Mynydd Preseli

Ever since our trek across the grey, dismal tops of the Preseli Mountains in September, I’ve planned to go back in better weather. Yesterday, the weather forecast said that today would be a beautiful, cold and crisp day with temperatures well below zero. Perfect!

We set off at about 7.30 am, well before sunrise to avoid the traffic. As I drove West, I watched the temperature gauge drop to a low of -6.5 centigrade. On the A40 west of Carmarthen, the road was lined with crystal white trees, coated with a heavy frost. I wanted to stop and take some photos but i also wanted to enjoy as much time on the mountains as possible. As tempting as it was, we carried on.

Last time, I spent a while trying to find the right lane, finally circumnavigating the Preseli range before discovering the layby. This time, not only did I study the maps but I also checked Google street view at one of the junctions. Very useful to see what the sign said!

We set off from the car, the only ones on the mountain which is how I like it. Ahead, Foel Drygarn rose up with the dawn sun turning its flanks golden. The remains of the weekend snow caught the sunlight and the three burial cairns on the top shone, like they were meant to do. The top of the hill is an old Iron Age hillfort and we walked through the weathered ramparts and made the trig point on the top.

The view all around was fantastic. Ahead, Carn Menyn and Carn Bica were our goals and between them a winter landscape stretched out. On Foel Drygarn, it was silent and still. These are my favourite conditions and I took a moment to just stand and enjoy them.

Rufus was happy to be out and the snow wasn’t heavy enough to cause him too many problems getting between his toes. Dropping down to the path was difficult as the grass was frozen and acting like a slide. I nearly slipped several times and regretted not bringing my walking poles. Rufus, with four paw drive, was fine.

We slipped and slid our way over to Carn Menyn – the source of the Bluestones for Stonehenge and had a short coffee break before setting off across Bwlch Ungwr towards Carn Bica and the  Bedd Arthur stone circle. This part of the walk was long and tedious last time; today, the glorious weather made it a much more enjoyable experience. The sun was quite warm now, and we made good progress up to the final goal of the day.

Bedd Arthur is a small setting of stones, much more an oval rather than a circle, and with a barely discernible bank and ditch. This makes it a henge monument. It overlooks Carn Menyn and is clearly part of an impart landscape for prehistoric man. Scientific study has shown that the whole of the Preseli range was covered in trees at one time, which had been cleared around 3000 years ago. With a different climate then, the area was populated and a busy environment.

For Rufus and I, it was an empty environment and as we sat on the rocks at Carn Bica, we enjoyed the silence and solitude (and a few snacks). Then it was time to head back to the car. As we left the rocks, we both spotted a solitary figure walking towards us and shortly after, we passed a young man with a very serious expression on his face. We barely had a grunt of acknowledgement to my greeting so we carried on and left him to his own thoughts.

As we reached Carn Menyn again, the crowds started to appear. We must have passed 10 people in groups as we walked back down, skirting Foel Drygarn. They had all missed the best of the day.

Today was one of those occasions when I really know why I love the mountains. The snow, the clear blue skies and the silence are all the things I like best about them, and Rufus’ company is perfect to enjoy these things.

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Death Rays

The weekend doesn’t really count for our fortnight of fun as I’d be off anyway. Instead, I had planned on having a weekend of rest. Of course, Rufus wasn’t quite so keen on the idea despite the rest being for him. So yesterday morning we went off to the woods for a stroll and around Broadpool in the evening, where we dodged cows and watched the heron lit up by the red evening light.

Today was slightly different. I wanted to visit Carn Llechart, a Late Neolithic or early Bronze Age ringed burial cairn, a little to the north west of Pontardawe. As I remembered it, it was a short but steep climb from the lane to the top of the hill (imaginatively called Mynydd Carn Llechart). I saw this as a relatively simple and short walk. I hadn’t counted on the local farmer fencing off the common access land along the lane. Undeterred, I drove on a little further and found proper access as it should be.

We climbed the short incline to the ridge but I knew we’d have to double back to make our way to the cairn. It was a gorgeous morning with not a cloud in the sky and clear visibility for miles. In the distance to the north were the Carmarthen Fans, all of which we’ve climbed in the past. Little wisps of fog were gathering just below the summits of some of the hills. The sun was warming the morning up.

After about a mile, we reached the cairn, overgrown with reeds. It was the last time I was here, too. The cairn is an almost perfect circle, with upright flats stones forming a ring around a central earthen mound. At the centre is a small cist chamber in which a burial was made. The cairn is just over the top of the ridge and would have been visible from the south. Beyond the cairn, southwards and in a fenced off field, are three large stones which may have been contemporary with the cairn, marking an approach of some sort.

Rufus explored the cairn while I tried to take photos of it. Then, once he and I had finished, we set of northwards until we got to a spot that gave us a great view over the hills. I know Rufus doesn’t have the same appreciation of landscapes that I do, but even he was impressed, judging by the time he spent stood still just looking.

I’d checked on the map before heading out this morning and I knew that we would be on the opposite side of the Clydach Valley to the one we normally are when we go to the wind farm. I’d been reading a book on local history and it mentioned that one Henry Grindell Matthews had a small laboratory on the the hillside we could see from Carn Llechart, Tor Clawdd. There he set about perfecting several ‘secret weapons’, including a ‘death ray’ that could stop engines, ignite gunpowder and knock out humans. The buildings were surrounded by a fifteen foot high electrified fence, and he even had his own little airstrip for the private plane he flew. I’m fascinated by things like this so I made a mental note to explore that area at some future date.

Back at the car, I decided to carry on along the lane rather than turn around and go back the way we came. I knew from checking on the map where we’d come out and sure enough, we were heading towards the wind farm on Mynydd Betws. The drive was pleasant and scenic along a narrow lane and almost as quick as the journey up on the main road.

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Rhossili

This morning, we went up Rhossili Down. I’ve been meaning to go back there for a while, but one thing or another has meant that I’ve been tempted to go elsewhere. This morning, nice and early, we set off with the intention of walking along the ridge above the beach. It was a windy morning but not cold, and only a thin layer of cloud to the north west spoiled the day.

I’d forgotten how steep the initial climb was (or maybe I’m just a bit more unfit than I realised) so by the time we’d got to the bit where the hang gliders launch (about half way) I was out for breath. The view from there was spectacular across the village on on to Worm’s Head, so I didn’t mind stopping for a minute or so. Rufus was happy for the opportunity to explore his surroundings. We got to the trig point and the wind was blowing quite hard. But it still wasn’t cold and it wasn’t as strong as we’d experienced in the past.

The heather was in full bloom. Mostly a uniform mauve colour, there were some patches of darker purple and some of yellow. And in the wind, the scent wasn’t overpowering. We had the ridge to ourselves and no deadlines to worry about. We took it easy. I was snapping away and Rufus was sniffing away.

Slowly we made our past the Bronze Age cairns to the remains of the old radar station, which kept watch against enemy raids during WW2. From the highest point there, there were fantastic views along the beach and down to the campsite at Llangennith. It was packed and although I like camping, the density of tents wasn’t something I’d be happy with.

We left the main path to head down to the Neolithic burial chambers, known as Sweyn’s Howes. There wasn’t a clear path, so we set off across the heather. After a few minutes, I checked on Rufus to find him hopping gingerly and hesitantly behind me. I hadn’t noticed that in amongst the heather were little thorny plants. They were obviously getting between Rufus’ pads and he was finding the going hard and uncomfortable. So we turned around and I picked him up to carry him to a clearer part of the hillside. He’s a heavy boy, and there was much huffing and puffing from both of us. Thankfully, I didn’t have to lift him far!

We carried on back along the ridge, passing horses and curious foals who were unconcerned by our passage. We were on much smoother ground and too quickly, we reached the path heading down to the car park. I could see three people watching and trying top photograph something and as I looked, I saw a Hen Harrier stationary in the sky. It was being mobbed by other, smaller birds but didn’t seem to be too concerned by the attention it was receiving. I watched and tried to photograph it for about 5 minutes and it only occasionally flapped its wings to move position. Most of the time, the wind blowing in from the sea was enough to allow it to remain hovering over one spot.

We got back to the car refreshed and ready for second breakfast.

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The best laid plans of Rufus and Dave

Today was meant to be an opportunity to get out on the hills, to spend our first full day of the season in the mountains. The weather was looking good, we’d discussed a route (Rufus’ input was that it had to have running water available for him to swim in). Then I managed to get a niggly little cough at the beginning of the week. It bore a close resemblance to the one mentioned in this blog and I have my suspicions that it was given to me by the author.

Anyway, by Thursday my voice was going and on Friday, the constant coughing had worn me down. I had to pull out of two Insiderz gigs so they had enough time to find a replacement (even then, it was short notice). They’re playing in Neath as part of the Oxjam festival tonight and in The Strand on Sunday. Of course, there was no chance of a day on the hills.

This morning, I decided I needed to get some fresh air and Rufus concurred. So we headed off for a curtailed stroll along the top of Rhossili Down. We haven’t been this way for a while so it was a refreshing change from our usual routes. Apart from the initial climb, it’s easy going (which was important for me) but there’s enough height to give it a sense of open space that I like, too. Another thing about Rhossili Down is the range of history in such a short area.

In Rhossili village there are the remains of open field strip farming that was the medieval way of dividing land up to be farmed. On the way up to Rhossili Down there is a Royal Observer Corps bunker from the Cold War. On the top of Rhossili Down are several Bronze Age burial cairns. Below the ridge, facing the sea is a World War 2 radar station, used to detect shipping and low flying aircraft from 1942. On the opposite side of the ridge are two Neolithic burial sites, Sweyn’s Howes. That’s about 5000 years of history if you include the Millennium stone erected in 2000.

Typically for us, as soon as we got to the top of the hill, the rain started. It stopped again, waiting for us to get further from the car before coming back with more vigour. We headed back to the car, but then the rain stopped, so we went for a look at the Neolithic tombs.

Despite the cloud, there was enough sunshine to raise the spirits and the wind wasn’t cold. The fresh air was most welcome and I had a cough free couple of hours before we finally made it back to the car and home for coffee, 2nd breakfast and, for one of us, a chance to flop down on the sofa.

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Nant Tarw

Time to get out. I’ve felt cooped up recently, despite getting out now and again with Rufus. I’d decided that yesterday I would head off for a more substantial walk and see how far I went.

I’ve been interested in stone circles for years. I’ve been to lots of small, obscure and remote circles to photograph them. I’m not a stone hugger; my interest is an extension of my fascination with all thigs and places historical. Forget for a moment the famous circles at Stonehenge and Avebury. These are impressive but they lack atmosphere when crowded by tourists. Some of my favourite stone circles are tiny, and in the middle of nowhere. But it’s easy to get a feel for the atmosphere when visiting them.

I had a short discussion with Rufus and we decided to visit the stone circles at Nant Tarw, south of the Usk Reservoir. (Actually, I promised Rufus rivers and pools as he doesn’t share my interest in enigmatic ancient monuments).

I let Rufus out of the car while I got my backpack ready. But I wasn’t quick enough and I became aware of Rufus, watching me intently and uttering short whines and yaps to try and get me to speed up. We finally set off from the car in blustery conditions and followed a path through a forest to a stile. Stiles feature a lot in our walks and once Rufus grew big enough that he was hard to pick up, I’ve encouraged him to deal with them himself. Now, with scarcely a hesitation, he will clamber up, balance precariously on the top rung for a moment before launching himself from the top onto whatever lies below. Then he waits to see if I fall off before carrying on.

I’d found a map of the ancient monuments in the Nant Tarw valley and I was surprised to find that there were many more than I was aware of from previous visits. I’d planned the route to take in as many of these as practical. Areas like this are known as ritual landscapes. It’s highly unlikely that these monuments were randomly placed or coincidental, so they were probably all linked in some way, and there was some significance to their plan.

We passed a fallen standing stone, which Rufus had to conquer by climbing on top. There are a lot of boulders around the area, the results of pasture clearance or glacial action, but this one was sited on an old path, and there were smaller rocks at its base, suggesting they were used as packing stones to wedge it in place when it was upright. Its shape, long and narrow, was also unusual and ideal for an upright marker.

From here we headed south along a track before climbing up alongside an old sheepfold made using drystone walling. In the distance wa a modern version using breeze blocks; how things have changed. Above this, we came across the first burial cairn and I wondered how many other cairns had been destroyed to provide building materials for the sheepfold.

This cairn overlooks the sloping land to the north and is positioned on a direct line with the lower slopes of Fan Foel, visible capped by clouds to the south. Many Bronze Age cairns are said to overlook farmland and this one was no exception. In its day, large and covered in the light grey local stones, it would have stood out for miles, especially in sunshine. The ancestors keep watch over the crops and the livestock.

Heading further south up the hill, we soon came across the second cairn. Bigger than the first (because it hadn’t been robbed to build walls?) it too overlooked the rolling hills of Sennybridge to the north. There were clear signs of the kerbing that would once have defined the cairn. The stones were now scattered around and previous visitors had placed some of them into a central pile of stones that s the tradition on hill routes.We took a break and had a snack here while contemplating the remoteness and mystery of the place. Well, I did. Rufus just contemplated my snack (after he’d devoured his own!)

We continued on south towards the mountains. We were now heading towards a more modern monument and one I find particularly sad. On 5 September 1943, a Lancaster bomber on a training mission encountered a storm and crashed into the ground just north of Fan Foel. All 8 crew members were killed. I’d visited the place before and wanted to go back again. Please take a moment to read the names on the monument in the photo below. It’s how we remember.

We set off to the west, making for the stone circles and another cairn. By now, the sun was coming out and despite the fierce wind on the top of the hill, it was warm. I’d enticed Rufus out with the promise of rivers and pools, and we’d come across a couple, but not enough for him. As soon as he spotted the stream that gave it’s name to the valley, the Tarw, he was off, racing downhill to dive into the water. By the time I’d got to him, he was up to his tummy in fresh looking water waiting for me to throw stones for him to find. I love the way he concentrates on finding the stones I throw, or similar ones, and carefully taking them out of the water. By the time we were ready to leave, he’d lined up several stones on the bank.

We followed the stream west for a while before we came across a medium sized standing stone that marked the place where we should climb up to find the last cairn and the two circles. It’s likely this was deliberately placed to guide people to the circles as they were not visible from the stream itself. Up we climbed, past two more stones which may have been part of a row or just coincidental, and came out on a flat piece of land next to a burial cairn. This one showed signs of extended ‘horns’ which would have flanked the original entrance. But as with the other two cairns, the stones were scattered and the once proud monument was almost flat against the ground.

Beyond it to the south, two small stone circles were sited. I’d been here several times before and always enjoyed the feeling of isolation. The Nant Tarw is hidden from road and civilisation and is rarely visited because the direct route of boggy and indistinct. The stones of the circle are tiny. Most of them barely rise from the grass tufts of the moorland. Reeds grow from their bases further obscuring them. The two circles line up to follow the line of the valley and to their west is a fallen standing stone, much large than the circle stones, which has a short row of three more small stones associated with it.

From the circles, the very tops of Fan Foel and Picws Du are visible above the local horizon, which is a hill. To the east, the peaks of Corn Du and Pen y Fan are just visible poking over the top of the hills there. The valley is windswept and damp. It’s likely that the climate was different in the Bronze Age (about 4,000 – 2,000 years ago) and further on there is evidence, in the form of parallel drainage ditches, that the land was farmed. This was clearly an important place for Bronze Age man; the effort needed to plan the circle, find and move the stones (especially the large ones weighing more than a ton) would have impacted the farming that was taking place at the time.  Nevertheless, they did it. The purpose remains a mystery. And that is why I am fascinated.

We headed back to the car, over the drainage ditches and the bog they failed to drain. While I got rid of the backpack, Rufus stared longingly at the river just beyond the fence of the car park.

We ended up at the river and Rufus was delighted to dredge the riverbed for stones and sticks.

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