Yr Ysgwrn, winner of the Europa Nostra Conservation award 2019
Hunkered on the southern slopes of the Cwm Prysor valley in the heart of Snowdonia stands Yr Ysgwrn, a dignified farmhouse, listed Grade II* since the late 1980s. Yr Ysgwrn came to international recognition in 1917 as the home of one of Wales’ best-known poets, Ellis Humphrey Evans. Known by the bardic name of Hedd Wyn (Blessed Peace), he represents one of the greatest tales in Welsh history.
Killed at the Battle of Pilkem Ridge, or more generally known as Passchendaele, on 31 July 1917, it was announced five weeks later from the stage of the National Eisteddfod at Birkenhead that Hedd Wyn was the winner of the bardic chair. A National Eisteddfod bardic chair is the pinnacle of all Welsh-language poetry contests and was Hedd Wyn’s life ambition. He instantaneously became a national symbol of the loss of 40,000 Welshmen during the First World War. His story is one that demonstrates the the importance of ambition, friendship, love of community and landscape, and the futility of war. His legacy represents peace, goodwill and a desire to build a better future.
Born at his maternal grandparents’ home in Trawsfynydd on the 13th of January 1887, Ellis moved to his father’s home, Yr Ysgwrn at around four months. Thirteen other children followed, five of whom died in infancy. Ellis left school at 14 to assist his father at home with the farm at Yr Ysgwrn. Although widely commemorated as a shepherd, he probably assisted with all roles on the farm and was remembered locally as being a skilled peat-cutter. Indeed, he won his first poetry prize for composing an englyn (four-line stanza written in the strict meter of cynghanedd) to the peat stack at a Chapel competition.
Though Hedd Wyn’s formal education was short lived, he received a rich cultural education through the Chapel, Sunday School and Chapel Literary Society. He learned the principles of composing poetry and the cynghanedd at home at Yr Ysgwrn, spending evenings at the kitchen table, learning from his father, Evan Evans. Known as a bardd gwlad (country poet), Evan taught his son the basics of cynghanedd, (pronounced kung-han-eth). Cynghanedd is described as the chiming or intricate arrangement of consonants, accents and rhymes and the ability to compose poetry in cynghanedd continues to be widely celebrated within Welsh culture. Indeed, the pinnacle of all competing at Wales’ National Eisteddfod continues to be the awarding of the bardic chair, for the best ode written in strict meter.
The early twentieth century was the heyday of local eisteddfodau and the winners of chairs at these contests were considered celebrities. In 1907, aged 20, Hedd Wyn won the chair at the Bala Eisteddfod. Such an achievement would usually be considered beyond the grasp of one so young without a scholarly education, but Hedd Wyn defied the odds to claim his bardic chair. He went on to win a further four bardic chairs at local eisteddfodau held in Pwllheli, Llanuwc
-hllyn (where he won twice) and Pontardawe. All five chairs have been proudly exhibited at Yr Ysgwrn ever since.
Hedd Wyn is best known for composing poetry to his locality, to the people of his community and the First World War. Although not considered a war poet in the same vein as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, David Jones or Wilfred Owen, Hedd Wyn was a poet at war, who responded to the war itself both from the perspective of a community left behind and from that of a soldier. He had spent the first years of the war working at home on the farm, composing various poems including Marw oddi Cartref (Dying Away From Home) and several dedicated to friends who had died on foreign soil. He lamented the loss of young men from the vicinity and the impact of war on the community itself. With the introduction of the Military Service Act 1916 came a huge change to Hedd Wyn’s life and poetry. An unwilling soldier influenced by the pacifist movement, he left Yr Ysgwrn for Litherland training camp in February 1917 and in June, sailed to France with the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. The pitch and tone of Hedd Wyn’s poetry changed during this time and it is believed that one of his best-known lyrical poems, Rhyfel (war) was composed at the front. Compared with his earlier romantic poetry, Rhyfel chimes with a harder, realist, modernist outlook. In spite of this, it was during this time that Hedd Wyn wrote and submitted his ode, Yr Arwr (The Hero), considered the pinnacle of Welsh-language romantic poetry, to the 1917 National Eisteddfod. Submitting his entry from the front line, Hedd Wyn was killed before hearing the news of his victory.
On 6th September 1917, the Eisteddfod gorsedd assembled on the stage of the pavilion to conduct the ceremony of the chairing of the bard. In the presence of Welshman, Prime Minister Davis Lloyd Georg, the Archdruid, Dyfed, thanked the adjudicators for their work and called Fleur-de-Lis, the winner’s nom-de-plume to stand on their feet. No one stood. He called a second time. He called a third. In the deathly silence, Dyfed came forward once again to announce that the winner was a young poet by the name of Ellis Humphrey Evans of Yr Ysgwrn, Trawsfynydd who had been killed in action and was ‘now lying in a foreign land’. The audience was overwhelmed. The Prifardd (Chief Poet, as the winner of the National Eisteddfod bardic chair is known) had fallen in battle. Hedd Wyn immediately come to symbolise all of those lost, from all over Wales. In his absence, his majestic bardic chair, expertly carved by Belgian refugee, Eugeen Van Fleteren, was draped in black cloth. It has been known ever since as Y Gadair Ddu (the Black Chair).
The Black Chair was returned to Hedd Wyn’s family in the days following the Eisteddfod and made its pilgrimage by train through rural North Wales. The journey itself was an important event, with local communities gathering at the local station in order to see the train bringing the chair to Yr Ysgwrn. At each station, the train would stop and the carriage holding the chair would open so that locals would be able to see the Black Chair. The chair finally arrived at Trawsfynydd, where it was met by Hedd Wyn’s family, friends and neighbours, before making its final journey by horse and cart to Yr Ysgwrn itself. The chair has been exhibited ever since in the parlour of the farmhouse, the best room in the house. It has inspired countless visits to Yr Ysgwrn and continues to be the highlight of any visit to Hedd Wyn’s home.
The door of Yr Ysgwrn was opened to visitors throughout the twentieth century by Hedd Wyn’s family, initially by his parents and more recently by his nephews, Ellis and Gerald Williams, who were raised by their grandparents at Yr Ysgwrn, following the death of their mother, Hedd Wyn’s sister, Ann in 1932. The brothers had made a promise to their grandmother that they would ‘keep the door open’ and the memory of their uncle alive. Gerald Williams is the last of the family to have lived at Yr Ysgwrn and the future of the home weighed heavily on his shoulders. He decided that selling would be best and on St David’s day 2012 it was announced that the Snowdonia National Park Authority had purchased Yr Ysgwrn for the nation, with substantial financial support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Welsh government funding. With the support of Heritage Lottery Fund and Welsh Government funding, the National Park Authority undertook a major conservation and restoration project to conserve, enhance and improve access to Yr Ysgwrn and its collections. Purcell Architects were at the helm of the careful conservation and development of the farmhouse, three nineteenth century agricultural buildings and a new agriculture building for the tenant farmer who looks after 168 acres of the upland farm. Hugh Hayley of Phoenix Conservations took care of the chattels, including the iconic Black Chair which had been broken over the years. There was excitement when 26 layers of Wallpaper were found on the wall in the Kitchen which Lincoln University carefully separated, dated and copied the layer from 1917 to put back on the wall.