In the beginning
The stone building at the core of Cilfach is very old. Just how old it is, we don’t really know but locally, it is thought to date from the beginning of the nineteenth century making it over 200 years old.
Its layout suggests that it was originally built as a stable in the middle of a field several hundred yards from the nearest farm or from Llanfyllin the nearest town. That is a conundrum but it is interesting to see in old maps that it lies beside a track from the top of the hill behind the cottage down to the river. Evidence of the track has almost completely gone.
Immediately behind the building is a small quarry or borrow pit. It is almost certain that this supplied the stone for the building so the principal construction materials for the cottage never moved more than 20 yards. The quarry may be called a borrow pit, but I don’t think there was ever any intention of putting the stone back again.
Looking through the National Library of Wales archives, we found a Tithe Map of 1848 that clearly shows the barn in the middle of open space.
We have a book - Llanfyllin – Portrait of an Age – which includes several early photographs of Cilfach. The picture here was taken from across the valley in around 1900 and shows the barn in the centre left.
The barn when we arrived
Keith and Decia purchased the barns and the house next door in 2004. Initially we used the stone barn as a workshop but we soon realised that it had much greater potential as a dwelling in its own right so an early task was to dismantle the hay barn that lay beyond and rebuild that as a new workshop with a similar roof outline.
The layout of the barn itself showed that was likely to have been used for stabling horses which were housed at the west end. By the time we arrived, this area (which is now the kitchen) had been converted into three cow byres. The cart shed at the east end (now the sitting room and stairwell) had been made into housing for more cows while the loft above still held a considerable quantity of hay even though no animals had lived there for almost thirty years. Attached to the front of the cart shed was a lean to (now the conservatory) for yet more cattle. This had been added around 1950.
The hay barn to the east of the stone barn was also built in the early 1950s. At that time, goods wagons from the nearby railway at Llanymynech were being dismantled by a Trefor Morgan who sold the timbers to local farmers. Some of these timbers found their way here to build the hay barn. In 2004, some of the timbers still had their railway repair plates attached which we have retained but the timbers have now gone.
The link with the house next door
The use of the barn clearly changed around 1950 and to follow that trail we need to tell the story of Villa Norge – the house next door. In around 1850, two wealthy industrialists bought estates in Llanfyllin – John Dugdale acquiring Llwyn (which is now the High School) – John Lomax acquiring Bodfach. Around 1895, the Lomax family purchased a summer house from somewhere in Scandinavia (probably Norway or Sweden but our many researches have yet to confirm this). It may have arrived by ship to Liverpool and then by train to Llanfyllin. The house was originally built near West Lodge just outside Llanfyllin, close to the road to Penybontfawr. The dip that was cut out of the field to make the foundations is still visible. In 1920, the house was sold to Joseph E Jones.
Joseph Jones was brought up at Ketch, the farm at the bottom of our lane and married Mary, the maid living in the manse next door. By 1920, he was a butcher, living with his family over the shop in 38 High Street. This is Tomlinson’s which is still a butcher’s shop. The land around Cilfach all belonged to Ketch and, in the autumn of 1922, Villa Norge was moved from Bodfach Park to its present site reputedly by Wyns of Coedway, a journey of about two miles. We have found no contemporary account to describe how the move took place but it must have been quite a spectacle.
By 1950, both Joseph and Mary had died, and Villa Norge was acquired by Dr Llewellyn Jones, their grandson who was also the local GP. Llewellyn’s younger brother Geraint was just starting out in farming and Cilfach became his first farm building. Geraint took over both the building and the stock from Huw Huws, much to Huw’s relief as the stock included one difficult black cow. To avoid getting kicked, Geraint had to keep the cow’s head high while she was being milked. If you can imagine a cow in what is now the kitchen its head would have been over the Esse cooker tied to a joist of what is now the bathroom floor above. That cow did not last long and Geraint started to bring in his own stock starting with two Jersey cows – Topsy and Mary - belonging to his parents. Other cows were brought from a farm near Llanfechain.
As the number of cattle grew, there were issues with the water supply. The water for Villa Norge and the barn came from a common well further up the hill and there were times that there was insufficient water to supply both. At the top of the chicken field, there is a brick structure that Geraint built as a cistern to store water from the well so that there would be enough water for both sets of buildings. (Villa Norge and Cilfach are now supplied with mains water and the cistern and well are no longer used.)
Various alterations and extensions were added to Cilfach as the herd grew but eventually, Geraint needed a more substantial farm and eventually he moved to Bwlch y Cochsydd which is just over the hill behind the cottage. The last cows moved out of Cilfach around 1975.
In 1950, Cilfach and Villa Norge became separate properties but came back together in the 1980s after the cattle had left. However, little was done with the buildings until we bought Villa Norge in 2004 with Cilfach and its outbuildings included.
From barn to cottage
The first picture here shows the space that is now the sitting room and hall way looking towards the kitchen. The boarded-up door to the right is now the doorway to the kitchen.
When planning the conversion into a cottage, we had to dig down to the base of the walls to examine the state of the foundations. There are no foundations. We suspect that the original builders just removed the turf and constructed the stone wall straight onto the bare earth. The roof is now supported on a new internal timber frame.
The second picture here was taken from what is now the sitting room looking towards the space that is occupied by the stairway. The ceiling is the floor of the hay loft and, while the beams were sound, the floorboards just crumbled away to dust if you stood on them.
As an eighteenth century stable, the building did not have particularly high ceilings but we have managed to squeeze in a two storey building with good headroom by making some interesting adjustments to fit everything in. The most obvious feature when you go upstairs is that the door to one of the bedrooms is not rectangular – its corner has been sliced off to follow the line of the sloping ceiling. The second feature which is not so obvious is that the upstairs ceilings are sloping and there are no rafters. Here we had to invoke some modern building technology because the roof is built as a structural insulated panel (SIP) which relatively thin, very strong and very well insulated. The third feature was to drop the ground floor level. Many years of cow occupancy had created very fertile flooring. So this was removed (about 50 tonnes of it) and carried up to our forest a couple of miles away. When the conversion was finished, this was all brought back again to make the garden which you can see is relatively level and higher than the surrounding land. The pictures shows Keith bringing back one of the ten loads of soil on a bitterly cold day.
On completion of the cottage conversion, we took local advice and decided to call the building “Yr hen Beudy” which is “The Old Cowshed” in Welsh. But when, shortly afterwards, we visited The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, we discovered the local Tithe Map of 1848 gave it the name “Cilfach”. The literal translation is “small corner”, but we have now discovered that there is a more poetic translation “Quiet Retreat” which seems more in keeping for a holiday cottage.
The cottage is not the only thing that is very old
It does not take long for visiting children to find the swing even if they do not notice that the pollarded Oak that it hangs from is almost certainly older than Cilfach itself. We do have a photograph taken in 1905 that shows it as a mature tree. For the years that cows were in residence, they frequently trampled the ground around the base of the trunk. So, when Geraint moved out, he was convinced that the tree had been killed. But it has now recovered its full crown and it looks as healthy as ever.
Hopes for the future
Since 2004, Villa Norge itself has undergone an extensive restoration and, although it is a timber building that is nearly 130 years old, it is now in good shape ready to last, we hope, for at least another century.
Cilfach is now a five-star holiday accommodation and has already given pleasure to many visitors and we hope to see many more in the future.