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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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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Day Off 1

A day off with no fixed plans is scary and great at the same time. Scary because I might waste it by doing lots of little things and getting no where or achieving nothing. Great because anything is possible.

After weeks of being unable to get out, I wanted to do things today. I got up at 7am (it’s a lie-in for me) and by 7.45 I had decided to go to Cardiff by train. I was leaving the station at 8.28. Not long afterwards, I became aware of the conversation of two young ladies sitting behind me. It was about boyfriends, and who was seeing who, and how Jane, who is pregnant (‘I didn’t know that’) had downed a whole bottle of Jack Daniels (other whiskeys are available), and how David was now dealing, according to Steve. All of this was interspersed with some lovely swear words. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the swearing was occasionally interrupted by conversation.

Then, two different passengers had a long conversation about umbrellas (ella ella eh eh eh) – how the one she had made her hair swirl around in the wind like a snowglobe and the one her friend had fitted into her handbag but was a bit heavy and that Diane always had really nice umbrellas (ella ella eh eh eh). After that, the hours I spent in Cardiff were a bit of a let down.

I had always planned to take Rufus out in the afternoon. I was home in plenty of time to collect him and head off to the river. We like the river. Even the weather looked as if it had cleared up, with sunny spells and blue sky. We left the car and made our way down to the river. I should have realised the dark clouds to my right were destined to find us but the wind was blowing from ahead and I thought that was where the weather would come from. We managed to get about 20 minutes from the car before the first few hail stones floated down. I managed to get my waterproof trousers on but by the time they were zipped up, it was raining and hailing hard.

Rufus doesn’t mind the rain but he’s not partial to hail so we both looked for some shelter. Rufus found a boulder and stood behind it. I joined him but it wasn’t really big enough for me. Rufus cuddled in during the worst of the hail, which started to drive at an angle because of the wind. When the worst of it was over, we  had a quick discussion and both agreed that heading back to the car would be the wisest action.

Of course, as we got back to the car, the downpour stopped and the sun came out. So with just a look, we both agreed a little more exercise was in order. We headed off up the other side of the valley to a standing stone that can be seen from the road. It was a short up hill pull, ideal for both of us as we were out of practice a bit, and at the stone, the sun was warm and beginning to dry us out. But in the distance, another dark cloud bank was heading our way, so we quickly headed back to the car.

Alas, we weren’t quick enough and with the car in sight, the heavens opened with heavier hail and rain than before. We could have done with an umbrella (ella ella eh eh eh) – any design, any shape, heavy or light. Rufus was glad to get in the car (he usually makes excuses not to have to leave) and I joined him. Pools of water started to form in the footwell as I struggled to get the soaking wet weather gear off. By the time we were ready to leave, hailstones covered the road like a thin coating of snow. The noise of them hitting the car drowned out the radio. I decided to wait for a while before setting off.

And as usual, by the time I dropped Rufus off, it was a glorious summer’s day again!

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