Maenllwyd farmhouse has been here for 200 years, maybe longer. The name means ‘grey stone’. The stone was here for 2000 years, or longer, erected by the inhabitants of these hills for a purpose we can only guess at. Standing stones were commonplace then but over the centuries they have gradually been incorporated into walls or used as gateposts. This stone was still here in the 1950s. Today, in St Harmon parish there are only two remaining, at Gwenfron and at Henriw.
The house is now used as a Buddhist retreat centre by the Western Chan Fellowship. It stands above the village at the foot of a steep dingle, in summer luxuriant with willow, rowan and birch: a beautiful and wild place, an ideal location for austere and intensive meditation practice – sleeping in a dormitory with no electricity, no phone reception, composting toilets and vegetarian food. Retreats, lasting up to seven days, take place on about 10 occasions throughout the year.
Cattle Feed Store
In the early nineteenth century the house with 53 acres of ground was owned by Hugh Powell Evans, ‘The Old Squire’ of Noyedd. By the 1870s the farm had grown to 166 acres and passed to the Prickard family of Dderw. Throughout most of the century it was rented and farmed by the Davies family, firstly by John and his wife Sarah, then into the twentieth century by their children, Richard and his sister Sarah. The Price family then took over until 1943 ,when they moved to Rhayader. After that the house was used mainly as a cattle feed store, apart from a short period during World War II, when it was occupied by an evacuee family from Liverpool. In the early 1970s it was bought by Dr John Crook.
Western Chan Fellowship
John Crook was an ethologist and psychologist. He developed an interest in Buddhism while on National service in Hong Kong. He studied Buddhism and in the 1970s and 80s established two silent retreats – Western Zen and Mahamudra. In 1993 the authority to teach Chan (Chinese Zen) was passed to him by Chan Master Sheng Yen of Dharma Drum Mountain, Taiwan. With others he formed the Western Chan Fellowship and extended the programme of retreats at Maenllwyd.
Enter a Timewarp
The house is caught in a timewarp. It is not meant to be lived in daily, continuously. The main room, used as a lounge and for food preparation, is full of shadows, has a stone flagged floor, rough stone walls, an inglenook and opposite the hearth a raised area of floor, typical of Welsh farmhouses of the time. Another room, a former stables, is a refectory with long dining table, with a sleeping platform over. Outside, deep in sheep droppings, are the remains of a garden, full of wild Welsh poppies and the brook falling through the dingle, on its way to the River Marteg. The old cowshed on the yard has been converted into a bare meditation space, supported by worm-eaten trusses. Down some steps leads to a single cell retreat with a small library and photographs of John Crook and Chan Master Sheng Yan and the Dalai Lama.
A Place of Silence
In 1998 Dr Susan Blackmoor, a long-time retreatant, visited Maenllwyd to present a twenty-minute radio programme about the experience of going on retreat and the quest for enlightenment. The programme is a seriesof interviews with various participants, including John Crook, and neighbouring farmer, Phil Wilson. It captures perfectly the isolation and peace and stillness of the place. You can see her description of Maenllwyd and hear the interviews at A Place of Silence. John Crook died in 2011 but his work at Maenllwyd and his spirit is carried on by others and his ashes are scattered by the lone hawthorn tree on the hillside.
© PB 2017
Many thanks to John Senior for helpful suggestions and to Dr Susan Blackmoor for the link to ‘A Place of Silence.’
The origins of Maenllwyd may have been as a lluest or summer house. Richard Suggett mentions a sixteenth century deed that refers to a hut or summer house and its field at y llwest mlaen y maen lloyd in St Harmon.
The Ancient Stones of Wales, Chris Barber and John Godfrey Williams 1989
St Harmon Tithe Map 1839
Plan of Maenllwyd and Tylare Farms 1878 (Powys Archives)
Houses and History in the March of Wales, Richard Suggett, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, 2005 (pp. 249)