Showing 1-5 of 45 posts. Most recent first | Next 5
The Mountains Are Singing - Penmaenmawr 2 July 11
Dammit, this train is getting later and later. Sometimes a delay is nothing, but today’s a big day of prehistoric excitement, if only I can ever get there. Last night a discussion on the forum led to an offer of a meet up at Penmaenmawr, in a part of Wales I’ve never been to, for a walk to the Druid’s Circle before a climb of Tal-y-Fan.
I ring my companion for the day, to tell her that Arriva are doing what they can to stop me ever getting there. Luckily the voice at the other end is one of calm reassurance, unphased by the changing timetable. This is my first contact with Blossom, who has offered the meet up.
By the time I get to Penmaenmawr, an hour and a half late, it’s shaping up to be a glorious summer’s day. Blossom is waiting on the platform, her dogs are waiting in the car, and without much ado off we head up the steep and winding road that leads to the Two Pillars carpark, at the top of the prosaically named Mountain Lane.
A broad and easy track climbs steadily from the carpark, carefully hiding the views south behind the flanking Foel Lus but providing a grand vista of the quarried and scarred Graig Llwyd and across to Ynys Mon – these are places I’ve longed to see, now laid out between azure sky and blue-green sea.
We emerge onto a hillside of well-made drystone walls and cropped grass. The long summit ridge of Tal-y-Fan is the principal backdrop, far off and high above.
After passing Red Farm
stone circle without a proper look, the impressive boulder of Maen Crwn is the first proper stop on the walk up towards the Druid's Circle.
Set in the V of a valley between higher hills, the long views are restricted. But it feels like a stone-on-the-way-to-somewhere stone, the kind you often find marking your path in upland Wales when on the way to exciting destinations. And given what waits above, it certainly performs that function beautifully.
The pull of the circles is too much to linger though...
It’s a further steady slog of a climb up from Maen Crwn
, and the excitement levels really ramp up from here on. Druid's Circle is already visible on the skyline above, but it's still worth restraining the urge to get there for a while with a pause at this lovely little circle.
Like something someone might build around a campfire, a simple ring of smooth stones, with a wonderful sea view. The dogs are very taken, sniffing around the inside of the ring. If it weren't for the fact that the Big Attraction is so visibly close, it would be easy to stop here for a good while.
But we don't.
It’s not much more of a pull upwards to reach the circle. There’s no-one else about so I can savour this beauty properly. The setting is as good as any stone circle I’ve been to, particularly on such a wondrous summer’s day. The sea to the north, the high peaks of the Carneddau mountains to the south. It’s a bit special this.
The stones are big, certainly bigger than you’d find in many Welsh circles. Each has character and there are veins of quartz here and there. Although some of the stones have fallen, it doesn’t detract from the overall impression.
Mountains, stones, silence, sea and sky.
I could write a few pages of superlatives, but really you should come and see for yourself. In the meantime, we have some lunch and take it all in.
Blossom has Frances Lynch’s excellent Gwynedd guide with her and we have a quick look to see what else there is around here. The prominent jumble of upright stones visible to the west is the most obvious place to head next. Unfortunately we don’t realise that Circle 278
is hidden away over a little crest and miss it completely. Drat.
Monument 280 (these numbers suggest a spectacular profusion of other sites crowding around us) is very difficult to get a handle on, even when you’re standing in its midst. A row of four uprights run north-south across the monument, while on the west an apparent kerb forms its edge. Shapes and patterns can be discerned, but are contradicted by other patterns. Truly an enigma.
Having singularly failed to realise we’d missed Circle 278, we continue west along the main track. Cors y Carneddau circle is supposedly on the north side of the track. Surely this should be easy to find?
Well, no. Part of the problem lies in the fact that there are quite of lot of random stones in the grass here. Which ones do you choose?
Eventually we decide that a group quite near to the drystone wall, just east of a corner, is the best bet. There are at least four stones in a sort-of arc, with a couple of additional possibles close by. But I could be persuaded otherwise…
What is entirely certain though, is the massive Cefn Coch (“Red Ridge”) cairn. It would be impressive anywhere, but what sets it apart from comparable sites is the stunning backdrop of the Carneddau.
Turning its face resolutely from the sea hidden behind a ridge to the north, the cairn unquestionably looks inland towards the mountains. The very highest peaks of the range are hidden from here, but the skyline is filled with an array of summits all well above the 2000ft mark, several of which boast contemporary monuments.
It's a breathtaking sight and we sit in awe for quite a while.
This stunning place will be our final outpost of the day. It’s getting on and my plans to head on to Tal-y-Fan, already compromised by the train delays, were abandoned as soon as I reached the circles. A first visit to this wonderful complex in such amazing weather deserves time to savour. Today I’ve had good company to savour it in.
We retrace our steps to the car and I know I will surely be back. What a perfect day.
49 Adventures - Wansdyke Wandering 28 May 2011
The previous weekend I used the 49 bus service to walk to Avebury from the north, so a walk from the south seems a fitting follow-up.
I get off at Shepherds Shore, the handy point where the post-Roman Wansdyke crosses the A361. There’s a gentle climb up the shoulder of Roughridge Hill, following the earthwork and allowing an unfolding view of Cherhill Down and Oldbury and the extensive North Down barrow cemetery.
The first stop off is Roughridge Hill long barrow. Well-defined on the OS map, the reality is rather less impressive. Unless you know it’s there, you’d pass by without a glance. All that remains is a low rise in the grassy field, hard up against the edge of the much bigger Wansdyke. The proximity of the dyke may suggest that the long barrow was a reasonably obvious landmark, perhaps a boundary feature, made use of by the earthwork builders when they were planning their route. Sadly it’s not so prominent now, not really worthy of much of a pause as I head across the hill.I briefly contemplate a proper look at Easton Down long barrow, which appears as a much more prominent and upstanding feature than its nearest contemporary. However, it’s a bit off my route for today, so I head south instead, off the Wansdyke and across fields of dusty earth and white chalk. A lonely reservoir tower, stark and angular, is the only trace of modern presence here. Reaching the southern slopes of Kitchen Barrow Hill, rows of Medieval strip lynchets provide evidence of earlier occupations.
Two lithe brown shapes dart into my path, then rise on hind legs to survey their route – it’s the first hares I’ve seen this year, always a great pleasure to encounter.
From the strip fields there is a great view of Kitchen Barrow Hill to the east. The south-facing scarp is steep and the presence of an intervening dry valley heightens the impression that Kitchen Barrow was placed to be seen from the neighbouring slopes. The area around the barrow is open access land, so there are no complications in getting to the site.
Pastscape records show a round barrow to the north of the long barrow, at a point where the fence changes direction. However, although there are several bumps alongside the fenceline, none is particularly obvious or convincing as the round barrow depicted on the OS map.
The long barrow is certainly obvious though, 30m or so long and a couple of metres high at its southern tip, with well defined flanking ditches. It lies along the sloping crest of the ridge, with its northeastern end almost blending into the hillside. The views south are extensive, as the ground drops sharply to the farmland and the valley of the Kennet & Avon Canal below. To the west there’s a great view of the multi-phase west end of Tan Hill, where more strip fields lie below a linear prehistoric earthwork and a group of Bronze Age round barrows are silhouetted on the skyline.
A good place to stop for a while and let the world turn, especially on a Wiltshire big skies day of fast-moving cloud. Regrettably today’s visit is under a rather more leaden variety.
From here I leave the top of the hill and follow the prehistoric earthwork northeast, heading back down towards the ever-impressive Wansdyke. A pair of deer materialise in the fields below me, making their swift way across my line of vision. Hares and deer, it’s turning into something of a wildlife spectacle today.
Leaving Kitchen Barrow it’s an easy walk around the rim of the escarpment to the western flank of Tan Hill. The first encounter is with the linear earthwork running just below the top of the slope. Presumably part of the same thinking that constructed a much longer section of bank and ditch on the northwestern side of the hill, it’s pretty well-preserved, with the hillside falling steeply away below it.
A bit of further uphill huff and puff and I’m in the midst of the round barrow group that crowns the western spur of Tan Hill, a promontory separated by a narrower neck from the main bulk of the hill to the east.
Tan Hill is the second highest hill in Wiltshire, only fractionally lower than nearby Milk Hill and part of the same long east-west ridge. As you’d perhaps expect from such a prominent place, looking out across the downs in all directions, the ridge is covered in a timespan of prehistoric sites from the Neolithic long barrows of Kitchen Barrow
at the western end and Adam’s Grave at the eastern end, through numerous round barrows and Iron Age earthworks, with Rybury
hillfort on a southern spur. There’s a great view westwards, taking in King’s Play Hill and Morgan’s Hill, each topped with further barrows, as well as the unmistakable Cherhill Down and Olbury with its obelisk.
The barrow group includes three bowl barrows, in a NW-SE line, with a much larger disc barrow close to the two northern bowl barrows. All are clearly visible, if rather reduced by ploughing. The bowl barrows (particularly the one at the SE) bear clear excavation damage. They are all covered by sheep-cropped grass, so there’s no seasonal vegetation problem to contend with in a visit.
Although it’s the most damaged, the SE barrow is still pretty impressive and boasts very extensive views. The central barrow is bigger, well over a metre high despite the ravages of time and barrow diggers. The NW barrow is the runt of the litter, clinging to its sloping setting like a barnacle. All have well defined surrounding ditches. The adjoining disc barrow is great too, almost 20m across, including its outer bank. All in all well worth the effort of the walk.
Wansdyke is most impressive here, snaking its way across the northern slopes of Tan Hill. There’s also a decent view of a single, large round barrow on Horton Down, surrounded by gallops but covered in a darker green mantle.
Fifteen minutes’ walk brings me close to the undulating silhouette of West Kennett long barrow, attended by more people than I’ve seen in the three hours since I left the bus. I like its inaccessibility from this long approach, it gives a good appreciation of its setting, how the profile stands proud against the skyline. My own route kinks east, then northeast, heading towards The Sanctuary. In the field immediately to the south, the mound of Avebury 23 round barrow can just be seen over the crop. More impressive is West Overton 1, the southernmost outlier of the long barrow cemetery stretching north of the A4.
Sadly the barrows on Allington Down have been rather less well-treated than their neighbours up on the ridge. Once a group of six, there’s nothing to see of all but one now. The plough has taken care of the rest. However, the one that does remain is very decent. It’s quite overgrown with nettles and long grass, topped with three shrubby May Trees in bloom, making it difficult to see whether there’s damage to its top.
I can see Silbury
, peaking out from trees and indicating how far I still have to go to get to Avebury today. So I go.
I visited The Sanctuary once before, on my first trip to Avebury. On a day of first contact with heart-stopping monuments, the concrete-marked circle seemed an anticlimax, a curio and little more. Today I’m more receptive, especially after the long, peaceful walk over the downs to get here.
The place is deserted when I arrive, allowing a better appreciation of the layout and in particular the size of the rings. The outer circle is a wide 40m across, as big as almost any stone circle I’ve been to. Although the little concrete blocks are no substitute for stately sarsens or hefty timbers, there’s still much to enjoy here, if you can block out the steady roar of the busy A4 just over the hedge. Looking south across the low Avebury 23 round barrow, the tree-covered form of East Kennett
long barrow can be seen from the circles. Such a shame that the original grandeur is lost forever though.
From The Sanctuary, a permissive path allows access to the remnants of West Kennett Avenue on the south side of the A4. This part of the monument seems to receive little attention, probably because of its separation from the better preserved section running northwestwards to Avebury.
However, it’s well worth a visit to make sense of the relationship of The Sanctuary and the henge complex. The first stone encountered is an enormous fallen slab, jutting out from the hedgeline. Beyond that is another fallen stone, apparently broken with a smaller piece placed on its top. The final stone in this group still stands, buried in the hedge and trapped behind barbed wire. It has been broken, leaving a short stump in place. Screened from the busy A4 by the thick hedge, this is a hidden spot, remarkably quiet for somewhere so close to the Avebury tourist hub. It doesn’t have the atmosphere or obvious draw of the well-known northern section of the Avenue, but it’s another part of the jigsaw that makes up this fascinating landscape.
Risking life and limb I cross the A4 onto the B4003, a narrow but busy road that runs parallel with the Avenue on its way to the henge. It’s worth stopping off at the single upright stone, separated from its companions by the road and hedges, looked down upon by the linear cemetery of massive round barrows along the Overton Hill
ridge to the east.
By now the threatening skies of earlier have turned to a persistent drizzle, and contact with any vegetation leads to an immediate soaking. I decide to leave the road and Avenue and instead head east to look for the scant remains of Falkner’s Circle. I’m on the last leg now, following increasingly wet and muddy tracks towards the village. Last week I sat in the sunshine and watched people in the circles, but today the wet doesn’t encourage sitting still. Even in the rain, Avebury is compelling; the massive stones silent and unmoving sentinels, watchful beneath the lowering skies.
A path leads round the margin of the field, eventually reaching a gateway where a single standing stone marks the position of the poor old circle. Nettles surround it, neglected and lost, a sad survivor with no-one to talk to. I’d like to come back on a less gloomy day, perhaps in the winter when the nettles have gone. It doesn’t feel like a place to linger today though.
A final embrace with the Cove, and the 49 is back, to take me homewards from another glimpse of the vast landscape surrounding the beating heart of Avebury.
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.
Showing 1-5 of 45 posts. Most recent first | Next 5
"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