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.