Popularity's a funny thing, isn't it? More like Cicero's fabled Sword of Damocles hanging over your head, if you ask me? Nevertheless X Factor wannabees will do almost anything to achieve it... and even the most hardbitten cynic (ahem) would probably not say no to it, even when the side effects can clearly be so damaging. Take poor Corn Du, for example, condemned to an seemingly interminable stream of visitors simply because it is neighbour to the highest peak in South Wales. The brutal scars, like open wounds in the red sandstone, that pass for paths here tell their own story. But I guess we shouldn't be too hard upon humanity in this respect - indeed I would be a downright blind hypocrite to do so - since we appear to have been lured to these high places since the beginning of civilisation. For this is where our Bronze Age ancestors - Neolithic over the Irish Sea - decided to lay their status dead to rest. Which begs the question whether this yearning for the mountain tops is simply a yearning to experience some 'time out' from the modern world, or the barely repressed folk memory of a time when these places were the focal point of life for the local communities - the 'abode of the gods' in the most literal sense.
I can only speculate upon the latter, but must confess to the former, which is why I haul myself up the very steep eastern flank of Graig Fan Ddu en route for Corn Du, two young men clad in army gear racing ahead and making me feel very old, yet delighted to be here to experience this moment. Yeah, despite the vicious shower and unforecasted early, low cloud obscuring Cribyn, I'm happy to be the 'tortoise' in this respect. Hey, you wouldn't bolt down a Cordon Bleu meal without savouring every last sensation upon the tongue would you? Exactly. The approach along the ridge is long, but gentle - just what I need with a right hamstring not playing ball. Upon reaching Rhiw yr Ysgyfarnog, Pen y Fan and its companion dominate the scene, Cribyn, Fan y Big and, below, the Upper Neuadd reservoir all bearing reminders of prehistoric funerary practice. It's no exaggeration to say it's everywhere you look up here...
At Bwlch Duwynt - literally 'windy pass' - I join the myriad groups of middle aged ramblers, young kids in co-ordinated red waterproofs (no Huw, don't push Cerys over the edge to her certain death, that's naughty!', and the occasional lone 'hill-seeker' (to use Postie's term) with the glint in the eye, to ascend to the summit of Corn Du. To say it's a bizarre place would be an understatement, to say the least, a decapitated plateau sloping towards the north and crowned by a large cairn. And it is this large cairn which is the primary objective of all... how many actually realise that there is a complex Bronze Age cist within the protective modern layers is a moot point, but in many ways that is beside the point. The cairn is the object of the pilgrimage, just as it was no doubt designed to be. Ha! Marvellous. I must admit I'm not too sure whether the visible kerbing is original or not, but, whatever, the positionning is overwhelming - if this sort of thing is your bag.
I retreat a little northwards to overlook the frankly staggering vista down into the magical Cwm Llwch, and only an equally staggeringly nubile blonde runner in tight, lycra shorts and bra top can momentarily distract my attention during the next few hours.... dream on Gladman. I mean, how would you keep up with her with a dodgy hamstring and knees? Huh, thoughts of life, death, sex... all the things that make us human. For if there's one thing mountains are certain to do it is make you confront your humanity head on - as Cromwell once famously put it - wart's n'all. Yeah, for a little while all those annoying 'issues' of everyday life are allocated their true, due importance. What did 'so and so' say again now? Can't recall? Ha! Yep, Corn Du, away from the crowds munching sandwiches perched upon the cairn, is a good place to be, a good place to give your brain a MOT. Anyway, to my left The Fforest Fawr rise across Glyn Tarell, leading the gaze all the way toward Y Mynydd Du on the horizon... a myriad further Bronze Age burial cairns as far as the eye can see.
To my right rears the flat top of Pen y Fan crowned by it's own example. Oh well, suppose I'd better go say 'hello'.
Right, about time I got on with it and came to these highest Beacons peaks. Visited 22.5.2010 in blazing May heat - not entirely a great idea! A walk up from the Storey Arms, taking in the lower summit of Y Gyrn rather than the direct trail, makes for a terrific approach along the edge of Cwm Llwch, looking down to Llyn Cwm Llwch over a hundred metres below.
The modern obelisk commemorating 5 year old Tommy Jones highlights what an unforgiving place this can be when the weather is not clear and sunny. The summit of Corn Du requires a stiff climb, but the views are immense, across Fforest Fawr and Fan Fawr to the west and to the nearby Pen y Fan to the east, while the whole of Mid Wales lies directly ahead off the escarpment. Like an idiot, I had not checked TMA before coming up here and hadn't realised that the modern cairn covered something more interesting and more ancient, but the place itself more than makes up for this omission.
Be warned though - you won't find lonely solitude up here (at least not on a sunny May Saturday!) and even less on my next stopping point, Pen y Fan itself...
Sister peak to Pen-y-Fan - and only a little lower at 2,863ft - Corn Du was also graced by the presence of cairn builders in prehistory. A visit here will leave the tired traveller in no doubt as to why....
These peaks have always provoked a mixture of fascination and awe in human beings, alternately beguiling and life threatening, sometimes within a very short time frame indeed. Not for nothing are the Brecon Beacons the main training selection ground of the SAS.
Unfortunately there's not much to 'see' of the cairn these days, what there is being a modern reconstruction designed to protect the internal construction of the monument from erosion by the many visitors who climb the mountain. However, judging by the photos taken during the excavation of 1978 [see link], the originial cairn covered a pretty complex cist. Oh, to have seen it exposed! Nice.
Nevertheless in many respects the summit - the landscape itself - IS the monument, the views exceptional on a clear day. A natural temple..... why, even the col leading to Pen-y-Fan is known as 'Arthur's Chair'. And I'm guessing this wasn't a reference to Arthur from 'On the Buses'...A visit to Corn Du should naturally include a visit to its nearby neighbour, itself blessed by an excavated cairn.
Corn Du is most 'easily' (relatively speaking) approached via the A470 at Storey Arms. However the more adventurous traveller, in search of a more intimate approach, may wish to try an ascent from the north (via magical Cwm Llwch), or the south (starting near the Neuadd Reservoirs, an islet within the larger of which boasts a couple of probable prehistoric cairns).
Finally, note that if it's hard enough for the SAS, it's certainly hard enough for mortals such as you or I. So pity the trainer-clad muppets, equip yourself properly, take care and accord the mountain due respect.... for this is truly the realm of the ancestors.
Note: the cairn itself is actually at SO00752133 upon the summit plateau.
The Corn Du cairn has been excavated; according to Coflein:
'Corn Du burial site consists of a modern marker cairn overlying a sub-circular cairn of up to 12m diameter. Excavation in 1978 revealed the remains of complex cist below it. Further excavation by Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust was undertaken in 1992.'