The Bronze Age cairn crowning the summit of Pen-y-Gadair-Fawr can not be seen from the fabulous monolith that is the Maen Llwyd, situated a little under a mile below to the south. Nevertheless aficionados of such monuments will probably require no directions save the prosaic 'up', common sense ensuring Citizens Cairn'd keep to the left of the lacerated hillside carved by the numerous sources of the Gargwy Fach. To be fair it is probably a pretty straightforward, albeit steep and tiring climb under 'reasonable' conditions, similar to that from the Grwyne Fawr to the east, I'd have thought? However today, suffering from the effects of fatigue having 'merely' made it to the standing stone (it is enough, to be honest), the flanks of Gadair Fawr loom.... nay tower... above me overpoweringly, overwhelming any fledgling resurgence of male bravado at source. Nevertheless the call is too strong.... I resolve to see how far I can get, if only to take a few snaps. Making no promises, now.
The early stages are not too taxing, the occasional stumble down a snow-filled gulley notwithstanding, such indignant episodes proffering the opportunity to study the form of icicles in detail - too much detail for comfort, perhaps - exquisite water crystals shimmering in the sunlight. Then, however, the angle eases and the summit duly takes its place upon the horizon... the intervening landscape appearing positively benign, welcoming even, a winter wonderland resplendent beneath a well broken cloudscape advancing with the wind across a startlingly blue sky. Yeah, looks wonderful, but what a bugger of a landscape to try and walk across for those not used to such things, deep snow topped by a crust of ice tough enough to resist a walking pole, but unable to support 12 stones of me.... like trying to stagger across polystyrene, perhaps? Half way there it is time to see if I have another gear in reserve, so to speak. Seems I have... well, sort of.
Eventually, rising beyond a more or less vertical cornice taking a couple of attempts to negotiate without crampons, there it is. The summit, unrecognisable from my visit with the Mam C some years back (but none the worse for that), the full winter raiment truly mind blowing in its brilliant, shining intensity, the upland landscape in complete contrast to the usual ubiquitous upland grass. The conditions are technically not the best for studying the form of Bronze Age cairns.... nevertheless the size of this one can not be camouflaged by a blanket of snow and protective shell of ice. Sure, there is an obligatory small walkers' cairn on top - thankfully no muppet storm shelter, though - but it is the massive underlying footprint which impresses, the ancient cairn clearly well worthy of the site chosen for it millennia before. It is perhaps noteworthy that Waun Fach, rising to the north-west, is actually the highest point of the Black Mountains' summit ridge, but, lacking the distinctive profile of Pen-y-Gadair-Fawr, does not possess a cairn. For what it's worth I reckon it never did so, suggesting the Bronze Age locals had a fundamental, sophisticated appreciation of landscape form. Indeed, the Mam C and I have referred to Pen-y-Gadair-Fawr as 'the nipple mountain' for years, the cairn set in profile upon its breast. Check it out for yourselves....
Despite the bitter cold I am in no hurry to leave; no way, not after such a pilgrimage to get here again, the landscape exhibiting a 'purity' seemingly not apparent at other times. To the west the Brecon Beacons reside like a veritable cathedral of marble upon a patchwork of green fields, to the east the ridge carrying the Offa's Dyke path defining the border with England, similarly attired. I think of numerous other cairns.... round, chambered, long... which still stand sentinel upon this landscape together with the ancient settlements, the hillforts where people used to live. Hey, the standing stones, even, and ponder - as you do - that the cairn upon which I sprawl for a couple of hours before starting the long trek back to the car was part of a very Big Picture indeed. Back then. Come to think of it, it still is today.
After the stiff climb up on to the ridge from Wern Frank Wood barrow (15.4.2010) via the steep Cwm Cwnstab, the views open up in all directions. It is very difficult to describe the immensity of this landscape. The summit of Twmpa is visible to the NE, then the walk SE along the ridge gives wonderful views of Mynydd Troed and the Y Grib ridge. Ahead, the flattened summit of Waun Fach, at 810m the highest point in the Black Mountains, is between me and the summit of Pen y Gadair Fawr.
Once reached, the Waun Fach summit is a lunar landscape, pitted and worn through the peat by countless walkers' feet. Whether there was ever a summit cairn here we will never know, even the trig point is reduced to a worn plinth surrounded by trenches. From here, there is a great view of Pen Cerrig-calch and Pen Allt-mawr, both with their own Bronze Age cairns. And there is Pen y Gadair Fawr, its distinctive peak (800m) crowned with a large summit cairn, itself topped with a recent walkers' construct.
After a mile walk across the boggy saddle between these two summits, there is a short uphill stretch to the cairn itself, which is actually a rather fine one, despite the silly walkers' effort on its top - noticeably reduced since Gladman's photos.
A fine spot on a fine day and well worth the effort, whichever way you come from. From here I headed to Maen Llwyd, close by but at a much lower elevation and not reached by any easy path from here.
Visited with the Mam Cymru, by way of a direct, very steep ascent from the secluded Grwyne Fawr valley - we're getting too old for this lark, I'm afraid - the 2,624 ft summit of Pen y Gadair Fawr is crowned by a substantial cairn-spread, perched upon which is a rather 'dodgy' looking modern effort. The size of the latter apparently varies according to the vagaries of the winter storms; a rather feeble construction, if the truth be told. Huh, they don't make 'em like they used to, do they?
Not so the remnants of the original which, as the photo shows, would have been of a fair old size and is still pretty extensive. Well worth the trouble in reaching and worthy of such a major peak.
Coflein isn't conclusive as to period of origin, but nevertheless reckons:
".....The circular cairn is constructed of small easily-portable stones forming a dense pile and measures 15m diameter and 2.5m high. The grassed-over base of the cairn measures about 1 metre high. The exposed pile of stones on the top, which has been rebuilt in modern times, is about 5 metres across. The feature could be a burial mound, and has extensive, panoramic views......"
As mentioned, the views from the cairn are simply magnificent, stretching all the way to distant Sugar Loaf Mountain and Blorenge above Abergavenny... nearer to hand, the Maen Llwyd stands at the apex of forestry below to the (approx) south. Said to be the highest sited standing stone in South Wales, it apparently aligns upon a man-made notch near Mynydd Llysiau, across the Grwyne Fechan to the west. Nice. Sadly we didn't have the energy reserves to check this out this time around.