About Rhyd-Yr-Hwyaid (Ford of the Ducks)

Rhyd-Yr-Hwyaid is the name of our 5½ acre Welsh smallholding. My family moved here in 2022 from south-east England in search of a more sustainable and resilient way of life. For ten years before that this blog/website was called “Geoff’s Fungi and Foraging”, because teaching and writing about foraging was my primary occupation. I still do those things, but my time is now mostly taken up with doing my best to transform and future-proof our small triangle of land. This is always done with permaculture principles in mind – working with nature instead of against it, whenever this is possible.

History of the land

The name is a very old one. According to local historian Sue Passmore, it was first recorded in the 17th century, at which time it was the name of a 60+ acre farm. In her book she offered no guess as to the origin of the name because “there are no fords around there”. A local person who grew up in our house when it was still a working farmhouse was reported as saying she’d never found the pond, even though she knew there once must have been one, because of the name. At the time Sue Passmore was writing her book there were a couple of stream-fed “wildlife ponds” – the upper one shaped like a chemistry flask with an extremely long neck – but there was general agreement among the locals that these were constructed in the 70s or 80s. The previous owners told us that these ponds had been fitted with the wrong sort of plastic as a liner, which had now degraded such that the ponds are only in water during the winter when the stream is in full flow. It was only after our offer had been accepted, and I had a chance to explore the surrounding area, that I discovered the remains of a third pond, above the flask-shaped one (which is therefore now called our middle pond). It was completely overgrown with grey willow, silted to the top and totally forgotten. Figuring out the true history of the pond system here has involved considerable detective work over the past 18 months. Restoring/adapting it has also been a major job, carried out entirely by myself with no equipment bigger than a chainsaw.

The first clue that this pond system was much older than a mere 50 years appears on the Ordnance Survey map of 1889. The top pond – the one that had been forgotten – does not appear on this map. However, the top pond is created by a weir (photo below) that creates a dog-leg field boundary, and that dog-leg does appear on the map, which means the top pond must have been there when that map was surveyed in 1887. Additionally, the boundary then continues along the exact line of what is now the neck of the middle pond, and then on along the straight northern edge of the bottom pond, ending at the precise point that our septic tank in now located. What is going on here?

Top pond from below the weir, Jan 2024.

The missing ford can only have been where the stream now enters the top pond (and our property), now a small culvert under the main drive we now share with two other properties (including Cardigan Bay Camping and Caravanning Club Site). It is also a public footpath. In the 17th century was the main entrance to Rhyd-Yr-Hwyaid Farm. The only sensible explanation as to why this was ford was named after ducks is that there was already a pond by the river crossing at that time. It is at the head of a stream, is marked as a spring on some old maps, and is the obvious location to build a weir to deepen a natural pond in order to provide a water supply during drought. I have no idea how long there has been a weir there.

Then at some point, probably early in the 19th century, somebody decided to divert water by digging a 300m leat, in order to power a waterwheel in the farmyard. The location of this waterwheel is given away by another dog-leg field boundary in the lowest of our property’s three corners, this one with an unexplained 4ft drop. The bottom of the original outflow channel (the “tailrace”) remains visible just over our boundary. A wheel of a similar configuration and age still exists owned by the National Trust, just outside Cardigan at Y Ferwig (known as Lllyn-ysgaw).

Llyn-ysgaw waterwheel.

Presumably the waterwheel at Rhyd-Yr-Hwyaid was already out of use when the 1889 map was surveyed, because an almost identical leat less than half a mile away was actually marked as a watercourse rather than just a field boundary. This would also have been about the time the farm was connected to mains water supply, making both the top pond and the leat redundant. The original farmhouse was demolished in the 1920s, and the core of our present house built. By the 1940s the top pond had reverted to very wet woodland, and the leat reduced to a wide ditch serving as a field boundary. The farm was then split up, Rhyd-Yr-Hwyaid became the smallholding it now is. Then in the late 70s or early 80s somebody decided to turn the lower third of the leat into what are now the bulb of the flask of the middle pond, and a waterfall to the lower pond (lower and larger than the original bottom of the leat) in which he kept carp. These ponds were lined not with plastic but clay. At the same time (I presume) the top pond was expanded beyond the outline indicated on the 1889 map, presumably for aesthetic reasons. The top pond must have been restored at that time, but was completely abandoned again about 15-20 years ago. By the time I cleared it out last year there were mature grey willows that had fallen over, their branches then rooted in silt 1m deep. Eventually the leat silted up to the point where normal flow on the stream went entirely over the weir instead of any of it going down the leat, so the rest of the system lost its water supply during periods of merely average rainfall. This likely caused the clay liners to dry out and crack, until the ponds only filled after serious rainfall (which is frequent on a hilltop next to the Irish Sea). Ultimately the top pond completely disappeared again and the rest of the system was fenced off and left to nature as a pair of seasonal wildlife ponds, while the rest of the land was used to graze horses. When we arrived at the height of the July 2022 heatwave all that could be seen was a mostly dry ditch full of willow and alder saplings until it disappeared into an impenetrable thicket of brambles and adolescent trees, the other side of which was an overgrown hole in the ground where the bottom pond should have been.

Rhyd-Yr-Hwyaid today

Restored, the pond system is of great value to us – it is now in water all the time with flows regulated by a redesigned weir and a rock barrier at the entrance to the leat. The top two ponds are reserved for wildlife. The bottom pond is in service as a 5-star aquatic facility for our growing flock of domestic waterfowl, which we hope will produce the next generation without use of incubators. The paddock above the pond system is used to graze the geese, and has been planted with over 20 fruit trees of all different kinds. The land below the pond system, which is always very damp, has begun its transformation into a willow bed to provide both basketry whips and construction material. In other places I am planting hybrid ‘superwillows’ to be coppiced for fuel. And we are of course growing plenty of vegetables and fruit, both for our own use and to sell. The truly enormous pile of well-rotted horse manure left by the previous owners has come in very handy, though we probably still have enough to last us another fifty years.

I have also been favouring and in some places introducing all sorts of plants which are interesting from a foraging perspective, and deliberately leaving a lot of logs around to encourage fungi. Old Elder trees that had stopped fruiting have been cut back hard to the ground and are now growing back into productive trees. Our intention eventually is to make our land into somewhere we can teach general foraging courses. Sadly I cannot run the sort of foraging courses I once ran in Sussex, because am yet to find a suitable location to do it. Ceredigion and the surrounding areas of Wales just don’t have enough of the right sort of woodland for me to easily run public foraging courses – and what woodland there is tends to be extremely steep. Neither is there an abundance of suitable locations for seaweed foraging courses, most of the coastline consisting of cliffs. Western Pembrokeshire is the place to go for that. However, foraging events based at Rhyd-Yr-Hwyaid, covering both plants and fungi are hopefully going to be possible in future, though I have none planned for this year (2024).