The Mountain of the Small Cairn and the Graigola Seam

First of all, a warning. There are two photographs of a spider at the end of this blog. Its a small one, and being on this blog, it can’t jump out and get you. Or can it?

An extended walk was long overdue. Both Rufus and I needed to stretch our legs, get rid of the cobwebs and head out into the countryside. So early this morning, we headed north to Brynllefrith and the hills surrounding it. Today, I decided to avoid the plantation itself, figuring that with all the rain we’d had recently, it would be one long, muddy path with added marsh. Instead, we headed north a little way before striking off west on Mynydd y Gwair and on to Mynydd Garn Fach. It was a grey morning when we set off but the cloud was high and there was a chance it might clear.

Underfoot, it was as wet as I had expected and we splashed along a very faint track left by quad bikes. Rufus ranged far and wide and on one pass by me, I noticed he had a passenger. I always keep an eye out for things on his coat, mainly to remove any ticks (although these are hard to spot). But this time, he had a spider on his head. It was a garden spider and it seemed to be quite happy riding along for free. Rufus must have brushed through it’s web on his wanderings. I’m not good with spiders, but I decided to remove this one and somehow I managed to catch it in my hand, where it retracted it’s legs and waited to see what I’d do. After grabbing a quick arachnid portrait, I set it down in a clump of grass.

After that encounter, I became aware of a lot of webs, mainly floating about and which I felt rather than saw. As we went on, they brushed up against my hands and I even found part of a web and a small spider in my hair. There were a lot of flying insects around too, which would account for the webs – an abundance of free food had obviously attracted the arachnid population.

The quad bike track turned into more of a rough path as it merged with St Illtyd’s Walk, a long distance path that stretches from Margam Abbey to Pembrey Country Park. We followed in the saint’s footsteps for a while, crossing the River Lliw (here a mere stream) before climbing the small hill of Mynydd Garn Fach (the mountain of the small cairn). We spiralled our way to the top by taking an anti-clockwise route around to the west and south. There are the remains of old mine workings here and the views from the top of the hill can be spectacular in clear weather. Although it was cloudy, the visibility was good and I could see all the way to Port Talbot and Swansea Bay.

We lingered a while at the top, with a great view of what is left of Brynllefrith and the Upper Lliw reservoir to the east, and Mynydd y Gwair and the distant wind farm to the north. Several years ago the wind farm was planned to be sited on Mynydd Y Gwair and there was a concerted effort by locals to oppose it. They were successful and the hill remains free of turbines. Part of the reason for not building here was the extensive mine workings discovered during the geographic and geological survey done in the area. Birchrock colliery further down the Dulais Valley was the site of several shafts exploiting the Swansea 5ft seam and the Graigola seam, which was accessed via horizontal shafts or adits, some of which can still be seen. There was a substantial risk of subsidence from the old workings, and of landslips where the Graigola seam reached the surface.

We didn’t know about the subsidence risk as we tramped all over the summit of Mynydd Garn Fach and instead we set off back down one of the tracks that lead from a mine adit on the east side of the hill back towards the River Lliw. Fortunately, we didn’t fall down any holes in the ground and made it safely to the waterlogged moorland opposite Brynllefrith. My car came into view while we were still a mile or so away and I noticed another car parked close to it. Wary of such things after my adventures on Fairwood Common, I checked through my telephoto lens but there was no sign of anyone nearby. But as we walked parallel to the woods on my right, I heard banging sounds that could have been from a shotgun. There are foxes in the woods, although I haven’t seen them since the tress were chopped down, so I hoped it wasn’t to do with them. I spotted someone in the woods wearing a red jacket and instinct made me take a picture. Looking at the photo (below) after, I could make out three men and a car with it’s door open. The car would be on a mud filled path so I’m not sure if it was stuck and they were trying to recover it.

As we neared the car, the first big blobs of rain fell and just as we reached the car, the rain started for real. We just managed to avoid a soaking.

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Ilston

This morning, we set off early for Ilston. Rufus has been there once before when his real owner took him. Ilston woods and the little 13th Century church has been a part of my history for around 30 years. I haven’t been to the valley for several years so when I heard Rufus had been, it set an idea in my head ticking away like a little time bomb. With the weather unexpectedly clear this morning, the bomb went off.

I love the village of Ilston. I can remember years ago thinking I’d love to live there and when I parked the care carefully off the road, I still thought the same thing. It was the first country village I really got to know, and it has always been the measure by which I judge other villages. I love the spread in both appearance and spacing of the houses here.

We crossed the bridge and entered the churchyard. St Illtyd’s church dates from the 13th Century but there are records of a church at Ilston from 1119AD. The ‘new’ version may have been built around a monk’s cell. When I was in school, friends and I were making a horror movie around the village. It started off as a proper horror movie but as we realised our limitations, it became a spoof. We shot a lot of footage on super 8mm film, but never completed the film. We had loads of fun doing it, though. Later, when I was in college, I sued to go to the church to photograph it and I always remember printing a black and white photo taken with my (then) new Pentax K1000 and it’s 50mm lens. The print was pin sharp and showed up the detail in the stone work of the tower. I was really pleased with the [performance of the lens and I wish I had that lens now.

Every summer while I was away in London, my mates and I would meet up during the holidays. Gower was a regular venue and Ilston woods featured heavily. They say smell is one of the strongest triggers of memories and as I walked down there today, the smell of wild garlic took me back to the mid 1980s. There were areas that were familiar and places where nature or my failing memory had changed things.

In the mid 90’s I used to hang around with a different set of friends and we used to go wild camping a lot. We spent one memorable night in Ilston woods, near The Gower Inn, and eventually my route today took me through the area. Although I didn’t recognise exactly where we camped, the little bridge that in the night we thought was miles away from our camp site, but which in the morning proved to be a few tens of yards away, was immediately recognisable.

Nearby were the remains of the Old Trinity Well Chapel, the site of the first Baptist Chapel in Wales, founded by John Myles in 1649. Myles (or Miles, it’s not clear what the correct spelling is) was installed by the Parliamentarians as the Cromwellian Minister of Ilston. The previous incumbent ejected him and so Myles founded the Baptist chapel here. When the Baptist practices were ruled illegal in 1663, Myles and his parish left for America, where they founded the town of Swansea in Massachusetts.

At the car park to the Gower Inn, we stopped and I threw stones for Rufus. A flash of blue and orange passed by low over the water and before I could fumble for the camera, the Kingfisher had disappeared back towards Ilston. I contented myself with snapping a yellow wagtail and a robin.  The weather forecast had predicted heavy rain and the sun that lit our path on the way down had disappeared behind a dark cloud so it was time to turn back. We set off and followed the river back towards Ilston.

Now for the first time I noticed just how muddy the path was. It wasn’t possible to go more than a few yards without having to step on, in or through mud and water. It was slippery and made the going harder as I had to be careful not to over balance. I hadn’t noticed on the way down. Rufus made light work of the mud but even he slipped a few times.

We stopped so that Rufus could swim and catch stones and slowly made our way back. There was no rain, and the sun showed itself again a few times. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the Kingfisher again; not surprising as Rufus was crashing ahead for most of the time. Birds sang in the trees and as we made our way through the church yard, a squirrel chanced it’s luck and crossed the path in front of us., The first I knew was a mighty tug on the lead as Rufus made a bid to try and get it, but it scurried up a nearby tree trunk and left us standing, watching.

Back at the car, I let Rufus paddle his paws clean but when I got home, it was obvious from the muddy patch on the towels on the back seat that a shower was required. As I’m typing this, the leg of my jeans is drying from where Rufus was sleeping on it after his shower (it’s a form of revenge – I shower him, he soaks me) and he is finishing off the drying process on the sofa.

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