Tudor Walls and a Sheep Rescue

In the true tradition of all good stories, I’ll keep you guessing about the title until the end.

Time for a nice long walk today – the weather forecast was looking good and I’d had an idea to drive down to Angle in Pembrokeshire to walk part of the coastal path there. I’ve been there before, but a number of years ago, and I remember it as a beautiful part of the coast. So off we went in the car and just over 90 minutes later, we were parking in the sunny, hot car park of Angle Bay.

It’s been a while since I’ve strapped a back pack on so it felt a little odd. Then I draped the more familiar camera bag and water bottle over me and we were ready to go. Rufus was characteristically unencumbered – something we’ve discussed before and something he’s always successfully argued against. Although there was a strong wind, the sun was out and it was much warmer than I expected. As we left the beach and entered a sheltered field, the wind died down and it became more like a summer’s day. I’m always careful to watch Rufus as he heats up quickly. Today was no exception and I made sure he drank as often as possible.

Rufus is a fussy drinker; when he feels like it, he will drink and drink. But if the slightest scent, aroma, movement or other distraction occurs, it immediately assumes the priority. Today he drank sensibly.

At the top of the field, we were on the cliffs and plenty of signs warned of the crumbling, eroded nature of the rocks. This area was a significant part of the military defences of Milford Haven, a natural deep water harbour and we soon saw the first sign this. Below us on the slope was the remains of a searchlight emplacement. There were gun batteries, observation posts and searchlight houses all along this part of the coast, and on the opposite coast around a mile away. Milford Haven was heavily defended.

The next ruin took us back to Tudor times. In 1539, Henry VIII had a number of block houses built around the coast to protect the strategic ports against attack by the French or Spanish (or both). Here, the remains of a watch tower belonging to his Eastern Block House stands on the edge of the cliff. It won’t last much longer as coastal erosion undercuts it. It was reused during WW1 and WW2 as an observation point, as the brick repaired wall shows. Opposite this post lies Mill Bay, where Henry Tudor landed with a force of French mercenaries in 1485. A couple of weeks later, he had gathered about him an army of men loyal to his cause from Pembrokeshire and beyond, and had met and defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. He became King Henry VII.

We wandered on, passing the WW1&2 gun emplacements for now and walking along the beautiful Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. Swallows swooped and dived above us and gulls hung stationary in updrafts. The sea was a Mediterranean turquoise, breaking against the cliffs with bright white waves. The gorse was in bloom – a carpet of yellow flowers that we walked alongside (neither of us like their needles). We stopped for a drink and a snack at a smaller gun emplacement standing alone, and then dropped down into a gully carved by a small stream and no doubt helped by the endless battering of the sea.

Up on the other side we surprised some sheep, who were content to stare while chewing on their grass as we went by. A little further round the corner, Rufus caught a scent and led me off the path to the cliff edge. As we were so close and the cliffs were dodgy, I had him on the lead. I’m glad I did, because he was staring at the two ears of a small rabbit hiding in a hollow right on the edge of the cliff. Had he been able, Rufus would have run over and I don’t know what state that part of the cliff was in. I raised my camera and zoomed in to the rabbit – which wasn’t a rabbit at all, but a fox cub. I took a few photos and dragged Rufus away so that we didn’t disturb it more than we already had.

A stile stopped us and we turned back. We passed the fox hole but there was no sign of it. Neither were the sheep we’d encountered earlier, but at the top of the gully we saw the last of them trying to get through a wire fence. Unfortunately, it’s curved horn had got caught in the wire and it was struggling to escape. I could see it wouldn’t succeed, and it was beginning to panic with us being there. So I tied Rufus up to a fence post out of sight and went to try and help. The sheep was trying to get away from me and in doing so, tightening the wire. Luckily it wasn’t barbed otherwise there would have been a nasty injury. But I couldn’t leave it there as the horn was curved right around and the wire was well inside the curve.

In order to get enough slack on the wire, the sheep had to move back towards me but it wouldn’t. I accidentally poked it and it rolled towards me. So I poked it again, rather like tickling someone in the ribs, and it squirmed enough that the wire went slack enough and I managed to pull it over the horn. One happy sheep trotted off to it’s sisters and within second had forgotten all about it’s ordeal. I trotted back to Rufus who was working hard to pull the fence post I’d tied him to over.

At the lone gun emplacement, we stopped and had lunch. Rufus was surprised when I produced a bowl of his favourite crunchy food but he didn’t let that stop him devouring the lot. It was nice in the sun and while I sat and enjoyed the view, Rufus walked around the concrete wall of the circular gun pit. He was very happy to have a path all to himself. We took a couple of selfies and headed on to the main coastal gun battery. This was built in the early 20th Century and in it’s history had big guns (9.2″) and small guns (6pdr) and everything in between. By WW1 it was falling out of favour and the big guns were moved elsewhere. Smaller guns were brought in but the site was mainly used for training. Similarly in WW2 the guns were transported to a site near Penarth and the battery was used for training. It was finally decommissioned in 1945, when all the weapons were removed. Strangely, the ammunition wasn’t removed for another three years.

The last leg of the walk was back across two open fields and down to the beach car park. We were buzzed by swallows again and on the opposite side of the beach, a group of students were studying the geology of the bay. Had the tide not been so far out, I would have taken Rufus for a paddle. Instead, he had a long drink and we set off for home.

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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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Rufus and Dave’s Fortnight of Fun part 7: Preseli

I’ve never walked the Preseli mountains before. They’ve been in the background of photographs and they’ve been visible from other places I’ve walked, but I’ve never climbed them. So today was a new experience for me. And, of course, Rufus. I memorised the route and we set off in the commuter chaos that is Sketty at 8.30am. I’d read about the area and planned a route that would take us onto three separate peaks over about 6 miles.

I missed the correct turning off the A40 and took a secondary route. By the time I’d actually found the village nearest to the start point, I must have completely circumnavigated the mountains and we’d driven 50% further than the route I’d planned. But eventually, we got to the little layby and we were off.

The moor between the gate and the slope of Foeldrygarn was covered in sheep, but they parted before us as we made our way north. Once we’d cleared the sheepline (there was a definite line above which there were a lot fewer sheep) Rufus was off the lead and charging all over the moor while I tried to slow him down so he wouldn’t wear himself out. I knew this walk would be the longest we’d done this year and I didn’t want him struggling towards the end.

We passed over the ramparts of the iron Age hillfort and on the the central burial cairn, where there is a trig point. From there, the views were wonderful, although they would be even better in clear conditions; a haze was coming down over the mountains. To the west was the peak that had first attracted me to this part of Wales. Carn Menyn (Butter cairn or top, also known as Carn Meini) was where the Bluestones that form the inner horseshoe of standing stones at Stonehenge were quarried and worked.

We dropped down off the hill and walked parallel to a managed forest on our left. This track was the main route across this part of the country and is reckoned to be up to 5,000 years old. It provided safety from the wild animals (wolves and bears) that once roamed the valleys below. The whole area is home to a number of ancient monuments and dwellings. Graves and standing stones line the track; likely to be travellers who didn’t get to where they were going. Hut circles and platforms litter the hillsides and the remains of hillforts sit on the mountain tops. Near by the wrecks of two WW2 planes can be found.

After 20 minutes or so we were at Carn Menyn. The rocks are weather in such a way that they form natural rectangular blocks which would need relatively little effort to quarry and shape into the stones that form part of Stonehenge. The great mystery is why they used these stones, and how they got to Salisbury Plain. A little while ago, there was an experiment to see if a Bluestone could be transported to the site of Stonehenge in modern times, using ancient methods. They got the stone as far as the sea, where fell from the boat being used to sail it around the coast. An altenrative theory is that glacial action moved the stones to Salisbury plain, where they were found and used by Stonehenge’s builders.

Scattered around the outcrop were large and small slabs of Bluestone, some of which may have been quarried but not used.

By now the day had turned grey and hazy. The Preseli Mountains are bleak and remote despite being fairly close to the major centres of Pembroke and Cardigan. They reminded me of the granite tors of Dartmoor – smooth moorland dotted with rocky outcrops in a seemingly random pattern. A wind was blowing but it wasn’t cold. After a wander around Carn Menyn, we set of for the final mountain of the day; Carn Bica. A walk of a mile across open moorland got us to the top of the mountain and a solitary figure sitting amongst the rocks. I waved and called a greeting but it was met with stoney silence. Still, we weren’t here to make friends so we sat sheltered from the wind by the rocks and snacked.

A few yards from the mountain top was a small setting of stones called Bedd Arthur. This translates as ‘Arthur’s Grave’ – one of many such places throughout Wales. King Arthur is supposed to have chased a wild boar up along this ridge, following the ancient trackway. It was an odd ring of stones. It was decidedly oval, almost rectangular, with the long axis aligned roughly NW-SE. From the northern end, looking along the axis, it seemed to line up with the trackway. The stones had been placed to line and earth bank and ditch (henge).

It was time to turn back and we retraced our steps for about half the route before continuing on the ancient track and bypassing Foeldrygarn. We dropped down towards the gate and crossed the sheepline once more. It was as if we were herding them along as they refused to turn off the route we were taking. As we descended, the sheep in front of us built up as they were joined by others seeking safety in numbers. Then, all of a sudden, they all veered off towards the left and we were left with a clear path to the gate.

Just down the road is Gors Fawr stone circle. I’d visited there a few years ago and since it was on our route back, I decided to make a brief stop there again. Rufus didn’t complain and we spent a few minutes at the small arrangement of stones. They were overlooked by Carn Bica, where we’d been less than an hour before.

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