There is a tradition in Britain, going back to medieval times or earlier, of moving sheep and cattle from the upland pastures of Wales to the lowland fattening pastures of the Midlands and south-east England and then on to their inevitable fate – to be consumed by those living in London and the towns of lowland England. The men who made themselves a livelihood out of moving these animals across the country came to be known as “the drovers” – Welsh cattle and sheep dealers who drove their animals to the fairs and markets of the English heartland. The long-distance movement of such animals was an arduous task and the drovers were indeed hardy men who, due to a few well-publicised cases of defaulting on credit notes, gained a certain reputation for their roguery and dishonesty; however, they were for the most part men of integrity who included in their number the Welsh hymn-writer Dafydd Jones of Caeo and who were among the few ordinary people in Wales to have the opportunity of travelling far beyond their immediate locality. As such, they were able to carry back to the remote parts of Wales news of social, political, cultural and religious developments in England and also, no doubt, had many a tale to tell of their travels, entertaining those at home.
This trade in sheep and cattle reached its peak in the 18th and early 19th centuries and although most of the many hundreds of miles of tracks and byways in the western counties of Wales were used at some time or other by the drovers, there evolved over the years a relatively limited number of recognised long-distance routes over the rugged terrain of central Wales to the English border. These drovers’ routes developed as a compromise between the quickest and least arduous way between two points and the availability of overnight accommodation and forage at farms or inns with adjoining paddocks.
One of these well-known routes, and the one which passed closest to Llangammarch, was that from Tafarn Talgarth to Painscastle. Tafarn Talgarth (now the Glan Bran Arms) is situated in the village of Llanfair-ar-y-bryn in the Bran valley to the north-east of Llandovery. Here animals from Cilycwm in the north and from Llandovery itself were prepared for the ascent of Mynydd Epynt. The route from the Inn followed the existing road to Tirabad. Here the drovers could stop at the Spite Inn or at the Cross Inn two miles beyond at Penlanwen. Both of these are no longer in existence; although Spite Inn Farm and the ruins of Cross Inn Cottage can be found and the oldest parts of these buildings may well have formed the original Inns. At Penlanwen the drovers deviated from the lane to Llangammarch Wells to join the Tricrugiau trail at Tafarn-y-Mynydd (now a ruin on the edge of a block of forestry and inaccessible as it is in a military training zone) and to ascend Mynydd Epynt.
Travelling across the great upland tract of the Epynt, the drovers would no doubt have had some difficulty in keeping their animals separated from the herds and flocks which grazed on the open mountain, but may have had the advantage of the opportunity to buy stockings and knitwear from one of the many sheep farms on the Epynt where weaving and knitting helped to supplement the income from the farm. All these dwellings are, of course, long since abandoned due to the use of the area by the military since the Second World War.
The Drovers Arms, now approached on the B4519 between Llangammarch Wells and Upper Chapel, was well known as a port of call on the journey to the east. The building is still in existence but available only for the use of the army!
It is no longer clear which exact route the drovers would have taken next; however, they travelled in some way across the open mountain to the Cwm-Owen Inn on the B4520 Builth Wells to Upper Chapel road. From there the drovers travelled onwards towards Erwood, where there was a ford across the river Wye, thus enabling them to continue their journey towards England.
The end for the long-distance movement of livestock on the hoof was signalled by the advent of the railways in the 19th century. However, the evolution of the Welsh railway system took place over a period of almost 50 years and it was not until the late 1850s that the railways had a sufficient infrastructure to take the place of the drover as an easier and cheaper way of transporting animals to England.
Thus came the end of long-distance cattle-droving. However, sheep-droving in Wales continued well into the 20th century. Sheep were driven to markets and also to and from “tack” (winter pasture). Shearing time could also involve driving sheep a considerable distance. The late Dai Jones of Abergwesyn, one of the last drovers, still remembered by local people, had many stories to tell of the days before the great lorries when he walked miles to Brecon market with sheep for dealers including David Davies of Poityn, Llangammarch. Drovers within Wales often included a stop at the Garth Inn, now a private residence.
Whilst travelling on the roads around Llangammarch your progress may well be called to a halt by farmers driving their sheep from one farm or field to another, perhaps for shearing or dipping; at certain times of the year sheep are still rounded up on the Epynt by men using an assortment of vehicles and sometimes on horseback, to be driven down from the mountains to the farms. These activities perhaps give a taste of the great droves of the past – however, the drover himself has long since passed into history, replaced by the lorries of the modern day.
written by Elaine Smith and taken from Llangammarch Wells Past and Present – A History and Guide. March 2000