A Welsh Conservation Village
The conservation village of Cenarth snuggles beside the tree-lined River Teifi, as it tumbles and twists 70 miles from its source in the Cambrian Mountains to its estuary at Cardigan Bay.
Enhancing this beauty spot is a multitude of low waterfalls spread across the river. In the spring and autumn these noisy cascades become a challenge for salmon migrating upstream to lay their eggs. A fish ladder, built at the end of the 19th century, helps them on their way. Sheep, at one time, were driven into the waters to prepare their fleeces for shearing.
Spanning the river is an arched bridge, designed by David Edwards, and built around 1787. The bridge is punctuated with cylindrical holes to let floodwaters go through, rather than over it. A scenic walk wends its way along the riverbank.
The village’s buildings, centered around its main street, are a delight. The thatched and whitewashed medieval pub, The Old Brewhouse, is located on the site of the ale house of the monastic community that was established here by St. Llawddog, a 6th century patron of four churches in the diocese of St. David’s.
Cenarth’s church, set on the rise of a hill, is named after him. The 1872 church replaced an earlier church fallen into ruin. In the churchyard can be found a “sarsen” stone of millstone grit with an inscription cut into it. The origin of the stone is shrouded in the past. The bowl of the church’s font dates from the 12th century or earlier. It was, at one time, used for a pig trough.
The stone building which housed the 18th century blacksmith’s forge that last operated in 1953 is today a shop stocked with Welsh souvenirs and crafts. The original blacksmith tools are on display in the front of the store. The attached stone cottage served as a vicarage, then a school and teacher accommodation.
The timbers of the stone mill, almost hidden in a canopy of trees, reek with age. The mill, originally built in the 6th century for the early Christian community, is mentioned in literature of the 12th century. It once belonged to King Edward and later, his son, the first Prince of Wales. It remained in royal hands until 1613 when Sir Richard Cobham and John Howe were granted the land by King James I. Passing through several owners, the mill was sold to pay death duties in 1970.
Its timber and cast iron wheel once ground barley and oats. A stream ran beneath the mill, and clever workers would reach through a hatch in the floor to grab salmon. While it no longer grinds grain, the mill still provides a fascinating peek into the past and houses a collection of old tools and farm implements.
But this enchanting, historic village is best known as the coracle centre of Wales. The National Coracle Centre, located in the mill’s grounds was developed by Martin Fowler, an avid spokesperson for this ancient form of transportation, along with help from The Coracle Society. The Centre’s 1500 square feet showcase a collection of coracles from around the world. The techniques and the tools used for building the coracle as well as the history of the coracle are highlighted.
The coracle, a shallow basket type boat, became best known to the public through Ellis Peter’s mention of them in the Brother Cadfael books, but the history of the coracle in Britain goes back to the Bronze Age. Even Julius Caesar mentioned them in his accounts of his conquests.
It was during the 17th and 18th century that coracles came into their own on the River Teifi. Two coracles with a net stretched between them provided an effective way to snare salmon and sea trout. A coracle fisherman sometimes used a stick to hit the fish. It was called a “priest”, a joking term because the fish was receiving its “last rites”.
One-man coracles are lightweight—about 30 pounds—and can be carried on the back, turtle-like. Always made from local natural materials, a flat-bottomed, wide-fronted Cenarth coracle consists of willow bound with hazel wood. Covered with calico cotton, they are then coated with hot pitch mixed with linseed oil to provide a waterproof coating.
Once made of skin or hide, coracles of the past were much heavier, giving rise to the Welsh saying “Llwyth gwr, ei gorwg”. (A man’s load is his coracle). There is a story that a man named Tom Rogers once raced for the prize of a 4.5 gallon cask of beer, which he won, promptly drank, and then sold the barrel to buy more beer—all in the same day.
Today only 12 pair of coracles are licensed to fish on the Teifi. But coracle rides can be arranged for visitors in the summertime, and August Bank Holiday sees the river at Cenarth alive with coracle races.
Whether walking the river paths, visiting the Coracle Centre, enjoying the village’s historical buildings or just steeping in its atmosphere, the visitor is soon seduced by the charm of Cenarth, a rich repository of the heritage of Wales.
Cenarth is located on the A484 near Newcastle Emlyn.
Cenarth Coracle Centre
Tel. 01239 710980
Open Easter-end Sep, Sun-Fri, 10:30am-5:30pm
Web: Cenarth Coracle Centre
This article originally appeared in Heritage/Realm magazine.
Photos © by Barbara Ballard
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