On the coast of southern Wales is a small post-industrial town with a history steeped in medieval folklore, industrial revolution, and the revival of Welsh culture. In the center of Llanelli, the Lliedi River flows beneath buildings and streets.
The photo above was taken by Hywel Williams in 2006. The spot where the river dips beneath the town was historically known as Falcon Bridge, but no marker explains for this centuries-old name or when the stream was consigned to permanent darkness.
Where it Flows
A map produced by Natural Resources Wales in 2016 shows two interpretations for the covered stream, as a straight line between either portal of its tunnel, and as a dotted line approximating its actual course. That a governmental agency could not initially determine the underground course of the Lliedi demonstrated how forgotten this stream is in the public mind.
The oldest map that I’ve found showing the Lliedi flowing through Llanelli is from 1761. The most visible landmark here is the parish church of St. Elli, the obscure 6th century Welsh saint that is the town’s namesake. The road lined with buildings is Church Street, and the one running to the south of the church approximates today’s Vaughan Street. The church dates to the 15th century.
At the time, Wales was a principality within the Kingdom of England. Towards the end of that century, the Welsh Tudor dynasty took the throne. They subsequently made the English language and legal system official for Wales. But the Welsh language lived on, the red dragon symbol, Prince of Wales title, and the white-and-green colors that later became the Welsh flag.
Four centuries later in this 1860 map, the church is surrounded by buildings that followed centuries-old roads radiating away from it. The first blast furnace in town was completed in 1791, heralding the Industrial Revolution. Coal mining, copper and tin manufacturing soon followed, and smokestacks dominated the skyline. Lack of plumbing and industrial runoff contributed towards cholera and typhoid outbreaks in Llanelli. The town’s population grew with English migrants taking many of the industrial jobs. The town was nicknamed Tinopolis, as famous for its tin factories as Danbury was for hat making.
One of my favorite sources on British urban waterways is the detailed Old Victorian Ordnance Survey 1888-1913 that covers the entirety of England, Wales, and Scotland. The river is seen flowing in a tight course through the town centre. The two circles show the present-day portals to its underground section. The National Library of Scotland provides online maps with a closer look and ability to compare between 1884 and 1953. In the 1913 survey, the stream is still visible in the center of Llanelli. But in the 1953 survey, the stream is no longer seen in the same location.
Note the spelling on the map as Llanelly, that’s the anglicized adaptation. In 1966 the Welsh spelling Llanelli was officially restored following a public campaign. The town is a hotbed of Welsh language activism. It may be the most Welsh town in Wales based on popular surnames.
How it Appeared
In this undated photo from the early 20th century, we see Vaughan Street crossing the stream. At the time it was already a busy commercial strip.
In the 1920s, this section of the river was covered and buildings stand atop this scene. Towards the last quarter of that century, Vaughan Street was pedestrianized in an attempt to make the town centre more attractive to shoppers. As is the case with American towns, old downtowns struggled to compete with shopping malls (retail parks as they’re called in Wales). Earlier this year the task force for Llanelli’s downtown suggested reopening Vaughan and Stepney streets to vehicles.
Another photo from the past shows the Lliedi flowing along Frederick Street, with embankment walls containing its flow in times of flooding. Examples of such walls can be seen today on Mill Lane, which flows the stream for a short distance.
Looking at Frederick Street today, it is a nondescript dead-end located behind Llanelli Town Council and Parish Hall. It was here on Jan. 20, 1912 where suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst spoke in support of voting rights. Previous speakers on this topic were subject to heckling and violence, but her eloquence carried the day. Conveniently on this block is the town’s library, where one can find materials on local history. If there is any hint of the Lliedi flowing beneath Frederick Street, it could be the concrete cover in the above photo, reminiscent of the Mill River flowing beneath Hempstead, New York.
Going upstream one can see the stone embankment on Mill Lane that used to line the stream in the center of town. Office buildings, garages and parking lots occupy the sites of factories and mills. In the second half of the last century, manufacturing and mining were declining in southern Wales, resulting in unemployment and economic decline. The principality has been reinventing itself as a hub for finance, light industry, and tourism.
On Millfield Road in Felinfoel, 1.5 miles upstream from the church of St. Elli, is the Felinfoel Baptismal Pool. Although it is rarely used these days, the steps leading into the river are still there. The photo on the left is from 1963.
The low amount of water in this urban stream is partially the result of Swiss Valley Reservoir. At the time of its completion in 1877, it was known as the Cwm Lliedi Reservoir, cwm [pronounced combe] is Welsh for valley. With increased demand for water, the Upper Lliedi Reservoir was completed in 1902 a short distance upstream. The reservoirs today are used for fishing and lined with bike trails.
Beginning and End
The source of the Lliedi is on the slopes of the 932-foot hill Mynydd Sylen. As the stream is connected to the town’s linguistic, industrial, and women’s history, at this location it relates to labor and class struggle. Between 1839 and 1843 the Rebecca Riots rolled across the countryside against landowners and tollbooths, led by farm women inspired by the biblical prophetess. Some of the rioting “rebeccas” attacking the tollbooths were actually men in drag.
Downstream from the town centre, the stream emerges from its tunnel at Old Castle Road and Park Crescent. Within a few yards it becomes subject to the tides. As seen at Traeth Ffordd, the sandbanks at low tide reveal a lot of land that is then covered as water rises. The Lliedi flows trough the sandbanks, merging with the Loughor River and widening into the Bristol Channel, which then opens into the Celtic Sea, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that touches on the historical Celtic regions of Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, and Ireland. It is a fitting end for a hidden stream that connects to events and ideas of Welsh culture.
In the course of my research on Afon Lliedi, there was little information available online on items such as Falcon Bridge, or the exact date of its tunnel, or for that matter, when this town was founded. Two good books that provide an introduction to the town’s history are Keith E. Morgan’s Llanelli Through Time, and Brian Davies’ Around Llanelli.
In the News:
Riverdale Press reports on the volunteer project to remove invasive aquatic species from Van Cortlandt Lake and Bronx River.
The Guardian reports on the revival of urban canals worldwide for recreational, transportation, and ecological purposes.
Albany Times-Union reports on the six-foot sturgeon caught in Lake Oneida near Syracuse, NY. The fish represents the cleanup of this historically polluted lake.
Daily Advance reports on the effort to direct water flow back to the Great Dismal Swamp on the Virginia-North Carolina border, in order to restore this unique ecosystem.
Reno Gazette-Journal reports on the restoration of Walker Lake in western Nevada. no pun intended as the reporter’s name is Benjamin Spillman.