Another grand day in paradise as the Blide group of Out and About folk headed down to South Ronaldsay in a full minibus again, picking up a member in the south isles. The road to Hoxa we used starts in the centre of The Hope by the Smiddy museum which one member expressed an interest in seeing sometime (its actually attached to the bus waiting room, so even in the worst of weather those travelling by public transport have a no-brainer !). Along the way we passed the Oyce of Quindry, a tidal inlet where they used to play the Ba'.
Arrived at the Sand o'Wright aka Sands of Wright. Even though it was only an hour off high tide the beach looked expansive, and at extra-wide I still had to take three shots with my camera to capture it all.between the headlands. Most of the group headed east to the high cliffs at the Roeberry Taing, where they looked like tiny dolls at their foot. I suspect another Groatie Buckie hunt took place, these cowries as emblematic of good luck as their Pacific cousins. A few of us headed over the other direction where a fine swell washed the shore my much lower cliffs (though still too high for those with an aversion to owt much above a man's height). There is meant to be a 'new' track along the low cliffs, but I couldn't make this out from the below. Along the way the sparkling swell sometimes caught me out! Some waves rose glassy green, elsewhere they alternated plain with foam as if designed so. After a while the main body came towards us and we three set off to meet them. Several stranded jellyfish littered the sand, as did a peedie still-living crab missing all legs but one - Kev took pity and threw it into the sea.
Coming up off the beach I was intrigued by a long low mound set against the base of the hillside in the sharp corner of a field and covered liberally with stones. On top an area of sand has been exposed but still with some stone. At the mounds downhill side I thought lines of dark grass might show where walls had been, though I have since read in a Current Archaeology report of "buried ditches forming dark green lines during dry conditions". In June 1871 the sandy knoll called Kirkiebrae was trenched in several places to reveal a likely encampment, with burnt stones forming a hearth and containing a large number of animal bones. On the hearth was found a stone quern ("rubber"), a piece of deer bone and a broken fine toothed iron pin fastened bone comb with a set of concentric circles paralleled in southern England. At one spot a fine red and yellow substance was mixed up with a large quantity of ashes. None of which sounds ecclesiastical, but this is traditionally the site of a St Colm's Chapel established by Columba's disciple Cormac from Iona in the early seventh century (Ladykirk down at Burwick had the same dedication). It seems strange that this building has disappeared completely. Anyway the piece that had attracted my attention is not the one on record. Instead they have a hillock above the beach on the other side of the wall as it - ND49SE 4 at ND42229369 - though Kirk Geo is nearer my candidate. The owner of Roeberry Farm called Kirkie Brae a natural grassy knoll with sand exposed in the top from having been used in the wartime (an aerial photo indicates the putative machine-gun post faced the Dam of Hoxa, though it looks as much a broch to my eyes). The dimensions given are 2.5m high and roughly 17m NW/SE by some 13m on the other axis. It is described as having a modern wall about the north and east edges and at the top of the NE side what might be signs of a former building in an outer face of yard-long foot-high drystane walling.
To the north is the Howe of Hoxa, a long sloping mound near the west end of the Dam of Hoxa with an elevation at the high point hiding the broch just behind the house. Climb all the way up and you see into the broch from top to bottom as put back together by George Petrie after he excavated it. Many years ago since I have been there. Then the interior was full of nettles, and global warming will have made matters worse since. Definitely view from the top.
Traditionally the earl Thorfinn Skullsplitter lies buried in Hoxa, with the mound being identified as the spot. But archaeologists can only find indications of settlement at the lower end. However near the east end of the Dam of Hoxa an empty long cist came to light in the vicinity of Swart(e)quoy/Swartiquoy, and early Christians were wont to re-bury their pagan ancestors. Waters are a little muddied by a reference to the discovery of graves, plural, outside the enclosure excavated in 1871 as no remains are mentioned in connection with the cist (ND49SW 11 at ND43099413). This NNE/SSW aligned cist, came from 2'8" deep inside a mound and mostly formed from slabs. At a distance of 4'6" from it another slab stood parallel to the east side's south end slab, both of which rose to a foot above the mound, and he found a 12" by 9½" whalebone vessel. A strange layout it seems to me. Anyways, Petrie believed the Swartquoy enclosure had been "an earthen encampment" because of its being within a strong rampart of earth and stone. This is undoubtedly the same site as Mayfield (ND49SW 13 at ND 43079416), though as described it may include the cist location too - in 1973 the OS talks of a D ~45m in diameter whereas in 1997 Moore and Wilson give us a sub-circular enclosure 'only' 30m across. But more easily reconcileable as area blocked off by the feature's two semi-circular ramparts though. The inner rampart is the better surviving at a maximum height of 1.3m, especially at the north side where it is 5m across (but 1997 account gives bank dimensions as 1.5m high but only 3m wide). At the widest point of the inner rampart a probable eastern entrance (NE in 1997 account) is indicated by two earthfast slabs 0.8m apart. The outer rampart isn't so obvious, and even then can only be seen in the NE quarter and some of the SE quarter. A 0.6m deep ditch across the middle of the enclosure had been some 2~2.5m wide. The enclosure's western end barely survives but is likely to have extended to where you can now see a boat shed's ruined foundations as rubble and peaty deposits lie in a 2m wide vertical cut at the cliffs. Must go there sometime.
Back on firmer ground, and after taking photos of my candidate for the kirk I realise we would not be going any further. Beyond the toilet block are the large foundations of a wartime camp (the pillbox elsewhere is not in its original position, by the way). Running slowly ahead I think I have spotted the other end of the trail I would have taken them on, except you'd have to negotiate a field-gate.
Once back onboard the minibus I persuaded our leader to go to W. Hourston's smithy museum, as sufficient time remained to do so. In the event a different member came with me to the smithy - the rest went to see a craftshop (where for once Sheena garnered no wool!). Hourston's smithy is in a long low building with the old forge in the central section. Go through to the right and there is a large collection of black-and-white photos. The bus waiting-room is seperate. Its wall is a round sweep at the corner of the road, preserving the original curve made to accomodate horse-driven vehicles. At the back a further, lower, building abuts the central section, continuing the roof line. Alas the garden behind has its gate roped up now because it was bonnie when I went. Entering the middle section there's the forge on your right and a selection of instruments in front of you and overhead. Most obvious are two hand-driven pedestal tools, a drill and a lathe operated by turning a wheel. In the low room behind the forge I saw a
large thin-rimmed metal wheel and a pneumatic bellows operated by a long handle. As I came out of this room the lady in charge showed me a big bellows you work by hand to light an imitation fire on top of the forge, which felt satisfying to operate. Seeing the room full of antique photographs attracted my attention but didn't spike it this particular day.
On leaving I had time to walk towards the Doctors Road, which I remembered fondly from a previous visit (from before all these new roads). Up from the museum above the other side of the road the stone walls of an old (?abandoned) building drew me to it. Small stone slabs making up the roof, with two peedie window-holes, and a knock-down imitation of crow-stepped gables. At the front the stones had more honeyed tones and I saw the usual slop-roofed abutting shed that goes with such Early Modern homes. The doctors hoose, Bankburn, sits at the end of its road and is a small late.mansion house with square gate pillars topped by stepped pyramids of more stone blocks. Directly before Bankburn I took a turn up a footpath running outside the walls. Here along the path I chanced upon a long patch of bonnie pale purple/pink flowers, a member of the Dead Nettle family with toothed lanceolate leaves held on a tall stem. Possibly a garden escape but very we;lcome scattered there.The path ends in what I would have thought could be a small dump except for the 'cabin' there. Could have walked over to the new road if I hadn't born in mind my propensity for a wander too far ! Going back a graceful grey-and-white pusser sat in the road, watching. She had a lovely face, so I took a few photos. As I neared she finally departed without so much as a peep.
Back in the centre again there were a couple of members already back at the Blide bus. No-one else yet, so I went to the sea-front to look at an old slipway, the central portion is built using edgeset slabs just like you see in some of the cathedral arches in the upper section. Its quite a common technique in Orkney and seems to have been used for a long time for various structures - the top of the old Toy Ness pier in Orphir is made in the same way. By what used to be a damn fine place to eat (now up for sale) there is the eye-catching sweep of a row of traditional shorefront houses, now let down by the brash white of the new buildings at the far end. Finally the others came back from a cafe - lucky beggars, I didn't even get into the nearby shop for a look-see - and we were off backski.
Posted by wideford
8th September 2013ce
An invite to join some friends on a late-winter circuit of the Carmarthen Fans, the most westerly of the four mountain ranges in the Brecon Beacons National Park, is one not to be sniffed at. I first visited the summits of Fan Hir and Fan Brycheiniog on a summery solo walk that took in Cerrig Duon & the Maen Mawr, but on that occasion the next summit of Picws Du looked a long way off. A month ago I made the long trek to the isolated and wonderful Nant Tarw circles, in a bitter cold that enveloped the peaks in an eerie blue and only served to increase my desire to get back out into these hills.
Visiting this area on foot is difficult, the bus routes don’t come that close and are in any case infrequent, catering for a limited amount of passengers on their way to the hubs of Llandovery or Brecon. It becomes apparent from our circuitous route to get here, via Trecastle, that even by car this is a remote place, roads into the vast tract of open countryside north of the mountains being largely absent. We park up just past Blaenau, at the end of the narrow road that follows Cwm Sawdde. This, incidentally, is the start-point suggested by Gladman, and it’s a good place to begin. From here a broad track will take us southeast then south alongside the tumbling, white-water stream that leads eventually to the first of today’s objectives, the legendary lake of Llyn y Fan Fach (“Small Lake of the Beacon”, to distinguish from its larger sibling, Llyn y Fan Fawr).
As we make our way up the track, a steady climb, the mist to our south parts occasionally to reveal glimpses of a black wall of towering rock. This is the escarpment of Y Mynydd Du, the Black Mountain, playing hide and seek with us for the moment, but revealing enough to show us that there is a formidable climb ahead. Over to our left, the unmistakable fork-tailed shape of a red kite swoops and glides as it quarters the empty moorland below the escarpment, looking for sustenance in this inhospitable landscape.
The lake itself, when at length we reach it, is grey and opaque today, not yielding any of its secrets to casual visitors. Above tower the cliffs of Picws Du, topped with a Bronze Age cairn that cannot be seen from below. So I guess we’ll have to go up if we want to see it.
From the little single-roomed stone bothy next to the lake, a slight path heads almost due east up the flank of Waun Lefrith, steepish at first and getting steeper as the top is approached. I temporarily leave my companions behind here, not for any reasons of competition or nonsense like that, just because I’m keen to get up to see the views and also to seek a little solitude in this enormous landscape. Looking back as I pause for breath, the top of Picws Du is now emerging from the mist as a flattish summit, jutting forward from the escarpment and providing a backdrop for Llyn y Fan Fach, already seeming far below me.Once the ridge is gained, it’s a much less steep stroll the rest of the way to the day’s first summit, Waun Lefrith (“Milk(y) Moor”, somewhat obscurely). This is a fairly featureless summit, with no cairn other than a small walkers’ effort. It does however boast a very good, high-level view of the massive Bronze Age cairns on the range’s most westerly summits, Carnau’r Garreg Las and Garreg Lwyd. The summits ahead of us along the escarpment to the west are also emerging from the mist, although Fan Foel is still playing hide and seek.
The walk from here to the summit of Picws Du, with its attendant cairn, is gentle enough, with little descent and re-ascent between the two peaks. The views are terrific though, especially from the cliffs of Cwar-du, where the ground drops dizzyingly to the lovely lake below. An awesome spot, especially as the sun bursts through the mist to paint a patchwork of light on the browns and greys of the uplands below us.
As the Picws Du summit cairn comes into view, it becomes apparent that it has a very decent sized footprint, but is now quite low, with a smaller walkers’ cairn plonked on the top, possibly/probably made from stones from the original monument. There are some pretty big blocks in the original though and the footprint suggests it would have been a big cairn. In any case, the setting more than compensates for any deficiencies in the cairn itself. The views north over the escarpment edge are awe-inspiring, even on a day of fairly short visibility like today. And as we stop to take it all in, the mist lifts properly and blue skies open above us. Ah, what a wonderful world. And what a place to be interred.
Incidentally, the name is obscure – the Nuttalls translate it as “Black Peak”, but I’ve not managed to find a translation for “picws” in any Welsh dictionary yet, so I’m not sure of this. Any ideas?
The route from Picws Du to the next cairn, on Fan Foel, is easy enough but includes a fairly steep up-and-down, via Bwlch Blaen-Twrch (“pass of the river summit”). Once negotiated, there is a fine high-level retrospective view of Picws Du summit before we head over to the magnificent cairn placed right at the apex of the escarpment, the point where Carmarthenshire meets Powys/Brecknockshire.
Was this always a territorial marker? If it was, it’s a high place for the people of power to agree upon their frontier. And perhaps such a person was laid to rest here, interred within a sizeable kerb of red sandstone blocks. If he or she were the monarch of all they surveyed, they certainly ruled over a far-reaching territory, for the views are extensive indeed, stretching eastwards to the twin summits of Pen-y-Fan
and Corn Du
then further away to the Black Mountains, with many other cairned summits in between. And yet the archaeological record reveals perhaps something rather more intriguing and human than a story of powerful warriors. A child was buried here, possibly garlanded with meadowsweet flowers. If only these stones and mountains would share the memory of that little sliver of history, what a tale they might tell.
This cairn is ignored by many walkers, hurrying between the “tops” of Piws Du and Twr y Fan Foel/Fan Brycheiniog. But sadly enough come here to cause damage to the structure, which is what prompted the excavation and exposure of the magnificent kerb and half-buried cist. Probably the best of cairns on the main escarpment of Y Mynydd Du, this place will richly reward any TMAer making the trip.
From Fan Foel
, it’s not far at all to the next of today’s cairns, Twr y Fan Foel. Last time I came here from Fan Hir, a walk that is do-able using the Neath-Brecon bus service, but there’s no doubt that today’s approach is more satisfying. The cairn itself is a bit of a wreck, eroded at its base and piled into a silly cone. Purely as a structure of earth and stone, it lacks the charm of the wonderful ring on Fan Foel. But the view is astonishing. The ground drops away to north and east, and this is perfect viewpoint for the second of today’s mountain lakes, Llyn y Fan Fawr. From up here, it’s hard to believe that the lake itself is located at as-near-as-dammit 2,000 feet up. The cairn is at the highest point of Y Mynydd’s Du magnificent escarpment and boy, what a place for a monument. Worth every bit of energy and effort to get up here.
Sadly we don’t linger so long at this one, my companions are getting hungry and a bit further along the escarpment, at the southern summit, there is a drystone shelter that has been identified as our lunch spot. There’s nothing on Coflein to suggest that this shelter has been fashioned from an ancient cairn, so I can feel relaxed about making use of it. For all that the sun is shining, it’s still bitterly cold up here and a stop of any duration is going to see a sudden drop in body temperature. It’s here that we meet the only other people that we’ll see today. Not far to the SW of the summit is the spot where an Avro Anson crashed in thick cloud and rain, back in peacetime 1939, a stark reminder of just how bad the weather can get in and above these mountains.
Suitably refreshed, it’s time for the big descent. We follow the escarpment down to Bwlch Gledd, from where the Beacons Way basically goes over the cliff! Luckily the path has been resurfaced recently, but this is still a tricky, slippy route that takes us, rather gingerly, down to the edge of lovely Llyn y Fan Fawr. Everyone has rubbery legs by the time we get to the bottom! We follow lakeshore and escarpment foot, basically retracing our earlier route, but 200m lower down.
One of the main attractions of this walk for me, apart from the brilliance of the summit cairns, is the two stone circles shown on the OS map along our return route. The second, Bannau Sir Gaer
, is the better known, already visited and chronicled by Postie. But the first is virgin TMA territory. Coflein are dismissive of the site, and on getting here it’s easy to see why.
We found the narrow track that the OS map shows as bisecting the site easily enough, but it crosses an area of plentiful small stones. Some are vaguely upright, but it would take a determined eye to be convinced that there is a circle here, unless we’ve missed something. My companions were certainly not impressed! Not far from the site, we came across a neat little spiral of blocks, half-hidden in the tufty grass. Someone has spent time here, to make that. To be fair, the setting is lovely, with the pointed prows of be-cairned Twr-y-Fan Foel
and Fan Foel
providing the main focal points. To the north, the land gradually slopes away towards Nant Tarw
, although the circles aren’t visible from here, as far as I could tell.
We head away from the setting across the tussocky, peaty moor of Waun Lwyd, close to the source of the river Usk/Afon Wsyg, one of South Wales' major rivers, which passes close to the Nant Tarw circles as well. It may be significant that the Tawe, another important river, rises not far away to the east, before passing Cerrig Duon & The Maen Mawr. There’s certainly plenty of scope for water-based theory and speculation about the siting of these monuments.
The final site of the day proves to be a winner. By the time we reach Bannau Sir Gaer, all but one of my friends has had enough, and don’t even make the effort to leave the path the look for this. The one who is left at least comes to the circle, but isn’t massively impressed, to be honest. Which just shows that this game isn’t for everyone! The final walk back to the car is by now a shattered stumble, as shadows lengthen and legs tire. But this has been a brilliant day out, eyrie-high burials, fractured circles and depthless lakes combining to make for an almost perfect TMA daytrip. It’s impossible not to feel that there is still much more to be discovered here. If I can, I shall come back one day.
And so it comes to be that I’m left here on my own for a while, just as the sun re-emerges to illuminate the site in a golden glow, while the mountain backdrop is silhouetted into a wall of dark browns and black shadow. Spectacular. The circle is a wreck, it doesn’t matter a bit. A fine addition to the utterly compelling megalithic complex spread across these wild uplands.
Posted by thesweetcheat
27th August 2013ce
Took the track down to the start of Binscarth. From outside the wood shining fair with only a few shadowed limbs to make shapes within the mass effect. Though it stayed daybright inside I simply followed the farmtrack winding at the upper edge of the plantation, the uneven track bordered by a ribbon of low grass and the downhill side contained by a border of thin withies. The Loch of Wasdale being the lowest I have ever seen it invited me down to the islet again. The causeway looks simply a compact line of stepping stones. Indeed the larger stone blocks are most noticeable on the shore at the landward side, even given that we can't see down to the loch bottom even here, the opposite of what you'd expect. Or perhaps the precarious nature of the way over misleads me, all those wobbles. At one point the jump takes you onto the edge of an upturned slab rather than a horizontal surface. Despite my damaged ligaments I made it over safely apart from dipping my startled foot accidentally into the loch. Of course on the way back I twisted my foot on some nothing whilst still safely on land ! My self-appointed task this time was to go to the back and take photos of this side. Standing as far out as I could and camera at its widest angle had to deal with the effect of scratches on my lens flaring. A wall section at the back of the mound is the best evidence for this having been an Iron Age structure, other places this end it is difficult to plump for either wall collapse or re-use as being the cause for features. There appears to be a perimeter going around the northern side but it seems a little straight on the ground. Seagulls apear to be nesting on the occasional islet at the loch's northern end, which archaeologists have now plumped for being purely natural (so where is the burial place that should go with the southern islet's kirk ?).
On reaching the Harray Road I continued up to the Stoneyhill Road and turned onto Staney Hill. At the next junction I turned left and then left again, taking me up the other side of the field with the standing stone. A pair of skylarks kept landing in a field by me, and thought I did manage a couple of shots the out-of-focus barbed wire messed up the photo opp'. Still at least I have them on the ground to my own satisfaction. In the field to my right Henge now has the NMRS record no. HY31NW 114 with a grid reference of HY32201565. Which places it much closer to the highest point of Grimeston district than I had realised. The summit is at HY323157 and I had my eye on a very small tump there as prominent. Luck being with me by now the gate just before the first house this side lay open, and I seized the chance for a closer view. What I see is a lot more than is visible than I'd seen from the road before. Which simply affirms that before dismissing a site it is necessary to have been on it, not simply viewed from a distance, however small that distance may be. Rather than a pimple I found a slight but broad rise with noticeable topography. Ah, but from the ground I could not get enough height to take photos of what I found, my images only showed lowly bumps with a few small stones exposed even though there is enough stuff to show darkly on the aerial photo accompanying the Henge record on CANMORE. Certainly there are several types of site around here ; for instance there's Henge, the summit [I believe], Staney Hill Standing
Stone (HY31NW 10 at HY31951567), then at no great distance on the eastern side of the Stoneyhill Road are 'Feolquoy' barrow (HY31NW 20 at HY31761571), a chambered long cairn (HY31NW 51 at HY3164158) and HY31NW 106 at HY318157 consisting of several stones some think either were part of a stone circle or intended to be one. Plus there is something going on with that brood sweep of large stones trailing eastwards from close by the long cairn.
Stopping short of Newark I reversed direction back onto the Germiston Road. On my right a lesser road attracts my attention. The nearest building has one of those peedie bell-towers (I think that's the right term) at the far end of the roof. And before becoming a house this started off life as the Kenwood Congregational Church. An impressive tall drystane wall runs beside the road, and because the kirk sits in one corner rather than centrally it might well pre-date that. On my photos I see that the far end of the wall is in actuality a seperate segment. The corner is curved, so I wonder if this is earlier yet. All of which is pure conjecture as I continued down into Lankskaill. There are several steading buildings at Fursbreck but also the Germiston threshing mill. The mill is by the burn on the right, identifiable by a square green door on one end. Though I took pictures of several of the buildings I didn't know what I was seeing or I would have made a point of photographing the wheellpit at the side of the mill. You have to be careful using a camera near houses if you are a solitaire, so my directions were limited. Down at Vola I turned left again ansd struck out for the south leg of the Germiston Road. There are some lovely views to be had here. There are several interesting bumps at Hindatown, so it is unsurprising there are several mounds and tumuli in the vicinity of Nistaben and West Nistaben. Coming back up towards the main road I saw a long ruin to the north, which must be Stoneywoo. There were two buildings, one with its remaining end towards me and the other across my line of sight with both ends still standing. One of those ends comes with a circular structure which is most likely a corn kiln. Or that whole building was a kiln-barn.
From the junction with the Harray Road the hills of Binscarth follow you down to the main road with a long line of trees even before the wood itself is reached, as if the whole hillside were wooded. Must have been a verly low tide as coming into Finstown the Ouse held my eyes, the sides of the tidal inlet very exposed.
Posted by wideford
28th July 2013ce
It’s day two of our Llangollen long weekend. Yesterday we undertook the important business that brought us here, completing the easy Offa’s Dyke Path section from Llangollen to Chirk Castle Mill without mishap, crossing “that old snake they call the Dee” in good order. After that largely flat route, today is a day reserved for the hills. Weather-dependent, I had a couple of options in mind, including a first-time trip into the Berwyns or a walk up Llantysilio Mountain to Moel y Gaer and Moel y Gamelin. The worse-weather option is to pay a visit to the ring cairn of Moel Ty Uchaf.
Sadly the morning opens similarly to yesterday, thick mist rising above the Dee valley. At least Castell Dinas Bran is (just) visible today, so that’s an improvement, but not really the day for the conical Llantysilio. So the plan that takes shape involves getting to Moel Ty Uchaf and then see how things are.
We take the bus towards Llandrillo, passing the visible remains of the Tan-y-Coed
chambered tomb. The driver very obligingly drops us off at Pont yr Hendwr (“Bridge of the Old Water”), from which a minor road takes us southeast, climbing steadily at first, then with increasing steepness up into the Berwyn foothills. By the time we reach the end of the road to join a rather muddier bridleway, we are both out of breath and overheating under our waterproof coats, while the mist has thickened into a fog that reduces visibility to a hundred yards or so. We hear rather than see some voices ahead, presumably other walkers heading off to the main Berwyns ridge, their voices brought nearer by the weird sonic effects of the fog.
The final approach to the ring cairn is up a steep, grassy slope. The circle doesn’t come into view until we are almost at the top – luckily the fog is thin enough to at least show us where to go. The local sheep look on, bemused by the stupid humans coming into their midst in these conditions. Sadly, the far-reaching views from the ring cairn are entirely absent, but we do at least get plenty of solitude to enjoy the stones themselves.
The name, pronounced “Moil Tee Ickavv”
, translates as “house on the highest bare hill”, which certainly seems apt today, when the undoubtedly higher hills normally visible in just about every direction are blanked out.
A rounded boulder lies a little way to the west, described by Burl as an outlier of the circle. The circle itself is made up of chunky stones, some round shouldered, others squared, not graded but nevertheless very aesthetically pleasing. There is a “gap” at the SSW, although the ring continues across it by use of seven or eight much smaller stones. Inside the ring are the remains of a cist or central cairn, on the largest stone of which someone has scratched a crude pentagram. Other than that, the place is devoid of signs of human intrusion, no litter or offerings (tat), just the stones on their grassy hilltop. Perfect.
The fog makes for a strangely intimate visit, not exactly claustrophobic, but there is a sense that the world may not extend much beyond our immediate surroundings. I’m reminded of the Doctor Who story “Warrior’s Gate”, where the TARDIS becomes trapped in a slowly-shrinking, featureless void between universes. A wonderful site this, but a return on a clear day is now assured.
We make our own escape from the void by dropping off the hilltop to the southwest, to investigate the two cairns shown on the map, somewhat unusually placed in the saddle between Moel Ty Uchaf and the rising ground to the east. The two cairns differ greatly in construction, the northeastern being a wide, low platform, kerbed liberally with small blocks of local quartz that stands out brightly against the turf covering much of the contruction. The southwestern cairn is much smaller, covered in several flat slabs of stone and overgrown with reeds. The stones of the circle standing proud on the hill above are visible from the cairns, an obvious relationship between them all.
It’s late morning by now and the fog is showing no signs of lifting. I’m torn between a desire to climb at least one mountain and the more sensible option of heading off the hills, perhaps taking in a visit to Tyfos ring cairn. According to my little Nuttalls book, there is a one summit, the faintly ridiculously-named Pen Bwlch Llandrillo (north top), within reasonably easy reach of where we are. I suggest this to G/F as an objective and receive no objections, so we leave the cairns and join the stony track heading eastwards and upwards towards Pont Rydd-yr-hydd, an old stone bridge crossing the Nant Cyllyll that tumbles and splashes over broken rocks from the slopes above. Shortly after this we meet a group of trail riders out on their bikes, the first and last people we will encounter today.
Below Pen Bwlch Llandrillo (north top) is a memorial to “A Wayfarer, a lover of Wales”. We stop here for a snack before leaving the comfort of the track for a rougher path along the fence, heading north to the summit above us. The fog is thickening and progress is slow, but at length we reach the highest point we can find, a small pile of stones on top of an outcrop, at 621m OD. Not the most impressive for my first North Walian summit and G/F’s first Welsh mountain! Sadly there are still no views, so little to recommend this today. Not even a prehistoric summit cairn to cheer us.
From here we have to decide on a route onward, either to go back to the track and homewards or continue on to the most northerly of the Berwyns’ summits, Moel Fferna. With hindsight, the decision made here was the wrong one, but hey, that’s the problem with hindsight! We decide to go on, rather more my choice than G/F’s, it has to be said.
On the map, the route looks straightforward, with little in the way of ascent or descent over the three miles or so between Pen Bwlch Llandrillo (north top) and Moel Fferna. The Nuttalls helpfully inform us “a path has developed beside the fence which runs the whole way, making walking and route-finding quite straightforward”. Sounds fine, even on such a fog-bound day as today. What neither map nor guidebook tell us is just how miserable a slog the next three miles will turn out to be. For a start, on heading northeast we have found ourselves more exposed to a wind now blowing in keenly from our front-right. The wind carries with it a stinging rain, quickly lowering our temperature and splattering my glasses to render the already limited visibility almost non-existent. Secondly, the “path” that “has developed” is barely anything more than a boggy rut cutting through heather and mud. The surface is anything but level, every few steps requiring a detour around a crumbling peat hag or muddy pool. The heather drags at our shins, making each lift of the leg a trial.
With no visibility, it becomes near-impossible to gauge how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. Instead, we concentrate all our efforts into placing our feet and forcing ourselves on into the soaking, freezing wind. Although there is little real up-and-down, each minor rise becomes an impediment of cliff-like proportions. By the time we reach Cerrig Coediog, we’ve pretty much had enough, but we’re so close that it would be a waste of our efforts so far to turn back. We plod on down to the bwlch, from where one last climb to the summit awaits us.
At first a broad, muddy path heads away north, but soon reaches an area of waterlogged, impassable bog. The only option is to divert around to the west, but this involves leaving the path to force a way through the tough heather that characterises these Berwyns slopes. Progress is very, very difficult. G/F’s leg is playing up at the constant lifting needed to negotiate the vegetation. Despite waterproof boots, her feet are now quite wet (mine aren’t much better) and there is little in the way of enjoyment to be had from any of this. Eventually we hit a narrow path running laterally across our route, we still can’t see the summit so it’s difficult to know how far we have left to go. We take this and soon meet up with the main path again, still making its way north and upwards.
The final straw looms out of the mist in the shape of a stile. You know those stiles that you sometimes find on uphill routes where even getting your leg onto the lowest board is a struggle? One of those. I have been with my G/F for a long time, but never have I seen such an expression of “I’m going to kill you” as I do when she sees this stile. Any comment I could make along the lines of “nearly there” is unlikely to help now. But we climb the stile and plod on, across yet more featureless bog.
At last, a shape looms out of the mist ahead of us. The unmistakable shape of a sizeable summit cairn. We’ve made it! It’s taken us 1 hour and 50 minutes since leaving Pen Bwlch Llandrillo (north top) but it feels like several weeks have passed. Much as I dislike the idea of a Bronze Age summit cairn being turned into a shelter, we have little choice but to embrace its waiting charms. The only solution now is hot tea, and quickly.
Perhaps it’s because we’re British, but the restorative power of hot tea, even the metallic variety from a cheap flask, should not be underestimated. Out of the wind and rain, we start to feel like we may survive the walk back to the bus. Suitably envigorated, I also take some time to have a look at the cairn that we’ve come so far to see. It’s a big bugger, despite its mistreatment over the years. Slumped on one side, there is still a substantial amount of material here. Just a shame that the undoubtedly superb views are absent today. Some snow still clings to the base of the cairn, a reminder that it’s only February and we’re above 2,000 ft here.
We take our leave once we’re feeling warmer and re-energised. We head back the way we had come, but somehow manage to find a slightly easier route back to the bwlch without resorting to quite the heathery nightmare of the way up. We elect to take the easiest route we can back to Cynwyd, following a relatively easy footpath heading WNW. A few days earlier I had discovered the Nant Croes-Y-Wernen stone circle on Coflein, but although it’s only a few hundred yards away, it might as well be a thousand miles now. One for Postie to be the first to get to!
The way through Cynwyd Forest is easy, losing height rapidly along firm forestry tracks. At length and with much relief we reach the village, where we have a cold and tired 40 minute wait for the next bus back to Llangollen. Our introduction to the mountains of North Wales has hardly been auspicious, but what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, so they say. To misquote a certain northern singer, we can laugh about it now, but at the time it was terrible. Here’s to the foggy, boggy Berwyns.
Posted by thesweetcheat
28th July 2013ce
To save a little time, and perform last August's journey with several reversals, I took the bus to the Harray Road junction. Today's walk I undertook in order to confirm my memory of a couple of things I saw walking the farmroad to Winksetter back then as well as place them more firmly on my map [good job because I had confused two completely different ruins !]. The bog cotton has put on a magnificent display this year. Starting at the Harray junction I could have happily spent several hours simply photographing all the clumps and swathes whitening the countryside with their glossy heads. And then there were the other blooms. Throughout my travel I saw several different species in combinations such that I could go on to take pics of several 'pairings' at each place after
snapping the initial grouping. The first patch lay on the verge ; orchids, daisies, trefoil, kidney vetch and buttercups. Ragged Robin pierced the bog cotton with its pink ribbons sometimes. The WWII structures came further up the Harray Road than I thought, having remembered them as much nearer the stuff by the junction whereas actually they are near the southern end of the Grimeston Road, opposite Duntroon. They're still standing several courses high. There is still no record for them, but knowing their whereabouts I can read their locations from CANMAP as being at HY33741431 and 33801439, by the north side of the track show running around the southern end of the loch and up to the farmtrack.
At the crossroads with the Stoneyhill Road instead of going straight over the Howe road to Winksetter I reversed last August journey by continuing up the Harray Road then turning right onto the Lyde road and thence down the Manse Road to reach Howe and Geroin. Where this straightens out looking to the east I could clearly see what had been a fairly broad farmtrack running through a roadside field alongside the northern fieldwall. It presents like an old farmroad but comes to a halt where it meets other fields at a tear-shaped enclosure. On the map it points meannglessly north of Trattlaquoy, but then I remember the mound I found where the Trattlaquoy road meets the Lyde Road, and that seems a likely fit for a terminus whatever it used to be. From modern Nettletar about half to two-thirds of the way to the Geroin farmtrack if you look NW of road to about halfway between that and Burn of Nettleton there is a cist site, HY31NW 109 at HY3283017460, which contained a crouched inhumation with a calibrated date of 3030~2620. Continuing this line quickly brings you to another cist site, HY31NW 102 at HY32881751, on the southern side of a hillock - one can imagine that this grassy knoll once extended as far as the first cist. The 2004 excavation found the second cist to be made up of four interconnected side slabs with horizontal base slabs at the centre. This dates later, to the Bronze Age (calibrated dates of 1880~1690 and 1740~1530). On the central floor they found copper-alloy, burnt bone and pottery. Where the road bends again a short track leads to Geroin Cottage - in "Harray - Orkney's Inland Parish" the Germiston tunship map places the Fa'an Stane O'How's position prior to break up and removal at the point of the field below the cottage i.e. HY33151705. A track by the western fieldwall goes to the point (and there is/was a nearby well/wellspring, which may be a connection with the stone). I had hoped to find another candidate for the mound Howe had been named for but coming from this direction there are so many possible mounds either side of the road and nothing to the undulating landscape that looks other than natural.
Some rain came to try dampen my spirits. I had opted to take a packamac (rather than my nowadays uncloseable lightest jacket). Which kept the water out only to hold the heat in ! At least full blazing sun never came out this day. Still tempting to cut my walk short at the next junction. However I can be unbelievably stubborn and needed to place things accurately so I didn't make a major boo-boo in the blog. When the showers finally left I then 'hit' clouds of midges, my flailing hands mostly to no account. Became even worse when I turned right at the junction, not stopping until almost at the farm. In a field south of the road are the remains of a large quarry. On the opposite side of the farmtrack a field at HY338167 is associated with the names Howinawheel and Howinalinda in the Harray book. The first element appears to denote a larger mound like the sixty-footer Howana Gruna. Wheel could refer to resting e.g. the pausing of a funeral cortege or a herders rest. Howinalidna, Heuon a Lidna in the 1790's, means 'mound in the slope'. Which is a pity as I can see at least three suspect bumps in the field, no hill-slope in my sight. This hasn't always been a rectilinear field - in the earlier maps a very roughly circular piece of land is shown instead. Could it be that rather than being the name of a mound Howina-wheel refers to a circular enclosure containing Howinalidna ? For some reason my memory had placed my putative unrecorded Winksetter mound where the quarry is, rather than at HY343167 behind Winksetter. This is oh so not a quarry, there are oodles of these depicted on the maps elsewhere and none of them anywhere near - all I could find nearby having been a small triangular body of water. This is a very busy area archaeologically, one of dozens on Orkney Mainland.
From the modern buildings look south to the earlier Winksetter and then some 200 yards to the east of that Howan mound (HY31NW 17 at HY34211652) sits at ~250' OD close to the W end of a prominent ridge. The barrow's grass covers an earthen mound mixed with small stones. Before parts were removed (at the end of the 19thC or start of the 20th) this tumulus was much bigger than its present 39'D and 2.5-3' height. 250-300 yards SW of the farmhouse used to be a very large burnt mound, HY31NW 21, with a bit of a hollow on one side. It sat in a field corner with a dyke running across it and in tight association with a well at its SW side. Of course burnt materials do not only a burnt mound make, pity we don't know what they were. Roughly 500 yards east of Winksetter two mounds 12~15' are reported close together on the hill (and that is all that is known of them). Yet further away there might be settlement remains, HY31NW 19, on a piece of marshy ground periodically damp enough to be called the Loch of Shunan [not to be confused with The Shunan, a full-time loch further north]. The original report is that the scant remains of a stone structure at the foot of a hill were spread over a large area, with flint arrowheads and tools found on adjacent lands. The only stones now found, at HY34191610, don't resemble anything (they are "on a slight eminence" anyway). Going north of the track I was on the south outlier of Knowes of Trotty is no great distance away.at HY34201727 .
Having placed 'my' mound on the map as best I could I turned around to head straight back. I thought I would quickly draw level with a couple coming back from the Knowes of Trotty barrow cemetery. Then Flora called. Several more of those flower groupings, only in miniature. Cinquefoil dominated, then tiny white cross-shaped flowers and almost equally small pale purple flowers with light violet honey-guides and stamens like long eyelashes (a speedwell ?). Spent some time trying for the right shots. On the way back to the Harray Road located and placed on the map the kiln-barn and adjacent mound (HY32931635 and HY330163). Wonder if Bruntquina 'burnt enclosure' field is a reference to (what had been) the 'collection of ancient buildings' that Tufta next door owed its name to. Thought about following the Tufta road up around but opted for the straight deal instead - enough excitement for one day, uncertain weather etc.
Tempted to have another peek at the high point of Germiston. Thought I could add nothing more. Only afterwards, on using CANMAP another time, did I find that Henge now has an NMRS record and an aerial view that shows it to be further upfield than I realised, so that rather than the summit looking westwards over Henge it is almost directly due east !! Because both features are visible. Germiston top is a rough irregular oval whilst Henge is an almost too perfect circle delineated by bright arcs (?water). The photo shows Henge perimeter clipped by the road, but before this road a track ran through the circle. Is it a coincidence that the Sandwick Road formerly ran through the Ring of Brodgar or could there have been a reason to drive animals this way, a fireless Beltane ?? Archaeological research has no finality.
Down at the Refuge junction I turned off into Wasdale. The Slap of Setter was the opening in the boundary dyke seperating Firth from Harray and there are a few interesting erect stones both sides of the road until you get to the end of the Seatter farmroad. Still can't find a name for the ruin at the junction, most annoying. Birds pleeping at me as I neared the loch shore, then one perched on a nearby post. Thought this an over-sized plover at first but soon realsed that it wasnae - something about the beak. Later worked out it were a sandpiper, but even a bird book stuffed full of photos couldn't help me narrow it down and no-one on Orkney Live has said owt. The good thing about the nesting season is that as I walked along the sandpiper let me get quite close before flying off a few more posts away. In fact this was a pair of birds - mostly one parent flirting with me on the roadside fence whilst another one held the shore. Continued in this fashion for a fair while before they left me alone. It seemed to me that the islet was the most exposed I had ever seen it. Remembering that an archaeologist reckoned on there having been an 'apron' it suddenly occured to me that perhaps causeways and 'aprons' go together the way that a broch tower entrance and its guard-cells do. Looking at a photo later the face of a stone in the causeway looked to have moulding. Next photo showed several more, but appearing more geological in appearance, thin strata layers. Not the kind of stones I have come across in Orkney if they are. So are they natural and brought here or are they from the former kirk on the island. Please, oh pretty please.
A gate sits across the next bit of track but the large stone block at the wall end is above this. Obviously meant for a larger, perhaps more ornamental, gate, but could have been re-used from another place it seems to me. Took a few more pictures of the Howe Harper cairn on the hillside above. Still of the opinion that where it is and how it sits very like Cuween or Whiteford Hill tombs. Probably someone else thought that too, hence the ? excavation scar. Though the trail is still deeply rutted at least today the water did not fill them in. Below the low trees there were beautifully underlit clumps of fern with a topping of sunlight. Didn't go through the wood as I had to confirm that there are no signs to prohibit vehicles parking at this end when kie occupy the field by the other. There aren't. Just be sensible. Anyways the farm is a very interesting mix of styles and structiures. From this direction the first thing that hits you is a blue-tinged corrugated iron pyramidion topping a square tower with doorways (I take it) top and bottom. Come to the top of the road and there is another such structure without the blue hue. At the top this one has a small window or slide surmounted by a decorative slab arch. Then comes the long building I noticed before. Below the eaves are two rows of projecting horizontal slabs. Central to these is a blocked-off window, the thin slabs at its bottom 'breaking into' the lower row and having an extra-long lintel across the top. Below all these is a large sliding wood door. Downhill has more normal window spaces and doorways.The downhill end forms part of the entrance into the farm. The end of this building has a a big wide round arched doorway with damn thick walls. And above an oriel window. First thought is stables. The other side of the entrance is a smaller building with a hgh hipped corner which, IIRC, makes it easier for carriages to turn round. Eighteenth or nineteenth century I'd hazard. These are only some of the buildings here. Having taken the edge off my curiosity I continued to the main road and turned left. I reached the bus shelter opposite Baikie's Stores with time to spare.
Posted by wideford
24th July 2013ce