Several rivers run across the bogland of Cors Fochno into the wide tidal estuary of the River Dyfi, each is embanked through the bog into the salt marsh alongside that river to drain parts of the bog. This occurred early in the nineteenth century, before which the raised mire drained naturally across the saltmarsh and fen surrounding it. The western edge of the bog, over which Eleri ran to the sea, was initially drained by a wide ditch cut back from the Dyfi between the salt marsh and the sand dunes at Ynys Las. This connected to a narrower draining ditch further back which may have been dug earlier to enable peat cutting for fuel and which runs alongside Eleri. The Ordnance Survey map for 1830 shows these features but also shows Eleri still running across the land to the west of the drain, finding her own way to the sea.
The crucial historical event in the process of change was the passing of the Enclosure Act in 1801 which allowed landowners to make applications to enclose common or ‘waste’ lands and ‘improve’ them for agricultural purposes. The bog was common land used mainly as a source of peat for fuel and probably for some limited grazing around the edges in the drier months of the year. Local landowners, led by the leading landowner Pryse of Gogerddan, made an application to enclose the bog and drain it with the intention of selling off plots of drained land to offset the expense. This application was granted in June 1813. Initial estimates for the cost of drainage were deemed too expensive but a more limited scheme got under way in 1815. This scheme planned to open and deepen existing drainage ditches, to build an embankment along the River Dyfi to prevent tidal waters encroaching onto the bog from the adjoining salt marsh, and to divert Eleri into a wide and embanked channel into the River Dyfi. Embankment of the other rivers which already flowed into the Dyfi was also undertaken, with drainage channels leading into these rivers to carry water into the estuary.
Although most of this work was completed by 1818 it was not completely effective and a new Commissioner of Works was appointed in 1822. The rivers Cletwr, Ddu and Einion had been enclosed and embanked further up the Dyfi estuary, draining much of the northern expanse of the bog for use as grazing land. Eleri’s flow was diverted into the drain which had been dug earlier to further enable drainage of the land on the western side of the bog. This subsequently made possible the construction of the railway line and the station at Borth more or less alongside where Eleri originally ran. Today a small amount of the land that was drained here is part of the Cors Fochno nature reserve, though now as wetland rather than bog, separated from the bog by Eleri’s embanked canal. Some of the rest of the land is used for grazing, some has been built on and a large tract is now a golf course alongside which some traces of Eleri’s previous path are still visible.
Because the enclosure had not been completed in the time specified by the Enclosure Act a new application had to be made in 1824 and further work continued alongside legal disputes between the landowners and the contractors for different phases of the work as well as protests from commoners who were losing their access rights for peat cutting. But in 1829 it was formally declared that all such rights were “for ever extinguished”. This was a little premature as legal disputes continued until 1847 although parcels of land, particularly on the northern edge of the bog, had been drained and sold off long before this.
The point at which Eleri’s diversion into the embanked drainage canal took place was at a large mound called Ynys Fergi, the ‘ynys’ meaning ‘island’ suggesting that it once stood above surrounding wetland. Several other parcels of higher ground above the bog also contain ‘ynys’ as part of their name. The raised shingle causeway alongside the canal extends back to this point and the ground where Eleri must have run around Ynys Fergi is now marked by a shingle slope down to the river alongside the outfall from a small sewage treatment station which now occupies Ynys Fergi. A long shingle bank also runs south along the shoreline behind the beach at the point where Eleri naturally ran into the sea which now also blocks that estuary. This gives way to sand dunes to the north. Between her diversion and the natural estuary, the way she ran is visible on the old map but indistinct for much of the way on the ground, though ditches, reedy depressions and blocked channels all give clues to what joined up the few stretches which are still discernible.
By the twentieth century about two thirds of the original bog had been drained and converted to farmland. Even the remaining bog, where drainage had not been successful, was in the hands of various landowners following the legal ‘enclosure’. Several boxes of letters now in the Ceredigion Archive record the process by which much of this land was acquired by a company from Lincolnshire who wished to complete the process of drainage on the same basis that the fens of Eastern England had been drained and put under cultivation. They managed to purchase large areas of the bog, though not without further legal disputes about ownership of particular parts. But it seems their drainage activities were limited and the bog was eventually taken into public ownership as a nature reserve and protected as a Special Area of Conservation in 1970 when it was recognised as, in the words of a recent conservation report, “a rare and striking landscape ….. one of the largest actively growing raised bogs in the lowlands of Britain ….. containing a 7m deep peat archive, continuously developed over 5000 years, storing information on sea level, climate and other environmental change.” (*)
Researching this history I was also constantly aware of the literary, legendary and mythical history of the Bog and the rivers that run through it. All the legal disputes about ineffective sluices, leaking embankments, flooded lands recall the story of Cantre’r Gwaelod and the lands of Gwyddno Garanhir. I was conscious too of the cries of Mererid over the flooded land in the older version of the story, or the drunkeness of Seithennin and the open sluices in the later tale of the inundation. One of those embanked rivers must be the one in the story of Taliesin who was discovered in an estuarial fish weir by Gwyddno’s son Elffin. As one of the Ancients of the World in the folk tale variant of the Oldest Animals episode in Culhwch and Olwen, what I wondered did the Toad of Cors Fochno make of it all, sitting in the bog watching the slow passing of millennia as the tides of time continue to ebb and flow?
The Enclosure and Drainage of Cors Fochno by Richard Moore-Colyer Ceredigion VIII, 1977, pp. 181-192
Box ADX/1471/13 In the Ceredigion County Archive
(*) Core Management Plan for Cors Fochno SAC Countryside Council for Wales, 2011
Cassini Historical Map (Old Series) Matching O.S Landranger 135