Co-operative centre helps prop up local legend

For a village of just four hundred people, Myddfai in the Brecon Beacons, has an incredible story to tell. It’s a story of decline and of rebirth, of...

The story goes back to the 12th century, but it’s more immediate starting point is rather more recent — about five years ago when resident Hugh Davies decided that enough was enough. Having lived in the village for many years he was saddened at its decline, and worried for its future. The pubs, shops and post office had all gone and the nearest thing to a community facility was a dilapidated village hall constructed in 1952 “as a temporary measure”.

Mr Davies decided that the village needed investment to survive and, with the support of others, he followed the well-worn path of grant applications to all possible funders — a lot of time and effort, but with ultimately no reward.

”I knew that people wouldn’t just throw money at the village without some sort of sustainable element,” says Mr Davies. “So I looked at what we have. We have a network of independent craft workers, a strong farming tradition and the Lady of the Lake legend and the Physicians of Myddfai.”

There will be many rural communities across the UK which can boast craft workers and farming — but only Myddfai can throw in the mix of myth and 12th century medical history. The myth is of a beautiful woman who mysteriously rose from the lake of Llyn y Fan Fach. 

According to local legend, she met and married a young farm boy, having promised him success and riches in return for marriage and for him staying silent about her appearance. However, having ignored her promise that she would leave if he hit her three times, her husband watched her walk back into the lake taking his animals and prosperity with her. His only salvation was that she had passed on secrets about the medicinal qualities of local plants to her children who grew up to be the Physicians of Myddfai.

Unlike the Lady, there are records that the physicians existed and the myth may have been crafted to explain the sudden emergence in 12th century rural Wales of this wealth of medicinal expertise. They created remedies for a variety of conditions and recorded their recipes in the Red Book of Hergest, now stored at Bodleian Library, Oxford. 

Mr Davies felt that it was this medieval history and the attached myth which could offer a solution to the village’s 21st century problems — and with the luck the village surely deserved, both the BBC and the Big Lottery Fund agreed.

The two organisations had launched an ‘SOS Villages’ initiative, which sought to bring rural villages and entrepreneurs together to support innovative and enterprising solutions to rural decline. Having gone through a number of application stages and ‘matchmaking’ exercises, Myddfai was selected and elected to work with Jo Gideon, a successful businesswoman from Kent.

The proposal put forward by the village was to create a brand for Myddfai, launch a range of herbal products and create a village centre as a focus for both residents and visitors. A £400,000 funding bid was approved.

Two companies have been established — a commercial company to handle the product range and an operational company set up for the benefit of the local community with a board made up of local residents. Any surplus made by the commercial company is used to subsidise the local craft workers and farmers, enabling them to increase the value of their products and generate income for the village.

The commercial company, Myddfai — Made In A Great Tradition, recently spent four days promoting the venture at the Royal Welsh Show and has launched its own web site (www.myddfai.com) from where its products can be bought. 

The current product range is more about gifts (herbal teas, toiletries etc) than remedies. “We are not medics and don’t make medicinal claims for our products,” explains Hugh Davies.

All of the products aim to raise awareness of the village and its history in the hope of boosting visitor numbers. Work is due to start on demolishing the old village hall and creating the new “beautiful, state of the art” co-operative centre in the autumn — with a planned completion date of next spring. All work on the project is being offered to only local contractors.

The centre will not only be a meeting place for residents, but will be used to sell Myddfai’s products. An interpretation area will enable visitors to learn about the histories and uses of different herbs and walks are being set up around the village and surrounding area.

So how will Myddfai’s residents feel if the venture results in a sharp rise in visitor numbers? Will everyone welcome such attention? “This has seen the whole community come together. It’s a real hearts and minds project with a commercial edge,” explains Mr Davies. “There’ll always be the occasional naysayer, but we will lose the next generation if we’re not careful.” 

The village’s most famous neighbour HRH Prince Charles (he bought his Welsh residence Llwynywermod which neighbours the village in 2006) could certainly never be accused of being one of the naysayers. He has been supportive of the village’s initiative throughout.

The Myddfai — Made In A Great Tradition company has already created two jobs and hopes are high that it will lead to the long term regeneration of the village — with additional benefits for nearby towns and villages.

The possibility of growing herbs on a large scale has not been ruled out, but will only be considered once a firm financial base has been established.

The story of Myddfai is likely to be featured on a BBC programme in spring 2011 though what format the programme(s) will take is not yet clear. They may not claim to be physicians in the way their 12th century predecessors were, but today’s residents of Myddfai hope to have discovered their own long term remedies for today’s ills. 

And while those ills no longer include mad dog bites and noise in the head, if they can find a cure for rural deprivation, isolation and young people leaving their village, then that should be bottled as the most precious gift Myddfai can offer.

 

In this article


Join the Conversation