The road down from Penrhos. Many of the area's roads would have seen herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, either going to market in Wrexham or on longer droves into England.

If, on a day around a hundred and fifty years ago, you could have stood at the roadside on the moorland above Brymbo, at any time between midsummer and Michaelmas, you would have encountered long lines of black cattle moving steadily eastwards off the hills, which at that time of the year would be bright with flowering bell-heather and gorse.  Alongside the cattle, men walked or rode with sticks in their hands, calling to the animals or to warn farmers of their approach. What you would have been seeing was a stage in the yearly droving of fattened livestock from north-west Wales towards the markets of England, important to the area long before the growth of industry.

The pastoral nature of much Welsh farming meant that its cattle trade became well-developed early on: large swathes of the country, particularly in the west, were devoted to grazing, though little of its output actually stayed in Wales. Most of the animals would go on to be sold in England, after making the long journey across the central Welsh mountain ranges: they would be joined by large flocks of sheep, pigs and geese. The trade was placed in the hands of the drovers, professionals – although often seasonally employed, or farmers themselves – who knew the animals and the routes, which stretched as far as London and even Kent, many days’ journey away. Contrary to some depictions, few of those involved were the kind of wide-eyed yokel who was liable to get fleeced themselves at the first town inn, but rather experienced and trustworthy men who in some cases grew wealthy on the proceeds, especially if they moved into related professions such as wool-trading.

Of course, not all the drovers left a good reputation behind them, and some people described them in less wholesome terms (notably George Borrow, who never held back on any of the odd prejudices he reveals in his writing). But for several hundred years, from as far back as the mediaeval period at least, up until the railways’ penetration into the remoter parts of Wales, they were an absolutely central part of the rural Welsh economy – and of much of the urban economy too, with many towns becoming prosperous on the back of the droves. In the immediate area we’re interested in, they would have helped provide an income for many people, as well as for farmers, blacksmiths, merchants and any number of inns, or farmhouses doubling as inns.

In fact, you could probably describe many of the roads and green lanes in the area as “drovers’ roads” to some degree or other, as much of the countryside was given over to raising cattle and sheep, many of which would have gone to market at some point. However, there were some roads that were more well-trodden than others, particularly those that formed part of the long-distance routes for cattle from the west coast. In the case of our immediate area, we know that routes coming over the mountains from Ruthin, through Llanarmon-yn-Ial and Llandegla, where there were once cattle fairs, passed around the shoulder of Esclusham Mountain and through the township of Brymbo at what is now Bwlchgwyn: this was the alternative to the more southerly but equally hilly route via Bwlch Rhiw Felen and Llangollen. Like Llanarmon, Bwlchgwyn was in fact once a shoeing station, where a blacksmith would fit the cattle with ox-cues – aided by a “thrower”, whose job was essentially to wrestle the cattle to the ground so they could be shod. Anyone looking for traces of the drovers today should look for the sites of isolated inns – although it is well to remember that until the later 19th century, much of the countryside was well-populated, even in what today seem like isolated and lonely places – for the pine trees that were planted as waymarks, or for unusually bright and lush fields in areas of poor grass, often a sign of years of manuring by cattle left there overnight.

In my previous post I mentioned the Brymbo gwarchae below Penrhos, which could also conceivably have been part of a droving route; there was once a smithy very close by. The main road in fact ran more or less southwards and eastwards from Bwlchgwyn towards present-day Coedpoeth, making a sharp left and heading for the gap in Offa’s Dyke at Adwy’r Clawdd. There was once some kind of tollgate here, remembered in the name of Llidiart Fanny, the farm on the hillside above the River Gwenfro. However, drovers were well-known for their resistance to paying tolls if at all possible, and some of them – perhaps along with more local farmers driving their stock to Wrexham’s busy market – could have taken the unusually deep, steep-sided lanes eastwards from Bwlchgwyn, past Pentresaeson, and across to Penrhos. Whichever route they took, most would have ended up making their way to Wrexham, where the Horns inn, which once stood at the bottom of Bridge Street, and the many other public houses of the town would be waiting to relieve them of some of their profits.

If anyone would like to find out more about the drovers of north Wales generally, and perhaps walk some of their routes, I can do no better than recommend a book published in 1977 by Shirley Toulson, The Drovers Roads of Wales. It also has beautiful photographs by Fay Godwin. There is also a very detailed article by Richard Colyer on Welsh Cattle Drovers in the Nineteenth Century, originally published in the National Library of Wales Journal in 1972, now available online.