Bron-Yr-Aur: Plant’s and Page’s “small derelict cottage” in South Snowdonia, Wales

By on May 20, 2015

We’ve long been a fan of Zeppelin’s quieter British folk-influenced sides and so we were particularly intrigued by something we read inside the booklet for the Led Zeppelin III album: “Credit must be given to Bron-Yr-Aur a small derelict cottage in South Snowdonia for painting a somewhat forgotten picture of true completeness which acted as an incentive to some of these musical statements.”

While we listen to Page’s Jimmy Page’s deft finger-picking, and have a look at the lovely Sharon Tate in some home movies, let’s set the scene:

We certainly didn’t know anything about this fabled Bron-Yr-Aur cottage, but this gaping lacunae began looming so large in our imagination that we realized this cottage probably had a cosmic connection to the music we loved and so we needed to know more about it, right away.

At the start of the 1970s, Led Zeppelin had achieved a staggering Mount Olympus-level of success that very few bands enjoy in their lifetime. Their Atlantic contract had given them unprecedented control over their career, and sales of their first two albums were through the proverbial roof. They had become the number one touring band in the world. By the end of April 1970, after playing nearly two-and-a-half hours each night on a brutal 27-date North American tour, they were beyond exhausted and Robert Plant’s vocal cords were so thrashed that his doctor warned of permanent damage unless he rested his voice. They had also been spat on, had guns drawn on them, and were heckled at airports and on planes.

For their next album, Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page wanted a break from the madding crowds, in order to slow things down enough to be able to compose acoustic sides influenced by many British folk artists they both loved. Their recuperative rural retreat, a remote 18th-century Welsh cottage named Bron-Yr-Aur — where they spent nearly a month without electricity, heat or running water — later became part of the band’s mythic folklore.

You may have already heard some of the stupifyingly tall tales that have long been part of Led Zeppelin’s storied folklore, including some of their more noxious escapades which may have involved a few eager-to-please groupies with possible low self-esteem and an octopus, or a mud shark, or fish of the red snapper variety.

Who’s to say whether or not any of this actually happened, but these salacious stories have been folded into Zeppelin mythology over the ensuring decades and they continue to be told. What a shame it is that repeating them might possibly divert at least some of our attention away from, or at least overshadow, the fact that the band created some of the best music of the late sixties through the mid-seventies.

There, we’ve said it, and you’re welcome to challenge us on this, of course, but we still believe Zeppelin were one of the best bands of that hallowed era in rockdom. Period. We mention this as a perfunctory way of introducing you to yet another chapter in the band’s history, but this tale doesn’t involve any poor dead sea creatures, we’re sure you’re relieved to know.

Perhaps, like us you recall the first time you heard some of the band’s pastoral acoustic album tracks, dating back from the time when Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones had all grown out their beards in the beginning of the 1970s.

These songs were a revelation. We always think of a particular blond-haired girl from my past when we hear these lyrics from “Going To California”: “Someone told me there’s a girl out there, with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair.” Even if you weren’t alive back then, the softer side of Zeppelin’s celebrated ouevre may bring back memories for you too, conceptualizing or coloring your own appreciation for their music.

The mere fact that Page, Plant and company were just as adept at these lovely folk-baroque reveries as they were at recording slabs of thundering heaviosity like “Whole Lotta Love” and “Kashmir” might even offset any dislike you might have for the band’s overblown and often bombastic FM radio fodder.

As an aside, the band’s critics could sometimes be so cruel in showing their own lack of appreciation for the music, not to mention their dislike of Zeppelin’s rabid fanbase: we recall reading a particularly memorable concert review in Creem magazine wherein the writer described a fantasy he’d had during a performance of the mighty “Kashmir,” something about the stage levitating slowly upwards and then moving forward, methodically lopping off the heads of the fans in the front rows as it moved over them and across the auditorium.

By the end of April 1970, Led Zeppelin had just completed an exhausting 27-date North American tour; they’d already spent most of the year on the road, in fact, having begun their second UK tour — which included a few European dates — on January 7th.

This was to be their first concert tour in the states without an opening act, and it was billed as “An Evening With Led Zeppelin.” The band slogged back and forth across the states (although flying in a private jet shouldn’t really be considered slogging, we suppose), performing sold-out shows in arena-sized venues for typically two-and-a-half hours each night.

They had also broken attendance records (previously held by the Beatles) in both Vancouver and Montreal, Canada, and, according to Disc magazine at the time, grossing an estimated $1.2 million in ticket sales.

Speaking of sales, their monolithic Led Zeppelin II LP was selling thousands of copies at the time, finding its way to #1 on the UK album charts earlier in the year. By the end of spring they had already sold more than two million copies of the album in the U.S. too. After returning to their homes to England, Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant — as well as Page and the rest of the band — remained concerned about Plant’s ongoing throat problems, which, at the end of the tour had taken such a toll on the vocalist that Grant had been forced to cancel the very last scheduled concert date, in Las Vegas, on April 19th. Plant’s doctor had warned him that unless he rested his voice, his ragged vocal cord nodules were at risk of being permanently damaged.

Prior to this U.S. tour, Page and Plant had the foresight to lay out plans to meet up just a week after the end of these shows for a “working vacation.” Plant already knew of the perfect place where they could sit the shade of giant trees and relax and recuperate while strumming their acoustic guitars and composing new songs for their next album, which was to be called — what else? — Led Zeppelin III.

And so, in May of 1970, Plant, his wife Maureen, their 18-month-old daughter Carmen, and the family dog Strider, were joined by Page, the guitarist’s girlfriend Charlotte Martin, and they traveled together to a remote 18th-century country cottage in Wales, which was owned at the time by a friend of Plant’s father.

This isolated location was more that suitable for such an idyllic retreat, and it even had a name steeped in mythology of its own: Bron-Yr-Aur.

The house sits alone atop a small hill in Gwynedd, Wales, nestled into a little valley on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park, near the River Dovey, in the north-eastern region of South Snowdonia.

In Hammer Of The Gods, Plant explained to the author about what had prompted them to make the sojourn into the verdantly green Welsh landscape:

“Zeppelin was starting to get very big and we wanted the rest of our journey to take a very level course. Hence the trip into the mountains and the beginning of the ethereal Page and Plant. I thought we’d be able to get a little peace and quiet and get your actual Californian, Marin County blues — which we managed to do in Wales rather than San Francisco.”

Plant had loved this rural mountainous section of Wales from childhood, when his family had rented another humble hermitage in the area for their summer holidays, in the nearby Llyfnant Valley, sixteen miles further north and closer to the coast, near Tal-y-llyn. Years later, in 1973, he would purchase this very same home and its surrounding sheep farm and restore it to its former glory. This area in Wales is evidentally rich in ancient myth. As the story goes, a giant named Idris Gawr has his seat on the mountain nearby and legend also has it that King Arthur fought his last battle nearyb, in the local Ochr-yr-Bwich mountain pass.

Bron-Yr-Aur — which I’ve read and heard is pronounced “BRAWN-YAR,” but I’ve also seen it pronounced as “BRAWN-ARE-YARR”– has also been described as “a bucolic setting of gallows poles and highwaymen,” though we don’t know if that’s entirely accurate (we think not), based on what I’ve seen in photos of the cottage, like the ones you are seeing here. Maybe a hundred years ago there were gallows poles and highwaymen, but I’m guessing not so much anymore.

The name Bron-Yr-Aur has a Celtic origin, and means “breast of gold” or “golden breast” in the Welsh language. The name provides a visual clue as to the way the rising sun shines upon the hills as it crosses the Dyfi Valley.

When Zeppelin tour manager Richard Cole learned that Page and Plant had made plans to hide away from the world at this remote Welsh cottage, and he learned of it’s name, he is supposed to have said to Plant, perhaps apocryphally, “Bring back a couple of those golden breasts for me.”

Well, this certainly sounds like something Cole might have said, considering what we learned about him after reading Hammer Of The Gods, not to mention Cole’s spurious 1993 autobiography, Stairway to Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored, which — despite being penned by the man who acted as Zeppelin’s road manager for twelve years — is said to be completely full of outright lies and fabricated scenarios that it has never officially been approved by anyone connected to the band.

Two Zeppelin roadies, Clive Coulson and Sandy MacGregor, were also invited to join them at Bron-Yr-Aur, according to one account I’ve read, in order to have someone there who could “take care of the domestic chores and ensure that the drudgery of cooking, cleaning, lighting fires and fetching water from the stream didn’t interfere with the serious business of strumming guitars and writing songs.”

We understand that you can get a good view of Bron-Yr-Aur while standing on a hill high above it, from the side of a public mountain road. It faces southward into the valley towards the town of Machynlleth, the nearest town, which is about two miles away in Powys, Wales. This town is accessible from the cottage by foot, descending along a sloping mountain road, but the road is so steep that there’s a sign declaring that the hill is unsuitable for motor vehicles.

Apparently, once you’re up closer to it, Bron-Yr-Aur itself is immediately recognizable by its large Gothic style window on the front. It’s been described as being pretty rustic at the time Page and Plant were staying there, as it is even still — it has no electricity or heating, no bathroom to speak of, and no sewerage or running water. Candles and gaslights were used in the evenings, and water had to be fetched from the nearby stream.

We’ve also read that the men all had to trek down to the Glyndwr Hotel, and to the Owen Glendower pub, in Machynlleth, in order to take a weekly bath during their stay.

Staying at Bron-Yr-Aur was, as you might expect, provided Page and Plant with a much more relaxed writing and recording setting than what they’d experienced while recording Led Zeppelin II, which had been recorded under a lot of stress — as the band was on tour in America at the time — at various studios along the way, including Mystic Sound here in L.A.

Page once said this about their present frame of mind: “We’d been touring for two years solid. Once you see the door open, you kick it open and go right in. We took full advantage of touring to get our name and mission across. We had a break after that period and Robert and I went away and were in a cottage with no electricity. We had battery recorders and were writing in a more mellow way so when the third album came out as mellow music, they couldn’t understand what it was all about.”

It’s hard to know what Page meant exactly by Led Zeppelin III being an opportunity for them to “kick in new doors,” but he did grouse in later interviews about how critics didn’t really understand what they were doing; in interviews he seems to have wanted the band’s new material to not be assumed to be a new direction for the band but merely a diversion from their heavier rock sides.

Speaking on the topic of the songs that would be included on Led Zeppelin III, Page reportedly once said: “We have included some quieter numbers, and we can always infiltrate new material into the old songs, without making everything we’ve done before obsolete. We’re still a heavy band!”

“It was the first time I really came to know Robert,” Page is also supposed to have said during another interview, about the time he’d spent with Plant at the cottage, “actually living together at Bron Y-Aur, as opposed to occupying nearby hotel rooms. The songs took us into areas that changed the band, and it established a standard of traveling for inspiration… which is the best thing a musician can do.”

“This is the way we have to do it from now on,” Page said, after recording at the cottage. “I feel energized with this kind of pace.”

As you may already know, Page and Plant wrote two songs at the cottage which actually include Bron-Yr-Aur in their title, the first of which is the reflective “Bron-Yr-Aur,” a two-minute instrumental acoustic song played in a very calming finger-picking style by Jimmy Page. By six seconds, it is the shortest studio recording under the band’s name.

The song was later recorded during the sessions for the album, Led Zeppelin III, but wasn’t released until 1975 on Physical Graffiti. It can be heard on the famous bootleg Live On Blueberry Hill, on which Plant explains the origins of “Bron-Yr-Aur”:

“This is a thing called ‘Bron-Yr-Aur’. This is a name of the little cottage in the mountains of Snowdonia in Wales, and ‘Bron-Yr-Aur’ is the Welsh equivalent of the phrase ‘Golden Breast’. This is so because of its position every morning as the sun rises and it’s a really remarkable place. And so after staying there for a while and deciding it was time to leave for various reasons, we couldn’t really just leave it and forget about it. You’ve probably all been to a place like that, only we can tell you about it and you can’t tell us.”

The other song with Bron-Yr-Aur in the title is a country blues-inflected hoedown called “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp,” which features an unusually thick guitar sound, the combination of an open tuning and clever use of backward echo. John Paul Jones also received a writing credit for the song.

Lyrically, the words describe some of Plant’s own experiences at Bron-Yr-Aur, revealing the simple pleasures he had while walking down country lanes with Strider, his “blue-eyed merle,” which is a type of spotted border collie (“As we walk down the country lanes, I’ll be singing a song, hear me calling your name”). Strider, which you may have recognized, is an alias for the character Aragorn in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy — you may also already know that references to the work of Tolkien can be found in other Led Zeppelin songs, such as “Ramble On”, “Misty Mountain Hop” and “The Battle of Evermore.”

This particular song, however, had already begun its life with another set of lyrics, dating back to December of ’69, when it was known previously as a kind of slave-working Southern Delta folk-blues called “Jennings Farm Blues.” Jennings Farm is the name of a farm that Plant had purchased for his family to live in back in 1969. The farm is located in the Midlands, at Blakeshall, Woverley near Kidderminster, about sixteen miles west of Birmingham.

“Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp” — like many of the songs initally begun at Bron-Yr-Aur — was later recorded in the drawing room of a large rather dilapidated Victorian home called Headley Grange, which as located in Hampshire, in South East England.

The mansion had originally been built for the parishes of Headley, Bramshott and Kingsley in order to shelter their “infirm, aged paupers and orphan illegitimate children.”

Zeppelin used the very same mobile recording truck that had been used by the Rolling Stones, in order to take advantage of the tired mansion’s superior acoustics. If you’ve seen the 2009 documentary It Might Get Loud, you’ll possibly recall that Page is seen walking throughout this house and remarking even still on the amazing sounds achievable in its hallways and vaunting stairwells, while clips are interspersed of the band during their recording sessions for what would be their 4th album, Led Zeppelin IV.

Additional tracking for “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp,” however, were completed in mid-1970 at Island studios in central London and also at Ardent Studios, in Memphis, Tennessee, where the band Big Star also recorded. John Bonham played spoons and castanets on the recording of “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp,” and John Paul Jones played an acoustic five-string fretless bass.

When the band performed the song live, however, Jones played an upright bass and Bonham displayed a rather under-appreciated talent for singing harmony vocals (during some shows, Page sang the harmony vocals instead of Bonham — Seattle in 1977, for example). This can be seen in the footage from the Led Zeppelin DVD, and the Earl’s Court footage from concerts in May 1975, which you can see on the How the West Was Won DVD.

The tune was rarely performed live, however, but can be heard on some Zeppelin bootleg recordings from their sixth American concert tour in August-September 1970, when it was sometimes played as part of their acoustic set. On the band’s concert tour of the United States in 1977, their song “Black Country Woman” was merged into a medley with “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp.”

During their stay at Bron-Yr-Aur, the beginnings of many additional Led Zeppelin songs — sometimes the completed versions as well — were created: “Misty Mountain Hop,” “Friends,” “The Crunge,” and “That’s the Way,” as well as the early stages of what would become their best known song, “Stairway To Heaven.”

As you might imagine, many additional bootlegged recordings from this same time period are in existence, including takes 1-22 of the “Guitar Jams from Bron-Yr-Aur,” which were included on one of the discs from the 11-disc Antrabata Studio Sessions, a massive collection of unreleased Led Zeppelin recordings (though not all of them are “studio” recordings). There have been many high-quality Zeppelin bootleg recordings available since the nineties in the CD format, many of them released as limited-edition packages for Japanese labels such as Antrabata (Tarantura is another Japanese imprint).

The studio version of “That’s the Way,” incidentally, features Jimmy Page playing acoustic guitar and pedal steel, while John Paul Jones plays the mandolin. There is almost no presence of drums or bass guitar on the track, and light tambourine has been added towards the end of the song. The original working title of the song was “The Boy Next Door.”

As it was pointed out in Hammer of the Gods, “That’s The Way”‘s lyrics depict Plant’s views on the ecology and environment at the time. There are also several lines in the song which reflected on the way the band were sometimes treated in America during their early concert tours: “I can’t believe what people saying, you’re gonna let your hair hang down, I’m satisfied to sit here working all day long, you’re in the darker side of town.”

Jimmy Page and Charlotte Martin’s daughter Scarlet, incidentally, was conceived while they were staying at Bron-Yr-Aur: when onstage for Page and Plant’s Unledded MTV reunion in 1994, Plant announced to the audience that she had been conceived “about half an hour” after “That’s The Way” was written at Bron-Yr-Aur.

On the Antrabata collection, you can also hear the rough sketches of “Over the Hills and Far Away,” “Down by the Seaside,” “Black Country Woman,” and “The Rover,” which were also begun at Bron-Yr-Aur, as well as “Poor Tom” (from Coda) and two songs that were recorded, called “Another Way To Wales” and “I Wanna Be Her Man”, but which never found their way onto an official Led Zeppelin album release. A primitive recording of the latter of these can however be heard on bootleg label Antrabata’s studio outtakes sessions.

“Down By The Seaside,” by the way, was originally written as an acoustic piece at Bron-Yr-Aur, but was ultimately recorded in 1971 as an electric arrangement. It was intended for release on Led Zeppelin IV but was held over and eventually appeared on 1975’s Physical Graffiti in order to fill up space on the double album.

“Down by the Seaside” was never performed live at Led Zeppelin concerts, as weunderstand. On the Bron-Yr-Aur recordings, including in the Antrabata collection, you can hear Page on acoustic guitar, strumming, improvising and generally just picking away on an acoustic. It’s kind of exciting to hear him alight upon something that he’d later insert into “Stairway to Heaven,” for instance.

We should also point out that Bron-Yr-Aur remains to this day a private family home, and even though it still appears as you see in these photos, looking peacefully tranquil, it is not open to the public.

The Reverend John Dale, its owner for more than 35 years, says many fans have made pilgrimages to see it, and some have even broken in, which is pretty uncool if you ask me.

Dale — who is the vicar of St Michael’s Church in Michaelston-y-Fedw, between Cardiff and Newport — gave reporters the following statement, after Led Zeppelin performed a reunion concert a few years ago, at London’s O2 Arena:

“We’ve had more than one break-in and once a photograph was taken near the fireplace and posted on the web. There have been other incidents too, with one quite amusing one where someone removed a piece of cement stuff from the house but later posted it back to us.”

The vicar’s daughter — Ruth Dale — once wrote this blog comment as well: “May I take the opportunity to thank people for expressing their respect of what is indeed a private family home. Respectful visitors may indeed walk and see what is such a special place, and whilst it is disruptive we do understand how tranquil and unique it is. BTW, still got no electric, or mains water or phone line!”

You can certainly see why Plant would return to the local area, just a few years later, in 1973, and purchase the sheep farm and home where he’d stayed as a small child. He also wrote material there for his 2005 album The Mighty Rearranger here.

You can also see Plant’s home and the surrounding farmland in the conceptualized concert movie The Song Remains The Same (1975), and it’s in this same local area where a video for “No Quarter” was lensed as part of the 1994 Unledded MTV video project, in the area known as Dolgoch Falls. Also, in the same vicinity, is Corris Slate Quarry where a video for “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” was once filmed. Corris is about sixteen miles north of Machynlleth.

Led Zeppelin III, incidentally, was released in October of 1970, and although it possessed some of their stronger compositions, in my opinion, many of them dating back to those bucolic weeks spent at Bron-Yr-Aur, and also managed to sell enough copies to also reach #1 on both the U.S. and U.K. album charts, it ended up being their poorest-selling studio album overall.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • David Fullam

    Truly beautiful place.

  • Scott Roe
  • larry w

    I was born in north wales. Led zeps softer music rang a chord in me. It is part of what i term the pagan revival…hippies retreated to the relatively undisturbed valleys and hills and smoked weed and tuned in. British celtic society has always had srong animist world view. Country children of the 1950s were more aware of the spirit latent in certain Welsh locations. Even the churches were built on pagan sites. Most believe in a concious afterlife, which is not Christian. Most believe in reincarnation. Not Christian again, but an echo of the celtic religion of spirits, nature and power beyond the boundaries of egos boxed in by industrialisation and ignorance.