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Red stones, blue stones and Black Mountains 8 March 2014
A long walk walked, today. I’ve not been to the Black Mountains for too long, but the call of the high ridges has finally got my attention again. By the time the obliging bus driver lets me out at Glangrwyney, the last drops and drips of the morning’s early rain have given way to low cloud, hiding the hills and cloaking the valley beneath a dull and deadening blanket.
I walk the quiet lanes to Llangenny, crossing the lovely old bridge over the Grwyne Fawr, rushing and tumbling towards its confluence with the Usk/Wysg, into a pretty village seemingly marred with an abundance of “private keep out” signs, which dampens my spirit more than the rain ever can. I’ve come here for my first site of the day, a small standing stone that’s been on my radar for a few years but never sufficiently prominent to warrant a journey. Until today, when I plan to combine it with a few other local delicacies.
Llangenny/Llangenau standing stone is smaller than I was expecting, a rather grey sandstone with a small, irregular and presumably natural hole near its top. It is set on a small rise, below a much steeper slope, a little to the west of the Grwyne Fechan – another of South Wales’ many waterside stones then. Chickens abound, belonging to the house next to the stone, which has been kept obligingly unfenced although a lot of new fencing has appeared since Elderford’s earlier picture. Despite this, I don’t feel overly at ease here. Perhaps it’s the oppressive cloud cover, perhaps it’s all the signs proliferating in the village, but I don’t feel like lingering. Perhaps just as well, because I have more stones to visit and a big hill to climb.
Once I leave the trees, the views across the valley open up. The substantial and steep-sided hill of Crug Mawr, which I will be climbing soon, is now in view. I bypass Llanbedr and leave the Grwyne Fawr valley, instead following its smaller sibling the Grwyne Fechan northwards. At Henbant Farm an ancient dog greets me silently, then I’m off the roads and onto a muddy and enclosed bridleway climbing steadily between crumbling drystone walls beneath the trees. Waterproof already discarded, I’m too hot under my fleece, unused to the steady rhythm of a Welsh climb after months of bad weather keeping me off the hills. The cloud has largely cleared, replaced by a watery sunshine and hazy visibility that defies any attempts to photograph the surrounding landscape. The path leaves the trees, emerging onto the open slopes that mark the real start of the long upland ridge that will define the rest of my outward route today.
Following the Grwyne Fawr valley north, the next village is Llanbedr, but before that there is the small matter of a pair of standing stones in a little wood, once again a little to the west of the river. The Coflein record suggests that the smaller, southern stone of the pair may have been destroyed or lost during tree felling some decades ago. I passed here once before, in very deep snow on my way back down from a visit to the wonderful Crug Hywel
fort. On that occasion everything was hidden beneath a mantle of snow, with black tree stumps punctuating the pristine surface – not really ideal conditions to look for little stones and I went by without stopping.
Today presents a much better chance. The undergrowth that will carpet the woodland floor come the late spring and summer is only just beginning to make its presence felt, so despite some bramble-tangling to negotiate, it’s reasonably easy to get through the trees. Taking the OS map at face value, I head into the wood and straight uphill in the direction of where I hope the smaller “lost” stone would be. The sun has started to get through the cloud now, filtering through the light foliage in a way that never fails to lift the heart.
And, halfway up the slope, there it is! Not lost, not destroyed, but exactly where the map shows it to be. To find this stone, lost but found, will be enough to make my day worthwhile even if all else fails. It’s a very small stone, rather less than a metre tall and embedded into a bank with what looks like a old trackway running down to it from the southwest. A slab of old red sandstone, almost completely covered in moss and easy to miss as a tree stump. It is particularly angular for a prehistoric stone and it would be easy enough to believe that it might have a later date. Having said that, the abundance of other standing stones along the valleys of the Grwyne Fawr and Fechan give credence to it being part of the same family, aspected to the watercourse.
I head north below the tree cover, angling slightly downhill and closer to the road as I pick my way under the low branches. Not far on, I see a regular shape below me, nearer to the road than I expected. Closer inspection reveals that it is indeed a large, recumbent slab. Carl records that the northern stone has fallen and it looks to me as though this is a fairly recent occurrence. The scar left as it tore away from the sloping setting is still visible, and small stones and earth lie on top of the stone’s base, presumably left from its fall. It’s a shame, as this would be a fine stone if put back up again. Like its southern partner it’s a slab, much wider than thick. Its top is pyramidal, very similar to the shape of other stones in the Brecon Beacons National Park, the nearest example being at Standard Street
, only a mile or so distant from this site.
The northern stone is visible from the road, through a gap in the trees.
It’s decision time now. I had intended to return to Crug Mawr and drop down to Patrishow to visit the church and Ffynnon Ishow holy well. But the ridge to the north goes ever on and on, to the lofty heights that I haven’t visited for too long. As anyone who uses the OS 1:25000 will know, Disgwylfa lies at the top of the southern side of the Black Mountains map, so to go on requires turning the map over, usually in high winds that do their best to make this simple task an effort of will that, once done, you don’t want to have to reverse. I turn over the map, knowing that I will now be led into a much longer walk than I ever intended to do today.
I head up to the top of Blaen-yr-Henbant, ignoring the more obvious scar of the Beacons Way to get the best of the views. The breeze up here is very stiff, but worth enduring to reveal the nearby hillfort of Twyn y Gaer Camp
and the unmistakeable summit of The Sugarloaf/Pen y Fal. The best view is behind me, where Crug Hywel and the domed summit of becairned Pen Cerrig-calch
form the backdrop to the valley now far below. The route drops briefly before rising again, steeper now as it reaches the final pull to the summit of Crug Mawr, at 550m OD the fingertip of the Gadair ridge, the third and highest of the five ridges forming the “hand” of the Black Mountains.
It is very blowy at the summit trig, so I press straight on – the principle objective of today’s walk is now directly ahead. Dropping from the top, the path turns darker and wetter, grassy slopes replaced with peat and a surrounding cover of heather, mercifully low at this time of the year. A trio of ponies block the path, but they are young and skittish, scampering away as I prepare to divert around them.
It’s not far from Crug Mawr to the Disgwylfa cairn, though I miss the turn off the main path slightly, as the cairn disappears from view briefly, blocked by the intervening ground. As I cut across the heather, the stone pile atop the cairn appears first. Some of the boulders in the pile have been painted red or blue, inexplicably. But the mound beneath is much bigger, prominent despite the covering vegetation. The centre has been scooped out and presumably provides the majority of the material for the stone pile. There is no sign of a cist or central structure. The views are brilliant, taking in the splendid summit of Pen-y-Gadair Fawr along the ridge, while the beehive’d cairn of Garn Wen
can be seen on the next ridge to the east. The top of the Sugarloaf peaks out behind Crug Mawr, although the hazy sunlight makes visibility limited in that direction.
I decide that the bus timetable will let me fit in a climb of Pen Twyn Mawr at least, so I find myself carrying on northwards along the ridge.
The distance between the Disgwylfa cairn and the various “piles of stones” marked on the map seems too long, despite the easy walking involved. One of the piles looks like a candidate for an older cairn, although Coflein doesn’t agree. By contrast, I pass what turns out to be the Nant yr Ychen cairn with barely a glance. There is no sign of an obvious mound and the pile marks the junction of footpaths. There are yet more terrific views though, except to the north where my day’s highpoint, Pen Twyn Mawr, blocks off everything beyond.I’m pleased to reach the summit, one that I’ve only previously visited with a friend, so this is the first time I’ve made it up here using public transport. It’s a featureless and rather flat top, but does enjoy a great view of Pen y Gadair Fawr, looking almost within touching distance. A mad thought involving carrying on up the ridge forms briefly, but I have no idea about the buses from Talgarth and it wouldn’t be a great place to be stuck. Every step north takes me further from Crickhowell, so I reluctantly – and belatedly – decide to stop going upwards and start going down.
Instead of returning back to the last footpath junction, I elect to pay a visit to the lovely Maen Llwyd, my favourite site in the spread fingers of the Black Mountains. I head straight to it, angling down the side slopes of the ridge using barely-there sheep tracks, losing height quickly and fairly easily. A deeper fold in the land with a bubbling stream at its centre provides the only obstacle, a drop and re-ascent and I’m there.
Since my last visit, almost four years ago, the stone has been penned behind a new barbed wire fence. But nothing really detracts here. The stone itself is tall and shapely, interesting with its hollow shoulder. The setting, in the amphitheatre of the ridges, is sublime. It’s taken a little over four hours to get here from Glangrwyney, including earlier stops on the way. I settle with my back to stone and let the peace and beauty of the place sink in.With a jolt I realise that half an hour has passed in the blink of an eye and that I only have a couple of hours now to get back to Crickhowell to catch the bus, so I leave with all haste. It’s a dash down through the forest, aiming for its southwestern tip. The tracks deteriorate and soon I’m stumbling over the pits and stumps of a great expanse of old felling. A muddy patch takes my foot from under me and I fall very disgracefully on my arse, stupidly sticking my arm out and jarring my wrist in the process. Thankfully nothing is broken, but I curse my stupidity nonetheless. An accident alone in this remote spot would be a very bad idea and the incident is a sobering reminder of how close to disaster one can be, how easy it is to take for granted safety from harm.
Leaving the forest I join a muddy bridleway down to the road at the old hermitage, apparently once home to the mistress of a wealthy local landowner. It stands in ruins beside a bridge and ford across the Grwyne Fechan now, though no doubt ghosts re-enact the dramas played out within its walls. After this it’s five miles of twisting, turning lanes to negotiate against a clock that gets less forgiving with each aching step. For all that, adrenalin and a bus timetable give you wings and I have time to enjoy the view of the Sugarloaf dominating the village of Llanbedr and the wonder of Crug Hwyel fort, prominent as a flat-topped Silbury commanding the Usk valley falling away to the south.Finally I’m back in Crickhowell, a bustling and friendly town I like very much. Aside from lead-heavy legs and a painful arm, I’ve survived the long walk up and down the third finger of the Black Mountains. This sais remains obsessed with Wales, no doubt about that.
Ridgeway to heaven – Barbury Castle to Avebury 21 May 2011
My first trip to Wiltshire of the year, and summer is a comin’-in. The ever-handy 49 bus drops me just north of Broad Hinton, as today I’ve decided to approach Avebury from the north along the Ridgeway, as recommended by Mr. Aubrey Burl. The quiet walk along minor roads to Uffcott reacquaints me with the joys of wide Wiltshire skies, with the downs rising over to the east, topped by the long line of the Ridgeway.
Walking from Uffcott gives a slow and steady approach to Barbury Castle, today’s first objective and the proper start of the walk. A week or so earlier, G/F and I had a wander round Old Oswestry
, which frankly blew me away in its scale and ambition. As a result, I’m not expecting quite so much from Barbury, but you should never, ever, underestimate what you might find at a prehistoric site. You’d think I would have learned that by now.
As the rampart looms above me and the climb steepens, it’s already becoming apparent that this is going to be a good ‘un. The first thing properly encountered is a fine disc barrow set below the western entrance to the site, constructed on the slope and facing westwards over the edge of the down. The disc is actually easier to see from the approach than close-up. A smaller round barrow lies to the northeast, closer to the bottom of the hillfort rampart. On another day, in another place, these two would be enough to linger over. Here though, the pull of the earthwork is too much and I make my way up onto the bank.
I make my way clockwise around the outer ditch. Up close, the earthworks really are very impressive indeed, the ditch still deep despite 2,000 years of silting. There are terrific open views from here. Liddington Castle
, the next substantial hillfort to the northeast, can be seen on the horizon. Over to the east the views stretch across the Marlborough Downs, while to the south the fort commands views of anyone coming down the Ridgeway. Once inside the splendour of banks and ditches, there is little else to be seen. The real joy of the visit is undoubtedly in the perimeter and the views from it. A week after Old Oswestry, Barbury Castle is certainly holding its own. A gem of a fort, all in all.
Finally dragging myself away from the wonderful fort, I join the Ridgeway as it heads southwest. After an initial drop back down the road, the gradient climbs steadily, which provides a decent retrospective view of the fort. A couple of sizeable sarsens, marked on the OS map as BSs (boundary stones) point the traveller on their way. The weather has been fairly dry and the Ridgeway itself makes for pleasant walking without huge amounts of mud. Apart from a couple of horse riders and a group walking in the opposite direction, it’s pretty quiet along here. The steady rhythm of walking, the open landscape and the tranquillity of an English summer lift the heart and clear the head. Begone dull care!
Just below Hackpen Hill, the other world briefly intrudes onto this idyll, with weekend traffic flowing steadily along the Marlborough road. I resist the temptations offered by various (presumably Medieval) earthworks and the Hackpen white horse, choosing instead to keep the onward progress going. Sometimes you just need to walk, really. A similar impulse keeps me from visiting a solitary round barrow at the foot of Berwick Bassett Down (Berwick Bassett, incidentally, would make a great name for a character in a 1930s pulp novel, perhaps an investigative reporter).
At length I reach a fork in the track. The Ridgeway carries on its stately progress due south, but I’m leaving it here and taking the other fork, the White Horse Trail towards Clatford. Not without regret, as the section of Ridgeway between here and the Herepath junction would provide the first views of my ultimate objective, Avebury. My chosen route will delay that pleasure for quite a bit longer, but there are other pleasures ahead, less well travelled than the great henge.
The track skirts the very edges of the Grey Wethers sarsen drift on Fyfield Down. As it passes through Totterdown wood, it becomes apparent that some of drift has been subsumed into the shade of the trees. It’s rather odd to come across the great stones here, mossy and green, when in the mind’s imagining they stand exposed to wind and weather on the open downs.Out of the woods, past more scattered sarsen, my route crosses the Herepath in a dogleg and then I’m into horse racing country at Clatford Down. After the Ridgeway and Totterdown Wood, the manicured sweep of the gallops is jarring to the senses. But better this than a golf course, I suppose. The unlikely upright of Long Tom appears a couple of fields away – it’s not on the map and I’d forgotten of its existence. I don’t approach, but even from a distance it looks oddly unprehistoric, perhaps because its slender profile is so unlike the other megaliths of this part of Wiltshire. A hundred yards or so to the east, I come across the broken stump of another sarsen upright, but I have no idea if it has any age to it.
South of the Clatford Down gallops I finally part with the White Horse Trail, taking a bridleway southwest towards the second site of the day. As the path follows the contour of the hillside, Devil’s Den comes into view. This is one of those sites that you’ll already have seen, even if you’ve never been to it. Something of a celebrity, even in a county that boasts some of the biggest A-listers of them all. It’s great to see it first from afar, how it sits in its valley, tucked away below the windy downs.
Devil’s Den is something of a triumph in another way, as although the OS map shows it standing off the right of way, the little triangle of land is subject to permissive access, which means you can go and spend as long as you like there without worrying about any confrontation. This is a relief, because it’s a site I want to savour. No rushing here. The chamber sits on top of a little mound, all that remains of a much larger structure. The field is turning to meadow, and will be a haven for chalkland flowers and insect life. Beneath the low spread of grasses, the surface is completely littered with chalk and bits of flint, presumably turned up by years of ploughing but now left discarded in the sun.
I love this site. The whole structure looks poised, as if about the march away across the Wiltshire landscape. The sky has turned somewhat cloudy now, but rather than diminishing the visit it adds an extra drama to the backdrop. I could stay here a long time, and so I do.
Time passes, not a soul approaches. Just how a site visit should be.
The next part of the walk is a bit less straightforward. I’m hoping that I can find the Polisher, but I don’t actually know where it is. I know photos on TMA show a gallops fence nearby, but that’s about all I’ve got. Most significantly, I don’t know which side of the Herepath it’s on. The only thing to do is to wander.
Wandering in the drifts of Fyfield Down is a good thing though. After entering the Down at its southeastern corner, I’m immediately confronted by the scale of the drift itself. I’ve never really seen anything quite like it. I have a quick look at the Fyfield 1 and 2 barrows
, but really even these are overshadowed by the natural landscape here. From here I follow the ribbon of the Mother’s Jam, coming across The Monster Stone as I wander. Yep, it really is a monster. Other treats here include the experimental earthwork
, slowly decaying as intended. Overton Down (south)
may be just about the least impressive round barrow I’ve seen in Wiltshire, a barely-there mound under nettles – get the sheep in, someone.
Much wandering later, just as I’m on the verge of reluctantly giving up, I spot a pointy stone, which looks familiar. And so it proves to be, the unmistakable grooves of the Polisher lying just beyond. I’ll be honest, I’m feeling a bit pleased with myself at this point, but even without the extra euphoric boost, this would be a winner all day long every day.
I won’t try to describe the stone, the pictures do that better. Instead I’m going to lie down with my head resting on its smooth surface and enjoy the peace for a few minutes.
That’s better. Where was I? Oh yes, on my way to Avebury (just in case you’d drifted off too). Back on course then, after what has been quite a detour. From Fyfield Down the Herepath cuts across Overton Down and starts its descent to the great centre below. There are some decent barrows to be seen en-route, on both sides of the path. As always I get the feeling I’m only scratching a very superficial depth into the chalky surface of this landscape.
By the time I reach the eastern entrance of the henge I’m tired and the sky has turned much darker. As always though, meeting the huge stones of the circle boosts my flagging energy in a way that Red Bull will never be able to replicate.
I don’t take the full tour today. Today’s efforts have been focused on getting here through the landscape, the journey being the reward for once. Instead I have a mooch to the Cove
(still my favourite setting in the whole complex) and the southern quadrants. I finally take up residence on the sloping bank above the ditch of the southwestern quadrant, not quite at the bottom but on a level with the stones. Arriving at such a busy place after the quiet of the Downs would usually irk me, but today I enjoy watching the different interactions people have with the stones. Some stand in awe, some touch, some just have their picture taken. From where I sit, the voices are muted and the words don’t carry, except one who is expounding something about the electrical properties of the stones.
Ah, Avebury in the summertime. Long may it be a focal point, the builders would surely approve.
Offa’s Dyke VII – Oswestry – Four Crosses 14 May 2011
Spring is wending its way slowly towards summer as we return to Offa’s Dyke. The last section brought us into Shropshire and we will continue to criss-cross the border between that county and Wales on this part of the route. Staying in Oswestry last night gave us a perfect opportunity to visit Old Oswestry hillfort, one of the premier Iron Age sites in the Marches, if not the country. A tremendous place, awe-inspiring in every way.
By contrast, today’s archaeology will be rather more modest, a mixture of smaller Iron Age remnants and industrial leftovers. The Path crosses an area heavily scarred by quarrying and mining, together with the means of transporting the winnings away in the form of old railway lines and the arterial Montgomery Canal. It’s thought that some of the mining dates back into prehistory, and there is certainly evidence of Roman copper and silver mining at Llanymynech Hill.
Setting off from Oswestry early, we’re up at Racecourse Common just after 9 o’clock, on what is shaping up to be a decent spring day of fast-moving cloud and patchy blue sky. A toposcope at the racecourse informs us that we can see the volcanic bulk of the Breiddins, a range of hills topped with various forts and settlements. Further away Shropshire’s spine, the Long Mynd, Brown Clee and Titterstone Clee, signpost the way to the countryside of my childhood, inching ever nearer.
The grassy folds of the hill are carpeted in a brilliant spring bloom of bluebells as we head into the shade of Racecourse Wood. The various short stretches of wood on today’s walk are lovely, mixed woodland sun-dappled and airy under the light spring canopy, yet to be filled in and darkened by the heavier foliage of summer.
Less than a mile to the west of here is the Cynynion standing stone, but regrettably it would be a steep descent and climb back to pay a visit to it today, so we have to forego the pleasure. One day…
Out of the woods, then back in again at Craig Forda, we come face to face with Offa’s Dyke itself for the first time today. It no longer forms the frontier of English/Welsh border at this point, which instead follows the Cynllaith valley some way west, beyond the nearby hillfort at Coed-y-Gaer. However, any loss of notional status is made up for by the size of the remaining earthwork as it makes its way south through Candy Woods, an uninterrupted section the best part of two miles long and standing to a height of two metres or so.
Leaving Candy Woods, the path drops very steeply to the hamlet of Tyn-y-Coed, with the fine section of dyke our constant companion. The path runs along the bank here, which won’t be helping prevent ongoing erosion of the earthwork, but does at least give an opportunity to view the impressively deep ditch on the “Welsh” side and to marvel even further at the scale of the undertaking involved in building the thing. It’s something else, well worth your attention even if very much outside TMA’s remit.
Path and Dyke part company at Fron, with our route turning westwards while the Dyke, now more fragmentary, continues its inexorable way south. The detour is hugely rewarding though, as after a gentle climb we emerge onto the open hilltop of Moelydd, one of the outstanding viewpoints of Offa’s Dyke Path despite its relatively modest height. The views stretch away in every direction, taking in the Berwyns and distant Cadair Idris, across the endless hills of mid-Wales to the west and the Shropshire hills to the south and southeast.
A steep descent takes us down to Nantmawr, then quiet lanes drop us towards the Tanat Valley. We will never actually encounter this particular river, reaching the end of its independence and soon to join the far broader River Vyrnwy/Afon Efyrnwy. Of interest to the TMA-er is the fact that the Tanat has been swelled on its journey by the waters cascading down the magnificent Pistyll Rhaeadr close to Rhos y Beddau stone circle.
After crossing first one then another disused railway line at Porth-y-Waen, we have a view of the today’s first prehistoric site, the wooded Blodwel Rock fort. It looks like a fairly stiff climb up from the valley floor, and so it proves to be.
The fort occupies the top of the ridge, the steep scarp face of which we climb from the northwest. Offa’s Dyke has been an absent friend for the last couple of miles, but we reacquaint ourselves here. The fort is just in England, but the frontier has curved back eastwards again and we are poised on the edge of Wales here.
In truth it’s not the most impressive of forts, the woodland cover is quite dense and the tangled vegetation underfoot anywhere off the main paths makes it difficult to really get a sense of what’s what. This is compounded by the fact that Offa’s Dyke runs along the lip of the scarp, although Pastscape (see Misc. post) suggests that the Mercian earthwork stopped short of the fort and simply made use of what was already here and at neighbouring Llanymynech Hill
No sooner have we left the wooded cover of Blodwel Rock
than we’re across the Welsh border and into Llanymynech hillfort. Sadly our emergence from the trees takes us slap into the middle of a golf course. Immediately we’re scowled at by plus-foured types and the visit becomes an exercise in avoiding plummeting golf balls rather than looking for the remains of the fort’s earthworks. The whole interior has been moon-scaped by older quarrying superimposed by bunkers and hazards. Bah.
When we get a moment to look anywhere but heavenward, it turns out that there’s a decent view of the whaleback of The Wrekin
, a very fine hillfort that dominates the north Shropshire plain.
Our route ducks back into the trees and alongside Offa’s Dyke, a.k.a. the northwest rampart of the fort. As at Blowel Rock, the tree-cover makes it difficult to really get a sense of the site. We follow the edge of the escarpment and the earthwork round to the southern tip of the hill. Here the gentle terrain gives way to the towering cliffs of Asterley Rocks, much quarried and mined over the centuries. There is a very fine view south featuring a number of neighbouring hillforts on The Breiddins, Beacon Ring
on Long Mountain, and the lowland sites of Bryn Mawr
and Gaer Fawr
but overall the feeling from the visit to Llanymyech Hill is one of frustration, both from the general destruction caused by industry and from the irritating placement of a golf course across the interior.
Below the fort there are extensive remains of mining and quarrying buildings and equipment, much to appeal to the industrial archaeologist. At Llanymynech we cross back into England briefly, then straight back into Wales before swinging southwest along the towpath of the Montgomery canal for the next mile or so, a pleasant if rather dull stroll which does at least offer up a fine retrospective view of Llanymynech Hill.
The wooded slopes of Bryn Mawr appear over the canal. The hill is an obvious place for a defended enclosure or fort, a conical eminence rising sharply over the surrounding flatlands. As we draw closer the canal rises through a series of locks to an aqueduct, on which it carries us across the Afon Efynwy/River Vrynwy, the major watercourse on today’s route. Another of Wales’ important rivers, flowing almost 40 miles from its source at Lake Vrynwy to its confluence with the Hafren/Severn, it passes many prehistoric settlements and forts, which must have benefited from its waters, fishing and transport potential. Bryn Mawr will have to wait for another day, as we are tiring now and nearing the end of our walk at the Montgomeryshire village of Four Crosses. Perhaps not the most engaging section of the Path that we will walk, today’s efforts have nevertheless seen us through another 12 miles or so of this Marches borderland, following and crossing the movable boundaries on the maps that recall territory lost, won and lost again. The permanence of Offa’s Dyke itself ironically marks but one fleeting drawing of those lines, which have ebbed and flowed across it in the tides of history. Underneath the skin of politics, even the land itself has been altered, encroached upon and penetrated by the delvings of men in this much-quarried and mined landscape.
Soon it will be summer, and we will be back.
Offa’s Dyke VI – Chirk Castle Mill – Oswestry 2 April 2011
It seems like ages since our last trip took us across the Dee to finally meet Offa’s Dyke itself. If that river crossing represented an important landmark in our North-South crawl down the Welsh border, today will throw in a few lesser ones. For a start, we’re now on our third map (Explorer 240 – Oswestry, Ordnance Survey fans). Rather more significantly, we will leave Wales for the first time.
This is the first section of Offa’s Dyke Path we’ve attempted in a daytrip, rather than having to arrange accommodation. This is possible due to the relative proximity of the railway, so that we can get the train to Chirk and finish at Gobowen, about 7 miles plus a short bus trip at the end (albeit only 5 miles on the Dyke Path itself). Weatherwise, the contrast to our last walk, in misty February, is stark. Spring has come to the Marches and the sun is shining on semi-industrial Chirk.
We walk up from the station to the castle, as a permissive route across the grounds has just re-opened for the Spring. This takes us past an extraordinary set of wrought iron gates, then round to the castle itself, a fine example of an Edward I stronghold designed to keep the Welsh in their place. We rejoin the Path as it drops down to the Afon Ceiriog, the next in the long series of waterways that we will cross on our route.
The Ceiriog starts its journey on the slopes of Moel Fferna, the be-cairned mountain we visited on a memorable (not entirely in a good way) walk back in February. By the time it reaches us on the Path, it has flowed past numerous hilltop barrows and the hillfort at Cerrig Gwynion and will soon be joining the Dee on the other side of Chirk. For us it marks the crossing, for the first time, of the border between England and Wales.
The border follows Offa’s Dyke itself, but the frontier was contested long after the Mercian king had shuffled off. Close to our crossing, a skirmish known as the Battle of Crogen took place in 1165, when a force led by Welsh king Owain Gwynedd attacked the Angevin Henry II’s army. Henry was fortunate to escape with his life, but soon after abandoned his plans to conquer Wales and went back to dealing with turbulent priests instead. A plaque on the bridge commemorates the action.
Climbing up from the valley on its south side, a sign welcomes us into Shropshire. The Dyke forms the border all the way past Selattyn Hill, so we will be treading the frontier for a few miles now. I grew up in the Marches and crossing into Shropshire is starting to have the feel of heading home, for all that my heart generally lies in Wales these days.
Once we’ve climbed back out of the valley, there is a great view of Chirk castle behind us and also of some prominent hills to the northeast, which I think must be the Mid-Cheshire Ridge and Beeston Crag, but our way lies southwest. The Dyke here is really impressive, especially compared to what we’ve seen up until now, with a deep ditch on the west (Welsh) side. It must be said that the path would benefit from being taken off the earthwork itself though, the erosion is not good.
The Path drops steeply into Nanteris, then up stairs on the other side. Once back up onto the hillside above, there is a terrific view across North Shropshire and Cheshire, while the impressive section of Dyke continues onward. Over on a hillside to our west we can make out at least one of the cairns on Graig Wea, too distant and lacking in public access for a practical detour on this trip.
After passing Plas Crogen, the countryside ahead of us emerges as a rolling patchwork of hills and fields, with the views opening up to the southeast across Shropshire, towards the Long Mynd and Brown Clee, which must be about 40 or so miles away. We stop for lunch and metallic tea at a roadside picnic area after passing some well-preserved old lime kilns at Craignant, where the daffs are in full, splendid bloom.
Now comes the biggest hill of the day, one I’m looking forward to greatly as it boasts the first prehistoric site we’ve been to since leaving Castell Dinas Bran
. It only requires a short diversion off the Path to reach it, through an area of recently felled forestry. Standing at a reasonable 372m, the summit of Selattyn Hill is high enough to command excellent views into Shropshire, as well as of the Berwyns to our west and (I think) the Breiddins to the south. Seeing the former gives me much pleasure, as we sure didn’t see much when we were on them!
The monument here is a ring cairn, sadly much trashed by the plonking of a stupid Victorian tower (now itself ruined) in its centre. However, traces of the stonework that comprised the ring can still be seen protruding through a heather covering. The construction is a wide bank of large blocks of stone, and would have been pretty impressive without the tower. It is best seen on the northern arc, the southern being very overgrown. It’s a great spot though, now that the surrounding forestry has been felled to open up the views, and should be even better once the resulting debris has started to break down. There is another cairn (Orsedd Wen
) on the next hill to the west, but we can’t make this out today. It is also noticeable how few footpaths there are on the Welsh side of the border here.
Whatever the post-Roman politics of the Welsh border, Selattyn represents a natural frontier, as the last hill above 1,000 ft before the drop down to the Cheshire/North Shropshire plain to the east. Certainly a worthy place for the twelve urns containing burnt human bone, found here when the tower was built.
At length we head off south, alongside an ancient field boundary composed of huge boulders and an equally large field clearance heap. I find a small sliver of flint on the path, apparently worked (but broken) and certainly not native to this part of Shropshire.
We take our leave rather sadly, back to the Path for the last section of the day. South of Carreg-y-Big (the hamlet), the path leaves the Dyke and instead climbs Baker’s Hill on the road. We finally part with the Path on Racecourse Common above Oswestry, before a rather tedious couple of miles of B-road takes us down into the town, for tea and the bus back to Gobowen.
The Path rejoins the Dyke south of Orsedd Wen. The next section of the earthwork is once again particularly fine. Just after it passes through a little wood, a footpath heads off eastwards and will take us to the second Bronze Age treat of the day, which can be seen from the Dyke.
Standing 2m tall, Carreg-y-Big is probably Shropshire’s tallest standing stone, just topping the large pillar at Mitchell’s Fold to the south. The name looks like it should mean “The Big Stone”*. Damn accurate with their names, these Welsh folk (I know, it’s not in Wales). I was mainly aware of this one from Postie’s lovely snow-bound pictures from a year and a bit earlier, but it looks equally impressive in watery Spring sunlight.
I’m particularly taken with the quartz vein running through the stone, being a sucker for a bit of quartz. There is also evidence of packing at the stone’s base. The positioning is slightly obscured from the east due to a hedge, but otherwise the stone would be prominent and just the kind of thing that could be used as a way marker, perhaps pointing the way to nearby Selattyn Hill
ring cairn. Cynynion
, a further, very similar, stone lies a mile and a half SSW.
Although we’ve only managed another 5 miles of Path, this takes us just over the 50-mile mark overall. The southwards progress feels palpable now that we’ve reached Shropshire and are heading towards countryside I know (or at least once knew). Rather than the tail between legs retreat of Henry II, we can stride onward with renewed confidence. Our next trip will take us to one of Shropshire’s - and indeed England’s - premier hillforts, so there’s much to look forward to.
*Not true, sadly. Rhiannon suggests "Peak(y)/Point(y) Stone", which seems more likely.
Lakeshore and dark peak – Carmarthen Fan 26 February 2011
An invite to join some friends on a late-winter circuit of the Carmarthen Fans, the most westerly of the four mountain ranges in the Brecon Beacons National Park, is one not to be sniffed at. I first visited the summits of Fan Hir and Fan Brycheiniog on a summery solo walk that took in Cerrig Duon & the Maen Mawr, but on that occasion the next summit of Picws Du looked a long way off. A month ago I made the long trek to the isolated and wonderful Nant Tarw circles, in a bitter cold that enveloped the peaks in an eerie blue and only served to increase my desire to get back out into these hills.
Visiting this area on foot is difficult, the bus routes don’t come that close and are in any case infrequent, catering for a limited amount of passengers on their way to the hubs of Llandovery or Brecon. It becomes apparent from our circuitous route to get here, via Trecastle, that even by car this is a remote place, roads into the vast tract of open countryside north of the mountains being largely absent. We park up just past Blaenau, at the end of the narrow road that follows Cwm Sawdde. This, incidentally, is the start-point suggested by Gladman, and it’s a good place to begin. From here a broad track will take us southeast then south alongside the tumbling, white-water stream that leads eventually to the first of today’s objectives, the legendary lake of Llyn y Fan Fach (“Small Lake of the Beacon”, to distinguish from its larger sibling, Llyn y Fan Fawr).
As we make our way up the track, a steady climb, the mist to our south parts occasionally to reveal glimpses of a black wall of towering rock. This is the escarpment of Y Mynydd Du, the Black Mountain, playing hide and seek with us for the moment, but revealing enough to show us that there is a formidable climb ahead. Over to our left, the unmistakable fork-tailed shape of a red kite swoops and glides as it quarters the empty moorland below the escarpment, looking for sustenance in this inhospitable landscape.
The lake itself, when at length we reach it, is grey and opaque today, not yielding any of its secrets to casual visitors. Above tower the cliffs of Picws Du, topped with a Bronze Age cairn that cannot be seen from below. So I guess we’ll have to go up if we want to see it.
From the little single-roomed stone bothy next to the lake, a slight path heads almost due east up the flank of Waun Lefrith, steepish at first and getting steeper as the top is approached. I temporarily leave my companions behind here, not for any reasons of competition or nonsense like that, just because I’m keen to get up to see the views and also to seek a little solitude in this enormous landscape. Looking back as I pause for breath, the top of Picws Du is now emerging from the mist as a flattish summit, jutting forward from the escarpment and providing a backdrop for Llyn y Fan Fach, already seeming far below me.Once the ridge is gained, it’s a much less steep stroll the rest of the way to the day’s first summit, Waun Lefrith (“Milk(y) Moor”, somewhat obscurely). This is a fairly featureless summit, with no cairn other than a small walkers’ effort. It does however boast a very good, high-level view of the massive Bronze Age cairns on the range’s most westerly summits, Carnau’r Garreg Las and Garreg Lwyd. The summits ahead of us along the escarpment to the west are also emerging from the mist, although Fan Foel is still playing hide and seek.
The walk from here to the summit of Picws Du, with its attendant cairn, is gentle enough, with little descent and re-ascent between the two peaks. The views are terrific though, especially from the cliffs of Cwar-du, where the ground drops dizzyingly to the lovely lake below. An awesome spot, especially as the sun bursts through the mist to paint a patchwork of light on the browns and greys of the uplands below us.
As the Picws Du summit cairn comes into view, it becomes apparent that it has a very decent sized footprint, but is now quite low, with a smaller walkers’ cairn plonked on the top, possibly/probably made from stones from the original monument. There are some pretty big blocks in the original though and the footprint suggests it would have been a big cairn. In any case, the setting more than compensates for any deficiencies in the cairn itself. The views north over the escarpment edge are awe-inspiring, even on a day of fairly short visibility like today. And as we stop to take it all in, the mist lifts properly and blue skies open above us. Ah, what a wonderful world. And what a place to be interred.
Incidentally, the name is obscure – the Nuttalls translate it as “Black Peak”, but I’ve not managed to find a translation for “picws” in any Welsh dictionary yet, so I’m not sure of this. Any ideas?
The route from Picws Du to the next cairn, on Fan Foel, is easy enough but includes a fairly steep up-and-down, via Bwlch Blaen-Twrch (“pass of the river summit”). Once negotiated, there is a fine high-level retrospective view of Picws Du summit before we head over to the magnificent cairn placed right at the apex of the escarpment, the point where Carmarthenshire meets Powys/Brecknockshire.
Was this always a territorial marker? If it was, it’s a high place for the people of power to agree upon their frontier. And perhaps such a person was laid to rest here, interred within a sizeable kerb of red sandstone blocks. If he or she were the monarch of all they surveyed, they certainly ruled over a far-reaching territory, for the views are extensive indeed, stretching eastwards to the twin summits of Pen-y-Fan
and Corn Du
then further away to the Black Mountains, with many other cairned summits in between. And yet the archaeological record reveals perhaps something rather more intriguing and human than a story of powerful warriors. A child was buried here, possibly garlanded with meadowsweet flowers. If only these stones and mountains would share the memory of that little sliver of history, what a tale they might tell.
This cairn is ignored by many walkers, hurrying between the “tops” of Piws Du and Twr y Fan Foel/Fan Brycheiniog. But sadly enough come here to cause damage to the structure, which is what prompted the excavation and exposure of the magnificent kerb and half-buried cist. Probably the best of cairns on the main escarpment of Y Mynydd Du, this place will richly reward any TMAer making the trip.
From Fan Foel
, it’s not far at all to the next of today’s cairns, Twr y Fan Foel. Last time I came here from Fan Hir, a walk that is do-able using the Neath-Brecon bus service, but there’s no doubt that today’s approach is more satisfying. The cairn itself is a bit of a wreck, eroded at its base and piled into a silly cone. Purely as a structure of earth and stone, it lacks the charm of the wonderful ring on Fan Foel. But the view is astonishing. The ground drops away to north and east, and this is perfect viewpoint for the second of today’s mountain lakes, Llyn y Fan Fawr. From up here, it’s hard to believe that the lake itself is located at as-near-as-dammit 2,000 feet up. The cairn is at the highest point of Y Mynydd’s Du magnificent escarpment and boy, what a place for a monument. Worth every bit of energy and effort to get up here.
Sadly we don’t linger so long at this one, my companions are getting hungry and a bit further along the escarpment, at the southern summit, there is a drystone shelter that has been identified as our lunch spot. There’s nothing on Coflein to suggest that this shelter has been fashioned from an ancient cairn, so I can feel relaxed about making use of it. For all that the sun is shining, it’s still bitterly cold up here and a stop of any duration is going to see a sudden drop in body temperature. It’s here that we meet the only other people that we’ll see today. Not far to the SW of the summit is the spot where an Avro Anson crashed in thick cloud and rain, back in peacetime 1939, a stark reminder of just how bad the weather can get in and above these mountains.
Suitably refreshed, it’s time for the big descent. We follow the escarpment down to Bwlch Gledd, from where the Beacons Way basically goes over the cliff! Luckily the path has been resurfaced recently, but this is still a tricky, slippy route that takes us, rather gingerly, down to the edge of lovely Llyn y Fan Fawr. Everyone has rubbery legs by the time we get to the bottom! We follow lakeshore and escarpment foot, basically retracing our earlier route, but 200m lower down.
One of the main attractions of this walk for me, apart from the brilliance of the summit cairns, is the two stone circles shown on the OS map along our return route. The second, Bannau Sir Gaer
, is the better known, already visited and chronicled by Postie. But the first is virgin TMA territory. Coflein are dismissive of the site, and on getting here it’s easy to see why.
We found the narrow track that the OS map shows as bisecting the site easily enough, but it crosses an area of plentiful small stones. Some are vaguely upright, but it would take a determined eye to be convinced that there is a circle here, unless we’ve missed something. My companions were certainly not impressed! Not far from the site, we came across a neat little spiral of blocks, half-hidden in the tufty grass. Someone has spent time here, to make that. To be fair, the setting is lovely, with the pointed prows of be-cairned Twr-y-Fan Foel
and Fan Foel
providing the main focal points. To the north, the land gradually slopes away towards Nant Tarw
, although the circles aren’t visible from here, as far as I could tell.
We head away from the setting across the tussocky, peaty moor of Waun Lwyd, close to the source of the river Usk/Afon Wsyg, one of South Wales' major rivers, which passes close to the Nant Tarw circles as well. It may be significant that the Tawe, another important river, rises not far away to the east, before passing Cerrig Duon & The Maen Mawr. There’s certainly plenty of scope for water-based theory and speculation about the siting of these monuments.
The final site of the day proves to be a winner. By the time we reach Bannau Sir Gaer, all but one of my friends has had enough, and don’t even make the effort to leave the path the look for this. The one who is left at least comes to the circle, but isn’t massively impressed, to be honest. Which just shows that this game isn’t for everyone! The final walk back to the car is by now a shattered stumble, as shadows lengthen and legs tire. But this has been a brilliant day out, eyrie-high burials, fractured circles and depthless lakes combining to make for an almost perfect TMA daytrip. It’s impossible not to feel that there is still much more to be discovered here. If I can, I shall come back one day.
And so it comes to be that I’m left here on my own for a while, just as the sun re-emerges to illuminate the site in a golden glow, while the mountain backdrop is silhouetted into a wall of dark browns and black shadow. Spectacular. The circle is a wreck, it doesn’t matter a bit. A fine addition to the utterly compelling megalithic complex spread across these wild uplands.
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"The fleeting hour of life of those who love the hills is quickly spent, but the hills are eternal. Always there will be the lonely ridge, the dancing beck, the silent forest; always there will be the exhilaration of the summits. These are for the seeking, and those who seek and find while there is still time will be blessed both in mind and body." Alfred Wainwright