I'll begin with an admission: I didn't actually intend to make my way to Pumlumon's summit today, a sojourn upon Y Garn the relatively modest limit of ambition. However these mysterious uplands of Mid Wales are intoxicating, truly beguiling to this traveller. Lacking - for the most part - the stark, angular rock formations to be found further north in Snowdonia, the attraction here is more subtle... more, well, feminine..... with an innate strength of character. Consider Katherine Hepburn, if you will. Yeah, Pumlumon's contours are generally soft, rounded, the frequent veneer of mist perhaps reminiscent of the alluring movement of silk across the female breast, representations of which the ancients saw fit to erect upon their summits. How can a man resist? As it happens all is clear today, but nonetheless, perched upon Y Garn's great cairn, I am drawn to Pen Pumlumon-Fawr as a moth to the flame.
It is further than I anticipate, much more so than I recall. Ha! Truly, my eyes and memory doth deceive me, the hamstring beginning to tighten as I swing north to follow the fenceline along Pen y Drawsallt to the summit (a handy guide should you find yourself engulfed by the mist.... not so beguiling then, it has to be conceded). Despite such physical 'idiosyncracities' I duly approach the top after a little over 30 minutes, the first of a trio of cairns, erected in north-south alignment upon the summit ridge, crowning the skyline. It is a fine monument, seemingly more or less intact and utilising the bedrock to great effect. According to Coflein:
'The southernmost and best preserved cairn on Pen Plynlimon-fawr. It is 55ft in diameter and about 10ft in height, including a modem cairn on top.... The cairn appears to be founded on a natural boss of rock.... (CADW Scheduling description, 1993)'.
Nice, a great spot to hang out for lunch and take in the majestic, extensive views toward distant southern Snowdonia and the Elanydd, not to mention the coastline of Cardigan Bay and Pen Pumlumon-Fawr's myriad supporting, cairn-endowed peaks clustering around mother... with the added bonus of avoiding the walker punters drawn to the summit as ferrite to the magnet. Ah, yes. It has to be added that, although a worthy cairn to crown the summit peak of Pumlumon, this 'un actually sits a little below to the south. The reason for its survival, no doubt. Guess we should be grateful for small mercies.
Sadly the 2,467ft summit is actually home to a massive, sprawling - it has to be said - shattered mess of a cairn set a little further up the ridge to the north. I have to admit to conflicting, mutually exclusive emotions as I stand beside the OS trig pillar and survey the carnage... overwhelming, breathless wonder at the fabulous vistas stretching to every horizon, humility at the sheer priviledge of being here on such a day as today... alternating with the realisation that here resides a monument with a dual purpose, recognising not only the considerable, back-breaking efforts of our ancestors, but standing also in mute testimony, a damning indictment of sheer ignorance engendering mindless, pointless 'walker' vandalism perhaps unequalled in all Wales? Yeah, what have they done to what must originally have been a true behemoth of a cairn? Again, Coflein:
'One of three cairns upon a summit of Plynlimon... c.10m in diameter & 1.0m high, having several shelters & an OS trig. pillar set upon it. (source Os495card; SN78NE9) RCAHMW AP955040/44-5 J.Wiles 16.01.04'
Note the reference to 'several shelters'.... speaking of which, two 'tough' Welsh walkers arrive to interrupt my bemused ponderings, attired only in T-shirts (for some reason). They agree with my observations regarding the loss of their heritage... before heading straight for the largest 'muppet shelter' to eat, cower from the wind and avoid the views. What is it with these people? I am loathe to share the summit with suchlike, taking my leave in order to view what is arguably Pumlumon's 'jewel in the crown'.... who knows, perhaps for the last time? I head north, passing another cairn, again cited by Coflein as being of Bronze Age origin. On this occasion, however, I'm not so sure - although the positioning is consistent, it just 'doesn't look right', you know? Consequently I must reserve judgement.
Beyond, the summit ridge falls away to the north-east to form the crags overlooking the still waters of Llyn Llygad-Rheidol (the 'eye' of the Rheidol). As the nomenclature suggests, this mountain tarn is indeed the source of the Afon Rheidol, and how wondrous does it look nestling within its rocky bowl! I plonk myself down and ponder once again... Pen Pumlumon-Arwystli rises above to my right, the source of the Wye to its right, that of the Severn (Hafren) obscured by the mountain's tri-cairned bulk. Panning north... Carn Hydggen, with a pair of massive cairns of its own, lies across the Afon Hengwm and..... yes, there they are.... the quartzite blocks of Y Cerrig Cyfammod Glyndwr shining in the sun beneath the (inevitably) be-cairned Banc Llechwedd-mawr. There is more. Hey, it's easy to get carried away and forget I still have to get back down again with a tight hamstring. Hmm.
Time expires.... the universal constant. I decide to retrace my steps and so hopefully minimise any unforeseen eventualities and avoid any 'tarmac bashing'. As the light begins to fail upon Y Garn's massive cairn the horizon develops a pink hue that somehow seems to epitomise Pumlumon today. Understated, yet with an inherent character to take the breath away. Just like a certain film star from Hollywood's golden age, perhaps?
The hill-walking fraternity often refer to this great mountain massif as 'Plynlimon'. Yeah, right. But try calling it by its proper Welsh name of Pumlumon - 'Five Stacks' - however, and those after more than a quick masochistic ego trip will gain immediate insight into the true prehistoric relevance of this iconic landscape. The harsh brutality of Nature suddenly gets the human touch.......
True, there are five great Bronze Age burial cairns here - if attention is limited only upon Pen-Pumlumon Fawr (with two) and Pen Pumlumon-Arwystli (with three). But that is only part of the story, with several other large examples waiting to be visited upon satellite peaks along the main ridge.
Pen Pumlumon Fawr, at 2,467ft, is by a small margin of 39ft, the highest point of the massif. It is also the most dramatic topographically, the relatively featureless southern slopes suddenly terminating in a sheer cliff-line plunging to the source of the Afon Rheidol far below. The two burial cairns are large, if all too predictably having suffered the attentions of the aforementioned hillwalking fraternity. Sure, the landscape has altered since these monuments were first erected, the most obvious change being the Nant-y-Moch reservoir glistening to the west. But stand upon one and survey the surrounding hills and the myriad other visible cairns may convince you that, no......... up here things really haven't changed that much in the intervening millennia. In fact there are so many burial cairns concentrated around that I'd go as far as to say that here we have Wales' - indeed the UK's - Bronze Age answer to Carrowkeel.
So why here? Why upon this (arguably) not very physically striking, dare I say it not especially 'high' Mid Walian mountain range do we have perhaps the UK's greatest Bronze Age burial cemetery? A tentative answer may present itself if the traveller decides to go for a wander past Pen Pumlumon-Arwystli to distant Pumlumon Cwmbiga and Carnfachbugeilyn. For if he/she does so the source of two major rivers (in addition to the aforementioned Rheidol) will be visited upon the ridge line; namely the Wye and the Severn (Hafren). These sources are mere boggy pools, it must be said, but their significance is ..... well. Perhaps it's just the over-excited imagination of one freaked out Gladman up here. But could we refer to Bronze Age Pumlumon as a perceived place not only of death, but also a simultaneous source of life/rebirth. Too fanciful? Perhaps.
Pen Pumlumon Fawr is most easilly reached starting from the farm of Eisteddfa Gurig on the A44 to the south. However a direct ascent from the Maes Nant activity centre to the north will assure the traveller he/she is indeed climbing a true mountain.
Pen Pumlumon Fawr finds its place in legend as the dwelling of a reaver giant who often waylaid unwitting travellers and became notorious throughout the land. In King Arthur's hunting of the monstrous boar Twrch Trwyth, as told in the tale of Cullhwch and Olwen, a great hunting hound named Drudwyn was needed. Unfortunately no leash in the world could hold such a powerful hound save one manufactured from the beard of this robber giant of Pumlumon. Here is the extract from Lady Charlotte Guest's translation of the Mabinogion that details the events which were said to have taken place here.
'As Cai and Bedwyr sat on a beacon carn on the summit of Pumlumon, in the highest wind that ever was in the world, they looked around them, and saw a great smoke towards the south, afar off, which did not bend with the wind. Then said Cai, "By the hand of my friend, behold, yonder is the fire of a robber!" Then they hastened towards the smoke, and they came so near to it, that they could see Dillus Farfawc scorching a wild boar. "Behold, yonder is the greatest robber that ever fled from Arthur," said Bedwyr unto Cai. "Dost thou know him?" "I do know him," answered Cai, "he is Dillus Farfawc, and no leash in the world will be able to hold Drudwyn, the cub of Greid the son of Eri, save a leash made from the beard of him thou see yonder. And even that will be useless, unless his beard be plucked alive with wooden tweezers; for if dead, it will be brittle." "What thinkest thou that we should do concerning this?" said Bedwyr. "Let us suffer him," said Cai, "to eat as much as he will of the meat, and after that he will fall asleep." And during that time they employed themselves in making wooden tweezers. And when Cai knew certainly that he was asleep, he made a pit under his feet, the largest in the world, and he struck him a violent blow, and squeezed him into the pit. And there they twitched out his beard completely with the wooden tweezers; and after that they slew him altogether.'