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Llangammarch Horse Fair

"Here you are, lady!  Real Llangammarch Welsh."  This recommendation to a prospective buyer of a riding pony was overheard at Market Drayton Horse Fair in 1939 by L. T. C. Rolt and recorded in his book, “Narrow Boat”.  There is no doubt that Llangammarch Fair was the biggest pony fair in Wales in those days, and famous throughout the British Isles until it was started down its rapid decline by the Army ordering all ponies off the Epynt range when it was requisitioned in 1940.  Although little seems to have been recorded in print, it still brings back memories of Llangammarch’s most exciting annual event to some local people, and it is with their help that this account has been compiled.

There is some uncertainty about the origins of the Fair but Mr Austin Davies of Park Farm, Llangammarch, recalls that it used to be said that at one time it was held near the Old School on the Cefn Gorwydd road, where once there were a pub and some cottages.  Perhaps originally it was held at Cefn Gorwydd but in any case it must have moved into Llangammarch village by the 1880s or 1890s.  No doubt Llangammarch was a natural centre for a pony fair, lying at the foot of the Epynt, a mountain whose ancient name defines it as the home of ponies.

From Mr Davies' recollections of the time between the First and Second World Wars, many farmers kept a few ponies and some took a great interest in them and kept hundreds.  Certain farmers had the right to keep ponies on the Epynt and, like the flocks of sheep still grazing on the hill, a herd belonging to one owner would stick together on their patch.  Some might be ear-marked and some branded, and farmers took a pride in their ponies, tidy stuff, which they would try to improve, perhaps by putting a bigger stallion on the mares and, where they could spare grazing for them (in those days there were only a third of the sheep being stocked today) would bring them down off the hill in the winter.  Horses and ponies were vital for the work on a farm, and for many the only means of transport:  in those days you travelled on horseback or you walked.  Ponies were used for shepherding and as sheep today are sent in lorries on tack for the winter, so they would drive them on horseback over to Cardiganshire to winter on farms in the better climate there.

October 15th was the Fair Day unless it fell on a Sunday, when it would be on the Monday following.  For a week or more before the Fair, farmers would be gathering the ponies on the Epynt.  Mr Davies would bring his herd of 20 to 30 ponies down to Park Farm to sort out which would be sold at the Fair - some foals born on the hill that spring and perhaps some ponies that had been broken in over the last year or two.  He kept on the farm five or six working horses and some young ones bought or from the herd which would be broken in before being sold.

Very early on the day of the Fair, ponies and horses would be driven from all over the Epynt, Upper Chapel and Llanfihangel Nant Bran, and from further afield, Abergwesyn and beyond.  Mr Iorwerth Davies remembers, when a boy at Gwybedog, bunches of ponies, perhaps 25 mothers with foals from Llandeilo’r Fan, being driven through their farm and down the fields to Penlanwen before dawn.  They would have cleared the stock from the fields the day before so that the gates could be left open and horses could be driven straight through, there being no road above Tirabad then.  There would probably be a couple on horseback at the front leading the herd, with two more at each side and behind to keep young foals from straying.  They would be driven with their  mothers to keep them fairly calm, to be parted if they were sold at the Fair, and only the mares and any unsold foals would return that night.

Horses would be streaming down by Penrhiw, Aberceiros, Troedrhiw, hundreds of them, before first light.  Mrs Annabelle Thomas too, when a young girl at Cefn Farm, and not allowed to go to the Fair, recalls the excitement of seeing the mass of ponies being driven past – “wild little things, all different colours and so pretty”.

Mr Glyn Evans of Ffinnant Isaf, Aberyscir, Brecon, described in an article in Gathered Gold helping his Uncle Dai to drive foals over the Epynt to the Fair in 1934 – "Then down the very steep escarpment of the mountain and we were in Llangammarch.  This village with its one long street was chockablock with ponies and people.  Breeches and bowlers were the order of the day.  From one end of Llangammarch to the other were groups of wild mountain ponies encircled by their owners.  We found a suitable space and surrounded our ponies within a sizeable area of Llangammarch’s main street.

"Occasionally part of the road was cleared in order to allow a farmer to trot his horse so that a prospective buyer could see the horse put through his paces.  Young foals would be neighing, hoping that their dams would give a comforting reply.  An old Llangammarch farmer called Jack Cefnllan used to forecast on the eve of each Fair that trade would be ‘either a gold chain or a wooden leg'."

The streets would indeed be packed with ponies and horses, carthorses and cobs, from the Aberceiros sometimes as far as the Station Yard and the Cammarch bridge, and even to Glasfryn and Neuaddau, as the late Mrs Ceinwen Davies remembered.  Horses would be held by the halter but the wild ponies were loose and penned by two or three men.  Dealers would come from all over the country, many arriving on the mail train which reached Llangammarch station at 6 am and then making for the Cammarch hotel for breakfast.  Some travelled overnight and others perhaps stayed in Builth overnight and caught the train in the morning.  They came from the south of England, Devon and Cornwall, Northamptonshire, Bedford, Stafford, Cheshire, Essex and Lincolnshire, some from Swansea and the South Wales valleys for ponies for the pits and some from Anglesey intending to sell them on to Irish dealers coming over to horse fairs there.

There were no autioneers – buyers and sellers would haggle and when a deal was struck would clap hands on it.  Payment would be in cash, at one time all gold sovereigns – Mr Austin Davies recalls that once some farmers who had brought ponies over from Tregaron way and sold them at Llangammarch Fair were robbed in the wood beyond the Grouse Inn (Pentwyn) at Abergwesyn on their way home.  Ponies of 11 to 12 hands would be bought for the Derbyshire pits or some could take up to 13 hands and South Wales pits might take farm horses up to 13 to 15 hands.  They had to be four years old before they could go down the pits, so they were broken in at 2 – 3 years and sold as four-year-olds for about £5 to £10.  Horses were about £35 or perhaps £40 for a good one.  Young unbroken foals or old horses unlikely to last the winter might sell for £1 or £2.  Some were probably destined for butchers in Belgium.

There would be various stalls selling clothes and cheap goods, and two old blokes came in a motor van from Hereford to set up a saddlery stall under the railway bridge from which they sold halters, bridles, saddles and everything for horses, ropes, pocket knives, pitchforks and farm stuff.  Often it was ex-Army from the First World War but it was good stuff and they would hang their goods up on the walls of the bridge.  Eddie Jones, the village saddler at Bristol House, would also be doing good business.  Some of the houses in the village would offer tea and refreshments.

Mrs Megan Williams of Llangammarch lived at 5 Irfon Terrace as a child and her husband, Mr Garfield Williams, lived at Rose Cottage.  They remembered that children were kept in out of the way on Fair day but it was always exciting, a special day in the village, and to many it was like a holiday – hard work, but a day out of the routine.  Mr Austin Davies remembers at one Fair a Mr Evans from Anglesey, with his three sons, buying 99 ponies.  The boys penned them in the yard behind Malvern Stores (now Cammarch Books), then a bakehouse, until they were ready to drive them all down the street and over the bridge – the crowd had to get out of the way when that herd was on the move.  A few years ago, Mr Davies met some young boys from Anglesey at the Llanybydder Horse Fair who turned out to be grandsons of Mr Evans.  On one occasion, a Mr Ifor Davies from South Wales bought prior to the Fair a number of 15 hand horses for the South Wales pits from local farmers and asked them to ride them to Builth Station to be collected.  On the morning of the Fair, some dealers might walk out along the approach roads to the village, past Aberceiros or Neuaddau, to intercept and buy ponies before they reached the Fair.

Ponies and horses sold at the Fair were driven to Garth Station, where they had enough sidings to marshall the special trains needed with different boxes for ponies and heavy horses to take them to their different destinations.  Village youngsters, "lumpers", would help to drive them along the road to Garth, which was not easy as the foals were trying to break back to find their mothers.  Once a foal jumped off the bridge and landed on his four feet in the sand below Bridge End Cottage.  He was all right and was taken on to Garth.  Mr Garfield Williams remembers helping as a lad and when they got to Garth a dealer might look in his pockets and give him 6d.  Mr Brinley Davies might earn 2/6d to ride on his quiet little pony in front of the foals to lead them to Garth.

On the Fair Day in 1909, a flood carried away the wooden bridge over the Irfon.  It was late in the day and Mr Iorwerth Davies’ father was the last to cross, returning on a mare having left her foal at Garth.  Cows belonging to the Cammarch Hotel, which then had a farm, had to be driven from pasture on the other side of the river down to Garth and back to the Cammarch to be milked.  Will Jones from Ffynnon Bevan, emerging from the Cammarch, was determined to leap the flood, crying “It won’t be a minute till I’m back with Sara!” but Mr Phillips the butcher held him back by his coat and he went home via Llanwrtyd.  It seems a temporary wooden bridge was put up across to the island pending the building of the new bridge.

At the end of the day, there would be much celebration in the pubs and a big dinner was laid on in the Cammarch.  Mrs Williams remembers her mother, Mrs Elizabeth Adams, who was a waitress at the Cammarch, talking of all the turkeys being cooked.  Some dealers might stay overnight but they would be on their way the next morning to find more horses, perhaps at Llandovery or at Newbridge Fair, which followed on 17th October.  At Gwybedog they would see some decent farmers riding back from the Fair in the afternoon but later in the evening came others singing and wobbling somewhat in their saddles, and perhaps calling in to sober up and have a bite to eat before carrying on for home at about midnight, saying they “were going now to have tongue for supper!”  The people of the village were left to clear up, each family dealing with the mess in front of their own house.  Turf had been trampled, hedges broken down and nibbled, and to Mrs Williams it always seemed like the beginning of winter, everything such a mess and it would not revive until next spring.

It seems that the Fair survived through the last war and for three or four years after it but with the removal of the ponies from the Epynt range and the swift invasion of tractors to replace the working horses it was fading fast.  By the last years of the 1940s it had disappeared, to be succeeded by the auction sales of ponies at Cwm Owen and Llanafan.

written by John Pyper and taken from Llangammarch Wells Past and Present – A History and Guide. March 2000