What a to-do this is. There is no literature, no documentation at all on the Ffynogion earthworks before the 19th century. You can almost hear the sigh in later writings. The Ordnance Survey 6’ Map of 1879 would have you believe the earthworks to the near north west of Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd are the remains of an ancient camp - perhaps that of a motte and bailey, perhaps an older, Iron Age fortification. A glance at the maps and you can certainly mould your mind to the idea. With its three adjoining ditched and banked enclosures, it seems a neat enough suggestion. All well and good then - a camp.
Looking north towards the larger of the three enclosures, from the raised platform of the first.
But not everyone was convinced by this 19th century conclusion. By the time of the Royal Commission’s visit in September 1911, there were doubts.
‘About 200 yards to the north-west is what the Ordnance sheet terms a camp, and the site of what may have been a mound castle with large rectangular enclosure. There are at present no signs of a mound, and the conjecture that one formerly existed may not be justified.’
RCAHMC, ‘An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Wales: Denbighshire’, 1911, 349. p.104
The argument for a camp or motte and bailey seems to have rested on the banked areas which clearly adjoin each other. But without dismissing the idea in its entirety, the absence of a motte, or any clear indication that a motte had ever existed, and the lack of significant raised ground to the north of the site seems to have steered them towards a recent re-evaluation of many sites as moated homesteads - now known simply as moated sites. These had become better recognised from the very beginning of the 20th century. It is probable that the Royal Commission were aware of what to look for when it came to moated sites, and in seeing the banks and ditches, and in distancing themselves from the notion that here was a motte and bailey, were they taken with the idea that Ffynogion was actually a moated site? Were they swayed by the nearby presence of Coed Henblas Moated Site to the south east? Did they even know of Coed Henblas at the time of their visit?
‘In what may have been the bailey of the mount castle a house was at some time erected, and a wet moat constructed as its defence.’
RCAHMC, ‘An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Wales: Denbighshire’, 1911, 349. P.105
This suggestion that a house was built within the enclosure tallies with the thinking that moated sites had homes, farmhouses, outbuildings and so on built within their confines - that they were manorial in their DNA. As for defence, it is highly unlikely that a moat alone would suffice to defend against an attack in force, and the suggestion that moated sites were primarily built for defence, at least against the two legged predator has been largely dismissed. The weight of learned opinion leans towards moated sites being status symbols for gentry. All this seemed to be apparent in the earthworks at Ffynogion. All well and good then - a moated site.
Looking south along one of the ditches adjoing the raised platform.
Except it wasn’t all well and good - at least for very long. By the 1960s, the learned opinion that had rested easy on the belief that Ffynogion was a moated site, began to question again the purpose. It was suggested that in fact, the earthworks were a duck decoy of all things - a structure designed to catch wild fowl, and perhaps contemporary to the house nearby, a 17th century building. As a hypothesis, it works - especially when one considers the moat, the bank and the depressed centre which could have contained water. It does seem to have lacked the radiating ‘pipes’, however and there is no sign of them on the OS maps, or indeed the Lidar images now available to us. So, perhaps not a duck decoy, but what about a water meadow within a formal garden? In an article written in 1988, Stephen Briggs makes it plain that Ffynogion was in likelihood a formal garden, within which a water meadow had been created. And another look at the available maps, perhaps with a weary squint and yes, a formal garden with water meadow can be seen, especially in comparison with other such gardens in Glamorgan. All well and good then - a formal garden and water meadow. At least for the now.
On the ground the remains are striking - really rather wonderful. The amusing aside you find in academic texts, that there is, ‘nothing remaining’, is invariably wrong. The clear, clean lines to be seen on OS maps and Lidar images are entirely traceable underfoot, amongst the manure and mud. The banked and raised enclosure to the south, its ditches lined with tree and scrub and broken stone, the wider, larger enclosure adjoining it to the north, its curious little annex-like feature are all here - all that is to be seen from high, is to be seen from down low. And of all the many mooted hypotheses, the water meadow, formal garden suggestion seems most likely.
In walking the embankment about the larger enclosure, the notion that this was once a camp seems highly unlikely, the idea that there was once a motte amongst these earthworks cannot be borne. The possibility that this was once a moated site seems equally unlikely, given the realisation that internal to the embankment the land is lower - not the raised platform you would reasonably expect. But then, there is the smaller enclosure adjoining to the south, which is most certainly raised above the level of the ditches, and indeed the larger enclosure, and one cannot entirely remove the Jiminy Cricket niggle that this could be a really rather impressive moated site. Shake it off - at least for the present. A formal garden and water meadow - keep saying it. All well and good, then.
*A note. The farmer on whose land the Ffynogion earthworks reside is a genuinely fantastic fella - and a fellow Wrexham AFC season ticket holder. If you see him, say hello. But do note, that the earthworks are adjoining the public footpath, and not on it, and are often populated by a number of curious cows - some in calf. Do be mindful if visiting.*
An Inventory of Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monouthshire: Denbigh, RCAHMC, (1911)
Garden Archaeology in Wales, Stephen Briggs (1988), CBA Research Report No.78, Garden Archaeology, ed. A.E. Brown (1991)