In Search of Maes Y Mynydd – August 2013
After three days of driving, hiking, camping and discovering some of the wonders of Wales, there was one last thing I wanted to find on my photography trip of ancient Celtic miscellanies: an abandoned village I’d read about – the fabled Maes Y Mynydd.
I couldn’t find a definitive history of the village but from what I could tell Maes Y Mynydd, on the Pembrokeshire coastline, was first a settlement in medieval times and then sometime around the seventeenth century, Quakers had made the village their home. They apparently decided to call it Pennsylvania, lived there as fishermen, farmers and land-workers for a few hundred years, but then for some reason the village fell into ruin in the early twentieth century.
The reason for its decline is in debate. A typhoid epidemic in the 1890s, which killed many people in the area, seems the most likely explanation, but there’s also a story of a greedy land-owner poisoning the village well (with a dead dog) which may have caused the inhabitants to move on. For whatever reason, it seems that around the time of the First World War, Maes Y Mynydd was abandoned after the young people of the village had either died or left for America and the last of the older generation had passed on in their stone enclaves on the side of a windswept hill near St Davids.
I’d marked roughly where I thought Maes Y Mynydd was on my road map and found myself around late-morning at the popular surfing beach Whitesands, covered in glorious sunshine and countless surfers and families enjoying their summer vacation.
Not many of them would have known about a typhoid-stricken ruin somewhere in the vicinity, I thought. I enquired after Maes Y Mynydd from a local car parking attendant, who said she thought she’d heard of it, possibly, but pointed me in the direction of the cafe, where someone might be able to help me further. A woman there brought out a local map and I could see exactly where it was. We’d located it, but there were no roads nearby and several large headland hills and peaks surrounded the old village. I plotted a route to get as close as possible, received some vague and complicated directions from a couple more locals and headed off.
I was due to be in Cardiff by mid-afternoon so would have only an hour or so to drive, park, hike, locate and photograph the village. I was pushing it.
Even if I don’t find it, maybe I’ll get an idea where it is and can come back another time. But I’m here now. Seize the day… Let’s do it!
After getting lost almost immediately and asking locals for directions (none of whom had ever heard of Maes Y Mynydd), I eventually made it to a hamlet where I stopped the car outside a house offering honey for sale and knocked on the door. It was opened by a middle-aged woman.
“Hi, I’m trying to get to Maes Y Mynydd, do you know it?”
“Wait there,” she said.
After a minute or so a tall man came to the door. “Maes Y Mynydd, eh. How do you know about that place?” He seemed genuinely surprised.
“I’ve been reading about it and want to find it to take some pictures. I’ve been all round Wales taking pictures of old ruins and out-of-the-way things…”
“Oh right. Well, well…it’s certainly out of the way…”
He then told me to park in a clearing up the road and went through some pretty convoluted directions on how to get to the abandoned village.
“Up the track and past the old cottage (the old man who used to live there just recently died and it’s a bit run-down now, but he knew a lot of local history), round the back of another house, across a yard, through a gate and you’ll see a low sunken path and ancient hedgerow in between fields, go to the top and there are two paths, left and right….”
He continued for several more minutes and by now my head was spinning…“but eventually you’ll come out onto the top of the headland and you should be able to see Maes Y Mynydd below you in the distance. I’d come with you, but we’ve got a friend over. Good luck!”
Maybe I’ll get lost and stranded on a Welsh hillside and die looking for this place. One more victim of the old village…
Trying to remember a quarter of what he’d told me, I set off. The track and the old man’s cottage were easy enough to find…
Then I found myself on an ancient, sunken path between two fields, a dark and dank passage cut into the hillside beneath over-hanging bushes, which was just big enough for someone to walk under.
Up through the passage and out onto the craggy headland, following a barely visible, rarely used path littered with piles and piles of old animal manure, but not an animal in sight… Was it left or right? I carried on upwards then took an even fainter intersection in the path, going higher and higher through heather and past rock outcrops, finally coming to the apex of a hill.
I looked over, expecting to see the ruins of the village below. There was nothing but more heather and a long slope down to the sea.
Shit. I must have gone wrong somewhere back there. But where? It could be anywhere, this headland goes on as far as the eye can see, and I’ve got to be in Cardiff in a few hours…
I pushed on across the headland and climbed to the top of a rocky outcrop hoping to see Maes Y Mynydd from up there.
Well at least you’ve hiked up and seen this beautiful countryside; the journey was worth it even if you didn’t find the old village.
Pretty deflated, I started to head back and noticed two old-looking walls away down the hill. They were parallel, with another wall or something else, at one end.
That could be an old track. Maybe an old road into the village… But there are no houses… How long will it take me to get down there and have a look? Ten minutes? Okay, let’s do it!
I jumped down from the rocks and bounded down the hill, hoping to get lucky but not really expecting anything. Then, as I got closer I could see it was the triangular gable end of a cottage next to the two old walls. And there was another cottage just in front of it, lying in ruins with only a couple of walls still standing. I’d found Maes Y Mynydd!
Now my problem was reaching it. I could see a gate leading into the old village below, but I was struggling through dense undergrowth, to the point where I could go no further. I’d come ill-prepared for this heavy scrub, wearing shorts and cross-trainers, and my legs were already cut to shreds from the thorn bushes I’d been kicking through, but now the path was impassable. I needed a machete to hack back the towering barbs that rose overhead and blocked my way, and I only had a tripod to batter them back. I turned around and hauled myself onto a wall covered with barb-wire. It was extremely precarious but even though I was still a few hundred metres or so away, I was at least high enough to get a shot of the abandoned village. Pinching the barbed-wire to balance myself, I managed to attach my telescopic lens onto the camera and get a couple of shots of the village from afar.
At least I’ve seen it. And taken a couple of shots for proof… Although, maybe I could somehow jump over this barb wire… No chance… far too dangerous, with nothing to hold onto but the wire, which would also be at crotch height… I’d probably slip, rip my ball-sack, fall off and break my leg and then die there as wild animals came to eat my remains… sod that!
I lowered myself down from the wall. To get to the gate leading to the village, I’d have to go back on myself, hike up to the rocky outcrop, round the headland and down the other side, which would take half an hour at least. And there was no guarantee that route was passable either. I didn’t have that time to play with. I would have to find a way over the barb wire wall or go home having come agonisingly close to my goal…
I scanned the wall for a place to cross. It was very climbable on my side at about only three or four foot high, but had a much bigger drop on the other side… If I found somewhere to get over, would I be able to get back up later? Find a way, find a way…and I did. There was a place where the wire had come away from a post so you could push it down just far enough to get your leg over and not tear your bollocks off… Slip, however, and you wouldn’t be laughing…
I pulled myself onto the wall, pushed the wire down as far as I could and held it there with my tripod while I gingerly swung my legs over before lowering myself down the other side…about a seven-foot drop. I tried to memorise where I’d crossed the wall for later: In between the red flowering plant and big, grassy weeds, was as good as I could manage.
So there I was…over the wall and finally walking down to Maes Y Mynydd!
I could now see that although there were a few old walls and humps and bumps covered in grass here and there, all that really remained of the old village were the two ruined cottages and the walled track.
There was a calm eeriness to the ancient buildings. Their stones had been mostly ransacked, presumably for other homes in the area, but window and door frames, chimneys and slate from the roofs remained, silently observing after a century of isolation. I walked within the houses, asking any ancient spirits that might still be lurking if that was okay. (You don’t want to fuck with the ghost of a pissed-off murder victim in the middle of nowhere!)
I snapped off a lot of shots and walked over to a big pile of rocks piled up a few hundred metres away. Now, this place felt a bit weird. I didn’t like being round them at all…
Why are there loads of massive rocks piled up in the middle of a field near an old village? Maybe it’s the old well, blocked up after it had been poisoned? Or maybe, and more likely, it’s a mass grave where the bodies of typhoid victims have been lying for the last twelve decades…
Who knows, but it was creepy, and I quickly got the hell out. I made my way back through the abandoned village and retraced my steps up over the wall and across the beautiful, wild headland. Maes Y Mynydd was just a spec when I went over the top of the hill.
What a marvellous place. A special country. Spellbinding.
I got back to the car and parked outside the house where I’d asked for directions. I wanted to tell them I’d found the village and about the great adventure I’d had getting there. The woman smiled as I told her. She must have thought I was mad. I bought two large jars of honey from her, said goodbye and made my way through the country tracks.
You did it! I thought as I drove away. And you’ve got the scars, the memories and the pictures to show for it…