape was dominated by movements between high and low land, an east-west transect at right angles to the valley itself which so clearly survives at South Sebastopol as a living corridor from the valley floor to the mountain top. Any development will break that fundamental and ancient relationship forever.

In the fifteenth century and through into the modern era these farmers won new status as the monasteries were broken up in the interest of the Tudor state and as opportunities for individual enterprise and property ownership grew in the era of money economies, capital and burgeoning markets. A new rural middle class arose alongside a resurgent gentry which was brokering another kind of Wales, loyal to the Anglo-Welsh state of the Tudors and yet marking its ancestries in genealogies linked to the ancient king lines of Gwent or Morgannwg. In this world new architectures emerged, partly rooted deep in the traditions of the peasant long-house, family and cattle under one ridge line and partly drawn by the expression of status through international styles of living in upper stories and entering through porches and lobbies.

This is the architecture of Tir Brychiaid. On the outside it is a longhouse, built against the slope of the hill with its house end dug into the hill and its beudy or cow-house down the slope on the other side of the cross passage dividing the two. This basic peasant farm plan goes back to the 11th and 12th centuries in Wales and other upland parts of Britain, but continued into the 16th and 17th centuries when the tradition was being re-voiced in mortared stone, double storeys, massive ingle-nook fireplaces and porches. By such means the past was retained and new status proclaimed all in one go. The house also has a small stone-walled garden at its east end and, a little beyond that, the traces of a ha-ha which suggests that its occupiers, even into the eighteenth century, were conscious of fashion and the taste for parkland rolling to lhe door. The abundance of holly in the hedgerows, an ancient plant of parkland grazing, is also highly suggestive of a modicum of upward mobility.

There is a clear story here engraved in landscape of both aspiration and ancient ways of life. Around the farm are numerous traces of ridge and farrow, high headlands, ancient hedge lines, old coppiced woodlands, complex patterns of surface water management and deeply incised trackways which may date back a thousand years, but still have been part of present-day use. Indeed, following the footpaths and visiting the woodlands, repeats for people today the patterns of the past and restates the fact of being a community with long ancestry and sustainable futures.

In just a couple of hours, walking a landscape I had never seen before, I encountered not spectacular monuments which were 'of national importance' under our arcane and outdated legislation, but a whole landscape of extreme local significance, sufficiently large to have many threads of narrative woven through it, but small enough to be intimate and understood at the human level. And this is the point. It is an holistic and seamless entity, an unrepeatable resource, created and still sustained by the actions of ordinary people, a place for the stories to be told, whether within the frameworks of formal education in nearby schools or as a local and oral amenity of the communities which are its neighbours. It is these requirements of our immediate neighbourhoods which, at long last, are finding their way into the management of heritage environments to benefit communities and sustain their local distinctiveness and identity.

Research I am sure will elaborate and enrich these narratives. I hope in the next few weeks, with the community and the action group, to begin the process of expanding the landscape and social narratives I saw. What is needed is time to go way beyond the sterilities of archaeological or historical records which are rarely the result of modem research and largely the product of chance. The Sites and Monuments Record on which the desk-top assessments of the archaeology have been made, for example, are random pin-pricks of information and not the product of new field work or sustained enquiry.

We need to look at maps, investigate local records, scrutinise banks of air photographs and from there contemplate detailed survey of buildings, fields and woodlands. What we need is time. The more we have, the more we will demonstrate the depth of the historic and ecological meaning of the South Sebastopol development area.

I have proposed that the group should locate early maps, and antiquarian and local accounts. I will look at these and carry out two days of field work within which I would also like to include a 'brain-storming' workshop to draw in information and ideas about the historical meaning of the whole of this landscape from the people who have the knowledge. We will need also to identify, from the landscape characterisation process of Landmap (used critically!), how unique this area and its narratives really are.

Professor David Austin
January 31st, 2003