On Macnamara’s road

Tal-y-maes bridge and the so-called Macnamara’s road.

If you walk the same routes over and over, then on each occasion you not only walk the walk in the present tense, but you carry with you the memory of every time you did the walk before, your hippocampus a repository for the sense impressions and visions and emotional turbulence of whatever preoccupied you on those earlier occasions, all those things you have forgotten, or seem to have forgotten, until flagged into consciousness by the rustle of a fern, or the cluster of red berries on the hawthorn tree and the contingent secrets of all these byways, childhood picnics downstream from the bridge, and the view up the famous Macnamara road. And there’s the thing.

For as long as I can recall this track up from Taly-y-maes bridge has been the source of stories about the eponymous John Macnamara, Lord of Llangoed Hall, a member of the original Hellfire Club, and a famous gambler, drinker and brawler, the very stuff of Byronic legend. Allegedly Macnamara won Llangoed Hall in a card game, settled there with his wife Mary (the full tale is rendered in faux-Regency prose by Horatio Clare on the Brecon Beacons website here). 

The story goes that Macnamara had the legendary road built so as to visit his mistress, whom he had installed at the Hermitage, further down the valley (in Clare’s sanitised version, she is a wronged woman, Charlotte H, whom Macnamara generously offers to house, away from danger, in the middle of nowhere). One night, during a drunken race (with the devil, perhaps) Macnamara was thrown from his coach on the col at Pen Trumau and broke his neck. And that was that. His widow, Mary, inherited the estate, and erected border stones at Pen Twyn Glas and a dozen other locations to establish the limits of her property. 

The last part is true, but almost nothing else.

In an illuminating article, ‘Macnamara Myths’, Miriam Griffiths pretty much lays this fable to rest with one acerbic sentence: ‘John Macnamara was not much interested in his Welsh estate; several of his letters refer to the fact that he is in England while his wife and family are in Wales and it is perhaps improbable that a man would install a mistress on the inaccessible outer fringes of his less-favourite estate.’ Moreover, as we discover, the so-called ‘Macnamara’s road’ is pure invention too. It has never been more than a bridleway or horse track, and certainly would not have sustained a wheeled carriage of the kind used two hundred years ago, let alone one driven at speed by a shit-faced rake. Oh, and there was never such a thing as the ‘Hellfire Club’, and the closest thing to it, Sir Francis Dashwood’s, ceased operations in 1766, when John Macnamara was eleven years old.

There was indeed a road built by a Macnamara, but it ran south from the Hermitage, as does the present road to Llanbedr, and was most likely built, or improved by John’s son Arthur, while carrying out work on the Hermitage during the 1830s and 1840s. 

And yet it doesn’t matter. History trumps fiction, but so what? Still we carry these stories with us, like the landscape and the memory of falling and the red berries of the Hawthorn tree.

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