Mid Wales

Era ends as Thomas Jones brothers move from hill farm Nantllwyd

The family pictured outside the farm house in 1955 (Pic: Geoff Charles Collection, National Library of Wales)
Image caption The family pictured outside the farm house in 1955 (Pic: Geoff Charles Collection, National Library of Wales)

Welsh hill farmers appear to be a breed apart, as hardy as the mountain sheep they tend.

They are often born into a life where the harshness of the terrain and bitter winter weather are accepted as normal.

One such family was based at the farm of Nantllwyd, around 12 miles from Tregaron in Ceredigion. Their formal surname is Thomas Jones, but they are also known as Nantllwyd.

The six sons and two daughters were even educated on the mountain, after their father decided that moving them to live lower down would take them away from their roots, and mean they might not return.

While their home is remote, it has welcomed visitors from around the world, who also want to see the nearby Capel Soar y Mynydd, which is often referred to as the most remote chapel in Wales.

The brothers even welcomed former American President Jimmy Carter while he was pursuing his interest in poet Dylan Thomas.

Such was the determination of the family to work the land that they even survived the six months of snow and ice of the notoriously harsh winter of 1947 "when sheep froze in the fields".

The skills needed in such circumstances mean its people are self-sufficient, practical, pragmatic types.

Now, however, the last two brothers have left the mountain.

It was, though, done without fanfare, even though the move has effectively brought to an end generations of traditional farming methods.

Quad bike

But John and Dafydd Thomas Jones' friends decided that a lifetime spent on the mountain deserved recognition. They arranged a dinner for them at the Talbot Hotel in Tregaron to mark the end of an era.

Image caption L-R: Sianco, Dafydd and John Thomas Jones

The pair, who are now in their 70s and 80s, used ponies to help them farm the slopes until the end although they had been joined recently by the modern-day equivalent - a quad bike.

If there has been sadness at moving from the family home, then the brothers are not letting on.

It helps, too, that the farm is not passing into the hands of strangers but to their nephew, Rhys, the son of Sianco, another of the Nantllwyd brothers.

The two ponies left have been given to Rhys's children, as more modern ways of farming will now be used on the slopes.

"I'm 84 now and it was time to move on, and anyway our nephew, Rhys, is taking it over," said John Thomas Jones.

After years of hard work the brothers are finally taking things easy.

But it is also clear that life on a remote hill farm, without mains electricity or water, was no barrier to seeing the rest of the world.

Both brothers have been on numerous cruises, and people they met on their travels have made the pilgrimage to see both their home and Capel Soar y Mynydd.

Mr Thomas Jones said of President Carter: "He was very polite and asked a lot of questions, as strangers do".

Charles Arch, a long-time family friend who speaks about the family in Welsh language publicationGolwg, said the advice to any would-be shepherd would be "make sure you are friends with yourself" because life on the mountainside can be lonely.

There was a determination by the Nantllwyd family to keep the hillside alive, said Mr Arch.

"Their father did move the family down to Bronant so they could be educated, but he saw that the children would grow up as children from the 'wlad' (lower land) and he wanted them to be from the 'mynydd' (mountain)," said Mr Arch.

"He then persuaded the education board to supply a teacher so that a school could be set up at Capel Soar y Mynydd, the chapel near their home."

This was in the late 1930s, and the school remained for much of the children's education, he added.

Image caption The Soar y Mynydd chapel was built on Nantllwyd land (pic: Roger Kidd - Geograph)

"The father would ride over to Llanddewi Brefi with two ponies on a Monday to bring the school mistress over, she would stay all week at Nantllwyd, then they would ride back to Llanddewi Brefi on the Friday."

At one time there were farms dotted across the hills with farmers helping each other during sheep-shearing, he said.

"The chapel would be full every Sunday, ponies would be tied up in the stable, and outside. People got together to socialise, to catch up on each other's news," said Mr Arch.

The severe winter of 1947 was a testing time for many, however, and some gave up when the thaw came.

"When the snow and ice eventually went some of the houses on the hillside collapsed and the families moved down," said Mr Arch.

'Green desert'

He said it was lucky the Nantllwyd family had a supply of peat, salted pig and flour for bread, otherwise they would not have survived.

"The first helicopter that dropped food on the hills during bad weather didn't come until 1963," he added.

Mr Arch also remembers Jimmy Carter's visit.

"The remoteness of the area made an impression on him and he called it the "green desert", he said.

Despite moving "downhill" the brothers intend to keep attending Capel Soar y Mynydd, which now opens only during summer months.

Indeed in part it is thanks to them that the chapel is thriving.

It is often full on Sundays as people who have heard of Nantllwyd and Soar y Mynydd travel from far afield to attend services.

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