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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How things change

Penlle’r Castell sits 1200 feet above sea level on Mynydd y Betws, north of Swansea. It was a 13th Century fortress built to dominate the disputed border between the Lordship of Gower and the Is Cennen and from it’s location the whole of this disputed land can be seen. It is now little more than a few mounds of earth which define the earth ditches that protected a stone building, perhaps a tower, within. It was probably not permanently occupied and a small garrison was all that would have been needed to protect the area and give early warning of incursion by the raiding parties of Is Cennen. It has been linked with William de Braoes, who held land in and around Swansea.

Some 800 years later and I would be fascinated to hear what the garrison soldiers would make of the view northwards towards Carreg Cennen castle and the northern border of Gower today. A new wind farm has been built on the undulating moorland and many giant windmills rise from the mountain like huge white trees. While 13th Century people would probably be familiar with the concept of a windmill, the modern design and sheer scale of these new turbines would be shocking.

Rufus and I had been for a stroll in the nearby forest above the Upper Lliw reservoir. I’ve only been here a few times and I’ve been looking for forest locations as I want to get some photographs of the flora of woods, particularly mushrooms. So today was a bit of an exploratory journey.

Rather than waste the rest of the morning, we took a detour over Mynydd y Betws and parked up at the side of the road at the edge of this wind farm. There had been a lot of controversy over the plans to build here and a local campaign to stop the wind farm lasted a couple of years. I have mixed feelings about this form of energy generation but I generally accept that this is one of the ways forward. In the particular case of Mynydd y Betws I’m not sure that an awful lot of harm has been done. Obviously, I can’t speak for the disturbed wildlife during construction, but wildlife is resilient. While the turbines stand out against the natural environment, they are no worse than some of the awful housing that can be found in rural areas these days.

Photogenically, (one of the reasons I was there today), they are a different challenge. I’m always up for a challenge, so off Rufus and I set from the car to walk the 300 yards or so to the nearest turbine. As we approached, the sound of the whining turbine grew louder and I was surprised to hear the pitch rise and fall as the wind picked up and died down. Closer still and the swishing sound the blades cutting through the air became louder, drowning out the sound of the wind.

Then we were directly underneath the blades. I wondered what Rufus would make of it all, both what he could see and what he could hear (as he is more attuned to high pitched sounds) but he was completely uninterested in any of it, more concerned with the various scents of the animals that survived the construction work. It was a strange sensation for me, with the tips of the blades seemingly inches above my head and combined sound of wind, blade and turbine.

Standing at the turbine site, I looked back up to the skyline and the low mounds of the ruined earthworks of Penlle’r Castell and once again wondered what the occupants would have made of all this modern technology.

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