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It would be tempting to speculate that this deceptively well sited monument was so named in honour of Pumlumon's greatest (known) son, Owain Glyndwr. Well, seeing as we are obviously ignorant of the identities of the numerous other great persons once interned in the iconic 'Mother of Rivers' myriad upland cairns, surely no one could argue with the selection of Shakespeare's 'worthy gentleman exceedingly well read'? Then again this could all be spurious conjecture on my part... the name-checked celebrity the late, much lamented Bill Owen from Last of the Summer Wine? Hey, I'd go with either.
'Compo's Cairn' certainly has a bit of a 'ring' about it and, to be fair, appears appropriate to my (admittedly idiosyncratic) mind as I struggle up the steep, southern flank of Cerrig yr Hafan in driving rain, not at all impressed by the accumulation of household rubbish within the abandoned quarry at its foot. Yeah, sadly the old mine/quarry tracks to be found here offer easy access to those in possession of a 4x4... and beyond all help. And to think this is my third attempt to see the cairn. Er, come again? Well, I first noticed Carn Owen last year across the Nant-y-Moch, basking under a peerless blue sky during the ascent of Drosgol. Needless to relate the 'morrow dawned in appalling fashion.... and an attempt last month was curtailed by the closure of the trans-Pumlumon road at both ends. Bastards! Isn't it strange... and primitive... how the desire to 'have' increases with every successive denial, seemingly inversely proportional to the potential prize? Hence, despite having endured a typically turbulent night upon Pumlumon, I'm resolutely determined to be most probably distinctly underwhelmed this morning.... even if it kills me. Happily neither scenario occurs, although I did wonder about the latter for a second during the ascent. OK, a bit longer than that.
Struggling to the top I immediately encounter what looks like a reasonably large, grassed-over cairn. No bad at all. However the map shows Carn Owen to occupy the very summit of the ridge, to the approx south-west. In retrospect this grassy monument is perhaps related to what Coflein cite as 'small satellite cairns... noted to the north-east'? Perhaps. What is certain is the substantial size and excellent siting of Carn Owen itself, the monument located, as promised, at the summit of Cerrig yr Hafan ('Haven Stone'?). The stone pile is a superb viewpoint, worthy of Glyndwr himself in my opinion, particularly looking down upon the Afon Cyneiniog to the approx west, not to mention south toward Llyn Craigypistyll and Disgwylfa Fawr, hill of Bronze Age 'canoe' fame, no less. The vista of Pumlumon across the Nant-y-Moch reservoir upon the northern arc is pretty good, too.... would be even better in clear weather with the main ridge standing proud of cloud. Yeah. But then you would wake up...
There is a wee problem, however. It is far, far too windy to stand anywhere but in the cairn's lee. Consequently I'm obliged to sit. Well, better than involuntarily prostrating myself, head first, in homage to past heroes. As you might expect the centre of Carn Owen has been badly disturbed over time, a notable volume of material subject to slippage. However there is a welcome, unexpected detail in the form of a small stone setting (a cist perhaps?) to the immediate north-west. Nice. What's more, the sun sees fit to break through for a while and make doubly sure I'm truly glad I persevered with Carn Owen. It may well be upon Pumlumon's periphery - and not rise much above 1,500ft - but this is surely a final resting place for heroes.
If you fancy it the easiest approach - although, as mentioned, not necessarily the most salubrious - entails parking above the northern extremity of the Nant-y-Moch Reservoir (same place as for Drosgol), that is a little before the cattle grid and track leading down (eastward) through woodland toward the water, assuming arrival from Ponterwyd. A prominent track heads diagonally uphill here (approx south-ish). Follow this and, upon reaching an abandoned quarry, veer very steeply uphill to the right. Worth the effort. Incidentally it would also appear possible to combine a visit to Disgwylfa Fawr if you fancy making a full day of it?
Following on from a morning spent at the excellent Fron Camp, early afternoon is characterised by a series of very heavy showers. Nevertheless, with an hour or so available before I must push on to Pumlumon for the night, the Caer-din Ring, sited immediately west of a high level moorland road penetrating the Clun Forest uplands, appears to fit the bill nicely, thank you very much.
Heading east(ish) past St John's Church (below Fron Camp) I take the very steep first left (Mardu Lane) subsequently veering left again soon after. The road climbs toward the summit, providing some excellent panoramic views as it does so, the ancient enclosure eventually seen crowning the rise to the left. After a bit of customary indecision I park at the entrance to the access track for Foxhole farm, more or less opposite the site. Another torrential deluge hammers upon the car roof.... but unfortunately I've no time to lose. A couple of farm workers career by on quad bikes flashing each other a smile as if to say 'what a nutter!' Hey, the thought had crossed my mind as well, to be fair. Mindful that barbed-wire fences and expensive waterproofs are mutually exclusive, I head down the road a short distance to use the gate before making the short ascent to the enclosure (as it happens there is another gate near the cattle grid to north-west).
The initial bank encountered is not part of the main enclosure defences, appearing to have been erected to provide additional screening protection to the most vulnerable eastern flank of the site, therefore suggesting that the Caer-din Ring was indeed a serious defended settlement... and not a fortified animal pound as I tentatively surmised from earlier conjecture. Always nice to be proven incorrect in such a manner. The main bank rises to approx 6ft and encloses a significant area (see TSC's misc note). However it is the location, not the archaeology, which is surely this settlement's primary asset? The downpour having taken an appropriate rain-check, the sun takes the opportunity to break through the cloud mantle to periodically illuminate the landscape. In such light the views to be had from the Caer-din Ring are found to be truly wondrous indeed, particularly looking toward the southern and western arcs. Hey, I'm even able to pick out Castle Idris, a visit there having been abandoned earlier in the day. Looks well worth another attempt, to be honest. As I walk around the circumference, breathing in the oxygenated goodness, all manner of land rovers, 4x4s and quad bikes pass by on the road returning from somewhere or other. Clearly something's been going down in the locality. Nothing to do with me, of course. But then why would any decent person have an issue? Exactly. It would appear the people of Clun Forest are just that. Decent.
Yeah, pity I've not more time, but there you are. 'Take what you can get' would appear sound advice. Now, however, Pumlumon beckons.... and I can not resist the siren's call.
As appears to have become custom, my annual October wanderings in North Wales are again subject to a prelibation further south, exploring a little more of the Marches and Mid Wales. Now the allure of the latter for an upland antiquarian is perhaps obvious, the wild landscape, dominated by the legendary Pumlumon, an idiosyncratic synthesis of the stark, grassy beauty of South Wales' great escarpment with the uncompromising rock of Gwynedd. But what of the borderlands, the rolling hills presenting a softer, arguably more classical vision of natural beauty to the passing traveller? Well, appearances can be deceptive, of course. Just as the sublime, scarlet poppy fields of France mask so much past human turmoil, punters looking a little more closely here will notice the shapely green hills of the Marches are crowned by a preponderance of hill forts and lesser fortified enclosures, the valleys dominated by the crumbling stone castles of the Norman Marcher Barons... literally a law unto themselves. Yeah, things clearly weren't always as serene as they now appear.
One such hill fort occupies the south-eastern extremity of Fron, overlooking the small village of Newcastle, the site but one of a trio (as far as I'm aware) of defended enclosures in the southern locale of the Clun Forest. I approach from Clun itself, the town dominated by the gaunt ruins of its Norman castle, heading west along the B4368. At Newcastle, the name no doubt a reference to the motte sited beside the River Clun a little to the south-west, I follow 'Church Road' to park beneath, appropriately enough, St John's Church. Nowadays churches make me very uneasy with their oppressive death cult vibe... so, without further ado, I ascend the bridleway to the edifice's immediate right and, veering steeply uphill to the south-west as later directed, arrive at the nicely compact Fron Camp.
According to EH (see link) the univallate defences are (externally) c10ft high to north-west, facing the path of least resistance, and c9ft elsewhere, enclosing an area c269ft (SW-NE) by 344ft (NW-SE). So, not bad at all. Unfortunately the southern/south-western arc is very overgrown. That aside, there are excellent, far reaching views south-east toward the Clun Valley, not to mention a particularly fine section of Offa's Dyke upon Graig Hill to the north-east. Ah... Offa's Dyke, that great 8th century earthwork which, to me, represents the physical embodiment of the fault line between the 'tectonic plates' of opposing cultures that were integral to shaping the past of this area. Violent times.
Such historic strife seems an almost unfathomable impossibility as I relax upon the northern bank, drink my coffee, get soaked by rain and then bathed in sunshine.... all the while pondering the serenity which reigns supreme here this morning. Yeah, surely human kind, in general terms, has advanced since those days? C'mon, even just a tad? As I wander to the north-west and view the enclosure's defences from without... I reckon so. The bank is impressive for such a small site. But what a sad reflection upon us as a species that such-like were ever needed. Needless to say still are in many places. However, having - just - survived blowing ourselves and the planet to nuclear oblivion perhaps we have a fragile launch pad available to us now. Not for Minutemen ICBMs, but perhaps an allegorical one to build a better future?
Fron Camp is 'mirrored' by another settlement, Castle Idris (I assume name-checking... very unusually for the area... the giant of lore), to the approx west, although forestry negates intervisibility. However I find parking below the site to be an issue so, with time at a premium if I wish to reach Pumlumon by nightfall, decide to pay a visit to the Caer-din Ring instead. Hey, you can take your pick in these parts.
A quartet of large Bronze Age cairns stand upon the summit and western flanks of Carn Fflur, a substantial, afforested hill rising to c1,650ft a couple of miles south of the Cistercian abbey at Strata Florida (Ystrad Fflur). Despite the pedigree of the monastic site - the poet Dafydd ap Gwilym is thought to be buried within its environs, accompanied by numerous Welsh princes of Deheubarth - I'd probably raise a somewhat quizzical eyebrow in surprise... Roger Moore style.... should any member be able to pinpoint Carn Fflur's great cemetery on the map at the first time of asking. No cheating now. Needless to say we will never know the identity of the Bronze Age forbears once interned within the great stone piles; however I can't help feeling they should be accorded at least the same respect as their illustrious followers. A naive notion, perhaps?
I approach the 'Cairn of Flowers' from Bryngwyn Bach, the unassuming high ground to the west. Now there are at least two good reasons for this; primarily to visit the excellent half dozen Bronze Age cairns located upon the latter's north-western slopes... and also to avoid sinking, possibly without trace, within the unfeasibly boggy valley separating the western bank of the Afon Fflur from the lower hill. The river, sourced upon the flanks of Carn Gron to the south, certainly appears to be the focal point of this landscape, not least for an almost 'Pumlumon-esque' concentration of funerary cairns. It is very difficult not to assume at least some correlation between these monuments and the naturally exuberant, flowing water.... the very epitome of vitality, of life itself. Not that I feel that 'vigorous' - at least in the physical sense - as I struggle to cross the deep gulley inexorably carved in the hillside.
Carn Fflur's western cairn lies just beyond at SN73956233, although not depicted upon the current 1:50k OS map. According to Coflein it is a.."probable ring cairn, c.16m in diameter & 0.75m high set eccentrically within a possibly later turf-covered stony ring, c.36m in diameter". Although the least substantial and well defined cairn of the quartet, not to mention rather overgrown, the site possesses a large, well preserved cist. Can't argue with that. Next up is a nice round cairn set upon the north-western slopes of the hill at SN74206245. "10m in diameter & 0.5m high", the outstanding feature is the "remains of an orthostatic kerb-ring on the S & W.."
So, onward and upward to the summit? Er, not yet. Since set upon the steep rise to the approx south of the northern monument at SN74276228 stands a massive cairn which, to be honest, appeared much more substantial than the dimensions attributed to it by Coflein ("24m in diameter & 1.5m high"). The location is excellent with far reaching views to north, west and south toward Carn Gron, the summit cairn of Carn Fflur rearing up upon the eastern horizon to complete the set. The cairn possesses internal detail, Coflein noting "a central disturbance / hollow revealing possible cist elements". Yeah, I concur with that. In addition there is "an embayment on the NW side & an annex, 6.0m across on the NE, are thought to be original features". Clearly this was - is - a complex, enigmatic monument. What is it doing here languishing - or should that be 'revelling' - in utter obscurity? I'm truly gob-smacked. And that's a fact.
I finally clamber up through woodland to the top of Carn Fflur to find the summit cleared of trees. Unfortunately this has resulted in a hill top perhaps resembling a landscape in the devastated aftermath of a hurricane strike. Not a pretty sight. There are compensations, however.... yeah, the large round cairn crowing the summit "25m in diameter & .8m high" is accorded sweeping views, except upon the eastern arc where forestry still prevails. Although by no means the largest such sentinel cairn I've had the great pleasure - not to mention privilege - to spend some time upon, this is a fine, well preserved example of the genre. Again Coflein cite "a central hollow shows possible cist elements". Regrettably I found the internal space defiled by a beer bottle discarded by some individual with 'issues'. The beer was of classy origin. Very unlike its erstwhile owner. Needless to say it is there no longer. Anyway as I sit several rain fronts sweep in to give me quick 'working overs'. Soon, however, they are gone and the sun illuminates the scene with a golden glow. Aye, perfection, my perch the ideal spot to observe the surrounding landscape. Carn Fflur might not be the biggest of peaks, even relative to Mid Wales. But it certainly doesn't disappoint in the vibe stakes.
Walking - nay, wading at times - back to the car (no doubt much to the amused bemusement of the farmer working the field across the river in his tractor) I deliberate upon how Strata Florida has laid claim to the 'spiritual' musings of the majority of visitors to this part of Wales. As for myself.... I much prefer the high ground .... of Carn Gron and Carn Fflur. If you decide to come, please make sure you don't lose your bottle.
[Note: all Coflein quotes are courtesy of J.Wiles (22.07.04)]
To my mind the best way of appreciating the layout of an upland landscape - in the absence of the personal aircraft piloted by an Honor Blackman lookalike clad in black lycra - is simply to climb a section of it and use the Mark I eyeball. Admittedly this particular observer may need to conclude his observations a bit sharpish on occasions, courtesy of hill-fog, but such frustrations literally come with the terrain..... and are a small price to pay for such insights as a distant glimpse of Carn Fflur's massive summit cairn from Carn Gron the other day. Some - myself included - may well argue that such experiences were possibly an orchestrated facet of The Bronze Age upland experience... intervisibility... an ancient, albeit no doubt much more profound predecessor of those tours of celebrities' houses we have nowadays. Maybe, maybe not. There are also completely unexpected bonuses. Yeah, while Carn Fflur is therefore today's primary destination, a group of (apparently) small cairns depicted upon the north-western flank of Bryngwyn Bach (on the 1:25K OS map, not the 1:50K) appear worth a short diversion en-route.
Heading toward Pontrhydfendigaid on the B4348 from Tregaron look for Old Abbey Farm on the right after about four(ish) miles. Duly noted, ignore the next left, instead taking the right hand turn soon after. There is currently plenty of room to park near an old chapel (I think) undergoing renovation at the approx limit of the tarmacadum. A public footpath leads from here to a footbridge across the idyllic Afon Fflur, the c1,295ft hill top of Bryngwyn Bach but a short walk to the south. Ok, the intervening landscape is a trifle boggy, but in retrospect about as dry as it gets around here! Ascending the hill to the north-east (duh!) I note what look more like rather poor clearance cairns. Never mind, the view north is worth the effort, that it is. True... but so are the half-dozen excellent Bronze Age cairns I suddenly encounter, funnily enough, just where shown on the map.
The southern trio are of most - hey, considerable - interest, two featuring cists, that within the higher (eastern) monument proving to be very well preserved, merely lacking capstone. In addition, examples of kerb orthostats, a few pretty hefty, remain in situ to further enhance structural form. These are fine upland funerary cairns indeed. In comparison the northern three monuments are less well defined, retaining less internal detail. Nevertheless the opinion is relative to the excellence of the southern grouping; taken as a whole I reckon this is a fabulous Bronze Age cemetery with reasonably straightforward access and great views to boot. Not to mention great vibe. Silence may be golden, but here it is made of stone.
Bryngwyn Bach is impressive for such a seriously obscure site and I would've liked to have stayed longer than a couple of hours... but thoughts of that massive cairn crowning Carn Fflur resurface. As Mick Jones once (sort of) sang, the question is 'Should I stay, or should I go?' I decide upon the latter, inquisitive Citizen Cairn'd that I am.
This archetypically diminutive - not to mention obscure - Mid Walian 'ritual' complex has been on my radar for a few years now... however since my radar is often a bit wonky I guess that's not so bad. Can't even send a text message on my mobile phone, so no real surprise there. Anyway, following the procurement of a new tyre in Tregaron to replace that shredded in last evening's blow-out (incidentally D J Tyres did the job with minimal fuss, should you ever find yourself in similar need) I drive south on the B4343 to the small village of Llanddewi-Brefi. Here a minor road, signposted 'Youth Hostel', or something like that, heads approx east along the beautifully rugged Cwm Brefi. I experience the sensation of deja-vu until the subconscious recalls this is also the way to the enigmatic Bryn y Gorlan complex. Fork left after approx 5 miles if that's more your bag.... however I veer right to eventually park, overlooking the Afon Pysgotwr-Fawr, at the road's terminus.
I set off toward the farm of Bryn-glas perched upon the hillside to approx south-west, the forestry-clad Pen-y-raglan-wynt (hopefully) rising above. The farmer happens to be emerging in his land rover, so I decide it'd be rude not to stop and have a chat with said gentleman and the lady occupying the pre-fab home opposite. Seems he remembers when the forestry people first came to the area years ago.... and confirms there is indeed a stone circle within yonder trees. Both lament the damage being wrought upon the landscape by groups of tragi-comic 4x4 'armchair mountaineers' who, by all accounts, frequently get mired in the mud like prize muppets. But I digress. Enough talk of motor-related muppetry for one day. Following the green track to the south past Bryn-glas, shepherded by the resident (friendly) dog as forewarned - think of him as an 'organic alarm' - I undertake the brief ascent to emerge upon the open moor beyond. The track is easily followed to the near bank of the Afon Pysgotwr-Fach.... where my navigational difficulties begin in earnest.
It looks easy enough on the map. However transposing OS data to the real world can be tricky, particularly when trees are part of the equation. Yeah, if only people wouldn't keep chopping them down and planting new ones in different places! In retrospect I would (very tentatively) suggest that, after fording the river at the obvious spot (as I did) one should trend a little to the left and ascend one of the breaks in the forest line from there. Or simply ignore the breaks and take a compass bearing, although that would probably prove very hard going due to close-set branches. As it was... I took the direct line and, perhaps inevitably, struggled to locate the evocative ruins of Pen-y-raglan-wynt. From the shattered remnants of this smallholding, complete with natural water supply, I stomp south along the track and, arcing 'round to the east, take the first right heading south-west. This track ends in a T-junction; a little beforehand, strike off to the left.... and see if you can spot any ancient monuments!
The round barrow is by far the most obvious component of this truly magical (I can't think of any other suitable adjective off the top of my head) complex... simply because the others are very much conspicuous by their absence. Oh, they are here all right. Just takes a bit of effort, you know? Although by no means large, the barrow is still pretty substantial and, long grass notwithstanding, apparently well defined. So where's the stone circle, then? The map reckons immediately to the east... however I initially only manage to locate three, possibly four orthostats overwhelmed by probably the most verdant of pastures I've ever seen. Seriously, I reckon cows let loose here would be able to leave Usain Bolt standing in no time. It'd be a bizarre race. But I'd pay to see it.
Perseverance sees me uncovering many more stones - I hesitate to call them 'orthostats' or 'standing stones' - more or less tracing the entire circumference of the ring. Some are so tiny they barely break the surface, a number only located with the hand. Any attempt to arrive at a definitive number would surely be splitting hairs. Clearly there was no attempt made here whatsoever to overawe the visitor, to impress with the force of brute construction.... this was simply a space demarcated for some important purpose. What that represented we will never know. However I'm with Tuesday .... "what could you do here but meet and dance?" What, indeed?
It begins to rain.... then absolutely bucket down. But no matter. The vibe here is simply exquisite, as if the very earth has soaked up so much energy from untold generations of profound human interaction it can't keep it all within. A deep and utter sense of peace permeates the forestry clearing as completely as the precipitation falling from the sky. As mentioned earlier the outlook has changed within living memory, although I'm ignorant as to whether this hilltop would have accorded distant views back in the day when people (presumably) came to dance. Or whether it would have been similarly wooded?
There are apparently several other monuments completing the complex. I say 'apparently' since only a marker post gives any conclusive indication of the presence of a further cairn to the north-east. However I stumble across a small standing stone outside the 'circle and - last but certainly not least - a very fine little three stone row. Well large stones would have been very much out of character, wouldn't they? Very much contrary to the minimalist ambience. Yeah, less is very, very much more at Cefn Gwernffrwd.
Nicely located below and to the west of Castell Rhyfel, I was unfortunately only able to spend a short time at this denuded round cairn. Nevertheless it was well worth the diversion whilst returning to the car from Y Garn, despite the traveller being much wetter than he would have liked, courtesy of a previously undetected flaw in the over trouser department. Indeed, I reckon a fine low level walk could be enjoyed if a sojourn was scheduled here in conjunction with visits to other cairns (depicted upon the 1:25K map) along the course of the Groes Fawr. It certainly is a beautiful cwm.
As mentioned, the cairn appears quite badly robbed and hard to define, although a grassy mantle might well have made it appear worse than it really is to the by now very sodden amateur antiquarian. However as I approach it becomes apparent that the monument possesses a 'golden centre' in the form of a well preserved cist, albeit one disguised by a superimposed dry stone shelter... presumably for sheep. According to Coflein what we have here is:
"A round cairn, 6.0m in diameter, showing a cist, 1.5m by 1.0m, roofed to form a shelter, apparently attached to a further cairn, c.10m by 6.0m; there are remains of sheepfold to SW (second cairn?).... [J.Wiles 22.07.04]"
As I stand and take in the landscape context I notice the cloud base sweeping across and engulfing Castell Rhyfel. Hmm. Time to go. Reckon Mother Wales wants to put her landscape to bed.
Castell Rhyfel is an Iron Age hillfort uncompromisingly located, at an altitude of c1,650ft, upon the ridge separating the valleys of the Groes Fawr and Groes Fechan... tributaries, or so I believe, of the Afon Groes. From a military perspective it would no doubt have proved virtually impregnable, an assumption given practical credence by the simple act of attempting to climb up to the thing! However the position is so exposed that, noting the relatively insubstantial defences - not to mention the nascent watercourses and the myriad surrounding Bronze Age cairns - I can't help surmising whether there might have been an overriding ritualistic aspect to the site that may need to be taken into account?
Approaching from Tregaron [see Carn Gron fieldnote] I choose the natural line of ascent along Banc Mawr. Naturally enough, I guess. As I gain height I soon encounter a relatively significant crossbank and ditch. The immediate conclusion is that this forms an outer defence for the 'fort. However something does not seem right; firstly all the collapsed stonework lies on the inner flank of the bank; secondly, and arguably more to the point... the ditch lies behind the bank! Furthermore the feature extends all the way down the slope to the Groes Fawr, suggesting some landscape boundary. But of what period? Hmmm.
A further uphill slog brings me, not before time, to the hillfort. As mentioned the enclosure occupies a fabulous setting, the views wondrously expansive, particularly toward Tregaron, looking down to the Groes Fawr.... and north to Y Garn and Carn Gron (my ultimate destinations today). Pretty much everywhere save straight up the ridge, then. In fact the only disappointing aspect is the lack of definition of the apparently univallate defences. According to the now familiar Toby Driver :
"The enclosure is roughly pear-shaped, with overall measurements of 133.0m west-southwest to east-southeast by 110m transversely (dimensions from NAR). The defences, such as they are, comprise a low earth and stone bank up to 4.0m in width, and varying between 0.5m and 1m in height externally... the `rampart' was probably only ever intended as a low footing for a palisade"
So, perhaps light defences were all that were considered necessary owing to the inherent natural strength of the site? Or does a ritualistic interpretation hold water? Then again..... back in 1988 the then CADW warden (Burnham) noticed what might be termed a natural 'chevaux-de-frise' arrangement to the south-east, possibly a sufficiently powerful portent to found the enclosure per se? Perhaps a citadel fortified by Nature itself might have been just what the local Druid ordered? Whatever the truth of the matter, Castell Rhyfell is certainly just what the Drude ordered. So many questions to ponder as I reluctantly leave and continue my quest for Carn Gron....
P.S. - Prospective visitors might be interested in taking a look at a prostrate stone laying a little below and to the east of the enclosure at very approx SN735599. Probably a naturally occurring erratic... but perhaps someone might know otherwise?
It might initially seem rather odd to find what I consider the finest of Carn Gron's quartet of Bronze Age cairns located upon the hill's lower south-western spur. However the more of these upland sites I visit, the more such apparent inconsistencies recur. To be honest, Carn Gron is probably not the best example I could cite in support of this assertion, the actual summit also being crowned by a very large cairn, likewise the secondary, western height. Nevertheless it seems a pretty good assumption that, if size of cairn represents anything at all, whomever was interred within Y Garn was not considered that subordinate in the Bronze Age social hierarchy....
I approach the great stone pile from the aforementioned western summit monument, the cairn, looming large through primeval swirling mist and driving rain, proving a welcome sight confirming the validity of my compass bearing, albeit one aided by fenceline and (apparently) nameless nearby lake. The inclement nature of the weather, although more or less guaranteeing an ethereal vibe, is a pity since, assuming the views obtained from Castell Rhyfel earlier in the day are anything to go by, the outlook from the cairn, located at 1,633ft, is surely exceptional? Needless to say, however, this traveller must take what he is offered.... like it or lump it. Fortunately what is presented here happens to be a very fine upland cairn, indeed. Well worth a considerable effort, whether associated with expansive vistas.... or a monochroic backdrop of clammy vapour. Yeah, according to Coflein it is:
"A subcircular cairn, 18m north-south by 16m & 1.4m high, in which a central disturbance shows a ruined cist, 1.3m in length, partly formed of living rock [J.Wiles 23.07.04]."
Note, once again, the existence of a ruined cist still remaining in situ, the presence of which is always welcome, if only to render any doubts of ancient origin superfluous at source. Unfortunately, in my experience, such surviving detail represents the exception rather than the rule, at least outside of this locality! Unfortunately time advances at a rapid pace.... or at least appears to.... and the trusty compass is all too soon once again required to safely descend southwards to the Groes Fechan. Emerging from the cloud base into relative clarity, a short, lateral traverse of Banc Mawr brings me to one final cairn standing above the more substantial Groes Fawr at SN72735986.
No doubt reversing this route would make a good ascent of Y Garn? But hey, the possibilities are endless. Go your own way and improvise, why don't you?
A low cloudbase precludes further exploration of the uplands of Y Elenydd prompting an onward drive through Cwm Ystwyth, a beguiling valley of extremes... part sublime natural beauty, part industrial wasteland; a landscape microcosm arguably analogous to Wales itself. But what to do next? Heading south at Pont rhyd-y-groes I eventually settle upon one of a myriad possible options, an ascent of Carn Gron, near Tregaron, in order to investigate Gwys-yr-Ychen-Bannog, an intriguing linear feature (stone row?.... er, actually, no) depicted upon the map, not to mention several cairns. Oh, and just for the hell of it, too.
Orientating myself at Tregaron - after managing to avoid some psychopathic old bint trying to force me off the road, face contorted with unfathomable rage - I drive north on the B4343 and, taking the first turning on the right, incidentally pass below the Sunnyhill Camp.... some other day, perhaps? The road forks to the right and, passing Penffordd, arrives at the terminus where I manage to park in an appropriate manner. It'd be rude not to. A grassy track leads off to the south-east above the northern bank of the Groes Fawr. There are a number of cairns marked on the map in the river's locale; however my initial focus is Castell Rhyfel, an Iron Age hillfort dominating the valley from upon the ridge to my left. Although the enclosure's ramparts aren't that well defined - were they ever? - the siting, from an aesthetic perspective at least, is exquisite, according magnificent views only enhanced by an utterly unexpected interlude of fine weather.
Carn Gron rises across the Groes Fechan to right of Y Garn, the latter, as the name suggests, also bearing an ancient cairn. I decide to go for it, the benign conditions promising a fine summit hang, duly circling the headwall of the cwm to the north. As I do so I encounter a suspiciously 'fallen standing stone-like' prostrate erratic at (very) approx SN735599. It certainly does look out of place, but then again I guess most erratics, by definition, do. My chosen route necessitates losing height before the final ascent... not ideal, but allowing the replenishing of the water bottle (from the Groes Fechan) as compensation. I arrive at the 1,774ft summit in surprisingly short order (for me) to discover that Carn Gron's cairns are the real deal.
The OS trig pillar stands between two monuments.... a large, sprawling cairn at the actual summit of the peak... and a smaller, modern construct to the north-east, the latter almost certainly sourced from a significant 'bite' missing from the former. Despite the significant damage (including obligatory 'muppet shelter'), the summit cairn remains a substantial stone pile, morever with what appear to be remnants of central cist elements in situ. As for the smaller.... it appears Coflein reckon the modern erection stands upon an ancient base (steady now). Which is nice. And more than can be said about the weather, the warm sunshine of half an hour previously progressively - and irrecoverably - superseded by a vicious front sweeping in from the north-west.
I head west to, appropriately enough, the western cairn and determine that this is by far the finest of the trio. Slightly smaller than the summit monument it is, to my eyes at least, much better defined. It also features the probable remains of a central cist, highlighting the apparent unfrequented nature of these seemingly obscure hills. In addition, the views are more expansive here although (sadly) I have little time to appreciate them before the full force of the weather front arrives... and I'm engulfed in thick, opaque vapour and assaulted by driving rain in the horizontal plane. In a curious way this claustrophobic 'world within the clouds' only serves to emphasise the ethereal vibe I often experience at upland cairns, the senses disorientated, the mind reeling at the relative unfamiliarity of it all, eyes attempting to focus upon something with no background. Oo-eer.
Speaking of focus, I recall the Gwys-yr-Ychen-Bannog and go have a look. Whatever the feature represents, it certainly does not resemble a stone row [it appears, retrospectively, to form a boundary feature of indeterminable age (medieval?), the devil being in the translation]. Never mind, it brought me to Carn Gron. Enough said. I am forever in the 'furrow of the horned oxen's' debt. Anyway, I subsequently descend to Y Garn, courtesy of a compass bearing, this proving to be another fine cairn with the obligatory remnants of cist, finally dropping in on (yet) another beside the Groes Fawr, this 'un with a more-or-less intact cist. Jeez, what more has the day to offer?
Back at the car I meet the old farmer and his mate, the former stating that he couldn't care less about the cairns himself.... 'but at least it isn't snowing'. Er, yeah. Whatever. With darkness approaching I set off to find somewhere to 'crash' for the night.... and thankfully avoid taking things way too literally, courtesy of a front near-side blow-out. Suffice to say it has been some day.
It would appear - according to our friends at Coflein, anyway - that the grassy, round cairn which surmounts the modest 1,581ft summit of Y Foel is (somewhat confusingly) known as Carreg Bica... that is 'Bica's stone', perhaps a reference to the erstwhile giant of Welsh folklore said to have done the rounds locally. Probably a bit grumpy, too. Not to mention jealous, seeing as Idris, similarly endowed with gianthood, had the dramatically eponymous Cadair Idris to call his own. Legend can be so unfair.
However relative merit is, funnily enough, relative, Y Foel proving a rather fine rocky 'perch' towering above an abrupt volte-face by the Afon Elan to the south, a movement albeit somewhat protracted by the creation of the reservoirs. I'd recommend an ascent from the west, via the Beddau Folau chambered cairn, although it may well prove difficult to vacate the lower monument, once encountered. If successful.... carry on along the path and, ignoring the obvious left hand fork (likewise a number of lesser sheep tracks), keep heading east before veering right to ascend the shallow northern 'ridge' - for want of a better word - of Y Foel to the cairn.
Carreg Bica is a deceptively substantial monument. Upon arrival, no doubt seduced by the excellent Beddau Folau earlier, I initially think 'not bad'. But it is better than that, as time and a succession of differing viewing angles make clear. Perhaps there are even remnants of a now trashed cist in situ? Perhaps. Anyway, according to Coflein the round cairn is a:
"Cairn of stones and slabs. Mostly grass covered. Approx. 9.8m x 10.7m x 1.5m high. Summit occupied by modern cairn and boundary post. Cairn appears to act as viewing site giving clear vistas toward other cairn sites across valley N/S/E/W (RSJ 2000)"
The reference to the monument appearing to function as a 'viewing site' is perhaps assumptive; however I can confirm that the spot chosen is indeed an excellent viewpoint, particularly when scanning the southern arc... and identifying numerous other prehistoric sites, including the Crugian Bach complex and the highest summits of Y Elenydd. Such a focus upon the surrounding uplands, as opposed to the lowlands, does seem to be a recurring feature of these high Bronze Age cairns in my experience.
Following a wander south-west along the mightily vegetated Craig Y Foel... excellent views.... I return to the summit to endure a bit of a kicking from the weather, to be honest. Nevertheless the compass reassures as cloud engulfs all and subsequently leads me back down to Beddau Folau. Yeah, despite the dodgy weather it is a great place to end a fine day.
Despite the weather having taken a pronounced turn for the worse - or, arguably, reverting to Y Elenydd's uncompromising default position - dawn ushers in no compulsion to leave. Far from it. So, what to do upon a grey day heralding... not a lot, to be honest? Munching a (blue plastic) bowl of Coco Pops for inspiration - although apparently an 18 year old Shelley stayed nearby in 1811 (clearly not Pete from The Buzzcocks, then... but the other poet) - the answer arrives, courtesy of the old OS map. Yeah, a brace of cairns in the vicinity of Y Foel, the craggy hillside overlooking the southern extent of the Afon Elan, the river's course somewhat, er, interrupted here to form the famous reservoirs. That'll do.
Upon driving south past the uncomfortably substantial tourist facilities below Pen-y-Garreg Reservoir, the Creigiau Dolfolau immediately present a reassuringly wild 'n' rocky facade above to the left. The Nant Dolfolau breaches the cliff line midway(ish) along, so allowing a public right of way to head steeply to the approx north-east... but not prohibitively so. Parking is possible beside a roadside cascade. Which is handy.
To be fair, the path is still a tad on the 'uphill' side; but nevertheless enjoyable, traversing a quality landscape. Easily fording the aforementioned Nant Dolfolau, the route swings more or less directly east and, with the crags of Y Glog Fawr rearing to the north, in short order I literally stumble across the chambered cairn of Beddau Folau. The monument, although large, is not exactly 'in yer face', then. Although having said that it might well have been with a touch more slippery mud under foot. The big surprise is a number of large orthostats standing upon the heavily overgrown, grassy cairn. Hence Coflein citing Beddau Folau as being a 'chambered cairn', the structure clearly far too substantial to represent a cist, and to my mind, the orthostats too central to represent the remains of a kerbed cairn or cairn-circle:
"Situated below rocky outcrop. Approx. 8m diameter. Central sub-rectangular hollow approx. 3m wide.. 4 upright stones each c. 0.8m high x 0.8m width x 0.1m-0.2m depth. Stones in round flat central chamber area with 1 fallen? stone on base(RSJ 2000)."
Just goes to show that the impulsive antiquarian traveller can never really be sure what the ubiquitous 'cairn' depicted upon the OS map actually represents on the ground. What a wonderful location this is! A short distance above a major tourist location.... yet it might as well be in the middle of nowhere, such is the vibe. Furthermore, one of the orthostats is mightily impressive for an upland cairn.
Speaking of which... there's another apparently ancient cairn, Carreg Bica, located upon the summit of Y Foel to the approx south-east. Worth a look. Indeed, with the weather appearing more 'doubtful' by the minute, I decide to make the visit to the higher monument sooner rather than later to (hopefully) catch some views before they are subsumed within a mass of vapour. However I determine to return to hang out awhile at Beddau Folau in the afternoon. For once, that's how things actually pan out. Whatever next?
This cairn lies a little downhill from, and to the approx south-west of the 1,765ft summit of Esgair y Llwyn ('ridge of the grove / bush' ... an indication of how the topography of Y Elenydd has changed over the years, I guess, since tussocky grass reigns supreme nowadays). It is not indicated upon either the current 1:25K or 1:50K OS maps.
As I approach, the initial impression is that of modern 'marker cairn' occupying a classic Bronze Age location overlooking the Afon Elan, arguably the finest such position in the immediate locality. Pity. However, what's this? Yeah, closer inspection strongly suggests - to myself, as well as (retrospectively) Coflein - that, although the marker cairn is no doubt modern, it is actually set upon a much larger, grassy footprint of probable ancient origin. What other credible explanation is there up here upon such an obscure hill? Furthermore, it could be argued that the 'greener cairn's' circumference is, albeit intermittently, defined by traces of a kerb.
To be honest I wish I had more time to spend here, the vista south beyond Pont ar Elan toward the Graig Goch Reservoir and Cwmdeuddwr skyline proving to be excellent, as is that looking north-west to the Gors Lwyd wetlands and distant Pen-y-Garn. However I've promised myself a short sojourn at the superb Rhiw Afon cairn before the final descent back down to Pen-yr-ochr farm.... such is life.
Needless to say Banc Cynnydd is not at all bad for a bonus site and, in my opinion well worth primary focus. From the south, perhaps? I would say instinct brought me here. But there are enough gobshites in this world already, thank you very much.
Less than 300 yds - I think - to the approx NW of the shattered Carn Wen stands this beauty near the 'brook of the fold'. An historic reference to sheep husbandry, perhaps? Carn Nant-y-Ffald is by no means a massive monument, but, for me, possesses an inherent quality that is not immediately apparent during the short approach walk from its dishevelled neighbour. The grassy cairn is well defined and shapely. However there's more, the centre possessing a well preserved cist - albeit lacking capstone(s) - shielded by a small dry stone sheep shelter. Yeah, that'll do nicely... well, at least the former, although the shelter is perhaps appropriate, bearing in mind the nomenclature.
The location is archetypical of Y Elenydd, the monument set upon a bare, windswept ridge that, even when basking beneath today's period blue skies, or illuminated by sunbursts, exudes a somewhat primeval, potentially malevolent vibe. Yeah, this is a brutal, unforgiving landscape. In some ways perhaps that is one of its key attributes.... the area representing an ever-shrinking oasis of unpredictable wilderness within a cultural desert of pre-programmed 'life experiences'. Or something like that. Anyway... by all accounts the modern world seems to have passed Carn Nant-y-ffald by. Consider Coflein's RCAHMW field report from 1913... when the monument was described as:
"... a grass-covered stone mound.. some stone protruding through the vegetation. Some cairn material has been used to construct a sheep shelter.. enclosing the open central cist, which survives in remarkably good condition...1.3m east to west by 0.6m and..0.4m deep. It is stone-lined and of solid construction, but its covering stone or stones are no longer present. [RCAHMW 1913]"
As I said, very little seems to have changed upon this hill side in the intervening years. Odd, when you consider it. As I sit and ponder... the aforementioned vibe works upon my consciousness and I subsequently decide to have a wander westwards along the ridge (Gwar y Ty), veering south toward Esgair y Llwyn, searching for views. It seems like the only proper thing to do. How was I to know that Banc Cynnydd also possessed a probable Bronze Age cairn not marked on the map? How, indeed? Well, for what it's worth, it's where I'd have put one, overlooking the Afon Elan.
A short, steep onward climb from the mightily impressive Rhiw Afon cairn brings me to the 'White Cairn', although, to be fair, 'Grey Cairn' would arguably have been more appropriate. Sadly the monument has been well and truly trashed, any lingering remnant of internal detail now lost for ever through the superimposition of a parasitic dry stone shelter. Whether my assumption that the latter was probably erected for the benefit of sheep - those of the Ovis genus, that is, and not ill-equipped walking muppets - makes it any more palatable is perhaps a moot point. The damage has been done, regardless.
Nevertheless enough remains to encourage the visitor to focus upon the positives, to look on the bright side in true Eric Idlian style. Yeah, according to Coflein the monument is:
"A disturbed, grass-covered, stone cairn, which is still a prominent landscape feature, partly due to the use of the cairn material to build a solid stone shelter... Nevertheless the essential form of the cairn is still easily understood being a stone cairn 14m in diameter and a little over 0.5m high [J.J. Hall, Trysor, 8/9/09]."
Mutilation, hey, desecration notwithstanding, the monument is still a substantial stone pile affording a superb view looking south toward the Graig Goch Reservoir and the (relative to these parts) high peaks of Cwmdeuddwr. Not that the cairn's founders would have recognised it, of course! The primary focus here is upon the sky, an impressive cloudscape providing welcome definition to what is all too often a featureless, opaque, grey mass of vapour. But not today. No, today I feel an overwhelming sense of 'space', - of place - of being but a small component of a very large 'whole' indeed. Hey, an infinitely large cosmos! The Great Outdoors, to coin a phrase.
As I sit and ponder a-while the eyes are inevitably drawn to the approx north-west where another, seemingly minor cairn stands some distance away across rough.... very rough... grassland. Checking the map I reckon this must be Carn Nant-y-ffald.... (you don't say Sherlock?) and, since the 'burial chamber' mentioned by the farmer at Pen-yr-Ochr has yet to manifest itself, I guess it must be there. No rest for the inquisitive, then.
Awaking to a (rare) fine dawn upon the Elenydd, the myriad green hills overlooking - not to mention channelling the area's copious rainfall into - the picturesque Elan Valley reservoirs was not what I envisaged today. But there you are, the complete closure of the Tal-y-Bont/Ponterwyd road across Pumlumon yesterday afternoon (and for much of September, as it happens) dictated otherwise. Such is life. But hey, there are much worse places to be.... particularly since, for once, I've a walk lined up on my 'list' should the opportunity arise. In retrospect, however, taking the very minor, exceedingly narrow road following the western bank of the River Wye north-west from the hamlet of Dderw was not the best of options, the road barred by four gates. Yeah, it does become tedious, so suggest the A470 in lieu. Thankfully, however, I meet no one coming the other way and duly arrive none the worse for wear at a T-junction, the road branching left to the farm of Pen-yr-Ochr, right to (eventually) join the A470. I decide to park here and am just locking up when the farmer materialises at the wheel of a massive lorry.... and, upon hearing my intended destination, rhetorically 'suggests' I would be better off parking within his yard. Don't mind if I do, my friend.
The gentleman is clearly very proud of his cairns and enthusiastically furnishes directions... which of course I inevitably make a hash of, the traveller obliged to revert to the map regardless. To cut a long story short (as Tony Hadley once crooned) I would recommend keeping with the official track shown on the map, so avoiding the very steep ascent to the summit of Cefn Bach I undertake. The mocking irony of the 'Small Ridge' translation was noted as my dodgy ribs ensured I made very hard work of these 'mere hills'. Yeah, don't listen to the muppets who delight in telling you Mid Wales is not worth the effort. What bollocks. Bronze Age humankind knew better, for a start.
The compass sorts out the confusion, the first of a quartet of monuments visible below to the approx north-east. The location is understated, yet exquisite, the cairn commanding a magnificent vista of - indeed focussed upon - the River Wye. Seems the Pumlumon connection is established after all. What's more, the monument appears more or less intact, a small, presumably modern marker cairn a minor irritation. According to Coflein:
"A well-preserved stone cairn, measuring 9.25m in diameter and up to 0.75m high.... There is a slight dish in the centre of the mound, possibly an original characteristic. It does not appear that the cairn has been disturbed to any great extent...." [J.J. Hall, Trysor, 8/9/09]
The lack of pretension is striking, the monument subservient to the surrounding hills, but all the more poignant for that. I resolve to stop and hang out for a while more upon my return... but, for now, the higher cairns call.
Two substantial round barrows crown the large summit plateau of Bryn y Fedwen providing (on an unexpectedly fine morning such as this, anyway) wondrous panoramic views to the north and north-west of Cadair Idris and southern Snowdonia. Assuming my understanding of the vernacular is not that limited, it wasn't always such a great viewpoint, the reference to birch trees (I think) suggesting a fundamentally different prevailing landscape context in the past. I find it difficult to visualise. But there you are. Times change. Nevertheless the traveller is here presented with an opportunity to experience an excellent upland vibe with relatively little effort, the latter courtesy of the minor road which traverses the moorland to the west before sharply descending the escarpment edge. It is possible to leave a car at the entrance to the impressive Glaslyn nature reserve (needless to say don't block the cattle grid like the mindless muppet I encountered).... and simply step over the fence across the road. If not, try the Vaughan-Thomas memorial a little further down the road (not forgetting to tip your hat in posthumous tribute to a true outdoorsman and raconteur) where it is 'just' possible. Incidentally this is also a convenient starting point for an ascent of Foel Fadian, the shapely mini-mountain featuring a large barrow mid-way along its eastern flank.... and a quite wondrous skyline of Pumlumon rising across Uwch y Coed and Glaslyn.
Anyway, I digress. The ascent of Bryn y Fedwen from the road is short, the angle of attack shallow, an audience with the first of the barrows soon attained. According to Coflein this measures "20m by 18m and 1.5m high, foreshortened to the NW by a track and bearing the scars of excavation, an inurned cremation being recorded in 1938 [J.Wiles 15.04.02]." So, no doubt about this being the 'real deal', then. The monument is surmounted by a standing stone almost obscured by the long grass which, unfortunately, turns out to be a boundary marker. Shame, but not unexpected in these parts.
A touch of low cloud, formed by temperature inversion, begins to peel away from Cadair Idris resplendent upon the northern horizon. Closer to hand Foel Fadian lies enticingly to the immediate west, its barrow particularly well defined from here. I quickly come to the conclusion that a visit is required later, a brief interlude at the Gladmobile to replenish coffee stocks notwithstanding. In the interim there is also the magnificent vista of Pumlumon to enjoy prior to the gaze being duly drawn to the east to focus upon the second round barrow to grace this hill top. The short walk across the intervening distance requires negotiating another low fence (or perhaps two?) but, despite the damage suffered by the monument, it is worth the effort. Again according to Coflein... this barrow is actually a little taller than its western neighbour, but, in my opinion, less upstanding. If that makes any sense? Probably not. Anyway the dimensions are given as "18m in diameter & 1.7m high", the monument "...devastated by profitless excavation." Well, one out of two aint bad.
As I sit and revel in the conditions upon my little hill top, convex, grassy contours within pastureland to the south-east suggest to me the possibility that Bryn y Fedwen's Bronze Age cemetery was once more extensive than currently supposed. Whatever, I leave Bryn y Fedwen impressed by what I consider an important addition to the Pumlumon prehistoric canon.
The adjective 'obscure' could well have been devised for the location of this long cairn, although, to be fair, much of the 'secret garden' vibe is no doubt due to the wooded environs.... and the fact that the monument is conspicuous by its absence from both the 1:50K and 1:25K OS maps. This is not a site to accidentally stumble across on walkabout (although stumble the visitor will, believe me) but instead a temporary haven from the more annoying manifestations of what we term the 'modern world'. Yeah, I would rate the chance of an undisturbed hang here close to 100%, since I reckon even the Coflein people must've sourced local knowledge to find it. Surely? As for myself... I simply asked the Postman.
It is true to say that the locality does not exactly display a paucity of Bronze Age and Iron Age sites. Oh no. A little to the approx NE a cluster of round barrows duly, well, cluster around the small village of Staylittle, whilst the looming, soggy heights of Pumlumon - Itself - are crowned with perhaps the finest extended concentration of upland cairns in the UK. There are hill forts and lesser enclosures, too. But what of the Neolithic, you may ask? Well....the long cairn is set in a classic location for the type, a short distance east of Cwmbiga Farm overlooking the Afon Biga, one of the lesser rivers sourced upon the aforementioned 'Mother of Rivers'. There are, er, others. Only a couple of hundred yards from the road it may be, but to all intents and purposes it might as well be on the moon for all the likelihood of a casual visitor venturing here. Needless to say Michael Stipe won't be coming, then. Pity.
Speaking of REM, assuming you manage to cross the ridiculously mossy 'lost world' landscape eloquently described by Postman and actually locate the monument, the vibe here is so ethereal the scope for day dreaming is extensive, to say the least. I've no idea how long the Hafren Forest has hidden the long cairn from prying eyes, but assume such a state of affairs was not the original builders' collective intention, something the visitor should take into account. Nevertheless the cairn's grassy 'crust' suggests it's been a while; in fact only a couple of (excavation?) pits and a small area of stone breaking the green mantle confirm that this is indeed a cairn. Definitely a long one, too.
So.... visitors in search of high drama should look elsewhere. Hey, venture up to one of Pumlumon's great round cairns, why don't you? But if an understated, slumbering woodland vibe appeals, make your way to Cwmbiga Farm and follow the southern bank of the Afon Biga - very, very rough going - to the approx east. The monument is not obvious, but isn't that all part of the appeal?
Although ultimately failing to deliver the total isolationist vibe the Mam C and I crave when out and about in the South Walian uplands - and indeed I had erroneously anticipated - a visit to the great Garn Wen nevertheless proved to be a very worthwhile experience. Yeah, not sussing that the Beacons Way (unfortunately another of those long distance marching routes) passes right by, en-route to 2,000ft(ish) Bal Mawr and Chwarel-y-Fan, I reckoned I had a cunning alternative destination avoiding the brightly-clad hordes sure to be upon the Offa's Dyke path today. Not quite, one frightfully upper class young 'laydee' exclaiming to her father .... "but, but ... there's nowhere to go to the toilet... take me on a proper walk next time!".... or words to that effect. Suffice to say there appears to be no evidence of excrement here, Mr Holmes. I swear I can almost hear the old stones sigh, although, to be fair, such people were never going to stay long, huddled within the 'muppet shelter' as they were.
Following TSC raising the profile of the site with the pioneering TMA visit, I actually deferred a pilgrimage to Garn Wen twice during March. You can't hurry love, as they say. As long as 'they' doesn't include Phil Collins, that is. However the Mam C has a 'pass' today, so... why not? Approaching the serene Vale of Ewyas with John Foxx's, er, idiosyncratic take of 'Have a Cigar' upon the car stereo, is probably not the norm, but then neither is our intended route.... starting from the small hamlet of Lower Henllan, complete with its own chapel.... although I'd recommend parking a little beforehand (assuming you approach from the south) where the road achieves a quite inconceivable width for these parts. Ascending the farm track to, appropriately enough, Upper Henllan, we are greeted with a beaming smile from an attractive middle aged woman driving downhill, the response at odds with the 'keep to the path etc' notices. Class act. At the farm, however, with are met with a dismissive discourtesy for being courteous enough to ask for permission to walk through the farmyard, albeit upon a public footpath. Whatever. The track veers right across a ford and... technically... proceeds along a sunken bridleway, swinging left to ascend above one of the tumbling streams feeding the Afon Honddu. We, however - not being able to read a map after 25 years of practice - cut across a beautiful, if 'undulating', meadow, the retrospective view of Hatterrall Hill, site of a promontory fort, quite exquisite. How can this field archaeology-lark be so beautiful? If you take our diversion be sure to veer right at the stile to gently (luckily, since it is way, way too humid today) ascend the path toward the head of the cwm.
The flora is impressive, particularly the rowans, branches heavy with scarlet berries, Nature's bounty for the local birds. We had to cut down our rowan at home in Essex since it grew way, way too large. The tree found it too easy. No need here, however. Not in its proper habitat.... an example of natural selection achieving the optimum. A dung beetle of the most glossy black hue I can imagine - and, hey, I can imagine black - labours with its load beneath my boot, the latter held aloft just in the nick of time. Sensing its imminent death, it freezes.... and then moves on. Instances of everyday life.
At the head of the cwm we encounter several 'bubbling brooks', marked as 'springs' upon the map. Pure water issuing forth from the hillside. Looking back (to the left) I recollect that Graig-ddu possesses the remnant of a cist within a cairn... but what of Garn Wen? The path leads us astray, so I'm obliged to take a compass bearing to lead us through deep fern to the crest of the ridge above. Here the modern beehive cairn acts as a homing beacon. As we approach, the circumference of the monument fills my DSLR viewfinder. Yeah, this was once - hey, is - a very substantial cairn indeed. As TSC relates, not particularly high, but the area covered is significant. We sit down upon the rim and.... well... don't do an awful lot, to be honest... except try and take it all in. The Mam C does whatever she does, whilst my mind drifts back to past times upon distant peaks... and comes to the conclusion that, far from being placed upon some minor, outlying hill, the great cairn of Garn Wen actually possesses a complete 360 degree vista of hills. In short it is set within a natural amphitheatre, arguably the greatest stage hereabouts, perhaps? I agree, it seems unlikely, what with today's accepted mentality of 'biggest is best'. But nonetheless here it is. Why not come and see, and judge, for yourself?
My watch shows that some three hours have elapsed and we must leave. More's the pity. With a great beehive cairn on.
According to my old map I first had the 'presence of mind' to ascend this rocky, southern outlier of Y Mynydd Du way back in July 2003. The reason is now lost in the mists of time. Or rather more prosaically, perhaps, the low cloud base that it seems covered the hill that day. However a likely supposition is that I was looking to return to the excellent Saith Maen stone row.... and, er, sort of got a little bit lost. That, as they say, was that until the craggy height happened to catch my roving eye whilst hanging out at the wondrous, if reclusive Llorfa stone circle a couple of years back, duly noting the profile could be said to resemble a recumbent figure from some angles. Why, I'd say it's a near certainty after several pints of Reverend James. Not that I'd infer participation in any such behaviour upon any of a number of South Walians subsequently confirming that Cribarth is indeed known locally as the 'Sleeping Giant'. Nice.
In retrospect Cribarth has been on the periphery of my South Walian wanderings for a while now.... too long... without ever taking centre stage. I guess the surfeit of quarrying upon its southern flank had a lot to do with that. Nevertheless prevailing circumstances see me finally parking once again outside Craig-y-Nos country park (there is a large, free layby) and following a signed, gated public footpath leading to a 'Heritage Walk'. A little way in there is an exhibit of a modern standing stone, but naturally that needn't detain a TMA-er, there being a number of kosher examples in the area worthy of attention. Follow the path as it forks to the right - as I recall it is signed 'to the open hill' or something similar. Yeah, I'd recommend prospective visitors (for once) 'do as I say, not as I do' since I carry on ahead and have to cross a wall, prior to ascending, very steeply, to the crest of the ridge above to the right. Too late, I conclude that this is not a good idea, seeing as I'm badly out of sorts today, consequently making very heavy weather of the climb. But there you are. Getting old, I guess.
Cribarth, as would befit a giant, recumbent landscape figure, consists of an undulating, elongated - OK, somewhat 'industrial' - ridge aligned roughly south-west. As mentioned above, its southern face will not win any beauty contest - but then no self respecting giant would wish to, surely? - having been ravaged by quarrying over the years. Not my pint of James, to be honest, particularly since the leaden sky suddenly erupts in one of those 'I'll soak you in 30 seconds' downpours. Hey, these damn cairns better be good. Suffice to say, they are. Initially I head for what I take to be the summit at the southern extremity of the ridge, not an unreasonable assumption, bearing in mind the location of the OS trig pillar. This is crowned by a perfectly respectable upland cairn, albeit one subject to the usual 'hollowing out' in order to create an internal muppet shelter. At least it does not have to suffer the additional indignity of supporting the trig point, this standing nearby and, incidentally, being perhaps the most pristine I've ever come across. I'm almost expecting Danny Baker (it was him, wasn't it?) to appear with a box of Daz. Almost. The views are pretty good, too, looking north to the obscured mass of Y Mynydd Du, west toward the site of what I believe to be a ritual complex upon Llorfa, south-west(ish) along the Tawe valley to Ystradgynlais.... and, most interestingly, approx north-east, whereby another cairn can be seen perched across the way....
As I approach, it is actually quite difficult to distinguish the northern cairn from the rocky chaos constituting what the map actually cites as being Cribarth's summit (this certainly does not seem to be the case to me, but I won't argue with the OS... optical illusion). In fact it is only upon moving beyond - and looking back - that the monument is revealed, in all its definition, as a truly substantial cairn indeed. What's more, the southern arc is retained by a section of very impressive kerbing. Now that is unusual for South Wales. As TSC's miscellaneous post states, the cairn is actually not so much a cairn as a large mass of stone blocks arranged in 'dry-stone configuration', if that makes sense. And to think I neglected to come here all these years? As I sit and have lunch the weather begins to deteriorate.... further and further. Paradoxically, this only serves to elevate the somewhat surreal vibe to a level whereby I abandon plans to revisit the nearby Saith Maen stone row. Yeah, so much time has elapsed I decide Cribarth should take all the plaudits this time around.
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Gladman... aka Citizen Cairn'd. Yeah, every monument blows me away, but in particular those highland piles of stone with the appropriately monumental views. Visiting them, I think, helps engender a certain 'connection', however intangible, with this land of ours, providing an indispensable reference point for those of us struggling to make sense of this so called 'computer world' Kraftwerk warned us was a'coming in 1981....
Suffice to say, then, that mine is not an exercise in dryly cataloguing sites for the benefit of future generations - as much as I might try I haven't yet been able to embrace altruism to that extent - but rather an attempt to try and reconcile why I am so incredibly moved by these constructions of stone and/or earth representing a time when everything was, by all accounts, literally a matter of life and death. Yeah, just as an empty house appears to retain echoes of past humanity... an illusion, perhaps, but symptomatic of the consciousness that apparently sets us apart as a species by 'locking us out of the forest'... so does the stone circle, the chambered cairn, the long barrow and the mountain top funerary cairn. We may be only able to make an (hopefully educated) guess as to what forms the human interaction may have taken - but clearly it mattered. A lot.
I make no claims for my contributions except to state that I've done my best to relate what I've seen. Enjoying the moment always takes precedent. The majority of my earlier images are (variable quality) scans of archive prints taken back in the days when photography was, well, 'photography', the others idiosyncratic digital attempts to capture the impossible.... 'mood', a sense of vibe ... without that false post production manipulation. I'd like to think some of them convey something of what I've felt. Likewise my opinions are those of an enthusiastic amateur lacking further state education. If you like what you see, why thank you! But please go see for yourself, make up your own mind, relate what you think, share what you experienced... do your own thing, so helping to keep the facists, communists, authoritarians and the dark shadow of organised religion from the door. As the great Ian Dury once said, 'Be inspired, be inspiring, be magnificent!' ... and thus the circle turns in on itself to go round again, as upon the great kerb stones at Bru na Boinne....
However... let's not get carried away. Steady now. In a society where computer generated fantasy is all too prevalent, where many people seem - to me - unable to even walk down the street without plugging into the 'matrix' machine, please be aware that reaching some of the more remote upland sites in the British Isles can be potentially dangerous, even life threatening, for the unprepared... or arrogant. Treat the landscape and weather with the respect they deserve (take map, compass, waterproofs etc) and you hopefully won't go far wrong. If in doubt, pop a question in the Forum. That's why Mr Cope puts up the readies to run TMA.... Thank you Julian.
So cheers... to Mr Cope for being his inspirational, confrontational self, showing that field archaeology can be FUN! - hey, who'd have thought it? ...to my sister (the wondrous Mam Cymru) for using her female 'macro' vision to help me see the detail throughout an ongoing re-exploration of the South Walian uplands, albeit upon dodgy ankles, knees etc... to my own mam for insisting 'young men should have adventures' (that was a while back, now!).... and my Dad for unwittingly inspiring a profound love of high places. Oh, and to Aubrey Burl for those pioneering guides BC.... 'Before Cope'.
For what it's worth some of my other inspirational people are:
Charles Darwin (for his humanity... amongst, er, 'other things'... although let's not forget Wallace for forcing the great man's hand with his own magnificent contributions);
And then, in no particular order:
George Orwell (peerless essayist with the ability to change his mind); Michael Collins (things are not often black and white...); Robert Moog; Winston Churchill (for all his faults); Martin L. Gore (favourite songwriter...from just up the road!); Big Steve Chamberlain (sorely missed); Giorgio Moroder - the analogue sequencer; Richard Dawkins (much maligned - and asks for it - yet helping to carry the torch of reason during an age of devolutionary religious resurgence); Shane MacGowan (for my North Walian soundtrack... and for making Christmas that little bit more tolerable!); Sophie Scholl (words fail me); W A Mozart (ditto); Manic Street Preachers (the true spirit of South Wales, not the bleedin' misogamist male voice choirs); Nigel Kennedy; Pat Jennings; Stuart Adamson; Will Shakespeare; Kraftwerk; Harry Hill (there's only one way to find out!); Vince Newman; Claudia Brucken (proving Germans do have passion); the (Allied) generation of WW2 for making this possible; Mr Beethoven; Marc Almond; Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy; John Foxx; Christopher Hitchens; Mulder and Scully; John Le Mesurier (do you think that's wise, sir?).. and anyone who has ever asked 'Why?' - the true legacy of punk. Last but not least, Gaelic beauty Karen Matheson... 'the call is unspoken, never unheard'.
George Orwell - '...during times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act'....
Norman MacCaig - 'I took my mind a walk. Or my mind took me a walk — Whichever was the truth of it'.
Alan Bennett - 'Life is rather like a tin of sardines, we're all of us looking for the key'.
Martin L. Gore - 'Like a pawn on the eternal board; Who's never quite sure what he's moved toward; I walk blindly on....'
Truman Capote - 'Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour'.
Winston Churchill - 'KBO'.