Revisiting the hillfort at Castle Hill, Llanilar

by The Curious Scribbler

My first home in Wales, thirty years ago, was in Castle Hill, Llanilar, a trim Georgian mansion built in 1777 by John Williams. It is today still occupied by the Loxdale family: direct descendants of  the brother of Shrewsbury heiress Sarah Elisabeth Loxdale, who married John Nathaniel Williams, the son.

In the mid 1980s we occupied the top flat, which comprised the entire third-floor of the old Georgian house, in which a central staircase opened onto a large landing giving onto four  equally huge rooms.  An ambitious adaptation in the 1960s had added an external wing containing only a staircase, which gave separate access to our floor. Once upstairs we enjoyed a giant sitting room and an equal sized bedroom overlooking the garden, while the other two rooms had been divided to create dining and kitchen in one and a second bedroom plus access corridor in the other. I have always remembered the original latch fittings on the four doors onto the landing.  Each was designed to allow a guest to unlock their door to the servant on the landing, without the inconvenience of getting out of bed.  The furniture was antique and the whole ambiance would now be called shabby chic. The old oak floors undulated underfoot, and at night, mice could be heard scrunching behind the skirting boards.  The only serious disadvantage was for my tall husband, because the four original doorways were lower than 6 feet whereas the newly formed doors were standard sized.  It was a slow learning curve to duck between the hall and the sitting room while progressing normally from sitting room to dining room and kitchen.
We lived here when our first daughter was born and for almost 3 years afterwards. Often on fine days, with my baby in a carrier, I would stroll up the hill past the farm, climb a gate and head off up to the hill top from which Castle Hill takes its name. Truly it was the top of the world up there, views spreading panoramically in every direction so that even the distant mountains appeared on the level with my vantage point.  The ground was grazed by a young cattle and sheep, tussocky with with patches of gorse and bracken and the silence (except when shattered by low-flying jet) was immense.  I never met anyone else up there (there is no public right-of-way) yet it never felt lonely – a place with great resonance of the past.

Recently I revisited Castle Hill with the Ceredigion Historical Society under the expert leadership of Toby Driver from the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments. As we stood once again on this hilltop earthwork, Toby took us through the history of the fertile Ystwyth valley.  The Welsh landscape is so easily dismissed as empty.  Instead it is better imagined teeming with life and human activity ever since Neolithic times.  Pollen sampling has revealed that the wildwood is long gone, active deforestation was well underway by the late Iron Age and  by the early Roman period  the woodland cover was probably similar to that we see today.

Other recent archaeological advances include the discovery a few years ago of the substantial Roman villa between Abermagwr and Trawscoed, which is a few miles up the Ystwyth Valley. The Romans had a camp at Trawscoed, but they  did not merely march through Wales subjugating the Celts. They settled and farmed here bringing costly artefacts such as glass and pottery from other parts of their Empire.
Toby explained the many phases of occupation of the Pen y Castell hillfort. Earliest is a curving earthwork revealed by aerial laser scanning, which probably represents a Bronze Age hillfort.  This was superseded around 400 BC by a substantial ( 1.7 hectare) Iron Age hill fort with a gateway approach on the south eastern side.  Its ramparts surmounted by a timber palisade it would have been an intimidating structure to approach from below.  Protecting a village of round huts and grain stores, this would have been just one among the many fortified hilltops marking the Iron Age communities of the region. A larger community has left its distinctive footprint on Pendinas, where the Ystwyth reaches the sea.
We gathered within the ramparts on the southern side of the Pen y Castell summit.

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Seated on the ramparts of the hillfort, looking northwest to Llanilar

Puzzlingly, the other half of the overall summit is inaccessible due to a deep cut trench or cutting running east-west.  Scholars have puzzled over this feature throughout the 20th century. Some believe that a medieval motte and bailey was superimposed on the site around 1242.  If so it was a Welsh one, unlike the Norman castle first built at Tanycastell, Rhydyfelin which gave its name to Abersywtwyth.  The northern part may then have been the location of the keep, approached by a bridge across the chasm. Others suggest the trench was a created by post medieval quarrying to supply local building needs.

Much more archaeology is needed to tease out the history. The most recent finding here has been traces of a trapeziodal enclosure on the slope below the fort which is interpreted as another Romano-British farmstead, perhaps a tenant of the Roman villa at Aberamagwr.

The hillfort commands a view eastward up the valley to Trawscoed

The hillfort commands a view eastward up the valley to Trawscoed

Gathered in the sunshine with bluebells at our feet we all enjoyed that very special sense of place, and the realisation that this is not ‘Wild Wales’, but instead extremely tame Wales, a scene of homes and villages supported by pastoral and arable activity for more than 5000 years.  The parade of wind turbines on the skyline is perhaps deplorable, but can also be seen as just another symptom of fifty centuries of human exploitation of the landscape.

Wind turbines on the skyline of Mynydd Bach, six miles to the south

Wind turbines on the skyline of Mynydd Bach, six miles to the south

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23 thoughts on “Revisiting the hillfort at Castle Hill, Llanilar

  1. Love this – we too first experienced Aberystwyth life in a rental property at Castle Hill (not yours; the other one). It was our first home together too, so will always be a very special place. Watched the solstice sunrise from the hill-fort that year.

    Fifteen years later, we are back in London and our year in Llanilar is a distant memory, except that we return for holidays when we can and love to follow your blog – thank you!

    • Many thanks for your support! Its great to hear when the articles reach kindred spirits who know the same obscure locations I’ve written about. I’ve been a bit slack recently, occupied with family matters, but will post some new material soon.

  2. Hello.I lived at castle hill in the 1964. We had what was originally the stable block. I went to school at Dinas till I was 16. I used to help Mrs Loxdale do some cooking and generally help during the school holidays. My parents were keen gardeners and took on the walled garden across the lane.

    • Sorry for the delay in posting your comment. We lived in the top flat of the main house 1982-4. The walled garden was entirely neglected then, but we did clear a patch to grow vegetables and also kept a few chickens in the existing wooden chicken house.

      • Hello , thanks for replying and just have a few questions ,so between me living at castle hill and you moving in the main house it must have been converted into flats ? I assume you knew Miss Loxdale who was a nurse ? Did you Alistair Loxdale? I hope the main house wasn’t destroyed much by dividing it into flats ? It is good to hear that you made use of the walled garden as far as I remember it was large ?
        Was the converted stable block still standing when you lived in the house ?
        It will be good to hear from you with any news about any of the above.
        Best wishes Sue.

        • The house was not much divided. The top floor was a separate flat, which was approached up an external stone staircase wing built onto the south east corner of the house. If it wasn’t already there, I think it was built not long after you left in 1964. Mrs Loxdale and her daughter Myrtle lived in the main house when we were there. Alistair Loxdale’s son Peter is now in residence.

          The stable block was also tenanted, as was the two storey south-east wing with the bell tower.

          • Wow thanks for that. I have a problem thinking where the externally stair case is .Do you know if Myrtle and Aliststair are still living ?
            Where did you move to after Llanilar ?
            My family moved onto Llanrhystyd into a house adjoining Mabws Hall.
            Just a thought , did you ever go into the cellar under Castle Hill,? I did and I was truly scared .
            Look forward to hearing from you again.
            Sue.

          • If you face the house from the park, the staircase would be on the left hand corner of the three storey block.

  3. Sue, we lived in the stable block in 1998-99 – our first cohabitation. To this day, the lane features in my dreams – a magical place. Although now back in London we do try to return now and again.

  4. Thank you so much for this wonderful description of the country side around Castle Hill and in particular the mansion itself. I have often wondered how Castle Hill got its name and now, thanks to your article, I know. My ancestress was Elizabeth Parry (nee Williams) 1745 – 1826. She was married in 1769 to Thomas Parry of Llidiardau, Llanilar 1746 – 1819. Her father was Nathaniel Williams of Pantsherriff, who died in 1793 and her mother was Elizabeth (nee Jones). Nathaniel was the grandson of John Williams who was born in 1630 and died in 1685. It was therefore Nathaniel who built Castle Hill and settled with his family in Llanilar having moved from Strata Florida.
    Many thanks once again.

  5. My great-grandfather, Dafydd Davies, of Cilcwm, was a woodman and tenant of Castle Hill from about 1890 to 1920. When squire Loxdale brought his bride home in 1894, cheering villagers hauled their carriage in procession from the rail station to the mansion, where speeches were made. Dafydd led the crowd in singing the Welsh national anthem. Every six months the tenants paid their rent at the Falcon Hotel and were given a dinner, at which Dafydd sometimes entertained everyone with his singing. He was a staunch Methodist and father of 12 children, He also led the singing at Carmel Chapel, equally at home in chapel and pub!.

      • How nice to hear of people still living in the stable block 49 years after I was there with my parents. It’s not that unusual that people move in to your house but this was a very special home to us for a few years. Are the Bevan family still in the vilage. They lived on the left of the road going towards the pub and worked for Mrs Loxdale. Last year my very long suffering husband and I did a brief visit to the beach at Llanrhystyd and to Mabwys Llwyd , (our second home after Llanilar) then onto Devils Bridge. We did the Jacobs ladder. . Easy going down but hard coming up the other side. Do you use the walled garden over the lane ? Look forward to reading your next message.
        Sue.

        • Sorry reply been so long, Mr & Mrs Bevan have both died, but their sons Peter and Anthony are still around. The walled garden is used for planting vegetables by the farm workers. It is lovely here, we have lived here for 10 years now and enjoy taking my two whippets for walks through the fields. Sian.

  6. What a pleasure to read about Castle Hill. We are a French couple from Bordeaux and we lived in the same place, same flat from July 1972 to August 1973. The flat description let us feel like we were still living there. We remember very well Mrs Loxdale and his daughter who was a nurse, but also their maid and her daughter Marina.
    Sometimes some little mice were trotting in the living room.
    We also remember the small way going to the village under a rhodendrons “forest”, we brought back at home a rhodendron cutting and today we have a big plant in our garden.
    We do have to go back to Aberysthwyth and visit again some place such as Machynleth, Devil’s Bridge, New Quay…
    All the best to the Castle Hill “community”.
    Evelyne and Jean-Pierre

    • What a lovely reminiscence! We lived there from 1982-4.
      I find you posted a similar comment last week, so sorry I did not notice it! Normally WordPress sends me an e-mail alert when a comment is posted, but for some strange reason none came that time. (I haven’t posted that one now, since you’ve said it all again, and a bit more too!)

  7. Just a short note in reply to your messages and an update on Castle Hill, Mr Alistair Loxdale died years ago, and also Myrtle Loxdale died after leaving Castle Hill in a house she bought after her mother died. Peter Loxdale has been in hospital after suffering a stroke, and is having treatment at moment. The flat at the top of the house is empty and also the Bell tower. No more news to report!!!!!! Sian

      • Myrtle had no children. But Peter Loxdale and Patrick Loxdale, ( who has acted on behalf of his brother Peter since his stroke) are sons of Alistair Loxdale.

        • I have just picked up on this blog, originally researching Plas Gwynfryn, an old house near Borth which belonged to distant cousins.
          My grandmother Myfanwy inherited the house following her father (RJR’s death) in 1943. It must have been his bridal carriage that was hauled up from the station; many stories have suggested he was a very kind and decent man who treated his tenants very well. Sadly after the War, the estate was hammered with death duties and reduced considerably in size. She died in 1986, and estate and house passed to my brother Peter, who had taken over the farm in 1981. My Aunt Myrtle had nursed Myfanwy for many years in Castle Hill, She died in 1992. My father Alistair died 1n 2008.
          Peter indeed sufferd a stroke earlier this year, and I am now living here, to support him etc. In due course, my wife will re-locate here from Plymouth; we had always planned to retire to Llanilar.
          One of my sons, also Peter Loxdale, wants to be a farmer, and will I hope in due course come here to help his Uncle with farm and estate, and may in due course take over.
          My family have been associated with the house for circa 200 years. It has never been sold! If I have anything to do with it (although it will never be mine) it will be staying in the family for a very long time to come!
          Incidentally, my wife and I will be taking over the top flat, but as part of the main house. The Old Stables is occupied by Sian and her husband, and the East Wing has just become vacant if anyone interested! (two or could be three bedrooms).
          The staircase to the top flat was added I think as a mandatory fire escape in circa 1970; in my view it was poorly thought out and has ruined the symmetry of the house.
          Any old bona fide tennants, or those with a personal or family connection to the estate are most welcome to get in touch, and if convenient, to visit.
          Thank you Curious Scribbler for such an interesting blog; please do get in touch.

          • Thank you so much for your info. It was your Aunt Myrtle that tried to persuade me to go into general nursing. I didn’t, I did a nursery nursing course instead,and it was also Myrtle that gave me my first taste of sherry at 14 ! Lovely lady as too was your grandmother Myfanwy. I didn’t see much of your father as I think he worked elsewhere. Sue.

  8. Recently found this site and has prompted me to quote two articles that I found in the Cambrian News regarding the benevolence of the Loxdale family. Peter Loxdale will remember the interesting time spent in trawling through 100 years of local newspapers at the National Library of Wales to prepare info for our show centenary book.
    I came across the following and I quote: CAMBRIAN NEWS 15.2.1907 “LLANILAR BENEVOLENCE. Mr Loxdale Castle Hill, has this year again with his usual generosity handed over a substantial sum of money to Dr Hughes to be distributed among the poor of the parish without distinction of creed or sect. These seasonable gifts deserve the grateful thanks of the recipients”.
    CAMBRIAN NEWS 12.12.1873 ” Mr James Loxdale of Castle Hill, has according to his usual custom, divided about 20 tons of coal among the poor of that place”.
    I almost forgot a snipet of local info, again in the CN “Llanilar Church Tower was restored in April 1905 by Howard Jones of Borth”.

    • Thanks for these items. Of course now it is so much easier to search the archive of old Cambrian News papers in Welsh Newspapers Online, rather than scrolling through microfiche images. Possibly more gems can be uncovered!

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